John R. Fultz - Interview
SEL) Who the Hell are you anyway?
SEL #1 Weird Role Models: Your author notes, blogs, and Facebook posts all mark your reverence for weird fiction writers such as Clark Ashton Smith (1893- 1961) and Darrell Schweitzer. CAS was one of Lovecraft and Howard’s pen pals and compatriots in Weird Tales; and Darrell Schweitzer has been a flagship short story “weirdo” (compliment) for decades going. Can you discuss how their short-story methods & tales have informed your novel-length works?
- My creative writing classes forced me to create new stories with actual deadlines—and I discovered the workshopping process of how writers share stories and provide useful feedback to one another.
- The Terminus version of WEIRD TALES magazine was going strong at that time under the editorship of Darrell Schweitzer and George Scithers—who won a World Fantasy Award during their tenure on the mag.
I would read new and back issues of WT and be crazy-inspired by them at the same time I was reading Robert Silverberg’s WORLDS OF WONDER and discovering the great sci-fi writers such as Aldiss, Kuttner, and Vance. There was also a great anthology I acquired at the time called WEIRD TALES: THE MAGAZINE THAT NEVER DIES, edited by Marvin Kaye, and it turned me on to some of the best stuff in the magazine’s long history (including my first Tanith Lee tale, “The Sombrus Tower”). I started workshopping my “weird” stories in class, then sending them to WEIRD TALES. I got rejected again and again, but I always got terrific feedback from Darrell. He wrote personalized rejections with actual advice on how to make the writing better. I had never met this man in person, but I could tell he really cared and wanted to see me succeed.
Cut to 15 years later and I finally managed to write a story worthy of publication—Darrell was impressed and wanted to buy it for WEIRD TALES. I hadn’t submitted every single year, but for a decade-and-a-half I’d been trying to crack this market because I loved WEIRD TALES above all other fiction mags. This was in early 2004 when I finally succeeded with a story called “The Persecution of Artifice the Quill” (WT #340, 2005). It was my first and only appearance in the magazine, but it set me on the path to writing and selling more stories. I did sell two more stories to Darrell and George before the magazine came under new management and my stories were quickly forgotten. Luckily, I found a new home for my best stories at BLACK GATE magazine, where John O’Neill had become the new “editor to impress.” After a few years of hustling short stories here and there, and eventually completing my first complete story-cycle (i.e. THE REVELATIONS OF ZANG), I was ready to move on to writing novels. Again, Darrell encouraged me in this wholeheartedly from afar. Reading WT had turned me on to writers like Tanith Lee, Thomas Ligotti, Lord Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft, and others. Discovering Tanith Lee was a thunderbolt moment for me—I started seeking out her books whenever possible. My favorite is probably DEATH’S MASTER, but she wrote so many masterpieces.
Magic and Sorcery in the Shaper Trilogy is all of these things and more. Over the course of the series we see at least three different characters go through “training” periods where they learn the art of sorcery—and each person’s journey is completely different. One unsavory fellow uses blood and shadows to invoke necromancy, another uses naked intent to rearrange the existing patterns of reality itself, and one uses an ancient language of power that can be spoken without sound. There are also entities in the novel who are simply cosmic in nature, so that magic and sorcery is their very lifeblood, creatures of concentrated power who fade and diminish over time into something resembling mortal forms. Often these transfigured cosmic beings forget their true nature as they are swept up in the dream of the living world. So there’s a lot of magic in the Shaper Trilogy, and a lot of different kinds of magic. I used to tell people the trilogy is “way more sorcery than sword.” ‘Cause that’s the way (uh-huh, uh-huh) I like it.
SEL #3) Happy Horror: I’ve reviewed your short story in Weirdbook#35 “The Man Who Murders Happiness” as being poignant and disturbing (in a good way)! There is a fine line between creating repulsive and pleasant horror. Please discuss how you balance walking that tight rope.
So my feelings that I was watching the world go mad emerged in that story—it’s brutal, it’s dark, but it echoes the world today. One cannot dwell in existential misery forever, and writing horror stories can be even more liberating than reading them. I think I’ll always dip into horror now and then, even though fantasy remains my first love. Some people are appalled by the horror in my fantasies, but what can I say? I like it dark. The more darkness you have, the brighter the light shines against it.
JRF: Wow, that’s probably a question for my readers rather than myself. However, I can tell you what I hope comes across as beautiful. In the Shaper Trilogy, I wrote in a lyrical style heavy with imagery. A lot of people have complimented the extraordinary visuals in those books. Others have complained that I “describe too much,” which I’ve never been able to wrap my head around. When you’re reading fantasy, you should be taking in fantastic images—there should be an immersion into the “other”—a descent into the atmosphere of the unreal to the point that it takes on a reality of its own. If you don’t want descriptions of fantastic settings, environments, and locations, you might as well be reading a contemporary crime novel, or any other non-fantasy genre.
I never have and still don’t enjoy fantasy that doesn’t provide me with fantastic imagery. As Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees once sang: “Show me fantastic lands…” I remember a reviewer who said that I was “Trying to write like Clark Ashton Smith,” but this person had never spoken to me, nor had any real idea what I was trying to do. I was only trying to write like myself, so that’s exactly what I did. A lot of modern fantasy—most of it—is written in a rather mundane contemporary style that fails to evoke the fantastic at all. In SEVEN PRINCES and its two sequels I aimed for a timeless style using language neither wholly dated nor wholly modern. The best fantasies and historical dramas are told in simple, timeless language. It’s a very hard line to walk, and I did the best I could at it. Everything you write is a snapshot of where you are as a writer at that specific moment in time. A writer’s style also evolves over time and from project to project.
SEL #6) Writing Styles: In an October 24th 1930 letter to Lovecraft, CAS described his strategy of using aesthetics to heighten the reading experience of his weird works (quote below). As much as I adore CAS’s works, they are a bit dense and less digestible than yours. What is your take on writing styles and conveying emotion?
It’s okay that writing CHALLENGES the reader sometimes—I read LORD OF THE RINGS when I was in third grade and let me tell you I was challenged by it. I remember reading John Brunner’s “The Things That Are Gods” in Lin Carter’s YEAR’S BEST FANTASY #6 when I was ten. I couldn’t understand it at all. A quarter-century later I read the story and realized its genius. I had to seek out every other Traveler In Black story that Brunner wrote. Luckily they were collected in THE COMPLEAT TRAVELER IN BLACK, and they are amazing. Dense language, fantastical in every way, and built on a foundation of cosmic mystery. Definitely not written for the 10-year-old fantasy fan. At that age I was digging Carter’s Thongor of Lemuria stories in that very same collection. Thongor was kid-friendly with simple language and Conan-esque context, whereas Brunner’s story was in a whole other class: it was legitimate “literature of the fantastic.”
Anyone who says “I’m a fantasy fan” should also be able to read and enjoy the work of Lord Dunsany. If you read his beautiful prose and complain about his language, than you’re a lazy reader. Sorry, mate. Go read one of those bland mass-market fantasies that sell so well—lord knows there are plenty of them. My ideal way to write fantasy is to use a blend of timeless and contemporary language free of anachronisms. Yet when it comes to sci-fi, horror, and weird fiction, I tend to write in far more contemporary language. Short stories are kind of like experiments where I can play with language, style, and ideas, freed from the greater demands of a cohesive novel.
SEL #10) Cover Art: Son of Tall Eagle, a sequel to Testament of Tall Eagle, is due out in paperback next year (May 2018 Ragnarok). Would love to hear your input on the series. Alex Raspad’s cover art is very engaging. Authors are usually solitary artists; relying on another artist to realize your world is element of beauty/horror in the publication industry. Did you have a chance to work directly with him on these? How did that process go?
I was also fortunate that Orbit Books hired the brilliant Richard Anderson to do covers for the Shaper books, also based on nothing more than my written descriptions. My favorite of those covers is SEVEN SORCERERS, which I believe is also the best book in the series—as the third book of any trilogy should be. You have to deliver bigtime in the third book, otherwise what’s the point? While the Books of the Shaper were designed to be a self-contained trilogy, I have no specific number of books in mind for the TALL EAGLE series. The TALL EAGLE novels can also be read in any order—each one is a new entry point.
|Art by John R Fultz - Conclusion to SKULLS online comic|