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An Interview with Gregory Frost

by John Kessel

Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories by Gregory FrostJohn Kessel: Let's start with the most obvious and mundane of questions, just to get it out of the way: Who are your influences?

Gregory Frost: My parents. They encouraged reading, they let me read anything and everything, took me to the library and let me pick out books. I chose, by some inherent magnetism, books of fantastic stories. Barbara Leonie Picard's retelling of The Odyssey is the first thing I remember picking out of the library. I think I'd set a course for myself by then, though I certainly didn't know it.

Beyond that, I don't know, people are always asking authors which writers have influenced them, who they read, whose work they treasure. I think I was heavily influenced by two anthologies rather than, say, two writers. Both came out from Playboy Magazine in the early 1960s; they collected fantastic literature that had been published in the magazine, and Playboy at that time was the leading light for good, literate fantasy and sf, which you wouldn't know to read it now -- which, I fear, tells us how far fiction has fallen in importance in America in forty years. (You could say in the '60s that you were looking at Playboy for the fiction, and even mean it.) The anthologies in question were The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural. They offered stories by Ray Russell, John Collier, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Fredrick Brown, and so on, and I think I read them nearly to pieces. I still have them in sealed plastic bags on my shelves. I liked that one story could terrify you and the next could have you laughing (well, mordantly). For me they encapsulated the zeitgeist of the fantastic at a critical moment in time. Ten years later, Playboy was putting out much less interesting anthologies full of New Wave experiments that you forgot you'd read ten minutes after you finished. Probably those two anthologies inform my fiction as much as Roger Zelazny or Phillip K. Dick or anybody else I was reading at the time.

As a result, I think my inclination is to emulate that, to do something different every time. This is not the way to make a heap o' money in the wonderful world of publishing, by the way, where you get rewarded the most for doing variations on the same trick over and over. That's how you build up a readership -- by becoming a reliable commodity. Personally, I'd rather be reliable in the sense of turning in good craft every time, if that doesn't sound too hubristic. I guess it's like being a farmer and insisting that, although you planted corn here last year, this year you're planting tomatoes. Crop rotation. It may be good for the soil but not have the benefit of a survival strategy.

JK: So do you see any thematic cohesiveness at all in the stories?

GF: I've noticed only recently that there are themes that recur. A lot of writers seem to find themes that they embed in their work, and I don't know that they're conscious of them, at least not all the time. I think we're drawn to certain subjects or ideas again and again, so that even though we discover new contexts and concepts, we're unconsciously working those themes back into them, like a particular color of yarn in a tapestry. With the publication of Fitcher's Brides last year, I realized that Fitcher's Brides by Gregory FrostI'm either drawn to, or many of my stories warp into, explorations on the theme of betrayal by authority. In "Fitcher," that authority is a type of over-zealous Christianity that bills itself as having all the answers provided you don't ask any questions and conform to all the strictures. In "The Madonna of the Maquiladora," by contrast, there's a theme of faith as well, but the betrayal is by a corporation that's using religious iconography to manipulate and control its work force, which only implies a larger distrust of religious matter altogether because of the background of the second-person character.

In "Collecting Dust" (available elsewhere on this site), it's parents betraying their children in adhering to the American corporatist dogma that's already betrayed the parents as workers and is destroying them -- destroying the family from the inside out, which, frankly, is something I believe is happening in America today, what Wendell Berry calls "an economy based on several kinds of ruin."

You look at this past election, at the administration's ruthless theft of workers' benefits and protections while pretending to be compassionate toward people and you see that this story is just barely ahead of the curve here -- it's only about five or six years old. And it's weird, you know, because I wrote it after using the premise of it as an example in writing classes of the difference between contemporary American fiction and fantasy fiction: that a contemporary work might explore the disintegration of the nuclear family, but fantasy fiction would make the metaphor real -- the family would actually be disintegrating. I think I latched on to that example a decade ago, and at some point I realized that this wasn't a bad starting point for a story. So, in a way, that story comes out of the first Bush years. Who knew that someone would come along and notch it up for real?

It's like Gardner Dozois once said about the predictive value of science fiction: that it is overrated, and specifically that "while sf might have predicted the automobile, it would never have predicted the change in sexual mores as a result of the automobile." Norman Spinrad as his most acidic could never have predicted a thoroughly contemptuous president who managed to con the bulk of the public into thinking he was caring and compassionate. Anyway, enough politics, or I'll foam at the mouth and fall over.

To be fair, there are stories collected in Attack of the Jazz Giants that have nothing to do with that "betrayal" theme, at least directly; but I can see now that it's embedded in places where before I was oblivious to it.

JK: Do you think it's better to be aware?

GF: Not necessarily. I guess it depends on what you mean by aware. I know writers who make a point of remaining blind to what's going on in their fiction and are very powerful writers; and I know writers who are preternaturally aware of every nuance and are very powerful writers. I think you have two extremes in writing: those who are purely intuitive in their approach, and those who outline every miniscule detail before ever starting the actual manuscript. The rest of us -- the majority of us, I think -- fall somewhere in-between. Analytical probably saves time because you know your path in advance, but intuitive perhaps offers more chance of surprise and discovery along the way.

But the other version of "aware" is ... is it Eudora Welty who said "I write to find out what I think"? That's me encapsulated.

Not long ago I was on a small panel at a literary conference with you and Kim Stanley Robinson, which you'll no doubt remember. The topic was "Politics in SF" and I got stapled onto the thing at the last minute, so I did no preparation, and I do not function well without preparation -- without that "finding out what I think" phase of preparation. So I think really that I was the designated moron for the duration of the panel, but by listening to you two brilliant fellows talk, I gained a perspective on science fiction that I hadn't ever really taken the time to codify, expressed most eloquently by Stan -- that all sf is inherently political. Politics are embedded in some of my stories and novels -- obviously "Madonna of the Maquiladora" carries an overtly political theme, but if I look at others now where I wasn't conscious of any political stance, I see that this is true, that all of it is socio-political in nature. Critics have often labeled science fiction as "the fantasy of the industrial age," but from that discussion with you two, I can look at H.G. Wells as you presented him, and LeGuin as Stan presented her, and then Zamyatin and many others since, and see that sf has been politically charged fiction from its inception. I mean, maybe that's inevitable without changing that definition of it -- as art it paints the underbelly of industrial age's concerns and social experiments as much as Upton Sinclair did, if not necessarily as head-on. It just wasn't the facet of sf that I'd focused on before. And, besides, I'm not really a science fiction writer.

JK: There's an unexpected statement. Explain.

GF: I'm a fantasist. I'm hard-wired to write fiction using fantastic elements to explore humans in some fashion. A few of those stories, including my first two published works, both of which are in the Attack of the Jazz Giants collection, are indeed science fiction stories, but I'm not obsessed with the "science" aspect of the fiction. Arthur C. Clarke is a science fiction writer in a carved-in-stone way that I will never be. The science element is only important to me in the sense that any research for setting, for detail, is terribly important. You want to get it right. However, I don't sit around going "Oh, I can't write this, there's no science fiction in it." (laughs) Sorry, just reminded myself of a favorite Rowan Atkinson line: "If Shakespeare had meant for Antony and Cleopatra to be a comedy, he would have put a joke in it!"

Anyway ... I recently re-read Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber, and you know, it's not remotely a science fiction novel. It's a fantasy. Roger was always referred to as a science fiction writer but a lot of his fiction is not remotely sf. He didn't seem particularly bothered by that, and neither am I. And he was as much an influence on me as a writer as anybody has ever been. I was mad about his fiction long before I ever met him -- long before I knew that you were allowed to meet writers. I can remember being just knocked flat by The Dream Master and by This Immortal. Even before Lord of Light, I was a disciple. Never would I have expected that he was going be one of my teachers at Clarion, for which I thank Joe Haldeman, who talked me into applying in the first place.

JK: Are you and Joe still friends?

GF: Absolutely. We began as teacher and student but with Joe that's never been a hard line -- we never stood there going, "Gosh, wow, Mr. Haldeman." (Okay, I probably did that at some point, but I never let on and hopefully he doesn't remember.) He taught me a lot, first at the University of Iowa and then at Clarion; and he always made his students feel very comfortable in his presence; he has always been sharing ideas, letting us discover how to make our ideas better, which is what a good writing teacher does. He was reading and being influenced by work well outside the field, too, and that was something we had in common, a trait that rubbed off.

JK: What outside the field has influenced you?

GF: Besides pancakes? Okay, fiction: Amos Tutuola, The 1001 Nights, The Ocean of Story, Mikhail Bulgakov, Mark Twain, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Conrad, Bruno Schulz, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake, yada yada. But I have to say, lists like this are fairly useless in that you've no idea how or where the influence manifested. If you read all the short fiction in the Golden Gryphon Press collection with a list of these writers in front of you, maybe you can hunt up connections. But I'm betting you can't. And neither could I. I can as easily argue that I was heavily influenced by the collective that wrote under the nom de guerre of Franklin W. Dixon -- which is surely true. I must have read two dozen Hardy Boy novels at some point. I had a Jones for those books. I had one for Leslie Charteris, too, and then discovered that Brian Aldiss had a thing for Charteris as well, in that he made him the central character in Barefoot in the Head, and even stuck a "Simon Templar" joke in there to aid the less clever. But, believe me, Charteris is not a writer you read for stylistic influence. His style was to crime fiction what Lord Dunsany's was to high fantasy. LeGuin in an essay talks about how Dunsany provided the spark for her love of fantasy but that she knew well not to try and imitate him. He was "inimitable."

Joe, I remember at Iowa, was very into John Dos Passos, and I think Dos Passos probably influenced The Forever War, maybe as much as Heinlein, but you'd have to ask Joe about that -- that might be my revisionist memory at play.

You know, sometimes when he's critiquing a section of a novel of mine, Michael Swanwick will say things to me like, "Okay, how would Nabokov handle this section?" or "What if you were Faulkner, what would you do here?" To me he's very gifted in being able to think that way. And it shows how broadly he reads. I understand exactly what he's saying, and there are occasions when I go for such an effect, where putting on the "glamour" of a certain writer gives you temporary superpowers. "Madonna of the Maquiladora" was written with an eye toward Carlos Fuentes' "Aura" from the beginning. Michael is basically saying, I think, if you're going to steal something, steal big. That is, if you take another writer's words, that's plagiarism, but technique and craft is there to be learned, used, borrowed, and built upon.

My painting instructor -- many years ago when I foolishly thought I wanted to be a painter -- was a guy named Gaylord Torrance. And he said once that everybody started out trying to paint like someone else, in imitation. I think everyone starts out writing fiction that's like the fiction they enjoy reading. For some of us that provides a comfort zone to remain in and if you have a lot of readers who enjoy that place, too, then you also have a huge financial incentive to stay there, as I said earlier. There's nothing wrong with that. For others, it's a starting point and everything afterwards is an attempt to transcend, to outdo the perceived master or the last thing you wrote. You gain experience and after awhile you maybe stop trying to prove something; you just embrace your voice and let the story out. It's like -- I heard a comment by Michael Caine once where he said that he could look at his early films and see how strenuously he was acting in them; and that if he were to do it again, he'd be quieter, because now he knows how to get the effect he wants without having to jump up and down. I look upon "Justin Morrell" and think something very similar. It doesn't make it a bad or even lesser story, necessarily, but it is one that relies on flash more than I probably would now. It's louder fiction.

JK: So, to jump -- if that's the right word -- back a bit, you're pleased with Attack of the Jazz Giants.

GF: Incredibly. Golden Gryphon Press -- Gary Turner -- was simply the best to work with. He gave me free rein to assemble it, and actually chose more stories than I initially did for it. I mean, he read everything. And he worked very closely with Jason (Van Hollander) on the art work, the use of the interior artwork and the story order that most complemented those illustrations.

JK: Your other books were published by large commercial publishers. How do you feel about Attack of the Jazz Giants being published by Golden Gryphon Press?

GF: Well, I think if I had a short story collection come out from a big publisher, it would be flash-frozen and spit out into the miasma of their list, because large publishers believe no one wants to read short stories, that collections don't have much if any of an audience, and that we're all damned and going to hell ... no, wait that's Calvinists.

Golden Gryphon Press is the perfect venue for me. They've spent years now cultivating an audience for their books, proving again and again that there is a real place for serious short fiction. A number of their collections have won major awards -- Jeff Ford's, Andy Duncan's books, just off the top of my head. It became obvious very quickly that these books are, for Gary and Marty, a labor of love. Look at their list, at the production values of the books, and you can't help but feel that Golden Gryphon Press is the most prestigious specialty press publisher out there.

Personally, I hope they're in business a long long time ... because I'm a slow writer.

JK: And yet you wrote Fitcher's Brides in ten months.

GF: True. Part of that is due to having done all the necessary research before I was offered the opportunity by Terri Windling to contribute a book to her fairy tale series. When it came time to pick a fairy tale, I wanted one that hadn't been touched yet. There are just dozens of variants of the basic Bluebeard story, and I settled on one called "Fitcher's Bird," which is about a wizard who marries three sisters. Then I had to locate a context to make a retelling different, and I'd done scads of research for a non-fiction book about spiritualism in America, which included the myriad of cults that started in the Finger Lakes district of New York in the early 1800s. The story fit into that context as if it had been shaped for it. Because of that, and because the fairy tale provided a tested armature, I could focus entirely upon writing the story, and so it went much faster. Whereas, usually, I'm floundering around in the dark, trying out different things, making mistakes, feeling my way along, really.

JK: Have you done that with other works -- built them on forms that already exist?

GF: Well, "The Road to Recovery" is structured upon Bing Crosby-Bob Hope "Road" movies. I just imagined my own version. So it's a "Road" picture in that the cast of characters includes Dorothy Lamour. There's also a Sidney Greenstreet and a Peter Lorre character, though they didn't grace any of the original "Road" movies. It's a subversion of the series, too, in that neither one of these guys is capable of doing anything to save themselves. They're rescued every time by the women in the story. Otherwise, this is just a great big entertainment and I hope people laugh out loud when they read it.

JK: How about the illustrations? Did you have any input on them? What, to you, is the goal of illustrations -- you used to be an illustrator, right?

GF: Not ever really a professional, no. When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be a comic book artist, and I drew and wrote my own comics, all highly derivative of course of people like Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino. I didn't shift focus from the illustration to the storytelling for a long time, but once I did, the illustration took a back seat. I've done a couple of magazine covers, and did the cover art for two of my own books, sort of by accident; and in my day job right now I'm basically the art department for a small company, and it gives me some immersion into the illustration world to appreciate good illustration. I think Jason's artwork in this book is incredible -- edgy and clever and complementary to the material. His art for the Poe story ("In The Sunken Museum") is a stunner. Jason is like a film score composer -- trying to create something that's wonderful on its own terms but which exists in the first place to enhance a larger experience. That's a very fine line to walk, and I stand in awe of anybody who can do it as well as he does.

JK: What does this collection represent to you?

GF: Ah, the critical question. "Jazz Giants" represents for me the end to a long wait for recognition. Not that I think someone will read this and have a "Eureka!" moment and say "My God, how have I never heard of him?" But -- and I hope this doesn't sound like sour grapes -- I think I've written a lot of good stories and they've mostly been ignored, save by Stephen Jones in the UK, who has put a few in his "Best New Horror" anthologies. So I'm a household word in his house, but, you know, not next door.

JK: Do you know anything about yourself as a writer that you didn't know before you put it together?

GF: Well, I said that I've come to recognize some themes that I gravitate to, which maybe you only discover when you have to stare at the whole corpus. What I hope is true is that I'm still growing as a writer, that my craft, my skill, is forever evolving. This is probably going to sound pompous, but writing is like the Japanese game of go, in the sense that if you do it for maybe 70 years, you may just start to master it. At least, I think that's going to be the case for me.

JK: Where does it leave you going next?

GF: Right now I'm in the middle of a big fantasy project called Shadowbridge of which the "Meersh" story in this collection is a piece. Beyond that, I don't honestly know. My dad died in 2003, and I just froze up for a year and a half. With one exception, I could write no fiction, and the exception ended up being a father-and-son story ... where do you suppose that came from? It wasn't even writer's block so much as writer's vacancy -- a very weird, completely drained sensation. And I asked a lot of other writers and artists about this, and people all had good advice, shared experiences and the like, most importantly stressing that it was temporary. Carol Emshwiller said she had gone through this same still period after her husband died and that when she came out the other end of it, her writing had changed dramatically. I'm waiting to see if something like that happens to me. Maybe there'll be "before and after" collections someday: "And these stories were all written after he became a reclusive loon."

JK: Okay, one more. What do you want to leave your readers with?

GF: I hope that maybe out of this whole collection, they'll find a couple of stories that continue on past the last page, that they discover they're still thinking about days later. That would be nice. Beyond that, I hope they're as greatly entertained reading them as I was in creating them.

© John Kessel 2005.
This interview was first published as part of a booklet that accompanied the first 75 pre-release editions of the Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories collection from Golden Gryphon Press (2005).

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