In accordance with what Jay Lake says below about his typical choice of attire, when we met he was wearing a shirt that looked like it was on fire. Definitely makes one stand out in a crowd of authors, particularly at World Con when authors are so thick on the ground. Since that time, I have put one of Jay Lake’s books in my two-foot tall stack of Books to be Read, and I hear comments on the Net and in Podosphere to the effect that, “This guy is pretty freakin’ good.” He made a splash when his work started appearing and has since been nominated for the Hugo multiple times and been awarded John W. Campbell Award.
But here’s a clue for all the wannabes out there about how tough this business is. (See also Jay’s comment below about psychotic persistence). With numerous books and short stories under his belt, he says he has a stack of about a hundred rejection letters from Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine. And he has yet to crack that market.
JL: Much like those magnificent men in their flying machines, I go up, tiddly up up; I go down, tiddly down down.
More specifically, I first knew I wanted to be a writer in my early teens. I just didn’t know what do about it.
I read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun when I was 20, and thought “You’re allowed to do *this* with the language?” I was hooked but still clueless.
At 26 I found my way into my first writers’ group. I wrote, critiqued and mailed out stories for eleven years before I sold the first at the age of 36, in 2001. That year I sold three stories, and turned 37. So figure a twenty year take-off roll, the last eleven with serious effort behind it.
Three years later, in 2004, I made the Hugo ballot and won the Campbell Award. In 2005 my first small press novel was released, and in 2007 my first trade press novel was released. My career arc looks meteoric to some outside observers, but that is the result of literally an adult lifetime of effort, and the patience to keep trying right into my middle age before succeeding.
TH: You bring up a good point about your “sudden” appearance on the spec-fic scene. Many people don’t consider that reaching any level of success in the field is the result of a long struggle with self and outside circumstances. What was it that drove you to persevere from the age of 20 to 36?
JL: Sheer psychotic persistence. Seriously. I wrote about it on my blog here:
This isn’t a career one pursues on a rational basis. This is a career one pursues for the sheer love of the thing. And it’s that sheer love which drove me.
TH: How many things did you have to write before you got to something publishable?
JL: I once worked it out as about 850,000 words before I started selling, and a 1,000,000 words before I started selling with any consistency.
Between, say, 1990 and 2003. By comparison, I wrote almost 650,000 words of first draft last year.
TH: What is The Story of Jay? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick?
JL: Long, long ago in a city far, far away, a humble lad of inconsequential beginnings made his way into the world, following the light and noise at the end of a warm, dark tunnel. Oh, hell, who am I kidding? The Story of Jay is still being written. You see installments of it in books and magazines and Web sites, on my blog, in the tracks of my existence, in my daughter’s life, in the marks I leave as I make my way through this world. But it still started long, long ago, in a warm, dark place. And it will hopefully end a long, long time from now, in another warm, dark place.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
JL: Sometime in my teen years. I used to write a lot of execrable poetry (no, you can’t see any of it). I loved words. I loved the creative spark in my head. So I’m not sure I ever didn’t know I wanted to be a writer, so much as I grew into it. Of course, I grew up without television, surrounded by books, so it was a natural enough choice. In other circumstances, I might have wanted to be an underwear model or something.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
JL: I’d like to be more widely read. In order to do that, I need to write more widely readable book. The as-yet-unrealized accomplishment would be the improvement of my craft to the point where I write books people can’t put down.
TH: What do you mean by “more widely readable book”? Mainstream bestseller?
JL: Oh, not exactly. Bestsellerdom is not to be sneezed at, but it’s an effect, not a cause of readability. I mean a book written with such grace, such tension, such craft, such attention to both fine-grained detail and broad-brushed plot, that it appeals to a whole spectrum of readers. A good example of this (not comparing myself!) is George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. He transcends the preferences of many different groups of readers to reach them all.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
JL: Art. Light. Music. Love. The shadow of the late afternoon sun on a half-rotten apple. The shimmering twist of someone else’s words. The deep, smoky amber of a certain woman’s eyes. The beauty of a book cover. A doll’s head, shorn of hair and buried in leaves, smiling vacantly into the autumn sky. In other words, everything inspires me. The key to inspiration is not in finding it — inspiration lies *everywhere*. The key is in opening yourself up to what is always before you.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
JL: Drafting. I love putting words to paper. I have grown to a certain enjoyment of the revision process, but that has been a grudging journey undertaken in mixed faith on my own part to which I have only recently acceded with any sense of joy. Someday I may understand revision well enough to change my answer, but for now, definitely drafting.
TH: What is the biggest impact the recent upheavals in the publishing business have had on your career?
JL: Well, I’m in the middle of a multibook contract right now, so the direct impact on my novel career has been pretty nominal so far. I wouldn’t have enjoyed negotiating a new contract this past November or December, I’m certain of it. Short fiction wise, I had two pieces stranded at Realms of Fantasy, one of my own under contract, and one co-authored with Shannon Page under consideration. That’s a bit frustrating, but not high-impact. Otherwise, so far I’ve been lucky enough to be largely an observer to current events.
TH: Would you care to speculate about how the publishing landscape may or may not have shifted when the catastrophes finally subside, in terms of media types, publishing practices, trends, etc.?
JL: Wow, if I was that smart, I’d be a publisher, and a damned good one. I can speak in the same obvious generalities as the next observer: that there will continue to be an inevitable shift away from media and business models which require capital investment to be locked up in backstock, warehousing and fulfillment. Pick your technology and business path, though — print-on-demand at the point of sale, publisher-to-consumer direct sales, Kindle style fulfillment, some other e-book channel, Web publishing, etc. Follow the money and it makes sense. But no one’s yet pinned down the public taste on this. Not by a long shot.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
JL: Loud shirts and socially marginal behavior. I’m exploring ways to make my wardrobe more eye-watering while enjoying myself even more exuberantly than before.
For serious, self-promotion is a difficult, tricky task in this business. We have an ethos among writers and fans that says it’s tacky to promote yourself. This is not fundamentally nonsensical. Success is rooted in the quality of the work after all. A strong enough book will prosper without auctorial self-promotion.
Many authors are content to leave it at that — stereotypically we are not an overly socialized bunch, and many of the factors which are selected for in successful writer behaviors (high tolerance for alone time, psychotic persistence, strong attention to the invisible voices in one’s own head) are not strongly correlated with social success. Quite a few of us simply aren’t interested in self-promotion, or feel able to do it.
I take a two-pronged approach. I have a brand, “Jay Lake.” Most people in the writing community never see me outside that loud, fast-talking, aloha shirt wearing persona. (You are unusual in that respect, given the context in which we know one another.) That Jay Lake is the real me, he’s just not the entire me. I enjoy being him, and have a great deal of fun at the project. Because I’m having fun, other people have fun.
Don’t mistake me. This was not some carefully calculated ploy or master plan for success. I’ve just been following my nose this whole time, doing what pleased me most. That it’s helped give me a public presence is a happy accident, and one I’m pleased to take advantage of.
The second prong is far more deliberate, and that is actually promoting my novels, and to some extent, my collections. This involves far more classical activities such as developing a personal mailing list of reviewers, bloggers, booksellers and other people I’d like to reach with advance copies; giving away advance and published copies on my blog, at conventions and elsewhere; doing bookstore appearances and library appearances where possible.
In truth, the best promotion for a writer is to write something so remarkable, so damned good, that people want to read it, and feel compelled to urge their friends to do the same. If the writing isn’t strong, and consistently available, all the rest of promotion is just a game.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
JL: Oh, I’ll never really believe that. A writer ise always very conscious of being able to fall off the ladder at any time. But I do remember the day when I felt like I was a real boy. Spring of 2004, about the time I landed on the Campbell and Hugo ballots, I received in the mail a stack of signature sheets for PostScripts issue one. There on the page where I was to sign my name, Ray Bradbury and Ed Gorman had already signed theirs. I was to send my stack on to Joyce Carol Oates. Eventually, Gene Wolfe would receive these same sheets. That was when I knew that in some real sense, the Eagle had landed. There will always be more milestones, new ambitions, breakthroughs, but that day was the first time when denying I was a pro felt like false modesty.
TH: As writers become authors, and authors move from complete obscurity to relative obscurity, to bestsellers, etc., we continually trade up to a different set of problems.
JL: That’s right. I call it “trading up to a better class of problems.” You never stop having issues and concerns, but often they don’t make a lot of sense to people outside your own professional cohort.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach? Do you write under any pseudonyms?
JL: Well, writing is a business. But the business happens before and after you actually write, not while you’re writing. Decisions about what to write are, in part, business decisions. Which is to say, writers who sit around waiting for the Muse to strike aren’t for the most part having careers. Writers who say, gee, I’d like to get some new short fiction into print, so I’d better write some more short fiction — they are having careers. Likewise when I discuss future novel projects with my editor and my agent. Anyone who follows my blog knows I have about half a dozen book projects on the cooker, waiting from the right time. For some of them, “the right time” involves being creatively ready. (Original Destiny, Manifest Sin and Black Tulip fall into this category.) For others, market demand is the driver for “the right time.” (Endurance, Sunspin, another Mainspring book.) The trick is to have projects to pick from which interest and fascinate me, so when I do need to meet market demand, I’m doing it in a way which pleases me most.
Most of the novel decisions are before the fact, as described above. Most of the short story decisions are after the fact — unless I’m writing to a fairly narrow invitation, I write whatever pleases me, then worry about where to market the work. This is a function of both the differing dynamics of short story and novel writing, as well as the relative levels of investment I as a writer must make in each type of project.
But *while* I am writing, it’s just me, the words, and the story. A happy little threesome. The business brackets that, surrounds it, provides a financial infrastructure. But I wrote for years before I had any financial reward from it, and I will write for years to come regardless of where my career goes financially and critically. The writing is for its own sake. The business is what I do with the output.
TH: Will there come a day when your stories want to be other genres, like westerns, or mysteries, for example?
JL: Back before I fell ill with cancer (April, 2008) I had begun the process of reading pretty widely in mystery, with an eye to trying my hand at a mystery series. Post-cancer, I’ve gotten interested in other things, including diplomatic thrillers and YA. So, erm, yes. But when…?
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
JL: My novel Green is out from Tor this June. Tourbillon (to be retitled) will be out in June of 2010 from Tor. After that, we’re discussing what comes next, but there’s a couple of exciting possibilities — either a sequel to Green, currently titled Endurance, or a space opera trilogy called Sunspin. Along with the usual panoply of short fiction, anchored by a very strong collection coming out in 2010 from Subterranean Press.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
JL: Well, probably the Ray Bradbury/Gene Wolfe moment. Though I do recall being at a convention shortly after Greetings From Lake Wu came out, and having a reader approach me and begin discussing a scene in one of the stories as if we’d only left off the conversation a few moments before. Which in a very real sense we had, as they’d been reading the story, and this engaged with me; with sufficient passion to seek me out and continue that engagement face-to-face. That was an interesting and worthwhile lesson in how readers react to writers, seen by me for the first time from writer’s side of the table.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
JL: If you’re a writer, write more. If you’re a reader (and all writers are readers), read more.