Last year WEIRD TALES posted an interview with me at their website. However, some time later the site either self-destructed or was a victim of sabotage. In any case the interview has been lost along with the rest of their site. So I thought I’d run the interview here on my own page. Thanks to Doug Draa for doing the interview and to Laird Barron for linking it on his website.
WT: SEVEN SORCERERS was recently released and it concludes T-the Shaper Trilogy. Is this the last that readers will be seeing of The Shaper’s world?
JRF: Never say never. The three books definitely tell a complete story, culminating with a massive invasion. Currently there are no plans for a sequel series, however I do have an idea for a return to this world a hundred years later. Some of the characters would still be alive—giants are very long-lived and sorcerers may prolong their existence with magic—but when and if I return I’ll probably focus on the OTHER side of the world—the side we didn’t get to see in much detail in this series. I never wanted to be trapped or pigeonholed into a never-ending series. I’m anxious to spread my figurative wings and try some new things. I have a completely different series in the works right now, and I’m working on a project that’s also entirely different. Like most writers I want to stretch myself and conquer new ground, but I also have a soft spot for The Shaper Trilogy. So I might return to the Shaper’s world, but not right away.
WT: Having read your articles for BLACK GATE, your own blog, and the afterword to SEVEN PRINCES it is obvious that you have a deep love for vintage genre fiction. Do you feel that these older works deserve more attention from younger readers than they might be receiving?
JRF: Sometimes, yes. This is an issue no matter what creative field you’re in: In music people often ignore the originals in favor of third-generation imitations. It’s the same with film and comics, not just fiction. I think any self-respecting fantasy fan should do some research (it’s so easy in the Age of the Internet) and find out who came first, who originated the tropes of our genre, and who set the wheels of our genre in motion. There is a lot to love in the history of pretty much any genre. I understand that some people are only interested in what’s “new” and some don’t want to read stories or books written in what are considered “outdated styles.” But that argument holds no water with me. Certainly the works of Shakespeare and Poe are written in “outdated styles” compared to modern writers like Martin and King—yet both authors have created timeless work. If someone doesn’t read Lord Dunsany, for example, because it’s “too old,” that person is missing a lot of great stories. The same goes for Tolkien: I grew up with some friends who preferred more modern readers imitating Tolkien because they didn’t like Tolkien’s “outdated style.” I’ve always thought it was silly, too, when people refuse to watch black-and-white movies simply because they’re not in color. Those people are missing some of the best films ever made, and the same goes for readers who don’t read Shakespeare, Poe, Dunsany, Tolkien, and other old-school writers. Yet it helps to remind myself that the experience of all art is subjective. People should be free to like what they like. Personally, I try hard to keep a balance in reading/re-reading old favorites and new works, although I admit I’m drawn more to older books. I’ve always loved exploring used bookstores, and I can always find a treasure or two in them.
WT: Do you think that these older works contain a special something that many contemporary stories and novels are lacking? Or do you think that such laments like the one I just expressed is simply nostalgia for the stories that introduced many reader s to genre fiction? (Asimov did once say that “The Golden Age is twelve.”)
JRF: Well, Asimov did have a point: Some of the books read in that “golden age” of around 12 years old (like the movies you see at that age) can really stick with you for life. It’s a very impressionable age and books/movies/comics often “imprint” themselves on young minds. For example, one of my favorite films is BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. My mind knows that the first movie (PLANET OF THE APES) is a better film, but I saw BENEATH when I was like six years old, and re-watched it for years on television whenever it was on (these were the pre-VCR days). That movie imprinted itself upon me, and I will always love it. LORD OF THE RINGS imprinted itself upon me in the same way, although it happened at an even younger age. In my teens Moorcock’s ELRIC stories imprinted themselves. In my early 20s its was Tanith Lee’s FLAT EARTH series and the story-cycles of Darrell Schweitzer. But I also remember discovering Lord Dunsany at this time, reaching all the way back to 1911 to read A DREAMER’S TALES. So I think this imprinting happens early in life for most people, but for some of us (artists?) we continue to be imprinted by things we discover throughout our whole life. Perhaps this separates writers and creative types from “normal” people, who generally are too busy with living Real Life to keep being imprinted by works of art. Or perhaps that’s too simplistic and not accurate. Your question seems to be asking “Is it all just nostalgia?” and I have to say definitely no. There is a lot more to it, and here’s why: A great work of art is a great work of art. Let’s go back to Shakespeare again. His works are 500 years out of date, yet they still represent the best and worst of humanity, as well as some of the greatest stories every told by man. Timeless is the word. Great art is timeless. By its very nature Art defies time and space. Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of storytelling, an ancient art that has been with us since we were cave-dwellers.
WT: I finally had the chance to read “The Key to Your Heart Is Made of Brass” and “Flesh of the City, Bones of the World” in the 30th Anniversary Issue of FUNGI. I found the world you’ve created therein (The Urbille) to be one of the most original settings that I’ve read in ages. Both stories were entertaining and extremely moving. Did you have any trouble placing them?
JRF: Ha! Yes, these stories were too damn weird. First “Key” (then later “Flesh”, which is its sequel) was rejected nine times by nine different editors. “Key” made the editorial rounds for four years before it found a home. One editor kept “Key” on her desk for a solid year before rejecting it, then another editor kept it for another year before declining to publish it. It was kind of surreal: Everybody had good things to say about the story, but for whatever reason they didn’t want to publish it. A third editor didn’t like the ending of “Key”, while a fourth editor thought I was trying to make some silly misogynist statement. However, I got so many positive comments about “Key” that I wrote a sequel to it—even though I hadn’t sold it yet—and then I sent the sequel (“Flesh”) on the same editorial round-trip journey. Both stories were rejected exactly nine times before Pierre Comtois asked to run them in the 30th Anniversary issue of FUNGI. This marked the first time I ever had two stories running in the same issue of any magazine. Now that the amazing Laird Barron has recognized “Key” and included it in his YEAR’S BEST WEIRD FICTION, Vol. 1, I feel entirely vindicated. I may write more stories in the universe of the Urbille. Possibly even a novel. A very weird novel.
WT: What would you be creating if you were to write purely for yourself and sales be damned. Or are you already doing this?
JRF: That’s exactly what I did when I wrote SEVEN PRINCES. I didn’t have an agent or a book deal. I had only the raw determination to “graduate” from short stories (which I’d been selling semi-regularly for a few years) and comics to prose novels. I started writing the novel on blind faith, with no constraints but my own imagination. I decided to write a “Big Fantasy Novel” and told myself “I will find an agent” and “I will get it published somewhere…somehow.” The first draft of the novel I entirely scrapped, came back the next year and wrote a new novel in the same world but set 20 years into the future. I usually have summers off from teaching, so that’s my main “writing season.” I started SEVEN PRINCES thinking “I will not rush this. It will take as long as it takes, and it will be everything I’ve always want to see in an Epic Fantasy.) I wrote exactly what I wanted to write, and I joined a local writers’ group to get priceless feedback on the early chapters. It took me three years to find an agent, and one year after I found him, he found me a deal with Orbit. The great thing about that deal was that I had carte blanche to write the second book (SEVEN KINGS) and third book (SEVEN SORCERERS) with very little editorial intervention up-front. However, I did get some good editorial feedback after each novel was completed, mostly from the terrific Tom Bouman (who is no longer with Orbit). Although I’m writing ostensibly for the “fantasy market” I don’t think about it in that way. I still write first and foremost for myself. If I can’t please me, how could I ever hope to please anyone else?
WT: If you could spend an evening over beers with any two writers in the world, one living and one dead, who would they be and why?
JRF: For my living writer I’d have to pick Tanith Lee. Her work is immensely inspiring. She is a true Storyteller of the highest calibre, not to mention a Fantasy Grandmaster. I’ve always wanted to meet her, but I’m sure I’d be tongue-tied and starstruck. But if I could get over that initial shock (perhaps a beer or two would do it) I’d love to discuss writing, storytelling, history, and the state of humanity with Tanith well into the wee hours of the night. For a non-living writer, I’d have to pick Clark Ashton Smith. Last summer I drove through Auburn, California, for the first time. It was late at night and it was a surreal experience—the tiny town where Smith lived and wrote all of his life. I wanted to find the place where his cabin used to sit and hold a vigil or meditate there. I’m hoping to make it back there when I have a bit more time to commune with his spirit. Smith is my favorite of the “big three” WEIRD TALES writers, and his dark fantasies have inspired me since I was a kid excavating his work from second-hand bookstores.
WT: Here is a list of names: Abraham Merrit, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Darrell Schweitzer. I think that your writing includes you as the newest addition to this list. What is your opinion of that?
JRF: That is a very humbling compliment, so thank you very much. Smith and Howard are definitely among my strongest influences, as is Darrell Schweitzer. Darrell has given me great advice on writing, storytelling, and publishing for going on two decades now. I started sending stories into WEIRD TALES when I was in college—the late 80s. I’ve talked in many interviews about the many rejections I got from Darrell and the advice he gave me in those letters. Eventually, after 15 years of learning my craft and submitting to WT, he bought my first story “The Persecution of Artifice the Quill” for WEIRD TALES #340. [This story now appears in my collection THE REVELATIONS OF ZANG, where it begins a 12-story cycle.] A year or two later I finally got to meet with Darrell in person at the World Fantasy Convention, and have enjoyed the pleasure of his company a few more times since. But it’s not just the fact that Darrell has been a mentor—he is also one of the greatest living fantasy writers on the planet. His work speaks to me in a metaphysical way that feels like true sorcery. His writing is magic, and in a perfect world his many story collections would be far more widely appreciated. This often happens to true genius—it is misunderstood and unrecognized by all but a certain segment of society. It’s not often that one can gain the friendship of an author whose work has been so important to you. So I consider myself lucky to have earned the friendship of Darrell Schweitzer. I dedicated my first novel SEVEN PRINCES to him. (I have to admit that I haven’t read much by A. Merrit, though I am familiar with him.)
WT: Do your students read your stories? And what has been their reaction?
JRF: Most kids these days don’t read short stories—or at least they don’t seek them out. They’d rather read novels. Many of my students have read SEVEN PRINCES, and some have read the entire Shaper Trilogy. I teach at the high school level, and the students find it fascinating that I’m a “real author.” Of course the first two questions they ask are usually “Are you famous?” and “Are you rich?” And while I am neither, they still appreciate that they’re being taught to write (and read) by an actual writer who knows what he’s talking about. I also am sure to donate copies of my books to my school library so students can read them even if they can’t afford to buy them. Libraries are still so important, even in this age of digital entertainment. A book will never run out of batteries.