Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Phyllis Irene Radford
Greg Frost has honored Book View Cafe with some of his epic historical fantasy, mostly set in Bronze Age Ireland. Now he brings us “The Girlfriends of Dorian Grey” https://bookviewcafe.com/book/the-girlfriends-of-dorian-gray-and-other-stories/ a collection of short stories that explores his fertile imagination in many different directions.
Have you decided yet what writing means to you?
You know, that’s a funny question. I’ve been publishing for exactly 41 years now. And at the beginning, writing was all about just breaking into print. I’d written and written and submitted fiction, tried my hand at novels (2 unpublished ones buried deep in The Closet of Dark Matter), with everything focused on figuring out how to write something that would be accepted by an editor. Because, hey, if they accepted it, then it meant the story had been found worthy. And once the first story had sold, suddenly every story sold somewhere. What had changed? What secret sauce had been added to the mix? I’ve no idea really. But in short order I was selling novels as well as short stories. After that I went through periods where I dialed the writing way back, even once telling friends I was throwing in the towel. Instead, every time I thought I would go off and raise dental floss or something, I would read an article or get caught by an image, and a story would start to unfurl, and I would have to write it. Writing thus became a thing I did that I could not go without. Writing is like hydration for me. I need to drink that glass of water. And frankly, I don’t seem to know how to stop.
Why writing to communicate your vision, and not art, drama, etc?
In fact, I started writing fiction while I was a painting and art history major in college—in a night course on writing short stories. At the time I sort of hoped to become a comic book artist. I’d already written and drawn one It was awful, you understand, but it was about all I wanted to do in high school. So it was very weird to find that the more I wrote fiction, the less interested I was in painting. I’d been thinking I wanted to illustrate, but it seemed now that what I wanted to do was write the stories instead. (Also, my apartment caught fire, and all of my paintings and charcoal sketches went up in flames, whereas the first short story I’d ever written survived intact. Amazing how things like that can rewire your priorities.)
I wrote an unbelievably crappy first novel, but eventually, through the assistance of an author (David Gerrold) and an editor (Lin Carter), who kindly took time from their own busy lives to give me assistance and feedback (my introduction to the concept of paying it forward), I got some validation, enough to keep going until I made it into print. In the meantime, I went to the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop, which likely compressed two years of experience into six intensive weeks.
Do you think your “voice,” the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story–or can you already see themes that reoccur in your work?
Well, of course, I think so. I think each of the stories in this collection has a distinct voice and tone. Some have first person narrators with clearly distinctive voices, and one is even in second person, which I normally don’t write in. But I also know that writers sometimes talk about “the critical voice” for their story—how they have to find it in order to begin, but that readers will not hear that different voice at all, which leads me to thinking it’s all kind of subjective. I have to believe the voice is different from story to story. Beyond that, I think it’s out of my hands.
If your creative brain told you tomorrow to “take a sabbatical” what would you do other than write? If this was a long sabbatical, would you enter a new profession? If so, what? If not, why return to what you did before you wrote fiction?
Well, as I said above, I’ve tried taking a sabbatical, and it hasn’t worked. I just find myself planning out another story or novel, or writing some disconnected scene that starts accreting a story around it. Mind you, I’m a glacially slow writer, too, so to take on a novel is to say “This is going to be around now for years.”
Do you intentionally change your style and voice for each story, each world you create? Does voice follow the world, or a particular character?
Each story comes with a voice and style attached, I think. Mind you, it’s not always the voice or style it ends up with. (My story “Madonna of the Maquiladora” was written initially in 3rd person, and I was unhappy with it. So I wrote it in 1st person and was still unhappy with it. Not until I recast that narrative in 2nd person did it flow together in a way that felt to me effortless.) In some ways, while voice is essential to the finished story, it’s not essential to the First draft (and not at all to what I call the Zero draft that precedes it, which in my case is written longhand and comes in the form of a chaotic mess of notes, dialogues, descriptions and/or attempts at scenes and sequences and sentences). What’s important there is just getting the story down on the page, getting a full draft out. Until I do that, what I’m working with is a hypothetical story, and my opinions on it are as likely to be wrong as to be right. Once it’s written out, however clumsily, it’s now become like bread dough—I can shape it, pound it, roll it, work it. I can feel the consistency of it; I can hear the voice maybe, suss out the style the story wants. I was talking with author Michael Swanwick recently about when he first arrived in Philadelphia and was mentored by authors Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann. I asked him what he had learned, because that’s the point in his career that he started selling stories left and right. He said that they taught him he could dismantle his story. It wasn’t a thing set in stone. He could wipe it away and write it over from scratch if he wanted… that just because he’d drafted “X” didn’t mean he had to work with “X”. He could pull it apart and create “Y”. And I think that’s something hard to learn sometimes, because we become married to the original vision or idea of the story. We become inflexible.
Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
One thing it’s taught me is that even the most abstract and fantastic tales have some element of autobiography in them that the author might not recognize going in, sort of the mirror image of the idea that all memoir is ultimately fiction, because we’re telling of events as we experienced them, utterly subjective in perspective.
The other thing is that being a fast typist does not make you a good writer. I came out of high school typing about 90 words a minute on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and I wrote my first 3 novels on that machine (terrifying to look back on that process now). Anyway, I typed faster than my brain could chain together sentences. So I took up writing longhand with a fountain pen to slooooow it all down. And then I fell in love with the tactility of the pen, and also began collecting fountain pens (the less said here the better). Anyway, slowing down evolved into the handwritten Zero draft and the process I still write by today.
Do you live in your fiction? Is it a refuge, a delight–on some works, just a job? (You can close a book cleanly–a life, not so much.)
In a sense, I do live in my fiction. Years ago when I was writing Táin, based on the Irish Táin bó Cúailnge, at the end of a long day of writing I would often find I really had to disconnect from that world. I half-jokingly told people I’d spent the day in Bronze Age Ireland. And that was really what it felt like; I immersed myself in strange music that had no connection to anything else—for instance the work of Jon Hassell—and the visions of Cú Chulainn and the world of Ulster were so vivid that I did sort of have to close the door on the wardrobe every day when I stepped out. I’ve also found that in reformatting my early works for BVC—including these short stories—that I see the same internal movie that I saw when I first wrote them; so now I think that writing fiction is the equivalent of creating a memory of something that’s actually never happened.
Questions for Working on being a writer?
Some people jump into fiction, taking a character or an idea that interests them and simply start writing. Others research like mad before they start, and still others have a character tap them on the shoulder, and then they start researching.
How do you approach your writing?
Well, to ping off that, the answer is, it depends. I write across the fantasy genres: fantasy, dark fantasy, science fiction, and (definitely) horror. Sometimes it’s a character that emerges. Sometimes I start with nothing but an image, and I’m trying to find out where it goes in the story. Are two people walking out of a building at the beginning or is that maybe the end of the story? I tend not to think “Gee, what genre am I writing in?” The story idea itself generally suggests that. And I’m someone who doesn’t like to do the same thing twice. So, for instance, I hope the stories in The Girlfriends of Dorian Gray are each distinct in style and voice.
I have, over time, become a crazed researcher. With some stories and novels, when you add up the time, I’ve spent more of it researching than I have writing. I mentioned Táin earlier. It’s about a cattle raid between the province of Connaught and the province of Ulster. In researching it, I mapped the route of the original cattle raid, and then flew to Ireland with two friends and bicycled the route all the way from the small twin hillforts of Maeve and Ailell to the huge hillfort of Armagh. Now, that’s its own brand of madness.
But more recently, I’ve written a supernatural western set in the late 1850s, which is not the west usually portrayed on-screen, and am in the middle of a three-book series spun off the English ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin to, I hope, very weird effect. So…more historical research for each of those projects along with fantasy elements where I’m throwing the history out the window and going with the weird.
What kind of fiction are you drawn to write? Has a particular style caught your fancy?
For a number of years, I contributed fairy tale and folk tale retellings to anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and so became interested in different forms of storytelling—in particular to the whole “tales within tales” form, and source material like The Arabian Nights, and The Ocean of the Streams of Story. Both of those led me to write Shadowbridge, a novel about a shadow-puppeteer. I’m still fascinated by the idea of stories like nesting dolls. Even if I’m not doing it, I enjoy reading writers who can play with form that way.
What haven’t you found yet in writing instruction books?
This is a very funny question, because I collect these kinds of books, and my impression is that a lot of successful writers get to a certain point in their career and some little switch gets thrown and they feel compelled to share what they’ve learned with novices. And these books seem to come in two flavors. The first is the writer who insists you must write exactly as they do if you want to be successful. These books are next to useless unless your process lines up with the author’s (and even then, they’re only telling you how to write like me.) The second is more varied in approach and often has interesting things to say, but again milage varies. In a lot of ways, I think books on writing are a bit like books on ballroom dancing or martial arts. Even with enclosed step-by-step guides to the forms, the only true way to learn the thing is to do it. If you want to be a writer, you need to read a lot and write a lot. Period. There’s no shortcut.
Have you also researched Podcasts and blogs?
I’m a member of a group, the Philadelphia Liars Club, who did a podcast for about three years—the Liars Club Oddcast. We even interviewed some BVC members, and the interviews are still available for anyone who cares to listen: On Amazon at https://amzn.to/3zuR7VE, and on Stitcher at https://bit.ly/3JN5XeY.
BOOK VIEW CAFÉ?
What is it about the BVC organization that appeals to you?
Well, like the Philadelphia writers’ group I belong to, it feels like somebody has your back. We’re all trying to get our work out, and we all have skillsets we can bring to the organization. It’s really that cooperative element that matters. It’s proof that there’s room enough in the sandbox for everybody. And it means, too, that a traditionally published author whose publisher has hung them out to dry in the middle of a series has recourse on behalf of their readers and fans. They can complete that series, and maybe write more than they’d originally intended.