Today I have gone to a dark place.
I have decided to interview my nemesis, Jake Kerr. From the moment I met Jake at Viable Paradise 14, I knew he was pure evil. Maybe it was his evil eyes, his Easter Island-style head, or the kittens he was chomping down between lectures, but I knew that one day I would have to kill him. It seemed a shame to do so without giving him a chance to speak for himself.
Me: Jake, tell us a little bit about yourself as a writer and an evil genius who must be stopped.
Jake: First of all, I think you can safely change the word "must" to "cannot." As to the "evil" part. That's all in the eye of the beholder now, isn't it?
I started in high school writing horrible Pern fan fiction in a desperate attempt to be Anne McAffrey. Only male.
After that failed attempt I went off to college and eventually spent fifteen years as a music industry and then technology columnist for various magazines. All of them subsequently folded after I left. A lesson for others, to be sure.
Me: Music? Hey, I play in a band. YOU killed the radio star.
Well, if I didn't kill it, the fact you are now in a band certainly will. But I thought we were talking about writing, painful as that topic may be to a failure like yourself.
Me: When I fail myself into a lecture circuit and a house on the coast of Italy, your definition of winning will be "cry like a toddler with no cookie."
Jake: Whatever helps you sleep at night. Anyway, a few years ago my former classmate, Laura Hillenbrand, wrote a book called Seabiscuit, and an email exchange with her inspired me to go back to the love of my youth--the stories of Bradbury, King, and Sturgeon; the novels of Philip K. Dick; the rollicking adventures of Piers Anthony and Edgar Rice Burroughs. So I sat down and started writing fiction again.
Me: Okay, that's actually a pretty cool story. You take this round.
Jake: I find it cute that you are keeping score.
Me: Out of pity, Jake, in the exact same way Bilbo pitied Gollum.
Jake: I can only assume you mean pity for yourself, which makes you both Bilbo and Gollum. I think from now on I'll call you "Gilbo." So, Gilbo, after some significant...
Me: Gilbo? Is that the best you can do? You'll never be a great writer, Jake. Never. It's sad, really.
Jake: After some significant critical work with the Writers Garret here in Dallas and a trip to the Viable Paradise writer's workshop, I sold my first story last year to Lightspeed Magazine. I understand you are still seething in jealousy over that, are you not?
Me: Pah! I do not deign to notice. In fact, when I read that issue of Lightspeed, my eyes skipped right over that story. I'm not even sure it's real. And definitely not eligible for Hugo and Nebula noms this year.
What kind of themes do you find yourself exploring in your writing? Are there topics or experiences that really interest you? (Besides eating kittens.)
Jake: I find any theme that causes pain to one Spencer Ellsworth particularly enriching. Beyond that, I really like to focus on the nature of the human experience and the emotions that it generates. To me the hard science is always a conduit to the real story. I'm particularly intrigued by two things: How people react and deal with situations outside their control and the nature of what it means to be human.
I should add that you are not human and you are, for the moment, outside my control. So I find you morbidly fascinating.
Me: I feel like ten thousand spiders just migrated up my spine.
Is there a work that has particularly influenced you with these themes? Can you name one (or a few works) that deal well with the issue of what it means to be human, and how people deal with situations beyond their control? How are you seeking to rip them off?
Jake: The obvious example for themes about what it is to be human would be the works of Philip K. Dick. Although SF is rich with this theme, from Matheson's I Am Legend to Bacigalupi's The Wind-Up Girl. Alfred Bester was a giant at examining themes of individuals thrust into situations that they must struggle with, much of which is their adapting to the reality or changing it themselves.
I would be remiss not to mention Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," which was the inspiration for my story, "The Old Equations." While not very similar in structure or topic, they both address the concept of dealing with loss--an individual, through scientific situations entirely beyond his or her control, must deal with profound loss.
Me: It's interesting to me because I grew up reading Asimov and didn't discover Philip K. Dick until later, and I always thought they were more alike than people thought. At the core, as you said, their works are about people adapting redefining humanity to suit a new world.
Jake: I read a lot of Asimov, too. Science fiction from the latter half of the twentieth century has been incredibly influential to me. From the folksy Bradbury to the new wave stuff in the Dangerous Visions anthology, I really couldn't get enough.
Me: Are you just a straight-sf guy, or do you see any similar themes in fantasy?
Jake: That's a good question, which makes me wonder if you are having someone else actually write these.
I've read a ton of fantasy, from Tolkein to Stephen R. Donaldson to Piers Anthony. I don't think I ever found the kind of philosophical depth in fantasy that I found in science fiction. It is distinctly possible I just didn't read the right works, as I didn't read nearly as much fantasy as SF. That said, there is no doubt that there are great works of art in the fantasy genre, works that leave you emotionally drained at the end. And the imagination! Say what you will about Piers Anthony as a writer, he has one of the all-time great imaginations in the genre. Not to mention Gene Wolfe, whose imagination is further honed by his amazing use of language.
Me: Hypothetical situation: I am a writer and you are my biggest fan. You find me wrecked in the snow on the side of the road and take me home to nurse me back to health, only to discover that I have killed off your favorite character in my newest book. How do you react?
Jake: There are so many outrageous assumptions I can't even answer it. You're not a writer. I'd never remotely be your biggest fan. I'd never in a million years nurse you back to health. That said, I do believe you have the blackness of heart to kill off a favorite character of mine, so I think the only natural response would be to hobble you, chain you to a manual typewriter, and make you rewrite Twilight.
Me: Bella gazed longingly into Edward's eyes, and then Jake died. Horribly. Thrice.
Jake:See, I just KNEW you read Twilight. Multiple times.
Me: I was curious when I found out "Stephanie Meyer" was your pseudonym. (It explains how he funds all these space lasers and secret evil hideouts, folks.)
Your story is, as I pointed out through gritted teeth, eligible for Hugos and Nebulas and you yourself are eligible for the Campbell for Best New Writer. Why should people vote for someone who would gladly nuke Peoria from orbit if it served his evil plans?
Jake: I would hope that people would vote for others for the Campbell. I am entirely unworthy of that honor this year. As to the Hugo or Nebula, if someone finds that my novelette moved them more than others, then I would hope they would vote for me. But that is a highly personal decision. On the other hand, my winnning a Nebula or Hugo very well may drive Spencer to suicide, and ridding the Earth of his vileness is worthy enough a goal that you should perhaps vote for me whether you like my story or not.
Me: Please. My seppuku standards are much higher than that. I have faith that humanity will not make the mistake of recognizing your work.
But should it ever happen, I will form a resistance and google-bomb you with slashfic.
Jake: So what you're saying is you'll just redirect people to your site.
Me: I didn't say Autobot/Decepticon slashfic. My site is an entirely different animal (and by animal I mean what Megatron calls Optimus Prime in the throes of passion).
Hypothetical situation # 2: You discover that at my death, the timestream diverges into a horrific dystopian future where people are eaten alive by giant rats. With tentacles. Who are often confused with a political party because people call them "tentacrats." Only you can save me from this accidental death. Do you intervene for the good of the world, or do you take your chances with the tentacrats?
Jake: Since the dystopian future of tentacrats doesn't seem altogether that different than our current form of government, I think I'd take my chances with the rats rather than save you. Hell, who am I kidding? If saving you stopped Cthulhu from being unleashed on the world, leading to puppies and kittens dying and nothing but pain and suffering for all, I'd still not save you.
Jake Kerr, everyone! His vileness knows no bounds, and you should never read his story because it will corrupt you.