Gregory Frost has been a finalist for nearly every major industry award, from the Hugo and Nebula to the Theodore Sturgeon and James Tiptree Jr. awards. He’s published over half a dozen novels with Ace, Tor, and Del Ray Books, most recently his Lord Tophet duology, Shadowbridge (2008) and Lord Tophet (2008). His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Weird Tales, and many of Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling’s anthologies. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa writing program, as well as a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, which he has also taught for on several occasions.
APEX MAGAZINE: For many beginning writers, narrative voice can be a daunting challenge. In “The Prowl,” John Brown’s voice, tone, and vernacular flow with an ease that makes the story perfect for the ears. How did you approach creating the narrative voice for “The Prowl”?
GREGORY FROST: The short answer is, I channeled Morgan Freeman just as hard as I could.
In reading the near-finished draft of the story aloud (which behavior I recommend before you ever call a story finished) I did my best to sound it out in his voice. I have the advantage of being something of a mimic who can listen to someone speaking and pretty quickly approximate the cadence and voice.
But fiction writers are all like actors in the sense that we inhabit roles, and express ourselves in voices that belong to others. And I think every story has its critical voice, too–the one you have to find to make it viable. A lot of writers believe they cannot write their story at all until they find that voice. (As a good reference text, see The Sound on the Page by Ben Yagoda.)
AM: You’ve been very active in the workshop and educational community when it comes to writing fiction. You mentioned The Sound on the Page by Ben Yagoda as a good reference text for voice, and in other interviews, you’ve mentioned Samuel R. Delany’s essays as influential. Are there other reference texts you often find yourself recommending to your students?
GF: I suspect everybody has their favorite books on writing. I like the “Shitty First Drafts” chapter of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird because that phrase perfectly describes my own first drafts and as a teacher I feel it’s important to drive into my students’ heads that they are not only allowed to, but are expected to, completely mess up as they go. Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is useful, too. Though it’s geared toward the “how to write a bestseller” end of the spectrum, the workbook specifically has great exercises for considering and enriching your characters, structure, etc. A useful book to play with, say, before you jump into a full revision. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction for addressing things like cadence and for its good selection of exercises. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. I like Stephen King’s On Writing and David Morrell’s book about writing, which has come out under numerous titles.
AM: Many fantasy stories position the main character as the worker of magic. In “The Prowl,” although John Brown does occasionally get to participate in the palatyi’s magic, he is mainly an observer. Why did you choose to structure the story in that way?
GF: My old teacher from Clarion long ago, Damon Knight, maintained that if you didn’t know who your main character was, it should be the person who was going to suffer the most, because readers will care about and root for that person. The palatyi is a trickster, without concern for the consequences of his actions, and the story isn’t about him growing up, taking responsibility, and developing into a “good” man. That’s some other story where perhaps he might be the central character. Here it’s my narrator who both suffers and endures the gifts bestowed upon him.
AM: “The Prowl” (as well as many of your novels) certainly required some extensive research. This is in some ways a chicken vs. the egg question: How do you begin researching a subject? Is it something that just grows from an organic point of interest and snowballs into a large enough mass that you begin to consider writing fiction utilizing that subject? Or do you tend to have a project in mind when you begin, and shape your research path from that starting point?
GF: It may be Chicken v. Egg (someday I do want to see that court case); in this instance, I’d been reading a lot of world mythology for a few years as a result of writing some stories for Terri Windling & Ellen Datlow anthologies, and in preparation for writing Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet. Somewhere I’d come across a mention of the palatyi and made the leap to it being the basis for the Plateye Prowl of Charleston. I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to have done so. So that information was already kind of lingering in a notebook somewhere to be applied, and when Nalo Hopkinson invited me to contribute to her anthology, it made the decision of what to write a lot easier. The more extensive research involved details of life aboard a slave ship. That research fed images and situations to the story, which is to say, I might have made up similar things, but being able to wrap the storytelling around real research just invariably produces more powerful fiction. I’ve found that to be true in every book and story I’ve ever written, from the Bronze Age Celts of Tain to the millennialist frenzy of Fitcher’s Brides: Just a couple weeks ago I met a writer who told me he’d been raised inside a cult similar to the one in Fitcher’s Brides, and that I had gotten the dynamics of that right. That had me puffing out my chest and going, “Damn right I did.” But the truth is, it’s because I’d researched real 19th century cults and evangelical frenzy. So in the end I can take credit for the research, but the research often showed me what to write and how to shape it.
AM: What was the most difficult challenge you faced when writing “The Prowl”?
GF: Hmm. Again, the details of the slave’s journey were certainly the most critical. I read some slave narratives (I’m reading some now for another project), but those don’t always give you the specifics of the journey, and fiction’s all about specificity, about not generalizing. You’re digging into the moment as deeply as possible, the same as you’re digging into the character as deeply as you can. And that’s the challenge anytime you’re writing fiction.
But…most difficult challenge? Probably hitting the notes of the voice.
AM: I’ve heard it said by artists that learning to draw is not really about training the hand to move the right way, so much as to train the eye to see what needs to be drawn. Has your past experience in illustration and painting influenced your approach to writing fiction?
GF: Probably. If I use painting as an analogy to writing, I’m someone who lays in the rough outlines with a stick of charcoal until I see that there’s a structure there, then I paint in the darkness I’ve sketched, and then build up on that, layer upon layer. Sometimes I’m stripping things out, but mostly I’m building up color, flourish, depth and detail, much as I might paint in oils. So, yeah.
AM: You’ve written both novels and short stories, and had great success with both forms. Is there one, though, that you’re particularly drawn to? And if so, why?
GF: I like both for different reasons. Short fiction to me is more like writing poetry (which I don’t do). Every word counts and is a thousand times more crucial than in a novel (which is not to let words off the hook in a novel, either). But stories are reductive, you’re paring everything down to minimal effects and the most critical details. Short story writing trains you to be exacting. Novels are expansive, and can even be sloppy in a way that would be unforgivable in a short story. They sprawl, they visit new locales, they can offer numerous digressions. So it comes down to what story are you telling and which form best serves that? Most writers do seem to be more comfortable at one or the other length. I can tell you, I’m slow at both. I’m never going to be the guy who bangs out a story a week or four novels a year. And I’m not sure I answered your question, either.
AM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that revision is a critical skill that isn’t always taught as deliberately as getting a first draft on paper. How do you approach revisions of your own work? Do you have a different revision process for short stories verses novels?
GF: Well, Clarion–which I love, don’t come after me–like a lot of other programs, is about getting down a bunch of first drafts. I think I wrote more (very very bad) stories in my six weeks there than at any other time of my life. NaNoWriMo takes the same approach, and I was just guest-appearing in a class last night where one of the students had written their requisite 50,000 words and was going “What am I supposed to do now?” It’s not the first time I’ve heard that cry for help after a November of furious writing.
Revision, like the writing process in general, isn’t static. Doesn’t remain the same from one work to the next. The novel I’m at work on at the moment has now passed through two Point of View changes. Originally I tried writing it in Omniscient voice, which seemed appropriate for a book set in the 19th century, but it didn’t work. And I came to dislike it entirely, and scrapped it after a good 180 pages and started over again. I’ve done that with other stories, too–on one occasion finally settling on a second person narrative, which is not where I would advocate going unless you’re Kelly Link; but it was the only viewpoint that worked. However, the story I wrote to take to Sycamore Hill this past summer doesn’t have any point of view issues; it had structural issues, and most of those were with the blocking of two critical scenes. So…a different set of questions have to be asked of the text, and it’s up to me to be smart enough to know that. So in effect it’s all specific to the individual story or novel, and my all-purpose advice to those who ask for help with revision is:
1) Try to write down in a long sentence what and who your story or novel is about and use that as a compass point in revising. Everything should point back to that somehow.
2) Remember now that you have a “shitty first draft” that everything you choose to keep should be working in the service of the story. For that matter, everything you discard is for that reason, too. Maybe in the draft you decided to bring on a truckload of clowns because they just seemed so damn funny at the time; but now that you’re editing the story, you have to decide if they really serve any purpose whatsoever in the narrative or if you just stuck them in there because you have a thing for inflatable shoes. If it’s strictly the latter, I don’t care how much you love them, they go.
And, you know, since you asked about books on writing, Kit Reed wrote a couple of excellent books on revision which, sadly, are out of print but worth hunting up.
AM: What (if you can say) are you currently working on?
GF: Very little. All I’ll say is it’s a 19th century historical thriller wherein no zombies eat Mr. Darcy and Abe Lincoln does not stake any vampires.
AM: In 100 years, what do you hope people will say about your work?
GF: How about, “Hey, here’s a brilliant writer who was really under-appreciated in his time.” Yeah, I could do with that.
Thank you so much for this interview, Mr. Frost. It’s been a pleasure!