From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Deviations Above the Mean: Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is a fiction writer living in Oakland, California with his wife Heather Shaw (who is also a writer) and their son River. The quantity and consistent quality of his stories are awe-inspiring. He’s published fiction in Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s, and many many others. I’m mostly familiar with his work through the Escape Artists podcasts (Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle) where he has published more than a dozen stories. There has not been a single story published there written by him that I have not enjoyed.  In fact, his stories occupied three of the top ten spots in my Best of Podcastle list, including the #1 spot, and one of his stories made the top 10 for Best of Escape Pod as well. Check out his full bibliography and a sublist of these stories that are available for free to get a taste of his work.

It’s often interesting to hear the origins of particular stories. Can you tell us the origin of one of yours? For instance, “Captain Fantasy and the Secret Masters” (or another one, if you have another with a more entertaining origin story).

The origin of “Captain Fantasy” is both ridiculously complex AND pretty boring to recount, and that’s likely true of most of my stories. There’s not usually a clear, unambiguous seed to any story–usually a bunch of separate ideas float around in my head until they form a clump that has some shape and heft to it.  For instance. . . well, take my story “Troublesolving”.  I wrote that relatively recently, so its origins are pretty clear in my mind. First, I was reading about gangstalking, a particular form of paranoia where people believe they’re being stalked, harassed, and persecuted by large groups of strangers–essentially, everyone you encounter is a potential member of the conspiracy, and virtually any inconvenience or bad luck or accident that befalls you can be attributed to that conspiracy. So I thought, “What if someone really WAS being persecuted by a huge group of people, but didn’t believe it, because they aren’t paranoid?” That gave me the basis of my plot.

The heroine, Cameron, came about because after years of writing ass-kicking urban fantasy, I wanted to write a heroine who didn’t solve her problems through violence, just to stretch my brain a bit.

I’d also been reading about interior design as art, and discovered the existence of pink handguns, and thought it would be funny to have a time machine that was too small to transport a person, and was walking a lot in my old neighborhood in Oakland (where the story is set), and all that stuff went into the hopper–and out came a story. Basically I read a lot and listen a lot and anything remotely interesting goes into the compost heap in my brain to form soil for stories. (To butcher a metaphor.)

Many writers prefer to write either short stories or novels. You’ve been successful in both venues. Do you find one easier than the other?  More rewarding?

They both have advantages and disadvantages. When I’m working on a novel, I always know what I’m doing when I sit down to write: who the characters are, what I’m driving toward, what the world is like, etc. Even more so in my series work, where I’ve spent previous volumes with at least some of the characters, and know them really well. With a short story, I have to invent a whole new world and populate that world nearly every time I sit down (I tend to draft stories in one, two, or three sittings at most). Writing 100,000 words of a novel is a lot less exhausting than writing 100,000 words of short fiction, because of that greater necessity of invention when it comes to stories.

Of course, novels take weeks or months write, while stories take hours or days, so there’s a lot more instant gratification to a story. I like novels because there’s room to build in subplots that reflect or comment on or recomplicate the main plot, and because there’s room for weird little digressions or just exploring ideas because they’re interesting, while stories–even my own admittedly sometimes overstuffed stories–require more focus.

In five years, where would you like to be in your writing?

Writing whatever books I want and selling them for large quantities of money! My career took a hit during the publishing economic apocalypse, which hit just when my publishing contract ran out, alas. Lately I’m doing some work-for-hire books for extra money, and while they’re all fun projects and I enjoy the gigs, none of them are books I’m intensely passionate about–I hope one of the original proposals I have going the rounds clicks with an editor soon.

If you could give just one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Read a lot, and read outside your field as well as within it. It’ll keep you from reinventing the wheel and give you more material to write about.

You’re married to Heather Shaw, who is also a professionally published writer. I imagine this makes for an interesting dynamic. How has this affected your writing? Do you think your co-existence as writers launches you both to new creative heights?

It’s certainly easier than being married to a non-writer, because she understands that when I appear to be staring at the ceiling I’m actually working; because she likes going to conventions; because she’s good about giving me time to work; because we can talk art and craft and such. It’s good for us to have a passion in common. She’s amazingly supportive, and I hope I’m supportive of her work, too (you’d have to ask her for confirmation. . .).

What other creative outlets do you have besides writing prose?

Uh. . . precious few. I used to draw (badly) and play flute (really badly) and bass guitar (passably), but I gave all that up to focus on writing, where my true strengths lie. I used to write a lot of poetry, but I’ve done less of that in recent years, for whatever reason; probably because I realized I’d gotten as good as I was ever going to get as a poet, and it wasn’t good enough, while my fiction writing is still improving. I do enjoy cooking, though I’m just starting to learn how to do things more complex than cooking casseroles or grilling steaks.

Are you a gamer?  If so, what are your favorite games?

I’m a very casual console/computer gamer. I play World of Warcraft intensely for several weeks after a new expansion comes out and occasionally the rest of the time. (Though I did get an invitation this week to join the Beta test for the latest expansion, which is threatening to slaughter my productivity.) I play a little Left 4 Dead 2, a little Splinter Cell, a little Katamari Damacy. . .

As for non-video games, I like playing cards (particularly Oh, Hell) with certain friends, and the occasional game of Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit. (My days of playing Strip Risk are long behind me.)

What do you like to do when you’re not reading or writing?

Hang out with my wife, play with my son, take walks, cook, eat, play games, watch TV and movies, have sex, lay on beaches drinking rum and fruit juice. (That’s not necessarily in order of preference, though the first two usually take priority.) I’m basically a lazy hedonist. (If I didn’t enjoy writing, I wouldn’t do it.) Life is about maximizing your own enjoyment of life, insofar as you can do so without causing pain or discomfort to others. Call it ethical hedonism.

What’s your first memory?

Standing in the snow in West Virginia when I was maybe four or five. Assuming it’s a real memory. Memory is a fallible thing, easily influenced and altered.

What scares you more than anything else?

Like I’m going to answer THAT in an interview anyone can read online! Haven’t you ever read Clive Barker’s “Dread”? That kind of information can lead to disaster.

Imagine that you are the one with whom aliens make first contact.  What would you say?

Assuming they can actually understand me, which is a big assumption with aliens, probably something like, “We’re not as bad as we seem, really. Most of us mean well. We just have primate brains that evolved to be really, really bad at comprehending the long-term (or even middle-term) consequences of our actions.”

What was the last book you read?

The Escapement by KJ Parker, third in the Engineer Trilogy. Parker does fantasy-without-magic, basically historical novels set in imaginary places. Good stuff.

Your favorite book?

Impossible question! I could just about compile a short list of favorite AUTHORS, but narrowing it to one book is impossible as it changes depending on my mood. But I can mention books that influenced me profoundly and that I’ve read several times: Jonathan Carroll’s Outside the Dog Museum; Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them; Clive Barker’s Weaveworld; Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife; Stephen King’s It and The Stand; Peter Beagle’s Folk of the Air. . . and I’d better stop as I totally failed at your question.

Who is your favorite author?

Again you WOUND me! Two answers, all-time and current: the first novel I ever read was by Stephen King (Carrie, age eight), and I read every novel of his, even the minor ones, with varying degrees of pleasure. Other authors do various things better than King does, but no other writer has given me as much enjoyment over the years. My favorite writer at the moment is Irish crime writer Ken Bruen, especially his Jack Taylor series. That guy can stomp a mudhole in your heart.

What was the last movie you saw?

In a theater, Kick-Ass; at home, Temple Grandin.

What is your favorite movie?

You may have noticed I have a hard time nailing down favorites. But I like Wes Anderson movies a lot; The Royal Tenenbaums is probably my favorite of his.

Do you have any publications coming out soon that we should watch for?

The major thing is the ongoing serialization of my novel Broken Mirrors, fifth in my Marla Mason series. (Bantam Spectra published the first four, then dropped the series, but my fans wanted me to wrap things up a bit, so I’m self-publishing online, with a print version coming from a small press when it’s all done.) That’s been going up at the rate of one chapter per week since March, and should take 20-25 weeks overall. I also have an anthology I edited, Sympathy for the Devil, coming from Night Shade Books late this summer.

Can you tell us about your works in progress?

Mostly Broken Mirrors at the moment. It’s about halfway done. I just finished a short story called “Antiquities and Tangibles” that’s out on submission; with luck it will appear somewhere in the future.  After Broken Mirrors I have some work-for-hire stuff to do. Not sure what the next major personal project will be–depends on whether I sell a proposal!

Tim, thanks for taking the time for this interview.  I’ll be looking forward to your next story.  Good luck, and I’ll see you around.

David lives with his wife and three dogs in Minnesota, where he writes computer vision routines and fiction stories. When he’s not shortsightedly enabling our future robot overlords, he is writing about other worlds, none of which have yet involved robot dominance over humans (some subjects hit too close to home). He has fiction published or upcoming in PseudopodBrain HarvestBull Spec, and two anthologies by Northern Frights Publishing, to name a few.  He also co-edits Diabolical Plots, a repository of interviews, reviews, and editorials all centered around speculative fiction.