Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Interview: Jay Lake

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Jay Lake is a the 2004 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and has been nominated multiple times for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. He is the author of several short stories and novels which include Escapement and the upcoming Madness of Flowers.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview!

You are most welcome. It's always a pleasure to do these things. Besides, I'm a writer. I don't easily get tired of talking about myself.

First off, how has your childhood shaped your present writing? What were the books that you read at the time?

My childhood has immensely shaped my writing. I was born in Taiwan (1964), and mostly raised in Taiwan (1971-1976) and Nigeria (1977-1981). I had many experiences which most Americans never encounter. Growing up outside my own culture, living as a minority -- albeit privileged as a white American expat, seeing so much of the physical and human variety of the world. These developed my sense of place and my sense of wonder long before fiction honed those for me as either a reader or a writer.

Because it was the 1970s, before widely available VCRs or satellite television, I also grew up without that medium. Very unusual for an American of my generation. We had books, lots of them, all the time. I read Andre Norton's Forerunner and Witchworld series. I read the classic Heinlein juveniles. I read Lord of the Rings and Dhalgren, though I didn't understand Delany in the slightest back in sixth grade. I'm honestly not sure I understand him now, either, but at least I'm theoretically more experienced.

At what point did you consider pursuing writing "seriously"? What were your writing goals back then?

My first step in that direction was around my junior or senior year in college, perhaps 1995. I read Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, having kiped it off a housemate's shelf. That was a profound revelation for me. I was amazed anyone was *allowed* to do that in fiction. I didn't really get in gear until I joined my first workshop in 1990, and it took me 11 years of steady work to get published. That whole decade, my writing goals were "sell something." Just one story, and I would die a happy man.

What are your writing goals now?

Be better. I have sufficient hubris to want to write a Great Book someday. That won't happen unless I get a hell of a lot better, and somewhat lucky to boot. Luck I can only partially control, but I can run hard right at better.

Currently, what's the biggest challenge in achieving your present goals?

Not being better yet. Seriously, writing is one of the few occupations I'm aware of where the more you know, the less adequate you feel. Back in 1995 I was an unsung genius. All you had to do was ask me, I'd have explained it to you in detail. These days I feel barely competent. I *know* better, I'm very proud of my successes, but at the same time, I am ever more aware of the gaps in my skill and capability.

Congrats in winning your recent bout with cancer. Do you foresee yourself writing a story on the subject in the future?

Probably every story I ever write. Directly? I don't know. Seems hard to imagine I won't, but I tend to shy away from message-based writing and didacticism. Right now, a cancer story would feel very message-driven to me. Watch this space for more details.

How influential was winning the Writers of the Future award or the John W. Campbell award to your career?

Fantastically so. My Writers of the Future win was my Campbell qualifying sale. I won't go so far as to say that without WotF I wouldn't have won the Campbell, but it's a fair speculation. That one-two punch in 2003-2004 helped raise my profile in the field, which in turn helped drive my ability to sell novels. Name recognition is not required in a new author, more or less by definition, but it sure as hell helps. The Campbell also raised my profile in Fandom, specifically, which has helped me make a bigger impression on the Con circuit. That's another optional behavior which can be both entertaining and beneficial if one has the desire and the right crowd skills to pursue it.

Let's talk about your writing. I loved Trial of Flowers from Night Shade Books. When you wrote it, did you already have a planned sequel in mind or was Madness of Flowers developed later on?

Trial was written as a standalone. Madness was developed later on, at the publisher's request. I have a third book in mind, Reign of Flowers, but I probably won't write it unless Madness of Flowers does very well indeed. I love the world and the characters, but it would be difficult to switch publishers for an existing series, and right now Night Shade has no plans to extend past the second book.

What was the inspiration for that particular series?

A long time ago, I read about a, Italian Renaissance court custom of raising children in boxes to create court dwarfs. Even now, I have no idea if this was true more than once, or even once, but it had always struck me as incredibly strange. Combine that with my love for the New Weird city fiction of the past ten years--City of Saints and Madmen, Perdido Street Station, The Etched City and so forth--and I wanted to play in that sandbox.

Plus I wanted to write about gods living in the sewers.

How about the inspiration behind Mainspring and Escapement? What were the challenges in writing these novels?

Heh. The original inspiration for Mainspring was a writing exercise which was assigned to me at an Oregon Coast Professional Writers Workshop retreat. I pretty much pulled the outline out of the air, though I have a longtime fascination with clockwork, orreries and automata. Working on the first novel involved doing a lot of reading on the history of timekeeping, the development of clockmaking, and similar topics. Fascinating stuff. I also had to do a bunch of moderately heavy lifting in the theology and philosophy sections of my personal library. By the time I got to Escapement, the world was pretty well established, and I was then working with existing tropes and themes. Different set of challenges there, especially working inside a wider variation of cultures and settings. I've been outlining Tourbillion, the third book in this narrative arc, and it's weirder and more ambitious than the first two, working to draw them together. I expect to write Tourbillion this fall.

Which are you more comfortable with: writing novels or short stories?

I don't think that question really has an answer. They're different crafts. Closely related, but very distinct. Short stories have the self-evident benefit of having a relatively brief effort/reward cycle, as opposed to the years it can take to shepherd a novel through the writing and production process, but since I can be a very patient man, those are really just additional aspects of the distinction between the two forms. I've argued in the past for a more detailed hierarchy of work -- right now we have short story, novelette, novella and novel, at least as measured by award categories -- which would break the spectrum up further.

Let's move on to Jay Lake as editor. What made you decide to pursue editing anthologies?

Because it's a hell of a lot of fun. Deborah Layne of Wheatland Press got me into editing in the first place, when she conceived of the Polyphony anthology series. I was clueless on the initial volume, but I'm a quick study. At this point, I'd probably edit more than I do if someone wanted to pay me to do it. I find the process very rewarding, and it definitely illuminates my own writing for me in sometimes unexpected ways.

As an editor, what do you look for in a story?

Something lateral. I'm a sucker for a strong, unusual voice, but clever plotting, a truly oddball character, or something else entirely can also catch my eye. There's a balance in editing--mostly you don't buy just anything you like, you're working towards certain themes, lengths, etc. So those factors can influence a selection. But if I like a story enough, I'll find a way to pull it in.

What's your editorial "routine" like?

Read. Think. Try to find a reason to reject. Some things go on the "further consideration" pile. Sturgeon's Law says 90% of everything is crap, but mostly I find mediocrity and "almost good enough" in the slush pile a lot more often than I find crap. I can't figure out of this should be encouraging or depressing.

Is there a big shift for you between your writer hat and your editorial hat?

Yes. My editorial hat is all about critical reading, audience reaction, and a certain external view of the manuscript. My writer hat aggressively disregards those considerations in favor of a storytelling flow. I very rarely analyze my own writing while I'm doing it, and not so often after the fact either. I constantly analyze what I'm reading, especially for editorial.

In your opinion, how has the Internet changed publishing?

It's like money, it changes everything. And nothing. My relationship with Tor wouldn't be much different without the Internet, except that letters would take a week or more to be answered, instead of an afternoon of email lag. And I'd be mailing more manuscript boxes around.

On the short fiction side, especially in the independent press, business and editorial processes have been highly adaptive. The most obvious form of this is e-publishing. Strange Horizons, for example. In classical publishing, a lot of cash gets tied up in manufacturing and fulfillment of the story objects in the form of books and magazines. An e-market in theory is committing their entire budget to wordage. We'll disregard infrastructure costs for the purposes of this example, but even factored in, the incremental cost of getting a single story to a single reader is a tiny fraction of the print world.

Basically, the Internet opened a new channel with a very different balance of capital and expense. We're still wrestling as a field with what that channel means in terms of legitimacy and prestige, but things have gone long past the "fad" stage.

To me, you're one of the more visible authors. What are the steps that you take to promote yourself?

It's been organic. Despite rumor, I never had a master plan. I published a few stories, won a few awards, starting dressing funny and acting out in public. The rest is history.

More to the point, I make myself pretty visible both online and in real life. I have a lot of fun doing it, which I think rubs off on people. And I like to share.

I love the fact that you make several podcasts available to the public. What made you decide to do so? Are you yourself a fan of podcast fiction?

Well, I'd be doing more but that whole effort got derailed by my cancer this past spring. I'm not quite back to full capacity, but at some point I'll resume the podcasting. Hopefully soon. Oddly, I don't listen to much of it. I don't use an iPod or other personal music player--don't like earphones, don't like to not hear my environment. But I love the idea of podcast fiction, and really want to support it.

Your writing has evolved over the years. What would you say is the biggest difference between your writing when you started out compared to the present?

I'm getting better. I hope. Seriously, I bring a lot more self-awareness to my fiction now than I used to. Not in the drafting process, which is still much like taking soundings from the deep, but in the revision process. I think that's where a lot of my growth comes from. It results in more nuanced, subtle work, and deeper characterization.

At least that's what I tell myself. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

The iconic Jay Lake is Jay Lake with a Hawaiian shirt. Why the Hawaiian shirt? How many shirts do you have in the closet?

I figured out a long time ago that there were hundreds of long haired fat guys in black t-shirts at any given convention. I decided being a long haired fat guy in a loud shirt would be more fun. A lot more fun. Plus they're comfortable. And I have about 40 in my closet.

Since some RPG fans read this blog, what has been your experience with RPGs?

RPGs were a huge part of my formative experiences as a teen. I went to boarding schools from 9th grade on, and as a sophomore discovered blue box D&D. I still have my brown books, too, but I bought them for background reading to go with the blue box set. There's not much else to do at boarding school except drink, which I've never been heavily into, so old school tabletop RPGs with graph paper, pencils and dice were my life through high school and college. I think I learned a lot about story telling, audiences, plot and character from that. Of course, I had to then spend some years unlearning the whole "my D&D campaign would make a *great* novel" thing. But yes, hugely important.

By the late 1980s I'd left regular gaming, and I've never gone deep again. These days it would subtract from my writing time, which really doesn't feel like a rational option for me personally.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Write more. Turn off the tv, put down the online gaming, read some more books and write more. We only have so much time, so much plot energy in our heads. I turned off my tv in 1994, and my last computer game in 2000, because I wanted to be a Producer as well as a Consumer. However you get to it, write, and write more.

You'd be amazed how hard this advice can be to follow.

Advice for aspiring editors?

Read more. And find someone else to finance and publish the work. Editing is fun, but I find publishing to be deeply mind-numbing.

Anything else you want to plug?

Read my books! I have Madness of Flowers coming out late this year, Death of a Starship next year, and Green next year. Heck, read everybody's books. Ghu knows more sales never hurt anyone.