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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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I’m delighted to announce that Volume 2 of Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine has launched today, and includes my story “Little Rattle Belly”.   Go read it, and the other stories and poems.

Each quarter this year, the magazine will feature another fairy tale.  The current issue is all variations on Rumpelstiltskin, and includes ten pieces.  There are short stories, poems, and an interesting non-fiction piece by Elizabeth Creith on the history of making linen from flax.  Next is Snow White (poetry only), then Cinderella, and then Little Red Riding Hood.

As I’ve mentioned before, I very much enjoy writing stories inspired by fairy tales and folklore.

For this story, I re-read the fairy tale several times, and tried to imagine how to write something new about it, that still felt authentic to the original.  I began to research ways to use straw — to turn it into something valuable, if not gold itself.  I chased a lot of dead ends until I ran across corn dollies.  Now, most folks forget that “corn” used to mean any type of grain.  I couldn’t believe how intricate the straw work could become, and how much folk history revolves around straw craft and harvest.

If you enjoy my short story about corn dollies and Rumpelstiltskin (and I’ll avoid saying much more about the story itself to avoid spoilers), go do a google image search on “corn dolly” and you’ll be able to see how marvelous they are.  Another good site if you are interested in researching the craft is The Guild of Straw Craftsmen.

Lastly, if you enjoy the Enchanted Conversation web-site, consider becoming a “google friend” of the site.  You need to be a follower (a google friend) in order to submit stories or poems for future issues, and it helps show Editor Kate Wolford how much appreciation there is for a venue for fairy tale variants.   For writers, note that the site pays 10 cents per word, so it is well worth checking out!

I’ve certainly found the site inspiring.  I’ve already written a Snow White poem, two Cinderella short stories, and one Little Red Riding Hood in eager anticipation of the upcoming deadlines!

I spent a long weekend at the Rainforest Writers Village.  I can’t say enough about what a positive experience it was to get away, socialize with other writers, and focus on writing.

I wrote seven new short stories.  About 18,500 words in total.

Everyone at the retreat was friendly and encouraging.  It was a real pleasure to get to spend more time with folks on the same path.  I’m in awe of the talent, and honored to get to spend time with such an interesting, inspiring group.

I read one of my short stories to a group of writers, for the first time.  I read one that I wrote this weekend.  Of note, my first public reading of a short story is coming up this week on March 17th, so that’s another big milestone.

Finally, I learned this weekend that my story, “Little Rattle Belly”, is going to be published by Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine.  This is an incredible thrill for me.  I love this story, and a market dedicated to fairy tale variants is very exciting to me.  I believe the story will be available on-line on March 20.  I can’t wait for folks to have the opportunity to read it.  All the stories for this quarter will be variations on Rumplestiltskin. 

All in all, I could not be happier!  🙂

Fairy tales and folklore

A lot of the stories that I write are inspired by fairy tales and folklore.  Why is that? 

I believe that old stories, folklore, mythology, superstitions, etc. have something profound to say about the human condition — about what we believe, what we fear, and the stories that were so important that they were told over and over.   I think some of my favorite poems and short stories that I have read riff from fairy tales and other folklore, and I would be thrilled to ever write something as moving and beautiful as “Glass, Blood, and Ash” or “A Delicate Architecture” by Catherynne M. Valente, and all the stories in the wonderful fairy tale anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling like Snow White, Blood Red and Black Thorn, White Rose.  These were my treasures when I occasionally wrote poetry, but had never tried to write short fiction.

The first short fiction story that I wrote and published was The Frog Princess (published in Crossed Genres), which began as a poem and evolved into a short story.  It’s on-line so you can read it here.

Of my stories that are going to be published in the next year, 3 more have fairy tale inspirations, including The Faithful Tin-Glazed Terracotta Soldier” in Full Armor magazine (March 2011); “The Aesthetic Engine” in the Growing Dread:  Biopunk Visions anthology from Timid Pirate Publishing (May 2011); and “Mr. Worthy’s Waltz” in the Steam Works anthology from Hydra Publications (May 2011). 

So those four pieces above include inspirations from the frog princess, the steadfast tin soldier, snow white, and cinderella.

I also currently have pieces out for review that are inspired by rumpelstiltskin, rapunzel, sleeping beauty, a baba yaga tale (Vasilissa the Beautiful), alice in wonderland, hansel and gretel, and the princess and the pea. 

And, today, I’m realizing that I write from fairy tales because they are honest.  They’re dark.  Brutal at times.  Life is like that.  Not like the Disney versions (which I enjoy too, but for different reasons). 

They teach us to be good and cautious, which are useful lessons. 

They teach us to respect dark places, to acknowledge their temptations and choose wisely, pack breadcrumbs to find our way back, or choose to lose ourselves entirely in dark woods, but knowingly and not through innocent ignorance of what waits in shadows.  

I’m generally a pretty optimistic person but I’m trying to make sense of some things that are not happy news, and the truth is, you get what you get. 

Remember to make friends along the way; they will always help you face the worst things and suprise you with their gifts if you are kind first with no expectation but the joy of being kind to others, and welcome companions to walk beside you on the twisted path. 

Be brave. 

Be clever. 

Be beautiful, remembering that fairy tale beauty is not always visible on the outer surface, but becomes visible in the presence of love.

Write with a pen fashioned from glass and thorns, and inked with blood.  Or type with gloves made from the same brutal beautiful things.

Wendy Wagner has a great post of advice for new writers, where she discusses a very logical process for selecting markets to send your publications.  It made me reflect on my own process, which is less logical and professional than her advice.  So, new writers, don’t take this as advice.  Take this as a window into my own process only.

First, I must admit that I very much enjoy writing to a specific topic.  For that reason, I like anthologies and magazines with theme issues.  I find it inspiring to have a topic and a deadline.  I like topics that are going to require me to do some research — for example, regarding a particular time period, culture, science, or mythology.  I like topics that are very specific.  I’ve thought about why this is, and I think it’s because much of my formal training as a writer was as a poet, and I enjoyed writing to forms rather than free verse.  Specificity is a constraint.  Making something beautiful within a constraint, in my experience, leads me away from my most cliched thoughts and into something new. 

Beyond that, I have a number of other factors.

I adore print.  I’m still new enough as a writer that receiving a hard copy book or magazine with my name in it is a thrill beyond description.  I want to touch it, and put it on my bookshelf.  I like to be able to show it to my friends.  Look!  That’s me!  You can show your friends an online credit, but it doesn’t have the same tangibility to me. 

I am a sucker for an enticing cover.  Cthulhurotica became my number one priority market when I saw the cover.  It’s a proxy for me for the quality of the end product, and, again, a source of inspiration.  The same is true for Historical Lovecraft.  Of course, these were both also excellent examples of very specific and inspiring themes.

I like to be able to submit electronically.  Probably just lazy here, but I work full-time and have multiple hobbies, so my time for writing-related activities is pretty limited.  Electronic submission is delightfully efficient.

It really helps if your market is on Duotrope.  I like to use their online tracking tools.  It’s my dashboard.

I do want to get paid, but primarily because it tells me something about the competitiveness and professionalism of the market.  I will submit to a token market if the theme inspires me.  Most of my submissions are to semipro and pro markets.  I’d really like one SFWA qualifying sale at some point.  But, I’m probably less motivated by pro vs. semipro than folks who don’t have a full-time job that pays the bills.

If I’ve met the editors through twitter and other contexts, I am definitely more likely to submit.  The primary reason is that I get a lot of pleasure from networking with other writers and editors.  I have found that some markets put a lot of terrific energy into connecting their writers – with opportunities to introduce yourself to each other, and be part of an on-going e-mail or google group, for example.  That’s a real value for me.

I think that’s it. 

What inspires you?

With the happy news that “An Interrupted Sacrifice” is going to be in Historical Lovecraft, I now have two stories to be published in 2011 anthologies which feature the Moche civilization of Pre-Columbian Peru.  The other publication is “Vessles of Clay, Flesh, and Stars” in In Situ.

I’m trying to reconstruct in my mind how I discovered this culture.  It was definitely the fruit of web searching for an ancient culture that regularly depicted tentacles in their mythic art.  Once I found the Moche, though, there was so much more to absorb and enjoy.  Their rulers drank the blood of sacrificial victims.  They had an Octopus god and a Spider god.  They had no written language, and instead recorded their story through pictures through vivid paintings, primarily surviving on pottery and metalwork in their rich tombs which rival King Tut.  Everything we know about them is a story that researchers have created that incorporates the symbolism of their art and other clues about their society.

Much of their art is gold.  It’s hard not to see a Lovecraftian pre-cursor in gold headdresses and masks depicting tentacles and other sea creature references.

The two stories that I have written use the same set of historical facts about the Moche to describe very different explanations for their beliefs and pantheon.  Both are definitely Lovecraftian, but also faithful to details about the Moche, their beliefs, their art, their society, their economy, and their geographic region.

What particularly differed between the stories for me, as a writer, is that one is set in modern times with historical researchers (In Situ) — a setting I am very comfortable describing.  The Historical Lovecraft story, on the other hand, is set in Pre-Columbian Peru.  It had to be written from the perspective of a member of that culture with all the challenges of a secondary world story in which I need to transmit information about how the society works but only as a person inside the society would naturally think about a given detail, and only using language that they would use.  This was new ground for me in my writing, but I hope that readers will enjoy what that challenge created.

9:30 pm:  My husband says “I could really go for our favorite dessert at Jax’s restaurant.  But I don’t want to leave the house.”

10:00 pm:  I return from a trip to the store with Tollhouse white chocolate macademia nut bake in the oven cookie dough, vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, caramel, and sea salt.

10:30 pm:  I replicate the dessert, with about 95% accuracy.  Just the right amount of salt.  Only, I cut it into the shape of a heart and serve it that way — a big heart shaped cookie on the cookie sheet covered with the other goodies — and we eat it with one spoon, sharing bites.

I am dizzingly in love with this man, and — and this is the amazing part — he lets me love him, and simply enjoys it, and says thank you that was awesome.