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Words for Thought (Short Fiction Review)
One does not simply walk into Portland, OR (or anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, for that matter!) without hearing the name of Jay Lake whispered and chanted in the inner courts of the myriad writing communities there, and rightly so. Jay Lake has made a tremendous name for himself, with over two hundred short stories and over ten novels to date, with more coming every year. His work has appeared in many “Best Of” anthologies, as well as within the pages of Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Interzone, Clarkesworld, and Realms of Fantasy. He won the prestigious John W. Campbell Award in 2004 for “Into the Gardens of Sweet Night,” a work for which he also received a Hugo nomination. Known at conventions for being the fast talker in a Hawaiian shirt, and within the writing community as a mentor and friend to many, Jay Lake is a master of elegant words, vibrant images, and worlds that blossom from the pages he writes.
APEX MAGAZINE: “Lehr, Rex” mixes both remnants of a galactic version of Imperial China, Shakespeare, and Greek drama, with a hefty serving of high-tech science fiction. What initially inspired this story?
JAY LAKE: I was asked by editor Peter Crowther to submit to Forbidden Planets, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the film Forbidden Planet. The only guideline was to use a Shakespeare play as a stepping off point. The Chinese angle comes from the fact that I was reading a fair amount of Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger) around the time that I wrote this story, and he in turn drew very heavily on Chinese sources in his work. As for the Greek drama, I think it just snuck in there.
My own vision of the story was that I was putting a Silver Age planetary romance skin over New Wave identity paranoia bones. That actually made “Lehr, Rex” very hard to write, because the text was pulling in two substantially contradictory directions at the same time.
AM: Having lived in so many different places during your childhood clearly gave you an edge when it comes to writing visually powerful settings, as is evident in “Lehr, Rex”. Odors and scents seem to be particularly important to your descriptive flair. Why is that, and what advice would you give authors who want to infuse more striking visuals into their fiction?
JL: Well, in a basic sense, the five senses rule is a pretty decent guideline. That is, try to include elements from all five senses in each page/scene (depending on whose version of the rule you’re looking at). Visual processing takes up something like 85% of human sensory bandwidth, and so we as writers have a very natural tendency to default to visual descriptions. But the other senses, especially smell, can be extremely visceral. As such, they add a lot of power to one’s writing.
You’re correct about my own life experience. I grew up mostly in Southeast Asia and West Africa. And that certainly has influenced my writing heavily. The best advice I can give is go out and experience the world as much as possible. Take lots of road trips to areas with unusual geology or geographic terrain. Visit distant cities, and even better, distant countries. Really experience the incredible variety in the physical world for yourself. From that fund of memory and experience, you can draw extensively for descriptive prose.
AM: The planet you’ve constructed for “Lehr, Rex,” has a vivid sense of plausibility to every aspect of its design. How do you approach creating a whole other world like this one from scratch? Did you spend time researching possible extraterrestrial landscapes, or is the planet of “Lehr, Rex” mostly made-up for fun as landscape details were needed?
JL: I’d love to claim deep thinking here, but honestly, I made it up as I went along. The deep approach to world creation is something I do spend time on when working my novels, so I certainly have a pretty well-developed mental toolkit for working with new worlds. There’s a lot of narrative shorthand that is useful for the sort of thing, and I suppose I’m practiced in it. Mostly though I wanted Captain Lehr’s world to be a reflection of his life as a castaway, so in a sense the design arose from the necessities of the character. Plus, how often do you get to use the word “coruscating”?
AM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that it took you eleven years of focused writing before you made your first sale. That’s quite impressive dedication! What did you write during that time? Short stories, novels, or anything that struck you, regardless of length?
JL: Mostly short stories. I did write three novels, two of which I eventually rewrote and sold later on. But that period of my writing career, or to be more accurate, pre-career, was very much about learning the basics of both the craft and the business of writing. I have always had some talent at this business, but I had to learn a heck of a lot of skill before I could reliably leverage that talent.
AM: During that first grueling eleven years, did you write one story a week as you have more recently? Did you write every day?
JL: No, I was not so dedicated. For most of that time I lived in Austin, Texas, and participated in a writers’ group that met twice a month. I was fairly reliable about bringing stories into the group for critique, but that was at most two stories per month, and often only one. My writing practice was keyed to the workshop schedule as well, and not particularly consistent.
I embarked on the story-a-week schedule after moving to Portland, Oregon, and joining a weekly writers’ group that met in downstate in Eugene every Tuesday night. I realized that if I wanted to really take advantage of that group and raise my own skill level, I needed to be consistently productive. So I set myself to writing a story a week. Admittedly, I edged into it, but once I got going, I kept that schedule for about five years. Some weeks it was an entire novella, other weeks it was a flash piece hurriedly banged out on a Saturday evening, but I hit the mark every single week. It was quite a discipline, and as I combined the practice with frequent, high quality critique, I was able to leverage the process for a great deal of growth.
AM: Were there moments during those eleven years that made you feel like you’d stepped up to a new level of craft, or surmounted a plateau of development? Or did that first sale come as a complete surprise?
JL: No, I didn’t develop enough “writerly” self-awareness to see my own developmental steps until somewhat later on. That first sale was indeed a complete surprise to me. To this day, I am often surprised by sales. That’s not false modesty—I am a very self-confident writer—but more a comment on the unlikeliness of each individual editor, market and story finding a good alignment.
AM: You used to drive 200 miles (round trip) to attend a writer’s critique group in Oregon, another example of dedication to your fiction. What is your approach to editing, and has it changed as you’ve developed as a writer from those earlier years? Do you still drive down to that critique group?
JL: That would be the group down in Eugene that I mentioned. It was an intense commitment. I eventually stopped going because I was spending 4+ hours on the road for a 2-hour workshop, and I realized that time could be used for actually writing, as opposed to looking out the window at the Willamette Valley. I don’t regret any of that time spent, the workshop was very good both to and for me, but as my writing has matured, the premium I place on my time has shifted.
As for editing, it took me years to learn to do that. I have always loved the process of writing first drafts. To me, discovery is the best part of writing. And I think of writing as a special form of reading. The story unfolds from my fingertips, and I get to be surprised, too. For a very long time I resisted the requirement to edit and revise. It felt tedious, and like an undermining of my creative spirit.
These days, I’m a lot more focused and mature about all this. Mostly it’s been moving into novels that’s forced me to be smart about my attitude. 100,000-200,000 words of text is just too unwieldy to cowboy one’s way through it on sheer panache alone. So now I write the first draft—and my firsts tend to be very clean—then put it in the drawer for a while so I can forget the immediacy of my intentions for the text before pulling it out to do a deep scene/structural read, a close line read, and possibly several other passes for character, language style, et cetera. The exact process varies from project to project, but the idea of multiple, layered efforts at editing is consistent.
AM: You’ve sold hundreds of short stories over the years, and your first sale was a short story. At what point did you decide to turn your attention to novels, or at what point did you decide to try selling a novel?
JL: For a long time I wasn’t interested in selling novels. They seemed too big, too scary, too much work. Eventually I grew interested in telling larger stories, and seeking a larger audience. Novels were a vehicle that allowed me to open my skills and to be more widely read. I suppose it was around 2004 that I got serious about that.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love writing short stories. But novels give me so much more room, and they really do let me reach more people than most short story sales ever will.
AM: For years during your childhood, you didn’t have access to TV and only watched movies from time to time. Do you feel that not having had that access in your younger years gave you an advantage when you came to writing? A few years ago, you turned off the TV again; do you feel that not watching TV has a beneficial impact on your approach to writing fiction?
JL: I turned off the TV in 1994, more than a few years ago now. Heh. And yes, I think not having access to broadcast media in my youth has very much given me an advantage in my writing, because it forced me to consume books at a prodigious rate, absent other forms of entertainment.
Writers read. Period. That’s what we do. A writer who doesn’t read other people’s work is like a chef who doesn’t eat other people’s cooking. They would quickly become stale and involuted. I read, and read, and read, as a kid, developing an affinity for the written word that is bone deep and very powerful in me even to this day.
The no-TV thing, and related to that, no computer/online gaming thing, are personal to me. I discovered that watching TV or playing games scratched my plot bump in such a way that I didn’t need to write, or particularly want to. I was being satisfied by those immersive experiences. I know plenty of people who can balance both in their life, but I found myself far more creative and productive when I was not drawn to the glowing screen. I still catch up on TV shows from time to time via DVD or Netflix streaming. (I do own a television, it’s just not hooked up to cable or an antenna.)
AM: In your fiction, you often include people from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, which lend your futures a far more realistic diversity. Amongst the SF writing community, there seems to be a split between infusing diversity into one’s fiction and concerns about appropriating another culture not one’s own (with particular concerns toward misrepresentation, stereotyping, and the represented culture being typecast as “the exotic” other). In its most basic essence, it’s a “write what you know” argument. As a white American man, has anyone ever expressed concern about your use of another’s culture within your fiction? Or have you found such concerns are typically allayed by your extensive personal experience—most of your childhood, in fact—of living abroad?
JL: Oh, believe me, I have caught shit for writing non-white, non-heteronormative male characters. And I’m certainly not on some mission to enlighten the world. I just recognize that a lot more people in this world aren’t white and male, like me, than are. It’s very easy to default to writing characters just like oneself, and I suspect I do it far more often than I am aware of, even though I do try to be mindful. So I salt my fiction with all manner of genders and ethnicities and cultures, not to make any particular point, but just to make my fiction more like the real world.
After all, if science fiction and fantasy are about anything, they are about writing the other. How interesting would I be to myself or anyone else if I wrote about white American men all the time?
And for what it’s worth, I think it’s possible to take “write what you know” too literally. I mean, I’ve never been an alien, or an intelligent starship, or an elven warrior, yet I write about them. Should I not write about gay characters, even though what I know is life as a heterosexual, or women, even though what I know is life as a man? Because everybody loves, despairs, hopes, fears, struggles, succeeds, fails… That’s a whole range of human experience I do know, that isn’t dependent on gender or race.
AM: You’re known for being an incredibly prolific and fast drafter. Do you read as fast as you write? Though you’ve mentioned you have less time to read than you’d like, have there been any books or short fiction have impressed you recently?
JL: I do read as fast as I write. Crazy fast, in fact. Which is helpful given the time constraints I experience in my day-to-day life. Most recently, I’ve been impressed with Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Like half the Western world, I’m pretty taken with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. In short fiction, I haven’t read so much new stuff recently, unfortunately.
AM: What’s next for Jay Lake? What can we look forward to in the coming months?
JL: Assuming I can stay out of the cancer ward (no, that is not a joke), I’m in the midst of writing a four volume space opera series called Sunspin. That will keep me busy for the next year or so. There’s also an urban fantasy collaboration with J.A. Pitts in the works, and I have a nonfiction project about cancer that I’m drafting a proposal for. Plus the usual short fiction work, a possible anthology project or two, and all the miscellaneous writing-related stuff I get up to.
Thank you so much, Mr. Lake, for your time and your consideration!