Interview: Steve Berman
By Eugie Foster
29 January 2007
Steve Berman has been writing fiction since he was seventeen years old. He has published nearly 80 short stories and articles, edited anthologies. His young adult novel, Vintage, will soon be a featured title for the InsightOut Book Club. He currently lives in southern New Jersey.
EF: What draws you to writing short fiction? You've said that you struggle with novel-length works. Why do you think that is?
SB: I have commitment issues. That, and I seem to recall Edgar Allen Poe held the belief that the short story was the ideal form for fiction because it could be read in a single sitting. Short fiction delivers a measured dose of imagination, of horror or wonder. The novel, while offering the reader greater opportunity to explore the author's world, is hampered by length and far more rules. An experimental style that is clever within 20 pages may seem tedious after the first hundred. Speculative elements in a novel require more definition instead of being accepted on faith.
My personal struggle with novels stems from a sense of pressure—in my thoughts, the novel has evolved into this specter that both promises and threatens professionalism. I also have a style that is brief and abrupt and hides more then I ever show.
EF: What do you think is your best writing to date and what about it makes it stand out for you?
SB: "Wagers of Gold Mountain," the story Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling accepted for their anthology The Coyote Road, allowed me to stretch myself in several new directions. I created new mythic figures—a pair of tricksters, one American and the other Tibetan—who had to be outwitted by a young Chinese immigrant. I never before had to deal with so much cleverness split among a cast of characters, and it's a challenging trait to do properly. The story is historical fantasy, which I love.
And just this past week, I finished and sold a short story to Sean Wallace's Japanese Dreams anthology that involved a lonely and despondent middle-aged gay man who decided to commit suicide by a unique means: being devoured by a monster. His quest takes him to a mountain in Japan and ends rather differently than he expected. I felt I managed to capture his psychology well enough to convince readers. I also played with symbolism far more in this story than I ever did in the past.
EF: What writers have influenced you the most?
SB: The real answer to this would be the writers that have a lasting impact on me. The oddest debt would be to Gary Gygax for creating Dungeons and Dragons. In elementary school, I befriended the nurse who would bring in her son's gaming books; she knew I had a love for monsters. I would often feign being sick so I could read them. Being involved in roleplaying games instilled a love for storytelling and exposed me to countless high fantasy novels growing up. I read Lovecraft at the impressionable adolescent age when you are in awe of words and ideas. I have always wanted to write convoluted historical fantasy like Tim Powers's early works or the fabulism of Jonathan Carroll or William Browning Spencer. Lastly, Holly Black, being my best friend, has and continues to influence me with her advice and feedback.
EF: Do you have any writing rituals or habits you engage in? And does Daulton, your cat, play a part in your writing routine?
SB: I have plenty of bad writing habits. I do not write every day but rather sporadically. I normally type a flurry of notes and then let a few days pass before beginning the story. I rarely finish anything in one sitting but prefer to leave things unfinished for weeks if not months. I find that by the time I come back, my thoughts on the piece have coalesced into something slightly different but usually superior to the original notion. Still, I have many unfinished pieces. I often rely upon guilt over disappointing an editor as the motivating factor to ensure that I meet a deadline.
I usually go to bed early and my mind continues to dwell upon a story; some nights I have to get out of bed several times to write down notes. I can't go on to the computer because of Daulton. We have an arrangement over the computer desk chair. After 10pm, it's his to sleep on (if I accidentally sit late, he'll jump on the desk and flop down on the keyboard). I can reclaim the chair only after 7am. So, if I have the urge to type something, I have to sit on the floor.
EF: You're known for writing a lot of GLBTQ [Ed.: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning] fiction. Do you have a conscious agenda when you write it?
SB: My earliest stories have no queer content, but back then I was in the closet. I came out through my fiction. For several years, I made the decision to write queer fiction exclusively. I don't know if I would consider myself a literary activist; my reasoning was quite common among gay writers: the urge to produce the sort of story I felt was missing, tales that involved characters and situations with which I could identify. However, the queer publishing field has limits and I began to question whether I was letting an ideology hamper my writing career. So I began to experiment with stories that had characters who were gay but with their sexuality not the forefront of the piece or with only straight characters. And these stories sold. So now, while my natural inclination remains to write queer fiction, I consider more exploration.
A sad synchronism happened on my first novel, Vintage: A Ghost Story which comes out from Haworth Press this spring. The protagonist at one point attempted suicide and during the revision process, a teen friend of mine reading the chapters took his life. I was devastated for months. The book is dedicated to him and a portion of the royalty goes to two charities that help to prevent gay youth suicides.
EF: How much of yourself do you invest in your writing?
SB: I'd say that more of my experiences make their way into my stories than elements of my personality. Not that I live such an exciting lifestyle, trust me, but tiny things do add an air of verisimilitude. Like when I stumbled onto a gay club in Mongolia while I was pretending to be straight.
I'd like to think that my characters have better mindsets than me. Fewer neuroses would be nice.
EF: Have you found there to be a difference between GLBTQ publishing and mainstream genre publishing with regard to literary movements, what editors are looking for, or style preferences?
SB: Oh there's a definitely difference. Publishing, in general, is market-driven. The presses specializing in queer titles are no exception and are often cautious about what they can release. I think a great many readers are confronted with three choices for gay fiction: literary, trade, and smut. Experimental movements, such as magic realism or slipstream, are rarely encountered in the gay presses. One exception that comes to mind is Suspect Thoughts Press, which has earned its reputation for releasing some odd books. Haworth Positronic Press is releasing gay speculative fiction titles as well.
For the most part, gay presses are involved with queer-themed books while mainstream releases are more apt to have queer characters. This may be because the latter are hoping to sell to the general marketplace and so cannot risk alienating a good portion of the population. By queer themes, I mean the dramatic narrative involves such elements as acceptance, coming out, and homophobia.
EF: What is the appeal of writing genre fiction for you?
SB: I think the everyday world is a pretty sorry place. Certainly many people have it worse than me and see even bleaker elements. In speculative fiction, I can indulge my escapism—either plunging myself into true dystopias or experiencing some emotional uplift with a sense of wonder.
EF: Do you see recurring themes in your writing?
SB: Man's innate need to get off. Or something more profound, such as the unending search for post-modern . . . No, seems like I write a lot about love and loneliness.
EF: What trends have you observed in publishing recently? Do you think the mainstream genre presses are too conservative?
SB: Well, the most obvious trend is the plethora of young adult speculative fiction. I don't know the actual numbers, but it seems there is more new fantasy, horror, and science fiction being released for teens than there is for adults. I actually enjoy reading YA fiction, as it mirrors themes that queer folk are constantly dealing with: self-actualization and social acceptance.
I don't know if the mainstream presses are conservative. Simon & Schuster released Valiant, which had all sorts of interesting vice. The majority of queer speculative fiction is not published by the gay presses but by the general marketplace. Stories by Chris Barzak and Rick Bowes and Delia Sherman aren't found in the pages of Genre or such sites as Blithe House Quarterly or Velvet Mafia. These authors are selling to the major NYC crowd and some of the intended audience just happens to be gay.
EF: What's the worst experience you ever had during a reading?
SB: Back when Trysts came out, I scheduled a reading at a gay community center in northern New Jersey. I arrived to a small, faux-wood paneled room filled mostly by seniors. I began reading a story from the book and one of the older men, who sat directly across from me, began to drift off. This may have been my first reading ever and I thought to myself, there's no worse event for a writer unless he should happen to have a coronary by the second page. The others kept awake and listened. I started my second story, and the sleeping man started to snore. Loudly. Deviant deviated septum loudly. I must have winced, and we all played a game of pretending to ignore the raspy sounds echoing. The man woke when I finished and he actually purchased a copy. Maybe he felt guilty. Or maybe he thought he'd found a cure for his insomnia.
EF: Are you concerned about being labeled or compartmentalized? Or conversely, do you seek such a label out?
SB: Only on occasion do I ponder whether I should consider myself to be a gay spec fic writer or a spec fic writer who happens to be gay. I have found that there are more people in fandom who remain "closeted" to their gay friends than the reverse. I think this is because gay culture is presented in the mass media as caring more for appearances than substance. The gay man who goes out clubbing every weekend, spends hours in the gym, wears designer clothes and takes designer drugs, is to be lauded. But the guy who collects comic books or thinks a weekend at a science fiction convention is madcap fun, that guy is a freak to the "gayborhood." It's sad but that's what happens in an image-conscious society.
EF: Have you experienced any backlash or negative fallout about being a GLBTQ writer or about something you've written?
SB: Well, I think I once didn't get called back for a second interview with a job because they Googled me and discovered what I write. Other than that, no one's ever really censured me. I understand that my style, as well as the content, is not for all readers. But for those who enjoy my work, I'm single.
EF: You're also the editor of several anthologies, including a forthcoming YA one from Mirrorstone. Tell me a little bit about what prompted you to become an anthology editor, and your experience in securing the Mirrorstone contract.
SB: After my wonderful experience with Ellen and Terri's Faery Reel—not only being accepted but taking part in several readings—I wondered at the history behind the usage of "fairy" as a derogatory word for gay men. What was its source? That led me to reflect that the very elements of the Fair Folk that enthrall readers—eternal youth and gaiety, being Other and sometimes outcasts from the rest of the world, the seductive quality of a beautiful face or song—was in many ways synonymous with queer cultural ideals and iconography. Haworth Press was starting a new speculative fiction imprint, Haworth Positronic, and the acquisitions editor, Greg Herren, liked my pitch for So Fey: Queer Faery Fictions. Surprisingly, except for the rare exception, such as Sean Meriwether, most of the gay authors I know from the regular gay presses did not feel at all comfortable writing speculative fiction and shied away from submitting.
Once I finished collecting and editing those stories, I forgot the labor pains and pitched to Stacy Whitman at Mirrorstone Books some ideas for a young adult anthology. After lobbing a variety of ideas about, Mirrorstone agreed to release a book that showcased the wide variety of speculative fiction they publish. I can count myself fortunate that they believed I had a matching vision.
EF: As an editor, what do you look for in the fiction you publish? What makes a story stand out, or really succeed for you?
SB: For So Fey I wanted stories that were beyond romantic encounters with elves. I bought the tales that revealed both the allure and horror of the Fey world, and thus could be seen as symbolic, to a certain degree, of queer culture. A great story rests not only upon character and plot but on the role of language—the dialog, the terminology, the ebb and flow of description.
With Magic in the Mirrorstone, I am hoping to collect a variety of fantastical tales that would appeal to young adult girls.
EF: How do you think new formats for short fiction, such as electronic publication and podcasting, have and/or will affect the fiction market?
SB: My experience with e-pubs and podcasting is very limited. I know one fellow, Ragan Fox, a gay performance poet who has successfully cultivated an aural following. I personally prefer a physical book in my hands but I can see the appeal of new media. I would like to see more conventions utilizing audio; imagine recording an author's reading so that attendees who might have missed the event can play it later. Or a panel discussion? All these recordings could be archived at the convention's website to entice future attendees.
EF: What do you think is the most important thing aspiring writers need to know in order to break into the field of writing?
SB: My answer happens to be a reason why I love being a "writer." There's this wonderful sense of community; no matter what genre you write in, there are other men and women out there who show the same enthusiasm for the words that you do. Too often, a writer can feel isolated at the keyboard or notepad. To assuage the loneliness inherent in the craft, the community offers camaraderie. I always encourage aspiring writers to take part in the social aspects of writing: attending conferences, forming critique groups, or simply meeting other writers over a cosmopolitan or coffee. It is more than sharing ideas or gushing over a story you just read, it's being reminded that you aren't alone in facing the uphill climb to publish and get noticed.
EF: Tell me about the writing projects you're working on currently.
SB: Well, I am about 10,000 words away from accumulating enough short fiction for another collection, Second Thoughts, which will features fantastical stories of remorse. I would rather not self-publish this book, as I did with Trysts. I'm also deep into an adult novel that is a continuation of the story "The Price of Glamour" (from The Faery Reel which was actually aimed at young adult readers) with Victorian-era thieves and fey. Then there are so many remnants that I should finish, novels never completed. As I find my confidence growing with each sale, my enthusiasm to sit down and write increases. I'm fortunate that I have been asked to submit to several anthologies, some gay, some not. So I can't, and certainly won't, turn away from writing short fiction.
EF: What are your ultimate writing goals?
SB: Ideally, I'd like to be recognized for creating stories that perfectly blend queer sensibilities with speculative fiction elements. Because most gay readers, I have found, seem to embrace the novel over the short story, I may well be forced to write books. Lots of books.
EF: And finally, a fluff question (literally): You have quite a collection of interesting and fanciful stuffed animals. How did you come to start this hobby? Tell me a little about your favorites.
SB: Ha, well, I've always loved plush animals. My favorite has sentimental value and is a large owl my folks bought me as a child. But my collection includes many of the ToyVault releases (their Lovecraftian and Godzilla lines are amazing). I adore one of the Teddy Scares, Edwin Morose, because he's all about the broken heart and appeals to my maudlin tendencies.