Once upon a time, James Van Pelt wanted to be—not just a writer—but Ray Bradbury. "I remember telling my mom once that I was going to be Ray Bradbury when I grew up," he says. "This was when I was really young, like seven or eight or six. I was really disappointed a couple of years later when I found out that Ray Bradbury was a person, not a job title. I wanted to be Ray Bradbury like some kids want to be firemen, like some kids want to be policemen."
Van Pelt says The Martian Chronicles changed his life. And "The Foghorn." "That's just a great story," he says. "I couldn't believe that story when I read it. And you had Heinlein's juvenalia, which I loved, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Loved those things. So, I wanted to write early.
"When I actually started writing, I was bad mechanically and with spelling and with punctuation. I was always awful with that at school, so I switched to poetry because I figured you could break any rule that you wanted to for poetry and then you could say it was for poetic effect.
"I wrote poetry up through high school, and when I got to college, I started writing fiction. So most of the time when I was in my 20s, I thought of myself as a writer, but I wasn't writing very much. It wasn't till I was getting ready to turn 30 that I thought, 'Oh, man, I've called myself a writer all this time and I haven't produced anything, in the last ten years, worth anything.' So I started writing again more seriously."
Van Pelt read The Hardy Boys mysteries when he was young, but his father was an aeronautical engineer for Martin-Marietta, so he had Sky & Telescope magazines lying around the house. "When I was growing up," he says, "the big deal thing for my dad to do would be to tell me that there was a science fiction movie on Friday night or Saturday night at either 'Sci-Fi Flicks' or 'Creature Features'—those were the two Denver programs that would run these vintage science fiction-fantasy things—and that I could watch with him. My bedtime was at 8:00 p.m., but he'd come get me at 10:30 and we'd watch this movie. It was just a really big deal thing for me.
(Photo © 2004, Ken Rand)
"His interest in it probably did as much as anything to provoke my interest in it. I got hooked. I read science fiction exclusively all the way through college. It wasn't till I read Lord of the Rings when I was 21 that I'd consider reading anything other than science fiction. If it wasn't science fiction, forget it. Lord of the Rings kind of broadened my horizons."
By the time Van Pelt went to grad school at UC Davis, in the late 1980s, he'd already been teaching high school for seven years, "so my horizons were broadened again," he says, "because I was teaching all these things that weren't science fiction, and of course I liked them. I'm teaching Shakespeare and Dickens and the Brontës and these other people. I was on fire when I found out that Wuthering Heights was really a great ghost story, and it was genre as far as I was concerned.
"I went to grad school with the idea that I was going to write science fiction and fantasy—that's the stuff I submitted to get into the school. I applied to six different graduate programs and Clarion at the same time. Three of the grad programs took me and three said no, and Clarion said yes. Then I was torn because I couldn't afford both Clarion and grad school. So I traded a six-week Clarion course for a two-year grad course.
"I've often wondered what could've happened if I could've done both."
Editing the California Quarterly was part of the grad program; grad students became the editorial board. Van Pelt was fiction editor in his second year.
The Quarterly was not science fiction or fantasy, and that had an impact on Van Pelt's career. It "was one of the best parts of grad school, and it was a great two years. I really enjoyed it. I know some people feel that grad programs, or that the academy, can be hostile to science fiction and fantasy. It depends who you're hanging out with, I guess, because in the program I was at, they loved whatever I was doing."
Reading the slush pile for the Quarterly was the biggest eye-opener for Van Pelt. "This was a magazine that nobody knows about except other universities. It's not listed anywhere except in the small press guide, and still we were getting 40 or so manuscripts a week to look at. I was on the staff for six months before we even accepted a manuscript. I mean, six months' worth of stuff, discussed as a committee, before we found one we all thought was pretty good and wanted to publish."
The rest, of course, got sent right back. "After you'd been reading the slush pile for maybe a month," Van Pelt says, "you recognized that this one was 'Opening Gambit 1-A,' and done poorly at that. I'd take the slush pile down to the student union; I'd have maybe 20 manuscripts with me, and I'd get a bagel and a Coke and I'd just start reading and if the first paragraph was decent, I'd stop people at tables around me and say, 'Here, you gotta listen to this! This is pretty good!' It was so rare."
Van Pelt says he found three "classic mistakes I saw in the first paragraph. If you can avoid doing these three things, your manuscript will be better than at least half of the slush pile."
The three things? "One, use an action verb. Two, be specific; name things. Don't say, 'She looked out the window.' Name her. Three, don't use a cliché. That was half the slush pile, so it was pretty easy."
The rest wasn't hard either, Van Pelt says, because it all looked alike. "So many people thought that their story was going to be heart-breakingly original—50 of them in the same month, not talking with each other—and they've all come up with the same thing. We were mostly getting submissions from professors and grad students from other colleges, and I'll bet a quarter of the slush pile was a male protagonist, assistant professor, something like that, falling in love with a much younger coed."
Van Pelt says he tells his students that "I teach best what I feel I most need to learn. I get stuck on something I want to know more about, then it'll turn into lessons I'm doing in class."
He got an interesting offer from Charles Coleman Finlay to be a guest teacher for a writers' group through SFF.net—to teach plot. "That fascinates me because I feel like while I know a couple things about plot, it's a big, gray, mysterious area. I keep waiting for Connie Willis to write her book on plot, which she's 'threatened' to write. So I thought, 'Wow, I really want to know more about plot. Yeah, I'd love to teach it.'"
Some 200 writers signed up for the on-line course. "I posted my early thoughts for whatever the lesson was for the day to go along with the story that we'd assigned." Ten stories were assigned, all available on-line. "Then I'd answer e-mails all day as people read the stories and responded to them and asked questions, then I wrote kind of a post-discussion comment on the story, and in two weeks, I wrote 24,000 words."
A book is coming out of that through Fairwood Press. "Mostly," Van Pelt says, "we're just lining up the rights for the stories. Robert Silverberg has already agreed to let us use his story, 'Caught in the Organ Draft,' which is a great story. I think we've got Kage Baker. She'll let us use 'The Empress of Mars,' which was her Nebula finalist story. So, good stories in the anthology—or, I guess it would be a textbook-workbook kind of thing. That's what I'm doing this summer, polishing that up, and I guess becoming an anthologist, because I've got to make sure that everybody will let us use his or her story. Otherwise I've got to rewrite entire chapters."
How does he do it—write and teach too? Teaching, Van Pelt says, is not an eight-hour job; it's a job you can take home, and it can consume you. "It's the nature of the beast. I know teachers that spend 24 hours a day doing their jobs. Plus, it's a job fraught with guilt. If you're not doing enough, you feel guilty.
"I just got to the point where I end my teaching day at a certain time and say I've got to get my writing in and my teaching is done here. I don't accept committee assignments whenever possible. I give my kids 100 percent when I'm in the classroom, and I give them the very best of me of the time that I allot after school. Then I cut them off and say, 'Look, this is my time now, or this is my family time.'
"I've got to stay intellectually alive. I need to segment my life a little bit. And that's the biggest negative. I think everything else about teaching is a positive. I'm in a laboratory of human experience every single day. I'm constantly taking notes and listening to what people say and how they interact. I can write character sketches whenever I want to. The kids are very invigorating, in terms of me drawing off their energy. It's a great thing; it's just that it can take too much time."
Van Pelt says he finds absolutely no negatives about having a family. "If I didn't have a family, I'd go crazy. I lived alone for a long time. Tammy and I didn't get married till I was 34, and I'd lived alone for several years. I got buggy living alone. I'd quit answering the door. The phone rang and I'd say, 'Nah, I'm not going to pay any attention to that.' I'd think these horrible, dark thoughts in the middle of the night without anybody to give me any balance. Having a family has been marvelous. I feel blessed that I've got these multiple lives. I have a teaching life and I have a family life and I have a writing life and I love all these lives very much. If there's any negative about parenting, I don't know what it is."
Van Pelt regularly reads bedtime stories to his three boys, a regimen that feeds his passion for writing: "I've been able to read Lord of the Rings now out loud, from beginning to end, three times, and I've read The Hobbit aloud four times. This is just marvelous. Plus I get to watch kids' movies, which are great. Shrek and Toy Story. There's great storytelling going on there. All the classics of kid's literature, I get to do them again. Halloween's more fun, too."
Van Pelt's solution for finding time to write: "I take the time where I can get it. The time has shifted at various points in my life when I was able to write the best. Now, my best time is from about 9:00 to 10:30 p.m. The kids are in bed and I'm still alert enough to write. But I've got to be in bed by about 10:30 because I normally get up around 5:00, and I need to sleep.
"I used to write early in the morning. That was a great time because there were no phone calls. But I found that I like to use that time for planning my teaching day and if I'm writing, then I get distracted.
"But it's not hard to find the time, for me, because I've set myself such minimal goals. I write 200 words a day. That's all I need to write and call it a writing day. I haven't missed [a day] since September 20, 1999. The words pile up if you never ever miss a day, and I don't.
"I don't have to write from 9:00 to 10:30 to finish 200 words. If that's all writing time, I can be upward to 1,000 words, maybe even a little bit more, in that kind of time, depending on whether I'm on a roll or not. I can do 200 words during lunch at school. It's one good paragraph, it's one dialogue exchange between a couple, or it's one scenic description."
Not a lot, per day, but it adds up to more than 70,000 words a year. "I do a lot more than that," Van Pelt adds, "because I have days where I overachieve and do 400 words. When I get to the end of a story, or I see the end of a story and I'm excited because now I know where I'm going and I've got all the threads going exactly where I want, then I may have a day that's maybe 2,500 words. But that's almost always and only when I'm completing a story.
"When I start and stories grow fairly slowly, I may have a bunch of 200-word days in a row. Not because I didn't have the time, but because I'm kind of thinking my way through the story as I'm writing it."
Van Pelt's extensive bibliography makes one suspect he has some kind of mental antenna especially honed to tap story. Which is exactly the case. "It's mostly being in the habit of always thinking about things," he says. "When I teach a class and I tell them we're going to write a short story, I can see some of the kids go into panic mode because they don't have a clue. They have no story idea at all, and it takes a while for them to come up with something.
"But for myself, man, everything I see, everybody that I talk to, every commercial I watch, I'd go, 'Oh, that'd be cool.' If it strikes me that it would be cool enough, I write it down in an idea file and then return to it."
What's more important: style or story?
"Sometimes," Van Pelt says, "I feel like I'm torn in a very good way, and balanced in exactly the right place for me, between love of language—and story structure, or interest in writing a story and just story itself, or the wanting to tell tales. I think that's a nice place to be, because I know writers that are all style. Story doesn't matter to them at all. They have a real obsession with language and how it's working.
"Then there's the opposite: people who say, 'I must tell the story,' but they have no feel or sense or desire to play with structure and language. I feel like I'm right smack in the middle, and it's a good place to be. I find myself going back and forth between story and language, story and language."
Van Pelt has written a novel, and a third of another, and there's a novella project for Golden Gryphon underway, but he prefers the short form. "My problem," he says, "is that I get distracted by short story ideas, and when they come along, I'll lay the novel aside and write the short story. That probably tells me that's just where my nature lies—as a short story writer. The other way around, that's the person that keeps putting aside the short story because they want to pursue this longer narrative. They're novelists. I like the short form."
He's sold 81 short stories—so far. "I've sold almost every blessed thing I've written," Van Pelt says. "I have maybe half a dozen stories that I've trunked in 15 years. I work the story, and if I think it's worth staying with, I stay with it. I hardly ever start something I don't think is worth staying with.
"Once I finish it, I keep marketing it until I sell it. I sold a story a couple of years ago to the 49th place I'd sent it to. But I had faith in the story. I kept submitting it.
"Sometimes a story will be rewritten after it's been out for a long time. I'm a slow learner this way. One story came back—I don't know—25 times? And everybody who wrote a personal comment on it, which was a few, said essentially that it took too long to get going. So I thought maybe I ought to look at it again. I took it from about 12,000 words and I rewrote it to about 8,000 words and it sold to the next place it went to.
"Usually, if I like the story, and it comes back rejected, I'll just put it in an envelope and send it back out. I usually don't go back to the story and rework it again. It went out in the best shape I could do it at the time. By the time the story comes back, I'm hip-deep into something else, so I'm not interested in that old story in the way I was when I was writing it. I'm interested in the new one. My new one's always going to be better anyway, as far as I figure. I want to work on the new, fun project. I don't know if that's good advice for everybody, or anybody, but that's the way I work it."
Van Pelt has been nominated for the Campbell, the Hugo, and the Nebula. "It's nice to be recognized," he says. "I took the certificate that I got for the finalist for the John W. Campbell award, put it in a nice frame, and it's up above my workspace. If I ever start thinking, 'Oh, you suck. Why are you doing this?' I can look up at that. I got a certificate for being a Nebula finalist. Same thing. It's affirming.
"I know I shouldn't need those at all if I really enjoy the work and I think it's worthwhile work, and I wrote for a long time without any kind of recognition. I also know that there are wonderful, beautiful, talented writers out there who've received no recognition, so, that kind of stuff is a little bit random; it's certainly out of my control.
"I don't write with the thought that this is my next award-winning thing. I write them all the same way. I get passionate about them and try the best I can to tell a good story and maybe teach myself a little bit more about the way the language works as I write."
Despite harbingers of doom and gloom, Van Pelt sees a bright future for genre literature. Slipstream writers, or "the genre benders," as he calls them, are making positive in-roads. "I think they actually expand the field. Polyphony and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, for example, are saying that we ought to be paying as much attention to form and style as we do to content and we can use the tropes of science fiction and fantasy and horror for effects other than just saying this is science fiction or fantasy or horror.
"It's okay to read a story and be able to argue, 'Is that ghost real or is it a metaphor, and does it matter? Does it change the story, really, one way or another?' A lot of genre bending is being done by folks that are saying, 'If I put a spaceship in my story, it may also have a metaphorical meaning.'
"That's just the nature of good literature. Steinbeck wrote The Pearl, and the pearl has this heavy, metaphorical meaning, but it's also a pearl. We don't say that it's no longer literary fiction because the pearl is literal, but we don't say that it's no longer a dramatic story because the pearl is metaphorical.
"Right now, in science fiction, there are some people arguing, 'Oh, if that spaceship isn't literal, if you're saying that the spaceship might be a metaphor for something, you're ruining the genre.' I just don't buy that."
Genre-bending is "a healthy thing," Van Pelt says, "because it's making for more and more interesting literature, and it certainly is not killing a certain kind of science fiction, and that kind of science fiction is being written, too."
And those who deride media tie-ins sound to Van Pelt a lot like people who complained about comic books. "Every good English teacher will tell you that she'd rather a kid read a comic book than nothing at all.
"I have no trouble with media tie-ins. I don't have that much interest in those shared worlds, but I don't have a problem with somebody that reads it or enjoys it. I'm not sure that they're the entry drug into science fiction, as some people would argue. I think that people that read Star Trek novels pretty much stick to Star Trek novels and don't wander. But they're reading, and they're enjoying what they're reading. Who am I to say that they can't do that?"
He's appeared in e-zines, but Van Pelt prefers paper "because I still have the print magazine later and I don't have the phosphors later."
He loves small press. "Say I show in Analog, the largest circulation print magazine in the genre, a year from now. How many copies of that magazine are still available for your ordinary reader? In two years, then two more years, it gets worse and worse. So it's not like appearing in Analog makes me more permanent than appearing in say, Polyphony, to give you a good example.
"I like the editors and I like the production values in that publication. I think probably as many copies of that are in existence on shelves now than Analog of two years ago.
"I don't buy it that the small press is bad because there aren't very many issues of it. I think that the people who I respect, the audience that I want to find, will find the work, small press or not. I publish a lot with Talebones. Talebones is considered small press. I think it's a great magazine. The others are pretty good too."
Fairwood Press, which publishes Talebones Magazine, published Strangers & Beggars, Van Pelt's first short story collection, in 2002. It's an interesting small press success story, in part, because big publishers aren't doing story collections by writers like Van Pelt with no big novels behind them, "except Ted Chiang," he says. "Ted Chiang is now the exception that sort of proves that rule."
And small press collections simply don't seem to sell well. "Most of the small press collections of individual authors come out, it seems," Van Pelt says, "and the author gets it and the friends get it and a few collectors get it; so you might be looking at 500 copies. But Strangers & Beggars has had a rare run of luck."
Fairwood Press publisher Patrick Swenson has told Van Pelt that more than 2,500 copies of the collection have sold, "and that's as good as you could expect if you'd published a single author collection through Tor, or something like that.
"I keep telling Patrick I need to write an article called 'The Print on Demand Book That Could.'
"So much of what happened with Strangers & Beggars was out of my control, other than the writing of it. I wrote the very best stories that I could, and that's what everybody does so there's no difference there. We sent it to everybody who reviews this kind of stuff. Patrick did a great job of getting copies out. Then the right people reviewed it. It showed up in Kirkus and Book Review and Publishers Weekly—and the American Library Association.
"There was a whole different thread of good luck. The American Library Association Young Adult Book Award recognized it and that's because kids liked it. It ends up on their list, and that means that libraries all over the country are buying it. I couldn't have arranged for that. It just happened, and I'm glad that it did.
"So the book still has legs. We aren't doing a second collection because the first one is still selling well enough that we don't want to rob its momentum. That's a great deal."
While Van Pelt claims no vision for where he's ultimately going, he feels a sense of responsibility for what he's doing every day. "I tend to write things that I think have a positive or sort of life-affirming attitude in some way or another expressed in them," he says.
"This is why I get short sometimes with the people that refer to me as a horror writer. I use horror tropes sometimes, but I think that the heart of horror writing often is a very negative message, which often is just that something horrible out there is going to get you. At the bottom end of horror, that's all it gives you. The top of horror, the very best of horror, sends the message that something awful out there is going to get you—and then gives you reasons to continue on anyway.
"If I write horror, that's the kind of stuff that I'd want to write. I believe that literature that doesn't illuminate—doesn't help me, doesn't make me think about the world I live in and the life that I live in a different light, preferably a light that has some optimism in it—it's not doing anybody a real service. The idea that I'd write a story that would kick the heart out of somebody and make them want to jump off a cliff is repugnant to me.
(Photo © 2004, Ken Rand
"I like the idea that I can write a story that tells about people under great stress, and that they do the very best they can, that our characters try to be heroes—because that's the best that we can do in the world, is try to be heroes. Even in the face of unbeatable odds, we should try to be heroes.
"That's the closest I can come to a mission with my literature, to talk about that. Tammy, my wife, helps me with this too because she has a fondness for upbeat endings. I had a story in Talebones called 'The Yard God.' Tammy read my original ending and said, 'No, you can't do it this way.' She liked the characters and thought that I had treated them too harshly at the end. Now, I wouldn't say that everybody got what he or she wanted in the current ending to that story, but there's a glimmer of hope.
"The very best of horror stories has to be like Pandora's box. You let all the awful things out, but at the bottom of it is hope. If at the bottom of it is nothing, you've written an existential treatise. I don't enjoy reading that kind of stuff. I don't end up writing that kind of stuff—at least on purpose.
"But that doesn't mean that I won't tomorrow. I don't know where my muse will take me."