SFFWRTCHT: An Interview With James Van Pelt
James Van Pelt is a Colorado based English teacher and speculative fiction writer who has written over 100 short stories, novels and has four collections of his short work. His fiction has appeared in publications including Analog, Asimov’s, Realms Of Fantasy, Weird Tales, numerous anthologies and several Year’s Best anthologies. He’s written nonfiction for Tangent and was a 1999 finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He’s received several Nebula and Stoker nominations for his stories. A father and husband, he can be found online via his website or his blog.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?
James Van Pelt: For science fiction, my dad had a big influence. He was an aeronautical engineer who love astronomy, space, rockets and science fiction. When I was little, we’d go to the drive-in to watch science fiction films that my mom didn’t want to see. We’d see all of them: junk, good stuff, it didn’t matter. He’d point out where the science was bad during the film. It was like being entertained and being in class at the same time. My interest in fantasy didn’t come until later, when I found a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring in the student center of Metro State College. I fell into that book and didn’t emerge for a week. Tolkien is responsible for my poor grades that quarter.
SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?
JVP: As you can see, Tolkien is a big influence, but before him it was all Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Silverberg, Le Guin and Zenna Henderson. I’ve gone through several copies of The Martian Chronicles, and I still get sniffly at the end of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. A book that really got to me, although the rest of this author’s work didn’t do much for me, was Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, a brilliant, perfect book. Nowadays I read Kelly Link, James Patrick Kelly, Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Ted Chiang and whoever else catches my eye. I’m always on the lookout for the next, great, big fat fantasy.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?
JVP: I’d decided in elementary school that I wanted to be a writer. I liked the idea of a book with my name on the spine. But I didn’t do much beyond poetry through college. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I really started working on prose fiction.
SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?
JVP: Like most writers, I started without any training at all. I just wanted to tell stories. However, I took creative writing classes at Metro State (my teacher was the science fiction short story writer, Vance Aandahl), and then I got serious about learning more so in 1988 I started a two-year sabbatical from my high school teaching job to do a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of California in Davis. I was a member of a writing group for ten years after that.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories, novels? How long before you made your first sale?
JVP: I started with poetry, as I said (I thought high school girls would want to make out with me if I was a poet–this is not the case, by the way), and then I did only short stories until 1990, when I was 36, when I started my first novel. It took me four years to write! I started submitting work to publishers in elementary school (I sent a poem to Scientific American), and then I’d send a story or two out every once in a while until I started grad school. At Davis, some of the grad students formed a publishing club. We’d meet once a week, and the ticket to the meeting was a manuscript in an envelope ready to go to a publisher.
I’d sold a poem to STAR*LINE, which was the magazine the Science Fiction Poetry Association sponsored before I went to grad school. They paid $2.00! My first short story sale was in 1989 to a little magazine called Aberations (that’s the correct spelling). From 1989 until 1995 or so, I sold a couple stories a year, and then things took off, and I started to sell at a much quicker rate. I don’t know what provoked the growth in sales. Many of the stories were ones that had been circulating for a while. Connie Willis told me that she thought I had hit “critical mass,” that point where the publishers had seen enough from me that I had grown on them.
SFFWRTCHT: You recently sold your 100th short story and your work has appeared in several Year’s Best anthologies, a Nebula Awards Showcase and outlets like Analog, Talebones and more. Your collection, Flying In The Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille, is out now from Fairwood. Tell us about the collection, how did that come about?
JVP: Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille is my 4th collection with Fairwood. The publisher likes my short work, so every couple of years he says, “It’s time for another collection,” and we do it. What’s interesting for me with this book is that it has more of my “adult” material in it. I teach high school, so I’ve been shy about including the non-high-school safe stories. For this book, though, I had a lot of those kind of stories to choose from.
SFFWRTCHT: Outliner or pantser?
JVP: I’ve never been able to outline. I have to write myself to the next decision to know how to make it.
SFFWRTCHT: Which comes first for you—character, plot, or setting?
JVP: It depends on the story. I’ve started pieces with each. If I have a typical way to start a story, generally a situation or concept comes to mind first, and then the characters, plot and setting arise to fit the idea. But that’s only a portion of the stories. I’ve started stories with only a title in mind (The Radio Magician), or because I like a song (Home in Realms of Fantasy, or Harvest in Alembical), or because I was sitting in a singles’ bar (Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille).
SFFWRTCHT: Although you’ve written novels, most of your work seems to be short stories. Is it your favorite form? Why?
JVP: I might have the writer’s equivalent of attention deficit disorder. I like to finish. With a short story, I can get to that heady rush of the last page more often than I can with a novel. That said, I have been doing more work on novel-length work lately, which has really slowed down my short story production.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about some of the tales here. I won’t ask you to pick favorite babies, but give us a taste of the variety. You’ve gotten several rave reviews already.
JVP: The title story, Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille, came from my boyhood fascination with WWI aviation, and the period of my life immediately after my first marriage ended in divorce. I had been doing a lot of thinking about love, failed love, and what felt like the combative nature of it all. The result was the mash up of a story about a philosophic WWI pilot and an unhappy guy in a single’s bar. The story isn’t really, properly either fantasy or science fiction. It can be read as a straight, literary piece, but for me I’ve always felt there was a supernatural connection between the characters.
Night Sweats started with an article I’d read about erotic ghosts, and that somehow intersected with thoughts I’d been having about the opening of the atomic age in Hiroshima.
Rockhouse is an homage to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe was the first author who I can remember actually recognizing as an “author.” His story, The Pit and the Pendulum was in our 4th or 5th grade lit book. I finished the story and immediately turned back to the beginning to see who the awesome person was who wrote this totally different kind of story (I don’t how in the world Poe ends up in elementary lit readers–he’s so not like the rest of the fairly bland work that shows up in those anthologies).
Working Pushout came from my experience as a night manager at a Burger King. Life in a fast food restaurant, particularly for the lower management lifers, looked particularly horrifying to me.
SFFWRTCHT: How were the stories in this collection chosen? by you or someone else?
JVP: I chose the stories. Plant Life was one that the publisher had wanted in my collections since the first one, but I’d resisted because of its adult nature. It made it into this collection. I’m hoping the more adult-themed image on the cover of the book will prevent any of my readers who might be expecting my more YA kind of story to not be surprised.
SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical short story take you to write?
JVP: Generally stories take a week or two, although I’ve spent months on some while also working on other projects. The short-shorts are often done in only one sitting. I was reading Sam Weller’s book of interviews with Ray Bradbury, where Bradbury says that most of this stories were done in a single sitting. I don’t have quite that kind of momentum. After I clear the 1,000 word mark for a session, by brain starts to feel drained. I have had days where I’ve written much more, but generally I don’t, so a 5,000-word long story is going to take at least five sessions.
SFFWRTCHT: Where do your ideas come from?
JVP: I talked a little about this earlier, but I’d say most of my story ideas come from being the habit of noticing story ideas. I know that sounds weird, but most people I talk to tell me that at one time or another they’ve had a good idea, but when they got around to doing something about the idea, they’d forgotten what it was. What I’ve done (and most of the story tellers I know do) is to not let the ideas come and go without doing something about them immediately. The other day, I was in front of my class when a cool first sentence came to me. I wrote in on the whiteboard because I had a dry erase marker in my hand, and I didn’t want to lose the sentence’s rhythm. It stayed on the board all day. None of the kids ever asked me about it!
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like—specific block? Write ‘til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?
JVP: After grad school, when I’d really committed myself to the idea of being a writer, I found that I was unhappy with my word production. I was only doing 30,000 to 40,000 words a year. That’s terrible! The problem was that I told myself I needed to do 1,000 words a day. A thousand words is easily doable if I’m on a roll. I can do it in an hour. The problem was that I hardly ever am on a roll. The thousand words might take two or three hours. If I looked at the writing time I had, and if it didn’t look like I had enough time to do the thousand words, I wouldn’t write at all. Hence, a low yearly total. Because I was unhappy with my output, I sat down with myself to figure a way to get back to happiness. I decided if I could double my output, that would be good. I did the math and realized I could get to a 70,000-word year if I wrote 200 words a day, but never missed a day. I haven’t missed a 200-word day since November of 1999.
Most of the time I write after school, either from 3:00 to 5:00, or in the evening from 9:00 until I’m tired. But 200 words is a small batch. It’s one good conversation, or one paragraph of description. I can do it during lunch or a staff meeting. I’ll fit it in wherever I can if I have to.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or does silence reign?
JVP: No writing rituals that I can think of. I write in Microsoft Word. Most of the time I have some music going, mostly movie soundtracks. I think I write best when I’m in a public space, like a bagel shop or library, where I can’t wander off to do some other household related activity. When I’m at home, I like writing on my netbook (an HP Mini 311) while sitting on the big recliner in the living room.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
JVP: The best advice I received was from George Scithers. He rejected one of my first stories, and on the rejection letter he wrote, “I hope while you were waiting to hear about this story, you were working on your next.”
I’ve heard a lot of ridiculous pieces of advice, like “study the market to see what is popular,” or “wait for the muse to fill you with inspiration,” or “outline carefully.”
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
JVP: I’m working on book two of a four-book series. I haven’t heard feedback on the first one from the publishing world yet, so this might be a silly effort on my part if I consider my writing time as purely an investment to make money, but I like the story I’m trying to tell. In the meantime, I’m always doing short stories. I have one coming out in the January Asimov’s, and hopefully others on the way from other venues.
I’m a year or two away from retiring from high school teaching (I’ve been on the job for 31 years). “Retirement” will be a chance to move into writing full time. I’m doing some planning for that.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, Ray Gun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing, Shattered Shields, a military fantasy anthology with coeditor Jennifer Brozek, and World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, all forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
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