Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Feature: Interview with Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Ed Note: Next week, we'll take a break from interviewing the Wizards of the Coast: Discoveries authors as I'll be interviewing award-winning author Jeffrey Ford about his upcoming book, The Shadow Year. On February 12, 2008, we'll finish the first batch of Discoveries authors with Richard Dansky whose novel, Firefly Rain, has already been released for a few weeks now. Also be sure to catch the novels The Automatic Detective and Last Dragon which are coming out next Tuesday by authors A. Lee Martinez and J.M. McDermott respectively.

Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem are award-winning authors who, between the two of them, have published several novels and collections. Their latest novel, The Man on the Ceiling, will be released on March 4, 2008 under the Wizards of the Coast: Discoveries imprint. Their other works will be included in several anthologies this year. There is also a recent interview with them over at Storytellers Unplugged by Janet Berliner.

First off, thanks for doing this interview. Can you tell us about your upcoming book, The Man on the Ceiling? What's been added or what's different compared to the previous novella?

Well, it wasn't a case of taking the novella and just making it longer. We realized that we had a lot more to say about how real life and the imagination intersect, and that the metafictional technique used in the original novella was a powerful tool for this kind of exploration. The original novella (more or less intact) is now section 3 of the book, and the other sections tell other fictions about our lives, building on themes which have had a significant impact on us personally and creatively such as a sense of place, naming things, transcendence, the importance of the invisible world, how we deal with fear, how we deal with hope.

What made you decide to expand it to a full-length novel?

The initial idea actually came from an editor at Simon & Schuster (who has since left publishing). We'd been sending copies of the novella around to various houses, trying to make something happen. She asked if we'd ever thought of turning this into a novel. We were extremely skeptical at first, because we had a strong attachment to the thing as it was and couldn't imagine what else we could do with it. But we realized we had a lot more to say, and that the original novella could remain basically intact (which was very important to us), and that we could build a longer work around that seed, adding pieces to it.

Why Wizards of the Coast? Did you submit a proposal when they had their open call or did they approach you? Also, did you think the awards for the novella and your own credentials helped you in getting it published?

We weren't involved in the open call, and we'd never actually thought of trying Wizards. It was a case of our terrific agent Robert Fleck putting a description of the book out there, and Wizards asked to see it. Once we talked to our editor, Phil Athans, and heard what he had to say about the book and his plans for their new imprint we were pretty much sold. Awards and credentials are nice, and they help draw attention to what you've done, but they don't get you published, and they don't sell the book when it is published, unless you're one of a handful of authors in the genres. A Hugo win seems to have a bigger impact than most of the others (but then, we didn't win a Hugo).

What interests me are writers who collaborate: how did the both of you write
The Man on the Ceiling? Did you divide the chapters or did you discuss each and every line?

Both. For the original novella we just alternated sections as a dialog between us, passing the story back and forth, then rewriting each others' sections. For the novel, we first worked out a basic structure, and each of us talked about what themes we were most interested in, and we wrote these independently, exchanged work, and rewrote each other. There's still some feel of a dialog, a sense that perhaps our first audience is each other (and that's literally true, as we are each other's in-house first-line editor for everything we write). At the same time, each section is a more extended exploration in one POV. We mix that up some through the book, though—one section uses us as characters, in third person, and there are third person "mini-stories" scattered throughout. And even when it's Steve's POV, for example, there may be stretches in which Melanie was actually the writer, seeing things through Steve's eyes, and vice versa. One thing we did in this collaboration which is consistent with all our previous collaborations is that, through editing and rewriting each other's parts, we tried to achieve a third writing voice which is different from our normal, individual writing styles.

In expanding
The Man on the Ceiling into a novel, was it harder or easier to write?

There were certainly more technical challenges. The very nature of the process we set up pretty much suggested that we needed to be even more revealing of our personal selves than we were in the novella, and at times that was surprising, and at times pretty uncomfortable. We had to be even more conscious of just how far we should go with this process. We had to figure out that line where self-indulgence comes in, and stop ourselves before we got there. The structure also encouraged us to discover all the stories-within-stories and themes-within-themes, which was exciting and also a little hair-raising at times.

This question is cliche but who were your writing influences and who are your favorite authors?

There are so many! Sometimes it depends on the project, but overall I'd say my major influences/favorite writers have been Borges, Kafka, Italo Calvino, Bradbury, Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, Harlan Ellison, Cormac McCarthy.

Melanie: It's hard for me to know who my influences are; I've never actually studied another writer to learn techniques or strategies, so influences are probably subconscious. I have favorite works rather than favorite writers, except that I want to be Toni Morrison when I grow up. I love poems like Frost's "Birches" and "Death of a Hired Hand," Amy Lowell's "Patterns, Mary Oliver's "In Black Water Woods," many haiku. Short stories that please me greatly include "Him with HIs Foot in HIs Mouth" by Saul Bellow, several by Amy Bloom whose titles I can't remember, Conrad Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow." Among my many favorite novels are The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates, A Death in the Family by James Agee, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.

Both of you have written several novels and short stories. Which format do you prefer writing, if any?

I really like the unique challenges of the novel, but for overall fun with the process, I don't think you can beat the short story--because you can create a short story out of seemingly the most unpromising materials. You can pretty much create a short story out of anything, if you can find the right storytelling strategy for it.

Melanie: Poetry, plays, short stories, novels--I like them all. Usually when an idea comes to me it announces what form it's to be written in.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
  • Read as much as possible, the best stuff you can find, whatever the genre, and use that reading to build up your arsenal of storytelling techniques.
  • Look at rewriting as a path to a better story. Good stories rarely come full-grown—they're the end result of a process.
  • Try to focus your writing on things you have a genuine passion for. It's tempting to chase the markets, out-smart the markets, to write a piece on something you have no interest in simply because you think you can sell it, and putting your own personal passions on the back burner. But we all have less time than we think, and we serve our readers and our careers and our art better if we preserve most of our effort and time for the writing that really moves us
  • Stop aspiring and write! Stop talking about being a writer, and write!
Any upcoming projects or work you'd like to plug?

Toward the end of 2009 Wizards Discoveries will be publishing my next solo novel, DEADFALL HOTEL, which our agent described as "a literary exploration of the roots of horror in the collective unconscious told through the story of a widower who takes the job of manager at a remote hotel where the guests are not quite like you and me, accompanied by his daughter and the ghost of his wife." This is one of those rare projects of mine in which I'm dealing with some of horror's basic tropes: the werewolf, the vampire, the zombie, the thing without a name, and all manner of other beasties. It's a project with a long history—I began it back in 1985. A very early version of one chapter, "Bloodwolf," appeared in Charlie Grant's SHADOWS 9.

I also have a variety of stories coming out, actually in all the venues Melanie has listed below, as well as in Albedo One, Dark Discoveries, the literary magazine Matter, and several others. I also have a continuing graphic story in Blurred Vision out of the POD Gallery in New York.

Melanie: My new novel THE YELLOW WOOD will be out from Wizards early in 2009; Bob describes it as "a magical realism exploration of the father-daughter relationship and the struggle for a child to emancipate herself from the father she believes is a sorcerer." I'll have stories this year in Ellen Datlow's Inspired by Poe anthology, That Mysterious Door edited by Noreen Doyle, and Cemetery Dance.

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