Archive for November, 2009

Pen and Sorcery: An Interview with John R. Fultz

November 27, 2009

Welcome to our second author interview! I’ve recently been reading some stories that combine brilliant invention with skillful pacing, deftly-drawn characters, and the most beautifully-evoked worlds of wonder I’ve encountered in some time. I remember when I was eight or nine years old and saw The Golden Voyage of Sinbad at a matinee one summer day — and loved it so much I saw it again within a week — and read the novelization — and then went on to seek out and read Arabian Nights, which was where, my parents explained, Sinbad came from. These stories I’ve been reading this week have taken me back to those times. The visceral wonder we feel when immersed in stories tends to diminish as we go through life. But these tales have allowed me to be nine years old again — what higher praise can there be for a fantasy story? But don’t let my talk of childhood fancy-flights mislead you: there are depths to these stories as well: thrills to satisfy a reader’s inner child, richness to satisfy a reader’s inner adult — there’s plenty there for both.

The author is John R. Fultz. He writes fiction for Weird Tales and Black Gate, and has written for comic books such as Zombie Tales and Cthulhu Tales; and his graphic novel of epic fantasy, Primordia,  will be released in hardcover sometime during the next several months. A much-shortened form of his bibliography is as follows:

“The Persecution of Artifice the Quill” — Weird Tales #340

“When the Glimmer Faire Came to the City of the Lonely Eye” — forthcoming in Black Gate

“Return of the Quill” — Black Gate #13

“The Vintages of Dream” — forthcoming in Black Gate

“Oblivion Is the Sweetest Wine” — Black Gate #12

Unquestionably, this is a long interview. I looked carefully for things I might cut, but in the end, I”m offering the whole thing because it’s all worthwhile. If it’s too much to read in one sitting, by all means, come back to it — make a week-long excursion of it — but do read the whole thing sooner or later: you’ll be glad you did.

Instead of tagging each question with the traditional “FSD,” I’m leaving them numbered so that you can easily find your place again if you take a break. Without further ado, then, I give you John R. Fultz, sorcerer of the pen. . . .

 

 

1. Readers of this blog always seem eager for lists of books they should be reading. I know “fantasy” is a broad and diverse field, but are there a few books/authors that you think anyone interested in fantasy absolutely should read?

 

Man, I love giving recommendations for fantasy readers. As you can imagine, I have my own list of All-Time Greats. Everybody has read Tolkien, so I’ll skip that (but SILMARILLION is my favorite). I think any person who loves fantasy should definitely seek out and read:

 - Tanith Lee’s TALES OF THE FLAT EARTH series  (One of the most beautiful and lyrical series of books ever written. Lee is the Queen of Fantasy and her books are sheer fantasy perfection.) I also recommend her VENUS series, and her latest epic THE LIONWOLF trilogy.

- Lord Dunsany’s THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, and any of his short stories (Dunsany really was a wizard with a quill pen…his writing is breathtakingly gorgeous.)

- Clark Ashton Smith’s ZOTHIQUE, HYPERBOREA, and POSIEDONIS tales (CAS was the master of Dark Fantasy before that term was even invented—such a combination of wild imagination, dark/weird sensibilities, and sheer poetic brilliance of style.)

- Darrell Schweitzer’s MASK OF THE SORCERER and its sequel THE BOOK OF SEKENRE (Darrell is one of fantasy’s best kept secrets…true geniuses are often overlooked and this is the case with Schweitzer…his writing IS sorcery…he weaves a spell about his readers that you’ll never want to break.) I also recommend any of his collections such as WE ARE ALL LEGENDS, NIGHTSCAPES, and REFUGEES FROM AN IMAGINARY COUNTRY, etc.

- A. A. Attanasio’s THE DRAGON AND THE UNICORN, and its many sequels (A retelling of the Merlin/Arthur mythos that is unlike anything ever written about these characters. A.A.A. has a way of opening the universe and making you understand how magic really DOES work, all while mesmerizing you with the mythic power of his narrative.)

- Brian McNaughton’s THRONE OF BONES (McNaughton was a genius of weird fiction—this book is to ghouls what DRACULA was to vampires. The strange, ghoul-haunted word of Seelura he created will linger in your mind long after you finish this one.)

- R. Scott Bakker’s PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy…including THE DARKNESS THAT COMES BEFORE, THE WARRIOR-PROPHET, and  THE THOUSAND-FOLD THOUGHT. (Bakker has reinvented the Epic Fantasy and done it in a way that isn’t a thinly veiled version of Tolkien’s work. He is a philosopher by trade, and the metaphysical aspects of his fiction are woven with a blood-and-guts earthiness that creates a fantasy epic somewhere between David Carradine’s KUNG FU and Frank Herbert’s DUNE, as filtered through ARABIAN NIGHTS. These books are exactly what you’re looking for if you’re tired of business-as-usual fantasy series.)

- Robert Silverberg’s NIGHTWINGS is one of the greatest fantasies ever written as well, even though you might call it science-fantasy. Full of brilliant imagination, wild spectacle, and transformational wisdom, it is the kind of book you never get tired of re-reading.

- I recommend any of Thomas Ligotti’s books (the greatest living horror writer in the world), and most of William Gibson’s books (Yeah, he’s sci-fi, but he’s just such a damn good writer it doesn’t matter.)

- A year or so ago, I finally gave in and discovered the genius of George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series. I couldn’t believe it was as good as all the hype! But it is. He is a master of character, and he makes you fall in love when he wants, makes you hate when he wants, and always makes you want to see what happens next with his cast of all-too-human heroes and villains. Very realistic take on medieval fantasy that uses a less-is-more approach with magic.

- Jeff VanderMeer’s AMBERGRIS series is one of  the best things to come along in the last five years or so. CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, SHRIEK: AND AFTERWORD, and the just-released FINCH offer a fresh new take on the weird-fantasy genre that straddles the line between fantasy and horror (and a few other genres as well). Brilliant stuff.

 I’ll stop here or else I’ll never finish… :-)

 

2. Your work that I’ve read is fantasy in the grand tradition of such writers as Clark Ashton Smith, the pre-Tolkien mode that calls to mind the exotic flavor of Arabian Nights. What is it about such settings (deserts and opulent, decadent walled cities — and the moldering crypts beneath them) that appeals to you?
 

Good question, Fred! There are a few influences that led me back to that pre-Tolkien mode of fantasy, as you call it. One was of course Robert E. Howard’s CONAN and KULL tales (I prefer the KULL tales, but love them both.) I grew up reading this stuff in both novel and comic book formats. Another was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ MARTIAN TALES series…the John Carter of Mars books.  I grew up in the 1970s, which was a Golden Age for fantasy, and particularly for “sword-and-sorcery” fiction. Later I discovered Clark Ashton Smith’s tales of lost kingdoms such as Zothique, Hyperborea, and Posiedonis, and I couldn’t get enough of his writing.

There’s just something so intriguing about the “lost world” concept. Think about the ages of pre-history that are now lost to us. How many empires, kingdoms, and nations existed in the dim eons of earth that we will NEVER know about? I also buy into the concept of inherited racial memories, to a point, as well as the concept of Reincarnation. I believe I was an inhabitant of Atlantis, possibly during the time it sank beneath the waves. I’ve always had dreams and lurking fears of colossal tidal waves, and I’m very mistrustful of the ocean and its wrath. I also believe I was at one time (or many times) a citizen of the Roman Empire. I’m simply fascinated by the Ancient World…the parts of it we know about, and even moreso the parts we will never know about.

When I discovered Tanith Lee’s TALES FROM THE FLAT EARTH, it opened an amazing doorway for my imagination. She set her tales in a “time when the earth was still flat.” The laws of the universe were very different…the gods were ethereal beings who cared nothing for man, and the demons were more like beautiful demigods who went around seducing mortals and causing strife. Her characters in this series are so mythic and primordial—they tap into the archetypal consciousness. I think all really good fantasy taps that ancient wisdom that lies inside our consciousness, often buried so deep it is never consciously acknowledged.

Reading Tanith Lee (which began with a dog-eared copy of DEATH’S MASTER I stumbled across in a used bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky) made me want to focus on a broader and more ancient scope than your typical “medieval England” type of story. Also, I came to the realization that nobody can ever be Tolkien, so why should anyone try? I’d rather go back into the murky haze of primordial existence and create my own kingdoms from ancient models and myths. And do something new with them, of course. Always try to do something new with them.

All fantasy writers create new worlds, so in the end you are drawing from various sources real and unreal. Why look at the whole of history and pre-history and stop at the medieval ages? Keep looking back and you’ll find way more bizarre epochs to explore and utilize as you craft your own fantasy milieu. Sometimes you can look forward, too…but that’s another question.

3. Have you ever set a story in the popular medieval British Isles-type milieu? If not, or not many, did you make a conscious decision to avoid that sort of setting?
 

As mentioned in the previous answer, I’m much more drawn to the Greco-Roman inspired settting, or the Ancient World type of environment. Not to say I won’t ever write something set on the British Isles, or my version of it. But I feel that has been done so much, and so well, that there’s really no need for me to do it. I’ll read Tolkien and Attanasio instead. :-)

4. For me, stories almost always grow out of place — a cave, an overgrown garden, a huge vehicle of some sort, a rural community, a barn — and the story reveals itself from there. How does it work for you? Where does a story idea usually begin?
 

It varies from story to story. That’s the mystical, exciting part of writing—when the idea first blossoms in your mind…a little sprig taking root in the fertile soil of IdeaSpace. Sometimes I’m inspired by a piece of art, or a setting, or a stray line I’ve read somewhere. I’ll take inspiration wherever I can get it. But I can tell you when I have a story, and where I always look when I’m moving forward: Characters. For me, stories begin and end with Characters. Alan Moore said something that really struck a chord with me, so I’ll paraphrase his wisdom: When you drop well-defined characters into a well-defined setting and let them run like rats in a maze, doing whatever they would naturally do…you have a plot. Especially when you have very different characters with contrasting goals and interests.

I think a LOT about my setting…as most fantasy writers have to. But I think a lot about my characters as well. The characters are going to be my readers’ link to this fictional world, and so they become my link as well. I never worry about “What will happen next?” because I just ask my character. The rule I follow is: Characters always behave according to their inherent natures. Just like real people. You can usually predict what your friends or family members will do in any given situation—because you know them so well. That’s how you have to know your characters.

One of my joys in writing is when my characters come into conflict with each other. Maybe it’s because conflict is the very heart of all Drama. Or maybe it’s me working out subconscious/emotional conflicts that I can’t handle on a conscious level. Whatever…it doesn’t really matter, but all characters are extensions of the writer’s psyche. Put them in a box and let them play. But make sure it’s a fascinatingly designed box! So I always come back to character. Keep in mind that your setting in itself can be a character as well…some settings make demands on characters that they cannot ignore.

When I have the basic idea for a story—which can come from anywhere—it “floats” there until I come up with a character (or characters).Once I have them, the idea starts to really grow and blossom, and before you know it I have a story ready to be written.

5. You’re an amazingly productive writer. Can you tell us something about your process? How does writing fit in around your full-time day job? When and where do you get it done? Do you write first drafts by hand or on a keyboard? Do you seek any input before you send things out?
 

Well, I go through productive periods and non-productive like everyone else. One thing I like to tell people (including my students) is that “Not Writing is a very important part of Writing.” I mean, the first thing you have to do before you write something is THINK about it. Thinking isn’t actually writing…but then again it IS. I think, therefore I write. :-)

I teach English for a living, and right now I’m teaching 8th grade level in the Bay Area. During the regular teaching year there is precious little time for writing. However, that doesn’t stop me from thinking! I try to keep my mind open for good ideas. They never spoil. Some writers carry ideas around for years before they turn them into stories or novels. The great thing about being a teacher, though, is that I get summers off to focus on my writing. Not to mention extended vacations over the winter holidays, and a Spring Break. There are assorted 3- and 4-day weekends during the year as well. These are the times when you’ll find me hitting the keyboard and getting my writing done.

Sometimes, though, I get inspired and nothing can stop me. For example, after attending this year’s WORLD FANTASY CONVENTION (my first ever), I came home so inspired that I’ve hammered out three new stories this month. While teaching! I’ve never done that before, so either I’m getting better or I’m just hella-inspired. Now, when the holidays hit I usually go back to Kentucky and visit relatives and friends—that’s a time when I won’t get any writing done either because it’s all about airports, highways, and the usual Yuletide celebrations. Which are great—it’s nice to have a couple weeks at the end of every year to “unplug” and just enjoy life for a little while. Again, those times can birth a bunch of new ideas, though, so I’m always ready.

Sometimes an idea will come to me and I’ll pull out my cell-phone, which has a recorder function, and speak the “nugget” of my idea right into my phone recorder. I’m like Dale Cooper on TWIN PEAKS speaking his thoughts to Diane. I might make two or three more “Messages to Self” before I put something on paper.

I think of ideas as “seeds”—let them grow in the mind until I just can’t stand it anymore. Then I’ve got to get it out of me. That’s when I sit down and hit the keyboard. Sometimes I’ll write longhand notes first—but whenever I can I prefer to just go right to the keyboard. I may write a page or several pages of notes—the Prewriting Process—before I actually write the first line of a story. I see the First Line as a gateway. Once I decide on what I think the “perfect” first line will be, I can “enter” the story-world completely. But I can’t start typing the story itself until I’ve figured out what the opening sentence will be in my head. A good opening sentence always leads you on to more good sentences.

Sometimes I finish the story in a single sitting. Those are great blasts of inspiration, but also the results of much mental planning beforehand. Once I know what the END is going to be, I can start the story. Sometimes I have only a general idea of the end, and other times I know EXACTLY what the ending will be. Sometimes I write out a bullet-list of events (i.e. Plot Points), and other times I keep it all in my head…a “general direction” rather than a plan, to use Bradbury’s terminology.

For longer stories, I’ll write them in shifts. But I usually can’t concentrate on much else until my current “project” is done. I always stop at natural breaks in the story…I’ll keep typing until I’m physically exhausted because I have to reach a good “resting place” before I can stop. Then I’ll come back the next day and finish it.

Writing novels is a whole different challenge from writing short stories. If you have a few weeks or months to build up momentum, you can really dive into it. That was the case with me last summer when I wrote SEVEN PRINCES. I had a general direction, but I wanted the characters to determine what actually happened from chapter to chapter. This was a new approach for me—with previous long-form works I always outlined them. This time, I wanted to let the characters and their world “breathe.” I knew where it was all heading, but not how I would get there. But the characters led the way, and often surprised me on the journey. Part of novel writing is being able to TRUST your writer’s instinct, your subconscious creator, if you will, to not lead you astray. My point of view is that if you follow the characters first and foremost, you’ll never write yourself into a corner. Realize that the characters are living these stories, you’re just chronicling.

I know that sounds like madness, but all writers are mad to a degree. But it’s a wonderful, joyous madness! Hahahahahahahah!

Someone said writing a short story is like walking a tightrope from beginning to end. Whereas writing a novel is like balancing SEVERAL things on tightropes and guiding them all toward the same ending. That’s a valid analogy. Writing short stories gives you a short-term thrill of completion, and you can really explore big, madcap ideas…just let your imagination soar. With a novel, you have to create a set of parameters, or story rules, and stick to them. That’s the thing about building momentum–the faster you go the harder it is to change course. So make sure you’re heading in the right direction. The way I do that is by following my characters, wherever they lead me.

There is always some kind of plan. Even if it’s all in mind (for shorter pieces), or a few lines of plot points, or a complete loose outline. Outlines inevitably change once you start to write, and often they become irrelevant when you’re in the middle of the story…but that’s okay because they give you what you need: a direction in which to travel.

With my SEVEN PRINCES novel, I had a general idea of where things were headed, but I consciously planned out only one chapter at a time. It was like strolling through fog, only able to see the next step or two ahead of me. My characters calling to me from somewhere in the mist, and me trusting they would lead me where we all needed to be. They did.

6. Descriptions, dialogue, action sequences, exposition of background. . . . Do you have a favorite part of a story to write? How about a least favorite?

My favorite part of a story to write is usually one of two things: Dialogue or  Mystical/Magical/Surreal moments. In long-form works (longer stories or a novel) I relish exchanges of dialogue. It’s where my characters come to life and express themselves, and I really enjoy letting them interact and seeing where a scene takes me. It’s great when they surprise you, or when you write some dialogue and go back later and say “Damn, I don’t remember writing that at all!” The character was in charge; you were just transcribing.

My other favorite part of writing a story probably explains why I like fantastic fiction so much. I love writing pieces/scenes/sequences where “normal” reality is abandoned and the characters are caught in a mystical experience such as a dream-state, a spell of sorcery, an invasion of the “other,” or visions of surreal enlightenment. In short, I love to warp reality. I can’t really do that too well in my terrestrial life—but in my fiction I can twist the fabric of existence. My goal is always to create a unique experience for the reader. When I read Darrell Schweitzer’s sorcery sequences, they often take me to a trance-state, something like transcendental meditation. He literally boggles my mind! This is why I tell people that Darrell’s writing IS sorcery. A. A. Attanasio can do that as well, but he makes the most fantastical magic event seem as natural as a summer rain. Tanith Lee can transport me with the sheer beauty of her prose imagery, as can Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsany. On the darker side, nobody warps readers’ consciousness like the Master, Thomas Ligotti. Once again, it’s like a spell has been cast, and you’re experiencing something that goes beyond simple eye-to-brain cognition. It’s like LSD without taking drugs. I love writing scenes that transcend mundane reality. I may not be as effective at it as those authors I mentioned, but they are my role models for doing this in my own fiction. Of course, there are many other authors who weave such spells on their readers, but these are just a few of my favorites. In short—I want to mess with your mind, dude! :-)
 

7. Can you tell us about your revision process? How much editing do you do?
 

When I’m involved with crafting a story I’m constantly editing it. Write, edit, write, edit. I’ll “spot-edit” continuously, in between extended bouts of writing the actual prose. I “live with” the story for a day or a few days, and things “pop out” at me—things I have to fix, or things I forgot to put in, or things that need to be changed for consistency. Later, after the story is finished and I’ve taken some time away (usually less than 24 hours), I’ll go back and do a Complete Edit. That’s where I read the entire story onscreen and cut/add anything that needs to be fixed, smoothed out, or altered. I always try to cut myself mercilessly. Any word, phrase, or sentence is expendable in order to achieve the overall effect of The Story.

For me, the most difficult part of stories is perfecting the opening. I detest a boring or “blah”opening. I usually don’t read stories unless they grab me in the first paragraph. Who’s got the time for that anyway? I’ve got a lot of stuff to read! So I usually go over and over and over my opening paragraph (s), trying to make it absolutely perfect. The opening sequence of a story should be as precise and effective as a well-written poem. Every word counts. And since editors usually judge your stories by their openings, you have to show them you’ve “got it” right there in the first one to two paragraphs. I’m the same with songs on the radio—I can tell from the opening, or the first few bars, if I’m going to sit through that song. The “lead” of a story should be a grabber; that’s my philosophy. So I obsess over my opening paragraphs to excess. It seems to work!

8. Your roots are rural Midwestern, like mine, but most recently you’re a Californian. How has region affected your writing? How about geography?


Yeah, I grew up in Kentucky, lived in Chicago for a little while, and I’ve been a Californian since 1998. The first nine years out here was in Southern California—Orange County. This month marks my two-year anniversary of moving north to the Bay Area. California on the whole has been incredibly inspiring to me. It has definitely affected my writing in many ways. California has elements of all climates and peoples here. It has amazing history. Most of all it has an appreciation for the creative arts that the Midwestern environment seems to have in short supply. For example, if you say “Hey, I want to be a writer” in Kentucky, people will generally tell you to “Get a real job—you can’t make a living as a writer.” They’re more practical. The same goes for music, and other creative endeavors. On the other hand, if you tell someone in California you want to be a writer, they will automatically take you seriously and ask what you’re working on (or what you’ve written). Out here the business of entertainment and creativity is a real, economic power. People take writers and artists seriously the way they never did when I was a boy growing up in Kentucky. And there’s a reason for that: There simply aren’t that many opportunities for artists in that part of the country. If you want to be a writer, you really need to go to California or New York. Of course there are exceptions, but Cali is motion pictures and New York is publishing. And those two worlds are inseparably intertwined. The creative climate of California is what I enjoy most. People here are very impractical—in a good way!

9. Has there been a proudest moment in your writing career so far?
 

I think it was when I sold my first short story to WEIRD TALES, back in early 2004. The story was “The Persecution of Artifice the Quill,” and it ran in WT #340, which came out in ’05. I had literally been trying to sell stories to WT for fifteen years! Back in college, when I took creative writing courses, I used to read the Schweitzer/Scithers version of WEIRD TALES and I sent off stories to them. Darrell always wrote me the most insightful rejections. Every few years I’d try again, and I got better by little increments. It’s funny—when I was writing “The Persecution of Artifice the Quill” I just knew somehow that this was the story that would finally get me into WEIRD TALES. And it was. I had always said “If I can sell a story to Darrell, I will have figured out how to write.” Because we’re talking about an editor who won a World Fantasy Award for his editing—not to mention one of the leading scholars/reviewers in the fantasy/horror genre.

Selling that first story inspired me to keep writing short stories, and I ended up selling two more Artifice stories to WT, then I started selling to BLACK GATE. Along the way, I got my graphic novel PRIMORDIA published as well, then sold some other comics scripts. Earlier this year I sold my first non-fantasy story to SPACE & TIME Magazine. It was a contemporary weird-horror story called “Behind the Eyes.” It was another milestone because I’ve never wanted to write ONLY fantasy. Fantasy will always be my first love, but I do write other things as the inspiration strikes.

10. Can you remember your earliest attempt at writing, perhaps when you were very young? What, if anything, was the common link with what you’re writing now, as an adult?
 

When I was in 7th grade I wrote a story about a knight who refuses to listen to everyone at court when they tell him NOT to go fight a dragon that is terrorizing the land. The young knight, full of arrogance and hungry for glory, goes out and assaults the dragon in its cave. The last line of the story reveals that the knight was promptly killed and devoured by the dragon. The point being that he should have listened to his elders and let the damn dragon alone. My English teacher liked the story so much that she read it to the entire class one day. That must have been a turning point in my life. It gave me something to be proud of when I really needed it. It validated my interest in writing, as well as in fantasy fiction. It might be the first time I ever thought of myself as a “writer.” In my own career as a teacher I love recognizing and encouraging young writers. I guess I’m paying it forward. Thank you, Mrs. Kimberlaine!

11. Is there a particular element or aspect that you think the best fantasy stories have? As a reader, what do you read for?
 

A sense of wonder. That’s it for me. I’m stealing the words of the great Robert Silverberg, but it’s so true. Whether I’m reading fantasy, sci-fi, or horror, I want a sense of wonder, something strange, beyond the mundane, something incredible and impossible coming to life inside my imagination. In college I read Silverberg’s WORLDS OF WONDER, which was a guide to writing science fiction and fantasy, but also included amazing stories from classic writers like Damon Knight, Henry Kuttner, Jack Vance, and Brian Aldiss. It was huge influence on me, and responsible for my writing a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel in longhand during the course of my last two years of college. It wasn’t particularly good, but terrific fun, and I proved to myself that I could do it. One of the things Silverberg talks about in that book is the “sense of wonder” that sci-fi and fantasy stories should have. I couldn’t say it any better.

The other element that is so important is good characters. If you can’t relate to the characters, you’re not going to enjoy the story. Silverberg is a master at infusing a sense of wonder with believable characters who seem real, even in the depths of impossible realities.

Thirdly, a writer’s style means a lot to me. Tanith Lee’s fiction reads like sex feels. It’s superb. Lyrical, poetic, full of images that stun the mind and thrill the soul. Clark Ashton Smith and Thomas Ligotti do the same thing, but with a much darker mood. It’s all about creating fantastic imagery that evokes that crucial sense of wonder.

12. Is there a map of the world in which your Zang Cycle is set? Do you write with a map spread out beside you, or is a map even necessary?
 

The map of the Zang Continent exists only in my mind, but it’s pretty well formed there. I took a cue from Brian McNaughton, who believed that if he drew a map for his Seelura Cycle (in THRONE OF BONES), it might rob his creation of all its mystery and wonder. So there is no physical Zang map.

However, I DID create a map for my novel SEVEN PRINCES. The characters therein are lords and ladies of several lands, some of which are a thousand miles apart. There are also the movements of armies and travelling individuals to consider. So I created a map and constantly continued to revise it as I wrote the novel. I’ve learned from this that maps are WAY more important to fantasy novels than to cycles of loosely-related short stories that share the same world.

13. The use of magic is a central aspect of your stories, much moreso than the use of swords. Is that a fair statement? What are the challenges of writing about magic and characters who are sorcerers?
 

Yes. Some people call some of my stories “sword and sorcery,” but I came up with the term “pen and sorcery” because Artifice the Quill, main character of the Zang stories, isn’t a warrior—he’s a writer! He starts out as a novelist and evolves into a traveling playwright. The conceit is that he is learning a form of sorcery that reveals itself through his performances…a great metaphor for how Art can change the world. The series of Artifice tales explores the concept of Sorcery as Art, and Art as Sorcery.

I’ve always thought wizards/sorcerers/magicians were way more interesting than sword-swinging warriors. I’d rather see two sorcerers have a duel than two swordsmen. The possibilities are endless with magic and sorcery…Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone is so exciting and enduring because he combines the best attributes of the warrior/swordsman archetype with the best of the sorcerer/magician figure.

However, any kind of character can be compelling if it is well written. Some of George R. R. Martin’s characters are practically powerless, but yet they are ultimately fascinating. Maybe my preference for magical characters goes back to my quest for the “sense of wonder” I spoke about. At the same time, Jeffrey Ford pointed out at the WFC how you can find magic in the real world; it exists all around you in the winds and movements of birds among the clouds, etc. The world of nature is the ultimate magic. He has a good point. Attanasio is the only fantasy writer I’ve read who manages to combine Nature and Sorcery to the point that the mundane world and supernatural world are ONE AND THE SAME. That’s why everyone should seek out and read THE DRAGON AND THE UNICORN, to see how he pulls this off.

I don’t really like the term “sword-and-sorcery” when it’s applied to my fiction. I don’t like limits. There are other authors whose work gets labeled like this, and for most of them it’s not fair because they have way more going on than S&S would imply.

We had a great panel about writing sorcerer/magician characters at the WFC. One thing we all agreed on: You have to give your sorcerers limits of some kind. But that’s not hard to do because as I pointed out, simply HAVING sorcerous/magical power is going to cause a whole host of problems. It’s also interesting to note that most of literature’s sorcerer/magician characters end up as tragic figures…all their cosmic power does them no good in the end. Elric, Merlin, Drusas Achamian (from the PRINCE OF NOTHING series)…even Gandalf doesn’t live a particularly happy existence in LotR.

I think Sorcerers and Magicians and Wizards have an immortal mystique about them, and that’s what makes them such great characters to write and read. They know things…sometimes terrible things…they are the keepers of the universe’s darkest mysteries.

14. Imagine that, about 170 years from now, you’re being discussed by a panel at the World Fantasy Convention. “John Fultz was a writer who ______.” What would you like to be remembered for?

Oh, wow, I can’t think of how to answer this without sounding like a jerk. :-) It’s a nice image though. I certainly hope my works survive me…

15. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to add?

Let’s see: Right now I’ve got two stories coming up in future issues of BLACK GATE, and a post-apocalyptic horror tale in the forthcoming DAW anthology CTHULHU’S REIGN. You can also pre-order the PRIMORDIA hardcover at Amazon.com, but I’m not sure exactly when it will be released.

Thanks, Fred!

Thank you, John!

WFC 2009 Part 5: Random Notes

November 22, 2009

What follows is a trip through my notebook pages from this year’s World Fantasy Convention — things I wanted to remember, many of which are authors and the titles of their books and stories, some of which may be misspelled. [I think I've noted the spellings I'm not sure of.] The stuff is in no particular order — it’s like a junk drawer dumped out onto the tabletop. It’s a starting point: the place to begin intriguing searches and maybe discussions. Feel free to jump in with corrections, information, comments, or further queries.

It’s from such soup that great ideas might come. (Artist Guest of Honor Lisa Snellings said “You can’t go wrong with a soup analogy. It’s all in there.”)

Poe . . . Stephen King . . . background in poetry.

The Last Unicorn poses a riddle that is never answered in the book: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” One panelist, frustrated for years, eventually caught up with Peter S. Beagle and asked him for the answer. He allegedly said, “The answer is either ‘Poe wrote on both’ or ‘Both have inky quills.’” Someone in the audience chimed in and suggested a third answer: “Both produce notes that are generally not musical.”

There’s a folkloric connection between ravens and the Tower of London — if ravens cease living in and around the Tower, England’s monarchy will fail; the royal line will break. So even now, there are special attendants who look after the ravens and make sure they’re happy living there.

There’s a curious relationship between wolves and ravens in the real world. They play together. Ravens will swoop down and pull wolves’ tails, and the wolves will snap and chase the ravens. (I’m not at all sure the wolves are “playing”. . . .) They also hunt together, helping each other for mutual benefit. Ravens will scout out likely-looking prey and call the wolves’ attention to it. Wolves will leave leftovers that ravens can eat. Ravens follow wolf packs, and wolf packs follow ravens.

The panelists were somewhat divided on whether the raven is more often a wise, instructive friend to humankind or a treacherous opportunist who is not at all our friend. In The Hobbit, the ravens living on and around the Lonely Mountain are long-term noble friends of the Dwarves. The raven who sits on the bust of Pallas in Poe’s “The Raven” may just be making mindless noise; it may be leading the narrator to consider his situation; or it may be mocking him and/or actively trying to push him over the edge. The panelists talked about the raven who leaves Noah’s ark and doesn’t come back, because it finds what it wants and needs elsewhere; they didn’t mention the ravens that bring Elijah food. (Have I got that right?) I keep coming back to the “Twa Corbies,” who will be making a sweet dinner of the dead knight — feeding on his heart, feeding on his “bonny blue eye,” and using his hair to weave into their nests. One panelist had a very good feeling about ravens she’s actually met; one always felt coldness from their eyes, and the sense that, if she died, they would gladly eat her. At Niigata University, there are abundant black birds — I’m not sure if they’re ravens or big crows — who come and hunt through the garbage and glare at passersby. I often get a very unfriendly feeling from them. There was, however, one early summer a couple years ago when I would often give little pieces of my lunch to a big one who would find me regularly and watch and hop as close as he dared. Of course I don’t think he was my “friend.” :-)

Robert Chambers [I think], The King in Yellow

L to R: Jay Lake, Lisa Snellings, Garth Nix, Michael Swanwick, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Richard A. Lupoff, Zoran Zivkovic, Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer: World Fantasy Convention 2009, San Jose, California

E.F. Benson, “Negotium Perambulans” (I may have read this years ago, and that’s what inspired me to include that inscription in Dragonfly, above the shaft where the Thanatops lives. It’s a quote from the Psalm, “Negotium perambulans in tenebris” — “The pestilence that walks in darkness.”)

“A Voice in the Night,” by William Hope Hodgson –  one panelist said a teacher read this out loud to them in gradeschool, and the room was utterly silent, and the kids were totally freaked out and never forgot it.

Same group, same caption

The Sun Bird, by Wilbur Smith (an excellent lost race novel) 

The Moon Pool, by A. Merritt — Lovecraft loved the novelette but condemned the novelization — which is probably the one I have on my shelf here.

David Hartwell’s The Dark Descent (I gather this is some kind of an overview of weird/horror fiction. Very intriguing.)

These next are all from Lisa Snellings:

It’s best not to write some stuff down. Sometimes when we do, when we capture the idea and put it down on paper, that satisfies us, and we’re done with it. Don’t worry: Good ideas persist. If it keeps coming back to you, it’s probably a good one. [This thought really made me nod in recognition. I agree.]

She says Ray Bradbury told her: “A general direction is better than a plan, because plans rarely work out. Keep working.”

The best ideas ring like a bell. The best ideas make you sweat. You just want to work, and don’t care if your shirt is on inside out. [Again, I recognize the truth of this. I've been there, now and then!]

In general, people who are successful work very, very hard.

Lisa Snellings says: “Why I’m never blocked: because I go to work every single day. It’s your job.” [Stephen King says pretty much the same thing in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.]

When you’re working or doing some kind of playing that you’re totally into and the rest of the world disappears, you’re in the Zone. For our well-being, our brains need to be in the Zone. It’s like a shower for our brains. She’s in the Zone often when she’s playing video games. But you can get there when you’re working, too — on art, music, writing, etc.

Moving back to general notes:

Garth Nix: “Some books are good enough to survive the most horrendous authors and constant exposure to them.”

He says “Sabriel” with a long a, as in saber.

Ellen Kushner: “Real life is a great impediment to grace and elegance.”

Tim Powers doesn’t read his contemporaries at all. He has a horror of ever being in a writer’s group, because he’d be expected to read the other group members’ manuscripts. (He says not to tell anyone about this; he hopes no one will post it on-line.) :-)

When Ellen Kushner was a little girl and realized some other people didn’t like her, her father said, “Do you like everyone you meet? No? Then why should they all like you?” And she never worried about that again.

Something Garth Nix said that I really identified with: He’s a “story-driven character writer.” He knows very little about the characters as he begins writing. He learns about them as they go through the story, as they face the events and act. So he doesn’t try to figure out all that about the characters before he starts. I find this to be amazingly comforting, because I go at it the same way and always wondered if there was something wrong with my approach. This seems so much more real to me than filling out all those character sheets, writing profiles for them, pretending to walk around talking with them for months before you write your book, etc. I’m so relieved!

Someone asked if the panel was supposed to be 55 minutes or exactly an hour. Ellen Kushner said, “It’s 55 minutes. It’s a therapy hour.”

Ellen Kushner: “We live in an age that devalues the imagination.”

Some writer said: “I am all my characters, but none of them are me.”

Michael Swanwick pointed out how in Lud-in-the-Mist, the conflict is between magic (Faery) and the law. [True! In Lud, the modern people are in denial of the existence of magic, and to say "fairy" is like saying the worst swear-word, and their legal language has euphemisms for magical things.]

Swanwick: “At the heart of fantasy is mystery. The universe is unknowable. In sf, it’s the other way around — the universe is knowable and follows noble rules.”

Swanwick related how William Blake saw ghosts all the time. Blake drew a picture of the ghost of a flea to show people what he was looking at. [And this is me: still one of my favorite Blake-related quotes was from his wife: "I seldom enjoy Mr. Blake's company. He's always in Paradise." Blake was in the Zone!]

Swanwick: The weakness of the “deal with the devil” story is that the very existence of the devil offering the deal proves the existence of the afterlife, testifies to eternal consequences, etc. — so who would take such a deal? [An old first-grade classmate of mine, no longer with us in this world, was a fine writer who actually took that into account in writing a "deal with the devil" story.]

Swanwick: “If it’s said in front of a writer, it belongs to him.” [Fred: By this point, most of my friends know this to be true!]

Guy Gavriel Kay: “If almost anything is done well, it can work.” [Isn't that also extremely comforting? Your idea doesn't have to be Earth-shaking. Just tell the tale well. Eight centuries ago, the Japanese poet Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) told his writing students: "Do not strain for novelty."]

Guy Gavriel Kay liked the Emma Thompson film Sense and Sensibility — very good film overall — but he intensely disliked how the filmmakers played the manners of the time for laughs from a modern audience. They pandered to a modern audience. It was almost bad enough to kill his enjoyment of the movie. [At my first-ever writers' conference -- I was in high school -- Paul Darcy Boles told me that a good thing about my writing was that I didn't poke fun at my characters. If we write about people in a different time or culture, we have to let them be who they would be in that time and place.]

Modern readers are very averse to dialect. In the 19th century they loved it when characters spoke in dialect on the page, but not now.

Ellen Kushner made the point that, to represent the language of another era or place, you can use the rhythms of that culture’s language. One skillful writer she cited, to give French characters the “flavor” of speaking French in her English-language books, consciously employed the beats of standard French poetry. And the English lines do somehow give the illusion of being French!

Avoid trendiness in speech patterns. [Note to self: Do not have characters in an epic fantasy say, "Tuh. As if!"]

Deanna Hoak: “Copyediting is like bathing. No one notices it unless you don’t do it.”

Guy Gavriel Kay (on writing dialogue that sounds authentic): “There’s no formula for success, but there are avenues for authenticity. It depends on maintaining a consistent tone.”

[In my Hokkaido days, I was the D.M. for a small group that played Dungeons & Dragons in the parsonage of Asahikawa Lutheran Church. As a non-native speaker of Japanese, I spoke -- and still speak -- the language at one level of politeness: the standard, safe-in-all-situations level that foreigners are taught in classrooms. But Japanese has a huge range in levels of politeness, each appropriate in a different situation depending on the speaker's relationship to the listener, their relative ages, genders, statuses, etc. Sometimes my D&D group would burst out laughing because my orcs spoke so politely: "Please drop your weapons. If you do not, this will turn into a fight! -- Grrr! Aargh!"]

Everyone says read Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. The direct sequel is Avilion. [I'm not sure about any of those three spellings.]

Lavinia, by Ursula LeGuin, is absolutely amazing.

Little, Big is evidently a great book.

Alice Henderson [sp?] has a really good-sounding horror novel set in Glacier National Park.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner — apparently really excellent — one panelist whom I respected re-reads it every year.

In Cold Blood by Capote is really disturbing, really scary.

Final note: It would be a very good idea to read the World Fantasy Award-winning novels and runners-up each year. The ones that win seem to be highly original, hard to categorize.

And there we have it!

Let us go forth and read, write, love, and live!

Steampunk (WFC 2009 Part 4)

November 16, 2009

Dark dirigibles glide over a Victorian skyline. Fog swirls along the dark cobbles where a man in a cravat and tall silk hat passes with a tap, tapping of his goosehead cane. Mighty Engines huff in a subterranean labyrinth, from which pipes spread outward and upward, pipes upon pipes. At the turn of a dial, the lamps rush into gas-jet life. High on a tower of skeletal girders, a girl named Sparks Mahoney clambers upward, hand over hand, checking her progress through the telescoping brass goggles on her headgear. On the platform above her, urging her to greater speed, waits Mixmore, the faithful robot assistant she assembled in her father’s workshop — a robot with fire at his core and nary a microchip, his metal limbs powered by steam, which escapes from his elbow- and knee-joints in hissing gusts. But time is of the essence, for below the tower, swarming through the city, are the ever-hungry servants of Baron Doom. . . .

It’s a fashion in clothing and jewelry; it’s a literary movement; it has spawned radio shows and rock bands; it seems to transcend boundaries of age, ethnicity, and geography. Above all, its practitioners feel it’s fun and quintessentially cool.

I’m talking, of course, about steampunk. A year ago, I don’t think I’d even heard the term. (If I had, it hadn’t registered yet on my consciousness.) Then for awhile I was hearing the word and didn’t really know what it meant. Then someone told me, “It’s The Golden Compass. There are dirigibles. There’s no electricity.” Oohh.

At this year’s World Fantasy Convention, there was a fascinating and very informative panel on the subject. One panelist even came dressed in steampunk clothing, which to me looks a lot like goth but without the spectre of death. As I learned more, something occurred to me: without realizing it, I’ve been writing a form of steampunk for years.

Take Dragonfly: we’ve got the balloon, powered by a gas that flows through hoses and ignites. We’ve got gas flames that light up Hain’s Tenebrificium — which also has a giant, whirling, walk-through kaleidoscope powered by the weight, on pressure plates, of the people walking through it. We’ve got pumphouses — again, their machinery driven by twisted automatons (of a sort) who push and pull on levers that turn the gears. Chains slide and rattle behind the walls. We’ve got (scientifically impossible) coaches designed to crawl up and down stairways, the wheel-rims equipped with stair-fitting teeth. And as luck would have it, the Harvest Moon denizens dress, for the most part, like Victorians.

Power provided by pushing and pulling. . . . Doesn’t that sound like a more recent story of mine? The Thunder Rake in “The Star Shard,” with its Pushpull Chamber?

And how about The Fires of the Deep? Loft works for an organization called Watchworks (which name is nothing if not pure steampunk!), where a giant pendulum marks the passage of time. And the subterranean skies of Loft’s world team with airships, their furnaces burning solid krale to fill the balloons — krale, dug with leather-bladed scoops wherever the fuellists can find it — leather-bladed, to avoid cutting into a squirming meeval which could, if panicked or injured, strike a spark with its posterior pincers and blow the whole operation sky-high.

And the aspect of mechanical but non-electric things: the wind-up weapons of Loft’s world — the crickets and nailers — and his own weapon of proficiency, the shikanth, a separating handle, a cable, and a blade.

I could go on, but I think the point is made-and-then-some. But anyway, steampunk.

The panel at WFC was moderated by Deborah Biancotti; the other panelists were Liz Gorinsky from Tor, who edits a lot of steampunk; Ann VanderMeer, who with her husband Jeff has edited a voluminous anthology of steampunk stories; and writers Michael Swanwick and Nisi Shawl. So, here are some things they said:

They made the point that steampunk takes us back to an age when machines were understandable. In many ways, we’re afraid of the world today, a world that is increasingly incomprehensible to the average person. Steampunk is born of the desire to make something ourselves, to manipulate physical objects — to go back to brass screws and twine and lengths of pipe. The movement is all about making things.

Interestingly, one of the panelists found that people who have come into steampunk from the fashion end are often not aware that it’s a literary movement, and vice-versa! But the fashion folks design their clothing and accessories, and the literary folks read and write stories about characters who put things together.

It offers us a world put together partly from the old, partly from the new.

Panelist Shawl talked about how the fashion world of steampunk is very multiracial, but the literary world of steampunk, not so much; she theorized that steampunk “is a reaction against writers of color in the genre,” and, as such, is a trend to watch with caution. (Cyberpunk, she said, is largely a reaction against feminism.) But she added that there is a book by S. Barnes called Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart, which is steampunk featuring characters of color. So far, the published writers of steampunk are mostly of a white/European background, but the fandom is much more distributed. Shawl made the point that people who were limited and disadvantaged by the Victorian era are now enjoying, through steampunk, an imaginary Victoriana without the baggage of the real thing. In fiction, we can use the best parts of an era. (John Fultz and I talked about this after the “dirty Middle Ages” panel — in our medieval fantasy, we want to keep things realistic, but we don’t really want to go on for pages and pages about lice and offal in the drinking water.) So anyway, with steampunk, you can have the fashions and the atmosphere, the clockwork and the gas lights of Victoriana without the prejudices and repressions.

The panel said that steampunk is much like the Society of (for?) Creative Anachronism (SCA) in that it tries to recreate an era as it should have been, not as it actually turned out.

Steampunk is still in its infancy.

The panel was divided over whether it’s a young person’s thing or an old person’s thing — it’s very likely both.

Someone said The Anubis Gates was more or less “the birth of steampunk.” (That’s Tim Powers, right? Or will I be coming back to correct this? I’m pretty sure that book was written by Powers . . . who said hi to me at the con, probably thinking I was someone else.) So it’s a very new genre. I’m sketchy on the details of this (maybe someone who knows can help me out here), but apparently in the mid-to-late eighties, there was a letter written to LOCUS that coined the term “steampunk.”

Michael Swanwick made the point that “punk” usually means a reaction against something. The Hippies, he said, were anti-technology, and were in favor of getting back to the magical land, the mystical Earth. Steampunk, then, may be seen as a reaction against that. It brings back the technology, but it’s “technology made good, done right.” Wholesome technology.

Steampunk is usually hopeful, fun, and optimistic, but it can have a dark side. At its beginnings in the eighties, it was almost entirely done in novels. Now we’re seeing steampunk in short fiction, too.

A great many writers of steampunk are computer people. Ann VanderMeer brought this up – she’s a computer person herself, who installs systems, etc. Back in the seventies, she said, computers themselves were much more physical. If you dealt with them at all, you dealt with code. You ran punch cards through slots. Today, computer use is much farther removed from the codes. Steampunk lets computer people get back to the hands-on, physical machines. (So it awakens nostalgia in computer geeks. [My words, not hers.])

“Punk” today has mostly a positive meaning — it conveys “edgy and stylish.” But the original punk was a reaction against style, against forms — the first punks were just having fun (with music, for example) — just seeing what would happen. Steampunk recaptures that sense of unfettered adventure, unlimited possibility. [For awhile, Ann played in an all-girls' band called "The Guise." Isn't that a great name for an all-girls' band?]

Liz Gorinsky said that, for the first time in a long time, we’re seeing huge masses of enthusiasm for something in speculative fiction. Many people who don’t necessarily read fantasy are going from the steampunk fashion world to discovering the literature.

The modern increased concern for the environment is reflected in steampunk: reduce, reuse, recycle. Make your own clothes. Put things together from parts you find lying around. Take things that you love — features of Edwardian clothing, architecture, etc. — and make it your own. There are dark fears in our present society: we’re running out of materials. Steampunk is, in part, an expression of our need to develop physical skills for survival in a dark time; perhaps we’ll have to make our own furniture, our own clothes, our own tools and basic machines.

Swanwick noted that there is great potential in steampunk — but to maintain the genre, we need to keep the deep, political underpinnings of the best steampunk writing. The real enemies of the movement are books that only scratch the surface: they take the trappings of it but have no substance; those are the works that will make it seem like a flash in the pan. Since it’s so early, we may still be waiting for the Great Steampunk Novel that will absolutely define the trend.

You can find this last part on the Weird Tales website, but it’s so good, I’ll try to summarize it here. This is by the Weird Tales editorial director Stephen H. Segal, from his article “Five Thoughts on the Popularity of Steampunk.” (And by the way, the site also has a very pithy definition of steampunk: “science-fictiony stuff built on Victorian-era technology and aesthetics” — now, isn’t that simple and to the point?)

Anyway, Segal says:

1. Steampunk is geekery that the genders can share. It’s “a way to masculinize romance. That is to say: Steampunk takes something stereotypically feminine that most boys hate — Victorian lace and frills and tea and crumpets — and says, ‘Hey, how about some robots with that?’”

2. It’s an aesthetic response to the science fiction in the culture. The point here is that the eighties and nineties (Star Trek: TNG) gave us science fiction that was clean, smooth, glossy, happy, and user-friendly — but not, according to steampunkians, exciting. It was predictable. Steampunk interjects grittiness, unpredictability, and spectacle. [Go and read how Segal says this -- he says it a lot better and more funnily.]

3. Steampunk is like being goth without scaring your parents. Adults fear that goths take vampires too seriously and may want to make someone bleed. “Steampunks are — what? Weirdoes who take pocket-watches too seriously? What are they gonna do, vehemently tell you what time it is?”

4. It bridges the subgenre gap. More and more, writers and artists, filmmakers and musicians are mixing in elements of other types of fantasy, horror, and superheroics. “Steampunk is helping to bring us back to the days when the subgenre categories didn’t matter so much and it was all just a big lurching conceptual mass of ‘weird fiction.’” So now we’re seeing steampunk fairies, steampunk vampires, even steampunk Cthulhu. [Hee, hee -- doesn't that sound like fun? "The Shadow of a Dirigible Over Innsmouth" . . . "The Call of Cthulhu Through the Speaking Tube". . . .]

5. Steampunk says: “The future: UR doin’ it wrong.” The future we were promised in earlier science fiction isn’t here and isn’t coming. “We were expecting Star Trek and we got Blade Runner: all the quirky little bits of science fiction have come true, but we lost the big dream.” Our scientific solutions have often not only failed to solve problems, but have ended up creating bigger, scarier ones. Steampunk lets us go back and try again.

I’ll close with this quote from Stephen H. Segal:

“Whether you’re reading and identifying with Girl Genius or making yourself a pair of functioning telescopic brass goggles, the fact is that when you have to get your hands or brain dirty puzzling out how stuff works, you can’t be blase about technological miracles — you’re forced to realize what miracles we’ve actually wrought. And once you’ve got that sense of appreciation, once you’re not taking all our modern-day scientific accomplishments for granted because you finally understand deep down that people had to sweat them out, experiment by experiment — it seems to me you can’t help but approach the world around us, here, today, with fresher eyes and a more adventuresome spirit. / I think that’s where a lot of the young people jumping on the steampunk bandwagon right now are coming from. It’s not just cool because it’s trendy — it’s cool because it’s inspirational. You know . . . like science fiction at its best always has been.”

 

WFC 2009 Part 3

November 14, 2009

There were a couple things I did differently about the convention this year: one was that I went to more readings than usual, and the other was that I attended two of the art-related presentations instead of going to purely book stuff. I was particularly impressed with Lisa Snellings, this year’s Guest Artist. She’s primarily an artist, but she’s an excellent writer, too, in how she frames her thoughts.

Highlights from the rest of the weekend were:

1. Seeing agent Joshua Bilmes for the first time since Austin in 2006. We laughed about how at that infamous dinner (our first face-to-face meeting — our first visual impressions of each other), Joshua had a bug of some kind and had completely lost his voice; all through dinner, he was writing on napkins and using gestures to express himself. I, on the other hand, had the 24-hour stomach flu [which I'm told doesn't officially exist -- there's apparently no such thing as "stomach flu" -- but I'm calling it that so you'll know what I had] — so I couldn’t eat a bite, and spent the entire dinner trying not to pass out or throw up on anybody. We were both in much better form this year, and Joshua related that story to all the agency’s clients who were present at this year’s dinner.

2. Having lunch with Eddie, Joshua’s associate, the agent I now work primarily with.

3. Seeing S.T. Joshi, probably the world’s leading authority on H.P. Lovecraft, and having him invite me to the MythosCon party that night. (Mr. Joshi was the most influential early reviewer of Dragonfly, in Weird Tales — and although he can be scathing, he gave it a very good review.) The next night, Saturday, he and I actually talked one-on-one for about fifteen minutes.

4. Reconnecting with a lot of writer acquaintances I see only at the conventions each year and catching up on one another’s projects — as well as always making a few new friends.

5. At the mass book signing Friday night, instead of trying to sit and sign books (I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have any to sign, since it’s been so many years since Dragonfly), I walked around and got other writers to sign their books, which was a lot of fun. Since Garth Nix was one of the special guests this year, I’d brought my Abhorsen Trilogy for him to sign. He’s as courteous and down-to-Earth in person as he always seems to be. When he said something I didn’t quite understand, he joked about how his accent gets thicker when the jetlag kicks in (he’s Australian).

6. The agency dinner on Saturday evening was very nice — a chance to either meet or get reacquainted with some of my fellow clients of JABberwocky. The two newest clients actually received their agency contracts from Joshua right there at the restaurant, to resounding applause!

7. At the signing, I talked face-to-face with Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, Jay Lake, Laura Anne Gilman, Cecelia Holland, John Shirley, Jon DeCles, Richard Lupoff, Daryl Gregory, and probably several I’m forgetting. I was within scant yards of Robert Silverberg, though I didn’t actually see him because of the long, long line of people waiting to get their books signed by him. Ditto with Peter Straub. I finally saw Stephen R. Donaldson in the flesh! I was oddly surprised that he looked older than he used to look on book covers when we were reading him back in the eighties. (Duh, Fred!) Michael Swanwick was there, and I heard him on several panels — he’s very cool and always has great things to say. Lisa Snellings said hi to me in the art room. Tim Powers looked up from a conversation to smile and say a very bright “Hi!” to me in a hallway — I’m almost positive he mistook me for someone else! David Drake was at the con again this year, as were Guy Gavriel Kay, Scott Edelman, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kij Johnson, Tad Williams, Lisa Goldstein, Ellen Kushner, Patricia McKillip, Darrell Schweitzer. . . . Jane Yolen won a Lifetime Achievement Award, but she had some speaking engagements and couldn’t be at the con this time. Writer Laird Barron always says hi to me, because we were both part of a dinner party organized by Gordon Van Gelder in Austin (just before I got the stomach flu) — but when Laird and I got to talking at the MythosCon party this time, I realized he thought I was someone else! Heh, heh — funny! — mistaken identities at the cons can be very amusing. [At the con in Saratoga Springs, an attractive young woman materialized out of nowhere and kept talking and talking to me . . . I wondered why I was suddenly so magnetically attractive . . . finally she started talking about "your magazine," and I realized she'd seen me sitting at the Black Gate table earlier with John O'Neill and thought I was his assistant! Once she realized I wasn't an editor, she vanished in a cloud of dust!] Okay — I think that’s the end of my fanboy rant!

8. I normally feel totally ignorant among such well-read company, but I was able to look cool twice: once, someone was looking for the word “Esperanto” (“What was that universal language they tried to get started?”) and I supplied it, and once someone was looking for the name “William Morris” (“You know, the wallpaper guy. . . .”) and I supplied it. I don’t get to do that very often — it’s one of those rare, rare occasions such as when I’ve read a book that someone else in the room (or his/her dog) hasn’t.

9. On Sunday, I had lunch with John R. Fultz, a widely-read and well-spoken writer of fantasy for Black Gate and Weird Tales, a writer for the comic books Zombie Tales and Cthulhu Tales, and creator of the graphic novel Primordia which is coming out in hardback in December. For a fantastic interview with John, visit: http://www.staticmultimedia.com/print/features/john_fultz_and_primordia

10. It seems there’s always a clear-cut “final encounter” of the con, a meeting or image that sends me on my way. This time it was in the wee hours of Monday morning as I was leaving the hotel to catch my flight. Gordon Van Gelder was down in the lobby, too, waiting for the person with whom he was heading to the airport. We chatted for a minute or two about how it was too bad we hadn’t gotten a chance to chat for a minute or two. . . .

Okay — let’s move on to programming. These are the activities I attended:

Thursday:

Readings by Lori Ann White and Blake Charlton

Panel: “Poe’s Influence”

Opening Ceremonies

Readings by Janni Lee Simner, Catherine Cheek, and Louise Marley

Reading by Frederic S. Durbin — thought I’d better show up for that. Without me, he only would have had nine people, counting the sound lady and his agent. . . .

Publishers’ parties

Friday:

Panel: “Writing Human Characters, Whether or Not Human”

Interview: “VanderMeer on VanderMeer” (The VanderMeers interviewed each other. It was quite entertaining as well as informative. Ann is the current editor of Weird Tales, and I was deeply impressed by her answer regarding her proudest moment. It wasn’t any honor or award — it was when a writer sent her his published book, which she read and absolutely loved, and then he told her how she’d sent him a rejection slip when he’d just been starting out, but it was a careful, detailed, instructive, and very encouraging rejection, and it pushed him to stay with his craft and not to give up. Ann got emotional telling the story — you could tell his letter had touched her. She said that’s why she does what she does.)

Presentation: John Picacio’s “Shelf Lives: The Art and Design of Book Covers” — a slideshow — fascinating!

Lunch with Eddie

Panel: “The Role of the Raven” (This was one of the best panels at the convention. The panelists discussed what ravens are actually like in the real world, what they were like in the Norse eddas, how Poe used his, and the role they’ve played and continue to play in fantasy fiction. More on this when we go through my “content” notebook!)

Panel: “Overlooked Early Writers of the Supernatural” (This was another of the absolute best this year!)

Panel: “The Last Resort” (This was a good one about the use of violence: what it’s really like to physically fight with someone; how violence is often used too frequently and/or casually by writers; how to find a balance and perhaps achieve violent tension without actual violence.)

Group Autographing

Parties

Saturday:

Panel: “Why Steampunk Now?” (More on this is coming!)

Presentation by Lisa Snellings: “Know the Soup You’re In”

Panel: “When People Confuse the Author with His/Her Work” (The panelists for this were Mark Ferrari, Scott Edelman, Ellen Kushner, Garth Nix, and Tim Powers. With a lineup like that, I would have gone to hear them if the topic had been the finer points of the tax code! And sure enough, it was fantastic.)

Panel: “Urban Fantasy as Alternate History”

Panel: “Coarse Dialog and Graceful Description — A Balancing Act” (#%*! Nice!)

Panel: “Notable Books of the Year”

Panel: “What Makes a Good Monster”

Panel: “The Sorcerer in Fantasy”

JABberwocky dinner

Parties

Sunday:

Panel: “Contemporary Rural Fantasy” (Another good one!)

Panel:  “Bad Food, Bad Clothes, and Bad Breath” (This was about what living conditions were really like in the ancient, medieval, and pre-industrial world. The panelists were incredibly knowledgeable — it was really fascinating. Did you know, for example, that in general, human longevity took a dramatic plunge when we started farming? We gathered together in communities, started wallowing in our filth and breathing on each other, and diseases abounded!)

Awards Ceremony

Panel: “Awards Postmortem” (The World Fantasy Awards judges talked about the task they had and how they made their decisions.)

Watch this space! As soon as I’m able, I’m going to do an entry on my “content” notes — a posting like the one last year that I called “Wisdom from World Fantasy” — and one on the Winchester Mystery House, which you won’t want to miss!

World Fantasy Convention 2009, Part 2

November 7, 2009

Moving along here: on Thursday the 29th, I went to the Winchester Mystery House. Let’s save that for a post unto itself: it was fascinating. I’d read a lot about it, and I’d wanted to see it for a long time. Never did I dream that one day the World Fantasy Convention would be held in the same city! I couldn’t not take the opportunity to go there! I went on that Thursday morning before the Con got started. The hotel desk person was very helpful in giving me directions. She looked up bus stops and times on her computer.

By the way, I need to add here that the Fairmont Hotel yesterday sent a message to the WFC organizers that they asked be passed along to all the members — it was a note of appreciation for how nice the attendees of WFC were! I thought that was really cool. The Fairmont hosts a great many conventions. (The counterman in the restaurant across the street was telling me how they get quite a few famous people through there, people from all over the world.) And the staff made a point of telling us that often, guests treat them like servants, or don’t see them at all. But they were deeply impressed that the World Fantasy people looked them in the eye, said hi to them, chatted with them in elevators, smiled when they passed, and said “thank you.” Apparently these things are not common sense, not a matter of course! So there you have it: people in the fantasy industry are good folks! (I know I did all those things — I appreciate it when someone gives me directions in a strange city, or makes my bed, or washes my towels, or brings me more packets of coffee. . . .)

So anyway, I got up early and took a bus at around 8:00. I wasn’t at all sure I’d gotten on the right bus, because it came earlier than it was supposed to (which never happens in Niigata). But the driver was incredibly nice. I didn’t have two one-dollar bills for the fare, so he said, “Just ride for free.” He talked with me on the way, which I didn’t expect — Japanese drivers aren’t allowed to do that — and he told me exactly where to get off. He even made a special stop for me within a few hundred yards of the Winchester House!

On the way back, another TVA driver told me which bus to get on — very helpful. I did get the gritty San Jose experience when one customer had heated words with the driver about getting his free day pass, and even moreso when a young white male, in his late teens or early twenties, made an absolute jerk of himself by riding his bicycle at a very slow pace in the middle of the lane right in front of the bus. The bus couldn’t pass him. The driver was Hispanic, and I’m pretty sure it was a racial thing — although the cyclist was inconveniencing everyone on board, regardless of ethnicity. The driver never blew his cool. He just drove along at the pace the cyclist allowed him, and he didn’t respond to the faces the cyclist made at him or to the rude gestures. One time, at a traffic light, the driver waved to the cyclist in a gesture that conveyed, “Why don’t you step aboard the bus?” This went on for a good ten minutes. The other riders on the bus were just clucking their tongues and shaking their heads in exasperation. Finally, the obnoxious cyclist planted himself in front of the bus at an intersection while the light was green — blocking us, blocking every vehicle behind us — and kept making faces at the driver, adjusting his hat, adjusting his earphones, etc. The light turned yellow, and just as it was about to go red, the cyclist rode off and turned right, off the bus route. So we had to wait through the red light. That’s something you don’t see in Niigata.

I had a great time browsing through the dealers’ room back at the convention. Now that I’ve been there for several years, there are booksellers I know and enjoy catching up with. The wonderful couple who own Ygor’s Books graciously offered to sell Dragonfly for me again, so I turned over the five copies I’d brought along, and they wouldn’t take a cent of the revenue, though I offered them 50%. We ended up selling three of the copies, plus I signed one that someone bought from another dealer, and I signed one that a guy had brought along with him to the Con from home. [I also signed two copies of Fantasy & Science Fiction for an attendee -- the ones with my stories in them, of course!]

I bought two Arthur Machen books in the dealers’ room. I’d been reading some of his work recently and really liking it, so I thought this was a good opportunity. (By the way, at one of the panels, I learned how to pronounce his name. It’s apparently pronounced “Macken” — it rhymes with “blacken.” These were scholars talking specifically about how to pronounce it, so I have every reason to believe that’s right.)

Thursday night, my reading was scheduled in the Market Street Foyer. That was kind of odd, since readings are usually scheduled in rooms. The foyer was basically a hallway — flared wide at that point, with a chandelier overhead. It was outside a big ballroom. As I understand it, the organizers’ thinking was that the foyer venue might help to draw in people who were just passing by. I honed and timed and practiced and practiced my reading, and I thought the delivery itself went extremely well. But I just had 9 people, including the sound lady and Eddie (my agent) – so really, 7 people who came of their own volition and didn’t know me. To be fair, my reading was opposite the Google Books settlement meeting. I’m sure that drew some people away.

More to follow soon — please watch this space!

 

World Fantasy Convention 2009, Part 1

November 6, 2009

I once saw Valery Gergiev conduct the Kirov Orchestra here in Niigata (we’re not that far from Russia, so they do a Japan tour now and then). A friend and I had seats right back up behind the orchestra, so it was almost like being in the group, and we had a perfect view of Gergiev’s face, close enough to see his expressions. Gergiev is one of the most prominent and best conductors in the world; at least over here, the classical section of the music store is filled with his CDs. And watching him, one truly gets the sense of being in the presence of greatness. I can honestly apply the term “larger than life” to perhaps three or four people I’ve encountered in my forty-odd [VERY odd] years, and Gergiev is one of them. I had the sense that he was chiseled from something other than flesh and bone — a great, moving statue, whose baton seemed more a liquid than a solid.

Why do I tell this story now? Well, the final thing he did that deeply impressed me was that on the final encore, he put down his baton, got the orchestra started on a Christmas medley with a few beats of his hand, and then he walked away from the podium and leaned against a side wall, just listening, basking in the music, and letting the Kirov Orchestra shine forth. The clear message was, “It’s all about them. They’re the group you’re here to hear, and they’re awesome.”

My point is, this blog is all about you! You’ve proven this week that you can all carry on just fine when I’m away in San Jose. What we have here is a community. My role is to get things started with a wave of my hand, and then I’m just reading along. A “Table Round,” as we’ve talked about before! Thank you all for those fantastic Hallowe’en stories and movie comments. The rambling house was plenty lived in while I was away, and it’s so good to see lights on when I come home!

Anyway, I know you’re waiting to hear about World Fantasy. I’ve been incredibly busy since getting back (I finally just unpacked today, Friday, after getting back on Tuesday night!) — had to jump right back into teaching on Wednesday. I’m correcting student compositions, and I’ve got homework to do from my agent — which is a good thing — a very good thing — but being away for a week has its costs!

So what I think will happen is that this convention report will be spread out over several posts. That will work out well, actually, because there are several discrete topics to address. (I mean “discrete,” not “discreet” — don’t get all disappointed when I don’t bring up any scandals!)

It was a wonderful time — beyond wonderful! I can’t say enough about how important these conventions are in keeping things in perspective for me. Seeing the reality of the fantasy publishing world firsthand is both good and potentially terrible. On the one hand, it’s enormously uplifting to be among one’s own people — all those engaged in doing the same thing, valuing most of the same things, etc. On the other hand, for the faint of heart, that could be extremely daunting. The WFC always reminds me of just what a lot of incredibly wise, smart, erudite, brilliant, talented, experienced people are working in the field. It’s humbling — who am I to think I can write books among such company? But then again, the conventions reaffirm just what a wide and diverse family we are. The World Fantasy Award judges said that, too: their judging experience revealed what a vast assortment of books and tastes the fantasy field embraces. We’re a family with young and old folks, hopefuls and successful and streetwise and weary, ambitious and lazy, charismatic and unbelievably eccentric members . . . we’re a family with skeletons in the closet. But we are a family, and it’s good to reconnect in person every year.

When I came back to Japan, the first class I taught on that Wednesday was my writing class, and it went the best it’s gone this year. I think there’s something about that reaffirmation of my identity that supercharged me.

I have two sets of notes to work through here: my daily journal, and my WFC notebook, which I take to the convention each year. Of course I won’t bore you with every detail, but I guess I’ll start by hitting the highlights more or less chronologically. Then, in later posts, we’ll get into more of the content of the panels.

I noted that I do not like LAX, the Los Angeles airport. The security there is the most stressful of any I’ve encountered. If you can avoid flying through there, do so. I flew into there from Tokyo on October 28th, and then took a connecting flight up to San Jose. The scenery was quite interesting as I soared northward over California — so different from either Japan or Illinois — lots of low, brown mountains, and fields of various colors. In the Midwest, we plant vast amounts of things that are the same color. In California, they seem to plant little fields of different hues. Crayons, perhaps? Is that where crayons are grown?

I was proud of myself for doing the economic thing and taking public transportation from the airport to the hotel, instead of springing for a taxi. There was a free bus to the Light Rail system, and then I bought a $2.00 ticket at a vending machine and took the Light Rail to the back door of the Fairmont Hotel. I chatted with Peter, a writer who was going to the same place. I checked in, received my name badge and

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Every year, attendees of the World Fantasy Convention receive a bag of new books and magazines that publishers wish to promote; and the bag itself bears the convention logo.

massive bag of books, and explored the hotel. The Wednesday-evenings-before-the-conventions are among my favorite times: it’s all still ahead of you, and people are just beginning to arrive, and you can get a feel for the place and venture out into the neighborhood for supper.

In the convention literature, I’d read that there was an O’Flaherty’s Irish pub nearby. So that’s where I went for dinner: the Smithwick’s was okay, the Harp was great, and the shepherd’s pie was out of this world! They had a really cool Hallowe’en decor: giant spiders dangling from the rafters, cobwebs strewn over the walls, and a bizarre skeletal bat near my table. I wrote a couple postcards and just soaked in the ambience.

Back at the hotel that evening, I took a nap, practiced my reading (for

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The contents of the freebie bag are worth considerably more than the price of the convention membership!

Thursday night), and ventured down into the lobby late at night to see if anyone I knew was there yet. The first person I saw was John Joseph Adams of Fantasy & Science Fiction. We passed near the elevators and said hi to each other.

Okay: I think I’ll stop there for right now, but be advised that this will be a week of postings — I may not post every single night, but I’ll be back tomorrow night, and quite often until I’ve told the whole story of this convention. So if you’re at all interested, stop by often!

I’ll close with a couple tidbits from my WFC notes:

For one thing, one panel raved about Stephen King’s It, about how well constructed it is. Master craftsmanship, etc. I concur. For awhile back in 1988/1989, I was going around saying It was the second-best book I’d ever read. It impressed me that much.

Another fascinating thought that was brought up: The human condition is always being on the edge of survival. That’s why the true literature has always been about what’s out there in the dark.

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My room in the Fairmont Hotel, San Jose.

 

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World Fantasy Convention, 2009

 

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Early morning view from the 18th floor of the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose.

 

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Isn't this cool? My room looked right down at the pool. It was warm enough that I actually saw people swimming now and then! California is definitely sunnier and warmer than Niigata in October/November!


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