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Interview with the Editor: Why It’s J. Cameron McClain!

JCM: Sonya Rousseau took on the task of editing The Five Watchers 2nd edition, published in February of this year. This week on Interview with the Editor, she’s the editor, and I’m the lowly worm, er, writer.

SR: As a teenager you were very into comic books.  In what ways, if any, has that approach to storytelling influenced your own?

JCM: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art explains what’s so interesting about how comic book time/space happens in our minds. Highly recommended read. Comic books are an interesting medium. I was fortunate growing up to read a lot of books as well as comics, and watch TV and movies too—I’ve always been very media-focused—but yeah, I’m a writer who loves drawing, painting, taking photos and even doing the occasional film, so comics are particularly well-suited to my aesthetic of visualizations along with my words. Or is it words alongside the pictures? To me it all gets mixed up in the mind anyway. We see the images, or the writer explains the images, whatever. Comics are just a medium, one of many.

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Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’ -Alice In Wonderland

The problem with using any visual media as a writing template (comics included) is that writers who have been brought up with TV, movies and comics forget they’re feeling the characters’ onscreen experience via the actors, and may not work as hard to provide the emotional content because of their unconscious way of interacting with the story as it plays out to them. A sort of “I felt it while writing, so since I’ve described the scene well enough, the reader will feel it too” belief. But that’s not how it works. I still lean visual in my writing, and still tend to write in a “filmic” way to some extent, but I’m conscious of it, and am always working to take things past that level. Keep trying to get beyond the “screenplay,” which is a vehicle for actors to provide emotional content to the viewer, and more into the “literature” of writing, which provides the emotional content via the words alone.

All that said: don’t count out comics in my future. I’ve thought about working with an artist to adapt some of the short stories in comic format. I’d love to see how someone else would visualize some of my characters!

SR: I’m really drawn to your use of setting as character (particularly evident in The Five Watchers).  What advice do you have for other writers regarding expanding the role of setting beyond that of backdrop to the action?

JCM: In Japan, animism is an element to daily life. This idea that everything is imbued with a spirit leads, I think, to trying to sense the character of everything around us, whether it’s a chair, a cupboard, house, lake, tree or whatever. The unpleasant edge to animism, of course, is the idea that objects may be haunted, or cursed. That’s how things like that classic evil oak tree from the movie Poltergeist, or the house in Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, get under our skins. You may not personally believe that a house or a cabinet can have a spirit—whether benevolent or malevolent—but I believe you as a writer have to be able to look at it and see that spirit anyway.

I think we do it a lot anyway, even if we don’t acknowledge it as such. A favorite t-shirt, the hard copy of a particular book, some object we particularly love. In a sense, we’re possessed by those objects. When we say an old piece of furniture has “character,” we’re saying something a little more interesting than we might realize at first. We’re suggesting that there’s more to an object than its physical makeup. Whether it’s a coffee stain on an armchair, a too-perfect circle of trees, a strangely shaped boulder or a suit jacket with a small but noticeable hole in the breast pocket, description is best done by providing the object’s “character.” Imbue the object or place with a living existence. Writers should treat everything in their stories as characters. Think of stories like Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, Dan Simmons’ The Terror or Thomas Kelly’s Empire Rising. Weather, the climate of a geographical area, and even an edifice such as the Empire State Building work with (and/or against) the human characters. Or consider the obelisk from Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey series. How much more perfect an example of an unforgettable non-human character can you think of than a perfectly featureless 1’ x 4’ x 9’ matte black object?

SR: What is it about using “stock,” not-quite-human characters — such as vampires, zombies, and robots — that makes them effective as vehicles for exploring the human condition?

JCM: The simple answer is that each of those creatures exhibits unique qualities that differ from human in some fundamental way, that writers can then use as a foil to highlight specific human qualities.

Vampires are the undead, and soulless, two conditions that we simply cannot comprehend as human. They’re a seductive death, though at the same time a death that exacts a large cost. Vampires—or at least the model of the 18th and 19th centuries—are both the promise of immortality and the curse of eternal damnation. I’m not sure we can apply the same description to more recent iterations of vampires, which are now ensouled, often able to tolerate sunlight, and are now frequently seen as being on the “good” side. Are modern versions of the vampire our attempt to suggest that there is no such thing as pure evil? I suppose that argument could be made.

Zombies (at least the flesh-eating modern incarnation) are often a more straightforward personification of death, similar to Friday the 13th’s Jason or Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street, though in the case of George A. Romero’s films, they are a symbol of an element of humanity, such as runaway consumerism.

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(Image via Sean Bieri’s Intellectual Zombies http://www.yalerecord.com/sean-bieri-intellectual-zombies)

As for robots, I think we humans have always suspected we are machines in biochemical form, judging by the fact that we’ve been obsessed with the idea of creating mechanical versions of ourselves for centuries, and have been writing about them for millennia. We’re fascinated by logical mental processes, and I get the sense we want to find some human element that is missing to circuitry, in order to validate ourselves as something more than machine, though Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (and Philip K. Dick’s story that inspired it) push back with the idea that advanced machines can be “more human than human.”

Creatures and situations that push us beyond our “common knowledge,” take us past what we are as humans. In the same sense that apocalyptic scenarios such as Nevil Shute’s On The Beach or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with those still alive post-human—a form of “living dead,” or in Shelley’s The Last Man, when the few survivors dwindle, and those remaining try to understand their own condition, our examination of the alien-self via external creature or via extraordinary circumstance, allow us to go to places in our psychology we don’t normally explore. These alien variants of self and alien settings are how we continue to try and reclassify ourselves, or at least try to reevaluate ourselves: by dissection and reassembly in different fashion.

SR: Your extensive personal history of living and traveling in different parts of the world clearly informs the comfort with which you describe exotic locales and inject regional flavor into your characters’ natural speaking styles.  I’d like to hear about your thoughts on globalization and the modern writer.

JCM: Get out there. It doesn’t even have to be beyond your state, though it should be, but get out there. Writers know people. We don’t know everyone perfectly, or understand every situation, but we create people and situations for a living. That’s our job. The wider a spectrum you’re seeing, the wider the range of color you have to work with when writing your interpretation of what you’ve seen.

Are my strategies too oblique? I don’t think so. Literature is looking for new voices in developing countries, and for stories that are not of the more common European flavor. Although it’s a collection of short stories rather than a novel, So Long, Been Dreaming (Nalo Hopkinson, Ed.) is a great example of speculative fiction pieces that draw on African, Asian, Polynesian and other voices that we haven’t been hearing a lot of in the past.

I taught in Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and know folks teaching English in Thailand right now. I think it’s great to get out into another culture, and there are plenty of ways to get there. The view of what your culture and society is like when seen from another culture in another country is invaluable to any person, and particularly to a writer. Human similarities far outweigh our differences, and yet there are so many small and large differences to be seen, experienced and understood out there, and so many stories that come from this great mass of humanity on the planet.

Also there’s a lot of great food out there to be eaten, so I suggest traveling for that reason too.

SR: Is it difficult for you to take your “editor” hat off while you write?  If so, what are your tips for others who may be struggling with that problem?  If not, how the heck do you do that?

JCM: For me, writing a story includes a few sub-processes. When not in frenzied writing mode (all writing), I’m working on structure, which to me is part writing, part editing. Go hatless when you’re in the initial rush of creative outpouring—that should come out as quickly as possible, with no thought to continuity, grammar, point of view, tense, spelling, punctuation or even overall structure. This is the charcoal sketch on the canvas. As a painting professor noted many years ago, the piece solidifies as you go from sketch to final product, so you do yourself a favor by exaggerating the action as much as possible and spend as little time as possible worrying about the mistakes you make here and there. In the initial stage, be like Egon Schiele: if a line is drawn, it was meant to be in there. Keep going.

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(Self Portrait of Egon Schiele via Wikimedia Commons: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3f/Egon_Schiele_079.jpg)

Then comes the look back, and the beginning of the structuring, layering and weaving. Art at the start, craft at the end. In this part of the process, I am double-hatted. The reason for that is that I am a big proponent of craft. I get the feeling I’d be a lousy writer if I didn’t have a handle on structure, and structure is the craft, and the writing craft involves editing.

But yeah, sometimes the editor in me can get a bit intrusive. On occasion I’ll find myself obsessing over this or that existing sentence or plot point when I should be working on getting new scenes down on paper. One of the best ways to shut down the editor I know of is to dive into someone else’s story. Go read something, for example, or watch a movie. Get back in the creative dynamic by allowing yourself to be creatively stimulated, without reserve. Let others’ creativity inspire you. Then breathe in, and see where you go.

SR: You are currently living in a household with two young children.  How has that impacted your writing process? 

JCM: Having not grown up with brothers or sisters and moving a lot, living with the kids has been quite the learning experience for Uncle John. He is learning a whole lot about elements to human psychology he really didn’t have much experience with at all. Whole big chunks of new human psychology and social dynamics he’s seeing. Yeah, Uncle John is learning a whole lot.

All that said, Uncle John has most of every day to himself, as well as the advantage of being able to say goodnight at 7:30 p.m. and heading off to his room to work some more, while the family does the evening tooth brushing, baths, etc. It’s just after 10 p.m. as Uncle John types this. He gets the feeling he’ll have the day’s work done within the next half hour or so, though he may go to 11.

SR: I am not a particularly gentle editor, yet you unfailingly accept my comments (whether warranted or not) with good grace and humor… and keep coming back for more.  As a writer, how do you separate yourself from your work sufficiently to be able to use editor feedback without getting battered and beaten down by it?

JCM: Did you know that a rhinoceros’ hide can measure over half an inch thick?

I bring a few things to bear on editors’ comments and corrections. The first is rhino hide. Working as a technical writer for just over two decades now means I’ve made a great number of mistakes, and have had to deal with all sorts of responses to those mistakes. My first writing job—for SEGA Enterprises back in the early 1990s—included sending software manual drafts around to all my fellow writers for comments and corrections. We’re talking eight or more Americans, folks from England, folks from Australia, and most had already been writing for some time. The first draft I wrote came back with one or two sentences left untouched out of 36 pages of writing. I took a lot of lumps in those five years. But I kept trying to learn, so I’d stop getting the lumps.

The second thing that keeps me level is the fact that I’ve read a great number of absolutely brilliant stories in my life. The writers I love are giants in the field, and I know that all of them have had to deal with editors tearing their works apart. If they can deal, a lowly crumb like me sure as hell better be able to deal.

I also keep in mind that the right editor is an editor who has a genuine interest in seeing me write the best story I possibly can. If the editor takes me to task for writing something stupid, it’s because the editor knows I can’t afford to be stupid in my writing. All writers make mistakes, and it’s the height of arrogance to think otherwise. Sure, I think over each and every comment or suggestion made, and I will discuss changes I don’t like, to make sure I’m happy with it. I’m also fairly certain there have been at least one or two instances in which I decided not to make a recommended change, but only after discussion to make sure you and I knew why I was leaving something alone rather than changing it. It does not bode well when a writer constantly challenges an editor. Leaving the ego outside is tough, but trusting that the editor knows what’s best is crucial to a writer’s success. Who knows, maybe my years of practicing yoga and meditation have helped me get rid of some of my ego, so I can avoid taking the criticism too personally. Still think the rhino hide has a lot to do with it, though.

And of course the final element to my success in dealing with my editor comes from the following universal truth: The editor is always right. (Are you reading this, my writers?)

SR: As a great writer with a flair for pushing the envelope on genre expectations, you must be frustrated that your books are not yet widely read and known.  What strategies are you employing now or plan to use to turn that situation around?

JCM: Well, what keeps me from being too down on the lack of visibility is that to date my efforts have been primarily focused on writing and editing. I’ve been learning how other authors approach the marketing process, and am now using software (HootSuite in particular) and social media (Twitter, Google+, Facebook and Goodreads among others) to help bring folks to the website, while at the same time providing new content that I think writers can appreciate.

I expect to self-publish for the foreseeable future, but at the same time, a traditional publisher has some advantages, such marketing strength, so I think I’ll be looking around for an agent and publisher for Devi. I’ve also been working on a list of magazines to start submitting. Self-publishing is precisely that; you have little else but yourself to rely on for publicity. Works that are accepted by a magazine or other publisher are a different level of exposure as well as a different level of support.

Finally, conventional wisdom says that a writer can expect to work at this for a decade before she or he has any level of success. In a sense that is both a curse and a blessing. A curse in the sense that every writer wants everybody to enjoy her or his story right away! But a decade of struggle gives the writer plenty of time get used to the field, know the people, learn strategies, and begin to draw some attention for her or his works. A decade of struggle also gives the non-writer plenty of time to make that realization and do something sensible with her or his life instead.