Fran Grote: My Readers Matter the Most

The third interview from a workshop I conducted called The Bridge–this one is with author Fran Grote. I met Fran originally years earlier in another workshop. She worked fearlessly and feverishly at her writing, and in the end chose to go independent of traditional publishing. She has written and published now a serio-comic novel, Fire in the Henhouse, and a collection of stories that defies categorization, Death Madness & a Mess of Dogs.

Author Fran Grote

What got you started writing?

Someone asked me recently why I write, and my instant answer was, “Because I have to.” Real life being more like the SATs than any of us wants to admit, I’m going to stick with my first answer. The human mind thrives on story. Stories not only soothe and instruct us, they engage just about every bit of our brains, making us see and feel as well as think. They create autonomic responses throughout our nervous systems, and mold memories. They are an addiction. And so, when I found myself on a three-week business trip to China with nothing to read during my down time, I finally got off my duff and started writing down the stories I’d been telling myself my whole life. Everybody’s got some of those. Luckily, those weren’t the ones I showed to anybody else. But that’s what got me started.

You didn’t ask me what’s made me continue, but just in case you’re curious, I don’t know how it is for anybody else, but for me writing has become an even more powerful addiction than reading. My family can always tell when I’ve had a day with no writing in it. I have all the classic signs of withdrawal – mood changes, fidgety inability to get anything substantive done, and nobody better dare get between me and the nacho chips.

Fire in the Henhouse

What draws you to certain books and stories?

I started to answer this question by looking at the things I’ve recently read that fell into the “can’t put this down” category. On the surface, they don’t have much in common – Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane; a collection of Alice Munro’s short stories written between 1968 and 1994; Endless Love by Scott Spencer. But upon closer inspection I realized these authors consistently do some very powerful things – their language isn’t just beautiful, it ignites the senses; their protagonists are painfully honest about what they think and what they want, even if that sometimes makes them not very nice. These books and stories all build a world that I know when I’m done reading, even if I didn’t know it before I started. I guess the short answer would be I’m looking for a story that sucks me in and doesn’t let go of me even long after I’ve finished reading it.

Do you see recurring themes emerging in your work?

Is this a trick question? she asked, smiling inside. And then she remembered something a very astute teacher once told her, that each reader brings her or his own perspective to a story, and that perspective will often render their experience very different from what the author thought it would be. So with that in mind, I will answer honestly that to me there is only one theme in my work, and that is the struggle to gain power over the things that control us. Granted, sometimes that struggle shows up in the form of a guy on work-release trying not to get tagged for a crime he didn’t commit, or of two elderly sisters in a Hell inspired by the tenets of personalized medicine. And one of the things that never fails to surprise me is the number of laughs I get whenever I read my work aloud. I’m always delighted that people find the way I see the world as funny. My work often looks at the darker side of human behavior, so it’s only fair that I offer readers the chance to laugh. [Check out FIRE IN THE HENHOUSE here.]

 

At what point in the process did you decide to create your own imprint and go it alone?

If I recall correctly, I was semi-conscious, delirious with fever and trying to lift the front end of an SUV with my bare hands, when some voice in my head said, hey, there’s probably something you can do with your spare time that might be easier than this, but just a little. I’m only slightly exaggerating. To be fair, there are some self-publishing routes that are way easier than what I’ve chosen to do, but I wanted to treat this endeavor as a business, not just as an avenue to getting my work in print. And it was that desire to focus on quality that really tipped the scales in favor of self-publishing for me. My non-fiction writing about the pharmabio industry has resulted in multiple national speaking engagements, my memoir has won accolades, but when I tried to sell my fiction, I was invisible. My voice, I was told, is too quirky to be considered mainstream, too mainstream to qualify as genre. People suspected I might have an audience, but there was no easy, well-trodden path to find it. And worst of all, being Nobody meant I was not likely to get top of the line attention and support. So I started my own imprint in order to ensure I am always working with the best – the best editors, the best designers and artists, the best bookshops. The response from readers indicates that they see and appreciate that.

Death, Madness, & a Mess of Dogs

What have you learned as a result of eschewing traditional publishing?

The biggest thing I learned is that it’s not for the faint of heart. Putting all the time and work required aside for a moment, there is still a significant part of the industry that denigrates anything self-published. Many prestigious awards flatly refuse to consider self-published work. Other people throughout the traditional publishing industry make blanket statements about self-published books that are dismissive and unfairly critical. I have had the occasional bookstore buyer hang up on me or ask me to leave the store when I request to have my books carried, although I want to hasten to say that many, many independent bookstores have been generous and supportive and, along with my readers, have made this an incredibly wonderful journey.

Why do I keep doing it? Because my readers are the people who really matter. My first novel reached #1 on Amazon, and my short story collection (DEATH, MADNESS & A MESS OF DOGS) was featured in Kirkus Indie Best of 2014.   Those are the things that tell me I’m doing something right. There are bestselling authors among the self-published, just as there are in traditional publishing. The opposite is also true – not everything self-published is going to knock people’s socks off. Bottom line? Bring quality to your work in every way you know how, think first and foremost about your readers, and don’t quit your day job. I haven’t yet.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a writer?

Get started. Just like every other job, the key to success is butts in seats. Write every day, for at least half an hour. Write snippets, write notes to yourself, write down those random thoughts. Someday one of your characters is going to sound like a genius for saying them. Don’t let anyone discourage you. Recognize that no matter how good you may be when you start, over time you will get better – so don’t stop making your work better the first time you think you’re done. Take advice, but remember that sometimes it is best taken with a grain of salt. Not everyone who loves your work will have the means to buy or publish it; not everyone who criticizes it has earned the chops to be a critic. Don’t give up your dream, but don’t let it distract you from the real work of improving your craft. Most of all, no matter what anybody tells you, it IS a competition, so put everything you’ve got into creating the best damn winning entry you can.

Fran, thank you very much.

An Empire of Siobhan Carroll

As I said in my introduction to the previous interview I conducted, with Fran Wilde, I ran a small workshop a few years back called The Bridge. One of the other terrific participants in that workshop was author and professor Siobhan Carroll. Our interview follows:

Fantasy author-academic Siobhan Carroll

  1. Tell me about your amazing UPenn nonfiction book?

AN EMPIRE OF AIR AND WATER is a pre-history of science fiction. It examines a crucial historical period from 1750-1850, during which Europeans were penetrating the Arctic, descending into caves, and using air balloons to fly into the atmosphere for the first time. Spaces that had been off-limits to humanity were now more accessible than ever. And just as we’d see with the 20th century space race, this development put new pressures on authors who were used to using these spaces as settings for fantastic tales.

In EMPIRE I examine the reactions of authors like Mary Shelley to this new age of exploration. I argue that writers like her and Samuel T. Coleridge pushed back against exploration in texts like Frankenstein and Rime of the Ancient Mariner, trying to preserve a space for the imagination in an increasingly mapped world. Given that fiction and poetry were being used to promote exploration by government officials, British authors like Shelley also found themselves taking stands on the expansion of the British Empire. Would it really be a good thing to have even the North Pole come under British dominion? What would it mean to have generations of British subjects born outside the British Isles, but indoctrinated with loyalty to ‘England’s green fields’ thanks to the poetry they read? Authors associated resistance to empire with these unusual geographies, and the tropes they created around caves, oceans, atmospheres and the poles carry forward into modern fiction.

  1. What are your favorite classes to teach at UDelaware?

I have to pick just one? I like all the classes I teach, but I particularly get a kick out of courses like “Fantasy From Tolkien to Rowling,” which culminates in students putting on a research symposium on fantasy fiction. I like to teach courses in which students get to engage with fiction and poetry via more angles than just the traditional academic essay.

  1. Talk to me a little about the Wendigo story that Ellen Datlow published in Fearful Symmetries and that’s being reprinted in The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly?

The wendigo story Year's Best Weird Fiction 2grows out of my research on EMPIRE, so you might say it’s a fictional footnote to some of my book’s arguments. It’s about the stories we tell about Arctic space – about the Franklin expedition, climate change, and the fate of the poles – and the way that, if we’re not careful, such stories can dictate our futures. It’s a horror story, so it’s not very optimistic.

 

  1. What are your favorite SFnal topics?

Wow, there are so many. Right now I’m very interested in the new representations of ecology and humanity that we’re seeing in works like Vandermeer’s Annihilation and Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I also really appreciate what texts like Leckie’s Ancillary Justice are doing with identity. In my own fiction I’m still very much engaged with the way individuals are shaped by their culture, but my definitions of what “individual” and what “culture” mean are shifting.

  1. Now that you’re five (or more) years out from your Clarion experience, what do you find is the thing that inspires you most about that time?

Probably the people I met at Clarion. <Waves to the class of 2009!> Over the course of five years I’ve got to see so many people develop as writers—not just in terms of their skill levels, but also in terms of their authorial identity and voice. We had so many talented people in my class—people like Rochita Loenen Ruiz, D. Elizabeth Wasden, J.M. Sidorva, Randy Henderson, and so on—some of whom you’ve heard from already and some of whom you’ll be hearing about over the next ten years. It’s a privilege to know them, and I continue to learn so much from their writing. My advice to any aspiring SF writer is, if you can go to Clarion, do!

  1. When are you going to finish your novel, Siobhan?

<coughcoughcoughcough…soon?>

  1. Riiiight. Let’s talk about other works then. Some of your fiction is inspired by/spun off of classics—Jane Eyre comes to mind for one. This is a trait shared with other excellent writers, like John Kessel. Do you find yourself often imagining “further adventures of…” tales in literature and exploring those possibilities?

Well, first, thanks for the flattering comparison to John Kessel. He was my first week Clarion instructor and I think he’s an amazing writer. I only wish I could write in his league!

As for classics… I think I approach the “reworking of a classic story” from a different angle than most people. As a literary critic, I’m less interested in the “further adventures” of Jane Eyre than getting at what the story of Jane Eyre meant to us then, and what it means to us now.

So many powerful older stories are screened off from us by their language or reputation: people have difficulty connecting with Dickens now because they find his language difficult and because they believe they’re supposed to worship at the shrine of BLEAK HOUSE: The Very Important Book. I’m interested in fiction that solves that problem. In the case of Dickens, that means I’d rather write The Wire than The Further Adventures of Inspector Bucket. And I’d rather write something like Longbourn, which retells Pride & Prejudice with an eye to 21st century politics, than yet another P&P sequel.

That said, I think something very interesting happens when SF retells classic literature. Science fiction & fantasy has spent decades being roped off from “real literature,” so to take on the canon in an SF story is inherently a political act. But we’re now reaching a moment in which academia and the literary canon is increasingly open to SF. People like me get to teach it in English classes at university! So when it comes to retellings, I’d like to see more SF moving past the culture wars and retelling some of its own classics. So we have issues with the some of the racial and gender politics of the Golden Age? Why not address *that* in a retelling of Asimov’s “Nightfall”? Part of seeing SF as “good literature” is seeing our canon as open to reinterpretation. We have our literary history too.

Thanks, Siobhan.

An Empire of Air and Water

An Empire of Air and Water by Siobhan Carroll

 

 

 

Fran Wilde: Rising in the Updraft

Note: A few years back I ran a small workshop, The Bridge Workshop, in Narberth, PA, and as some of the extraordinary participants have subsequently begun placing stories and novels, I wanted to interview a few of them. Their success has far more to do with their perseverance and dedication to their craft than to anything I ever said or did (but I am nevertheless chuffed as hell to have been involved). -gf

I’m going to start with author Fran Wilde, who has already seen numerous short works of hers published across the SF and fantasy spectrum; and who now is about to make a splash with her first novel, Updraft.  

Fran Wilde

  1. Fran, you write both short and long fiction. Do you prefer one form over the other?

I love whichever form is better behaved at the time.

  1. What do you feel short stories and novels have in common, and what differentiates them—that is, what do you have to think about when writing a novel that you don’t when writing a short story?

When writing a short story, I can put as much time and effort into structure as I can a whole novel. Shorter doesn’t mean less effort. Sometimes it means more. I think short stories are often like complicated locking mechanisms, while novels are more like tapestries. What I love about writing a short story is the feeling of tumblers falling into place as I use a hairpin and a nail file to unlock it. What I love about writing a novel is the focus required to keep all the threads in my hands. Remembering all the threads that I’m weaving in is hard, especially when the world is complex, but it’s worth it.

  1. Talk a little about your upcoming story in Asimov’s (April/May 2015 issue). is it true what they’re saying about Tallulah Bankhead? And why is she suddenly appearing in genre fiction?

“How to Walk Through Historic Graveyards in the Digital Age”ASF515APRILMAY-web is set in one of the oldest churchyards on Maryland’s eastern shore. The main character has returned from a war zone and is dealing with PTSD and fubar-ed tech. And possibly something more.

One of the characters in the story is a shade of the actress and political activist Tallulah Bankhead. History’s remembered the actress part… and it’s certainly got a grasp on her… flirtier … side — but Bankhead’s politics, her advocacy for equal rights, and the fact that she had a very long career that spanned many forms of media has maybe been a bit buried by time and popular culture. Perhaps she’s reappearing because she refuses to be forgotten. I like to think that.

  1. You’re teaching a workshop at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference this summer. Are you looking forward to that, and however you answer, why?

Oh yes.  I miss teaching quite a bit. Working with students — whether in a workshop setting or a classroom — is one way to pay forward the generosity I’ve been shown by my own mentors and teachers. I started classroom teaching when I was pretty young, at a public school for the arts in Baltimore, Loyola College, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, and University of Baltimore. More recently, I’ve worked in the writers’ workshops at Worldcons. Talking with other writers about their work and supporting them is an important part of being a writer for me. I’m not always going to say what someone wants to hear, especially in a class, but that’s part of the job too.

  1. You moved from Baltimore to the Philadelphia sff scene, and I believe have been folded into what are called “The Loud Philadelphians” … What’s the best part of the Philadelphia spectrum?

The Loud Philadelphians, from what I can tell, encompasses an incredibly generous set of people who are willing to answer my ridiculous questions, show me where the good watering holes are, and show up at readings, sometimes in distant cities. I think that’s part of what’s best about the Philadelphia scene — it’s got tremendous history, a wealth of knowledge, and a whole amazing set of new voices coming up in every section of the city.

  1. So, let’s get to your new novel, Updraft. This is the first book of a trilogy that as I recall began life as a short story. Can you talk about the evolution of this project—because I think at the point where it’s grown to these proportions, it isn’t just a story. It’s much more complex.

Updraft started as one short story about a fall from great height. It developed in response to a challenge at Viable Paradise. A second short story about a knife fight in a wind tunnel followed. I started wondering what kind of world would put its people in these kinds of situations. Meantime, friends who read the short stories gave me the “this isn’t a short story, it’s a novel,” critique. Those are wonderful to hear, even if I groaned at the time.

Updraft cover

At this point, the single novel has grown to at least three set in that world, as well as several short stories and at least one novella. They’re not all linked in traditional sequels, but some are. I love the idea that there’s so much more going on in the world than the POV characters can see; that many different people are out there having adventures, and we can see only pieces of them.

Sometimes I go to write a short story and end up with a novel. Sometimes I intend to write a novel and everyone should be very afraid.

  1. First of a trilogy… What can we expect in the sequels to Updraft?

Ahh the sequels! It’s so hard to talk about them in advance of Updraft coming out, but I’m really excited to watch them unfold. In Updraft, there are characters of all ages and physical capabilities who are important to the story. In the sequels, you can expect vastly new perspectives, more monsters, old friends, and several new characters who are a lot of fun to write. I hope they’re as fun to read.

Bio: Fran Wilde is an author and technology consultant. Her first novel, Updraft, is forthcoming from Tor/Macmillan in 2015. Her short stories have appeared or will shortly appear in publications including Asimov’s, Nature, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Tor.com. Her interview series Cooking the Books–about the intersection between food and fiction–has appeared at Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and on her website, franwilde.wordpress.com. You can find her on Twitter @fran_wilde and Facebook@franwildewrites.