Ideomancer Featured Author Tim Pratt answers a few questions from fellow writer Greg van Eekhout.
Greg van Eekhout : You wear a bunch of different hats related to the creation of fantastic literature. How about giving us a quick rundown of your various endeavors?
Tim Pratt : Where to begin? Fiction writing, of course, is supposed to be first and foremost, though in practice it often gets shoved aside in favor of other endeavors that have deadlines attached. I also write poetry, though not as much as I used to — I’m trying to concentrate on fiction since it’s at least possible (if not likely) to make a bit of money doing that. For my day job I work for Locus as an Assistant Editor, which means I sweep, clean out the gutters, carry heavy boxes, etc. (all true!) — in terms of actual work on the magazine, I do a lot of the layout, some of the news stories, many of the obituaries. I’ve been there for two years now, and I’ve been getting more and more writing responsibilities. I also review books for Locus; mostly horror, sometimes poetry collections, occasionally first novels, sometimes books with genre elements that aren’t marketed as genre. I try to catch the stuff that might otherwise slip through the cracks. Every once in a while I write reviews for other publications, like Strange Horizons, usually when there’s a book I want to spend more than 500 words talking about. I edit Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, which comes out 6 times a year — that’s great fun, and keeps me involved in the poetry world. My fiancée Heather Shaw and I just started a slipstream ‘zine called Flytrap, which should debut this fall. We’re taking turns on the editing. For issue one, she chose the fiction, and I chose the poetry (though we consulted with one another a bit, naturally). For issue two we’ll switch roles, and so on from there. Oh, and Heather and I do a holiday chapbook every winter, with a collaboration and some original work from each of us. We send them to friends and family as gifts, and sell the ones we have left after that. That’s about it, I think, and I’ve made myself a solemn promise not to take on any more responsibilities for a while! Though if some really fun opportunity came along…. I guess that wasn’t a quick rundown, but it was comprehensive!
GV : You’ve described yourself as a writer of mythic fiction. What do you mean by that? Is mythic fiction something different from the commercial genre we call fantasy?
TP : I say that I write “mythic fiction” because I’m not above stealing from my betters. Charles de Lint coined the term (as far as I know, anyway) to describe his own work, which has variously been called “contemporary fantasy,” “urban fantasy,” “North American magic realism,” etc. The problem is this: if you tell an average person that you write fantasy, in all likelihood they think elves, quests, kitchen-boys-with-destinies, magic rings, a faux-medieval setting, all that Big Fat Fantasy, secondary world stuff. I’ve read and enjoyed some of that sort of thing, but it’s not what I write.
Almost all my fiction is set in a recognizably real contemporary world into which magic intrudes, or in which magic exists hidden from the majority of the population. Is it “urban fantasy”? Well, not the ones that are set in rural North Carolina. Is it “contemporary fantasy”? Sure, but that’s a bit unwieldy and certainly inelegant. I prefer “mythic fiction” — I think there’s some poetry to the term, and it has enough assonance to sound like a contrast to “literary fiction” (which it is). And I do draw on the old myths (and folklore, and legends — those terms aren’t synonymous! They’re three different things!), and try to find elements that resonate with my contemporary characters. Like most “literary fiction” my stories are predominantly concerned with human relationships, and with Faulkner’s famous “human heart in conflict with itself.” The magical elements exist in order to highlight certain aspects of those characters or their situations. The magical elements also exist because I think they’re cool, and I’d rather read a story about an aging, pot-bellied, self-loathing deity having an affair with a young nymph than read a story about an aging, pot-bellied, self-loathing English professor having an affair with a young student, even if both stories are about roughly the same themes.
Of course, if I tell people I write “mythic fiction” they just look at me blankly, but at least they don’t come into the conversation with a lot of preconceptions.
GV : You recently attended the Rio Hondo writers’ workshop. Talk to us a little about what Rio Hondo is and what you took from your experiences there.
TP : Rio Hondo is a week-long professional writing workshop, not unlike fabled Sycamore Hill — though Rio Hondo has fewer participants, more naps, and better food, or so I’m told. Walter Jon Williams and Leslie What run it, and they kindly invited me to attend this year. The workshop takes place in June, in Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, about 10,000 feet about sea level. Each of the twelve participants brought a story, and each morning we critiqued two, the usual go-around-the-table-and-comment sort of style. Afternoons were for naps (which are necessary when you’re up that high!) and hiking and writing and reading and whatnot. Every evening we had a gourmet meal, prepared by various particpants. I didn’t cook, but I did act as sou-chef one night, and minced garlic and so forth. The most striking image of the workshop was seeing Walter Jon Williams tenderize a leg of lamb by beating it vigorously with a full bottle of wine. After dinner each night we drank, played cards, chatted, watched bizarre movies (Crazy Safari! Mr. Vampire!), and argued about writing, probability theory, free will vs. determinism — the usual.
It was a rather remarkable experience, actually, sitting around a table with writers I’ve been reading for years, people I consider brilliant – Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Ray Vukcevich, Maureen McHugh, and on and on, and being included among bright new lights like Daniel Abraham, Ken Wharton, and Susan Fry. I had many wonderful conversations, got marvelous feedback on a new story, made some friends, and ate more fine meals in a week than I’d had in the year previous. I hope I can go again sometime. Best workshop ever, since there was no doubt whatsoever that each participant had the chops to back up their criticisms.
GV : Okay, let’s talk about your proclivities and idiosyncrasies. When you sit down to write, do you have to wear a special hat? Begin with seventeen push-ups? Wait for the chimes of midnight? Eat a soft-boiled egg? Where, when, and how do you do your best writing?
TP : See, here’s where I’m boring. I’ve always had a certain admiration for writers who bring a little sympathetic or contagious magic into the writing process, but I’m not one of them. I write wherever — on subway trains, in coffee shops, at the kitchen table, at the keyboard, on the deck at work during my lunch breaks. I don’t use fancy notebooks or special pens. I pretty much just sit down, try not to succumb to the many shiny distractions in my life, and start writing.
That said, I probably do my best work early in the morning. When I can get into a good routine of rising early and writing a few pages every day, I’m very productive. Of course, life sometimes intervenes to make that impossible, in which case I just squeeze writing time in wherever possible.
I enjoy writing in coffee shops, because there are lots of yummy things to drink, I don’t have to wash dishes, and there is often pie.
GV : Do you remember the first story you wrote?
TP : For years I always told people I wrote my first story in fourth grade. It was called “The Weirdo Zone” and I thought it was a novel, though it was only about 25 pages in a bright yellow wide-ruled notebook, along with various crude illustrations (“crude” being the height of my artistic talents to this day), mostly of bipedal alligators and a human head with spider legs. The plot was stolen in equal measure from Judy Blume’s Superfudge and from an episode of The Muppet Babies. I actually remember working on that story, sort of, and I still have the notebook. It was about a bratty little kid who gets abducted into an alternate dimension, and his long-suffering older brother who goes to save him, with Hilarious Results.
Then, a couple of years ago, my mother showed me a story I’d written when I was 8 years old, in third grade, that had actually been “published” in a county-school creative writing competition. It was called “A Day in the Life of a Spider.” It was about a pet spider that escapes from his terrarium and has Wacky Adventures. From textual evidence, I’d say I stole most of the plot from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t remember writing it at all, but there it is. Anything earlier has disappeared into the mental mists of antiquity.
GV : Okay, when you’re a hale and hearty man in his late nineties and you look back over a successful career, what have you accomplished?
TP : I’ve crushed my enemies, seen them driven before me, heard the lamentation of their women….
Okay, really, in a perfect dream world, I’ll have a big bookshelf of 70 or 80 published books and filing cabinet full of ‘zines I’ve edited and chapbooks I’ve put together. That’s it, really. Jonathan Carroll has a nice quote, about “writing for the shelf.” Basically, writing isn’t about winning awards, or about book tours, or conventions, or fans, or any of that, because that stuff isn’t going on every time you sit down to write. The important thing, day to day, is the writing itself. Ultimately, you write for the shelf, and whatever else happens, you have that shelf, and the things you wrote, lined up on it. That’s all I need. That’s more than enough.
GV : What’s the latest news on Little Gods, your upcoming short story collection?
TP : Ah, the first book, all my own, for the aforementioned shelf! It’s being published by Prime Books, and should be available at World Fantasy Con, with the official release date in November. I got a look at the finished cover for the hardcover edition recently, and it’s beautiful. The trade paperback will be released simultaneously. The collection has 15 stories and 4 poems, and it’s the best work I’ve done, including a Nebula-nominated story, a story that was in a couple of Year’s Best anthologies last year, and a never-before-published novelette called “Pale Dog,” which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever written. Michaela Roessner provided a wonderful introduction, and I wrote an only-slightly-self-indulgent Afterword/Story Notes thing, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. I’m immensely proud of this book, and grateful to Sean Wallace at Prime for publishing it. My first book. It stuns me. I just hope it’s the first of many.