Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Interview: Paul Witcover

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Paul Witcover is the author of the novels, Waking Beauty, Tumbling After, and Dracula: Asylum. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and in magazines such as Asimov's and SciFiction.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, I'd like to talk about your recently-released short story collection, Everland and Other Stories. How did PS Publishing end up publishing that book?

I've been an admirer of PS's work for a long time, and when I decided I had enough material for a collection, it just seemed natural to approach them. Also, the fact that none of my fiction has found a British publisher has been a big disappointment (and mystery) to me for a long time, and the chance to break through that wall was no small factor in my deciding to go with PS.

Did you select the reprinted stories to be included? Why them in particular?

I selected all the stories. The reprints and the never-before-published were chosen on the same basis: I felt they were representative of my best.

You have five new stories in the collection. Were these old stories, newly-written stories specifically or the book, or some combination thereof?

Some of those stories, like "After Ivy," go back many years; others are more recent. I reworked them all for the collection.

I enjoyed those new stories and there's a dark and horrific aspect to them, especially the way you retold Peter Pan in "Everland." Was there something in Peter Pan that always bothered you or was this simply you creating a different take on a popular story?

What's always annoyed me about Peter Pan is the rather benign archetype it's come to occupy in our cultural consciousness. This is thanks primarily to Disney, but Barrie's own stage productions also play a part. Peter is a much darker, even savage figure in the novel; more Pan than Peter, you might say. That seemed a truer insight into the archetype to me, and I wanted to explore that.

What's the appeal of horror for you?

I'm not a big fan of horror per se. A lot of it bores me, especially horror that stresses the visceral gross-out over psychological, moral, or just-plain-existential estrangement. Too much of it, at least in terms of what is published under that label, is formulaic in the extreme, as predictable in its way as the worst epic fantasies and romances. That said, writers like Jeffrey Thomas, Michael Cisco, Laird Baron, Joe Hill, and others are doing a good job of reanimating the corpse of horror...

What made you decide to foray into speculative fiction?

It wasn't a decision. That's just how I'm built. When story ideas come to me, they are spec fic ideas.

Is it easy for yo to shift between the short story and novel format? Is there a particular one that you prefer--assuming money wasn't an issue?

I'm a novelist more than a short-story writer. I like the roominess of novels, the freedom to go down alleyways and side-streets that are not necessarily indispensable to the plot. Short-stories have to be perfectly constructed, with nothing out of place -- at least that's the intimidating standard I feel and obviously fall short of. But with novels that pressure is off. I have more fun when I'm writing a novel.

How did you end up writing book reviews and writing columns on speculative fiction? Was this always a goal?

What was that about money being an issue? But I do enjoy writing reviews and reading widely in the genre. I'm grateful for the opportunity to review at Locus, and, until it folded last month, Realms of Fantasy.

Here's the geeky segment of the interview. As a kid, what were the comics and RPGs that caught your interest?

D&D was the only RPG I played to exhaustion. I remember a D&D takeoff set in the Old West very fondly as well: Boot Hill, I believe it was called. As for comics, I was a DC man until my early teens, when I switched over to Marvel. But I retain a fondness for Green Lantern and Batman, who I just read has been killed off. It's sad when the height of a person's creativity is to destroy someone else's creation--though I suppose I'm guilty of that myself in Everland and in my novel about Dracula.

What in your opinion are the exciting events happening in comics right now?

I'm so far out of the loop now, I can't answer.

What were some of the important lessons you learned from writing comics?

The importance of just pushing ahead and trusting in the underlying story to find the best way to tell itself. That was a liberating discovery.

Do you think D&D had any affect in you becoming a writer?

Not on my becoming a writer but perhaps on the kind of writer I became. My novel Tumbling After adopts some RPG elements into the narrative structure, notably the use of dice and the element of chance.

Was there a lot of personal experiences playing D&D that went into "Left of the Dial" and Tumbling After?

Oh, yeah. In "Left of the Dial," especially. That's the most overtly personal--I hesitate to say "autobiographical"--story I've published. The death of my mom, and elements of my teenage years in Virginia, are woven in. With Tumbling After, I drew heavily on my experiences along the Delaware shore, which has always been a magical place for me.

Jeffrey Ford has a great interview with you over at Fantastic Metropolis. You originally mentioned that poetry got you started into writing. Do you still write poetry?

No, it's been years since I wrote a poem. I never made a decision to stop writing poetry, and in fact I often miss it, in the way that I miss being 20 or 30, but for whatever reason, I don't feel the same compulsion to write it that I once did.

What do you think of speculative poetry?

All poetry is speculative. The idea that the kinds of genre distinctions useful in prose can be extended to poetry strikes me as absurd.

In the same interview, you mention how a lot of movie/game tie-ins are horrible and that applies to a lot of self-published material as well. Is that still true today? What in your opinion are the exceptions?

I don't read enough in this area anymore to be able to identify exceptions.

What made you decide to start The Inferior 4+1? What's your special power in the group?

I think we were all looking for a way to bring our fiction to a wider audience. I'm not as prolific as Paul, Liz, and Lucius, either as a blogger or a fiction writer, but it's been a blast to blog with them, and I hope we've reached a few new readers along the way. My special power may well be crapcam, my shitty cellphone camera, which I've used to document on the blog some of the great music I've seen in New York City over the last few years.

You've had a long career in speculative fiction. What do you think is one of the biggest changes now, at least compared to when you started out?

The collapse of traditional publishing, which was sort of a slow-motion avalanche for a long time but is now happening with stunning speed, thanks to the current economic crisis.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Get a day job if you can find one! By and large, the time of the midlist writer, able to make a living from his or her work, is over. For the foreseeable future, I think you'll need a dependable source of income and health insurance. I wish I had one!

Advice for aspiring book reviewers?

The same advice Faulkner gave writers: "Read everything." And I would add: Care about what you review, even if you're trashing it. Maybe especially then. If you don't or can't care, then don't review that book.

Can we expect more Witcover fiction in the future, whether in short story format or the novel?

I hope so. The last couple of years have been tough; it's taken all my time and effort just to make a rather feeble living as a freelance writer... Ironically, I began freelancing to give myself time to write my own fiction, but little by little, as the economy has deteriorated, that time has deteriorated along with it.

Anything else you want to plug?

I've joined a new group blog over at Locus online. The blog, Locus Roundtable, is still a work in progress, but it's got some great people: Jonathan Strahan, Terry Bisson, John Clute, Graham Sleight, Gary Wolfe, and others.

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