Thursday, April 1, 2010
Jack Skillingstead on writing and evolving
I met Jack Skillingstead in the pages of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine. His story so impressed me that I dropped him a note to tell him. I don't do that very often. Now it is my pleasure to not only interview Jack, but to review his first two books. Jack's frighteningly raw and gritty prose holds nothing back. He delves far into the future and deep into the human psyche.
When you're finished reading the following interview, don't miss the reviews of Harbinger and Are You There and Other Stories at Mostly Fiction later today.
AW: How long have you been writing speculative fiction?
JS: I knew beyond a doubt that I wanted to be a writer since the age of twelve. Nevertheless, I didn't complete a story until I was fourteen or so. And it wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that I really dug in. It was always a fraught situation with me, and it seemed to take forever to achieve publication.
AW: How did you come up with the incredible scenario of human evolution in Harbinger?
JS: All I can say is one thing led to another. The book started out as a look into a troubled mind forced to interpret incredible experiences. As far as consciousness evolution goes, the idea doesn't strike me as too far-fetched. There are zillions of sf writers who seem to believe our computing machines will one day attain "singularity" and leap ahead of us. Why isn't it equally plausible to consider human consciousness on the verge of sudden expansion? I wouldn't be the first one to posit such a scenario. My starting point with the idea, as I've mentioned elsewhere, was Colin Wilson's new existentialism and his "outsider" cycle of books, beginning with The Outsider and continuing through Religion And The Rebel and so on. Later Wilson refined some of his ideas of consciousness and even concocted an ascending scale. He was, and remains, a born optimist, though, while I am not so much so.
AW: Do you always start your stories with a "what if"? Or do some begin with worlds or characters?
JS: Virtually none of my stories began with a "what if." No, wait, I think there's one, but I can't recall which. Mostly they've started in all sorts of ways. A persistent or otherwise intriguing image. Some small idea, like the Fairy light flirts in "The Chimera Transit." I once misheard a radio weatherman say we were due for a "human day." Of course, he said "humid." I got a whole story out of those two words. But however they begin, if I don't find a personal connection to the story pretty early on I almost always drop it.
AW: What sorts of writers groups do you belong to?
JS: I have never belonged to a writer's group. Back in college a friend and I used to trade manuscripts once in a while. He was very good. I was lousy. There was nothing in the way of critiquing going on. Eventually we stopped, because he was so much better than I was and I found that depressing.
AW: Can you tell me about your journey to that first published book, the process of finding an agent and or publisher?
JS: I was at Worldcon in Boston some years ago and Alex Irving and I were sitting at the Dell Magazines table, putting our hour in. We fell into conversation about publishing, of course, and Alex invited me to join him and his editor, Jim Minz, for lunch. We picked up a few more people on the way to the restaurant. One of them was Christine Cohen. At lunch the subject of agents came up, and I asked Chris if she was looking for one, to which she replied, " I am one." Later in the SFWA suite she found me and we talked about the novel I'd just finished. Eventually she became my representative at the Virginia Kidd Agency and she wound up doing the contract for my collection as well as four graphic novel scripts I wrote for the now defunct Realbuzz Studios.
AW: The stories in your Are You There And Other Stories anthology run very dark. Is this representative of most of your fiction? If so, why do you like writing about the dark side?
JS: It isn't so much a matter of liking the dark side. When I wrote most of those stories my interior life was dark, and so the stories reflected that. I was always interested in discovering some personal truths in my writing. My models for this were Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and a few others. I was, and continue to be, enamored of the idea that the ideal writer's voice is one that is instantly identifiable and inextricable from the writer's real life. Such a voice requires an unabashed commitment to telling the up-close truth about how you perceive the world -- a willingness to say anything so long as it is an authentic representation of who you are. People will say "I love Bradbury." Meaning they love his voice on the page, whatever he happens to be writing. They don't love him because he wrote dark stories earlier in his career, or science fiction stories later on, or Irish stories after he worked with John Huston, or whatever. Not that I'm comparing my own feeble efforts with Bradbury's incredible oeuvre. I'm just saying it's not a matter of writing "dark" stories or "sense of wonder" stories or whatever. It's about finding your own most authentic language during any given season of your creative life.
AW: What do you do when you're stuck on a plot point? Or when you find a character isn't working?
JS: Plot points are the worst. I don't like the hard thinking that sometimes goes into fixing a broken plot. And in fact too much thinking can just totally derail the thing past recovery. Usually it's better to sort out exactly what the difficulty is, you know: state the problem. Then try to forget about it for a day or two. If you've presented your unconscious with the proper question it will give you a response you can use. The unconscious is almost like a separate entity. Most good writers recognize this and learn to work in partnership with their unconscious. Damon Knight called his unconscious mind "Fred." Bradbury, again, is famous for his "don't think" approach. The literary writer John Gardner talked about it, as did Nabokov and any number of others. So you see, I'm absolutely not crazy.
AW: Do you do all of your writing at a computer? If not, what's the strangest thing you've written a story or story idea on.
JS: I alternate between the computer and notebooks. When it's notebooks I prefer a fine tipped black ink pen. The strangest thing I've written an idea on? You have to go back a ways. Two AM in a rented room in Portland, Maine. Howling winter outside. I was lying in bed when suddenly struck with an idea I needed to get down immediately -- and there was no paper! Except in the bathroom. So I did my own version of Kerouac's scroll, only mine was two ply. It ripped a lot, as you might expect.
AW: What are you working on now?
JS: Fourth draft of a novel based on my short story "Life on The Preservation." I know I've been talking about this thing for years. But I really am working on it, and it really is getting close to finished. At long last.
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