Tim Pratt Interview
by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Interview ISBN/ITEM#: timpratt05
Date: December 1, 2005 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: Here's the usual suspect...where did the Rangergirl story come from?
Tim Pratt: I was reading a lot about the old west, for no particular reason, other than for love of the subject matter. I thought it would be fun to play with those Western tropes. Initially, I wanted to write stories set in the world of the comic, just weird westerns (and I did one of those, "Bluebeard and the White Buffalo Woman"), but I eventually decided it would be more fun to make it more structurally complicated. That's where the extra layer of "reality" came in.
I moved to Santa Cruz in 2000, and fell in love with the place. For the first month that I lived there, I didn't have a day job, so I just explored -- the town, the hills, the beaches, the cafes. I got to thinking about how so many fantasy stories involve characters saving the world.
Saving "the world" always seemed too big and abstract for me -- I find it much more interesting to try to save one specific, small place you love. I've also always been bothered by the way we anthropomorphize natural phenomenon (having the North Wind walk around in human form, for example), and I wanted to comment on the human tendency to ascribe intentionality (either malevolent or divine) to the natural world. I also have a fascination with earthquakes and wildfires and mudslides, and the California spirit of rebuilding after disasters. All that got mixed up together, and out came Rangergirl. The book started as a short story, but when it hit about 15,000 words with no end in sight, I realized it should be a novel instead.
SFRevu: Who are you in the story? Did you put any friends in?
Tim: None of the characters in the book are based on me (though there are bits of me in all the characters, of course, even the villains). None of the characters are explicitly based on people I know, though some of Jonathan's experiences are borrowed from my friend D.'s life, with his blessing. And the Outlaw, of course, is just based on every two-dimensional melodramatic villain there ever was. Some reviewers have complained that the Outlaw is not a well-rounded character. To which I can only reply, "Well, *yeah*." That's the point. He's supposed to be a black-and-white old-school comic book villain. For more nuanced, sympathetic villains, I had Jane and Beej and Denis.
The cafe in the novel, Genius Loci, is very loosely based on Caffe Pergolesi in Santa Cruz, my favorite coffee shop in the town, where much of the first draft was written. Pergolesi lacks the murals of Genius Loci, but pretty closely matches the vibe. Stop in if you can and get a mocha chai. They're divine.
SFRevu: When folks like LeGuin and Bujold started writing they used "normalized" character genders, which means their main characters were male to attract a theoretically male readership. I happened to notice that your hero protagonist was female, though your name suggests the opposite. Are you doing the same thing? Is this a case of "narrative imperative"? Is it a genre thing?
Tim: There was nothing that conscious in my creation of the character. When I imagined scenes and scenarios with Marzi, she was female. That's all. I haven't delved too deeply into my underlying reasons for that, but I suspect that, because I was reared almost exclusively by strong women (mother, great-aunt, great-grandmother), I have an attraction to such characters.
If forced to theorize I could bullshit something about how, as Marzi was set in opposition to a force of destruction, it made sense to make her a female character, as women are more inherently creative/fertile/generative... but really it was just a natural outgrowth of the story.
SFRevu: Ok...here's another one. Who killed Tom Swift? Why don't rockets and spaceships have the appeal they used to? I mean, even a hard SF junkie like me finds that fantasy, preferably urban, has more draw. What gives?
Tim: One explanation I've heard is that the stuff of golden age SF has passed so thoroughly into the mainstream that it's stopped appealing to well-read SF fans. Rockets and robots and clones appear in mainstream entertainment all the time. While we in the field these days seem to be more interested in biotech, nanotech, AIs, cutting-edge physics, and the issue of a Singularity. In fifty years, much of that stuff will be old-hat, and contemporary readers will be into someone else. Nuts-and-bolts gee-whiz SF is retro now, and while retro can be cool, it's not cool in the same way cutting-edge stuff is.
I think reality also had an effect on all that Swiftian stuff. We sent probes to Mars, and there were no canals. We sent probes to Venus, and there were no dinosaurs. Our space shuttles explode and break apart in the atmosphere. People start to shrug and say "why bother?" when you talk to them about manned space travel. (It's not an attitude I agree with, but I can understand it.)
That said, there's some exciting stuff happening with the New Space Opera in the UK, and potentially with Mundane SF.
As for urban fantasy, well, I've always enjoyed the tension between the magical and the realistic, and my favorite mode is to work out human issues by literalizing metaphors. And I like monsters and gods and weird magic more than I like the tropes of hard SF. But it's just a personal thing.
SFRevu: If it's set in the middle of the desert, can we still call it urban fantasy? When does it become magical realism?
Tim: I prefer the term "contemporary fantasy" for just that reason. It doesn't have to be "urban" (and much of my fantasy isn't). But all such terminology is flawed in various ways. Fiction -- good fiction -- can be very difficult to pigeonhole. I only say I write "contemporary fantasy" to let people know that I don't usually write about elves, peasants, kings, etc.
I've always said "magical realism" is what they call contemporary fantasy written by a) people from central and south American countries and b) people who are known as mainstream literary authors (a la Toni Morrison's Beloved).
SFRevu: Reading your bibliography, which is distressingly well ordered and prolific, it appears that you burst full blown onto the scene in what, 2002?
Tim: My work's been appearing sporadically in the small press since 1999 (even earlier with poetry), but 2002 was the watershed year. My story "Annabelle's Alphabet" appeared in the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, my Nebula-nominated story "Little Gods" was published, and my first sale to Realms of Fantasy, for "The Witch's Bicycle", happened. I had several more stories appear in Realms of Fantasy in swift succession (that's since tapered off, since they bought most of my unsold stories, and I haven't written many new ones lately, what with working on novels). All that combined raised my visibility a lot. The Nebula nomination helped me sell my collection, which got some decent reviews, and helped me get an agent, sell my novel, etc. It was a good year. (Though this year has been even better.)
I look prolific, but... Keep in mind that most of the stories I've been selling for the past three years were written earlier. My backlog is now pretty much all sold, and I've just about run dry, short story wise. I only have a handful of stories in various stages of completion at the moment, though I expect to write several more after the new year, once I finish the draft of the current novel-in-progress.
SFRevu: What do you do at Locus?
Tim: I used to tell people I cleaned the gutters and carried boxes, but after four years there's a little more to it. I help write the news stories, edit interviews, write obituaries, and do some of the layout. I split my time about evenly between production and editorial (so if you've got a complaint about your subscription, I'm the wrong person to ask!).
SFRevu: How did you come to work at Locus? Is it fun?
Tim: I moved to Oakland in 2001 to be with my girlfriend (now wife) Heather Shaw, because we were sick of driving back and forth from Santa Cruz to Oakland to see one another. Plus, my job in Santa Cruz was ending (the company moved to Nevada), so it seemed like a good time for a change. I heard there was an opening at Locus, called them up, got an interview, and got hired straightaway. It turned out one of my Clarion instructors, Michaela Roessner, was old friends with my boss, so she vouched for me.
As for whether it's *fun*... I think it's the best day job I can imagine. I get to read SF and fantasy books early! I hear all the news, read all the reviews, and feel like I'm at the center of things. It's often quite a lot of *work*, of course, and if it were financially feasible I'd prefer to write fiction full-time instead. But barring that happy eventuality, my current situation is ideal. And my boss has been tremendously supportive (he introduced me to my agent, and has helped me in lots of other ways). I get time off for conventions and workshops. The schedule is somewhat flexible. What's not to like?
SFRevu: Does all that book learnin' and reviewing ever get in the way of your writing? I'd think you'd have the centipede's problem, but you seem to have avoided it. (if this question pulls you into a vortex of self-doubt...pertend I never asked it).
Tim: Reading fuels my writing. If I didn't read as much as I do, I would write much less. As for reviewing, I don't do much, only 8 or 10 books a year, and usually just horror books, because Locus doesn't have a regular horror reviewer and I hate to see a Caitlin Kiernan or Joe Lansdale novel go unreviewed. It takes up a trivial amount of time, really.
SFRevu: Since you're a reviewer, we assume you've long been a reader. What were some of those seminal book experiences, when did you write your first review...and why?
Tim: Important books -- the first volume of the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, which I found in the local library when I was 14 or so. It introduced me to Jonathan Carroll and Charles de Lint, among others, and they've been huge influences. In a way, I can trace my love of SF and Fantasy back to that book, and the early volumes of that series. The big Arbor House Treasury anthologies were great, too. My parents were big genre readers, though not involved in fandom per se, so we always had horror and westerns and fantasy novels in the house. It's hard to narrow it down. Reading Stephen King's Carrie at age eight probably did odd things to me, and I started reading his Dark Tower series in the 6th grade.
My desire to review is tied into my desire to call up all my friends and tell them when I've read a great book. (One reason I don't write nasty reviews.) I'm not a critic, and don't pretend to be. In my reviews, I try to tell people about books I liked, and articulate what I like about them.
SFRevu: Well, that's more than enough stuff...but fortunately, the web has room. I'd better ask you what you're up to next though, and when we might see another novel out of you...though I hope you don't forsake short stories.
Tim: Oh, always lots of things bubbling around in potentiae. The next concrete thing is a collection coming next summer from Night Shade Books, called Hart & Boot and Other Stories. (The title story, "Hart & Boot", is in the The Best American Short Stories: 2005). I've got a poetry collection, If There Were Wolves, coming out some time next year, too. I just sent a new novel to my agent, which I hope to be shopping around soon, and I'm a third of the way into the current novel-in-progress. After that's drafted, I'm taking a month or six weeks to just write stories. Should be fun.
SFRevu: Besides that, what are you on about? Is there anything that you'd like to be asked?
Tim: In lieu of telling you questions I'd like to be asked, I'll just give you the answers, with the questions omitted:
1. A club sandwich with avocado, on focaccia. Which maybe makes it not technically a club sandwich anyway, but I'm not a traditionalist.
2. Jewel Staite (the actress who played Kaylie on Firefly).
3. Astrology. Don't get me started.
4. Lately it's been World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
8. I'll have to think about that one and get back to you.