Rococo Excrescences: An Interview with Jay Lake
By James M. Palmer
26 April 2004
© 2003 Frank Wu
Jay Lake is the author of over 100 stories. His work has been published in Realms of Fantasy, The Third Alternative, The Fortean Bureau, this publication, and other venues too numerous to mention. His collection Greetings from Lake Wu has just been published by Wheatland Press, and he has another collection, Dogs in the Moonlight due out from Prime Books, as well as upcoming stories in Asimov's, Leviathan 4, and Chiaroscuro. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and daughter. This interview was conducted via email.
James M. Palmer: You're so prolific. You've written over 100 stories, and you've already had twelve stories accepted this year. How do you keep up this amazing pace?
Jay Lake: I'm not sure it's an amazing pace so much as a consistent pace. It's a combination of goals, discipline, and a relative lack of distractions.
Back in December of 2000, I set a goal to write a short story a week. I've kept the discipline to meet that goal every week since then. As for the distractions, I don't watch TV, don't play video or computer games, don't go clubbing -- yes, I do have a social life, but my primary leisure activities are my family, reading and writing. It's amazing how much time TV sucks out of your life -- I wouldn't have a writing career today if I hadn't turned it off about eight years ago.
JMP: So you don't watch TV at all?
JL: The occasional video, mostly with my daughter. We don't have cable or a working antenna on our set, though, so if I wanted to watch an actual show, I'd have to go to someone's house or get them to tape it for me. I think I'm the only SF writer who's never seen one minute of Buffy. I do, however, go to movies when time permits.
It's not a religious or philosophical conviction that television is bad, by the way. I'd be happy to watch it with you if I came to visit. I just find the time for so many other things without TV in my life.
JMP: What's a typical work day like for you?
JL: Well, I have a full-time job as a product manager for a voice services company, and my wife and I have a six-year-old at home. So I'm pretty busy. I try to get in some writing time every day, however minimal -- one reason for my Story Words blog is exactly that -- but more often I'll have a longer writing session two or three evenings a week, then a half day to a day on the weekend. I drive a 220-mile round trip to workshop every Tuesday evening, so that's a lost writing day, and most Friday nights I play miniature wargames with a club here in Portland, so that's a lost writing day.
JMP: 220 miles is a long way to drive. That workshop must be very important to your writing.
JL: Absolutely. The workshop is called the Wordos. I'm willing to bet it's one of the strongest open workshops in the country. (That's 'open' as opposed to invitation- or audition-based workshops, for example.) Most open workshops I've encountered are peer-oriented, possibly with a sponsoring or 'senior' pro guiding them. At Wordos we've got folks at all levels of their careers from multi-award winning novelists to college students just getting their first story critiqued. I think of it as a tennis ladder effect -- I grow both by being mentored by people whose experience dwarfs mine, and by mentoring people who are just starting out where I was ten or fifteen years ago. Give forward and give back all at the same time.
JMP: What writers influenced you?
JL: You mean besides Gene Wolfe? Writers I read before I started writing seriously: Wolfe, Chip Delany, Scott Card. As a kid I read all the Heinlein, Asimov, and Norton juveniles, which must have influenced me in ways I'm not even aware of. Tolkien of course. Once I started writing, and looking at writers differently: Jeff Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Ray Vukcevich, Ted Chiang. There are loads of writers I admire -- some of them I even know -- but in terms of direct influence over how I think about style or story, that's a good list. I guess everybody I read is an influence, but I suppose that goes without saying.
JMP: What do you call your style of writing? Is it slipstream? Fabulist?
JL: I call it writing.
Seriously, that question has two different answers, at least for me. One, I write in a number of styles. I realize that people who might be aware of my writing have probably seen me in that slipstream/New Weird/style monkey mode, which I dearly love to both read and write. I do other things -- for example, my upcoming collection, Dogs In The Moonlight, is written in rural voice, drawing on my family roots in Central and East Texas. I've been writing (and selling) more fantasy lately, which pulls my voice in another different direction. So the first answer is that I write the way the story wants to be written. Sometimes I'll choose to work on an idea that I know will pull my voice in one direction or another, but the story dictates the style rather than the other way around.
Two, I have some resistance to this sense of categorization. As a genre, F/SF suffers from ghettoization in the wider world of book selling. Why do we want to subdivide further? To be conquered? At the same time, I make my living in marketing. I understand perfectly well the need for product categorization. We don't put unicorns on the covers of space operas, nor do we put fire-spitting Gigerbots on the covers of high fantasies. People want to know what they're buying. So it goes with fiction 'schools.' It's a natural tendency, but it does writers and their stories a disservice by pigeonholing them. That makes it too easy for people to say, "Oh, I don't read that kind of stuff."
I mean, a while back I read Meg Cabot's The Princess Diaries. That's a really good book. I've never been a teenage girl, didn't have all that much interest in the travails of teenage girls, but Cabot made me care about Mia Thermopolis. Think about this: I'm riding the bus to work every day with this hot pink book with a sparkly tiara on the cover. I must have looked like a weirdo. So the categorization of that book resulted in packaging that made it easy for the target market to find, and be comfortable with, but much more difficult for people outside that target market to find or be comfortable with.
Back to the question, if I have to put a name to the rococo excrescences of style which I love so much, I'd say I'm a style monkey.
JMP: So like Harlan Ellison, who tells people he writes "Harlan Ellison stories," you've invented your own term. What exactly is a style monkey?
JL: I coined, or possibly re-coined, the term "notorious style monkeys" in a Tangent Online review of a Joe Murphy story at Strange Horizons. "Ovigonopods of Love," I think it was. It was a compliment to the editors regarding their taste in that kind of fiction no one quite has a name for. Some other folks picked it up and started using it in discussions of this type of writing. So I lay claim to it, not of ownership, but of right of labeling -- if I'm going to be labeled, I may as well use one I've already slung at other people.
As to what a style monkey actually is, that would be a writer (or reader or market) that places as high a value on stylistic cues and qualities in a story as they do on plot, character, and so forth. Much of classical SF is deliberately un-styled (though by no means all of it!), yet SF is one of the best places to explore flights of stylistic fancy.
Mind you, style can't be the entire point of the story (usually), nor can it obscure the other requisite qualities of story. But us style monkeys judge a story as much by style as by other factors.
JMP: Do you think this work is part of a "newer wave" or something that makes it different from traditional SF and Fantasy?
JL: Style Monkey/slipstream/New Weird? It's new, new, new, new, new wave. As Deborah Layne says, "What was wrong with the Old Weird, anyone?" For pity's sake, people like Moorcock and Zelazny were writing this stuff when I was still discovering how many fingers I had on each hand every morning. M. John Harrison's grocery lists are probably weirder than me at my fevered worst. At the same time, one of the great things about speculative fiction as a genre is that it's an umbrella that just keeps opening wider and wider. Is style monkeyism different from traditional SF? Sure, the way Camper Van Beethoven is different from Ritchie Valens.
JMP: Do you think SF is dying?
JL: No way. SF is arguably the oldest form of literature. Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, certain portions of the Bible. SF-by-intent goes back centuries. Read The Wandering Jew by Eugene Sue and tell me if he didn't describe relational databases in a book written in the 1820s. Not to mention the massive McGuffin of compound interest, which was so weird a concept that Sue devotes an entire chapter explaining it to the reader. SF-by-label goes back to the nineteenth century, more or less.
Is major New York publishing on the skids? Probably. Twenty-five year old MBAs with spreadsheets and ironclad margin guidelines have taken over the universe. On the other hand, the small press is thriving. Big small press, pardon the expression, like Golden Gryphon or Meisha Merlin. Small small press like Fortress of Words or Wheatland Press. Prestige small press like PS Publishing and Small Beer Press. Strange Horizons, SCI FICTION, Ideomancer, Fortean Bureau -- all excellent online venues.
SF is rocking and rolling. It's changing, in some ways we might not like, but it's definitely on rock and roll.
JMP: Do you have any plans to do novels?
JL: I'm trying. There's a novel version of my novella "The Murasaki Doctrine" (from Greetings From Lake Wu) wandering the streets of New York even now, being abused by editorial assistants of all kinds. I'd like to establish myself as a novelist, but have no plans to exit short fiction to do so. Of course, I need to write better novels first.
JMP: You maintain a blog in which you write stories based on words people send you. How did this start?
JL: In the fall of 2002 I did a thirty-day experiment called "Cletis and the Duct-Tape Spider." Every day I wrote something between a few paragraphs and a few hundred words on a developing storyline. I deliberately wrote without any forethought or planning -- just ripped it off my fingertips. In public. It was a lot of fun. (I pulled it off of Blogspot onto my Website after the fact, anyone who's interested can read it here.)
When Cletis wrapped up, I missed the daily jolt of writing. It was good for me. So I started Story Words for the heck of it. Keeps my head in the game, even on weeks where work or personal life steamrolls my best efforts to write very much else.
JMP: Is it just an exercise to keep the creative juices flowing, or do you expect to get saleable stories out of it?
JL: Juice, man. Ronco Story-Matic. Kind of the mental equivalent of jogging around the neighborhood every day.
JL: Something Darrell Schweitzer said at TorCon, actually. I've had a thing about zeppelins for a while. I think we mentioned them in the guidelines for Polyphony 4. [Editor's note: he didn't, but nice plug.] Darrell said something about Spicy Zeppelin Tales as an example of the proliferation of pulp markets way back in the long ago. David liked the sound of that and so do I. I really admire David, he has the strong potential to be one of the defining writers of my generation of newcomers, and he knew me and some of my work, including my zeppelin thing. So when he got bit by the idea (not sure if Darrell was his muse or not) he dragged me into it. I extend all credit, and blame, to him.
JMP: Do you enjoy editing? Would you like to do more anthologies?
JL: Yes. I really enjoy it. After the Zeppelin book, I've got a solo editing project this year called Tel : Stories. I'd love to do more anthology work in the future. It really stimulates me as a writer, frankly, standing in the fire hose of all that creativity.
JMP: How did Greetings from Lake Wu develop?
JL: Deborah Layne asked me in the beginning of 2002 to do a collection with Wheatland. I told her she was nuts, that no one cared about my stuff. Her answer was, "Yeah, but they will." She had a lot more faith than I did. We met with Frank Wu and Nina Kiriki Hoffman at ConJose and worked out the logistics and details, and it went from there.
JMP: Did he illustrate your stories or did you get ideas from his artwork?
JL: Twelve of the stories he illustrated. We decided to do a literation of one of his existing paintings, and over his wishes I chose my favorite Frank Wu painting, his illustration of Tiptree's "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death." That painting just blows me away. So I wrote "Who Sing But Do Not Speak," which I hereby publicly admit is my attempt at a sequel to the Tiptree story. Please don't beat me up now.
JL: I knew that the Campbell might be in the wind, so I have to say that the real shock was the Hugo nomination that I also received, for Best Novelette. "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night" was my first-place story in Writers of the Future XIX, and it was my Campbell-qualifying sale, so it being on the Hugo ballot as well was something. Of course, I am in the presence of giants in that category, all of them writers I admire. I mean, wow, to see my name on those two lists. My feet will touch the ground real soon now, I'm pretty sure of it.
JMP: Are awards important to you as a writer?
JL: Mostly as ego boo. I'm not sure anybody chooses whether or not to read a given story because the writer won an award somewhere. At the same time, it's the way we as a field can recognize our best work -- writers for the Nebula, fans for the Hugo, all the other awards like World Fantasy, BSFA, Sidewise and so on. Writers of the Future is a little different, because of the publication, and I guess that's true of the Phobos contest. So, sure, I love awards. But no award would ever change my writing habits and ambitions for the good or for the bad. I write because I love the stories.
JMP: What are your ultimate writing goals?
JL: To be read. And maybe, if I'm very, very lucky, to be remembered.
Copyright © 2004 James M. Palmer
James M. Palmer has been published in Strange Horizons, Revolution SF, Every Writer, and Scifaikuest. He also writes Barium Cinema, a movie column for the upcoming print magazine Continuum SF. To see examples of his work and join his announcement list, please visit his website. To contact him, email email@example.com.