Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Gregory Frost
by Darrell Schweitzer
Gregory Frost is the author of Lyrec (1984), Tain (1986), Remscela (1988), The
Pure Cold Light (1993), Fitcher's Brides (2003), Shadowbridge (2008),and Lord
Tophet (2008), and numerous short stories which have appeared in the top genre
magazines, from Asimov's SF to Weird Tales. The best of them are collected in his
collection Attack of the Jazz Giants, published by Golden Gryphon Press in 2005.
SCHWEIZTER: When you started writing, eons ago, you didn't think you were
going to make a living at it, did you?
FROST: No, and I don't think I have. When I started out I think I was just
desperate to get into print. I wasn't even thinking about moving from that phase
into the possibility of making any sort of a living doing it. It was just, Please,
somebody publish my story. That was really all I was thinking about at the
beginning. Breaking into print. Long-term notions of a career were at best
SCHWEIZTER: That's probably what most of us experience. Don't you think
that writing is more of a compulsion than get-rich-quick scheme?
FROST: Yes. I've been teaching fiction now for twenty-some years, adults, high-school kids, college students, and I think, watching all the people who have gone
through the various classes with me and knowing all the writers that I know, that
it's some form of addiction, or - dare I say? - mental illness. I can't advocate
doing this for a lot of people. It's a kind of obsession. You can't help yourself.
I went through a really bad patch in the late '80s and early '90s and I tried
repeatedly to throw in the towel and say, "I'm going to do something else. I'm not
doing this anymore." That would last for about five days until suddenly I would
read something and think, "You know, that's a really interesting idea for a story,"
and then I was back at it again. So, everyone save yourselves . . . it's too late for
SCHWEIZTER: To make matters worse, you have this compulsion to write
science fiction and fantasy. Did you know that was what you were going to be
doing, from the beginning?
FROST: That I did know. By whatever process I'm hardwired for fantasy and
horror probably more than science fiction. Every idea I have just is bent in that
sense. I've even tried to have ideas that don't bend in that direction, but it doesn't
work. I'll start out trying to write something that's not got any fantasy element in it
at all, and the next thing I know it's turned left and dragged me over here where
something's rotting or something unnatural is about to happen or the resolution
incorporates the fantastic. It's where the stories go for me.
SCHWEIZTER: This probably is something you have to bring up in writing
classes a lot: how much is the writer in control?
FROST: I start off writing classes usually, telling them the way I'm wired and the
way I work. I think the writer's in control to the extent that, at least in my process,
my unconscious writer, whoever or whatever he is, is in control when I am first-drafting a story. I am in a way not trying to consciously control it. I probably have
a sense of where I want to go. I probably have a notion of the structure somewhere
in the back of my mind, but it's more of the automatic writing side of me that's run
off with the story. Then again I think you're always in control, because all the
characters in fiction are some facet of you, being reassembled and re-imagined as
somebody else with other phobias, desires, or whatnot, but it still all comes back to
SCHWEITZER: But to some extent it has to not be entirely you, or else you've
only got one character.
FROST: That's true. Hence the re-casting.
SCHWEIZTER: What makes Shakespeare so good is that he's got more than one
FROST: In fact there's an essay by Gore Vidal where I think he says that the
average writer has somewhere between three and six stock characters, and that's it,
and they're basically repurposing those characters as they write, reintroducing
them and pretending at least to themselves that they have more, and there are more
voices, a story in their head that they can draw upon. But he says that that actually
isn't true. Most people have three or four. Then he goes on to say that Shakespeare,
on the other hand, has something like a dozen, and as a result that's why
Shakespeare is Shakespeare. He could bring in more characters and a broader
swath of humanity than the average writer does. I don't know if that's true, but it
made for a great essay.
SCHWEIZTER: I think a lot of writers, prolific ones in particular, look back on
their work and realize that their standard cast just won't go away, and maybe you
have to shoo some of them away.
FROST: [Laughs.] Yes, that's true. I've found that in the last decade I've suddenly
started writing with most of the protagonists in my novels being female. That was
kind of a shock to wake up and realize, Gee, why are you doing that? or What's
happened here? You're turning to female characters.
Last year at Swarthmore College, I had T.C. Boyle come as a guest speaker and
reader. He and I have been friends since the days when he was my instructor at
Iowa many years ago. I made a comment to the effect that I was writing all these
female characters, and he looked at me curiously and said, "That's very strange
because that's what I've started doing." Now his book, The Women, about Frank
Lloyd Wright and the women around Frank Lloyd Wright has come out. He wrote
the book from the women's point of view.
So both of us are standing there for a moment scratching our heads, saying, "Gee,
why are we suddenly doing this in our dotage?" Are we going, Ah, let's write
female characters. Let's explore out feminine side? Maybe we're trying not to be
us at all, but to be something completely different, to embrace a character we never
had before in our ensemble.
SCHWEIZTER: I wonder if this isn't a way for experienced writers to avoid a
creative crisis and prevent themselves from going stale. If you've written
Huckleberry Finn four million times, you would have to stop at some point.
FROST: That might be. It might be that I've explored this other character already,
or it might be what you were saying, that I'm just writing these two bozos over and
over again and dressing them in different clothes, and I'm tired of doing that. I
want to do something else.
This is sort of my theory as to how Bruce Sterling's slipstream fiction came about
- that some mainstream writers felt their material had gone stale on them. So what
do you do? You go tromp around in your Wellies in the genres and drag back all
this disgusting material that you claim you didn't know anything about or want
nothing to do with. Then suddenly you've got John Updike writing science fiction
and Margaret Atwood writing science fiction, although she's refusing to admit it,
and Paul Auster taking mystery novels and applying those tropes to his stuff.
SCHWEITZER: Isn't this a more familiar phenomenon? There have always been
mainstream writers who write science fiction, but for marketing purposes can't
FROST. Yes, absolutely true. For marketing purposes Harlan Ellison says he is
not a science fiction writer. His books are Fiction. That is a way he can distinguish
himself from the genre itself and to cling at least to a sense of writing pure
literature rather than something that can be sneered at by academia, to the extent
that academia still sneers at it.
SCHWEIZTER: You're still writing something we can call "fantastic," whether
you like it or not.
FROST: Yes, one flavor or another of something called fantastic. Like I say, that's
the way I am put together, for whatever reason. I grew up devouring comic books,
as well as science fiction and fantasy novels. When I was a teenager I thought I
wanted to be an illustrator. I went to art school and spent a lot of time drawing
figures, and drawing and writing my own comic books. Even starting out in the
world of comic books, you're starting out in the world of the fantastic and the
impossible, and the horrific, for that matter, EC Comics territory, where I was a lot.
So in some sense I was feeding all that fantasy stuff into my head from a very early
SCHWEIZTER: And no one tried to stop you . . .
FROST: [Laughs.] No. My parents probably didn't know what I was doing, and I
hope they hadn't read the government papers that said that comic books were evil
and would destroy your child's brain and do terrible things to them and pervert
them. God knows that's all true, of course. Ruined me. But, no, my parents didn't
try to put a lid on that at all. I was a voracious reader, and I think comic books just
got sifted in with the other books that I was reading. One of the earliest things I
read was a retelling for children of Homer's Odyssey by Barbara Leonie Picard. I
was about nine or ten years old when I read that, so clearly I was seeking out the
fantastic even before I knew there was such a thing or realized that there was a
category. I was just thinking, Oh, I really like this. I gravitated toward the Hardy
Boys books that seemed to have supernatural elements in them, even though those
all end up like Scooby-Doo episodes. It's never supernatural. There's always an
explanation involving criminals. What was it . . . The Ghost at Skeleton Rock? I
would read any Hardy Boys books that had a hint of the fantastic.
SCHWEIZTER: It probably happened to most writers of our generation. There
was a teacher in high school or a professor in college who said, "Get rid of all that
crap and write literature."
FROST: I managed somehow to bypass those people. As I said, I was an art major
in college and during my second year in college I took a night course in short-story
writing, and the woman who taught it, whose name I cannot remember any more
(I'm embarrassed to say), had written a screenplay and sold it to Voyage to the
Bottom of the Sea. So she was all about the fantastic, even if it was really bad
science fiction, which, in the case of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea it was going
to be. Fantasy didn't bother her at all. So I had somebody there going, "Yeah, go
ahead and write this stuff. It's okay. You can do these Twilight Zone type stories."
That was what I was attempting, terrible imitation Twilight Zone stories at that
time. I'm sure it was awful fiction.
SCHWEIZTER: But you then did sell your first story to Twilight Zone magazine.
FROST: That's true. So it kind of came full circle. I met Rod Serling, who came to
the college where I was enrolled and spoke one night, and he was very funny, a
great speaker. I liked him a lot. Actually, now you mention it, the night I drove to
the Clarion writing workshop at MSU was the night that Serling died - I was
dozing in the back of the car (someone else was driving) and it came on the radio
and woke me right up. So, yes, it was a little weird to sell my first story to T.E.D.
Klein at Twilight Zone Magazine.
SCHWEIZTER: You first novel has definite science fiction elements in it. Did
you decide that if you were going to have a novel-writing career, maybe it needed
some SF in it?
FROST: The first novel was a kind of odd amalgam of high fantasy and science
fiction elements, but by the time I sold that, to Ace Books, to Terri Windling, I was
already working on what was for me in the '80s my magnum opus, which was a
retelling of the Irish Tain Bo Cuailnge in two books. So I was deep off into Celtic
mythology at that period, even though the first book had these science fictional
elements in it.
I was, however, writing and selling science fiction stories. The early short fiction
that I wrote comprised a lot of science fiction. But the novels were gravitating
toward traditional fantasy. That became problematic after a while, because I didn't
want to be labeled as a high fantasy writer who doesn't do anything else. And so
after I finished the Irish books, I didn't want to continue doing that material. Ace
was looking to see if I was going to produce another Lyrec novel or something to
follow up Remscela, and I just really wasn't interested in staying in that territory.
SCHWEIZTER: They were after what we cynically call the McTrilogy.
FROST: The McTrilogy. Yes, that's lovely. I've never been able to do
McTrilogies. I have only been able to do duologies. I jokingly say that my problem
with trilogies is that the middle book always sucks anyway, so I just don't bother
writing it. But the truth is that I have stories that just have a two-book story-arc
rather than a three-book story-arc. I'm not by nature a series writer. I am not a
trilogy writer. I would prefer to keep doing different things, trying out things,
which is I suppose in some sense not the smartest career choice to make. The
publishing world likes you a lot if you keep doing . . . you know, Grandchildren of
Dune, Earthworms of Dune.
SCHWEIZTER: The soap opera version, As the Worm Turns.
FROST: Ooh, let's tune in. They want you to do the same thing over and over
again and that is what they keep shoving big piles of money at you to do. I've
never been terribly interested in doing that. That's why I am impoverished, of
SCHWEIZTER: I wonder if this brings us back to the idea of the deliberate as
opposed to the intuitive writer. There is a species of writer you can tell, "I want a
story about zombie cheerleaders, set in the Midwest in the '50s, and I want it next
Tuesday," they can do it. Not only that, they will be able to tell you that at 3 a.m.
next Tuesday they will be writing the last four pages. I think that's a different
FROST: It's not a talent I think I am graced with, necessarily, although for a
number of editors, for Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, and for you, I've sat down
and figured out stories that fit the bill of what was being sought. The first time I
ever tried to do that was for Gardner Dozois when he was editing Asimov's SF. He
gave a reading one night and Michael Swanwick and I were in the audience, and
Michael and I were joking around some idea for a short story, and by the end of the
evening I'd actually constructed a viable idea for Asimov's. Michael said, "You
need to go write this story and give to Gardner," so I went home and wrote it
overnight and sent it to Gardner, and he purchased it. But that was an anomaly. I
don't normally write a story to spec without thinking about it for quite awhile.
For Terri and Ellen, for an anthology coming out next year, they needed a pooka
story, and so I am confined to doing a story about pookas. So I figured out one I
wanted to write about pookas, in pretty short order, a couple of weeks - that's fast
for me. But those are exceptions.
SCHWEIZTER: So, if I sell an anthology called Alternate Historical Vampire
Cat Detectives on Mars, do you think you could write something for it?
FROST: [Laughing.] But of course. How could I say no? I remember that Joe
Haldeman, way back at Iowa - I took a class from him; it was the first time I met
Joe - one of the things he'd talk about over beers after class was that a lot of
writers, back in the late '60s and probably through the pulp era - and he had done
this a number of times, too - were approached by the magazine editor, who would
say, "I've got this cover art, but I don't have a story to go with it. Would you be
able to knock out a story around this cover?" He'd turn out a short story that fit the
painting so that they could put it on the cover of the magazine, and in doing it, of
course, he immediately got the cover story, so it was a feather in his cap too.
SCHWEIZTER: How much of your fiction in some subtle, sublimated way is not
deliberate then, but autobiographical?
FROST: I'll pretend none of it is autobiographical, but that isn't exactly true, of
course. It's just that when you're not writing stuff that is clearly memoir, or
something that can be clearly pointed at and said, "Oh this is your life, this is your
family," when you are writing in the fantasy genre, you are really disguising the
autobiographical material. You can really cover it up with lots and lots of special
effects and bandages and so forth, and no one will recognize it.
It's funny. Back to Swarthmore. A writer named Elizabeth Strout was here last eek,
who has a fine novel out right now called Olive Kitteridge, and we were talking
about memoirs and such, and I made the comment to her that she probably got
letters and phone calls from people saying, "This must be about your life." She
said, in fact, one woman had approached her at a signing and said, "That's not the
way it happened." She was sort of flummoxed and she's going, "But, I made this
up. There is no 'that's the way it happened.'" There was no reality attached to it.
It's all fiction. It is not autobiography in any way, supposedly.
Then the other people at the table looked at me and said, "Well, you write science
fiction, so what about your autobiographical stuff?" I said, "There's none
whatsoever in there." Of course that's a lie. But I'm not going to tell you where it
SCHWEIZTER: Then you get the reader who comes up to you and says, "But
magic isn't really like that . . ."
[FROST makes groaning noise.]
SCHWEIZTER: Or worse yet, they say, "Yes, you've described it accurately."
FROST: [Laughs.] It's a little more dangerous when they come up to you and say,
"Yeah, you got the werewolves exactly the way they really are." Well, that's
troubling. You need to get a life. You need to seek help.
There's always somebody who is going to cross the line, but I'm not worried about
it. Not yet anyway. If they come up to the table and they actually have the
Necronomicon with them, then I'll look for the exit.
SCHWEIZTER: Which edition? There are so many.
FROST: Is there one written in blood?
SCHWEIZTER: Well, I heard a story about something that happened to Clive
Barker once. A guy came up to him at an autographing, set down a copy of The
Books of Blood, got out a razor, slashed his own wrist, bled on the book, then
handed Barker a pen and said, "Here, sign it."
FROST: Did Clive sign it?
SCHWEIZTER: Yes. What he said afterwards was, "When faced with a lunatic
who is holding something sharp, you give him what he wants."
FROST: [Laughing.] Okay . . . No, I never had anything like that occur. In some
ways I think fantasy writers may be better grounded than some of their readers are.
We know that we are making this thing up. I am not sure all the people that read
horror and fantasy do know that you're making it up. There's surely someone who
thinks these things are possible in a way that the person writing it probably does
SCHWEITZER: This is probably the reason science fiction writers tend to be so
skeptical about flying saucers. We can do that better.
FROST: Yes, I'll show you a flying saucer . . .
SCHWEIZTER: Getting back to the point about autobiography, maybe what you
do is imagine what your life would be like if one of your family members was an
alien or something. You take what might have happened in your life, then allow
something to intrude that hopefully didn't.
FROST: When I wrote Fitcher's Brides, that's about three sisters, each of whom
marries the Bluebeard figure in my novel. The first two of the sisters are, as much
as I could make them, very much 19th century women. They have the phobias,
concerns, and beliefs of the day. The third one, who is the trickster, Kate, who
outsmarts the Bluebeard figure, is in a lot of ways a soapbox for me. I get to say a
lot of things that I wanted to through her. So there is definitely an element of
autobiography in her. There is a story I wrote called "Collecting Dust," which is in
the Attack of the Jazz Giants collection, and that's about a little boy whose parents
who are working themselves to death, and deteriorating, literally crumbling away
to dust over time right in front of him. The relationship between him and his sister
is very much based on the relationship I had with my sister growing up, except that
I was the older brother, so it is not autobiography, and yet I was definitely without
a doubt tapping into my real childhood with my real sister (sorry, Deb). So, yes,
there are elements in there, no question. I can look around and see them.
When I finished Tain, I had gotten divorced in the midst of that, and my ex-wife,
when she read the book, said she saw a lot of us, of our relationship, in the
relationship between King Ailill and his wife Maeve, the king and queen and
Connacht. I thought, well, that's pretty weird because I would never have put those
things in. I don't know if it's true. I don't know if she was reading that into the
book because of what she had gone through, or if I was embedding it
unconsciously. I don't think it matters. If it works in the service of the book, that's
grand. It doesn't matter if I recognize it or not.
SCHWEIZTER: Surely what the fantasy writer does is make something fantastic
out of the stuff of life as it is lived. We all have the same emotions. You inevitably
put the material of life, however strangely transformed, into the story.
FROST: That's interesting. I was just reading some essays about writing, and one
"how to" writer, I won't mention her name, in one of her chapters in her book
about writing takes science fiction to task and claims that all sf is nothing more
than didactic stories, stories that have a point to make or are trying to teach you
something, basically lumping sf in with parables. She's making this blanket
statement that all science fiction is like "X", and a result of that is claiming that
science fiction doesn't have the richness of characters, doesn't include characters
that are based on life that's been lived, and I'm reading this essay and I'm going,
Clearly you haven't read much science fiction, or maybe any science fiction.
You've taken your impression of science fiction from TV shows or something. That
struck me as unfair, to say the least. Utterly false.
I think that all the relationships and characters you are writing about are based on
life lived, and the argument has been made that by the time you are five years old
you have already experienced all the emotions that are necessary to write fiction
anyway. You've experienced love, hate, abandonment, resentment - everything
you can think of - everything you could possibly plug in as far as emotional states.
You've already been through all of them. We're all human beings. Those are the
only things you get to tap, regardless of whether you're writing fantastic fiction or
contemporary American literature set in Poughkeepsie.
SCHWEIZTER: What are you working on now?
FROST: Well, in accordance with what I said earlier, I am writing a mystery
novel, which is something I've never done. I am going in a different direction. But
it has fantastic elements in it because I can't help that.
SCHWEIZTER: Is it really a mystery novel, then?
FROST: The difference is it's not a Scooby-Doo ending. It won't be that it looks
like it's supernatural all the way through the book, and then we get to the end and
"Oh, my goodness! It was just this robber dressed up in a clown suit." I promise
not to go that way. So it's a mystery, but it's a strange mystery.
SCHWEIZTER: What you seem to be describing is a fantasy novel with mystery
FROST: Yes, that's probably true, but how they market it, I don't know. The
borderlines between genres have broken down so much that I don't know which
flavor of the week, sub-category this is. Mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy,
horror. I don't know. I don't care either. It will change by next week, as will the
flavor of the week.
SCHWEIZTER: You could always claim it's Literature, but that doesn't get you
out on the shelves unless you're already famous enough to be a brand name.
FROST: I am weeks away from that.
SCHWEIZTER: I hope so. Thanks, Greg.