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.
M. Rickert (the M. is for Mary) has been a frequent contributor to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction for the past few years, including five stories alone in 2003. “Bread and Bombs,” a reaction to the events of September 11th, was selected for both Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, and The Year’s Best Fantasy And Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin Grant. Hartwell and Cramer also picked Rickert’s Christmas story, “Peace on Suburbia,” for Year’s Best Fantasy 4.
Rickert is perhaps best known for her richly imagined and often disturbing series of Greek myth retellings. These include “Leda” (F&SF, August 2002), “The Machine” (F&SF, January 2003), and “The Chambered Fruit” (F&SF, August 2003). But her stories range from science fiction to fantasy to horror and magic realism. No matter what the subject, her fiction is characterized by a precise and careful use of language, attention to all the nuances of human emotion and experience, and a sometimes unexpected sense of humor and the absurd. Her interview with Charles Coleman Finlay for Ideomancer is her first interview ever.
Charles Coleman Finlay: So many new writers have websites, blogs, and other ways of promoting their personalities and work, yet there is almost nothing available about you besides your writing. Does the M. stand for Mysterious?
M. Rickert: This question made me laugh. I’m really not a mysterious person at all. Actually, I’m sort of an intimate person. It’s hard for me to relate to people in a broad or commercial manner. When I finish a book I really like, one of the first things I do is go online for the author’s interviews, anything that can help teach me about why that book worked. But I don’t have a published book and this is my first interview so there really hasn’t been any reason for me to have a web site. My stories are not factual but the factual existence is not the only one and they are, really, a truer record of my soul than a photograph or a journal could ever be.
CCF: But why do you use M? (Asks the man with three names.)
MR: I decided to use the M. instead of Mary because an author’s name is usually printed rather prominently near the title of the work. Of course, this is a good thing but I was writing a lot of stories at the time in a man’s voice and felt that my name would break the fiction. I know some readers know that I’m a Mary but I like to think of the new reader, a young person reading one of my stories and believing it’s true. I always like that feeling when I experience it as a reader. Even though, intellectually, I know better and I’m sure that young reader does too, I think it’s a wonderful way to experience a story.
CCF: I’m struck by the variety of voices and narrative techniques used in your stories. If fiction is a truer record of your soul than photographs or journals, could you talk about how that relates to your writing process?
MR: I’m not even completely happy with the word soul for describing what I’m talking about. (Though I understand it’s the word I chose.) My writing process involves getting a feeling for a story. For me this is very physical. I’ll get itchy hands, or a tightness around my heart, sometimes I’ll feel like I have to sing. I don’t ever have the whole story worked out in my head. When I was working with myths I had a sort of template for the narrative arc of the story but I didn’t know the voices until I started writing them. I did set a structure for myself beyond the structure inherent in three of the myth stories. I wanted one to be written with a sort of intellectual style, the other with a sort of humor and heart, and the third to be a fairly unrelenting horror story, without the gruesome. After those stories I notice that I often set parameters like that for myself when approaching a story. About halfway through the writing, I usually grab a sheet of paper and write the ending. Until I fill in that gap between beginning and ending it’s fun and scary and exciting to see how I get there.
Everything about my writing life changed for the better since I developed patience. I never rush a story out of the house or onto the page. If I get to the point in a story where everything is real quiet, I have learned that it might mean I need to set it down until I can hear what needs to happen next, or it might mean that it’s time for an actual quiet scene on the page. I write in the morning. Longhand. Staring at a wall. Drinking pots of decaf green tea. Sometimes I light a candle.
There’s a phone in the room I write in (which is the bedroom) but the ringer is turned off. The ringer is turned off on the phone downstairs as well. Also, every single person in my life is supportive of my writing.
CCF: So are you at the beginning of your writing career, with no idea where it’s going, or do see the end well enough now to be filling in the gap between beginning and ending?
MR: I think the end of my writing career will arrive with my death.
Although I’ve only been getting published fairly recently, all those years when I was, to borrow a term from, I believe, Ted Solotaroff, “writing in the cold” are also part of my writing career.
There are a lot of distractions from the actual work. Some of the most seductive of these come dressed up as some aspect of the writing life.
I’ve decided not to spend my creative energy on plotting a career. I don’t really understand that stuff anyways. Currently, I’m at the tidying up stage of a novel I’ve been working on. I have about four short stories started, and I’m in the final draft of another one. I don’t, generally, have so many short stories going at once but I needed a short story in my novel and it took several attempts for me to find the right one. I actually forgot I even had those other story beginnings until a couple of weeks ago. Sort of like finding the hidden chocolate!
I have another story which I think is finished but I’m letting it sit for a bit, to be sure. Sometimes I write poetry.
CCF: Do you have any new stories coming out soon we can look for?
MR: I have two stories coming out in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I don’t know when, exactly. One is a three-threaded story, two main characters who tell stories and the story between them, called “Cold Fires.” The other story is quite a bit darker. It’s called “A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way.” I also have a horror story, “Art is Not a Violent Subject” being published in the new Ratbastard chapbook, Rabid Transit 3.
CCF: So. What’s for lunch today?
MR: I had yoghurt with blueberries.
CCF: Mmm, blueberries. Is it fresh blueberry season already? Thank you so much for your answers to these questions, Mary. I feel very honoured to be the first person to interview you. Good luck with your writing.
MR: Charlie, Thank you. This has actually been interesting. Good luck to you, as well. Oh, and sorry, the blueberries were frozen.
The Girl Who Ate Butterflies
Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1999
reprinted in Ideomancer, May 2004
Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 2000
Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 2001
Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 2002
Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 2003
Bread and Bombs
Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 2003
reprinted in Year’s Best SF 9, edited by Hartwell and Cramer
reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Vol. 17, edited by Datlow and Link & Grant
The Super Hero Saves the World
Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 2003
The Chambered Fruit
Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 2003
Peace on Suburbia
Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 2003
reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 4, edited by Hartwell and Cramer
Ontario Review, Fall/Winter 2003
reprinted in Ideomancer, April 2004
Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 2004
More Beautiful than You
Ideomancer, June 2004
Fantasy and Science Fiction, forthcoming
A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way
Fantasy and Science Fiction, forthcoming
Art is Not a Violent Subject
Rabid Transit 3, forthcoming
When I read Jack Dann’s “The Diamond Pit” (F&SF, June 2001), I predicted in the Tangent Online newsgroup that it would certainly make either the final Hugo or Nebula ballot, or both. It did, in the process becoming Dann’s first Hugo nomination ever.
It’s a fun read. “The Diamond Pit” held my attention from the first blast of the anti-aircraft guns to that last game of mah-jongg amid the fragile Lionel trains. Shot out of the air, pilot Paul Orsatti, just back from the dogfights of World War I, is taken into the secret Rocky Mountain fortress of billionaire Randolph Estes Jefferson, a five-square mile area that shows up on no map, where slavery and a pre-Civil War aristocracy still rule.
The plot is straight out of classic SF/F adventure stories where a competent man stumbles on a lost, or hidden, civilization. Like other pulp heroes, Orsatti is thrust into an adventure he didn’t choose or expect, but has the chance to come out of it with a fortune and a beautiful woman that he loves.
The pulp era’s myth is that the hero can have that love and fortune cleanly just by being a brave, decent guy, and that he can escape danger by spurning the beautiful but spiteful woman. It’s John Carter when he meets Dejah Thoris, and conversely, when he meets Phaidar, daughter of Matai Shang. It’s Tarzan and Jane on the one hand, and Tarzan and La in The Jewels of Opar on the other. Although “The Diamond Pit” is set in North America and the Jazz Age, the pattern ought to be familiar to anyone who’s read H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, or any of the other writers who tackled the lost civilization adventure story. The particular appeal of “The Diamond Pit” comes from Dann’s mixture of the two story variations via his portrayal of Orsatti’s conscience.
Once captured, Orsatti falls in love with Jefferson’s daughter, Phoebe. But he discovers that Jefferson’s wealth has been acquired by murder and deceit, that the maintenance of it requires the subjugation of various groups of people, and that the woman, while beautiful, is no clinging innocent in need of rescue. Phoebe is smart, willful, and ruthless, every bit as competent in many ways as Orsatti. All this takes place against the backdrop of airplanes, kidnappings, ragtime piano, spectacular chateaus, Faulknerian histories, elaborate gardens, romantic interludes, catacombs, battles, infidelity, and cold-blooded murder.
In the end, Orsatti can marry Pheobe and become the richest man in the world — there’s only one condition:
“So who do you want to make things better for?” she demanded. “The servants? The prisoners in the Pit?”
“Both, for a start.”
By ‘servants,’ Phoebe means her father’s slaves. The ‘prisoners in the Pit’ are the other men like Orsatti who have stumbled on the castle accidentally. Orsatti identifies with the plight of both.
But this one condition is unacceptable to Phoebe. In the classic adventure story, the hero would spurn Phoebe’s love, crush Jefferson’s hidden empire, and escape. Dann does not give us — or Orsatti — such an easy out. Orsatti is a decent, brave guy, but there’s no way he can have either his love or fortune cleanly. So Orsatti ends the story still a prisoner, still desperately in love.
As a result, “The Diamond Pit” works as an action story, a moral meditation, and as a critique of pulp heroes. Tarzan may get his lordship, Jane, and command of the Waziri as a natural right; Orsatti has to compromise his conscience for similar rewards and he just can’t do it. It’s an American fable: we’re still in love with wealth and power, even when we find out how it’s created or maintained.
If that was all the story did, it would just be a good read. Dann, however, prefaces his tale with “Homage to F. Scott….” “The Diamond Pit” is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “A Diamond As Big As The Ritz,” a hidden empire novella that shows the influence of Haggard and similar writers back in the days before genre.
The key elements of Fitzgerald’s story — the Rocky Mountain billionaire, the beautiful daughter, the slaves — are repeated by Dann, although “The Diamond Pit” is not a continuation or even a simple variation. Instead, the Ritz’s Washingtons become the Pit’s Jeffersons, the daughter Kismine becomes Phoebe, the ‘Italian pilot’ Critchtichiello becomes Orsatti. By changing the names of the characters and other details, Dann emphasizes that his story is perfectly capable of standing on its own. A reader doesn’t have to be familiar with Fitzgerald’s novella for Dann’s to make sense.
However, “The Diamond Pit” gains another level of richness with the comparison, demonstrating Dann’s mastery of craft as it makes an interesting comparison between mainstream and genre fiction.
Though Dann calls it an ‘homage,’ “The Diamond Pit” is in many ways the antithesis of Fitzgerald’s tale. This begins with the switch in titles from Ritz to Pit: Fitzgerald creates an image of immeasurable, unimaginable wealth, while Dann evokes an unbreakable, inescapable prison, the negative to Fitzgerald’s positive.
Dann also recreates the eleven part structure of Fitzgerald’s story, but uses it to reverse essential features of Fitzgerald’s tale. In the first section of “Ritz,” John Unger leaves his middle-class life in the town of Hades for an expensive school in the east where he befriends Percy Washington, because, as he says, “I like very rich people.” In Dann’s tale, the working class pilot, Orsatti, comes out of the heavens, headed west, and loses a true friend, Joel, when their plane is shot down. While Fitzgerald emphasizes the ordinary aspects of his character and the setting, Dann reverses this with a focus on action.
The contrast is even more marked in the second section. Unger arrives as a guest at the Washington’s diamond chateau. The superficial abundance of riches is described in kid-in-candyshop detail, but the people are almost invisible: “John remembered that first night as a daze of many colors, or quick sensory impressions, of music soft as a voice in love, and of the beauty of things, lights and shadows, motions and faces.” The ‘beauty of things’ is given the most descriptive attention, while none of the people, aside from Percy ever have the chance to speak. In Dann’s story, the people are more important than the things. Orsatti identifies and describes his fellow prisoners, giving each one’s name and nickname; in just a few lines each character is revealed by his actions as a distinct individual with a richness of personality.
In part three of Fitzgerald’s story, Unger wakes up happy and satiated. A slave undresses and helps bathe him. He’s entertained by the sound of music before he ever eats breakfast. Orsatti, by contrast, is forced to create his own music on the piano. When he awakes from his drinking binge, he’s sick as a dog, and only the other prisoners are there to take care of him. His visit to George Bernard, a family member made prisoner (and suggestive of another level of depth in Dann’s writing), is ominous and foreboding.
Where Dann varies his story from Fitzgerald’s pattern, he does so to create a specific effect. In Part 4, Fitzgerald describes the history of the Washington family and how they came to keep their slaves and gain their riches. Dann moves this history to Part 6 in “The Diamond Pit,” where it sits at the exact center of the story, giving it its moral core. By contrast, the central scene in “Ritz” involves Washington’s confrontation with the pilots in the pit. Unger appears in the scene only as an observer and fades farther into the background as the conflict escalates, so that he has no part in it, and expresses no opinion of it at all. It becomes the perfect symbolism of Unger’s willingness to ignore how Washington’s wealth is maintained so long as he can share it.
It may be unfair to compare the craft of the two stories this way. “Ritz” is an example of Fitzgerald’s very early fiction. It shows his genius for symbolism and dense motif (Hades, Percy and the grail of wealth), explores themes that reappear throughout his work (the middle-class boy falling in love with an heiress), and takes imaginative risks. But there are weaknesses as well. The threat of murder hangs over Unger’s head as a device to create suspense, yet Unger (and the story) never seem to consider the moral implications. Fitzgerald creates the different voices of the men in the pit, and yet neither they nor the slaves come alive as people capable of independent action. Characters like Percy are introduced and then all but disappear from the story as soon as their function is served.
Dann’s story, on the other hand, is written by a master in the maturity of his craft. The prose is sharp with no word wasted, the most minor characters have dimension — compare the two treatments of the patriarch’s wife or the simple-mindedness of Fitzgerald’s negroes with the independent motivations of Dann’s, and the details are more specific and evocative: Fitzgerald describes ‘a good one-reel comedy’ but Dann shows ‘Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton slap each other across the screen.’ The whole story hangs together tightly.
More telling than the comparison between the craft of the two writers, however, is the way the stories illustrate the different tropes of mainstream and genre fiction. Unger, like another of Fitzgerald’s famous protagonists, Nick Carraway, is essentially a passive observer. He is filled with desire — for wealth, for love — but he depends entirely on others to deliver them to him. He goes along for the ride with Percy, and then with Kismine, both times at their initiative. When the slaves come to murder him, he is saved by the coincidental timing of the attack on the chateau instead of his own effort. When he escapes with Kismine, he relies on her to bring along the riches, and accepts it fatalistically when she grabs rhinestones by mistake.
Orsatti, by contrast, is thrown into circumstances out of his control but always takes action. When the pilot of his plane is killed, he takes the controls and tries to land the damaged craft. When he’s thrown into the pit he asks for a piano so he’ll have something to do. His state at the end of the story relies not on someone else’s action, but comes as a result of his own choice. The character who chooses, who acts, defines genre fiction.
But a bigger difference like in the way that Fitzgerald uses the fantasy element, this American Shangri-la in the Rockies, as a plot device. The castle must be utterly destroyed by the end of the story so that Unger can face ‘reality’ — the rest of his life in Hades with a rhinestone heiress, and only her sister to act as laundrywoman and servant. He could have met a pretty middle-class girl and come to the exact same place at the end of the story without the hidden castle. The fantasy element is there solely to exaggerate and emphasize Unger’s desire before snatching it away.
Dann, on the other hand, forces us to gaze on the fantastic element unflinchingly and consider it as a part of reality. “The Diamond Pit” reminds us that there are edifices of power built on theft and exploitation, ruled by ruthless people. If we want to be a part of it, then we must accept the consequences. So which writer is the more realistic?
In Dann’s story, the hero gets neither the girl nor the fortune. Some readers may find it unsatisfying that Orsatti does not triumph explicitly at the end of Dann’s tale. Without another scene, it seems too much like Phoebe is the winner, thus the hero of the story, despite the fact that she’s neither likeable nor sympathetic. In a real pulp adventure, the decent, brave guy is supposed to win. There is the suggestion, for those familiar with Fitzgerald’s story, that Orsatti triumphs in the end (during the attack on the castle, Kismine says “Yes — it’s that Italian who got away — “), but there are sufficient differences between the two stories that we cannot take this for granted.
Dann’s ending suggests a moral purpose, a contemplation on the sources of wealth, the nature of exploitation, and our willingness to look aside. Like much great literature, Dann’s homage to Fitzgerald achieves its effect by subtly disturbing us. We’re left, like Orsatti, in a very uncomfortable position, playing games among the toys and looking for a way out. The standard outcomes of the genre are subverted, and we’re forced to examine our own fantasies about wealth and decide how far we’d compromise our values to fulfill them.
“The Diamond Pit” works on all levels. Jack Dann has given us a tightly-written adventure story that mixes elements of the literary and spec fic genres to pose difficult moral questions without offering platitudinal solutions. While it didn’t win the Nebula, one wishes it better luck with the Hugo.
Charles Coleman Finlay’s fiction can be found in the April, August, and Oct/Nov 2002 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, with stories forthcoming in On Spec and Ideomancer Unbound. He’s also the Administrator for the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy.
An earlier version of this essay appeared as comments in the Tangent Online newsgroup.