Last week at the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver, I had the good fortune of meeting a whole herd of authors, all of them at various stages of their careers, from fledglings with a small handful of short story sales, to first-time novelists, and on up to long-time veterans. Ken Scholes is a first-time novelist, but an experienced short story author with sales going back several years. He was fortunate enough, or talented enough, perhaps both, to sell his first novel to Tor, and the editors at Tor were earnestly singing his praises for his imminent novel release. With so many editors so excited, this is sure to be a good story, and I, for one, am looking forward to checking it out. So without further introduction…
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
KS: Yes. I started pretty young — I was writing and submitting short stories in high school, attending writing camps and young author conferences. I laid it aside for a decade or so and came back to it in my late twenties. I sold my first short story to Talebones in 1999 after about seventy-five rejections were up on my wall. I sold maybe a dozen stories to various small press markets before winning the Writers of the Future in 2004…my first professional sale.
My second pro-level sale was a short story called “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise.” When it came out in Realms of Fantasy, the art work inspired me and I realized there was more to the story than I had realized. At the time, I thought I would do a series of short stories that stood alone while encompassing a larger story arch but a lot of people had been clamoring for me to write a novel.
Finally, in Fall 2006, my wife Jen and my best pal Jay (Lake) took me to dinner and taunted me into writing a novel by World Fantasy. I had seven weeks and I took the dare — I wrote Lamentation in about six and a half weeks, writing in every gap of time I could find in my life. In February 2007, Jennifer Jackson took me on as a client and in October 2007, Tor made us an offer on all five books of the Psalms of Isaak.
The first book comes out in February 2009 and the second, Canticle, comes out in October 2009. And just ahead of it all, Fairwood Press is releasing my first short story collection, Long Walks, Last Flights and Other Strange Journeys, in November of this year.
TH: A phenomenon that I’m seeing through doing these interviews is that the majority of professionals to whom I have spoken have a drive or an urge to write stories that goes back to childhood, but they often put it aside and come back to it later in life, perhaps around or after age 30. This appears to apply to you as well. Why do you think that is?
KS: I think many of us need time to build up some experience in life before we have much to say in our writing. Certainly, there are some folks out there below thirty who are writing brilliant, provocative, powerful fiction full of voice and experience but I suspect that most of us need time to grow into ourselves and our muses need material to work with. And of course, we’re still settling a lot of Big Questions in our twenties — and those things sometimes seem so much more important than writing fiction. What will I study? What will I do with what I study? Who will I spend my life with? Where will I live? And of course, for me, I had some extra questions to answer as I made sense of that shadow we talked about earlier. And writing became a great way to do that, so it was a fairly natural corner for me to turn in my late twenties.
TH: What is The Story of Ken? Is it a novel? A short story? An epic poem? A limerick?
KS: Oh, it would be a novel with some epic — maybe even some tragic — undertones. I grew up in a trailer in a smallish logging town near the Cascades in Washington. It was a fairly problematic childhood, being raised by a Mom with some fairly awful, untreated mental illness and an alcoholic stepfather among other things. Of course, those experiences — and how I’ve processed them as an adult — shaped me both as a person and a writer. But I started off with a smudged compass and it took some time for me to clean it off so I could figure out my own path in the world.
TH: You mentioned your mother’s mental illness in a panel at World Con as well, so it’s clear that the aftereffects of this shadow over your early life are still with you every day. How do you find that these experiences influence your fiction? Are there themes or situations that you find yourself revisiting?
KS: The aftereffects truly are still with me and some bits will be with me for the rest of my life. But I suspect it’s more central in my mind right now because I’m still processing and grieving her passing about eight months ago. And we only had a real diagnosis the last two or three years of her life, so I’m still a bit new to understanding exactly how much of the chaos and pain in my childhood was a product of her mental illnesses. And the way I write, any and all experiences influence my fiction. I dive deep into myself to find the characters and conflicts I write about. Some of the best advice I ever got was to write from my biography, so I swim down into those places and find story in the soup of it all. And then, when I hold the story I discover there up to the light, it often puts me in touch with what’s going on beneath the surface of Ken, revealing what my sub-brain is up to. Certainly, redemption is a popular theme in my fiction. So is courage and hope in the face of desolation and making the most of untenable situations.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
KS: I was dabbling in it in the first grade according to a report card I found in Mom’s things. Story was always my first hiding place as a kid, initially through television but eventually through books. I remember consciously wanting to be a writer around the age of thirteen or fourteen when I read Ray Bradbury’s essay “How to Keep and Feed a Muse.” I’d read a bunch of his short stories and when I put down his essay, I knew it’s what I had to be. So I started writing and submitting fairly soon after that.
TH: How do you keep and feed your Muse?
KS: My muse is a mullet-wearing, gap-toothed redneck named Leroy. So that gives it a bit of perspective. It’s hard to see it by looking at him, but Leroy loves poetry and lyrics so I feed him a steady supply of that. (I listen to music while writing, too.) My muse also likes essays and non-fiction along with regular shots of Story — short fiction, novels, movies, television.
As to the keeping, Leroy usually sticks close to me unless I grab hold of him too tightly. Then he’s likely to struggle and bolt. So in running my Story Factory, I try to be a good boss. If Leroy needs a day off then I give it to him. If he wants to stay late, I let him. If I abuse my muse, I’m likely to have a strike on my hands so I try to listen to him and give him enough space to do his work.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day. I’m talking about stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
KS: Well, I certainly have some short stories from earlier on that didn’t sell — I don’t submit those anymore. I think they were the best I could do at the time and part of that learning process we all go through. So certainly everything I wrote in high school and a good chunk of what I wrote my first year back to writing when I was in my late twenties. But I’ve sold most of the stories I’ve written from 1998 forward. There are probably twenty or so stories hiding out in my computer somewhere. I didn’t have that experience with novels — I was fortunate that the first one I wrote sold in fairly short order.
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?
KS: Well, if there is an unrealized accomplishment, I’m not mindful of it. I really just want to tell good stories that move people to think or feel and entertain them along the way. Of course, fame and fortune are lovely things to daydream about but those were never really on my “to-do” list. I suppose one goal would be to get to the place where I don’t have to work two jobs — it’s a new thought since until recently I only wrote short fiction and had no ambitions whatsoever of being a full time writer. We’ll just wait and see if that happens down the road.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
KS: Rain after a dry spell. Forests and oceans. Good Story. People. Music. Poetry. Mountains. Kindness. Mystery. The question “What if…?”
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
KS: Well, my least favorite part is revision. I don’t know if my most favorite part is the actual drafting or the sitting and thinking that leads to tying together the various threads of Story.
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 ?
KS: I think just writing and keeping my stories out there is the best thing I can do to promote myself. I also maintain a simple website and an occasional blog…and I make appearances at about five conventions per year. A lot of writers get caught up in marketing themselves and forget that the best way to really promote yourself as a writer is to write more, more, more and submit what you’ve written.
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? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
KS: Oh, I think there are different milestones I set along the way. First completed story. First submission. First rejection. First rejection with personal comments. First sale. First nice review. Becoming eligible for SFWA. Writing a novel. Selling a novel. I think each time we set a goal and achieve it, it builds our confidence and gives us something to celebrate along the way. And it does seem like the bigger the goal, the more the elation that comes with it. And the harder the work, I think, too.
But no, I do not think I’ve “made it” as an author or writer. I think I’ve sold some stories and some books — and had nice things said about them — but my skills are going to keep growing, and as I stretch and explore the new muscles I’m building, I’m sure I’ll hit more and bigger milestones along the way. Probably even some I’ve not thought before. I don’t journey necessarily to arrive. I just enjoy the trip.
TH: So you haven’t quite made the leap yet to full-time fiction writer. What’s your day job?
KS: I work in local government here in the Portland area, reviewing contracts and overseeing or consulting on procurement processes. I help the government buy stuff, basically. It’s somewhat dry work, but I chose it for that reason. I used to run nonprofit organizations and being an Executive Director just ate my creative brain space. This is much less taxing, especially not being at the managerial level. That first year I came on board, my writing career started gaining traction and my productivity went up.
Fortunately, even though it keeps me very busy, I like having the day job. Besides the pay and benefits, it lets me work with some great people. And they’ve all been really supportive of my “other” job. Many of my co-workers actually read my stuff.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
KS: Well, sorta. I do operate as a business and I think Ken Scholes writes a particular kind of story. Once I started treating writing like a business and distilled it down the cold equations of a Story Factory, with production, quality assurance, marketing, R&D, etc, it really did help me get more serious about the work. Most importantly, it taught me to invest my time and energy into it. Frankly, I think some writers put a lot of time and energy into self-promotion, branding and marketing and would see better a return on their investment if they put that time into writing and submitting their stories.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
KS: I just wrapped revisions to Canticle earlier this week (the second volume in the Psalms of Isaak.) It will be out in October 2009 about six months after Lamentation. I’m getting ready to jam out a few short stories while I outline Antiphon. And I’m needing to wrap Antiphon by the end of the calendar year so I’ve got just enough time, I think, to pull that off. Down the road, I hope to tackle some YA projects and certainly more books beyond the series I’m presently working on. Oh, and my first collection comes out in November from Fairwood Books — Long Walks, Last Flights and Other Strange Journeys. It brings together sixteen short stories and one novelette, including my Writers of the Future story and the story that inspired my series, The Psalms of Isaak.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
KS: Probably that “Are you sitting down?” phone call from my agent last October to let me know Tor’s offer. It was unexpected and their enthusiasm for the book and the series has actually fueled my inspiration and motivation. It was a pretty amazing feeling, and then I followed up on it with a trip to New York to visit the Tor offices and attend World Fantasy in Saratoga Springs. I felt a lot like Cinderella.
TH: Do you remember the first thing you did after that “Are you sitting down?” phone call?
KS: I phoned my wife. While sitting down. After that it was a blur of phone calls and emails.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
KS: I don’t think so. I invite readers and writers to look me up through my website, www.kenscholes.com. There are links there to some short stories along with a link to my blog.