ROUNDTABLE INTERVIEW: Gary A. Braunbeck, Jay Lake, Nick Mamatas, and Catherynne M. Valente10 min read

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If you piled the awards and nominations attributed to Gary A. Braunbeck, Jay Lake, Nick Mamatas, and Catherynne M. Valente on the interview table, it would surely implode under the weight of accolades. Suffice it to say, these are four writers at the top of their game. The quartet took a few minutes out of their overloaded schedules to talk about writing through hard times, the places that leave a mark on their fiction, and the story behind their contribution to Dark Faith.

Shortly after Brian Keene announced an original story would be appearing in Dark Faith, a fan on his website asked if it was a zombie story (it’s not). In contrast, Gary Braunbeck wrote “For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer,” a standalone tie-in to his popular Cedar Hill Cycle. As a writer, how pressured do you feel to return to the characters, subject matter, or stylistic choices fans expect of you?

Gary Braunbeck: None. My readers–all 273 of them 🙂 –have been as engrossed (thank the Fates) in the direction of the Cedar Hill Cycle as I am. I currently have no choice but to return there; not because of reader expectation, but because the cycle hasn’t reached its conclusion yet. Standalone stories such as “For My Next Trick…” help to keep me in touch with the central cast of characters while I’m working with them on a much larger canvas.

Jay Lake: I don’t feel pressured to return to characters and subjects, so much as driven to. I suppose, if I had a runaway bestseller series (I should be so lucky) my views might be a little different, but the reality is: I am successful enough to stay in print but still am privileged to write what I want when I want. It’s kind of a neat balance. More success, more pressure, but I suspect I’d find a way to deal with it if so.

Nick Mamatas: I don’t have any fans that demand anything of me. I suppose I do revisit Lovecraft occasionally, but I don’t ever feel any pressure to do anything in particular. If I did, I’d probably make more money.

Catherynne Valente: Well, since I did write a zombie story, which I will likely never do again, I think the answer is: I don’t. I always try to do something new, with every story, because otherwise I get bored and have no interest in what I’m writing. In gaming terms, I want to level up with every story. You can’t do that by writing the same thing over and over. I think people expect linguistically rich prose from me–at least, that’s the most recognizable thread between my various pieces. And I’ll probably never knock that off because it’s just who and what I am. But you’ll notice my DF story, “Days of Flaming Motorcycles,” is very pared down in terms of language, very straightforward. I don’t always go for the baroque. In the end, I wrote about zombies this time because I visited Augusta, Maine, and it looks like the zombies really did invade in about 1974, but the next morning everyone just shrugged and said, “Gotta go back to work, I guess.” That was compelling to me, so I wrote about it. It’s pretty far from my usual material, but it’s what floated to the top of my psyche.

Jay Lake wrote “Mother Urban’s Booke of Dayes” in the grey area between a cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy. That’s a pretty extreme example of writing through adversity, but it raises an interesting question about working through life’s rougher patches. Do you find it hard to write when times are tough, or does adversity fuel your productivity?

Jay Lake: Both, really. It’s hard to write when times are tough, for obvious reasons. But adversity absolutely drives my writing demon. Some of the worst writing advice I ever got was “writing is not therapy.” Au contraire, strong emotions on the page make for compelling fiction. Which is to say, writing is not about throwing up one’s recycled teen angst or sexual issues–that’s part of maturing as a writer and finding control of one’s craft and voice. The ability to transform emotions both good and bad into reader experience is a powerful and difficult one. I have found since that writing while actually on chemotherapy is impossible. I get about eight or nine writing days out of every two-week cycle right now, which is annoying. But still grist, still grist.

Nick Mamatas: There was one story I wrote for an anthology after a bad breakup and during a bout on bronchitis. I was basically alone and unable to walk, in the state I disliked, with no friends within 300 miles or so. I spent two weeks typing out the 1800 words of the story with one finger. (I’d even hit the capslock key to start a sentence, rather than using two fingers to shift and strike a letter key.) I’d rather not do that again. Incidentally, the story Globalization: A Fuck Story, is in the anthology Fucking Daphneif you’d like to check it out. Because I was so ill and so distracted, I came up with an “abracadabra”-like structure, which uses repetition of the same words and phrases over and over. Maybe that’s an aesthetic achievement informed by adversity, but I write better when healthy and well-fed.

Catherynne Valente: I’ve had a pretty hard time personally through most of my professional writing career (about six years). I keep a pretty personal blog, but I have refrained from talking about a lot of the dire things that have happened through that time. I’m hard pressed to think of a period in my life more rife with pain and turmoil, from my divorce to severe depression to remarriage and the collapse of the publishing industry. Moving from Virginia to Ohio to Maine. It’s pretty much sucked on the personal front for a good while–only in the last year have I really been turning a corner. And in those six years I’ve published more than a dozen books, so let’s hope adversity isn’t some kind of foul alternative fuel source for me. It’s hard to write through it, but if I don’t, I’m so much worse off. I lost about 18 months to a particularly heinous situation I won’t get into and frankly, I can’t afford to do that again. Keep on keeping on, I suppose, is what I mean to say.

Gary Braunbeck: Both–but I find it falls more on the “adversity fueling” side of the coin. Quick example: if I hadn’t forced myself to work during the last days of my mother’s life, I wouldn’t have made it through in one piece. I also would not have produced Duty, the last story I wrote for her, and the one for which was awarded my first Bram Stoker Award.

In “The Last Words of Dutch Schultz Jesus Christ” Nick Mamatas offers the reader an experience with God that’s outside the boundaries of conventional religion. How did your personal beliefs affect the story you chose to write for the anthology?

Nick Mamatas: Not at all, really. I can think of little more tedious than someone writing about their own religious beliefs in a horror story. I was interested, primarily, in the idea of visual stimuli triggering the bits of the brain that compel religious experiences, and the common supernatural idea that “everything is connected.” That and last words. And Chicago. And small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. And William S. Burroughs. Whatever came to mind, really. Since the story was about free-floating associations created by some exposure to stimuli, I thought the process of writing the story should reflect that.

Catherynne Valente: I’m something of an agnostic pagan, so I suppose it affected it in that the god in my story is nebulous, unknown, even to whether or not it is real. It doesn’t show up or respond to the devotions paid to it. That pretty much syncs with my experience of divinity. It doesn’t matter, ultimately. The devotions have value for themselves, whether or not there is a genuine deity at the other end. But I think I would have a hard time writing a story that came down definitively on one side or the other of the god argument.

Gary Braunbeck: Oddly enough, my personal beliefs (most of them, anyway) took a back seat to the central conceit of what is possible when you genuinely and forcefully question those beliefs and can keep an open mind to all probabilities.

Jay Lake: Well, to be clear about my viewpoint, I am a strong atheist and empiricist who at the same time can be highly sympathetic to the role of faith in the human experience, even when I don’t share in it. Contradictory? Sure. But I can believe six contradictory things before breakfast. It’s part of the human condition. So Mother Urban’s Booke of Dayesis about belief, albeit not quite in the conventional sense. The human mind is divided by nature, struggling to balance logos and mythos in its internal narratives. I personally find my mythos in fiction. My characters often find it in other places, and I love to explore those places. Through books, or, if you will, bookes, is so much the better.

Catherynne Valente spent two years living a secluded life in Japan. That sense of isolation can be found in several of her works, including Dark Faith’s “The Days of Flaming Motorcycles.” Is there a place you’ve lived (or a time in your life) that you find yourself coming back to in your fiction?

Catherynne Valente: Hey, that’s me! So yes, I keep coming back to Japan, and to childhood. Childhood is the natural home of fantasy (at least several kinds of fantasy.) And I live in New England, which is the natural home of horror. Every place I’ve been ends up in the pot sooner or later, but there is certainly a giant black hole in my life that warps experience on either side of it, and that is my time in Japan, when I was very alone and lost. That is also where horror and fantasy come from, those very dark places. I couldn’t write it without them–I’m not even sure I could read it.

Gary Braunbeck: Times of great personal regret, of which there is no shortage.

Jay Lake: I grew up mostly in Taiwan and Nigeria, before finishing high school in a very high-end boarding school in Connecticut. While I don’t often go directly to those places in my fiction, the sense of alien-ness that comes from living in a country where the faces, the food, the languages and the geography are radically different from one’s own expectation certainly inform much of my writing. Somewhat more indirectly, my sense of place has been very strongly informed by those experiences, and deepened in ways that I suspect would have been much more difficult to arrive at had I grown up in Anytown, USA.

Nick Mamatas: Wherever I no longer live, or where I am about to leave. I wrote about New York in the 1990s fairly frequently when living in New Jersey in the early 2000s. I didn’t write about California until a couple of months before I left it for the first time. I wrote my first story that took place in Vermont upon realizing that I’d have to leave soon. I have a love letter to Cambridge, Mass that I wrote a year ago–six months into living in California–that I am still trying to publish somewhere. My story “And Then And Then And Then” is about Innsmouth, but I couldn’t write it till after spending six months kicking around Salem and the rest of the North Shore. I also write about the cities I’ve spent some time in on trips: Chicago has come up a lot as I’ve been there a number of times (twice in 2007) and recently Portland OR has been bubbling up to the surface.

In addition to the original stories you’ve written for Dark Faith, what do you have coming out, and what are you working on now?

Gary Braunbeck: I am desperately trying to finish the 6th and final book in this branch of the Cedar Hill Cycle, A Cracked and Broken Path, which should be in Jason Sizemore’s hands as this issue of Apex hits the stands. If not, then there will be a story about how Jason is now facing trial for having strangled me! If all goes as planned, that novel will be out by November. I also have a story in the upcoming Haunted Legendsanthology from Tor, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas, as well as a new Cedar Hill novella entitled “Clipper Girls” written exclusively for Tasmaniac Publications. Right now, every spare chance I get, I am finishing up The Carnival Within: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Vol. 3, which both Pail Miller and I are hoping will see the light of publication before the end of 2011.

Jay Lake: My third clockwork novel Pinionjust came out from Tor Books, and this summer will see three independent releases–single-title novella “The Specific Gravity of Grief” from Fairwood Press, about my cancer; single-title novella “The Baby Killers” from PS Publishing, wherein I try to put a definitive imprimatur on steampunk; and The Sky That Wraps, a collection of my recent short fiction coming from Subterranean Press. Currently working on Endurance, a sequel to my Tor novel Green, which will appear next spring, as well as a spec novella “The Stars Do Not Lie,” which is a steampunk lost-colony religious piece.

Nick Mamatas: With Ellen Datlow I’m editing the anthology Haunted Legendsfor Tor Books. It will come out September 2010 and includes work by Ramsey Campbell, Carolyn Turgeon, Joe Lansdale, Kit Reed, and many others. My novel Sensationshould be published in 2011, though I cannot quite announce the publisher yet.

Catherynne Valente: I have several novels coming out: the first volume of my Prester John series this fall from Night Shade, Deathlessfrom Tor next spring, and my YA novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Makingfrom Feiwel a little later that same spring. I also have a short story collection coming out this fall.

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