Jim Freund: Welcome to OmniVisions. Tonight our guest is fantasy/sf writer James P. Blaylock, whose latest novel, Winter Tides will be out shortly. As we begin, Jim Blaylock had a story for us that was erased from here in an alternate universe. Jim, would you care to repeat that?
Jim Blaylock: No. what?
JF: I think it involved abalone...?
Ellen Datlow: Your joke, Jim (B). Repeat your joke. It was funny.
JB: Okay. It seems as if there was this guy, see, who crossed a crocodile and an abalone, and what he got was an abadile and a crock of baloney.
JF: Ouch! Well, let that be a lesson. Welcome, Jim! (and Ellen, of course)
JB: I'm happy to be here. Am I being paid for this travesty?
JF: Consider it an in-kind donation. Why not start by telling us a bit about Winter Tides... What genre (if any) would you place it in?
JB: Winter Tides, I guess, is in the fantasy horror genre. It's a ghost story of sorts, set in Huntington Beach, a local beach city. There's even a severed head in the book.
JF: Severed heads seem to be in these days. I was thinking of it as an intrigue novel with supernatural overtones. I finished it on my way home tonight, and really enjoyed the feeling at the end. Whether it's supernatural/horror may be subjective, I thought.
JB: Gosh, I haven't even read it yet. Where'd you get a copy?
JF: From Ace in uncorrected proof, some weeks ago. I'd recommend you read it--it's very good. :)
JB: Thanks for saying it's good. It was something of a departure for me. The chapter that opens the book actually happened to me, and I've been wondering for years whether I'd ever do anything with it. The actual event turned out well, though.
JF: Truly? Complete with the death of one of the people?
JB: What happened in my case was that no one died. Everybody saved. Happy all around. It occurred to me later, though, that if it had turned out badly, I'd have been in a sorry way.
JF: And therefore the premise of the book. Since no one else has read it yet, could you give us a brief synopsis?
JB: Okay, a brief synopsis of Winter Tides: very brief, since I don't want to give away the good stuff. Basically, the book involves a guy who crosses a crocodile with...
Seriously, our hero works in a theatre props warehouse in Huntington Beach. He used to be fairly hardcore surfer, but due to a tragedy beyond his control (the ocean always being beyond our control) he's a land lubber now. Into his life walks a woman who was involved in the tragedy in a particular way. There's a fairly creepy peripheral character who is too interested in the woman, our man gets involved, one thing leads to another, and the coast is littered with severed heads. Just kidding about that. Actually, the book is a mystery, and I'd hate to reveal too much. It reads along the lines of my book Night Relics, though.
JF: The book reads like it could easily make a great film. Have you thought about having any of your work done in other media?
JB: This book would make a good film, I think. I'm waiting for a call from Spielberg. I've written some pieces of screenplays, but didn't finish them. Tried to convert The Last Coin to film, but realized I like writing novels. I'm certain, though, that The Last Coin would make a good film, too.
JF: Yes! Especially The Last Coin. And (seriously) why not Spielberg? Your work has just the right element of humor, intrigue and plot. Who would you cast as the Wandering Jew?
JB: Actually, the Judas Iscariot character is based on my aged Uncle (dead these 10 years); I'm not sure the family was happy with that, although he's certainly cast as a sympathetic character. So I guess I'd want to cast someone about 5'2", about 90 years old, with brush-cut gray hair, someone capable of buying 25 exergenies from a door to door salesman. Harrison Ford, maybe.
JF: I hope they understand these are works of fiction... Do you tend to take incidents and people from real life for your fiction?
JB: Seriously, I take far more from real life, so to speak, than anybody would believe. Most of my best characters are based utterly on people I know, and many of the books contain bits and pieces of autobiography with a Humpty Dumpty thrown in for flavor. I don't, however, base rotten characters on actual people. I'm much more interested in eccentrics, who absolutely abound out here in southern California.
JF: I note that you also take fiction and turn it into real people, as it were. Would you tell us a bit about William Ashbless (though I know you're asked this all the time, I'd enjoy hearing a bit more.)
JB: William Ashbless is a fictional character made up by Tim Powers and myself. We wrote poetry under that name as a literary joke in college -- formless poetry full of literary, historical, and mythological allusions. The poems were so loaded that they looked brilliant from some kind of lowball perspective. Maybe they were. We've got maybe hundreds of them, wrote 49 in a single long afternoon: fairly lengthy, too. Anyway, Powers and I were writing grandiose and lunatic fiction in those days, and both of us regularly worked in a wild, ancient, bearded poet, since we were crazy for Blake. When, some years after graduating, we both sent books to Ace we had both put Ashbless in. (That would have been The Digging Leviathan and The Anubis Gates.) I called the editor and told her I'd change my character's name, but she had, it turned out, understood them to be the same guy, displaced in time, which made perfect sense given Powers's plot.
So I monkeyed slightly with my Ashbless, and we both ended up working him pretty hard. Since then he's written a number of introductions and afterwards and con bios. I mean Ashbless has written these things; not Powers. Actually, Powers has written these things, too. Ashbless is still around. And if you don't mind, can you have some sort of editor type of person remove most of the actuallies from this? I'm overusing the hell out of it. Actually.
JF: Actually, there's no need. So much stuff online is called virtual, it's nice top balance things with actuals. Is Ashbless' work in print anywhere?
JB: Some of Ashbless's work is in print. It's appeared in a couple of highly limited editions that are either impossible to find or are stupidly expensive.
JF: I'd love to see some of his stuff on the Web. Seems like a good place to publish his work.
JB: I'm a little leery of the Web, and a little protective of Ashbless. I think he'd be opposed to the Web on general principle -- Ashbless, that is.
JF: I see... Well, that's understandable. Jim, who would you say are your antecedents/influences? When did you begin writing, and was it genre at first?
JB: My antecedents and influences weren't genre influences. I was a lit major in college, and was crazy for Laurence Stern and Joyce Cary and I don't know who-all. My first book, The Elfin Ship, was influenced almost entirely by Kenneth Graham. I grew up reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and a lot of Burroughs, and I thought they constituted what I'd heard referred to as science fiction. I was in college before I read any modern sf or fantasy
My first novel eventually turned into The Digging Leviathan, and all of the genre stuff in that book -- the digging machine, the hollow earth -- was in that early effort. By the time I was out of college a year I had a hundred thousand words of it, and it was evident that it could never be finished, because the plot funneled outward for the entire length of the book. A few years later a guy in Long Beach (up the coast) tied a bunch of helium balloons to an armchair and flew into the stratosphere (seriously) and the event was so inspirational that it seemed to me to suggest a focus for my long-abandoned book. I launched it again, immediately forgot about the guy with the balloons, and it turned into The Digging Leviathan. The original, though, and the final draft, both owe their existence to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and to Edgar Rice Burroughs, not to modern sf.
JF: It seems to me that little of your writing can be easily typed as being simply one genre or another (which I find refreshing). How do you feel about terms like "Steampunk" et al for some of your works?
JB: I never understood the punk part of that. It worked okay for the cyberpoids, but it doesn't fly as well for Powers or me. Essentially, though, I have the same antipathy to classification that most writers have, classification of any sort being essentially critics' jargon and ultimately limiting. All in all, though I don't object. Interestingly, other countries seem to take that sort of thing very seriously.
JF: Here now, is my favorite stock question: You are highly regarded for both your short fiction and novels. ("Paper Dragons" will always be a favorite of mine.) How are those crafts different for you?
JB: For me, short fiction and long fiction differ in at least one essential way. I kind of like to shoot from the hip as I write, but that's sometimes antithetical to structure (as I found in my first effort at writing a novel). If structure or plot or purpose fail to develop in a short story, you've only blown off a couple days. "Paper Dragons" was that kind of story; I had nothing more than a feel for the landscape and for something nutty going on in the garage next door. The tomato plants and the hermit crabs were every bit as vital to me when I was launching the story as was any other part of it. Originally, the story involved a guy building a flying saucer in his garage, not a dragon. It was mostly the same story, but was loose and unfocused. I had an offer to sell it to a filthy men's magazine, which, at the time, wanted to start publishing literary fiction to compete with Playboy. I didn't sell it to them. It sat for two years. Then one day it came to me that the story would work if I replaced the saucer with a dragon. I was rewriting the tomato worm in the jar, and it occurred to me that I had no idea what a tomato worm became, so I called my wife at work and asked her (she's a bug enthusiast). Turned out it's the larval form of a sphinx moth, very beautiful and, as I saw immediately, a dragon in its own right. Suddenly I saw that the entire story was full of dragons -- that the unrelated worms and crabs and paper dragons were all the same thing, and it dawned on me what the story was about and what the ending had to be. The story had developed form and meaning and I hadn't known it, except perhaps subconsciously. Works like magic in a short story; fraught with risks in a novel, where a tomato worm, metaphorically speaking, turns out to be some other pitiful thing. Sorry for carrying on.
Ellen Datlow: Jim, it sounds like the flying saucer story was transformed eventually into "Unidentified Objects." No?
And I think you're lucky if it only days a few days to write a short story. Joan Vinge, who used to write wonderful stories in the late 70s, told me that it took her as long to write a short story as it did a novel--to build a whole (sfictional) world--which is why she doesn't write stories any more. She can't afford to.
JB: The flying saucer did become "Unidentified Objects". I can't stand to waste anything. I've always wanted to write an enormous flying saucer novel, a combination of Dickens and Pynchon, say.
Re: Joan Vinge -- I think that if I were writing real sf or historical fiction, the same thing would be true for me. I've always managed to keep within genre boundaries while writing about the world that I know. In "Paper Dragons", for example, the character who's building the dragon/saucer was based on my old next door neighbor, who built fabulous things in his own garage and wrote interminable James Bond books. He became a born again Christian, but I suppose that's another story. Anyway, he built a thing he called a "whirling earth" machine, that was a spinning globe with about 60 gizmos all whirling around on the outside -- plastic crocodiles swallowing the sun, ape heads with their mouths opening and closing, the planets revolving, you name it. I stuck the machine in The Digging Leviathan. His father became the character Bennett in The Paper Grail, complete with the truck that hauled chicken manure. All of his mathematical speculation came from the guy who lived behind me, a small Italian man who wore wife-beater t-shirts and developed a mathematical theory about "the marriage and attraction of numbers". He, coincidentally, was forever building a massive brushed aluminum motor home in his back yard. The Jimmers character was loosely based on my uncle, who's interest in saucers (he had a cinderblock shack with a telescope out in the desert) was probably responsible for my treading this weird and dangerous path and nearly ending up an sf corner boy with a funny hat on.
Ellen Datlow: Were you surprised that "Unidentified Objects" was picked for The O'Henry Awards anthology? The editor, Billy Abrahams, a grand old man of literary publishing claimed (to me) that it was mainstream.... I laughed insisting it wasn't.
JB: I suppose if there was one of my stories that was moderately literary, that was it. I wrote it at the tail end of my Proust phase, and I'm willing to believe that he saw something in the style that attracted him, given his obvious literary bent. I was very happy that he chose it. I think it was in good company in the volume.
Ellen Datlow: I don't want to embarrass you but I don't think I've ever read a story by you that I didn't like (I've only read about five) and wish you would write more of them.
JF: Are we soliciting online, Ellen? :)
Ellen Datlow: Always, Jim (F).
JB: Back to what Joan Vinge said. In fact it is tough to warrant writing too many short stories, since they most often don't pay the rent. Sometimes, of course, they more than pay the rent. But the day to day pressure is to finish the big book. There's always a book. I've got 4 or 5 stories partly written, ideas for more, but they're perpetually waiting for me to find the time. Right now (don't let Susan Allison read this) Powers and I are writing 12 original songs for a production of Peter Pan that the Orange County Children's Theatre is staging this summer. Very big play -- the script used by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It's a gorgeous script, but essentially not a musical, so we're writing a heap of songs. It won't pay us a penny, but it'll certainly prevent me from writing any short stories this summer. Actually, we've only got a week to write all the songs (someone else is putting them to music) but we love that kind of challenge.
JF: Please let me know if that should come to NYC. I recently saw the Mabou Mines' production of Peter and Wendy, and I'm still afloat with the charm. Jim, as a creative writing instructor, do you have your students work on shorter works?
JB: I'll add to that last message that I hope Powers loves that kind of challenge. Actually I call him up every once in a while and implore him to help me save the children's theatre from ruin. Last time we neede a 90 minute Snow White script within 48 hours. Lots of fun.
About teaching: I compel my students to work on shorter works. Workshop type classes are a drag if students never get to the end of anything. Someone reads a plotless piece, goes on for fifteen pages, and someone (me) worries that it ought to have plot of some sort. And the student says that it will, that it's unfinished, etc., and that part of the workshop comes to nothing. So I ask them to write short, finished pieces, and things work out better.
JF: What on you working on now, both in long and short fiction?
JB: I've launched another southern California book with a plot I can't begin to talk about without running the risk of either being committed or abandoning whatever reputation I've got left. There are people in the novel who are unstuck in time; there's an old woman murderously obsessed with a little girl, there's historical aspects to it.
JF: Sounds good so far. We're coming to a close: Do you have anything specific to bring up before we sign off? I'll remind everyone that Winter Tides is scheduled for publication on August 1 from Ace in hardcover, so look for it in the coming weeks. And if you haven't read The Last Coin, The Digging Leviathan, Homunculus, The Paper Grail, etc., you owe it to yourselves.
JB: I guess I don't have anything much more to say. It's been fun. I tend to get wound up, and if you don't stop me soon, you'll probably have to electrocute me via the Web, which I understand will shortly be possible. Goodbye, and thanks.
JF: Thanks Jim, both for your time here and for your work, which has given me much pleasure.
Ellen Datlow: Thanks to both Jims for being on the show.