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Publisher: Bluejack

May, 2009 : Interview:

Hugos, Stories, and the odd Mechanical Man

An Interview with Jay Lake

Since appearing on the SF scene in 2001, the prolific Jay Lake has rapidly become one of the rising stars of the genre with over 240 short stories, five novels, and more coming all the time. He was the winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and his work has received multiple award nominations. Jay is one of the writers of METAtropolis, nominated for this year's Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (long form). The mass market paperback of his novel Escapement came out from Tor in March, and his new novel Green is coming from Tor in June. He's also got a short novel, Death of a Starship, coming out this fall from MonkeyBrain Books. He makes his home in Portland, Oregon, and can be found online at

Brent Kellmer: Congratulations on the Hugo nomination with METAtropolis! How did that come about? How was it trying to mind meld with four other authors?

Jay Lake: Well, to be perfectly clear, I've not been nominated for a Hugo. John Scalzi (editor) and Steve Feldberg (publisher) have been nominated. The rest of us are along for the ride, which is essentially a peculiarity of the category. If METAtropolis had been nominated in Best Related Book, for example, us chickens would be included only by inference, rather than name checked on the ballot.

Still, I'm tickled pink about the whole thing.

The history behind this is that Steve at approached John, I think in the fall of 2007, about doing an original audio anthology in time for the 2008 WorldCon in Denver. has done a lot of work in expanding the boundaries of audiobooks in many arenas, and they'd had some success with an original anthology in mystery. Given the natural affinities between SF fandom and technology, this looked like a good fit.

John rounded up a passel of writers of his own literary generation—people who'd emerged during the past decade, essentially, with at least some overlap in our work and fan bases. One had to drop out, but we still had Elizabeth Bear, Toby Buckell, and Karl Schroeder, as well as me and John. Since the piece was commissioned up front, and the intention was to have at least minimal shared continuity, we brainstormed rather extensively via email. Steve sat in on this process along with the authors. Karl especially had some very innovative ideas that most directly led to the final form. I wish I were 10% as thoughtful and creative as he.

Once we nailed down the general continuity, each of us selected a general point in the culture and geography of the world. That was Spring 2008. People began working, and posting partial manuscripts to a Google Docs workspace, so we could eyeball each other's ideas and emerging tropes. (That's how I came to swipe "turking" from Toby, for example—just as a way to show some cultural crossover between our otherwise disparate stories.)

The hard curveball was that I'd scheduled May 2008 to work on the piece, with a June deadline. Late April that year, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with colon cancer. (Unexpected in the sense that I have no family history or known environmental factors which would predispose me to look for any onset of cancer.) Facing surgery, rehab and recovery, and possible chemotherapy, I reluctantly withdrew from the project. Or tried to.

John and Steve declined my resignation. In fact, the entire publication schedule was moved from August (WorldCon) to November (World Fantasy) in hopes that my recovery would be sufficiently rapid for me to deliver a piece by the revised deadline.

"In the Forests of the Night" is the first fiction I tried to write after the recovery process had settled down enough for me to have the needed focus. It took me the better part of a month to execute a first draft—very slow for me, even with a novella—and when I was done, I had no idea what I had produced. It was frightening, in fact. Not logically so—removing 22cm of my colon did not excise the creative functions of my forebrain, but that was nonobvious to me at the time.

John read the 19,000 word first draft and gave me editorial direction amounting to six points, then slotted the story first in the volume.

The mind meld was awesome, complicated by my personal experiences at the time. The work we all did pleases me immensely, and I'm incredibly thrilled to see it recognized on the Hugo ballot, apparently the first audiobook to have done so.

BK: You've done a good amount of collaborative work before METAtropolis, and you continue to do so after. Since your co-authors are often in other states, even other countries, how do you make it work out? What do you get out of it?

JL: Collaboration is a great deal of fun for me. I learn something every time I do it. Other writers have insights into the art and mechanics of fiction I can learn from, and watching my words filter through their process is a real thrill. Likewise, playing in other people's drafts is fun. I don't suppose I'd want to do it exclusively, but I haven't tired of it yet.

Obviously, it's almost all done via email. I have several tactics I've employed at different times with different writing partners, but the simplest is to alternate scenes, then redraft each other's words so the voices meld. If you read "Rolling Steel: A Post-apocalyptic Love Story", the piece Shannon Page and I have in the April 2009 issue of Clarkesworld, it's quite clearly written in two distinct voices. We actually worked inside each other's words a lot, but it's no mystery that I was the primary author behind Topper and she was the primary author behind Grace. On the other hand, the two of us have a novelette forthcoming in Interzone, "Bone Island", where the voice is completely blended.

It's an adventure every time, and I get to do things I wouldn't do on my own, simply because I can only think in my own head, while my collaborators think inside theirs. Have fun, learn something new, sell a story—what's not to like?

BK: So you still do short fiction these days, and not just novels. Do you have a preference of one over the other?

JL: Hah! That's like asking me which of my children I prefer. (Well, I only have one child, but you know what I mean.) In 2008 I wrote fourteen solo pieces of short fiction (at all lengths) and two collaborative shorts (with Shannon Page). In 2009, so far, I've written five solo pieces and one collaborative piece (also with Shannon Page). Almost all of those have sold. So, yes, one could make a case for me still doing short stories.

That being said, I'm definitely in a different short fiction production mode than I used to be, because of the novels. I drafted two novels last year, have (sort of) drafted one already this year, and expect to draft two more this year. Given a habit of overwriting, followed by a massacre of the text to chivvy it down to length, I am pushing out a lot of word count that isn't going either to the novel page or to short fiction.

I also don't need much down time between short fiction projects. Literally a day or two, for the most part, and I'm ready to go. Novel projects, however, seem to require that I absent my brain from writing for anything between two and six weeks after I'm done. Again, not wordage going to novels, but time not going to short fiction either.

The form still holds many attractions for me. A short story is like a piece of amber—bubbled, intricate, trapping the insect husk of an idea in a yellowing permanence for the reader to enjoy through the progress of time. By contrast, a novel is the whole pine tree, harvested, milled and constructed into an immersive experience. There is a joy in working at a controlled length, under constrained circumstances, focusing on specific aspects of craft and creativity.

BK: What drew you into short stories rather than novels when you got started?

JL: I could handle them. Some people are natural novelists, and can go an entire career writing few or no short stories. Others are masters of short fiction but never encompass novels. They're related but distinct talents and skill sets. Basically, I learned how to write worthwhile short fiction some years before I learned how to write worthwhile novels. No grand plan, no marketing strategy—I was always working on both. Just how it came out.

Plus, as I said, I love writing the little buggers. They reward brilliantly.

BK: There are some old pros out there who maintain that "professional" writers shouldn't sell to markets that pay less than "professional" rates. And yet you started out doing exactly that—you made a name for yourself and won the Campbell without having published in the major SF/F digests. Now that you've established yourself, how do you feel about that?

JL: There were times in our history when pro rate markets were (relatively) plentiful and subpro markets were often as not subsidy presses. Given the rise of two core technologies in the late 1990s, this has changed—if not permanently, at least for the foreseeable future. Print-on-Demand mitigated the substantial capital requirements for low-margin projects by pushing the cost basis to the very front end of the distribution chain, so that all the cost recovery is at the point of sale, and publishers can invest primarily in wordage. Web publishing (and other forms of e-publishing) completely eliminates the unit cost basis of the delivered word, likewise freeing up capital for wordage, promotion, or sheer nonexistence in the form of for-the-love markets.

At the same time, the various cyclical changes in publishing have kept a stream of very gifted authors within reach of the independent press. Liz Williams comes to mind, with her Snake Agent books from Night Shade. Combine that with the aggressive editorial stances of markets such as Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld, and you have a fertile field for credible publication in odd markets at subpro, or even non-existent, rates.

I still submit to those markets from time to time, and try to support them when asked. I remember where I came from, and you dance with who brung you. The independent press provides an incredibly rich environment for new writers to emerge, especially writers outside the mainstream white male aesthetic that classically dominates our field—for example; writers of color, gender-alternative, or experimental stylists. In some cases, all three.

BK: You're a prolific writer—often writing thousands of words a day, and yet you've got a full-time day job that regularly takes you on the road and you're the father of an active 11-year old. How do you manage it all?

JL: It's all about time management, pure and simple. I haven't watched television since 1994, haven't played computer games (or console videogames) since 2000. I rarely go to movies, don't go clubbing or to concerts. I have an active social life, with people whose company I treasure, but mostly I stay home and write.

It also helps that I am a very fast drafter. Some people do not consider this an especial virtue, but it's the reality of my process. Even as I've deliberately slowed down my pace to reach for richer quality, I'm still able to cover a lot of ground in relatively few hours a day. So combine a quiet life with speedy typing, and you have a recipe for being prolific inside of narrow time windows and considerable schedule demands.

BK: Your previous novels have given us the decadence of the City Imperishable (Trial of Flowers/ Madness of Flowers), and the wonderful weirdness of a clockwork world (Mainspring/ Escapement). How does it feel to move away from such iconic settings to a more straight fantasy milieu in your new novel, Green? Was it hard to write a novel without a plethora of dwarves, airships, and mechanical men?

JL: I probably shouldn't admit this, but the outline for Endurance, Green's sequel, does in fact include mechanical men. Well, mechanical apes, actually, but what's a good fantasy without some punchtape-driven clockwork apes?

More to your point, I love the changeup. It's part of why I like writing short fiction so much—there's an opportunity to stretch in new and different directions. My underlying sense of the strange-and-stranger hasn't deserted me, not in the slightest, but I definitely wanted to play in a different sandbox with Green. Believe me, it's just as much fun without the airships.

...well, almost as much fun.

BK: I understand that Green started off as a short story. How did it become a novel?

JL: By accident?

I wrote the story as a story. "Green" ran in Aeon magazine a few years back. I liked the piece, didn't think much more about it for a while. Eventually I decided to play some more in the city that lies at the heart of "Green"—Copper Downs. I wrote a few more stories, took one of them to the Rio Hondo workshop. A couple of writers with immensely more experience than I looked at "A Water Matter" (which ran last fall at and said, "Well, this feels like a piece of something larger." I mentioned this to my editor at Tor, Beth Meacham, who said, "write an outline."

One thing led to another and I wound up writing a book. The rest, as they say, is history.

BK: Can you give us a hint of what we'll see in Green?

JL: Fire! Ghosts! Ancient eldritch powers unbound!

Actually, like most novels, it's a story about a person in adversity. I used my daughter as the model for Green (the female protagonist), though very little of Green's experience is directly reflective of her life. She's taken at a very young age from the country of her birth, transported across a sea, and raised amidst another culture where she is trained to be both more and less than a courtesan.

This is character-driven fiction, stemming tightly from within Green herself, and as such, has me reaching deep into territory which has classically been a weakness of mine as a writer. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

BK: You changed your writing process with Green (the New Model Process, I believe you've called it). Why'd you change the way you work? Did your old process no longer work for you?

JL: The old process was working fine, if you measure my career by fiction sales. But I wanted to be better than I was. I still want that, to be better than I am. If I ever stop wanting that, stick a pin in me, I'm almost certainly dead. And the old process had slowly turned into a trap.

One of my early gifts as a writer was the ability to write clean copy on a first draft. Write, do a light line edit, send it out, and sell it. That's a terrific gift to have, but it doesn't foster nuanced, layered writing; nor does it encourage mastering the fine art of revision.

In other words, I wasn't going to get better than I was, except through the slow trickle of experience, because I didn't have control of my own process.

The New Model Process, which arose out of the same Rio Hondo workshop that Green did (not coincidentally), has been a rather painful effort to break down something which was working well for me, and start doing something different which, for a while, did not work so well for me. I focused quite self-consciously on elements of craft and style which had always flowed smoothly and unconsidered from my fingertips. That's a hell of a thing to do to yourself, akin to contemplating the physics of gyroscopic precession while riding a bicycle—but in time, it worked.

The result has proven itself out quite well, I believe. Time will tell, and reader reaction to Green.

BK: So how do you write? What's a typical writing day look like for you?

JL: Unsurprisingly, my short fiction process and my novel process are quite different from another.

For short fiction, I almost entirely use the "following the headlights" model. Generally when I begin a story I have no clue where it will come out. To me, a goodly portion of the fun of short fiction is that discovery process. It's like dumping a jigsaw puzzle on the table and throwing away the box. Sometimes I assemble the pieces upside down, and only learn later what was printed on the other side.

What that means as a practical matter is a relatively rapid discovery draft. I then set that in the drawer a while. (Well, in a hard drive directory, but metaphors are persistent little buggers.) It may or may not go out to readers then. I work on something else, hopefully unrelated and rather different in voice, style or tone. Then I come back to it, do a fairly close read and line edit to capture the story in my head. After that I go through it again to handle medium and large-scale issues—plot errors, continuity, foreshadowing and whatnot. Then I go through it again on an extremely fine detail level, looking at the word-by-word level for stylistic infelicities and other annoyances. Back out to readers. Feedback is considered and possibly incorporated, another close read, and out.

More often than not one or more steps of this process are omitted, for any number of reasons. Short deadline, different sense of myself and the story, external pressures. But that's the ideal and I largely stick to it.

Novels are another kettle of lutefisk. I've sold novels written by "following the headlights"—Rocket Science and Death of a Starshipbut those are quite short (65,000 and 49,000 words respectively), and in effect, I think my backbrain was using short story tools. Otherwise I have to have an outline, to grasp the shape and direction of the plot. There are far too many pieces to even a modest novel to simply wing it. Or if I did, my revision process would be much more complex than it already is.

So I write an outline, though actually it's a synopsis. This serves both a commercial purpose and a creative purpose. My agent and editor need to see the outline to reach agreement with each other and with me on the book. That's life in the world of publishing contracts, and I have come to like the process of working things through with them first. Creatively, it's my roadmap to the book. The actual text may deviate, sometimes substantially, from the outline, but will still be quite recognizable. The point here is unlike short stories, which for me are written almost entirely from the backbrain, novels are written with a very conscious direction. That first draft of a novel is also a rapid discovery draft. Once it is on the page, the process is very similar to the short story process described above. Which is to say, multiple revision passes for different purposes, time delays to allow the text to leave my head so I can re-approach it without embedded assumptions, and so forth.

BK: Your short fiction covers the gamut from horror to high fantasy to magical realism to science fiction. To date, though, your novels have mostly stuck to fantasy. Is there a reason for that?

JL: It's what the folks are buying from me. Rocket Science (Fairwood Press, 2005) was pure play Silver Age science fiction. So is Death of a Starship. Everything else I've sold has been (in my mind at least) fantasy, though Tor has marketed the Mainspring books as science fiction based on their heavily technological underpinnings. Fantasy tech, but tech all the same.

I've got an almost insanely ambitious space opera on the drawing boards, titled Sunspin. You'll get a taste of that universe when my novelette "To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Ourselves" comes out in The New Space Opera 2 later this year. High concept SF, blending New British Space Opera with 1970s era political drama, and a strong dash of generalized weirdness. But Endurance has come knocking first, and so I will play in fantasy a while longer before I get back to building starships.

BK: Last year you had your health scare with cancer—how has that affected you and your writing?

JL: Ask me that question in ten or fifteen years. I can't tell you now. I can tell you that I delivered Green on time, even through the cancer. I can tell you that Pinion (the third novel in the Mainspring series) has a character with an evil voice in his belly—gosh, what could that be? I can tell you that cancer appears in a lot of my fiction—but then, it always has. And I can tell you that my view of the world is profoundly different that it was before. More loving, more ruthless, more grateful, more ambitious.

What does it all mean? That's a question only time will sort out.

BK: Growing up, you moved around a lot—Africa, Asia, Europe. That's got to have a lot of influence in your writing as well.

JL: I'm convinced this is why I write science fiction and fantasy. My sense of place and setting was heavily imprinted by an incredible range of variety at a young age. None of it seemed exotic to me then—I lacked the context to make that judgment when I was younger. I eventually grew into the alien, and the alien grew into me.

At a purely practical level, when I want a landscape, I have direct visual and sense-memories of more landforms, biomes and climates than most people experience in a lifetime. I don't have to make it up—it all lurks at the point of recollection.

In a larger sense, my perception of culture and belonging is very skewed from the norm of my age cohorts here in the United States. Our genre is very much a literature of alienation, displacement and adaptation. That is my personal history, in a nutshell, the DNA of my worldview and the foundations of my personality.

The mystery would be if I did not write fantasy and science fiction.

BK: Are you planning on eventually writing full-time? Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten?

JL: Not me! Hah! Are you kidding? I'm a cancer survivor and one of my immediate family members has long-term health issues. Outside of the umbrella of employer-sponsored non-qualifying group health, I am uninsurable. If my royalty checks could keep me in Mercedes and beach houses (and wouldn't that be the day), I'd still have a day job, simply for the sake of benefits. Even if this country ever arrives at a slightly sane healthcare finance model that doesn't trap millions and exclude millions more, I rather like a steady base income stream, and the structure that comes with the job. On the other hand, I have an excellent writer job that engages and inspires me, and exhibits a distinct lack of soul-sucking. I like what I do, and who I do it for.

On the flip side, I'm not sure I'd write much more if I were full time. I'd read a lot more, make more bookstore and convention appearances, have a more aggressive nonfiction publishing schedule, all kinds of writing-related program activities. But really—I wrote over 600,000 words of first draft fiction last year. And that with a two-month break for cancer.

How much more could I write? How much more should I?

It's a nice problem to have, truly.

BK: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, and good luck with Green and at the Hugos.

JL: Thank you!

Copyright © 2009, Brent Kellmer. All Rights Reserved.

About Brent Kellmer

By day, I'm a technical writer and by night, I write the stuff that's really important to me -- articles, interviews, fiction. I've sold a couple of stories so far -- "Breaking Contact," which appeared in the September 2008 issue of Aoife's Kiss, and just recently (11/10/08), "Flight of the Gods," to Aberrant Dreams (no pub date yet). More soon, hopefully.

I used to be managing editor at IROSF, and then later news editor, but the day job got in the way so I had to bow out.


May 7, 05:33 by IROSF
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