Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Nik Houser

Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired “The Drawstring Detective”?

I usually take notes on a story for months or years before beginning work on it, because if I don’t blueprint my stories first, they go radically off the rails in shitty ways. When I was accepted to the 2012 Clarion West workshop, I hadn’t written any fiction in about a year. I’d been working on other writing projects, but stopped everything to brainstorm ideas to take to CW. Suddenly I needed to have five stories completely mapped out in a matter of months. And while some stories have a natural genesis, which usually begins with a conversational snippet or scene in a movie which makes you think “Huh, wouldn’t it be interesting if . . .,” the idea for “The Drawstring Detective” just appeared out of nowhere, cut from whole cloth, which is very unusual for me. Writing the story at the workshop was also a surprisingly natural and comparatively painless process. And by comparatively, I mean one of your testicles spontaneously exploding is comparatively less painful than, say, being burned alive.

Can you tell us about your writing process? What’s a typical writing day like for you?

My writing process involves a more live human sacrifice than I’m willing to admit to on record. For real, though, on any given weekday, my alarm clock goes off at 4:00 a.m. so that I can get up and write before going to my day job. I don’t actually get up at 4:00. I usually hit snooze for a couple of hours until I have to get up, shower, and go to work for nine to twelve hours, then come home too tired to do anything but have dinner and fall asleep on the couch with my dinner plate on my chest and contact lenses still stuck to my eyes. So, my typical writing day doesn’t involve any writing at all, unfortunately. An atypical writing day would be me actually writing, by which I mean taking a zillion notes before writing the rough draft as fast as I can and, if I manage to actually finish the story rather than abandon it, going back and doing seven to fifteen drafts in an attempt to make it readable.

I enjoyed the humor in this story. You have a background in humor, from performing stand-up comedy to writing comics. What are the challenges to writing humorous fiction?

For me, the challenge is making the humor original, but accessible. I tend to go too far with my humor, by default. So it becomes a balancing act of being surprising enough that it’s unique, but not so surprising, random, or crude that it isolates the reader. The humor in “The Drawstring Detective” was a challenge because I wanted those moments to offer both levity as well as insight into the character of the detective. The other challenge with writing humor is balancing it with pathos, blending comedy and tragedy in order to enhance both elements. If I can make you laugh and cry in the same story, then my dreams are coming true.

How did attending the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop change your writing? What’s the best writing advice you ever received and who gave it to you?

Clarion West was the best thing that could’ve happened to me as a writer. I owe so much to that organization and to the people I shared the workshop with . . . it’s a debt that I fear I can never fully repay. How did it change me as a writer? Well . . .

It put twenty-four objective but encouraging voices in my head (seventeen classmates and seven instructors). When I’m writing and editing, I’m wondering how they would react to what I’m doing. Would B believe this character’s motivation? Would Alyc think this was sexist or sexy? How many assholes would George RR Martin tear into this story? Less than seven? Then it’s submission time!

The pure opportunities it presented were invaluable. Case in point: My Week Five instructors, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, read a story I’d written for Week Three and bought it for an anthology called Monstrous Affections. Where else would that happen other than in my wildest dreams?

Most importantly though, it gave me a family of writers. I have a tribe now. When you’re a writer, it’s easy to feel like an orphan of sorts, because you’re doing something that’s not only isolating, but discouraging as well. But now I’m part of a family of those orphans, those misfit toys. A huge percentage of human endeavor is executed with the simple motivation of trying not to feel alone, and I never will be, thanks to the friends I made there. In the first year of our acquaintance, the eighteen of us literally exchanged over 10,000 emails.

The best writing advice I ever received came from two people. I met Stephen King once, and of all the things I could have asked him, because I am a giant dork, I asked him if he ever experienced posture-related writing problems. Long story short, he relayed to me some good tips on posture which he received from his hero, Richard Matheson. The other great piece of writing advice was from my college mentor and friend, the amazing Kit Reed. I was in her kitchen, stressed and agonizing and hating writing and struggling to hold it together as a person and as a writer, and after I unpacked all this emotional baggage in front of her, she looked at me and simply said, not unkindly, “Who said writing was fun?” And all at once, everything I’d ever felt, or would ever feel, about the writing process suddenly made sense.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about “The Drawstring Detective”? What’s next for you?

I hope your readers enjoy it. I really do. Without readers, story is just masturbation. I want my masturbation to have an audience. And if there’s anyone still reading after that sentence, I’d love to share that I’ve got a story coming out soon (possibly in the January/February issue) in F&SF called “History’s Best Places to Kiss” about a couple who goes back in time to prevent themselves from falling in love in order to prevent a protracted divorce. That was another story written at Clarion West, in this case for Connie Willis, because holy shit Connie Willis!!!

As for what’s next, I was working a novel recently and discovered a typo: I had typed “its” without an apostrophe, but what I was supposed to write was an entirely different novel. So I’m working on that now.

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Kevin McNeil

Kevin McNeilKevin McNeil is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and The Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Intensive Novel Workshop, led by Kij Johnson. His fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction and is forthcoming in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Kevin is a New Englander currently living in California. Find him on Twitter @kevinmcneil.