Charles Tan interviews Jason Ockert

Jason Ockert is the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated author of the short story “Max.”

In “Max,” it’s a simple conceit, but what made you do the interplay between MACS and Max? Did the title and the character gestate into the story immediately or was it a later addition?

First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this, Charles.  I sincerely appreciate it.

Now, to the questions.  Are you asking, “Which came first, the crow or the egg?”  (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself…)

Max came first.  I needed to have the boy in order to have the absence of the boy.  In this story, I tried to excavate some of the nuanced ways in which people—individuals and communities—grapple with grief.  Instead of offering condolences and baking pies, the mothers in this town take up arms and follow the leader of the loss.  Max’s mother, perhaps unconsciously, creates the acronym (Mothers Against Crows) as a coping mechanism.  Maybe it’s “easier” (if not misplaced) to take your anger and sadness out on something physical rather than navigating the slippery caverns of the mind?  Maybe with each downed bird the ache lessens?  The mother, with the help of the MACS, endeavors to find out.

As I chased after the story—developing the characters, creating the setting, establishing the mood—elements like Max/MACS began to rise to the surface.  I just tried to do justice to the ideas.

Why did you choose crows to be a recurring theme in the story? What is it about them that makes them creepy?

Sometimes I get the seed (pumpkin?) for a story from the landscape around me.  Many years ago I lived in the Finger Lakes region of Western New York and I had this very long commute to and from the college where I taught.  That commute afforded me a lot of time to think.  In the late fall, I passed this pumpkin patch every day.  Not well-versed in pumpkin farming, I wondered what the farmer was going to do with the fruit after Halloween.  Well, as far as I could tell, the farmer didn’t do anything; just let them rot.  Somehow, as I zipped back and forth past that field, the story found me.

Speaking of landscape, there are a lot of damned crows in that neck of the woods.  Auburn, New York actually does (or did) have an annual crow-hunting contest.  I started conjuring the characters by considering what kinds of folks did the hunting and what kinds of people did the protesting.

As far as crows go, I find them fascinating.  (Does that make me creepy?)  Myths about the bird are woven into many cultures.  Ornithologists suggest that they are pretty smart, too.  As a lover of language, my interest in the etymology of “eating crow” led me to Rudyard Kipling’s fascinating story, “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes.”

The birds are multi-faceted and they made sense, to me, to hold up as a mirror against the post-Max Graff family.  

What’s the appeal of the short story format for you?

Nothing can break your heart like a good short story.  Since there isn’t a ton of time to make sense of a shorter narrative you can often trick the heart into feeling something before the pesky brain goes to work dissecting, dissecting, dissecting.  I like that a short story can create its own logic and that you can carry the world—the sentences—around with you as you move about the hum-drum day.

That being said, I’ve recently finished writing a novel which is in search of a good home.  It features the loneliness of aging, wine, and brain-eating parasitic wasps.  Buzz, buzz.

Charles Tan interviews Kit Reed

Kit Reed is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated short story collection What Wolves Know.

Hi Kit! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, for your collection What Wolves Know, what was your criteria for selecting the stories that went into the collection?

I chose the stories I chose because of the ones I’d published since the “Dogs of Truth” collection, they were my favorites. “Monkey Do” because it’s funny and I wrote it in a single day! The others, like “What Wolves Know” and “Song of the Black Dog” are, I don’t know, denser than most of my earlier stories– more going on, and at more levels. This is true of all of them, especially “Missing Sam,” which basically sums up a woman’s lifetime– it’s based on something that happened in one of the towns I grew up in, to somebody I never actually knew. I like the new stories because it’s nature’s way of telling me that my work has gotten better than it was when I first started publishing short stories back when dinosaurs walked.

Your body of work spans decades of writing. What makes you keep coming back to the short story format?

In this particular case, I had a run of short stories because I broke the absolute HELL out of my leg: cadaver graft, Zimmer plate, cables and screws, three months on crutches and four more on a cane, which meant for the first three months I spent a lot of time on the sofa (not allowed to put weight on that leg or their rotten hardware might break). With a serious injury, your concentration goes to hell for at least a year. There was no way I could even contemplate a novel. Too many particles to hold in my head. Short stories, I could manage (I finished “Camp Nowhere” in the first 2 weeks out of the hospital), and at least two thirds of these stories were written within that year.

In the afterword, Joseph Reed makes a good case for not pigeonholing your writing into any genre. How would you describe your fiction?

I think I hit on the right explanation when I coined “transgenred.” In short, I do what I have to because I have to do it, wouldn’t know a trope if I fell into one and truth to tell, I don’t belong ANYWHERE. It isn’t sad, it’s liberating, although I pay for it, i.e. I can’t be slotted ergo am harder to sell. Freedom is interesting. Some stuff goes to lit mags (Kenyon Review, a story this summer in The Yale Review and two coming in Asimov’s later this year). I do what I want because I have to do it and when it’s done I sit back and hope to God somebody wants it… and usually somebody does. Severn House will be publishing a novel it took me 8 years to get right– Son of Destruction– this fall in the UK and next March pretty much simultaneously with the Wesleyan University Press’s giant collection The Story Until Now: a Retrospective. Wow, 2013 will be a two book year. So as long as I can keep doing what I’m doing, I’m grateful… especially to editors and publishers willing to bring it into print.

Charles Tan interviews Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn in the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominees Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Desire (collection) and Omphalos (novelette).

For Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors, what was your approach when it comes to selecting the stories that went into the collection?

When Steve Berman of Lethe Press first brought up the idea of my publishing a collection, we both agreed it would be erotica, not horror or dark fantasy. So I initially had a very different set of stories I was going to put in the book. But when I found out that Laird Barron was writing the introduction, I felt it would be better to shape the collection around my darkest fiction. At first it seemed like a kind of impossible hodgepodge of styles, all with varying amounts of erotic and fantastical content. But once I decided on the final ten stories, I realized I could place them in an order that would make each story compliment the one before and behind it – a jigsaw puzzle, if you will, with different shapes coming together to create the whole. The stories with the least amount of supernatural elements were placed in the beginning of the collection, so that as the reader progressed through the book, they’d find themselves in increasingly fantastic worlds and situations – much like the protagonists, who all physically and emotionally journey from deceptively ordinary to extraordinary worlds and situations.

Could you share with us your writing process? You mentioned before that a part of you suffers whenever you write, but once you begin, you endure until it’s finished.

I spent about twenty years in the theatre, and it took a long time to find a method that worked for me as an actor. Creating a believable character is a difficult process – you can only rely so much on technical skills such as vocal and movement training. At some point, you have to do some serious and often deeply personal emotional mining – what that mining entails is largely different for each actor, depending on the method they’ve been trained in (Strasberg, Meisner, etc.). I don’t feel comfortable going into specifics, but I’ll say that the emotional process that I used as an actor – Meisner – is more or less the same process I use as a writer. Most of my protagonists live through horrific and emotionally life-altering experiences, and for me, I need to feel what they’re going through or I can’t write it. So, yes, I do often force myself to re-experience emotionally cataclysmic events in my life, events which birthed the emotions and actions I now give to my protagonists. It’s not a comfortable process – it’s not supposed to be. The payoff is a better story than what I would have written by merely skimming the surface of my feelings, a story that brings catharsis and closure to me as a writer, and hopefully to the reader as well. So, enduring the emotional pain the process creates is worth it.

What made you decide to combine darkness and sensuality into fiction? How would you describe your writing?

It was never a conscious decision on my part to combine those two elements. I had written a YA dark fantasy novel in 2004, and sent it out to numerous and often scathing (but well-deserved) rejections. Eventually I accepted that my writing wasn’t at the artistic and technical levels needed for publication, but I didn’t know what was missing or how to fix it. Rather than starting another novel, I decided to tackle short fiction for a while and see if that changed anything. The first story I wrote was “Brimstone Orange”, for a ChiZine flash fiction contest in 2005 – and right there, the sensuality and darkness were in the words, they were an integral part of that story and its style. And I can’t point to any one decision to write it that way – all I know is that the act of writing a 500-word story jump-started the process of freeing the qualities my fiction needed that the act of writing a 120,000 word novel couldn’t do. Sometimes you need to experience something significantly, radically different in order to make a significant, radical change.

As far as describing my writing: it’s horror. My stories have been called dark fantasy, erotica, Lovecraftian, weird – lots of adjectives that are probably all more marketable than the word “horror”. And they’re all absolutely applicable to my writing, but at the end of the day, I call it horror, because I love the genre and I’m proud to say that’s what it is.

Charles Tan interviews Jack Dann and Nick Gevers

Jack Dann and Nick Gevers are the editors of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated anthology GHOSTS BY GASLIGHT.


How did you come up with the concept of combining the supernatural and steampunk?

NICK GEVERS: I’ve been a fan of steampunk for almost as long as the term has existed, since the late Eighties, and a few years back I edited an original steampunk anthology, Extraordinary Engines, with a strong author line-up. What could I do to follow this? Jack (much the more experienced partner in the enterprise!) joining me, we put two considerations together. First (contrary to what some people assert) steampunk can easily concern the supernatural rather than focusing narrowly on steam-driven technology–for example, the early steampunk masterpiece by Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates, is all about sorcery, as is probably the best current series exemplary of the subgenre, the Western Lights sequence by Jeffrey E. Barlough. Second, apart from the early-SF scientific romance form (think Jules Verne and H. G. Wells) that steampunk has inherited from the Victorian era, something else from that time has retained a lot of popularity: the great old-fashioned ghost story. So why not a major anthology showing off the ghostly, supernatural side of things a century and more ago, with steam-engines and other gadgets playing a still important, but somewhat supporting, part?

With good input from Diana Gill, our excellent editor at Voyager, the Ghosts by Gaslight package swiftly came fully together.

What was the collaboration process like?

NICK GEVERS: It went very smoothly. My taste in short SF and fantasy was in important respects shaped by my early reading of anthologies edited by Jack and his old friend Gardner Dozois. And I’ve long admired Jack’s own writing. So a certain awe to be working with Jack played a part! And Jack is a very genial, and congenial, person, exuding a mellow calm even via email, so my occasional bouts of panic and overexcitement were ably smoothed down.

We generally concurred on the author and story choices. Jack has very high standards, but I was able to sneak one or two penny dreadfuls past his vigilant defences…

What were your criteria for selecting the contributors or choosing the stories that went into the book?

NICK GEVERS: We invited our favourite writers, pretty much. Of course, not all were able to contribute. But most did, and I think we achieved something of an ideal line-up for an anthology of this kind. A bevy of the leading Australian writers Jack knows so well: Garth Nix, Sean Williams, Margo Lanagan, Richard Harland, Terry Dowling, and John Harwood, whom Sean very kindly recruited for us from the mainstream literary side. And a small army of top American short fiction authors: the legendary Robert Silverberg, my long-standing idols Lucius Shepard, Gene Wolfe, Peter S. Beagle, Paul Park, Jeffrey Ford, and James Morrow, the brilliant young lions of horror Laird Barron and John Langan, and those grand mistresses of the mytho-poetic, Theodora Goss and Marly Youmans. Not bad!

Of course not all of these writers had produced steampunk or neo-Victorian stories before. But it’s always refreshing to get novel takes on a theme. I think we’ve broadened the reach of steampunk and given the traditional ghost story a new edge or two.

JACK DANN: As you can see, Nick has answered the queries with his usual perspicacity. Alas, now you know my secret of collaboration: work with someone smart!

Nick is a generous soul, so allow me to set the record straight. He had the idea and (if my recollection is correct) the title for the anthology. He kindly asked me if I’d like to come aboard, which I most certainly did. This has been a labor of love for everyone involved. It’s a joy to put together a collection like this. A blessing on Nick…and manifold blessings on our editor, our publicist, our agent, and–especially–our authors!

Oh, one last comment: Although Nick and I have a wonderful give-and-take working relationship, we’ve never met…never even talked on the phone. As collaborators, we’re ghostly creatures of email and the Internet. So, in a sense, two presences, one in Australia, the other in South Africa, edited a book about ghosts by communicating through a medium that our ancestors would have called the æther.

The Horror, The Horror: Writing Horror Fiction with Substance workshop at Litreactor for SJA


Brett Cox, John Langan, Sarah Langan, and Paul Tremblay (current board of trustee members) are running a horror writing workshop at Litreactor. We’re donating our proceeds to help support our beloved Shirley Jackson Awards.

Spread the word and/or take the class. It’ll be fun. We promise.

Class starts June 4th. Workshop details are here.