VP Profile #7: Ferrett Steinmetz

Probably our highest profile member of VP XIII, I’m pleased to present an interview with the bi-shop-xual Ferrett Steinmetz.

You should totally read the interesting, in-depth interview, but if you just want to pop to the fiction, I’ll make that easy on you.

Tamago: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Ferrett: In fourth grade. I submitted my first poem to a teacher, which included the phrase “In a time / when people live with the spider of hunger in their bellies,” and she thought that was the most amazing thing. I said, “Wow, if I can inspire that reaction, then I want to write!”

Which, to me, is largely what writing is about: inspiring reaction. Can I make you cry? Feel outrage? Root for this character? If I can get you hooked, then I have affected you without even being there. That’s a win, man.

What’s not a win? My poetry. “Spider of hunger”? Come on, fourth grade kid, you can do better than that.

Tamago: Are there any kinds of stories you are more inclined to write, or themes that you return to in your writing?

Ferrett: Pretty much all my best work could be summed up in one title: Desperate People Locked In Strange Rooms. Whether it’s a squid trapped in a moat created for him by a mad Scientist (“As Below, So Above”) or a teenager trapped in a world that records and ranks his every behavior (“Camera Obscured”) or a jock trapped in a school of mad scientists (“Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol”), almost everything I write involves someone in a weird situation they didn’t create.

That said, I write a lot about time travel as a futile way of trying to fix the past (the idea of people using time travel as a video game save point is something that crops up in no less than three stories of mine). I also write a lot about how the singularity is probably going to be a wretched mess of advertising hell for people.

That said, my wife actually put a lock on me for 2010: “No more stories about teenagers learning life’s lessons!” (This culminated just after I’d written “In The Garden of Rust and Salt,” which is perhaps my most depressing tale ever.)

Tamago: You have a fairly popular blog. Why do you keep a blog, and what will readers find you writing about there?

Ferrett: People tune into my blog for one of three reasons:

a) I’m dispensing relationship advice. I talk a fair amount about polyamory and how to have good relationships in general, and over eight years people have grown to trust my word when I say, “This is probably a good thing to consider.”

b) I’m telling silly stories. Probably the most recent example is my description of me drinking the bacon soda.

c) I’m ranting violently about centrist politics.

The interesting thing is that while I have fans of all three, they have almost zero overlap. I’ve had people de-friend me because I was posting too much about the election and not enough about my marriage with Gini, yet when I post too much about Gini then people want silly sex stories again.

There are a lot of times I think my blog would be more popular if I’d focused on one issue and stuck with it. Alas, I’m far too magpie-like to do that.

I do write about a fourth topic — my writing — but one of the downsides of being known as a D-lister blogger is that you have to build your audience all over again as a fiction writer. I have about three thousand people who read me on a daily basis…. but they tune in to hear me bitch about Congress, not to hear me tell a tale about squids. Of them, many of them don’t read short fiction regularly, or they don’t care for my short fiction, so my goal is to convert them one at a time. Still, my overlap between “famous as a blogger” and “famous as a writer” is still comparatively narrow, since I’m coming at it from the ass-end of blogger-first.

Tamago: What do you find satisfying about keeping a blog that makes the experience different than writing fiction?

Ferrett: Reader feedback is cool.

Also, it’s nice being able to quickly evoke an emotion without having to erect a fictional construct around it. If I tell you, “This is a character,” then you have to buy into him, which involves giving details and getting you, the reader, on my side. If I tell you, “This is what happened to me,” then you’re much more interested in a real-life story, and take a lot more things as a given, and are more emotionally invested if I do the job even halfway right. Which is weird, because I still have to tell the story in a way that you connect with me, but it’s easier. At least it is for me.

Tamago: One of the things you talk about regarding your writing is your experience with the first novel you submitted. Can you talk about how that experience changed your writing?

Ferrett: Oh, God. Can we skip this one? Because I’ve already got the “spider of hunger” thing. People will think I’m more awful than I am. 🙂

Tamago: Tell us about your Clarion experience.

Ferrett: Well, if you want you can read about it in real time — I blogged the whole thing, and collected the posts. But that’s kind of a boring answer, innit?

The longer answer is that I sucked for about twenty years and didn’t realize why. I had the common egotism of thinking that I was much closer to being good than I really was — I thought that hey, one or two drafts and I was close to being good! And I wasn’t. I really, really wasn’t.

Clarion showed me how fractured my stories were, just every single flaw, because I was surrounded by seventeen brilliant writers and they all turned their laser-like eyes at my tales. A lot of people think that Clarion’s all about the instructors, but the instructors come and go — what happens is your fellow students, people as talented as you are, point out all the tiny flaws and show you how the accumulation of lazy shortcuts and errors you hadn’t even seen sap the strength from your story.

And you critique their stories, and in turn see the echoes of things you’re doing wrong… But it’s easier to see when you’re not as close to it. Day by day, you come to realize all the ways you need to improve.

So when I went into Clarion, I thought I was a good writer. When I came out of Clarion, I thought I was a good writer — but who wants a good writer? There’s a thousand good writers. No, you need to be a great writer, the kind of person who breaks hearts, and for that you either need a phenomenal instinct or a lot of training. Or both.

I’ve been working my ass off since then to be great. Ain’t there yet. Not even close. But I’m a much higher quality of good.

Tamago: You’re a member of SFWA. What does being a member of SFWA do for you as a writer?

Ferrett: It makes me feel like I’m one of the cool kids.

No, seriously, because you can’t get into SFWA as a full member without selling three “pro” pieces, SFWA is what I cling to on the days when I’ve gotten three rejections and the story I’m working on sucks and I’m not a real writer, why am I bothering? Then I look at my name on the SFWA membership site and go, “Look, you’re a real writer, it says so right on this site. Quitcher bitchin’ and get to work.”

In other areas, SFWA does a lot of things behind the scenes that I never really have to think about because they’re there — keeping markets honest, alerting me to sketchy agents, giving me advice on how to keep my career going. They’re a good organization, and have gotten even better now that Scalzi and Kowal are leading it, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

Tamago: Which writers have influenced your style?

Ferrett: That’s usually the short-hand version of, “Who do you write like?” — and the answer is, honestly, that I don’t know. I could say that Stephen King’s influenced me a lot, which he has, but Lord knows whether I write like he does… and who hasn’t been influenced by Unca Steve? I’d say Alan Moore as well — I wish I could write prose half as well as he did during his Swamp Thing run, or Miracleman — but again, it’s not like Alan Moore (or his pal Neil Gaiman) are uncommon answers.

Kij Johnson, Ray Bradbury, Ken Follett, Stephen R. Donaldson, Harlan Ellison, Madeleine L’Engle, Theodore Sturgeon… Oh, Good lord, I could be here all night. The real answer is probably closer to “Which writers are influencing your style this week?” in which case it’s Scott Westerfield and Suzanne Collins.

Tamago: As a writer, it’s hard to get support. Are there people in your life that support your writing?

Ferrett: It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’m pretty much three-quarters of a writer. My wife is the other quarter. She critiques, she bolsters me up when I fall prey to the inevitable Alexander Dane syndrome, she’s the person who I bounce ideas off until one of them sticks. Without her, I’m not here.

That said, if you consider my wife and I to be one pair-bonded entity (and why not?), my critique group The Cajun Sushi Hamsters is very supportive and has great feedback for me. And when I’m down, a lot of my VP and Clarion buddies have my back.

Tamago: Obviously, you’ve attended Viable Paradise, or else I wouldn’t be interviewing you. Talk about that experience. Was it similar or different to Clarion? What did you gain from this workshop?

Ferrett: It’s hard to say, since I think your experience heavily depends on what you see first. If I’d done Viable Paradise first, I think it would have been as mind-blowing for me as Clarion was —simply because I would have had the understanding there of how far it was I had to go. That said…

Viable Paradise is different because Clarion is six weeks; Viable Paradise is a week. Clarion has a different instructor every week; Viable Paradise has all the instructors there the same week. That shapes the structure.

Because Viable Paradise is so short and supervised by the same people, it’s got a very summer camp feel to it; they have a plan and a schedule for you, and you’ll do what they tell you to on pretty much every level from teaching to the nightly relaxation periods. It’s extremely structured, as it has to be. You have only a week. You can’t mess around. And it’s a culture that you arrive in and are indoctrinated into, and you either take to it or you don’t.

Clarion, on the other hand, is six weeks of very loose class — you have three hours in the morning for critiquing, and then it’s all up to you. So the students are the ones who create the environment. And you wind up teaching each other a lot.

What that means is that Viable Paradise is great for learning, but it’s not nearly as exhausting as Clarion is — partially because you’ve only got one week as opposed to six, but also partially because you don’t have to go to the effort of creating a society with its mores and structures. It’s all there. Viable Paradise just hands it to you.

You can get a lot out of either. But Clarion has the strength of creating a customized culture that’s tailored to your writing habits, which can be incredibly empowering… or it can go completely awry if the people aren’t supportive. It didn’t at mine, I trust my Clarion-brothers with all my heart, but I can see where that sort of power could go wrong.

Viable Paradise, on the other hand, is very strong but it’s largely going to be about what the instructors teach you.

Either is good. If you have one week, you’re probably going to learn more at Viable Paradise in that one week than you would in the first week of Clarion. If you have six weeks, though, Clarion’s going to drain you but you’ll come out a better writer. Some people need a year or two to recover from it, though.

Tamago: Where can readers find your work? Do you have a convenient bibliography or set of links?

I do!

Tamago: What are you working on right now?

Ferrett: Right now, I’m working on my first post-Clarion novel. It’s about a headstrong boy growing up in a society where the dead now outnumber the living, to the point where the living are second-class citizens. And more than that I cannot say.

Tamago: Tell me about a dream project you’d like to write, if you have such a thing.

Ferrett: I’d like to get paid to do this “writing” gig full-time. That’d be my dream project. Because really, I love writing — I just hate rejection!

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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