In 2001, When Jack Skillingstead entered Stephen King’s “On Writing” competition, King selected Jack’s entry as one of five winners. In 2003 Asimov’s published Jack’s first professional sale. “Dead Worlds” was a finalist for the Sturgeon Award and was reprinted in two Year’s Best anthologies. Since then Jack has sold more than thirty stories to professional markets. Golden Gryphon Press issued a archival quality hardcover collection of his stories in 2009. Also in 2009 Fairwood Press published Harbinger, a science fiction novel. Both books were nominated for Locus Awards.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jack recently…
Kristin Centorcelli: Jack, your brand new novel, Life on the Preservation, will be out at the end of May! Will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Jack Skillingstead: Yes, May 28 is the pub date. Life on the Preservation is my third book (I’ve been publishing in professional markets since 2003), though it’s the first that will receive wide distribution. Of course, I’ve wanted to write since an early age. I remember thinking about it in a very conscious way when I was about twelve years old. It seemed like the only option, and it still seems that way. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be a writer — you know, the guy with his byline in a magazine or on the cover of a book. I wanted to be able to do it. Find the good stuff, if there was any, and present my unique vision. I thought it would take a long time, and it did. I was raised in a working class environment, and that sort of defined my prospects in the mundane world. While my siblings were taking out loans and working jobs to pay for college degrees I was exclusively focused on writing and reading. What made it harder was that, despite all my efforts, I was a terrible writer in those days. But there was a spark. I came very close to selling my early efforts. In retrospect, thank God I didn’t. It would have ruined me. I wasn’t ready.
KC: I have to ask…when you found out you’d sold Life On the Preservation, how did you celebrate?
JS: Well, it was kind of a drawn out process, so there wasn’t a single moment that I found out, exactly. Jon Oliver at Solaris Books had asked if I had a book. My stories had appeared in a couple of Solaris’ original anthologies. Only about a week before Jon’s email landed in computer I had finally finished a version of Life On the Preservation that I was willing to let go of. Since I was between agents I sent the book to Jon directly. About five months later he contacted me, very enthusiastic, wanting to publish. I guess that would be the moment I heard, and I was thrilled for sure, but it wasn’t immediately a done deal. By this time I had a new agent and the manuscript was tied up. It was another three months or so before I signed the contract with Solaris. To be honest, every time I sell something it seems like a miracle and cause for celebration, and I’ve been selling steadily for ten years. Imagine someone writing you a check for thousands of dollars in exchange for the words you ripped out of your own head? Amazing.
KC: Will you tell us a bit about the book, and what inspired you to write it?
JS: Life on The Preservation is based loosely on a short story I published in Asimov’s back in, I think, 2006. It was a fairly popular story and wound up in a couple of Year’s Best anthologies. The basic situation concerns a day after tomorrow post-apocalyptic future in which aliens have essentially scorched the entire planet while preserving the city of Seattle in an endless time loop that replays the day before disaster. The population of the city is ignorant of their fate, except for one guy, who sort of snaps out of the dream. A teenage girl survivor from outside the loop enters the city on a mission to destroy it (the Preservation is surmised to be a museum or zoo for alien tourists). She is beguiled by the Preservation illusion, eventually meets the awake guy, and falls in love. They must then decide how they will address the future. The short story version was pretty straightforward, but the simple premise didn’t work for me at novel length. After several attempts to make it work, I wisely surrendered to my unconscious and allowed the story unfold in it’s own way. The result is a starting situation roughly as described above — then we enter some very weird territory.
JS: It wasn’t the sort of book that demanded much research. I did need to describe an epigenetic virus. My wife, who has written extensively on related topics, pointed me in the right direction. And there was some aviation stuff, but I used to be a pilot, so I was able to use my own experience.
KC: Why SF, and why aliens?
JS: Every writer comes equipped with a custom set of filters. My filters have always caught anything even slightly related to science fiction, fantasy and horror. There is often a mainstream sensibility in my writing, but I wouldn’t be interested in laboring for months or years on a book that contained no fantastical element.
KC: When you write, are you a planner or do you just wing it? Will you tell us a bit about your writing process?
JS: I always try to plan but my plan always fails to hold my interest and I wind up winging it. After I’ve winged along to the end, whether it’s a thirty page short story or a hundred thousand word novel, I go back and attempt to discover the hidden plan that was there all along. This is by far the most difficult part of the process for me, because it requires hard thinking, a lot of structural re-writing, and a certain amount of despair. Sometimes you find out there was no hidden plan. In that case, you are sunk and have wasted a lot of time and effort. The best writing is all about trusting your unconscious to deliver.
KC: The new book is full of scary. What’s something that truly terrifies you?
JS: On a small, day-to-day scale, not much. Of course, I’m scared that editors will stop writing me checks. But what really troubles me are anxieties, not fears, exactly. My anxieties are free-floating and irrational. I might have anxiety about my daughter and what she will do after college, for instance. But your question is about fear. On a larger scale I have many fears, but they all coalesce into one. The fear that our lives are meaningless accidents, that our individuality is a chemical illusion, that everything I love will be swept away. Also, spiders.
KC: What are some of your biggest literary influences?
JS: I had literary influences when I was starting out, as do all writers, but eventually you realize that literary influences don’t count for much. The important influences are those that ruled over you and shaped your interior life in unforeseen and chaotic fashion. Most of these influences occur in childhood and early adolescence, before you are consciously aware of what’s happening. My working class environment, my family dynamic and various tragedies that occurred within that dynamic are what later shaped my writing. Along the way I was attracted to writers with strong voices and idiosyncratic styles, including Bradbury, Ellison, Wharton, De Maupassant, Moorcock, Vonnegut, the short stories of Chekhov and the short novels of Tolstoy (yes, he wrote short books, too), Irwin Shaw, Cheever, Wilhelm, Phil Dick, Dahl, Matheson, Nabokov and King. I know: strange bedfellows and mostly male. King, around the time of the Night Shift collection, was the last writer to have much influence over how I was trying to write. From that point I fought hard to not sound like anybody else.
KC: When you manage to grab some downtime, how do you like to spend it?
JS: I’m better if I have work that needs doing. Down time for me usually translates into a rapid and slovenly decline. Work is structure, and structure is salvation from a slothful nature. That said, it’s nice to walk, to travel, to spend time laughing it up with friends.
KC: What’s next for you?
JS: My agent and I are fiddling around with what is probably the final pass on a fantasy novel set in Las Vegas. Also, I’m about twenty-five thousand words into a science fiction thriller. At least, that’s what I think it is at this stage. I could be wrong. I know what my intent is, but my unconscious might have other ideas. If you’re dying to read something shorter, my novelette “Arlington” will appear in the next issue of Asimov’s.