So you're off to Clarion. Do you like teaching?
and another teacher -- Karen Joy Fowler, who's on the cover of Locus
magazine this month -- have lately been taking the last two weeks
of Clarion as co-teachers, which used to be Damon Knight and Kate
Wilhelm's job. And it's exhausting, but actually with all these car
adventures it's gonna be kind of a nice dormant period.
How did you get into
I met Algis Budrys at a convention in Kansas in about '85, and we
got chatting, and he asked me if I wanted to co-teach the Writers
of the Future workshop, which he does every year. And so I went and
did that with him and Orson Scott Card in about '86. It was a week
long. Very intensive, you know -- writing exercises and lecturing
and whatnot. And he then recommended me to the Clarion people. He
has since quit doing Clarion, but I seem to do it about every other
year. It is exhausting, but it's just about a half a percent more
fun than it is exhausting.
So it balances out?
slightly on the side of go do it.
What do you take away
come home sort of shamed into working harder, because all the students
are just killing themselves with effort. I find my two week stint
exhausting enough, and I can only imagine what they must feel like
at the end of six weeks of it.
So they do the whole
thing? They don't just go in for a week at a time?
there for the whole six weeks, and they get six different instructors,
and they just write ceaselessly.
It sounds grueling.
Do you get any writing done yourself while you're there?
It is. And not
a bit. You don't sleep. You don't get to eat anything except that
weird kind of triangular tuna sandwich that comes in clear plastic
boxes. You certainly don't get time for your own writing. But as instructor,
I do spend the whole time explaining plot and character and description,
and I come home with my wheels all spinning in those gears.
And so I tend to have at least a spurt of renewed activity after Clarion.
I would have thought
you'd be so exhausted that you'd want a break for a month or so.
think the students do. But I usually come home consumed with
guilt. And it's always fun to see some of the students go from writing
unpublishable crap to writing publishable good stuff. I always want
to take way more than my share of credit for that. In fact a couple
of years ago one of my novels was up for a Nebula award and did not
win, and the woman who won was one of my Clarion students from '88.
And that was very fun. I was thinking: "there, by God."
I told her to say in her acceptance speech that she owed all her
skill to me, but I gather she forgot to say that. <laughs>
I've been reading up
on you a lot lately, but I've found there isn't really very much information on your life in other interviews or in your dust jacket
bios or on the web. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
the things that would occur to me first are the things that are in
the dust jacket bios. Lived in Southern California ever since the age
of seven. In late '96 moved from Santa Ana here to San Bernadino.
And I do hope to die of old age here -- moving turned out to be just
the most appalling ordeal. For one thing we have like ten thousand
books, and the worst is National Geographic. When you move you discover
that they apparently print those on sheet lead. And it's a great place
here. The house is big enough so that if we ever get it squared away
we'll be able to make it a very nice house. The yard is huge, which
my wife likes, though it's still kind of mostly desert except for
the spots she's been able to get at. And there are goats and sheep next
door. Chickens come over the fence and tear up my wife's garden, and
all that kind of domestic fun.
Let's see, other details. I was recently teaching a writing class
at a local college here -- University of Redlands -- because a friend
of mine abruptly retired. And I may go on next year to do some more
of that, though I'm hampered by not having a proper degree for it.
What kind of background
do you have in terms of schooling?
I got a
B.A. in English Literature back in '76, but these days collegiality
speaking a B.A. is hardly more than a high school diploma.
Your books just seem to have elements
from so many different areas. You've got fantasy, horror, history,
all mixed together. How do you classify your writing?
I usually say I write science fiction books, just because if I said
fantasy I don't know what they'd imagine I meant by that. To myself,
I just think I write that stuff we read, that stuff that is kind of
under the umbrella of, oh... Bradbury, Heinlein, Lovecraft, Sturgeon,
I think the distinction between science fiction and fantasy is
an arbitrary one. Generally people who write one also write
the other. And so when I'm writing I never think, you know, "Is
this one science fiction? Is this one horror?" I just think
"Well, it's that stuff. We'll certainly have something like
ghosts wandering around, and..."
And I don't actually read that stuff very much anymore. When I
was, I dunno, up to about age 21 that was about all I read. And
so I've read all of Sturgeon and Henry Kuttner and Heinlein, and
all those people. Alfred Bester. But as far as my contemporaries
go, I really haven't read anybody. Which in a way makes it easier
to meet them socially. Nah, I just don't read this stuff. And instead
all my reading is mostly mainstream, really. My favourite authors
are Kingsley Amis, John D. MacDonald. I like Tom Wolfe real well.
And I do think this is good, as an incidental effect, for my writing
because when I'm putting together a plot or characters or something,
I can think "Oh, do that trick Kingsley Amis did, do that thing
Dick Francis did, or Tennesee Williams." And this is sort of
a broader toolkit.
I think, especially seeing a lot of Clarion manuscripts, I think
some people want to write science fiction and fantasy who've only
read science fiction and fantasy, and this kind of necessarily gives
an anemic tone to their stuff. I think that the more eclectic all
your inputs are, the more you'll be able to synthesize from. Certainly
when I look at my own stuff, which I don't do all that often, I
see way more things that I recognize as being derived from Thomas
Pynchon, for example, than, I dunno, Heinlein.
So when you look back, do you feel you've progressed from when you
wrote when you were just reading from the science fiction field to
now, when you read more diversely?
Of course none of the stuff I was writing then has ever been published,
fortunately. My two earliest books were both written and published
when I was 23 years old, and necessarily they look like the work of
a fairly naïve, narrow young man. I do think that for a 23 year old
they're pretty good. I like to think that the stuff is improving.
It always seems like the one book of mine that people have heard of,
if they've heard of any of my books, is The Anubis Gates. Which
is certainly okay with me -- I don't mind if that turns out to be
the only book anybody ever happens to pick up. I'm still very fond
of it. But of course, every book as you finish it you think "This
is the one, Stephen Spielberg's gonna call me up, I'll be reviewed
in the New York Times or something."
If you were going to choose one of your books to represent you, which
one would it be?
it would be Last Call. It strikes me as more firing on all
cylinders than any of the other ones. Probably Anubis Gates
is more plain fun, but there's some bits that are in Last Call
that I'm just awfully pleased with.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
a whale sifting plankton, just all sorts of random reading and newspapers
and hearing stories friends tell. A lot of times, just looking back,
it seems like it comes from non-fiction reading. Anubis Gates
was from a letter Lord Byron wrote. Last Call was from reading
a book about gambling by John Scarne; he happened to mention that
Tarot cards and modern playing cards are basically versions of the
same thing, and I thought "Whoa, that's a heavy thought."
And the book I just finished was sparked by a book I was reading about
a real-life spy in the 1960s, and I thought "Jeepers, you could
have some fun with that." And as a matter of fact, Expiration
Date was sparked by reading in a Cecil Adams book that Thomas
Edison's last breath actually is preserved in a test tube in a museum
in Michigan. I just thought -- what a cool thing, why did they do
that really? Not why did they claim they did it, but what was really
So yeah, I guess I get most of my ideas from reading non-fiction.
And I don't do it deliberately. It's all non-fiction I was just
reading because it was interesting, but in the midst of it I'll
suddenly say "Gee, you know what Powers, you could make a book
out of this here." So it's always kind of an accident. I never
go looking for these ideas, I just sort of stumble on them. And
sometimes they've got to wait years before I get to them. I do have
one little notebook that I scratch these things down in, and then
whenever I finish a book I haul the notebook down and think "Well,
whaddya got? What is there?"
In fact, this story I wrote for the 999 anthology -- I was
in the midst of writing the spy book when the 999 editor
called and said "Why don't you write me a short story?"
And I said, "Nah, I'm in the middle of a spy novel. I can't
be taking time off to write a short story." And he called me
over and over again, so finally I hauled down my notebook of old
ideas and said, you know, find three or four that could plausibly
be part of the same story and... and I did. I thought well, this
thing's kind of cool, and that business over there's pretty neat,
could be in the same story. And why don't you hang it on that third
thing over yonder, and see if you can't make a story out of it.
So he convinced you to write for the anthology through sheer persistence?
I'm glad he did. I'm very impressed with the lineup of people in it.
I'll use it for show-off value, you know, impress people. And I hope
people like Joyce Carol Oates, while they're flipping through trying
to find their own story, might stumble across mine and say "What
It is a very impressive lineup.
Well William Peter Blatty, for god's sake. I'd love to get to meet
him, in the midst of all this. I've read two of his scary novels,
and thought they were both just terrific. Also I like it that he's
writing from a very Roman Catholic point of view, which is also my
own point of view. And I always like it when people really get the
big scary stuff out of that. And there is a lot of big scary stuff
in it to get.
Why is it that you don't often write short stories? I read somewhere
that you've only ever written about a half dozen?
exactly right. For one thing, unless I'm real careful, short stories
I write tend to be either pointless vignettes in which nothing happens,
or else on the other hand they're telescoped novels in which way too
much happens and characters come to conclusions with way too little
evidence. And I find that plotting and outlining a short story, and
calculating the characters, and I always have to draw up a calendar... it's
about 50 percent of the work involved in plotting a novel. And
so I just think well gee, if you're going to go to all that trouble,
go ahead and write a whole book. Rather than a short story which will
be on the stands for one month. A book, at minimum, usually gets about
three months. Of course it takes me forever to write a book.
How long does it take, generally?
I hate to say it, it's usually like two years. I do have to read just
a hundred non-fiction books, and then I have to talk to myself at
the keyboard for hundreds of pages to figure out what the thing ought
to be about, and what the good scenes should be, and what the characters
ought to be. And then I've got to make my giant calendar... and by
the time that's all done the actual writing of the book seems like
a formality to be got out of the way.
It's all in the outline and the calendar. I try to make my outlines
infinitely detailed. I even have bits of dialogue in the outline,
ready for use. For one thing it's a cure for writer's block. What
am I supposed to write today? Well, there it is, look all the descriptions
are there, you've even got some of the bits of dialogue already
laid out. Just, you know, put that into a thousand words.
So all of the surprises happen for you while you're still in the outlining
And you hear some writers sometimes say "My characters have lives
of their own. They tell me where they want to go. They dictate the
course of the story." To the extent that's true of me, it all
happens in the outlining stage. By the time the outline is fixed,
my characters have no free will at all. They shut up and do what they're
I always have this sort of forlorn wish that the outline could
just gradually patch by patch become the final book. But yeah, I
just outline like a bastard. By the time I start writing, there
is no spontaneity anywhere on the landscape. If I see a patch of
spontaneity, I'll go over with a bucket and put it out before I
You have this magic base that some people describe as New Age, although
I'm not sure how I'd describe it myself. How did you go about creating
usually go to some relevant body of mythology and folklore. Like with
one book I had with pirates in the Caribbean in 1718 [On Stranger Tides, 1987], I naturally
picked the sort of Voodoo/Santeria type mythology and magic structure.
With my recently published book Earthquake Weather I leaned
hard on the Dionysus cults and the Dionysus myths. And what I'll do
is read up all on whatever that magic structure is -- in fact for
this newest book, the unpublished one, it was genies and the Thousand
and One Nights and Islam and The Koran and all that --
and I'll get very familiar with this body of myths, and then try to
"figure out what's at the bottom of it." Actually of course
I'm making it up, but I pretend I'm a detective trying to figure out
what the real magical facts are under this cloud of mythology, and
one of the rules I use is: keep the stuff that gives you goosebumps,
keep the stuff that has that kind of shivery tone to it that makes
you say "oh yeah, right, wow," because real good mythology
is full of that stuff.
I like Jung's idea that these things really do resonate in us,
and even some kid brought up in totally sterile surroundings, never
exposed to any of this, would still get shivers when he heard these
old stories -- that it's part of the hardware of his brain. I suppose
I'm using my own prejudices in what bits of these mythologies I
decide are the potent bits.
Then I kind of calculate, okay, how would this work on a day to
day basis? What would happen, how would it show up if it was to
suddenly manifest itself while you were driving to the store to
buy cat food? What would you see, what would happen? And I try to
have it impinge on physical day to day stuff. Although I do try
real hard -- I shouldn't even admit this -- but I do try real hard
to keep that shivery Jungian "oh my god, what's going on here"
And I've got in each case a bunch of actual names to point to,
to imply to the reader "Look, I'm not making this up. I mean,
you can check this stuff out on your own, man. I'm just quoting
all this. This is all real." Like, you know, with Dionysus
I say "Hey don't take my word for it, read Euripides -- I'm
just copying this stuff out, man, I'm not making this up." And
I hope that gives it a tone of authority and plausibility for the
I noticed when I was reading "Itinerary" that it deals with
time, and a lot of your books do deal with time. What's your fascination
It is such
a kick to be able to have your character meet himself at a different
age. I think it probably all derives from when I read, at probably
about age 13, a Robert Heinlein story called "By His Bootstraps."
And that was the first time I ever thought of the idea that the guy
you met and had a conversation with last week was you, and you're
now about to go back and have that conversation again but standing
in the other pair of shoes now. That just was like comprehending an
optical illusion or something, it was just a real eye opener for me.
I thought "Oh how cool! What a new dimension for a story to have
in it." And then I went really to town on that in The Anubis
Gates, to where I had to have graphs tacked up all around my desk
just so I could keep track of who was how old at what point. And in
"Itinerary" I just sort of used it lightly to tie it up
at the beginning and the end, and as a way to have our hero look back
with kind of derision or revulsion at himself.
But yeah, one of the advantages of the science fiction and fantasy
field is you can have a guy talk to his own self at different ages,
you can have a guy meet his mother when she was young, as in Back
to the Future, you can have a guy talk to his father's ghost
-- all these things that mainstream writers just aren't allowed
to do, but which are really useful for wringing emotion out of your
characters that you couldn't really derive if you were restricted
to the mainstream set of rules.
What about ghosts? Again "Itinerary" deals with a restless
spirit, and that seems to be a recurring theme. Are you hooked on
I do like
ghost stories, yes. Especially some of the old 19th century guys like
M.R. James and E.F. Benson. I was always especially struck by something
G.K. Chesterton is supposed to have said, which is that if you're being
haunted by the ghost of your uncle George, your uncle George doesn't
know anything about it. Uncle George is in heaven or hell. This thing
that's haunting you is kind of a living cast-off snake skin, a kind
of flickering induction coil current still wobbling around the house
like static electricity. And I've always thought wow, that's very
I've always had the idea that ghosts would not be very bright,
that they would tend to be like very old people just repeating old
stories all the time. A lot more ROM than RAM. And I always figured
that they don't have any business really being here, that them hanging
around is kind of like somebody who at age 19 and 20 still
hangs around the high school cafeteria, unwilling to move on as
Why did you call your latest short story "Itinerary"?
nobody liked the first title I had on it.
it was "Eve Be Sudden." Either that or it was "Dawn
Be Soon." It was a quote from a Francis Thompson poem called
"The Hound of Heaven." It's about a guy fleeing from God,
and he's trying to hide here and there, and he says "I said to
dawn be sudden, to eve be soon, to all swift things for swiftness
did I sue." And finally God catches up with him and says, you
know, get back on track and do what you're supposed to be doing. Quit
hiding in these corners from me. I'll find you, and we're all just
wasting time here with your tricks. And in a way that's what the character
in "Itinerary" is doing. He's hiding from doing what he's
supposed to do, which is I suppose either go back to his body as his
sister was telling him to do, or go ahead and die. But don't keep
hanging around, stealing crackers and cheese from Staters Brothers
So when they said they didn't like the Francis Thompson quote as
a title, I looked at the story again and derived the present title
from the world travels of that ceramic lawn duck. And I think it's
a better title, just because with "Eve Be Soon" or "Dawn
Be Sudden" people would, you know, finish the story
and say, so what?
In fact, the house he goes to as a ghost to stay at is this house
I'm sitting in right now. I can see the trees out in the backyard
now where he found the initials carved in the trunk, and I can see
from here the little patch by the rosebush where his uncle had stashed
the beer, and when we first moved here, shortly before I wrote that
story, the place did have that sort of abandoned air to it. We did
plant an avocado tree, but it I'm afraid has died. We're going to
have to plant another. I can see the spot from where I'm sitting
here though, where it was in the story.
I noticed when I was reading through the introduction to 999
that Sarrantonio talks about how we might be on the cusp of a new
golden age in horror fiction. What's your take on this?
If so, I
think it would involve ditching the stuff that in the 80s they were
calling splatterpunk. It always struck me that that was a bad false
turn. That was, "Oh, I don't think I can really scare them in
that supernatural shivery way, the way Lovecraft or Bram Stoker could,
but at least I can gross 'em out the way Thomas Harris can. At least
I can give them eyeballs on corkscrews..."
In the 80s there, writing horror, they were pretty much ditching
the whole supernatural side of it, which always struck me as the
main strength of it. It always strikes me that in a fantasy or horror
story, the main thing isn't the scariness, the main thing is that
sense of dislocation or vertigo, that kind of awe and feeling of
diminishment in the face of real supernatural. Just as chickens
brought up in a warehouse and who've never seen the sky still flinch
at the silhouette of a hawk, I think humans -- even though we have
all of our materialistic telephones and VCRs and whatnot -- still
have that circuitry in our heads that makes us flinch and get goosebumps
at any hint of real supernatural. And I think it's interesting
that all of the Darwinian evolution that made us stop being covered
with fur, and made us stop having our foreheads stick out two inches
past our noses, nevertheless left us that circuitry to be scared
of the dark, scared of ghosts. And I think that's the direction
horror has to pursue if it's going to survive. We have to get that
-- well Stephen King can do it, at least in books like The Shining
-- that real, sort of lost feeling you get. You're not even so scared
that the dead lady's going to hike up out of the tub and strangle
you, just the mere fact of a ghost is almost too shocking to survive.
When I was a kid -- you know you'd be scared of the dark, alone
in your room -- I would think, "If I open my eyes and see a
face hanging in the air next to the bed, I'm going to expire, I'm
just going to die." And it doesn't matter if that face is hostile,
or just curious. In the face of the supernatural I think I would
just flop down dead. And I do think that sort of thing can be incorporated
into contemporary settings. Fritz Leiber always did it
really well. Lovecraft did it; you know that was contemporary New
England when Lovecraft was writing. And I do think it's especially
effective if you do it well in a contemporary setting. I mean, it's
one thing to read about a witch stirring a cauldron in medieval
Scotland or something -- you sort of say "Oh well, so what?"
But if a writer can convince you that there really are ghosts at
a drive-in theatre in Palm Springs, it's more immediate, it's more
Out of curiosity, what scares you?
ghosts, spirits, anything like that. I'm also very skeptical. If anybody
was to tell me "oh, my house is haunted" I'd think right,
but I wouldn't spend the night at their house after they said that.
And I would never have a ouija board in my house. I'm both totally
skeptical and totally scared of them. In order to write Last Call
I had to buy a deck of Tarot cards to study the pictures,
but I never shuffled them.
So I guess you've never played Assumption?
No, I sure
have not! One time when I was teaching at Clarion, the students did.
They cooked up a pack of cards and were playing Assumption, and I
said "Well that's fine, you guys carry on, I'm going to wait
I guess because of being Catholic, I'm stuck with believing that
there is some ultimate substance to that kind of thing, and I just
want not to have anything to do with it at all. I mean, I'm a totally
rational person -- I know physics, I know astronomy, I have no problem
with the universe being 50 billion years old, et cetera. But at the
same time I don't entirely rule out supernatural stuff, and I don't
want to mess with it at all.
Sometimes people do at conventions come up and say, "Oh, let
me do a Tarot card reading for you!" Noooooo, I'm getting out
I understand that you're working on a new book that's tentatively
called Declare -- is that right?
Yes, I did
just finish it. I finished it on Easter and just within the last few
weeks finished all the revisions for the editor, which all were very
good improvements, I do have to admit.
Where do you plan to go from 999 and Declare?
don't know. It's time to write an outline now for the next one. So
far I've been doing my little random reading, and the only clues I've
got right now are I think it'll involve LA, and probably LA in
the past. Like, I dunno, maybe the 1920s, maybe the 1950s. I do think
there's a lot to Los Angeles that I can valuably use. I certainly
didn't use it all up in Expiration Date. And of course it will
involve the supernatural. I tell people that my new book is about
British and Soviet spies in the middle east, and they say aw geez,
what is this, you're not doing science fiction/fantasy anymore? And
I say no, no, it's got genies in it. It's got plenty of supernatural.
It was really fun to do a sort of John Le Carre-type book. I have
always loved him. And it was real fun to deal with all that British
secret service stuff, and the KGB, and Arabs and Lawrence of Arabia-type stuff.
Is there anything you'd like to add? That you'd like people to know?
I guess. Just that as a reader, I'm certainly looking forward to the
anthology coming out. I do want to see what William Peter Blatty did,
for example. And it is a kick to be in this thing. I'm glad Sarrantonio
did bug me enough to where I finally wrote one for him.
It was certainly nice seeing one of your short stories.
probably number six. It'll probably be another ten years before I
do another. God knows, god knows. I've heard that there are some writers
who think most highly of whatever they're about to write. I'm the
opposite. I'm always very pleased with what I have written, and have
no faith at all in what I'm going to write next.
It's always a nice moment in writing a book when I put it in the
mail and I think, "If you were to drop dead this minute, it
would not affect the timetable of this book." It's good, good,
Copyright © 1999 Kim Fawcett
Kim Fawcett works, reads, writes, and occasionally sleeps in Ottawa,
Canada. A day job working as a contract technical writer hinders
her creative efforts, but has no effect at all on her book-a-week
reading habit. She dreams of (a) winning the lottery, (b) publishing
a novel, (c) travelling the world, and (d) doing all of the above
all at once.