A couple of years ago I was attending the World Fantasy Convention, and at such events, amidst streams of late-night alcohol springs, a person can chance to meet quite a number of interesting people. Why do you think I go to conventions?
At just such a party I encountered Nick Mamatas, discovered his first published novel, Move Under Ground, was Cthulhu meets Kerouac, and I was intrigued. From there, it’s obvious that he is a busy guy. Aside from two novels, he has also edited or co-edited Clarkesworld magazine and several anthologies. His book Starve Better is a collection of witty, pull-no-punches essays that aspiring writers would do well to read.
TH: What is The Story of Nick? Is it a novel? A Lovecraftian noir thriller?
NM: Imagine a Charles Bukowski novel without any of the drinking or sex. Mostly it’s that.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
NM: “Always.” Not really always. I wanted to live in outer space. I wanted to stay three years old forever and be an ice cream man. I wanted to get into movies, and I worked as a gaffer for a while, and a floor manager for a video production company. Finally, I wanted to work from home, and writers do that. I also liked the idea of getting checks in the mail, sometimes unexpectedly. But I certainly imagined being a writer a lot when I was a kid.
TH: How would you describe your body of work thus far?
NM: Formally, I’m very interested in point of view, and often play with unusual POVs: first-person plural, first-person omniscience, alternating POVs from the same person in different timelines, that sort of thing. Thematically, I’m interested in exploring the idea of freedom and its limits.
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?
NM: Is that how writers think? “Next sale”, “first bestseller”? The poor things! I want to write things, whether books or stories or articles or turns of phrase that people will talk about for a long time. Unfortunately, it requires a long time to know whether I’ve done it. My cousin told me yesterday that when she was in Penn Station in Manhattan, heading home to Long Island, she saw an Au Bon Pain cashier reading a hardcover copy of Move Under Ground, a book that is now just over eight years old. Alexandra mentioned that I was her cousin, and she got a free coffee out of it. So maybe I am succeeding.
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? What does that look like?
NM: I did write a first novel, but I lost it. I forgot its name, actually, but it was on the tip of my tongue even as I put my fingers to the keyboard to type the title. Anyway, it did help me realize that I could write 80,000 words in a row, which is funny, as I’ve not done that since. All my novels tend to be in the 50-70,000 word range.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
NM: Sometimes I amuse myself when I am writing X and realize that I can do X+1 in a paragraph. I like that. The most fun is finishing, and then quickly placing a piece with a publisher. Overnight or even several hour acceptances have happened a few times now, and it certainly beats waiting six months to a year.
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?
NM: Does anyone ever do this? Stephen King, who is one of the most popular writers of the past forty years, spent the last ten of them making financial and aesthetic decisions designed to get his stuff published in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and even Paris Review. He wanted the respect of the literary establishment, which he had never received. He still appears to be annoyed by old slights and old wounds.
There are also, of course, any number of acclaimed, serious writers who are continually frustrated by the small size of their audiences. Who thinks they’ve “made it”? I’ve never met anyone like that.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
NM: Nope. Sounds tedious. The only reason to attempt full-time writing is so to avoid the tyranny of bosses. Turning myself into a brand would eliminate my one boss by replacing her with 50,000 bosses, all of whom want more more more of the same. The goal of humanity is to escape slavery. We should get to work on achieving that.
TH: What are the most effective ways you have found to promote yourself?
NM: Truth be told, the big secret is just to get a publisher in a position to get one’s book in stores. If you have small publishers, like I do, you have to find the audience one at a time, with crazy ideas. Luckily, my books tend to be full of crazy ideas, so people talk about them. People like to read my blog and Twitter feed, but few people buy my books because of them.
TH: What are some of your craziest ideas for building an audience?
NM: I suppose the craziest idea is just being myself online, instead of working to build a brand. I will say that my interest in short fiction stems partially from the fact that building the audience for this or that story isn’t my problem—that’s the issue for the magazine or anthology publisher who runs my piece. I find publicity pretty boring, honestly. Did you ever buy a book based on a bookmark you were handed at a convention or conference?
That said, I did design a specialty cocktail at Worldcon for my new book Bullettime, but that was mostly just to take a part in the ChiZine Publications party. It was $70 worth of booze—it takes a lot of dough to make a drink taste just like cough syrup—and the CZP table at Worldcon didn’t even have enough copies of Bullettime to earn me $70 in royalties if they sold them all at the con, but it was still fun. Having fun and spending too much money; are those crazy ideas?
TH: Is it important for unpublished writers or new authors to attend events like the World Science Fiction and World Fantasy Conventions? Why or why not?
NM: Nope, if one doesn’t like cons one shouldn’t attend. Any advantage to con-going is contingent on enjoying the company. There are plenty of ways to meet agents and editors—most genre fandoms haven’t created a con circuit and those writers do fine, after all. I do like cons, I guess. I like going out to eat and having someone else make my bed, anyway. So I go.
If you do like cons, it’s easy to make friends and friends often share opportunities with one another. If you can stay away from the energy drains of fandom politics, daydreamers, schemers, and creepers, con-going can be a fruitful experience.
TH: Can you recall a moment when a two or more influences or inspirations came together and smacked you with a cool idea?
NM: That’s how I do all my work, actually. One is never enough. I just handed in a story for a Clark Ashton Smith-themed anthology, and when poking around the source material, saw a way to introduce Homer into the setting, so did so. Same with Bullettime—I wanted to do something about school shootings, but introduced Eris, the idea of the Ylem as a place beyond space-time, etc. When I have an idea for something, I always immediately seek out a second idea to add to it.
TH: Your book Starve Better has been said to shatter wannbe writers’ illusions. What illusions?
NM: Some of the basic homogeneous advice given out to a non-homogeneous population: write every day; show, don’t tell; writing short stories is good practice for writing novels, that sort of thing. Those pieces of advice are true for some writers, but not all. Ultimately, we can only know what works for one particular writer after it has worked! So, writers should keep that mind, rather than trying to force themselves into a particular round hole.
TH: What are ways that you have found to balance the necessities of paying the bills and writing things that you find most rewarding? Thoughts on commercialism vs. creativity?
NM: Definitely getting a day job, albeit a day job in publishing. Working full-time freelance was very difficult, primarily because cash flow is so unpredictable. Every month was a race for the rent, and often one was at a mercy of the mailroom. Did the check go out Friday morning or Friday afternoon. With a life on the edge, that makes all the difference. In freelancing, fast money often takes priority over good money, which over the long term can really grind a body down.
There is a problem with trying to write commercially—everyone does it. So, let’s say there are only 10,000 people who want to read some non-commercial fantasy novel. Well, we can probably find those 10,000, and there might only be two or three writers capable of writing good non-commercial fantasy. Now let’s say that there are one hundred thousand people who want to read commercial fantasy, and twenty very good commercial fantasists to choose from. They won’t split the audience evenly, so you’ll have a few winners and a fair number of losers. And those hundred thousand have plenty of other choices—video games, movies, etc.—from which they can get similar experiences. Of course, the upside potential is generally much higher with commercial work, but there are many substitute products to compete against.
So writers may as well write whatever they like.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
NM: Well, I have a new novel called Bullettime that’s been out for just under a month now. Next year I have two books coming out—a zombie novel called The Last Weekend, and a crime novel of sorts called Love is the Law. I’m also probably going to do a little gift book for Quirk’s _____ Every Man Should Know line. I did Insults Every Man Should Know for them two years ago, so they want another one on a different topic.
My agent keeps bugging me to do a YA novel, so I did just write two chapters of one and sent it on to her. If there’s interest, I suppose I might finish it.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
NM: When I moved back to California, I was asked to be a part of the SF in SF (Science Fiction in San Francisco) reading series. Two friends of mine came to hear me read, which was nice, and they brought along a friend of theirs. And then I married her. So there’s that.