Greg Beatty Interview

Greg BeattyAn Interview With Greg Beatty
by Daniel Blackston

There’s something Saturnine about the state of short spec-fiction and all of its related fields, here, in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps, all short fiction writers (many or most of whom are also aspiring novelists) suffer similar hardships: sparse, under-paying markets, a diminished or diminishing readership, the loneliness of creative obscurity, the sting of rejection … and, once the dream of publication is finally attained, the arrows and slings of hostile critics – or, worse, a complete non-reaction from the world at large.

Greg Beatty’s professionalism, eclectic curiosity, and intellectual discipline rate true applause from his fellow freelancers. His intuitively-charged resevoirs of creative energy ensure a prolific and provocative output of works under his byline –  in and out of the SF field. I’m quite happy to present the following interview – one of the most interesting I’ve recently conducted.

What keeps your fire burning? How to you stay productive and sharp as a SF writer?

Oh, it’s nice to think that something keeps me sharp!

More seriously, I do a lot to keep myself developing in a range of areas. I attend an occasional workshop; about a month ago I went down to the Oregon coast for a story structure workshop with Dean Wesley Smith.

But workshops only happen once in a while. Mostly, I write every day, and I plan my reading and my non-fiction projects to develop crucial areas, and to keep my mind fresh.

I regularly read in several areas. First, I’m weak in the hard sciences, so I try to work in some study there – either textbooks, or Scientific American, Discover, or some other popular science magazine. Second, I read any book on fiction writing or genre fiction I can find. I recently estimated I’d read five-thousand plus articles on writing. That’s a very conservative estimate. Third, my local library has a free magazine area, and I literally read at random. I’ll sample parenting magazines, or trade magazines in areas like surveying, window cleaner, erosion control, and so on. Sometimes I get story ideas there; more often, I just get glimpses into other worlds. And finally, I read for my non-fiction projects. I seek out non-fiction projects that fulfill multiple goals. I try to find things where I’ll earn some money, learn something, and provide some service to the community (but I’ll settle for two out of three).

This summer, I reviewed a book on Harlan Ellison, a collection of essays on Tolkien, and a range of books on tape, and researched longer essays, such as a piece on the relationship between mystery and science fiction.

What drew you in to SF originally? What made you decide to try your hand at writing?

Very different questions!

What drew me to SF was being lonely. My family moved when I was ten, and I didn’t fit in at first at the new school. I’d read some SF before that, but I really buried myself in books when we moved. SF let me escape not just my life, but my entire world.

As far as what made me want to try to write, I wanted to from a very early age, because I loved the experience of reading so much. Everything from Curious George to Tolkien left me saying, “Wow!” I thought: if I could do that, I’d be happy.

What was the impact of your Clarion experience on your writing?

Clarion has been fundamental to who I am as a fiction writer. It’s likely I wouldn’t be a fiction writer if it weren’t for Clarion.

You see, I had wanted to write early in my life, and did the whole “fill journal after journal with scribbles” and study books on writing and so on. I had published a handful of short stories in the small presses. Then I tried to write a novel. I got two-hundred forty pages in, and crashed. Complete writer’s block. I stopped writing fiction, and considered myself a failure. Seriously – that was all I’d ever wanted to do professionally, and it was over.

I went to graduate school because I didn’t write fiction anymore. I was done. I was a complete failure.

However, a funny thing happened along the way. I wrote lots and lots of non-fiction, and developed a lot of good writing habits. Then, near the end of graduate school, the desire to write fiction returned, and I went to Clarion to see if there was any possibility of reviving that dream.

When I went to Clarion, I had written one story in the previous seven years. I wrote three short stories in the first eight days, and never looked back.

As an unexpected but very real bonus, I made some good friends at Clarion. We’re scattered around the world, but we chat regularly, critique one another’s fiction, and visit when we can. We had a very talented and good-hearted Clarion year, and I predict that at least half our class will make names for themselves in the field, maybe more. The only reason I limit my prediction to half is that for some folks, life has intervened. That’s a conservative prediction, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more folks make it.

In your opinion is the short spec fic genre healthy these days, or in decline? Would you agree with the idea that there are better stories being written now and published than ever before? And yet … less readers.

Again, very different questions, but very good questions.

Short science fiction is in flux these days. It’s certainly economically dead, or on life support. The “pro” magazines haven’t raised their pay rates in line with inflation, or anything like it. There are a variety of reasons for this: the general shift away from magazine fiction, the growth of television, etc., but the result is that if one wants to make a living as a fiction writer, one writes novels.

The result is that there is a fierce competition for the few comparatively high-paying markets – and a generation of short story writers who accept this, and/or write short stories for artistic reasons, and seek their income elsewhere.

Short stories today are better written on the line by line level than in earlier eras, but there is less energy – for the most part.

What projects are you presently working on?

Hmm. My main project for this summer is self-publishing a children’s book. I’m working with a local artist on The Man Who Gave Orders to Cats.

Otherwise, many short stories and some essays and articles. What I’d like to do is finish a relatively small number of stories that are both personally important and technically challenging. What about novel length work (s) under your byline?

I’d love to, but right now, I’m sort of blocked as far as plotting – I can’t structure a long work past one-hundred pages, and so stall out.

As an essayist, reviewer, critic, and fiction writer – what would you say is the purpose of short fiction reviews and/or literary critique? Do you think critical essays and reviews exert much of an influence over the industry?

Again, very good questions, but very different questions.

Reviews and criticism exist on a kind of spectrum.

At the most basic end, reviews are essentially a reader response, and function as guides to other readers. These reviews boil down to “Yeah! Read this book,” or “This one isn’t really worth your time,” or sometimes, “Gawd this bites!”

These are valuable, especially if you know the reviewer’s tastes. You don’t have to share them, but you need to know them. There are a couple folks who regularly rave over stuff I loathe. If they like it, I can safely avoid it. But there are too many books out there to sort on one’s own, so even these most basic reviews serve a valuable function for the reader, and therefore for the industry.

This sort of review can be useful for the writer, but works further along the spectrum are more likely to be useful to the ambitious writer.

The further you move along the spectrum from reader response reviews towards criticism, the more you’re moving from individual (and usually emotional) response to making sense of the work, and to making critical judgments. We could probably define a number of positions along the way, but that would be splitting hairs. What’s crucial is that the critic analyzes and explains the work, and puts it into a larger context, as you did with your recent essay on Jeff Ford’s story “The Empire of Ice Cream”.

And yes, such critical works serve a number of functions. Sometimes this is indirect, sometimes more direct. I became a judge for the Philip K. Dick Award because David Hartwell suggested me, and he suggested me in part because of the critical reviews I’d written for him. I was one of five judges that year; awards promote sales, and that award carries a cash prize. Critics judge other awards as well, and there are less frequent, but more definable effects; Pat Murphy told me she was using my review of one story as part of her proposal to expand a story into a novel.

But there are other ways that reviews work. I recently read a study of the philosophy of science, and the scholar observed that in science, criticism of a theory produced a revised theory, but in the arts, criticism of a work produced a new work of art.

Ideally, that happens with short fiction criticism. Good criticism should close the gap between creator and reader, and between creator and context, so that the story’s writer may even learn from it. But it should also help readers understand the form, and spark new stories in the field.

Much of your creative writing features a tension between the emotional response (or lack thereof) of humanity to technology. Do you view technology as essentially neutral? That is, do you feel the negative aspects of technology are a consequence of human deficiency, moral, intellectual, etc? Or do you see technology as a threat to social order and human emotional response?

To the first observation, yes. Good call. My fiction tends to fall into a few categories, and one of the largest is emotional responses to technology/social change. This is in part because I’m such a melodramatic person anyway, and respond first emotionally. But I also think we live in our emotions, and that they reveal our true values, so I write to them.

I view technology as a multiplier, and therefore potentially dangerous. By that I mean, humans are flawed. We’re limited. We’re smallish. Technology multiplies our reach. This means we can “reach out and touch someone” via telephone, or via smart bombs.

Therefore, technology is not innately positive or negative, but it is an innate challenge, and it demands growth of its users. Technology makes it easier to survive without good character or emotional health – but to use technology properly, you need both, and ideally spiritual maturity as well. Think of technology as a gift from the gods to people who have forgotten their relationship to the gods, and you’ll get a sense of my view.

How important is the element of satire in good SF? Irony?

Good SF can exist without either, so intrinsically, not very.

Now, if you’re asking about my own tastes, I love good satirical SF, and wish there was more of it. Some of my favorite SF is political satire and/or commentary.

Is your short SF primarily driven by literary or commercial considerations? Or is there any difference between the two?

This is a good question. I sat with it a long time, and I realized that both literary and commercial considerations affect everything I write, but in a way analogous to physical forces on a traveler. Whether you’re a bird or a in a sailboat, if you’re on a long trip, you take both gravity and magnetic poles into account. However, you rarely dwell on them, because you’re dealing with things closer to hand –  gusts of wind, shallow water, etc.

So yes, commerce and literary considerations govern everything I write, but I’m more likely to think about energy, capacity, and learning. Energy = does this excite me? Is it fun? Capacity = can I do this? Learning = what would I learn from writing this?

What work of yours, published or not, makes you feel the most satisfied? Any credit, sale, or creation of which you are particularly proud?

Well, my favorite story hasn’t been published yet. Everyone says, “This is really good, but…” and it bounces merrily along. I still tear up when I reread it, but no one wants to publish it. Yet.

The story that has gotten the greatest acclaim from the outside is “Aliens Enter the Conversation,” over at Fortean Bureau.

Give us a description of a typical working, writing day for you.

Oh man. They vary so much.

The ideal is to write on the project to which I’ve assigned highest priority, at least five-hndred words a day, first thing in the morning, until it’s done.

I usually do write first thing in the morning (after breakfast and brushing teeth, etc.), but what I write is all over the map. I’m such an intuitive writer that I often sideline my planned projects to work on one with more energy. And here’s where commerce and the literary sometimes fuse. I’ll read a market listing in Ralan’s (thank you, Ralan!), and I’ll say, “Sheesh! That’s ridiculous. Who could write…oh.” That “oh” is the sound of an idea dropping into place. Emily, don’t hate me, but that happened when I read the guidelines for Astropoetica. I thought, “Sheesh, talk about specialized! Poems about stars!” Of course, dummy that I am, I didn’t realize I’d have, what, seven poems accepted by them in the past year?

So, the planned story might get derailed by a poem, or by a more lively story (the writer’s ecosystem), but I always write at least five-hundred words unless there’s another really serious obligation. I don’t think I missed a day the first three and a half months of the year, but I took a vacation with my dad, and I didn’t write then, for example.

Then I work a day job, and then later, I do writing-related things. I might take notes for a review, or block out notes for a new story. Sometimes, the intuition will kick in, and I’ll write an entire separate short story late in the day.

What would it take to make you feel like a successful writer? What are your long-term goals?

I have a lot of goals. I have several hundred short stories and twelve to twenty novels I want to write.

My ideal would be to be able to finish a novel, and then to make a larger portion of my living from my writing. Most? All?

Besides that, if my stories get better, I’ll call that success.

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