I think I can be upfront and say that Will Hindmarch, though he describes himself as a “mooncalf,” is pretty farking awesome and I’m happy to call him friend and cohort. He’s a freelance penmonkey such as myself, crawling through the trenches, chucking word grenades and getting blood on his face as good as anybody, except it’s worth noting that the guy’s prose has a forthright, yet poetic air to it. Anyway. You can read more about him HERE. Read his latest Escapist article: “Truth In Fiction.” And purchase the Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. Please enjoy this, the first of (hopefully) many terribleminds storyteller interviews. Feel free to ask Will questions and taunt him into answering.
This is a blog about writing and storytelling, so before we do anything else, I’d like you to tell me – and, of course, the fine miscreants and deviants that read this site – a story. As short or long as you care to make it, as true or false as you see it.
Alas, I don’t tell stories lightly. I can’t just launch into one on command. I need time to fret and ogle, to weigh and measure, to test and retest the tale. The last time, I think it was, that I tried to just tell a story on the fly, it was a story from memory that I augmented to make more compelling for the audience. But it wasn’t my story, it was a story I’d heard on the Internet. (“Heard,” I say—I’d read it.) It was a story about how William Gibson forms his novels, about how he does research and what he reads when he’s writing, that sort of thing.
Anyway, I was speaking at a convention seminar in Atlanta. I was talking about writing and diligence and discipline, which is hilarious of me, and like an idiot asshole I’m telling someone else’s story about someone else’s deadlines and someone else’s method. I start off by invoking William Gibson. “William Gibson once said,” I said and then paraphrased a quote of his about reality and the muse. (And I say “paraphrased” generously—I may have made up a bunch of the quote, but the gist was there.)
I keep going. I mention William Gibson again, this time talking about deadlines and inspiration and how a novel (I’ve never written a novel) knows when it is finished. The audience is real quiet.
I keep on going. I cite William Gibson a third time, saying how I once read an interview with him where he used to struggle with how to get characters to cross rooms—to handle blocking and staging—and how he’d avoid the problem and just leave it to the reader and how if William Gibson could do it, then dammit, so could we.
A hand goes up near the back of the room. There’s maybe forty, fifty people in attendance. “Yes?” I say, pointing at the hand.
Heads turn and lean out of the way. I see the spectacles and the face. My imagination flashes to the back-cover author photo of, I don’t know, IDORU. The black-and-white windswept author photo overlays on the man across the crowd from me. It’s him. William Gibson is among us. I’d invoked his name three times and now he was here.
“Yeah,” he says. “I never said that.”
I stay real still. Then I die. I die dead. Right there. Dead.
Now, that story’s not true. The only time I’ve ever seen Gibson in the flesh was when he signed my copy of PATTERN RECOGNITION in a suburban bookshop outside Minneapolis. But this is why I try not to tell stories on the spot.
How would you describe your writing style?
I figure that’s for other people to do. I change voices and styles a lot, depending on the needs of the assignment I’m working on. I haven’t had a lot of time to write my own material lately, so my style has sort of been developing into a melange and what, from all of those different styles and voices, is mine? I don’t know.
Here’s something that’s true, though: my style is certainly developing still. Maybe it’ll always be developing. I aim for honesty in my own writing, but beyond that, the voice and approach I take to getting that honesty out is always in motion. This is good, I think, right? I don’t want to be one of those writers whose stories are all the same.
In high school, I once had my writing style compared to Mark Twain’s. I’ve been carrying that around with pride ever since. Earlier this year, my business partner, Jeff Tidball, who is a stunningly great writer, compared my voice to Michael Chabon’s. I’m going to keep that on my keychain and thumb it whenever I get the serious doubts.
What’s awesome about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?
The work is awesome. It genuinely awes me. My imagination is probably my strongest muscle and I have a job that lets me use it. That’s pretty great.
Of course, I’m almost never not working. The pay is shit and the hours suck. I sort of love that, too, though. I always know what I should be doing—I should be working. When I’m not working, I should be. When I am, I should be. I should be working.
What’s awesome is that I’m doing the only thing I’m good at—writing. What sucks is that I’ll probably never be happy with my skill level—I always need to be getting better. That sucks, but that’s sort of awesome, too. Always something to do.
I should be working.
Deliver unto us a single-serving dollop of writing or storytelling advice that you yourself follow as a critical tip without which you might starve and die atop a glacier somewhere:
I once saw this written on a 3×5 note card on my brother’s bedroom wall, over his desk. He’s a writer, too:
The cardinal sins of storytelling:
Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?
I don’t play favorites. Today I tell you that my favorite word is that old writerly chestnut, _defenestrate_, and tomorrow I say to myself, “Come on, man! That’s a pretty obvious choice, isn’t it?” So I say, “I put the word _mooncalf_ in my biography for a reason,” and then I find out that somebody is offended by that word. Or I go, “Let’s just say _zeppelin_ and be done with it,” but then you think I’m some kind of obsessive, when really I’m just fascinated by dirigibles. No way to win this game. So, yeah, I don’t know.
Favorite curse word, though, has got to be that classic: _fuck_. I like its versatility. Excuse me, its fucking versatility, you fuck. I like fuckery and motherfucker and fucktastic and their many kin. It’s like an atomic cuss, from which many vulgar molecules can be wrought. I mean, fuck.
Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)
Again with your favorites. Lately I’ve been drinking Hendricks gin and tonics (a large pour of Hendricks gin and an eyeballed dose of tonic) and white russians (one part vodka, one part Kahlua, one part cream). Also, I like scotch neat or with one ice cube. If you’ve got port, I’ll drink a lot of it.
Recommend a book, comic book, film, game: something with great story. Go!
How about a game that surprised me with its storytelling? Months and months ago, a game came out called ENSLAVED: ODYSSEY TO THE WEST that was written by Alex Garland (28 DAYS LATER, NEVER LET ME GO) and co-directed by Andy Serkis. Serkis also acts in this game, doing dialogue and motion-capture work. It features some of the best, most nuanced performances I’ve ever seen in a video game and all of it was sadly overlooked by the gaming public. The gameplay is solid running-and-jumping adventure-type stuff in an overgrown post-apocalyptic world (the game’s especially lovely in the early levels) and it’s all loaded up with ongoing character-building dialogue a la PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME. It’s not a perfect game, but it was overlooked for sure and now you can get it cheap, new or used. Well worth the time you’ll spend in that world.
Where are my pants?
Not until I get my $240 in small, non-sequential bills, Wendig.
Got anything to pimp? Now’s the time!
My new book is THE THACKERY T. LAMBSHEAD CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, which I share with a crazily wonderful contributor roster that I’m just going to list here, because when you list all these names together they make some kind of harmonic resonance pulse: Holly Black, Greg Broadmore, Ted Chiang, John Coulthart, Rikki Ducornet, Amal El-Mohtar, Minister Faust, Jeffrey Ford, Lev Grossman, N.K. Jemisin, Caitlin R. Kiernan, China Mieville, Mike Mignola, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, James A. Owen, Helen Oyeyemi, J.K. Potter, Cherie Priest, Ekaterina Sedia, Jan Svankmajer, Rachel Swirsky, Carrie Vaughn, Jake von Slatt, Tad Williams, Charles Yu, and many more.
This is a vast, multi-author, multi-artist anthology exploring the fascinating collection of artifacts and doodads gathered by the sadly deceased Dr. Lambshead during his remarkable life. Inside you’ll find stories, essays, and art galore. It’s really a hell of a book, envisioned and assembled by the cunning and imaginative intelligences of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.
How did you get involved with the Cabinet of Curiosities?
I’ve long been fascinated by collectors like Dr. Lambshead. My family is full of avid collectors and I married a museum professional, so my fascination is nearly utter, really. Dr. Lambshead, perhaps best known as a medical pioneer and adventurer, also amassed something approaching a museum of his own—the “cabinet” of curiosities is not so much a cabinet at all—and it’s one of those iconic storehouses of occult and esoteric lore that I dreamt about visiting.
I work with Jeff VanderMeer at a creative-writing summer camp called Shared Worlds (http://shareworlds.wofford.edu), which he co-founded, and when I heard that he was working on a new book about Dr. Lambshead, I pestered him and bought his cigars until he let me do some research and write about an item from the collection all on my own. In the end, Jeff gave me the task of writing about the Auble Gun, because I have some (modest) experience with antique firearms.
Some of that is even true.
Care to tell us about your story, “The Auble Gun?”
“The Auble Gun” began with an illustration by Greg Broadmore of a tuxedoed gentleman with a spectacular, steaming Gatling-style gun on his shoulder. I added a faux-academic exhibit writeup, drawing a bit on my own feelings of inadequacy and my own limited experience with archaic firearms, and created a familial legacy of ambition, desperation, and failure that I probably think is funnier than it actually is. And, of course, we get to see how Dr. Lambshead’s own history intersects with that of the Auble Gun.
The truth is, “The Auble Gun” has a lot of pathos in it for me, all hidden under a layer of stiff academia. It’s a dynastic tale about reaching beyond one’s grasp, dedicating one’s self to someone else’s obsession, and always coming in second place. While it’s about the Auble family, it’s also about my experiences, to some degree. But I don’t want to say much more than that—I want to keep the focus on Dr. Lambshead and the Aubles, if I can. It’s their story, really.
You’re also a game designer. Tell us how playing and designing games helps you — or hinders you — in the act of writing prose fiction.
This is something I wrestle with and have written about a bit at my blog, actually. The short version is that storytelling games like table-top roleplaying titles (your Dungeons & Dragons and your Trail of Cthulhus) have helped me internalize and gain valuable traction in thinking about storytelling on the fly. I’m much more comfortable with story structure and characterization thanks to these games than I would be otherwise. Four hours spent running a great story game are solid experience for dealing with questions of boredom and confusion, for learning how to quickly get characters across, and for learning how to set a scene. They hone instincts.
The downside is that I sometimes get decision paralysis while writing straight-up prose fiction now. Without players, as living agents and audience, making decisions in the moment, I sometimes find it difficult to decide just which way a story should unfold. As a game writer, I’m usually writing options and consequences for exploring various options. As a story writer, I’m writing one option, one outcome. What if the better story lies through the door not taken? What if I force a character into an uncharacteristic decision? What if, what if, what if?
So, while I think story games are great practice for a lot of skills, they’re no substitute for hours logged making mistakes and correcting them at the keyboard, writing actual fiction or actual script pages. These two skill sets overlap, and that part of the Venn diagram is where I’m strongest, but the rest of those circles are their own things. Got to log hours doing both if you want to be good at both.
You’re a big fan of soundtracks — both as inspiration for writing and just for good old-fashioned ear massage. Recommend a soundtrack that most people wouldn’t think to seek out.
Hmm. Tricky. I’m often surprised by the soundtracks and film scores that people actually have heard of or sought out. Bear McCreary’s had rollicking concerts for his BATTLESTAR GALACTICA musical scores, for example, so I’d say people have thought to seek them out. I used to recommend Michael Giacchino’s early scores for the MEDAL OF HONOR games, but he’s got an Oscar now and is pretty well established, so I imagine that you’ve sought those out if you wanted to. I often tell people that the John Powell scores for the BOURNE films are excellent writing music—you’ll feel like you’re accomplishing something even when you’re not—and the BOURNE ULTIMATUM score is an easy recommendation, but maybe that’s too obvious, too? David Holmes’ score for OCEAN’S TWELVE is the best in that series, in my opinion, and has a great energy and style to it, too. It really depends what mood you’re trying to get in.
What are you working on now? Can you give us a hint? Whet our appetites?
Right now, I’m wrapping up development on the MISTBORN ADVENTURE GAME for Crafty Games, based on the novels by Brandon Sanderson. I’m editing Jeremy Keller’s hard-boiled cyberpunk game, TECHNOIR. I’m also developing a couple of original RPGs for outfits like Pelgrane Press and, don’t tell anyone, Evil Hat Productions. The first of them, for Pelgrane, is called RAZED, and it’s an apocalyptic investigative survival RPG with a highly malleable setting. The other is so new that I don’t think I can really talk about it, but it’s grim and exciting and finally lets me play with a subject I’ve been wanting to tackle for years. I also have a couple of independent games in development, including a stealth-action title called DARK, which I’m hoping to launch on Kickstarter in the coming months.
All of that doesn’t include a collection of short stories that I’ll be publishing later this year, I hope, or the progress by agonizing inches that I make on my novel. I have to keep busy to keep the checks coming in and I frequently get distracted off of my own projects by projects for other people, ’cause I need to eat and my own projects are all gambles on future monies, rather than contract-driven certainties (well, “certainties”). You know how it is.