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Monday, May 24, 2010

Interview w/ Jack Skillingstead

Jack Skillingstead was kind enough to answer a few questions for me. You can read my review of his novel, Harbinger, here. Thanks again to Mr. Skillingstead for his time and patience. Here goes:

First things first, can you tell us a little about yourself (a sort of mini bio)?

I was born in a working class suburb of Seattle and grew up there, which I suppose formed my character in all the usual ways of environmental influences. My dad was a model builder for the Boeing company. He worked on the moon buggy for the later Apollo missions and built wind tunnel models for the piggy-back 747 / space shuttle. I remember him being quite excited about that project. My mother was a housewife and the big reader in the house. I remember being impressed, as a small child, that she was reading a science fiction story -- the Post's serialization of Asimov's "Fantastic Voyage." I learned to read by following along with my mother's repeated out loud readings to me of favorite comic books. And I remember the exact moment the black marks in the word balloon became a recognizable word. The word was "said." Bradbury claims to remember being born. I don't remember that, but I remember my birth as a word-recognizer. That remains the most important educational step in my autodidactic life. As for formal education, mine proceeded along unremarkable lines. I have three brothers and one sister, all older. My own kids are grown. One is a student at Chapman University in California, the other is following a more erratic path in life -- as have I. Currently I live in the city with fellow writer Nancy Kress, which makes life very pleasant.

Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books? What are you currently reading?

I especially love the stories and novels of Daryl Gregory. He's a kindred spirit. Paolo Bacigulupi is doing incredible work, of course. The short stories of Ted Kosmatka are all knockouts, and Del Rey is doing his first novel, The Helix Game, next year. I'm very much looking forward to that one. Those are some of my contemporaries, in terms of publishing time lines, though I'm a little older than all of them. I'm also enamored with Kessel, Kress, Willis, Haldeman and numerous others. Going back, it's Bradbury, Matheson, Beaumont, Ellison, Sturgeon and Zelazny. These are all writers I return to again and again. I'm talking about genre now, that's leaving out mainstream and classic writers. Currently I'm reading Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg and Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose, which is a study of Victorian-era marriages of literary types.

What drew you into writing, and, specifically, what drew you to science fiction?

From my earliest memory I've been attracted to science fiction, fantasy and horror. When I was younger -- teenage through 20s -- the emphasis was more on horror. Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Weird Tales era Bradbury, Richard Matheson's short stories plus Hell House and of course I Am Legend. Stephen King. Peter Staub's early novels, pre Ghost Story. This was also a time when I read a lot real-world horror -- the fast and dirty novels of James Ellroy, for instance. Holy shit! Blood On The Moon. Suicide Hill. That stuff was disturbing. But to get back to your question, I can't tell you what drew me and continues to draw me to science fiction. People simply have different filters. My filters catch anything that occurs off the straight and narrow path of the mainstream. As for writing my own stories, I always wanted to do that, though my approach was in more of an optimistic vein when I was a kid and thought I'd write Star Trek type stories. When I actually started producing fiction the quality was pretty wretched, and whatever hotspots occurred usually came out of the dark side of my psyche. So it has been ever since. John Clute said something very perceptive is his mini-review of my collection. He said, paraphrasing, sometimes the stories seemed like a form of therapy. I would only add that these therapy sessions, like real therapy, tended to yield the most interesting results the darker and less certain the outcome.
Your novel, Harbinger, is placed in a rather interesting place within the spectrum of narratives about immortals. While fantasy has largely focused on vampires and other inhuman immortals, your novel takes a more science-fictional approach to the concept. What inspired you to write Harbinger?

There is a science fiction cliché: The ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. I wanted to see what happened to an ordinarily warped man in extraordinary circumstances -- the man so warped and the circumstances so extraordinary that the reader, at times, wouldn't even know if the circumstances were real. This is a little bit of a Phillip K. Dick approach, but I also wanted the book to be fun and adventurous. And of course it had to be tied in to me personally -- you know, a "therapy" book. My first inspiration to write it at all was simply that I wanted to do a novel that I could sell. I'd already written several that hadn't been successful. This felt like a do-or-die effort. It was time. Of course, the book got rejected all over the place, and I didn't die as a result. And it did eventually find a publisher.

You're right about the current tendency to focus on vampires, but I don't think Ellis Herrick is too far out of the spectrum of immortals in science fiction history. Zelazny wrote about science fiction based immortals all the time, as did other accomplished writers in decades past. Personally, I can't get behind romanticizing the vampire, though I did like the first two Ann Rice books.

Additionally, what do you think it is that draws us to immortals? Why are we fascinated by characters who can live forever and why do we keep coming back to them, whether in vampiric form or in the vein in which you have written Harbinger?

The answer is so obvious that I am tempted to think it must be wrong. We're attracted to immortals because. . . we don't want to die! Well, there's probably more to it, but it all comes back to that. With Harbinger, I was interested in the marvelous freedom suggested by Ellis's evolution. Have you read Zelazny's Amber books? I really loved that whole walking through Shadow concept, and I wanted a little bit of that flavor in my own book. All that stuff in the final section, where they are driving the Bus across space-time reality, and when Ellis walks down the tunnel and the living rock sort of blends into the wall plaster of his childhood home hundreds of years lost and gone back on Earth -- I'm highly enamored of the idea that time and space just might be an illusion that we more or less prop up with our own minds. In the sense of memory and imagination, of course, that is a true proposition. Sit back, right now, and allow your mind to conjure something from when you were, say, twelve years old. Is it vivid? Like it just happened? Chances are some of it is. And if the memory is constructed around an incident your mind is probably imposing some kind of narrative structure, parts of which "really happened" and others that you think happened, but probably didn't, at least not in exactly the way you seem to be remembering. This is what writers do all the time: Plunge into memory and imagination and make something new that feels authentic. The best fiction resides in the reader's mind like a true memory.
What, for you, was the most difficult aspect of putting together a story that spans hundreds of years with one character at the helm? Writing about an immortal must be just as difficult as being one!

Making the future believable was difficult, but I side-stepped a number of potential problems by writing it as an interior novel and telling it in first person. Ellis isn't exactly the classic unreliable narrator, but we are in his head an awful lot and so we are seeing the changing world through a largely solipsistic personality -- which means we are seeing Ellis's version of the world as it is reflected in his self-absorption.

Since Harbinger does contain some elements of the "non-scientific" (i.e. the metaphysical and so on), how do you view the collaboration of the religious or non-scientific and science itself? Do you subscribe to the belief that the two often speak to one another, or are they like two sides of a coin?

I want to believe they speak to each other, but I also know that's a slippery slope. As soon as you authenticate, in your own mind if nowhere else, the non-rational, you are in trouble. The next thing you know you're seeing Fairies in the garden, as did Conan Doyle, or receiving advice about your Plan For America directly from God Almighty, as Glenn Beck believes. On the other hand, I can't abide a strictly rationalist view, either. Science is as limiting as it is liberating. When I talk with an immovable rationalist it begins to feel, after a while, like I'm talking to a committed religionist. The God-believer type, if he doesn't have an answer about, say, human suffering, simply passes it off as an unknowable manifestation of the deity. A rationalist, if he admits he doesn't know something (fat chance!), passes it off by saying something along the lines of, "We don't know it NOW but science (God) will eventually reveal the truth." I don't subscribe to a metaphysical viewpoint, but I don't dismiss it out of hand, either. I know that's equivocal. So what?

Switching gears, I'm curious for your opinion on the present state of science fiction as a genre and where you think it is going in light of the fascinating development of digital publishing. Where do you think science fiction is going? Is it a good place? Are there barking robots and flying cars there?

Digital publishing is more disturbing to me than fascinating. It's not nostalgia for paper (though I usually prefer it), nor my inner Luddite asserting himself (he doesn't exist). It's simply that the digitalizing of everydamnthing makes it convenient and irresistible to appropriate without compensation the stories, movies, music, etc. of working artists. Coupled with the freedom of the internet, emphasis on "free," a situation arises in which the former business template is collapsing with no acceptable new template to replace it. I'm not on-board with the "information wants to be free" crowd. Information doesn't want anything. You might as well say information wants to be controlled.

The present state of science fiction writing exists outside this mess. Writers do what they have always done: Write. There are many wonderful new writers working now, though I don't see a recognizable movement in any deliberate direction. There is, however, a blurring of lines between literary mainstream and genre. I like that. Guys like Chabon and Lethem cross effortlessly back and forth, scuffing the border to near invisibility. They are outstanding writers who happened to like the same sorts of things most of us in genre like. At the same time there's the "new" space opera, the "new" weird, magic realism, hard, etc. -- in short EVERYthing is on the table. This is healthy. I don't think it spells the end of genre sf or the victory of mainstream or any such bullshit.

Can you tell us a little about some of your upcoming projects? Any interesting new novels on the way?

I'm working on what I hope is the final draft of Life On the Preservation, a novel based very loosely on my short story of the same title. I'm throwing everything I've got into it and hope to start shopping it around by the end of summer. I've been so busy with this project that I haven't had much time to write new short stories. I do have one coming up in Asimov's, though. It's called "The Flow and Dream" and runs along fairly traditional sf lines. This was an interesting sale for me, in that I submitted it electronically the first day Asimov's began accepting stories that way. It's not that I was gnashing my teeth waiting for the glorious day to arrive. I don't really care whether a magazine accepts electronically or requires paper manuscripts in traditional format. But I went to their website to double-check the mailing address, saw I could just send the story directly from my computer, and did so. It sold practically overnight, which was fun.

What one piece of unusual advice would you give to budding writers out there?

Hmm. Unusual? I'd say, remember that perception is intentional. Slow down, sometimes. Invest your words with magic. Regard them as keys to limitless inner worlds. I'm talking about individual words. Regard them as play things. Type a noun onto your screen, or write it on a blank sheet of printer paper with a pencil or pen. Stare at the word, let yourself fall into the myriad conscious and unconscious associations the word evokes. A word such as OCEAN could lead you into endless thought experiments. If you practice this, you eventually get past all the obvious associations the top of your mind throws up and you start receiving the personally significant associations. Do this once in a while. It's good for your creative mind. Sometimes you will land on an image or idea you didn't realize was lurking. But when you are writing a story forget all that crap, dig in and use words like practical tools to get the job done.

And now for a random question: If you could invent one technology to change the world, what technology would you invent and why?

I have to go obvious here and say an efficient, cheap and universally accessible mechanism for harnessing solar energy and distributing it to run anything that requires power input. This is not going to happen.


That's it! You can find Jack Skillingstead on his website.

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