New Year, New Books… (Dec/Jan)

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Featuring: Megan Abbott, Kate Atkinson, John Ayliff, Elizabeth Brundage, M.R. Carey, Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey, John Connolly, A.M. Dellamonica, Tim Federle, Patrick Gale, Addison Gunn, Antonia Hayes, Jeff Mariotte, K.S. Merbeth, Maggie Mitchell, Sarah Pinborough, Jennifer Ridyard, Marsheila Rockwell, James Rollins, Lilith Saintcrow, Emily Schultz, Peter Tieryas

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An Interview with BEN PEEK

ben peekLet’s start with an introduction: Who is Ben Peek?

I’m an author who lives in Sydney, Australia with my partner, Nikilyn Nevins, who is a photographer.

THE GODLESS – the first book in my Children Trilogy – is my fifth book. My previous books are Black Sheep, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, and Above/Below, with Stephanie Campisi. My collection, Dead Americans and Other Stories, was released earlier this year. In addition to that, I’ve done a few other things, such as a psychogeography pamphlet, an autobiographical comic, and lectured and taught at various places.

I also may, or may not, be listening to the Velvet Underground as I reply to this.

Your next novel, The Godless, is published in July by Tor UK and St. Martin’s Press in the US. How would you introduce the novel to a new reader?

The book is the first in a fantasy trilogy, and takes place in a world where, fifteen thousand years ago, a war between the gods took place. In its aftermath, the sun was broken into three, the ocean turned black with blood and rose, and the bodies of the gods fell to the ground, where they lay in a state best described as both dead and dying. In the centuries that followed, their powers seeped into the world, altering it, and altering some of the people who lived there. Continue reading

An Interview with SUSIE MOLONEY

MoloneySusie-AuthorPic(Richard-Wagner-2010)Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Susie Moloney?

I’m a writer of horror fiction, and I live in Canada and the US, spending half my time in New York City with my playwright husband, Vern Thiessen. I’m a mom to two sons and a blind dog, and I love them all equally, no favourites.

I’ve been writing stories since I could hold a pencil, although when I first started writing, I used to illustrate them as well, and color the pictures. Somewhere there’s a pretty epic illustrated story about a black water beetle (“Blackie’s Story”) who isn’t black, but green. No black crayon.

To date, I’ve written four novels, Bastion Falls, A Dry Spell, The Dwelling and The Thirteen. My claim to fame is that A Dry Spell received the largest advance ever, in Canada. That may have changed by now, but it was a big deal back in the day. I’ve been on the cover of two national magazines. The week my cover on Chatelaine came out, was the week that Princess Diana died. True story: I walked into an airport bookstore to pick up something to read on the plane, and there was my cover, right next to the People Magazine Princess Diana cover. I turned around and ran out. It was too overwhelming, my face right next to hers. I read the in-flight magazine that trip.

Things Withered, Stories is my very first collection. I’m no longer a collection virgin.

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What inspired you to write these particular stories? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

All my inspiration comes from really mundane, prosaic sources. I know everyone says that. But I’ll tell you, regular, ordinary everyday people terrify me. You know why? Because everyone has something special about them. Everyone. We were raised on that tenet. So if some regular Joe is standing in front of you, and you can’t quite tell what’s special about him — I just naturally assume his special quality must be that he’s a serial killer. Or what if he’s a vampire (if it’s at night), or a warlock hell-bent on collecting enough souls to pay a debt to Satan? What if there’s a suburban mom, slowly letting her oppression and anger drive her into madness and as a means of releasing that horrible pressure cooker of rage, she poisons cookies and brings them over? What if the cookies are super-good and you eat like, ten of them (not saying I’ve ever eaten ten cookies at once)?

I’m pretty sure regular, ordinary, everyday folk are seriously dangerous.

How were you introduced to genre fiction?

Blatty-TheExorcistThe first genre book I ever read, if you can call it a genre book, was The Exorcist. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to read it, I was only a little kid. I certainly knew enough to read it with a flashlight in the cubby hole at my grandparent’s house. It was sufficiently terrifying that I went on to read Jaws I think that same summer. By the time I was a teenager, people were passing around Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and I alternated between horror and those bodice rippers that were all the rage in the ’80s (an entirely different kind of horror).

Up until then I was writing stories about my dog and the odd love story. Often someone died in what I wrote. After I finished reading Cujo, also by King, I just wanted to write something in the tone and mood of that book — and so was born Bastion Falls, my first novel.

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How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

Publishing has changed so much since my early days! In a lot of ways it’s much better. We do seem to be in some kind of a transition phase and I’m curious to know where it ends up. This is the most literate epoch in human history — we’re constantly communicating. Email, Facebook posts, Twitter (literate in 140 characters!). Everyone is clever and interesting and sharing. I love/hate it. Being a writer is no longer a special career! On the other hand, there has never been so much access to such an incredible variety of experiences and perspective, that a seeker of the human experience is the beneficiary of an embarrassment of riches, the likes of which have never been seen.

MoloneyS-TheThirteenAs for writing practices, the only thing I consistently do is burn a candle while I write. Makes me feel like I’m in a dark garret in the middle of Paris (never been, I hear they have garrets).

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

Aside from the aforementioned “Blackie’s Story,” the first substantial piece I ever wrote was about a single-mother vampire by the name of Aria. This was long before the Twilight days, long before vampires were ever even a thing — how about that, right? I invented vampires (maybe not — should probably Google-check that). The story came out of my experience of being a single mom back in the days when that was a bad thing. I felt like a monster much of the time, and I suppose that was my way of dealing with it. In the story the little boy is not a vampire and the mom — Aria — does her best to raise him even as she tries to adapt to her new form. There’s a version of it in Things Withered at the very end of the book, a short film script I wrote to adapt the story in some way.

MoloneyS-TheDwellingWhat’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

I love how many women are writing genre now, and how that’s changing the face of genre. I have my favourites, like Gemma Files, Kaaron Warren, Barbara Roden — her book Northwest Passages is absolute not-miss — Tananarive Due, these are all great writers who are writing genre.

I never quite feel like what I’m writing fits exactly into the genre category. It’s not a perfect fit like some of the women I’ve listed. I feel like I’m writing about very dark subject matter, with some supernatural elements.

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

I’ve started a new novel, but it’s always slow going in the beginning. I always think of the first four-five months of a new novel to be the “mistake-making” time. I change my mind about the direction a character is taking and have to rewrite, or I decide one character is more important than the one I felt was the protagonist and have to rewrite, or I have an existential crisis and decide to spend a week drinking too much, doubting the value of my existence and the value of words in general, and have to spend some time drying out. I’m nearly through this part. Also, there’s still lots of crying.

This new (currently untitled, or more accurately, over-titled) is the first time I’ve written “in period.” It takes place in the very early ’70s. It requires more research than you’d think. Who remembers? You know what’s fun about it? Listening to the music of the time and remembering that most young girls listened to AM radio. Wow that was some really bad music (“Go Away Little Girl”, Donny Osmond), and some really exceptional stuff (“Ain’t No Sunshine”, Bill Withers).

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

EndicottM-TheLittleShadowsRight this very moment I’m reading The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott, a stunningly written story about a mother and her daughters on the Vaudeville circuit around the time of the first world war. I’m also reading Manson by John Gilmore. I’m a Gilmore fan, love his gritty edge, his no bullshit style.

What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I’m totally obsessed with Bonnie & Clyde. I have about twenty books on the subject and I’m sure I know everything there is to know about the deadly couple. I once started a screenplay, told from Bonnie’s POV and I called it “Dirt.” Never got very far with it, but I think about picking it up again about every six months. I also have a more minor obsession with Tudor history and the reformation. I like to think that gives me Nerd status on the street. I got juice, man.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

I have a couple of projects that I’ll see the end of. It’s always nice to finish things. And I have the new novel… I’m hoping that my schedule will clear up enough so that all I’ll be working on is the new book. There’s something so extraordinarily wonderful about waking up in the morning and knowing that the only thing you have to do is toss yourself into the world you are creating and not come up for air until it’s dark.

I do love the dark.

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Things Withered is out now, published by ChiZine Publications.

Guest Post: “Confessions of a Four-Color, Benday-Dot, Super-Deformed, Ultra-Compressed Science Fiction Writer” by Paul di Filippo

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Paul Di Filippo is the author of Wikiworld, a great science fiction short story collection, which was recently published by (now award-winning) ChiZine. To celebrate the release of his new book, he has written the following piece about comics and their relationship with literature, and his own experiences as a reader and writer…

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My first reading, beyond the typical picture books of my era, such as Harry the Dirty Dog and Hop on Pop, consisted of comic books. Lots and lots of comics. I recall the very first comic I ever read, in 1961, in the summer between first and second grades. It was Mighty Mouse in Outer Space, and it blew my primitive juvenile brain to flinders. (I recently tracked down a copy on eBay, and had lots of fun revisiting it.) I’ve never been the same since. You might very well say that this comic was my first introduction to the literature of fantastika, and set me on the course to becoming a writer of same.

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After this soon came the hard stuff. Batman, Superman, and the strange new antiheroes from Marvel. Alas, though I read them fresh off the drugstore stands, I retain no issues of Fantastic Four #1 or Amazing Fantasy #15, or similar lucrative titles. I concentrated on buying DC, while my pal Stephen covered the Marvel stuff, and we shared issues for mutual reading pleasure. Stephen, wherever he may be these days, got rich, and I got Lois Lane #53.

This phase of my readerly life lasted until about 1965, when I discovered hardcore adult science fiction, in the form of Raymond Jones’s The Year When Stardust Fell. To my retrospective amazement, I dropped comics almost entirely then, like a fickle lover, in favor of this new, more complex, more satisfying medium. Part of it had to do with my limited allowance. A dollar per week bought seven or eight comics, or two paperbacks. I couldn’t do both.

Well, I’m not going to recap my entire life as a reader from that point on. (To dispel one mystery: I returned to reading comics about thirty years later, with a vengeance.) But I tell the tale only to illustrate a very common path for my generation and the next couple after it. Right up into, oh, the late 1980s, this route — comics first, then books — was totally archetypical. Young fanboys and fangirls imprinted first on comics, then matured into readers of “chapter books.”

But we all know what happened next: the greying of the comics audience, the vanishing of comics from drugstores and supermarkets, the lack of innocent entry-level comics titles, the peer popularity of YA books, etc., etc. — all these factors and more have caused comics no longer to be really a gateway drug. And in fact, comics fandom and book fandom, while overlapping to some small Venn-diagram degree, often are utterly ignorant of each other. (This of course was not always the case, as modern comics fandom arose almost entirely from within SF fandom.)

One important thing which I think this change in reading patterns has caused to go missing from modern SF/F/H writing is a certain comic book sensibility: in plotting, character development, scene-setting, theme presentation, and all the other typical aspects of fiction construction. Because, you see, comics have their own tools of storytelling, and a writer does not fully internalize them unless he or she encounters them at a young, receptive age.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about a dearth of novels about superheroes. Those are actually kind of trendy right now.

I’m talking about bringing the unique toolkit of comic book storytelling to any kind of writing at all. It could be a mainstream humorous novel, or a historical novel, or, in my case, an SF novel. Not many people are doing that these days.

Maybe you’re old enough to recall when writers such as Thomas Pynchon or Robert Sheckley or Kurt Vonnegut got labeled as “too comic-booky.” It was a fair cop! They were, I am certain, all readers of comics in their youth, and were incorporating the methods they had internalized into their adult prose.

I can’t conduct a seminar in this limited space about all the techniques I discern as originating among comic book writers and artists. I can only give a couple of examples.

Take the matter of switching scenery. Everyone knows how quickly and radically a comic book story can jump from one panel to another. We’ll call this the “then… Korea!” trick, from a recent blog post by the comics savant Mike Sterling. I don’t see this enough in novels. Oh, yeah, we’ll have a jump, an ellipsis of time and space, but usually to a different character, or as a predictable linear progression of the protagonist’s actions. “The next day dawned…” Nothing wild-eyed or unexpected, like catapulting the hero instantly from one venue to another in the blink of an eye.

Or take the matter of shifting the focus of the story in unexpected ways. The Simpsons TV show is the master of this. (Animated cartoons of course being the sibling to comics.) Three minutes into an episode, you think you knew where it’s headed, then, whammo, a total one-eighty. How often have you seen that maneuver in a book?

Or consider serial plotting within a single book. We start with one crisis which is resolved partway through the book, but contains the seeds of the next crisis, and so on as long as desired, until by novel’s end you’re utterly removed from the concerns at the beginning. I can’t even summon up a prose example of this common comics scenario.

If I had to adduce other writers than those named above who follow a comic book esthetic, I’d nominate A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, and Ron Goulart. Maybe you can start to get a feel now for the type of fiction I’m advocating. Jonathan Lethem, famously a comic book kid, in his early novels manifested some of these chops and riffs. Perhaps the purest and most satisfying writer of such stuff today is my pal Rudy Rucker. His novels are comic books without the artwork. And that certainly doesn’t preclude him tackling serious and important subjects in sophisticated ways.

In my own fiction, I can point to several stories deliberately constructed along these lines. “Fractal Paisleys”; “The Double Felix”; “Flying the Flannel.” And so forth.

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My newest collection, Wikiworld, holds a few. My all-robot story “Providence” is a homage to the great SF comics from EC. You can picture Wally Wood or Al Williamson art to go with it. “Return to the 20th Century” is more out of DC’s goofy Silver Age Mystery in Space or Strange Adventures line. But even other stories of mine that are not so heavily influenced have benefitted, I believe, by little salient comic book touches.

I said I returned to reading comics with high intensity about twenty years ago. The superhero stuff I enjoy these days is entertaining, but can’t really teach me anything new. But knockout creators like Richard Sala, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Ben Katchor, Cathy Malkasian and Bill Griffith continue to stimulate me to try to incorporate their specialist pencil-and-ink and word-balloon techniques into my prose fiction.

If you’re exclusively a prose writer, you should delve into the comics scene. Once you go lowbrow, you never go back!

Guest Post: “The Delphi Room – Through the Looking-Glass” by Melia McClure

McClureM-DelphiRoomIn my novel, The Delphi Room, two people watch the past of the other unfold in a mirror. Trapped next door to one another in rooms they believe to be Hell, Velvet and Brinkley are captive audience to the disturbing “home movies” that play in a mirror that hangs in each of their prisons.

Mirrors are compelling symbols and have appeared in various art forms and spiritual texts throughout the ages. The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, referenced in my book’s title, demanded of ancient Greeks “know thyself” – no small demand, and one which my characters grapple with mightily, in mightily eccentric fashion. Among other things, mirrors have historically symbolized self-knowledge and wisdom, and like the ancients who returned to Delphi again and again in search of answers to the riddles of life, countless numbers of people currently revisit a mirror as a daily reference point in the evolving construction of identity. The Delphic oracle answered seekers’ questions with riddles, and for mirror-gazers the riddles of the mind have a drastic impact on the perception of the confounding entity known as “self” that is reflected in the glass.

In the world of my novel, mirrors are also a means of two totally isolated people coming to understand the forces that have buffeted and shaped the other, and thus – as understanding creates connection – they give rise to Velvet and Brinkley’s growing bond. Mirrors can symbolize parallel universes or alternate realities, and both of my main characters are trapped in a hellish alternate reality while at the same time experiencing the universe of the other. And when, late in the book, Velvet and Brinkley jump into the past of the other through the mirror, rendering the past present, diverse realities are brought together, which alludes to the symbolism of an all-surfaced mirror: that all realities are one and seen and understood from all sides in the context of eternity.

But beyond the literal mirror-as-object, many of the characters themselves play some sort of mirroring role. Velvet’s psychosis, the Shadowman, reflects back to her multiple aspects of her selfhood: self-loathing, fear, creativity, ingenuity and rage. Brinkley’s psychosis, ’20s film starlet Clara Bow, references her tragic personal history – a history shared by the real-life Clara Bow – and in many ways it mirrors Brinkley’s crushingly sad upbringing: both had mentally ill mothers and, among other common experiences, Brinkley’s mother tried to kill him and as a teenager Clara awoke to find her mother holding a butcher knife to her throat. One could argue that Brinkley’s fractured mind chose to conjure that particular illusory movie star as an object of love because he found solace in the kinship of shared tragedy. Again, mirroring fosters connection: people seek their own humanity reflected back at them in the humanity of another – because, after all, humanity is about oneness.

The lives of Velvet and Brinkley mirror each other in many ways: their unstable mothers and absent fathers, along with their mutual obsession with cinema, furnish them with certain overlapping experiences and tendencies, though both characters are fiercely unique and individualistic. But clarity about the self can be harder to achieve than clarity about another, and the need for familial love can have an obfuscating effect, and thus it is through the mirror’s revelation of the past of the other that Velvet and Brinkley come to greater peace within themselves. As much as one’s reflection in a mirror begs the question “Who am I?”, we are all mirrors for each other, asking “Who are you?” and “Who am I to you?” The concept of identity is, of course, central to any conversation about mirrors, and the characters in The Delphi Room are fighting against crippling antagonism to define themselves on their own terms. What they see in the mirror is very different from how the world sees them, and it is in the chasm between those contrasting perceptions that the truth lies. When Brinkley gazes in a mirror, Clara Bow is there to alternately love and torment him; when Velvet gazes in a mirror, the Shadowman is often reflected as a sinister, albeit colourful, presence.

When we stand before a looking-glass, do we ever really know who is looking back at us?

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Melia McClure’s The Delphi Room was published by ChiZine in September 2013. Be sure to follow the author on Twitter for more updates about her work, etc. You can read a sample of the novel on Tor.com. Here’s the synopsis:

Is it possible to find love after you’ve died and gone to Hell? For oddball misfits Velvet and Brinkley, the answer just might be yes. After Velvet hangs herself and winds up trapped in a bedroom she believes is Hell, she comes in contact with Brinkley, the man trapped next door.

Through mirrors that hang in each of their rooms, these disturbed cinemaphiles watch the past of the other unfold—the dark past that has led to their present circumstances. As their bond grows and they struggle to figure out the tragic puzzles of their lives and deaths, Velvet and Brinkley are in for more surprises. By turns quirky, harrowing, funny and surreal, The Delphi Room explores the nature of reality and the possibilities of love.

An Interview with CHRISTOPHER GOLDEN

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Very few fans of genre fiction and comics will be unaware of Christopher Golden. He has been writing for a couple of decades, now, mainly horror (or horror-inflected) work. Many will know him for his novels, his anthology work, and also his comics work – including the Baltimore books with Hellboy creator, Mike Mignola. He has a new short story collection coming out next month, through ChiZine, and has an impressive number of other projects he’s currently working on. I caught up with him (via email), and grilled him about writing, horror, and what he’s working on now…

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Christopher Golden?

At 46, you’d think I would have an answer to that, but I’m still working it out. I’ve been writing full time since 1992, with the sale of my first novel, OF SAINTS AND SHADOWS. Since then, I’ve written or co-written or edited about a hundred books, mostly fiction in the horror, fantasy, mystery, and thriller genres. I’ve written comics and short stories, video games and an animated web series, radio plays and screenplays.

Your short story collection, Tell My Sorrows to the Stones, was published by ChiZine last month. How would you introduce the book to a potential reader? Is there a unifying theme for the stories within?

GoldenC-TellMySorrowsToTheStonesI’ve written short stories for as long as I’ve been writing novels. My previous short story collection, The Secret Backs of Things, collected everything I had done up until that point. But it felt to me as if somewhere along the way I reached a point where I felt as if I’d actually sort of figured it out – this whole short story thing. I’m not saying I don’t like any of my older stories. I like them just fine, most of them. But I do feel as if I grew up a little bit somewhere in there, passed a kind of threshold where I understand the form better than I had before. I often say that my novel Strangewood was when I grew up as a novelist. I think the stories in Tell My Sorrows to the Stones represent a similar maturing, only this time in short story form. There’s more thought in them, for me. More reason for them to exist than the other ones had. A lot of them are about folklore and imagination and belief in general – not religious faith, but faith in ourselves and how dangerous it can be to misplace that sort of faith.

What inspired you to write the short stories? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

KingS-NightShiftI grew up loving short stories, both in the works of Jack London and–much more commonly – in anthologies and collections of horror stories. The combination of Stephen King’s Night Shift and the various anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant (I think I started with Terrors before going on to the Shadows series) had a huge influence on me. Then I went backwards, reading things like Alfred Hitchcock’s More Stories for Late at Night and collections of HP Lovecraft stories and Edgar Allan Poe.

As for inspiration… it comes from everywhere. Sometimes it’s a dream or a nightmare, and sometimes it’s just that eureka moment that is the writer’s most invaluable and most indefinable tool. I have a lot of my ideas while traveling, and I often make sense of them while I’m in the shower or taking a walk.

How were you introduced to genre fiction?

I don’t remember how it began for me. It was just there. Twilight Zone and Kolchak the Night Stalker and movies on Creature Double Feature were all on my TV. My favorite comics included Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night. When I started reading, I gravitated immediately toward Stephen King and creepy stories. I remember picking up The Stand in an an airport bookstore… same with various novels by Graham Masterton. From that point, I accumulated horror novels at absurd speed.

How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

I’m incredibly fortunate. I took the big leap right after selling my first novel twenty-one years ago and never looked back. That said, it’s not for the faint-hearted, this full-time writer thing. It’s always a financial roller coaster, but it’s never boring. I write five or six days a week (sometimes seven). Most mornings are taken up by emails and paperwork and phone calls and I do most of my writing just before lunch and then throughout the afternoon. Often I work a few hours on Saturday morning – unless I’m really under the gun, and then I’ll work the whole day or whole weekend… And feel horribly guilty about neglecting my family. I usually have music on while I’m writing. I’m not one of those Starbucks writers, who can sit in a cafe and concentrate… Although I’d like to be. I may have to try it out.

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I started writing short stories in high school. I kept it up all through college, but it wasn’t until I started my first novel during senior year that I realized it was really the only thing I wanted to do. The first thing I was ever paid to write was an interview with Craig Shaw Gardner that was published in Starlog Magazine. My first short story was “One”, in Deathrealm Magazine. My first novel, Of Saints and Shadows, came out in 1994, but my first book was actually a non-fiction anthology I put together called CUT!: Horror Writers on Horror Film. I look back fondly on all of them.

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What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

I feel like the genre these days is sort of like the Republican Party – splintered and scattered. There are fine writers working in the small press, but the small press has shrunk quite a bit over the past five years or so. A lot of the publishing dedicated to horror at mainstream houses has vanished, making it harder for casual readers to walk into bookstores and discover new horror writers. On the other hand, there are still publishers who do original horror, including St. Martin’s Press, who are publishing my new novel SNOWBLIND in January. On the other hand, horror as a genre has bled into other genres – urban fantasy, thriller, mystery, literary fiction. Examples are everywhere. It’s a guerrilla genre, now. As far as where my work fits…? It fits wherever readers want it to fit. That’s not a cop-out. I write in a variety of genres, different shades, and they all have horror in them, including TIN MEN, the near-future SF military thriller I’m finishing now.

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What other projects are you working on?

SNOWBLIND comes out in January, as I mentioned, as does DARK DUETS, the new anthology of collaborative stories I’ve edited. Also in January is CEMETERY GIRL: THE PRETENDERS, the first book in a graphic novel trilogy I’m doing with Charlaine Harris. I’m finishing up TIN MEN, working on a SONS OF ANARCHY comic book miniseries and the continuing series of BALTIMORE comics with Mike Mignola. In a few days I’ll be starting work on a new ALIEN novel.

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What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

Lebbon-ColdbrookI’m reading Tim Lebbon’s fantastic novel COLDBROOK, which is a monstrously cool pan-dimensional SF zombie thriller.

What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I’m a TV addict who loves music, musical theatre, movies and ice cream. I teach a writing workshop to 7th and 8th graders from my daughter’s school, and I spent a few years directing junior high musical theatre, which I miss terribly and wish I had time for.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, UK… And as much free time with my family as I can manage.

Guest Post: “The Shy Hero” by Steve Tem

TemSR-CelestialInventoriesI read my first critical work on short stories back in high school, around 1965 or ’66. It was The Lonely Voice by Frank O’Connor. To say it had a profound influence on me is an understatement. Starting with a discussion of Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” the story of a friendless nonentity, an absurd take on a little man, O’Connor develops his theory concerning the difference between short stories and novels. According to O’Connor, one of the key aspects of the novel form is that there is always a character the reader can identify with, and a context that includes the concept of a normal society. Short stories, on the other hand, involve characters who are outcasts, members of submerged populations, characters who readers cannot identify with.

Even that early in my thinking about writing I thought the idea had its limitations, but it still fascinated me, and I thought there were some strong hints in O’Connor’s theory that might help me understand the relative levels and kinds of reader participation that differentiated the novel experience from the short story experience. I eventually wrote my own horrific nod to “The Overcoat” — it appeared in my first collection, City Fishing.

As the years have passed I’ve come to understand that there are almost as many models of what a short story is as there are writers writing them. The short story form truly is a kind of fiction laboratory, allowing you to create brief narratives sometimes from the most arbitrary and unpromising sorts of materials, narratives which really wouldn’t work at any other length. And that concept of the hard-to-identify-with, outcast “hero” is still a recognizable and powerful approach in the short story genre (along with a great many others).

But I view that outcast a little differently these days. For me, a more useful way to look at the outcast is to use words like invisible, forgotten, secretive, under-appreciated, marginalized, even “shy.” These are the people who don’t always speak up, who hide their feelings, who have secret longings, who sometimes have rich imaginations, who sometimes surprise us with their uniqueness. And far from being impossible to identify with. In fact I believe they may be the most universal characters possible. I think most of us feel like these characters at some point or other in our lives, or perhaps they embody a distinctive part of our own personality which seems to have its own voice and narrative arc, and which we find we have to reason with from time to time (or maybe that’s just me). For me, these shy heroes are the direct descendants of the copy clerk in Gogol’s “The Overcoat.”

This does not mean that they are always everyone’s favorite characters. Some readers want characters who take definitive actions, who transform the world, who embody values most of us would want to emulate — in other words, classic heroes. In fact, for some time now the classic hero has been the model for normalcy in fiction. I’ve read articles and watched many panels on characterization in which writers and editors have stated that A) readers want characters they can identify with and B) your main characters should be dynamic, admirable types who take action and speak their minds and make things happen and change the world.

For me there is a discrepancy in these statements. In my experience, most of the people I’ve met haven’t been dynamic and world-changing. For the most part they’ve been quiet people with good intentions who often feel at the mercy of the more powerful forces around and above them — their relatives, their bosses, the government etc. Some of them appear to have secret, complicated inner lives consisting of dreams and great yearnings. Often they don’t get what they yearn for, but they still make a life, they do the best they can. For me these are shy heroes, and they are everywhere around us. Some people find them boring, but I say it’s only because they haven’t looked at them closely enough (and sometimes it requires a writer or other artist to encourage us to look closely enough). Their triumphs may be small, and somewhat compromised, but at least they are triumphs we can believe.

In my experience shy heroes tend to predominate in slipstream, hard-to-classify fiction. And they tend to predominate in my new collection from ChiZine, Celestial Inventories, as well. Two of the stories (“The World Recalled” and the title story) feature main characters obsessed with creating a detailed inventory count of their lives, often with bizarre and moving results. The Bram Stoker Award-winning “In These Final Days of Sales” chronicles the adventures of the world’s worst salesman. Several of the stories deal with strange and elaborate obsessions: in “Origami Bird” it’s constantly folding pages of data into intricate bird-shapes, in “The Disease Artist” it’s a succession of increasingly serious diseases, and in “The Bereavement Photographer” it’s the final images of dead children. Dreams unfulfilled figure into “The High Chair” and “The Secret Flesh.” In “Invisible” an office worker and his wife fade into a literal invisibility. And in “The Company You Keep” a man without friends discovers a secret, tragic bond with an army of strangers. All are private glimpses into the worlds of the shy heroes we pass every day but do not recognize.