Can you tell us how “Cup and Table” started for you?
Let me delve back mentally into the realms of pre-history, around 2005, when I actually wrote it . . . I’d had ideas for the characters—especially Sigmund and Carlsbad—for ages, and kept trying to come up with a novel about them, without success. Then I heard that Susan Marie Groppi and David Moles were going to edit an anthology called Twenty Epics, featuring short stories with an epic feel and scope. So I decided that was my solution to finally writing this novel: I’d do it as a 6,000 word story instead.
So I thought up a big plot, smashed the whole storyline with a hammer, picked up the shiniest pieces, and made a non-linear mosaic out of them. (But the non-linearity is actually justified, maybe even required, by the nature of the story, so it’s not just a gimmick.)
Susan and David liked it, and published it, and the story has been one of my most popular ever since, getting picked up for a Year’s Best anthology and reprinted here and there (and now here!).
It has the best ending I’ve ever written.
You’ve produced a lot of well-regarded work. Do you have any secrets or tips for writers who want to level up?
Write a lot, and write different sorts of things—different viewpoints, different genres, different forms, different tones (to avoid writing the same story over and over and over and never improving). Finish things, and once they’re as good as you can make them, move on to a new story—don’t eternally polish a single piece of prose. Practice, practice, practice. I wrote well over a hundred stories before I sold one (and my first several published stories, while I have affection for them, are frankly nothing special). Don’t get discouraged by rejection. It’s just part of the business.
We have lots of tales of future-seers and the like. Why did you focus on the ability to see into the past?
Precisely because we have lots of stories of people with precognitive abilities, and not so many about people who see the past (the odd character with psychometric abilities aside), so it was more interesting for me. Seeing the past can be very useful; much of history is just as mysterious as the future.
I also have some problems with stories that turn on seeing the future, because that implies the future is fixed and unchangeable, and since I violently reject the concepts of fate and destiny, I don’t go in for that sort of story much. When I do have characters who see the future, they tend to see multiple possible futures. (Though sometimes in my deterministic moods I do wonder if the future is fixed, if whatever happens is the only thing that can happen, by definition—but that worldview doesn’t make for very dynamic fiction.)
There are also some thematic elements about dwelling on the past, and regret, and nostalgia, but I can’t remember if I had that in mind when I wrote the story or if I just see it after the fact.
A lot of details struck me, but the most evocative for me was Sigmund dropping the subway token on the body of The Old Doctor. The tokens appear later. Can you tell us some more about this?
The tokens are just one of the million weird little details I don’t even try to explain—the story is full of “exposition around the edges,” little throwaway things that imply a vaster universe where the story takes place. In my mind the tokens are sort of like the coins that people used to put on the eyes of the dead to pay the ferryman to take you into the afterlife—some kind of magical token to aid your journey to the land of the dead, a last kindness that a colleague can bestow upon you. I have a couple of stories that involve subway train rides to the underworld, and the tokens are an oblique reference to that sort of thing.
This is a big narrative universe, with all manner of mythology making appearances, yet the focus appears to be on a higher God above all of it, and divinity conferred to mortals as well. How do you see this universe structured?
I needed a single all-powerful creator in order for the ending to work, and I was also making references to quests for the Holy Grail, and to the Knights Templar, etc., so a single deity (perceived as a male, even) seemed in order. He’s definitely a deistic watchmaker sort of god: He created the universe, set it spinning, and then wandered off, leaving his creation behind. (Maybe it was a first draft he abandoned.) All sorts of weird things developed in that god’s absence, including monsters, superpowers, demigods, etc., sort of like an untended garden going wild. Part of Sigmund’s wish at the end is a desire to keep the universe from going to hell.
What’s next for you?
Books, books, always books. I’ve done a couple of roleplaying game novels lately, indulging my love for sword-and-sorcery—my Forgotten Realms novel Venom In Her Veins just came out, and a Pathfinder Tales novel called City of the Fallen Sky will be along shortly. I’m co-editing a literary fantasy/SF anthology called Rags and Bones with the great Melissa Marr, which should be out next year, and I have a not-exactly-steampunk novel coming out later this year under a pseudonym that’s currently secret but that I expect to reveal after the book hits the shelves. And that’s not even counting the things I’m writing now . . .
I may get around to writing a Cup and Table novel someday, though of necessity, it would have to be a prequel.