Michael Jasper Interview
Posted: Mar-10-2015 at 7:30am
WORKING FOR THE MAN
An interview with Michael Jasper
Daniel E. Blackston
This year's Second Place winner in the SFReader.com/Firebrand Fiction Annual Fiction Contest is a writer I have long admired, since the early days of Firebrand Reviews, when his excellent story, "Working the Game" caught my eye among the contents of an early issue of the now-defunct SF ezine Future Orbits.
That two pro writers won the top slots in this year's contest is a testament to their technique and commitment to follow a story through to the end. No story submitted to the contest is given special favor because of its author's previous credits or lack thereof. However, this year, the pros really seemed to stand out among the other submissions. Michael Jasper's story, "Remainders" is a great, action-filled story, but as its author points out, the tale also articulates a powerful theme of character development and crisis, as well as probing some deeper sociological implications, as readers of the story will plainly see!
Michael Jasper was born in 1970 in Dyersville, Iowa, the home of "Field of Dreams." After attempting to teach junior English for two years in rural Nebraska, he left the Midwest in 1994 and hasn't looked back since, though a good portion of his writing is set there. His stories and novels run the gamut of science fiction, fantasy, horror (and various combinations and subgenres of all three) as well as paranormal romance and mainstream fiction. A graduate of Clarion in 1996 and the NC State Writers Workshop, Michael works as a technical writer and editor for a hardware/software company, stealing time to work on his fiction whenever possible. He lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife Elizabeth, and he's working on his fourth and fifth novels as we speak.
His short fiction has been published in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, The Book of More Flesh, Gothic.net, Flytrap, Writers of the Future, Future Orbits, and The Raleigh News & Observer, among others. Fifteen of those stories will appear in his first short-story collection, Gunning for the Buddha, which is coming out from Prime Books in mid-2004.
First thing I want to know is -- rumor has it you're working on some novel length stuff. When can we get it? Where? What's going on with your work as a SF novelist?
Well, we're all going to have to wait a bit, I'm afraid -- I've got two finished novels out to publishers and agents right now, with a couple nibbles here and there, but nothing under contract. Nothing yet, that is! Hope springs eternal, and all that...
The first novel is an urban fantasy called The Last of the Hand. The story is set in modern-day Chicago, where a young girl accidentally discovers a new form of magic and wreaks all sorts of havoc in the city before she's able to get it under control, and once she does she must deal with the old-school Sorcerers who have come out of the woodwork to hunt her down. My story "Coal Ash and Sparrows," which was in the January 2004 issue of Asimov's, takes place in the same setting as this novel, but isn't part of the novel itself.
The second I have making the rounds is a near-future science fiction novel entitled The Wannoshay Cycle. I've been working on this novel off and on since Clarion, which I attended in 1996. This novel is about alien refugees who arrive on Earth, try to integrate with humans, and are almost immediately imprisoned in what amounts to concentration camps across the Great Plains of America and Canada (the aliens are blamed for a pair of mysterious explosions). Four stories pulled from this novel have already appeared in print, three at the excellent web magazine Strange Horizons and one in the 16th volume of Writers of the Future anthology. Close readers will recognize an appearance by the Wannoshay in "Remainders." I hope.
I'm currently polishing up my third novel, Heart's Revenge, which I'm calling a paranormal romance. This novel has been a blast to write. It has the headless ghost of Blackbeard, shipwrecks, wild ponies, scuba diving, hurricanes, and surly elderly tourists. Oh, and there's a (cough) romance. My wife dared me to write a romance set on North Carolina's Outer Banks as a test of my writing chops, and I surprised myself by enjoying the process. It forced me to really dig deep into my characters' emotions, something I haven't done as much of in my previous novels. Plus the novel has ghost pirates! Everyone loves ghost pirates!
And I've slowly been gathering ideas for the next novel, which will be something completely different. Right now, I'm envisioning it as a mix of mystery, high fantasy, military fiction, and adventure, all rolled together. I have the opening scene (a "fog of war" incident that takes the lives of innocents) and the narrator (a dishonored and washed-up lawyer/con man) in mind already, and I plan to simply dive into the story, no outlining or mapmaking or world-building -- I just want to put the characters into a tension situation and see what happens. And if that doesn't pan out, there's always the baseball novel set in the pre-WWI Midwest that I've been thinking about for almost five years now...
"Remainders" is one of those stories that I feel would appeal equally to an old SF fan such as myself and to the newer generation of SF fans. Do you agree? Did this play any role in your conception of the story, that it would have a wide demographic appeal for SF fans?
I hope this story has a wide appeal, in that it has spaceships and aliens, those classic SF icons, as well as some sort of mystic voodoo (Jaret's ability to enter his conscripts' minds), some fun action scenes, and a very troubled protagonist. I had a hard time writing Jaret because he is such a mean-spirited person, but once I started digging into his past, I enjoyed figuring out what made him that way. Ultimately, I wanted to do a story that felt like space opera (the original title was "Space Marines," but that went away fast, fortunately!), and something that was different from the Earth-based, near-future SF I'd been writing with the Wannoshay stories and novels. And I've got to give my friend Chris Babson credit for letting me use his idea for "head-popping" and conscripted from the story -- he'd done a great story using a similar setup while we were at Clarion, and this story couldn't have seen the light of day without his input.
Who, exactly, do you envision as a potential reader when you are writing short fiction? Is it a different audience than novel length SF?
I usually use myself as a potential reader, writing stories and novels that appeal to my reading tastes -- I'm a very slow reader, with the attention span of a gnat -- so I like to keep the pace fast, with lots of conflicts happening at all times, both internal and external. I'm learning that keeping up that pace and level of tension in a longer work is much, much harder. If I were to do a novel based on "Remainders," I'd be a very tired writer.
You've a short story collection coming out soon from Prime Books called, "Gunning for the Buddha" -- what prompted you to put out a collection of your short fiction at this time?
Everybody else was doing it, so I figured I'd jump on the bandwagon! Seriously, I'd been following the journal of my friend Tim Pratt as he was compiling his short-story collection Little Gods for Prime Books early last year, and I was eaten up with jealousy. Fellow writing friends Nick Mamatas, Paul Tremblay, and Nick Kaufmann also had collections come out from Prime Books recently, and after meeting with him at the World Fantasy Convention in Washington DC, Nick Kaufmann encouraged me talk to Sean Wallace at Prime Books. Nick also encouraged me to sign his chest at the hotel bar at the convention, which I also agreed to do...
In a few weeks I had a book deal, one of the biggest thrills I've ever experienced as a writer (so far), and I can't wait to see the book in print sometime this summer. Sean at Prime publishes some fantastic work, and I'm honored to be a part of his stable of authors.
I know from previous discussions we've had and from reading your short fiction, that issues of classicism and themes that one might call of special interest to the "working class" are prevalent in your short fiction. How do you view the impact of technology on issues of class in society? How about the role SF plays in describing or criticizing these kinds of social realities?
I feel that the working class characters really get short shrift when it comes to telling their stories. It's not as glamorous writing about a character whose main concern is making enough at his or her job to pay that week's bills. But I'm intrigued by how the ever-changing world impacts these people, and what sort of internal life they have. I wonder if the Mexican men who live a block away from me like to read books, or if they even have time when they're not working as laborers at various construction sites. Do they surf the Net? What do they dream about? What gets them through each working day?
So, I try to explore what the "working class" will mean in a few decades. Will it be a case of haves versus the have-nots? Will the working poor be able to afford the latest gadgets to improve their lives, or will they have to wait like many folks do today a couple of years for the prices to come down to a level affordable to them? And what will they miss out on as a result of falling behind? Or will the divide simply widen, and the middle class fall away so there's only the rich and the poor? There's a lot of potential there, I think.
I've been working since I was sixteen, when I pumped gas at the local gas station, and I've done all sorts of menial jobs, from mopping floors to working in a factory to painting houses to waiting tables to delivering newspapers. Fortunately, all of those jobs were short-term gigs, between college semesters or temporary jobs. I couldn't imagine doing that kind of work all my life. Now that I'm a white-collar sort again, doing technical writing and editing for a software company, I tend to forget what it's like to do physical labor, to make and fix things with my hands instead of sitting behind a computer keyboard. There's a certain honor in that kind of labor -- an honest day's work. You can look back at what you've done and see that you've made a difference, even it's just a sparkling clean floor that will soon get dirty again. And I wonder who will be doing that work in the future.
You have any thoughts on why a story like "Remainders" -- full of action, conflict, and with an exciting off-world setting is not a more common find in the prestige SF publications like F&SF, Asimov's, or SCI FICTION? How large of a role should adventure driven SF play in the modern publishing world?
Funny you should ask, as "Remainders" was bounced from all three magazines you mentioned! The editors all gave me nice feedback, mostly noting that there were too many aliens to keep track of, and it was a bit confusing. I took their advice and revised it and kept sending it out.
I don't think editors of the "prestige publications" frown upon action-filled stories, so long as the characterization is there. I think there's a definite audience for a fast-paced ride, so long as all the spaceship chases, explosions, and sizzling lasers mean something more than just eyeball kicks. I hope people think about Jaret's decisions in the story for a while after they've read the story, and ultimately I hope it's his situation, even more than the events of the story, that has the most impact on the reader.
What's the best SF novel you've read lately?
While I really enjoyed Stephen King's latest Dark Tower novel, Wolves of the Calla, and I couldn't be bothered by anyone to stop reading until I'd finished that monster. I don't think it was the best SF novel I've read recently, and it was such a mix of so many genres -- fantasy, western, SF, horror -- that I would be remiss in classifying it only as SF. I really got sucked into China Mieville's The Scar, for its sheer audacity and range -- he had a large cast and some fascinating characters, all wrapped up in a great plot that ended a bit abruptly but in a more or less pleasing manner. But the best SF novel I've read would have to be William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, simply because of the power and intricacy of his language, and the way in which he dealt with life in a post 9/11 world. It's the one book I've read in recent years that I would gladly read again. His attention to detail is simply amazing.
How far do your ambitions as a SF writer extend? Is it your hope to be rich and famous or just paid and recognized?
I really don't want to be rich or famous, but I'd love to be able to pay off all my debts and quit my day job so I could spend those precious 40 hours a week writing and reading fiction instead of slogging away for The Man. I don't need a big-ass house or worldwide book tours. Reading Neil Gaiman's journal [http://www.neilgaiman.com/journal/journal.asp] about his tours is exhausting enough -- not for me! My goal from here on out is to write at least a novel and at least six stories a year. Getting the novels published would be lovely, too. I figure if I keep on working and improving, it's only a matter of time.
You're a Clarion grad -- did the impact of this experience help pull your writing together? Care to make a few remarks about the efficacy of workshops like Clarion...?
Clarion was one of those life-altering experiences that you don't fully appreciate until years later. Because you're there for six weeks straight, doing nothing but writing and talking about writing and critiquing other people's writing, it gets pretty intense. I wrote six stories there; three of which have gone on to be published and two of those were stories that would form the basis of my Wannoshay novel. But at the same time, I wrote three unpublishable stories, including one story I'd love to have burned from my memory forever. My poor classmates...
I think Clarion is great if you have a thick skin and you're completely open to trying new things and admitting you don't know it all just yet. Workshops can become addicting, though, and some writers get stuck in a writing rut where they start writing just for their workshop or can't revise anything unless it's been workshopped. At some point, you have to start taking control of your own writing and write what's best for you, not your workshop.
You also write "mainstream" fiction. How do you feel these excursions influence your Sf writing and vice-versa?
I read all over the place -- sometimes mainstream stuff you'd find in The New Yorker to occasionally horror to SF to - mostly -- fantasy and everything in between. All of it works to improve my writing. I've found mainstream fiction does a great job of developing interpersonal relationships and using significant details in such a way that they become symbolic and quite resonant. I like that, and try to use that in my own stuff: like Jaret's self-hatred in "Remainders" and the symbolism of his missing belt at the end of the story. It's not a conscious act, just something that comes about as a result of reading a lot and thinking about what I've read and going "Damn, I want to try that!" Writing is a series of challenges and discoveries, I've found.
In recent years, I've written a lot less mainstream fiction; it just isn't as fun -- I don't have to stretch my imagination as much.
Where's the best place -- other than SFReader.com! -- to read some of your recent fiction?
I'm most excited about the upcoming publication of a collaboration I did with my friend Greg van Eekhout called "California King," coming soon (I hope) to Asimov's -- it's a wild ride of an urban fantasy tale featuring greyhound buses, tattooing, a big-ass monster, and three generations of California kings. You can find my three Wannoshay at www.strangehorizons.com, and "Riverrun Alley" is up at MarsDust (http://www.marsdust.com/tales.htm). I have links and excerpts to all my stories at my website at www.michaeljasper.net.
Thanks so much for the chance to chat! Keep up the excellent work at SFReader.com!
copyright © 2004, Dan Blackston
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