Jay Lake on Dangerous Prose

Interview by Amanda Divine, Adventures Underground

Jay Lake lives, writes, walks, and breathes in Portland, Oregon, and regularly drives hundreds of miles to attend writing events.

He writes fanatically, lives near an active volcano, and his family members sometimes find themselves in his books, all of which probably mean he should be dead by now.


Amanda Divine: How much layout do you do before starting a story? Do you work from an outline?

Jay Lake: For short fiction, very little. Quite often I'll start with nothing other than a mental image -- a phrase or title or visual in my head. I write by following the headlights, as E.L. Doctorow says. I think what's really going on is that my subsconscious is running ahead me, setting down crumbs of story, but that's opaque to me. It just appears on the page. Novels require a bit more planning, since that's a lot of complexity to rip off the cuff. My most recent book, Trial of Flowers (Night Shade Books, September, 2006) was written from a five paragraph outline, which gave me the most basic notion of plot, structure and character.

Amanda: Does your subconscious ever surprise you?

Jay Lake: Constantly. I rarely know the ending of a story until I've written, and sometimes not even then. One of the true joys of writing is the exploration of the crackerjack box which is my subconscious.

Amanda: If novels require more complexity, does that mean you deliberately try to keep your short fiction simple?

Jay Lake: That's not quite how I see it. Short fiction is often subtle and more complex than novels, given the demands of the form. Novels can be big, brawling brutes that shamble along and take up lots of space. Short fiction is more like a ninja form -- efficient, swift, compact. The complexity of novels has more to do with the structural requirements of working at that length, while remaining compelling to the reader. Lot of balls need to stay in the air for a long time for a novel to work its magic. Truly they're different. Some people excel in one without ever mastering the other. Some people are lucky enough to do both. I think I might be one of the lucky ones.

Amanda: And what do you do to keep those balls in the air? I know long projects are sometimes tests of endurance...

Jay Lake: My answer to this problem is deceptively simple. I write very fast, which keeps me from getting hung up on how many balls are flying. This is especially helpful when they turn into machetes, or chainsaws. I'm a deeply subconscious writer -- almost everything I know about my own process is a matter of post hoc reflection rather than deliberate consideration. So while the balls are there, meaning the plot points, character arcs, stylistic tropes, etc., I don't see them while I'm working. Again, following the headlights.

Amanda: How do you rejuvenate yourself between projects - or is writing itself refreshing?

Jay Lake: Well, both, really. Writing is refereshing, especially short fiction. At the same time, I've discovered some specific capacity limits and requirements. I can't bounce from one novel right into another, for example. I need a few weeks off, typically with a bunch of reading, to clear the novel space in my head. Short fiction is a little different. I can power through that. My personal best, done specifically as a self-challenge, was five short stories written in one weekend. But I couldn't write 2-1/2 stories a day, day in and day out, any more than I could continuously work on novels. Same-same, I stop and read something. Often as not it's a magazine (I have a lot of subscriptions, most of them news or tech periodicals) though I obviously try to keep up with new work in the field, too.

Amanda: How did those five stories turn out?

Jay Lake: Sold two, one was rejected but has since sold on its second send-out, the other two still under consideration at their markets. From a craft point of view, I continue to be quite pleased with them. It was a noble and interesting experiment.

Amanda: Do you experiment often, or do you know what works and stick with it?

Jay Lake: Oh, I experiment constantly. Sticking to what works means not progressing. I try to pull in enough of my skills, my sensibility, my voice, that my writing has continuity, but I'm constantly fiddling with process or technique or narrative approach. Sometimes it's through collaboration, sometimes it's through approaching markets I wouldn't normally aim for, sometimes it's changes in my work habits. A writer who isn't experimenting is stagnating, it seems to me.

Amanda: Where have you been the luckiest? Have you had any big breaks, or is it mostly about hard work?

Jay Lake: It's always about hard work. But I've had some big breaks, too. My very first published story, "The Courtesy of Guests" (reprinted at Ideomancer) appeared in Bones of the World from SFF.Net Press in the fall of 2001. The book was reviewed favorably in Locus and elsewhere, and my story was called out by several reviewers for special attention. It went on to win a prize as well, the Best of Soft SF. (Which included cash!) It's appeared in translation in several other languages, and been reprinted in English almost half a dozen times. That early attention was a huge break, because it meant reviewers and readers were watching for my next work. Winning Writers of the Future (in 2003) didn't hurt at all, and that story led me onto the Campbell and Hugo ballots in 2004, which was another break. But it all comes back to hard work.

Amanda: You must be lucky, to have a subconcious that can tie up all the plot points and arcs for you. What's the most dangerous thing about writing?

Jay Lake: Heh. That's a great question. For me, the most dangerous thing about writing is it can represent a profound emotional exposure. Nakedness, as it were, in a very public context. I write genre fiction, not true confessions, so I suppose that even when I've really gone out on a limb, it's still true that only me and a few friends and loved ones will ever know what I *really* meant. But there's also the nakedness in the mirror. Sort of like really looking at yourself for crow's feet or flab, which can be very offputting. Good writing can force the writer to do the emotional and mental analog of that process.

Amanda: Isn't revealing yourself to family and friends even scarier than an audience you may never meet?

Jay Lake: Oh, yeah. The obvious example is having your mom read erotica you've written. That's not really an issue in my family, but I know people who've gone to some lengths to conceal some of their work. More to the point, the kind of raw emotion that can really drive a story often comes from the well of experience. Guess what....friends and family sometimes recognize themselves in there. I write a lot about my grandfather, never by name, and sometimes I say things that I know probably pain my father. But for me, making the story work has become paramount. Writing is a scary sort of burlesque, with stakes that are impossibly ephemeral and impossibly high at the same time.

Amanda: Given those high stakes, have you ever gone too far, even if it made the story work?

Jay Lake: I'm not sure what that means. I've only ever written one story that hurt so much I couldn't send it out. (It's still sitting around on my hard drive.) It's about my relationship with my daughter in the time immediately following my separation from my wife. I've been told it's one of the best things I've ever written, but I'll need to find a lot of nerve to sell it somewhere. Otherwise, I kind of let 'er rip and see what happens. I've sold stories to Christian markets and to slasher markets and to everything in between. Each piece is its own thing, with its own boundaries inherent to the narrative.

Amanda: Has your writing become more intimate?

Jay Lake: I'm not sure how to answer that. I suppose writing has always been intimate for me. I spend a lot of time close to my characters, in tight detail. As my skills have improved, and experience as a writer has leavened my natural voice, perhaps that intimacy has become more accessible to readers.

Amanda: Your characters become family themselves, then...

Jay Lake: Yeah, sort of the way your boyfriend's cousins do, the ones with the two retarded dobermans and the one-eyed rotweiller who drive a 1968 International delivery truck with three pounds of meth welded into the fender and a pair of loaded long-barrelled .38s clipped above the sun visor. They belong to you, but you don't want them coming within a zip code of your real life.

Amanda: Does your father read your work?

Jay Lake: Yes, especially since I've become more readily available in print with collections and single-title books. My entire (real) family is very, very supportive.

Amanda: Do you come from an artistic family, or did you get into writing on your own?

Jay Lake: I come from a talented family, I suppose it's fair to say, but I didn't have any specific role models or deliberate encouragement to become a writer. My father's a diplomat (now retired, but that's why I grew up overseas). He's got several degrees, has studied over a dozen languages, and can knowledgably discuss more topics than most of us could even think of. My stepmother, who raised me with my dad, is also well-educated, and is a former art history teacher. (We had scintillating dinnertable conversation in my childhood, believe me.) My mother went through a doctoral program in linguistics. So I have a lot of indirect modelling, I suppose, to do interesting and challenging things. I really didn't get into a serious effort at professional writing until my later 20s, so I wasn't going through a process of living at home and receiving encouragement (or discouragement) as I might have as a teenager or college student.

Amanda: What do they do when they recognize themselves?

Jay Lake: Laugh, mostly, I think. My dad's comment on reading Rocket Science was to say, "I didn't realize you were paying that much attention over the years." Most of the characters and their backstories in that book are based on people and stories from my dad, mom and step-mother's families. A few times I've written them explicitly into stories -- my short story "A Conspiracy of Dentists" (appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet a few years ago) is about the death of my paternal grandfather when I was 13, though the events in it took place in real life a few years later when my paternal grandmother died. My dad, step-mother and uncle are directly in the story. Other places various family members appear more subtly. No one's ever expressed offense or irritation to me directly. Of course, I have no idea what they say behind my back...

Amanda: Trial of Flowers comes out in September. What can you tell us about it?

Jay Lake: It's a decadent urban fantasy firmly in the tradition of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, K.J. Bishop's The Etched City and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. In the conversation that is genre, I guess this is me opening my big mouth. I hope I come off better than some guy on the corner shouting at lampposts. Trial of Flowers is certainly my most ambitious project to date. It's definitely one of those place-as-character books, with multiple protagonists and lots of point of view shifts. It's also an example of me letting my freak flag fly. The whole thing arose from (and is a very loose sequel to) my short story "The Soul Bottles," which first appeared in Leviathan 4 (ed. Forrest Aguirre), and recently reprinted at Fortean Bureau. This book's got everything -- drug-addicted dwarfs, heavily-armed clowns riding giraffes, bone surgery, freshwater squid, the roulette wheel of the gods -- you name it. I had a lot of fun writing it. I hope everyone else will have a lot of fun reading it. Also good news, as of the last week or so I'm in the late stages of negotiating the contract with Night Shade Books for a sequel, tentatively titled The Madness of Flowers, to be released in late 2007. Even more cool news: I've got a high concept fantasy about a clockwork Earth, Mainspring, coming out from Tor in the summer of 2007.

Amanda: How long did it take you to write Trial of Flowers? I've heard you have a fantastic writing pace...

Jay Lake: I'm not sure I should admit this, but I wrote a 120,000 word first draft in less than two weeks. When I mention this to other writers, they tend to break out the torches and pitchforks. Thing is, I'm best when I'm fast. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.



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Interview Conducted by E-Mail, April/May of 2006
Copyright © 2006 Adventures Underground