I used to subscribe to Weird Tales, the once-great magazine of the fantastic and the weird. Of the stories I read while subscribed, a strange little number by an author I had never heard of before caught me in a way none of the others did. It shone with talent, bright and strange. I immediately looked for more by this author (this is also how I discovered Neil Gaiman, by reading a short story and then checking out if “this guy” had something else out there). And indeed he did.
On his website, the author of the story Catastrophe, Felix Gilman was hosting a giveaway. I didn´t win, but in pointing out an error with a link on the site, Mr. Gilman was so grateful that he sent me an autographed copy of his then latest book, the strange and wonderful Thunderer, which was nominated for the 2009 Locus Award for Best First Novel, and earned Felix a nomination for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in both 2009 and 2010.
I caught up with him on Twitter recently and asked if he would answer a few book/writing related questions, and he aquiesced.
1. What are you reading right now, and why did you pick that particular book?
Most of my reading at the moment seems to be writing-related, and I have a lot of different things on the go. Looking at what’s closest to the top of the dreadful heap in my office, I appear to be reading or re-reading or picking through Up At The Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell, because I’m at the very early stages of thinking about something set in 1920s/30s New York; A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes because it also involves book collectors; a collection of Arthur Conan Doyle’s letters because I’m just putting the finishing touches on a thing that has a central character of a sort of similar background and I’m hoping to get the voice right; some H. Rider Haggard because the thing being finished involves 19th c wilderness adventure, in a way. In between I’m re-reading Gordon Lish’s Collected Fictions, which is nice because it’s all very short pieces (and wonderful). I keep getting three pages into Bruce Sterling’s Involution Ocean, then not quite getting into it; I picked it up because I like Bruce Sterling and I’ve never read that one. I am reading a copy of A House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson because it’s relevant to what I’m just finishing up and because I got a free copy from Project Gutenberg to read on my phone on the subway.
2. I recently claimed that one of the things writers can do to increase the quality of their writing is to increase the quality of their reading, i.e. by reading only the very best literature has to offer. This goes against what Stephen King and others recommend, which is pretty much to read everything. What is your take on this?
Sorry, but I’m probably on Team Read Everything. Grab ideas from everywhere. Take stuff you don’t think much of and do it better. Anything that someone has taken the trouble to create has something in it that’s interesting and important to at least one person.
3. Who are your favorite authors and which ones have influenced you the most. What book/books do you think deserve more attention?
Can I skip this question? Favourite authors/most influential authors is incredibly hard to answer, and when I try I always look back on the list afterwards and think it’s either absurdly overlong or completely arbitrary and largely composed of whatever happens to be in visual range, or by whatever impression I think I’m trying to create. I don’t know.
4. I originally found your writing in Weird Tales (back when it was in the good hands of Ann Vandemeer) and immediately sought out your books. Are you still writing short fiction?
I don’t really write short fiction, no. I just don’t have the right kind of imagination. If an idea grips me enough to write about it at all, it grips me enough to develop it at great length. I admire concision and tight control in others, but what I really enjoy in fiction is bigness, sprawl, messiness, digressiveness.
Plus I have limited writing time and novels are my first priority.
I wrote that thing in Weird Tales because Ann asked me if I was interested in writing something for Weird Tales, and it seemed churlish to say no, because the Vandermeers are such lovely people. I’m glad I got something in Weird Tales during what, in hindsight, was clearly its heyday. Oh well.
5. Your books are hard to place, genre-wise. While Thunderer is perhaps easily classified as urban fantasy, The Half-Made World is harder to classify. What is your take on the genre pigeonholing that the book world thrives on? Do you think this difficulty to classify your work has hurt or helped your sales?
I think of “urban fantasy” as something very different – sexy werewolf detectives, etc. I describe Thunderer as “Big Weird City Fantasy” but no one has taken me up on that framing, even though you all know exactly what I mean.
I don’t see how one can avoid pigeonholing. How many books come out every year? Thousands upon thousands. I can’t bear to look up the correct figure, it’s too terrifying. Every one of those is a precious snowflake to someone, and yet.
Hurt, probably. Maybe. Hard to say. My books (it seems to me) are not quite at the core of any particular mass-market genre, but nor are they exactly Oulipo or anything really outré. They are recognizably somewhat eccentric versions of a familiar thing.
6. What is your writing process like? What is the single most useful writing advice you have gotten?
I have a busy and unpredictable day job and lately a tiny child who very much likes to help you press buttons on laptop keyboards, so my writing process is “whenever.”
I can’t think of any abstract writing advice that’s ever been very helpful (as opposed to advice specifically about particular problems in particular books). You sort of have to learn by doing. Or maybe you don’t if that’s not how it works for you. Nobody listen to me.
7. The setting in both Thunderer and The Half-Made World is very intricate. Do you have a detailed map of everything in the worlds, with locations complete realized, whether you use them or not, or do you have more of a “sort-of” idea and just fill in as you go?
Sort-of, and I fill in. I start with the idea of what the setting has to feel like, and that means it has to have this sort of thing in it somewhere, and this other sort of thing just over the hills, and this third sort of thing far enough away that it’s mysterious. I stick in things that are necessary for the story. As I write I keep needing additional connective tissue, or places to stick things that I’ve described as set-dressing. Or I realize I’ve made things too confusing and I can streamline two things down to one. Etc. Periodically I make little maps – crappy little things in MS Paint because 1) I can’t draw and 2) I want to be able to revise them often. Just to try to make sure that things stay where they’re supposed to be in relation to each other. No one is allowed to see my crappy MS Paint maps.
8. And finally, shameless plug time. I see that The Rise of Ransom City is out at the end of November, can you tell me what it is about? What else are you currently working on?
Thank you! Ransom City is a follow-on to the Half Made World. It’s a kind of memoir, told by a slippery but well-meaning character called Harry Ransom, an inventor and businessman and salesman and would-be utopian founding father and debatably a sort of notorious war criminal, as he flees west and tries to set the story straight about what he did in the war, and how he met Liv and Creedmoor from the Half Made World and helped them sort of save the world, perhaps; and it’s about free energy and player pianos and The Bomb and riverboats and wolves and explosions and mustache-twirling villains and how to get ahead in business. Alternatively, it’s about a screwed-up kid whose head is full of Horatio Alger fantasies trying to save the world through a 50/50 combination of genius and bullshit.
I am just now finishing up a book about Victorian occultists who go to Mars, inspired by historical accounts of occultists of the era believing that they were capable of astral projection to other worlds, and also of course by SF of the era. The working title is “A Planetary Romance,” but I gather the publisher isn’t crazy about that title and I’m not sure I am either any more, so who knows. Will probably come out in about a year.
The next thing will be set in New York, and will involve the Moon.