Interview With Author James P. Blaylock

Hello, everyone. I’m happy you’re reading this. My first answer is pre-fabricated, but you’ll have a better understanding of who I am from the rest of the interview.

Please introduce yourself and your book(s)

JAMES P. BLAYLOCK is a southern California writer whose short stories, novels, and collections have been published around the world. He was one of the literary pioneers of the Steampunk movement, along with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter, publishing the first domestic Steampunk story, “The Ape-box Affair” in 1978. Blaylock’s Steampunk novel Homunculus won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award in 1986. His short story “Paper Dragons” won the World Fantasy Award in 1986, “Thirteen Phantasms” in 1997, and his story “Unidentified Objects” was nominated for an O. Henry Award in 1990. Despite his close association with Steampunk, most of his work is contemporary, realistic fantasy set in southern California, typified by books like The Digging Leviathan, The Last Coin, Winter Tides, All the Bells on Earth (set entirely in the city of Orange), The Rainy Season, and Knights of the Cornerstone, which have lead to his being referred to as both a California regional writer and a writer of magical realism. He teaches creative writing at Chapman University.

What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

It’s a basic definition that fiction is invented. Vladimir Nabokov said that “to call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth,” and I wouldn’t want to be caught insulting either of those things. That said, my characters – protagonists, to use literary jargon – have almost always in some sense been imaginary spinoffs of me. My wife Viki might suggest that Andrew Vanbergen in my novel The Last Coin and Walt Stebbins in All the Bells on Earth resemble me in suspicious ways. I’ll admit that they do. Sometimes I like to create characters who are reminiscent of who I’d be if I didn’t worry about over-the-top behavior – if I was the kind of guy who ate six doughnuts at a sitting rather than three doughnuts. If my characters have a passion for tropical fish or begonias or the ocean or books, it’s because I do too. I find that I can write convincingly about such things because I understand them. Back in the late 1960s there was a nifty program on television that had a lot to do with writer James Thurber, called “My World and Welcome to It.” I love that title. It was particularly appropriate for a writer like Thurber, and perhaps for a writer like me, so I’ll say that although my plots are fictional, elements of them literally come close to home and to the way I understand the world.

What inspires/inspired your creativity?

When I get the first inklings of what might be a story, long or short, I’m often inspired by place, which becomes setting. (I’m never inspired by a concept, by the way. Concepts usually kill any desire I have to write. I’ve been writing essays lately, but for me it’s the writing that generates the concept, not the other way around. In an essay I don’t think of a “thesis sentence” and then try to demonstrate it. Instead, I write about something that’s of interest to me, something important in some sense, and in the process try to figure out what it is I want to get at. Later on I cut the stuff that doesn’t work. Same when there’s a story or novel brewing.) Back to a possible setting. If I’m inclined to picture something happening in that setting, actually see it in mind like a piece of film, it’s sometimes the case that I think of the kind of character who would exist in that setting, and what his or her problem might be on some level. One thing leads to another – motivation to action – and a story or novel grows out of that. I’ve always lived in California, mainly southern California, and I’ve come to love it. I’ve been around long enough to see the magic in it, so to speak. I was hiking back in the mountains during a Santa Ana wind one autumn afternoon, a long way from anywhere and alone. I smelled the distinct, musky odor of a mountain lion, but I couldn’t see it, because the chaparral on either side was over my head, and that put me on edge, as you can imagine. I walked into a clearing where there was a grove of sycamore trees beneath which was a solid six inch layer of big, dry autumn leaves. Abruptly there was a heavy gust of wind, and the entire sea of leaves rose up from the ground, sort of undulating like water. It levitated there for a few seconds before settling again. My hair stood on end, and not because the wind ruffled it. Probably because of that invisible mountain lion I was primed to react hard to the trick of the wind, but one way or another I came home and started putting down notes for what would be my first fantasy/horror novel, a book I titled “Night Relics.” If it weren’t for that walk in the woods, the idea for the novel would not have entered my mind. That’s generally how it works for me.

How do you deal with creative block?

I’m deliriously happy to say that I haven’t suffered from it much. I do suffer from a common writer’s malady that has to do with self-doubt, especially if my writing is interrupted. If I’m working on a novel and am happy with it, but then go off on vacation or get distracted at work for any length of time and so don’t do any writing, I begin to believe that not only is the book no good, but that I’ve almost certainly lost any skill and talent that I ever had. I wake up at two in the morning thinking that I should take up knitting. The only antidote is to write. If I start it up again, within a couple of days I realize that what I’m writing is okay after all, maybe better than okay, and if I wake up at two in the morning it’s to worry about something else. Writing generates inspiration like dry ice in water generates steam. It’s unfortunate that our lives often get in the way of production. I’m currently battling the problem of doubt by writing every day or as close to it as I can. I wake up around five o’clock most mornings, and as soon as the coffee is made I get going, outside in the back yard during the summer months. I can write a little or a lot without guilt, because a little bit every day will move the book along. Even two or three hours of work will generate useful paragraphs and useful ideas, and I feel as if I’m on an even keel. Like I said, writing is the inspiration. If I write consistently, I’m consistently inspired, and sitting down the next morning to take it up again is fairly easy. I don’t mean that the writing is easy, but that my mind is easy, which is an asset to the writing.

What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

This differs from writer to writer. The biggest mistake that I’ve made, more than once, is writing along in a novel having no real idea what the novel is actually about or who the main character actually is. He’s got a name, and he’s running around town, and bad guys are maybe shooting at him with a madness ray, but all of that is superficial – a non-starter – and I generally hit a wall around page 80, and realize that until I get a grip, there can be no page 81. The problem then is that I have to take the time to do the work I should have done to begin with, which means that the 80 pages that I’ve written will slowly turn stone cold or become irrelevant. I’ve got a couple of those in the drawer. When I do it right (right being different, perhaps, of other writers) I can take six months to develop what I believe is a clear vision of the story of the novel, and I mean vision. I need to see the scenes unfolding in my mind. Finally I compel myself to write out an eight or ten page synopsis. Editors used to ask for these so I’ve had a lot of practice, and the habit stayed with me. Once I know what sort of creature the story will be, I put the synopsis into the drawer and don’t look at it again unless I feel like it. I know that the story is in my head and that the writing will inspire me. Not having a good idea of the nature of my own book can kill my efforts. Other mistakes can be cured by using the delete key and starting over again when the mistake was made.

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

Early-on in my career, when I offered my suggestions about a cover, I was informed by my editor at Del Rey Books that the cover is a marketing decision and that writers (me in this case) have no idea of how to market their own books. Titles work that same way. I wanted to title my third novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. I figured that Jules Verne’s book was in the public domain, and that Verne was dead, and that the title was a witty idea due to the subject matter of my book. My editor called on the phone and explained to me that I was mistaken utterly. She explained this in great detail. She allowed me to title it The Digging Leviathan, although probably she should have stopped me. My next book was titled Homunculus, and I got away with it, too. When I tried to call the following book The Enormous Shoe, I got another one of those phone calls. She changed the title to Land of Dreams and told me to like it or lump it. I lumped it, which wasn’t hard, because by then I had a big respect for her editorial skills, and for her desire to promote my work. So… if you have the opportunity to title your own books, give it some good thought. Come up with a title that’s brief and enticing and that maybe doesn’t have words like “leviathan” and “homunculus” in the title. Better that the title conveys something the would-be reader will understand. Would I change the title of those books now that I have more experience? No. They are what they are. And I still like The Enormous Shoe as a title.

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

Because I’m choosy about the books I read, I realize that other people are too. I don’t assume that someone will enjoy my books, although I sometimes give books away hoping that the person will. Very few readers are rude enough to tell a writer that they didn’t like the writer’s book. Reviewers, of course, are paid to complain about books, and in fact there’s nothing easier than writing a negative review, which is why I don’ review books. I have no idea of raining on other writers’ parades. I’ll be honest, however, and say that I’ve told every agent and editor I’ve had that I don’t want to see negative reviews. Reading a negative review is a waste of psychic and emotional energy. Responding to a negative review is a big mistake, because it compounds the negative energy, and the writer can’t win anyway. Better to get on with the writing.

How has your creation process improved over time?

It has not, if you mean is the creative part of my brain as lively as it once was. My writing has improved, however. I’ve been writing an publishing for over forty years, which is a heap of practice. To put it simply, my experience is that youth is a sort of wellspring of creativity but that the creative flow slows down with age. So if you’re going to write, start today. Now that I’m pushing 70 I don’t have the frantic creative spirit that I had in my 20s and 30s. My first steampunk novel, Homunculus, written when I was 33 is giddy and wild and I got around problems of plausibility by blinding the reader with fireworks. Readers seemed to like it, and in fact I run into people now and then who say it’s their favorite of my books. My most recent steampunk novel, due out in a month or two from Subterranean Press, is far more Victorian in atmosphere, including accuracy of language and simple facts. I’ve become familiar with The Oxford Dictionary on Historical Principles, and I weed out anachronism and Americanisms with a squinty eye. I research tirelessly. I revise the book forty times, just like I chew food. I try to get every element of it right. I’m not in a hurry. Putting in the extra work has become second nature over the years. And while I’m on the subject, the new book is titled The Gobblin’ Society. It’s by no means straight-laced, so don’t let me put you off. But it’s not straight-waistcoat either (in the madhouse sense of the term) – not like some of my earlier books.

What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?

The most surprising thing that I learned is that the answer to most questions about the plot of the book you’re working on are already imbedded in the book. I was working away one summer day on a story titled “Paper Dragons,” which was largely about homemade dragons. I got stuck at one point and wandered out into the back yard to look at my tomato plants. I found a big tomato worm eating them up. I like tomato worms, which have jolly human faces like the caterpillar in early illustrations of Alice in Wonderland. Not wanting to hurt it, I plucked it off the vine and tossed it into my neighbor’s tomatoes. (I realize that this was in some sense immoral, by the way, and I regret it intensely.) I went back into the house and wrote a scene in which my main character does the same thing, except that he puts it into a big pickle jar with dirt and vines in it and keeps it as a pet. That was fun to write, but it made little sense to the story. Out of curiosity I called Viki, who has a knowledge of bugs and crawling things, and she informed me that a tomato worm is the grub form of the sphinx moth, the immense and very beautiful moths that bat around the big lights at baseball stadiums. It came to me, out of the blue, that the worm was a larval dragon, and that it was one of many dragons in the story, and in that moment I knew that the end of the story would have to do with that tomato worm. I just said that this came to me out of the blue, but actually I don’t believe it was out of the blue. The tomato worm’s reason for being, literarily speaking, was buried in the story all along, and the worm’s part in the final scene of the story was almost inevitable once I knew the creature’s secret identity. That was a surprise, especially because the tomato worm became so essential to the story’s success. I’m certain that the subconscious mind is more perceptive, artistically speaking, than the conscious mind, and that sometimes when we think we’re shooting from the hip and magically hitting the target, in fact there’s no magic involved at all.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

If I couldn’t write what I wanted to write, I wouldn’t write at all. There are too many other worthwhile things to do in the world. And if I’m not happy with a story or a novel I don’t mail it off to an editor until I am happy with it. I can’t fake it, either. I pretty much have to write like me. I believe, or at least hope, that my own personal satisfaction with the writing promotes the reader’s satisfaction. I’ll say one more thing for anyone reading this who is also a writer, especially an aspiring writer. I’ve learned that to write well I have to write happily, and I’m betting the same is true for you. I suggest not letting anyone – a teacher, another writer, your apprehensions about what the reader might want or not want – try to change who you are as a writer. The job of a teacher or editor is to help you make your work as good as it can be, not to change the character of the work. Good work is what you owe your audience.

Do you have any creativity tricks?

I find a secluded place to write, and I tend not to write if I’m in a hurry. I can focus very quickly first thing in the morning, before the stuff of the day has agitated my mind. And once I fall into the writing, that stuff is kept at bay. If I’m writing in the afternoon as I sometimes do, it takes longer to focus, and so I clear the day’s debris out of my mind by reading first. I choose a book in which the language has something to do with what I’m writing. If I’m writing steampunk, for example, I might get going with favorite bits in The Pickwick Papers or with one of the novels in the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, set during the Napoleonic Wars. For me, creativity is closely tied to language. Distraction is counter productive.

What are your plans for future books?

I mentioned earlier that I have a new steampunk book coming out soon. Currently I’m working on a contemporary crime/fantasy novel set here in Old Towne Orange, my hometown. I’m also hoping to interest a publisher in a book of essays, which is a hard sell, and that means interrupting the novel writing now and then to work on the essays that I’ll send off to magazines. I’ll need a lot of them. I’ve also got my eye on a very strange and complicated novel with young adult characters. I can’t begin to describe that one, and in fact until I can begin to describe it in sensible terms, it’ll remain a dream.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

People tell me my books are quirky, and because I don’t entirely understand that (since I write what I know, for the most part, and sometimes don’t see the quirkiness), I think I must be a little bit quirky. I grew up in Anaheim, California, in the 1950s in a suburban tract of homes surrounded by orange groves. In those days kids played outside all day if they felt like it, and on any given day we might walk a few miles down the railroad track scrounging pop bottles for the two-cent deposit, buy candy bars, sit around in a vacant lot talking about nothing, and so on, getting home by dinnertime, thinking that the day was well spent. After school I used to take a book down to the orange grove, climb a tree, and read. I remember I was reading Jules Verne at the time. In the summer I spent as much time at the beach as I could. I kept aquaria and, when I was a teenager, I memorized the genus and species of pretty much every tropical fish available for sale in local tropical fish stores. It was totally useless knowledge, but even today if some utters the words “mogurnda mogurnda” I’ll say “purple striped gudgeon.” That happens rarely. My first job was five years in a pet store taking care of aquaria; my second was five years working construction doing cleanup and demolition, during which I developed some skills as a carpenter. I became a teacher the year I sold my first short story, and I’ve been writing and teaching ever since – over forty years now. When our two sons became involved in children’s theater and then community theater, I spent a lot of time building theater sets. One time I built a nifty wishing well for a production of “Cinderella,” using tree prunings and cleverly painted Styrofoam blocks. I was proud of that wishing well. When the show closed we gave it to a theater in Long Beach because we couldn’t store it, and the wishing well drove off in the back of a pickup truck. Along the 22 Freeway it blew off the truck and alighted in a clump of oleander bushes, where it remained, weirdly, until it was hauled away.


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