Among the transforming events in these twenty-two genre-bending stories: an office worker and his wife fade into a literal invisibility; a photographer discovers the unexpected in the faces of dead children; a girl moves onto a strange street when she fails to return from trick-or-treating; an artist devotes his career to contracting diseases; a plague of head explosions becomes a new form of terrorism; a couple's aging dismantles reality; and a seemingly pointless life finds final expression in bits of folded paper. Steve Rasnic Tem's other works include Deadfall Hotel, Onion Songs, Ugly Behavior, and The Man on the Ceiling. Celestial Inventories may be the World Fantasy Award-winning author's finest collection to date.
Doesn't that sound interesting? I've linked to its Amazon page above on the title, so go check it out if you're interested. Now, without further ado, is Steve Rasnic Tem to talk about "The Genre Question".
THE GENRE CONVERSATION
Steve Rasnic Tem
I’ve loved genre fiction almost as long as I’ve been reading. Our high school library didn’t have much of it—I had to make do with Jules Verne, folklore, and fairy tales. But my cousin had several crates of Gold Medal paperbacks stored at my grand parents’ house—noir fiction mostly—and I happily read through those over several summers. And when our small community finally got a public library I read my way through every book with one of those “science fiction” stickers on it. Then I tackled the mysteries, and the westerns. It’s a love that has never left me, and when I first started writing, I wanted to write stories like the ones in those books.
Or did I?
What attracted me to science fiction and fantasy initially was that sense that it was about, essentially, an invisible world. I couldn’t step outside my house and point to the things and environments which populated these stories. These tales were furnished with things of the mind—objects which hadn’t yet been invented or perhaps only existed inside dreams or in the imagination. And yet to me they felt so real. They elicited a strong emotional response. They seemed, for whatever reason, essential. And these stories were the only way I could access them.
When you begin writing your first task is to learn how to write a story that “works,” that feels satisfactory and complete on the page. You do this by studying stories and taking them apart, playing with the tropes in your favorite fiction and using them in new ways. And once you’ve finally learned how to write a story that works you’re reluctant to depart from the methods and approaches you used to get there.
The only problem with this is that you’ve forced your imagination down a narrower and narrower path in order to get to those first stories that work for an editor and for an audience. To a certain extent the results of your imaginative explorations have been preselected, your imagination “filtered.” This is a necessary process, especially in the beginning—there are simply too many choices to be made, and the structures of genre can simplify those selections. The drawback, however, is that you’ve also had to cut yourself off from some of your originality. At a certain point genre fiction becomes predictable fiction.
I’ve spent much of the last ten years trying to roll my process back a bit. In a way, I’ve tried to unschool my imagination, to get it back to a beginning in which I knew less about what I was doing, but imagined more. It’s a difficult process. It’s hard to loosen your grip on that leash of what you know. But I noticed that some of the stories that came out of that process were different somehow. They looked like fantasy, sf, and horror stories, but they weren’t quite of those genres. As close as I’ve come to define, these stories became participants in a conversation with f and sf. What I liked about them most was that they seemed more “mine” than many of the stories I had written previously.
Writers often tell me, “I’m a horror writer because the only ideas that ever occur to me are horror ideas” or “I’m a science fiction writer because I only come up with science fiction ideas.” But I believe that it’s too easy to program ourselves to create only within certain parameters. The reason we come up with only horror ideas is that’s the only place we’re seriously looking. So I encourage writers to force themselves to look in other places and come up with different kinds of ideas.
Sometimes in order to break myself of the genre habit I play games with my imagination. I set up a framework for a story and then develop it depending on things that are entirely random. My novelette “Celestial Inventory” takes place in one room. A man has lived there his entire life. I decided I was going to write the story from somewhere in middle age until the day of his death, and in order to structure it I wrote words on slips of paper, objects that would be in a room, and I decided, arbitrarily, that I had to write about those things in that order and consistent with his aging. So I wrote about batteries, dust bunnies, coat hangers, doors, floor, ceiling, etc. Each piece became an imaginative meta-essay about that object (ala Francis Ponge). And it was the most fun I’d ever had writing.
Later I wrote a novella for Wormhole Books—“The World Recalled” --in which I did the reverse. The story starts with the day of the character’s death. I gave him a strange kind of aphasia in which he says things incorrectly. I put pieces of paper with words into a bag and drew two of them at a time, pulling up combinations like BED SLIDE and SHOWER RADIO and NEWSPAPER LADLE. Each section of the novella was to have one of those phrases as its title. So I had to write a piece about a newspaper ladle, taking place when he is somewhere in his thirties.
“The World Recalled” is not really classifiable in terms of genre. I suppose it’s something like magical realism, although I hesitate to use that term out of its cultural context. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. It stretched what I could do. These two works, “The World Recalled” and “Celestial Inventory,” begin and end my new collection CELESTIAL INVENTORIES (ChiZine, August).
In his essay “The Trans-Realist Manifesto,” science fiction writer Rudy Rucker posits that the tropes of science fiction can be identified with basic modes of human communication and interaction. Time travel corresponds with memory, flight with enlightenment, alternate worlds with the variety of human perspective, telepathy with our ability to communicate fully. So he takes a basic human need and relates it to a science fiction trope.
You can do the same thing with horror. You might posit that ghost stories are really about the persistence of memory, vampires about spiritual and physical hunger, werewolves about anger and insatiable need. I imagine you could even do something similar with mystery or western tropes. What excites me most about this process is it’s a way to conceptualize stories at the level of basic human emotions before genre comes into play—potentially it’s a way to circumvent the damage that genre consciousness can do to your imaginative process.
CELESTIAL INVENTORIES collects many of the stories I wrote during my process of attempting to loosen the ties of genre. I’ve also included a few earlier stories which seemed consistent with this approach. They don’t abandon genre entirely—in fact in some ways I think they express my love for genre. Some of them veer further from the traditional expectations of f & sf than others, but all I think, feel very much “mine.”
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