Sunday, 3 July 2011

Writers Talk About Writing: Alan Ryker

(Once you've finished reading what Alan's got to say, check out the whole series of interviews here.)

Time for the next interview in the series, and it's a good 'un, especially for Alan's thoughts on horror fiction and its intersection with literary fiction. But there's lots more too. First, an introduction.

Alan Ryker writes good fight scenes because he studies Muay Thai boxing, though not as often as his coach would like. He lives with his wife in the Kansas City area, where he writes both dark and literary fiction, and tests the boundaries of each. He has previously published short fiction in a number of print anthologies and magazines.

Check out Alan's many adventures at his blog, Pulling Teeth. Enjoy his most mundane thoughts by following him on twitter: @alanryker. Friend him on Facebook.

Read on, and enjoy.

We're in a lift, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book.

Psychomancer (US | UK) is about 1) the luckiest man on Earth, who washes up on a Florida beach after spending his entire life marooned on an island, 2) the most powerful psion the American government has ever produced, who is sent to capture #1 and 3) a man who travels the United

States writing articles for his syndicated column about strange deaths, and ends up following the swath of destruction #1 and #2 are carving across the country until he gets himself tangled up as well.

When good luck is real, what happens if we end up on the wrong end of someone else’s?

Uh-oh. Not sure lifts are meant to stop suddenly between floors like this. Guess we've got a bit more time. Ignore the flickering lights and creaking sounds above us. Would you like to tell me about other books or stories that you have available?

I've also got a contemporary vampire western called Burden Kansas (US | UK | paperback), a little short story collection called Pulling Teeth (US | UK), and a domestic comedy one-act play set during a Lovecraftian apocalypse called When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha. It's sassy. It's brassy. It's a dramatic humdinger!

Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?

I'm very tall. It's totally natural to think of kicking footholds between my ribs and climbing me like a ladder.

I'm currently writing a hardboiled novel filled with angels, demons and Muay Thai fighters, a collection of flash fiction with each short centered around an extremely uncomfortable/embarrassing/awkward moment, and the sequel to Burden Kansas.

Here's the thing: when I describe my work it sounds stupid.

Where do you see horror fiction heading over the next few years, and what direction do you hope for your own work to take?

Realistically, I see horror remaining as unread as it currently is. It's currently cooler to play D&D than to read horror.

Horror is a feeling and a literary device. It's not really a genre like other genres are. It's getting a certain type of reaction from the reader, and any way you can get that reaction is fair game. So horror requires a vehicle. The vehicle that we're stuck on is the horror thriller. In my opinion, that's been the demise of the horror genre. The situation has gotten as lame as slashers before Scream came out.

But I also see a continuation of mainstream literary writers embracing their genre roots and writing horror that is read by the public. I'd love to see that stoke interest in horror, and for readers to want more and to be able to find the horror writers doing interesting, artistic and emotionally moving stuff. Most literary writers didn't start out reading Tolstoy at age ten, but unlike artists in other mediums, they've been very reluctant to embrace their past loves, let alone allow them to emerge as influences in their current work.

But that's changing. Right now it's very self-conscious. It's like what happened with comics, with the divide between alternative and hero comics. Then came meta work like Alan Moore did, where there was defiance burning on every page. Now, it's accepted that smart adults can create smart adult comics, and that they can even still have heroes and that that's no biggie. I see the literary world as being a decade behind the comic book world in that regard. And some people get angry, feeling like they've stuck with horror the whole time, so who are these writers like Cormac McCarthy to just step in and take all the accolades? But I like what these writers are doing. Maybe they don't know the rules. Maybe they don't agree with the rules. For whatever reason, they're not following the rules, and that creates something fresh.

Obviously there's been horror writers down in the trenches creating fresh, original work, too. From what I've encountered, it's mostly been short fiction. Across genres, the cool stuff is being done in short fiction.

You've blogged about the intersection between horror and literary fiction. Do you think it's harder for a writer identified as coming from genre to get recognition for the literary nature of their work, than it is for a writer already established as a literary writer to be recognised as writing a novel that genre fans will enjoy? How can those barriers be broken down?

Absolutely. If you get the critics and general readers' trust as a mainstream literary writer, they'll trust where you're taking them. They'll give you much more leeway. Like I said, there are going to be hardcore genre fans who'll be suspicious, but I think they're a small minority. On the other hand, everyone is suspicious of an uppity genre writer, genre and mainstream readers alike.

I guess one way to break down the barrier would be to bang your head against the wall of traditional publishing and have your agent submit to literary presses that can get your book out of the genre ghetto and onto the general fiction shelves. But it seems like traditional publishing is getting pretty tight.

You could submit to literary journals. A lot of them have adopted electronic submission systems, and I've seen many of my pure horror stories make it past the first reading, as you can see the status of your work in these systems. But good lord do they take a long time. And nobody reads them. And most don't pay anything. They're really just for building your CV to get a teaching gig. And you've got self-conscious students worried about looking stupid for passing a werewolf story up to the editor, so you have to send your stuff that does the most fence-straddling.

That's a wordy way of saying that I don't know. I think the key is for the readers and writers of smart, literary genre fiction to try to find each other and get just a fraction of the voice the lowest common denominator stuff has.

What scares you most in fiction?

What really gives me chills is the idea of not being able to trust your senses or your logic. House of Leaves is a great example of that. A writer you've interviewed, James Everington, has a lot of stories playing with that type of horror in his collection The Other Room (US | UK).

Then there's realistic violence that happens to characters you've grown to care about. I nearly threw up reading White Hotel, but its violence is nowhere near the level that goes on in splatterpunk. It's the kind of violence you can never get desensitized to, because it's occurring to someone close to you.

It's safe to say that the vampires in Burden Kansas don't sparkle. How difficult is it to find an original take on such a well-established (sub) genre, and what are you doing to revive the vampire as something to fear, rather than to put a poster of up on your wall?

Creating something completely new is rare. I don't know if I could even gauge the difficulty, because I'm not sure how much control you have over something like that. On the other hand, I think that taking something well-established and doing a unique twist only requires intent. If it's hard to find an original vampire novel, it's because most writers prefer to write the billionth goddamn sexy vampire novel.

Making Burden Kansas different from every vampire book you've read was as easy as setting it in rural Kansas. And tossing in meth. Good old crystal methamphetamine. Happiness distilled to its purest form—dopamine—in a level higher than any other chemical or activity could produce. Better than a thousand orgasms. Better than watching your child graduate from medical school. Twelve times more dopamine than your body could ever produce naturally. Literally the happiest you can be.

Speaking of posters, I think you should consider releasing the cover of Pulling Teeth as a poster for dentist's waiting rooms. Or maybe as a nice greetings card. Your excellent covers are very eye-catching - how important do you think this is in marketing your books?

Thank you! The dental poster is a good idea. I try to do my part for the kids.

A good cover is essential. I'm a nobody. On good days, I consider myself an up-and-comer. When someone stumbles across a thumbnail of my book on Amazon or B&N in a search or in a “customers also bought”, I've got one square inch to show them something that makes them click as they zip past to whatever they were intending to buy.

I know my buying pattern for someone I've never heard of: the eye-catching cover gets me to click and read the interesting blurb that gets me to download the well-written sample that gets me to buy. I think that represents the habit of a lot of e-book readers. So the cover has to be professional. It has to minimize well. And most of all, it has to grab the eye and the consciousness.

I spend hours looking for art for my covers. Then I contact the artist and purchase the exclusive rights to use it as a book cover. Then I send it over to my graphic designer, Wendy McBride, who turns it into a cover. Anyone interested in contacting the artists I've worked with can check out the “My People” tab on my blog.

Can you remember what made you sit down to write your first book or story?

A creative writing class when I was a junior in college. I don't think I'd written a story previous to that since junior high. I went from visual art to music, and then ended up really loving writing. If I hadn't taken that class, which was just an English Lit elective, I probably never would have started writing fiction. I'd probably be doing something people appreciate.

Do you have a book or story that you're very fond of, but think should get more attention from the world than it has?

The Drowned World by JG Ballard. It's my favorite of his books, and one of the few books I reread regularly. He's obviously very well-known, but I don't think so much for that book.

Print publishing is a doomed but still predatory dinosaur rotting from the feet up. Ebook publishing is the vomiting out of the world's slushpiles onto the market. In the ongoing war of words and hyperbole, where's the happy medium to be found? Where do you think the publishing business is heading over the next few years, and what are you doing to be ready for it?

Apple saw the direction the music industry was going. Amazon probably sees the way the publishing industry is going. If I could see these things, I'd be rich. I'm just a stupid writer.

It seems that for awhile, at least, both worlds will coexist: the efficient self-publishing world and the curated trad-publishing world.

I've heard people say that once writers see that self-publishing isn't an easy path to riches and fame that they'll give up. No way. I used to read slush at a literary journal. Previously, aspiring writers with no talent have poured money and time into writing with no way to reach readers due to gatekeepers. Reaching a few is infinitely preferable. So the deluge is just beginning.

Quality will still set you apart. How will anyone find your work to know you write quality material? Slowly. Very slowly. I'm lucky that I'm a good essayist, so I've got a growing audience at my blog. Slowly growing. I also feel lucky to have gotten in pretty early.

But like a lot of people who've hustled for years before the e-book revolution, I'm trying to keep a foot in each world. I'm self-publishing collections of short fiction, but not before I try as hard as I can to publish the stories in magazines or journals first. If someone offered me a book contract, I'd really think about it. Not because I think it would be financially smarter in regards to those specific items of fiction, but because I would like to teach creative writing one day. So it would provide me with career opportunities that self-publishing can't.

What book do you most wish that you had written?

Crime and Punishment. But I'd have had Raskolnikov leave Siberia an unrepentant motherfucker.

Do you do much promotion for your books? What do you think is the most effective thing you've done?

I'm pretty ineffective, so I wouldn't encourage anyone to take what I do as a map to success.

Like I said, I'm an entertaining essayist. So I keep a blog and try to put up quality posts that have personality. My books are there on the sidebar, and certain posts keep people informed about what I'm doing. I like the soft sell. I'm not one to shout about my work in a crowded room (a stuck elevator is another matter).

I will get on Twitter and shout links to my blog posts. Other people find Twitter to be a good tool for selling. I don't. I find it good for networking, and for getting people to my blog. Then my blog does a good job of selling.

A giveaway at librarything is the best way to get reviews, for sure. But you will get some people who never would have plunked down money for a book like yours reviewing it. Sometimes they'll say, "I never read books like this, but this was great!" And other times they'll say, "I never read books like this, and this is an example of why!"

What is it that really pushes your buttons as a reader?

Show me something new. Get me with a cool concept, but get me in the heart, too. And I tend to prefer minimalism. The literary world almost seems stuck in a maximalist era of hysterical realism. Blah. Mostly, just don't bore me. New Yorker realism (upper-middle class whiners doing nothing) and standard rock-em-sock-em, that's-so-cool! genre stuff both bore me. I'd rather play a video game.

If you could give an aspiring writer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don't publish your first novel, unless it's under a toss-away pseudonym.

If you could tell an aspiring piece of writer to ignore one commonly given piece of advice, what would it be?

If you stick with it, you'll eventually succeed.

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