Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Caitlín R. Kiernan

Posted by Randolph Carter on July 29, 2009

red treeAuthor website:

http://www.caitlinrkiernan.com/

Could you take a minute and explain what your forthcoming novel The Red Tree is about?

Well, generally, I try to avoid synopses. Which makes pitching novels to publishers rather difficult, but I really do detest the whole reductionist aspect of a synopsis. They can be so extremely misleading. That said, it’s sort of a ghost story, maybe. But maybe not. It might be a book about the reality of evil, or it might be a discourse on the myth of evil. A writer named Sarah Crowe has left Atlanta, following her girlfriend’s suicide. Sarah rents an old farmhouse in rural Rhode Island, and in the house’s basement, she discovers an unfinished manuscript. It was abandoned five years earlier by the house’s previous tenant, a folklorist who was writing a book on an old oak growing on the property. The tree has, it turns out, a long, weird, and unsavory history, dating back at least to the 1600s. As she begins reading the manuscript, Sarah finds herself becoming obsessed with the tree as well. Weird stuff happens. Bad stuff happens. And really, there’s not much else I can say without risking spoilers. The “book within a book” aspect is very important to The Red Tree.

Would you mind describing what the process was like for you in getting your first book published?

That’s really a very long story, and one I’ve told over and over again. To try and make that long story short, I’ll just say that I think I got very lucky. I’d met Poppy Z. Brite, who liked the manuscript a great deal and showed it to her agent. And there were several other authors who were a tremendous help to me way back then, people who read Silk and helped give it the requisite push. Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, and Clive Barker, for instance. On the one hand, I’d say it had a lot to do with having worked so hard to make Silk a good book, and on the other, I believe that I got very lucky.

What kind of things scare you?

I’m oddly bereft of phobias. There just aren’t many things that genuinely frighten me, and certainly not the sorts of things you see in “horror” films and movies. Most of my fears focus on very large-scale problems: ecological degradation, war, waste, ignorance, prejudice, and so forth. I do have a fairly acute fear of death, which is likely as close as I can come to the sort of fears that most people would list as phobic. Anyway, this is one of the many reasons that I insist I’m not a horror writer. I don’t study the psychology of fear. I don’t sit down to write “scary” books. Usually, I’m trying to do something much less specific. Okay…wait. I’m going to take back what I said about not having phobias. Actually, I can be intensely agoraphobic, and I really don’t like being in crowds. Sometimes, I can’t even stand to be looked at, it causes me so much anxiety.

Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

I was a voracious reader as a child and as a teenager, and even into my twenties. I’d actually taught myself to read before I began school. Growing up, I don’t know. The list is enormously long. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ursula K. LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L’Engle, Tolkien, Richard Adams, C. S. Lewis, Edgar Allen Poe, Peter Beagle. Those are some of the very important ones from childhood. Later on, in high school, I fell in love with John Steinbeck, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, a completely different set of authors. And then there was another revolution of this sort in college, as I discovered James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Yeats, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf — all the Modernists, really. Also, about that time, I was really into Clive Barker, Frank Herbert, Angela Carter, and see, I could go on like this forever.

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

Yes, I’m a gamer. It started with D&D, back about ’78. Then I haunted the mall arcades in the early ’80s, when I was in high school. Then I sort of drifted away from gaming until the early ’90s, when I got my first PS1. I went through three of them, because they had that problem with overheating. That led to PS2 and Xbox, and eventually to rp in Second Life and to countless hours of World of Warcraft. Really, I spend far too much time gaming. These days, I’ve discovered I don’t really like games that are games, strictly speaking. Instead, I’m looking for genuinely immersive rp experiences, which are hard to find via consoles and WoW. I’ve had some limited success from Second Life, but I think it’s hard to get people to understand the idea of simulationist rp, where the object isn’t leveling or points or combat or looting. It’s more like improvisational theater, what I’m looking for. It’s more about storytelling, and, simultaneously, becoming part of that story. I think an awful lot of things are called “rp” these days that aren’t the least bit about rp. Some of them are wonderful games —- the Final Fantasy series, for example, or the Lara Croft games —- but they’re not roleplaying.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

As I said above, yeah. But only through Second Life and World of Warcraft. SL has a lot of rp potential, but very few people seem interested in interested or able to exploit it. So genuinely good rp experiences there are few and far between. As for WoW, I think I hated it at first, because I’d hoped it would be good rp. It isn’t. It’s a video game, and you can try to rp, but no one’s much interested, and, truthfully, the system really isn’t particularly amenable to simulationist rp. Anyway, once I realized this about WoW and approached it as I would a console game, I fell in love with it. I solo, mostly.

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer? Please explain.

I’ve actually had a few good stories inspired by rp sessions in Second Life. You have the freedom there, in theory, to experience that sort of total immersion and rp. That level of creativity. But SL is a minefield. I actually think the system somehow selects for stupidity, and, though I can’t confirm this, I fear the average SL inhabitant’s IQ is scraping bottom. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but gods, the idiocy I’ve endured for the sake of good rp. The people who are functionally illiterate. The ones who can’t tell the difference between being in character and out of character. That sort of thing. And the people who seem to pour ooc drama over everything they touch, who blur the lines between first and Second Life. I said, recently, I think people should have to demonstrate they have a first life before being trusted with a Second Life. It’s a wonderful concept, but, at this point, it’s a mess, and I can’t blame anyone for being wary of it.

Grind is a term used frequently in gaming vernacular referring to something that is rather repetitive or unpleasant that one engages in order to progress in the game. Would you say there is grinding in the writing process? Please explain.

I’d say life has a tendency to be a grind. But, sure, I can see applying that term to the day-to-day experience of being a professional writer. Especially while working on novels, the days tend to blur together. I get up and write. I go to bed. I get up and write. I rarely leave the house, and this might go on for eight or nine consecutive months. The reward is the finished novel, and the payday, of course. But, if you’re going to be good writer, and if you’re going to manage to survive this life, you have to learn to take positive things away from the process, not just the end result. You need, I’d say, to become a sort of process whore, fascinated by the way that books get written. At least, I had to become fascinated by the way I get my books written. Truthfully, I have very little interest in how anyone else does it, but I’ve become keenly fascinated by my own writing process. Oddly, I love reading about the lives of other authors, just not they way they write or, in the case of the deceased, wrote.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

Well, I love seeing the finished product, holding the actual book in my hands. Which I suppose is terribly materialist of me, but there you go. I appreciate books not merely as a means of transmitting data —- in fact, I loathe that whole attitude towards fiction —- but as objects of art and craftsmanship, in and of themselves. So, there’s that. Also, having this freedom the tell stories, and then share them with so many other people. Though, at the same time, I do have to say that I write for me. I virtually never write with an audience in mind. I love having an audience, but I’ve discovered it has to be on my own terms, not theirs. Finally, I’ve cherished the opportunity to meet so many authors whom I admired since I was a kid, getting to know them, people like Harlan Ellison and Peter Straub. That’s just the coolest thing in the world, really.

When do you find time to write?

It’s what I do. I mean, this has been my “day job” since 1994 or so. The problem isn’t finding time to write, but finding time to do anything else. Time to just live. Time to have the experiences I need to have to be a writer. I don’t take weekends. I almost never take vacations. I spend most of every day sitting at the desk, and the iMac, writing. It’s what I do.

How do you tend to escape these days?

Well, we’ve already talked so much about gaming, but that’s one way. Getting outside, away from work. That’s important. Movies are extremely important to me, as a way of clearing my head and relaxing. I spend as much time near the sea as possible, since it’s one of the few things that calms me. I don’t read nearly as much as I used to, since it’s just too much like work. Mostly, I read short fiction and non-fiction, especially science and biographies.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

So many people want to be published authors, and it seems to me that very few of them have any real comprehension of what a hard life this is, if you’re “lucky” enough to break in. I mean, I had no idea, at the start, how brutal it would be. And that’s the right word. Brutal. I’m quite certain it’s one of the most stressful careers anyone could choose, between the constant pressure to perform, the money worries, the fact that so many writers can’t afford any sort of health, life, or dental insurance. Constantly worrying about what people are going to think about the most recent story or novel, whether or not it’s going to sell, or, worse, worrying about the next novel before the present one even hits the shelves. I do this, because this is what I do. This is what I’m best at, but, as my grandfather would have said, it’s a tough row to hoe, and so I guess that’s what I would say to would-be writers. Oh, and have a fallback career, because you’ll likely need it. And first impressions are almost everything. Learn grammar. Learn to spell. Read everything you can before writing becomes a job and reading begins to feel like work. But, most importantly, you are not a special flower, and there’s no one out there to catch you if you fall.

daughter of houndsWhich of your novels or stories would you most like to see made into a massively multiplayer online role playing game?

I suppose I’d say Daughter of Hounds. I can sort of see that. The dynamic between the changelings, the hounds, the vampires, and all. The layers of secrecy. The gunplay and violence. It might come out sort of like a combination of, I don’t know, Myst and Grand Theft Auto.

In this game, what race and class would you play and why?

Oh, a changeling. Undoubtedly.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Just that The Red Tree come out August 4th, and I think it’s by far my best novel yet. You can preorder now from Amazon and other online booksellers. Also, I have a couple of short-fiction collections slated for 2010, The Ammonite Violin & Others and Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart, both from Subterranean Press. You can find me at caitlinrkiernan.com, and on Twitter, and on Facebook. I spend far too much time online.

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