Welcome back to our last author interview of 2017! This week, I’m pleased to featured the talented Gordon B. White. Gordon is the author of numerous works of short fiction, and his stories have appeared in Nightscript II, Borderlands 6, and A Breath from the Sky, among other publications. In addition to his fiction writing, he is also an interviewer, including his popular Deep Cuts series at Hell Notes.
Recently, Gordon and I discussed his inspiration as an author, his recent time at Clarion, and what he has planned for the future.
A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?
While I can’t remember when I first wanted to be a writer, I can remember the brief period when I didn’t. I was one of those kids who loves to read – when I was in elementary school, if I couldn’t fall asleep at night by the time my parents went to bed, my mom would let me turn the light back on and read to myself. So of course I would force myself to stay up late, just so that I could read more.
I wrote all the time in school. I remember being bored in my middle school science class and instead of taking notes on chemical equations, I would write scenes of knights and orcs dueling under purple skies. Even into college, I wrote for fun (and wrote poetry for girls) and took creative writing classes and really liked it. For some reason, though, I decided that I was going to push back against everyone’s expectation that I’d be an English major and instead began a period in the wilderness of other social sciences.
By the time I went to law school, I had convinced myself that I should give up on creative writing. That lasted for a few years. Then, during grad school, my father died and all that grief came out in poetry and stories (you can still see it in some of my recent work, like last year’s “As Summer’s Mask Slips”). I couldn’t deny it any more. So I took the work ethic and discipline I’d developed in grad school, using it to write more seriously and research markets. Now here I am.
As for favorite authors, I feel like that’s a loaded question. For every one I name, I’ll be sure to have left a dozen off, greatly offending anyone who is still alive, as well as the estates of the dead. The last thing I want is angry Facebook friends and hungry ghosts on my case.
What in particular draws you to speculative literature? Do you remember the first speculative story you read or film you saw growing up?
I think there are two things that draw me to speculative fiction: First, I love speculative fiction’s ability to dramatize and externalize human emotions and conflicts. There’s so much poetic and metaphoric potential in the speculative, which makes it not only a useful tool, but also a thoroughly entertaining one to employ. By using speculative elements to create implausible situations, writers and readers can then explore thoroughly realistic and cathartic reactions within those confines. I see speculative fiction on a continuum with mythology and religion when it comes to exploring human relationships and conflicts (although speculative fiction is usually less dogmatic about explaining the “why” of things).
Second, I employ speculative elements in my own writing because I feel that I lack the authority to presume to speak for other human beings, yet I desperately want to understand them. By using speculative elements, I can shift reality enough that I’m still digging into human characters acting in real ways, but by being one step off from true, I’m more comfortable with taking that liberty. As an example, while I have anxiety over something like the demands of being a parent, since I’m not one, I don’t feel qualified to really dig those elements out in a realistic “literary” context. Of course, I can write a story about adopting an alien baby or finding a wolf-child in the woods and, with that little bit of a change, allow myself the freedom to explore.
As to my first exposure to the speculative, I grew up with a mix of fairytales, ghost stories, and too many books, so I was awash in it from the very beginning. My memory is also a bit spotty from my misspent early twenties, so, unfortunately, I cannot recall.
You’re a recent Clarion West graduate. First off, congratulations on such a huge achievement! What was the most surprising part of the experience, and any kernels of wisdom you’d like to share with the rest of us?
To me, the most surprising part was that the camaraderie with my cohorts ended up being just as, if not more, important than the instructional aspects. I learned a ton about writing, really honed in on my particular strengths and weaknesses, and stepped up my writing discipline, but going through the experience with fifteen other writers at the same time was amazing. Despite having lots of online social connections with others, the ability to talk and brainstorm and commiserate and argue with my classmates in person was fantastic. I love and miss them all.
As far as kernels of wisdom go, I’d be here for the next week trying to type out my notes if I was going to offer technical advice, but the thing that sticks with me the most is that each of us has to come up with our own definition of success. There’s no one way to be a writer or to have a writing career, and so being overly concerned with comparing your process and your position and your achievements with others can put you on a never-ending Ladder of Sadness. That, and that the only predictor of “success” is persistence.
In addition to your fiction writing, you’re also an interviewer at Hellnotes. What inspired you to start interviewing authors, and how if at all has the process shaped your own writing?
I got started doing this back around the time I started writing seriously again and have done a few dozen since then (I have an archive on my site here). I think I saw a Facebook post or an email looking for people to do interviews and I thought it would be a good way to meet authors writing the kinds of things I wanted to write and, if possible, steal their mojo. The mojo-stealing hasn’t quite worked out, but I’ve been very pleased to be able to run into former interviewees at conventions and use our prior discussions as an icebreaker.
I started off doing mostly promotional interviews for people with new books or other projects, but Hellnotes has been kind enough to allow me to do my own feature series called Deep Cuts. In those interviews, I select an author who I admire and think is doing really interesting work, and then we do an in-depth spoiler-filled discussion on one of their free-to-read online stories. I love digging into all the “deep” aspects of a story – structural choices, themes, influences, symbolism, conversations with other works – so I really like sharing my reading of a story with the authors in order to have as much of a dialogue as the format allows.
In doing these, the process of closely reading (and re-reading and re-re-reading) has helped me become more attentive when revising my own work. Part of the process is asking myself, “Why is this story worth telling? What is it attempting to do other than merely existing?” Moreover, it’s shown me that sometimes symbols are unintentional, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They may have been unconsciously inserted by the author or they may exist only in the reader’s eye, but they’re there and they influence the reading. This has made me more attentive to the possible interpretations of things I write, and – although I like some ambiguity – I try to write in a way that guides readers away from potentially distracting unintended interpretations.
Also, I’ve recently become an interviewer over at Lightspeed Magazine, too! I do Author Spotlight interviews for them where I try to do the same kind of questions as in Deep Cuts.
What is your favorite part of the writing process: establishing setting, crafting characters, or writing dialogue?
Of those three, I think it’s probably establishing setting, but that’s an offshoot of how my mind works. I love prose. I’m familiar with the adage that “Story is everything” and greatly envy people who can craft a compelling story with clean, unobtrusive prose, but I have no desire to do that. I love the flow of sounds, the shape of letters on the page. I love poetry and lyrics and rhythm and vocabulary, so all of that is usually at the forefront of my mind when I’m working on a project that really draws me in. Because of that, I typically start with either a speculative premise or a bit of description in prose that I really like, and then I use all my tools to build up the setting using that. In doing so, I can do extra work on building themes and tone and other stuff by hiding them in the backdrop of the setting.
Part of my preference, though, stems from the fact that I don’t have a very vivid visual imagination. I’m not completely aphantasiac, but most of what I visualize is hazy and usually only very isolated details. My drafts sometimes get the “white room” critique, but that’s because that’s how I see things in my mind. However, while I struggle with visualizing settings to translate them into descriptions, I am much more in-tune with assemblages of words and the sort of emotional effects and totality of feeling that they cumulatively elicit from a reader. That’s why neither invisible prose nor visually lush prose speaks very much to me; I need the sizzle and the slam because I feel words more than see sights. As a result, I really like the wide-open area that playing with setting allows.
That’s not to say that I don’t like crafting characters or writing dialogue, it’s just that unless one of those elements is the guiding impetus of a particular story, I tend to let them fall by the wayside a bit. It’s not that I avoid them, I just kind of . . . forget about them . . . and let “good enough” slip through. I’m working on it, though!
Oh, and since I started off by saying “of those three” before making a choice, I’ll let you in on a secret: My absolute favorite part of writing is revision. My mighty struggle as a writer is always to finish first drafts, but when the whetstone comes out, I’m ready to hone.
Out of your published work, do you have a personal favorite?
I have a sentimental spot for “Hair Shirt Drag,” which I consider my first “real” publication. It’s the story of a gender nonconforming witch in the rural South and a special coming of age ritual, as informed by RuPaul’s Drag Race. The protagonist in that story is still my favorite character that I’ve ever written. (Hair Shirt Drag first appeared in Sekhmet Press’s Wrapped in Black: 13 Tales of Witches and the Occult, and is reprinted in the charity anthology We Are Not This: Carolina Writers for Equality, as well as a forthcoming audiocast from Tales to Terrify).
I also really like “The Albatrossity Exhibition, or Why I Want to Fuck the Ancient Mariner” which appeared in Milkfist Issue 1. It’s a J.G. Ballard/Samuel Taylor Coleridge mash-up retelling of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in alternatively supernatural and hyper-realistic detail, employing one of my most deliberately non-traditional structures and some of my favorite prose.
What projects are you currently working on?
Well, I’m using NaNoWriMo as an impetus to draft a first (trunk) novel about rural small town intrigue and ancestral memory set in an alternate 1990s where magical plants grow from people’s graves. I doubt it will ever see the light of day, but I’ve never tackled a project of novel length and I’m finding it alternatingly wonderful and horrible, so I’m okay with doing my practice behind the woodshed. While I love revision but sometimes struggle with pushing through those rough spots between beginning and end, the NaNoWriMo accountability is very helpful. I know some people dislike NaNoWriMo’s emphasis on word count, but I find that having daily goals fits in very well with my normal writing process. I definitely prefer to get a first draft down as quickly as possible and then spend my time restructuring, rewriting, and (eventually) polishing, so having to hit a certain number of words each day pushes me to get the story down bit by bit.
Other than that, I have some inchoate projects that I’m sure I’ll jinx by discussing, but here goes: A fragmented cosmic horror story involving cave paintings, but told in the form of static panels and non-narrative background information; research (fiction and nonfiction) for a Weird West legal thriller idea; background reading for something involving capital-F Fate in the mold of Greek tragedies; and some sci-fi flash pieces revolving around cyborg art and fashion.
Where can we find you online?
I recently had to do a bit of re-branding by incorporating my middle initial into things, as there is another Gordon White who is very active in chaos magick and other esoteric areas. As a result, things being published since August 2017 are under “Gordon B. White” and so is most of my web presence.
My website is at www.gordonbwhite.com and I hope to start getting it spiffed up soon, although it currently redirects to my original website (www.grizzlyspectacles.com) where you can find links to all my publications and interviews. I’m also on Twitter as @gordonbwhite and on Facebook.
Huge thanks to Gordon B. White for being part of this week’s author interview series!