Photo by Mauch Photo
James Van Pelt has been called one of the brightest new stars on the science fiction horizon, and with very good reason. His stories have made the preliminary Nebula ballots, been honorably mentioned in Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction and Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. His work has also appeared in Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and he's appearing again in Asimov's and Analog early next year. He's currently working with a publisher on a collection of his short stories, tentatively titled Strangers and Beggars, scheduled for release in early 2002.
Van Pelt's work has been published in several anthologies, including the recently released Dark Terrors 5, and he was a finalist for the 1999 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. In fact, it was this honor that motivated him to start a Web site listing all the eligible authors for the annual award. Van Pelt's fiction isn't easily classifiable because he's comfortable in so many different genres. Still, themes of redemption and stories where the past affect the present consistently appear throughout his work. The following interview was conducted over the space of several months, via e-mail and one-on-one contacts during ChiCon 2000.
K. Mark Hoover: James, you've written science fiction, fantasy, and horror. What draws you to genre fiction?
James Van Pelt: My interests have always been genre driven. When I majored in English I backdoored my way into the classics. That's when I learned that classics such as Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, and The Turn of the Screw are marvelous ghost stories. Brave New World, 1984, and Animal Farm are cool science fiction pieces, along with The Handmaid's Tale. And, of course, there's always Edgar Allan Poe. . . .
KMH: So your formal education was based in the literary?
KMH: How did you become site manager for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writers?
JVP: In 1998, a pair of SF writers, Michael A. Burstein and Paul Levinson, wrote me independently to tell me they liked my first story in Analog in '97, "The Big One," and that they were nominating me. I had never heard of the award and wanted to know who else was eligible. I found that there was no way to learn who the new, eligible authors were, and that seemed a shame. In late '98 I started the website. It turned out to be a great way to have a legitimate reason to correspond with major editors, and to meet the up and coming writers in the field.
KMH: When did you first begin to write? Was it an early age?
JVP: I wrote a few short stories in elementary school. In high school I wrote a lot of poetry, publishing some of it in the school's literary magazine. Then I sort of languished in my twenties, thinking that I liked the idea of being a writer because I thought it made me look sensitive. You know, the Byronesque figure who wanders away from the party to stand at the end of the dock and look poetic. <laughs> I thought it would attract girls. Reaching thirty changed that though, and I've been increasingly productive ever since. At this pace I figure I'll hit my stride at sixty or seventy, which seems just perfect to me.
KMH: Were there any personal influences that shaped your interest in being a writer?
JVP: My parents did a wonderful thing when I was young, that I'd recommend to any parent: they bought me books whenever I wanted them. They wouldn't buy toys or candy on the spur of the moment, but a book was a sure thing. So I started reading early. Because I was small, bookish, and unathletic, my heroes were writers. I remember walking through the Littleton Public Library's SF collection and looking for which two authors my book would be shelved between when I published it. <grins> I think it was Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt.
KMH: Who was your favorite author at this time?
KMH: Short stories are often considered the lifeblood of SF, and your success has come in this form. It seems you're particularly adept working at this length. Have you concentrated on short stories because they're easier to sell than novelettes and novellas?
JVP: I'm not sure why I gravitated to short stories more than the longer stuff, other than I'm a closure addict. I like getting to the end of things and calling them done. That said, I do have a novel I've finished and am shopping around, and sold a couple of novelettes to Realms of Fantasy and Analog. But I don't think I'll ever quit writing short stories. There are too many fun ideas that aren't novelistic in scope, and there's a lot to be said about the immediate feedback a short story gives me.
KMH: Jules Renard said writing was an occupation in which you must prove your talent to those who have none. How do you deal with discouragement when a story you innately feel to be good can't find a home?
JVP: By sending the manuscript out again. I sold a story last year to a professional paying print magazine that over the course of eleven years had seen forty-nine different markets. If the story is good, keep sending it.
KMH: What do you think drives the genre overall? Is it the editors who buy the work, the writers themselves, or the fans?
JVP: It's hard to ignore the influence and power of editors. If they don't buy, the writer won't be published. Theoretically, they are buying what they think is good and what they think the fans want. However, I believe that a writer who is good will create a market for his work. When Bradbury first started sending his stories out, no none had ever written SF like that. He created a market for his work. Every writer should try to do that. Once an interviewer asked me if I wanted to be the next Stephen King. I said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."
KMH: Getting back to the fans, many who work in the SF field see them as not only crucial to continued readership, but somehow peculiar to the genre. Do you share those same views?
JVP: Romance writers have a similar fan base. But the relationship between writers and the fans in SF/F/H is peculiar. It feels much more democratic than in the mainstream, where writers are isolated from their fans. I think our fans are vital to this genre's viability because they are a force to be reckoned with.
KMH: In what way?
JVP: Like fans resurrecting Star Trek after it was cancelled. And the Hugo is a fan award; look how important it is. There are also our conventions, where authors and fans get together in a way Romance approximates but doesn't equal, and the history of fandom, which has a life of its own. I just don't see anything in publishing that approaches the symbiotic relationship between writers and readers in our genre. Come to think of it, the internet is only deepening this already influential connection.
KMH: You've just provided the segue to my next question. Recently two major SF magazines folded: SF Age and Amazing Stories. Yet we've seen an explosion of quality online magazines that pay professional rates, and semi-professional magazines printing stories of respectable quality. What's going on here?
JVP: Clearly the online magazines are in a developmental stage. It seems inevitable their influence will grow, and more authors will be willing (and eager) to be published with the more influential online zines. Other than SciFi.com and a couple of others, however, that situation hasn't been reached. I think when there's an online zine that has been consistently publishing for a decade, has been paying pro rates, whose work is consistently on Nebula and Hugo considerations, then I'll say the market has matured. Until then, most of the successful authors will rather have their work appear in print venues than online.
KMH: But high level print magazines are folding.
JVP: I wouldn't count print publications out too quickly. Magazines have always been folding while new ones appear. Talebones, in particular, with Patrick and Honna Swenson at the helm, may become a major player (I own stock in them so I'm prejudiced). DNA Publications, with its multiple magazines under its wing may also have found a model to grow good magazines. It wouldn't surprise me that if a couple of years from now there are two or three new magazines above the 10,000 copy circulation.
KMH: What about the quality of media SF? Does it have any lasting impact on print?
JVP: Frankly, I don't think there's much relationship at all between media SF and print SF -- at least the print SF I read. Some of the most interesting work that has ever appeared is coming into print now. The overall quality of SF has never been higher, both from a writing and idea standpoint, so the argument I hear that media SF is diluting the field doesn't hold for me.
KMH: What about media tie-ins, movies and television and the like? Don't they bring more readers to speculative fiction, or is it a wash?
JVP: Whether the media brings us more readers is hard to measure. The magazines' circulation have been falling steadily. At the same time, however, more book titles are being published, and the majority of them are not media tie-in novels.
KMH: So what impact does the media have?
JVP: What the media has done is to mainstream SF and fantasy tropes. When soft drink commercials look like mini-SF movies, the ideas of SF have become an integral part of the communal consciousness. Actually, I find this kind of sad. I liked it when SF was a unique club filled with folks who'd sort of stumbled into it.
KMH: Recently SFWA decided to stop listing magazines that don't pay professional rates in their quarterly publication, The Bulletin. Do you agree with their stand on this issue?
JVP: The SFWA question is a real rat's nest of politics and personality. You can hardly open your mouth in a room of writers about a SFWA question without provoking a firestorm. I'll try and answer anyway. <grins>
The broader question, I think, is do you have to publish at pro rates to consider yourself a writer? Naturally the answer is no. There are wonderful works of considerable power published in the semi-pro magazines. There are also undoubtedly powerful works that haven't found any kind of publisher yet. Publishing is a chancy activity at best. As far as The Bulletin not listing semi-pro markets, that seems consistent with their membership policies.
KMH: Does belonging to SFWA help a writer in the long run?
JVP: Being a member, or having previous publishing credits, does carry some weight with some publishers. I investigated this thoroughly when I wrote an article entitled "Publishing, Persistence and the Urge to Write," which is posted at the SFWA Web site. What I discovered is that most editors claim that all that matters is story. However, Gardner Dozois confesses that at Asimov's he does pre-separate the manuscripts into piles based on those standards. My feeling is that while many editors say they don't pay attention to professional membership or previous publications, it's impossible for them not to recognize that the manuscript in front of them is by someone with a recognizable track record.
KMH: James, we first met in person at WorldCon in Chicago last year, after a lengthy friendship over the Internet. How many conventions do you attend each year?
JVP: I attend three: WorldCon, ConDuit in Salt Lake City, and MileHiCon in Denver. I'd attend more if I had the money.
KMH: Are cons important to your growth as a writer?
JVP: For several reasons, yes. First, making personal contact with editors has been invaluable. Not only have I been able to ask them questions and listen to their thoughts, but seeing them has made them less imposing to me. Conventions help give me confidence to submit work because I know editors are just ordinary folk. Secondly, I get to network with other writers. I've learned about many publishing opportunities by attending the conventions. People I met five years ago may be editing magazines or anthologies now. Networking works.
KMH: Those are all good professional reasons to attend conventions. Do you have any personal ones?
JVP: Sure. Conventions give me a motivational boost. Writing is a lonely, often despairing activity. Talking to other people who share the passion makes facing the blank page easier. I highly recommend conventions to anyone who is interested in writing and publishing. Cons can be overwhelming, especially if you're not social, but hanging around people who are doing the same thing you want to do is beneficial.
KMH: What's a typical writing day like for you?
JVP: I have to shoehorn writing into my day. I have three children, ages 11, 8, and 4. I'm married and enjoy an active social life. During the day I teach high school English, and at night I teach a college course. Oftentimes I write right after school for a hour and a half or so. Then I'll write after 9:00 for another hour after the kids go to bed.
KMH: That doesn't sound like much time.
JVP: I used to believe I had to do a thousand words a day to be considered a writer. What I found, though, was that this was an unreasonable goal for me. It took a while for me to settle on a doable goal: 200 words a day, but I never miss. That gives me 73,000 words in a year. I think for a non-full-time writer, that's good.
KMH: Let's get back to your job as a school teacher, if we may. I know you've incorporated your own interest in speculative fiction into lesson plans for your students. What's their overall reaction to this?
JVP: I think teachers always bring their interests into the classroom. What I bring is my enthusiasm for reading, writing, and ideas. The general reaction is good, but you might get a more truthful answer asking my students.
KMH: How do you introduce the worth of science fiction to your students?
JVP: When I teach SF, one of my basic arguments is that SF as a literature is based on the idea that the world can and will be different. It exists in a state of flux. Mainstream lit has a tendency to ignore change and argue that whatever condition exists in the novel is universal and timeless. I disagree. I believe SF prepares us for change by positing that change is always inevitable.
KMH: What projects are you currently working on?
JVP: I always have a short story going. I've been working on a story arc I call my "Lutheran Diaspora" stories. There's nothing really Lutheran about them other than the ship names, which are culled from the names of Lutheran churches, so I have ships named Redeemer, Ascension, King of Kings, etc. A couple of these stories appeared in Analog. I'm also working on a SF/F novel entitled One Fell Down, an unnamed mainstream novel that is my answer to Catcher in the Rye, and I'm preparing a collection of my stories for release in early 2002.
KMH: Is there any particular movement you identify with, or prefer to read?
JVP: My tastes are eclectic. I like good story, so that steers me away from writers who are in love with language for language's sake. Delany, for example, is hard for me to read. Still, I do have a tendency toward the literary. I prefer a story where there are multiple layers, where allusions to other works or to history may be a part of the text or the character.
KMH: Can you give us any examples?
JVP: I've already mentioned Bradbury, but there are a handful of bedrock works for me. Connie Willis's Doomsday Book, along with all of her short stories, have really moved me. So did Harlan Ellison's "Croatoan" and "Hitler Painted Roses." Brin, Heinlein, Le Guin, and Tolkien are also prominent on my bookshelf.
KMH: Do you have any long-range goals you'd like to share?
JVP: Mostly I hope to be able to write and sell. There is a novel publication in my future, but I don't see myself making my living doing it. My dream, when I'm feeling dreamlike, is to have Hollywood dump a crate of money on me for the film rights of one of my stories. Then I can retire to writer's heaven.
KMH: What about a more personal, or individual goal?
JVP: When I was in grad school at U.C. Davis, I had an instructor tell me he thought my work was too genre-influenced to be published in literary magazines and too literary to make it in the genre markets. All I can conclude from his advice is that the academy doesn't know much about the genre marketplace or genre readers. I'm constantly pushing myself to be a better writer. Somewhere out there are my ultimate stories. I haven't written them yet because I haven't lived long enough to discover what they are. I haven't developed my skills enough to tell them, but I will, and it'll be fun getting to that point.
JVP: <smiles> Because science fiction is a thrill ride.
K. Mark Hoover is a writer living and working in Mississippi. He is also the contest administrator for the Moonlight & Magnolia Fiction Writing Contest. He has published about a dozen short stories and articles in professional and semi-professional magazines; his story "Slugball" appeared in Strange Horizons. He has a wife and three children.
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