APEX MAGAZINE: What sparked the idea for “Sprig” and made you want to write it down?
ALEX BLEDSOE: The initial inspiration came from taking my kids to their first Renaissance Faire this summer. My own history with renaissance fairs is pretty iffy, so I resolved to try to see the experience through their eyes. And that was the right decision, because it was amazing to see them just accept elves, trolls and other people in costume, with no critical faculty and no judgment. I also saw one of the performers not only help a little boy find his parents, but keep him engaged in conversation so he wouldn’t get scared. It was a minor thing—the parents were twenty feet away, the kid just couldn’t see them in the crowd, and the parents knew exactly where he was—but it gave me the idea for the story.
I was also in the midst of revisions on Wisp of a Thing, my upcoming second Tufa novel. Although it’s not explicitly stated, and certainly isn’t necessary for anyone to “get” the story, I worked under the assumption that Sprig was, in fact, a Tufa teenager working a summer job away from Cloud County, perhaps in a sort of Tufa version of the Amish rumspringa.
AM: It can be a difficult challenge to write a story in so short a framework (about 1,000 words for “Sprig”). How do you approach writing such a snug little story, while also providing a satisfying story arc and memorable characters—even if only seen for a very short period of time?
AB: I had no pre-set length in mind, I just started writing to see where it went. It was really just the scene with the boy and the fairy, and anything I added, whether before or after that, such as showing the family arrive at the Ren Faire, or showing Sprig interacting with other performers, seemed to lessen the impact. So I essentially followed one of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules, which is “Start as close to the end as possible.”
AM: I, personally, am a huge fan of fantastical stories drawing heavily from real-world settings and backdrops. “Sprig” does this, setting a real fairy in a real-life Renaissance Faire, mixing magic and the familiar struggles of day-to-day experience. Your Memphis Vampire series (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood), as well as The Hum and the Shiver, are all set very much in the “real world:” what draws you to the combination of fantastical and everyday elements?
AB: Partly—a large partly—is because I want the world to be that way. I want there to be fairies in East Tennessee and vampires in Memphis. I want the world to be more than what it seems to be, both for myself and for my kids. And if I can’t make it that way, I can at least depict what that world would be like.
There’s also a much more practical consideration. Whenever you ask a reader to accept something patently ridiculous (like fairies in East Tennessee or vampires in Memphis), you have to make those things realistic enough to suspend disbelief. If you start with the real world, it actually makes it easier, because then the fairies and vampires are reacting to, and interacting with, the same things the reader does every day. I also write a secondary-world fantasy series where I have to make up everything, and creating that level of reality from scratch, so that it has the same weight and depth as “real” reality, is pretty difficult.
AM: Indeed! Your Eddie LaCrosse novels are all set in a secondary fantasy world. Do you have any particular tricks or tactics that you try to incorporate into secondary worlds to help readers make that reality connection? Any particular pitfalls you’ve seen in other second-world fantasy novels or stories that new writers might want to avoid or be cautious of using/falling into?
AB: The obvious trick, or trope, or pretentious twaddle (depending on who you ask) is that I use contemporary names—Eddie, Liz, Phil, Harry, and so forth—instead of something more traditionally “fantasy.” That’s totally deliberate, and with a definite purpose: to remove as many obstacles as possible to the reader’s emotional identification with the characters. As a reader, I’m always put off by character names I can’t immediately pronounce. That all originates with Tolkein, of course, who had the academic background to make sure his odd character names meant something within their cultures. What other writers took away from that, though, is that fantasy=weird names. Perhaps my response is an over-reaction, but you need extremes in order to identify the middle, right?
The second thing I’ve consciously avoided is Joseph Campbell. I appreciate Campbell’s work, and enjoy reading and referring to it, but ever since George Lucas told the world he based Star Wars on it, it’s become the default fantasy narrative. Again as a reader, I’m sick to death of Chosen Ones, prophecies to be fulfilled and farm boys who secretly have the power to move worlds. It’s a fine story, but it’s been done, and done again. In that sort of story, a character like Eddie LaCrosse would have no role but the mentor figure, and would probably die to force the hero to grow up.
AM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you “got serious” about making it as an author in the 1990s—what was the trigger that finally made you focus down and get serious?
AB: Some events in my personal life, and the trauma of turning thirty, gave me the wake-up call I needed. Before that, I’d always written, but I’d never thought of it as my career, just a hobby that might one day pay off. A lot of that attitude was due to being surrounded by family who were less than supportive, telling me things like, “if you were going to make it as writer, you would have done it by now.” I realized that if I was going to prove them wrong, I had to start living as if writing was my real career, and whatever job I held was just to pay the bills. I downsized my life, moved into a bright blue efficiency apartment in Mobile, AL, and started writing for real. The first story I wrote after that decision was also the first story I sold, which I took as a sign.
AM: When you approach writing a new novel, do you find that you typically plan out your steps through the story, or do you write from the cuff for the first draft? Does it vary by project?
AB: Typically, my novels start with a basic “what if?” idea. For example, “what if medieval people saw dragons the same way we see nuclear weapons?” was the spur of Burn Me Deadly. That suggested a riff on the opening scene of Kiss Me Deadly, one of the definitive Cold War detective films, and also clearly the inspiration for the book’s title. With that as a start, I made some other decisions based on the fact that this would be a second novel in a potential series. So where the first novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, covered a lot of area both geographically and chronologically, this new novel would take place in linear time, and in one place. And clearly, if dragons were implied by the title and the concept, they had to appear, so I had to decide what they were, how they operated, and so forth. So while I didn’t put together an actual event-by-event outline, I had a pretty good idea of the structure in my head when I started writing. And I’ve used this same approach for all my novels, so far.
AM: Is there any element of story mechanics—such as character-creation, world-building, narrative prose, plot/conflict, or dialogue—that you find comes with particular ease to you? Is there any element of writing that you find more challenging than others?
AB: Dialogue comes really easy to me. A lot of that, I’m sure, comes from reading the great masters of dialogue: Chandler, Hammett, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, and so forth. But it also just seems to be an innate knack, for which I can’t really take credit. I try to write the kind of dialogue I love reading: fast-paced, filled with snappy comebacks and knowing put-downs. In real life we learn a lot about people from what they say, so I try to make my dialogue serve the same purpose.
Plot is by far the hardest thing. If I can’t generate a plot out of the characters themselves, I’m in trouble, because whenever I start with just a plot, the story feels forced and artificial. That’s why so many of my novels begin with a precipitating event and the plot develops from the implications of that: Bronwyn Hyatt returning from Iraq in The Hum and the Shiver, for example, or the coffin arriving at the beginning of Dark Jenny.
AM: From the outside, to shoppers only seeing the finished novel in pristine condition on the bookstore shelves, and thanks to Hollywood’s cigarette-smoking / scotch-drinking / typewriter-pounding / angst-ridden writer mystique, authors can seem like strange, mystical sorcerers who pull brilliant prose and living characters out of thin air. The reading public doesn’t often get to see the day-by-day grind an author goes through to produce that finely polished prose and those memorable characters, which is probably why I absolutely love your Writers Day videos on your blog. What made you start filming those little windows into your writing life, and what do you hope viewers take away from them?
AB: We *are* mystical sorcerers. I have on a pointed hat right now. It says “Dunce,” which I’m told is pronounced, “dun-say,” Italian for “Magician of Words.” That’s right, isn’t it?
My agent suggested making some videos, and I decided the easiest thing would be to just shoot little videos of what I’d be doing anyway and try to make them interesting. It can be tricky, since so much of what writers do takes place in our heads, and watching people stare into space isn’t the most dynamic thing in the world. It’s also why, despite that plethora of films you mention that are about writers, very few of them show writers actually *writing,* because from the outside it’s incredibly dull.
If there’s anything I hope people take away, it’s an understanding that writing is actual *work.* No, it’s not physical like roofing or farm work, but we still put in our eight hours. And as publishing changes around us, as eBooks and piracy and the sheer flood of new writers takes advantage of the new ease of publication, we’re facing the same economic realities as everyone else, and responding in the same way: we work harder, we cross our fingers, and we look over our shoulders a lot.
AM: You mention eBooks, which forces me to ask: are you an e-reader, or a tree-reader, or both? What do you prefer about the format(s), whether one is preferential or not? As I recall, all the books in your Writers Day videos are in physical print, but I’ve learned with writers never to make assumptions about these things.
AB: As a writer, however someone chooses to read one of my stories is absolutely fine with me. But as a reader, I’m old-school enough to prefer tree-readers, although I do have an e-reader app on my iPad. My wife, though, reads probably 75% of the time on her iPad.
AM: The Firefly Witch and subsequent chapbooks are available only via eBook. Did you go through a traditional publisher for these, or are they more of a personal enterprise? What motivated the decision to publish these particular stories in this format?
AB: My agent suggested I brush them up and put them out as e-chapbooks, three or four stories for a couple of bucks, through Story Vault. Tanna Tully, the Firefly Witch, was my first continuing character. As I said earlier, the first story I wrote after deciding to “get serious” was also the first story I sold, and that was a Firefly Witch story. The problem was, they weren’t strictly horror stories, nor were they strictly anything else; at the time, “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” didn’t exist as genres, and the concept of the “mash-up” was synonymous with “unmarketable.” So although I sold a few to both small-press horror and Pagan-themed magazines, they never quite took off, so they went back in my trunk until now.
AM: For those of our readers who have yet to familiarize themselves with your longer works, what book (or series) would you recommend first, and why start there?
AB: I’d start with either The Hum and the Shiver, if you prefer stories with a contemporary setting, or The Sword-Edged Blonde, if you like full-blown high fantasy. If you’re sick of vampires who sparkle and mope, you might enjoy Blood Groove, set in Memphis in the 70s and featuring vampires you definitely don’t want to cuddle up with.
AM: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the coming months/year?
AB: The second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing, will be out next year. In 2014 the next Eddie LaCrosse novel will be out, and there’s an Eddie short story in the collection, The New Hero, Volume 2. I’ve also got some other short stories here and there, including my eBook chapbooks (is e-chapbook a word yet?) in the Firefly Witch series. And I’m working on new stuff unrelated to any of these others.
AM: Thanks so much for volunteering the time for this interview, Mr. Bledsoe, and for sharing “Sprig” with us here at Apex Magazine!