Interview: Christopher Rowe, by Mikal Trimm

Interview: Christopher Rowe, by Mikal Trimm

Mikal Trimm: Southern writers have a history of being a bit darker, even gothic, in their writing than those from other parts of the country (Flannery O’Conner, Tennessee Williams, even William Faulkner and Mark Twain in much of their fiction). Do you find that growing up Southern influenced your writing style?

Christopher Rowe: The question part of that question presupposes that my writing is dark and gothic, which I don’t think is entirely true. Though what I think of as my best stories can probably be described that way.

Growing up Southern…I don’t know. This reminds me of that bit in The Sound and the Fury where Quentin Compson’s Canadian roommate at Harvard gives his ‘tell about the South’ speech. I don’t think of myself as a Southerner until pretty far down the list of identifiers, even the list of geographical identifiers. I think of myself as an Adair Countian, then as somebody from the Eastern Pennyrile, then as a Kentuckian. ‘Southern’ doesn’t show up until just before ‘American’.

That said, the circumstances of my raising, both cultural and geographical, certainly had a huge influence on my work (and on my personality, my world view, everything), but I think that’s probably true of all artists.

Mikal: What’s the story with you and crows?

Christopher: I’m not at liberty to say.

Mikal: How did …is this a cat? come to be?

Christopher: …is this a cat? is a one shot ‘zine, a chapbook really, that I put out early in 2002 through the small press I run with Gwenda Bond, The Fortress of Words. It sprang from a panel given at the 2001 Wiscon by Gavin J. Grant, Kelly Link, and Emily Pohl-Weary, all indie press editors and publishers of the first water. At the end of their very informative panel about the past and present of the small press — they concentrated on the genre small press mostly — Gavin issued a challenge to all the attendees, basically asking everyone to put out their own ‘zine by the time we all met up again in 2002.

So I was thinking about that when I remembered a conversation I’d had with Kelly earlier in the spring at ICFA. We were looking at some photographs, and I’d shown her one of my cat, Portnoy. She said, “That’s not a cat, it’s a child in a cat suit.” (He’s a bit large.) Having absolutely no other ideas, I made up an invitation, including the photo in question, and sent it out to 20 or so friends, asking them in kind of a mock serious tone to create what they would in answer to the question, “Is this a cat?”

I knew that was a pretty narrow theme, though, so I made it clear — I thought — that what I was really interested in was identity, perceptions of identity. My friends, being the freaks they are, mostly ignored that last bit and sent me stories and drawings and essays, even a comic and a crossword puzzle, almost all about my cat Portnoy. And they did great! I’m very proud of how the ‘zine turned out. There’s really good stuff in there — I’d start listing names but there’s a dozen or more folks on the masthead and they all deserve attention for their work in the ‘zine (and everywhere else their work has appeared). I think there’s still a webpage about …is this a cat? up at the Small Beer Press site over at www.lcrw.net.

Oh, as an aside, I wasn’t the only one who took up the Wiscon challenge. A writers group called the Ratbastards put out a great chapbook of their work called Rabid Transit (just reviewed in the August 2002 Locus, I think); Amy Beth Forbes and Beth Adele Long have launched a new ‘zine called Turbocharged Fortune Cookie, and I believe the new Problem Child ‘zine that Lori Selke is producing out of San Francisco has its roots in that conversation as well.

Mikal: Any more information on your future publishing plans?

Christopher: We had a lot of fun putting […is this a cat] together, and it met with a fair bit of critical and popular success. We’ve decided to keep going with our own semi-annual ‘zine, called Say. Each issue will be themed around a question (why mess with a good thing?). The first issue will debut at the World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis this autumn. The question is “Say…Was That a Kiss?” and we’ve already lined up wonderful stories from Jeffrey Ford, Gregory van Eekhout and F. Brett Cox.

Mikal: It seems apparent from your discussion of …is this a cat that writing for you (as for many writers) is almost a group process, rather than a solitary pursuit. Would this be accurate?

Christopher: Group process, wow. No, not at all. I think writing — I mean here the actual creative moment, when it’s just you and the page and the grasping for the next word — is absolutely solitary. Maybe even terrifyingly solitary. So, I think a lot of writers — the writers I count among my friends at least — do everything they can to create these group activities you may be thinking of. Things like writers’ workshops and conventions, certainly, and sure, group projects like themed ‘zines or those old shared world anthologies that used to be popular. Workshopping is big among my particular gang of acquaintances, both over the Internet and in person…I’m including a lot of things in that term, ‘workshopping’. I imagine a lot of people are familiar with the idea of a local writing group that meets regularly and exchanges stories for critique, but that’s actually probably the one I’ve participated in the least (though I’ve done a fair amount of it); most of my writing friends are so dispersed geographically that that’s not practical. So you swap stories electronically, but also in person on weekend visits or when you see each other at cons, whatever. There are also the workshops that meet annually or semi-annually, modeled on the old Milford workshop. Lots of people have probably heard of Clarion and Clarion West (I went to West in ’96), those are kind of like master classes, with teachers in classroom setting. But there’s also Sycamore Hill and Rio Hondo. I think that there are some Clarion alumni who do a roving annual workshop they call GypsyCon.

Anyway, all this stuff points to how desperately we want it to be a group process. But to bring this ramble to a halt, and be clear (and I’m only going to be clear this once during this interview, so don’t get used to it), no, it wouldn’t be accurate to characterize my view of writing as a group process.

Mikal: I stand woefully corrected. Be that as it may, do you think that the advent of the internet, along with the profusion of online, genre-specific markets, has changed the way many writers approach their art?

Christopher: I don’t think the profusion of online magazines has really impacted the way I approach my art, though it’s certainly had a huge impact on the way I approach the business side of things. More ‘markets’ (and I’m really uncomfortable with that term for magazines or books or sites that publish stories — online or not, small press or large) is positive.

I guess that online magazines probably facilitate communities in a way.

Ideomancer, to use the obvious example, has its particular aesthetic and editorial stance. The sites where those things are strongly defined and well developed may wind up attracting like-minded writers, who may in turn come to think of themselves as ‘Ideomancer authors’. There’s a long tradition of that among speculative fiction writers — the Analog Mafia is a recent example. (Though hopefully if there’s ever a similar group here we won’t be expected to have a horn section.) I think you or Chris are better equipped to talk about this than me. Hmmm. I suppose we’d need a name — the ‘Ideomancer Instrumentality’? ‘Ideodancers?’ Write Chris Clarke with your suggestions, folks!

Mikal: Many of your stories have a strong folklore influence. Do you strive for that feel, or is it even a conscious decision on your part?

Christopher: Yeah, it’s conscious. Fairly early on, when I was just a little baby writer (I think I’m a toddler now), I got the “Mocknapatawpha” out of my system by creating Cane County, where I’ve set many of my stories. I went a little bit over the top, maybe, ordered maps from the United States Geographical Survey and kind of carved Cane out of parts of four real Kentucky counties and then flooding a big part of the area with a lake that’s not there. I’ve set probably a dozen completed stories there, have fragments for at least that many more, and have notes for one horror novel and one mystery novel set there.

I was going to say something about how I’ve been working with the Cane County stuff (and the crows) less these days; but I just remembered that the sf story I was working on as recently as this morning concerns both.

Anyway, when I first began writing fantasy stories set in Cane County, my rationale was that I was writing the folktales that people in Cane County tell one another. And I’ve been fairly shameless in ripping off other people’s source material and putting my own local shine on it — a time-honored tradition in folktales. I’ve got a story called “The Children of Tilford Fortune” based on a tale the Grimms collected — that’ll be in a Simon & Schuster YA anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Teri Windling due out next year, My Swan Sister. And a story I had in Realms of Fantasy a couple of years ago called “Sally Harpe” was strongly influenced by the book of the ballet Giselle, at least in terms of plot. So folklore, sure.

Mikal: The creation of ‘Cane County’ sounds like King’s ‘Derry, Maine’ in some ways — a fictional creation that begins to have its own life in the mind of the author. Do you have residents of Cane that exist outside the needs of the story (i.e., recurring secondary characters, etc.)?

Christopher: Heh. That looks like a big sweeping question but it’s actually very specific. And the specific answer is ‘sort of’. I have a recurring primary character named Japheth Sapp, who’s played various roles in various stories. The Cane County timeline, the way the stories relate to one another…I’ve left that stuff intentionally vague, inserted intentional contradictions in the stories. Japheth, for instance, first showed up in a story called “Baptism on Bittersweet Creek” (this was the second or third Cane County story to be published), wherein he’s a man in his twenties in a story set in the 1920s. His ‘origin’ is told in “Kin to Crows”, which you guys recently reprinted, and which was my first fiction sale. There, he’s probably around 15, but it’s set at about the same time. There’s an oblique reference to him as an old man in another story set in the 1880s titled “Sally Harpe” that I mentioned earlier. And I’m working on a story now that features a mid-forties Japheth set about fifty years in the future.

I mix things up like that for a few different reasons. First, I wanted to stay true to the idea that these stories are at least in part the folktales of a real place, and folktales are self-contradictory. I also didn’t want to have to keep track of all the families of characters I’ve developed — Coys and Roys and Sapps and so on — didn’t want to be tied to any particular way of writing about them.

Mikal: You described yourself as a ‘toddler’ in writing. What do you want to be when you grow up?

Christopher: I want to make a living writing stories and books which I enjoy reading and writing. That’s the internal goal. Externally, I want to earn the fabulous wealth, glory and fame that so many others have achieved through writing about slack-jawed yokels with super powers.



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