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Archive for May, 2011

I mentioned in a previous post that I prefer to write for themed anthologies.  One of the pleasures of writing for an anthology is that the final product is more than the sum of its parts.  It’s like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird”.  Each story introduces another stanza, another perspective, another way of looking at the same thing.  

My story–“An Interrupted Sacrifice”–was recently published in Historical Lovecraft  by Innsmouth Free Press .  Get a copy!  You will not be sorry.  It’s an addictive tour through cultures, histories, geographies, and perspectives.  

There’s something unifying and haunting that emerges, reading the stories together – an assertion that there is really no place and no time into which Lovecraftian horror cannot insert a tentacle, so to speak.  

Some of the cultures are familiar – Vikings, Ancient Egyptians, etc, but others are a delight to discover, and, if you are anything like me, will feed your hunger for learning new things and researching them.  I very much enjoyed researching the Moche of Precolumbian Peru for my story, and now I’ve discovered some additional peoples and places to explore.

One of the editors, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, let us contributers know that of all the peoples featured in the book the one that she did not know about prior to editing the anthology was the Sami.  The Sami are new to me also, and so, it is my particular thrill to have the opportunity to get to know them and a fellow author better, by talking in more depth with the talented Mason Bundschuh whose story “Black Leaves” brings the Sami into the anthology.  

One of the great pleasures of being in an anthology is getting to know the other writers.  I had the opportunity to meet Mason through Innsmouth Free Press’ marvelous efforts to help its contributers network with each other. (Seriously, you want to write for them.  They do this better than any other press!  The next anthology call FYI is for Future Lovecraft .  See that gorgeous cover?  How can you resist submitting?)

Historical Lovecraft is equally a tour of writing styles, and Mason’s story has a striking cadence.  People of the world sang their stories long before they wrote them, and Mason’s story, “Black Leaves”, reminds us of that.  

And now, you can meet Mason as well, as I interview him…

Mason, what first sparked your interest in the Sami people, and in Old English / Old Finnish literature? 

I got into Anglo-Saxon poetry and Norse sagas when I was in college in England. And after reading every scrap of those works, I moved on to Welsh and the chaotic Irish myth-sagas. It was only a matter of time before I got my hands on the Kalevala. Actually, I’m surprised I didn’t read it much earlier through my interest in J.R.R. Tolkien—who remains to this day the preeminent Anglo-Saxon scholar.

My awareness of the Sami people were like ghosts on the edges of my studies. One catches glimpses of them in Norse poems, and in the Kalevala they are seen as inscrutable people, respected and somewhat feared. I even had some interesting conversations about the Sami with my Norwegian friends—but the Sami remained an alien and almost mythical people to any that would talk to me about them.

I was interested in getting my hands on some of the hero tales and legends of the Sami (as I had read through Norse, Germanic, Irish, Welsh and Finnish medieval texts) but to my surprise there was very little to be found anywhere.

That gap in history intrigued me. 

Tell me more about that gap.  Do we know why their literature is harder to find than that of other contemporary peoples?

Sadly, much of the early Sami lore and myth has been irrevocably lost. Their culture (and their nearly unbroken cultural continuity stretching back at least 8000 years!) has nearly been systematically wiped out by forced sterilization and resettlement (i.e. evictions). And that was just in the 20th century! I’ve been hunting for the fragments that might have escaped, but I might as well be looking for a copy of the Necronomicon.

Many of Lovecraft’s protagonists would be able to relate to the desire to track down the last remaining snippets of the legends and mythos of a lost culture.  The opening and frame of your story introduces a protagonist of that kind who has been deeply troubled by what he has discovered.  Lars is “fevered and hollowed out, like a man who had been stranded on a ship adrift” from his research, but in a departure from Lovecraft, we do not re-visit him beyond the initial reference.  What led you to make that choice?  

I initially wrote “Black Leaves” without any sort of preamble. It is written as if it were transcribed oral history, straight from the lips of the shaman or elder narrating it. (Like the Kalevala and the Eddas) The only problem is that my fictional narrator is too immersed in his culture and in the collective memory of his audience to be conscious of framing the story to outsiders.

He couldn’t just come out and say, “This is an ancient tale of the Sami people who have lived in the arctic region since time immemorial.” That is what an outsider would say.

When you get together with a bunch of friends and tell stories about the good old days, no one needs to preamble the setting and characters. You just assume that your audience already knows the cultural setting, etc.

The whole device of a “forgotten manuscript” only exists to frame the narrative in history. Without an outsider’s point of view to frame it, it could have been a story about any tribal people anywhere. And the outsider’s POV needed to be something alien—what more alien culture to the hunter-gatherer Sami than the journals of a 19th century modern and rational expeditionist?

And as to Lars not returning to cap the story, he is more of a footnote, already long-dead in the introduction. We’re telescoped through time, looking back on this bizarre manuscript that we don’t know whether to treat as some simple myth of a primitive people or burn as heretical.

Plus I felt the story had quite a final note of its own.

What inspired this particular story, beyond an interest in the Sami people?  Is there a Sami myth about trees that you are incorporating, or is this entirely your invention?

I’d been reading the Kalevala and the Eddas. As I mentioned, the Sami people were in the peripheral and I was intrigued, but couldn’t get my hands on anything written down.

Then I had a nightmare. The story is actually a dream. I don’t know if that sounds clichéd, but there it is. I totally forgot about this little fact when talking about the tale with Silvia and Paula [Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles, editors of Historical Lovecraft.]

And as far as nightmares go, it was a doozy. I remember waking up with a cloying sense of alien terror. I had enough presence of mind to grab the notebook by my bed and frantically write it all down. It really shook me. I had a hard time engaging in the real world the rest of the day.

Later that night I wrote the first draft of “Black Leaves” in a sort of bastardized Anglo-Saxon verse form. (Remember, I’d been reading Nordic and Finnish poetry like a madman.) Draft two, with only a few material changes, became the prose version printed in Historical Lovecraft, but the story is almost exactly the dream as I had it.

I suppose it still retains that odd dreamlike feeling to it. 

Dreamlike, indeed.  You mention moving from poetry to prose in your successive drafts.  I’ve tried that as well.  Is that something you do regularly?

I’ve done it a few times. Not because of any literary pretension… yet. (laughs)

I think it’s connected to the fact that I write everything out longhand.

Writing longhand feels different to me. I find that my words have a different flow than when I type them. This is very important to me during the initial expression of my ideas. So, as I sit there with a pen in my hand, sometimes the initial expression of a thing just feels like it ought to be poetic.

I’ve moved quite a few things from poetry to prose, and even several more from prose to poetry. And there is an advantage to doing so: Retelling your story with different sets of rules and tonal or rhythmic constraints helps you to really distill it until you have a story, with all its symbolism and structure, and the words, with all their rhythm and potency, refined and diamond hard.

Even discussions of craft can become poetic!  I could really hear that rhythm and tone coming through in the story.  It reminded me of Beowulf.   One line that particularly struck me was “Of the red water that is life to men, there was none left.”  Do you think consciously about sentence structure, word order, etc., as a way to convey the alien-ness of another culture?

Yes, definitely yes. Sentence structure and word order are very deliberate. The line you quoted from my story is a sort of kenning. An Anglo-Saxon poetic trick of using a creative metaphor such as “whale road” to mean “the sea”.

But more often than not, for me it is word choice that is king.

One super simple example is to consider the tone of a sentence using, say, more Latin or French based words as opposed to using more Germanic, or English, words.

One might say: “He ambulated across the foyer, like a somnambulist.”

Or: “He strode across the entryway like a sleepwalker.”

They both say roughly the same thing. But, ignoring the inherent strength in “strode” as opposed to the more passive “ambulated” (and the fact that the root Latin word “ambulator” occurs twice) which of these would fit better a Victorian or Regency Period mystery, and which might fit something set in Anglo-Saxon England?

You can build a lot of information about the world of your story right into the very language that you use to tell it.

Besides, whoever heard of someone “striding” like a sleepwalker? I make up crappy example sentences…

Another phrase that struck me is “our man” and “our woman” as the introduction to the characters other than the narrator.  Is this a typical epithet in Old Finnish poetry?  

That was my own device to have a sense of a shared clan memory. “Ours” and “us” create that collective history that is prevalent in many primitive clan-based or tribal cultures.

The narrator starts with “we”; but you’ll notice that by the end, as the group is whittled down, eventually there is only “me” and “I”.

And then there was one.

I think evoking that sense of collective history makes the losses even more horrific.  Where do you find yourself in terms of the macabre and horror in your writing? Do you write “horror”, or do elements of horror simply appear in your writing?  Where do you place yourself in the greater genre categorization-obsessed world of writing?

I don’t set out to write horror; those elements just creep in of their own accord. I have always been a little bit morbid and macabre—but I’ve never been into gore or splatter-anything.

The aspects of horror that you’ll most easily find in my writing are mood and atmosphere. So it’s not really all about monsters with me, it’s with the sense of fear and the unknown. Dread and foreboding are stronger emotions than mere shock.

What did Alfred Hitchcock say? “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

As to how I’d categorize my writing: I write fiction with a speculative bent and a certain flavor of the macabre. I’m equally at home with sci-fi, fantasy, and literary tropes. Throw in some mythopoeia or fairy-tales, and maybe an alternate-history thriller—shake, and serve.

Snobs on either side will dismiss that, saying, “Oh, he’s not hard science fiction,” or “How could he think he writes literary if he dares to dabble in *sniff* genre fiction?” But those are just the defenses of the effete. Writing will stand on its own merit, regardless of how unconventional the punctuation is, or whether it smells of genre, or has steam-powered airships.

We can talk genre until we are blue in the face, but genres are just ways for people to categorize something so it can be talked about as a generalization.

(Steps off soapbox and tidily puts it away)

Thinking about the world of writing, and how others navigate its wine dark seas, tell me a little about your favorite authors and how you might emulate them or fall short of them.

Oh, good question.

My earliest loves have been the most perennial.

The big three are: C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Tolkien – people don’t realize how grotesque and morbid these authors could be. I strive to have the scope of Tolkien, the chaotic inventiveness of Chesterton, and the sheer presence of Lewis.

Then follow the writers I discovered in my teens that have left an indelible mark on my writing style: Stephen King (his short stories are the benchmark for terror), Jorge Luis Borges (literary master of speculative fiction), Charles Beaumont (can you say Twilight Zone?), Dostoevsky (you want to talk creating a psychological mood, this is your guy), Tad Williams (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn captivated me as a kid), Asimov (action, adventure, mind-bending sci-fi!).

I could go on to talk about when I discovered Philip K. Dick, Bradbury and Tolstoy, but let’s stop here for now. (I have recently been getting into Gene Wolfe, FYI)

I’ve borrowed mercilessly from each of these writers’ styles. A little here, a little there. Mood, character, dialogue, narrative structure, action style, pace, word-choice, setting, tone… the list goes on.

I used to write pastiches when I’d discover a new writer with a striking voice. I deliberately tried to copy their style, just to figure it out. Now that was a great exercise. I’d totally recommend that to any writer. Copy someone’s style all you want, it’s still going to end up sounding like yourself.

It’s like when I sing. My night job is: rockstar. I’m the front man for the band Atlas Takes Aim www.atlastakesaim.com But when I was learning how to sing and play guitar, I copied all of my favorite bands. I wanted to sound just like them. But the reality always is: I sound like me.

Wow, I have to hear more about your experience as a singer for a rock band.  I can’t think there are many writers who’ve had that experience.  I would guess that trains you for poetry and rhythm.  Has it influenced your writing in any other ways?  

Music for me is and almost entirely emotional artistic expression. Everything is about the ‘feel’ of the sound; whereas philosophy and theology (both passions of mine) are almost entirely intellectual, or logical, expressions.

Writing is a heady mixture of the twain.

I want to get back to your reference to the exercise of deliberately copying another writer’s style to better understand it and hone your craft.  It brings up a great question about writing for a themed anthology that takes its inspiration from an author who’s well known for his style.  Will readers want or expect stories that sound Lovecraftian?  How has Lovecraft’s style influenced you, if at all? 
 
Well, Lovecraft has a very distinct style. It’s not a flawless style, for example, his dialogue is generally atrocious. Particularly when he affects a regional dialect.
 
But it’s his knack for building a heightened sense of insanity-inducing and alien terror that I have tried to work into my own writing.
 
I love best his stories where he never really describes the horrible thing—you just catch a glimpse, if that, but the utter impossibility of it remains indefinable. I like that.
 
What advice, as someone who provides professional critiques for manuscripts, would you give writers who are crafting a story that is inspired by another author’s works?

Get all your pastiche and fan-fic emulation out before you start submitting. Writing pastiches is a trick for absorbing another writers’ fascinating style. But it should remain in your drawer, or trunk, forever. Or self-pub. *poke, prod*
 
I understand that you are from Las Vegas which is a pretty different environmental space than the Sami’s near arctic forest.  Can you see trees from your window?  Have you always lived in Las Vegas?  How do you think your lived environment influenced this story, if at all?

Well, not to make you all jealous, but I’m currently sitting in a beautiful old plantation house on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. I’ve been out here on a working vacation for the past several months. Yeah, pity me, please.

I’m from Kauai, but I’ve been based out of Las Vegas for the past several years. Vegas has its pluses and minuses. Luckily I do have two trees in my Las Vegas backyard. (Ash, for those that care)

But it is Hawaii that really influences me. I love the mystery of trees as they move in winds I can’t feel. I love the clouds clinging to the spire-topped mountains on the other side of the valley. Anything could be up there. It’s unexplored territory. There’s a sense of wonder about Kauai that I carry with me.

I can totally picture the woods featured in my story “Black Leaves”. In fact, if you came out here to Hawaii I could take you right there, where it all happened in my mind. It’s a real place… sort of. 🙂

So, a working vacation?  Are you working on a writing project?  A novel?  What can readers expect next from you? 

I was actually doing music. But while I’ve been in Hawaii I wrote a lot. Not only did I finish the first draft of a WIP but I got to ghostwrite a 50k book. It took something like 50 hours. That was a crazy deadline! Haha!
I also was involved in the upcoming Raising a Soul Surfer book by Cherie Hamilton (a tie in to the movie: Soul Surfer). My dad was her cowriter and I got to do some developmental editing. Fun!

This has really been a pleasure.  Thank you for taking the time to tell me more about your inspirations and your process.

Readers:  don’t forget to check out http://www.masonbundschuh.com and to check out Historical Lovecraft at http://www.innsmouthfreepress.com/

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