At the Mass Book Signing at the World Fantasy Convention on the Eve of Halloween, I had the good fortune to share a table with James Van Pelt. He’s been selling short stories for 20 years, with nearly a hundred published to date, including appearances in Asimov’s, Analog, and Year’s Best Science Fiction, and being nominated for the Nebula in 2004. We discussed writing as a career and how even well-established authors experience bolts of fan-ness in the presence of so many other accomplished professionals. Jim maintains a teaching career as well, and the speculative fiction community can applaud him for treating science fiction and fantasy as literature, and teaching it in the classroom along with the established mainstream “canon.”
TH: You’ve been in the writing business for some time, with a number of milestones already behind you. Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
JVP: Although I thought of myself as an author pretty much my entire life (I remember checking which authors my book would be between in the library when I was a little kid–It was Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt), I didn’t really start writing seriously until my late 20s. I’d read that Stephen King did 1,000 words a day, so I thought I could do that. I started submitting stories to the magazines–this was in the early 80s–and collecting a lot of rejections. From 1988-1990 I took a two year sabbatical from teaching high school to get a masters degree in creative writing from the University of California at Davis. In 1989 I sold my first short story, and then I sold one or so a year until 1996 when I suddenly started selling a lot. I’ve sold nearly 100 short stories now. In 2002, my first collection came out: Strangers and Beggars. It was named as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association (although I didn’t write any of the stories with the young adult crowd in mind). My next collection came out in 2005. My first novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, appeared in 2006, and my third collection, The Radio Magician and Other Stories, debuted in September this year.
TH: What is The Story of Jim? Is it a novel? A short story? A sonnet?
JVP: Hmmm. I think I’m a surreal, episodic, coming-of-age novel. Hopefully I’m one of those fat fantasies that is forever producing sequels.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
JVP: As I mentioned, I thought of myself as a writer very early. I sent a poem to Scientific America when I was in elementary school. It was a poem about a volcano. The rejection, which came despite my not sending a SASE, was kind. I guess they didn’t see many submissions on Big Chief tablet paper. I identified with the idea of “author” pretty early. A story is a kind of performance. Despite loving my role as an audience member, I was the kind of person who wanted to be one of the performers.
TH: Every writer has things they would like to accomplish, e.g. first sale, next sale, first novel sale, first bestseller, etc. What accomplishment are you striving for right now?
JVP: I’d like to sell my current novel to a major publisher, but I think that’s a minor goal. For me all the goals are artistic/exploratory ones. I want to write a better story than I can now. There are writerly riffs I haven’t achieved yet. In many ways I’ve achieved every mid-way goal that I wanted. Heck, just the first sale was a major league achievement for me. My next biggie was a sale to Analog, a magazine I loved growing up. I thought I would never appear there.
TH: Do you have any writing stuck away somewhere that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless helped you build your skill to publishable?
JVP: Other writers hate me when I say this, but I pretty much have sold everything I’ve ever written. If I think a story is worthy, I’ll rework it and continue to market it until it finds a home.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
JVP: Life, of course. I mean, I feel like I wander around with a little kids’ eyes all the time. All sorts of stuff tickles me that most of the people around me don’t seem to be paying attention to. I’m constantly taking mental notes of the way moonlight looks through a dirty window, or the sound cars make in the distance, or how my fingers feel when they rub together. I want to write stories with the awareness of the real brought into them.
I’m also inspired by my students. Teaching high school means I’m in a cool human laboratory constantly. Story is going on all the time.
TH: Who do you most like to read?
JVP: I’m really fond of Connie Willis, although she doesn’t write fast enough for me (quality before quantity, though!). I read all of George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series this summer. When I’m renewing myself, though, I reread Ray Bradbury, Robert Holdstock, J.R.R. Tolkein, Edgar Allan Poe, and poetry by the buckets full.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
JVP: I think I like them all (although the process of putting together a novel proposal is pretty intimidating). I love the rush of rough drafting. I like getting stuck and worrying a problem for several days. Getting to the end of a draft feels cool, and I like going back to the beginning to make the whole manuscript shiny.
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 where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
JVP: I don’t think I have “made it,” and I would worry if I did. Thinking I made it would invite complacency. A friend of mine told me that writing was like animal scat. It only tells you where the animal has been, not where it is going. Scat tells you what the animal has consumed, but not what it is consuming now.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
JVP: Not particularly, but that’s because I write all over the place, and what I’ve written hasn’t been that identifiable in the sense that people are saying, “That’s a classic Van Pelt story.” At least not in the way you can identify a Bradbury or Ellison or Chiang story.
I like the way Connie Willis is handling her career. She writes what she wants. If she’s in a tragic stated of mind, she writes tragedy. But she can write comedy too.
TH: Are you comfortable with marketing yourself actively? Do you embrace it? Avoid it?
JVP: I’m comfortable with marketing. I tell folks that I have two hobbies: one is writing and the other is trying to sell the writing. They are both fun, but they engage different parts of my head.
TH: Why do you go to an event like the World Fantasy Convention or World Con?
JVP: Three reasons, really. The first is pure business. I find out what new projects are coming out that may be ones I’m qualified or interested in. Also, for business, is networking. I’ve had numerous writing opportunities come my way because of people I’ve met at conventions. The second reason is education. I learn about writing and the marketing end of the writer’s life by attending panels or in informal conversation with other professionals. And the third reason is for psychic renewal. When I leave a convention, I’m all on fire about my projects. The conventions are inspirational.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
JVP: I have a young adult (on purpose this time) set of novels I’m deep into. The first book is done, and I’m flying through the second.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
JVP: Most memorable good might be when I was at one of my first WorldCons after I’d made several sales to Analog and Asimov’s. I was rushing from a panel I’d been moderating for a bunch of educators on how to use science fiction in the classroom to a signing I was doing at the Analog/Asimov’s table, when I was stopped three times by fans who wanted me to sign for them. For a moment I was annoyed because I was late. Then I realized I was living my dream. My gosh!
I have a memory that isn’t really bad. Funny, I guess. I was at a signing in a bookstore when an elderly woman started talking to me about one of my stories. She went into great length about the plot and characters. When she was done, she asked me if that was the story I’d written. I smiled and said, “Yes.” She said, “I hated that one,” and walked off.
TH: Even though that woman hated your story, it obviously had an impact on her, enough so that she was still thinking about it. Do you know what the theme of a story is before you go in, or does it develop along with the story?
JVP: Themes develop as I go. It’s a part of that self discovery I mentioned earlier. I think if I went in with a theme in mind I would sound preachy.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
JVP: For me, writing is a way to discover what I think about. Writing well requires me digging more profoundly, more accurately into what I think. I say what I like best about writing is that it’s all a trip of self-discovery. For me, thank goodness I write or I might be one of those people who Socrates would say had an unexamined life that wasn’t worth living.
TH: When did you realize that writing was about self-discovery for you?
JVP: Pretty early on, when I was in college, I took a composition course based on Peter Elbow’s ideas in his book, Writing Without Teachers. It was eye opening for me to realize that writing is a way not only to explore what’s on my mind, but also to form my mind. What I write is just as revealing about what is important to me as dream therapy might be. Why did I write this story instead of another one? Why did my plot turn that direction instead of this one? The writing is a way to figure out for myself what is important to me. I know that sounds stupid (who doesn’t know what is important to them?), but the writing really focuses on what is critical.