Interview: Gregory Frost
By Victoria McManus
2 December 2002
Gregory Frost had T. Corraghessan Boyle as a writing workshop teacher at the University of Iowa, where he also took an SF writing and reading course co-taught by Joe Haldeman (then a graduate student) and linguistics professor Larry Martin. Haldeman urged him to send fiction to the Clarion Writing Workshop at Michigan State University. To Greg's amazement, he was accepted, and attended Clarion in 1975. He was taught there by a star-studded group consisting of Joe Haldeman, Samuel Delany, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, Damon Knight, and Kate Wilhelm. His first sale was in 1981, to The Twilight Zone Magazine; he sold his first novel, Lyrec, two years later. Greg spent eight years on the research for two novels based on the Tain Bo Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), a.k.a. the Ulster Cycle of Irish Mythology. Tain and Remscela were published in 1986 and 1988, respectively. The Pure Cold Light, a science fiction novel which, among other things, cast the President of the United States as a talk show host and sent armed teachers into classrooms, was published in 1993, and was a semifinalist for the Nebula Award the following year. Since then, Greg has written a number of short stories, most recently "Madonna of the Maquiladora" in the May 2002 issue of Asimov's. His new novel, Fitcher's Brides, will be published by Tor in December, 2002.
Thanks to former roommate Tim Sullivan and friend Somtow Sucharitkul, Greg did a stint as a supporting actor in the unusual horror film, The Laughing Dead. Of his performance, he says it's "Thurston Howell III as portrayed by Roddy McDowell." He says of himself: "After many years spent as a balloon animal, I realized one morning that this had no future in it, as there are just so many ways you can be twisted, and I'd tried them all. At that point, I embarked upon a writing career."
Victoria McManus: Who is your ideal reader?
Greg Frost: A nineteen-year-old Thalvusian slave trader who likes to kick back on weekends, and enjoys live eel music and polishing his carapace (there's a new euphemism). Seriously, I've no idea. My first novel, Lyrec, was written as pure adult escapist fantasy. Most of the fan mail was from twelve- to fourteen-year-old girls. You know, you write one serious story after another; but you introduce one smart-mouth talking cat. . . . The ideal reader for Tain and Remscela would be a fantasy reader who likes a challenge, because they aren't written for the "mindless high-fantasy drivel" audience, although Ace's imbecilic art director at the time did everything possible to target that audience [Gee, he's not bitter, is he? --VM]. Pure Cold Light was for an audience that likes Philip K. Dick and Carl Hiaasen (and which, apparently, doesn't exist). Fitcher's Brides is in many ways a women's novel about empowerment. I'd say its audience is broader -- from fantasy and fairy tale to more adventurous romance readers. But I didn't foresee the twelve-year-olds, so no one should listen to me. This probably sums up why I don't have a massive devoted following. (Well, okay, I didn't start a bogus religion, either.) I tend not to repeat, or cater to a particular audience. I'm not terribly interested in doing the same thing over and over again. If I felt like doing more Lyrec novels, I might -- although they'd have to be prequels. You can't really have a sequel to a story about facing off against and defeating the most powerful being in the universe -- unless you write for Hollywood, where the sequel-production-machine culture insists that you be that stupid.
My short fiction has been equally varied. Some horror, some fantasy, some science fiction, some blends of these, and even some straight, narrative, mainstream fiction. I haven't created a universe in which numerous stories unfold, the way Bruce Sterling wisely did early on in his career, the way Charles Stross has in the past couple of years in Asimov's Science Fiction. I tend not to contemplate sequels and series because most of the time I feel as if I'm finished with that character by the end of the thing. It depends, I think, on how big the "big picture" of the story is. And only recently -- in the past five years -- have I come upon an idea that has a potentially limitless big picture [Shadowbridge --VM]. I've written one story set in this world -- "How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes," which made it onto the short list for the Theodore Sturgeon Short Fiction Award. And I'm working slowly upon a novel set in this world.
VM: Why do you write genre fiction?
GF: I had to explain once to a writing class I was teaching at University of Pennsylvania why I write genre fiction as opposed to, say, John Updike stories about commuters into New York City. I said it just seems to be the way I'm wired. That someone whose bent is contemporary American fiction might write a story about the disintegration of the nuclear family, revealing how they fail to communicate, how the parents no longer recognize their own children, how this occurred slowly, quietly, and no one noticed. I, on the other hand, would likely write a story about a family who are actually disintegrating -- I'd concretize the metaphor. Instinctively. After I'd used this same half-serious explanation a few more times in other classes, I actually sat down and wrote the story, "Collecting Dust," which Stephen Jones published in a quiet little horror anthology, White of the Moon.
VM: You've written both fantasy and SF; do you feel a stronger affinity for one or the other?
GF: If I have an affinity for either SF or fantasy, it's probably fantasy, but that depends upon how you distinguish the two. I have little use for high fantasy in its current form, even though my first three novels fit identifiably within that genre. And my interest in science fiction does not incorporate hard science. I'm not in that Tom Clancy "Ain't the toys cool, boys?" audience. If I'm going to read science fiction, it'll be Richard Russo, Molly Gloss, Michael Swanwick, James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel. Writers whose people are well-wrought and whose stories emerge from those people interacting with each other or their world. Fiction where we invent a skiffy situation and then staple on some characters who have to fix the situation, overcome the aliens, and conquer the galaxy just fills me with a dread of Lovecraftian proportions.
The same with fantasy. I'll take Kelly Link, Jonathan Lethem, Carol Emshwiller, Andy Duncan, Ray Vukcevich. If I'm going to indulge in high fantasy, give me Fritz Leiber or Roger Zelazny. I just realized, my position on high fantasy is "I read dead people."
VM: Did you first connect with other genre writers at Clarion, or were you already interested in genre? Do you think that helped or did not help you?
GF: I was reading in the genre well before Clarion. In fact, I don't think one ought to be writing fantasy literature if one doesn't read it -- and enjoy it -- in the first place. Those names I just mentioned (and there are dozens more who are slighted because I didn't give an all-inclusive list) are people whose work I love, and I would be honored to be recognized as writing in the same territory with them. You write what you like to read, at least on some level, so you're going to emulate certain elements of the work you treasure. I've had discussions with Michael Swanwick, for instance, where he's critiquing something I'm working on, and he'll point to a passage and say, "How would Nabokov handle this?" to get me to reconsider my approach to a particular scene. . .because Michael reads far afield, too. Michael's a literary omnivore. I think that's very healthy. If you're going to write science fiction, then read history. Read Moby Dick. Read things that aren't in the genre and try to find ways to incorporate them. Listen to some Mozart, and listen to some Elvis Costello. Make the fiction better by bringing to it new perspectives instead of just repeating what already exists in some hermetic fashion inside the genre. You know? Enlarge the meme pool, for Pete's sake.
Of course, you have to read inside the field as well. I find that most, if not all, of the mainstream writers who go slumming in the science fiction ghetto end up writing tepid, dismissible books. They don't perceive anything but the surface of SF and they don't produce anything worthy of it. Lawrence Sanders's The Tomorrow File is probably the most obnoxious example of someone writing a science fiction novel without any clue. He was a best-seller, though, so he must have been right, right? It's no different with film. When Minority Report came out, Spielberg and Cruise were reported to have said in an interview that they love science fiction because you can just do anything you want in it.
And I thought, "Um, no, actually you can't. You're obliged to justify what you do, the same as with any other species of story-telling." However, I think their opinion exemplifies the Hollywood viewpoint and to a large degree the mainstream view of science fiction: i.e., Just throw some more CGI at the story and it'll take care of itself.
Not sure about the "did it help or not" element. You mean, did it help at Clarion that I was already reading SF? Having now taught at Clarion and also having been on the jury twice that decides who gets in and who doesn't, I can say that if you haven't read at least the more current fantasy and science fiction fairly extensively before you submit your stories, you probably don't stand a chance of being accepted in the first place, because acceptance is determined solely on the basis of what you write, and what you write has to show the author/judges that you understand the fundamentals of the genre enough to benefit from the experience of an intensive workshop focused on the genre. If there are eighteen to twenty slots available for a workshop, why would I give one to an applicant who needs to learn everything about the genre if there are five others here who have a grasp of the context in which they're writing? They'll benefit from the experience.
The real truth about writing workshops, though, is that they can jumpstart you on some things, get you through a morass of confusion more quickly, or they can make you even more confused. But they can't teach you to be a writer. If there were no Clarion, there would still be new SF writers.
VM: What writers have influenced you most? Of those, were you influenced by their writing or by their teaching?
GF: The first book I can remember ever checking out of a library -- I must have been about ten -- was Homer's Odyssey as retold for young readers by Barbara Leonie Picard. It was fabulous. It's still in print, too. I think that persuaded me, directed me toward the fantastic. The first science fiction novel I read was The Humanoids by Jack Williamson. I was maybe twelve. I had the rare pleasure about ten years ago at a convention to tell Jack that he's responsible for my writing science fiction.
I wouldn't say Jack is the most influential writer on me, though.
Maybe Roger Zelazny was. I drank up his fiction in the '60s and early '70s like a sponge. Dick was a huge influence, too -- especially on Pure Cold Light. Wolfe, Delany, Ellison, Bester, Leiber, Cordwainer Smith -- at some level it's a big melting pot of influences. I read comic books by the hundreds, too. Initially, I wanted to be a comics illustrator. I produced some of my own comics, usually stealing some of the lesser-known super heroes from the books I was reading, like Dr. Fate and The Spectre. I was getting into writing these comic stories, but I was oblivious to all but the drawing and inking. The influence of the comics was both good and bad, I think, in part because the writing was pretty lame, and so it imparted some very bad habits. That was true of Leslie Charteris. As a teenager I had a real jones for The Saint. I read every novel and short story Charteris had written, and my God, he was a terrible stylist. And, you know, you start out by imitating what you read, what you like, and I imitated him. It took years to unlearn his affectations. I could probably still write a Saint novel in a close approximation of his voice if required to.
As teachers, Joe Haldeman has been a big influence, obviously -- he encouraged me to attend Clarion, which is probably why I stuck it out as long as I did before I saw publication. And Delany, whose essays on writing I go back to again and again when I'm teaching, and I always find some new insight in doing so. And T. Boyle. Boyle, one of the finest experimenters in contemporary short fiction, had no problem with the idea that I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. A lot of university professors at the time would not have been so open to it -- in fact, I know one person who got turned down by the Iowa Writers Workshop just because he wrote science fiction and had the bad judgment to tell them so up front. Joe got accepted there because in part he had more publication credits than most of the people teaching in the program. He simply overwhelmed them. Another professor who helped me was a poet, Gary Gildner, who was teaching an all-formats-welcome writing workshop at Drake University when I was there.
There were poets, mainstream short story writers, and me. This was very early, you understand. I wasn't even sure at that point that I would write anything at all ever, and was stumbling around the idea of a science fiction novel. Gildner was very open, encouraging. That novel, by the way, turned out to be all of seventy-six pages long and just bloody awful. But there was a definite electric thrill to finishing it. It was like the first taste of an addiction. A lot of my peers have influenced me, too. Mostly at Sycamore Hill, the writing workshop that John Kessel started in the '80s in Raleigh, N.C., and that I've half-taken over and moved to Bryn Mawr, PA. Every time I prepare for that, I write a story that stretches my abilities. I try for something I don't know how to do. And then reading, critiquing the fiction of fourteen other brilliant writers forces me to read much more precisely, to become aware of layers of style, meaning, depth, suggestion that I would probably miss otherwise. It's easy to get lazy as a reader, to just slide along with the story. Every Sycamore Hill boosts my I.Q., I think, for awhile. I leave it charged, even if the story I submitted was ritually slaughtered. I mean, it may be murder, but at the hands of Jim Kelly, Dr. Kessel, Karen Joy Fowler, Bruce Sterling, Robert Frazier, Richard Butner, and so on -- it's hard to complain about that.
And the ice cream sandwiches are good, too.
VM: Of your own books, do you have a favorite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?
GF: Right now, Fitcher's Brides is my favorite. Partly because it's a huge stretch for me, and partly because I think I stretched pretty well. I'm pleased with the way it turned out. If you'd asked me before I undertook it, I'd probably have said Tain. That took a lot of research, and I must have begun it twenty times before I found its shape. In the end I accomplished what I wanted with it: I imparted something of the bizarreness of Bronze Age Celts. It's full of intentional anachronisms, references to all sorts of things -- the Talking Heads, lines of movie dialogue, etc. I wanted to get the mad spirit of it, not just retell the thing. I mean, Thomas Kinsella had done the perfect translation of the original epic; why bother trying just to flesh that out? So I let it get out of control while at the same time adhering to what I'd learned of the Irish Celts socially and historically.
That's also a book that reflected my life situation in some weird and, to me, totally abstract way. I was in a marriage that was dissolving while I wrote that. The specifics are irrelevant in any case. But I stayed friends with my ex, and at some point after the book had come out, she said she could see our relationship in the battle between Maeve and Ailell. I don't really know how much is there, but undoubtedly there's something. No one really writes in a vacuum.
VM: If you could work on your dream project while someone else paid the bills, do you have any idea what it would be about?
GF: It would be the thing I'm working on now, Shadowbridge. I don't think I have any projects that aren't being written because I lack financial security. That would only be the case if I were desperately shooting for bestseller-stardom, and setting aside projects based on whether or not they would garner the biggest audience. I know a few people who banked on their books being "best-sellers", and it didn't happen, even though they had studied the market, analyzed what made a best-seller, etc. The vagaries of publishing make necromancy look easy. The only thing that might change if I weren't engaged in making a living from other aspects of writing is that I might write the book faster. But I'm not even sure that's true.
In my first marriage, my wife worked a regular job and let me write. And I can't say I was any more productive with a whole day on my hands than I am now with a fulltime job, writing on my lunch hour and in the evenings. I wrote Fitcher's Brides in ten months that way. Okay, I did have to give up having a life. . . .
There's this notion that a lot of writers have, that you get some crappy no-brainer job that pays lousy wages but gives you the flexibility and time to write. Usually a part-time job. I've had dozens of them. At some point I had multiple part-time jobs and was working nearly a full forty hour week and getting paid about half of what one of them would have offered full-time. It was dumb. Trust me, if you have some skill that can earn you a good salary, do that and write anyway. If you don't write anyway, you weren't going to in the first place.
VM: You've done some work as an actor. Do you find acting is similar to writing, or completely different? Has your acting experience affected your writing in any way?
GF: Okay, first of all. I'm an actor the way a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup is like real soup. I've done two very "B" horror movies (actually, one of them is probably a "C-"), and stepped in to play a character on a non-fiction TV show I worked on as a writer/researcher when they needed some on-screen talent and no one else was available. I've done a tiny bit of voice-over work, too.
However, I will say that I think writing is like acting. That is, I run through my characters' dialogue aloud. I act it out, I listen to it, the same as you'd rehearse a play. In fact, one of my favorite books on the craft of writing is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, and it's a book about writing for the theatre. And everything in it is applicable to writing fiction. Everything. So, advice to struggling writers: Read your manuscript aloud at least once before you send it off to a publisher.
If you can't say it, neither can your characters.
VM: Tell me how Fitcher's Brides came about. Did Terri Windling approach you based on previous work? How did you decide which versions of the Bluebeard tale to incorporate?
GF: Terri approached me because I'd mentioned to her previously that I would be interested in doing one of the books in her fairy tale series. I'd written short fairy tales for two of her collaborative collections with Ellen Datlow, Snow White, Blood Red and Black Swan, White Raven. She was also the editor on my first three novels, and she is a goddess to work with -- simply the best. I didn't actually think she would come back with an invitation, but she did. And at that point I had to pick a fairy tale that hadn't been done already.
It happened that I had done exhaustive research for a non-fiction book on the topic of nineteenth century spiritualism, which itself was an offshoot of research I'd done for a novelette, "That Blissful Height," for one of the Sycamore Hill workshops. (Here again is a story I might not have ever gotten around to writing if I hadn't been coerced by the workshop.) The nonfiction book didn't happen, but the research was still cooking in my head, so when Terri asked me to write a fairy tale, I didn't just want to retell one. I wanted to put it in a context that would really set it ablaze.
I chose "Bluebeard." The moment I did, everything fell into place -- which hardly ever happens. It was as if all the research I'd done was a huge, nearly assembled jigsaw puzzle, and the choice of fairy tale was the missing piece. It amazed me how well it all fit together.
I used the Bluebeard variant of "Fitcher's Bird" as a beginning -- and it also gave me the pun of the title. But I then proceeded to read all the variations I could find. There are stories where he's a wizard, where he's the devil, where he's an animal, and of course there are variants such as the Robber Bridegroom. And sequels by Thackeray and Atwood and others, which introduce his widow, his daughter, his egg, and either parody him or utilize him as an abstraction. I incorporated references to these, and to Bob Dylan's song "The Man in the Long Black Coat," which bears some relation to it, and which inspired a Joyce Carol Oates story of enormous power. I just absorbed everything I could while I was waiting for Tor to give the project a green light. The history and the nature of the story were already very well fleshed out. All the Bluebeard readings were just charging the battery. And after it was done, and Terri wrote her introduction to the book, I discovered far more variants than I'd known about. Terri simply knows everything. Okay, nearly everything. If you put her in a room with Midori Snyder, though, I think you'd effectively have recreated the Delphic Oracle.
VM: Tell me about your Shadowbridge project. Where would you like it to go?
GF: You should ask Michael Swanwick, actually. He's seen most of it thus far. The hard part of Shadowbridge is knowing just how to restrain it. The idea is large enough to explode in almost any direction. It also requires me to be incredibly informed and intelligent -- which is probably why no one save Michael has seen it so far. The story that's been published, "How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes," is really a footnote to the novel in progress. He's a trickster figure on Shadowbridge, a figure out of myth. And like the Navajo Coyote, he acts on his basest desires and invariably gets into trouble because of this. The novel has a trickster at its heart, too, but it's a woman, and the trickster role is forced upon her, in a way. And she's a storyteller, so Meersh is a character for her to use. The nature of the book -- its shape -- is heavily influenced by the Indian Ocean of Story, which in terms of complexity makes The Arabian Nights look simplistic. It contains stories that lead to other stories in which characters tell further stories so that, after awhile, you really can't recall just how embedded you are. I love that element. I've worked with some of the tales within tales form in Tain and Remscela, but this is more of a conscious employment of that shape of storytelling. And it's a novel about the nature of telling stories, about how your life is the story you create while you're telling other stories. Which is all terribly abstract, I guess, but I don't want to get specific. I'm superstitious and I think that describing a story in progress in any detail is vampiric.
Samuel Delany, in one essay of his, describes how an accomplished writer convinced him once, many years ago, to do a very detailed analysis of the main character in a story he was working on, because that was how she wrote. So he dutifully wrote this analysis that ran to something like twenty pages. And when he was done, he threw away the story. He'd already effectively written it in analyzing the character. It was dead. I think you can talk a story to death, too. At some point you should just shut up and write it, even if it's wrong. Commit it to paper. Then you can talk it to death if you like.
VM: You've done a lot of teaching in workshops and classes. What advice do you find yourself giving again and again?
GF: In workshops I tell the class to set aside a time daily for writing, even if it's half an hour. Give up watching Friends. Better still, just give up watching anything on the Fox Network. Your I.Q. will begin to increase almost immediately. Now, you don't actually have to write in that window of time. You can sit at your desk and drool for all I care. But you don't get to do anything else, either. And I promise you, within fifteen minutes you will begin to write because you'll go mad otherwise.
The funny thing is, only maybe one in ten students will do this. And I figure, you know, if you can't get up the juice to write while you're taking a writing course, you were -- as Mark Twain said -- meant for cutting wood.
We overteach fiction writing, on about every level nationally. Organized workshops, retreats, traveling dog-and-pony "how to write" shows that charge absurd fees (to impart information you could get for free by going to a library and reading Janet Burroway or Lajos Egri or John Gardner), community college courses, prestigious university programs headed by big-name authors -- go online and try not to find them.
The more I teach writing, the more I see that fiction writers are some mutant strain of addict, like creatively channeled obsessive-compulsive disorder. They write because they can't help it. The wife of a friend of mine writes science fiction novels. She has finished at least half a dozen of them. She hasn't been published anywhere, but she writes in every spare moment in her life. She's thinking about her fiction a lot. It's a compulsion. I don't know if she's ever taken a course. It might help her get published, but it isn't necessary to make her a writer. She's a writer already.
The best advice? Emily Dickinson: "Tell the truth but tell it slant." To my mind, the best science fiction and fantasy works live on the slant.
Visit Gregory Frost's Web site.
Victoria McManus serves as a book reviewer for ZENtertainment and SFRevu. She is an associate member of SFWA; her recent published fiction includes "Rite of Passage" in The Official Collector's Guide to Mage Knight, Volume 2 (July 2002). She lives in Philadelphia.