Ideomancer Featured Author Jay Lake answers a few questions from resident philosopher Mikal Trimm.
Mikal Trimm: For those of our readers who aren’t familiar with your accomplishments, let’s start with a little background. Not only do you write, but you’re also an editor for the successful Polyphony anthologies, and until recently you were a reviewer for Tangent Online. Anything else we should know about you?
Jay Lake: Um, I kilt me a b’ar when I was only three. No, wait, that’s not it.
Let’s see…my first memory of reading is a Cat in the Hat dictionary in French, in about 1967 when I was three and my Dad’s job took us to Dahomey. My first publishing credit was some poetry in the English-language China Post in the Taiwan around 1974, when I was ten. After that there was this really long dry spell until I was 36.
In everyday life, I work in high tech marketing and sales, which involves a lot of writing. I keep a very heavy writing schedule and submission rotation going. I’m a regular in three different workshops here in Oregon, and do quite a bit of critique-trading online. Typical early career stuff, I think. Hard on my family, sometimes, but my wife and child are both very supportive.
In the vein of actual, documentable accomplishments, I’ve been a Writers of the Future non-published finalist — for year XVIII — and I’m a first place winner for year XIX — that’s this summer’s book. I’ll also become Campbell-eligible this year, with a sale to Realms of Fantasy (two actually) scheduled to appear, along with the Writers of the Future appearance. My first pro story, “The Courtesy of Guests,” won the Best of Soft Science Fiction prize in 2001. Also, I have a collection coming out this summer with Hugo-nominated artist Frank Wu called Greetings from Lake Wu. Thirteen of my stories, thirteen of his paintings
My real accomplishments in writing are my sales, which means I have an opportunity to reach readers, and the work with Polyphony.
MT: Is there a story about rum, lively conversation, a group of fellow writers, a bar booth, and a major convention you’d like to tell us?
JL: Apparently, lost in a stuporous alcoholic haze of some sort, I have been advised by counsel not to admit to actionable or libelous statements of any kind. Plus, there’s so many bar booths at so many Cons…give me another hint!
MT: You were wearing a large Hawaiian shirt at the time…What’s with that, anyway?
JL: Well, um, I’m large, so me and small Hawaiian shirts would be courting disaster of several types. More to the point, at every Con there’s about a hundred guys who answer to my general physical description —”fat guy with a lot of hair and a goatee” — so it’s an attempt at branding, and making me easier to find. The tie-dyed socks are usually a giveaway, too.
Bruce Taylor can pull off that ice cream suit and top hat look. Me, I’d look like Moby Dick in his rig.
MT: Well, back to the sober portion of the interview. The first Polyphony anthology received some very impressive reviews. How did you get involved with the project?
JL: Inside job, I’m telling you. One of my workshops meets in Eugene, Oregon, every Tuesday night. I live in Portland. That’s a 110 mile trip each way. Deborah Layne and I carpool most of the time, so when she began laying out her dream to edit a magazine (the idea of which eventually became the Polyphony anthology) I was there at the beginning, working my way into her plans — sort of an editorial version of Grima Wormtongue. What else are you going to do for two hours down, two hours back, every Tuesday?
MT: So basically you rode in on someone else’s coattails. That explains so much….
JL: Story of my life. There’s this special train called “The Coattail Express,” and if you get on it, people give you money and stuff. Oh, wait, if I tell you that, I have to cut off your head and put it in a safe. Never mind.
MT: There have been a lot of opinions expressed in the last year or so about the so-called ‘new wave’ of writers and publications in the speculative fiction world. Do you think that something different is really in the air, or might it be that those involved in genre writing tend to look for trends that aren’t necessarily there?
JL: Well, yeah, I’ve found myself in the middle of one or two of those discussions, and mentioned in one or two more. Both Rich Horton and Jed Hartman have publicly expressed opinions about this.
I think there’s two or three things going on that need to be distinguished. First of all, this trend has been associated with writers who are “new” writers in the sense that they haven’t been around as long as Harlan Ellison, like Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford and Jeff VanderMeer. It has also been associated with “new” writers in the sense of people with publication histories that only began since the late 1990’s,like Tim Pratt, Christopher Rowe, Greg Van Eekhout, and me. (Apologies to all the fine writers, many of them my friends, whom I should have just mentioned but didn’t.)
Finally, there’s a publishing niche filled by the British anthology Angel Body, the recent Conjunctions issue on fabulism, Polyphony,Starlight (to some degree) and Leviathan, the aircraft carrier of this current incarnation of this trend. Online and print zines such as Ideomancer, Strange Horizons and Say… also fall under this rubric.
All that being said, ain’t nobody in that pool of people and publishers who would say they’re not writing, publishing or promoting good fiction. That’s the goal. There’s Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny stories almost as old as I am that clearly fit this niche — nothing “new”about it.
Maybe one way to talk about it is as literary fiction within the speculative fiction genre. I think the difference is pretty simple. In speculative fiction — science fiction, fantasy, horror, and all that slipstreamy stuff that slides in between — the author must work to make the central conceits of the story and world function for the reader. In literary fiction, the author must work to make the central conceits of the character and theme function for the reader. This ‘new wave,’ or ‘new new wave,’ or maybe ‘new new new wave,’ is really the same old wave, a fusion of speculative and mainstream traditions.
Of course, Polyphony’s very existence is a comment on the opinion shared by Deborah Layne and myself on the availability of such fiction. (Watch how much trouble I get into for that one…)
MT: So, it’s a pretty deep subject for many. Speaking of deep subjects, Rene Descartes or Jean Paul Sartre: Who would win in a no-holds-barred, steel cage death match?
JL: “I think therefore I mean nothing. “Descartes comes out scrambling, brandishing his proof of the existence of God. Holy heck, look at the coordination on that man! Sartre is stumbling a little,like he wants to find an exit. Will you look at that smackdown? Sartre’s hands are dirty now! But Descartes with that rare maneuver, “before the horse,” and Sartre’s down! It looks like reasoned faith is going to triumph over existential despair, but…wait! Sartre’s making a heroic effort not to believe in Descartes! Descartes is reeling. If this were a tag-team,he could bring in his old buddy Pascal, always a sure bet, but no, good old Jean-Paul’s got him in a headlock. He’s whispering something to Descartes. And the match is over! Descartes has vanished from the cage! Sartre, in this moment of triumph, well, he just looks depressed.
MT: The wrestling world just hasn’t been the same since we lost Schopenhauer….
JL: Now there was a showman. He could whip Kant’s ass with the thing-in-itself, and Nietzsche wouldn’t have been half the eye-gouger he was without old Arthur. A man who really knew the meaning of the word “pain.”
MT: Between your writing, editing, and review work, you’ve had a good chance to see a lot of the work that’s coming out in the field. Are there any particular newer writers that you especially enjoy reading, or that seem to have a good chance of a career in writing ahead of them?
JL: New, newer, newest. As I said before, the field sometimes defines “new” writers as writers of the last ten years or so. Recently arrived major writers I am completely enthralled with include Ted Chiang, Andy Duncan, Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer and Ray Vukcevich.
Truly new writers, those with a good chance of a career ahead of them (and some publishing history to show for it) that I would call out include John Aegard, Ken Brady, David Moles, Tim Pratt, Chris Rowe, Ken Scholes, Heather Shaw, Greg Van Eekhout, Carrie Vaughn, Robert Wexler…anyone in the Rat Bastards, for that matter. There’s a powerful new generation out there and its only growing.
Finally, one thing Deborah Layne and I try to do in the Polyphony series is publish a first story in each volume. In Polyphony 1,those first stories were from Victoria Garcia and Vandana Singh. In Polyphony 2, those first stories were from Brendan Day and Honna Swenson. In Polyphony 3, we’ll feature Celia Marsh. These are the newest of writers in whom we’ve seen something special.
MT: You no longer live in Texas, but Caldwell County has played a part in many of your stories. Do you use personal detail extensively in your writing, or is this more of an exception than the rule?
JL: No, my use of personal detail is extensive. Most of my stories have a strong autobiographical component to them. I think this must be true of all writers, because we write from our own experiences. Personal detail provides so much more texture than imagination.
I didn’t really start writing about Caldwell County until after I moved from Texas to Oregon. It’s as if the lens of memory needed to be interposed before I could make fictive sense of it. There’s whole parts of my life that haven’t come into play in my fiction yet…both absurd and tragic. Happily, the absurd has generally outweighed the tragic.
The other way real life intrudes is on-the-spot. I write at least one short story a week, for several reasons. It’s a creative commitment that keeps me focused, it’s a good exercise, and enough of them are worthwhile that I can keep my submission inventory well-stocked. (I highly recommend this to anyone aspiring to be a professional, published writer.)
This week I’ve been staying in a cabin in Colorado, in the Wet Valley between the Sangre de Cristo and Wet Mountain ranges. Ponderosa pines, prairie below me, a visit to a wolf sanctuary among other things. Last night I sat down and wrote a story for a symmetrina I’m doing in collaboration with Bruce Holland Rogers, and lo! The story wanted to be set in a forest, and there were wolves in it.
Funny about that. Programmers used to say GIGO, garbage in, garbage out. For a writer it’s WIWO, world in, world out. In my case, some of the world lurks for years, or even decades, before re-emerging, while some of the world passes from eye to keyboard faster than beans through a baby.
MT: “In Defeat Of Transcendent Epiphany” featured Ship, a setting that almost serves as a character in the story. From what I understand, Ship is featured in other stories as well. What’s the genesis of this strange vehicle?
JL: Weird obsessions on my part. I have several of them. Ship is one. Ship also appears in “Fat Jack and the Spider Clown,” which will be in Black Gate later this year, as well as “On the Dangers of Heeding the Tarot,” a story of mine which won the Amateur Short Fiction contest at WorldCon back in 1997. There’s several others out there in submission for circulation.
Yes, I have been thinking about Ship for a while. Ship is infinitely large, on an endless voyage between the stars, and contains within Her manifold holds a profusion of societies delimited in various and sundry ways — morally, materially, ecologically. The most immediate influences on the idea are Jack Chalker’s Well of Souls series and Gene Wolfe’s Urth of the New Sun. Lots of other stuff in there too, from Silent Running to the whole bookshelf of apocalyptic SF. (Or maybe that’s a bookstore’s worth by now.)
What’s important about Ship is that sometime in Her recent history, Crew withdrew from the functioning life of Ship’s inhabitants. Maintenance has gone to hell, no one is providing direction or available for arbitration and problem-solving, and so forth. The little societies within Her holds are going bad. Draw your own conclusions about the Nietzschean metaphors here, I just write ’em.
From a writerly perspective, I sometimes like working in tightly delimited worlds. Every Ship story is a little petri dish. Experiments both great and trivial can be run almost independently of outside reality, yet still in principle be dramatically compelling.
MT: Hey, you can’t bring Nietzsche into this — no tag-team!
JL: Watch it, buddy, or you’ll wake up with a Liebnizian monad in your bed. Which is illegal in seventeen states and most counties in Alabama.
MT: Describe the sum total of human experience in twenty words or less.
JL: Terry Pratchett said it much better than I will ever be able to, in Hogfather. This is probably my favorite citation ever, from any author. To very slightly misquote him:
“Man is where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”