Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Interview: Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His books for 2013 and 2014 include Kalimpura and Last Plane to Heaven from Tor and Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh from Prime. His short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. He will be dying soon of terminal metastatic colon cancer.

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Over the course of our friendship, we’ve joked about who had the weirdest childhood. You were born overseas and your childhood was split between the developing nations that your father served in as a member of the Foreign Service and boarding schools. Listening to some of your childhood stories, it sounds like you missed large chunks of US pop culture and instead were exposed to a much broader tapestry to draw from. How do you feel these factors shaped you both as a writer and as a person? In hindsight, what were some of the positives and negatives of this experience?

Absolutely. I grew up overseas in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. This was before satellite TV, VCRs, and media globalization. This meant we relied almost entirely on books for entertainment, even while my age cohort was growing up as the second television generation. Because of living in odd places with limited resources, the reading material was often eclectic. I wound up with the reading habits and history of an SF fan ten or twenty years my senior, and virtually no television or movie viewing history at all.

So, for example, I hadn’t ever seen the entire run of Star Trek (the original series) until 2012, at the age of 48. That only thanks to Netflix, as I haven’t cable TV since 1994, and gave up broadcast a lot earlier than that. As a child, teen, and young adult, I knew more about Kirk and Spock from James Blish’s work than I did from Shatner and Nimoy.

This drove me to rely more on both the written word and in-depth conversation than is perhaps typical of my generation. It also drove me to a certain quickness of conversation when commonly viewed media are the topic. For example, I was about three years late in figuring out that House wasn’t a home improvement show. I cover well, mostly by talking about politics, religion, sex, and other such boring topics.

I also believe this is a significant part of what drove me to be a writer. I went to nine schools in twelve years. I was almost always the new kid, and at least well into high school, very socially isolated and extremely moody. (Which is a polite way of saying I enjoyed what was eventually clinically diagnosed and treated as chronic depression.) Books were my friends, often my only friends.

Within this framework, an interest in writing seems like an extremely natural progression.

You are such a powerhouse of productivity that I once wrote a short story, “Jay Lake and the Inscrutable Alien Story Device,” in which we learn that these mad writing skills actually were given to you by aliens with the intent of preparing us for their arrival. Ten novels, five collections, and over 300 short stories across the course of thirteen years, in addition to about two million words of blogging. But it all had to start with the first story that tipped you into the writing waters. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? And how did you know? What was that first story you wrote and what inspired it? What ever happened to that story?

I wanted to be a writer even when I was a little kid. Except I wanted to be a poet. I occasionally had my poems printed in the local English language daily back in Taiwan during grade school. This ambition persisted through high school. Somewhere in there, I shifted my focus to short stories, specifically as the result of a class assignment to write a piece of gothic fiction in the style of Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland. I wrote a story called “Hempkill,” an epistolary piece about a man in revolutionary France who’d recovered the eagle of a lost Roman legion, and was (perhaps) being pursued by the vengeful ghosts of the legion’s dead. That’s the first short story I can remember writing.

Oddly enough, it still exists today. I found a copy in my file boxes while cleaning out my belongings this year, and had a friend rekey it. They also rekeyed some of my deeply dreadful high school poetry. “Hempkill” was much better.

Here’s the first paragraph:

“’Tis only now, in the Year of Our Lord 1841, that I, Theodore K. Sandusky, feel it is safe to publish the following epistles. I received these communications from my brother, Hempkill P. Sandusky, during the Republican troubles in France near the close of the last century. They were all undated, and no direct indication of location was given, probably both because my brother was always conscious of censorship, as well as for other reasons which shall become self-evident. They arrived here in Baltimore in packets addressed by another hand, always marked from cities in Europe outside of France.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Or perhaps literature.

Everyone asks writers what books or authors influenced them. What are some of the other influences—film, television, games, music, art, political figures, historical figures, and events—that shaped you and your writing? What made those influences so impactful?

Mostly what influenced me was my lifestyle. Growing up overseas, in a household where politics and international relations were dinner table conversation even for young children, gave me a view of the world as a complex and ever-changing interrelation of systems and interests. In effect, I quite early on came to see life as having a plot or a through line. Likewise I came to distrust absolutes and certainties. These conceptions have greatly influenced me as an adult in my civic and political identity, as well as in my writing, parenting, and general lifestyle.

Again, remember that I grew up largely without television and with a very limited exposure to film. Likewise pop culture, so I didn’t become exposed to music until I went to boarding school in the United States as a sophomore. (My freshman year was spent at a missionary boarding school in Nigeria, which is an entire tale of its own.) It really was more politics, history, and events that drove me.

My first political awareness was the fall of Vietnam, and Watergate. My real political coming of age was the late Carter administration—the hostage crisis, specifically—and the travesty that was the election and misrule of Ronald Reagan. That colored me with a certain cynicism and distrust of authority, and a sense that formal collective interests, whether national or religious or cultural, were often at odds or even profoundly inimical to personal interests.

I was very focused on history, both ancient and modern, which again reinforced my somewhat holistic view of the world as a series of interrelated systems with distinct life cycles and rhythms extending over very long baselines of time.

Mix this with the aforementioned fannish reading habits, consuming everything from Andre Norton and the Heinlein juveniles to 1970s Delany and Lord of the Rings, and you can see why my early influences are complex. And worldbuilding comes so naturally to me that I tend to do it even when writing flash.

Later on, of course, came Dungeons & Dragons (I started playing in the brown book days), the New Wave of SF (which I discovered about fifteen years after the fact), cyberpunk, and Gene Wolfe.

As I mentioned above, you have quite a body of work. If you had to pick three Jay Lake pieces—stories or books—that were going to be considered your most definitive works, read and re-read, taught in high schools and universities, for the rest of humankind’s existence, which three would they be and why?

Ho ho. It is to laugh. As if I could . . .

Well, I’ll try.

I suppose my book Green, my short story “The Sky That Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black,” and my novella “The Baby Killers.”

Green is me talking about religion, childhood, what it means to be human, and oddly (for me) what it means to be female. I don’t know if it’s my best book, but Green is also very much about my daughter, and that makes it perhaps my favorite.

“The Sky That Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black” is a short piece about life, mistakes, and atonement. Which in a sense is the journey we all take. It folds my childhood and adult experiences of Asia in with my own interpretation of the classic SFnal sensawunda. I have never written a perfect story, and never will, but that one makes me happy.

“The Baby Killers” because steampunk!!!!! Plus a certain Ken Scholes makes an appearance in that piece as a sociopathic mad scientist.

For as long as I’ve known you, you have been a strong advocate and mentor for new writers, both casually over tater tots and formally on panels and in workshops. I’m honored to be one of the new writers you’ve helped along the way, and I suspect there are many others who cite you as a major influence in the development of their own careers. What brought about this commitment to mentoring? Were you, yourself, mentored? If so, who were some of the writers that shaped you through their own coaching and what specifically did you take away from them?

You hit the nail on the head. I was mentored and helped in more ways than I can count by more people than I can name. So many hands reached out, down, or up to help me climb my own ladder. I will never be able to repay any of them for what they have done for me. All I can do is help others.

This has always been very important to me. I really only stopped convention workshopping when my extended illness made it too costly a use of my limited energy. Likewise, my various forms of support, financial and otherwise, extended as long as I was able to offer them.

As for my own mentors . . . Members of the Slug Tribe, a writers’ group in Austin, Texas that I was a member of all through the 1990s. Members of the Wordos, a writers’ group in Eugene, Oregon that I was a member of through the first half of the 2000s. Jim van Pelt, who never really knew how much he influenced and helped me. Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, who I think do know how much they influenced and helped me. (Kris eventually fired me from her workshop series, telling me to go home and write.) Also my peer or near-peer mentors, including you, John Pitts, Elizabeth Bear, and many others. Later on, professional mentors like Walter Jon Williams, Maureen McHugh, and Beth Meacham.

Most of what I took away from all these folks was a sense of professionalism and an understanding of what it means to be a professional in this field. That’s not about publication credits or remuneration, that’s about working to requirements, knowing when to blow the requirements, meeting deadlines, extending courtesies small and large, even the small, simple things like how to format and submit a manuscript.

As I often say to my daughter, no one is born knowing anything. We all have to learn somewhere. My fiction bubbles up from inside me, but the paths it has taken were in many cases laid down by the kindness, patience, and guidance of many others. The framework in which I could learn what to do with that bubbling up came from those others as well.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Who gave it to you and what made it so helpful? Consequently, what is the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given and what made it unhelpful?

Best advice ever was Ray Vukcevich, who told me, “Cut out all the parts that aren’t interesting.” Unfortunately, that’s the kind of advice that makes sense only after you understand it. I’m still not sure I understand it, but I can’t imagine a better description of the writing and revision process.

Worst advice ever was from someone in the Slug Tribe, I no longer recall whom, who told me, “Writing is not therapy.” Like hell. It’s our individual experiences and pathologies that give each of us writers our distinctive concerns and voices on the page. Just as the most interesting trees are those which have been forced to twist to fit their environment, the most interesting stories are those filtered through genuine, raw human emotion. Colorless, analytical writing has its place, Ghu knows, but fiction should be passionate, and passion arises from the flaws and joints in our souls.

You were the first person I ever heard reference “compassionate humanism.” What does that term mean to you, personally, and at what point did you realize that it was a part of your worldview? Prior to atheism, did you have a religious faith that you held to, strongly or otherwise? How have your views on religion changed—or have they?—over the course of your life as you’ve observed your fellow humans on this big rock in space? How has the cancer diagnosis influenced, or not, your worldview?

To me, compassionate humanism just means the very simple and apparently challenging belief that people are people. It doesn’t matter what church they do or don’t go to, what culture or country they are from, what gender they identify with, where their genetics originated, the orientation of their sexuality, or anything else. Everyone has the potential for a life of the mind and soul. To think otherwise, to punish and ostracize and try to enforce morality, is perhaps the greatest sin we can commit against one another.

In a sense, I’ve always known this. In another sense, I am still learning it. That is part of everyone’s life journey. The only real error is certitude. If you think you have the correct answers, you are almost certainly wrong. Especially if those answers lead you to judge or dismiss others.

I was raised churched, in the Disciples of Christ. I was a very good Sunday school student at a young age, and spent three of my years of school in missionary schools (2nd, 3rd, and 9th grades). I used to be able to quote a lot of the Bible chapter and verse, and retain a pretty good grasp of how American Protestant Christians think about their Holy Writ. I personally became disconnected from my religion at a fairly early age when I questioned why we considered Passover a miracle. What did the sleeping sons of Egypt do to deserve death, and why was God’s slaughter of those innocents evidence of His love? That’s a very adult phrasing for a question that occurred to me in first grade. (It was not well received by my religious teachers.)

As for my views on religion now, I am a low church atheist. That is to say I view the world empirically, and there is not now nor has there ever been a shred of objective evidence for the existence of any god or gods. Saying the Bible proves the existence of God is logically equivalent to saying that comic books prove the existence of Spider-Man. At the same time, I recognize the immense value that faith has for most people, and the constructive role it can play in the life of the mind and soul, and so even in my atheism I am a First Amendment absolutist when it comes to freedom of religion.

However, freedom of religion equally means freedom from religion. That is precisely how any church or sect is protected from being overwhelmed by a more populous or popular competitor. This means that I am very, very cynical about the role of religion in the public square, in the courthouse, and in the schoolhouse. Whether you are atheist, agnostic, lapsed, or observant in your religion, your best guarantee of freedom of thought and belief is precisely a completely lack of religion in your law and politics.

This is an idea lost on so many Americans that sometimes I despair of our country. But it is an idea that I hold on to as fiercely as any faith holder retains their convictions.

People are people, and no one has all the answers or the right to judge. Our culture and politics would so different, so much more gentle and humane, if more of us understood this.

This is the hard part. We know now that your cancer is terminal and that we’re going to have to live without you at some point in the not-so-distant future. For many of us, and I know for you, this is terrifying and tragic. How has this experience challenged your views of the world, humanity, and yourself? And what are the most important footprints you hope to leave behind to show that “Jay was here”?

I can only leave behind my child, my writing, and the memories people have of me. Anything more is my own vanity. I am terminal and expect to pass within the next year or two of this writing. Medical science may buy me a bit more time, but my cancer is very far past the point of no-return barring something that would be an almost literal miracle. Which, to this atheist, would be an irony so deep as to be almost unbearable.

Being terminally ill has made me both more patient and more desperate. It has made me kinder and more selfish. It has given me perspective and stripped away hope. In other words, it has kept me as human as I always was.

I try to love more, and miss fewer opportunities, and remember that every day I wake up is a good day.

In coping with your terminal illness, you’ve absolutely colored outside the lines. For example, you recently hosted your own wake—JayWake. What were people’s reactions to JayWake? Did it give you any kind of closure? How did you feel about the event? Did you feel the way you expected to feel?

JayWake was my attempt to be sarcastic about my dying. It’s misfired a bit since I obstinately insist on continuing to live, at least for now. There are about two dozen tumors spread through four regions of my body, but somehow I keep going against very steep odds indeed. Yet here I am.

So I protest my cancer in large ways and small. I can no longer work, or write, due to the cognitive and physical side effects of my disease and its treatments. My life expectancy is measured in months. But I give interviews, blog about even the most painful and personal aspects of the cancer experience, and try to at least giggle in the face of death.

For me, the morbid humor of it all helps the days pass in some comfort. I’m not afraid to ride in a coffin. If my partner would let me, I’d get a tattoo on my chest that says, “Hello, I’ll be your cadaver this semester” for the med student who eventually gets to cut me open as a learning experience. Some people embrace this enthusiastically. Some people are appalled. (Most of my family members, for example.)

But closure? I will never have closure. I will merely fight, then die. Life is about the journey, not the destination.

You are unashamedly and courageously committed to your life being an open source for the world, publically sharing from your experiences, the good, bad, and ugly, both in person and through your blog. Over the last dozen years I’ve seen that open source approach to life expand rapidly, especially when the cancer showed up. Was this a conscious choice that you grew into or have you always intended to live in such a public way? What benefits and drawbacks do you feel this has had for you? And for others?

I never intended to live my life in public. It just kind of happened. People who know me well in meatspace know that I have kind of funny boundaries. Very broad and elastic. Expressing myself publicly, largely but not entirely through social media, came naturally to me. I think I began being very open source as part of my effort to pay forward in my writing life. I wrote and talked about the travails and victories of being a beginning writer, then a writer with an evolving career. As it happened, my writing career bloomed about the same time as the blogosphere, so we sort of grew up together.

When the cancer came, in 2008, it was a natural decision for me to continue to bear public witness to my experiences. Perhaps that was an error, but it does not feel like such to me.

The benefits are that I have a great, settled comfort with the vast majority of my life choices, which I have aired nigh endlessly. The drawbacks are that small talk is hard these days. But mostly, I know that I have helped many writers, and many cancer patients and their loved ones. And that makes it all worthwhile, regardless of my internal landscape.

You are also very outspoken on your blog and in general about your progressive values—such as healthcare reform, gun control, marriage equality—and present them in a passionate yet well-reasoned manner. What lies at the heart of these values for you? What drives you to share them?

Well, this mostly arises out of my compassionate humanism. I suppose one way to frame my views is to say that we should leave people alone to live their lives in a modicum of health, safety, and opportunity. In my political lifetime, conservatism has always been about taking things away from people, punishing them for their race, gender, and lifestyle, and limiting their opportunities in protection of entrenched interests. The eternal conservative war on women’s health, the continuous persecution of the poor and the ill, the outright cultural warfare against the LGBTQ community—these are reasons I must be a progressive. While conservative rhetoric at its best is high-minded and clear-eyed, almost without exception the application of conservative positions in everyday life is oppressive, intellectually dishonest, and morally repugnant.

This is also intensely personal. As a cis-gendered educated white male of English descent in America, those entrenched interests I mentioned are largely aligned with a simplistic interpretation of my interests. It’s incumbent upon me with my privilege to work to devolve that privilege to people who were not lucky enough to be born with it. At the same time, my child is a young woman of color. She personally needs to be protected from the harm that conservative thought wishes upon her systematically and fostered to her own opportunities for success and happiness at her own initiative, on her own terms.

I am a progressive because in contemporary America, the alternative produces unthinkable cruelty, which is celebrated on a daily basis in media outlets and from pulpits across our nation.

Your advocacy of others goes far beyond writing. I know that a part of the blogging and sharing your cancer experience is also an expression of your advocacy, giving voice to something that people often won’t talk about. If you were to imagine an ideal society where this advocacy led to changes in how we approached illness and mortality as a culture, what would that look like?

We would support the ill and the dying as humanely as possible. The current system for healthcare distribution is badly broken. The Affordable Care Act, which conservatives flatly view as the greatest threat to American freedom since Nazism, is only the beginning of a fix for that problem which every other industrialized nation in the world has managed to solve to a much greater degree.

Likewise our disability system is founded on a presumption of fraud and denial of need. It is cruel and wrong-headed by design, and forces people at the nadir of their lives, who are in great suffering, to comply with endless requirements for documentation and behavior which often are literally nonsensical.

We are so afraid as a culture that someone, somewhere is enjoying an unearned benefit at our expense that we would deny a hundred people in desperate need to keep one skimmer from potentially prospering. This is exactly backwards to how any sane, humane society would treat its sickest and neediest members.

What are the weirdest, funniest, and best things that have happened to you over the course of your life?

  • Weirdest? Are you kidding? Off the top of my head, in the course of my life, I have managed to flood a moving car with raw sewage, fought a fatal pornography fire, and been co-host of the Hugo Awards ceremony. I could fill a freaking book with weird. Life is weird.
  • Funniest pretty much runs alongside weird. My life is funny almost every day. Even now, in this time of cancer and death, there is a lot of laughter in my house. Hell, everyone’s life is funny almost every day. The trick is learning how to see that.
  • Best . . . Being a dad. Being an author. Love. Sex. Food. Waking up every day. Those are what is best in life.

You and I have eaten a lot of food together. You’ve introduced me to things like frickles (fried pickles) and Époisses (cheese that smells like feet). As meals go, what is the absolutely best meal you have eaten? And what was the worst?

The best meal I have ever eaten would be a tough call. Food is so complex. I’ve been to formal Chinese banquets and been served cured meat and fermented mare’s milk in a Mongolian ger (yurt) on the edge of the Gobi Desert. A sumptuous casino meal in Melbourne, dim sum in Hong Kong. Pizza in Boston’s North End, pit barbecue among the mesquites of Central Texas. Greek banquets by the Aegean and safari fare in Kenyan lodges.

There is no absolute best, but if I had to pick one to relive, it would probably be a good pizza. I am at heart a plebian man.

As for the worst, well . . . I never did cotton to Ethiopian food, but that’s me and the spices not getting along, rather than a quality issue. Maybe the live eel soup I was forced to eat as a child at one of those Chinese banquets. I was certainly scarred for life by the twitching, bleeding section of eel in the low tide broth set before me.

But it’s all experience, it’s all sensation, it’s all the stuff of life.

We know that your health isn’t letting you write currently, but you do have some projects still releasing with your work in them. For example, in October 2013, Audible will release the third in its award-winning METAtropolis series, METAtropolis: Green Space, which will include your novella “Rock of Ages.” Can you give us an idea of what else is in the pipeline?

Even though I’m not writing, or even revising and editing, any more, there’s still inventory out there. Tor has acquired what will be my final short story collection, entitled Last Plane to Heaven, for a Fall 2014 release. I still have short fiction percolating through a few market queues. There’s also an ongoing effort to place some of my other longer work, as well as find collaborators to wrap up existing projects I am no longer capable of working on.

You’ve been interviewed quite a lot over the course of your writing career. What’s the one question you wish someone would finally ask? And how would you answer it?

The question is, who do you love?

The answer is, everyone who ever wrote or read a story.

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Ken Scholes

Ken Scholes

Ken Scholes is the critically acclaimed author of four novels and over forty short stories.  His series, The Psalms of Isaak, is being published both at home and abroad to award nominations and rave reviews. Publishers Weekly hails the series as a “towering storytelling tour de force.” Ken’s eclectic background includes time spent as a label gun repairman, a sailor who never sailed, a soldier who commanded a desk, a preacher (he got better), a nonprofit executive, a musician and a government procurement analyst. He has a degree in History from Western Washington University and is a winner of the ALA’s RUSA Reading List award for best fantasy novel, France’s Prix Imaginales for best foreign novel and the Writers of the Future contest. Ken is a native of the Pacific Northwest and makes his home in Saint Helens, Oregon. You can learn more about Ken by visiting kenscholes.com.