Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Interview: Nathan Ballingrud

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Nathan Ballingrud has published stories in SCIFICTION, The Third Alternative, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Inferno, and The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! I want to start with the basics: why did you decide to write genre fiction?

Unlike most writers in the field, I didn’t really discover this genre until I went to college. I never read Bradbury or Heinlein as a kid. Most of my reading was in a genre of one sort or another – Stephen King and John LeCarre, for example – but the notion that there was a literary tradition of fantastical fiction, and a community devoted to it, was completely new to me. There was a bookstore near UNC-Chapel Hill called Second Foundation, and it just seemed kind of cool, so I went in and browsed. I picked up a book called Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison, and a new world opened up to me. I soon discovered Philip K. Dick, Michael Bishop, and many others. And of course the digest magazines. I’ve always been a geek, and I responded immediately to the trappings of the genre. It wasn’t so much the stories themselves, always, as it was the fact that they had spaceships in them, or robots, or ghosts in the cellar. So the decision to write in the genre wasn’t conscious, really; I was simply settling down in friendly country.

In Jeff Vandermeer's interview, you mentioned selling your short story to F&SF and then ceased writing altogether. What made you finally come back to writing fiction?

Well, when I stopped writing it was because I realized I couldn’t produce the kind of fiction that moved me. I could write a piece of fluff like “She Found Heaven,” and I could use some pretty language, but I couldn’t produce anything with any real substance to it. Stories like Hemingway’s “A Day’s Wait” and Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs” just astonished me with their simple power, and with their beauty, and I knew that that kind of story was way beyond my grasp as a writer. This was mostly due to my lack of life experience. I knew almost nothing about people; in my early twenties I probably had the emotional and social development of a fifteen-year old. I knew immediately that I didn’t want to spend my life writing filler for the digests. I aspired to what those other writers were doing. So I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to submit any more stories for publication until I felt like I could write about real people, and do it in a way that felt meaningful to me.

Publishing was – and still is – a secondary goal for me. My sense of accomplishment is entirely tied to the story itself. Obviously I want to continue to be published, because money is nice and readers are even nicer, but the real joy comes from writing the story, and feeling that I’ve at least come close to achieving my intentions. This is one of the reasons I’m a slow writer. I take some flak for it, but I’ve resolved never to write a story that doesn’t matter to me. It means too much to me to treat it like just another job.

So why did I come back? I guess I just felt ready, eventually. I wish I had a more interesting answer. I was tending bar in New Orleans and I had an idea for a story, and I decided to write it. I wrote two or three very short, very clumsy pieces, which never went anywhere, and then I wrote “You Go Where It Takes You,” which I sold to SCIFICTION and went on to appear in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.

In the same interview, you mention you like writing stories that's different from what's out there. What are story elements/tropes/plots that you feel are overused? Or what kind of material are you reacting to?

What I was reacting to was what I still think of as a distinct lack of engagement with some of the messier aspects of real life. My wife of the time suffered from chronic, debilitating bouts of depression. I didn’t see a lot of that in genre fiction, unless it was being romanticized with some faux-Goth aesthetic. The bar I tended was regularly filled with people who were steering themselves into diminished ends – sometimes lying to themselves about it, sometimes not. New Orleans is one of the most racially diverse cities in the nation, yet the racial tensions on display at the bar were palpable sometimes – not because of anything actually said or done, but because of the host of assumptions we make, and the suspicions we harbor, about each other. I think most of the genre fiction currently being written has a white middle-class aesthetic, and while that is by no means a tapped vein, I feel that such a specificity of focus fosters a cloistered atmosphere, and a stagnation of ideas. Even worse, it tends to create a calcification of perspective, which is fatal to literature. So I wanted to write about the people I knew, who I rarely saw represented. Some of those people were drug addicts, or prostitutes, or homeless, or directionless and scared. Some of them were just people in acute emotional pain.

I acknowledge that there are probably many examples of stories or books in the genre that address these very things. A more accurate way to say it is that I couldn’t find anything that addressed these things in the precise way I wanted to see them addressed. Which is, I suppose, a primary motivator for any writer.

Why did you decide to write short fiction?

Because I thought it would be easier. Silly me.

More seriously, I love the immediate, violent impact a short story can have. Short stories can be much more aggressive, and allows the writer to take a more antagonistic approach with the reader, which can be useful.

What's currently the status of your novel?

This is my first attempt at a novel – at the advanced age of 38 – and I’m still learning its rhythms. Some days I feel like a god, other days I want to turn my back on the English language and move to some crag in Iceland. I hope to have it finished by the end of the year. More than that I’m reluctant to say.

What steps did you take to hone your writing skills?

Only once did I consciously undertake an exercise to improve an element of my writing. At some point it became clear to me that I was writing very bad dialogue, so I’d go to a public place with a notebook and a pen and just transcribe overheard conversations. I paid attention to writers like David Mamet and Richard Price. I now can’t stand to read Mamet’s dialogue (although listening to it can still be a rewarding experience), but I think Price is a genius at it. I wrote “stories” – exercises, really – composed entirely of dialogue. I think I’m pretty good at it, now, but I may be mistaken. Beyond that, any steps taken were unconscious. It probably comes down to little more than trying to write the kind of prose I like to read. I like strong, image-laden prose; I like feeling as though I’m caught in a strong current when I start to read. Lucius Shepard was hugely influential. I love the prose of Tim O’Brien, Catherynne Valente, Graham Greene, Mark Helprin. Karen Russell and John Crowley. I just read damn good writers!

In terms of the craft of writing, what aspect of it are you having most difficulty with?

I’m growing increasingly impatient with the conventions of short stories. You know, things like Chekov’s rule: if a gun is seen over the mantle in Act One it must be fired in Act Three. The notion that every detail must work in service to the plot or the theme, that not a word can be wasted. If these rules are followed too closely, short stories run the risk of becoming little more than clockwork mechanisms; once you know the rules they cease to hold any mystery or surprise to them. Short stories should not be boring or predictable. So a difficulty I’m often faced with is how to subvert expectations, especially those of a savvy reader. I often use genre elements as catalysts for the story, without offering the traditional resolutions a genre reader might expect. While I enjoy doing this quite a bit, I’m afraid that I run the risk of alienating readers, who might feel that if I introduce a werewolf in Act One I’d better bring the damn thing back in Act Three. It’s a balance between trying to please readers and myself at the same time. Since I’m a selfish bastard, usually I just go with pleasing myself.

How did you break into the industry? What were some of the challenges you faced?

I didn’t face any challenges any new writer doesn’t face, unless you count my complete ignorance of the genre. When I was in college I submitted a couple of stories to Ellen Datlow at OMNI, which got form-letter rejections. My break was Clarion, where I met Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who bought my first story. It was a great class – including Jeff VanderMeer, Dale Bailey, Pam Noles, Cory Doctorow, and Felicity Savage – and I built some friendships there that persist to this day. I learned how to self-edit at Clarion, and how to receive criticism, and I can’t overstate how important those qualities are for any writer.

Compared to the time when you short story first got accepted and when you returned to writing, what was the biggest change you noticed about the field?

The biggest change is the internet. It seems to me the community is much more engaged now than it was, and a lot of the mystique of a writer’s life has evaporated (although that may just be a function of my growing up). Everybody has a blog, for better or for worse. There’s a concerted effort to change the face of the genre, to make it more accommodating to women and minorities, which I believe is essential to its survival. The immediacy of communication makes this a sometimes rancorous process, but these are growing pains and probably unavoidable. It’s much, much easier to get a story in print these days, which is a double-edged sword. While I’ve never been one to take very seriously the idea of the “death of the short story,” I believe the internet offers some great new modes of getting stories in front of readers’ eyes. It’s a magnificent tool for writers.

How do you manage to find the time to write, what with your day job and caring for your daughter?

That’s my biggest challenge. Being a single dad – especially of a pre-teen girl – is a strange, vertiginous experience. I’m in constant terror of screwing everything up. It’s a gnawing fear, and it literally keeps me awake some nights. It’s far more important to me to be a good dad than it is for me to be a successful writer – if I never write another word again, there aren’t many people in the world who will know or care; but if I’m a crappy father, I’ll mess up my daughter’s whole life. So the writing takes a back seat. I come home from work, help her with homework, fix dinner for her, and then we just hang out until bedtime. Now that she’s older, she often wants to do things by herself or with friends, so there’s a little free time every now and then. But mostly that free time comes after she’s asleep. I generally stay up until about two in the morning. That’s when I try to get my work done. Usually I have an hour and a half in the mornings after I drop her off at school, too. It’s just a question of squeezing it in where ever I can. Don’t ask me about my personal life, though; I haven’t had one in three years.

If you could turn back time to 1994, what advice would you give yourself then?

I’d tell myself that my instincts were right. I’d tell myself to stop doubting. Sometimes I second-guess myself into a kind of paralysis; I remember many dark nights of the soul back then, trying to decide if I was doing the right thing with my life. It felt fairly radical at the time – stopping writing, moving to New Orleans without a job or a home waiting for me, just trusting myself to work it all out. And it did work out. I’m a much, much better writer now because of it. And if I’d stayed along the traditional path, getting a college degree and a respectable job, I think I’d be in better financial shape but a shabbier spiritual one. I’d know there was something fundamental I was missing.

Here's the geeky portion of the interview. What are your other interests? Comics, board games, RPGs?

All those things, at one time or another. I’m pretty much a geek archetype. I’m a round bearded guy who loves all kinds of games and still reads comic books. I don’t live in my mother’s basement – but the recession is young. My daughter and I like to play board games like Talisman and Last Night on Earth, tile games like Zombies!!!, and card games like Gloom. I’m a big fan of Mike Mignola and would love to write a Hellboy novel (Mike: call me). I think Ex Machina, by Brian K. Vaughn, is the best superhero comic out there and much better than his more popular title, Y: The Last Man. I love Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and Invincible.

Beyond the geeky stuff, though, I love to read history – specifically Medieval history and early American history. I’m a political junkie, hard-left leaning; I voted for Nader in 2000 and still think it was the right thing to do. And I dearly love personal essays. I love them every bit as much as I love fiction, and I want to write my own. I might be prouder of producing a good collection of essays than I would be of producing a good collection of short stories. Might be. Above all, though, I just love to read. It’s by far my favorite thing to do in life.

Do they have any bearing on your writing or is it all leisure?

The geeky stuff doesn’t have too much bearing; certainly not the games. In comics, though, there are narrative lessons to be learned, just as with any storytelling medium, so I suppose there might be some subtle influence somewhere. I really don’t think I could point to a specific instance, though. Except that I did lift the title “North American Lake Monsters” from a throwaway bit of dialogue in Mike Mignola’s B.P.R.D.

The other things – the history, the politics, the essays – impact my writing somewhere on the underground level, where I’m not consciously aware of what’s going on. The same way going to work does. The same way walking down the street does. You throw everything down there and let them ferment, and wait to see what arises.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes. I would advise them to be ambitious. I would advise them to write stories that matter to them. If you’re just writing it because you want to be a writer and you think it’d be cool to be published, do yourself and everyone else a favor and stop. Put down your pen forever, because we’re already choking on meaningless stories. If what you’re saying doesn’t matter to you, don’t say it. Learn the rules of the trade, but then ignore them at will. Do not fall in love with the shorthand of the internet; writing good sentences is a form of exercise like any other, and you should not neglect it. For god’s sake do not restrict your reading to our little genre; believe me, it will show.

Anything else you want to plug?

Sure. I have stories coming out in two anthologies: one is called “The Crevasse,” co-written with Dale Bailey, and it will appear this October in an anthology called Lovecraft Unbound. The other is called “The Way Station,” and will appear sometime next year in an anthology called The Naked City: New Tales of Urban Fantasy. Both of them are edited by Ellen Datlow. You can find others in anthologies already in print: “North American Lake Monsters” in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and “The Monsters of Heaven” in Inferno. I will try not to use the word “monsters” in a title ever again. I promise.

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