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Dispatches From Smaragdine
A column by Jeff VanderMeer
February 2008

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Dispatches From Smaragdine columns.]

Installment #12

Smaragdine Pity Parties
Spotlight on Gregory Frost and a Peril of a Writing Career
Next Time
Contact Information

Smaragdine Pity Parties

This time of year at least twenty prominent writers host pity parties in the city of Smaragdine. By February, all of the major newspapers and websites have posted their lists of the best books and stories published in the country over the past year. In keeping with long-standing tradition, writers not included on these lists host elaborate parties at which they are expected to pretend to cry (for some of them, it's all too real) and to seek comfort from their friends. Usually, though, it's all in aid of promoting their next project, and pity parties tend to cost less than the bribes required to make onto the year's best lists in the first place. It's truly a cycle of life, in a sense, since the reviewers and other bigwigs compiling the lists don't make enough from reviewing to pay for both electricity and groceries. Thus, the bribes, which help the authors gain more visibility, which then allow them to bribe better for more prominent positions the next year. The system breaks down, of course, when writer X sleeps with reviewer Y's girlfriend; no bribe can heal those kinds of wounds. Except, that then it gives the newer writers an opportunity to make the lists. Overly elaborate? Certainly. Essential in a country running on a barter system? Yes.

The most important thing is to be invited to the right pity party -- nothing's worse than a pitiable pity party, except, you know, not making it onto the lists...

Spotlight on Gregory Frost

Gregory Frost

The author of several novels, including Fitcher's Brides and his newly released Shadowbridge, Gregory Frost has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and regularly teaches at the Clarion Writers Workshop. He's a meticulous and imaginative stylist whose fantasy almost always cuts across genres. Shadowbridge received a starred Booklist review and praise from nearly every reviewer thus far -- with the exception of John Clute in SciFi Weekly. I recently spoke with Frost about one of the perils of having a writing career, as well as finding out more about the inspiration for Shadowbridge and his philosophy of teaching. Portions of this interview appeared on the Amazon.com book blog.

Let's cut right to the chase. Shadowbridge, which has received fulsome praise from most reviewers, was recently ripped by critic John Clute at SciFi Weekly, which was followed by a series of posts online in your defense. Your own response to the review, in an email to me, was: "One should never review books while suffering from hemorrhoids." Although this gives me an inkling of the answer to this question, I have to ask: How do you generally deal with negative reviews? And do you think the reading public has any idea of how a negative review can ruin a writer's day?

Humor tends to be my way of reacting -- which, as a lot of humor does, emerges from pain. I find negative reviews very painful. I think if you give a damn at all about what you write, you're going to feel the sting of a bad review. If I started my day by reading reviews and hit something like that, I probably would spend the rest of the day, if not the week, unable to work. Michael Swanwick put me on to the best solution some years back when he explained that he has his wife read the reviews and decide if he should see them.

I think now, with the internet, we get reviews posted on fly-by-night genre sites by people who don't know the difference between critiquing a work in progress in a workshop environment and a review. I might go so far as to suggest that some of them have no business whatsoever reviewing anything that doesn't involve crayons. That can hardly apply to John Clute, so the most I can say there is I have no idea how I pressed his buttons, but the book does exactly what I want it to do and I'm sorry he was expecting something entirely different... at least that's how his review felt to me. He also seems to be beating up the publisher for greedily splitting this story in half, you know, to make more money with two books instead of the one, whereas that was entirely my decision and not theirs. It was two books as it was pitched to Del Rey. At one point in its creation, I thought it might even be a trilogy, but as the story evolved, I saw that wasn't going to be the case and I was not about to pad the thing out to make three flabby books (what Gary K. Wolfe in his review called "brown-bag trilogies" -- gotta say, I love that term). So once again I had a lean two-book work. John seems to have reacted as though if it had been a trilogy, then splitting the story would have been okay, but since it's only two, that's not okay. Well, tough.

Shadowbridge

Clute seems most incensed by your decision to have a flashback section featuring the childhood of your main character. Can you tell us why you decided to structure the novel out of chronological order?
The short answer is, I wanted the story to some extent to unspool, and not necessarily in linear fashion. As the structure is of tales embedded in the larger spiral of the story, I have no problem with introducing the character of Diverus as a tale that Leodora tells. As for why I didn't start on Bouyan, on the island, with her childhood and just progress step by dreary step in traditional linear fashion like all good little high fantasy quest stories, the answer is, because I didn't want to. The world for me is the world of the spans. That's where things are alive and thriving. That's what Leodora thinks, too. So we start out with her in her element, having left that island life far behind. She wants nothing to do with it anymore, and we can hardly blame her. It was an abusive, cruel, and very nearly deadly life. She overcomes it both emotionally and physically, but you have to see what it is she has overcome to embrace her. I can keep spinning this particular plate on a stick for probably another hour, but the final answer is, that up on the tower where she imagines herself to be a god is where I wanted to start. And I think John, without knowing the shape of the entire story, cannot know if that's valid. He may still feel it isn't when he sees the other half of the story, but for now he's only got part of the puzzle to work with and I think he's tried teasing out answers and some of them are wrong.

Clute makes, what to me, is a pretty basic mistake. He points to an early story that might or might not have been the seed of the novel and postulates that somehow his problems with the novel might be connected to the amount of time that passed between writing the story and writing the novel. Is it ever fair for a reviewer to make this kind of leap?
I don't know that I can speak to "is it ever fair," but, in this instance, I feel it's an irrelevancy. Again, I think he's looking at what information he has and proposing a connection that happens not to be true. I'm a slow writer -- or at least I used to think so before I took on Fitcher's Brides. I spent about eight years focused upon Tain and Remscela, the two novels (again, a duology) built upon the Irish "Cattle Raid of Cooley" and subsequent fragmentary tales of the death of Cu Chulainn. Spending that long on something has not been unusual for me but then I'm drained and don't write another book right away. Regrettably, I am not nor ever will be one of those "churn out a book a year" guys. I know that publishers and editors and agents would rather do that, and such writers are the folks who make a pile of dough by producing the product, but to me that is partly why so much published fiction is crap. Anyway, Shadowbridge started out as a result of my telling Michael Swanwick about this idea I had and Michael saying "If you don't write this, I will," effectively forcing my hand, bless his heart. And so I wrote "How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes," which was purchased by Gardner Dozois for Asimov's -- I think mostly so that he could proudly announce that he had bought a story with a talking penis in it.

Lord Tophet At that point, I started working with the material to come up with a novel. At the time I wrote "Meersh," I'd been working in a scholars' program at the University of Pennsylvania and had discovered that in their library they carried all ten volumes of Somadeva's Katha Sarit Sagara. I started reading and taking notes, one volume at a time. It's big. From that, I think, the idea of story spirals evolved, although that does not really mirror the shape or context of Ocean of Story. It did, however, certainly, influence and inform what I was doing. The first book took longer than it should have for a number of reasons. First, at the same time as I was reading all of this, I was working on -- and trying to publish -- a non-fiction book about spiritualism that had gotten under my skin because of a story I'd written for John Kessel's Intersections anthology, called "That Blissful Height." I think I spent a good year at least on that. And throughout that time, I had a 50 hour-a-week job, on top of which I was teaching occasional night classes. The nonfiction book ultimately failed to find a home, ostensibly (I was told by one editor at the U of Penn Press) because my conclusion was that spiritualism is bullshit. A popular history of the subject, it seems, is not allowed to arrive at that conclusion.

Fitcher's Brides Next Terri Windling invited me, out of the blue, to write a novel in her fairy tale series, and I chose Bluebeard. No doubt because of the time I'd put in on the spiritualism book, I found a match for the Bluebeard template within the historical research and so recast the basic structure of the fairy tale upon the landscape of 1844 New York -- the Fingerlakes District, which, in a fifty year period, gave us spiritualism, Mormonism, Shakers, anti-Masonic movements and about every flavor of religious fervor you'd care to name. So all that research did find a venue. But that was another year and a half at least. And then Golden Gryphon agreed to do a short story collection, Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, for which I penned a novella called "The Road to Recovery." Throughout all of these other projects I was still making notes, playing with the shape of Shadowbridge, and every now and then writing a section of it or one of the possible tales that Leodora would perform, but mostly I was working on what was in front of me.

And then my father died. That proved unexpectedly devastating. We were very close. I loved him dearly, but I also thought that I was prepared for his death, and emotionally I felt that I came through it intact... until I tried to write. The way I've described this to friends is, it was like the swamp in my brain where stories are always churning suddenly dried up. It wasn't writer's block, it was writer's vacuum. And really scary. I had nothing -- no ideas, no desire, no ability and no sense that any of that would ever come back. It was like having your soul pulled out. I talked to a lot of friends in that time period, including especially Carol Emshwiller, who said that she'd gone through a two year stretch like that after Ed had died and that when she came out on the other side and started writing again, the fiction had changed, had grown in ways she wouldn't have expected. Well, she was right about everything. It was eighteen months for me, and the only thing I managed to write as the swamp started to return was a father-son relationship story called "So Coldly Sweet, So Deadly Fair" for Weird Tales. And I changed agents. So, other than burning down my house and moving to the Klondike, I'm not sure there were any upheavals I didn't try out. Really, in some ways the miracle is that I hung onto this story through all of that.

Shadowbridge has very personal characterization but a vast and mind-blowing concept behind it. While writing, were you thinking about how you needed to balance the two?
Definitely. The most difficult part of the world of Shadowbridge is that it's nearly infinite in its scope, and I spent a lot of time wrestling that into one particular shape with one small group of characters and putting the rest of it aside. I think, too, as Carol had said about her own work, that something changed for me when I plunged back into it, and that had to do with characters -- I feel as if something has allowed me to get closer to the characters than had ever happened before. It's a totally subjective sensation, but unless someone can prove otherwise, I'm going to continue to believe it. It's a character-driven story, in any case, so on the one hand it has that quest feel to it, but on the other hand it's not operating with an "a causes b causes c" structure. It's bending that.

Lyrec

We had a chance to talk as fellow instructors at the Clarion workshop this summer, where you taught the first week. When teaching that first week, what are your goals for what you want to accomplish with the students?
I've now taught, in order, the third, the last two and the first weeks. So if anyone's looking for a teacher for weeks two and four, I'm willing to try them out now. The first week was sort of a combination of saying "This is how hard you're going to work" and "These are the people who are just like you -- they want it just as much as you do and that should unite you all." That's the common thread. No two people write the same way, but they're all stretching to produce finished stories, and what one person knows might aid another, who might in turn have the missing piece you need. You can have a Clarion where they all tear each other to pieces, or you can have one where there's a collective process of teaching and learning going on. I tried to kindle the latter. Stan Robinson warned them the first night that they would bond with the others in their group in ways they'd never anticipated. He's right, because he and I were thrown together in 1975 at Clarion and that friendship has proven unshakeable. Robert Crais, who drove up to speak to them at the end of week one, is another permanent friend forged out of that Clarion class.

You also teach university students. How do you balance the teaching and the writing? And does the teaching inform the writing in any way?
I balance it badly, I'm sure. I'm teaching the writing workshop at Swarthmore College this spring. I try to devote four days out of the week to that -- reading their work, preparing a lecture, picking out stories for them to read, etc. I don't have a fixed, canned series of lectures in advance, either. I may apply canned material, but it's always newly minted. I try to see where their shortcomings are and then wrap the lectures and exercises around those instead of giving the same lecture I gave last year. I'd have to say that seeing the holes in their stories and addressing their problems likely makes me hyper-aware of problems in my work. It's like studying abnormal psychology: you can't make it through the course without realizing you have some of all of these things wrong with you. I think teaching is a little bit selfish that way, because I discover things in the process that benefit me, too.

Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories At the book launch party for Shadowbridge, author Rachel Pastan asked me what I knew now about writing that I wished I'd known twenty years ago, and I replied that I wished I'd known then that all great fiction is fiction of desire. Desire is essential. And that's a realization that I've arrived at directly from teaching. So, ultimately, I don't know what the students are getting out of it, but I'm definitely getting good material.

The second volume of Shadowbridge comes out this summer. Is that your farewell to the world you've created here? What comes next for you?
I hope it's not the farewell. I have another novel roughly sketched out at the moment. It involves the mythical Library of Shadowbridge that's referenced numerous times in these two books. It doesn't have the same characters in it at all, though because of the nature of the library, it no doubt contains some stories within stories again. However, at the moment, in those brief windows of time between teaching and running around promoting Shadowbridge, I'm working on what might be a series of supernatural mysteries. I'm halfway through the first of them, and now intensely aware, courtesy of Clute, that I don't want to let five years go by before I finish one, or I'll be in trouble.

Next Time

I'll be keeping you up to date on what's going on in Smaragdine.

Contact Information

If you would like to send me things for review, or even complaints, hints, suggestions, or other feedback, please do so via email at vanderworld@hotmail.com or via my U.S. snail mail address:

Jeff VanderMeer
c/o Smaragdine Dispatches
POB 4248
Tallahassee, FL 32315
USA

There will be a delay of about a month from receipt at the post office box to the arrival of your missive in Smaragdine, but to send direct would be folly as my stint at the hostel runs out at the end of the month and I don't know where I will be after that.

Copyright © 2008 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Bookslut.com, and many others. VanderMeer writes the graphic novel/comics summation for The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin's Press) and is a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. Monkey Brain Books published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in 2004.


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