Friday, July 24, 2009

Gregory Frost - fantasy writer, story teller and artist

I read Gregory Frost's most recent duology, Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet. You can read my reviews on Mostly Fiction. Frost has an incredible gift for storytelling. He has written seven novels all together. Fitcher's Brides was a World Fantasy Award finalist.

He has also authored numerous short stories and articles and taught writing at Michigan State, UC San Diego and Temple University. He now lives in Philadelphia and is a current director for the fiction writing workshop at Swarthmore College.

AW: What literary works have most influenced you?

GF: That would be a long, long list. From my childhood everything from Dr. Seuss to The Hardy Boys to a version of The Odyssey. Growing up, fiction by Jack Williamson, Roger Zelazny, Hawthorne, Poe, “Flowers for Algernon,” A Canticle for Leibowitz, “Leiningen versus the Ants”, fiction by John Collier, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Rod Serling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Leslie Charteris. The list goes on and on. I discovered early on that I was bent toward any fiction that had some supernatural or fantastical element to it. I devoured everything that crossed my path, and I think everything I read provided some kind of influence. In my adult life, where I think (I hope) I pay more attention to how stories get assembled, how and why they work, I’ve been captivated by Italo Calvino, Vladimir Nabokov, T. C. Boyle, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Flann O’Brien, Gene Wolfe, and a whole lot more. We are what we read.

AW: Do you remember how and when you first envisioned the delightful and many-layered world, Shadowbridge? (to readers: Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet)

GF: I was playing around with an idea in the 1990s based on a drawing I’d done of a kind of alien character on a definitely alien bridge. At first I thought about writing a science fiction novel with this image; but while that was just sitting and gestating, I began writing fairy tale-spun stories for Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and reading a lot of fairy tales, books about them, about folk tales, and about the fantasy fiction of different cultures.

Then one night my wife and I were having dinner with Michael Swanwick and Marianne Porter. Michael and I were standing in his back yard on a chilly night, sipping wine, and he asked me if I was working on anything. At that point I had gone through a very long dry spell where novels were concerned. I just didn’t feel terribly compelled to write one, so I was penning short fiction exclusively.

Anyway, I started to tell him about this idea with the bridges, but as I spoke of it to him the science fictional trappings fell away, and all I described was this world of bridges where people are perpetually traveling from one place to another and each span was culturally different, odd, weird. He gave me one of his Swanwickian looks that can pin you to a wall and said, “If you don’t write that, I’m going to steal it.” And with that the die was cast.

He coerced me into writing a short story set in that world just to establish ownership of it, so I wrote “How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes” (published in Asimov’s, it was a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award for Short Fiction), which introduced both the trickster figure of Shadowbridge and the master puppeteer-storyteller, Bardsham, who was modeled very roughly upon an Australian shadowpuppeteer I had the good fortune to meet, named Richard Bradshaw (so I got to reference both him and Shakespeare with the name).

Somewhere in there, Michael pointed me to a 10-volume work called The Ocean of Story, which I found a copy of at the University of Pennsylvania library and began reading. That, far more than the 1001 Nights, comprises stories embedded within stories, and so I slowly began seeing this shape emerge—oddly, very much a spiral shape unlike traditional Western linear storytelling.

I had about half the first book written when Terri invited me to contribute a book to her Fairy Tale series, so I took off a year and wrote Fitcher’s Brides.
And then my father died, which proved to be stunning, and for a good eighteen months I could not write. It was a scary feeling because it wasn’t writer’s block in the usual sense. It was a complete desiccation of the place where stories bubble up inside me. That was simply gone.

Anyway, I’ve now strayed far from your original question.

AW: What method do you use for keeping all of your characters and story threads straight while writing novels with such incredible worldbuilding?

GF: I sketch some of them. I was an art major and did a lot of portraiture in school. So it’s easy for me to sketch out major characters. The story threads may seem complex for Shadowbridge but really there is the one throughline, if you will, which is Leodora’s story, and all the others are tributaries of that, channeling in some way into the story that becomes The Tale of Leodora, which is ultimately what the two books are. I have another Shadowbridge book half sketched out, and none of the characters are the same, although someone might have a walk-on part.

Some years ago I wrote another duology, Táin and Remscela, a kind of mad retelling of the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge. And that had so many characters that I finally just cast it like a movie. So I cast Sean Connery as Fergus and Peter O’Toole as Laeg, and so on. That helped in particular with their dialogue, because I could hear them saying it. Now, nobody reading those books would ever pick up on that, as it was all in my head, but it helped me keep everybody’s part straight.

AW: How old were you when you first started writing?

GF: If we’re willing to include comic books, then very early. I was a comics junkie as a kid and I was also the kind of kid who could sit and draw for hours on end. So I drew, and wrote, my own comic books. Totally derivative, I even stole lesser known superheroes like Dr. Fate. But I was writing because I needed to in order to make the story work. I thought I would grow up to be an illustrator.

Beyond that, I didn’t start writing stories as stories until my second year in college when I took a night course and an exceptional teacher really got me hooked on writing stories. The more I did that, the less I drew and painted. But effectively I wrote at 19 like a 14-year-old who’d been at it for awhile. I was starting out way behind the curve.

AW: Who encouraged you the most early on?

GF: Aside from that teacher in art school (whose name I am embarrassed to say I can no longer remember), two people: David Gerrold and Lin Carter. After I quit art school I took a year off and tried to write a novel. I ended up with a 250 page manuscript for a fantasy novel. About the same time I read David Gerrold’s book about his experiences writing an episode of Star Trek (10 points for those who know which one), and I wrote him a fan letter in which I explained that I was trying to break into print with my own fantasy novel. David, knowing nothing more than that about me, sent me back a letter of introduction to Lin Carter, who at that time was the editor of Ballantine Books’ Adult Fantasy series.

This was like being given the key to fantastical city. I sent the manuscript and the letter off to Lin Carter. He read maybe 20 pages of it, and I will say flat out it was abominably bad. But Lin took the time to go over my first 10 pages point by point, line by line, to explain what I was doing wrong. He finished off the letter with a recommendation that I keep going. He said that I had a natural storytelling gift and I should develop it.

He may have been doing nothing more than being kind to a clueless kid who wanted to be published, but I hung onto that positive feedback and ended up in undergraduate writing at the University of Iowa, where I had as teachers Joe Haldeman and T.C. Boyle, both of whom had a huge influence on me. Joe pushed me to send an application to the Clarion Writing Workshop and I was accepted.

So in effect I’ve published because some other writers in the science fiction and fantasy world were incredibly gracious and supportive. When my first novel, Lyrec, came out, I sent a copy to Lin Carter. It was the material he had seen a decade earlier, chopped and cannibalized and repurposed.

AW: In what ways has writing shaped who you are?

GF: That’s probably a question for someone who knows me and can step back to answer. I’ll say that I think it has caused me to think of the world in story terms, to look at reality as storytelling loam. But as I discovered very early on, I appear to be hard-wired to write fantasy, and I seem to have little interest in writing endless series or massive brown bag trilogies.

AW: In what ways have your beliefs or personality shaped your writing?

GF: The other side of the coin, isn’t it? You know, when I say that I had to cast a book because of the number of characters in it…well, they’re all me in some fashion. Our fiction is invariably a product of who we are and what we think. Sometimes that’s overt—as in a story of mine, “Dub,” which is a Lovecraftian cowboy comedy that stars, effectively, George Bush as the idiot title character and Dick Cheney as his sneering sidekick, which happens to be a talking hat.

Sometimes it’s less obvious, as with Kate, the heroine of Fitcher’s Brides, through whom I channeled a lot of what I think about religion in general and Christianity in particular. I never set out to write a book with some agenda, but some of me is going to get in there. If, as we’re told all the time, every story has already been written, then the only thing we have to offer is our unique perception and expression of those stories.

My stories will never look like anybody else’s, nor will theirs look like mine. Otherwise we wouldn’t read each other—we’d know how it all turns out.

AW: What are you working on now?

GF: Two things: A supernatural mystery novel set on the Main Line outside Philadelphia, which is in some kind of nearly completed stage; and what appears at the moment to be a weird crime-novel spin on a Lovecraftian theme.

AW: What's your "holy grail" as a writer?

GF: I don’t know that I have one in particular. I think that each book and each story is kind of a temporary holy grail, with me questing to make it as good as I can. It’s like acting in theater—you live inside this particular role for a period of time and it becomes a facet of you, and then you learn a new one, and after a time all these roles you have played inform you, give you more and more facets, more things you know how to do, and more sense of when to be subdued and subtle and sly.

AW: What other mediums or genres would you like to explore?

GF: Well, for God’s sake, someone tell Miyazaki that he needs to do a film of Shadowbridge! Really, I would love to explore graphic novels—the boy who drew comic books that lives inside me still wants to see one of his books turned out as a graphic novel. Beyond that, as I mentioned above, I’m attempting a mystery novel. Granted it’s about as off the wall as it can be, but that’s still a new direction, folding together elements of screwball comedies and romance novels, too. I’ve been writing, I guess, across genre lines since I started, so I don’t feel as if they’re separate territories, really.

AW: Have the shifts and shocks going through the publishing industry affected you personally?

GF: Not yet, but they will once this book is done and we have to go hunting for a publisher. I’ve no idea what’s left of the crumbling book empires, but I know no publisher has survived unscathed. I know that some books are still being bought, but I know also that the Borders bookstore chain has been murdering writers left and right by refusing to carry their books simply because the chain is bleeding from every orifice. I’d have sympathy for them maybe if it wasn’t my life and the lives of my compatriots that are being shredded. In some ways I want to see Borders sink soon because I think the longer they’re in business, the more damage they’ll do to writing careers, some of which will be squashed before they even start.
Honestly, though, I don’t know what will follow the chains. Small, independent stores with the capacity to print your book right there in the store? Maybe. That’ll be a new approach, and then the marketing free-for-all will begin, Twitter take all.

Read more about Gregory Frost at

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Unknown said...

Excellent interview. I've known Greg since the early '70s, and there was much here that was new to me. He is a FINE writer, who deserves the attention of all your readers

Ann Wilkes said...

Thanks Denny. I try to draw the authors out and ask them questions other interviewers haven't. Feel free to let me know if you have other favorite authors you'd like to see interviewed here.