Create Your Own Genre – Steve Rasnic Tem Speaks

Born Stephen Rasnic, Steve Rasnic Tem grew up in the relatively isolated rural community of Jonesville, Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, and in his opinion one of the most beautiful areas of the US.  He went to college at VPI in Blacksburg as an English Education major, studied playwriting at Virginia Commonwealth, going on to earn his Masters in Creative Writing at Colorado State University where he studied poetry under Bill Tremblay and fiction under Warren Fine.  He continued his writing education by joining the Northern Colorado Writer’s Workshop founded by Edward Bryant, where he met his wife and fellow writer Melanie.  They chose Tem as their new last name. Other writers in the workshop at that time included Connie Willis, Dan Simmons, Cynthia Felice, and Leigh Kennedy.

Over the years Steve has published over 350 short stories, several novels and collections, as well as several hundred articles, essays, and poems.  He has been awarded the British Fantasy Award, World Fantasy Award, and Bram Stoker Award for his efforts.  He has held a day job for many years as a technical writer and editor in the software industry.  He currently lives in Centennial, Colorado.  His new novel out from Solaris Books is DEADFALL HOTEL.  You can visit the Tem home on the web at www.m-s-tem.com.

Tell me one little known fact about Steve Rasnic Tem.

The first fiction I published–during my early high school years–were short stories involving several super heroes I created.  These appeared in some of the early spirit- or ditto- duplicated (I believe in the UK they were called Banda machines) comic book fanzines of the time. BOMBSHELL in particular, out of West Virginia, published a number of these very brief (under a thousand words) stories.  I also put out a couple of issues of a fanzine of my own, Super Hero Fantasy.  Some other writers contributing to the comic fanzines at the same time included Howard Waldrop and  George R. Martin.  And one particular name appearing in issue after issue of Bombshell during that period was that of a young Hawaiian writer with the exotic name of A. A. Attanasio—so exotic, in fact, I was convinced it must be a pseudonym.  And I have to admit that at that time Attanasio’s writing talents were much more in evidence than mine.  I had enthusiasm, but not much else.  I loved the comics.  Still do.

Do you think movies are killing super-hero comics?

Do you mean adaptations of specific comics, or just movies in general competing for those entertainment dollars?

I was thinking that comics in general are not as interesting, exciting, imaginative or innovative as they were fifteen or twenty years back – when graphic novels became okay for adults to read.

I think that perhaps the refinements in movie special effects have enabled them to supplant the spectacle comics were once able to provide that was beyond what was affordable in other media. If what you’re looking for are super heroes battling it out in midair then the movies can now provide that quite convincingly. But that was never what I was looking for in the comics.

What I look for in the comics is the same thing I’m looking for in any sort of fiction: interesting storytelling about subjects that matter told so that it elicits a strong emotional response. I want to be moved by what I read. And I find that the older I get the more this is true. Finding that kind of storytelling can be difficult, no matter what the medium. Certainly for every ten movies I watch I’m lucky if I find 2 or 3 that meet that criteria. And I’m more likely to find those among the works of auteurs and independent creators.

The same is true in the comics–it’s the smaller, more personal stories set outside the super hero genre which are more likely to move me. And I especially like work which makes full use of the medium, which demonstrates an understanding that panel to panel storytelling is different from cinematic scenes, and makes full use of that difference. And there are companies like Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, and Top Shelf which focus on those kinds of books. I eagerly await any new work by Craig Thompson or Lynda Barry or Seth or Guy Delisle or David Beauchard (whose sense of the comic page is simply amazing). And Shaun Tan’s The Arrival–it was amazing how he wordlessly captured the timeless and universal experience of the immigrant.

Some good names checked there – but if a novel of yours was optioned tomorrow and the optioners gave you choice of director, who would it be and why?

First I’d wonder why they were giving me the choice of director. Except in select cases I think it’s probably a bad idea to give the author a choice. Although most writers will probably say they’d like the movie to be a faithful adaptation of the novel I think that since film is such a vastly different storytelling medium you’re more likely to get good results if the director is simply given permission to have at it as he or she sees fit. It’s not as if the original is destroyed–it’s still there on the shelf. Of course I suppose there should be some resemblence, else why buy the rights in the first place?

So, assuming they’d make it very much their own (and the best directors always do), I’d certainly be pleased if any of my favorite directors tackled the project. I can imagine a Terrence Malick bringing out the mystical aspects of my work, or a David Lynch bringing out its surrealism. Paul Thomas Anderson directed one of my favorites of recent decades (Magnolia) so he’d be interesting. And Christopher Nolan might highlight some of the odder psychological states my characters sometimes inhabit. Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) would be an odd choice, but I’d be really curious about what he’d do with that material.

Actually, I think my new novel DEADFALL HOTEL would make an interesting TV series. I feel that with this work I’ve finally created a setting that goes far beyond anything I’ve been able to put down on paper. One of the more interesting aspects of writing this book was that the more I defined it, the more detail I put into my descriptions, the more mysterious and intriguing the hotel became. I’d be really curious to find out what others might see there that I haven’t yet witnessed.

What is your favourite of all the fiction you have written, short story or novel?

That used to be a relatively easy question for me to answer.  There were certain stories in which I felt I “got it right.”  Or I could fall back on the standard “the one I’m working on right now.” And there’s always a grain of truth to that one, because that’s the story you’re most focused on, the one you’re obsessed with, the one—in a sense–you have to love in order to get through it.

But an odd thing happens once you’re written/published a lot of stories over a long period of time (in my case somewhere upwards of 350 over a period of 36 years or so).  That connection between you and your fiction warps a bit, becomes something else.   I think that–for me at least–although I’m still very much aware that my fiction expresses who I am and what concerns me, I’ve become much more cognizant of the instrumentality of the process.  I’m the middle man through which these fictions are delivered.  I don ‘t mean anything terribly mystical about that—it’s not like it’s automatic writing or anything—it’s just that after doing it awhile the process acquires all these unconscious or instinctive parts.  A large part of that is that you learn how to create characters that seem to naturally tell their own stories with apparently little prompting from you.  The imagination takes over—that’s where the art comes into storytelling.  For someone on the outside who doesn’t engage in this sort of activity this may seem like an almost miraculous process, but for the person who does this every day it’s nothing particularly special—it’s just part of the craft.  At the time you’re writing the piece you should be fully committed—you’re engaged emotionally, intellectually, physically.  It seems that all that matters is seeing this story through to the end.  But once it’s finished, well, it’s on to the next story, and so on.

Sometimes these stories take months or even years to create, and their importance to you may intensify as a result.  My recent story “Twember” for Interzone is based on an idea/perception I had in high school, and which I attempted to write several times over the years.  Finally being able to complete that process begun with that long-ago inspiration was quite fulfilling.  My new novel Deadfall Hotel has been in progress since the mid-eighties.  It’s become like that older child you still have living at home.  You’re very proud of it, and somewhat possessive—in the case of Deadfall it was an imagined location that had kept me entranced for years—and I was its sole possessor.  Sometimes it felt like a place I lived in by myself.

Other stories are the results of a kind of white heat—you can’t seem to get the words down fast enough, and years later you may not recognize it as something you’ve written.  Sometimes your life circumstances profoundly affect your process and your relationship to your stories.  After our son died in 1988 there was a six or seven year period in which I felt as if the storytelling voice I heard inside my head had completely changed, and I wrote fiction relying on my innate sense of craft with little confidence that I actually understood what I was doing.  Some great stories came out of that period, but I honestly can’t remember writing most of them.

I suppose this is a roundabout way of saying I don’t think I have favorites anymore.  The relationship has become too complicated.

You talk about white heat – but do you ever find the need to draft and re-draft a story or novel, searching for the inner truth (i hope that doesn’t csound as pretentious to you as it did when I saw it on the email page). I also hope you know what I’m getting at.

At least for me the “white heat” phenomenon is pretty well restricted
to the rare 5-6 page stories, and even those get several drafts.  My
basic process is slow, and highly iterative.  Although I have a
reputation as a prolific writer most of my stories take a number of
weeks or months to complete.  I’m not a fast writer, just an incessant
one.  If I decide I want to write a particular story, or if I’m
invited into an anthology, I usually spend a couple of weeks just
poking at the idea, trying to see various aspects, and doing a lot of
background reading and research.  When I think I’m ready to start
writing I try to draft an opening that has the tonal qualities I want.
And maybe I write a couple of pages.  The next day I start by
rewriting those 2 pages, and then add a little more.  I add random
bits of conversation and description, and the odd thought or
meditation whose connection may seem pretty off the wall but for some
reason I think fits.  Oftentimes I don’t even know what character is
speaking or thinking these thoughts.  I’m just poking around, really.

I’ll go through this same process day after day, adding the odd bits,
until the characters reveal themselves a bit more, and start telling
me their secrets.  Characters are full of great secrets–you just have
to learn how to approach them so that they’ll reveal them to you.  I
keep doing this until the emotional heart of the story reveals itself.
Until this happens, I’m not even sure I have a story.  But once it
does happen I feel; pretty confident I’m going to finish it, and again
I rewrite with this emotional heart (hopefully) fully present in the
story.  That’s when the characters and setting can really take over.

So often the stories take several months, and sometimes years.

Have you ever taught writing or given workshops? Do you think it is a good idea for new writers?

I’ve taught a workshop here and there, and Melanie and I were resident
authors for a week at Odyssey.  I came out of workshops–both in
graduate school in the creative writing program and for many years in
Denver’s f&sf writer’s workshop run by Ed Bryant– and I believe in
them, but I also don’t think they work for everyone.  The main thing
they give you is first-hand experience in an audience’s reaction to
your work, and that’s a perspective that’s invaluable.  Oftentimes
beginning writers think they are communicating a particular thing, but
when they take the piece to workshop they discover no one gets it, or
they get something out of the story the writer would never want to
convey. After workshopping a number of stories with that kind of
back-and-forth you start developing a sense of what works on the page.
That’s workshopping at its most basic level.  Some of your fellow
workshoppers are going to be trustworthy critics and some are not–you
learn to tell the difference, and that’s another valuable lesson.  You
also learn to take criticism–that’s also important–especially when
the criticism is from an untrustworthy source.  Hopefully you learn to
handle yourself professionally when this sort of thing happens.

Beyond that, if you have working professional writers in the workshop
you can learn a lot more.  You build story problem solving skills.
You learn what editors are looking for, that sort of thing.

But there are some very good writers out there who don’t do well with
critiques, who can’t stand to sit there in silence while their work is
being pulled apart.  And they can learn what they need to learn in
other ways. There’s no need to put themselves through the stress of a
workshop if it really isn’t working for them.

You have put into perspective my own thoughts about workshops, though one area you didn’t mention is the chance to network.

If you had a chance to take a workshop given by any author – living or dead – not necessarily your favourite writer but the one you could learn most from – who would it be and why?

I think oftentimes the best writers, the ones with the strongest
voices, are limited in their teaching because they filter everything
they read through their own aesthetic as they build that voice.
Stepping back from that to determine what the student is trying to do,
or is potentially able to do, takes a special talent I think.  I know
for myself when I read students’ work I have to make a special effort
to separate my own process from the student’s particular approach and
goals.

That said–and I have no idea if they’d be any good as teachers–but I
wouldn’t pass up a workshop opportunity with either Cormac McCarthy or
Toni Morrison.  In both cases it’s because of the quality of the
language.  They both have the ability to make ordinary moments
extraordinary, and for me that’s what it’s all about.

Apart from making ordinary moments extraordinary, what else do you strive for as a writer. And does any part of the process come easy to you?

Inspiration has always come easily–I’ve always had many more ideas
than I can handle.  I may get momentarily blocked–although “fatigued”
might be more accurate–with one project, but I can always jump to
another, and i usually have multiple projects going at once.  The rest
of the writing process, though, I’ve always found to be hard, hard
work.

At the most basic level, I’m working to create fictions which have a
sense of completeness.  Theme, tone, language, structure–I look for
ways to make them reflect each other so that the construction seems to
be all of a piece.  That’s a lot of elements to make work, but happily
stories are powerful engines which are naturally able to synthesize a
variety of elements–you just have to learn how to control that
engine.

Beyond that, I’m trying to tell the truth, the emotional truth, as
best I can, which isn’t always easy.  You have to learn how to step
back a bit and disengage yourself.

And at least for myself and my needs, I’m looking for discovery.  I
want to be surprised by what my imagination uncovers.  I want my
characters to bring me new perspectives and insights I haven’t thought
of before.  I want to stumble upon new angles for looking at things.
And when I’m intrigued in that way I feel the audience will also be
intrigued.

How do you build characters? Do you take many from life?

Characters come from all over.  The basic source, though, is simply
sitting and watching and listening to people.  Writers in general like
to talk, but it would pay them, I think, to listen more.  When I’m out
I tend to watch and listen to people closely.  I suppose some might
find that creepy–although hopefully my unassuming demeanor tends to
disarm them–but maybe I’m just lucky that no one has called the cops
on me yet.

Sometimes when I need a character I program myself with a message like
“Go to the park–you’re going to find your character there.”

I’ve never been one to write long biographies of characters–just raw
notes of specifics for consistency reference, nor do I base characters
very often on people I know.  For me it’s more inspiring to know just
a little about a character–interesting or self-revealing things they
say for example, or unusual habits and tics, a few of their passions,
a few prejudices, some key fears.  I like to imagine the rest.
Frequently I’ll overhear some bit of intriguing conversation, or a bit
of dialog just floats through my head–I have no idea who just said
that–I don’t see their face–and for me it’s fun to imagine what kind
of person would say such a thing.  And I let my imagination fill in
the blanks.

I think it often shows when a writer has written out a lengthy
biography and description–and not in a good way.  You’ve done all
that preliminary work and you want to use it–so you start dropping in
large expository passages from it into the work, telling not showing.
It weakens it, and what’s worst, it short circuits the process by
which the character you’re creating tells you their story, tells you
who they are.  There needs to be breathing room for that to happen,
and if you do all the work beforehand, well, the evolving character
stops evolving and they have nothing left to tell you.  In a sense
they’re dead on the page–you’ve murdered them.

I think it’s also good to leave room for the reader to participate in
the process. Over the years I’ve tended to include less actual
physical character description in my stories–readers tend to fill in
those details themselves, so I try to get out of the way of that
process.

Do you think it is important to keep up with what is happening in the genre – what other people are doing?

I have decidely mixed feelings about it.  On the one hand it’s just
good business to be aware of what’s happening in the industry, and you
have to remember that your work isn’t read in isolation–it’s read in
the context of all these other works being published, and it’s going
to be evaluated in that context.  And if you’re talking about your own
work at all–and most of us do–you need to have a sense of that
context so that you can make intelligent statements about your work
and how you’d like it read.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t let trends and what other people are
writing influence your direction or what you’re trying to accomplish.
I think you need to keep that process as separate as possible–if you
want to tell the truth as you know it, how it’s been for you during
your time on the planet, if you want to express your imagination in as
unfiltered a state as possible–then you have to stay focused on those
things which are unique and specific to your own writing.  The goal, I
believe, should not be how you fit it in within a genre–that’s for
the critics to decide–it should be creating your own genre.

Who is doing the best work in the genres at present?

I actually don’t think there is a “best” where fiction is concerned.
It’s a bit like asking Which is better—lemons or kiwi?  Which is why I
often have a problem voting for awards—much of the time the nominees
simply aren’t that comparable. Particularly when you have writers
writing at the top of their game, which especially seems to be the
case where short fiction is concerned right now.  I don’t know how
people come up with their “best” lists—sometimes it seems as if it
must be the best they’ve read recently, the best among writers they
think deserve more attention, the best from writers who have similar
obessions to yours, etc.

When writers are at their best, they tend to create their own
genres—and you’re naturally going to like some genres better than
others, but that doesn’t mean a particular genre is intrinsically
better.  And how are we to define genre in the first place?
Oftentimes when I see these lists it appears that they’ve left the
more high-powered, literary authors off the list, thus artifically
narrowing the genre definitions they’re using.  So you rarely see
Cormac McCarthy on lists for horror, sf, crime—and yet his writing is
submime in almost everything he does.  You also almost never see
soimeone like Steven Millhauser on these lists, and yet few can write
short stories at his skill level.

There are writers I pay attention to, however, for technical prowness,
for depth of feeling.  Caitlin Kiernan and Jeff Ford, Laird Barron,
John Langan, Ramsey Campbell (whose prose still provides textbook
examples of telling detail), Catherynne M. Valente, Graham Joyce,
Theodora Goss.  Just to name a few current writers doing beautiful
work—but I could name many more.

Outside of literature, do you find inspiration from any of the other arts?

Earlier in this interview I mentioned my love for comics. I’m passionate about animation as well, and film in general. I made puppets when I was a kid, and wrote and performed puppet plays–and if there’s a puppet show with an adult or more sophisticated story I’ll go see it. (I even wrote an all puppet musical once upon a time.) I also have a large art library, and I draw and paint. I make no claims for my talents in those areas, but it’s something I love doing, and will probably do a lot more of once I retire from the day job. Sometimes I work some of my fiction ideas out with a drawn or collaged image, getting some of the basic imagery down. I think my basic sense of imagery comes from my study of painting. I haven’t done much professionally with the painting, although pieces of a graphic story I painted appeared in several issues of the NY graphic art magazine Blurred Vision. I hope to do more experimentation with art and prose storytelling in the years to come.

I’ve written a number of stories with artists or filmmakers as the lead characters. Or I’ve borrowed something from a particular artist’s approach. My short story “Sharp Edges” was a tribute to Dario Argento, and my story “Chain Reaction” is more than a nod to the Dogme 95 movement. And several sections of my novel The Book of Days attempt to translate the experience of viewing art or hearing music into narrative prose.

Actually, I find myself inspired by anything in which certain people do well, who raise the art through their personal involvement. So at times I’ve found musicians, chefs, great dancers and choreographers, fashion designers, etc inspiring, or even someone like Pele on the soccer field, or John Elway on the football field. I think excellence in almost any endeavor can be inspiring to creative people. You just translate the experience into the terms of your chosen art/field.

You’re on death row convicted of murder (wrongly) but you’re going to hang in the morning. What is your final meal?

A thick crust pizza with all the meats, spaghetti with meatsauce on the side, breadsticks, cole slaw, a couple of fantail shrimp, apple pie ala mode for desert, diet Mountain Dew to wash it all down.

And finally:
If you were an artist (musician, painter, actor, film director etc.) in a discipline other than you currently operate, and you were going to be remembered for only one piece of work (a one-hit wonder), what would that piece (song, painting, movie) be? One single existing  piece of ‘art’ by someone else.

If it has to be an existing piece it would Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.  But I can’t leave it at that–there’s a painting I’ve always imagined.  It’s called “The God Tree,” and it’s this huge tree consisting entirely of William Blakean forms–human bodies acting out the human drama in all its breadth and complexity.  And in the background there’s this magnificent J.M.W. Turner sort of sky.  This painting doesn’t exist, but I wish it did, and I wish I had created it.

About Bob Neilson

Bob Neilson lives in Dublin with his wife, two daughters, son, two dogs, one cat and a growing feeling of claustrophobia. In partnership with his wife he runs a successful retail business in Dublin city. His short fiction has appeared extensively in professional and small press markets and he has had two plays performed on RTE and one on Anna Livia FM. He also presented a radio show on Anna Livia for a year. He has had two short story collections published, Without Honour (1997, Aeon Press) and That’s Entertainment (2007, Elastic Press) as well as several comics and a graphic novel. His non-fiction book on the properties of crystals is a best-seller in the UK and Ireland.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s