It’s not often a story starts out with an unexpected volcano, but “The Wilderness Within” fits the bill and only gets better from there. What inspired this particular tale?
I was reading about the sudden emergence of a volcano in Mexico—like, a sulfurous crack opened in the ground in 1943, and a day later there was a cinder cone fifty meters high, and people were displaced—and I thought, “If that happened around here (in the Bay Area) nobody would even notice the volcano’s appearance because they’d all be looking at their phones.” (To be clear, I support people looking at their phones. I am much happier standing in lines and riding on mass transit and so on when I have a phone to look at. The phone-absorption-is-common thing is an observation without the obvious associated judgment.)
I was also thinking of a great line from a Utah Phillips bit: “Make a break for it, kids. Flee into the wilderness. The one within, if you can find it.” The combination of that line and the thought of a volcano that no one noticed coalesced nicely. The sex part is there because, I dunno, sex is pretty interesting? Like most people, I think about it a bunch.
Helena is a truly believable character, from her emotional breakdown over her break-up, to her justifications when using the phone app for a ride, to how she handles Kilroy’s advances. When writing, how do you approach character creation? Do you have a set idea in mind, or do you let the characters progress with the story to see how things turn out?
Usually I have some weird idea for a peculiar situation, but that doesn’t make a story; characters make story. (“Plot” is just what your characters do, after all.) Once I had the idea of sexually transmitted natural landscapes, I tried to think of the kind of characters who would be most transformed / traumatized / bothered / interested in that kind of thing, and Helena and Kilroy emerged. Then it was just a case of thinking about what they’d do if they met as their conflicting needs and desires collided. For the most part in my writing, I try to create simulations of humans and extrapolate what they’d do in a given strange situation. Ideally extreme situations, because that makes for better drama.
You address Helena’s sexuality and Andi’s gender-identity as a matter of course. Nothing fancy, no presentation for shock value. Such openness lends itself well to the story, adding depth to both the characters and the city of San Francisco. Some writers would be uncomfortable with this portrayal because it challenges the perception of “mainstream values.” How important is representation to you as a writer and reader?
While I grew up in the deep-ish south and things were pretty heteronormative, I’ve lived in Northern California for a good fifteen years, and currently reside in Berkeley. There’s no shortage of bi, gay, trans, asexual, kinky, poly, questioning, genderfluid, etc. people in my life (I may even tick a couple of those boxes myself), and it would be weirder for me to not write about those sorts of people. It would feel pretty strange to create fictional worlds that were less diverse than my birthday parties or backyard barbecues.
Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, you write it all. In an ideal world with your fill of wealth, free time, comfort, and security, what would your writing time look like? Are there any projects you’d like to try?
Perfect world? Most days I’d sleep late, write for two or three hours, and read and drink beer on patios with friends and nap in the hammock, weather permitting, the rest of the day. It may be a good thing that I have more responsibilities than that. Hedonism in excess shortens one’s lifespan. I pretty much do what I want to do, writing-wise, though I would enjoy taking a crack at comics writing sometime. For a while I wasn’t writing enough short fiction for my taste, but in 2015 I started a “new-story-every-month” Patreon, and that helped me prioritize short fiction again.
In your secret identity as Tim Pratt, senior editor at Locus Magazine, you have a unique insider’s view of the ebb and flow of the SF/F/H genres. Are there any recent trends in genre fiction that have sparked your interest as a writer or editor?
Eh. Trend-chasing is a bad idea. By the time you notice a trend and try to write something and get it to market, the trend is probably over, or the market is saturated and the backlash has begun, or something. Better to just write whatever you love writing. You’re vanishingly unlikely to get rich anyway, so it’s best to just take pleasure in the work. I like reading mostly in subgenres I don’t write: grimdark fantasy, crime novels, space opera—okay, space opera does interest me as a writer, too, and it’s nice to see that revitalized in recent years, with fun smart books by James S.A. Corey and Ann Leckie and the like.
What’s next for Tim Pratt? What can eager fans look forward to?
I’m writing Closing Doors, the tenth and final full-length novel in my Marla Mason urban fantasy series, and that should be out late this year or early next; I ran a Kickstarter for it in the spring. That’s my giant brain-eating project for the summer. The next thing contracted after that is a funny fantasy about goblins, which should keep me occupied through the fall and winter. Next year I have some thoughts about weird contemporary fantasy; there are at least two novels I want to write in that space. Otherwise, interested readers should sign up for my Patreon, at patreon.com/timpratt. I publish a new story every month for patrons, and you only have to give $1 month! (Not that I turn my nose up at more.)
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