Flashbacks: My Interview With Jack Skillingstead

This interview first appeared a little over two years ago in the Internet Review of Science Fiction, and qualifies as my first published article. Jack’s a masterful short story writer, and I was glad to be able to interview him. He discusses some of his influences in authors and books, origins of his short stories, and advice for writers. Fans of his work, and aspiring writers will enjoy it, I think.

Jack Skillingstead is the critically acclaimed author of over two dozen short stories published in venues including Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, and On Spec. Mr. Skillingstead’s stories, including the Theodore Sturgeon Award finalist “Dead Worlds,” have been reprinted in a number of Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies. In 2001, Jack’s story “Bon Soir” was chosen by Stephen King as a winning entry in a writing exercise from his book On Writing.

His upcoming projects include work on Couplers—a YA graphic novel—and “Are You There And Other Stories” a collection of short stories from Golden Gryphon Press. Mr. Skillingstead lives in Seattle with several thousand books. Over the past few weeks, I exchanged emails with Jack to discuss his literary influences, some of the finer points of his concise short stories, upcoming projects, and how he became the writer he is today.

Arun Jiwa: Which authors would you say have been a strong influence on your own writing?

Jack Skillingstead: Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, and Harlan Ellison. These are all guys I read obsessively when I was much younger, at a time in my writing life when I craved strong voices to guide my ambition. I don’t see any of them exerting a strong influence on me nowadays, but back then I carried their voices inside my head like splinter personalities, so it’s likely they shaped me.

AJ: What are five of your favorite books?

JS: The answer varies. Restricting myself to genre, five that spring immediately to mind are: More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon; Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; The Marriage Of Sticks, by Jonathan Carroll; Nova, by Samuel R. Delany. Since at this stage I’m primarily a short story writer, it might be more useful to name five story collections that have mattered to me (again, in genre): Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison; Driftglass, by Samuel R. Delany; The October Country, by Ray Bradbury; Night Shift, by Stephen King; The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, by Roger Zelazny.

AJ: I heard that you’d started a short story project with Harlan Ellison. What was it like to collaborate with someone who was influential to you as a writer?

JS: Surrealistic. Harlan had been a presence in my consciousness since 1968 when I first saw his name appear at the end of a Star Trek episode. As a teenager and young adult I was occasionally obsessed with his short stories—with his voice. Certainly I’m not the first to have had that experience. At the Nebulas in Tempe, in 2006, during a private conversation I asked him if he had any thoughts about publishing something in Asimov’s. I thought it would be cool to see my name in the same table of contents with his—sort of a full circle experience. Harlan said he would do one better than that and write a story in collaboration with me, if I wanted. It took me a couple of days to accept his offer, since I found the prospect intimidating.

In our conversation I’d mentioned his book of collaborations, Partners In Wonder. Much later, when we were on the verge of starting the story, he referred to our project as “Partners In Wonder Redux.” This got to me a little bit, for personal reasons. I’ll head off your next question by telling you that no, a co-written short story has never resulted from all this. I can say that in preparation, to get a rolling start, I wrote five short stories of my own, and wound up selling four of them to major markets. More recently I finished a story directly connected to Harlan and my encounter with him. So it’s all good and I have no complaints.

AJ: Having been through the collaboration process once, do you feel you’ve learned more as a writer? Would you ever collaborate again?

JS: I didn’t learn any writing lessons in particular. I don’t feel this attempted collaboration gave me much of a feel for the process. I did learn a few things about myself and other people in the SF world that have been useful, or at least enlightening.

And of course writing those “preparation” stories was good. It taught me I could produce under pressure. As for future collaborations, sure, I’d give it another shot.

AJ: Ok, let’s talk about your short stories. On a rough estimate you’ve written about 20, and have been published in various markets—Asimov’s, Talebones, and Realms of Fantasy. Out of all these is there a particular short story where you feel you completely succeeded in what you set out to do?

JS: It’s 27, if you’re including smaller markets such as On Spec as well as sales to original anthologies, most of those 27 occurring since 2003. Not that I’m counting. None of these published or soon-to-be published stories are bad (I’ve written plenty of bad ones that didn’t get this far), but some have succeeded more than others. I should add that I rarely “set out” to do anything in particular when I begin a story. In fact, the more I think I know going in the less I seem to accomplish, and the harder it is to get there. I know this doesn’t make logical sense. Writing a story is a strange night journey. You get in the car, throw the map out the window, and concentrate only what your headlights reveal in the near distance, leaving to Fate the ultimate destination.

So, altering your question a little, is there a particular story that I think succeeds from every angle? I can think of a couple, one of which isn’t in print yet. But “Dead Worlds” (Asimov’s June 2003) strikes me very well. When I started it all I really had was the concept of telepresence. That was the “idea.” How did it succeed? First, the story meant something to me. It presented clearly some of my highly personal perceptions of the world and prefigured most of my major concerns which would turn up in later stories. Second, all the sentences were solid and served the outcome. When surprises came along they fit the matrix. It was all there, and I knew it. Once completed, I could hold the story in my mind almost like a physical object, turning it this way and that, admiring its lack of major flaws. Of course it has flaws, but no glaring ones.

That was also my first professional sale. Not that I believed it would sell. My experience up to that point had been total rejection. I was used to it, accepted it, and after a great deal of pain and soul searching had virtually given up on the idea of being published, ever. I remember getting the letter from Gardner Dozois. I’d just arrived home from work. It was 11:30 at night. I’d stopped to pick up the mail. There was one of my SASEs. I opened it in the kitchen. My wife and daughter were sitting on the sofa in the next room. My wife asked me what was wrong. I must have looked stunned. Maybe I should have given up sooner. By now I might have a real career going.

AJ: Two of your stories—"The Chimera Transit" and “Scrawl Daddy"—feature some very unique developments in the way of space travel. Can you talk a little bit about your inspiration for these developments and/or the inventive thought process behind those systems of space travel?

JS: I’m not a science guy. I’m not against science. I’m not ignorant. But when space travel occurs in my fiction it’s there purely to serve the narrative intent. The practical mechanics of space flight are fascinating, but I’m probably not the guy to write about them. Others can do that much better. When I was a teenager I read a lot of Arthur C. Clarke, books like A Fall of Moondust and Rendezvous With Rama. I really loved these books, but I never aspired to emulate them. In "The Chimera Transit” the ship “devours itself” because my character is devouring himself. Language supports the image. The Universe contracting into a “whirling funnel of stars,” etc. is received imagery from the science fictional vault. I care about getting the science right when I need to, though. There’s real science in “The Chimera Transit,” the science of brain chemistry. But mostly I care about whether the story says something true about my character’s interior life and whether it works as narrative. And I care about getting the language past a purely utilitarian level.

Writers with tin ears, who don’t care about language, are failing to use the one element that distinguishes prose fiction from other storytelling media. It’s like a movie director deciding he doesn’t need a decent cinematographer or somebody who knows how to light a set, as if he considered those things the precious traits of a “style monkey.”

“Scrawl Daddy” features one-way portals and clones on nursery ships. Both serve what passes for my literary intent. It isn’t one of my best stories, possibly because I had to do a little extra handwaving to pull it off at all. I love it anyway, though. It’s fun and full of surprises. It also helped me process some confusing events in life around the time I wrote it.

AJ: I’ve read a few of your Harbinger stories, and a blurb for one of those stories—"Girl In the Empty Apartment,“ I believe—talked about the consciousness evolution of the human race. For readers who are unfamiliar with those stories, can you give us a bit of thematic background on that idea?

JS: Basically, I cribbed the idea from Colin Wilson’s theories of a "new existentialism.” That was the starting point. My take is a soft SF version of the current all-purpose BIG IDEA: the Singularity. In the case of my stories it’s human consciousness arriving at a transcendent tipping point. Why not? This idea has worked for me in some of my short stories, but the novel has met with universal rejection. I’ve been told it’s too unconventional. No one seems to know how to market it. This strikes me as strange, since I’ve always regarded SF as the place to go with unconventional ideas. On the other hand St. Martin’s passed on the novel because their senior editor thought it was too science fictional, with insufficient crossover appeal. Sometimes you can’t win. Of course, it may just be that I’m a crappy novelist.

My new book presents nine-foot-tall tentacled alien invaders who rip people limb from limb. I predict a barn burner.

AJ: You’ve written some stories that seem like straight SF, but have a strong slipstream feel. In those terms do you feel that the definition of genre or sub-genre is a restrictive border or something to be ignored?

JS: As I’ve sold more science fiction stories I’ve tried to address the usual expectations of the SF audience, which I respect. However, I don’t really think in terms of genre distinctions. Asimov’s has been a great place for me to publish, since for the most part I’ve been able to tell exactly the stories I want to tell. I know I tend to…veer. But most readers don’t seem to mind. Besides, it’s about how jazzy the story works on its own terms, not some arbitrary restrictions, isn’t it? Having said that, I want to add that I really love science fiction, the history, the current state—all of it. I grew up saturated with it from every medium and continue to read and enjoy it immensely. I’ll never forget the first time I saw my name on the cover of Asimov’s. I’d been more or less dreaming about such an occurrence my whole life.

AJ: You mentioned on your site that you’ve been writing scripts for a comic book series. Can you give readers an idea of the kinds of stories you’ve been writing for this series?

JS: It’s a YA space opera about life on a gigantic generation ship constructed within the core of an asteroid. Couplers is Buzz Dixon’s brainchild; I’m just a hired gun. Buzz and his partner first approached my good friend Nancy Kress, but she didn’t feel she was a visual enough writer to pull it off. When she mentioned it to me I was immediately interested. Like a lot of guys, I always wanted to write for the comics, though I had no idea how to go about it. Anyway, I asked Nancy to recommend me. What the hell—nothing ventured, nothing gained.

AJ: Was writing for comics a natural transition for you, or was there a steep learning curve?

JS: I was scared spitless. These scripts had to be ninety pages long. All of a sudden I was having conference calls and signing contracts promising to deliver something I had no idea how to do. Also, there were some restrictions, because of the nature and intent of the series. I should have been completely at sea. But…instead I found it the easiest professional-level writing I’ve ever done. It was delightful and natural to visualize panels and describe them—to tell a story in a series of still images.

The restrictions didn’t particularly inhibit me. Instead they provided a structure that allowed me to spin out the kind of big primary colors stories that are almost the dead opposite of what I usually do in my short fiction. So: virtually no learning curve at all, except for the initial awkwardness of formatting the script pages.

AJ: How long did it take you to make your first sale from when you started to write seriously and what had you learned from your writing up to that point?

JS: I was about twelve when I decided I needed to be a writer. For a long time, though, my efforts were desultory at best. When I finally got serious it took about fifteen years before I sold anything. This sounds worse than it is. Many of those fifteen years were spent writing novels that weren’t really successful and that I never submitted to publishers.

I followed a pattern of writing a dozen or so short stories, becoming discouraged at their failure, both artistically and in the marketplace, and switching to novels. The novels occupied vast stretches of time, in one case five years while I wrote draft after draft, pounding away at my little Smith Corona portable manual typewriter in rented rooms, hundreds of thousands of words. At this stage I can hardly fathom my stamina in those days. All this labor, by the way, without the least encouragement. No writing groups, Clarion, nothing. Not even a friend who wrote seriously.

What did I learn? Writing warehouses of words taught me, eventually, that less is more. Kind of a paradox. I think I started out wanted to be Stephen King but discovered my natural abilities were in a tight prose line delivered at minimum length. Not a bad lesson, and worth every year.

AJ: What advice would you pass on to aspiring writers?

JS: Write a lot and read widely. At least attempt to read difficult books. Broaden your horizons. Read SF but also read mysteries and suspense and Dickens and Nabokov and Cheever and whoever’s current. Don’t be disdainful of the so-called mainstream. If a book is too difficult for you, put it down and pick up a different one. If you don’t already love the process of writing, learn to love it. This is very hard work if you’re doing it for any reason other than love. Don’t be in a rush. Try to forget about getting published and all that. Concern yourself with what you’re doing on a sentence by sentence basis. Try writing in longhand; fill notebooks instead of hard drives. Computers are wonderful tools, but if you don’t know what you’re doing it isn’t particularly useful for your pages to look perfect. It might give you the mistaken impression that what you’ve written is perfect, too. When you think you have something good then market it. Don’t collect one or two rejection slips then descend into a slough of despond.

Much of this has to do with battling off hostile mental forces—self doubt, fear, loneliness—even embarrassment, as you watch your friends succeed at more mundane activities. I was good enough to publish years before I actually did. But I wasn’t systematically marketing my fiction. Going about it in such a haphazard fashion guarantees that luck will play a disproportionately large role in achieving, or failing to achieve, your goal. There is nothing coincidental about the fact that Gardner Dozois gave me my first pro sale just a few months after I got organized with envelopes, copies, SASEs and submission-tracking charts.

AJ: Jack, thanks for the interview.

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