Q&A with author Gregory Frost

Of his writing, Greg Frost states on his web site that: “Edgar Allan Poe called them Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I just call them ‘what I write.’ Some are disturbing, some are capricious. Some, I hope, will make you think about something in a new way, and stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.” Indeed, it’s true, Greg’s work is thought-provoking, unusual, and delves way passed the what if with characters that grab you from the get-go, and haul you on dark journeys that maybe you didn’t want to take. [Note: This interview was first published on the SF Hub, 2008]

Of course, the first question has to be, why do you write? 

I can’t help it, really. It may not be an addiction, but if it isn’t it’ll do until the addiction shows up. I went through a number of years of something bordering on serious depression, and I tried to hang it up repeatedly during that time. Every time I would convince myself that I was done with this writing business, a week or three would pass and then I would find myself writing in a notebook, some crazy-ass idea had caught hold of me. I wrote mostly short fiction during that time—and I likely “quit” writing about as often as I turned out a story.

What genre do you feel most comfortable working in? 

None of the above. That’s my favorite one. I call myself a fantasist, because all of the fiction seems to have a fantasy element to it. But I’ve moved through horror, fantasy, high fantasy, dark fantasy, science fiction, comic fantasy…even Cthulhu westerns (I’m really not making that up). Now I’m working on a mystery novel and a horror screenplay. I’m sure I would be far wealthier if I’d just stuck to one thing and done it over and over again, but frankly even the sound of that bores me to tears.

What was the first thing you remember writing? 

Comic books. I used to write and illustrate comic books. I was a kid, so I was just stealing from the comics I was reading—Green Lantern, The Flash, Dr. Fate, Dr. Solar, Dr. Strange (clearly, I should have been a doctor). The first story as a story I remember writing was as an art major (foolishly he thought he wanted to be the illustrator part of the comic book). I wrote a 2000 word story about a concert violinist that was an utter rip-off of Fred Mustard Stewart’s The Mephisto Waltz.

How do you work? That is, how do you approach a new project? Do you write different scenes and put them all together or do you just go from point A to point B and you’re done? 

With stories, I’ll write toward and/or away from an image, an idea. I screw around for days or weeks to find a way in, an entrance to the labyrinth, and then I’m off. My friend, Judith Berman, calls this the zero draft, and she’s absolutely right. It precedes even a full draft. Half the time it doesn’t get completed, it just illuminates what I’m really going after. Somewhere in the midst of it, I’ll stop and figure out the structure and then go on. It’s an attempt, I suppose, to strike a balance between the structural and the organic. Even describing it, though, is making it sound much more consciously developed than it is.

With novels, there’s more structural work first. I’ll write an outline to see if the thing is reasonably sound. And then I will disregard the outline entirely and write; come back to it if I need to check, but almost invariably by the time I do that, the outline is no longer valid because through the process of writing I’ve discovered—to borrow from Stephen King—the fossil that I’m uncovering. For the mystery in progress—and no doubt because I’ve never done one before—I’ve already gone through three outlines and I’m only halfway through the draft. I know the ending, but I know sweet FA about what’s in-between beginning and end.

Do you talk to your characters? 

Talk to them, sketch them. Before cell phones, I’m sure my neighbors thought I was the schizophrenic down the street. Now they just assume I’m talking to someone via an earpiece they can’t see. Of course, I’m doing both parts…

If you could have an afternoon with any one of your characters, who would it be and why? 

That’s tough. I love Leodora, the protagonist of the two Shadowbridge books; and Kate, from Fitcher’s Brides. In the end I guess I’d have to choose Leodora simply in the hope of hearing some of the amazing stories she’s picked up along the way. But there is an awful lot of me in the character of Kate. In some ways she’s the ultimate heroine to me—smarter than the devil, for one thing.

What’s your favorite story that you’ve written? 

That would be a hard choice to make. My favorite novel(s) at the moment would surely be the Shadowbridges. But my favorite story…that’s harder to assess. I am very proud of “The Prowl”, written for Nalo Hopkinson’s Mojo: Conjure Stories anthology; “Madonna of the Maquiladora,” that’s in my short story collection, Attack of the Jazz Giants; “So Coldly Sweet, So Deadly Fair,” from Weird Tales; and “That Blissful Height,” from Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology. It would probably be a toss-up among those four in the end.

A new fiction writer approaches you at an event and asks you for advice. What do you tell him or her? 

Give yourself permission to fuck up. For years even. You’ll only learn by making mistakes, so make them and embrace them and don’t beat yourself up for it. Take what you learn this time and apply it next time.

What’s the hardest thing for you about writing? 

What Maureen McHugh identified as “the dark night of despair”—that point in the middle where you look in either direction and realize that it’s all hopeless and you’re insane and you might as well quit now. It’s a siren song, calling you to smash yourself upon the rocks of despair, but if you deny it and keep going, you beat it, you come out the other side.

If you couldn’t write, what would you do? 

Sketch with pencils, paint, write music, sing. Teach.

Anne McCaffrey wrote to music and occasionally, she included the music she was listening to during her writing in the acknowledgments. Do you write to music? Or do you have certain writing rituals that you do before/during/after your writing sessions? 

I write to music sometimes, and other times I cannot abide it. Even when I listen to music, it has to be vocals-free. A lot of ambient-techno. A lot of streaming Drone Zone radio. I wrote the two Irish “Ulster cycle” novels, Tain and Remscela, while listening exclusively to music by Jon Hassell. I also used to think I needed quiet to write, but now I go into coffee shops and it’s as if the noise forces me to focus more tightly. As for rituals…I first draft longhand with a fountain pen. The Shadowbridge novels were written mostly with a Monteverde Mega Ink Ball, which is going into its third year as my favorite pen bar none. So, while I would never dare refer to this as my “lucky pen,” it is getting a workout. I’ve worn out the first point it came with already.

Do you share your writing with others as you’re working? Or do you wait until something’s complete? What are the benefits to either approach? 

With short stories I won’t share them until I think they’re done—or until I’ve run out of things I know to do. With novels, I’ll sometimes workshop a piece, a few chapters, depending on how I feel, if I have an urge to get another opinion. It’s all validation, just looking for someone to say, “yup, you’re on the right track.” Or not, as the case may be. And that person can’t be family, because your family will always tell you that you’re nice and good and fine, which of course we all want to hear but it doesn’t help.

Sometimes writers work internal issues out through their narratives. Have you ever written a scene or character that “hit too close to home” for you? How did you handle that? 

When my father died a few years back, I became simply unable to write. It was not writer’s block in the usual sense, but more like a creative paralysis that went on for about 18 months. It was weird, because on the surface I thought I was okay, but clearly I was wrong. And when I finally did write again, I wrote “So Coldly Sweet, So Deadly Fair”—which was a story about Dr. Van Helsing’s first encounter with vampires, a story based on one comment in Stoker’s Dracula where Van Helsing hints at his own tragic past.  So here is his wife, going insane. His son is in love with another boy, and he doesn’t see any of it. He’s too busy chasing monsters to see this time bomb in his own house, and in the end he loses both of them because of this blindness. It’s all about broken father and son communication. And I swear, not until I had finished it did I see where this had come from, or why that one story could be written when nothing else would come. I think now that internal issues are better off surprising me. I write to find out what I think, as someone wise said.

What are some of the things you do to improve on your craft? Do you attend conferences? Take workshops? What works best for you to improve how and what you write? 

Teaching. The more I teach writing, the more I learn about it. There’s nothing like having to sift through what you believe about the process in order to explain it to someone else to make you go “Oh, so that’s what I do.” I think writing like any other artistic endeavor is a lifelong apprenticeship. I have never stopped learning. I am sure I won’t run out of things to learn.

Let’s talk a little bit about the business end of writing from an author’s perspective. What do you look for in a publisher? 

Someone who will write a check.

More to the point, someone who will do right by the book I’m working on, who comprehends it, who doesn’t treat books completely like they’re cans of peas. It’s very much a crapshoot. You have to depend on the good will of people you’ll never meet. Art directors and cover artists and copy editors and sales staff. You try to make the best match you can. But in the end it’s all about you writing the best book you know how. The other stuff—the great success when and if it happens—is luck, which you cannot control.

What, from your perspective, are some of the most common mistakes authors starting out make with regard to approaching a publisher? 

For novels…there probably is no such thing now as “beginning authors approaching.” You have to have an agent to do that now. Almost nobody will look at unsolicited manuscripts any longer, and many of those who will, should not be allowed to publish you. POD may evolve. E-books, too. But right now I think what’s happening is that stuff that should not see daylight is being printed by entities that give the term “small press” a black eye and are causing the unnecessary death of a lot of trees.

Talk a bit about marketing. Publishers can’t do everything for you in that regard. So what are some of the things you do to drum up audiences for your work? What do you think are some of the most effective things (and cheap!) an author can do, besides write good material? 

Well, I’ve watched some authors climb through sheer willpower and self-promotional drive: Lisa Scottoline lived near me when she was publishing her first books, and she went from shop to shop in town getting people to put posters up for her. She worked at it. L.A. Banks has worked tremendously hard to promote her work. My pal, Jonathan Maberry, is probably the king of successful self-promotion. It’s all a lot of work. It’s exhausting. And what you have to do is ever evolving. Once upon a time, you had to have a web site. Then everyone put one up. So you had to have a blog. And then everyone started blogging. And so we make posters, and postcards, and bookmarks now. We get on Facebook and MySpace. Now, in part because of those fly-by-night books I mentioned above, bookstore chains don’t like to schedule authors except through their publishers’ PR people. If your publisher doesn’t have one assigned to you, you probably can’t set up many signings. Eventually, I’ll have to figure out a way to become Max Headroom and just broadcast myself at you. But my favorite work of self-promotion is when Jonathan made miniature copies of his book covers and wrapped them around chocolates and gave them out at readings. Books and dark chocolate. I am so there.

Do you make some of your writing available online? How do you feel about e-publishing and e-books? Would you go that route? Why or why not? 

I do make some stuff available online. I’m starting to podcast a bit as well. Some of what’s online is teasers, to let you see if you like what you read. If you do, buy the book. I’ve had stories as downloadable works on a couple of sites. If I relied on that for income, however, I would be eating cat food.  

I think I covered the whole e-book question already. When it grows up, let me know. If Kindle takes off, well good. I’ll come out and play…though I’m still taking a paperback with me to the beach.

What were your best and worst experiences with an editor? 

Best experiences so far have been with Keith Clayton at Del Rey. He bought the Shadowbridge books because he clearly understood what I was up to. The worst…I am not going to name. Let’s just say there once was a big publisher that tried as hard as it could to destroy the careers of its SF and fantasy writers, and that when I complained about their practices to another one of the authors in their stable, he replied, “Just be damned thankful you didn’t sign a seven book contract like I did.”

And finally, what’s your favorite thing about being a writer? What, for you, totally sucks about it? 

Favorite thing: Arriving at the end of a good day of writing and experiencing a runner’s high—the endorphin rush that happens now and again. Never often enough, in my opinion. 

What sucks: Rejection slips and bad reviews. You try to take them in your stride; it’s all you can do. One of my teachers, way back at the University of Iowa, T.C. Boyle, made a collage out of his rejection slips, framed it, and hung it on the wall. I think more of us should do that.

Author Bio:

Frost is the author of highly-regarded novels that include the Shadowbridge series (Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet, from Del Rey), Fitcher’s Brides (Tor), the “PK Dickian” sf novel, The Pure Cold Light, as well as two novels derived from the Celtic epic, the táin bó cuailnge, Táin and Remscela, returning to print in ebook format from Book View Cafe in Winter 2015.

His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction (April/May 2015); in Out of Tune edited by Jonathan Maberry; in the anthology Dark Duets (HarperCollins), and in Jet-Pack Adventures, an anthology honoring the work of the late Dave Stevens (IDW).

He’s director of the fiction writing workshop at Swarthmore College.

To learn more, follow him on twitter (@gregory_frost).

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  1. November 12, 2018

    Interesting interview. I really like the rejection slips’ framing idea, as I consider myself to be a ‘people please in recovery’ , it’s something I would like to embrace.

    • November 13, 2018

      Thank you, Vera. Greg was a delight to interview and kindly answered (as you can see) a lot of questions in depth and with honesty. Some answers of which I hope are helpful to writers reading this, as well.

      And it just goes to show you that even the best authors took a long time to break-in, regardless of education and background, it’s a tough road.

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