Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Interview: Greg van Eekhout

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Greg van Eekhout is the author of over two dozen short stories which have been published in magazines like Realms of Fantasy, Asimov's Science Fiction, and Polyphony. His upcoming novel is Norse Code.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! First off, how did you get your start as a writer?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to blather at you, Charles! So, how did I get started? I screwed around with writing when I was a kid, but it wasn't until late high school and early college that I decided it was something I wanted to pursue as a career. So then, in addition to making stories, I went to science fiction conventions and sat in on all those panels where writers talk about their craft and editors talk about what they want from writers. Mostly, though, I just wrote bunches of stories, collected rejection letters, "sold" stories to small-press magazines that died before paying me or publishing them, all that kind of thing. Paying my dues, as it were.

After close to a decade of that, I sent a story to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who'd been my instructor at the Viable Paradise workshop, for his Starlight anthology series. He'd read the story at the workshop and told me he wasn't buying it, but he said if I revised it he'd be willing to look at it again. Nobody was more surprised than me when he emailed me an acceptance letter. That was my first pro-sale, and I've been writing stories and submitting them and selling some and getting others rejected ever since. Earlier this year I made my first novel sale, too!

Who are some of your favorite writers or what are some of your favorite books?

I love the Heinlein juveniles, Tolkien, Stephen King, Watchmen, a lot of the stuff that other people love. But I'll tell you two books that have had a huge influence on me, even though they're not considered canonical:

Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga by Stephen Davis. It's a story as epic, strange, and inevitably tragic as the Matter of Britain. Plus, rock gods are just so damn funny. One of my favorite scenes has John Bonham soiling his trousers on an airplane and making his roadie swap pants with him. It's a great study of extreme personalities, of people who live an elevated sort of existence and are flawed in entertaining ways. These are not admirable people, but they're endlessly interesting to me.

Last Son of Krypton by Elliot S! Maggin. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best, truest version of Superman ever. He's noble, plain, and powerful, a god compressed into human form, a citizen of the galaxy and champion of Earth, with the soul of a Smallville farm boy. This is the Superman that the movies and most of the comic books fail to capture.

Recently, you're writing full-time. What's the experience like? What's your writing process/routine like?

Yes, with the generosity of a very supportive partner, I quit my day job a while back, though there've been part-time teaching jobs and freelance work of various types, which can take as much time as a full-time job.

At the moment I'm pretty much a 9-to-5 writer, plus weekend overtime. I seem to feel most comfortable when I'm keeping to a schedule that most closely resembles a day job. It's just the way I'm psychologically wired. That way, I feel like I actually do have a job. It's just one that doesn't pay very well. So, coffee, some tunes or an NPR podcast through the headphones, maybe a field trip to a coffee joint a couple of times a week, and I sit and do my best to write all day.

When I had a full-time day job and was working fifty, sixty, sometimes seventy-hour weeks, my routine was to write during breakfast for at least an hour. That way, even if my work day was going to hell, I could look back on that writing hour and know that, at least for part of the day, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and nobody could take that away from me. Most of my novel and almost all my short stories were written during those breakfast hours.

Anything you can tell us about your upcoming novel, Norse Code?

Norse Code is a modern-day fantasy taking place in various U.S. cities, though mostly in Los Angeles, and in various locales from Norse mythology. Some of the gods have gotten tired of waiting around for Ragnarok, the end of the universe, so they've launched a conspiracy to get it rolling. The world is dealing with dramatic climate change, political strife, wolves eating the Moon, that sort of thing. Standing in the way of this conspiracy is Hermod, a god who turned his back on the rest of the Norse pantheon thousands of years before the story's start, and Mist, a recently deceased valkyrie. I wanted the book to be a fun fantasy with big-stakes drama, with flawed but fundamentally noble heroes, with humor and charm and violence and eyeball kicks and characters that readers will love. It comes out from Bantam in May 19, 2009, so I'll have to wait a little while before finding out if I came close to succeeding.

Where do you see yourself five years from now, churning out novels, short stories, or a combination of both?

I've set myself a probably over-ambitious goal of producing books for adults and books for a middle-grade or young adult audience, at a pace of two a year. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave much time or energy for short stories. That makes me sad, because I still believe in the value of short stories, and I still want to write them. But I'm not the fastest writer on Earth, and something's got to give. If I can write one or two stories a year and get them placed in good venues, I'll be really happy.

What's the biggest challenge in writing a novel?

Writing a novel requires embracing risk. If I write a short story, which typically takes me a week or two, and it turns out badly and I can't sell it, then I've lost a week or two of time. It's not devastating. But a book takes months. Or years. It's so hard to sustain faith that you're spending your time in a worthwhile pursuit.

I really really love your short story "The Osteomancer's Son". What were your influences on that story? Will we be seeing more of that world in the future?

Thank you! "The Osteomancer's Son" is about a version of Los Angeles where personal and political power comes from consuming the bones of prehistoric and mythical animals. Sort of an amped-up version of Eastern herbal medicine. I grew up in LA, and the La Brea Tar Pits was always a magical place to me. Right in the middle of the city, in an area called the Miracle Mile, you've got these lakes of bubbling tar where sabretooth tiger and mammoth skeletons are still being excavated. Extrapolating the tar pits out to a magical, alternate-universe story setting really didn't seem that like big an imaginative leap to me.

I've got some novel-length plans for that world, and I hope to have the opportunity to write those books soon.

You have several short stories which are collaborations with authors like Tim Pratt, Jay Lake, and Michael Jasper. How did that come about? How do you guys decide that "hey, let's all work on the same story", especially the Pratt-van Eekhout-Jasper triumvirate? Is the division of labor similar in all your collaborations?

What I like best about those collaborations is that they arose out of my friendships with my writing partners. The one I wrote with Mike Jasper, "California King," was driven by Mike's energy and enthusiasm. He was all, "Hey, dude, let's go, let's write a story, let's get cracking!" and I just rode that wave and had a ton of fun. We used a process we call "Flaming Hamsters," where we write a few pages or a scene and then hand it off for the next guy to figure out how to advance the story without dropping the hamsters.

Tim Pratt and I used the same process on "Robots and Falling Hearts," and the fun there was finding a voice that wasn't quite me and wasn't quite Tim, but still felt like something that naturally arose from both of us. Tim and I have a similar approach to fiction, and it was interesting to me to explore those similarities.

"C-Rock City," which I wrote with Jay Lake, was entirely another thing. Jay had a complete story, and in the interest of experimentation, he wanted to see what I would do with it if given complete creative freedom to change anything I wanted. I think the result was sort of a Jay story remixed by me, and it's not something I could have ever come up with on my own. A really fun and interesting project to work on.

The Jasper-Pratt-van Eekhout collaboration is one I honestly have reservations about, not because it's not a good story, but because I sort of lost the narrative thread and couldn't figure out how to continue. There were so many diverging directions and threads that I found myself lost in it, and Tim did the hero's job of pulling it together. But that's what can happen in a collaboration. You can succeed in ways you couldn't do on your own, but also fail in ways you might not do on your own. That's the joy of it, really. I hope to do more of them.

You've amassed some short stories. Ever thought of coming out with a short story collection? In your opinion, what are your top three stories that you would include in such a collection?

I've published a couple dozen short stories, so I probably have enough material for a collection, and I'm certainly open to the idea, but I'm not in any rush to get one out. Single-author collections tend not to be money-makers, so I'd feel weird about approaching a publisher with a financially risky proposition. But Tropism Press did publish a six-story chapbook of my stuff, Show and Tell and Other Stories, a sort of low-cost sampler, and I think it fairly represents my work.

My top three stories? I guess I'd include "In the Late December," which I envision as a Rankin-Bass Christmas special featuring Santa Claus battling a personified entropy a the end of the universe. Probably "The Osteomancer's Son," which I've already talked about. And maybe "Tales From the City of Seams," which is a suite of short-shorts and gave me an opportunity to do a kind of urban fantasy that's not about sexy vampire detectives, but more about the sense of wonder and strangeness I hope to discover when I'm out walking in a city, either my own or one I'm visiting.

Some of your fiction has been podcasted and you've made various appearances in podcasts as well. What's your attitude towards this medium?

Podcasting is hands-down the most exciting and healthiest thing to happen to short fiction in decades. It's the first thing I've seen that really seems to be expanding the tiny niche audience of genre short fiction. After only a few years of existence, Escape Pod's listening audience rivals or exceeds the audiences of the so-called Big Three digest magazines, and my sense is that, to a significant degree, it's a different audience. It's an audience that uses short fiction not just as a leisure activity, but as a brain-saving survival utility when commuting or doing brain-rotting tasks in a cubicle. Podcasts allow the audience to fit fiction into their lives without having to carve out space just for that purpose. Podcasting allows the audience to multitask. A format that actually takes advantage of suburban sprawl and drudge jobs is pretty amazing.

Using your martial arts prowess, if there's anyone in the industry that you could fight in a duel, who would it be? Who would you concede the fight to?

Oh, the only thing I want to fight with martial arts is high cholesterol. If I can get through life without ever having to test my fighting skills "on the street," as they say, I'll be delighted. Which is not to say there aren't a few people in our field who need a good elbow to the face. But I'm not naming names. We all know who they are anyway.

What's the geekiest thing you've ever done?

Dude, everything I do is geeky. But in fourth grade I wrote and directed a stage adaptation of "The Doomsday Machine" episode of Star Trek for the school talent show. I also co-starred in the role of Mr. Spock.

If you could have a mutant superpower, what would it be?

Well, he's not a mutant, but Matter-Eater Lad has the best superpower. He eats whatever he wants and instead of getting fat, he gets super strength.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I can only say what's worked for me. I have two things I've said to myself that kept me going when there was little encouragement to continue and even less reward. The first is, "Everyday I write I beat the thousands of writers who didn't write that day, and the millions who've never even tried."

The second is, "I'll show those fucking fuckers." I don't know who those fuckers are, or what I'm showing them, but saying that always gives me a little bit of spark when my reserves are low.

Having said that, writing really isn't a competition. Don't get caught up in resentment, snark wars, and jealousy. Nobody's breathing your oxygen, stealing your place in tables of contents, reaping rewards that are rightfully yours. Make your stories. That's all you really need to do to succeed. Make your stories, and keep making them until they sell, and then make more stories. It really is as simple as that.

Anything else you want to plug?

People who really like to think ahead could preorder Norse Code now. Or they could go to my web page, writingandsnacks.com, where I've posted links to a bunch of my stories available for free online. Thanks!

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