The past year has seen quite a bit of activity from you. What are some of the projects that you have completed or are in the process of completing that will be out soon?
It's such a muddle in my brain right now, I'm just going to list them in no particular order: The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, Last Drink Bird Head (antho), The Leonardo Variations, setting up Best American Fantasy with Underland, working on the Shared Worlds writing camp, tweaking The Best of Leviathan, starting research for the Steampunk Bible and pre-prep on Steampunk Reloaded (a second Steampunk reprint antho), continuing work on the graphic novel version of The Situation for Tor.com, and others. Booklife, Finch, are out in the next week or two and represent the two central, major projects I've had since Shriek came out in 2006. You may remember more than I do, frankly. There are too many. I need a break.
That pretty much is all that I can recall off-hand, with the addition of your upcoming 2010 story collection, The Third Bear. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t most of these projects due for a 2010 release, or are some slated for 2011?
Oh, also Monstrous Creatures, my nonfiction collection, although I haven't turned that in yet--I'm generating so many essays and articles related to Finch and Booklife due to requests that I want to wait and turn it in the end of the year, so I have the largest pool of material to choose from. Last Drink comes out in 2009, in a couple of weeks. Most of the rest are 2010 or 2011. Ann and I are still working out the schedule so that we don't have too much out in 2010. I need a good five months to finish off the Steampunk Bible starting the beginning of 2010. I also need time to recharge.
You have worn many hats over the past few years, from anthology editor, short fiction writer, novelist, columnist for Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog, and now the writer of Booklife, a strategy guide for writers. Which one (or ones) of these roles has been the greatest challenge for you and how have you adapted to the demands of these diverse jobs?
I was and am a fiction writer first, a book editor and nonfiction writer second, and everything else third, although I really enjoy the challenges and rewards of teaching. I always thought, growing up, that writers always wore lots of hats and did many different jobs within that rough description of "connected to writing". I never thought of it as the idea of being a "man of letters" or anything pretentious like that, but it was an idea that to do so was to be well-rounded. I also knew early on that I had the kind of talent that could be flexible and multi-various if I developed it properly. I've also never shied away from a challenge--forced myself to jump head-first into scary writing situations. I love the diversity of it, in part because it all feeds into everything else. My editing gives me insight into writing fiction and vice versa. The business end gives me insight into editing, etc. The main challenge as a full-time writer is learning how to take time off, because without time to recharge, writing and editing all the time, you can easily burn out. Part of that, too, is playing to that idea of variety. It was a relief after Finch not to have to do a major fiction project for awhile and turn to other writing--even better to have the next major fiction project be so different: a collaboration with Australian writer Tessa Kum on a Halo novella for Halo: Evolutions. (Which means the next fiction project I'm taking on, a long story called "Komodo" is, of course, like something William Burroughs would write after getting drunk with Philip K. Dick and Angela Carter. I hope. )
The greatest challenge wasn't actually Finch, because even if I've never written a novel like it, I have written short fiction a bit like it, and although the Predator novel was completely different, I used Predator to experiment with different approaches to pacing that worked great for Finch. Booklife turned out to be the greatest challenge because half-way in I suddenly realized: Oh, yeah--I've never written a nonfiction book before. This is going to be more work than I thought. Since the deadlines for Finch and Booklife were almost identical, juggling two such major projects was also difficult. I'm happy to say that they both came out as I wanted them to , though .
But in terms of pivoting left and then pivoting again and moving amongst a great diversity of things--I thrive on that so long as the workload isn't insane. I jump into that willingly without a safety net. Just in the last few months I've plunged headlong into new challenges. It's important because it makes it difficult to get stuck in ruts. And there's still a connected narrative thread that runs through a lot of my projects, so there's still a sense, for me at least, of an overall structure that's consistent.
You mention that you enjoy the challenges and rewards of teaching and you have detailed on your blog and elsewhere the experiences you’ve had the past two years teaching at the Shared Worlds program offered by Wofford College each summer. In what ways has teaching in that program and at Clarion and Clarion South helped you develop as a writer and communicator?
I think the Clarion and Shared Worlds gigs have crystalized for people that Ann and I are also teachers, but we'd been teaching workshops and doing public speaking for years before that, all over the world. My first guest lecture was given to a writer's group in Orlando when I was sixteen, and I've done critiques and whatnot since that time as well. I think the difference with Clarion and Shared Worlds is just that they're longer, which is an important difference. It's one thing to come in and do a day-long workshop. It's another thing to be immersed in a teaching situation for one or two weeks. First of all, you wind up deploying most of your "material" and thus have to plan out what makes the most sense timing-wise. You also have to have an overall plan and sequence that takes into account, at Clarion, the efforts of the teachers from the weeks before you, and, at Shared Worlds, how to best use all of the visiting writers. Shared Worlds is the most intense. First, it's two weeks, second I'm not just teaching I'm also part of the planning/management/administration as the assistant director. And while you want to have a plan in place, you also have to be adaptive to the situation and to each student. To that end we added individual one-on-one sessions where each student got to sit down with me and Ann or one of the guest writers and talk about what they wanted to get out of their writing, how they were enjoying the camp, etc. I'd say that Shared Worlds has given me more opportunities to be involved in planning something large-scale, whereas teaching at Clarion helps me by reminding me of the basics of creative writing and by seeing the sometimes new approaches used by the next-gen of SF/Fantasy writers. It's not as pronounced at Shared Worlds, this learning from their writing, just because they're so much younger, 14 to 17, that they're still finding their voices and dealing with basic technical issues , but in having to communicate effectively to them I do rediscover hidden truths about even the most basic subjects . They have a lot more energy, too , and, man, it is tough work keeping up with that pace for two weeks.
Bob Dylan released an album several years ago called "Love and Theft," devoted to honoring the musicians that had an influence on him. What writers or other people have had a profound influence on what you write and how you write?
Influence is a strange thing. I see it in terms of acquiring technique, because acquiring technique is the process of acquiring a kind of mastery. But that's all it is. You cannot teach yourself voice and imagination from other writers--you either have that or you don't. You can draw it out and develop it, true, but not spontaneously create it through mimicry. So those I acquired technique from include Thomas Pynchon, Edward Whittemore, Vladimir Nabokov, Angela Carter, Stepan Chapman, and quite a few others I'm probably not remembering. I quite clearly recall reading a passage in Perfume, for example, that did something unusual, and wholesale transferring it to the story I was working on. I took it out later, but in the meantime that helped me see how it worked. At another time I copied passages from Proust and from Joyce for similar reasons. To copy is to inhabit the ghosts of the decision-making processes, and from that comes understanding. And with understanding comes the ability to internalize, and then you are simply applying an ever-growing variety of technique and approaches to accentuate and strengthen your own natural voice and imagination.
From what I understand, based on your comments in other interviews and on your blog, Ecstatic Days, your Ambergris stories have had a long gestation period. Looking back on these stories, how much of the stories were envisioned beforehand and how much came to develop unplanned/unexpected branches and dimensions?
By 1998 I had a clear idea in my head of the entirety of the Ambergris Cycle. Which is to say, that there would be three or four books, ending at a certain point. It became three books because Shriek ate parts of the fourth and then the third ate the rest of the fourth, and the end point changed because it always does when you actually write the material. The overall underlying reason for things, the mysteries behind the city, have been pretty consistently unchanged since 1998--which is important, because otherwise the three books wouldn't actually form a cycle, the cause-and-effect would be off. Many, many details changed, though. Many characters went away and new ones came to the fore. So basically those things that had to stay the same stayed the same and the rest changed as I changed. Also, the details of Ambergrisian's surface history were always meant to change as our own world changed. So in Shriek you see the beginnings of war and global warming, albeit possibly caused by the gray caps. In Finch, in terms of the occupation and torture and interrogation, it's the internalization of the whole sorry eight years of American foreign policy. I let these things wash over me and then they come out in the fiction in an organic, non-didactic way.
But with some very key differences between the real-world inspirations and your writings, right? Is it safe to presume that an allegorical reading of the Ambergris Cycle would distort quite a few of the stories’ thematic and structural elements?
Changing the context to a fantasy setting gives me the distance to let that kind of thing come into the writing without it being a point-to-point allegory. I find this process replaces the specificity of situation from the real world with the specificity of the fantasy setting while retaining the universal elements of the situation, if that makes sense. The essential questions remain the same. But I am always disappointed when a reviewer or critic focuses on, for example, squid or fungus, without seeing the core of the work. I think I was most disappointed in reviewers of Shriek who, even though it got many good reviews, didn't even try to "unwrap" the novel so to speak. There's a ton of stuff woven into the surface of the story that takes on various ideas about history and how we process information. Among other things. I'll shut up now.
Interesting point about Shriek. When I re-read it recently, I thought about how personal prejudices and fears (especially as personified by Mary’s later treatment of Duncan) often shape societal views of past history. Furthermore, there seems to be connection between this and what you raised above about Finch and its internalization of actual history. To what degree would you agree with the argument that each of the books in the Ambergris Cycle deals with different facets of memory and the manipulation of interpretations of both the past and present? Or is there even more to the overall picture than that?
Shriek was always meant to encompass as much of the world, personal and public, as possible, and meant to be read from and interpreted from several different angles. It's also meant to be one of those novels that changes each time you read it, depending on where you are in your own life. Those are the novels I read that I love the most, and if I was going to write a sixty-year chronicle about fucked up artists, historians, and art gallery owners, I thought I might as well do it right.
I'm fascinated by those very issues you raise--the fact that most of history and historical theory is so shaped by individual neuroses and prejudices and the need by those interpreting history for us to put their own spin on it, bring in even their most personal hang-ups. Growing up, you take classes and are told that certain things happened this way or that way, and then when you start reading on your own, outside of class, you find that even the supposedly most factual accounts are full of liberties taken by the writer. We live in a reality we continue to spin every day, every minute. We're each of us telling stories all the time, but trying to present them as fact.
Regarding your point about memory and manipulation of interpretations--sometimes that's the point of a section of one of the books, sometimes its a strategy to build either characterization or view of the city. I'd say it's one point among many, that Ambergris has always been, on one level, about having a setting malleable enough to do several things at once with it. For example, here's one of my favorite reviews of Shriek because it looks at the novel from the viewpoint of environmental history: . Another one I'm fond of, at Pinocchio Theory, that emphasizes the element of absurdism and rejection of institutions in my work that is essential to who I am as a human being and comes out most perfectly in Shriek: .
I'm curious about reviews of Finch, because I've set up a few traps in there, but unlike the previous two books, the traps are less obvious because of the approach to narrative and pacing I've chosen. Although I'm somewhat gleeful about having pulled off several experimental techniques essential to the story that no one has pointed out because they don't call attention to themselves in the normal way we think of when we encounter the word "experimental".
Traps, huh? Guess I’ll have to be careful when I review Finch then. But going back to what you said about the liberties that history writers took when recording information, wouldn’t it be fair to say that history (whose etymology just means “story”) is perhaps the closest brethren to fictional storytelling, since it seems there are many goals and elements in common?
I'm kidding. There aren't any traps. (Yes, there are.) I just wanted to see how you'd respond, so I could include that in the next novel. (Yes, there are traps.) But, no, there aren't any traps. Why would I do that? Regarding histories...yes, I'd agree with that statement. For most history books for a general audience, you have to find that narrative thread that will bind it all together, and thus you're already weaving story. It's impossible not to, and we all know, stories are full of lies. Some lies are just lies and some lies are actually a kind of truth, though. It's also interesting that historical novelists face some of the same challenges as SF/fantasy writers, in terms of having to create a place that does exist (any more).
Hrmm...I’m beginning to wonder if Duncan Shriek has managed to make his own commentaries to your responses to my question, Jeff ;) Which I guess might in turn serve to further reinforce the need not just to question what is going on within the stories, but also what has been going on with our recorded histories?
History is rife with texts not written or not written entirely by whomever gets the byline. You should just be glad that I didn't let Evil Monkey anywhere near the computer...
In the "About the Book" section at the end of Finch, you note how each of the three books in the Ambergris Cycle vary in structure and approach, but with each ultimately building upon and developing a greater understanding of the other books in the Cycle. Ambergris itself emerges as a sort of quasi-character in these books, seen from various vantage points, leading to a place that to me seems to resemble in some aspects what M. John Harrison did with his Viriconium stories. Was there an intent to create a sort of meta-narrative revolving around the city and how it exists in so many places and yet does not seem to be of any particular time/place at all?
The publisher put the "About the Book" section together, but I did provide them with that description of the three books. I don't think a city exists without the people who live in it, so when you say the city is a character I think you mean "the city looks different from different characters' points of view." I think City was meta enough to take care of all of that, and Shriek and Finch were actually getting out from under the meta aspects of the first book. Which isn't to say I don't love all three equally, but that the second and third books couldn't be meta because that would just be repeating, for diminishing returns, what I'd already done. Shriek: An Afterword is written as it is, sees Ambergris as it does, because of who the narrator is--it comes completely from the character, and the same for Finch. I'm also not sure that it's all that meta to think of a city existing in so many places, because that's the nature of cities anyway, that's how people perceive them. As for Harrison, he's going for something even more metaphorical.
So in other words, while each of the three stories complement each other, there is never a retreading of structural elements? What about thematic elements in common?
Structurally, yes, the books are completely different. But in terms of characters often seeking something they're obsessed with but might be dangerous if they found it...that's a commonality. A sense of the absurdity and contradictions of the world. The subjectivity of anything approaching "truth" or a common reality. The way that the events of history shape character, and how character can rise above history, if with a monumental effort. Finch is trapped by history, in a sense, and yet literally fighting his way out of it. Janice Shriek is trapped by a sense of her own mortality, and struggles against that. Voss Bender creates his own history but then falls victim to his own myth, history eating itself. Institutions, standard modes of thought, critics trying to interpret the personal from the public all come in for a heavy beating in these novels. Imagination--our ability to perceive something beyond our situation--is often paramount, and characters live or die, succeed or fail, based in part on how imaginative they are, except in cases where an imagination is so profound, like Duncan Shriek's (despite his other faults), that the popular conception of reality in the form of the mass opinions of other people will not support it--in fact, actively punishes it.
So in part, the characters’ conflicts are rooted in a larger conflict revolving around different interpretations of the past and how myths are created? Also, just how subversive would “imagination” (or creation) be viewed by the authorities who are in charge in each of the books?
Everyone wants their story to be the dominant one, even if it only dominates their own mind; when this happens, we call the person "crazy". As for authorities, I think the gray caps are the harshest toward those with good imaginations, because their own imagination is so different from a human imagination. This is what creates the (deeply) darkly humorous bits in Finch, where they just cannot understand humans and the manifestations of human imagination--when they try to lock in on that, they produce things for their detectives like disgusting fungal guns that leak (and, in an early draft, actually bleated and chirped).
Finch combines elements of noir, thrillers, and surreal-like fantasy. After writing Shriek: An Afterword, how difficult was it for you to create a story that differs as much in narrative tone and characterization from its predecessor as Shriek did from City of Saints and Madmen?
Luckily, I had the Predator novel as a palate-cleanser. But I don't think it would've been difficult anyway. It's always just a matter of finding your way to a particular tone and way of thinking about the character as cross-hatched to story/style. I guess it doesn't strike me as difficult to do precisely because I rarely repeat myself, especially at the longer lengths. So I am used to having to start from scratch, so to speak. But in a larger sense, I see something "difficult" as something that isn't fun to do. I love finding the right approach, so the stops-and-starts involved were a joy to me. I love facing a problem in fiction and having to solve it.
Speaking of tone and character, you have stated on your website and elsewhere that Finch, both the character and narrative style, changed quite a bit from the original plan. Did these changes take place because of external influences (such as reading other authors’ ways of dealing with similar characters or situations) or through internal shifts based on your own experimentations with the text?
In part because the original Finch was entirely too enamored of Alexander Theroux's Darconville's Cat, and although I could've eventually digested and assimilated that influence, I think in the process the novel would've become something I've always feared in working with fantasy: too removed from the real, flesh-and-blood world. Also because I workshopped (at Turkey City) an early draft of my new approach to Finch after wrenching it totally out of the Theroux mode and found that oddly enough the delivery system not the content was the problem. People weren't buying things that made perfectly logical sense because their perception of the idea of "detective" and the idea of "murder case" didn't include a Shriek-like approach to style. Once I changed the delivery system, too, I had a much, much better idea of both character and story. It's a bit like being an actor and picking up the right nuance and inflection that then opens up the character they're playing. I never ever see style as separate from character and story, so before I get too far into a piece of fiction, I have to have those things correct. And one reason I think I had only gotten 60 pages into the new Finch when I workshopped it wasn't because there was necessarily anything wrong with the plot or the situations, but that the tone was just wrong--it was the wrong delivery system, the wrong entry point for the reader--and thus I needed to rethink that. The great thing is that in addition to a terse style being right for the novel, writing in that mode has given me a whole new arsenal of approaches to fiction. I feel a certain flexibility gathering, even as flexibility flees my joints and bones in anticipation of encroaching old age and senility.
The gray caps, or fanaarcensitii as they call themselves, are a cipher throughout the Ambergris Cycle to date. What do you make of reader interpretations of the gray caps as being representations of "the Other," of our own tendency to misunderstand our own selves, or of them being a possibly "damned" species? Are there any clues in Finch about their origins, goals, and societal characteristics?
I think there are more clues in City of Saints to their way of life and organization and society. In Finch, as is often the way, being actually confronted by them, having them speak, puts them at a remove. In a sense, you are so close to them you can't really have the perspective to see them. You're living with them and with the consequences of them being in control, but that's a different thing. I always thought the gray caps could be interpreted in many different ways, but I have always first and foremost seen them as somewhat alien living, sentient creatures. I haven't seen them as representing anything. In "An Early History of Ambergris" I did allow commentary on their society to create a sense of "the Other." But as you may have noticed in Finch, there's another "Other", and one I've been waiting for readers to pick up on: the actual indigenous tribes living in the area, displaced in part by the gray caps and then totally disenfranchised by the original founders of Ambergris, in a sense. Their path through the history of Ambergris has not been well-documented, but it begins to take shape in Finch, as they're one of the players in the political and military fabric of the city. If I were to write more books set in Ambergris, that is one strand that I would explore more fully.
I did notice that and how it was embodied within an important secondary character. Is the near-silence on those indigenous tribes before Finch itself a commentary on the self-delusions and quasi-imperialistic views of the invading settlers who razed the land to create Ambergris? Or does their relative silence reflect even more upon certain real-world situations today?
I think it's there in the "Early History of Ambergris," but the main reason it's not front-and-center is that I've been focused on the gray caps and it's too much to cram into one story arc. But it's clear from the start that the inhabitants of Ambergris have committed crimes against not only the gray caps but the original inhabitants of the area. I have had characters like Sybel in Shriek who were from the indigenous tribes, but those characters have been integrated with the mainstream of Ambergrisian life. In Finch, readers discover that some of the narrators they've had in previous stories/novels set in Ambergris may well have been telling history by leaving out the inconvenient or the disenfranchised. My feeling is that in the future after this third novel, it's this group, the dogghe and nimblytod who have joined forces, who not only adapt best to the changing cityscape of Ambergris but begin to re-assert their primacy. So, perhaps, in a way, what you're saying is correct.
So instead of readers worrying about whether or not they need to read City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek before Finch, perhaps it might benefit readers more to (re)read those novels after reading Finch?
I see them as self-contained stories, with the history of the city running through them. If you only take away the history of the city from the series, then I guess you could say Finch might take away a few surprises in the previous two books. But all of these stories are about human beings and only work if you believe in the characters. In that respect, going back would only deepen an understanding of the city. Also, despite some of the central mysteries about the city posed by the first two books are answered in Finch, there are many subsidiary mysteries and many other pleasures that are given short shrift in Finch. At least, that's my perspective. I'm genuinely curious as to how it actually plays out. I think Shriek: An Afterword, for example, actually gains pathos after reading Finch. Certain stories in City of Saints gain a different texture, too. But the writer is not the person to ask--readers will decide. There will also be readers who loved Shriek who hate the noir style of Finch, and then those who read Finch and find Shriek a pretentious mess. That's their right as readers. It's also my right as a writer to want to do something different, and to let the demands of character and story determine the style. I'm at peace with that.
In addition to Finch, you just had your guide to writers, Booklife, come out. In what ways has the writing market changed that makes a book such as Booklife worth reading, compared to other books for writers that came out say ten or twenty years ago?
We're completely and utterly enamored of and often enslaved by new media and opportunities on the internet. These opportunities have also been of great benefit--they've leveled the playing field for the disenfranchised quite a bit, given a voice to the voiceless--but they come with a lot of risk. Most writers do not think strategically, which wasn't a problem pre-internet when there were just a few opportunities and more support from publishers for books. It was pretty hard, I think, to really risk fragmentation of your mind in that paradigm. Now you most definitely can over-extend your brain in a sense--you can have so many open channels that I'd argue it's like having a thousand extra voices in your head, with a direct conduit to your brain. Also, people think they can just get on Twitter and Facebook and start talking about their book and that that constitutes a plan. It doesn't. So Booklife is in part an argument about (1) knowing what you're getting into and the possible good and bad permutations of that, (2) being more organized so that you can actually be less stressed and have more time for your writing, and (3) making the kinds of decisions that support the health of your creativity while also acknowledging that if you want to build a career you have to find some time for that as well.
When I read Booklife recently, I was struck by how much the focus was not on prescriptive, authoritative “solutions” that are self-based, but by how much time was devoted to presenting others’ perspectives that seemed to underscore the “networking” aspects of writing. When you began writing Booklife, did you have this focus in mind, or did it come gradually to you as you wrote?
As a teacher, I know that you must check your ego at the door. Often, what you're trying to do is find the best way to communicate information to a beginning or intermediate writer, and also figure out what they want to do with their writing and their career, and just try to be a conduit to help them achieve that. This means adapting to the student while not abdicating your authority, which you've won primarily through experience: encountering so many contexts and situations in your writing and career that you have this databank of information you retrieve in the right combinations to be of use for the individual person.
In writing Booklife I wanted to apply the same philosophy. The book has to have a single author that the readers believe is being honest and accurate and transparent--and in control of the narrative. But at the same time, every writer is different and there are many different solutions to the same problems. So I have the other voices in there not just to lend support to my ideas, but to express different points of view. In some cases, they directly contradict me, and that's perfectly okay. Sometimes they just present a slightly different point of view. What I wanted Booklife to be was coherent on a macro level but to be full of other voices on a micro level. A good example is that I think many computer tools to help with writing are just distractions or actively a hindrance to writing. But I know many writers who swear by them. Would I be doing a service to writers by just stating my opinion? No. So in those cases, I very firmly make my argument for my position but also provide the other side's position.
On another level, besides Ann, my friend and publicist Matt Staggs and my friend and Australian writer Tessa Kum were perhaps most influential on the narrative. Matt is gung-ho for new media and has a high tolerance for open channels and seeking out allies. Tessa is introverted and has no tolerance for open channels. Their very different reactions to the material not only helped me to test it--they also helped to then shape it by including elements of both extremes (although I hesitate to use the word "extreme" because it's not a spectrum--there's no "normal" position; there are only individuals with their own individual, very valid needs).
You’ve had two novels, a non-fiction guide for writers, several short stories and novellas, a handful of anthologies, and a few podcasts here and there released in the past couple of years. What do you plan to do to recharge your creative batteries if you begin to feel drained?
Oddly enough, this five-week book tour for Finch and Booklife will help quite a bit, since I won't be multi-tasking, and I always get energy from seeing new places. But, also, the schedule gets easier after the tour. Most of my focus will be on the Steampunk Bible while Ann will be handling the other projects. And then starting in September of 2010, our schedule really opens up. We definitely need to slow down. I'm quite frankly surprised I've managed to do the books so far to the standard of quality I expect from them. But I don't think that would hold true if we continued at this pace. It's taken a lot out of both of us.
I remember reading in Booklife where you touch upon the writer’s need for balance in his/her everyday life. Are there any non-writing/publishing pursuits that you have contemplated (or are currently doing) that helps maintain this balance? I know you’re an avid sports fan, but are there other hobbies or activities that help keep the writing aspects from overwhelming you?
Hiking and weightlifting are the major ones. Also going to movies with Ann and things like that. Reading itself--hours of uninterrupted reading for myself--are also highly recommended. As I say in Booklife, if you lack the ability to concentrate on a book, especially a serious book and especially if you used to have that ability...something's wrong in your life.
Thanks again Jeff for agreeing to do this interview. For those wanting more information about the author, one can visit his personal site, Ecstatic Days, or the recently-opened companion website to Booklife, called Booklife Now.