Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Feature: Interview with Ted Kosmatka

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

Ted Kosmatka's fiction has appeared in publications like Asimov's and Ideomancer. His stories have also been translated into Hebrew and Russian.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, as a relatively new writer in the field, how did go about starting your writing career? What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?

I started mainly by procrastinating. Then came actual writing. Followed closely by rejection. Lots and lots of rejection. A truly inordinate amount of rejection. I finally reached a point where I came to terms with the fact that I’d never sell anything. But the strange thing was that even though I’d given up, I couldn't stop myself from writing. So the next story I began, I decided that since I was never going to sell it anyway, I might as well write it the way I wanted to write it—write it for myself. In a way, this was very liberating. Once I finished that story, I decided I might as well send it out and collect a rejection for it. That submission ended up being my first sale to Sheila Williams at Asimov's. Everything else that’s happened has grown out of that first sale.

Why science fiction in particular? Do you see yourself writing in other fields/genres/mediums?

I love science fiction. I’ve loved it since I was a small child. It’s hard to put my finger on the reasons exactly, but stories with a speculative element have always seemed more vital to me. As a writer now, I’ve found that science fiction allows you incredible freedom to tackle the big problems from oblique angles. If you want to write a story about racism, you can sit down and write a literary piece about the L.A. race riots, but then you run the risk of slamming your story right into your readers’ preconceptions, whatever those preconceptions might be. Another way to do it is to write a story about racism that takes place a thousand years from now on a different world. Both kinds of stories can have something meaningful to say about the human condition.

Although I love fiction, I’ve always had interest in other fields and other mediums. I enjoy comics, and movies and scripts; and I’ve even been experimenting lately with a video game concept. It’s all story to me. It’s all the same thing, when you get down to it. We’re all just cavemen telling stories around the fire. I’m very excited about the future of video games, and I think that medium is beginning to provide writers with amazing opportunities to tell new stories. Companies like Bungie and Bioware are leading the way.

What are some of your favorite books or who are some of your favorite authors?

I grew up reading Orson Scott Card, and Ben Bova and Stephen King. Some writers I’ve noticed in the last five years are Mathew Stover and Michael Swanwick. And even more recently, there’s Jack Skillingstead, Daryl Gregory and Jay Lake.

Some of your stories involve religion or faith, either as a theme or part of your characterization. Is this a conscious decision on your part and if so, why the interest in this particular subject? Is it something you'll consistently pursue in the future?

It’s completely unconscious. My stories have revealed to me how very little I understand about my own head. If ten years ago someone had asked me what kinds of stories I’d be writing, which themes I’d be taking on, I never would have predicted “The God Engine,” or “The Prophet of Flores,” or “Deadnauts”. My stories keep returning to that grey area between science and religion, to that place where their respective territories have not been so clearly mapped out. I’ve heard that some people write to discover their obsessions, and maybe in a way, that’s what I’m doing. I look at my body of work so far, and I think to myself, you have issues. As for the future, I’m not sure what it holds for me. I have several stories bouncing around my head right now that deal with similar themes, so I guess I’m not done with it yet. There’s still more for me to work out, I think.

Does your day job have any effect on your writing? Do you find it easier to write science fiction thanks to your science background?

It’s all grist for the mill. Work has always been a huge part of my life, so it’s only natural for me to put that in my writing. I don’t think you have to have a science background to write good science fiction—many of the greats, after all, have been teachers, or mailmen, or just genius writers who managed the trick of actually writing for a living—but if you do have that scientific background, I think it allows you to write closer-in to your subjects than you otherwise might. It becomes a question of how close you want to resolve the picture you’re creating, how much scientific detail do you want to illuminate? How much detail even matters? In some very rare and specific cases, a scientific background could be helpful. I work in a research lab now, so writing about a research lab like the one in “Divining Light” was very easy for me.

What's the weirdest/strangest experience you've had so far?

There have been so many. I look back on my life and I have these memories, these snippets of things I’ve experienced, and they seem like they couldn’t all be a part of the same life. I remember playing on freight trains as a kid, and I remember walking on river ice with my friends, daring each other to chance the thin spots. And I remember climbing trees all the way up to the tip-top—slender branches swaying in the breeze, and I could see out over the tops of houses in my neighborhood; and I remember distinctly being ten years old and thinking that if I fell and died then I’d have to go to heaven, because all children go to heaven. And other things, too.

Growing up, I had this classic ADHD brain. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time, couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. My second grade teacher made me sit on my hands because things had a way of breaking when I touched them. At the same time I was getting bad grades, I always aced my standardized tests, so the teachers really weren’t sure what to make of me. How do you put a kid with straight D’s into the gifted program? I was always creative, like this roaring engine in my head, but there was no outlet. I was suspended from my middle school more times than any other student. There were parent/ teacher meetings to decide what to do. And my parents. My poor parents. My mother should be sainted. I remember writing letters to Jackson Labs as an eleven-year old, trying to convince them I was a PhD student, so they would sell me hairless mice. I still have the letters they wrote back to me. I still have the price list they sent. The irony is that years later, I’d be sending my mice to them.

Sometimes it seems like I’ve lived two full lives already, and now I’m starting on my third. And this third one is the best, because this is the one where I get to be a writer.

How does it feel having your work translated into Hebrew and Russian? How did this come about?

I’m just going to be honest with you. It feels awesome. It is a mind blower for me to think of people on the other side of the world reading my stories. It’s surreal. The translations came about after foreign editors contacted me. They’d apparently read my work in U.S. magazines, and they wanted to reprint my stories in their own countries.

What's your writing process and writing schedule like?

The schedule is hit and miss. I have a family with one-year old daughter, so as far as writing goes, it’s catch as catch can. Sometimes I feel guilty for taking time away from my family to write, so it’s certainly a balancing act for me. Maybe someday if I’m lucky enough to earn a living writing, I’ll be able to spend more time doing it. For now though, I squeeze writing in between a 40-hour work week, family time, and sleep. Usually, it’s the sleep that gets sacrificed.

My writing process starts with a single sheet of paper. I don’t do outlines, but I use the cluster method, starting with the central idea of the story written in the center of the page. Sometimes the central idea is just an image—or it’s a person, or a scientific concept I want to explore. Around that central idea, I write all the other things that I feel I might want to add. It starts nice and neat, but by the time I’m finished, it’s just this piece of paper where every square inch is filled, and there are all these lines connecting everything to everything else. At this point, the story is there, on the paper; I can see it from front to back like a number line, and it just becomes a question of how I want to tell it. What’s the angle, what’s the hook? Sometimes it has taken years for me to know the answer to that question.

Once I know the first line of a story, I write it all in a rush. I’m a rhythm writer; I’ll sacrifice almost anything for rhythm. Once the story is done, I print it out and lay each sheet of paper end to end along the distance of my front room. Sometimes, for the longer stories, the line of paper has extended all the way down my hallway to my bedroom. And then I read it. By doing that, I get a sense of proportion. How much time am I spending on this character, on that character, on this bit of dialogue? Two feet? Five feet? How long until I introduce the rising action? I walk the story, looking down as I read, trying to take the story in as a whole. I make changes until I think the story has the correct structural proportion, and then I do a final line edit. I blur my eyes and try to see each page as a physical pattern of words on paper. Does the pattern match the emotion I’m trying to convey?

Congrats in getting nominated by the British Science Fiction Association. How does it feel getting your stories acknowledged and recognized?

Thanks. It was an incredible honor. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, so it’s easy to question if what you’re doing is really worthwhile. That was a good day though. That was a day I didn’t have to wonder.

You've also had some literary fiction published. How different is this from your science fiction writing?

To me, in my own head, it’s not different at all. Story is story. Often it doesn’t even occur to me whether something is science fiction or literary fiction until after I’ve finished it and am faced with the challenge of selling it. I’ve had literary editors reject me for being too science fictional, and I’ve had spec-fic editors reject me for being too literary.

You've also written a play. Can you tell us more about it?

Where do I begin? I was originally a biology major in college, but I dropped out for several years and went to work in a steel mill. My father had worked in the mills until he died, so I think I saw it as a way to finally understand him. To walk a mile in his steel-toes. I never expected to love it, but I did. I loved shoveling sinter into glowing ovens. I loved the battle of it. I loved how dirty it was, how dangerous. I loved that it was difficult, and that not everyone could handle it. The play is about my experiences working at LTV Steel as it descended into bankruptcy—these steelworkers around me who were losing everything they’d worked their whole lives for. The play was originally performed in Chicago in front of an audience of maybe a hundred people. Later, it became part of Steel and Roses, which had two successful runs in Hammond before its grand finale in New York City.

In 2007 and 2008, your writing output seems to have increased. Is this a case of you catching your stride and improving as a writer or is there a huge backlog of never-been-published Kosmatka stories in your inventory?

I think it’s a matter of hitting my stride, really. The stories I’m writing now are better than the stories I used to write, so I wouldn’t want to go digging through my trunk. Right now the editors seem to like me; I don’t want to scare them off.

Can you tell us more about your novels and their current status?

Well, I’ve written two novels, and the most significant thing I can tell you is that neither have been published. The first is a trunk novel that reminds me of a fabled horse that I heard legend of at Purdue—a horse purchased by the biology department because it was the statistically improbable perfect example of a “bad” horse. In every way that one horse can vary from another, this horse had the more negative conformation—being sway-backed, and cow-hocked, and dish-faced, and wry-tailed, everything. That’s my trunk novel. Kind of like Danny Devito in the movie, Twins. (If I can get away with a reference from the late 80’s) Future generations may study this novel for its awfulness. But bad as it is, that’s the novel where I really taught myself how to put sentences together. The novel itself might be bad, but there are individual lines and even whole paragraphs that show some promise. Or at least that’s how I felt when I decided to try writing a better one. But the most important thing I learned from that first novel was that I had the horses to reach The End. No small feat for any new writer.

If I'm not mistaken (stalker sense tingling!), you also have a short story collection in the works. Anything you can tell us about it?

Your stalker sense is correct. I now have enough published stories for a collection, so the next step is to try to convince a publisher they won’t lose tons of money gambling on a new writer.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

That’s actually really tough. If I had any advice at all, it would be to keep writing no matter what, even when all the doors seem shut.

1 comment:

JohnGrant said...

An interesting interview, Charles. I must check out some of Kosmatka's stuff!