Saturday, March 31, 2007


As I do more and more critiquing of beginning or intermediate writers' manuscripts, I get one question over and over again: "Do I have what it takes to be a published writer?" There's nothing wrong with the question--it's the natural question from anyone who plans fiction writing as a career. But as an instructor or critiquer, your answer has to be evasive--in the sense that no one really knows. Beginners who seem tone deaf have gone on to be great writers and those with more potential have bombed out.

So, my general answer to the question, altered from an actual response to someone, is as follows...


The answer to your question isn't something I can really provide--not in the way that you are expecting or want the answer. I like to deal in what a book or story is doing well and what needs work. Specific and general comments. If a particular story is dead-in-the-water, I'll tell you that, but that does not mean you as a writer are dead-in-the-water.

The point is, it's up to you to then put in the work to make it to the next level. In other words, you are so new to writing that you don't yet even know what all of the tools are at your disposal (that just has to do with experience). Until you do, until you learn more technique, it's hard to say exactly how talented you will turn out to be ultimately. (And I say "new" because an average writing career could last 50 years!)

What separates a writer who is successful from one who is not is a willingness to practice, to put in the time and effort to improve, etc. I stress this because a spark of talent is only part of what a writer needs. So it depends on why you write. Some people start writing because they want to be famous or they want to be rich. These can be things that happen as a result of being a writer, but they are not good reasons to write. These kinds of writers rarely write for long once they realize that it's hard work. The ones who continue are those who first and foremost love to tell a story. Who genuinely love the act of creation.

I can't tell you the number of times I asked myself "Am I really a writer?" "Am I cut out for this?" "Do I have what it takes?" "Am I any good?" These are things you ask yourself throughout your career. Self-doubt is just part of being a writer. But at the end of the day, I like to tell stories, I like the process of discovering things about characters, and I actually enjoy the process of pushing myself, of practicing, of taking comments about my work and using them to make myself stronger as a writer. And at some point I stopped needing people to tell me I had what it took. It just wasn't important anymore.

At the same time, there are no guarantees when it comes to writing. A lot depends on what you do with comments, for example. My advice is usually for the writer to absorb and think about constructive criticism, make a list of areas for improvement, note what seems to be working, and then apply all of that to the next novel or story. And then only later go back to the original work. You'll be amazed how much clearer things can be after a little time away from it.

I've worked with writers for almost 20 years. Everybody always wants validation, which I understand, since I once wanted it, too, and sometimes still need it. But the fact is, the only true validation is getting enjoyment out of writing. Once you understand that--which can take a long, long time--you begin to relax about some of these questions that don't really have an answer. Like, "Do you really think I have what it takes to be a published writer?" What I think doesn't really matter in the end. It's very much up to you. To some extent, you can be as successful as you like if you put in the work.

I know this is a round-about way of answering your question, but fiction writing just isn't about yes-or-no and black-or-white. It's about all the gray areas. I've seen people much more naturally talented than me fall by the wayside. I've seen people much less naturally talented do much better than me. You never really know how it's going to turn out.

This is really the only answer to your question: that there usually is no definitive answer, at any point in your career.

Friday, March 30, 2007


First pathetic attempt at a fantasy world map while writing my "South Haven" fantasy series as a sixth grader. Abandoned when I realized I was doing an pastiche of Lord of the Rings. (Click on any of these for a much larger version.)

Much more sophisticated attempt at a map near the end of my attempts at heroic fantasy as a teen. You'll note that the place names aren't things like "Desolation Mountains". This was from my Thranjader series of novels, abandoned when I realized they were pastiches of McKillip's Riddlemaster of Hed books. The last maps I did are too big to scan--for a novel in which a huge dead white rabbit is found on the footstep of Mt. Kilimanjaro by a detective in the near-future. Man, that one even had topography lines!

The fake disease guide contributors at a ReaderCon panel, in character. I can't remember who took the photo. This is one of my favorite photos of all time--they all look so serious it's like right out of American Gothic: Stepan Chapman, Paul Di Filippo, Jeffrey Thomas, Robert Wexler, John Klima, and Michael Cisco. What a rogue's gallery! And then the alien baby (see:, photos) near the Atlas Mountains and in Marrakesh. (Both taken by Liz Williams. Still need to get the whole set up on the alien baby photo subsite...)

Me mum with a toucan, my stepdaughter Erin and me in like 1999 or something creating a new Jewish tradition of burning peeps on Easter--and laughing insanely while doing it (another of my favorite photos, I think). And then me, the writer Sherry Decker, and Ann at Norwescon, where the Ministry of Whimsy was publisher guest of honor back in, I think 1998 or 2000 or something. I was wearing my Suit of Fat.

Me as a junior in high school, Ann and her publishing partner Amy, in front of the Silver Web booth at either the first or second World Horror Con (the photos got some punctures in it from being on my bulletin board for awhile)--I gotta say, Ann's hot in that outfit. Then my sister in a glamour shot in the 1990s for some event. And then my dad's photo of me and Elizabeth climbing a tree in Fiji as kids, along with a friend.

This is why when you clean your office, you never just clean your damn office. Instead, you go off into nostalgia-ville, and it takes forever...



This is like some kind of rock supergroup: Elizabeth Hand, Paul Witcover, Paul Di Filippo, and Lucius Shepard now have their own shared blog. Bookmark immediately!


Thursday, March 29, 2007


Andrew Wheeler has an excellent post about The New Wave in the UK/US in the 1960s and 1970s. Recommended reading.


Sunday, March 25, 2007


Matt Cheney has posted the contents of Best American Fantasy, in the order they appear in the anthology.

Check out earlier entries for his preface to BAF.



Every 30 or 40 years, we wash our cats. It's a little like the running of the bulls in Spain, except much less frequent. But, it's a Sunday, we're bored...why not. Of course, if you're gonna wash a cat, you gotta get kinda demonic on their asses. Or they will f--- you up in an instant. Thus the look on my face...

Unless you've been living on another planet, I'm sure that by now you've heard of Hal Duncan. The book. The blog. The man.

One thing I have to say at risk of embarrassing the man,'s nice when the person behind books you like turns out to be genuinely nice, knowledgable, and fun. And that's the case with Duncan. Just a great guy in addition to being an explosive and visionary writer.

This February Del Rey released the conclusion of his Vellum duology (is that the term), Ink. It's got a cover that's to die for and just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. A lot of people weren't sure if Duncan could actually pull together everything he unleashed in the first volume, Vellum, and provide a satisfactory conclusion. But by all accounts, he has. I haven't read the book yet because of the pressure of deadlines, but Hal was kind enough to submit to my five-question walk-the-plank interrogation, the results posted below.


Why should readers pick up your new book as opposed to, say, just about anybody else's book?
Because for all the orgone-powered airships, harlequin play retellings of THE BACCHAE, spring-heeled schizoid heroes, Nazi ubermensch and metafictional exploits in an alternate 30s Middle East, it’s actually a quite sensitive story about the joys and sorrows of the human condition, with a rather touching (I hope) story about loss and restoration at its core. Also it has zeppelins over Sodom.

Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?
It’s probably not the sort of book you’d take home to meet your mother, but I do think it would do OK in a cocktail party situation, witty and charming at times but serious and thoughtful when the topic of conversation demands. It may corner you and blether passionately about its mad theories on religion, but it’ll be mixing the martinis while it does so.

Does your book have any medicinal or mental health value to readers?
It might cure depression. It might just cure insomnia. At the moment we have insufficient data to go on -- the studies just haven’t been done -- but there are certainly indications that it could be useful in the treatment of chronic ennui. Any rumours that reading it will induce psychosis are completely unfounded. It’s the prequel, VELLUM, that sends you mad; and INK should, in fact, act as a cure for VELLUM-induced psychosis.

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?
If they’ve read THE BORRIBLES by Michael de Larabeitti, they’d be quite equipped to deal with anyhing I throw at them. If they haven’t graduated from Tolkien or Lewis yet they would probably be deeply disturbed by my repeated attempts to take the banal and simplistic concept of Good-vs-Evil, smash its skull in with a hammer and drag the carcass round the gates of Troy ten times, screaming “Fuck that shit!” at the top of my lungs. They’d never recover... hopefully.

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 they won’t publish my novels I’ll just change media and move into the theatre, staging my musical at the Edinburgh Fringe and aiming for a big West End smash if I can find the right director. I have the libretto written, the music in my head and a collaborator who can actually make sense of my tuneless wailing. It’s a gay punk version of the Orpheus story and I’ll do it as a puppet show if need be, so be warned. If all else fails I shall become a jakie, hanging around the park all day with a bottle of Buckfast, saying “Goany geez 10p fer a cuppa tea, mate?” to anyone who passes.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Our very good friend Tamar Yellin has won the first $100,000 Jewish Book Council Award for her first novel!!!!!! Congrats, Tamar!!!!! Such amazing news!


Sunday, March 18, 2007



I read this review by Terrence Rafferty of Dan Simmons' The Terror with a rising sense of disgust. The opening paragraph is a lovely example of damning with faint praise:

Writing fiction isn’t an activity for the faint-hearted, and anyone who has managed, as Dan Simmons has, to generate two dozen books (in an impressive variety of genres) in just 22 years clearly deserves credit for discipline, diligence, resolve and, most of all, confidence. His will to persevere — to see every story, short or dauntingly long, through to the bitter end — has been regularly fortified by the recognition of his peers: his résumé includes a Hugo award (from the World Science Fiction Society), four Bram Stoker awards (from the Horror Writers Association) and a couple of World Fantasy awards. His latest opus, however, raises the disturbing possibility that this energetic writer’s hard-earned self-assurance may be tipping over into something more like hubris. “The Terror” is a 769-page novel about men stuck in the ice.
Congratulations, Simmons, for doing whatever any writer does--finish your freakin' stories and novels. But now you've gone and done it--you're not just content with finishing your work. You're showing some ambition. Oh, Hyperion might have been the height of hackery, what with it being based on the structure of that festering cancre of mediocrity the Canterbury Tales, not to mention the low-born origins of your other work, but now you're at least trying really hard. Here, sit up and have a milkbone. This energetic writer’s hard-earned self-assurance. Give me a break.

Rafferty then ends with:

The attempt to produce a massive historical novel — one that might achieve the commercial glory of, for example, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” or “The Crimson Petal and the White” — isn’t, of course, a folly on that level. The quest for the Big Book is neither as heroic an endeavor nor, fortunately, as lethal. (“The Terror” won’t kill you unless it falls on your head.) But when a writer as canny as Dan Simmons can talk himself into something as foolhardy as “The Terror,” you know there’s a kind of insanity loose in the world of publishing, and all I really want to say in my one little page is, Stop the madness.

I.e., this is something Simmons did on purpose--a calculated attempt, not something from his heart. Simmons is a commercial writer, therefore what he does isn't personal. I don't want to read too much into it, but this is a skillful example of effing someone over while appearing to be half-way reasonable. (Not to mention this sudden veer, this sudden rampant twist of the steering wheel into the divider of the median strip: "there's a kind of insanity loose in the world of publishing, and all I really want to say in my one little page is, Stop the madness." What the f---?! Lazy does not even begin to describe this review.)

It's not even clear that Rafferty read the entire novel, from the analysis part of his review. He makes no mention of some of the most chilling and strangest scenes in the novel. He is not even willing to give Simmons his due for creating some of the weirdest and least commercial situations in a book given this kind of push by its publisher. Not to mention the muscular beauty of the prose. If you were to read Rafferty's review, you'd imagine a monkey had been dictating a novel to a walrus with a keyboard.

No, instead he notes the genre background of the author, makes some snide jibes at Simmons' personal intent as a writer (which are unknowable except to Simmons) and utterly fails to address the actual book in front of him. Out of seven paragraphs, only two constitute analysis, and it's hardly that--it's mostly summary. So out of a seven-paragraph review, we have two paragraphs devoted to "smearing" Simmons as a "commercial hack" without using those words (one can only imagine how much time Rafferty spent choosing the words in that first paragraph). We have almost two paragraphs just talking about the historical context of the novel. And the rest is lackluster, freshman-year college reviewing at its most banal.

Let's say for the sake of argument I'd read this book and not liked it. I would hope that my review would have at least acknowledged some of the bona fide triumphs at the level of scene and detail. But Rafferty isn't even willing to do that. Probably because he hasn't even read the book properly.

I'm sorry, but if a book of this scope and ambition appears on your doorstep and you're assigned to review it in one of the, if not the most, prominent book review publications in the country, don't expose yourself as a hack by presenting this kind of retarded, half-assed, snail-brained stew of received ideas and misbased assumptions as if it's a measured or intelligent review.


Saturday, March 17, 2007


One of my favorite writers, Tamar Yellin, quietly won a couple of prestigious literary awards last year for her two most recent books. Very happy to see this.
Kafka in Bronteland has been awarded the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Literature 2006. The $5,000 prize has previously been awarded to Dara Horn, David Bezmozgis and Jonathan Rosen. The judges stated: "Every story in Tamar Yellin's Kafka in Bronteland closes with the decisive, revelatory resonance that marks the best examples of this literary form."

The Genizah at the House of Shepher has been awarded the Ribalow Prize for Jewish Literature 2006. The award, presented annually by Hadassah Magazine, the largest circulation Jewish publication in the U.S., honours an author who has created an outstanding work of fiction on a Jewish theme. Past winners have included Lore Segal, Anne Roiphe, Louis Begley and Aharon Appelfeld. The panel of judges included Elie Wiesel, Jonathan Freedman and Jenna Blum. The prize was awarded on December 12th in New York.


Friday, March 16, 2007


...of SFWA. Details here. I'd vote for him if I was a member. He makes a very convincing case. So vote for Scalzi, if you're a member. I think he'd really change it up. I've already promised I'll sign up for SFWA again if Scalzi wins, and I'll be proactive in the organization.



Just posted some more information about our Best American Fantasy cover artist, Scott Eagle. Over on the BAF blog.



The third and final part of The Surgeon's Tale has now been posted.

Part I

Part II


Thursday, March 15, 2007


No, this isn't a grammar lesson. It's more a kind of prolonged sigh at a kind of attitude in genre circles that wants everything to be black-and-white. This is particularly silly in a profession that is by definition subjective.

The attitude is this: if you publish an experimental fantasy anthology, you must hate pulp fiction. If you publish a novel that's "New Weird," for example, you must dislike "Old Weird."

This attitude isn't new. When I put out the first Leviathan in 1994, some people saw it as an attack on traditional fantasy and SF. All I thought I was doing was creating a niche for unclassifiable stuff that couldn't find a home otherwise. I might as well have called the series "Refugees".

Of course, if you're passionate about the books you help create, your words in support of those books can seem like an unofficial manifesto. I understand that.

But lately I've seen too many instances of people saying "Jeff hates X, Y, and Z" with no evidence whatsoever to back it up. Even more ironically, I've seen people say China Mieville hates pulp fiction when, in fact, the opposite is true. China loves a lot of pulp fiction. Heck, he even wrote an introduction to a Lovecraft book.

One reason the pirates anthology has been a joy to edit is that it has allowed Ann and me to indulge in our love for more traditional fiction. For example, Garth Nix story we've taken contains more than a nod and a wink to Howard and to Leiber, which is great. Yes, that's right naysayers--I like a lot of Howard and I love Leiber. I have problems with about half of Lovecraft's output, but love some of his work.

The reality of creativity in the service of producing books is often the same as the reality of the marketplace: focus and niche are very important. To be too diaphanous and various is to accomplish less. Not to mention that refugee quality. If you see cool stuff being left by the wayside because no one else is willing to publish it, publishing it does not mean you're in opposition to the status quo. It just means you like other stuff as well.

For pleasure, I read everything from noir mysteries to tea-cosey mysteries to westerns to space opera to horror novel to lit. mainstream to gonzo to...whatever. I like anything that isn't a fifth generation generic copy of something else.

So, in short, there's no either-or about it. I remember walking around the Associated Writers Program conference book fair in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago and thinking to myself, "If genre traditionalists who refer to the 'literary mainstream' could see this display of vitality and diversity, would they ever use the term again?" It really was amazing--so many different voices and so many different views of the imagination. And it's the same in SF/F. So many voices, so many views, and the majority of them interest the hell out of me.

If, as an editor or writer, I sometimes have to be more specific, more focused, then that's just part of the creative process. The absence of something does not necessarily mean that the excluded thing is disliked. This kind of inference is the result of shoddy thinking.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007


I'm not much for superheroes, with the exception of the darker Batman stuff, some of the Spiderman movies, and, of course, The Watchmen. Oh, and Swamp Thing, and, er...okay, so I guess, like in any genre, the stuff that's done well I like a lot.

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman is a superhero/supervillain novel like no other. Grossman has invested a lot in the characters of Dr. Impossible and his superhero counterpart Fatale. The writing is crisp and clever and at times just wonderful. I'm enjoying the heck out of this novel, which will be released in June. Just a fun read with some depth.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


And now, the thrilling MIDDLE to The Surgeon's Tale, a collaboration with Cat Rambo. Will the hedgepig be reunited with its blankie? Will Jim the Barber take the next step in his new career as a exorcist? Does the word "sargassum" sound like "sergeant" and "orgasm" or "sarcasm" and "possum"?

Part I, for those few who haven't read it yet...



Weird Tales is doing a special subscription offer to celebrate their change in focus and new design: one year for only $12. I highly recommend taking advantage of it. (Ann's happy to report a surge of fiction submissions from a varied and talented bunch of writers--guidelines for submission here.)

Also, here's a sneak peek at an abridged version of the editorial in the forthcoming issue, out in April:

Weird Tales has never quite been just a horror magazine, or a fantasy magazine, or a gothic-flavored science fiction magazine. Go back to its very beginnings, to the editors who first discovered the genius of H.P. Lovecraft, and you find that their mission was more loosely defined than that. They founded the magazine to publish "the bizarre, the unusual... highly imaginative stories." They saw it as a rebellious cultural alternative to the dull corporate sameness of the popular, mainstream entertainment world.

In addition to the visual redesign we're unveiling in April/May's issue #344, no fewer than seven writers are making their Weird Tales debuts therein - a percentage we're awfully excited about. To name just a few: Paul E. Martens has been building a rep as one of the most startling new voices in short fiction, and his "Mary Smith" introduces one of the more colorfully memorable characters we've seen lately. Trent Hergenrader's "Working Out Our Salvation" offers a poignant, unexpected look at the lives of the undead. And Lisa Mantchev and Scott William Carter both reimagine the world of fairytale in their respective stories, from radically different perspectives. There are also some new departments we hope you'll enjoy.

"Weirdism," featuring short essays on the weirdness we encounter in real life, launches with an original nonfiction story by Caitlin R. Kiernan. "Old Weird, New Weird" looks at the magazine's past and future. And "Lost Pages" presents intriguing glimpses of tomes, codices and artifacts that may or may not exist in this universe...

Monday, March 12, 2007


The Surgeon’s Tale, a collaboration between Cat Rambo and me, is running as a serial this week, with part one posted today, part two on Wednesday, and part three on Friday. It’s probably one of my major stories for 2007.

BTW--This is my first successful collaboration with another writer and one of many more with Rambo, I hope. I had a lot of fun working with her. It's a clear 50-50, give-and-take kind of collaboration, too, which is nice.

Subterranean Press’s online edition is full of cool stuff and well worth checking out.


Saturday, March 10, 2007


This post by another Bear put me in mind of Shardik. Although Watership Down is known as Richard Adams' classic, and although I loved it when I read it (and re-read it; and sought out similar fare, like Duncton Wood; anyone remember the moles?), I think the images and situations from Shardik have stayed with me even more clearly and sharply. The archetypal aspect of Shardik carries a powerful charge. And in thinking about, for example, a failure like Apocalypto (which shares a few superficial commonalities with S, but becomes exceedingly silly after awhile), Shardik's accomplishment seems ever more impressive. Some have deemed Shardik unreadable. For me, it was unput-downable, and mysterious, and had that rough edge and unknowable quality that distinguishes edgier books from the more domesticated variety.

Am I crazy? Or right? I'd love to hear your opinions.

For anyone who hasn't read the book, here's the basic plot summary, stolen from wiki:
Shardik takes place in an imaginary world. It is the story of a lonely hunter, Kelderek, who pursues Shardik, a giant mythotic reproducing bear believed to have the Power of God within him. Kelderek becomes involved in the politics of his entire empire and in a personal story of sin and atonement. Other key issues in the story are the strength and potential held in children and the task of adults to meet children's needs of responsibility and entertainment in hope of a better future.

Adams, famous for writing stories from the point of view of animals (Watership Down and The Plague Dogs), here creates a story in which the animal, Shardik the Great Bear, is an antagonistic force that generates the entire plot and yet cannot communicate overtly and is merely a template for the characters and readers to impose their views upon. At no point in the story is it explicitly confirmed that Shardik is a divine creature and several points in the story can be interpreted equally each way.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


UPDATE: We've taken a long story by Garth Nix called "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarsköe" and another one by Kelly Barnhill called "Elegy for Gabrielle, Patron Saint of Healers, Whores and Righteous Thieves". These are both amazing stories. Just first-rate stuff. I just love them to death. We'll have this all wrapped up in the next few weeks.

This continues to be the most difficult reading period Ann and I have ever had. If we had our druthers, we'd take 200,000 words of material rather than 100-110,000 words. It's wonderful to have so much great stuff to choose from, but it's horrific from the standpoint of having to reject a lot of stuff we'd take under normal circumstances.

All in all, however, this just points to us having a great anthology, I think.

Those who submitted during the open reading period and haven't heard back from us with a final decision will hear back between now and March 21.



If you want more information on what went down at AWP, I highly recommend checking out Dan Wickett's Emerging Writers blog. Over the past few days, he's posted the most detailed accounts of the conference that I've seen. Really nice guy, too.

For additional coverage, I suggest a google blog search or technorati.



I've got new installments of my book column and graphic novel column up. I'm particularly invested in the Bookslut column this time around, which deals with the differences between novels and graphic novels.

I'd also note that starting with the next SF Site column, I will be listing almost all books received during the previous month with a thumbnail review, in addition to any major reviews. I don't think it's fair for publishers to send me so much stuff and not have the space to mention most of it. So, if you're sending me stuff, don't worry--it will be listed at the very least.

Bookslut Column: An Anvil Is Not An Artichoke

SF Site Column: Dispatches From Smaragdine #5

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Noted on the blog of the artist, which you can read here. Mr. X for the lovely Finnish magazine T. I really love this.


My wonderful wife, lately Woman of Valor at her synagogue and just today open to Weird Tales fiction submissions, had a very significant and yet at the same time not-that-significant birthday today. Her office mates at her day job did a royal job of celebrating, as you can see.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


After lunch, we attended a panel called Building with Words: Fiction as Architecture featuring Rikki Ducornet, Lance Olsen, Steve Tomasula, and Christopher Grimes. I thought all of the presentations were good, but Tomasula’s linking of fictional structures to the structures and representations of modern life was particularly illuminating. Rikki’s depiction of a trilobite as a structure pertaining both to fiction and architecture was nothing short of brilliant.

By then, it was after 3:00pm and we did one last round of the book fair. A lot of vendors had left already, but at the advice of Eric Lorberer from Rain Taxi we sought out the Calamari Press table, where we had an interesting conversation with the guy who runs it, Derek White. The books, as you can see here, have a wonderful textured feel to the art and design. Writers like Brian Evenson have endorsed many of their books. We felt like it was a great last day find.

The only disappointment was that the A Public Space people have already left by the time we got to their table. We had wanted to tell them how much we loved their magazine. It’s definitely something you should check out if you haven’t seen it before.

Another press we should mention is associated with Bath Spa Writing Center in England. They had a booth and just a lovely selection of student-created books and anthologies, including Out of the Box!, which is extremely creative. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an image of it online to share.

Then it was time to say goodbye to a few people, including Omnidawn and Eric and Kelly from Rain Taxi. If you’re not familiar with Rain Taxi, you should be. It’s one of the best source for reviews of any kind of fiction, graphic novels, poetry, etc. The next issue (spring 2007) includes an interview with me and it’s as good a time as any to subscribe. It’s a very worthwhile enterprise and one that needs your support.

By then, we were toast. The claustrophobic, low-ceilinged, hot, sweaty book room had more or less defeated us. Besides, the best part was over. Highlights of the conference for me had been seeing old friends but also getting to meet two of my literary heroes, Steve Erickson and Rikki Ducornet. It had also been cool to finally meet people like Dan Wickett and to put a face to the name and literary journals of so many editors. And to get a sense that we might’ve made some impression re Best American Fantasy.

On the surreal side, we’d seen and heard about some pretty weird things. One morning in line at the complimentary breakfast, I’d seen a woman connected to the conference shove her hand like a shovel into a bowl of strawberries and drop them on her plate, eschewing the spoon, leaving those of behind her aghast. I’d seen another conference attendee steal another attendee’s newspaper. A third had gotten pissed at a security guard just doing his job checking IDs at the hospitality suite. Honestly, I’ve never seen so much of this going on at one con. There was something in the group dynamic that had too many people in too small a space for too long a time, I think.

And I’d heard the strange tale of Y, who shared a table with us one morning. Y had been woken at 4 or 5 in the morning by the sounds of two post doc poets from a large midwestern university screaming at each other--some disagreement about Rilke. Apparently it was hard to tell what their arguments were, but they kept shouting them anyway and getting in each others faces. Right outside Y’s door. As Y called security, the two began pissing on Y’s door. The next day, one was booted out of the conference and both were booted out of the hotel. But Y said the oddest thing was when security came and seemed blase about it: “But you’re not in any danger,” the guy said. What would it take?

In the evening, our old friends Dan Read and Gayle Devereux picked us up for dinner, drinks, and a night of improv at Jack Pie. Dan’s friend Jim is part of the improv group, and in another case of “it’s a small world,” Jim’s brother-in-law is Robert Olen Butler, who is part of the creative writing faculty in Tallahassee where we live.

The improv was excellent, but made even funnier by the fact they asked for suggestions to riff off of from the audience. The first time, they asked us and all four of us shouted out “Why Should I Cut Your Throat When I Can Just Ask You For the Money.” It’s something a drug addict asked Dan, Ann, and me back in 1990 in Atlanta late one night when we were looking for a place to eat (it eventually became the title of my nonfiction book)--a real bonding experience. So you can imagine our delight at them picking up on this and running with it. For the second suggestion, Dan shouted out “crustaceans” before I could finish saying “giant squid.” Let me just say “crustaceans” led to much more hilarity than “giant squid” could have.

Afterwards, we had a chance to talk to Jim for awhile. As part of his improv spirit, he told us he’d decided to pretend to be a writer when he visited with Butler at the conference. “Most of them are pretending,” Ann said, in a good-spirited way but which still had us roaring. So Jim chose the name “Glass” after a Brady Bunch character and off he’d gone pretending to be a writer. “What kind of writing do you do?” he’d asked one woman, who said, “Drama.” When she asked him, he said “Historical fiction.” “Oh, that’s cool. Did you go to the historical fiction panel?” “Yes,” he said, “wasn’t it great!” “Yes,” she said. And so on and so forth, never realizing she was talking to a mimic. Because, honestly, it’s not so hard to pretend to be a writer. All it takes is that most writerly quality of being willing to lie convincingly.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


UPDATE: The Best American Fantasy blog is now live, with a list of the Recommended Reading from 2006.

We’re just back from a great lunch with Brian Evenson and Rikki Ducornet, two of my favorite people. I’d never met Rikki in person before, so it was wonderful to finally get to talk a bit. Evenson and Ducornet are two of my favorite writers as well and it was nice to learn Rikki has a new collection she’s doing for Dalkey Archive and that Brian’s latest novel is a finalist for the Edgar Award.

The panel on nonrealistic fiction (Beyond Realism: Fiction That Tangles With Tangibles) went very well, with great attendance despite the early hour. The other participants were Gwenda Bond, Brian Evenson, Eric Lorberer, and Gladys Swan, with Ken Keegan from Omnidawn moderating. We all presented short essays or observations about the topic.

I went first, reading Leena Krohn’s speech from Finncon on genre boundaries and definitions, which included this very interesting bit:

But the truth of fantasy is not included in facts. It is coiling up from the double helix of untrue and true, from an invisible tribar.

A tribar – what is that? With this concept physicist Roger Penrose points to objects and figures which you can draw but not build. There are false links in tribars. There are contradictory and impossible elements. In many of his works the graphic artist Escher shows tribars.

I think of the tribar as a concept, which describes some mysterious features of human society and literature, too. Tribars appear everywhere in our world and they are so self-evident to us that it is not easy to observe them. Tribars connect fiction
and so called reality. They connect the rational and the irrational, the material and the immaterial, the representative and the concrete. Nearly all social constructions are based on tribars. Every fact is partly an illusion, every material artifact is partly a mental phenomenon, because its origin is in imagination.
I then read from the Best American Fantasy introduction, which opens:

In her extraordinary creative writing book The Passionate, Accurate Story, Carol
Bly presents a hypothetical situation. One night at dinner a girl announces to her father and mother that a group of bears has moved in next door. In one scenario, the father says (and I paraphrase) “Bears? Don’t be ridiculous,” and tells his daughter to be more serious. In the other scenario, the father says, “Bears, huh? How many bears? Do you know their names? What do they wear?” And his daughter, with delight, tells him. The imagination is a form of love: playful, generous, and transformative. All of the best fiction hums and purrs and sighs with it, and in this way (as well) fiction mirrors life. This is how we think of the fiction collected in this
first volume of Best American Fantasy. There’s a flicker, a flutter, at the heart of these stories that animates them, and this movement—ever different, ever unpredictable—makes each story unique.

Eric Lorberer from Rain Taxi went next and pointed out that the distinction between realistic fiction and nonrealistic fiction is itself a fiction. Rain Taxi tries very hard not to look at fiction in those terms. Eric believes that use of language, for example, is a better definer of types of fiction than realistic/nonrealistic. “Readership suffers when nomenclature puts literary schools in opposition.” Good literature bypasses the distinction between what is real and what is not. Interrogating the chasm between realism and nonrealism is not as important.

Gwenda Bond of Shaken & Stirred (and also a reviewer for PW and the Washington Post) talked about the Publishers Weekly trend piece she did in 2006, on fantasy published in the mainstream. She believes this is a period of Renaissance for fantasy fiction and literary/genre writers and critics are “aware of each other and talking to one another and responding in their work to each other...[It’s] a return to a broader definition of literature.” She also spoke on differences in reader expectations of craft in fantasy versus mainstream fiction.

Brian Evenson talked about the history of the creation of genres, how realism was the dominant mode in the nineteenth century because it was new and that it might be receding now because it feels old. Brian also discussed the skitzophrenia of criticism and had a great quote (the source of which my notes do not reveal) about how we accept amounts of small amazement that lead to moments of large amazement, so that “it becomes normal for an elephant, a very large animal, to appear out of a snail’s shell.” He expanded on the idea of openness to amazement and how in realism “objects remain objects and do not take on their own life.” My favorite quote of the entire panel was Brian saying, “George Saunders is our gateway drug,” pointing out that Saunders uses all the trappings of dirty realism but the events are fantastical. Thus, Saunders attracts mainstream readers who might be put off otherwise by the fantasy element and fantasy readers who would otherwise not to the realistic elements. “Saunders is a conduit who allows readers to flow in two directions.” Brian continued by saying that genres can go from being a conduit to being a blocked pipe and that realism takes too much joy sometimes in acting as a blocked pipe when it should be a conduit. He noted also the change in status and position of writers like Lovecraft.

Gladys Swan, a novelist and short story writer, began with a hilarious anecdote about Breton’s trip to Mexico, which I am determined to find on the internet somewhere now. She then noted that “I thought I was a realist writer but then my work started turning strange.” She pointed out that a destabilized reality “leads to the need for fabulists.” And that what is fabulist in one age becomes the reality for another. “The best of fantasy raises questions about our assumptions.” She had some great observations to make about nonrealist fiction and her presentation was a fitting end to the panel.

Friday, March 02, 2007


And, lo, 5k grad students, professors, publishers, unaffiliated writers descended upon Atlanta in their t-shirts, black jeans, patched jackets, gypsy skirts, and all of the other accoutrements of the writer life in this the seventh year of the new millenium.

The symbiotic whirling, throbbing heart of this "Associated Writers Program Conference" is the book fair, with its hundreds of literary magazines, novels, poetry chapbooks, memoirs, how-to tomes, and the associated purveyors of same. In this case a hot, stuffy, throbbing heart that Ann and I plunged into with our Best American Fantasy postcards and guidelines print-out. After six hours, we staggered out again, having talked to a bewildering blur of men, women, and, in one case, a child of some kind. Some of them had immediately grasped the concept of the anthology. Others, due to a failure on our part or a subcultural divide on theirs, had not. Some saw it as an opportunity for their writers. Some acted like we were trying to steal their first-born. None of it was predictable. All of it was fun in a grimly fatiguing way. Imagine cold-calling over three hundred people and knowing if you spend more than 7 minutes with each one you will never, ever finish your task. Yes, it was like that. Whilst sweating!

Still, we accomplished what we set out to do: getting copies of journals to read this year and promises of being added to mailing lists for the rest. Along the way, we met the ever charming and just very wise Richard Nash from Soft Skull Press, Aaron, the laid-back and interesting editor of Hobart, a wandering Brian Evenson, Steve Erickson manning the Black Clock table--Steve Erickson! one of my literary heroes, author of Tours of the Black Clock and so many others; an actual conversation with the guy who blew my brains to bits in 1992 with Arc. D'X--Kelly and Gavin manning the Small Beer table, with the cool-looking interstitial anthology, the guys from Rawdog Screaming Press with their new genre-bending Text:UR anthology edited by Forrest Aguirre, Richard Peabody of Gargoyle Magazine, the folks from Southern Review (very, very nice people), Eric and Kelly from Rain Taxi, their usual learned and friendly selves, Rusty and Ken from Omnidawn, hawking their new books and lots of chocolate, and lots of others.

Especially interesting journals acquired included the aforementioned Hobart, Harpur Palate, Ecotone: Reimagining Place, Pleiades, /nor, Subtropics, and the Notre Dame Review.

We had no time to go to any panels, but I heard that the Fairy Tales and Contemporary Fiction panel with Judy Budnitz, Kathryn Davis, Rikki Ducornet, Kelly Link, Stacey Levine, and Kate Bernheimer went extremely well. I don't know whose bright idea it was to put so many talented writers on one panel, but I think it's in the national interest not to do it again, since if the roof had fallen in the loss would have been immeasurable.

The night before Omnidawn had taken Ann and me, Eric and Kelly from Rain Taxi, Christopher Rowe and Gwenda Bond, and others to dinner. It was nice to finally have a chance to talk to Rowe and Bond and everyone else. A great dinner, followed by checking out the free booze and the dance floor. Met Dan Wickett, two Seths, and a Jedediah Berry, among others. Then Kelly and Gavin and a few others and Gavin somehow managed to make me mimic his dancing. In other words, for a few seconds, I was dancing with Gavin Grant. And it was marvelous.

More tomorrow.


Update 9:30pm: Tried to go to the John Barth reading but at 9:15 (it started at 8:30), Michael Martone was still reading so we called it a night. I hope he hadn't been reading since 8:30...We did go to the Omnidawn party and heard some excellent poetry. In particular, In the Archives by Christopher Arigo. He had a good reading voice and some interesting stuff. But the star of the show was Donald Revell, with his new translation of Rimbaud's "A Season in Hell". He began at the podium by saying, "Rimbaud. This tall." (Holding out his hand at shoulder level.) "Sloppy. Your friend. He meant no harm." And then launched into one of the best readings I've heard. I thought he was as good as Seamus Heaney, another favorite when it comes to readings. I love poetry, but the readings often leave me cold.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Ann and I are off to the AWP Conference in Atlanta. I'm on a panel with Gwenda Bond, Eric Lorberer, Brian Evenson, and others, hosted by the Omnidawn crew.

A couple of cool things are debuting at AWP--the interstitial antho that Small Beer Press is doing and Text: UR from Raw Dog Screaming Press.

We don't have galleys of BAF yet, of course, but we will have postcards!