Genre Interviews

Caroline: Okay, I’ll go first. How are the science fiction and fantasy genres important? What makes them effective, valid, and worthwhile? 0

WR: That’s a really big question, and I’ll give you kind of a broad answer. I think science fiction and fantasy are—or if you want to use the umbrella term, which includes horror or speculative fiction, which is a nicer, academic term, but it’s still kind of an umbrella term—are important for a lot of reasons–and this kind of takes it in some sense back to our hero, Tolkien. They do offer a valid way to escape and all fiction does that, too. They also give us a way to—the word I’ve seen is a particular academic term called “cognitive estrangement,” and by that it means that you make the familiar different, strange, and by looking at the different or strange, you gain a perspective on it that you hadn’t before. So in that sense, when you are exploring another world, whether it’s one that’s made up—another planet, or in the case of a fantasy, is another place—by in some senses juxtaposing it against ours, you can see the world that you live in in a different, and hopefully fresher and more…it makes you see your own world in a way you couldn’t see it before. In that way, it lets you learn something about yourself, the world you live in, who you are, in a way that maybe you couldn’t do that before.
Science fiction in particular is famous for providing social commentary, social critique. The “What if?” question comes up: “What would the world be like if this were to go on?” In that sense it can be like a cautionary tale, or “Here’s a better way to do it,” possibly. Utopian and dystopian science fiction are always meant to be in juxtaposition or compared to the world that the writer or the reader lives in, and they potentially offer ways to think about this world in a way that’s constructive. In The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, she’s making a very pointed political statement about how women are treated, not just in the United States or in Western culture. Because everything that happens to women in that story, when they’re made breeders, when they’re, you know, all these things happen to them, they’re tortured, it’s already happened. She just puts it together in a particular maligned culture that is meant to be. She’s making a point about how women are treated. She’s making a point about how religion and God are used to justify this treatment, and that’s because it’s a theocratic takeover of the country.
“Battlestar Galactica”, which is one of my favorites, in a way is meant to be a commentary on the world that we live in right now: the war, the terror, the stresses of society. So I think science fiction and fantasy, in those ways, becomes a useful genre for helping us see ourselves, see the world we live in, see ways of interacting that would be useful to see from a distance and also close up. They also make us think about how things could be, how they might be if we could just do whatever needs to be done.

Kay: What are elements that you think are important or vital to the science fiction and fantasy genres? Which do you think are the most important and why, convention-wise? 0

WR: Well, the basic one, that difference you see between science fiction and fantasy, is that one is plausible and one’s impossible. In science fiction, even if the science is a little shaky, is meant to have some element of possibility or plausibility in some, however tenuous, connection to science itself. If you look at one that people know really well, “Star Trek,” we haven’t done faster-than-light travel yet, but we have discussed it. We have pondered the possibilities of it. We have looked at what it’s like to live in a contained environment like a spaceship. It’s called a submarine, for example. A lot of the stuff that’s there has some connection to the world that we live in. There are other science fiction that’s far more techy, far more hard science fiction, far more connected to possibility. The one thing that science fiction does well is “If this thing were invented, if we make the next step in this technology, whatever it happens to be, what would happen then? How will we use it? How will it affect us?” In that sense, the tropes of science fiction are the tropes of modern technology. The metaphors are modern science. The perennial question of science fiction is, what does it mean to be human? What is it about? The other question or theme is self and other. Who are we? Who are they? What makes us different? Who is the other? How do we explore? How do we connect to the other? Then of course you have the familiar things. All the conventions of the genre that are familiar to most people: other planets, other peoples, aliens, marvelous machines, marvelous inventions, that kind of stuff. Now those are broad terms. You do have that division between hard and soft science fiction. The hard stuff is more technical stuff and the soft stuff is more…Le Guin is a good example of soft science fiction. She’s never interested at all in how they travel; they just do it. The ansible itself is that faster than light thing [from The Dispossessed], and she uses various scientific equations, but that’s it. She doesn’t need to. She’s more interested in the anthropological aspects of it.

Fantasy, in one sense, is the assumption of the impossible, and magic becomes the controlling element of it. I would argue that what magic needs to do in any fantasy novel is be consistent. Gandalf has to remember that name, that term, to open up the door to Moria. There have to be certain contingent things that have to happen for the magic to work. In other words, you can’t change your magic once you’ve set it in place. So the other question that kind of recurs in fantasy, more often than not, is the issue of good versus evil, and that’s a broad term as well. The quest is a perennial structure that shows back up. So I think these are some of the things that speak to that question.

C: What do you think the future of science fiction and fantasy will be, and as a professor, how do you think it’s becoming more widely accepted academically, if it is? 0

WR: Science fiction and fantasy, just looking at what’s playing on the screen right now…Avatar is the biggest grossing movie of all time. I don’t know how much money it’s making, but this Percy Jackson Lightning Thief things…those books are best-sellers. There are still people who are insanely fanatical about “Star Trek” and Star Wars. That there is even a SyFy channel alone speaks to that. If you look at the shows that are coming on ABC in the next few weeks, they’re bringing back “V,” which is a remake of an old show back in the eighties, where we all get invaded by giant lizard-like people. They’re also bringing back “Flash Forward.” These are popular shows, and people, for whatever reason, find these entertaining. We’re still drawn to these things. You see it in a lot of other places too, role-playing games, which covers fantasy and science fiction. If you walk into any bookstore, those shelves are going to be packed with stuff. So they’re perennially popular. In some senses they become answers to the culture, or ways to deal with the culture that we’re in that somehow make it easier to cope if we can read about these people dealing with it.

In terms of academic popularity, it became popular, or more prevalent on campuses, in the early to mid seventies, which is when I was in college. But there is still a certain amount of prejudice against it, that “it’s just pop culture. It’s just fluff.”  One of your classmates was talking to me about what science fiction can do in terms of making serious commentary on the world that we’re in, and she was told by someone here, who I did not try to figure out who they were, that it doesn’t do that. It’s just entertainment. Therefore there is no value to it beyond entertainment. Well, that’s not true, but it does represent a mindset about science fiction and fantasy as being easy to dismiss, and not giving it the attention that it should be given, to see exactly what it is doing. It’s still seen as literary fiction and popular fiction, mass market stuff. But on the other hand, more and more schools offer it. I have never had a problem. I’ve heard “I will give you my firstborn if you let me into your Tolkien class, or your fantasy class, science fiction class.” And…that’s an idea. Collect children.

So there’s always an interest in it among the students. And as you guys know, whether you do it or not, there is an active role-playing group of one kind or another on campus. People get really, really into it. And that is, across the board, a common occurrence in American schools. It’s not just us either.

So I see it staying popular, but there’s always going to be a tension between people who want to dismiss as popular culture and those who are willing to engage it as literature. I think popular culture and high culture and all that stuff is really kind of ridiculous. It’s all culture, and then you go from there.

K: Is there any one thing that you can’t stand about either the science fiction or fantasy genres? 0

WR: The stupid stuff.  Some of the stuff on the SyFy channel is just…awful. It’s some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen in my life. I could do better, and I have no training.
When I was a kid, and my parents slept in on Saturday mornings, we got up at six-thirty in the morning and watched “Sunrise Theatre,” and that was where I saw such classics as Godzilla, Behemoth, Mothra, The Blob…The Blob is a good one. And if you take this seriously, that’s ridiculous. It’s silly. It’s exaggerated. It’s badly done, and I think that any genre that doesn’t take itself seriously is ridiculous. It’s like what they did to the Earthsea stuff. They didn’t take the book seriously, and it turned out to be an awful movie. So I think that when you do poorly-executed movies, or stories that are just…the one we were just talking [Twilight] about is a quick read, and it has a young woman as a main character, and I can’t take her seriously. And I want to, because here she is in this traumatic situation, falling in love with a vampire of all things, and then this kind of problematic relationship. A good example of a contrast to that is “True Blood”; here’s an interesting relationship between this woman and a vampire. What are the drawbacks, and how does she handle it? Here we have someone who is you know on the other hand, it’s not taking the relationship seriously, so I think that was the biggest thing that just… every genre has slop [laughs], just stupid stuff.

C: Why do you think the coming of age of a child is so integral to fantasy works and why does it appear so often? 0

WR: There are a couple things going on. Some of it is archetypal stuff. The hero, Jung talks about this. Campbell talks about this. It’s very often seen as the archetype for self. The character in some sense is supposed to be you. And if you see the hero and the quest story as paradigmatic of growing up, it is problematic in a lot of ways. Now, it is being called into task for being androcentric— this is about a man, and that his growing up and him doing public things, is more difficult for a young woman, given the fantasy genre, the sword fighting, the whole out doing stuff thing. Now that’s changing a lot. But if you see fantasy and the fact that we have to grow up to be able to handle the world itself and then that part of growing up is to deal with these classic parts of it. If you look at the hero and the quest story that way, then we have to come to terms with our parents. We have to come to terms with who we are. We have to come to terms with the loss of childhood, the transition to adulthood and being in adulthood itself. We have to come to peace with that and realize we’re giving stuff up and we’re getting stuff. You know, you’ve met people who have a difficult time really making that transition to adults. They can’t quite grow up and be able to handle the responsibilities of it. I think if you see the quest becoming a search for self then there is always going to be something we look after. That’s always going to be popular. The other thing about is whether you resist it and don’t want to do it or runaway from it or whether you embrace it, we all have to come of age; so that makes it always something that is going to speak to every reader.

K: Who is your favorite science fiction or fantasy character and why? 0

WR: Hmm, I can’t pick one, I can pick several. (laughs) I’ve always loved Shevek from The Dispossessed. I thought he was really cool. He has a lot of suffering going on. And I’m just taken with the man. He seems really kind of cool. I find him very dogmatic in a way. He doesn’t bend very well. But he’s still, as described, a bit self righteous (laughs) and that’s difficult sometimes to deal with for anybody. One of the things I admire about him is he understands that one of the things that makes life worth living is to love your job and love your work. I think that’s really important.

Some of the other fantasy characters that come to mind… I like Ged sometimes, the Wizard of Earthsea character even though he makes a lot of dumb mistakes as he kind of grows up but that’s part of it too. We all make dumb mistakes. You know, I think if I had time to think about that I could come up with a better list. I’m just kind of scanning things here [books in his office].

I liked Paul Atreides some of the time. He was a little hard nosed too. But then he had to be to conquer the universe. Kind of a big job. I felt sorry for his sister even when she became a monster. She was possessed by the baron, that image of the baron which is this grotesque monster inside of her head. I first read the Narnia stories when I was eight years old. I was always like, you know, I like Peter. Edmund was a jerk. That kind of stuff. I like Taran, the High King stories, from Lloyd Alexander. They are based on the Welsh cycle of the Mabinogion. Set in Prydain, which is ultra Wales kind of thing and he is under the care of a wizard, Dobin, and he is, his job is to look after the oracular pig and she tells the future by pointing to these fortune teller sticks with their hooves and stuff. There are all these characters they meet from Welsh mythology, like Arawn, the death lord, or the black cauldron that produces zombies and stuff. But it’s about him growing up and finding out who he is and what he has to do accept himself and he always dreamed of being a prince, ‘cause he didn’t know who his parents are. He’s not. He’s a foundling. They found on the side of battlefield. I just love the fact that he becomes who he does. He grows up. He’s a neat kid. Anyway, I could go on and on about that one. Let me stop while I’m ahead.

C: If you suddenly wound up transported to fantasy land, who would you want your mentor to be? 0

WR: My mentor? Gandalf… (Laughs) Of course, I want Gandalf to look after me, yeah… Give me the ring.

K: This one sort of moves more into writing. What are some of your steps in the writing processes and are their any, sort of difficult parts? 0

WR: One of the things I have to know before I can really get the story going is how it ends. I don’t mean I have to have a definite ending. Everyone asks me. I say they all die at the end. Its drives people crazy, but that’s ok.

I do need to know the ending, meaning more than that they’re on a beach. For a story I’m doing now they have to go look after his mother, go find his mother or in another story I’m thinking about they step into the dark and go back. So yeah, if I have that anchor then I can pull in the story to it. Another thing I find that I have to work at, it’s funny, sometimes it comes very easy is “How do I start? What is the moment that I want them to begin with?” And one of the things that I preach about is beginning a story after it’s already started. I feel that’s important. When you see these characters, they’re in motion. Something is going on, and therefore, we can just kind of begin with them and then learn what they already know as they begin, whatever their adventures are. And in that sense, with that I can then creates the arc, the story itself. And you guys know this. I harp on it all the time but outlines are important. A better way to think about is as a map. Sometimes you have physical maps. Sometimes you just have a chronology. Something that tells me that this is where things are kind of going on. It doesn’t mean that 30-40 pages in, “Oh that that doesn’t work” and you throw it out the window. Maps are never etched in stone but something that gives a shape to the story. The other thing that I would call part of the writing process is being open to the story to grow as it grows. As Tolkien says, the story that you tell grows in the telling. My last book, that one that is coming out in the September, I had a character who was a guy, who was going to take our heroes to the Dark Woods, the otherside, whatever. And that was all he was meant to do. Well, it turns out he has a back story. He has former lovers that are dead. He becomes a traitor. He wasn’t supposed to do all that but there you go. It’s kind of like being inside a dream and you have to let it out of the dreams way and let the dream tell itself to you. One of the things I noticed, when I was on sabbatical and someone called and I was foolish enough to leave the typewriter , the keyboard, to answer the phone: “Were you asleep?” because you’re coming back from wherever you are, and I think that’s kind of cool.

Another thing that I noticed that if I hade to describe a pattern, I would write linear and go back in the circle and read it and change it and then go back in a circle. It’s kind of like an arc, or the circle gets bigger and moves forward as you keep going back. There are times that you think that I just got it get it down especially when you’re really into something and then you go back and look at it again. I’m not really sure if I answered your question anyway.

C: No, that was good. My next question: Is there a particular place you like to write? 0

WR: At my computer at home (laughs). I try to carry with me a little notebook to write stuff down in as I think about it. I’m going on this trip tomorrow and I’m taking various things to read and write on while I’m in the plane or when I’m not doing whatever I’m suppose to be doing. I always have to carry stuff with me. I’ve always more interested in when do you write?

C: When do you write? Are you a morning person? 0

WR: I tend to stay up later than I should but I like to write in the middle of the day, late morning. I like to get up and have things going and sit down and write ‘til lunch time. Then take a walk or something and write some more. And then now it’s time to go watch tv, go read, whatever. So it’s more like the middle of the day kind of stuff. The thing I want to add to that is that given when I’m in school, when we’re in the school year, you just have to write when you can. Don’t [say] I wouldn’t write in the morning because in that case I wouldn’t get anything done. You just have to write when you can.  I preach write everyday. I try to do that, but sometimes that means a word, a sentence, or something, but that doesn’t always mean you have to go “I wrote a hundred words today.” I didn’t. It doesn’t always happen that way.

K: When you write your child characters, do you write from the point of view from your own personal childhood? Or is it kind of all made up? 0

WR: Yes. It’s both. In the Harvest of Changeling books, the two main characters, grew out of… let me back up for a minute. I worked as a school librarian for 11 years and the first two schools were K-12 schools and the last two were K-5. In especially the two K-5 schools, which were in Raleigh, NC, I spent a lot of time with learning disabled children and working with them and kind of being a tutor in some respects and I was fascinated by the skewed way they see the world and the fact that in many ways is just different. Even though the way our world is set up, they are at a disadvantage.  Like an autistic child in many ways is different as opposed to handicapped in that there are things and abilities that children who are seen as handicapped or disabled, whatever, can do, that aren’t always plain to those [that believe] this is how it’s suppose to be. So those children, the two [of the four] were drawn straight out of kids I knew who were LD kids. And one of them, for example, was obsessed with dinosaurs, which is little boy heaven. Little boys, dinosaurs. Little girls, horses, God knows why. I was fascinated with who they were and how they interacted and how they saw themselves. And one of the little boys also was from a poor, working class family. I took that as a part of who he was. The little girl was very bright, and I knew there was a kid in the school, lots of bright children who I worked with, became a model of how she interacted and who she was. In terms of myself, I think there are bits of me in all those kids. The father was a librarian—Oh, wow! That’s what I was doing— so it was very easy to give him his job, his place. I’ve probably done enough librarian characters for and I should give it a rest and start doing professor characters. But, yeah, I’d say they come out of both places: kids that I knew and myself, my brothers, you know, children that I knew. There’s a great question they asked Maurice Sendak when he was being interviewed. He has no children. Well, how could you write The Wild Things? You have no kids. “I was a child once.”

C: Well, I had a question about Ben, the librarian, like where did you start coming up with the idea of him and all those kids? But you already answered that. 0

WR: Yeah, he’s me in a lot of ways. He dies though.

C: What!?

WR: They kill him.

C: What!?

WR: They all die in the end. (laughs)

C: They kill him in Faerie?

WR: I’m not going to tell you what happens.

C: Are you still working on that sequel?

WR: It’s coming out in September.

C: What made Valeria decide to move right next door to him? What was so special about that spot?

WR: It’s called serendipity. (laughter) I needed her there!

C: And then, the one that’s coming out is the sequel to Harvest of the Changelings, right?

WR: Yup.

C: And you said in The Freelance Star that it’s about Father Jamey or did that change? 0

WR: Well, it’s set 21 years later, in 2012, and when the story begins, you find out that Malachi and Hazel have returned to Earth, and they returned earlier. They’ve been there for a while. They left Russell and Jeff in Faerie which has caused some grief and pain on both parts. Ben can’t come back with Malachi and Hazel because they’re going to get married. He wants to be near his grandchildren. He wants to be near his son. Even though he promised these other two are his sons too, and they’re kind of mad at him for that. He is remarried, the third time, another fairy woman. But they return to a world that sounds familiar, but it’s not. We’ve not done very well in adjusting to magical people here, and the magical rights movement is the new cause, the new social movement, even as the efforts to repress it are getting more and more pronounced, more angry, and American politics are a mess. Father Jamey turned out to be less of a dominant character until they were on their quest. Then he became part of the quest itself. In this quest, they’re trying to rescue Malachi. He gets in trouble again. They need to go get him out of prison.

C: What’d he do? 0

WR: He just is. They want his power. When these four, now that they’re adults –

C: Are they still a tetrad? 0

WR: They’re still a tetrad. My pattern for it was that you form a juvenile tetrad. It sometimes reforms as an adult tetrad, but when it does, you are now an adult with full power. And these kids are probably the most powerful ones here. And if you can control that power, you can do things. Very bad things.

K: Since you sometimes base bits of your characters off of people you know, do you ever feel the need to self-censor when you draw from people? 0

WR: Good question! (laughter) I was just thinking about that the other day, as a matter of fact. There’s a story coming out in Icarus, which is a new magazine, that has as its audience, gay men who write science fiction and fantasy. I set the story in Richmond, it’s about a gay werewolf, how he grows up, comes of age, and meets this guy. They have to suffer through, well, what do you do when you fall in love with a werewolf? It’s kind of a problem. He meets as one of his mentors, this professor, who lives upstairs in his house… and I borrowed her shamelessly from somebody I know. Even down to the house! And I’ve been trying to decide, ‘Do I need to tell her this or not?’ I think she’d be okay with it, but then I thought, in other words, no, I don’t really care. I just go ahead and use them anyway. I don’t censor it. It is kind of fun, but I don’t think anybody I’ve ever appropriated has any reason to feel bad about it, so I just don’t worry about it. Though I think invariably, when I write a mother, I’m drawing on my own mother. You know, or a father. I had, growing up, kind of a struggling relationship with my dad. And I notice that a lot of my characters have the same thing. And some make peace, some don’t. I think Russell’s father in Harvest is just the epitome of bad. And Jeff’s father’s worse. One of them sexually abuses a kid; the other is physically abusive to a kid. That never happened with my dad, but the idea that you exaggerate and blow up these things comes out of some sense… and I’m not telling you I was abused, something like that… but the fact that I was angry at my dad sometimes becomes a part of my stories. Now things are a lot different, I have a lot better relationship, but that’s not the story.

K: So has anyone ever read your books and come back to you and been like, ‘Hey, is this me?’ 0

WR: My brother did that. Yeah. He didn’t do it quite that way, but he was saying, ‘You know? That game they play? We did when we were kids, didn’t we?’ And he was right. My friend Ellen, who’s my best friend from ever, she knows too much. She’s really good at it, but she’s known me since I was sixteen. I may really have to kill her at some point.

C: Your story takes place in North Carolina. Do people from North Carolina read it? Do they enjoy it? 0

WR: Oh yeah. People have actually followed it.

C: Did they drive the path that your characters took to get to The Devil’s Tramping Ground? 0

WR: No, they didn’t do that much. Professor Sumner, here, we’re ten years apart but our lives echoed each other’s, she went to Carolina, she studied at Greensboro, etc. – she says, ‘I love the fact that I know all this stuff!’ And that’s neat. There are other people in North Carolina who say, ‘Oh yeah, The Devil’s Tramping Ground.’ They’ve been there, they recognize it, they tell the stories. A lot of stuff that inspired some of that was reading … there was a book called This Haunted Land, a book of local ghost stories. I must have memorized that stuff. And I finally found the Devil’s Tramping Ground before I wrote the book. Yeah. I think one of the reasons I do that is, here’s an anchor, and then let’s play with that anchor. Play with your mind. It’s always a sport.

C: What is the most difficult thing for you to write about? 0

WR: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think it’s sometimes hard to really do bad things.  You know, I’ve had people’s brains being eaten, and hearts being torn out of bodies… why is that a big deal? Sometimes it’s that evil is necessary, and bad things happen, and horribly bad things happen, but sometimes you have to go back. I find myself saying, ‘Okay, you really have to kill this person.’ And that’s kind of hard sometimes. Though they probably deserve it.

K: What is the importance of naming in your stories? How do you create names? 0

WR: Oh, I spend a lot of time with names. I have baby name books, I buy them and look up the names, look up the etymology, the definitions of the names; I spend time with names.  Probably more time because if I don’t have the right name, I can’t go on it. Some names I borrow shamelessly from people: the foster parents of Jeff, my friend Ellen, Ellen Clarke, a guy who in the writing program at Greensboro was Jim Clarke. I took his last name, her husband’s name was Fred, one of my professors was Fred – that kind of stuff I do all the time. In The Wild Boy is the wolf, the people who live in the ruins of civilization. Well, Caleb means “dog.” And so I went looking for a name that would suit him in that sense. Other names – Lucius, light bearer, you know. Russell has red hair. So I spend a lot of time looking for names that, even though they don’t have that specific of a reference to an attribute of the character, they feel right. I spend a lot of time playing with middle names, sounding them out and practicing them, that kind of stuff. I think there’s just an inordinate power in names and we have to be careful as we choose them because this is how people identify this stuff. They echo it, and they use it. So, yeah, I work at it… probably too much. On the other hand, some of the alien names… ‘Oh, okay, that sounds good.’ (laughter) You can kind of be a little cavalier sometimes.

C: How do you know when your work is done? And do you miss your characters once you’ve finished their story? 0

WR: Oh, yeah. I miss them a lot, I like to know what happens to them. There comes a point when you know what the ending’s going to be, then I know that it’s over. But that doesn’t mean you can’t dance around it for a while? Like, ‘Is this where I leave them? And how do I want to leave them?’ That’s something I’m not really good at; I’d like to be tougher about sad endings but you know they do die in the end. I think there’s a sense that the work is done. That doesn’t mean that there’s not more work to be done later but whatever it is, is done. And you kind of have to… one of the things that I know this is difficult for young writers, how do you get somebody on stage and how do you get them off? How do you draw the curtain? And part of its rhythm and the ending in some ways has to have echoes for the rest of the book. And in this last book, for example, one of the things that Russell does is to press his heart and I know that for him that is kind of a blessing in a way and also it is something that he’s done to say “I still have one.” It’s important that he knows that in the end because he’s always been fighting with how to love people, so I wanted that to be a part of how it ended for him, press his heart. And it was important for the four of them to be together because they finally accept who they are. And in The Wild Boy, I had two endings and I had to have them on the beach and my editor said, “You can’t do this. They’re wandering off down the beach and it’s not ending. End it. End it at the funeral.” That’s a pretty sharp ending. So I had him dream about the beach, then I felt better about it. But you had to have a cake; this work is done and that’s probably the best way to put it.

K: How does teaching writing help improve your own writing? 0

WR: Huh, I mean, I’ve thought about this question a lot because I read a lot of student stories and they range in quality as you guys know, having read some of them, your classmate’s stories. I think that in a lot of ways it reminds me of what it’s like to grow as a writer and it also helps especially when it’s working for a student, and you’re like ‘Wow, they’ve got it, they’re doing it’ that’s a reminder of that thrill of it and that this is what I want them to feel; I want them to have that, ‘It’s working, it’s going, it’s doing what I want them to do’ and someone gets it. I think that the other thing that makes me aware of, jumping back and forth, and I feel like I say that too many times in class, but whatever, but the importance of language itself and being aware of the power of it whether you’re worrying about something that is mundane where the comma goes, or where the semi-colon goes, or if the metaphor doesn’t work, and I think that helps kind of keep reminding me of that importance and also that it’s all process. It’s all progress, that it’s all home going and I think that’s important to remember and it’s fun. I like talking to people about writing and that is something that given the nature of my job, I’m not given the chance to talk to more established writers that often, just you guys.

C: Do you have a book that you’ve been meaning to write but haven’t been able to yet? 0

WR: Yes, I thought about briefly, a sequel to The Wild Boy. I haven’t come up with one other than the it’s about Caleb’s great grandson and he goes to Alaska and he meets sentient bears, who are descendants of the aliens but that’s all I’ve got out of that one. Maybe I’ll write it, maybe I won’t. I read a short story for, every now and then you’ll get call for stories for anthologies, if you’re big enough or important enough, that ask you to write a story and I happen to know the editor of the story for this book. So I read a story about a guy who meets a fairy and they have relationship and then the fairy is taken away and is pulled back into the fairy and the big premise of the story is was ‘What would Faerie be like if Galadriel kept the ring?’ Bad things happen. Or if the White Witch didn’t get dethroned or the Dark Lord stays in power, which I always thought it was kind of fascinating. What would Dark Faerie look like? I leave him going to go look for his friend. Well, I wrote that about a year ago. I’ve been thinking there’s a story here that’s longer than that. It took me months to figure out what a Dark Faerie would look like. And just last week, I went ‘Oh. Ok. That’s what it’d look like.’ In that sense, I think it’s always the next story and will I ever write one that’s so beautiful that’ll win the great prize? But that’s kind of silly. So, you’re always looking for the next one, whatever it is.

K: Does it vary? Is it always a place that you have to go to first or is it a character? Or is it different for each one? 0

WR: It’s different for each one. With the Harvest book, I began with the premise ‘all fairy tales are true.’ And I’ve always been fascinated by the Earth, Wind, and Fire, you know, the four elements of it. The other thing that I found fascinating, that I still find fascinating, is the intersection of Faerie with this world and the complications thereof. And the mundane versus the magical. Or the mundane and the magical. With The Wild Boy, it was really one of those times when it was a real actual dream. I dreamed about children being kept in red cages, translucent red glass. I woke up thinking ‘Well, how did they get there?’ Then I started thinking ‘What about if people were kept in cages? Well, who do we keep in cages? We keep animals in cages so people are treated like pets. So it went from there. It begins sometimes with an image. Begins with a dream. Sometimes it begins with a character and what happens to them. Or it begins with an idea and where you might go with that. There’s a story that… it’s funny sometimes how creativity comes in weird and strange moments. My mother was very ill. I think that you guys know that she died a few years ago. I was going to North Carolina every weekend on a regular basis. I found myself writing a book based on a short story I’d written a couple years before that. I don’t know how I found the energy to do that ‘cause it was enough to keep going back. The illness just kept going and going until she died. I went back and looked at it and though ‘My God. How did I do that?’ But the premise for that began with ‘Fairies are fairies’ so all fairies are bisexual. What does that mean? Then you go play with the tetrad. A lot of times it’s an idea. It’s an image. It’s a character I find fascinating. It’s an idea that I really want to explore and the best way I want to explore it is in the metaphor of magic and fairy. I do more fantasy than I do science fiction because I’m not a science major. (laughs) It’s a lot a work. I found more of an affinity for going back and reading mythology than reading chemistry which I never learned. I never took it. I avoided it like the plague when I was in college and high school for a good reason.

K: Do science fiction writers have different editors that are maybe more knowledgeable about that kind of thing? 0

WR: If you’re going to be sending off a manuscript to a publisher, it’s going to be sent out to someone who reads that stuff. That person, in theory, knows something about the field and the market and where yours would fit into it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to get anything out of it. They wouldn’t be able to respond on its own merits.  Any publishing house that’s big enough would have a science fiction or fantasy editors. This is the person who works with mystery, romance, that kind of stuff. I had Harvest to be reviewed by The Free-Lance Star. One of the reasons why they hesitated was there’s nobody there that read it. They found somebody but they were like if we don’t have somebody who reads this then we can’t do a good review of it. And they’re right.

C: How has your view of the publishing world changed since you’ve been published? 0

WR: I feel like I don’t know enough about it. I need to learn. I need to be a little savvier about it and how to work the system. I haven’t had any luck getting an agent. That would help. (Laughs) I’ve tried several times. I’ll try again sometime soon. Probably this summer. I think one of the things is that as much as you want to believe to an extent about how good a story is, it isn’t always the case. Otherwise we wouldn’t have big vampire stories right now. They sell. Sometimes things sell and they aren’t good. And that’s depressing. (Laughs)

C: The rest of the questions I had to ask you were answered when you broke my heart by saying Ben dies. When the Changelings get to Faerie, they haven’t really honed their powers. So how do they come to use them? 0

WR: Well, they’re children when they get there. Russell’s like 13. Malachi and Jeff are about ten. She’s about nine. They have to grow up a little bit, become who they are. They are taught. They get a mentor. They get a tutor which I completely leave out because I’m not interested in it. But they’re there. And you are aware that there are people that their job it is to tutor and train people to be a Fire, an Air, a Water. There is a sense that they are taking lessons. I mention it very briefly. They grow into their powers as they learn what it means. They also learn what it means to be for. As I set up, a juvenile tetrad will either fall apart or become dormant that allows them to separate for awhile and then they reunite later. When they do come back to Earth, they are adults and are aware of what their powers are but they can deal with it. They’re aware that they may be reluctant to use their powers to fight the bad guys but they have to. Bad things happen. Very bad things.

K: Is there a special significance to four? 0

WR: Earth, Air, Fire, Water.

K: How do you come up with the culture for them? 0

WR: I made it up. (Laughs)

K: Where does that start? 0

WR: I did a lot of research on the four medieval elements. There’s a lot more out there than I thought there was. Even the Cherokee have it which helps for the last book because it takes place a long time on a reservation. Not to the extent that western medieval culture does but there’s a long association with certain characteristics of Earth, Air, Water and Fire. The zodiac is divided into four groups. There are Earth signs, Air signs, Water signs and so forth. Their attributes are personality which goes with which sign they have. I think I have a water sign as a Scorpio. Anyway, you have that sense. You have also the sense that three is the sacred number. Four is the number of the earth. The perfect number is seven because you bring the Sacred and the Earth together. You know, God’s at work. There’s references to four corners of the world. Over and over again there are signs of the four. And also the square itself is a unity. A different kind of unity from the circle, but it’s a unity.  I read a lot about the different attributes of it. I read a lot about different kinds of fairies and what they can do. I got really taken with the glowing part. That’s kind of cool. You ever see those little glow things you wear around your head? I love those. It was like ‘Oh! Ok! That’s what they look like!’ I was in a conference at San Antonio, Texas. The river goes through the city and you walk down. They have all these funky restaurants and stuff down the riverbank. There was a guy down there selling the jewels that glow. Those are really cool. They also had one with like arrows. And it was just like ‘Oh yeah. This is what they should be doing. They should be glowing like this.’ I pick up odd places where it comes along. That’s part of it. I’ve always been taken with Celtic mythology so I read a lot about the different gods and what they can do and stuff. I did a lot of that kind of stuff. Then, you know, just some stuff about adolescence and growing up, learning disabilities, those kinds of things. That sort of coalesced into ‘if this is an Air, what can he do?’ Then you play with the idea then well ‘if he’s an Air, he can manipulate the wind. If he’s an Air, he’s telepathic because that moves through the air.’ Fires are fun because they just burn things. (laughs) Like trailers. Or if you get a little upset, the trashcans catch on fire. Oops. Things happen. So again you play with that kind of stuff. I noticed, this is not unusual tome. I just watched the first Percy Jackson book. Well, he’s the son of Poseidon. When he gets in the water, he gets powers because he’s a god’s son.  Hazel, for example, if she can touch the ground, she can rejuvenate and restore herself. The same for the other four. There are things that they need.

C: Is that what makes it so hard for her to live in Faerie? 0

WR: She’s called back to Earth. That’s something I knew from the beginning that she’d come back. From way, way back, I knew she’d go back and I knew he would follow her.

C: Does Alex [her cat] go too or does he die? Please don’t tell me Alex died. 0

WR: [pause] He’s a nice kitty. He’s based off my first cat that I had. That cat did die, my real cat. My first cat died the first year I was here. It was awful. He was a Siamese. His name wasn’t Alex. I have a cat now that’s named Alex. I played with the attributes of that cat and um, what was your question? Did he die?

C: Yeah, does he die? 0

WR: All things die, Caroline. (laughs) Life is not permanent. Otherwise, I’m not going to answer that question! I’ve had you for too many classes! You’re impertinent!  Other stuff?

C: I think that was it. I think we wanted to ask you about world building if you want to go on a world building rant. 0

WR: Well, I think I’ve ranted about that several times to both of you.

K: We like this one.

C: Yeah!


WR: I obviously think it’s important. I wouldn’t make a big deal about it if it didn’t. . One of the reasons I set mine in a contemporary world is because the world is already there. But that does not mean that I don’t really work for the details that are in for. For example, in the book that’s coming out, it’s set… two or three chapters are set on the Cherokee reservations in North Carolina. I’d been there a lot of times but I realized that what I remembered may not be the real thing. So my friend Ellen, the Saint of the World. She lives in Atlanta. I flew down to Atlanta. We drove up to Cherokee. It’s like three hours. We went to all the places I could find where I knew the book took place. I took pictures. I walked around it. There’s a bend in the river where there is supposed to be a monster of the Cherokee that lives down there. I thought ‘Well, that’s a great place for a gate. He’s a gate guardian.” I looked for him but I didn’t see him. Maybe he was sleeping. There’s also a place in the book that, according to Cherokee mythology, this mound, Kituwah, is where the first village ever.. this is where Cherokee began. That began a source of sacred power. The tribe just bought it back a few years ago which is kind of cool. That became a place in the book where I knew a kind of power has to happen here. There is some kind of inherent magic in the ground itself so that was something that was… What was the original question? (laughs)

C: World building. 0

WR: So that becomes part of the world building that I wanted to make the elements that I could go look at as real as possible. I dragged my parents down to the Devil’s Tramping Ground. They were saints. But I was very disappointed. It’s not much bigger than this room and they haven’t taken care of it. I gave a reading at a library in Richmond and the guy went and looked it up. That’s kind of cool. It says it’s forty feet diameter which isn’t all that big. I look up a lot of that kind of stuff. The magic spells, I looked them all up. They aren’t exactly as they were but they’re based on ones I looked up. All that stuff I researched somewhere.

C: Did they really eat hearts? 0

WR: Well, there’s a certain amount of sympathetic magic. The people who do consume body parts believe they’re taking a part of that person and that’s where I got that from. I mean, it’s not prevalent in our culture, as far as we know… There are reasons cannibals eat people beside they taste good. They want to get the power of it. So I did a lot of work on that. I have maps of Raleigh and Chapel Hill. When my parents took me, we went down to find the Devil’s Tramping Ground which is like twenty miles south of Chapel Hill. I had to find a church. I needed burn one up on my way back out. So I stopped ‘Oh! There’s a good placed one. It’s the right place for it.’ One of my old professors has a horse farm. She’s left with it as a result. Her husband died. She has fourteen big pets. They’re very expensive pets. They’re raising Arabians but at this point it’s difficult for her to care for them. And, you know, she said they’re getting kind of old and they’re starting to die off and it’s expensive to take care of a horse. Anyway, I wanted a perfect place for them to hang out and rest so I went to her house and took pictures. So that part makes the world more real and more authentic. When I set things in the future, you know I can make things anyway I want, I still try to follow a template. I do make the other details of the world.. For example, when it says Tuesday, Janaury 3, it really is Tuesday, January 3. I look up perpetual calendars and I find the date. You get to have a mind like an attic sometimes. (laughs) There’s all this junk in there but that’s ok. It’s kind of fun.

C: Anything else you want to say? 0

WR: They all die at the end. (laughs)

Kay: When you encounter someone who’s never heard of interactive fiction, how do you explain it to them? 0

Aaron Reed: It depends a lot on their age. For people that are 30 or younger, I can usually say it’s like a video game, but more textual (or something like that), whereas most people my age or younger are familiar with “choose your own adventure” books and I can use that as a starting point. For older people, I usually have to back up and say it’s like reading a book, but with the computer’s ability to let you influence the story. There’s definitely a generational shift between people who are comfortable with that concept and people who didn’t grow up with it, so they don’t have the same framework to deal with the idea.

K: I’ve tried to explain it to people my age (early twenties), too – I tend to start with the “choose your own adventure” comparison and some people are still confused as to how interactive fiction is different. 0

AR: An analogy that I sometimes use is that a “choose your own adventure” is a forking paths structure where you have a choice to go this way or that way. The stuff I do is more like a braided rope where for whatever choices you make, there’s one main story that you always get, but the game remembers the choices that you make and those come back later on to make the story more personal to your own experience.

K: How and when did you learn about interactive fiction and what made you start writing it? 0

AR: I’m right on the edge of being too young to actually have experienced it when it was really new and being first commercially sold. When I was about 6 or 7, my family got their first computer and my uncle bought me a floppy disk that had some classic (this is like mid-80s, right – classic!) computer games and one of them was “Adventure,” which was like the first interactive fiction – I totally fell in love with it. I already liked to read a lot and I also liked playing around on the computer and that was the perfect combination of both of those things. So, I played some as a kid and then I forgot about it for a long time. Around 2002, I rediscovered that there was a whole community of people on the Internet who were writing new games in that medium and doing other IF-related stuff, so I caught up on what people were doing in the fan community. I think the first IF that I wrote was in 2003. It was mainly a spare time/hobby thing, but then people started getting really interested in the stuff I was doing. That’s the main focus of what I’m doing in this graduate program is writing that kind of stuff, so it’s kind of become a more central thing for me in the last few years.

K: So you’ve read a lot of science fiction stuff; are any of those authors your influences? What do you draw from when you create your stories? 0

AR: Yeah, I’ve always been a big science fiction fan and a lot of those authors have influenced my writing style and the sorts of ideas I’m interested in – people like Samuel R. Delaney and Octavia Butler. It’s kind of tricky to straddle the divider between good science fiction and serious literary quality, but authors who can do that tend to be my favorites. When I was younger, I read Heinlein, Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.

K: How many of the IF stories out there are sci-fi and fantasy? Do you think IF is a good medium for those stories? Better than traditional stories? About the same? 0

AR: It’s interesting – there’s a lot of fantasy IF, but not a lot of good science fiction IF and I’m not sure why. Fantasy obviously plays into exploration and that kind of stuff. That’s a really good question – I don’t know why you see less sci-fi IF. I mean, there is sci-fi IF, but most of the stuff that’s sci-fi related is more like another genre. There’s one IF, Slouching Towards Bedlam, that’s kind of like steampunk Victorian London, so it’s not really what you think of when you think of sci-fi. Emily Short has a sci-fi IF called Floatpoint, but it’s very social sci-fi – it’s all centered on the society of this alien world that you’re on and it’s sort of conversation-based, so it’s not really the quintessential science fiction story that you think of. Someday I would love to write a sci-fi IF, but I haven’t done it yet, so maybe other authors are in that same situation. Theoretically, I think the ability to project yourself into that world and explore it and all that stuff plays well to that sort of genre. There’s been some horror IF that’s pretty good, but it’s kind of tricky to maintain the sort of pacing required for horror when you constantly have to stop and then the player has to give a command to type. People have done it, but it’s trickier.

K: Which horror IF are you thinking of? 0

AR: The most famous one is probably Anchorhead which was kind of a Lovecraftian game from the mid-90s, pretty early in the IF movement. There’s also one called Blue Chairs that I really like that’s set in the present day. You’re a college student at a party and I think right as the game starts, you’ve just taken some weird mystery drug that someone at the party gave you. Then you start having this breakdown and you start seeing things and it’s really disturbing. That one’s really great at creating a scary atmosphere.

K: What’s your creation process like when you write these stories? You’ve got some work published in the Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. How does writing interactive fiction differ from writing traditional stories? 0

AR: The interesting thing about interactive fiction is that it feels much more like writing normal fiction than writing something that involves more heavy duty programming. I wrote Blue Lacuna in Inform 7 which has a natural language syntax. It’s a lot easier for me to keep my brain in the constructed English sentences mode with the more natural language. When I do the coding parts, it’s not this total paradigm shift to different kind of brain function. As far as the story, it’s seems like whether I’m writing regular fiction or interactive fiction, I have to write very iteratively. I’ll write a draft and then I’ll have to just rewrite it over and over and over again. That makes it difficult with interactive fiction because you’re not just writing the text, you’re thinking about how the person’s going to use it, and so it’s more complicated and takes a lot longer if it’s interactive. I remember in an Isaac Asimov biography, he has a story about how he didn’t own a typewriter so he would go to the library and type up his stories on a typewriter and write them directly. He would just go to the library and spend a couple of hours on a typewriter and type out his whole story, first draft, and send it in.

Then a fire drill happened and Kay had to shut off Skype and run outside, thus the last part of the previous thought is missing. 🙂

K: It seems like you guys have a pretty small community – when you’re working on your stories, do you ever talk to each other while you’re in the creation process? Is there a workshop sort of element at all? 0

AR: We really should do something like that; there isn’t enough stuff like that going on. I think it’s partially because if you look at the intersection between writers and computer programmers, you get a lot of people who spend a lot of time in their basements and not in the sunlight, so it tends to be people who are fairly insular and not in the habit of collaborating or communicating. Most IF authors just tend go off and write a game for a year and then say, “Look! I made this thing!” There’s that whole thing with writers too about you don’t want to show others your work until it’s finished, so that could be part of it too. I think it would be great if there was a lot more swapping of stuff. I like the idea of having a group of beta testers who are the testers from when you start writing it, so from day one you could ask questions like, “what if a player could do this or this?” and they could say whether or not that would work. The interaction is a critical component to the process, so to only have people start interacting with it when it’s almost finished is not ideal.

K: How long did Blue Lacuna take you in its entirety? 0

AR: A long time. I had the idea in 2005 while I was working on Whom the Telling Changed, my previous IF. It was something in the back of my mind that I played with a little bit. I actually started it sometime around then and then I had a hard drive crash and lost it all. I didn’t have the heart to go back and do everything again, so I kind of gave up on it for awhile. About a year after that, I reconceptualized it and came up with a slightly different approach and started working on it again. I didn’t really have any idea that it was going to turn out to be such a big project, but as I kept working on it, I kept having to flesh things out more and more. That was partially a natural process, but it was also partially because one of the things I really wanted to do with Blue Lacuna was make the choices that people make meaningful. For a long time, I envisioned the opening sequence before you answer the Call as exposition where you would learn how wayfaring worked. Then you would leave Rume, go to Lacuna and go on with the rest of the story. Some of the first testers who played that complained because they weren’t able to make the choice to stay with Rume. The choice is offered, but then you can’t follow through with it. So I had to iterate that until I got to a point where you could make that choice and still eventually end up in Lacuna, but if you make that choice, it has consequences for the rest of the game. If you choose that path, things happen later on in the game that happen differently than they would have if you had made another choice. Thinking through the ramifications of letting people make actual choices kept expanding the amount of writing required. I kept thinking that I was about three months from being finished with it, but it took about three years.


K: I found the video of the time lapse of you working on IF. Do you set aside time to write every day or do you write whenever? How do you balance all of that since IF is so time-consuming? 0

AR: A lot of the Blue Lacuna writing took almost all of my spare time – so with my weekends, I would just spend all day working on it. Since that project’s gotten finished, I’ve been back on a more sane schedule. I’ve never had a good work ethic about writing every day just as an exercise; I have to get on some project that I get obsessed by and then I’ll write every day. I guess my writing is sporadic; when I have something that I want to write, I will write it.

K: In the beginning of Blue Lacuna, you’re able to pick your character’s gender and sexuality and I think that’s a good way to bring in your audience. How do you think about your audience differently when you’re writing interactive fiction? 0

AR: There’s a couple of ways you can approach something like that. In the earliest interactive fiction, the character you were playing wasn’t really defined; it was just assumed that you were you or some generic person. More recently, there’s been a movement to define the player character much more precisely and give the “you” character a name, a history, a gender, an age and all those sorts of things. This is great for characterization, but what I’m more interested in is merging those two. I think part of the power of an interactive story is, more so than a regular story, projecting yourself into the role of the character. In the stuff that I’ve done, my characters have certain traits – like in Blue Lacuna, you’re a wayfarer – but I really try to leave things like gender and age open as much as I can. In Blue Lacuna, you can explicitly set some of those because I think it helps you connect more with the story if you can feel like “yeah, what if I was doing this?” or “what if someone like me was doing this?” I think that’s a strength of the medium, not necessarily a limitation of the second person voice. However, there are a lot of opinions on that.

K: What I liked most about Blue Lacuna was the description and the setting. I liked being able to explore all of the different aspects of the world. How do you balance setting and description with moving forward with the story and the puzzles and everything else? 0

AR: In writing for interactive fiction, that’s another thing that’s different from writing normal fiction. There’s a lot of descriptive writing because you have to paint a clear enough picture in the mind of the player that they understand what actions they can take. You have to describe things in a lot more specific detail than a novelist. If you’re reading a book, it doesn’t matter where the door is, but in IF, that can be important. Finding the balance between keeping the narrative flow and all of the other descriptive stuff can be tricky. In some ways, Blue Lacuna is like a giant homage to the adventure games I loved as a kid. A very strong component to all those games is exploration and the feeling that you’re losing yourself in this fictional place. I spent a lot of time on that in Blue Lacuna, probably more than I would have for another IF where I wasn’t setting out to bring that sort of effect to the fore. That’s why the descriptions on the island change based on the time of day it is. That ended up making it a lot more work to write all that stuff, but it felt really important to me. I really wanted the island to have some sort of real feeling behind it. Normally in IF, each room has one description and after you visit it the first time, you always get that same description when you come back to it. To me, it stops feeling like I’m exploring and it feels more like the computer is just spitting out a piece of text at me. I had this idea with Blue Lacuna that every time you went back to somewhere, the description would be a little different so that it kept feeling like you were exploring, even for the places you’d been before. I don’t know if all the extra work to create that effect was really worth it in the end, but it was an interesting experiment.