January 30, 2017

Good Angels, Better Beasts: an interview with Jerome Stueart, author of "The Angels of Our Better Beasts"

JEROME STUEART'S THE ANGELS OF OUR BETTER BEASTS - The Lemmings are really researching the Arctic biologists, the werewolves sing sweet Christian praise songs, and the signing gorilla just wants someone back in the cage for a minute or two. The Gryphon can fight your war for you, and there isn’t really a problem when the man you’ve been online dating turns out to be a bear, is there? No worries. Those old lions in the canyon aren’t up to something, are they? The doctors in the red coats just want to cure you of a terrible blood disease. Trust them. In the forest, the sasquatch has fallen in love with the cryptozoologist who follows him, while the god of the Brazos River courts the young, pretty Texas college students.


These fifteen illustrated stories of beasts—and the beasts we sometimes become—ask us how much influence we have over each other, to bring out our beast sides or our best sides . . . and how much control the beasts already have over us.  



So how did the ball get rolling for this collection?

I approached Brett and Sandra of ChiZine with a book proposal for the collection--all my short stories which had been published in magazines, and a brief outline of what stories I wanted to write for the collection, as well as a theme and possible audiences.  I may have gone overkill to sell it, but they liked it!  They also bought, at the same time, the rights to the novelization of my short story, "One Nation Under Gods."

When putting together a collection like this, how much of a balancing act is there in choosing which stories to include?

Well, I actually had just enough stories that could form a collection.  So they made up the bulk of it.  I wrote two others for the collection--longer stories.  I tried to sneak in a novella--but I just ran out of time, and my editor, Andrew Wilmot, told me it was probably better this way.  He thought a novella at the end of a collection might throw off the balance of stories. I agree. We did try to space out the flash fiction, the poetry on the edges, the comedic stories, give a feel to reading the collection through from start to finish.  It was a lot of fun for me to arrange the stories in patterns.      

How would you gauge your progression as a writer thus far?

I'm doing okay.  I'm proud of this collection.  I took a long time to publish, I think, because I didn't know if I was ready.  So I took writing workshops in college and learned a lot, and then took Clarion and learned a lot.   I feel late to publishing, but honestly, I'm not sure I had anything to say before now.  I took a lot of time to both find myself and explore different jobs and places--a summer on Long Island as a park ranger, ten years in the Yukon as a vaudevillian, living in a remote subarctic research station, or being a trolley conductor.  In some ways, I was doing the prep work for much of what I'm working on now.  

Your debut novel is also due to be published this year by Chizine. Is there much of a gear shift for you when it comes to story length?

My first novel is a travel novel--a journey across the US modeled on Huckleberry Finn.  It's going to feel episodic within a greater story arc, so that makes chapters into story lengths which is easier for me to think about, I think.  I tend to write long anyway---often coming in at just under 20,000 unless I have a preset wordcount cutoff.  And because it's a novel, I'm kinda letting my narrator just talk right now.... he's a talker.  So, I'm looser with the narrative and where the story could go than I would be in a short story.  I'm discovering where the novel wants to go---though I have a pretty good outline too.  I allow myself to write outside of the plotlines frequently if the narrative feels more important to go there.  

Compared to a novel, say, what do you consider to be the saving grace of the short story?

Tightness of focus and action--always keeping your attention on getting through the story--and leaving you with a clear understanding of that character at that time.  Also, a moment that lingers with you.  

You've also co-edited an anthology with Sandra Kasturi, so I'm guessing the relationship with her and ChiZine has been good so far?

Yeah, they are good people.  Brett first read my "One Nation Under Gods" story back in 2009 for Tesseracts 14.  He wrote the nicest emails, wanting it.  That kind of encouragement has just kept coming from them.  Sandra also teaches me about the business of being a writer, which is very helpful.  They've become great friends.  

Who do you count among your writing influences?  

I'm a hodgepodge of influences, I think.   I feel like the kid of Ray Bradbury + Madeleine L'Engle.  They both found a way to balance adventure, wonder, ideas and message together and they were both some of my earliest reading.  In my very religious household, I was raised on CS Lewis, Fairy Tales, the Bible and Star Trek.   As a kid, I also read  lots of mid-80s Comics, especially X-Men, Spider-man, Green Lantern, Flash, and Fantastic Four.  I read everything Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Piers Anthony wrote when I was a teen, too

And then I read some very different works:  in high school i was deeply affected by Tennyson's tragic, beautiful Idylls of the King--a whole different way of thinking about heroes, about King Arthur and Merlin and Lancelot than I'd grown up with.  In college, I read Catcher in the Rye.  Peter Straub's Shadowland.  Shakespeare. James Baldwin. Ernest Hemingway.  I liked the kinds of feeling these novels gave me when I read.  I think I've always been trying to make a reader feel something in my stories and novels.  

I loved Fitzgerald, John Irving and Alice Munro too.  Today, I'm in love with Kij Johnson and Ted Chiang and Kazuo Ishiguro.  

What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

I think, for me as a science fiction and fantasy writer, "write what you know" has always felt limiting.  I agree that one should always try to capture every experience, every "scar" as Stephen King says, to put in our fiction.  But I think if beginning writers meet up with "write what you know" they will feel boxed in to memoir, or fiction that resembles memoir (and hey, I like that stuff too! but...).  We have to use a lot more imagination--have to think about people living in space beyond what anyone knows, imagine things that have never happened.  I just think we should read that statement as "You can use everything you've experienced" and "write what you can imagine" maybe.   Those sound more encouraging. 

What kinds of stories resonate with you as a reader?

An everyperson that struggles forced into a situation where they don't know the rules.  I also like stories that make me feel something--a little sacrifice, a little difficult choice. People striving to improve their situation, even if they fail.  I like flawed human characters.  I have to feel that the author cared about the characters so that I can care too.  I'm also a sucker for stories with siblings, or families, with a dog, for mentors who do not die in the middle of novels and who guide our hero, and for puzzle stories.  I reread The Great Gatsby, Mariette in Ecstasy, Frankenstein, Watership Down.  Their characters really push to be something more in their worlds, and often they fail.  I don't know why, but that appeals to me--seeing how they push for more, or how they deal with failure.  That's inspiring.     

What other projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Well, I'm finishing up two longer stories.  One is about two sisters and their rival gods and the father the sisters fight over.  The other one I'm "cooking up" is about a chef on a starship promoted to diplomat to help negotiate reparations to a society Earth badly abused.  And the bigger project is, of course, the novel One Nation Under Gods due out in June of 2018.  Till then, I have a story coming out in the Spring in a collection from Lethe Press about a retired faun forced to teach jazz clarinet lessons to the boy who now unknowingly owns the faun's ancient powerful clarinet that can work wonders in the world. It's called "Postlude to the Afternoon of the Faun" and it will appear in Friends of Hyakinthos.  You can follow me on jeromestueart.com or on twitter @bearnabas.  If shenanigans happen--they will happen there.


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