In your story, “The Black Bird,” you play metafictionally with Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Even the title combines the two. What prompted such a mashup?
I wrote this story at the Clarion writers workshop in 1999. This is when Clarion was in Michigan. It was extremely hot and muggy that summer, and the dorms had no AC. The walls were also very thin, and the people across the hall from me were having sex constantly, and I could hear every word and/or moan, which made it challenging to sleep or write. So I was constantly hot and exhausted and drifting in and out of sleep, and when I’m too hot I tend to have really strange, vivid dreams. I had just read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon a few months before, and for whatever reason I had this vision of scraping away the lacquer to reveal lead, and then scraping away the lead to reveal something else, and then scraping away that to reveal something else, and so on. I also had the idea that this black bird statue would be talking to you while you were doing this, which of course put me in mind of Poe’s poem. So that’s where the basic idea came from.
You wrote this story originally at Clarion. What was that like? How have you changed as a writer since then?
I don’t think I ever would have written a story like this if not for the workshop, because the workshop puts pressure on you to produce stories fairly rapidly, and this was such a strange idea that I was never quite sure what to make of it, and I don’t know if I ever would have felt confident under normal circumstances that it was thought-through enough to commit to paper. Even after I wrote it, I just had no idea whether it was any good or made any sense. When I finally showed it to my classmates, the response was very mixed. Some people liked it, some were indifferent, and some hated it. The last two people to offer their opinions were one of my classmates, Mike Canfield, and our author guest, Mike Resnick. Mike Canfield said, “When I finished reading this, the first thing I wrote was ‘This story is nearly perfect.’ Then I crossed out the ‘nearly.’” He then proceeded to lambast everyone who’d criticized the story as philistines. (Passions can run pretty high at Clarion—at least they did at ours.) Then Mike Resnick had the last word. He said something to the effect of, “All right, everyone who didn’t like this story, you’re all crazy. This is brilliant. If I got this as an editor, I’d buy it in a New York minute.” He then told me privately that if the story didn’t sell, he’d edit an anthology specifically for the purpose of getting the story into print.
In terms of how I’ve changed as a writer, well, back when I wrote this story I was trying to write as many stories as quickly as possible and just learn how to do it well—I think I wrote something like twenty-five stories in 1999. But a lot of those were really underdeveloped, and tended to be maybe 2500 words on average. These days I only write a couple stories a year at most, but they tend to be about twice as long, and are pretty reliably interesting and well-developed, I think. But my basic sensibilities haven’t changed much. I like quick pacing, witty dialogue, violence, philosophy, pop culture, and startling plot twists, and that’s remained pretty consistent from early childhood to the present.
This story has been reprinted several times. To what do you think does it owe its lasting appeal?
Yeah, the story originally appeared on Gothic.net, and then was reprinted twice by Mike Resnick—true to his word—in his anthologies New Voices in Science Fiction and The Dragon Done It, and now again in Lightspeed. I know Mike Resnick is a big Sam Spade fan, so it probably didn’t hurt that I just happened to hand him a story featuring one of his favorite characters. But other than that I think editors are interested in the story because it’s different. You may have read a million variations on robots or vampires or whatever, but how often do you read a story about Hammett, Poe, and philosophy? It sticks in your mind. I also think it’s short enough that you don’t get bored. It grabs your attention, then there’s a mystery, then it ends with a bang, all in 1500 words.
You studied writing at many places, including Clarion and the University of Southern California, and now you teach writing to young people at the Alpha workshop. How have your studies, and your own teaching, informed your writing?
Doing the MFA at USC and teaching at Alpha put me in contact with a lot of college-age students, which definitely informed stories such as “Blood of Virgins” and “Save Me Plz,” which involve college life and which are two of my favorites. I’ve always found that the best way to be sure that you actually understand something is to try to explain it to someone else, so teaching can be very useful in that respect, especially if you’re actually offering concrete suggestions about word choice and story structure. Unfortunately I think a lot of writing classes tend to give feedback that’s very vague and spacey and useless. I always try to give concrete suggestions. Rewrite the sentence this way, etc. Then half the time the students disagree with me, but that’s fine. At least then they’re thinking about what the choices are. And it’s certainly made my own writing a lot clearer, because I’ve spent so much time analyzing student writing and trying to articulate why their sentences often don’t make sense.
What do you have coming down the pipeline?
My most recent stories are “Power Armor: A Love Story” in Armored and “Three Deaths” in Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom, both edited by John Joseph Adams. John and I have also produced almost seventy episodes of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, in which we discuss science fiction and interview guests such as George R. R. Martin, Richard Dawkins, Simon Pegg, and Paul Krugman. That’s taken most of my creative energy the past few years, but I’ve also been working on a longer project whose working title is “The Sword of Ontology.” It’s a sword & sorcery adventure set against a backdrop of constant religious and philosophical uncertainly. In Hollywood they’d pitch it as “Game of Thrones meets Lost.” But that probably won’t appear for years, if ever.