Doyce Testerman: The Terribleminds Interview

Okay, so, I’ve had the pleasure of Doyce’s Internet Acquaintance (also the name of a dashing new cocktail, which you should create a recipe for in the comments), and the guy’s — well, you know how you just connect with some people? You just grok the cut of the jib or whatever? That’s Doyce. He’s a great blogger. A great writer. I’ve had the pleasure of reading his newest, Hidden Things, and I blurbed the shit out of it because it’s a book right up my alley. I said, “This world of wizened wizard-men and demon clowns will lure you into the shadows, and once you meet the characters who live in those dark strange places you’ll never want to leave. The magic matters here, but it’s the human touch that really brings the book to life.” It’s a super-fun book, so go find it. Then sashay over to DoyceTesterman.com, and follow Herr Doktor Doyce on the Twitters @doycet.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Once upon a time, on the edge of the Slowing Lands, there lived a widower with his only son. The boy was very lonely (as was the widower), for his father worked many hours every day, and the boy was often alone. To keep both his loneliness and boredom at bay, he often went exploring in the Forest of Anything.

In all of his wandering, he eventually came upon a road; long and broad and straight as an arrow (you can find anything in the Forest of Anything, after all). He walked along the road for many hours until he came to an enormous house on an enormous hill; it was obviously the home of a giant.

Now, the boy was no fool; he knew as well as anyone that magical journeys that lead to a giant’s front step tend to end at a giant’s front step. But he was brave and curious, and while he knew he had to be careful, he also knew he had to get inside and see what he could.

So up he climbed along a trellis on the side of the great house (he was very good at many things that young boys are good at, and climbing was one of them), and clambered into an open window on the third floor. He found himself in a closet big enough to hold his father’s entire house.

Amazing as it was, the closet was still the most boring thing the boy would see that day…

[Read the rest of this story at Doyce’s site! DO IT OR YOU GET THE WATER CANNON.]

Why do you tell stories?

So this is my family during the holidays. Let’s say it’s Thanksgiving, and everyone’s already ate and had seconds and thirds and they’re waiting for that to settle down a bit before they get out the pies and ice cream. The game’s over, so the TV’s not showing much, and everyone’s got some time to kill.

I wander into the living room, and the men — my uncles, my dad and grandpa — have set up a card table, dumped the change out of their pockets and piled it up next to each of them. The cards are out and they’re playing something called ‘rap rummy’ for nickle and penny antes.

And they’re telling stories; trading them back and forth like they do the cards, hardly making eye contact except for the punchlines at the end, voices low and rumbling and just a hint of a smirk or a gravelly chuckle. I watch them, rapt, trying to make sense of the rules behind any of it (the cards or the stories), and I’ll keep trying for probably the next ten or twenty years. Today at least I give up and head into the kitchen.

My mom’s there, with my aunts and grandma. The dishes are cleared and cleaned, and they’re having coffee and ‘visiting’, which is just another way of saying they’re telling stories too. These aren’t the same — it’s not about hunting, or some farm accident that could have been horrible and turned out funny — they’re about their kids, or their family, or their husbands, or (very rarely) themselves, and it’s all a little gentler, a little kinder and nostalgic and sweet. (But still funny.)

And I listen. I soak it up. This is how my family communicates. Never answer a question straight out if you can tell a story that does it instead. Never mind if someone tells you a story you’ve already heard, because they’ve probably told it a few times since the last time you’ve heard it, and it’ll have gotten better.

I tell stories because I want to touch the world and change it. And because that’s what you do for the people you love. Or the people you like.

Or (I found out later, in a different place) even the people you don’t like, because telling a story’s better than having to actually talk to em.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

It’s great that writing is a thing you love, but you also have to treat it like a job, because it is that, if you’re ever going to be successful at it. It’s helped me to have written as part of my boring old day job for years, because I get towrite, but also have to rub some of the pixie dust and unicorn gloss off “the process” and see it for what it is. It’s a job. it’s maybe the best job, if you love it enough, but still. Jobs need you working and producing even on the days where you don’t have a deadline — not as dramatic as last-minute cram sessions, but otherwise better in all respects.

So every day, you write, and when you sit down to write, you have to put down at least less than three sentences before you’re allowed to get all precious and artistic and say “Nope, it’s not working for me right now. I’m not feeling it.”

Do that do that four times every day.

That way, even if you have a shitty, non-productive day (where none of those three-sentence groups takes off and turns into a couple thousand words), at least you got one page down.

I’m totally stealing this from Roger Zelazny, by the way, because he’s a hero of mine, and because it’s a damned good practical bit of craft.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

“You’ve got to feel it before you write it.”

What utter horseshit. Take the story in your head, write down the Things That Happen. Try not to suck at it, yes, but mostly just get the story out there where you can work through it until it’s right.

You can’t wait for “the right mood for this scene”; if you do, you ultimately won’t write much, and most of it will be something useless that doesn’t make any sense to anyone who isn’t feeling exactly the same way you did when you wrote it. Like poetry.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

A good character — main character, supporting character, bad guy, whatever — has to want stuff. Not need: needing something is really kind of a passive thing — they must want, and then they have to act to get what they want in a way that’s right in tune with their nature (whatever that is).

Do that, and your hero is going to be someone people believe — someone they think about even when they aren’t reading about them. Do that, and your supporting characters will make people crazy with the way they keep complicating things. Do that, and you’re going to find yourself with a bad guy that you like almost better than anyone else in the story.

Do that, and you’ll always know what the next thing to write about is going to be, because those characters will goddamn tell you.

Bonus round: Haymitch Abernathy (or really anyone), from the Hunger Games trilogy. I think one of the best things about those books is the fact that it never feels like “Katniss’s Story” as much as it feels like “the story, told from Katniss’s point of view.” The difference between the two is simply that everyone makes decisions about what they want, then acting on them, without so much as a by-your-leave from the protagonist. Kat’s POV is limited, and we’re reminded of this every time she has to deal directly with another character, because – frankly – they’ve got their own shit going on, and aren’t afraid to let her know it.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

I really like Midnight Nation, by Joe Straczynski. It’s not a perfect story, but it’s a fun read, has a twist or two that I liked, and comes to a satisfying conclusion. It’s fair to say that it shares a bit of DNA with Hidden Things, in terms of the tone, and themes, and the “weirdness in the background”, so there’s that, too.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Oh come on!

… okay, fine: since I did the thing with the kid and the giant, let’s go with spindle. Check this out:

Spin-dle (spndl)n.

1.

1. A rod or pin, tapered at one end and usually weighted at the other, on which fibers are spun by hand into thread and then wound.

2. A similar rod or pin used for spinning on a spinning wheel.

2. Any of various mechanical parts that revolve or serve as axes for larger revolving parts, as in a lock, axle, phonograph turntable, or lathe.

3. Any of various long thin stationary rods, as:

1. A spike on which papers may be impaled.

2. A baluster.

4. Coastal New Jersey. See dragonfly.

v. tr.: spin-dled, spin-dling, spin-dles

1. To impale or perforate on a spindle.

v. intr.: spindle

To grow into a thin, elongated, or weak form.

That’s pretty much a whole story outline, right there.

Favorite curse word?

I’m going to have to go with “horseshit”, because I don’t use it often, and when I do, it imparts a very specific value judgement.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

If it’s just casual backyard grilling time, I’d prefer a Magner’s Irish Cider, please. If we’re mixing drinks, then a rum and coke (hard for anyone to mess up) or a vodka gimlet (if you know how to make them worth a damn, which I don’t).

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

Robots? Shit, I’ve been training for zombies…

I’ve written or rewritten dozens if not hundreds of technical manuals since I left college, so odds are good I have the original schematics for SkyNet saved somewhere on my harddrive, from back when it was a lowly Point Of Sale kiosk at your local Diamond Shamrock.

Also, if you need a guy who can ask one of those logicboard-frying paradox questions? Well… I’m no good at that, but I know people who are, and I’ll take you to them if you let me live.

Your name sounds like it belongs to a secret agent. Were you a secret agent (and I bet you are, but we’ll pretend you’re not), what would your favorite spy gadget be?

Without a doubt, I have to go with airboat. I mean, have you seen Gator? I know it’s not technically a spy movie, and a lot of people seem to dismiss it as nothing more than a sequel, but in all honesty I really think it was the stronger film in a lot of significant ways.

Anyway. Airboat.

Or maybe one of those pens that write upside down.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

Hidden Things comes out August 21st (details on my website ( http://doycetesterman.com/index.php/hidden-things/), or just look it up with the bookseller of your choice), so obviously that’s taking a lot of my attention right now. Between then and now I’ll be at San Diego ComicCon to do signings and talk on a panel about writing The Funny in fantasy and science fiction. I’m also “doing something” at LeakyCon in Chicago (mid-August) and visiting indy bookseller locations in Colorado for signings and readings.

In terms of the next thing after Hidden Things, there’s quite a few ways that could go, and some of that depends on conversations with my editor, so in the meantime I’m just writing for the same reasons I always have — I want to make my friends and family laugh, and I want to know how it ends.

So, then: how is Hidden Things a book only Doyce Testerman could write?

As a whole, the story comes out of a place where I’ve spent a lot of time. Not the Midwest, but the spot in your heart and your head where you think about the people you love and wonder how you will carry on if you lose them.

That sounds pretty grim, but when I wrote the first draft of the story I could look around and say “I haven’t lost anyone close to me over 20 years,” and rather than being a comfort, what came back to me was the thought that the odds I’d keep that streak going were getting smaller and smaller the longer it went on. I suppose I felt a kind of morbid fascination — first knowing that getting a tooth drilled is going to hurt, and then wondering how much.

A lot of people reading and reviewing Hidden Things talk about how it’s a mystery, or a road-trip fairy tale, or a noir-magical yarn, or a lot of other things, and they aren’t wrong — the way I see it, the reader is always going to right when they tell you what they thought a story was about — but for me, it’s a story about losing people you love (through death, estrangement, whatever) and how you deal with it (or how you don’t). That’s the stuff that’s all me.

That, and the thing with the chicken bone actually happened.

Calliope Jenkins, the protagonist of Hidden Things: she’s a tough, whip-smart protagonist. And she connects. What’s the key to making a character connect with the audience? And Calliope in particular?

You need to let character’s live. No matter how tightly-paced a story is, characters need some time to be still and be themselves if they’re ever going to be come real people to your readers. They aren’t just there to deliver clever dialogue, or ask the right questions at the right time, or die during an emotionally significant scene. Sometimes, the tough, whip-smart protagonist eat cheerios for supper and watches the travel channel. Sometimes the affable, retired homunculous pads around in old slippers and saggy pajama pants because it doesn’t feel like getting dressed yet.

The best music improv teacher I ever had used to tell me “Don’t be afraid of rests. A few beats of silence is just as important as the notes you play.” That’s pretty good advice, really, for anything.

(You didn’t ask, but Stephen King is, for my money, one of the great living masters when it comes to this — I’m not ashamed to admit that when it comes to portraying characters that feel like someone you could (and would want to) meet, he sets the bar I try to reach.)

Anyway, the point is: give your characters room and time to reveal themselves – to become whole. I know I’m getting there when I stop thinking “this character is like that person I know in real life” and find myself thinking “that person kind of reminds me of this character.”

Hidden Things borrows from several fairy tales and mythologies to form a quilt of the modern fantastic: what’s your favorite creature from myth or fairy tales?

How could I say anything but dragons? They can be anything from bestial to nigh-omnipotent — range from foolish and comical to pure, terrifying forces of nature. Any mythical creature is really just another way for humans to look at ourselves in a mirror, and dragons are wonderful because they can reflect the absolute best or the absolute worst in us, depending on how they’re used.

Like us, they can be fearsome and arrogant and horrible and destructive, but also a source of incredible wonder and joy.

Like us, their weaknesses are born out of their secrets. I love dragons.

What are your thoughts on how an author writes and handles magic in a story?

My point of view is that when it comes to magic, there pretty much two ways you can handle magic as a writer.

The first way is what I think of as the straight fantasy method. The basic approach in straight fantasy is that magic happens, it’s different than what we think of as “the normal way to do things”, but it’s basically a quantifiable thing. If the main character in The Dying Earth does a spell, it will work thusly, every time, having basically the same effect, and the person casting that spell will be x tired for y hours thereafter, or whatever. There will be some wonder and mystery to the whole thing at the beginning of the story, but over the course of the book (or book series) pretty much everything gets spelled out to the point where magic is essentially just a second set of Physics laws that only a few people know, but which everyone has to obey.

The second way is what I used to call “fairy-tale-style magic” and have since started referring to as magical realism, because it’s a poncy literary term that nevertheless seems to fit. The basic approach in this style of writing is that you don’t get the “how” behind weird stuff that happens. Why does cold iron hurt faeries? Who cares? It does, so let’s just move on. I think one of the key elements of this kind of story is that a lot of the ‘natives’ in a story like this — the Hidden Things, I guess — don’t think of magic as being anything other than The Way Things Are, and constant questions about the Hows and the Whys make them roll their eyes like you’re a kid who keeps asking why grass is green and the sky is blue. It just is, kid; shut up and eat your ice cream. More importantly — maybe most importantly — is the idea that explaining the magic takes away the magic.

As a reader, I like both approaches. If you need examples, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series is a contemporary example of straight fantasy in a modern setting, and it appeals to a lot of people, including me, if I’m in the right mood; most of the stuff Neil Gaiman writes follows the second style.

As a writer, I’m very strongly drawn to the second style.

Some of my friends have said that this is at least partly because I have a long history of playing role-playing games, and if I want to tell a story where the rules are all laid out and specific and clear, I’ll sit down with some friends and play a game, rather than write a book. I see no reason to argue with that; they know me pretty well.

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