Richard Parks lives in Mississippi with his wife and a varying number of cats. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in numerous anthologies including Year’s Best Fantasy and Fantasy: The Best of the Year. The first Yamada novel, To Break the Demon Gate, should be out from PS Publishing around November of this year, with Prime Books set to do the reprint in 2014.
Richard was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the new book, and much more!
Kristin Centorcelli: Will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Richard Parks: I’m from a very small and typical-for-its-time Southern town, with all the good and bad that implies. My parents were divorced when I was four and we didn’t have a lot of money, but I had a pretty good childhood, as such things go. Being part of a large extended family helped. I have two undergraduate degrees, both in technical fields (Polymer Science and Computing), so naturally I became a fantasist.
Frankly, while I was growing up it never occurred to me that I was going to be a writer. Where I came from, telling stories was just something everyone did, like breathing. I started writing stories down in High School, but even then I didn’t think about becoming a writer until I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I remember very clearly thinking, “If this is what storytelling is, then that’s what I want to do.” Not that I was influenced by Tolkien stylistically or that I ever tried to imitate him—I give myself credit for having more sense than that. What I’ve been trying to do since is cut my own path to the same well.
During summer break my sophomore year at college I discovered Fantastic Stories. This was back when it was being edited by Ted White. I came to it first as a reader, but then stumbled across something called an “address for submissions.” Which shows just how ignorant I was at the time. “You mean I can send in stories and they might publish them?” I had no idea how publishing worked, but I had stories. The early ones were pretty raw and I didn’t get anywhere, but then Fantastic Stories was combined with Amazing Stories and Elinor Mavor took over as editor. I sold my first ever professional story, “The Passing,” to her about a year later. It was thirteen years before I sold another one, which was more a lesson in patience than I thought I needed to learn. Fortunately Gardner Dozois at Asimov’s SF came along to break the drought, then I sold a third story to Scott Edelman at SF Age, and I was off and running. My wife found me in the kitchen literally jumping up and down, the acceptance letter in my hand. She thought I’d lost my mind.
RP: I’d done story series before Lord Yamada, but one difference was that when I wrote the first one (“Fox Tails,” Realms of Fantasy, 2005), I knew it was going to be a series. Usually that’s something I only figure out after the stories keep coming to me. I had originally envisioned Yamada as a sort of noir detective set in the Heian period, but by the second story that concept was already evolving to something a bit more nuanced and, I hope, realistic within its context. The Heian era is fascinating to me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that we know a great deal about some aspects of its society and very little about others, and exploring the reasons for that would be several books in itself. Plus, there was almost literally no distinction between the world of spirit and the physical world, which we in the West like to pretend are rigidly separate. The youkai hiding in the well or the fox-demon in the forest was every bit as real to the people of the time as the temple down the street, and they behaved accordingly. You place a character like Yamada into that worldview and the stories are just going to happen.
KC: You’ve been called a “versatile fantasist” and your stories run the gamut from fantasy and mythology, to ghosts and demons, SF, and even fairy tales (The Ogre’s Wife). Is it a challenge to wear so many hats in your writing, or does it come naturally to you?
RP: It’s just the way my brain is wired, and I’d have a very hard time writing any other way. Which in some regards is a problem. In terms of building a readership, it’s best to be known for writing one sort of thing reliably, so the readers who like that particular sort of thing have time to find you. In my own case reviewers and readers both have said, in essence, “I never know what to expect.” They usually mean it as a compliment, but there is a downside. I’m hoping that the Yamada stories will give my readers time to find me. I plan to be writing them for a while yet.
KC: What do you love most about writing fantasy?
RP: I love the freedom, by which I do not mean that fantasy stories are easier to write than, say, science fiction. I’ve done both, and writing a good story of any kind is never easy. I simply mean that I can pursue any subject that interests me, knowing all the while that whatever time I spend reading Japanese court poetry, Chinese “accounts of strange occurrences,” or whatever bright butterfly I’m chasing at the moment, cannot possibly be considered self-indulgent or a waste of time because odds are I’ll get a story out of it. Besides, myth-making and storytelling arose out of our need to make sense of the world on both the physical and the spiritual level, so fantasists are part of a conversation that humanity has been having with itself since the dawn of time. What’s not to love?
KC: Is there anything in particular that you’d like your readers to take away from the stories in Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter?
RP: First and foremost, I hope they have a good time. Anything else in a positive vein that they take away from the book is a bonus.
KC: What are some of your biggest influences when it comes to your writing?
RP: I’ve been lucky in that I’ve mostly managed to discover the writers that I needed to be reading when I needed to be reading them. I’d include Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Ursula Le Guin, Peter Beagle, Lloyd Alexander and John Bellairs in that list, and know I’m missing several. I’d also add Parke Godwin who, in addition to being a fabulous writer, was a mentor to me when I was trying to get a handle on writing for publication.
KC: I always love the feeling of discovering a book for the first time, that is so good that you want to shut the world out and get lost in the narrative. If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
RP: That’s a hard one, but rather than a single book I’d have to go with Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. Before Leiber, I didn’t even realize you could do that sort of thing with adventure fantasy. It was a revelation, no less than when I discovered LOTR.
KC: What book(s) are you reading now?
RP: A History of Japan to 1334 by George Sansom. Or rather, re-reading the section on the Nine Year’s War. This was one of the conflicts that in hindsight foretold the end of the Heian Period in Japan. The Emperor never kept a standing army, but rather depended on the loyalty of the military families, like the famous Taira (Heike) and Minamoto. It was only a matter of time before they all realized that they had the real power and didn’t have to do anything the Emperor’s government said if they didn’t want to. Which inevitably led to the rise of the samurai and military rule by the Shoguns, but that doesn’t happen until about a century after Yamada’s time. Even so, the handwriting was on the wall.
As for fiction, I’m one of those unfortunates who can’t read fiction while I’m writing it, so I’m reading non-fiction a good bit of the time, mostly history and mythology.
KC: When you’re not hard at work on your next book, how do you like to spend your free time?
RP: Lately I’ve taken up guitar, not letting the fact that I have no musical talent whatsoever stop me. Writing taught me that persistence will substitute for a horde of shortcomings.
KC: What’s next for you?
RP: The first Yamada novel, To Break the Demon Gate, should be out from PS Publishing around November of this year, with Prime set to do the reprint in 2014. Right now I’m working on the second Yamada novel, which is why I’m reading the Sansom book. The working title is The War God’s Son, but, like the future itself, that is subject to change. Somewhere in there I need to fit the sequel to Black Kath’s Daughter (a non-Yamada novel), and of course more short stories. I’m going to be busy.