If you're familiar with Smart Rhino's anthologies (and we certainly hope you are!), you may remember his stories "The Wellmaster's Daughter" in Uncommon Assassins, and "Labyrinth" in Insidious Assassins. His story "Golden Age" will be published in Zippered Flesh 3, now in production.
James was happy to spend a few minutes to talk with us. Enjoy!
Your book The Tears of Isis was a Bram Stoker Award finalist in 2014 for the fiction collection category. Your stories have appeared in many anthologies, including Smart Rhino's Uncommon Assassins, Insidious Assassins, and the upcoming Zippered Flesh 3. Do you prefer the short form over writing novels? What's the allure for writing short stories?
Allan Poe wrote in his essay, “The Poetic Principle,” that “a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul.” So, a true poem must necessarily have a certain brevity. “That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags--fails--a revulsion ensues--and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.” There are such things as epics, of course. But to Poe, despite the need for unity for a work as a whole, such a work in practice becomes a series of shorter poems, though perhaps not so much through the fault of the poet as that of the reader.
Nevertheless, I think I agree with what Poe is getting at--that at best the “good bits” will be interspersed with duller parts in a reader’s perception. And judging from Poe’s own works of fiction, I think he means for this to apply to prose as well. So as to my own work, yes, at least as a writer I prefer short stories to novels. I often write horror (I also write fantasy, sf, mystery, and even some humor I should add, as well as poetry), which I see in part as a study of character under unnatural stress. And while I love diversions and atmosphere and descriptions and explanations to help as intellectual support, I think there is an emotional center which only can be sustained for so long. Now, not everything I write is that exciting--“Golden Age” in Zippered Flesh 3, for instance, is written as a measured reflection. But even there I think there is an emotional core, and a puzzle perhaps for the reader to discover through empathy with the narrator, of why the story should stop where it does. But the point is still that it does stop, that to carry it farther would weaken the effect as a whole.
So that’s the challenge I find in short fiction, again as a writer, to write as much as a story needs to drive its point through, and not a word more. Because what should come after is the reader’s own addition, through his or her own thought, to what I have written.
Speaking of novels, your book Tombs: A Chronicle of Latter-Day Times of Earth is scheduled for release later this year. Can you tell us a little about the novel?
"It had been a time when the world needed legends, those years so long past now. Because there was something else legends could offer, or so the Poet believed. He didn't know quite what--ghouls were not skilled at imagination. Their world was a concrete one, one of stone and flesh. Struggle and survival. Survival predicated on others' deaths. Far in the future, when our sun grows ever larger, scorching the earth. When seas become poisonous and men are needed to guard the crypts from the scavengers of the dead. A ghoul-poet will share stories of love and loss, death and resurrection. Tombs is a beautifully written examination of the human condition of life, love, and death, through the prism of a dystopian apocalypse."
This is the publisher’s blurb on Amazon, condensed perhaps but fair enough (and positively flattering in that last sentence!). But there’s something to be said about structure too. Tombs is written as a novel-in-stories, or what’s sometimes called a “mosaic novel,” one not so much presented as a continuous narrative, from start to finish, but rather assembled from independent chapter stories. Some in fact were published before (two even appear in The Tears of Isis, while a third story there, while not in Tombs, is set in the same universe). The idea is there’s a larger story, in this case that of the world itself. But the approach to it is oblique, as if through, say, a series of snapshots in a photo album from which the reader might assemble a more complete picture in his or her own head.
One example is a book written more than sixty years ago--and one of my favorite novels of all time--Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, in this case assembling a “history” of the colonization of Mars through a series of stories, strung together with shorter vignettes. There are other examples in non-science fiction/dark fiction/fantasy contexts such as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club or John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy. But the thing is, this is one way around Poe’s dictum, above, of being able to sustain a core idea--intellectual, aesthetic, emotional--only for so long.
So why not, then, an assemblage of ideas? Of corpse-trains that ply bridges crossing a great river, bearing a city’s dead, braving attacks from flesh-eating ghouls. Of rat-catchers, gravediggers, grave guards, and artists. Of Mangol the Ghoul, of musician-lovers Flute and Harp who once played back a storm, of the Beautiful Corpse. A city consumed by a huge conflagration, a woman frozen for thousands of years. A flower that eats memories….
And in the center of all, the great necropolis, the Tombs.
What do you find most difficult about freelance writing? The most rewarding?
The difficulty, frankly, for me is getting ideas. Not that ideas alone may not abound, but an idea-cluster that I can write a story around is a more difficult matter. My “muse,” as it were, is a nasty one who does not give things easily but must be wrestled into surrender. But then the joy, when that idea comes, the exhilaration of putting its various parts together, and realizing when I’ve finished a story that I’ve created something worth creating, that’s the reward. The grind of marketing will come later, and there’s a joy too when a story sells, especially if to a major market, but still the real reward for me is the creation itself.
What advice would you offer a novice writer looking to submit short stories to anthologies, magazines, or online venues?
Some, I’m sure, will have been heard before, perhaps many times: Perseverance. Don’t quit your day job. Those are the clichés, but they’re still true, that most writers aren’t going to make much money until they’ve been at it for some time, if even then. This is especially true for short story writers (I won’t even think about poets), unless you really, really persist and are willing to write in a number of genres (one person I know, for instance, has made a fair amount ghosting stories in woman’s confession magazines, but that’s not the route we’re taking here). But that doesn’t mean you can’t make some money, several hundred, perhaps even a few thousand dollars a year, if you can sell consistently to the highest paying markets. But most of us won’t.
For us lesser ambitions (in my case I look on money from writing as supplemental income, which I report as business income at tax time, but some years I’ll actually report a loss), be aware of markets when they open, especially anthologies. Ralan.com is one source on the internet, the Submission Grinder another--a third is Duotrope which I still use, although they charge a subscription fee these days. Consider joining groups like the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. But also look for pages on Facebook for horror and science fiction writers and fans and, if you can, go to sf/horror conventions--these are ways you can meet other writers, as well as editors, and they can meet you. Cultivate friendships and listen for gossip.
But most important: Enjoy what you're doing and strive to do your best. Follow your bliss, to repeat that cliché. Be proud of your work, but be practical too--if an editor advises you to make changes, take it seriously. But remember it’s still advice, especially as you gain more experience, and the one you must please, ultimately, has to be yourself.
Sage advice. Thanks, James.
For more on James and his work, check out his blog at jamesdorr.writer.wordpress.com.