Tuesday, July 29, 2003


My wife just fished my old census worker bag out of the closet this past weekend. I'm kind of a pack rat, so it's not unusual for such relics to show up out of the flotsam and jetsam of our closets. But I was surprised at the number of memories it brought back. My sister Elizabeth and I both worked for the census in 1990. We were both going to the University of Florida, in Gainesville, and needed money over the summer months when we weren't in class and didn't have financial aid.

Going door-to-door asking people personal questions about their lives and finances has got to be one of the best jobs for a writer. Depending on the neighborhoods we covered, we got to see the full diversity of people in Gainesville. Usually, we split up, Elizabeth covering one area and me another. At that time, I didn't drive, so she'd drop me off before going on to her own assignment. It was like parachuting into some foreign land. I'd get out of the car armed with my census satchel, my notepad of questionnaires, my pencils, a map, and a print out showing which addresses I was supposed to take care of that day. At the end of the day, Elizabeth would come get me at a pre-arranged location and we'd report in to the section leader with our information. Usually, the section leader was operating out of an apartment dumpier than ours and you'd have a real sense that the information you'd gathered might or might not make it back to HQ.

That job that summer was one of the most pleasant experiences I've ever had. It was the middle of summer, and hot. But it wasn't the kind of heat that shimmers and distorts--it was a still kind of heat, a utilitarian heat, through which objects and places became more, not less, clear. This clarity leant itself to the collection of details, and I remember a kind of rising excitement and, dare I say it, glee, because by the end of summer, I would have a whole catalog of new moments to plug into my short stories. I couldn't have been happier if I'd been lying back on soft pillows being fed cliched grapes by beautiful naked women.

What did the job consist of? Basically, I got to walk around all day in strange places knocking on people's doors. I'd go from upscale condo sections of town to half-deserted trailer parks to lower middle-class families in small concrete houses. I met everyone from a harried stay-at-home mom dealing with three small children to a man who was convinced that the CIA was after him. I met landlords who openly told me they'd never rent to an African-American. I entered what was basically a crackhouse only to find the inhabitants too wasted to answer any questions. I met a Chinese woman as fragile as a thrush who was literally shaking with fear because she thought I was an INS agent, even as she answered my questions in a small voice. I interviewed nine mechanics living in one tiny mobile home. Outside, they had two Mercedes and three BMWs, which they owned. They could have sold the cars and probably gotten much better housing, but they didn't give a crap about their housing--they wanted nice cars. (How could I judge? All I wanted were nice books.)

Two incidents stand out vividly against this backdrop, one serious, one funny. First, I entered this broken down mobile home park to interview just one resident--this was a call-back. Another census worker had already covered the mobile home park, but this particular person hadn't answered her door. So she comes out and she's ancient--she's got to be in her 80s, very fragile bone structure, and these large glasses with very thick lenses and thick dark frames. Through them, her eyes seemed to be miles away. She had on a housecoat, I can't remember the color, and she had homemade bandages covering both of her hands. She did not seem in distress, but she was very happy to see someone. She had trouble communicating--sometimes I could understand her and sometimes I couldn't. She would stop and start in her speech, as if she wasn't used to regular conversation anymore. And there I was, with all of these questions. I don't know if she was excited about that, or disappointed at the type of questions. For yes and no questions she would just nod or shake her head, as if she knew that she was having difficulty talking. I didn't get the sense that she was mentally impaired, although I did suspect she might slip in and out of dementia. Eventually, I found out during the course of questioning that she had burnt her hands on the stove, both hands. She held her hands in her lap, palms up. Her hands in those thick windings of bandages were so huge lying in her tiny lap. She was two hands and these huge glasses. I asked if she needed help and she shook her head. I caught the same whiff of fear I caught off of many of the elderly people I interviewed. If the Chinese woman had thought the INS was going to deport her, then the elderly feared that someone would report they were not competent to live on their own. Eventually, I had asked my questions. It was time to leave. I said goodbye and walked off. When I looked back after taking thirty or forty steps, she was still standing at the door to her mobile home, with her large, bandaged hands hanging off of her slack arms. I really felt this unbelievable sense of sorrow at that moment, as if I were looking back at an image of pure loneliness. It was an absurd emotion to have in some ways, because I didn't know that much about her. For all I knew, she had friends who came to look in on her from time to time. But my gut told me she didn't have anyone, and hadn't had anyone for some time. When I got back to HQ, I told them about the woman, and they contacted someone in social services to check up on her. All night, I kept thinking the usual thoughts, that she'd once had a family, that this could be anyone's fate, given a bad break of luck, the wrong things happening at the wrong moment. Somehow, the image of her standing at the door to her mobile home staring after me became a spectre at my shoulder thereafter, and I didn't like my solitude trudging down strange streets quite as much. For me, it was a luxury--I was just doing it for lark and to make some money. What if I had no choice but to do that?

The other thing I remember happened before I met the old woman, when I was digging the job a bit more. I was in such a groove, so deep into my thoughts that sometimes it seemed like I just magically appeared before the next door--there was no walking, because while I was walking I was thinking or so not thinking that it didn't seem like time had passed. The danger of this did not occur to me until I walked up to one house and knocked on the door only to get no response--after several minutes and more knocking. Then I saw that this chain had been attached to one of the poles supporting the porch. Oh, thought I, well maybe if I follow the chain, I'll find someone. So, like some kind of sun-drugged zombie, I followed the chain into the backyard...where it ended, predictably enough, attached to the collar of a Rottweiler. I looked at the Rottweiler. The Rottweiler looked at me. It began barking and running toward me at the same time I began running back into the front yard. I managed to elude the extremity of its reach at the end of the chain just in time. I'd dropped some of my pencils, but I wasn't going back for them. As I walked down the street on very shaky legs, I started laughing. I couldn't stop for quite some time, because I was reliving the insane series of "logical" assumptions that had led to me following a very obvious dog chain into that backyard. It might have more sense if I'd been smoking marijuana or something--oh, cool, look, a chain. Let's follow that and see what happens.

In general, though, the job was uneventful. I still remember the genuine feeling of anonymity it gave me, and the resulting thrill. I was a phantom passing through, just an anonymous voice prepared to ask questions. I'd never meet any of these people again. I'd probably never walk any of these streets again. The heat was utilitarian, and so were my questions, but my body was ethereal, a mirage. I got some great writing done that summer, just topnotch. I think it had to have been because of the walking, just getting into a kind of receptive, almost trance-like state.

Most writers have had more than their share of interesting jobs. From time to time, I may write about more of mine--from writing letters to Michael Jackson for one employer who wanted to increase the use of small aircraft, to an ectoplasmic-walled hotel built for midgets encountered on one business trip, to the madman who once wanted to beat the shit out of me in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Ft. Myers, to my stint at Book Warehouse, otherwise known as the Devil's Armpit of remaindered bookstores...But more on all of that later.


Sunday, July 27, 2003


Over the past 10 to 15 years, I've had the opportunity to teach fiction writing in one-on-one situations, through manuscript critiques. I also used to teach high school seniors through Merlin's Pen magazine. More recently, I've had a chance to teach writing to groups. The Florida Suncoast Writers' Conference allowed me to do both individual sessions and group workshops, with more opportunities upcoming in the next couple of years.

I really enjoy teaching because I like to be of use and I genuinely enjoy the interaction with beginning writers. However, teaching also re-teaches me technique and approaches to fiction. When you have to try to see fiction writing through another's approach or point of view, you re-examine your own approach. You also give yourself a refresher course in beginner and intermediate technique, which is always useful.

There are, of course, a number of ways in which teaching can go wrong. Having been a student at workshops both good and bad, I can attest to that. And my own technique in teaching has become more refined over the years. A few simple guidelines help make the experience good for the students and the instructor.

The most fundamental rule that you must follow as an instructor is not to impose your approach on the student. (If Faulkner had ever been Hemingway's writing instructor, it would have been unwise for him to suggest Hemingway write like him.) You should impart your knowledge of writing in the service of what the student wishes to accomplish with his or her writing. In some rare cases, you may see that the student's ambition falls short of their full potential, and then you may push that student harder, or you may suggest a change in direction.

That said, understanding a student's approach does not mean you should endorse a flawed execution of that approach. You should always be honest with your students. Honesty, however, does not mean exhibiting cruelty toward the student in question. Some instructors believe in a dog-eat-dog approach, a kind of Artistic Darwinism within a workshop setting. For my own part, I've found that most students respond much better to questions than to blunt words. In many cases, if you use harsh words, the student is so hung up on the method by which the message has been delivered that the message itself gets lost. If, on the other hand, you ask questions like "Did you mean for this character to seem passive?" or "Did you mean for this character's actions to be inconsistent?" Even as neutral a question as "How do you see this character?" can be the beginning of a positive conversation about a deficiency in the writing. Questions generally serve to get the student to come to a conclusion on his or her own, which is the first step to internalizing a solution.

In groups, certain kinds of honesty can foster an artificially competitive atmosphere. Public comparisons during a group workshop of one student's writing to another's in terms of broad strokes--"Jim's story is much better than yours"--are counterproductive and generally set students in competition with each other. More specific comments, like "George--that flaw we talked about in your story: see how Jim successfully handles the same technique in his story," may or may not be useful, depending on the overall cohesion and comraderie in the group.

Some instructors believe that workshops should simulate the cutthroat world of publishing, in which rejection is constant even for very successful writers. However, workshops are not good environments in which to simulate the issues a writer must face in the "real world" outside of the workshop. A nasty rejection slip in the mail, for example, is not the same as having an instructor or fellow writers issue a nasty or snide critique in person in a workshop setting. What a workshop should strive for is clear, effective communication about the story being critiqued. A cogently-argued critique, delivered in a bloodless, clinical matter, or leavened by humor, has the greatest chance of making the subject of the critique really think about his or her story.

From time to time an instructor will make a mistake in a workshop--either in the initial evaluation of the story, or in understanding some individual element of the story. In such cases, no matter how much potential "authority" you may lose, you have to admit that you made a mistake, rather than stick to your guns. Ultimately, the students will respect your willingness to admit to a mistake, but disrespect obvious dishonesty.

When critiquing manuscripts, it is very important to provide at least two levels of critique: specific and general. Comments specific to a story are helpful, but unless put in the context of a general assessment, the student may miss the point, or not be able to apply the "fix" to other stories. With specific comments, it is most useful to start by critiquing the story at the level at which it fails--whether style, characterization, realization of setting, etc. Generally, the major weakness of the story is the most useful element by which to eventually discuss the story as a whole. More importantly, it is relatively useless to discuss higher level elements of the story if something at a lower level is flawed--subtext, for example, if the surface of the story is hopelessly mishapen. (If at all possible, you should separate out specific comments into subcategories to aid in helping the student find strategies to make corrections.)

The general comments about weaknesses should be accompanied by exercises intended to correct the deficiency, much as a fitness instructor would evaluate a client's overall health and then propose exercise intended to bolster atrophied muscles.

A lot of students come to a workshop seeking validation. It is wise to correct this misconception about workshops from day one, in front of the group. It is my firm belief that an instructor is not there to validate anyone's work. Your job is to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each student's fiction and make suggestions and provide guidance as appropriate. Guidance may include advice on submitting stories that seem ready for publication. It does not include making general pronouncements about who is or is not really a writer, or pronouncements about who is going to have greater or lesser success, especially in any group forum. For one thing, no one can really predict who will or won't make it. I'm also not a big believer in the reverse psychology of using this labeling method to push a writer to do better. It's very risky, and it puts the instructor in the role of playing god, to an extent. (You should, as a teacher, resist most all impulses that seem aimed more at bolstering your own ego than helping your students.)

It may, on the other hand, be useful in one-on-one sessions to prepare more idiosyncratic writers for the roadblocks they may face in getting their work published. (Certainly, you can and should share your knowledge of publishing to help make that side of the writing profession easier.)

Finally, you may (very rarely) find yourself unable to help a student. The student may be too advanced or the student may be writing material in a style so foreign to you, using influences with which you are not familiar, that your advice could be more harmful than helpful. In such cases, you should refer the student to some other instructor.

It is perhaps important for me to state the obvious with regard to teaching because too often lately I've come across the attitude that workshops should be akin to dog fighting events. "You haven't lived until X has ripped you a new one," for example. This kind of false machismo is antithetical to the very idea of writing.

The publishing world itself--even just regularly submitting to magazines and anthologies--does quite well in hardening beginning writers to the life they have chosen. Workshops by their very nature are stressful enough without subjecting the student to unnecessary stress. If a writer does not have the endurance to get through that without further "hazing" at a workshop, then that writer never had the toughness to gut it out in the first place. Besides, clear, crisp communication is devastating enough to most students.


Thursday, July 24, 2003


Yesterday, for the day job, my cohorts and I visited a marine institute in Panacea, Florida. It had begun as a procurement center through which universities could acquire marine specimens, but gradually, over time, became devoted more to education and eco-tourism. Now, the tanks, which are really "vats" or "containers," few of them with glass sides, but built so that you can easily put your hands in them and pick up things, are used as much for letting school groups pass through and touch sea urchins, crabs, snail shells, as for any other reason. For me, it was a kind of nostalgic experience. Seeing the hawksbill turtles at the marine institute reminded me of when my mom, a biological illustrator at the time, would draw turtles while a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji. We'd watch as the turtles dragged themselves over the grass of our front yard, and Mom would create these scientifically-accurate drawings of them.

And, as a kid growing up in Fiji, one of my fondest memories was wading through the tidal pools and reefs. Those tanks at the institute were like miniature versions of those adventures, and it was both fun and odd to watch kids interacting with the sea life. On the one hand, it was great for them. On the other, they were missing the context of those creatures in a truly wild place.

Strangely, I've never been able to write Fiji into any of my stories. It is the first place I have vivid memories of as a child. I've been able to write about every country I've ever visited, but not the one (other than the U.S.) that I spent any amount of time in. I'm not quite sure why. It might be that the place is already mythologized in my memories.

I have taken a stab at some nonfiction about Fiji from time to time--here's a passage that epitomizes what I loved about the place:

Some nights--the best nights--Mom and Dad would take my sister and me to the shallows of offshore reefs. In sneakers and shorts we would shine our flashlights into that miraculous darkness, revealing bridges and stairwells and thoroughfares of red, yellow, orange coral. Phosphorescent squid shot through the breaches in the coral like miniature balloons rapidly losing air. Drab brown moray eels with gold-veined eyes hissed from worn worm holes while cumbersome cowrie shells with lip-pink snails lumbered gracefully through the sudden spotlight. Tiny emerald fish schooled together, then broke apart into a hundred jeweled tears at the first hint of danger, before coming back together again to form a sparkling chandelier. Against this backdrop, striped Spanish Dancers, living skirts of jelly-like flesh, danced their slow fandangos, oblivious to our intrusion.

The wind, cool and rhythmic, would lull our senses, while on the nearby shore, ghost crabs shadowed our progress and the distant lights of civilization seemed deliciously inconsequential, even ridiculous, in comparison with the smooth, sleek-black world we had entered . . .

One night, with the sea murmuring and gasping all around, we walked farther than we had ever walked before, so that the lights of the shore were only a memory and our flashlights as small against the night as the moon reflected in a man's eyes.

The reef cut against our ankles and the water salted the wounds, but we continued on, until, for one frightening moment, we could not tell shore from sea, and if we were to have spun blindly, we would have opened our eyes to a world completely unknown and unknowable.

But we didn't; instead, we started back toward the shore. Half-way back, we came upon a grotto filled with water, and in the water a creature we had never before seen--a Crown of Thorns, a type of beautiful yet deadly starfish, bigger than a dinner plate, bronze-brown, its thousands of thorns glistening like dark gold. Eater of reefs, destroyer of entire tiny worlds. I felt such a thrill of discovery in that moment, to be standing on the reef with only our flashlights for illumination, crouched over that grotto, looking down on this creature that seemed so otherworldly and alien. Such bittersweet juxtapositions of beauty and destruction. In that moment, I thought that there could be no sensation better than this one: the shivering delight upon discovery of the sublime and the unknown.


Wednesday, July 16, 2003


Why do we write? There are all sorts of mundane or usual answers to that question--to express ourselves, to tell a story, to entertain, to explore the human condition, to be well-known, to be known well, to be wealthy. But there are other answers that have more to do with the actual moment of creation. It's perhaps a little more personal and therefore embarrassing or revealing to talk about--or revelatory. It's the moment when you feel as if you are outside your body yet more intensely inside your body than ever before. It's the spark, the orgasm, the shock that makes you keep slogging through endless days when all you're doing is marching through pages and hoping that the rewrites, the editor in you, will salvage the material. Is it simply a matter of allowing the world into you like water poured into an empty glass?

I wrote my best description of this sensation for a short story called "Experiment #25 in the Book of Winter: The Croc and You":

The writer picked up his cigar and breathed in its thickness. Take winter—such a bracing time of year, he thought, addressing the glowing red tip as if it were a good friend. Every detail on the sidewalk, from a rage of red-orange leaves to a green meandering crack in the concrete, took on a binocular significance. It was a forethought of the awareness that overtook him when he wrote: the premonition of something moving through him and onto the page, the pen in hand become a blur and the heart so full, limbs aflame, body with fever. Like sparks burrowing into you until, finally conquered, you become vessel, container not contained—trapped and free—and all the little hairs on your arms rise, and you feel as if your own skin has been painlessly flayed back to reveal, beneath the perfect diagram of veins and arteries, the beauty and horror of the world—the words like tiny mysteries and the combinations of words solutions to those mysteries, and yet more mysterious for the revelation...and you’re crying silently because, after all, these words are your life, even in distilled form, even brought forth by an unknown will...and you know this is the closest you will personally ever come to an awareness of what God might mean—this feeling that so encompasses the whole of your being that you are unimaginable strength and weakness intertwined...and in the aftermath, the writer often found, as the madness left him, that he would observe, say, the reflected worlds within a perfect drop of water as it lazed in the sudden sunlight across the yard, and was spent, exhausted, by even that simple image.

Although, as I also observed in that story, the feeling has a falsehood buried within it: what you write when in ecstasy is not always any better than what you write at other, less inspired, times...


Friday, July 11, 2003


In the midst of a last push toward completion of the fake disease guide, I've had a couple of hours of solitude during which I've not been connected to the Internet, not had the TV on, not been working on something. It's been a long time since I've had solitude. The lack of it can eat away at your center. In a writer, it can shorten attention span, make it difficult to get into that deep, submerged place that your power comes from. Instead of allowing things to come into you, you are continually projecting things out from you, if that makes any sense. It will seem as if you are in a sense accumulating more power, but in fact you are diminished because nothing is flowing into you. It creates fatigue, and a certain amount of irritation.

Now that I can see the disease guide almost behind me, I can also see how much white noise I've allowed to accumulate around me. Except it's not really white noise--it's more of a dark noise, a noise with a substance and texture like an electric shock or sandpaper. It's a barrage of positive reviews, negative reviews, good vibes from a contact made, bad vibes from a contact made, anger and irritation and satisfaction and fondness and love originating from a hundred glimpsed or participated in electronic conversations about everything from New Weird to the festival of the freshwater squid. Taken separately, it's harmless enough, but all bundled together it equates to a hundred received ideas trying to get into your skull and make you into their version of what they think you are. (This is not a complaint--when you decide, as I have, to push your work hard, it's inevitable--but it does mean I need to reevaluate. At some point, there has to be an end to it: an end through which the work itself flies through to a new place, impervious to what anyone might think of it.)

In a sense, the total immersion in the disease guide and other projects, including PR for projects, is reducing me to starting over. When I start to write again, it will be hesitant and stumbling. I'll have to relearn or re-remember certain ideas or rules I knew before but have not had to live inside of for many months. In relearning them, I will come to see them from a different angle. This will in turn make the writing take on different facets or fractures. It affects the reading, too. because my attention span has been so divided between so many different projects, my reading has been sporadic, embryonic--start-stopping on one book after the next; a collection of beginnings with no middle or end. As I become a pure writer again, without distraction, I'll learn to read again, in a way.

Whenever I'm at the end of a tough, long campaign for a book I've written or edited, I begin to turn away from it--it's just a husk, a skeleton, dry and brittle--and I turn toward this kind of space that is not yet filled or complete. It's dark around the edges. It might contain a horizon, or it might just be a field of stars. There's a sense of something coming down from above, from a distance, at a great speed, but so far away that even if I saw what it was it would appear to be moving slowly. I can sense the need to become hermitlike, to withdraw, in order to receive what's coming.

This time, something quite different is coming. Whatever's waiting is a kind of sea-change for me. It won't be evident right away, because I'm working on a novel I've been working on for years, and that novel is going to pull me back into what I did before. But it may be evident in some of the new short stories. I feel good about it. I feel good that something new seems to be coming out of me.

Now, I just need to find solitude, and a way to drown out the white noise. There's only one way to do that. I have to write.


Friday, July 04, 2003


Michael Cisco is a criminally underrated author, in part because his work is sometimes difficult (in the best sense of the word), sometimes morally ambiguous, and because he's an original. It hasn't helped that many of his manuscripts have been tied up at various publishing houses for literally years and years--or that Mythos Books has been lethargically slow in putting out a Cisco short story collection that when it now appears will be hopelessly out-of-date, no longer reflective of the writer's progress.

Luckily, however, Michael's original triumph, The Divinity Student (winner of an International Horror Guild Award), will be released by my Ministry of Whimsy Press along with its sequel, The Golem, under the title The San Veneficio Canon. The San Veneficio Canon will be published in February 2004. In the meantime, Michael's novel The Tyrant will be published by Prime Books in November 2003. In that book, Michael has the audacity to depict the invasion of Heaven by the minions of Hell--and then the invasion of Hell by the minions of Heaven. Basically, Michael is fearless.

In late 2004, or early 2005, the Ministry will publish Michael's novel The Traitor. I just finished reading the manuscript, and all I can say is that he's somehow managed to create a unique existential horror story, complete with beautiful, blood-curdling scenes--it's an amazing mix of Gene Wolfe, William Burroughs, and Samuel Beckett, with a touch of Thomas Ligotti. I'm excited about all of Michael's work, but I'm very excited about this novel--I think it's a true classic in the making.

I'll leave you with an excerpt. The Traitor is set in an imaginary land in which spirit eaters exist to literally absorb and thus get rid of spirits that would otherwise harass the living. The spirit eaters must then discharge the "ectoplasmic" energy they "eat" by letting it flow into other people, usually in a way beneficial to those who receive it (healed wounds, etc.) The Traitor describes the life of the spirit-eater first person narrator and his interactions with a spirit eater called White. White is a renegade. He does not discharge the energy from eating spirits. Instead, he keeps it for himself--it makes him incredibly powerful, but it also burns him up from the inside. Among the many stunning scenes in the book is the one where the narrator, part of a group charged with bringing White to justice, begins to catch up with White:

Whenever I picture White to myself, I picture him running in the cold humid air between the trees. We caught sight of him time and again, always in front of us, sometimes off to one side and then almost immediately he would be off to the other side. I could make him out only as an obscure patch moving in and out of view in the distance. There was no place he did not seem to be. He appeared and disappeared. I saw him only intermittently, but despite this, I could see very clearly that he was somehow on fire. He was enveloped in fire. A transparent flame played about his body from head to foot, and his body seemed to emit, even in complete silence, as I discovered later, a thunderous, inaudible roar that made the air shudder rigidly as he passed through it. At one point, he appeared close by. He jumped from a bluff overhanging a dry riverbed, and landed on his feet with a deafening report, and the sand around his feet flew back in a circle. White merely straightened himself and vanished into the trees again. The men pursued him, and I followed. They were frightened, and eager, and carried rifles which they held low to the ground, hovering just above the ground. We were all going faster every moment. At this point we had fanned out in a long line several riders deep. The dogs, and the birds in the trees, together with the hooves of the horses and the random shot, were all I could hear - except that at times I would hear White scream from far ahead, this from the great effort he was making. White's screams were brittle and metallic, and they hung motionless in the air, they hung motionless in the air like hanged men. I was terrified, but unable to control my horse, and it followed the others. We were so deep in the woods that on all sides there were nothing but trees, very old, very black, and their boughs closed out the sun, whose light was greyed, flattened and diffused by the clouds. White was all around us, he seemed to flash in and out among the horses, and I saw his pale ghostly face, glaring, furious, flashing past ahead of me in the shadows of the trees. Wind flooded over me and I saw it brought with it the flavor of something invisible that was coming, and then I heard men and horses screaming ahead of me, and dogs howling, my horse jerked back as if he'd been shot and I was nearly knocked from my saddle, leaving me hanging from its side, and I jumped down. My horse staggered back past me.


At the World Fantasy Convention last year, I moderated a panel on books as artifacts--the personal nature of books. I recently found the materials I prepared for that panel and thought I'd post them here. I like all of the answers from various writers, collected before the panel, but Michael Cisco's responses are particularly stunning to me, as are Zoran Zivkovic's rather cheeky replies.


Compiled by Jeff VanderMeer

Good evening. Thanks for joining us tonight. To be here at 10 at night on Halloween already demonstrates an abiding love for books. Or perhaps for panels. My name is Jeff VanderMeer and I'll be moderating tonight's panel on books.

By way of introduction, let me just say that a finely made book, well designed and executed, can be intoxicating. It exists as a creative act irrespective of the book's contents. And, at the place where content and format fuse, you will find the perfect book. That perfect book differs for every reader, but what remains constant among book lovers is a sense that their need for books is more than just an act of nostalgia. It can be highly personal and eccentric. It can be a search for order. Or it can represent an awareness of the aesthetics and culture behind book design and book execution.

We're here to talk about how books are personal to each of us and perhaps a little bit about the relevancy of books today.

But before we begin, I'd like to do two things—first, hand out this photo album with photos from the Babylon Lexicon at the New Orleans Independent Book Fair last weekend. The Babylon Lexicon is a display of hand-made and eccentric books from all over the country. What struck me as most interesting is that the majority of the books' creators were people in their twenties. They were all very excited about the possibilities of books as art and artifact. They did not find such an idea at odds with our modern world of computers and the Internet. In fact, they seemed to like living in both the world of books and the electronic world. Also for the Book Fair, I asked a number of writers and publishers from around the world about their relationship to books. Some of their responses are also included in this photo album and I'll also read from some during the course of the evening.

[Alas, no one actually taped the panel itself, but below you'll find some of the answers I'd solicited from various writers and editors in the months prior to the panel, in preparation for it.]

What do you most like about the book as a physical object?

Des Lewis: The book as physical object was the container, the thing that gifted what I yearned – so, by association with what it gifted, it became a loved object, by look and smell and feel, and assumed taste. The stitching, the tooled spine, the foxing, the heady waft of predictions of nostalgia in future life …

Ian Nichols: Its sensuality. A book is tangible, and the paper picks up scents, finger marks, stains and dust. It is, in itself, a history, as well as a text.

Michael Cisco: It is silent. Patient. It waits for me to animate it, and to animate me in turn. This patience and quietness are related, and both in turn related to the book's relationship to time. Real books are created to endure for the benefit of unborn persons, like time capsules. They act as silent witnesses, whose testimony is immediately available.

Zoran Zivkovic: The erotic fact that I can take it with me to the bed.

Do you have any rituals or procedures you go through after acquiring a new (or used) book? (Some writers indicate they bite or smell books.)

Gordon Van Gelder: The former CEO at St. Martin's, Tom McCormack, loved the smell of old books. I was taken aback in a meeting when I brought out an 1950s book from my father's library and Tom cracked open the book, stuck his nose deep in the binding, and took a big whiff.

David Langford: Doesn't everyone have a quick sniff? New books are rarely aromatically interesting, but certain U.S. paper from the first half of the 20th century has matured to exude a waft of Essential Book. Another small ritual consists of either gently removing penciled-in second-hand prices with an art eraser, or shouting F***WIT! at prices scrawled in ink.

Michael Cisco: I have sniffed books in my time, but not as part of a fixed protocol of book-buying (more like a pastime). When I buy books and bring them home, I set them aside in piles, depending on the kind of reading they represent (research, pleasure, subway). When I've read them, they all go onto a shelving pile. Once the shelving pile is a foot or two high, I alphabetize the books, measure the height of the pile, displace an equivalent amount of already-shelved books to make room for the new ones (my shelves are deep enough for double-stacking: the back rows are all filled, and now the fronts are filling up), then insert the new books in the proper places. In this way, I am able to find any book fairly swiftly. I derive from this operation, also, a profound sense of well-being. I don't merely possess my books; they form a precisely-ordered system over which I preside. Looking at the books on my shelves, I enjoy their order.

Tamar Yellin: I feel its weight, and flip through its pages to feel the weight and quality of the paper. The smell is also important. At some point -- unable to help myself -- I will check how many pages it has. This seems to answer some deep psychological need, like establishing how many miles there are to cover on a journey, whether or not it's meant to be a journey of pleasure.

Is it necessary for books to exist as physical objects in our increasingly electronic world? If so, why?

Zoran Zivkovic: Of course it is! I can think of many, many reasons. One of them is the practical impossibility and moral abomination of taking a computer with me to the bed.

Michael Cisco: I've never heard yet any suggestion that paintings on gallery walls be replaced with computer facsimilies hanging on flat screens, or that all music henceforth be created exclusively on computers. Or that all food be cooked on computer screens and eaten by little programs while the user sucks feebly at the keyboard. Our world may be increasingly electronic, but it might becoming decreasingly electronic in the future; and nowhere is it written that everyone everywhere will eventually have computer access. Scrapping books would be like insisting everyone live underground - expensive and pointless.

What recent examples stand out for you as exemplar of well-designed, well-made books?

Jack Dann: the Folio Society in London make very nice books. Also small press publishers such as Arkham House, Easton Press, Ziesing, Lord John Press, Shadowlands Press, and especially Donald M. Grant.

Stephen Gallagher: THE ANNOTATED LOST WORLD, edited by Pilot and Rodin. Published by The Wessex Press, Indianapolis. A perfect meshing of content, design and materials.

Rhys Hughes: I admire the productions of Tartarus, Sarob and Savoy.

Harvey Jacobs: The books published by Pushcart Press are particularly attractive.

John Klima: Mark Z. Danielewski's HOUSE OF LEAVES did some very difficult things with layout, leading me to say that it was well-designed, but that the design didn’t help the story. THE CHEESE MONKEYS by Chip Kidd had phenomenal design.

David Langford: Alasdair Gray's anthology =The Book of Prefaces= (2000)

Stephen Jones: Quite simply, the best books currently being produced in the genre are the Robert E. Howard titles being published by Wandering Star.

Jay Lake: the limited edition printing of Gene Wolfe's EMPIRES OF FOLIAGE AND FLOWERS

Scott Thomas: The Monkey's Paw and Other Tales of Mystery and the Macabre, from Academy of Chicago Publishers, has a lovely autumnal cover by French artist Victor Prouve that sets the perfect tone for a collection of old fashioned stories.

Lisa Tuttle: "Everyman's Library" (London: J.M. Dent & Co.)

Gordon Van Gelder: The hardcover of A GENTLE MADNESS by Nicholas Basbanes (Holt)

Ellen Datlow: _Coraline_ by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean. --

Do you have any memory connected to books that you would like to share?

Jack Dann: One of my earliest memories of reading was that when I opened a book, all the characters would come alive; when I closed it, they would go to sleep. On some level, I still believe that.

Jeff Topham: About 10 years ago, my then-girlfriend and I spent two delirious months on a rambling cross-country road trip. The only book I brought was Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction, whose endpapers, and eventually even its margins, became filled with my travel journal. It traveled with me to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was soaked during a thunderstorm at Glacier National Park. Its front cover was singed during a hilariously inept attempt to smoke a small amount of opium we'd bought. It is a ruin of a book. It is priceless to me.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003


Readers of my Ambergris stories who do not live in Florida, or who have only visited Florida's tourist attractions, often wonder how Florida could possibly have influenced me. In fact, the decay and proliferating fungi of Ambergris are elements also inherent to Florida. I live in Tallahassee, in the north of the state, about 45 minutes away, by car, from any hint of coastline. In the summers here, the humidity level hovers around 100 percent. The temperature is consistently 90 to 95 degrees F. The rain, for a couple of months at least, is near constant, and often ferocious. (A friend of ours from England told us that the first time he experienced Florida rain, he stopped his car from shock; he was used to the constant mist of England, not this torrential downpour.)

In such a climate, the rate of decay, the infiltration of insects, the appearance of fungi and lichen, are all accelerated. If our modern civilization stopped functioning for just four months during the summer--no pest control, no air conditioning, no lawnmowers--Florida would revert to a natural state far more swiftly than anyone might think.

We're in the heart of the summer now, and the vegetation around our house is defiantly green, richly green--one might almost say "verdant." The azalea bushes that surround our yard like a thick fence have long since bloomed, the watery fire of their blossoms snuffed out. The only colors now are greens and browns and white--the greens of grass, trees, and lichen; the brown of soil, of rotted twigs and branches, of tree trunks; the white of tiny mushrooms circling the decay. Our backyard has long been mostly compost pile, with a thick surface of brown leaves on top. Through this the mushrooms sometimes appear, like little sentinels. The half decomposed limbs of fallen branches are thick with lichen--a rich, green color that calls to mind the endpapers of old Victorian novels. The insects are everywhere, especially at night--great, awkward flying beetles like dreadnaughts, and tiny, ephemeral whispy things with legs like pencil lead, and moths like drab paupers circling the globe of our outdoor light. (Sometimes we see damselflies, more delicate than dragonflies, and unable to survive except at certain elevations, in certain types of humidity; they are black and shiny and velvety, but they move like drunken sailors.) Below the surface: earthworms, cockroaches rustling through the dead leaves. Above: thrashers, thrushes, wrens, blue jays, crows, and squirrels. At night, frogs will stick to the windows and we will watch their tiny pink-and-white throats shiver and pulse with life. At night, while you are trying to become the opposite of awake, you will hear the chorus of the frogs, which bark, and the chorus of the cicadas, which sound like tiny drills, and the chorus of the crickets, which sound as if they are trying to soothe both the frogs and cicadas to sleep.

We have one enormous, tall tree in the front yard. The biggest wisteria vine I have ever seen winds its way around the tree all the way to the top. I used to think that the tree and the wisteria were locked in decades-slow combat, a battle that might not end until long after I was dead. But lately I have begun to suspect that the tree and the wisteria are locked in an embrace. It is a decades-slow love story, which will reach its fruition long after I am dead.

When the wisteria blooms, it covers our cars, using the rain to stick to the doors, the roof, the windows, so that over time, if we are not careful, they are transformed into Mardi Gras floats. Their blossoms fall onto the grass and leaves. They become brown, shapeless, rotting into the ground, like everything else.

Ambergris is but a pale reflection of this...


Tuesday, July 01, 2003


Who are these new writers--either new because young or new because not fully noticed before (or "new" because I got lazy and didn't keep up with my reading)--that are combining influences in new ways, cross-pollinating fiction, or renovating it, or just writing great stuff? Here are a few who have caught my eye:

Alan DeNiro
Shelley Jackson
Nick Mamatas
Alex Irvine (yeah, I know everyone else already noticed him)
Michael Cisco (it's a pet peeve of mine that he's not better known)
K.J. Bishop
Jay Lake
Alan Wall (well, it doesn't take a divining rod to pick him)
Ian R. McLeod (under-appreciated because he takes his time writing his novels, and gets them right)

Check out their work, if you haven't already. I think it's likely, though, that I've simply come a little late to the dinner table, so to speak.