I [editor A.C. Wise] am a sucker for “found” stories. Was there a particular inspiration for Found Items that made you structure it as a series of audio tapes as opposed to a straightforward narrative?
I wrote this story maybe eight years ago, sent it out a few times, got rejected, and shoved it in a box. (The box was metaphorical; I keep stories in folders on my Mac, not in a box.) Anyway, now that eight years have passed, I no longer recall anything about the story’s genesis except that I adore cicadas, and that I remain fascinated by the combination of abject poverty and exceptional natural beauty that pervades Kentucky’s Red River Gorge area. As to why I put “Found Items” together as a disjunctional Blair Witch story, I truly have no idea. I wish I did. No doubt it had something do with imitation, an attempt to recreate something I’d read.
This is the second story of yours that we’ve published, so obviously we’re fans of your work. One of the things that keeps us hooked is the way you use each character’s voice to make them real and unique. This is critical in good writing, but also dangerous. Do you have any tips for accomplishing this, without falling into stereotype and caricature?
The great argument in favor of first person writing is that it so clearly denotes character. The danger is you wind up channeling yourself, ad nauseum. Third person (as with “The Latest Incarnation of Secondhand Johnny,” the first story Unlikely Story took on) is, theoretically, a medium of distance, a stratagem that establishes a relatively cool and unbiased viewpoint. This, of course, is balderdash. Or at least potential balderdash. Both first and third (not to mention second) person can step back, or can race in close. Consider the epistolary story, where two or more first person accounts vie for supremacy, and do so, usually, at a cautious remove. Consider unreliable narrators. Consider the plight of the baby harp seal!
Caricature stems from a lack of authenticity and heart, which in a story usually arises from one of three things: one, a lack of respect on the part of the writer for the character(s) being featured, which leads directly to stereotyping; two, a lack of any deeper understanding of said character(s); and three, a tendency to “write lite” and not delve into meaningful, substantive issues. I spent twenty years doing the latter (and one writer called me on it, screenwriter Harve Bennet). If age has done me any good at all, it’s my course correction away from low-cal story-telling.
What is your writing process like typically? Or do you have a different process for every story?
Every day is different. Two nights ago, at a Wyndam Hotel in Indianapolis, where I’d gone to––oh, never mind. Suffice it to say, I was there, and so was the Wyndham. My point is, I filled three small hotel notepad sheets with what will surely be the opening four chapters of my next novel. I scratched down a series of ideas, scraps of dialogue, and essential conflicts. This inspirational flurry began at twelve-thirty in the morning, and lasted for about twenty minutes, after which I went to sleep. Three days later, I’ve started “writing my notes,” and to my delight, they make sense, sense of the best kind: story sense.
On a good week, I write Monday through Friday, when my boys are in school, from about eight in the morning until about two in the afternoon, with a lunch break where I watch soccer or (in fragments) a movie. Around two it’s exercise time, and after that I’m Mr. Mom, a transportation chief, a grocery expert, and an unparalleled laundry-folding machine. Keeping those school hours sacrosanct is an ongoing battle that I often lose. Yes, I gather some writers write every day. If they have kids, and they’re also responsible for the house, meals, and the yard, I must say that that seems to me to be impossible.
What is your favorite piece of insect-related fiction?
My favorite piece of fish-related fiction is Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, but insects? Not Dr. Who and the Zarbi, no. Oh, bother! No, I’ve got it now. A.A. Milne. “In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees, and the Stories Begin.”
As we mature, our relationship with the creepy-crawly elements of the world changes, as does our emotional (and sometimes physical) response. Can you tell us one early or notable experience you’ve had with bugs that helped shape how you view them?
Arachnids jump out more than bugs, primarily because mosquitoes, when they bother to bite me, do not leave a mark and do not make me itch. With spiders, I will never forget entering a Grand Canyon outhouse far down the North Rim’s Phantom Ranch trail, and discovering, once seated, that the entire outhouse, including the door and the lock, was infested with black widows. All sizes, with many egg sacs, and a curtain of fine-spun webbing. This might sound like a horrific encounter to many readers, but I was rapt. Careful, too. I may even admit to (slightly) speeding up my essential business.
What have you read recently/what are you reading currently/what is on your TBR pile that you’re excited about?
I’m excited about The Orphan Master’s Son, which I gather won the Pulitzer, and lurks now on my bed stand, alongside the various nightmares from my closet. I’m re-reading Little, Big, by John Crowley, which is even more brilliant on a second go-round, and I just polished off all nine hundred and eighty pages of Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of the Earth. I also just finished Issue #1 of Betwixt Magazine.
What are you working on now/what do you have upcoming that you want people to know about?
Since you asked about voice, I must talk up The Skates, Sleeping Bear, and Check-Out Time, all of which are part of my growing stable of Renner & Quist stories with Samhain Publishing. The first two are novellas, and The Skates is available (eBook only, because of its short length) right now. Reverend Renner, a petite, prissy Unitarian Universalist minister, and Dale Quist, an ex-P.I. and former linebacker, are as different as night and day, and the structural conceit of all these tales is that both men get their say, in first-person, in alternating chapters. Thus I get to indulge in Renner’s very erudite, sometimes smug voice, and then jump ship to Quist, who prides himself on being a straight-shooting pragmatist. Both men are (to their chagrin) sensistized to the supernatural, and that’s where their adventures take flight. If I had to peg these books, I’d call them literary horror, a throwback to the days when nobody had dreamed up the carnage of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the unseen remained more frightening than the seen. I’m working on the next in the sequence today, tentatively titled Bonesy. Remember the notes I took in the hotel, a few questions back? That’s Bonesy.
We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?
Aside from newspaper work in high school, my first published piece was “The American-Made Bomb Speaks Out,” in Bibliophilos. It’s satire, really, and not strictly fiction. I think it holds up well. I dare you to seek it out.
Since we’re coming up on the holiday season, and there’s no escaping it -- what is your favorite holiday-related entertainment (movie, TV special, song/album, book or story)? What is your least favorite?
If there’s a piece of music in the galaxy more endlessly inventive than Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, I’d like to know what it is. (The Tales of Hoffman from which it came are also well worth the time). That said, I’m a big fan of Clarisse the reindeer singing “There’s Always Tomorrow,” and when Yukon Cornelius hollers, “Didn’t I ever tell you? Bumbles bounce!” I become, in an instant, seven years old. I love that man.
Least favorite? Maybe that Cheech & Chong Xmas song…
One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.
I learned to sew in seventh grade “home ec.” But what really sticks out is economics proper. College-level economics should be required of all college grads, two semesters at least.
We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.
Laird Barron’s “Bulldozer.” Makes the world tilt and go dark. Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See.” Forces you to go back and immediately re-read. “The Screwfly Solution,” by Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) is perhaps my favorite sci-fi or spec fic story of all time, rivaled closely by Keith Roberts’ “Timothy.” The greatest novel ever written is The Once and Future King by T.H. White, with The Book Of Merlyn included, as it was meant to be and (to my knowledge) never has been yet.