Amanda Divine: How much layout do you
do before starting a story? Do you work from an
Jay Lake: For short fiction, very little.
Quite often I'll start with nothing other than
a mental image -- a phrase or title or visual
in my head. I write by following the headlights, as E.L.
I think what's really going on is that my subsconscious
is running ahead me, setting down crumbs of story,
but that's opaque to me. It just appears on the
page. Novels require a bit more planning, since
that's a lot of complexity to rip off the cuff.
My most recent book, Trial of Flowers (Night
Shade Books, September, 2006) was written from
a five paragraph outline, which gave me the most
basic notion of plot, structure and character.
Amanda: Does your subconscious ever surprise
Jay Lake: Constantly. I rarely know the
ending of a story until I've written, and sometimes
not even then. One of the true joys of writing
is the exploration of the crackerjack box which
is my subconscious.
Amanda: If novels require more complexity,
does that mean you deliberately try to keep your
short fiction simple?
Jay Lake: That's not quite how I see it.
Short fiction is often subtle and more complex
than novels, given the demands of the form. Novels
can be big, brawling brutes that shamble along
and take up lots of space. Short fiction is more
like a ninja form -- efficient, swift, compact.
The complexity of novels has more to do with the
structural requirements of working at that length,
while remaining compelling to the reader. Lot
of balls need to stay in the air for a long time
for a novel to work its magic. Truly they're different. Some people excel in one without ever mastering
the other. Some people are lucky enough to do
both. I think I might be one of the lucky ones.
Amanda: And what do you do to keep those
balls in the air? I know long projects are sometimes
tests of endurance...
Jay Lake: My answer to this problem is
deceptively simple. I write very fast, which keeps
me from getting hung up on how many balls are
flying. This is especially helpful when they turn
into machetes, or chainsaws. I'm a deeply subconscious
writer -- almost everything I know about my own
process is a matter of post hoc reflection rather
than deliberate consideration. So while the balls
are there, meaning the plot points, character
arcs, stylistic tropes, etc., I don't see them
while I'm working. Again,
following the headlights.
Amanda: How do you rejuvenate yourself
between projects - or is writing itself refreshing?
Jay Lake: Well, both, really. Writing
is refereshing, especially short fiction. At the
same time, I've discovered some specific capacity
limits and requirements. I can't bounce from one
novel right into another, for example. I need
a few weeks off, typically with a bunch of reading,
to clear the novel space in my head. Short fiction
is a little different. I can power through that.
My personal best, done specifically as a self-challenge,
was five short stories written in one weekend.
But I couldn't write 2-1/2 stories a day, day
in and day out, any more than I could continuously
work on novels. Same-same, I stop and read something.
Often as not it's a magazine (I have a lot of
subscriptions, most of them news or tech periodicals)
though I obviously try to keep up with new work
in the field, too.
Amanda: How did those five stories turn
Jay Lake: Sold two, one was rejected but has
since sold on its second send-out,
the other two still under consideration at their
markets. From a craft point of view, I continue
to be quite pleased with them. It was a noble
and interesting experiment.
Amanda: Do you experiment often, or do
you know what works and stick with it?
Jay Lake: Oh, I experiment constantly.
Sticking to what works means not progressing.
I try to pull in enough of my skills, my sensibility,
my voice, that my writing has continuity, but
I'm constantly fiddling with process or technique
or narrative approach. Sometimes it's through collaboration,
sometimes it's through approaching markets I wouldn't
normally aim for, sometimes it's changes in my
work habits. A writer who isn't experimenting
is stagnating, it seems to me.
Amanda: Where have you been the luckiest?
Have you had any big breaks, or is it mostly about
Jay Lake: It's always about hard work.
But I've had some big breaks, too. My very first
published story, "The Courtesy of Guests" (reprinted
appeared in Bones of the World from SFF.Net
Press in the fall of 2001. The book was reviewed
favorably in Locus and elsewhere, and my
story was called out by several reviewers for
special attention. It went on to win a prize as
well, the Best of Soft SF. (Which included cash!)
It's appeared in translation in several other
languages, and been reprinted in English almost
half a dozen times. That early attention was a
huge break, because it meant reviewers and readers
were watching for my next work. Winning Writers
of the Future (in 2003) didn't hurt at all, and
that story led me onto the Campbell and Hugo ballots
in 2004, which was another break. But it all comes
back to hard work.
Amanda: You must be lucky, to have a subconcious
that can tie up all the plot points and arcs for
you. What's the most dangerous thing about writing?
Jay Lake: Heh. That's a great question.
For me, the most dangerous thing about writing
is it can represent a profound emotional exposure.
Nakedness, as it were, in a very public context.
I write genre fiction, not true confessions, so
I suppose that even when I've really gone out
on a limb, it's still true that only me and a
few friends and loved ones will ever know what
I *really* meant. But there's also the nakedness
in the mirror. Sort of like really looking at
yourself for crow's feet or flab, which can be
very offputting. Good writing can force the writer
to do the emotional and mental analog of that
Amanda: Isn't revealing yourself to family
and friends even scarier than an audience you
may never meet?
Jay Lake: Oh, yeah. The obvious example
is having your mom read erotica you've written.
That's not really an issue in my family, but I
know people who've gone to some lengths to conceal
some of their work. More to the point, the kind
of raw emotion that can really drive a story often
comes from the well of experience. Guess what....friends
and family sometimes recognize themselves in there.
I write a lot about my grandfather, never by name,
and sometimes I say things that I know probably
pain my father. But for me, making the story work
has become paramount. Writing is a scary sort
of burlesque, with stakes that are impossibly
ephemeral and impossibly high at the same time.
Amanda: Given those high stakes, have
you ever gone too far, even if it made the story
Jay Lake: I'm not sure what that means.
I've only ever written one story that hurt so
much I couldn't send it out. (It's still sitting
around on my hard drive.) It's about my relationship
with my daughter in the time immediately following
my separation from my wife. I've been told it's
one of the best things I've ever written, but
I'll need to find a lot of nerve to sell it somewhere.
Otherwise, I kind of let 'er rip and see what
happens. I've sold stories to Christian markets
and to slasher markets and to everything in between.
Each piece is its own thing, with its own boundaries
inherent to the narrative.
Amanda: Has your writing become more intimate?
Jay Lake: I'm not sure how to answer that.
I suppose writing has always been intimate for
me. I spend a lot of time close to my characters,
in tight detail. As my skills have improved, and
experience as a writer has leavened my natural
voice, perhaps that intimacy has become more accessible
Amanda: Your characters become family
Jay Lake: Yeah, sort of the way your boyfriend's
cousins do, the ones with the two retarded dobermans
and the one-eyed rotweiller who drive a 1968 International
delivery truck with three pounds of meth welded
into the fender and a pair of loaded long-barrelled
.38s clipped above the sun visor. They belong
to you, but you don't want them coming within
a zip code of your real life.
Amanda: Does your father read your work?
Jay Lake: Yes, especially since I've become
more readily available in print with collections
and single-title books. My entire (real) family
is very, very supportive.
Amanda: Do you come from an artistic family,
or did you get into writing on your own?
Jay Lake: I come from a talented family,
I suppose it's fair to say, but I didn't have
any specific role models or deliberate encouragement
to become a writer. My father's a diplomat (now
retired, but that's why I grew up overseas). He's
got several degrees, has studied over a dozen
languages, and can knowledgably discuss more topics
than most of us could even think of. My stepmother,
who raised me with my dad, is also well-educated,
and is a former art history teacher. (We had scintillating
dinnertable conversation in my childhood, believe
me.) My mother went through a doctoral program
in linguistics. So I have a lot of indirect modelling,
I suppose, to do interesting and challenging things.
I really didn't get into a serious effort at professional
writing until my later 20s, so I wasn't going
through a process of living at home and receiving
encouragement (or discouragement) as I might have
as a teenager or college student.
Amanda: What do they do when they recognize
Jay Lake: Laugh, mostly, I think. My dad's
comment on reading Rocket Science was to
say, "I didn't realize you were paying that much
attention over the years." Most of the characters
and their backstories in that book are based on
people and stories from my dad, mom and step-mother's
families. A few times I've written them explicitly
into stories -- my short story "A Conspiracy of
Dentists" (appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud
Wristlet a few years ago) is about the death
of my paternal grandfather when I was 13, though
the events in it took place in real life a few
years later when my paternal grandmother died.
My dad, step-mother and uncle are directly in
the story. Other places various family members
appear more subtly. No one's ever expressed offense
or irritation to me directly. Of course, I have
no idea what they say behind my back...
Amanda: Trial of Flowers comes
out in September. What can you tell us about it?
Jay Lake: It's a decadent urban fantasy
firmly in the tradition of Jeff VanderMeer's City
of Saints and Madmen, K.J. Bishop's The
Etched City and China Mieville's Perdido
Street Station. In the conversation that is
genre, I guess this is me opening my big mouth.
I hope I come off better than some guy on the
corner shouting at lampposts. Trial of Flowers
is certainly my most ambitious project to date.
It's definitely one of those place-as-character
books, with multiple protagonists and lots of
point of view shifts. It's also an example of
me letting my freak flag fly. The whole thing
arose from (and is a very loose sequel to) my
short story "The Soul Bottles," which first appeared
in Leviathan 4 (ed. Forrest Aguirre), and
recently reprinted at Fortean
Bureau. This book's got everything --
drug-addicted dwarfs, heavily-armed clowns riding
giraffes, bone surgery, freshwater squid, the
roulette wheel of the gods -- you name it. I had
a lot of fun writing it. I hope everyone else
will have a lot of fun reading it. Also good news,
as of the last week or so I'm in the late stages
of negotiating the contract with Night Shade Books
for a sequel, tentatively titled The Madness
of Flowers, to be released in late 2007. Even more cool news: I've got a high concept fantasy about a
clockwork Earth, Mainspring, coming out from Tor in the summer of
Amanda: How long did it take you to write Trial of Flowers?
I've heard you have a fantastic writing pace...
Jay Lake: I'm not sure I should admit
this, but I wrote a 120,000 word first draft in
less than two weeks. When I mention this to other
writers, they tend to break out the torches and
pitchforks. Thing is, I'm best when I'm fast.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.