July 28th, 2014

  • rgrump

An Unlikely Interview with James Van Pelt

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

In This Gray Rock, Standing Tall, a map literally and metaphorically leads your main character to a deeper connection with both his father and his son, and a new understanding of himself and his place in the world. Have you ever experienced a moment like that, where a physical object, or something someone left behind, completely changed your perception of that person, or yourself?

A lot of “This Gray Rock, Standing Tall” felt autobiographical. None of the events in the story are from memory, but a lot of the emotion of trying to connect with my father set the tone in the piece. He’s knee deep into Alzheimer’s, and I’ve spent a lot of time considering my relationship to him as he slips away. He’s in a care center right now, so the family has been going through the house we grew up in, preparing it for sale. My sisters found an old telescope of his, a giant brass and glass instrument that any self-respecting pirate would be glad to call his own. I’ve contemplated that telescope frequently since it turned up. Dad was an aeronautical engineer. He worked on many of the projects that were a part of the nation’s race to space. Holding that old telescope, thinking about how often he must have turned it to the stars before I was born, makes me see him as he must have been when he was young. I’m having a plaque made for it to hang on the wall below the telescope. It will read, “Jack Van Pelt, Watcher of the Skies.”

When you travel or visit a new area, are you the kind of person who likes to use a map (or GPS) to get to know the place, or do you prefer to explore and figure things out as you go along? Similarly, when it comes to fiction, do you outline, or do you start writing and find the story that way?

I have no sense of direction, so GPS is the science fictional future that I’m glad to be living in. But I’ve always loved maps. I particularly liked novels that had maps as the end pieces. The first fictional map I remember studying was the one in Ruth Gannet’s children’s book, MY FATHER’S DRAGON. I loved maps with unexplored areas, including the ones that read, “Here there be dragons.” Someone asked me about my writing process not long ago, and I told them that one part of the process I really enjoyed is when I start a new story. I type my name and address in the upper left, tab down to the middle of the page, think of a title (even if it will probably change later), and then pause before I plunge into the blank space below. That blank space is the map of unexplored territory. I have no idea what surprises await me there.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I did temp work when I was in grad school. Most of the time is was secretarial, but I took a job for a week unloading a urea barge in the Port of Sacramento. The product came down the coast from Alaska in barges longer than a city block. At first, the urea, which are white, slightly sticky pellets, unloads by gravity onto conveyor belts. For a day, I manned a section of the belt with the urea pounding down from the containers above. The noise deafened and the dust blinded. Once the easy stuff was out, though, the rest had to moved with huge front-end loaders. They trained me on one, and for the next few days, I ran this giant machine inside the barge, grabbing bucket loads of the product and then dumping down to the conveyors. The wall of urea towered over the machine. The foreman told me to be careful not to undercut the wall, or the whole mess would come down, cover the front-end loader, and probably kill me. I spent my entire time on that job scared to death, and very, very sorry I’d taken it. It’s largest impact on my writing was to convince me I was better behind a desk or in a classroom than I was doing industrial labor.

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 teach high school and college English, so I think about education most of the time. In this era of standardized testing and common core standards, I keep coming back to what I thought were the two most important lessons I learned in high school. I don’t know if they are obscure — they feel obvious to me — but I don’t hear people talking about them. The first was that answers could be found. That lesson doesn’t have anything to do with math or science or grammar knowledge, but it’s what I got out of school. If I apply myself, and I continue looking, I can find answers. That one lesson has taken me a long way. The rest of my own education, I think, was about learning of different ways to think. I don’t remember much from my math classes, but I’m aware of mathematical thinking. I don’t remember much from science, but I know something about the scientific method. I can’t recall names and dates, but I see history as an interrelationship of forces. Those were my important lessons. High school, at least, seems to me to be the place where we learn there are answers to be found, and that there are different, logical ways to look at the world.

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.

Once again, not obscure, but I think under read, is Robert Holdstock, most specifically, his novel MYTHAGO WOOD. I’ve worn out a couple of copies, and I’ve given away several. Interestingly enough, MYTHAGO WOOD is also about a son trying to understand an absent father. “This Gray Rock, Standing Tall,” owes a lot to that book. I loved the narrative voice in it. I loved how I was half way through it before I realized that besides being a mystery, it was a dynamite romance, and I identified with its theme of mythic resonances. It’s a great book. Maybe the best epilogue ever.

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?.

My first story sale was a piece in a small magazine named ABERATIONS. It was called “No Small Change.” I still like the story. It was about sex, growing up, mythical superpowers and real-world powers. I think it was published in 1990, when I was thirty-six. I’d been teaching English, both writing and literature, for eight years, and I was into my first year of a two-year graduate program in creative writing. I wasn’t exactly a stranger to the written word by then. I’ve grown a lot since, but I think that story still stands up. I’m not embarrassed to call it my own. There’s a bunch of stories before that one, though, that I’m thoroughly happy have not seen the light of day.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

I have a short story in the June Asimov’s. In the meantime, I’m working on a young adult science fiction/fantasy series. And, of course, I’m always writing more stories. I love the short form.

When James Van Pelt isn’t writing, he teaches high school and college English in Grand Junction, Colorado. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, Weird Tales and numerous other venues. His latest short story collection, Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille, appeared in 2012. His wife and three sons think he tells a pretty good bedtime story.