After being bitten by a radioactive writing bug at the 2008 Clarion Writer’s Workshop, Ferrett Steinmetz found his writing career wholly transformed into something with intense focus, buff craft–muscles, and the ability to scale previously impossible publishing walls. Since 2008, his work has appeared in Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, and Escape Pod among many other publications, and in 2011 was nominated for a Nebula for his novelette, “Sauerkraut Station.”
This issue of Apex Magazine brings you Mr. Steinmetz’s skin–crawling tale of doomsday worship and unexpected allies in “The Cultist’s Son.” We also got a chance to catch up with Mr. Steinmetz to discuss imposter syndrome, editing, H.P. Lovecraft, among many other subjects (including some better left under the rug).
About “The Cultist’s Son”:
APEX MAGAZINE: First, the perfunctory question: What was the initial spark that made you want to write this story?
FERRETT STEINMETZ: Interestingly enough, this story started as a commission for The Drabblecast, who asked me to write a story for their H.P. Lovecraft month. And I’d written a lot of Lovecraftian fiction — I’d say about a quarter of my short stories have Lovecraftian elements — so I really thought hard.
And what bothered me about “traditional” Lovecraft was that the cultists were always these null–sets — just props, cheerfully throwing away their lives for no good reason. And being someone who suffers from depression, I hate it when “madness” is used as a generic excuse to have people do random things. People who are crazy are still operating off principles and axioms — theirs have just skewed sideways, is all.
So I asked: “Why would anyone ever worship a thing that actively wants to destroy them?”
I thought about that… and when I finally came up with a good reason why someone would worship Shub–Niggurath, I realized the story was far more interesting if told from the perspective of someone who’d survived that madness, who’d had it inflicted upon them. And so this all squirted out in one black week.
And I sent it in, and the Drabblecast went, “Whoa! We’re… we’re PG–rated. This is… it’s X–rated. We love it, but we can’t take that. Can you write us another story?” So I did, and I pounded out “Hollow As The World” — but man, I loved this story. I took some more time to redraft it. And I was really glad when one of my favorite magazines ever took it.
(WOO FIRST SALE TO APEX: ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED.)
AM: “The Cultist’s Son” has a central Lovecraftian vein. Who doesn’t love the description of a tentacled alien doomsday goddess and Derleth’s obsessed, priestess–like mother? What initially drew you to the work of H.P. Lovecraft and/or what is it about his style or ideas that inspires you to include some of this in your own fiction?
FS: What I love about Lovecraft is that central horror of realizing that we’re not designed to look straight at the universe. That’s become increasingly obvious as I’ve been watching my five–year–old goddaughter struggle with brain cancer — it’s so horrible, and so biological, and so inevitable that our brains skitter right off of it. It’s PTSD; if you keep staring at that abyss, it will destroy you.
It probably isn’t.
AM: Derleth and Gabrielle’s relationship in this story is a volatile one, incorporating some physical abuse, but within the context of both of their upbringings, this is both not surprising and rather understandable, and doesn’t cross that line into violence for violence sake. How did you approach the development and writing of this complex relationship between the characters? Were there any potential pitfalls in that process that concerned you while you were writing it or editing it?
FS: Man, all of them.
This story depressed the hell out of me when I wrote it, and I was so glad when I stumbled to the end and I found a happy ending. And I kept thinking, “Really, you’re writing this?!”
But one of the things I really wanted to emphasize was that yeah, Gabrielle is not a victim. She was. And she’s determined not to be again. And there’s some violence, but she initiates it both times, and both times as a purposeful way of drawing Derleth out, and hopefully if I’ve done it right people realize that it’s the only intimacy they’re really comfortable with.
AM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you often take several drafts to get a work of fiction to its final stage. Was this also true for “The Cultist’s Son,” and if so, was there a major plotting, structural, or stylistic issue you found in the editing process of earlier drafts that you could share with us, and what you did to fix it?
FS: This one went through about four drafts, and the central plotting stayed consistent — it was just shaping the tone and the details. I liken my drafting process to watercolors, because at first it’s just a big smear of emotions, and then I go over it and say, “Wait, if I was standing at this bar I’d probably think about this,” and then I keep adding little reactions — all the reactions that make the story unique, actually. Starts as a watery blur, ends with something hopefully more focused.
But Josh Morrey gave me a fantastic piece of advice that changed the whole tone: “You tell us up–front that Mother’s dead,” he said. “Don’t do that. Let us wonder what happened to Mother, use it to pull us through, and then zap us in the climax.”
Damn if the man wasn’t right.
About Writing in General:
AM: On your blog, you’ve started a running series of breaking down first chapters of novels you’ve loved to analyze why they work. What made you decide to do this blog series, and how’s it been going?
FS: Really well. I can’t do it every day, but at this point I’m at #4 and I hope to get to twenty.
Basically, I did it because I am not good with opening chapters, and I’d like to sell a novel some day. My opening chapters tend towards this gush of worldbuilding at the cost of emotional investment, and so I wanted to read books where I knew how everything turned out, and see where they started.
It’s fascinating, honestly. It’s kind of like a guessing game, where I know what happens, and ask, “Where would I start telling this story?” And I’m wrong. I’m usually so wrong.
And it’s a good kind of wrong. It’s the kind of wrong where you get that little laugh of surprise and go, “Oh, of course you’d start there!” but you wouldn’t think to do it.
AM: You’ve also recently discussed “impostor syndrome” and the stifling challenges writers face when viewing the industry in a hierarchical model. I think that’s fabulous, because it seems like one of those guilty secrets a lot of beginning writers (and maybe not so beginning, at that!) struggle with as they attempt to build their own writing career. What do you do to combat it for yourself so that it stays out of the way when you’re writing?
FS: I have a technique I call “Write without hope.” I spit in the face of self–esteem; you don’t have to feel good, you have to get the words on the page.
Because when I write, I often think, “This is crazy, this is over the edge, this is awful, nobody’s ever going to buy this.” (Especially when I’m typing phrases like, “The Goddess’s cunt is black as ebon.”) And I push all that aside, telling myself that it doesn’t matter how bad the story is objectively, what matters is that I make it as good as I possibly can.
And the thing is? That story is often way better than I think it is. I thought this story was unsalable. I thought “Sauerkraut Station” was unsalable — 16,000 words of a girl making sauerkraut in space — and that was my Nebula nomination.
So keep writing, kids. Don’t hate yourself; hate the story. And if you don’t revise that blasted tale until it’s as good as you can make it, the story wins.
AM: You’ve said in other interviews that attending the Clarion Writer’s Workshop rebooted your writing career and showed you everything you’d been doing wrong before. What was some of the habitual or stylistic baggage you brought with you to Clarion from those previous two decades that you had to liberate yourself from in order to become the writer you are today?
FS: Basically, Clarion flensed me of the concept of “good enough.” I’ve always been a decent writer. I could put together a story that people would read to the end of.
That’s, like, 80% of the stuff in the slush pile.
To get published, you have to be so goddamned ruthless with yourself. I’d be, “Eh, that description will do,” and then eighteen people would tell me they didn’t feel rooted in the story’s location. I’d be, “Oh, that dialogue doesn’t matter” — and it mattered.
A story is not one success. It’s a hundred successes — you get the dialogue right, you get the prose right, you get the plot right, you get the tone right, you get the ending right, and so forth. And if you’re lucky, you get maybe forty, fifty of those right — and that’s a good story.
But you have to be merciless. You have to hammer every aspect of your story and make it as good as you can. Because you’re going to fail on so many levels, you cannot afford to slack on the shit you can do better.
Like I said: 80% of the stuff in the slush pile is readable. You need to be in the top 1%. That involves really pushing yourself.
AM: You’ve done a lot of related–to–writing work, beyond just your own fiction endeavors (I’m thinking here of both slush work (for Apex, no less!) and your own blog). How do you balance extracurricular writing with the time you need for your short stories and novels, without letting the former take over the latter?
FS: I blog for about a half an hour a day, usually at night, writing something for the next day. That’s usually the fun bit. My blog posts get comments and feedback, it’s like my own personal forum thread.
Then I usually write for about ninety minutes a night. That happens after work, if I have a commitment in the evening. Or late at night.
Then I crit stories, if I have ’em.
Surprisingly, I manage to have a life around this, but those three hours of writing and critting and blogging? I protect them like a wild lion. They are happening. If I know I’ve got a hot date, I plan the writing around that.
The world does not want you to be a writer. It wants you to waste your life on laundry and picking up medications and chores.
Kill the world, and take up your mantle as a writer.
AM: What is your ideal writing environment like? What do you need to have near you (or, by contrast, very far away) to get your work done?
FS: I cannot have anything on in the background when I write. I hate this. All my author friends are all like, “You know what’s the most awesome thing to write to? The Pacific Rim soundtrack!” and I am downstairs, in isolation, wishing I could have some goddamned Skrillex on.
I need quiet. My internal voices do not shout; they mutter. I must bend over to hear them.
AM: What are you currently reading, fiction or non–fiction? Any recommendations?
FS: Currently, I’m reading an ARC of Robert J. Bennett’s City of Stairs, and I pretty much love everything Robert Bennett does. (Try American Elsewhere.) I also had my head blown off by Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, which is like George Martin writing YA princess fantasy. And I finished Peter Watts’ latest short story collection Beyond the Rift — I think “The Things” is one of my favorite short stories ever.
AM: All right, I’ve got to ask: in your bio you mention that you live with “a friendly ghost.” Could you expand on that, because I’m dying of curiosity!
FS: I cannot.
AM: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the coming months?
FS: Escape Pod just picked audio rights to my story “Black Swan Oracle,” which will be coming out — I’m totes excited, as they always do awesome work and their forums are filled with great feedback. And my preacher–faces–zombies flashfic “In Extremis” will be out in Space and Time shortly.
AM: Thank you so much, Mr. Steinmetz, for sharing “The Cultist’s Son” with us here at Apex Magazine, and for this glimpse behind the curtain!