Thursday, October 13, 2011

An Interview with Fantasy Writer James Enge

Today in The Cube:

James Enge
World Fantasy Award Nominated author James Enge always has an interesting story to tell. A professor of Classics and classical languages at a midwestern university, Enge draws on his academic interests as well as his broad imagination and feisty sense of humor to create some of the most entertaining fantasy you're likely to read.

The author of three novels, Blood of Ambrose, This Crooked Way, and The Wolf Age, all published by Pyr Books, Enge's work follows the hard-drinking sorcerer Morlock Ambrosius through an endless variety of trials and travails.

SuperPopCultureCube caught up with Enge recently to pick his brain about the craft of writing, the future of fantasy, and just what's going on with sword-and-sorcery movies these days.

SUPERPOPCULTURECUBE: How did you start out writing fantasy? What was your first publishing experience like?
JAMES ENGE: When I was in third grade I read a book I found lying around the house -- big on college campuses at the time, but the sort of thing more people owned than had actually read. The intriguing title was The Lord of the Rings. (I use the singular "book" because Tolkien did; he never seems to have thought of it as a trilogy.) Reading that more or less set my course for life. As soon as I'd read the book a couple of times, I decided to write my own fantasy epic. Taking too seriously Tolkien's wisecrack in the introduction that "the book is too short," I set out to write a five volume masterwork of fantasy. About 10 pages of the thing actually got written, but that was how my writing started.

When I started seriously trying to get my stuff published, in my 20s (the 1980s), I was no longer writing massive multi-volume epics. Everyone else was doing that. After a number of failed attempts to write a fantasy novel, I was writing shorter adventure fantasy of a type that could best be described as "sword-and-sorcery." That's the least reputable kind of fantasy -- the kind that sf/f magazines normally scorn in their submission guidelines.

In the '80s, the short fiction market was setting its face ever more decisively against sword-and-sorcery. But that's what I wanted to write. So that's what I wrote. I don't recommend this as a strategy for getting published, but it did give me twenty years or so of absolute privacy to work on my craft.

The market had to change before my short fiction was going to see the light of day. The change was the appearance of semi-pro zines like
Black Gate and the now-defunct Flashing Swords that were devoted to adventure fantasy, especially sword-and-sorcery. Without them I would still be toiling in complete obscurity, instead of the semi-obscurity I now enjoy. 

I still remember the disbelief I felt when reading John O'Neill's acceptance letter for "Turn Up This Crooked Way," my story that would see the light of publication. He began with a paragraph or two of praise for the story (which was how my rejection letters usually read, when they weren't just the usual form letter)... then where I expected him to type "but I'm afraid we can't use it" he wrote "and I'd like to buy it for Black Gate." That was so mindblowing that my mind is still a little blown -- almost worth the 20-some-year wait.

After my long stay in the wilderness, I have been blessed by a series of great editors: John O'Neill at
Black Gate, Howard A. Jones then-editor at Flashing Swords (and now the managing editor of Black Gate), and Lou Anders at Pyr Books. They're all careful, critical readers who love the genre and know it well.

SPCC: What inspiration do you tend to draw on in order to produce your stories and novels?
JE: I steal whatever I can from whatever I can. For instance, "A Book of Silences" came from wondering what would happen if Heisenbergian uncertainty occurred on the macroscopic level. That's not what the story is about, but that's the daydreaming that started the story. The Wolf Age, set in a werewolf city during an election year, comes from a longstanding fascination with wolves and with politics. In northern Michigan (and other places, too, I'm sure) there's a tourist trap called The Mystery Spot. The people who run it pretend that it's a site that has weird gravity effects, but it's really just a house where the floors and walls are built at odd angles to produce optical illusions -- marbles rolling uphill and stuff like that. After driving by it for about the fifteenth time I said to myself, "Morlock could probably do something like that for real." And later he did, in "Whisper Street", which was included in my second novel, This Crooked Way.

So everything is grist for the fantasist's mill. But usually my subconscious has to grind it a little to use it in a story.

SPCC: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first got started as a writer?
JE: If I were to go back and talk to myself in my 20s, I would try to explain that he didn't have to wait to publish short fiction before moving on to novels, and that the novel market might be a tad friendlier to the adventure fiction he was trying to write. But I doubt he would listen to me. That surly bastard listened to no one but his sordid muse. That was his greatest virtue and vice as a writer, I think.

There's a great community of fans, readers and writers in the sf/f community. I definitely missed something by not getting involved in those groups earlier.

SPCC: Fantasy seems to be taking a lot of twists recently -- steampunk, vampires, and other similar elements look to be all the rage these days. Where do you see fantasy literature going?

JE: This fragmentation is a feature of success. Fantasy won the war against the mainstream, and now it is increasingly difficult to [find] some kinds of stories without a fantasy element.

The cat really got out of the bag when genre elements entered romance fiction. Once romance readers started reading and demanding this stuff, the barriers between genres were permanently shattered, and from now on I think you'll always see fantastic elements in the types of books where you never saw them before. Romance readers are tremendously influential in the marketplace because they read, they read a lot, they buy a lot of books, and they read a lot of stuff that isn't romance.

But, whatever the proximate cause may be, the victory of fantasy over the mainstream is obviously complete. Stuff like Cormac McCarthy's
The Road or Michael Chabon's openly-affiliated-with-genre work makes that clear. Philip Roth has been writing alternate history and literary fantasy for decades. And suddenly trendy, though long-dead, writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick are getting volumes in the landmark Library of America series.

Re: the future... The decline of commercial publishing is bad in some ways, but good in another: it ensures that whatever happens next in fiction (fantasy fiction or other), it won't just be one thing. Now communities supporting radically different kinds of fiction have the opportunity to thrive via the internet and nontraditional publishing. That opportunity may be missed, but is there.

SPCC: Is there anything that you think is missing from today's fantasy writing?
JE: I can't claim an encyclopedic knowledge of the field these days -- I don't know anyone who can. I guess I am worried about the overuse of certain tropes -- vampires, zeppelins, etc. Even if the writer strives to imbue the element with freshness, it must be hard for readers to react with the same enthusiasm to the same elements over and over again.

I think readers want the familiar and the new; these desires are in tension with each other. No doubt they'll let writers know whether their needs are being met or not by the books they buy (or don't).

SPCC: A new 'Conan' film was released in August, and the first installment of The Hobbit films is due in theatres next year. Are we going to see a fantasy trend at the multiplex similar to the one we're seeing in superhero movies?

JEI'd sort of fold all these fantastic genre elements (sf/f/superhero/etc.) together. I think they're popular, partly because thy've infected the popular imagination, partly because genre storytelling provides filmakers with the easy opportunities for big-budget spectacle. Look at the recent movie versions of Sherlock Holmes, or the upcoming The Three Musketeers: they're steampunk.

I'm not 100% crazy about this, actually. For one thing it strikes me as showing, paradoxically, a lack of imagination on the part of filmmakers. I liked the Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes -- would have really liked to see Ritchie helm
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film from years back. (Which was this hideous mutilation of the graphic novel, a real waste of opportunity.) So I think there's cool stuff being done. The most amazing visual spectacle in recent film, though, has to be Terence Malick's almost unbearably beautiful The Tree of Life. And there's no genre content in there at all. But, of course, it's not and wasn't designed to be a Hollywood blockbuster.

Pure imaginary-world fantasy has been enormously big at the multiplex before, e.g. Jackon's
Lord of the Rings movies. But I think that it's hard to do well, which is why the Conan movie flopped, and apparently deserved to flop.

James Blish said once that "Fantasy requires mastery of the writer" and that probably goes tenfold for the filmmaker. Filmmaking is a cooperative, collaborative process, and it must be very difficult for one person with a vision to shepherd that vision intact through all those collaborators (and bosses).

SPCC: If there was one fantasy character or franchise you'd like to see be made into a big-budget feature, what would it be?

JE: Well… I've passed the stage where I long for my favorite books to be adapted for the screen; now I fear it. Look at what screen adaptations have done to the Dune books, for instance, or Le Guin's glorious Earthsea trilogy. "Yeccch" sums up my reaction to that stuff.

With that said, the characters that strike me as ripest for screen adaptation are Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. They're genuinely heroic but often funny; they have wild adventures; there are some strong female characters, especially in the stories Leiber wrote later ('60s & '70s vintage).

I suspect that there's something about heroic fantasy that Hollywood will never really get right. The border between epic and epic failure (e.g.
Conan the Destroyer) is just too easy to cross in film.

SPCC: Do you think that the link between fantasy literature and Hollywood is as strong as that between the comics industry and Hollywood?

JE: Not yet, anyway. As the superhero trend starts to fade (and I think it already has, to some extent), and as Hollywood runs out of Philip K. Dick stories to adapt, they may begin to turn toward other types of literary fantasy as sources. But you have to read, and read a lot, to get that stuff. Do they? Will they?

SPCC: What's next for Morlock? What are you working on currently?

JE: The Wolf Age did well enough that Pyr signed me to another 3-book deal. Currently I'm finishing up an origin story for Morlock. It's called A Guile of Dragons and is due out next summer. It's very old school fantasy in some ways -- dwarves, dragons, Merlin and Nimue. (No elves, though. Everyone has to draw the line somewhere.) And it also gives us a look at Morlock's homeland, which is a sort of anarchy where community needs are addressed by voluntary associations. It's a sort of utopia, really -- with monsters. Most utopias don't have monsters, of course, but that's why they lack a certain plausibility.

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