Monday, November 15, 2004


I'm going to take a short hiatus from this blog and start posting again by December 1st, possibly a little earlier, but probably December 1st. There'll be lots to talk about by then--Liz Williams' latest books, Jon Courtney Grimwood's latest, more artist profiles, more Justify Yourself features, etc.

I just got a mountain bike and have been enjoying the heck out of that, and I still have a ton of secret lives to finish up. So it's probably best to cool it on the blog entries for now.

Cheers--and an early happy Thanksgiving to those readers who celebrate it...


Friday, November 05, 2004

JUSTIFY YOURSELF: Putting Nick Mamatas on the Rack

Nick Mamatas' Move Underground from Night Shade Books combines the On the Road and Lovecraft traditions in a surreal, bizarre journey through cthulhu Beat Poet country. The mind boggles. The heart throbs. Blurbed by Mieville and admired by many, the novel is Nick's first. I thought if anyone needed to justify himself, it would be Nick, given the fact that his outspoken advocacy of intelligent and incisive commentary on a host of issues has led to many of those on the wrong end of the argument (including myself!) to want to interrogate length.

So, without further preamble, Nick Mamatas:


Why should readers pick up your book as opposed to, say, just about anybody else's book?
Readers should pick up my book because it is part of the subset of total books that are good. 90% of all books are bad and should be avoided. Picking up my book means that you have one of the 10% of the books that are good. As people like good books, they should only choose from within that 10%.

Of course, this leads to a second question: why should we choose your book from out of the 10% that are good? And you should do that because I need the money. I know you don't need your money because until just now you were far more likely to spend it on some crappy book instead of mine! Better than your money flow through the bookstore, up past [the distributor] Ingram, down over Night Shade and finally into my pocket, where it will gain holy power.

Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?
Two. One is of interest to historians of literature and culture -- Move Under Ground explains exactly why and how Jack Kerouac ended up being a bitter, bloated, right-wing crank before his death. The answer is both incredibly obvious if you think about it, and a pleasant surprise.

The second is for members of the working class. For a couple of decades now, such workers have been hammered by propaganda designed to increase their exploitation -- the so-called "team concept", "quality circle" and other management voodoo, for example. These ideas allowed bosses to eliminate the eight-hour day and gives them better, subtler means to pit worker against worker so that they could not resist the
ever greater assaults on their lives and souls. Reading my book will permanently inoculate any member of the working class from such rhetorical flim-flam.

And it will make CEOs explode! That's more of a chemically redeeming quality though.

Does your book have any medicinal or mental health value to readers?
Yes, it cures syphilis. Unless you don't have syphilis. Then it gives you syphilis. Don't worry; just keep reading and the book will cure it. As long as you don't stop after four chapters and put the book down to watch tv or catch up on your work-related emails you'll be fine. Just don't stop reading once you start OR YOU'LL DIE OF SYPHILIS!

Assume your book has been filed under "Ages 8 to 12" in the children's section, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. How horrified do you imagine a child would be after reading your book, and why? How many years of therapy would the child take to recover from the experience?

Not only will children not be horrified by my book, it will likely be the best thing that ever happened to them, just as it was to me when I read Colin Wilson's THE MIND PARASITES at age nine.

If no one buys your book and you are unable to continue publishing your fiction due to the intense vilification that occurs in the media, what line of work will you go into?
I'm moving in to your house and sleeping on your couch! And I'll pay my way by tutoring your daughter in comportment and elocution.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


In part,* this election reinforced the way in which people wish to fictionalize the world to fit their own beliefs. It represents a profound failure of the imagination. I say "failure" rather than "lack" because there are no bounds to an imagination that can still believe in a link between al Qaida and Saddam Hussein, that can believe we are "winning" the "war" on "terrorism," that can believe gay marriage could in any way hurt their own relationships, that can believe the current administration consists of a bunch of hardworkin', straight-talkin' men of the people...and the list goes on.

Of course, the current administration has fed off of and just plain fed this disconnect from reality. It has re-discovered and enhanced to the nth degree the idea of giving the people a fiction they can buy into and that in some ways, even if bred of fear, comforts them.

There are two essential elements to good fiction. A good imagination, and the ability to tie that imagination to some element of the real world in such a way that we care about the fiction we read as if it were part of the real world.

Politics today takes advantage of the fact that many of us in America apparently have what I would call deformed imaginations, in that they are not tied to the real world or real people in any meaningful way. In a sense, what is happening is that a bunch of bad writers are writing an ugly reality for this country, using the worst attributes of our imaginations to do so. A high capacity for belief, a high capacity for imagining, is not at issue. But the ability to dream well, to see beyond rhetoric and deception into the real world, where facts exist with cold, sharp edges...this ability has been dulled in some of us, for whatever reason. And as a result, the ability to reach toward some kind of truth has also been dulled.


(Evil Monkey: "So everybody who voted for Bush is an idiot?" Jeff: "No. But everybody who voted for Bush based on a bad fiction rather than reality is an idiot. Those who had the facts and voted for Bush least they voted from knowledge rather than a deformed imagination.")

* Please note, I said "in part".

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Election Day Stress

Got EDS (Election Day Stress)? Now you have an outlet for it...

Me, I'm using funk and chai tea to hang in there...


PS And for chrissake, if you haven't voted, go vote right now.

Monday, November 01, 2004


Thomas Ligotti remains one of our most important authors, and Fantastic Metropolis has just posted a long, intricate interview with him, conducted by Neddal Ayad. Highly recommended.

Given the recent posts about writing, this part resonated with me, as it's something I always do, starting long-hand, etc.:

Neddal Ayad: In his book Fiction author/editor Michael Seidman wrote that he thought younger writers were shortchanging themselves by not doing longhand or typewritten drafts and then retyping them into the computer. Any thoughts?

Thomas Ligotti: There’s a lot of truth to that. I found that I edited myself as I wrote in longhand, and then I edited myself again when I typed or keyed the manuscript. The latter was an important step in learning to edit my own writing that’s lost if you start off keying your work directly to the computer.

And an interesting comment about Nabokov. I would argue that the magic Ligotti refers to does work, in the same way our ability to hold something memory works, so if it doesn't work in Nabokov ultimately...well, it doesn't work at all in life, either...

Thomas Ligotti: The unique thing about Nabokov is that he practiced the writing of fiction as a form of sorcery. His novels and stories draw you in with their language and their humor, not to mention his troupe of demented narrators who seem to be descendants of Poe’s band of madmen. But behind the language and the humor there is another dimension, a world of a terrible desperation where Nabokov works like a wizard to make the impossible happen right before the readers eyes—specifically, to defeat the limitations of time and space, to recover the losses brought about by the ravaging vicissitudes of one’s life and by the course of history itself, and, ultimately, to defeat death.

This is the underworld of Nabokov’s works, and it’s most obvious and moving in his masterpiece, Lolita, wherein the principal characters, who are declared as dead in the preface to the book, are all brought back to life in quite spectral ways by the writing of the book itself. Of course, the magic doesn’t really work, except from a strictly aesthetic perspective, but perhaps that’s the deepest meaning of Nabokov’s fiction. In commenting about the taboo subject matter of Lolita, which has since become even more taboo, he mentioned two others that at the time were off limits to American writers: that of a successful black-white marriage and that of an atheist who lives a good and purposeful life and dies in his sleep at an advanced age. Nabokov was himself enough of an atheist not to believe in magic of any sort. Lovecraft argued that only a non-believer in the occult could successfully create the thrill of the fantastic and the supernatural—the feeling that all common sense and the apparent order of the world have been overturned—because such a thing was so alien to their view of the world as wholly materialistic. This was a self-serving remark, since Lovecraft himself didn’t believe in any form of the supernatural.

JUSTIFY YOURSELF: In Which Peter Straub Is Interrogated Most Severely...

Peter Straub has had a long and distinguished career during which he has shown himself adept at writing deeply felt, personal fictions that also resonate with a large audience of readers. I've learned a lot reading his work, and I find myself as drawn to his short fiction as his novels. His latest book, In the Night Room, is about "a famous children’s book author who, in the wake of a grotesque accident, realizes that the most basic facts of her existence, including her existence itself, have come into question. Willy Patrick, the respected author of the award-winning young-adult novel In the Night Room, thinks she is losing her mind–again." (from the dust jacket). The novel is garnering rave reviews, with Publishers Weekly giving the novel a starred review and writing in part:

Moving briskly while ranging from high humor to the blackest dread, this is an original, astonishingly smart and expertly entertaining meditation on imagination and its powers; one of the very finest works of Straub's long career, it's a sure bet for future award nominations.

Recently, Straub consented to justify himself in an interview, of sorts...


Why should readers pick up your book as opposed to, say, just about anybody else's book?
Let's face it, Dan Brown doesn't need any more readers. And I present a certain, well, a certain... a certain je ne sais quoi. This comes from the insertion of a little bad, illiterate French into every book I write.

Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?
Absolutely. My new book, which by the way is called In the Night Room, in no way advocates murdering children, urinating on your neighbor's lawn, or smoking in elevators.

Does your book have any medicinal or mental health value to readers?
Right again. If you put that book through a juicer, and it had better be a pretty damn powerful machine, what dribbles out at the end is strong enough to let you Ace your calculus exam, make love eight or nine times all in a row, and stay awake six nights running. God, what a book it is.

Assume your book has been filed under "Ages 8 to 12" in the children's section, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. How horrified do you imagine a child would be after reading your book, and why? How many years of therapy would the child take to recover from the experience?
Any child who should happen to pluck one of my books from a shelf and begin reading will experience a sudden burst of astonishing, in fact well-night mystical clarity, the effects which will linger long into adult life.

If no one buys your book and you are unable to continue publishing your fiction due to the intense vilification that occurs in the media, what line of work will you go into?
If vilified, I would retire to the countryside and run a little bar called Pete's Place, or maybe Sneaky Pete's.


[Expanded from the comments field of the last post about writing, with additional questions posed by Evil Monkey...]

Question from Ben in the Gong
I tend to jot down lots of short, random ideas that come to me. Stuff like sentence fragments, names of people, bits of dreams. Do you let stuff like this creep into your work, or do you file it away for use another day?

Thanks for the question. It depends. When I'm writing a short story, there are quite specific things I need to pull out of the real world, so in those cases whatever I jot down--dreams, little stray thoughts--may or may not make it into whatever story I'm working on at the time. However, when I'm working on a novel, it's totally different. A novel is generous enough and all-encompassing enough that every little scrap that comes to me, for the most part, goes into the novel. Now, it could just be that as I get deeper and deeper into a novel, over months and months, that I tend to become receptive to the things I need and block out or ignore those things I don't need. But to me, it feels as if I'm magnetic and everything inspirational in the world is also magnetic and is sticking to me.

Question from Erasmus
When you have all of these ideas bubbling in your noggin and you decide to use one of them for your story, what steps to you take to get your thoughts onto paper? Do you start with a few phrases representing the story and then branch off into an outline? Do you do brief character sketches to bring your characters into focus? Or do you perhaps just take the story idea that you have and start writing and then revise revise revise and revise the hell out of it?

Answer [revised from comments field version]
I generally do not start to write a story until after much thought and until I have a clear vision of the ending. I have to work out who the character is in my head, too, before I set pen to paper. During this process, I do write down little fragments in a notebook as they come to me. But the fragments might not all relate to the same story, once I sit down and look at them, so I'll need to separate them out at some point. If the gestation period has gone on for a long time, I'll have literally hundreds of little notes--descriptions, plot points, character revelations. So, in those cases, when I'm about to sit down to write the story, I will first put each separate fragment on a different notecard. Then I will order the notecards as those fragments would fall in the story. Depending on the story, I will then sit down to write the story with the notecards in hand, inserting each fragment as I go. Or, if I am worried about losing the spontaneity of the rough draft, I will briefly review the notecards ahead of time, then set them aside and just write the rough draft without them. After I've written the rough draft, then I'll go over it with notecards in hand and if I left anything out, I'll insert it. Sometimes I'll find something I thought was relevant from the notecards actually isn't, and it gets cut. In that case, I put the fragment in my notecard filing system for later use. Everything eventually gets used in something.

Question from Evil Monkey
What's the most important advice you could give a beginning or intermediate writer?

Pay attention to specific detail--and by specific detail, I mean using all five senses. The building blocks of all good fiction start with use of specific detail, which tends to annihilate cliche. This doesn't mean that I think all stories should overwhelmingly consist of descriptions. It means that specific detail should be deployed as appropriate. Sometimes that means a few paragraphs at a time, sometimes that means a single sentence or phrase that perfectly conveys a character trait, a setting, etc. The amount of description and how it is deployed depends entirely on what kind of writer you are. But the biggest defect I see in beginner fiction is the inability to accurately describe the world and distill that description effectively in fiction. Every single person, thing, and place in this world is unique. Even one Burger King is not exactly the same kind of place as another Burger King. Every mall is different. Every table in a restaurant is different in some minute but discernable way. When we find the way to render the perfect detail for the situation or character, we get very close to understanding our world on the micro level. Whether it is a mannerism observed in a crowded mall and airlifted in to the exact point in the story where it can be used, or a description of setting taken from real life and then distilled through the imagination into something that still relates something essential about the psychological truth of the original real-world place, you are interacting with our world and the people in it. This is a life-long attempt to reject cliche and replace it with a truth about the world. We don't always succeed, but we should always try. Because, at base, everything we write is still about our world, whether transformed or mutated into something that seems unfamiliar.

When teaching new writers, I always recommend they do word sketches to improve their ability to render specific detail. Go out to a public park and sit there with a notepad and try to capture the essence of the place in your word sketch. Try to get to the core of what makes what you're looking at unique. Do the same with people walking by. Get to the core of them through observation, discarding anything that doesn't seem true or relevant.


Congratulations to Jo Walton for winning in the best novel category of the World Fantasy Awards yesterday. I hear that it is an excellent novel, and the win well-deserved.

Below find what would have been my acceptance speech for Veniss Underground, had it won, which I include here more as a "Veniss-as-finalist acceptance speech" because I truly want to thank some people, and this is an appropriate time, what with its recent run of being up for the World Fantasy Award, International Horror Guild Award, Bram Stoker Award, etc., in addition to just being picked up by Bantam Books for reprint.


Veniss-as-finalist speech...

Thank you for this honor. I'm pleased that the judges have chosen to reward a novel I've always thought of as a short, sharp jab in the spine. And doubly pleased to be in the company of so many other fine novels and writers.

I wrote Veniss Underground under the influence of dual impulses: to examine the nature of cruelty; and, through the looking glass of a Bosch-influenced retelling of the Orpheus myth, examine issues of the environment and bio-engineering. Mostly, though, I must confess that I've always wanted to write scenes featuring a trash-talking severed-but-still-living meerkat head super-glued to a plate and strapped to the arm of a resilient anti-hero…

I'd like to thank the editors who have taken a chance on Veniss—Sean Wallace, Peter Lavery, and Juliet Ulman. I'd also like to thank Brian Evenson and Rick Hautala for their early support of the novel. Thanks to Chris Reed and Manda Thompson for taking me to the Yorkminster Cathedral and thus sparking an epiphany that led to the completion of Veniss. Thanks to Ellen Datlow for asking why the hell I was using the same title for my book as an Edward Whittemore novel, thus prompting a fortuitous title change. Above all else, thanks to my wife, Ann, who, as always, believed in me and this novel even at times when I did not.

Finally, thanks to my honorable (some might say long suffering) agent Howard Morhaim, for consenting to accept this award in my stead and, most importantly, for his friendship, grace under pressure, and his advice and counsel. I value it immensely, but, more importantly, I am most amused by the thought that he may be turning a rather vibrant shade of red right about now.