Cat Rambo and I met doing Broad Universe Rapidfire Readings at a bunch of conventions through the zero years, mostly Pacific Northwest events like Orycon and Norwescon. I’ve thus heard her read fantasy, horror and science fiction, and one of the things I admire most about her, besides her multi-genre range, is her ability to tell a story quickly that will cut right through all defenses and into the hearts of her audience.
Cat has a new collection of SF stories out… really, it’s more properly two collections. It’s called Near + Far and here’s the NEAR half of the cover:
Today on Off My Lawn, Cat’s tackling the difference between writer’s block and waiting for your Muse to come.
Ah, writer’s block. Writers in films certainly seem to suffer from it, whether it’s Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction or Billy Crystal in Throw Momma From the Train.
They can’t get started, the words don’t come. The muse is out to lunch, and has left no forwarding address.
I’ve got mixed feelings about such portrayals, because they make me feel guilty. Sure, I acknowledge there are valid sources of writer’s block: illness, mental trauma, general life upheaval. But the truth of the matter has always been that even when I’m languishing at the keyboard playing Bejeweled Blitz in an attempt to get my creative juices stirring, I still know: I could be writing, and should be.
Yes, writing that comes easily, breathlessly, spilling onto the page as though you were channeling Calliope herself, is sometimes wonderful. And the writing that comes with difficulty, as though you were scraping the words out of the top of your skull with a melon spoon, may not be great. But there are always words to write, even if they’re “I don’t know what to write,” over and over again.
Part of the my philosophy of writing grows out of Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bone. For Goldberg, writing is the most important thing. It is the act of having written that matters, not what you’ve produced. And I agree, because the day after I’ve forced to write, it’s easier to do so, while the day I spent conquering the world in Civ 3 made me, if anything, less fit to write.
The blank page is scary. It’s a large and unguessable territory. It’s easier if you go in with a plan of action, a list of sights and scenes and senses you want to hit. But sometimes you have to trust yourself just to write and see what comes out. Because the brain gets bored with saying “I don’t know what to write” over and over again. It starts tossing out wild and entertaining notions, comes up with odd and unscripted moments. That’s often when you’re best in touch with that unknown side of you, that side that will never face you directly but will manifest best and most brightly in your writing. Learn to trust that hidden side to supply you with details you can excavate in rewriting. Learn to collaborate with yourself.
I don’t have the time or patience for writer’s block. Writing is what I do and unless I do it every day, I’m not happy with myself. Sure, some words are crap. But some are good, and the more I write, the better they are.
When I was at Hopkins, one of my teachers was Stephen Dixon, who had something like 14 or 15 books at the time. Whenever you talked to him in the hall, you knew what was going on in his head: “We could both be writing.” It was sobering how devoted to producing the text he was – in those pre-computer days, he just typed his manuscripts over and over, refining them with each pass, until he was done. Think of how much easier we have it now.
So yeah. Writer’s block? Maybe. I don’t want to offend anyone with categorical denunciations. Let’s just say sometimes it might be real – but sometimes it’s an excuse. And I just don’t have a lot of patience with that, anymore.
Near + Far is full of stories. I could have had twice as many in it. They’re stories that could have stayed in my head, much more perfect, elegant and beautifully realized than their actuality. Or I could do what I did: write them and get them out of the way, making room for more to come.
Palmatier’s most recent anthology is The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, which he co-edited with Patricia Bray. It includes stories by Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, Jim Hines, and a whole array of the hottest writers working in urban fantasy today. Meanwhile, his January novel, LEAVES OF FLAME, is the sequel to the well-received Benjamin Tate novel WELL OF SORROWS.
I asked him…
How did your dual career evolve–are you a writer who became an editor, an editor who became a writer, or some other manner of creature?
Oh, I’m definitely a writer who became an editor. In fact, I’m still kind of shocked that the editing thing happened. It wasn’t something that really crossed my mind as part of the publishing industry I could/should pursue. Basically, I was at a multi-author signing and afterwards we all got together for drinks (as authors are wont to do), and during the animated conversation someone brought up writing short stories centered around a bar. This evolved into the idea that the bars in the story were actually the same bar and it was simply shifting through time. And then Patricia suggested that the bartender be Gilgamesh, and lo! the After Hours: Tales from Ur-Bar anthology was born. Of course, we still had to sell the idea and that’s where all of these grand ideas that occur to writers at bars usually die. But I decided the idea was worth pursuing and so I asked someone at Tekno how we could get our idea pitched to DAW, since that’s what Tekno does. They asked me to pitch it to them right then, which I did, and they liked it enough they asked for a written proposal by the next day because they were doing a batch of pitches to DAW then. I scrambled to get the proposal written and (months later, of course) we heard that DAW had bought the anthology. This is when me and Patricia panicked, because neither one of us had ever edited anything before, but we did what authors always do in such circumstances: cracked open a bottle of wine, opened a box of chocolate, and got to work. We enjoyed the experience so much that we pitched some ideas for additional anthologies and sold The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, our latest anthology, coming out March 6th, 2012.
Tell us a bit about this latest anthology: how did it come together?
Ha, well, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity didn’t come about in a bar. Once we’d had such fun putting together AFTER HOURS, we decided we wanted to do another anthology. I had this idea for a short story that involved the fae, but in a modern setting, and I thought having an entire set of such stories would be cool. I told Patricia about the story and we put together a proposal based on that. However, during the course of writing the proposal, the concept slipped into something slightly different and so my story no longer fit the anthology. (Basically, the anthology is much more urban fantasy in nature, and my story wasn’t.) But that was fine; it was only driving the idea and I’d only planned on using it in the anthology if we needed it to fill up some space. In any case, we pitched the idea along with a few others and that was the one DAW was interested in. Once sold, we asked multiple authors to submit stories (a much wider pool than for the AFTER HOURS anthology since we felt more comfortable being editors), and of course got a slew of great tales. We actually had so many we had to pick and choose which ones to include. This was the first time we had to deal with rejections, which was hard, but it’s all part of the business.
Do you find that fiction writing and editing are easy roles to keep in balance? One assumes there’s a time crunch–because many of us live in a perpetually time-crunched state–but are there any challenges involved wearing both hats? What about benefits?
Actually, I was surprised how easy it was to switch from one role to the other. I was only dealing with one anthology per year, so it wasn’t as intense as what our editors at Tor and DAW deal with on a daily basis. Most of the heavy work involved came when the stories were handed in and we had to read them for either inclusion in the anthology, or for potential edits. After that, we had to reread them all for the copy edits and page proof phase of the publishing process. But overall, it was something I could easily balance with my continued writing. Mostly, I worked on the writing in the afternoons (and mornings when I wasn’t teaching), and did my editing in the evenings after the gym. Patricia and I would get together after having read the stories individually to discuss our thoughts on what to include, what needed additional revisions, etc. I think it helps tremendously that both Patricia and I are incredibly organized, so nothing got lost or misplaced, and we were always on schedule, if not ahead of schedule during the entire process. The most challenging aspect was choosing the order in which the stories would be placed in the anthology. For AFTER HOURS, that was easy (chronological order); but for MODERN FAE, we wanted to make certain there weren’t two similar stories (two humorous or two dark) back-to-back. We wanted to stress the variety of the stories by having it switch back and forth. But even then you want the stories to slow well into one another so the transitions aren’t jarring. As for benefits, I really think it gave both Patricia and I an appreciation for what our own editors have to deal with one a much larger scale every day. I also think being a writer made it easier for us to talk to the other authors and discuss their stories, what we thought would make them better, etc.
Your latest Ben Tate novel, Leaves of Flame, opens with your wizard character Colin having mastered three of five possible magical disciplines. Can you tell us a little about how you structured this magic system–why the divisions exist, and what the pitfalls might be?
Ah, the magic system. I like things that aren’t quite so set in stone, so my system isn’t based on something like “throw two pinches of orcbane into ground swallow’s bone, mix with fairy blood, then drink.” It’s much more . . . metaphysical, I guess. I have five essential magics, although they all interact and blend with each other at the edges. I think of the five as sort of a continuum, like the spectrum of light, and each person falls into that continuum in some place. Where they fall determines what kind of magic they have an affinity for and how strong they will be when using that magic. It’s more complicated than this, actually, because people can have an affinity for more than one magic (as Colin does), but that’s the basic idea. Someone really strong with the magic I call the Rose will be centered strongly on the part of the continuum. If Rose corresponds to red in the light spectrum, then someone strong in the Rose will be a deep, dark red in color. Then, of course, there are some people that have no affinity for any of the five magics. And the magic itself is also ethereal in nature. For example, in the Ben Tate books, I play around with the magic I call the Lifeblood—the water in the Well of Sorrows that (as far as Colin can tell) makes someone immortal and allows them to manipulate time. There are obvious limits to this power, which Colin discovers through experimentation, so there are obviously “rules,” but it isn’t as solid or obvious what those rules are as it might be in some fantasy novels. I like this sense of an unseen structure, but with enough freedom for the characters to explore and for the magic to expand. The obvious pitfall is that as the series continues (and the world expands), you have to be careful that you keep all of the so-called “established” rules from previous novels in mind in the later ones, so that you don’t accidentally violate some principle that you established earlier on. I hate when this happens in novels I read (where a rule becomes “inconvenient” for the current plot and so the author “changes” the rules so that things will work like they want), and so I’m extremely conscious of it in my own work. However, the more books I write, the harder it is to keep track of everything! Copious notes are necessary.
Do you ever think about a dream project… the book you’d write or edit if you had carte blanche and a magically guaranteed audience? What would that look like?
Hmm . . . well, I’d have to say that I’ve been lucky in that DAW has supported my writing dreams to the extent that they’ve been interested in pretty much everything I’ve wanted to write up to this point. So in essence, the books I’m currently writing are all ones that I really want to write. What I’m missing in all of this is the magically guaranteed audience. I could always use more fans! *grin* But seriously, I think the only thing I dream about right now is the continued chance to write the books that are flitting around in my head. There are probably 15 ideas for other books demanding attention at the moment, so I have plenty of projects to look forward to in the future . . . if I can find someone willing to buy them. I’d also like to continue editing anthologies. Patricia and I have a few proposals ready to be pitched when the opportunity arises. I’d like to get the chance to wrangle authors again in the near future.
Joshua Palmatier (www.joshuapalmatier.com), otherwise known as Benjamin Tate (www.benjamintate.com) is a fantasy writer with DAW Books, with two series on the shelf, a few short stories. As mentioned, he is co-editor with Patricia Bray of two anthologies. Check out the “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy—The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne—under the Joshua Palmatier name. And look for the “Well” series—Well of Sorrows and the just released Leaves of Flame—by Benjamin Tate. His short stories are included in the anthologies Close Encounters of the Urban Kind (edited by Jennifer Brozek), Beauty Has Her Way (Jennifer Brozek), and River (Alma Alexander). And the two anthologies he’s co-edited are After Hours: Tales from the Ur-bar and the upcoming The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity (March 2012). Find out more about both names at www.joshuapalmatier.com and ww.benjamintate.com, as well as on Facebook, LiveJournal, and Twitter.
I will be interviewing Guest of Honor Stephen Baxter at Norwescon this April 6th and to that end I’ve started Stone Spring, first in his most recent series, The Northland Trilogy. It’s an alternate history about dike-building stone age Britons. The main character is a teenaged girl, Ana; of course, among a people whose life expectancy is in the thirties, this means she is in no way a kid.
I love AH and haven’t read as much of it in the past couple years as I did when I was reviewing for Locus, so it has been a lot of fun. And I’m looking forward to the interview. If you’re gonna be at NWC, it’s at 2:00 p.m. on the Friday.
My previous read was also a novel, Stephanie Burgis’s Kat, Incorrigible, which is a thoroughgoing romp. Kat’s twelve with two marriageable sisters and a family disgraced by their dead mother’s very public use of magic. Her eldest sister is thereby feeling very much obliged to buy into an arranged marriage with the obscenely rich Sir Neville, and naturally it falls to Kat, who has no gift for being ladylike, proper, or even especially inconspicuous, to find a way to save her.
The book is available now and there will be a sequel, Renegade Magic, out in the spring. I’d say they’re appropriate for kids ten years or older, and I found it thoroughly fun.
Finally, I will be mostly unavailable for today, as February 29th is when I and 28 other writers from four cities are participating in the International 24 Hour Book Project. It’ll be #24hourbook if you want to follow the Tweeting fun.
Those of you who know I’m a history nerd could probably have guessed that I’d approach Jack Dann for an interview sooner or later: he’s the guy, after all, who wrote The Memory Cathedral – A Secret History of Leonardo Da Vinci! Not only has he won the Nebula, the Aurealis Award, and The World Fantasy Award, he holds the title of Esteemed Knight in the Mark Twain Society.
Jack has been candid and funny and very revealing in this interview about his writing career, and I don’t want to keep you from him a second longer than necessary. So enjoy!
I’m a New York expat living in Australia. I sort of shuffle between our apartment in Melbourne and a small farm in a beautiful part of the country called South Gippsland. It overlooks the sea and a dragon-shaped landmass (and a national park) called Wilson’s Promontory. I live with my wife Janeen Webb, who is an internationally recognized critic, award-winning writer, and a retired university professor. I’ve been writing since the late sixties, and have written or edited over seventy-five books and a bunch of short stories. I’ve won a handful of awards…ach! This is boring stuff!
New and usually young writers tend to put all sorts of dashing things in their bios such as wrestling alligators in Florida and being soldiers of fortune in Algeria. They write that that they train Lipizzaner horses and have pedigreed Manx and Siamese cats that only meow in iambic pentameter. I thought it might be fun to reminisce about the mad old days, so here is some stuff I absolutely and positively would never put into my book bios:
I was…a door-to-door cable television salesman, lifeguard, law investigator, and a law school drop-out. I sold all my text books and became “a freelance writer” the day after Damon Knight accepted one of my stories for his Orbit anthology series. I’ve been a ghostwriter, soup distributor, and a carnival roustabout (that means I cleaned up elephant poo); and I’ve have had my share of nuts sending me death threats, mandalas, and Polaroid photos of their naked selves after they’d read my books. (And here I thought all along that I was writing light, frothy Runyonesque escapist fiction for sophisticates.)
I lived in a hotel in New York City immortalized by Donald E. Westlake—I remember that the doorman wore a tee-shirt and carried a baseball bat. I’ve had two advertising agencies, sat on the board of directors of a New York insurance company, failed at getting a job as a cab driver, worked with the late, great film director Nicholas Ray, and was one of the (God-forgive-me) pioneers in the early days of telemarketing. I was, for a while, the bull-moose loser of Nebula Awards. (Yes, I did win one!) I’ve been a marksman, window-washer, and a lousy jazz pianist. I can’t sing a note and I’ve always had cats as pets…only now we have a dog, a beagle called Bertie Beagleman, who does not respond to commands unless there is food involved: so I suppose I still have a cat of sorts.
The project of the moment, the project I’m taking a break from to have some fun with this interview, is a book—or rather a series of books—that I swore I’d never write. I’m working on a—I guess one could call it a—fat fantasy series. Although I love fantasy, am a Tolkien reader and re-reader, and love the genre, I really don’t have time for the copycat run of fantasy novels, the badly reupholstered Tolkien knock-offs. I admire (and envy!) the brilliantly original fantasists such as George R. R. Martin, Mary Stewart, R. A. MacAvoy, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Phillip Pullman, but I figured that the big, cosmic, multi-book fantasy genre was just not for me.
Alas, that was a very bad thing for this writer to reveal to his very nasty, noncompliant, and treacherous unconscious. After bragging loudly that I would never ever write such a thing, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t look for ideas…they seemed to be landing all over me like sand-flies in summer.
This fantasy series is set in an alternate Renaissance universe and our universe… and characters can also come from different time periods, which they do! But it is a fantasy, as it assumes the Gnostic Gospels are real, and a number of the characters are angels and demons. Gabriel, for instance, is one of the protagonists.
I have multiple books on the go… I’ve just finished an anthology with Nick Givers entitled Ghosts by Gaslight; am copyediting a Borgo double, which will include my short novels The Economy of Light and Jubilee; compiling three new anthologies to take to publishers; writing the first book of the fantasy series—the book is tentatively titled Shadows in the Stone; doing preliminary work on a book about writing fiction; working with my bibliographer on a second edition of The Work of Jack Dann; some film stuff (no, I can’t discuss any of that yet); and…I think I’ll stop now. It’s hurting my head!
I started writing fiction with the aim of getting published around 1966, and sold my first story (with George Zebrowski) to a magazine called Anubis, which promptly went bust. (We later sold it to a hardcover anthology.) We went on to sell another collaboration to Worlds of If, which was the sister magazine to Galaxy; and that story, “Traps” was published in 1974. So I was in my late twenties. Influences? I’ll try not to bore the reader, but they include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Loren Eisley, J.G. Ballard, Thomas N. Disch, Philip K. Dick, Elizabeth Bowen, J.D. Salinger, Edgar Pangborn, Jerzy Kosinsky, Bradbury, Brian Aldiss, Marquez, Lem, Wells, Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty, Stapledon, Huismans, Mark Twain, John Fowles. I could (but mercifully won’t) go on and on. But if I had to choose just two early influences, it would be Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
I do remember a specific moment when I decided to be a writer. I was in a terminal ward, as they didn’t expect me to survive, and I had a copy of Hemingway’s Down and Out in Paris on my bed table. I was too ill with peritonitis to read, but it became a sort of talisman as I swung back and forth between agonizing pain and the numbing, cold blue dreams induced by Demerol. I promised myself that if I survived, I was going to what I wanted to do: Write. That was over forty-five years ago.
(To get an idea of what I experienced, read my story “Camps”.)
I’m a writer, but that’s only a part of what I am. Sure, I could quit, but I don’t want to. It’s the best life I can imagine. I’ve spent a lifetime following my bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say, so I can’t complain. I’ve done other things—door to door salesman, principal partner in two advertising agencies, director of a New York insurance company—but I’ve always written, no matter what. That’s what I do, and, okay, I suppose in my secret heart of hearts (alas, no longer secret!), I am a writer, then everything else.
I began writing SF and fantasy, I grew up reading SF and fantasy, and although I write ‘across genres’, I keep going back to SF and fantasy, two genres I love. I write historical and contemporary novels…I write what interests me at the time, and right now, I’m doing what I swore I’d never do: that fat fantasy trilogy. Go figure!
I don’t believe in the idea of writer as ‘artiste’. When I had a family, and a six book deal went down the tubes, I became a door-to-door salesman, although I’d never sold a thing in my life. A cable salesman came to the door of my newly mortgaged house, and I made a deal with him: If he’d bring me into the cable company, I’d give him writing lessons. I took care of my family, and when I was making enough money writing, I became a full-time writer.
Every writer has to find his or her own path, and it’s always frustrating and difficult to balance art and craft and life. I tell young writers not to quit their day jobs. I tell them to get up early and write, to give yourself that time so the rest of the day can be given generously to all the other tasks of being a person living in the world. I believe that writers need experience…so learn things, take chances, get the best education possible, become streetwise, and don’t let anything get in the way of your writing. By that I mean, don’t make excuses. If you teach in a university, that’s great. But don’t allow that to become a substitute for sitting down to write. I edit anthologies because I love the process of finding new writers and wonderful work: It feels like writing, and gets me through the difficult stretches. But I keep writing, even if it means bumping up against one dead-end after another.
Frankly, those who really want to write will do so…and the rest will just make excuses…legitimate and rational excuses, but excuses just the same.
Oh, and lastly, I’m not good at balancing my life and my writing. I screw it up all the time. But I write!
You know what the real problem is? I need a few more lifetimes. I’m not a fast writer, and there are so many projects I have in mind. Right now I’m writing the fantasy based on the Gnostic Gospels. If I can stay alive and compos mentis long enough, there are dozens of novels I’d like to write.
I was lucky, as I began selling fiction immediately. I think that was a question of being in the right places at the right times. As I said, everyone’s path is different. I taught myself how to write by writing short stories…and the short stories kept getting longer and longer until I found myself just warming up around the hundred thousand word mark. Yes, there were big sacrifices, but I didn’t notice them until later. It’s romantic when you’re young to be living out there on the edge, not knowing where the next dollar might be coming from; but doing the hustle becomes more difficult as the years weigh down and the midriff bulges. I’ve spent my life living at two hundred miles an hour…with almost no regrets. (I used to say ‘no regrets’, but I’ve discovered you can’t really be alive and not have regrets.
I didn’t go to Clarion, although I’m a big fan and have been a tutor twice at Clarion South in Australia. But workshops were very important to my early growth as a writer. I was one of the original members of the Guilford Writers Workshop and later the Philford Writers Workshop. I wrote about that time in my collection of collaborative fiction entitled The Fiction Factory. Here’s a relevant bit from the book:
Gardner (Dozois) brought me into the Guilford Writers Workshop, which used to meet in Jack C. Haldeman II’s decaying four-story Victorian mansion in the Guilford section of Baltimore; and I became a regular member of the group called the Guilford Gafia (nicknamed after “The Milford Mafia,” which was what some people were calling Damon Knight’s and Kate Wilhelm’s now legendary Milford Writers Conferences). Our group comprised Jack and his brother Joe W. Haldeman, George Alec Effinger, Gardner, Ted White, Tom Monteleone, Robert Thurston, William Nabors, and myself.
Guilfords would last a weekend, a weekend of concentrated, exhausting work: staying up most of the night reading the stories to be workshopped the next day, then workshopping, reading, eating together, partying; we were creating our group mythology, creating fast friendships, as we honed our critical and writing skills. It was the Guilfords, and later the Philford Writers Workshops that paved the way for the frenetic, prolific, never-to-be-repeated Fiction Factory days of the eighties.
The Philfords included writers such as David Hartwell, Samuel R. Delany, John Ford, James Patrick Kelly, Timonthy Sullivan, Tony Sarowitz, Greg Frost, and Tom Purdom. And the “Fiction Factory” days that followed was the time I honed my short story skills and collaborated on short fiction with Gardner Dozois, Michael Swanwick, and Susan Casper. We were selling to the slicks such as Playboy, Penthouse, Omni, Oui, and actually making reasonable money for short stories. So, yes, workshops for me were an education. But many writers do not do well in a workshop environment. Depends on the writer. We all approach writing differently, reach our literary goals by weird and wonderfully circuitous ways, so what worked for me might be anathema for you.
I do remember a moment of artistic breakthrough…in fact, I remember a few. One will suffice. (Yes, gentle reader, you can breathe easier now.) I was writing my second novel, Junction, and I just could not find the right ending. I was thoroughly, completely, unreservedly blocked, so I read anything that felt somehow relevant to what I was working on; I chewed my fingernails, went to movies, took long walks; and finally was about to give it up and start another project. I remember taking a nap in the afternoon. I had pulled the drapes across the windows, yet I had not turned off the bare light bulb that hung over the bed. I remember being jolted awake by an explosion of light. Nothing miraculous had happened. The light was still on. I was staring up at it. But in that instant I saw the end of the novel, scene-by-scene in absolutely perfect detail. It only remained for me to write it down. Go figure.
I don’t know if that’s what you were asking. It’s probably not a breakthrough in the sense you meant it, but what the hell, it’s what came to mind. Ask me about Harlan Ellison and public speaking in another interview: now that was a breakthrough!
I think the big surprise was that publishers would buy my novels. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I was fooling them, getting another one past them…and other writers tell me that they feel the same way. We’re really all phonies, you know. Once the publishers realize that, the jig is up for all of us. The bad surprises? Ah, rejection…but then, as we all know, that really isn’t a surprise.
It still feels great. Which definitely proves that there must be something seriously wrong with me.