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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 nebulous.

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 me.

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 you.

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 character.

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 admit it.

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 age.

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 course.

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 talent.

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 is.

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 not.

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 tropes.

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.

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