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Interview: KJ Kabza on “The Ramshead Algorithm”

Tell us a bit about the story.

There’s a portal to the place between worlds, and Ramshead Jones has found it. In fact, he found it over 9 years ago in the hedge maze in his own backyard, and ever since then has been crossing over and constructing a secret, parallel life for himself that he’s terrified of revealing to his wealthy but dysfunctional family. But worlds are about to collide (in more senses than one) when his father decides to rip out the hedge maze and thereby destroy the portal. Ramshead must construct an elaborate spell to save it, and gathering the exotic ingredients is the least of his troubles. He must also navigate the emotional landmines of his family to enlist them in his quest, and tread carefully between telling them a truth they might never fully understand and revealing a truth about himself that he cannot live without.

Or if you want the high-concept, elevator-pitch version: “It’s about the risks of being who you really are with those you really love.”

What is the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

For a while in college I worked in Lanlivery, Cornwall. (Exactly why is a different story.) When I wasn’t working, I’d take long walks on the suicidally narrow, twisting roads that ran between the grazing pastures, which comprise nearly all of the available land in that area. The pastures in that country are so old, and have been there for so very long, that the vine-covered walls marking the boundaries have risen to over 6 feet high in most places. And I swear that the sky there is abnormally close to the earth. The rambling environment felt so self-contained and mysterious and alive, when I went out walking, I liked to pretend that I was walking a giant labyrinth that existed between the worlds. I almost never harvest my (many…) imaginary adventures for writing material, and in fact, The Maze was the first fragment from my personal paracosm that I’ve ever used in a story.

“The Ramshead Algorithm” marks your F&SF debut.  How long have you been a writer and what motivates you to write?

I wrote my first (albeit crappy) novel at age 14, and for me, that was Game Over. I’ve never wanted to be anything else since. As for what motivates me, I’d say it’s a completely non-rational, faith-based, grandiose, demented conviction that it’s my Cosmic Destiny, or something. This sounds pretty crazy, so maybe I should say instead, “Creating things that are meaningful and moving makes me feel best.”

What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

Are you kidding? I did a ton of research. I researched endangered animals indigenous to California, countless online foreign dictionaries cross-checked with each other, the California State Highway system, luxury cars, the history of home furnishing design movements, and high-end clothing designers. The hardest part was researching Chinook Wawa, a language that Ramshead decides to use in his spell. I originally wanted to use Samala, a Native language spoken by a people near the area, and even went so far as to politely contact an Elders’ Council for their permission, who politely told me that I was not allowed. I wound up asking a Native friend of mine for advice, who explained to me that a lot of Native peoples regard language as something more sacred than just a communication tool to use and abuse, and that perhaps I should compromise and use Chinook Wawa, a pidgin language, which would avoid the problem of culturally stepping on anyone’s toes. (I owe a big THANK YOU to Eagledancer for this.) So remember, kids: talking with people who aren’t like you is not only good for your growth as a person, but good for your growth as an artist.

“The Ramshead Algorithm” is somewhat of a roller-coaster of a story, pace-wise.  Would you say that’s typical of your fiction, or is this story a departure from your norm?

My writing is tight, but admittedly, I may’ve gone a little overboard here. The first draft of “The Ramshead Algorithm” was about 18,500 words, but with my writer friend Monica Friedman’s help, I overzealously hacked it down to its current length (about 13,500) to (1) make it short enough to enter in the Writers of the Future Contest, and (2) make it less intimidating to buy. Longer short fiction can be a tough sell.

What are you working on now?

A rewrite that Gordon Van Gelder asked me to do on a story I sent him after “The Ramshead Algorithm”, so hopefully, you’ll be hearing from me again real soon. I’ve also got a small stockpile of short fiction to sell, and I’m also drafting a post-post-apocalyptic science fiction novel with giant fighting robots. Plus I have a completed, gritty YA werewolf horror novel just sitting on my hard drive and twiddling its thumbs. So if you happen to know anyone looking for that sort of thing right now…

Anything else you’d like to add?

(1) It’s pronounced “RAM’S head”.

(2) The Voynich Manuscript? Totally real. Google that shit; it’s amazing.

(3) If “The Ramshead Algorithm” wasn’t your thing, you can read some of my short fiction online for free, linked at my website (http://www.kjkabza.com). I hope you find something you like!

 “The Ramshead Algorithm” appears in the July/August 2011 issue.

Interview: Peter David on “Bronsky’s Dates with Death”

- Tell us a bit about the story.
The protagonist is an elderly gentleman named Bronsky (probably Jewish, although he didn’t say for sure) who is not only utterly prepared for death, but he keeps talking about how prepared he is for it.  He so cavalier about it, in fact, that it tends to drive his loved ones nuts.  As it turns out, his candor is also driving Death nuts, and Death has to convince Bronsky to knock it the hell off because otherwise Bad Things Will Happen.  And Bronsky, who naturally doesn’t want Bad Things to Happen, endeavors to knock it the hell off…and fails spectacularly.  It’s about fatherly love, acceptance of what you can and cannot change, and why famous people always seem to die in threes.
 
- What is the genesis of this story – it’s inspiration, or what prompted you to write it?
It actually had its roots in a conversation I had with Harlan Ellison.  I called Harlan one day and said, “How are you doing?”  He said, “I’m dying.”  Naturally I reacted with great alarm and concern.  Was he having a heart attack?  Kidney failure?  What was wrong?  Well, it turned out that nothing in particular was wrong. Yes, he was enduring a variety of ailments that aging inflicts on one, but there was no one thing in particular that was sending him off into the void.  Nevertheless he kept saying he was dying.  And he sounded quite accepting of it.  And I said, “You know, I wish you wouldn’t sound so casual and comfortable about your dying.”  His response was, “Yeah, everybody tells me that.”  Then later on, I called up my father just to chat and HE started talking about dying.  And that just triggered something in my mind.
 
- Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way is “Bronsky’s Dates with Death” personal?
Bronsky is really a combination of Harlan, my Dad, and me.  I took little pieces of all of us and mashed them all together and came up with Bronsky and his personal life and his family.  Of most particular resonance to me is Bronsky’s relationship with his daughter, up to and including his recollection of lying on his bed when his daughter was an infant, and how both of them were dozing and she nearly slid off his chest.  He recounts how he immediately snapped awake and caught her.  That was me and my youngest daughter (now eight.)  Bronsky’s daughter has traits of all my daughters in her.  So she’s probably what makes the story so personal to me.
 
- It’s both a funny story and a touching story.  Which aspect of it came to you first: the humorous or the emotional?
I suppose the tone is set by the narrative style which, appropriately, I cribbed slightly from “Repent, Harlequin.”  The tone is tongue in cheek, but the emotional aspects of it are so tied up in it that I really feel it’s organic to the story.  The humor sets up the emotion, but human interaction is frequently funny, so it flows right back out of it.
 
- What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel about two damned souls falling in love.  It’s called “Hope in Hell.”  It’s a tale of damnation, redemption, and Harry Truman.  I’m about 30,000 words into it and it’s coming along nicely.  Don’t have a publisher yet; in fact, I may wind up not using one.

- Anything else you’d like to add?
Well, I’d like to explain my previous comment about not using a publisher.  My current endeavor is being part of an authorial collective called “Crazy8press.com,” in which five other novelists and I are putting out our own novels via Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com e as both eBooks and trade paperbacks.  We’ve just come out with our first offering, “The Camelot Papers,” written by yours truly.  It’s a revisionist history of Arthur and Company, told first person through the eyes of a young female slave and written like a political potboiler.  It’s really a liberating feeling, to be able to write whatever I want and know that I’ll be able to get the books to the readers no matter what.  I highly recommend people check it out.

“Bronsky’s Dates with Death” appears in the July/August 2011 issue.

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