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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: J.M. McDermott on Shared Worlds and “The Fathomless Abyss”

J.M. McDermott is the author of five novels and two short story collections, including Last Dragon, Never Knew Another, Women and Monsters, and Disintegration Visions.

SF Signal had the opportunity to talk with him about shared worlds and The Fathomless Abyss, a shared world anthology featuring stories from McDermott, Mike Resnick, Jay Lake, Cat Rambo, Mel Odom, Brad Torgersen and Philip Athans. In The Fathomless Abyss, a bottomless pit opens who-knows-when onto who-knows-where, just long enough for new people from a thousand different worlds and a million different times to fall in and join the fight for survival in a place where the slightest misstep means an everlasting fall into eternity. In this world, the laws of physics work against you, there’s no way out, and time means nothing…

CHARLES TAN: Hi Joe! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you get involved with The Fathomless Abyss series?

JM MCDERMOTT: Thanks for having me, Charles! Mr. Athans contacted me after he and Mel Odom had the idea. I don’t get to play a lot with creatures most of the time. My work, in general, involves humans. The thing that excited me was an opportunity to work with, and invent, some creatures. The project reminded me a lot of an anthology I tried to do (and failed to get any traction on, once upon a time) involving mazes. It reminds me a lot of what I enjoyed so much about working with the novel I wrote, as a result of frustrations about the failed anthology idea, which is not out yet. When I learned about the Abyss, I was immediately interested. It reminded me of my favorite part of Forgotten Realms, the Underdark. It reminded me of the Labyrinth. It reminded me of the space between worlds. It reminded me of my short story Dedalus and the Labyrinth, from Weird Tales. I thought about what I loved the most about those different projects, and what I felt was missing from my creative muscle. Like I said, it is the making of monsters and creatures and fantastical beasts.

CT: What are the challenges and rewards when it comes to writing in this shared-world setting?

JMM: I’m getting more used to playing with other people’s toys. I’m still not used to it. I’m always gun shy about writing something that I think someone else might want to write about. In the latest novella, I picked up on an idea from Cat Rambo’s short story, The Querulous Flute of Bone, and I still haven’t heard about what she thought about my interpretation of the idea of a collector as cult-like or perverted. It was hard to write those scenes, and I re-read her short story a lot to do it, because I knew I was bending her idea, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to do something new with it, or merely break what was good to her about the idea. It’s a new challenge.

CT: What’s the collaboration process like, whether it’s being a contributor to the series, or acting as editor to Philip Athans’ novella?

JMM: Writers are all stark individualists. I think the process will always be different for everyone. I gave feedback to Phil about his novella, but it was no more than I would do for anyone in a writing workshop or critique group. Honestly, the real joy of working with someone like Mr. Athans is that you won’t have to be intense editing his work. He knows what he’s doing. Working with experienced people is really the best way to do it. I may not be shaping his voice much, but it doesn’t need much shaping, anyway. All I’m doing is finding ways to make other people’s material a little more true to my interpretation of the Abyss. We all do that, together, and build the world like that, compromising and suggesting changes, and being open to compromise and changes.  I haven’t hit a wall of frustration, yet, but I think I don’t really think of the world as anything I control. I imagine it will be harder to deal with compromise when I feel more ownership of the world in a few years.

CT: In the past few years, you’ve had a plethora of experiences working with various publishers. How similar or different is it working with Athans & Associates Creative Consulting?

JMM: The one thing that really stands about working with Athans & Associates is speed. Most publishers can’t even get back to you via e-mail in a month. Everything moves slow. With this streamlined company, the process is also streamlined. When I turned my novella in, I didn’t wait six months for feedback. When it came time to work on covers, I got in touch with Mats Minhagan and talked with him, and within just a couple weeks we had a great mock-up ready. This is a nimble publisher, and capable of moving very quickly compared to others. I look forward to working with them in the future, in part because they seem to be working at a streamlined pace!

CT: Could you tell us more about your newly released novella?

JMM: First, I would strongly suggest reading Tales from the Fathomless Abyss first, because an important character in my short story, Valthusian, makes a strong appearance in my novella. It is not required reading, but it certainly helps, and the collection is (last I checked) only .99 cents while the novellas are starting to come out! But, the story isn’t really Valthusian’s story. The story is about a creature called Asheggler, who grows up during a particularly rough period of history in the smog-filled shanty town above Watershed. Her father tends chickens there, in their family hut. She and her mother sell the eggs below the smokeline. Poor Asheggler is incapable of accepting the way things are. Instead, she ends up trying to change things, and this is a very bad idea when life is so precarious for so many. I hope people enjoy her story, even if it is not a happy story.

Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology.

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