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[GUEST INTERVIEW] Professor Tom Greene on Racism, Hard Science, Vampire Literature, and Hard Lessons about Writing

Tom Greene sells to Analog, lectures on the vampire genre though the SFWA’s speakers bureau, and teaches English to college students. Professor Greene has a Bachelor’s in English, a Master’s in creative writing, and a Ph.D. in literature. “Zero Bar,” his Strange Horizon‘s story about racism and science, is very personal. “Every line of dialog that comes out of the character’s mouth [in the opening sequence] is a direct quote of something that has been said to me at one time or another. Growing up in Texas as a mixed white/Latino, it happened to me pretty often that people didn’t know what cultural assumptions they should make about me.”

In this interview with Carl Slaughter, Tom addresses how science fiction can explore racism, offers a cultural explanation for the popularity of vampire literature, and explains how he can write marketable hard science stories without any formal background in science. He also offers advice, based on 27 years of failure, to writers who are competing for his slot at Analog.

CARL SLAUGHTER: What happened between unpublished and Strange Horizons?

TOM GREENE: When does “unpublished” begin? Did I count as unpublished before I sent out my first story, when I was writing Land of Oz fanfic as a kid?

I guess I’ll start in late high school when I decided to try and have some kind of writing career. I was a stereotypical teenage SF nerd: Read X-Men, played D&D, mucked around on the Radio Shack computers at school. I had grown up on Bradbury, Asimov and Heinlein, but by high school I was venturing into Ellison, Silverberg and LeGuin.

I sent out my first short story manuscript around 1984 to one of the big digests, possibly Analog, and got my first rejection. After that I wrote scores of stories and a Tolkienesque fantasy novel. Took every writing workshop my university offered. Formed an extracurricular writing group. Read a gazillion books about how to write. Yet everything I wrote was rejected.

And then my story becomes even more stereotypical because, by the end of college I was completely in the grip of the Dunning-Kruger effect. When I moved to Massachusetts to do an MFA in creative writing, my writing was still very weak, very amateur. In some ways I think I was too unskilled to really benefit from my MFA writing workshops, which were operating at a higher level. But of course I wasn’t able to see that at the time. I wrote dozens more stories, sent them out, all rejected. Almost everybody I knew said my stories were good, and my non-fiction writing was successful both in school and professionally. But no magazine was interested in my fiction.

So I’d always intended to teach anyway, and a wise mentor suggested that I go ahead and get a Ph.D. to improve my academic job prospects. It is possible to teach with an MFA, but unless you already have extensive fiction publications you’ll have a hard time getting a full-time gig. During my Ph.D. work I continued writing SF stories and sent them out regularly. All rejected.

The change started when I moved to New York in 2001. My wife worked at a lot of different editing and publishing jobs in those years, including working as a slush reader for a literary magazine and a major literary agent. Her workday at these places consisted of slogging through vast piles of manuscripts, looking for anything good. Anything that was decent, anything professionally written, immediately stood out from the crowd because most of the stuff submitted to these places was just bad.

So this was the first big insight. From my perspective, it felt like my work was not getting a fair reading from the insider-gatekeepers of the hidebound publishing industry and their conspiracy of cronies. But from the slush reader’s perspective, my stories were all just more weak, amateurish pieces in a huge pile of equally weak, amateurish pieces.

This is one thing that I wish I could get across to my students who want to write, who have submitted stories and gotten rejections. Not getting published is not a problem. It’s a symptom. The problem may be that your stories aren’t good enough to be published. Sometimes things go unpublished for reasons that aren’t related to the quality of the writing. But if, like me, you’re consistently failing to break into the markets you want, it may be because the quality of the writing isn’t there yet.

But of course none of my students ever believe me, and I was just the same. I spent more than 20 years writing unpublishable stories while vigorously not listening to people who tried to tell me what was wrong.

So around 2006 I finally accepted that it was a problem with my writing and not the publishing industry, which made it possible for me to begin trying to figure out what the problem was. This is where was a big help. The revelation (that I’ve mentioned in other places) happened one day when I was critiquing another writer’s story. It wasn’t a bad story. The writing was competent and the central idea was interesting. But I didn’t really care about the character, and the character seemed to be doing things that didn’t make much difference, and I probably wouldn’t have read the story at all if I didn’t have to critique it.

Which, I realized, was exactly like all of my own stories.

So once that happened, I started working systematically on the problem of how to make a story more engaging. Within a couple of years, my stories started getting published.

CS: Your Strange Horizons story is about science in a racist context. What kind of feedback did you get from the editor?

TG : “Zero Bar” is about the implications of what will follow if/when parents of color have the option to give their children custom genes that make them look white. Julia Rios at Strange Horizons was very helpful and diplomatic. I got the impression the whole time that Julia and the other editors at SH really wanted to see my story succeed, and they made it clear from the outset that all the suggestions were optional and that I always had the final say.

Looking back at the specific comments now, I can see they were mostly about helping the story have a more genuine, nuanced, and effective portrayal of the characters’ emotions. So that’s consistent with the skill I have been trying to develop, and the thing that was causing my stories to fail in the first 27 years of trying: that my characters had complex emotions in my head, but I wasn’t getting that onto the page.

I’ve always felt pretty confident (whether I’m good at it or not, I won’t judge) with things like themes, language, symbolism, structure, and ideas. The feedback from SH suggested that the editors liked the ideas, the structure and the message of “Zero Bar.” The part the editors helped me most with–the part I’m still very much learning–is how to make the sfnal ideas fuel a compelling story about characters who do things that matter to the readers.

CS: Did any of “Zero Bar” come out personal experience?

TG : Basically every line of dialog that comes out of the manager’s mouth is a direct quote of something that has been said to me at one time or another, mostly by taxi drivers. Growing up in Texas as a mixed white/Latino, it happened to me pretty often that people didn’t know what cultural assumptions they should make about me. It’s something our society still struggles with, people who don’t fit cleanly into racial or ethnic categories. The way things are going, I expect more of it in the future, and I hope to explore it more in SF as well.

CS: Strange Horizons fundamentally altered your opening and closing scenes. How did you deal with this editorial decision?

TG : During graduate school I made extra money on the side by working as a technical writer, and this has had a couple of big benefits, I think, for my fiction writing. Mainly, professional writing got me used to the idea that at some point in the revision process, your work becomes collaborative. I usually don’t feel ego-invested in things I’ve written once they’re done. I just want to get any help that I can in making the piece the best possible version of itself in the time available.

So I was really glad to get concrete suggestions about the beginning and ending. I actually wrote several endings for Julia, some of them very different, and had a long email exchange about which one was best and why, so it was a great learning experience for me.

CS: Your bio includes a lot of literature, no science. How did you craft fiction that appeals to hard science markets like Analog?

TG : Growing up, I had always intended to become a scientist or science teacher. I kind of fell out of love with chemistry after that sodium hydroxide incident, but I really enjoy physics, computers, and electronics as well as history, art, psychology, music. Facts tend to stick in my brain, and like technical people I’m very easily entertained by information about how things work. My wife still makes fun of me for that day she walked in and found me totally engrossed in the TV documentary about aluminum refining.

Toward the end of high school I came very close to becoming a high school biology teacher. But at the last minute, I had second thoughts. I had been working as the bio lab assistant for half a year, and I literally had no feeling in my fingertips from handling so much formaldehyde. I decided that maybe the day-to-day work of a biology teacher would be less fun than the English thing.

It has worked out really well for me. Both my M.F.A. and Ph.D. programs required me to read widely, and all those years of dedicated study to the masterworks really gave me the ability to read literature with a range of understanding that I don’t think I would have gotten on my own. I know the conventional wisdom is that graduate school kills creativity, but for me the experience of leaving my little isolated shell in Texas and being exposed to all these monumental ideas and inspired techniques really expanded my understanding of what is possible in fiction.

As a reader of hard SF, I think the science part is a tonal thing, like in any other literary tradition. I don’t think it necessarily requires a lot of esoteric science knowledge to hit the right tone. SF authors are totally allowed to play fast and loose with empirical reality, but the conventions of the genre require that the changes be deliberate, and that they not appear to be the result of sloppiness or laziness on the part of the author.

I still read science for fun, and most of the writing I’m publishing recently is involved with implications of sociobiology. E. O. Wilson is my hero.

CS: What kind of feedback have you gotten from Analog?

TG : Analog runs my stories with very few changes, so the feedback is that the stories published there are already “pretty clean” in Trevor Quachri’s words.

I have an anecdote about one specific edit that Trevor suggested for “Another Man’s Treasure,” but it’s not safe for work.

CS: Care to give some advice to the competition, ie, other writers who haven’t broke into Analog?

TG : As somebody who also reads SF and who is always looking for a good story, I like to think of myself as a fan of other writers more than as competition. But I do have a list of things I wish I had known back in 1984.

  • A typical slush pile has a large number of decent stories and a good number of pretty good stories, all of which will probably be rejected. In order to stand out, I believe a story needs to be really striking and fresh, something that an editor will find irresistible.
  • You don’t need to know anybody in publishing. You don’t need any degrees or credentials. Editors are all looking for a good story to publish. If your story is good, they don’t care who you are.
  • I greatly underestimated the amount of time and work that it takes to finish a story. For 20 years I was sending out manuscripts that, today, I would consider about five percent on the way to being finished (if that).
  • New writers tend to fixate too much on language. I enjoy artful prose as much as the next reader, but if I can’t have a good story with my fancy language, then I’d rather just have the story.
  • A lot of my failed stories failed because I tried to make a story out of an idea that didn’t really have enough substance to support an engaging story. I think it’s important to cultivate the ability to judge when there isn’t enough story there, and then give it up if it turns out to be too thin. That one story I wrote about the anarchist sheep who rise up and overthrow the shepherd? No amount of revision was ever going to make that one fly.
  • I have become a huge fan of outlining (thank you, Jeannie Cavelos of Odyssey workshop). Outlining allows me to lay down the structure of the story in advance so that I can focus on the substance during drafting without it all falling apart. Separating these two operations has gotten me much more consistent results. I use the index card method outlined by Robert McKee in his book.
  • I never really got anything finished until I started writing every day. Even just an hour a day–it adds up.
  • I used to think that I didn’t have enough time to write. But when I started writing every day, that problem went away somehow.
  • In writing, everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. As I mentioned above, I always felt pretty confident with the idea part. My weakness is with character arcs and emotional engagement. Probably there are plenty of people out there who are naturally talented with engagement, but have problems with structure or language or whatever. The trick to improving is to listen to the people who tell you what they think is wrong with your stories, try to see a pattern, and figure out what skills you’re weak with. Then fix those.

CS: How’s the novel process going?

TG : Definitely not predictable. Things I thought would go quickly, like prep and outlining, took longer than I thought. But writing the 70,000 word draft only took about five very intense weeks. Then I had to spend four weeks revising just one key scene. It’s different every day.

CS: You’ve studied vampire literature in a cultural context. Explain why vampires are such a longstanding stable in horror literature.

TG : So I actually do a talk called “Why are Vampires Sexy?”, which is available through the SFWA speaker’s bureau, which is the long answer to this question. Here’s the short answer.

Mythologies (in the anthropological sense) cycle in and out of popularity in the cultures that create and sustain them. When a culture gets obsessive about a particular myth, then you can reverse-engineer the subtext of that myth–especially the ways that it changes over time–and figure out interesting things about the culture. So what is it about vampires that makes them an enduring myth in post-Victorian cultures?

The answer, I think, lies in the way that modern vampire myths arose at the same time as Victorian urbanization, industrialization, and the social upheavals that accompanied questions of gender and colonialism that were coming up then for the first time. Dracula represents everything that a manly, middle-class theater manager like Bram Stoker would be anxious about given the time and place in which he was living.

Then as you come forward in time, the changes in the portrayals of vampires continue to reflect the fears of the people making those stories. So, for example, Christopher Lee’s 1960s Dracula is raised from the grave by hippies or atheists. Lots of people have pointed out the connection between Anne Rice’s vampires and the prevalent 80s anxieties about AIDS and homophobia. Blade and Underworld express a lot of anxiety about race and race-mixing, while True Blood is about how American communities deal with influxes of new immigrants.

The thing that makes vampires such an appropriate vessel for holding these particular anxieties, though, is the vampire myth’s ability to change in its details (like what hurts vampires or how they reproduce) while maintaining that essential predatory relationship to humanity that makes them simultaneously frightening and attractive. There’s more, but it’ll have to wait for the monograph…

Carl Slaughter wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots. For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 countries on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) In college, Carl studied journalism, broadcasting, advertising, English, speech, and history. For several years, he was a stringer for the Associated Press. His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website. Carl subscribes to the Mike Resnick philosophy of fiction: It’s all about the characters. Check out Carl’s Diabolical Plots interviews, his Facebook photos with his students of all ages from around the world, and a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.

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