Interview with Tim Pratt9 min read

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Tim Pratt is a busy guy. Besides producing a dozen novels, two (soon to be three) collections, and over a hundred short stories in the past ten or so years, Mr. Pratt is also a senior editor at Locus Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Clarkesworld Magazine, Interzone, and Weird Tales, among many others, and has been featured in numerous Year’s Best anthologies. In 2006, he won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story for Impossible Dreams.

This month’s issue of Apex Magazine brings you a sneak peek at Mr. Pratt’s upcoming collection, Antiquities and Tangibles & Other Stories, with a tale of magic, secret archives, attempted bibliocide, romance, and–of course–a library, in The Fairy Library.

About The Fairy Library:

APEX MAGAZINE: You touch on the inspiration for The Fairy Library in the story notes you’ve included in your upcoming collection, Antiquities and Tangibles & Other Stories, but for our readers here at Apex, could you describe it here?

TIM PRATT: I love libraries. There are three library branches within walking distance of my house, and since my son was born, I’ve spent a lot of time in them, seeing performances and going to story time and, of course, browsing. Most of the books I read come from the library, and I do some writing in libraries occasionally, too. The library is at the heart of my intellectual and creative and parenting life, honestly. It’s an incredible resource.

I love stories about libraries too–go read Ellen Klages’s In the House of the Seven Librarians and Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners and Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel. My story is not that good, but I wanted to add something to the sub-sub-genre. My friend Jon Hansen, a writer who’s also a research librarian, gave me some valuable insights (but blame me for the things I got wrong).

AM: The Fairy Library has at its heart a bibliophile’s love story. Have you yourself ever fallen in love with a book? (This could be multiple books, also, given changing loves and tastes of age.) If so, would you mind sharing what it was? If not, what do you speculate you might be looking for in the perfect book for you, if you believe such a book might exist at all?

TP: If you mean a book as in the content of the book, then, sure, of course, countless times every single year–I love the written word, mostly fiction but sometimes non-fiction too, and I have many books I adore. (Recently I loved Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World and Joe Hill’s N0S4A2.) If you mean a book as in an *object*, well, not so much. I like a nicely-made object as much as anyone, but I don’t tend to get all that attached. I have a few precious volumes I’m especially fond of: a copy of Three Men in a Boat an old girlfriend gave me; a first edition of Chabon’s Werewolves in Their Youth; assorted signed volumes from people who mean a lot of me. In the library where I work, there’s a full first edition of the Books of Blood by Clive Barker, the six volumes with Barker’s illustrated covers, and I covet them hugely.

AM: Do you have a favorite library, and if so, what sets it apart from other libraries for you? If not, what would your ideal library be like?

TP: I spend a lot of time in the central branch of the Berkeley Public Library, and it’s probably the nicest library I’ve frequented regularly in my life. (There’s not a ton of competition; I went to a not-terribly-remarkable state university, and grew up in a small town in rural North Carolina. There were libraries, but not especially mind-blowing ones.) I have a five-year-old, so for the past, oh, four-and-a-half years I’ve been a regular visitor to their children’s library, which covers the entire fourth floor, and it’s a very pleasant place to hang out with a kid.

There’s also the library in the basement at my day job, a science fiction magazine, which is filled with many thousands of volumes, and complete runs of legendary pulp magazines…pretty much anything a science fiction/fantasy reader would want is down there. I spent every lunch break during the first year I worked there just reading books I’d heard about but never been able to find before.

AM: Your collection brings together a variety of short fiction, from flash fiction like Fiddle and Artifice and Intelligence to novelettes like Troublesolving and novellas like The Fairy Library. You’ve written so many short stories, do you find you naturally gravitate toward any particular length?

TP: My natural length is the novelette. Give me ten or fifteen thousand words and I can say everything I feel like saying, with enough digressions to keep myself amused. Every shorter story I’ve written in the past ten years or so has been the result of a conscious attempt to write more concisely. I still don’t quite have the hang of brevity, but I’m getting there.

AM: I absolutely love the mixing of modern technology and the fantastical elements The Fairy Library incorporates. Scanning magical books into a digital archive? What’s not to love! Many of your other tales share this fantastical feature. What draws you to the combination of tech and magic?

TP: It’s not just tech–it’s the combination of the entirety of the contemporary world I inhabit with magic. That’s my favorite fictional mode to write in, and mostly my favorite to read. It’s a natural extension of my everyday fantasies and daydreams. Something about the combination of the everyday and the magical always thrills me. Magic in a magical world isn’t terribly remarkable, after all–magic in *this* world is something to get excited about, and brings with it an automatic tension that I find very arresting.

AM: Most of the stories in the collection are written from the First Person Point of View. When you sit down to write a new story, is the POV something you consciously choose, or does it tend to choose itself? Do you find writing First Person POV easier or more complicated than writing Third Person or other POVs?

TP: Huh, is that true? (Looks to see if that’s true.) Wow, you’re right. It’s not easier–I think third is easier, actually, and comes to me more naturally. But I do love the possibilities that come with writing in first person, in terms of unreliable narration and subtextual biases and reading-between-the-lines. The narrators of, say, The Secret Beach and A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness definitely have their own agendas to promote, and are attempting to put a certain spin on their actions that might not necessarily be borne out by an objective consideration of the facts.

Sometimes a story begins, for me, with a voice: hearing a character speak. Other times, I just think about the best way to tell the story, and choose my viewpoint accordingly. (Sometimes I change my mind in revision.) And, obviously, in the case of the meta-fictions here –Her Voice in a Bottle and Unexpected Outcomes– I am, at least ostensibly, writing in my own voice. I’m an unreliable narrator, too, though.
About Writing in General:

AM: For you, you’ve mentioned in other interviews that you love writing the rough draft. But what is your editing process like?

TP: After I finish drafting, I put the story away for a while. Then I read it again, and get a sense of it as a whole, and try to feel where the flaws are, or where the pacing is off, or where a point is belabored, or another point is glossed over. I add and cut scenes/paragraphs/lines/words as necessary to fill in those gaps and fix those deficiencies. Once I feel the shape of the thing is right, I do line edits. I could line edit endlessly, forever. I know I’m done when I add a comma in one pass and remove the comma in the next pass.

AM: When reading science fiction or fantasy, what is your biggest authorial pet peeve that really drives you crazy when you encounter it? What, by contrast, puts a huge grin on your face when you see it in a story or novel you’re reading?

TP: Oh, it’s not specific to SF and fantasy, but to all fiction. I get bored easily, so when I read a story where no one makes any decisions or performs any actions I tend to lose interest. Which isn’t to say there can’t be powerful stories that are wholly interior–internal action counts! Interior upheaval is still upheaval!or that I’m not occasionally seduced by language, but…I like it when Stuff Happens.

I also like it when characters do something I didn’t expect, but that I still find believable. (Occupational hazard of being a writer: you get to the point where, in conventional fiction, you can pretty much guess how the plot is going to unfold. So being surprised, without feeling like the author cheated to get the surprise, is a pleasure.)

AM: You’ve been writing novels since you were a young kid, though you’ve mentioned those typically topped out around 100 pages. What was the first completed novel you ever wrote about? Have any elements or characters from those earlier unpublished novels ever appeared–re-imagined or reincarnated–in your more recent works, short-form or long-form?

TP: I made a few attempts to write “novels” in junior high and high school, I guess, though I didn’t finish any of them. The first novel I actually completed was in 1996. It was called Shannon’s God, and it was about a young woman who developed magical powers and tried to find a mentor to help her understand what was happening to her life. Her choices for magical guides were a delusional wizard who’d come to believe he was God and a vicious pragmatist of a woman who used magic for personal gain. There was a minor villain in that novel that I altered a bit and brought back for later stories and novels, named Mr. Zealand. As for the story as a whole–sure. It had magic in the modern world, and moral quandaries, and the uses and misuses of power, all things I still write about all the time.

AM: If a rampaging vortex manifested suddenly in your house and began sucking books into oblivion, and you only had time to save two books out of your personal print library before you had to escape or risk falling into the vortex yourself, what two would you choose?

TP: Very few of my books would be difficult to replace, and I don’t tend to get attached to particular volumes, as I mentioned. (When I was young you had to haunt used bookstores to find out-of-print volumes, and they were precious; now you just go online and two clicks later you can have pretty much anything. The future is fantastic.) I’d probably grab my wife Heather Shaw’s short story collection chapbook, and the poetry chapbook we wrote together as a gift for our wedding guests, since those the ones that would be hard to replace.

AM: You’ve worked for many years in and behind the scenes in the publishing world in almost every arena: editing, production, slushing, reviewing, even as a small press publisher of the fiction magazine, Flytrap, for some time. What part of the industry work have you found most personally fulfilling or enjoyable?

TP: Oddly enough, production. Doing layout. I would have become a graphic designer, but I’m color blind, which made that impractical. I am an avid amateur book designer (with a lot left to learn), and laying out Flytrap (and working on layout at my day job now) is always a joy. I get into flow and the hours just disappear. It’s so totally different from writing or editing or revising, and fulfills a different need for me. My ideal day job would involve being left in a room alone for eight hours, doing layout.

AM: You’ve attended both the Clarion East Writers Workshop as well as Orson Scott Card’s fiction workshop, you’ve worked within the industry for years, and you received your college degree in English, so–chances are–you’ve received more than your fair share of well-intentioned advice. Is there any piece of “writing advice” you’ve heard or received that you completely disagree with? Any piece of advice you’ve received or discovered that you found particularly helpful to your own work, personally?

TP: Don’t use “to be” verbs and don’t use passive voice. There are times when both of those things are very useful. (The use of passive voice can be *incredibly* chilling and disturbing.) Basically any advice that includes the words “never” or “always” is suspect. Granted, I understand why teachers do that–there are techniques that are very easy to do badly, and it seems easiest to warn new writers away from them entirely. But it’s more complicated than that.

The best advice I got as a young writer came to me third- or fourth-hand, attributed to Howard Waldrop. The gist is: “You’ll either get published, or you’ll quit writing, or you’ll die.” That sort of put things in perspective. Keep plugging away, and you’ll get published eventually; or else you’ll die first, and then you won’t care anymore, so that’s all right.

AM: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the coming months/years?

TP: The collection! Other than that, I co-edited an anthology with Melissa Marr called Rags and Bones, with contributions from Kelley Armstrong and Holly Black and Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe and Rick Yancey and lots of other amazing writers, due out this fall. I have a sword-and-sorcery adventure novel about a thieving bastard and his best friend, a talking sword of living ice, called Liar’s Blade, out in March. And waaaaay off in 2014, I should have short novel/novella The Deep Woods out from great British small press PS Publishing.

AM: Thank you so much for sharing The Fairy Library with us, and for spending this time with us to do this interview!

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