Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Essay: No Ghosts in Balete Drive

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

Nick Mamatas just posted the guidelines for a new anthology he and Ellen Datlow are working on: Haunted Legends. Now it made me wonder what haunted sites the Philippines has. It's not that we have a shortage of regional folklore. For example, the province of Pangasinan is known as the home of aswangs (further research into aswang lore also results in various interpretations on what an aswang is, everything from hex-cursing warlocks to fetus-eating women whose upper torso detaches from its lower body and flies). However, as far as specific locations go, I'm sure everyone knows of a haunted house or two (since many of the private schools are run by priests or nuns, I expect that each school has a haunted location) but as far as famous places that have joined the zeitgeist, there's only two that I know of.

One is Maria Makiling, a beautiful maiden spirit (a diwata) who haunts the forests of Mt. Makiling. Much like the aswang, the tales of Maria Makiling are varied. On one hand, she is a male fantasy as wanderers who disappear into her forests have fallen in love with her and spend the end of their days in bliss. On the other, she is the spurned lover, and is a force to be reckoned with, irregardless of whether you're male or female. Other incarnations include being a defender of nature (woe to thieves and loggers) and a helpful guardian (aiding those who are lost or who have fallen ill). Maria Makiling ends up being a flexible icon and perhaps the only consistent thing about all the stories is her beauty.

As rich as Mt. Makiling's legend is, it is a far-off place for urban Filipinos, and it is not something we always associate with abject terror. One place closer to home is Balete Drive, a haunted street in Quezon City. The most common story associated with Balete Drive is that it is haunted by a "White Lady" (for all intents and purposes, a ghost). The one I heard goes like this: if you're driving alone at night, the White Lady appears, either in the rear view mirror, as a passenger (keep all those seats occupied!), or in front of the vehicle. As for the source of this supernatural phenomena, they are varied, everything from the old, haunted houses in the area that date back to the Spanish colonization, the prominence of Balete trees (which are said to house various spirits), or simply the result of a tragedy (an unavenged rape). Balete Drive is one of those places that Filipinos associate with White Ladies and even had a movie based on it.

If you've actually been to Balete Drive, it's really just a small street. It's not like the other, more popular streets in the country such as Roxas Blvd. or the highway EDSA which spans several kilometers. Today, Balete Drive is surrounded by several key locations such as St. Luke's Hospital (which I'm sure has its own ghost stories that are privy only to the med interns), two private schools (an all-girls school and a Filipino-Chinese school), and the night-life haven that is Tomas Morato (full of endless bars and restaurants). Despite that, you don't need to pass through Balete Drive to get to those destinations. Instead, it's a small detour, a short-cut for those who want to avoid the traffic of the main route.

I've passed through Balete Drive several times, mostly through ignorance. In high school, I just acquired my braces and my dentist was in the area past Balete Drive. Our driver would pass through the unused routes to get to the location faster and apparently one of them was Balete Drive. I wouldn't find out it was THE haunted street until our high school prom and the editor-in-chief of our school paper (I was the news editor) was having problems with transportation. It was only then that the editorial staff discovered he actually lived in Balete Drive and he described the location I frequently passed through. As expected, high school students loved to gossip so we popped him the question, what's it like living in a haunted street? Our editor-in-chief merely shrugged and told us wistfully that he's never seen a White Lady--at least not on his street. Which was a shame because it was a slow news day and we wanted a good story, fictional or otherwise.

While I can claim I've regularly passed through Balete Drive, it was always in broad daylight. Also, I was ignorant of the fact that it was a haunted site so that probably helped. I feel robbed of a good haunting story. Anyone up for a stake-out of the place (which involves driving back and forth in the street--I only ask because 1) I have no car and 2) I have no driver's license)?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Feature: Interview with John Grant

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

John Grant, a.k.a. Paul Barnett, has published over sixty books and has worked as an editor for several decades. He has received two Hugo Awards, the World Fantasy Award, the Mythopoeic Society Scholarship Award, the J. Lloyd Eaton Scholarship Award and a rare British Science Fiction Association Special Award. His upcoming book is The Dragons of Manhattan while Norilana Books has recently announced that they have acquired John's latest novel, Leaving Fortusa.

Thanks for doing this interview! The first question that pops to mind is why the pseudonym John Grant (or even Eve Devereux)?

Long, long ago, when I was working as an acquisitions editor for the UK publishing house David & Charles, I needed a house-name for a pair of books I wanted to put together during company time – they were the sf anthology Aries 1 and the nonfiction project The Book of Time; the latter was a co-editorship with Colin Wilson. So a fellow editor and I devised “John Grant” for the purpose. A few years later, when I decided I should be a bit more serious about writing, I thought it made sense to go with the name that had been on a couple of published books rather than with my own.

It’s a decision I’ve regretted many times since, especially because “John Grant” is such a nothing-name. It’s clear that if you want to make it big as an author your best bet is to be called something like Montezuma Z. Cartwheel – something memorable.

I did have plans to use my own name for my less genre work (as per Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks), but these were scotched when the publisher who commissioned my two “Strider” space operas turned around and insisted those be released under my own name.

I have lots of questions but let's go for the most immediate: you have some new books coming out. Can you briefly tell us something about them?

Yes, it’s going to be a busy publishing schedule for me over the next twelve months or so – after a fairly quiet couple of years, by my standards. It was really last Fall that things started picking up speed again, with the publication not just of my nonfiction book Corrupted Science but also a huge anthology I’d edited, New Writings in the Fantastic. That book had a somewhat tangled history, so in reality I’d done all the work on it eighteen months or two years beforehand.

Anyway . . .

In a few weeks’ time Screaming Dreams Press is publishing a novel of mine called The Dragons of Manhattan. This is another book on which all the work was done a while ago. I originally wrote it as a three-times-a-week serial for the (sadly now defunct) international journalism website/webzine Blue Ear. It was then picked up by James Owen at the print magazine Argosy Quarterly; he planned to issue its three parts as three separately bound novella-sized books slipcased alongside the magazine. Unfortunately, he got as far as publishing only the first episode before the magazine (which was a genuinely excellent venture) folded beneath him. Even more unfortunately, the magazine took a very long time doing the folding! It was a couple of years or more before it slowly became evident to everyone that the next issue was pretty unlikely to happen. I mentioned all this to Steve Upham around the time he was founding the UK publisher Screaming Dreams Press, and he immediately said he’d love to bring the novel properly into the light of day at last.

Just recently, Steve told me he’d asked my old pal (and collaborator on a couple of books) Bob Eggleton to do the cover – and there you are!

Later in the year I have a novella coming out from PS Publishing called The City in These Pages. I’m pretty excited about this one too, and not just because it’s always been a dream of mine to be published by PS. Over the decades I’ve been given a lot of pleasure by Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” novels, and so I was pretty upset when the Grand Old Man died a few years back: it was like I’d lost a friend. Slowly the idea dawned on me of creating an homage to him in the form of a fiction that was very definitely mine – not anything he himself would ever have written – but which yet was very definitely a tribute in terms of its style. So The City in These Pages is, I hope, something he’d have liked to read (he wrote a few bits of sf, you know): a John Grant-style cosmological sf/fantasy story with a stack of absurdism/surrealism thrown in, but with the surface of a police procedural. The title comes from the little declaration McBain always made at the beginning of his “87th Precinct” novels, that “The city in these pages” was purely fictional.

And also later in the year the newish Los Angeles publisher Norilana Books is releasing my mosaic dystopian novel Leaving Fortusa. I’ve been putting this jigsaw together for some while, with various of its ten sections being published as standalone stories in places like SCI FICTION, Postscripts and the anthology Nova Scotia. Of course, by the nature of a mosaic novel, if you’re doing it right then some of the sections aren’t likely to see solo publication. Even so, I was surprised that a couple hadn’t been picked up by anyone. One of these, “The Gara Smood”, was declared by my wife to be the best story of mine she’d read; so when Vera Nazarian told me she was editing a new anthology I sent the story to her. She very quickly bought it, and in chatter I mentioned that it was part of this longer excursion, Leaving Fortusa. Oh, said Vera, and could I read that, too, now that Norilana is beginning to broaden its publishing activities? So she read the novel, and bought it, and I couldn’t be more delighted by the home it’s found itself; Vera’s not just a good friend but a writer whose work I wholeheartedly admire, so for a book that’s so very special to me to be published by her is a genuine thrill.

Meanwhile, I’m working on the nonfiction book Bogus Science, which is planned for publication about this time next year . . . And I’m also wondering if I can persuade someone to issue a collection of my humorous pieces.

Regarding Dragons of Manhattan, how did the original idea come about (not just the story but that it would be serialized fiction)?

The idea came to me one day while Pam and I were driving along in the car. I told her about this notion I’d had for a novel, and she instructed me to write it forthwith. Well, of course, I didn’t have the time to write it forthwith, but I did sort of aim at fifthwith – I had a couple of days spare a few weeks later and rattled out the first few thousand words. By then I’d decided I really, really wanted to use the structure my old buddy John Brunner had used for his greatest novels – Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, etc. (John had of course in turn lifted it from John Dos Passos.) It seemed to me this’d allow me the maximum freedom to cover a lot of different territory without having to be too concerned with the necessary disciplines of a linear plot. Also, if it was going to be a matter of my grabbing a few days here and there to write the book, with likely long gaps between each outburst, then using the Dos Passos/Brunner structure would be helpful.

About six months later Ethan Casey, the editor of Blue Ear, asked me if I’d be interested in writing a serial novel for the site/zine. I was enormously flattered, of course – this was a very distinguished audience I was going to be addressing – but what could I write? I mentioned the request to Pam, and she pointed out that here was the ideal opportunity to finish The Dragons of Manhattan: once I’d committed myself to produce it, I’d actually damn’ well do so! She was right, of course. What she was less right about was the notion that I’d be able to fit three weekly episodes (they were of varying length, but often fairly short – the advantages of that Dos Passos/Brunner structure again!) in around my other work without really noticing it. Those were a tough few months!

It was really good to make myself write so quickly though. Not all of the episodes were short. Sometimes I’d get up, write 3000 words in the morning, then jet them off to Blue Ear (part of the deal was I’d not have time to proofread!), then start about noon or later on a full day’s “real” work. I did take a day off other things to devote the time to the 7000 words of the book’s longest section. It was great to discover I could still pull this kind of stunt. Even greater, after the serialization was over and I could sit down to read the novel as a whole, was discovering how little editing it required.

Let me qualify that. It did still require a fair amount of editing. But I’d expected the text to be an absolute shambles, with moments of profound embarrassment every other page. Yes, of course, there were some o’ them moments of profound embarrassment . . . but there were far fewer of them than I’d anticipated, and there were lots and lots of bits of the book that I felt pretty damn’ proud of, as I did of the book as a whole. So the editing task seemed a light one, both because it was far lesser than I’d anticipated and because I felt it was a job worth doing.

What's it like writing a serial, especially in this day and age? Were you ever tempted to go back and re-write parts that were already published? Will you consider doing it again in the future?

I did make perhaps a couple of corrections as I went along. One of the benefits of the very freewheeling Blue Ear setup was that this was easy enough for me to do. I’d just start a new episode with a note of the form: “A few weeks ago I said Monty Bean did this. I lied. What he actually did was this. Apologies for the confusion.” I imagine if I’d been writing the book as a serial for a more traditional venue – the New York Times or wherever – that might have been frowned upon.

At an early stage, I asked if any of the Ears wanted to be characters (at least in name) in my book. About a dozen, I think, said that yes indeed they would. So that sort of wove the novel into the tapestry that was Blue Ear.

In many of your fictions, you tend to include the characters Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi which in certain ways reminds me of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion concept (or what it could have been). Why the fascination with these characters? How do you decide whether such characters are needed in a story?

Funny you should say that, Charles! I kind of came at the multiverse notion from a different direction than Mike had a while earlier; I must just have read the wrong Moorcock books, or something, because I tripped over the concept of the multiverse in science books, not fiction at all. Natch, I thought it was something worth purloining, which I did with a vengeance in my 1992 fantasy novel The World. It was while I was working on that book that I discovered – very embarrassingly! – that Mike had beaten me to it.

In a way, at least. The fantasy-concept I’d developed of the multiverse was really quite distinct from Mike’s – far more physical, to simplify enormously. Accordingly, I renamed it the polycosmos, and charged ahead. The created mythology of The World has permeated quite a lot of my fiction, although I haven’t played with it much lately. In the novel itself, I try to portray what it’s like when two of the infinite alternative universes, one of which might be ours and the other of which is definitely the universe where High Fantasy happens, crash into each other and intermingle – rather like galaxies colliding. So the book’s a metafiction as well as a fantasy/sf novel. At some stage I want to revisit the mythology as a space opera, and then it also plays a part in a very, very ambitious novel I’ve wanted to write for a decade or more that incorporates, too, the Beauty & the Beast mythology.

Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child is another created mythology that has, as you observe, fascinated me through many of its incarnations. There’s a slight overlap between it and the World mythology, but no one noticed me forging that link at the time. One day I hope to effect a more complete integration.

The mythology came into existence after I’d let myself in to be a participant in the first One Day Novel competition, in London. Sounds like fun, I thought . . . but then, on the train up from Exeter (where I then lived) to London I began to think it might be a bit of a help if I had a few ideas beforehand as to what I was going to write. Ulp. I gazed out the window as the fields blurred by, and I caught sight of my own reflected face, motionless against the moving background. That was just enough to get my imagination kick-started.

It was really a 24-Hour Novel competition – two 12-hour days rather than a single day. At the end of it I had a 31,500-word “novel”. It didn’t make it to the shortlist, and naturally I was a bit disheartened. However, for the relevant weekend I’d been put up in London by fellow writer (and later editorial collaborator) Dave Hutchinson and his wife Bogna – two dear friends. As a matter of courtesy, I gave a copy of the text to Hutch, and he came back telling me I should on no account feel disheartened. I reread it, and tended to agree with him. Of course, at the time there was no real possibility of selling a 31,500-novella, Many years later, however, it appeared as half of a “double” book, the other half being a novella by another old friend, Colin Wilson. We’d done a book together after The Book of Time, ’way back in the early ’80s, The Directory of Possibilities. It was a real joy, twenty years later, to see our names together on a cover again.

Major thanks to Hutch for giving my always fragile confidence a boost just at the time it needed it!

You've written quite a lot of nonfiction as well. Let's start with the books Discarded Science and Corrupted Science. You've mentioned before some difficulties with promoting the latter book. Care to elaborate on it in this interview?

I’d probably better not – I tend to get hot under the collar every time I think about it! I have no complaints at all about the UK promotion of Corrupted Science, but the US effort – or lack of effort – was an absolute disaster. Luckily the publisher’s investing a little money in a publicity relaunch, even as we speak.

It’s quite possible Corrupted Science is the most important book I’ll ever write. One of the UK reviewers told his readers that, if they bought only one science book this year, Corrupted Science should be it – and that it pained him to say this because that would be at the expense of them buying his own book on global warming. He also contacted the publisher privately and told him he must submit the book for the Royal Society’s annual Best Science Book of the Year Award. I was awfully flattered!

What are some of the challenges of working on a nonfiction title, especially something along the lines of The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters or The Encyclopedia of Fantasy? I'm also curious what's more demanding on you (whether in terms of writing or allotted time), your fiction or your nonfiction work?

The two disciplines obviously do use different bits of the brain. I’d never thought this was so at all – I thought there were just difficult projects and easy projects, and it was irrelevant whether they were fiction or nonfiction. But then, towards the end of several years’ work on The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, I began having these recurring fantasies of jumping off high buildings and I realized I desperately needed a break from it!

Luckily, at about that time – and thanks to another great pal, Stephen Marley -- Virgin Publishing came along and asked me if I’d like to write a “Judge Dredd” novel. This was not something I’d ever contemplated before. However, after discussion with John Clute, I phoned up our editor at Orbit, primary publisher of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and begged to be allowed a month off – we were already many months late – to get some R&R writing a “Judge Dredd” novel. Very, very fortunately, that editor was Tim Holman, so rather than bawl me out he told me to go ahead and do what I thought best. So over the next four or five weeks I wrote the novel The Hundredfold Problem (more recently reissued as a non-“Judge Dredd” book, and still much-loved by me), and on my return to the encyclopedia – despite the fact that I’d been working my little socks off on the novel – I found I was enormously reinvigorated. It was as if I’d spent a holiday on the beach, or something.

What are the differences, assuming there any, between your fiction writing process and nonfiction writing process?

It’s not something I’d ever really thought about – beyond the obvious, that in nonfiction you can’t, or shouldn’t, just make stuff up – until the Hundredfold Problem/Encyclopedia of Fantasy thing. I guess there must be other differences, but most of the time I just sit down and do things.

You've also developed a wide repertoire of editing skills and renown. Care to elaborate the various editing roles you've taken up over the decades and a brief description on what exactly you do in that particular position?

Ah, yes. I started off in this literary biz having holiday jobs as a messenger boy for Fleet Street newspapers. At school I wanted to do a sort of mixed-syllabus range of final exams (“A”-levels): Maths, Physics and English. One of the things that has ever been done to me that I resent the most bitterly was that the school went behind my back and persuaded my mother (Dad had died when I was very small) that the best thing “for Paul” was that I focus on Maths, Physics and Chemistry, even though I loathed chemistry. (I fell in love with it years later, however, when I discovered physical chemistry.) One of the things I resent most bitterly that my younger self did was to go along with this.

I ended up sitting Pure Maths, Maths for Science, Physics, Chemistry, and being stuffed into a degree course at the University of London for which I was wholly unsuited – Maths, Physics and Astronomy. I didn’t have good enough maths for any of this, even though I loved the astronomy part of it all with a passion. In the end, despite a long and painful session with my astronomy tutor, Derek McNally (a very nice man, whom I later published), it was agreed by all concerned that I’d wasted a year of my own and everyone else’s time: what I should really be reading for a degree was English Literature . . . except that I didn’t have the English “A”-level I needed if I were to apply for university places in that subject.

Oh, jibber.

I spent the next year working nights to get the English exam and days in one of London’s best bookshops, Dillon’s (now a high-street chain in the UK, but back in those days a book store to be really proud of). I passed the exam no problem (as my tutor said, “I don’t think I’ve ever before had a student who read Piers Plowman over his breakfast cornflakes”) but couldn’t immediately find a university place: “But you’re a scientist, Mr Barnett.”

A year later a friend drew me to the notice of what was at the time (and for all I know may still be) one of the best English departments in the UK. They accepted me, but . . .

By then I’d managed to get myself a lowly job with the then moderately prestigious, if broke, mid-sized publisher Frederick Muller. Did I want to go off and spend the next three years studying Eng Lit or did I want to capitalize on this book-publishing career I’d started?

I chose the latter. A few years later I was Editorial Director of Mullers – not bad at the age of 21, hm? Then I got fired, essentially because I started wanting to do some exciting things and my Managing Director (with hindsight, rightly) thought we should stick with the same old financially sound crap. I floated a while and ended up in Elsevier International Projects, the Oxford-based attempt by the great Dutch company to burst into the international-coedition book market. Our division was abominably badly run, and working there was hell; but I made some astonishingly good friends either at or through the job (Phil Gardner, Mike Scott Rohan, John David Yule, Dave Langford, others) and also bumped myself a good few steps up the career ladder: every time news got out that I was desperate to leave, which was about every three months, management got wind of it and jacked up my salary another 10%. Eventually I realized that, if I let this go on too much longer, I’d be impossibly expensive for anyone else to hire.

So I got a job as an acquisitions editor at David & Charles. That was in the days that David St John Thomas was still running the place. He and I had a great relationship, in that neither of us really knew where the other was coming from, so we just kind of left each other alone. That could of course be a bad place to be in relation to the guy who’s signing your monthly pay-cheque, but David – about whom many people revel in saying bad things – was great about it. He gave me a heck of a lot of freedom, and for the most part (memorably not always, oh gawd!) the books I commissioned made money for the company.

I was then lured away to the publisher Webb & Bower, who’d had enormous success with The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and wanted an editor to broaden their range of publishing. Flattery got me again – it usually does. By the time I’d arrived to take up the post, though, the job that had been so glowingly described in the interviews essentially wasn’t there any longer. I lasted eight months before being fired again.

That was when, in 1981, I became a writer and freelance editor. I decided that never again would I accept a publishing job.

And then, in about 1996 or 1997, I pick up the phone and someone’s asking me if I’d like to run Paper Tiger.

Would I? You bet I would! But that’s a whole other story, Charles . . .

When you were young, did you ever envision yourself being an editor? Or a writer?

When I was young I don’t think I even knew what an editor was, but I know I had a hunch at least that I might become a writer. I started my first novel when I was about 8 or 9; fortunately I stopped about ten pages into it, or who knows what might have become of The Ghost of Horror Mansion? When my mother wasn’t around I used to make myself little books using her sewing machine to stitch down the middle of clutches of paper that I’d then fold over and write on. Later, at boarding school, I’d write stories when I ought to have been writing essays. And then, of course, I got persuaded by the school to be a bit more sensible about where I was headed . . .

What have been some of the biggest challenges you faced as an editor?

A book called Planet Earth: An Encyclopedia of Geology, which I put together at Elsevier International Projects. It had I think some 70 or 100 contributors. When I started it, I knew nothing about geology and to be honest wasn’t really interested in it. There was an academic Consultant Editor, Tony Hallam, whose task was to find distinguished geologists prepared to write entries for it. My in-house co-editor, Peter Hutchinson, was a remarkably talented man, and he’d created the project. The trouble was that, while Peter was great at the concepts and the visual implementation and indeed the geology, he wasn’t too organized when it came to the nitty-gritty of putting together complex book projects. So I was drafted in.

Looking back, I’m amazed I was able to do it. There were so many toes I had to be careful not to step on, and it was an astonishingly unhappy company to be working for. But by the time the book was over I’d developed a love for some of geology’s aspects and I’d made some friends I might never otherwise have made – among them the wonderful science historian Roy Porter, who to my great distress died ludicrously young a few years ago. If it hadn’t been for the history-of-geology articles Roy wrote for Planet Earth, and the wonderful way he wrote them, I doubt I’d ever have started along the path that led to Discarded Science and Corrupted Science.

The other enormous challenge to me as editor (aside from The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, where I was editor in a different sense of the word) was of course the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction – the second edition, the BIG one. It was again an enormously complex book to put together, and it took a four-year chunk out of my life. I played cricket whenever I could, but otherwise I had hardly any social life at all for those few years: I was at my desk from early morning until late at night. After the book was over, one of the many awards it received was a British Science Fiction Association Special Award – only the second of these that had ever been given, and the first for 17 years. The judges, unlike those for all the other awards the book won, extended the citation to include myself and Brian Stableford, who as Associate Editor had made an immense contribution.

After the awards ceremony, as Dave Langford and I were putting together the convention newsletter reporting it (“No, Paul, I don’t think we should put your name in Bookman Bold 64 point”), someone (I know not whom) stumbled into the newsroom and said spitefully: “You must feel pretty fine, getting a BSFA Award for a book that isn’t even yours.” I hit the roof.

Aren’t these science-fiction people wonderful?

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

I look for stories that I’ve not read before. As example, when I was reading for what eventually became New Writings in the Fantastic, there was a longish submission by a new writer called Kate Riedel: “Song Cycle.” As I started reading it I got that tingling at the back of the nose that tells me either I’m breathing ozone or I’ve begun a voyage into a whole new fantastic vision. In a way you can look at the story and see how bits of it have been done before, but the entirety is something completely new – and the telling is wonderful.

Needless to say, “Song Cycle” was completely ignored by all the relevant Year’s Best editors. Ellen Datlow mentioned to me she loved it as much as I did, but as it isn’t a horror story . . .

What are some of the common errors a new author makes?

Of course, there are a billion errors new authors make. What I think is more interesting as a topic is the errors editors far, far too often make when reading the work of new authors. I’m sure I must have committed the sin myself of reading a story by an unknown author and misestimating it because it didn’t fit into the genre stereotype I’d expected it to fit into; my apologies to all those slighted authors out there.

I’ve certainly been affected by this myself, from the auctorial side of things. The editor of one of the genre magazines has the habit of reading only the first page or two of anything my agent sends him – except, of course, that she no longer sends him anything of mine because it’s a waste of her stamps. As has been remarked, my stories have the habit of turning out to be about something entirely other than what you expected to begin with. Before The City in These Pages sold to PS, my agent sent it to this editor . . . who dismissed it with something like “We don’t publish police procedurals.” The final straw was when he told us that one of the Leaving Fortusa sections, perhaps the most conceptually ambitious piece of fiction I’ve ever undertaken – eat your heart out, Olaf Stapledon! – was “another story about a jester”.


Who were your writing influences early on?

Certainly Colin Wilson was one: while working with him on The Directory of Possibilities I discovered from his example how to write as if I were speaking, not to swelter over the often misguided effort to produce (roll of pretentious drums) selfconsciously Fine Writing. Arthur C. Clarke was another; I was thrilled beyond belief when far, far later in life I found myself working with him on a book. Most important, perhaps, was the Victorian fantasy author George Macdonald: he taught me that fantasy could lift me right out of myself. Much, much later I’d forgotten that and then luckily a book by Mark Helprin came along and taught me it all over again.

I offered my thanks to Macdonald in my novel The Far-Enough Window, in which I tried to “reclaim” his Fairyland from all the fantasy writers who’d tried to make Faerie more “authentic”.

Olaf Stapledon was another huge influence. Sirius and Last and First Men are, at opposite ends of the spectrum, two of the fabbest novels ever written. I said thanks to Stapledon not just with the novella “Tempter” – my “jester story” – but also with my book-length fiction The Stardragons (illustrated by Bob Eggleton).

Oh, and did I mention Mervyn Peake? Oh yes . . .

What are some of your favorite films? Animated features?

That’s one of those questions that . . .

At the moment my main movie interest is in film noir, so a lot of my current favourites are old b/w items. Recent animated movies I’ve liked a lot include Flushed Away, Monster House, Happy Feet, Hoodwinked, and most notably Spirited Away, Tokyo Godfathers and Beowulf. I’d like to see a few more traditional 2D animations being made, though, as opposed to the current obsession with 3D CGI. I had a few problems with Howl’s Moving Castle (bizarrely so, because it’s based on one of my favourite novels by a favourite author and dearly loved friend, Diana Wynne Jones!), but visually it’s more extraordinary and wonderful than just about anything you’ll find done in CGI.

What's the best advice you can give for aspiring writers (in either fiction or nonfiction)?

Don’t, unless you’re happy to regard writing as just a hobby, or as something you’re driven to do.

When I started out, lots of good writers made an adequate living from the thing they did best. Since then, though, there’s been a corporation-invented division between the few authors who make millions or more and the rest of us, who it seems are expected to be willing to starve “for our art”. By and large, the modern publishing industry (unlike the publishing industry I entered back in the 1960s) does not actually give a single swive about literary quality. Back then the notion was that, if you published lots of good books, you’d do well. How naive! Lots of publishing companies did do well. Then along came various highly paid bean counters who told them they could do even better if they concentrated their resources on a few authors and basically shafted the rest. Disastrously, at about the same time there was in the US the rise of Barnes & Noble, which company saw books as interchangeable cornflakes packets. No longer did the merit of the text matter: instead the important thing was the marketing budget – oh, and the size of the bribe the publisher was willing to offer B&N, Borders, whoever.

As a result, you got marketing clout turning some absolutely talentless authors into bestsellers. Is it any wonder that a public told by the publishing and bookselling industries that the likes of [AUTHOR'S NAME OMITTED] represent the heights of entertainment attainable through reading fiction go off and do something like deep-sea diving, power chess, anything?

The result of these and other processes is that the very best of our authors, aside from a lottery few, are being frozen out. I was lucky enough to have started just early enough that, with a lot of other factors being in my favour, I could make a (none too lavish!) living out of this game. Many other authors haven’t been that lucky.

What's the best advice you can give for aspiring editors?


You've been in the field for quite a long time now so I just want to ask what's the biggest change you've witnessed in the industry?

The corporatist takeover of publishing and bookselling. When I started my career (a short pause while an elderly fart does some rheumy stuff) the great thing was that publishing was wide open: the smallest of companies could come out with the best of books, a widely diversified bookselling trade could recognize it, an influential reviewer could go for it, individuals could buy it and, more and more, tell each other. For a long while, starting perhaps sometime in the 1980s, that almost didn’t happen – almost couldn’t happen – because it didn’t fit in with the megacorporations’ business model. Now, though, it seems to be starting to happen again, as the reading public have become more and more savvy to what’s been going on. The big example of the mould being broken has of course been Harry Potter – it was the kids who discovered the first Rowling book and turned it into a bestseller by telling each other about it, not the efforts of the book trade.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

The best thing that’s happening in world cricket at the moment is the English women’s team. All the major men’s teams – including the English – have forgotten the joyous dance that is at the heart of this game. English captain Charlotte Edwards and English bowler Isa Guha (among other players) have remembered this. They’re much to be praised. I’d like to plug their efforts.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Call For Submissions: HAUNTED LEGENDS

From Nick Mamatas:
Below are the submission guidelines for the forthcoming anthology Haunted Legends. We are releasing them now so that submitters have all of May and June and much of July to write a new story for us. Do not submit immediately. Do not submit trunk stories.


Haunted Legends, to be published by Tor Books, seeks to reinvigorate the genre of "true" regional ghost stories by asking some of today's leading writers to riff on traditional tales from around the world. We don't just want you to retell an old ghost story, but to renovate it so that the story is dark and unsettling all over again.

Classic tales of the Jersey Devil, the spirits of the Tower of London, ghost lights, and phantom hitchhikers continue to capture the imagination. The Haunted Legends difference is that our contributors will tell the stories in ways they've never been told before.

We pay 6 cents a word, up to 8000 words.

The open-reading period will begin on midnight, EDT of July 15, 2008 and end 11:59p.m., July 31, 2008.

All submissions must be emailed as a RTF file to Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas at Please send no more than one submission. Please send no correspondence, such as queries, to either before or after the reading period – all mail sent to the address at any time other than the reading period will be automatically deleted unread.

Note that much of the anthology is full and that a large number of ghost stories, especially those with an American or UK origin, are thus already “taken” by authors who have been personally solicited for work. Your best bet for this anthology is to go far afield – we are especially interested in renovations of traditional ghost stories from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, or in other tales that may not be well-known.

We also want to emphasize that we are interested only in traditional ghost stories made new again by the ingenuity of the writer. We do not want “campfire” versions of old stories, or slavish recitations. Think of new forms, new voices, new themes, new ways of considering these classic tales. Do not send us your trunk stories. It should be as though your version was always occulted within the classic rendition, but never before perceived or acknowledged.

And now, a brief AFAQ (anticipated frequently asked questions):

May I query you with an idea for a ghost story to make sure that it has not already been taken?
No, you may not. If you believe that your idea is already taken, you may wish to research another idea. Indeed, even if the idea has not already been claimed by one of the solicited authors, you may well still face competition from a dozen other variations in the slush. Novelty is your best approach.

Well, what if I query you anyway?
I may decide to give you a misleading answer, or no answer at all.

So how about if I query Ellen Datlow instead? She’s the nice one, anyways.
You have misapprehended the situation. Let us put it this way: when was the last time Ellen Datlow had an open-reading period for any of her original anthologies? She doesn’t want your queries either.

Can I just make up a ghost story?
No. You have to find an existing one and renovate it in an utterly brilliant fashion.

How will you will be able to tell the difference?
We are obsessive experts and we are friends with even more obsessive experts.

Is this all some kind of cruel joke?
I’d call it the end result of a large number of compromises, all of which were necessary to guarantee any sort of open-reading period.

This is madness! Why does everything have to be so hard all the time? We are we pitted against one another in these awful competitions, and for crumbs? Crumbs, I tell you, crumbs, as if we were starving rats! I hate you!
Fools! Your despair only makes me stronger!

Book Review: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.

I have mixed feelings when it comes to derivative work but I can always appreciate it when an author attempts something entirely different from their previous novel. The Alchemy of Stone is an example of the latter but at the same time bearing the author's distinctive writing style that there's no mistaking who wrote this book. Sedia creates her own unique clockpunk city filtered through the lens of two perspectives, a sentient automaton and the few surviving gargoyles. Her characterization is superb and there's a certain irony in the fact one of Sedia's most human characters, the protagonist, is what other people would consider soul-less. The author's prose is simple yet compelling, not overwhelming but filling in the details as needed. The book's cosmology, while not wholly original, is the synthesis of interesting concepts and good execution. However, as far as setting goes, Sedia fills it with all too human predicaments that could serve as metaphors for modern day concerns that work on multiple levels. Even with all the allegories ignored, The Alchemy of Stone is an enjoyable read that never gets boring thanks to the constant drama and conflict. If you want something different in your fantasy or simply looking for a good read, The Alchemy of Stone is highly recommended.

Rating: 3.5/5.

Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.

Book Review: Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy edited by Ekaterina Sedia

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.

There are two things that I'd like to praise when it comes to Paper Cities. The first is its theme as it strikes the right balance of being able to unite the twenty-one stories in this anthology into a cohesive, consistent whole yet having enough leeway to cover a variety of subject matter. The subtitle "an anthology of urban fantasy" might lull readers into thinking this is a collection featuring supernatural horrors set in modern times (ala Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but it is precisely this book's goal to wrestle back the meaning of the term into a wider, more general usage (and the title Paper Cities aptly fits the bill). Second is the story selection as all the stories are consistent when it comes to quality. They are all written beyond competence and at the same time featuring a distinct style and narrative voice. I appreciated a bulk of the stories presented here and those that I didn't particularly favor was more to my personal preference (i.e. I'm not really a fan of Hal Duncan's writing style) than a lacking on the author's part. Aside from the theme, another recurring element in the featured stories is that they tend to be dark and tragic, perhaps a necessity when tackling stories that deal with the concept.

Jess Nevins is the author of the foreword and gives us a brief history of the evolution of urban fantasy--and cities--in literature. As for the stories themselves, again, there's a lot of amazing and original stories in this anthology and it was difficult for me to decide my favorites because of the diverse choices. Opening the collection is Forest Aguirre's "Andretto Walks the King's Way". Aguirre experiments with technique as our viewpoint revolves around a few key locations that recur throughout the narrative. He juggles a varied cast of characters, narrating to us their motivations, their plight, and their inevitable fate, at the same time capturing a particular milieu. "Sammarynda Deep" by Cat Sparks presents an alien culture that combines the familiar with the magical although the latter manifests itself more subtly. Sparks establishes numerous beats that make it a compelling read and what particularly impressed me was its ending which, while open-ended, was well-seeded and quite satisfying. Another story that I liked was "Godivy" by Vylar Kaftan. Language is one of the strengths of this interstitial piece but Kaftan also sprinkles this tale with sensuality, comedy, and tragedy--all in the span of a thousand words or so.

If you're looking for a sophisticated and diverse collection of short stories, Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy is a good choice, especially for fans of speculative fiction. I won't claim that this was an easy read but this was a very rewarding experience, fusing literary fare with an imaginative set of stories.

Rating: 4/5.

Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.

Book Review: The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.

Much praise has been attached to The Secret History of Moscow and I can understand why. Sedia weaves an enchanting story drawing from both Russian mythology and history. I'm not really familiar with Russian myth (or history for that matter) but I don't think that really hindered me from appreciating this novel. I expect more educated readers will appreciate all the allusions Sedia includes in the book. However, the real strength of The Secret History of Moscow is Sedia's writing and how closely she pays attention to characterization. This novel has a huge cast and in nearly every chapter, Sedia devotes time to flesh out the histories and personalities of various characters, whether they're the heroes of the story or merely victims of events. However, don't let that statement make you believe that this is some big epic with endless characters and perpetually shifting perspectives. Rather, the author sticks to three protagonists and expands from there. Sedia's characters are complex, tragic in many ways but at the same time drawing in the reader, keeping us hooked. The author's language is more than competent, easy to get into and lyrical at times. If you're looking for a tour of Moscow, Sedia accomplishes that not by excess physical descriptions of locales but rather by capturing its atmosphere, its bleakness, and the characters who live in such a place. Overall this is a highly recommended read irregardless of whether you're familiar with Russian lore or not. Sedia's writing is not only entrancing but is infused with a distinct Russian voice that's comfortable to immerse one's self in.

Rating: 3.5/5.

Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.

The Return of ZsaZsa (The Superheroine, Not the Singer)

From Carver House:

(Top) "Your sister will go crazy again."
(Bottom) "ZsaZsa Zaturnnah in Metro Manila"

ZsaZsa Zaturnnah is this wild spoof of Darna (imagine a female Captain Marvel with Wonder Woman's outfit) that won the National Book Award. In the original graphic novel, a gay beautician (complete with her own salon and lingo) transforms into a voluptuous, red-haired superheroine to combat English-speaking similarly-voluptuous female aliens who riff off lines from local TV and movies. Add in a hunky male love interest ("what if he finds out I'm not really a woman?") and you have a very funny comic book spoof.

Plug: Free Comic Book Day

On Saturday, it's Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) for the rest of the world while in the Philippines, hare are two promos that might interest you:

From Comic Quest:
Check This Out!







04 MAY SUNDAY 10.00 AM TO 10.00 PM



From Comic Odyssey:

at our ROBINSONS GALLERIA Branch from 12pm-5pm

We will be giving out FREE COMIC BOOK DAY edition comics from various publishers.

These FCBD edition comics will be limited to (3) copies per customer, however, we will also be giving out THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS of other comics for FREE with no set limit.

To celebrate Free Comic Book Day, we will also be offering:
*50% off all back issues in the comic bins
*Raffle prizes every half hour

Featuring special guest creators:
Gerry Alanguilan (Elmer, Superman Birthright, X-force, and more)
Edgar Tadeo (Wolverine, Spawn, X-men, and more)
Lan Medina (Foolkiller, Fables, Punisher, Silver Surfer, and more)
Mico Suayan (Moon Knight, What if Civil War, Marvel Comics Presents)
Budjette Tan (creator/writer TRESE)

The first 200 people in attendance will also receive a FREE copy of:

featuring art and cover by GERRY ALANGUILAN

All creators will be in attendance to sign your comics and create sketches.
Autographs will be free of charge.
Full sketches/drawings of the character of your choice will cost P500 each.
We are now taking advance reservations for full sketches/drawings.
Click HERE to send in your requests.
Advance reservations will be given priority. First come first served.


Nebula 2008 Winners

From Locus Magazine:

  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union , Michael Chabon (HarperCollins)
  • "Fountain of Age", Nancy Kress (Asimov's Jul 2007)
  • "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", Ted Chiang (F&SF Sep 2007; Subterranean Press)
  • "Always", Karen Joy Fowler (Asimov's Apr/May 2007)
  • Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (Scholastic)

Nothing Spectacular to See

Saturday was spent working for around 17 hours and me being me, I didn't eat the entire time.

Here's the stage early in the morning.

Same stage, except viewed from the side.

This is my job, distributing (and protecting) two hundred pizza boxes.

Friday, April 25, 2008

If You Don't Hear From Me...

...then I'm probably dead, severely injured, or it's the apocalypse. I only say these things because I do think that if I do get into an accident of some sort, no one is going to find out.

Anyway, I'm not going out of the country, but tomorrow is the company's annual rock concert where 37 bands are playing and we expect a crowd of around 30,000 people. Thankfully, in the eight years that we've been running the show, there have been no deaths. There was this one time however when there was a riot outside (the first instance when pirates counterfeited our tickets) and people were trying to break down the gates. Security, bouncers, and anyone else who could help were pushing on the gates, preventing the hinges from snapping. It was like watching a scene from movies, where battering rams collide with castle fortifications. Thankfully the gates held but if it did collapse, I'd be the next casualty from the stampede as I was literally a few feet away from the gate.

Will be working from around 10 am - 4 am tomorrow so the next time you'll hear from me is probably on Monday.

Top 10 Best-Sellers as of 2008/4/20

From USA Today's best-seller list (you can find out their basis here):

  1. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle
  2. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow
  3. Hold Tight by Harlan Coben
  4. Just Who Will You Be? Big Question. Little Book. Answer Within. by Maria Shriver
  5. Where Are You Now?: A Novel by Mary Higgins Clark
  6. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  7. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
  8. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
  9. The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith
  10. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Plug: Trese: Murder on Balete Drive

Just plugging the upcoming comic of Budjette Tan (no relation although we are neighbors). Here are the details of the comic:
Published by Visual Print Enterprises
Written by Budjette Tan, Art by Kajo Baldisimo
Format: Black&White, 104 pages
Cover price: P140.00
It'll soon be available at the following stores:
National Bookstore
Fully Booked
Pandayan Bookstore
Comic Quest
Comic Odyssey
For more information or sample pages, you can visit

Greg van Eekhout on Writing

Just listened to the latest episode of Adventures in Scifi Publishing and here's one statement from Greg van Eekhout that struck me:
Shaun Farrel: What encouragement do you have for people who still haven't had those sales? What do you have to say to them as they're still banging their heads?

Greg van Eekhout: What I told myself is that I want to do it, I know it's possible to do it, it's probably just a matter of time. The limiting factor is the amount of energy and spirit I have to continuously fail, and writing--not just publishing--writing itself is a process of continuous failure. Every time I write a sentence, it's not the pristine sentence I had in my head. It's a failure. Every time you submit something and it doesn't come back with, you know, yes Banana, we'll give you money for this. It's failure. It really is, it's very easy to quit.

What I keep telling myself is that every day that I write, every day I don't quit, I beat the thousand people that quit that day, and I beat the ten thousand people who never even tried that day.

Now there's not a thousand people who quit everyday probably, not ten thousand who never try. It's not literally a contest but especially when I was in my 20's and just really trying to get into that first publication, framing it into that kind of competitive nature actually helped me but it's not actually a competition. You don't have to take out other writers in the kneecaps or anything like that. Just keep trying, keep trying as long as you're getting some fun or joy or satisfaction from it, keep doing it. And honestly, if it's making you miserable, stop. Life's too short to do something that makes you miserable. There are many, many other things you can do that will be fulfilling. Do those things but otherwise, keep going.
I'm now off to break some kneecaps... (I keep a sledge hammer hidden in my backpack)

2008/4/24 Tabletop RPG Podcasts

Tabletop RPG (Mostly)

General Discussions/Reviews/Everything Else
Actual Play Sessions
Video Podcasts

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Magazine Review: Philippine Genre Stories #4

The latest issue of Philippine Genre Stories is this collection of five fantastical stories, many of which seem to be aimed at younger readers. With the exception of Tijam's story, the rest are easy to read and far from challenging.

Opening the magazine is Yvette Tan's "Chimaera" which combines Greek myth with basic sci-fi elements. It's a simple story and most of the text is spent developing the author's protagonist. The ending was a bit weak for me as there wasn't enough conflict, although Tan does give us a resolution. In the afterword, Tan describes that this is very much a high school story and that probably best describes the demographic for "Chimaera".

"Psychic Family" by Apol Lejano-Massabieau starts off with simple language and a young heroine yet this is easily one of the more sophisticated stories in this issue. Throughout the story, Lejano-Massabieau attempts to scare the reader and honestly, I didn't feel the terror but the author makes up for it in my opinion through her subtle ending.

"Blink, Wake Up" by Mia Tijam is this weird, seemingly plotless story. We catch several snippets of our protagonist's life and culminates in an ending tethering on vagueness. This is the most challenging piece of fiction in the magazine's history but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The cover story, "The Last Stand of Aurundar" by Vin Simbulan, is this unabashed high fantasy piece. Perhaps what makes it unique is its protagonist, a sentient castle, and the way Simbulan uses the second person as the viewpoint for the narrative.

"In the Dim Plane" by Dean Francis Alfar is set in the same world as Simbulan's story but executes his story quite differently. In certain ways, it combines O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and Greek choruses, set in a high fantasy setting. This is easily my favorite story in the magazine upon reareading it.

Overall, I think it's best to set your expectations for Philippine Genre Stories #4. If you're looking for a sophisticated and literary read, this isn't the place to find it, although there's some experimental pieces to be found here. However, if you're looking for simple and fun stories, you'll do well with this particular issue.

Rating: 3/5.

Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.

Plug: Philippine Genre Stories Vol. 4

My spies have just informed me that Philippine Genre Stories Vol. 4 will be available later this afternoon at Comic Quest Megamall and SM City. Hopefully by next week, it should also be available in other locations.

The cover is done by Eisner Award-winning artist Lan Medina. Here's the table of contents:

Essay: Reader's Block

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

A pet peeve is when people use the term "writer's block", mainly because it's a catch-all phrase for various excuses. I mean come on, we're writers. The least we can do is verbalize what's preventing us from continuing, whether it's getting stuck on a story, losing interest in what we're writing, fearing we don't have the necessary skills to tackle the subject matter, plain laziness, or simply because we have a fucking migraine. So I feel hypocritical when I talk of something like "reader's block" but allow me to explain.

There are periods in my life when I'm simply not motivated to read. I'd rather play a video game, watch TV, jog around the neighborhood, or perhaps even pick up a comic--I'm just not interested in tackling an entire book. And it's not the author's fault mind you. I could be reading one of my favorite texts but unable to concentrate. As tempting as it is to call it sporadic Attention Deficit Disorder, that's not the case. I tend to work in cycles, usually concentrating on one particular activity in a quarter. I could have my "reading phase", my "writing phase", my "gaming phase", then cycle through that again the following year.

When I had my heart first broken post-high school, I couldn't pick up a book. My crush was also a fan of reading the same books I was interested in (mainstream fantasy and science fiction) so it'd trigger a memory whenever I saw a book's cover or reading a passage that I thought she'd like. Insert whiny teenager rants here. Fortunately, I got over it and resumed my book-reading spree.

Obviously, I'm not heart-broken now but my cyclical nature still kicks in. It's for that reason that I wasn't able to consistently post on my blog pre-2007. Last year however, I did promise myself that I'd make it a point to regularly maintain a blogging schedule. That means writing even when you don't feel like it. And to a certain extent, because I have weekly book reviews, reading even when you're not in the mood to do so. I'm partly in that cycle when I'm not in my reading groove. But I dream one day of being a Green Lantern and I let my willpower do the rest. At the end of the day, reading is a choice and a skill. As a disciplined human being, I can overcome it--and have done so. Besides, it's not like I'm reading badly-written books and there's nonetheless pleasure in the reading process.

Occasionally, I'd run into a short story or novel that's so compelling that whether I'm in my reading phase or not is irrelevant. It has me hooked and glued to the book (or more commonly these days, to the monitor). These types of fiction are a boon to me as I forget whatever emotion is impeding me from reading. And let's not make any mistake about it: claiming that I'm in a "reading phase" or in a "reading mood" is simply an emotion. Still, the thrill of finding such treasures is enhanced by the fact that I'm in a reading slump. The question I want to ask is what stories or novels have replicated the same experience for you? What author or work causes you to forget all of your concerns and simply read and read until you reach the last page, irregardless of what you were feeling that day?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Feature: Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

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

Jeff Vandermeer is an award-winning author, editor, and publisher and his book-length fiction has been translated into 15 languages. He has also contributed to many publications including The Washington Post Book World, Publishers Weekly, SF Weekly, Bookslut, The SF Site, Locus Online, Amazon, and many others. He has several new books coming out this year.

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. First off, you're quite busy these days, dabbling in everything from writing, editing, blogging, and other arcane rituals. What in your opinion is the biggest change for you compared to, say, ten years ago? What advice would you have given to your younger self back then?

I would tell my younger self to do exactly what I did—to fanatically and obsessively work on improving my fiction and being addicted to the idea of art for its own sake. It’s only when you get some comfort level with technique and craft that you can relax into your writing, so those early years, at least for me, were always going to be intense and narrow in focus. But I’ve always done all kinds of different projects—the internet has just changed the kinds of visibility for those projects. Before the internet, I used to do more with magazine publishing and with putting on local poetry and fiction reading events in my community. Fiction is always the most personal and the thing I was born to do, but editing is also very fulfilling, and blogging often allows me to get my sense of humor out into the world. The way these cycles go is, I have a major novel out and then I need to recharge so I have anthologies out, and in that period people suddenly think of me as an editor. Then the next novel comes out and the anthologies recede and I’m a writer again. But I’ve always believed in the writer as person-of-letters—i.e., that if you’re creative in the written arts you should be as well-rounded as possible for your skill set. I love to write reviews, for example, do critical essays when I have the time, and have recently started doing very amateurishly-edited films. I’m also doing comic books soon and collaborating with musicians. It’s all connected in my opinion. But it’s in part because my comfort level with writing has gotten greater—not that I don’t push myself, but that I’m more confident.

Over at
The Agony Column, you have two comprehensive columns on the production of City of Saints and Madmen. Considering all the other projects you've churned out since then, is it still the most challenging book you've written/produced/published/promoted? Will we be seeing another incarnation of the book?

I dunno. The fake disease guide came close to being as intense. Here’s the thing—if you really care about what you’re doing, and you’re detail-oriented, and you want to push your projects as far as they can go...most of them are going to be intense and challenging in some way. The projects this year, including a Clarion charity anthology, are challenging in different ways. The only difference with City of Saints is that it was the first that became widely visible to readers. There will be no further incarnation of that book, in terms of a revision, although there’s a possibility a Czech version will include City and Shriek, with some interlinking material between.

Aside from
City of Saints and Madmen, you also edited publications like The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. What drives you to produce such original and very innovative books? Have you also considered experimenting with other mediums, whether it's the Internet, film, animation, comics, etc.?

Zach Taylor and I are actually doing a Torture Squid comic based on City of Saints. And there’s the Shriek film, based on my first screenplay. More comics projects are forthcoming, and film projects. As for what drives me, I think it’s important to push your creativity as far as it can go without it becoming self-referential and un-fun for the reader. The Victorian stylings, the supposed disease in Spanish written by Borges, and some of other things are pushing the envelope in ways that readers find to be fun and entertaining. It’s mostly about fully realizing the concept of whatever project you’re working on—on making sure you are using your imagination as fully as possible. I am not happy unless there’s a challenge.

Both you and Ann have several books coming out this year. Can you tell us more about them? (Go plug away!)

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: New Weird antho (with Ann, editor, collecting fiction and discussion about this dispute movement centered around China Mieville); Steampunk (with Ann, editor, collecting classic reprinted steampunk fiction from Joe Lansdale, James Blaylock, and others); The Situation (PS Publishing, long story about a crazy bio-tech dysfunctional cubicle workplace); The Leonard Variations (with Ann, editor, a Clarion charity anthology containing student riffs on the same story plot with accompanying instructor essays; kind of a workshop in a box); Secret Lives (the long-delayed micro-stories collection from Prime Books in a limited hardcover); Shriek: An Afterword (the limited edition with the Shriek movie, Church soundtrack CD, with cover by Ben Templesmith and layout by John Coulthart); Best American Fantasy 2 (the best North American fantasy, with Ann and Matt Cheney, editor, mostly from literary mags and some genre mags; a different look at fantasy in 2007); Predator: South China Sea (my tie-in novel, with a definitely surreal couple o’ twists, but also definitely adhering to the classic themes and action that appeal to the readers of this series); Fast Ships/Black Sails (with Ann, editor, a collection of fantastical and SF pirate stories, including original fiction from Naomi Novik, Michael Moorcock, Garth Nix, etc.). Then we collapse and die.

If I might intrude, how did you meet Ann?

We met when she started the magazine The Silver Web and came down to Gainesville, Florida, from Tallahassee, Florida, to a reading I was sponsoring/staging for a book about Alexandria David-Neel, a Victorian explorer. She wanted advice on how to do a magazine since I’d been doing one for a few years. I was 19 at the time. We corresponded for four or five years and became close and eventually started dating.

What it's like working with her on these projects? For the anthologies, do you have a set method, whether it's your working schedule or a technique in determining which stories qualify for the anthologies (i.e. both of you has to like the story, etc.)?

It’s a very organic process and depending on time limitations we’ll perform radically different tasks for each project. Sometimes she’ll do most of the editing, sometimes I will, and sometimes it’s a mix. As for picking stories, we tend to agree on about 75 percent or more of what we put in a given anthology. On the rest, we tend to just talk it out. We’re not big fans of both of us having to like it because we know that we each love really good stuff that doesn’t work as well for the other person. That doesn’t seem fair for the quality of a given anthology. If I have a blind spot when it comes to writer X and Ann doesn’t, it wouldn’t be fair to that writer, either. Oddly, despite the fact we’re both passionate about our fiction, we were just talking about this, we rarely if ever get into arguments. I think this is because we respect each other and each other’s opinions. One thing is usually the same, though—I do the PR for the book. The only downside of this is that sometimes reviewers want to credit me with doing a particular anthology, when in fact it’s fifty-fifty. Even on something like the fake disease guide, where I had a different co-editor, Ann did a LOT of work on the antho. And she also did a lot of work on the Leviathan series.

What's your daily schedule like? And I'm asking this because you're a prolific blogger (whether it's for Amazon or your own site) as well as editing several anthologies and let's not forget your own fiction writing. Do you still sleep (and if you do, do you dream of squids)?

Except during the crunch of final book deadlines, I always get up, eat breakfast, and go off to the Black Dog coffee shop and write from about 8:30 to about 11:30 am. After that, I run a few errands. Then I spend my afternoons with the editing, writing Amazon stuff, taking care of other nonfiction assignments, and then I hit the gym from about 4 to 6. In the evenings, after dinner, we’ll read stories, work on stuff that isn’t as intense. And then just watch TV. And repeat.

How'd you end up blogging for

They asked me. I knew someone who had blogged from them, sent in a resume, didn’t hear from them for five months, and then they emailed me, had a trial period, and it’s worked out really nicely. Tom Nissley, the book editor there, is such a nice guy, and so knowledgeable about books. I can’t say enough good things about him and his staff.

Whose idea was it for you to write
Predator: South China Seas? Did Dark Horse approach you, was it an idea you pitched, or simply some big cosmic series of random events that involves mushrooms?

I’d become a freelancer quite recently when I met up with Brian Evenson, creative writing director at Brown University, at the AWP conference in Atlanta. He mentioned he was writing an Aliens novel for Dark Horse, and I asked if he would mind giving me an introduction to the editor there, Victoria Blake. He was happy to, and Blake bought the novel based on a short summary followed by a detailed summary. Blake had worked at the Paris Review and was looking to bring a few writers in to do the tie-ins who aren’t normally associated with that kind of work. Evenson and I have a long history together—we both had first books taken by Pyx Press, who did the magazine Magic Realism, were both screwed over by them, and have known each other ever since. In this case, it also turned out nicely because Blake left Dark Horse to start her own press and took novels from both Brian and from me. So our careers seem kind of intertwined at this point.

Do you experience any difficulties in juggling several roles, from book reviewer to interviewer to author to editor (and occasional book promoter)?

I don’t. I know the difference between those different roles. I think other people sometimes have a problem with it, but those who ascribe negative or sinister motives to my actions are always going to be jerks anyway, so I don’t worry about it much. There is a kind of theory that most people, though, cannot see another person as more than one thing. There’s a very clear delineation between my art and my commercial self (the PR), and I keep a wall between the two. I also make a clear delineation between blurb writing, blog writing, feature writing on Amazon, and book reviewing. You’ll always see a more critical, analytical bent to the reviews I do, whether it’s for the Washington Post Book World or SF Weekly, or whomever. The fantasy trilogy I might pimp on Amazon in a feature is probably not within my core reading area, but it IS for the readers of Amazon—I’m not serving those readers if I only pimp, say, Michael Cisco. But I tend not to think in binaries—the New Weird anthology is a good example. It’s a great project as an anthologist. As writer, I’m more ambivalent.

In your opinion, do some authors/books don't get the attention they deserve or are underrated?

Absolutely. There are certain power groups within genre and when they get hold of an award or a reviewing organ, then they promote their agenda. Sometimes that’s harmless and sometimes it’s very harmful. Where it’s harmful is when writers who actually suck, like on a line-by-line level or a plotting level or whatever, get elevated beyond what they deserve. And I mean critically. Sales are dependent on what readers generally think is good, and that’s fine. But when the commercial seeps into the critical where it’s unwarranted, it’s not good for genre. It leads to bad examples for beginning writers, for example. You also see the avalanche effect with reviewers. A book gets a few raves or pans and then other reviews tend to echo whatever the trend is—out of fear, basically, of looking stupid. Underrated writers tend to be on the literary end of the spectrum—the writers whose prose is amazing (and I don’t mean to the detriment of their plots—character is plot; prose is plot and character). I’ll always, personally, value a writer whose prose is alive. Here’s the difference. Some writers are using cement beams to construct their novels. The beams aren’t alive—they just contribute to the structure. Some other writers use living trees to construct their novels. The trees not only contribute to the structure, they are also full of sap and nutrients and all kinds of other things. That’s an imperfect metaphor, but....

Working with various publishers and taking on different roles, what's the biggest challenge you've encountered so far? What do you think is the biggest challenge the industry faces?

Every publisher is eccentric in some way, whether large or small. You have to learn how to talk to each in the language they’re used to dealing in. You have to assess their strengths and weaknesses going in so you know how to take up the slack or when to leave well enough alone. The biggest challenge is a lack of imagination and a willingness, because of past trends, to perceive reality in an essentially negative way. On the other hand, when you come in as an editor or author, you’re not taking the risk of publishing, the risk of putting out the money. So you also have to show results. And some projects we take directly into the indie press because we know a commercial publisher won’t take a chance.

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

Integrated fiction. Someone who can plot but can’t write—forget about it. Someone who has great characters but nowhere to go, a little more forgiving. But I want it all—great prose, great characters, and interesting plot. But I do want the writer to show me they have their own style and approach and point of view about the world. This is why I dislike advice about invisible prose, because it tends to level out and make boring many a writer. Look, we have plenty of “invisibility” in our media—in TV, in movies, etc. Fiction’s great gift to us is that it engages and stimulates our imaginations. So I don’t want to be spoonfed. I don’t want to be written down to. I don’t want to have a great love scene between two characters and then be told “They loved each other.” I want a hint of mystery. I don’t want everything wrapped up nice and neat at the end. I want there to sometimes be rough edges. I want to have the back of my head blown off. I want to remember why I started reading fiction in the first place, ya know?

As a writer, what advice can you give to aspiring writers?

We live in uncertain times, and times in which we’re told fiction doesn’t mean anything, that we should just provide entertainment, with a kind of anti-intellectual streak to the discussion, a kind of “let’s beat the crap out of the smartest kid in the room” mentality. But ultimately if you’re not writing for yourself and because you believe that what you’re doing is in some way important—whether it’s just to convey something about a way of life you feel isn’t represented in fiction much or to recall a summer several years ago when you were in love, or whatever—then just don’t do it. There are easier ways to make money. And fiction does mean something, it is important, and entertainment is only one part of what fiction does. It’s only when we cynically tell ourselves it doesn’t that we make that reality come true.