Interview with Charles Coleman Finlay, by Rowntree and Negus

Interview with Charles Coleman Finlay, by Rowntree and Negus

Rowntree & Negus: Charles, you’ve been extremely successful in the short-fiction arena picking up nominations for the Nebula, Hugo, Sidewise, and John W. Campbell Awards, as well as making it into Year’s Best Science Fiction, Year’s Best Fantasy, and the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror – how does it feel be nominated for those awards alongside other genre greats such as Neil Gaiman and Ian R Mcleod?

Charles Coleman Finlay: With the award nominations, I think I was just lucky that year. You look at writers like Gaiman or Mcleod and they’ve been producing good fiction year in and year out for a very long time. My award nominations were for the second and fourth stories I ever had published, and I wasn’t really prepared for that. With the Sidewise Award, the other finalists that year in sort fiction were John Kessel, William Sanders, Robert Silverberg, Walter Jon Williams–those are four great writers! It was an amazing honor to be mentioned in the same list with them.

I think it was Michael Swanwick who remarked one time that he had the advantage of being nominated for two awards for his first stories and losing both of them, because he still had a lot to learn about writing. I feel the same way. I still have a lot to learn about telling stories. Every time I send out a new story and get back an acceptance, I feel like I’ve won an award. Everything else is icing.

R&N: You’re about to have your first novel published, which must be an exciting time- any trepidation? (Not that we’re trying to imply that you should have).

CCF: No, it’s exciting! I’m saving up all the trepidation for finishing the second novel.

R&N: So, what’s the novel about?

CCF: Am I allowed to crib from the dust jacket or do I have to reinvent the spiel?

R&N: Crib away….

CCF: A baby is taken from a castle under siege and raised by trolls after losing his human protectors. Named Maggot, because he was small and white and wouldn’t make a mouthful when they found him, he grows up and leaves the trolls to return to people like himself. He discovers both love and friendship, only to be swept up in a war that will make him choose between the two.

R&N: What’s the first line?

CCF: Bran entered the great hall still wearing the stolen wolf costume, battered mask tucked beneath his arm.

R&N: What did you set out to achieve with The Prodigal Troll?

CCF:I wanted to tell an entertaining story. I wanted to take old stories I liked, like Mowgli and Tarzan, and do something different with them. I wanted to look at the contradictions we live with as fantasy readers: we profess a belief in democracy yet our heroes are inevitably from the nobility, lords and queens and lost princes — I wanted to look at a character in a situation who has reason to question that arrangement. But mostly I wanted to have fun.

R&N: There’s a buzz around the publication of Wild Things by Subterranean Press. Ever have to pinch yourself to see if you’re going to wake up?

CCF: I’ve got bruises.

R&N: Earlier we touched on the fact that you’ve had fiction in Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Year’s Best Science Fiction, and The Year’s Best Fantasy. Not too many writers have achieved that. The Prodigal Troll is obviously a Fantasy – what’s your preferred genre.

CCF: My preferred genre is speculative fiction — that includes all of those, right?

R&N: Okay, so why did you choose Fantasy as a vehicle for your first novel?

CCF: Actually, I chose alternate history as a vehicle for my first novel. It just wasn’t a very good novel.

I wish the fantasy choice was part of some diabolical plan to conquer publishing. “Step 1: Write best-selling fantasy novel. Step 2: Join secret cabal with Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, and George R. R. Martin. Step 3: Spread nasty rumors to tarnish popularity of J. K. Rowling and steal her readers.” But it doesn’t work like that.

Instead I had a story bouncing around in my head that just wouldn’t settle down. So I had to write it.

R&N: Mmmn, wish those three steps could be bottled and sold…. Fantasy can be maligned, with some readers having strong pre-perceptions before they even pick up a novel, do you think that’s a positive or a negative thing?

CCF: Is there any genre that’s not maligned by somebody? Is there any kind of novel that some readers somewhere don’t have strong pre-perceptions about?

I was going to write a postmodern magic realist murder mystery techno-thriller historical romance about a college English professor having an affair. Just to try to appeal to a bigger audience. But I ended up writing a fantasy instead.

R&N: Oh well, you’ve always got that as a back up – What makes The Prodigal Troll different from other fantasies?

CCF: The giant ground sloth!

Oh, wait, that’s the second novel.

I know I’m supposed to have a nifty little handle to give you so you can latch on to the high concept of the book. But it’s really the whole package. I take familiar tropes and character types and, I hope, do some unexpected and entertaining things with them.

R&N: Many of your short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it’s not hard to find complimentary comments about your writing from the Editor, how important have people like Gordon Van Gelder been to your career?

CCF: It’s been essential. Gordon Van Gelder has helped the careers of so many writers in the past few years: M. Rickert, Alex Irvine, Yoon Ha Lee, Laird Barron, Ben Rosenbaum. I’m forgetting others. I know at one point a couple years ago he was publishing more new writers than any of the other major markets. So I’m just another one of those writers. He bought my first story out of the slush pile. He gave me two covers in one year. I’m not the only writer he’s done things like that for. He gave me crap about sloppy writing, especially my commas, and made me improve. I owe something to every editor who’s ever bought a story from me, and to a few who haven’t. But without Gordon, I don’t know where I would have gotten my foot in the door.

The other person who’s been important to me is Ellen Key Harris-Braun. Ellen was an editor at Del Rey and convinced them to sponsor the Online Writing Workshop. I was unpublished and not improving and didn’t know why when I joined the Del Rey Workshop. Suddenly I was around a group of writers who were much better than me and headed places: in the first year, people on the workshop included Jim Butcher, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Karin Lowachee, and James Allison, who’s been published here at Ideo. New writers of the same caliber keep pouring in year after year. Without OWW, I wouldn’t have improved enough to sell that first story to Gordon. And after I started selling stories, she hired me to admin the workshop, which has also been an important and positive experience for me.

R&N: Humor seems to permeate a lot of your short stories, which can be difficult for a writer to do well, is this something that you naturally gravitate towards?

CCF: I’m attracted to characters who have a sense of humor. But then I’m attracted to people with a sense of humor, so that’s no surprise. The humorous situations in my stories usually arise, I hope, out of the characters and their place in the world.

R&N: One of your first published works was “Footnotes,” a unique story, which really got you noticed. Tell us a little more about the origins of that story.

CCF: Too many years of graduate school played a big part in it. But I remember that I had just read Bruce Sterling’s “Our Neural Chernobyl,” which is a review of a (nonexistent) nonfiction book written in the future. I’d also been reading some Stanislav Lem, who wrote similar book reviews and was the inspiration for Sterling. So the conceit of footnotes came to me, and it seemed like a powerful metaphor for the millions of unnamed characters who often fall victim to science fictional disasters. There’s a nod toward Sterling and Lem in one of the footnotes in the story.

I think that explanation is longer than the story was.

R&N: Is it important to receive positive reviews?

CCF: It’s important to receive reviews. Even negative reviews are better than silence, because they make people aware of your writing. The number one reason readers buy novels is because they’ve read other novels by that same author. You can see the problem when it’s your first novel coming out. So anything that makes readers aware you’re out there — a great cover, reviews, word of mouth–it’s all good.

R&N: So you’ve written poetry, short stories, novels, novellas, even the odd interview – where does your heart really lie?

CCF: When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I used to imagine being a novelist like Edgar Rice Burroughs. I recall making lists of the titles of the series and novels I wanted to write. I had a lot of other dreams, like writing and drawing comic books. But when I thought of becoming a writer, I thought of novels. Despite that, I found my voice writing short stories, and I’ve grown to love them. I hope that after a few more novels, I’ll come to feel the same way about them too.

R&N: What is your most satisfying piece of work?

CCF: It might be “We Come Not to Praise Washington.” There are passages in there that reference the early American fiction of Charles Brockden Brown and James Fenimore Cooper that still make me smile when I reread them. (See, even the first American novelists had three names!) I also went out of my way to get the history right. I remember Gordon had already bought the story and he asked me to show Aaron Burr sealing the letter he wrote. When you think of sealing letters, everyone thinks wax. But I wanted to get it right, so I checked with library collections, some antiquities dealers, and some historians in the period to see if anyone knew exactly how Burr sealed his letters. It took me two days, but I found that almost all the surviving examples of his correspondence were sealed with inexpensive isinglas wafers made from fish skins. I was lucky Gordon is a patient editor. But I remember wanting to get the history right, and many of the minor characters come from wood block prints or other historical records. I ran up $28 in interlibrary loan fines during the six weeks I was writing. That was another story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. A lot of those details won’t be appreciated by anyone but me, but I felt a real pride in that story when it was finished. I haven’t written anything else yet that felt as dense, or gave me the same feeling of accomplishment. “Wild Thing” is close. I think it’s a good reading and alternative explanation of the source material surrounding the origins of Percival. My subconscious worked on those myths for almost twenty years after the first time I read Chretien de Troyes and tried to make sense of everything left between the lines. Of course, all those things are irrelevant if the stories aren’t also good reads. But that’s the reason those two are the first and last stories in the collection coming out from Subterranean.

I’m still too close to The Prodigal Troll to be able to judge it yet. I’ll have to see if readers get what I was trying to do, if they enjoy it.

R&N: What comes after publication of The Prodigal Troll?

CCF: I head off to Clarion to teach week 2!

R&N: Do you find teaching as rewarding for you as it is for the students?

CCF: Can I get back to you on that? Say, around the end of June.

R&N: Talking of education, you studied English at Oxford, how different did you find it from studying in an American College?

CCF: I’m the first male in my family to graduate from high school. And to be honest, there were times when that was a near thing. My father was a dropout, and in my grandfather’s day, of course, everybody left school after the eighth grade to go to work on the farm or doing manual labor. Nobody before me had gone to college. So I didn’t have role models for doing that, and when I went off to Ohio State, I was entirely unprepared. I didn’t have the study skills or background or support network to succeed. I failed a lot of classes, I was trying to work fulltime as a painting subcontractor to pay my way, and I was ready to drop out.

I went to New College at Oxford for a study abroad program the summer after my junior year. I loved The Great Gatsby–you know how Gatsby made a thing about being an Oxford man, had his picture taken in front of the gate, but Nick had his doubts about it. I always figured Gatsby was over there on the equivalent of a study abroad program. I know it’s dumb and romantic, but I’d never been out of the country before and wanted to do the same thing.

Anyway, the way the program was set up, with lectures and tutors, suited my skills and my style of learning. I loved it. And New College surrounds the oldest remaining section of the old city wall built by William the Conqueror. There was something about walking past that in the gardens beyond the quad every morning, and seeing a stone wall behind the row of blue delphiniums, that was a part of history, that had a powerful effect on me. I fell in love with history and with architecture, and when I came back I switched majors and stayed in school for another couple years. My GPA was so dismal that eventually, when I began thinking about graduate school, I transferred to Capital University to graduate. I liked the smaller classes and smaller faculty at Capital, which reminded me of the feel of the program at Oxford.

So Oxford turned me around and gave back to me a love of learning, a second chance. I’ve been lucky like that my whole life: whenever I really needed an opportunity, it showed up for me. In any case, if you’re still out there Robert Parry and Wade Dyke, thank you.

R&N: Let’s talk about inspiration. It seems that the muse has countless incarnations. Authors cite movies, TV, current affairs et al as inspiration to write. What motivates Charles Coleman Finlay to sit down in front of a blank screen every day?

CCF: Ben Rosenbaum told me once that he keeps a sign above his desk that says “Writing is chocolate.” It’s a treat, and a privilege, to be able to able to do something I really love. I’m going to try to enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

R&N: Tell the readers something they couldn’t possibly know about you already.

CCF: I’m late for work today because I’m at home doing this interview. Shhh. Don’t tell my boss.

R&N: Fantastic. We won’t tell. You do work for the John Glenn Institute; what type of organization is it? Do their aims and aspirations coincide with any of the themes in your writings?

CCF: The John Glenn Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at the Ohio State University sponsors leadership and public service programs at every level, from high school programs, to college living learning programs, to Washington internships, to candidate training programs for people running for public office for the first time. It’s an amazing institution, and there’s a merger underway with the School of Public Policy and Management that would turn the combined unit into the John Glenn School. I hope to see that happen. They’ve got brilliant new facilities, full of memorabilia from Glenn’s life, including his trips into space. That alone makes it an inspiring place for a science fiction writer to work.

In The Prodigal Troll, the trolls that raise the boy Maggot practice simple democracy, and the mountain people that Maggot joins when he leaves the trolls practice consensus democracy. These are contrasted against the aristocratic rule under which Maggot had been born. So I’m interested in themes of democracy and service, and that’s come through in some of my other stories as well. But there’s no explicit connection.

R&N: In your opinion what makes a novel worthwhile?

CCF: It’s different things for different readers, and different things in different books. For me, most of the time, characters and narrative pacing are the two most important things, with beautiful prose and nifty ideas or compelling themes coming up close behind tied for third. But if a novel does any one of those things brilliantly, it can be enough for me.

R&N: Who/What do you read for pleasure?

CCF: Everything I can get my hands on!

This year I’m on the jury for the Philip K. Dick Award, so I’m reading a lot of interesting original paperback novels, more than I usually would. There are a lot of blank spots in my reading background as well, which I’m always trying to fill in. Right now, I’m reading The Best of Cordwainer Smith. He was doing far future post-human outer space stories fifty years ago, before anyone coined the term singularity. There’s some amazing stuff in there. I’m also an unapologetic fan of Lois McMaster Bujold — I think her books are just plain fun. I’m looking forward to The Hallowed Hunt.

R&N: Thinking of other people’s work – can you pinpoint a particular piece of writing that has enriched your life?

CCF: There are so many books, at so many moments in my life. I’ve told this story before. In the small town where I grew up there was this big square Carnegie Library sitting on a bump of a hill downtown by the middle school. The children’s library was in the basement, and the summer I was ten years old I was bored with the kids’ books. So I went up this narrow flight of steps to the adult section of the library, with its tall rows of dark wooden shelves, and I walked through them, neck craned back and canted sideways to read the spines on the books. I pulled Tarzan of the Apesout because I recognized the name. It was one of the Grosset and Dunlap hardcover reprints, smaller than today’s hard-covers. The smell of those yellowed pages, many decades old even at that time, comes back to me every time I think of that book. For a lot of personal reasons, I fell in love with that story, and fell in love with reading. From that moment on, I was reading every novel I could get my hands on. There have been other books that were just as important, but you never forget your first real kiss. You know? I wrote an essay about it in high school that got me sent to a special gifted program one summer.

A couple years ago, when I was working on The Prodigal Troll, M. Rickert bought me an early edition of a Grosset and Dunlap Tarzan, complete with dust jacket, which was long gone from the one I read at the library. It’s one of the few books I have as an artifact instead of something actively to read.

R&N: What would the one piece of advice be that you’d give a would-be writer?

CCF: There’s no one-size-fits-all piece of useful advice that benefits every writer. I’ve been admin at the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror for the past four or five years, and I’ve seen at maybe a hundred writers go from nothing to pro sales. Different writers need different advice. Some need to read a whole lot more. Some need to stop reading and write more. Some writers really need to focus on refining fundamental skills. Other writers need to stop being so technically perfect and get in touch with something they really care about. For some, you just need to say “don’t quit, persevere.”

It’s not really advice, because everyone knows it already and it doesn’t help anyone write better, but you should remember to have fun when you write. You never know if something is going to get published, if it’s published whether it’s going to get read, or if it’s read that it’s had any effect on the readers — even though that’s what we all hope for. Let go of that, and enjoy the process of writing, or of rewriting, or whatever part of it is most satisfying to you. Enjoy that while you’re doing it, and set that apart from everything else that comes after.

R&N: How do you relax?

CCF: I like long walks on the beach in the moonlight holding hands while singing karaoke… Um. I relax by reading, exercising, hanging out with friends or chatting on IM, pretty much in that order. And I love doing stuff with my kids — watching movies, tossing a football or kicking a soccer ball, going swimming. All the normal stuff. When I’ve had a rough day, I’ll stop for Denise’s Ice Cream, winner in 2002 of an award for Best Ice Cream in the United States. Although that was before they moved from Boston to Columbus. Mmm, ice cream. Cheesecake ice cream, mmm.

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