I first heard of Greg Van Eekhout on the podcast Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing. Turned out that by that time that he’d already been nominated for a Nebula award and had a couple of dozen short fiction sales in publications like Asimov’s and Year’s Best Fantasy. His first novel, Norse Code, is forthcoming next year from Bantam Dell.
He offers some valuable insights into what it takes to make the jump from amateur to pro, the things that separate the wannabes from the pros.
TH: What was your biggest personal hurdle in making the jump from unpublished writer to published author? How did you overcome it?
GVE: The hurdle was making myself write lots. Lots and lots, and then lots more. I had to stop approaching writing like a sometime hobby and give it the time and respect it deserves. I’m not a binge writer. I can’t wait for inspiration to strike. I know some very successful writers who are like that, but I’m not one of them. I have to write consistently, almost every day, and once I realized that, my output dramatically increased, and having stories to sell is what enabled me to get published.
TH: Was there a moment of epiphany when you realized what the great writers were doing? A moment when you grasped “it” (“it” being that ephemeral something that separates publishable writers from unpublishable ones)?
GVE: Great writers have distinct voices, brilliant skills that they use in the service of delivering a pleasurable reading experience, and they have something to say that’s worth saying. But what is “it” that they’re doing? I don’t know. I think you can learn to be publishable, but you can’t learn to be great. You can aim for greatness, but greatness is what happens when hard work intersects with brilliant talent. Writing is hard, so great writers leave me awe-struck.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
GVE: Yikes, doesn’t an arc usually describe a downward trajectory? I hope I’m still trending upward!
I started submitting stories when I was in college, mostly little splatterpunk horror stories that I’d send to small-press magazines. Typically, they’d accept my work and then I’d never hear from them again, nor would anybody else. I’m sure I killed at least half a dozen magazines that way. I started selling science fiction and fantasy shorts about seven or eight years ago at a modest but consistent rate of a few per year to so-called pro markets, zines, anthologies, and podcasts.
And this year I sold my first novel to Bantam Dell. It’ll be out sometime around summer 2009.
TH: So what can you tell us about your Bantam/Dell novel?
GVE: Norse Code takes place in Los Angeles and a bunch of locations from Norse mythology. You’ve got your Ragnarok, the end of the world. And you’ve got your Norse gods, most of whom know they’re going to die, but some of whom know they’re set to inherit a new, green world after everything else is destroyed. So, this latter group of gods gets tired of waiting around for Ragnarok and decides to be proactive and get the end of the world underway. That’s the situation that one of the minor Norse gods, Hermod, and his companions, a modern-day valkyrie and her Viking thug, find themselves in.
TH: What is The Story of Greg? Is it a novel? A short story A poem? A limerick?
GVE: It’s a very messy rough draft.
I’m actually a little uncomfortable with the idea of a real, human life being a story, because fiction tends to impose a structure and a shape on the lives of characters that I don’t see existing in real life. So, in that sense, fiction has a way of distorting the truth about what a human life is. At the same time, as a reader and a writer, I crave that structure, and I think portraying lives within fictional constraints has value. It’s another way of seeing things, of getting to some truths about human nature. I haven’t yet reconciled this distortion vs. truth dichotomy.
So, yeah, my story is a rough draft that could probably benefit from a critique workshop or two.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
GVE: I didn’t decide that I wanted to be a writer until high school. Before that, I entertained myself with a lot of proto-storytelling activities, usually involving a mix of drawing and writing: world-building, drawing maps, creating characters, writing up starship crew manifests. But I wasn’t thinking, “These are activities that will prepare me to be a writer.” I was just having fun.
Gradually, as I started to get positive feedback on creative writing assignments in school, I started to think a little more seriously about writing as a career. The turning point was somewhere in college when I realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to stop just thinking and talking about writing. I needed to write and submit stories. That’s when I realized that I didn’t want to be a writer, but that I *was* a writer.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
GVE: I have a pretty substantial collection of rejection letters, a lot of them for stories that I’m happy to let sit in the proverbial trunk. But as for novels, I sold the second book I wrote, so I guess I’m doing my learning out in public.
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?
GVE: I want to write for the business woman stuck in the middle coach seat of a 12-hour nonstop whose choices are to either escape by reading a potboiler or escape by trying to get sucked down the vacuum toilet. I would also like my books to be considered classics worth reading 6000 years from now. In the shorter term, if I come to be considered a reliable source of quality, intelligent entertainment, I’ll be very happy.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
GVE: Travel. Specifically, road trips. I love rolling through unfamiliar places where I’d never find myself other than for the fact that they exist between where I came from and where I’m going. Last year my girlfriend and I took a rather epic trip from Arizona, where we lived at the time, to Ohio, where I spent a week at a writers’ workshop while my girlfriend tooled around on her own, and then back to Arizona. I love soaking in geography and dilapidated buildings and especially weird roadside tourist attractions. Moving through those kinds of settings while feeling unstuck in time really gets the story-making parts of my brain working.
TH: Some people find that writers conferences and workshops can change one’s life as a writer and kick the butt into high gear. Was that your experience in Ohio?
GVE: Absolutely. Blue Heaven’s been extraordinarily valuable. I had doubts that I could ever finish Norse Code, much less get an agent and sell it. But my fellow worskhoppers not only gave me great feedback that helped me improve the book, they also gave me the encouragement I needed to keep hammering away. Also, they’re great role models. I thought I had strong work ethic, but after seeing how some of them approached work, I realized I needed to step up my game. And they’re just bunches of fun to hang out with.
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?
GVE: I know having a blog and doing interviews like this are promotion and marketing activities, but I don’t think I have a marketing bone in my body. I’m not against it. My mind just doesn’t work that way. I like writing about my life and work in my blog, and I’m always happy to mention publications and such. But whenever I start to approach things as deliberate marketing, I start to feel like I need to take an antihistamine.
On the other hand, up until now all my published work has been short fiction, and short stories don’t lend themselves as easily to promotion as books. So maybe my entire approach will change once my novel comes out.
TH: Have your 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? Do you recall how that felt?
GVE: No. Never. Not even close. Even if I publish 100 books and they’re best-sellers and they win awards and school kids are forced to write term papers about them, I won’t be satisfied. The great writers are *so* great, and even just the good writers I admire are very, very good. I don’t think in terms of making it. I think in terms of working, always trying to get better, and hoping to make incrementally more money with every book so that I can afford to spend my waking hours writing while keeping myself in beer and snacks.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
GVE: Nothing against writers who look at themselves that way, but if I wanted to think in terms of branded commodities, I’d have probably become a brand manager for Proctor and Gamble and enjoyed a respectable career. I’m definitely not Chips Ahoy. I’m a homemade plate of cookies.
TH: What kind of cookies?
GVE: What do you want? I’m willing to pander.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
GVE: Norse Code, my contemporary fantasy novel about Norse gods and the end of the world, comes out in summer ’09. I’m days away from finishing the first draft of a YA book about the survivors of Atlantis washing up on a weird beach town in central California. And then I’m planning to start work on a series of books about an alternative version of Los Angeles run by bone-eating sorcerers. The first volume is called The Osteomancer’s Son, based on my short story of the same name. If all goes according to plan, that should keep me busy for a few years, anyway.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
GVE: You know, the momentous moments never seem momentous as they’re happening. My first professional story sale was something I’d been looking forward to for a long time, and when it happened I was certainly happy and pleased, but it was kind of like, “Okay, cool! Now what?” Same thing with my first book sale. Not that these events don’t have enormous impact on my life. I guess I kind of look at my writing career as a bunch of amazing things spread out over long periods of time.