Jessica Salmonson: Storyteller - Jitterbug Fantasia Interview




Jessica Amanda Salmonson is the author of six fantasy novels, fourteen short story collections, poetry, nonfiction and essays, in addition to a keeping busy schedule as an editor. Salmonson also runs Violet Books, which specializes in antiquarian supernatural, fantasy and mysterious literatures, vintage westerns, swashbucklers and juveniles. Kristen Brennan conducted the following interview with Salmonson in the Summer of 2004 for Jitterbug Fantasia web magazine.


Introduction


Where did you grow up?  

I was born in Seattle; lived in a traveling carnival during tothood then most of the rest of my life right here in the Pacific Northwest other than a brief stint in California.

Wow, a traveling carnival? What was that like?

My mom was a sword-swallower and step-dad a fire eater (though he preferred the term "fire manipulator"). I was a toddler so I remember mostly only pleasing shadows of that itinerant life, of being used in the Guillotine Act, and being dropped from a gallows, and riding carnival rides at will like most kids used swing sets. But at school age I was orphaned and life got darker. Anyone who read the introduction to my ghost story collection The Deep Museum already know that story, which is unsuitable for the web.

What was your childhood like? Were you very bookish? Did you have many friends who were into the same books you enjoyed?

There are science fiction nerds everywhere so during school age I always had a few chums who liked some of the same things I did. Plus I have always loved horror cinema, and there were always at least one or two other odd children for whom Frankenstein and King Kong were cinematic heros.

What was the first book that ever swept you away?

I was a precocious reader and it's pretty hard to remember what all I read at age seven, but one of my earliest favorite books was an anthology called More Macabre edited by Don Wollheim, another was a book about strange weather phenomenon like ball lightning or the Rain of Frogs. One of the first novels to get me all awestruck was by Otis Adelbert Kline, set in the jungles of Venus. I carried it with me everywhere and pondered every chapter like it was talmudic studies. But I also liked the usual kidstuff about abused horses, heroic dogs, cute kittens and rabbits, or frogs that talked and wore pants.

Did you study literature in school?

No more than anyone else is forced to.

How did you evolve into a bookseller and author?  Do you identify primarily with one role or the other? 

I made a living exclusively off writing for about 15 years or so, but it was always a financial worry. I also collected antiquarian books for my personal library, so I became more and more acquainted with that business, eventually issuing catalogs of rare books. That's always led to financial worry too.

Violet Books was open to the public when it began, but today operates mostly through catalogs and over the Internet, and you see clients by appointment only.  When and why did this change?  How has your idea of running a bookshop evolved since you began?

I didn't like being tied down to a shop. I wanted the liberty to go book scouting or doing research in library archives. Running a shop seven days a week was a millstone.

Do you watch television?  Do you go to the movies?  What non-book stories do you love best?

I watch DVDs primarily, including some stuff on DVD off television. If I were to name some favorite films, the list might lead off with The Saragasso Manuscript from Poland (a swashbuckling vampire tale based on Count Potacki's great work), Macario from Mexico (based a supernatural story by B. Traven), Seven Samurai, The Exterminating Angel, and Children of the Paradise. But I like even bad movies and watch rather too much horror cinema.


Tomoe Gozen: Real-Life Female Samurai


Your first novel was Tomoe Gozen: The Disfavored Hero.  Tomoe Gozen's adventures take place in Naipon, a slightly mythologized version of Japan.  Are female samurai historically accurate, or an element of your mythology?

While writing the three Tomoe Gozen novels I was continuously researching ancient and medieval Japan. I compiled a personal collection of some 2,000 books about Japanese mythology, society, culture, art, costume, geography, flora and fauna, military history and government, besides spending endless hours at the University of Washington East Asia Library. So the books are thickly layered with stuff that has a lot to do with authentic history, but the books themselves are set in an alternate world where events from different centuries collide. It can't be read as history without getting deeply frustrated, even though Tomoe Gozen was an historical woman and much that she really did is sprinkled amidst much that I made up.

How did you create the character? Isn't Tomoe the Japanese word for the Chinese Taijitu, or yin-yang symbol? Is that idea related to the hero who carries two swords, which represent two souls? Would it be accurate to consider the hero bisexual, and if so does that tie in to the "two souls" idea?

Tomoe Gozen having been a real historical figure required no invention of name. Gozen is an honorific given especially to women of achievement. The word Tomoe doesn't indicate only a yinyang symbol because Tomoe's coat of arms had three rather than two of the interlocking "fish;" the word more indicates that comma-shaped curve, whether one, two, or more. It is also the name of a cut done with a naginata halberd, which according to tradition was a cut first devised by Tomoe Gozen.

Sure, my characterization of Tomoe can be interpreted as bisexual, but she's not very greatly in touch with her sexuality, and when she has erotic feelings at all, these are not toward men. Much that she does is motivated by duty, honor, grief, guilt, or horror; she seems never to be influenced by her feelings of love or desire, which is why carnage follows her everywhere, and those closest to her don't ordinarily fare very well. In the final scene of the last book she duels and kills a fellow woman warrior she liked a great deal, when there was no cause for it beyond a desire to test each the other's sword. If Tomoe had been more in touch with her feelings or at least capable of acting upon her feelings in some manner other than the warrior road, that encounter would've ended more in the manner of Elisabeth Lynn's The Woman Who Loved the Moon.

How much research did you do for the Tomoe Gozen trilogy?  Were there any old stories of female samurai to work from?

There were many women like Tomoe historically. In fact all women of the samurai class studied martial arts, and the naginata is to this day considered a women's weapon. Today's All-Japan Naginata Association is a women's martial arts society, the vast majority of its members women descended through the samurai class even though officially that class is no longer recognized. Historically all women of this class could fight. Most, however, were home or castle defenders, and learned techniques of fighting in narrow hallways with all lights extinguished. Fewer were like Tomoe who traveled with the military camp, but she was even so a model of a recurring type of woman.

Would you enjoy seeing Tomoe Gozen or any of your other stories turned into a film?

Not long ago Fox Television's vice-president asked if rights were available and hinted of Lucy Lu as star. It was just an idea they'd been batting around at Fox and in the long run nothing came of it. If anything of that sort ever does amount to something, I will be doing cartwheels of joy.

Do you practice martial arts?  Do you own a sword or naginata?

I studied Iaido (居合道) for years but its been a while and I've forgotten just about as much as I ever learned. I still own swords and to an untrained eye can still fake my way through some impressive moves.


Haggard and the Lost Race Tradition


What is a "Lost Race" story? How did the Lost Race genre evolve from older stories?

During the Victorian Age of Exploration there were still many areas on the map that were unexplored, and authors imagined the survival of ancient Roman or Egyptian or Atlantean cultures in these unexplored regions. Even today authors occasionally come up with ways of dreaming there is a world of ancient peoples underneath Antarctica or in the hollow earth or bottom of the sea, but the theme does not resonate as broadly for today's reader as it did for Victorians when news of previously unseen parts of the world were monthly occurrences.

Violet Books features "Lost Race" novels in the style of H. Rider Haggard, and literary ghost stories, exemplified by M. R. James.  Haggard published his most influential work from around 1885-1905, James 1904-1925; is there a quality about turn-of-the-century literature that attracts you particularly?  Is it that so many of the tropes of modern culture were first invented during that period?  Was there an explosion of literary invention  following the introduction of Forster Elementary Education Act of 1870? That is, once free education made literacy widely available to the nonwealthy for the first time, did that create a market for a new kind of novel?

Old fiction does seem generally to be better stuff. It takes far less basic talent to get published nowadays. But there are also styles, such as High Decadence, that were never commercially popular and which appeal to a sense of beauty and strangeness which, apparently, the plebian masses have never liked. You won't find more than a half-dozen moderns who can do that right, but there was a host of such writers a century ago and two centuries ago, from Hoffmann to Poe to the Wilde of Dorian Grey.

Would you agree that many of the Republic Serials of the '30s and '40s are largely modeled on the work of H. Rider Haggard?

There are certainly a lot of them with Lost Race elements and menacing beautiful jungle queens who are pale echoes of Haggard's indomitable Ayesha. The "jungle" serials, including even those about Tarzan, are in the shadow of Haggard's vast greatness, but not much of that greatness really rubs off on the serials. 

What separated H. Rider Haggard from his competitors?  What made his work so special?

He was better at it. He wrote with a genuine sense of Romance in the old sense the word, of Romanticism, and he wrote with a sense of tragedy and beauty and intensity of life that makes him easier to take seriously even with such extravagant plots. Most of his imitators saw only the extravagance and copied that without capturing Haggard's sense of sadness and beauty and mysteries deeper than can be fully grasped.

Alan Moore's comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen covers much of the same literary ground as Violet Books.  Have you read the series?  What do you think of it?  Is it a good introduction to antique adventure literature for young people?

I liked that comic series and delighted to see so many of my favorite authors' characters gathered together in the modern illustrated-novel context. Moore even veers away from the Top Ten and embraces, now and then, characters who are no longer well known but should be; I'm thinking of Quong Lee from Thomas Burkes' Limehouse Nights.

I often hear from youngish readers who're still being weaned on comic books and who want to find out more about Rohmer, Haggard, Thomas Burke, H. G. Wells, Stoker, Verne, and other authors whose characters appear throughout the comic book series. And because the books they find while following up on this pictorial series turn out to be even better than the comic books, the younger readers are rarely disappointed. So I would credit the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with bringing many fresh young readers to authors who had for a long time been popular largely among elderly readers. Too bad the movie sucked though.


Ghost Stories


What constitutes a ghost story? Is it about the fear or the phantasm?

It's whatever an individual writer makes of it, a folk tale, a psychological tale, a symbolist tale, a horror tale.

How do the literary ghost stories you focus on differ from modern horror stories? 

There needn't be any different, but all too often, the classic ghost story functions through varying degrees of subtlety, while the modern horror writer relies on degrees of shock which by now no longer has the capacity to shock anyone. But there are practitioners of "quiet horror" who are close to the classic variety, and there were Victorian chain-rattler writers who were just trying to shock.

Why don't we see any really high-quality metaphysical charlatans like the Cottingley Fairies these days?  Are we to be stuck with Crossing Over With Jonathan Edward?

High quality? A bunch of photos of cut-out paper dolls stuck in the bushes was so Unconvincing that it took a grieving, senile loon, living off the laurels of his former greatness, to peddle that particularly unconvincing pack of second-rate photos. Doyle was an embarrassment to himself and his friends at that time.

By comparison Jonathan Edwards is almost clever. But the real hornswoggles for moderns who want to believe shit is candy and the supernatural trumps all the physics of the known universe would include such things as breatharianism, homeopathy, and other medical charlatonry; butt-probing aliens, faces on Mars, and flying saucer legendry; and sundry fascist governmental systems inclusive of compassionate conservatism.

How has the invention of psychology influenced fantastic fiction, and in particular the ghost-story?  Have Freud and Jung changed the way we think of and deal with fear?

There is a widespread belief that Victorian chain-rattlers gave way to Edwardian psychological ghost stories thanks to Freud. In reality psychological ghost stories had little or nothing to do with Freud and long predate distribution of his writings.

The real leap forward for psychological realism in the ghost story was social activism, not psychiatry. Wherever concern for the lower classes or ethnic minorities or the position of women or dislike of racism was strongest, storytellers became more realistic, including even those dealing with supernatural themes.

How would you describe the contribution of H.P. Lovecraft to Horror?  In what ways did he innovate?

Jorge Borges, who was a fan of Lovecraft, called him "a subconscious parodist of Poe." I think that's exactly right. Poe wrote in a refined Decadent style that informs HPL's less refined but equally Decadent variants. At his best, HPL may not have been an innovator per se, but he was a master horror writer. A couple of his stories are among the best ever written, i.e., "The Rats in the Wall" and "The Music of Eric Zann" are ideal horror tales. He has a place among the immortals, and the hordes of devoted but talentless doofs writing "Cthulhu mythos" stories which owe more to August Derleth than Lovecraft can never entirely drag HPL into the mire.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I try to be agnostic but it's difficult, because there really seems to be no basis for actual ghosts beyond human fear of loss and death.


Modern Fantasy


What is modern fantasy? Does the term even mean anything?

Probably it doesn't mean anything, but even if it does, defining genres ends up ruling out too much of the best examples. To great extent all fiction is fantasy.

Tolkien has become the godfather of modern fantasy, yet he's downplayed on your site.  Is this because you're interested in work which predates Tolkien, or you feel he's overrated?  Does he simply not catch your interest?

Tolkien is wildly overrated. Little furry-footed people marching through a dark wood until they find a nice lodge with a big feast waiting. It's the Disney version of adventure. If not for Golem the rest amounts to one big fat ill-plotted mess. It became popular at a time when not much like it was in print, so there was no competition. For genuinely amazing fantasy with depth and power, one would rather read Geoffrey of Monmouth, or The Tain, or the Mabinogian, or the Eddas, most of which were accessible mainly as scholarly editions at a time when Tolkien books were 35 cents each down at the dimestore.

Do you enjoy any modern fantastic fiction as much as the turn-of-the-century stuff?

It'd have to be a per-case assessment. There are modern writers like Patrick McGrath, Thomas Ligotti, Danilo Kis, Stephen Millhauser, and such recently deceased greats as Angela Carter, Jack Cady, or John Gardner, an endless host of others, who are as good as anyone who ever wrote. Genre novels per se have lost their appeal for me, and I gave up on whatever passes for the latest thing because it almost always vastly worse than anything even moderately well done from the past. I wouldn't call it merely turn of the century stuff however since many of favorite writers are closer to mid-century, such as Bruno Schulz or Flannery O'Connor, or long before turn-of-century such as Gogol or Poe or Sarah Orne Jewett.

How do you respond to the charge that fantasy books are merely escapism?

The word "merely" is the only stupid part of the assertion. Fiction, no matter the variety, is excellent for escapist reading. People get out of books only what they are equipped to bring to what they read. People who think in terms of "merely" define their own limitations, not those of all readers.

Is it a truism that the best writers of modern fantasy to be those most well-grounded in epics, fairy tales and myth?

Any writer of depth will be well-grounded in something, whether necessarily fairy tales is less certain. The type of commercial writer commonly seen today tends not to be grounded in much, or they are only well-grounded in role-playing games or Tarot or something even twittier. But now and then someone writes only from their own eccentricity and ends up doing something pretty nice even though they have no particular knowledge of what has gone before.

How would you describe the impact of Spenser's Faerie Queene on modern fantasy?

It certainly impacts the work of Michael Moorcock. I'm not otherwise certain it's any more significant than Mallory or Tennyson or Byron or Browning or Yeats or a whole host of poets who loved fantasy and dark heroism. It's all there in the mix for today's commercial genre, but not overbearingly so. On the other hand, many of the newest of new fantasy authors don't seem grounded in anything smarter than role playing games or elf comics.

Enthusiasts of Conan creator Robert E. Howard often claim two innovations as setting Howard apart: (1) He borrowed the "lost race" motif of H. Rider Haggard, but rather than presenting the decaying remnant of some prehistoric civilization, Howard takes us back in history to the time when the civilization was still flourishing.  And (2) Howard is often credited as the first author to popularly combine the swashbuckling story with H.P. Lovecraft-style supernatural horror.  That is, axe-wielding musclemen had been around for a long time, but Conan was the first to fight unspeakably horrible, darkness-shrouded tentacle things from other planets.  Are these valid claims?  Which fictional characters most strongly inspired Conan?

I've not heard those claims before. Herakles once battled a gigantic woman armed with a sword, who was a dragon from the waist down, and had six snarling dog torsos issuing from her midriff. Samson killed thousands armed only with the jawbone of an ass, which outmatches Conan by a long shot. In a traditional midrash after Cane slew Abel, the Earthmother would no longer sustain Cane, who in consequence went into the underworld where he fought for or against various fantastic races. In another midrash, Leviathan was depicted as of such cosmic enormity that the Earth was as a single water-drop dangling from the tip of an upper fin, which beast dwarfs Cthulhu. What Robert E. Howard wrote connected to the oldest kind of storytelling. There is nothing new about any of it, except a style suited to a market and the times.

If Robert E. Howard was offering the same old stuff that had been around forever, to what do you attribute his popularity?

The question seems to imply that telling stories in a mythic manner older than Sumer shouldn't be popular in the modern age. But why not? These pure, naive storytelling methods are genuinely timeless and will never cease to be entertaining.

James Branch Cabell's Jurgen; A Comedy of Justice was notorious in the 1920s for being the subject of an obscenity trial.  Does the book stand on its own merits?

It's a good book, not the equal of Cabell's The Silver Stallion or Something About Eve. It of course was not even for the time particularly obscene, and is difficult nowadays to see why a couple nutcakes would've made such a to-do about it.

Are you a fan of A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay?

No. It struck me as a surreal hodgepodge by someone who had not a clue about plotting a tale. It does badly what William Hope Hodgson's Nightland does well. But many people whose opinions are perfectly reasonable think otherwise, so it's at least partially a matter of taste.


Fu Manchu


Sax Rohmer became famous writing mystery stories which played upon Western fear of China (the so-called "Yellow Menace"), beginning with The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu in 1913.  Why did his stories focus on the villain rather than the hero?  Had that been done often before? 

There is not much about Fu Manchu as he appears in the books that fits the Yellow Peril scenario. He has more in common with the literature of criminal masterminds than with the literature of race hatred. It speaks to the overwhelming personality of Fu Manchu that people actually think he's the protagonist of the tales, when the hero and protagonist, unmemorably enough, is Nayland Smith.

Nayland is a stiff-upper-lip Brit and of some interest in his own right, but he vanishes from memory compared to the Insidious Doctor. Fu Manchu is a man of surprising honor and of course super-intelligence. Despite that he uses his brilliance, more often than not, in criminal enterprises, every reader roots for him, as he's the true hero of the tales. In actual Yellow Peril tales, as in Pierton Dooner's "Last Days of the Republic," faceless hordes of Chinese invade California, justifying the Anti-Chinese Act of 1882.   The racism is acute, the attempt to create hysterical fear against Asians is dead-serious, and there are no great characters with Chinese faces with whom the reader would rather identify. 

Rohmer clearly thought of Fu Manchu as a heroic figure, and in Shadow of Fu Manchu even makes him the arch-enemy of communism, and in Drums of Fu Manchu the enemy of fascism. These later titles aren't as exciting as earlier ones because Rohmer had gotten a bit jingoistic; but the seeds of this development in Fu Manchu's character were there from the start, and it is not surprising to discover that the Insidious Doctor is humanity's last hope of salvation.

Do Rohmer's stories posses literary or lasting value?  Was Fu-Manchu an influence on Ming the Merciless, the arch-nemesis of Flash Gordon?

If Fu Manchu was an influence on Ming the Merciless, it could only have been from filmic versions. Ming bares not even a slight resemblance to Dr. Fu Manchu of the written tales. For starters, Fu Manchu was clean-shaven and ageless, and did not sport what has become widely known as the Fu Manchu mustache, which was never sported by Rohmer's character as Rohmer described him. Nearly everything about Fu Manchu as portrayed in film is at odds with the finer character of the books, and Ming may well have been a filmic parody of a filmic parody.

And certainly the best of these stories have already proven their lasting value, though "literary" in any academic sense may be harder to prove. 


Women and Fantastic Fiction


Most of the fiction you sell - Lost Race, Swashbucklers, Fantasy - feature male heroes.  Only the Ghost Story genre are women heroes and writers broadly represented.  Do you have any theories as to why this might be?  Is it simply the case that Victorian and turn-of-the-century women had limited access to literary educations?  Do women historically have less money for books than men, or are the typically drawn more strongly to romance novels?

What you've asserted here isn't necessarily true. Almost any idea based on "women didn't do that" will most of the time prove false upon careful examination. Historicals or swashbucklers are frequently told from the point of view of female protagonists and many of the greatest writers are women, including Baroness Orczy, Naomi Mitchison, "Bryher," J. G. Sarasin, and Emily Lawless, and hordes of others before even counting a modern crew that might begin with Mary Renault. Even among such excellent male authors as John Edward Bloundelle-Burton or Jeffrey Farnol, the women in the stories are striking and strong figures, while the men are mere fops. This is probably why women have always dominated especially Farnol's readership. 

It is probably more true that the majority of Lost Race novels have male heroes circumnavigating the globe and encountering societies thought to be extinct. But even here one finds so many exceptions that if someone demanded female protagonists at center stage, there'd be plenty to select from. One that leaps to mind is Rosa Campbell Praed's Fugitive Anne about a woman who discovers a lost race in the Australian outback. That one's a fine tale; there are many others written by theosophists or early feminists beating their drum too loud and placing their political or religious ideals in an Atlantean or Amazonian setting, a mite too didactic to read well. Some that leap to mind include Irene Clyde's Beatrice The Sixteenth, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, Inez Irwin Gilmore's Angel Island, each positing hidden matriarchies of one sort or another.

And of course even such classics as Haggard's own She, Ayesha, and Wisdom's Daughter has a titular goddess-like female figure at the center of the tales, and more lost race novels than not imitated that model. 

Victorian women writers and earlier generally had fairly good educations, even though most often from tutelage in the home. The perspective of history all too often remembers Nathaniel Hawthorn was a great writer but forgets that Sarah Orne Jewett was his equal. Women wrote the majority of the novels and tales and wrote, bought, even edited and published a gigantic percentage of what appeared in magazines and books. The written word was to an enormous degree women's work. Some scholars lament this fact of history because it made Moby Dick a failure in the marketplace in its day because it failed to appeal to the primary audience which was female. It is easy to lament that Melville lived from hand to mouth, but Fanny Fern was the best selling author of the same decade. But I prefer to remember the finer authors like Jewett and Stowe, whose domination is nothing to lament.


Writers and Writing


Do you like the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling?

Children reading big fat books full of words instead of pictures can't be a bad thing.

You've mentioned how unimpressed you are with most vampire erotica. What do you think of Anne Rice, who basically started the trend?  Do you consider her Lestat character a descendant of  John Polidori's The Vampyre and thus probably a descendant of Lord Byron (upon whom Polidori is believed to have based his vampire character)?

I think Anne Rice is okay, and I'm sure she was aware of Polidori and the Romantic poets and much else, though I don't see that she took all that much from them, good or bad. She has never equaled herself since Interview because at that time she was not a powerhouse so could be pushed around by an editor who demanded revisions and more revisions until it was shaped up into a fine, restrained, quite remarkable character-driven short novel. Now she can publish any old meandering overwritten thing she can word-process into a doorstop, and it doesn't have to be any good, but she can be entertaining even so, and I share her fondness for High Decadence. The imitators she has inspired are of no consequence.

Most "great" novels were written over the course of 5, 10 or more years. Have there been any great novels written in a very short amount of time? Why does it take so long to write a great book?

I've actually never seen an analysis of how long it took to write each well known book, so I don't know whether there is any correlation between doing great work and speed of writing. My suspicion is sometimes an author spent his or her whole life tinkering with one crappy book published only when they were dead, while many another author felt "on fire" and wrote something as fast as they could think the events and it resulted in something quite nicely done. I suspect Shakespeare knocked off some of his stuff in a hurry between wenches or beautiful boys.

What do you think of Zelazny's Amber books?

They never captivated me as much as Moorcock and Leiber and many others, even though the first couple Amber books had poetic resonance. Compared to Tanith Lee's Night's Master and Death's Master or Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword the Amber books fade considerably.

Fantasy and Science Fiction fans endlessly debate who "invented" fantasy, or sword-and-sorcery, or science fiction, or hard science fiction... is it really possible to single out a single per as the wellspring of any genre, or are things more chaotic and jumbled than that?

It's not an argument that ever interested me. Heroic fantasy is too obviously our oldest form of storytelling which has remained essentially unchanged since before Homer. Any claims of modern invention are silly, and I've never as yet heard any author laying claim to such.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that modern storytellers are fulfilling the shamanic role in society, and shaman are always created by a traumatic event during childhood that ripped them from reality and sent them into the inner depths of the self.  Do you agree?  Do you find that most influential authors of the fantastic are working out difficult personal issues?

Joseph Campbell was not half as intelligent as he thought himself to be. His popularity was based on his ability to muddle and mystify things that would otherwise be quite clear. He appeals to shallow thinkers who would like to think deeply but need someone to do all the legwork for them, in a meandering overwritten but ultimately shallow manner. Typical of his intellectual capacity was this exchange that occurred in one of his classrooms:

Female Student, earnestly: But why is it always a Man? Isn't it possible for a woman to go on that Divine Quest?

Joseph Campbell, frustrated and feeble: Christ I'm glad I'm retiring.

That was the sum of his thinking on that topic. His thinking on all things was largely retro and Victorian, having nothing to do with either the ancient world or the modern world. He'll remain popular for a while to come because he is essentially unchallenging. 

How would you describe H.G. Well's contribution to fantastic fiction?

Most science fiction dates very rapidly because writers' ideas of the future are never even close. The fact that Wells is readable after a century says a great deal about his stylistic and conceptual merits that make him much more than a pioneer of science fiction. There were many pioneers and they're no longer read because their concepts of scientific advancement now look like jokes.

Given that fantastic fiction often uses the same tropes as myth and religious scripture, what's the difference between them?  A religious scriptures merely "true" myth?

The difference is usually only that modern practitioners are more shallow. Often a fantasy world is created by a modern writer so that he or she can just make stuff up at random and not really know anything about culture and society. But the world is much more elaborate and interesting than these other worlds. Great imaginative works like Torah, The Mahabharata, The Holy Zohar, The Vedas and the Devi Mahatmya, are vastly deeper works because they reflect actual cultures and social constructs and beliefs. Genre novels strip this down to such a rudimentary level, to such a degree that most of it is unworthy of being read a second time. But the greater works of the past reveal new levels of  significance even after a hundred readings.

As a minor aside, it's always a good idea to try to get "trope" out of one's vocabulary. 


Looking Ahead


You mention on your website that you date women, and many of the most famous fantasy authors were gay or otherwise atypical in their sexual preferences.  Do you see a connection between being gay and interest in fantasy?  Perhaps interest in fantasy is a side-effect of belonging to any category considered inferior by society?

My companion of many years is a book designer, artist, and presently a gay activist who works full time for a non-profit GLBT organization. We're monogamous so I haven't "dated" in years. As for "considered inferior by society" I would amend that as "considered inferior by uneducated pigfuckers, Klan rednecks, superstitious bigots who blame their ignorance on Jesus who by the way was a faggot, and other assorted mental, social, and moral cretins." Never met anyone of human worth who was so threatened by queers as to regard us as inferior. But yes, science fiction fandom attracts assorted outcasts, from jus' plain nerdy nose-pickers with taped glasses, to sissies and s/m motorcycle dykes, to pensive introverts, to Midwestern Jews, to chunky chubsters, to folks whose politics could've gotten them hauled before Congress in the 1950s, to eccentrics who merely feel misplaced in time and wish they could always dress like the Three Musketeers, and even the Bubble Boy whose bubble was mistaken for a really cool costume at World Con and for the first time in his life he was treated as a normal kid. There's a lot of honest affection between people of every stripe in science fiction fandom.

Can you articulate what you look for in a story?  What makes a story grab you?  Do you find that fiction can be realistically sorted into the better stuff and trash, or is it all down to taste?

I am looking for strangeness and beauty and mysteriousness and excitement. I sometimes find those ingredients in works widely recognized as important milestones of great literature, and I elsetimes find it in works others would dismiss as rubbish.

What are your ambitions for the future?

To never take for granted of my sweety, to be with her as many days and nights as possible while I'm alive, without boring her with my presence.

Is there anything else you'd like your readers to know?

War is not peace. Always mistrust authority. And if you must pick your nose, don't eat it.