“People seem to still like stories. As long as that doesn’t change, there will be a place for writers.”
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Tim Pratt’s ability to bring together the most extraordinary events with the most ordinary life is maybe the reason why his short stories are so fascinating. In this interview, the author of Hic sunt dracones, talks about his daily routine as a writer and how he finds inspiration for his work.
Fata Libelli: You earned a college degree in English, attended Orson Scott Card’s fiction workshop and the Clarion Writers workshop. Since then, you have worked in the publishing industry for years and written lots of books on many different topics, from urban fantasy (Marla Mason series) to steampunk (The Constantine Affliction). Can you imagine yourself doing something else apart from writing? Has it always been your vocation?
Tim Pratt: Oh, I like writing, but I do other things, too. I work as an editor at a magazine, and I do a lot of production and layout work, too. If I ever get sick of writing, I might go to cooking school — I love to cook, and would enjoy learning to do it well. But, it’s true, writing is my favorite, and I’ve done it since I was a small child; since I learned how to write at all, basically. I wrote long before I ever started publishing and making money at it.
FL: Writing requires a lot of time and effort, so some aspiring writers find it very difficult to sit down and write on a daily basis. I would say that you, on the contrary, are a very prolific author (Bride of Death, for example, is your eighth Marla Mason novel). Do you have some kind of daily writing routine? Have you ever suffered from Writer’s Block? What is your seemingly endless source of inspiration?
TP: I don’t have any sort of daily writing routine. I certainly don’t write every day, unless I’m approaching a deadline, and need to get a lot done in order to meet that deadline. I write whenever I feel like it, basically — but I feel like it fairly often. It’s my favorite way to entertain myself. As for inspiration, I find it everywhere. I read a lot of different things, I talk to people, I observe the world, and I get ideas all the time. More than I could ever use up in my lifetime, certainly. Ideas are easy. Execution can be hard.
I don’t tend to get writer’s block, in the sense that I can’t write at all. I can always sit and type something. Sometimes the writing goes *badly*, and is difficult, and usually I just stop writing for a bit in that case, or go work on something else.
FL: The “sense of wonder” has been usually associated with science fiction, but of course fantasy can make readers experience a similar awe-inspiring feeling; especially fantasy stories with grandiose settings or highly ambitious plots. It’s the feeling conveyed by stories like “Cup and Table”, I would say. Is there a particular kind of feeling or mood that you try to convey with your fantasy stories? Shock, wonder, joy…?
TP: I aim to achieve different effects with different stories. Sometimes I want to create a sense of intense dislocation — a feeling that reality is more fluid and flexible than it usually seems. Sometimes I want to surprise laughter out of the reader, or make them reconsider some essential assumption, or give them a warm flush of romantic feelings or empathy or sympathy. Mostly, I just want to keep the reader interested and entertained, and make them care about the fates of imaginary people.
FL: Some academics (Jackson, Campra) claim that fantasy (low fantasy, at least) is a subversive genre by nature, because it depicts everyday realistic situations that are abruptly assaulted by unthinkable creatures and magical events. This coexistence of ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ is said to allow/force readers to rethink their assumptions about how life works and imagine wider possible worlds. Do you agree in general with these ideas or do you have your own theories about fantasy literature?
TP: Certainly fantasy can do those things. Often fantasy tropes can be used as metaphors to discuss the human condition, though. I also think there’s a place for literature as escapism, simply to enjoy on its merits. Sometimes a dragon is just a dragon. I’m not an academic, though. I’m a reader, and a writer who writes the sorts of things I mostly love to read.
FL: Supernatural events apart, your stories tend to focus on characters and their feelings (love, hate, revenge, loneliness, failure…). In some of your short stories, such as “Impossible Dreams”, “Hart & Boot” or “The Crawlspace of the World” for example, supernatural/weird situations trigger emotional conflicts that are the true core of the plot. How do you find your characters? Do you develop characters for stories or stories for characters?
TP: Characters for stories, always. My approach is almost entirely character driven. Once you have a character in mind, and understand them well, and place them in a situation, plot takes care of itself — you simply consult your mental model of the character, discover what they would do in a given situation, and write about them doing it. To create conflict easily, just place characters in opposition, in a situation where it is impossible for both of them to get what they want.
FL: Just out of curiosity, why are multiple worlds so frequent in your stories? Worlds connected to other words by mysterious ways, nexus between worlds, characters with the ability to move between those worlds…
TP: I’ve always been fascinated by the way small moments can lead to huge changes in life. I know many married people who first met entirely by accident, and might easily have never met at all, if circumstances had changed even slightly. I know people who’ve had terrible accidents that would have been avoided if they’d only left home five minutes earlier, or later. My own life had been shaped vastly by very minor things. I met my wife because I chose to go a literary event instead of staying home with my girlfriend. Going further back, my wife was only at that event herself because of friends she’d made years earlier, who she met only because she walked one way through a fair instead of another. The tiniest changes in circumstance, different choices that seemed utterly unremarkable and not at all fraught with portent, would have led to my having a drastically different life. The ever-widening spiral of consequences fascinates me, and writing about parallel dimensions and many worlds theory and so on are interesting ways to explore those subjects.
FL: You have worked within the publishing industry for years and successfully crowdfunded several books and a zine. After your long experience writing, editing and publishing books, what are your thoughts about the future of publishing? Do you think ebooks and crowdfunding are going to change dramatically the relationship between authors, publishers and readers?
TP: Ebooks are just another format, and the words themselves are what matter, whether they appear on paper or screen. Ebooks do seem likely to replace mass-market paperbacks, at least, in the USA (I know far less about international markets). For the time being, plenty of people still like reading paper books — their sales are even increasing in some market segments — but for commercial genre fiction, e-books have a larger and larger market share. I certainly read a lot of ebooks. Crowdfunding is a separate issue. It provides a way for relatively small groups of fans to directly support artists, allowing those artists to create work that might not be profitable in a traditional mediated model, with a publisher acting as distributor (while also handling publicity, accounting, etc.). The downside is, like in all self-publishing, an artist who crowdfunds has to do much more than simply create art. They have to handle fulfillment, publicity, distribution, etc. It’s an entirely different set of skills, and not necessarily ones that an author will want to learn. You can, of course, outsource those jobs, but that costs money and requires supervision, dealing with freelancers, etc. It’s complicated — at least compared to writing a book, sending it to a publisher, and getting paid an advance, with nothing else to do but check copyedits, do some proofreading, and appear for a bit of publicity. Crowdfunding does allow readers to interact directly with authors. Like all human interaction, that can be wonderful or it can be terrible, depending on individual circumstances.
As for the future of publishing as a whole, who knows. People seem to still like stories. As long as that doesn’t change, there will be a place for writers.
FL: Finally, is there some useful piece of advice that you would like to share with aspiring writers? Some guidance that you have found particularly useful throughout the years?
TP: Write a lot, and read more than you write. Read widely — know your own field or subgenre, certainly, but read lots of other things, too. Don’t get too attached to any one particular project, as endlessly reworking one story or novel can be a trap that hinders your development. Actually finish things, make them as good as you possibly can, and send them out. Then start working on something new.