Monday, March 29, 2010

Make-Believe Monday with Philip Athans

Today on Make-Believe Mondays my guest is Phil Athans.

Phil, first, tell us a little bit about the manuscript you’re working on now.

Phil: I’ve recently put to bed The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction for Adams Media. It offers easy to read advice and inspiration for genre authors of all levels, but is geared a bit more for the aspiring author. I managed to pull together interviews with a number of major authors in the field. Advice, encouragement, anecdotes, and even warnings from those colleagues are scattered throughout the book. Contributors include some of the best-selling authors currently working in the fantasy and SF genres today (R.A. Salvatore, Terry Brooks, Kevin J. Anderson), critically acclaimed newer authors (Paul Park, J.M. McDermott) and even other editors (Lou Anders, John Betancourt), agents and critics.

Though I have a part of me that’s always been a bit skeptical about “how to” books in a subject I hold as sacred as I do the written word, the advice is geared toward the specific demands of the fantasy and science fiction genres. I honestly don’t think any book can teach you how to be a storyteller, but there are certain peculiarities to genre writing that can be learned, and should be if you want to appeal to genre readers. I hope the book will teach you how to build the “skin” that covers the essential spirit of any novel: a story well told, a clever turn of phrase, and a heartfelt universal truth.

Debra: One of the things I have always appreciated about my author friends is their willingness to share what they've learned, what they know of the writing craft and what it takes to craft a compelling story. Storytelling is a craft and I've always viewed the passing along of such knowledge as a way of showing respect for that craft along with thankfulness for the lessons learned and the mentors who helped along the way.

Ray Bradbury said, “We are cups, constantly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” How do you keep your creative cup filled?

Phil: It may sound like a cop-out answer to say, “I’m inspired by everything,” but I expend a considerable amount of energy trying to do just that. I think a writer should be a sponge, literally and liberally soaking up anything you gather in from any and all of your five senses. There’s nothing that can’t end up in a book, from ancient religious scripture to the often impenetrable mumblings of reality show contestants.

In particular I’m drawn to the creative output of others. Inspiration for a story, a character, or a whole fantasy world can be drawn from any combination of any number and variety of sources, including history, mythology, and current events. But reading other fiction, inside and outside the genre you tend to write, is essential to any fiction writer. Movies and (quality, scripted) television also inform my writing, especially in action scenes. The movies have really been dialing up the stakes on the action set-piece and any author of fantasy and SF in particular should be watching those movies and taking advantage of the written word’s lack of a special effects and stunt budget to spark wilder flights of creativity. Bigger isn’t always better, but smaller isn’t always better either. In the book I encourage authors facing a blank page at the beginning of an action scene to ask themselves: WWJCD? What Would Jackie Chan Do?

Debra: Not a cop out at all. And I like your Jackie Chan question. :-)

Some very famous authors have played with language, creating words for people or places that no one has ever heard of. Have you ever played with words in that way and if so how?

Phil: That sort of thing is an absolutely essential skill for fantasy and SF authors. Fantasy readers in particular are drawn to plausibility, not realism, so the adventures of Jim’s trip to Chicago is inherently less interesting to a fantasy reader than Huirdon’s journey across the Sandwastes of Chyren. I’ve always stopped well short of the hyper-immersive Tolkienesque steps of first inventing the language, but what you call something can tell a reader an awful lot about that thing in a single word. In The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction I give the example of a political office: If the Foreign Minister of a fantasy realm has set out on a program of genocide against gnomes, we’re not certain right away of that’s something he’s doing on his own or is part of his job description—is he evil and grossly overstepping his authority, or is the realm itself institutionally genocidal? If the character’s title is Minister of Gnome Eradication we instantly know that this is a government purposefully and openly organized with the goal of gnomish genocide. The author’s decision in that one naming convention builds his world in very specific ways, without pages of dry exposition.

Debra: Yes one word can change everything. As you've shown one word can explain so much.

For some writers, dreams play a role in creating fiction. Has this been true for you? Have you ever dreamed a scene or an image that later wound up in one of your books?

Phil: I have no spiritual, metaphysical, or superstitious component to my life at all, so I think most people would expect me to dismiss dreams as random firings of neurons without any particular significance, but that’s not at all the case. Though dreams are indeed, more or less, the result of the random firing of neurons, they’re my neurons, bent to my collection of memories, my emotional and psychological tendencies, my hopes, fears, and so on, so the result of those random firings can be of great personal significance, and no serious writer of fiction should ever ignore any moment of great personal significance.

There’s a scene in my novel Whisper of Waves in a which a ship is transported through a magical portal but something goes wrong and the ship emerges a hundred feet in the air, and crashes to the sea below. I dreamed that before I ever started writing the novel and had it in mind from the moment I started thinking about that story. The published scene is pretty close to the dream experience.

Several years ago I wrote a screenplay that, like the overwhelming majority of screenplays written by anyone, remains unproduced. It’s called Every Two Years, a Spider, and concerns a woman with the pathological compulsion to have children then intentionally poison them with the bite of the black widow spider. “Inspired,” if such a noble word can be invoked for such as this, by stories that were all over the press at the time of mothers murdering their own children, it’s a disturbing, tense little piece that I gave up on at least five time as I was writing it—because it was giving me nightmares.

At first it seemed as though my own brain was rejecting the writing of this script, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that what I was really trying to do, subconsciously, was deal with it in some way, compartmentalize it, cleanse my mind of it. And the dreams only got worse when I wasn’t writing it.

I also sometimes have dreams that I’m not actually a part of. It’s as though I’m watching a movie play out in my head. These I struggle to remember. I still recall in detail a vivid dream that was a complete story laid bare, and one I’m still circling around writing. It’s almost like writing the novelization of a movie you only sat through once—ten years ago. Not easy, but . . .
If you ever see my name on a novel entitled Ghosts of Camelot, that was the dream—scene for scene.

Debra: I would love to see your name on a novel entitled Ghosts of Camelot. And the movie too. :-)

If there were no categories for books, no reader expectations to meet, and you could create the wildest work of imagination that you could think of what kind of story would that be?

Phil: Ultimately I think it would be a story about how much we all do to stand in the way of our own happiness. I wonder if it’s possible to encourage—even force—people to stop and think about all the things they do, think, and feel that’s weighing them down, making them unhappy for no other reason than “I was raised to believe . . .” or “I’m offended by . . .”

When has being offended by someone else ever made your life better? When has hating someone, stopping someone from doing something that causes no injury to anyone but people who’ve decided to be offended made the world a better place? There always seems to be something we’re all up in arms about—gay marriage in America, for instance, or state-sponsored health care—and in the end we eventually get over it and move on to being offended by something else.

Maybe I could write a historical fantasy that makes it clear that, ninety years ago, millions of Americans were deeply offended by the idea of women voting, or that the year I was born (and I’m not that old) there was such a thing as “Whites Only” restaurants. Human behavior is like the stock market, it fluctuates wildly but over the very long term it trends up.

Oops. Was I being hopeful just then?

Debra: Yes, Phil. You are perhaps more helpful than you know and I have quite enjoyed this interview. Thank you for joining us here on this Make-believe Monday to share a little bit of the magic of writing with our readers.

Readers here is a little bit about Phil:

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and nine other fantasy and horror novels for Wizards of the Coast. Born in Rochester, New York in 1964 he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. He now resides in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.

You can follow him on Twitter: @PhilAthans
and on the blogosphere at:
and read his blog novel at:

Debra's News/Debra is watching:

This coming Saturday I will be signing books in Blytheville, AR at That Little Bookstore Saturday April 3rd from 1:00 to 3:00. Come by and join me for tea and conversation. I love to meet readers!

1 comment:

Debra Parmley said...

Thank you!