Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Interview:

Finding Your Own Path:
An Interview with Bruce Holland Rogers

By Lazette Gifford
2006,
Lazette Gifford


With a wide collection of short works and some very prestigious awards, Bruce Holland Rogers has certainly made writing work for him. He won the 2004 World Fantasy Award for short fiction, and has a number of Nebula nominations. He won a Nebula in 1996 for the novelette "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea" and another in 1998 for the short story "Thirteen Ways to Water."  He also won a 1998 Stoker for "The Dead Boy at Your Window."

Rogers has also been a finalist for the Endeavor Award, and his work earned a coveted Edgar Allan Poe nomination from the Mystery Writers of America. In 1999 he won the Reader's Poll for best fiction in Science Fiction Age magazine.

But unlike many credentialed writers, Rogers is also busy with articles and essays in print, and around the web -- including an article in Vision in 2001. Some of those articles, including a series for the Science Fiction Writers of America Bulletin, show he has a strong marketing gene as well. Let's catch up with Bruce Holland Rogers and see what he thinks writing is all about.

Be sure to visit his website at: http://www.sff.net/people/bruce/

Vision: Your short fiction is extremely successful and you apparently like the short story setting. Do you prefer it over longer works? Do you see your preferences changing, and if so, why? 

I am especially fond of the short-short story because I enjoy the challenge of getting the story told in very few words.  However, I like writing novels, too.  With shorter works, part of the challenge is coming up with a continual stream of new ideas, whereas with a novel I get to settle on one idea and really explore it.

I've put in more time with short stories largely because that's where my success has been.  I think any artist is likely to lean more and more in the direction of the work that is well received.

Vision: Unlike many writers, you seem to have made writing really work for you as a profession. While you are a writer, your essays make it very clear you have a strong marketing gene working overtime! Do you enjoy marketing, or is it something you do to make it possible to be a writer?

Both.  I'm enough of an extrovert that I enjoy contacting strangers to tell them about what I do and why it might be interesting to them.  And I'd also much rather be writing.  If I could give up all my marketing efforts and have the same income and same readership, then I'd happily venture out into the world only to give readings now and then.

Even if I didn't need money, though, I would need an audience, and marketing is the only way I know of to build and maintain one.

Vision: What genres do you write in, and why? And would you like to try your hand at any others?

"Genre" is a word that can mean both market category and literary form.  If the question is about market categories, I've published short fiction categorized as western, mystery, romance, SF, fantasy, literary, experimental, and so on.  One disadvantage to novel writing is that you're expected to choose one thing and then keep repeating it.  In some ways, short stories don't "count" in the same way for establishing the writer's market identity, so I'm free to write whatever kind of story I want to.

I'd much rather be identified for the "genre" of short story, and in fact my usual approach is to work on the story first and only later ask about its market category.  A lot of my work blends categories, or falls into the cracks between categories.  I'd like my stories to be identified not as mysteries or as modern fairy tales, but as Bruce Holland Rogers stories.

At the same time, I do have to be aware of the traditions I'm writing in, or writing against.  A mystery story, say, has certain conventions, and such a story sets up a particular contract with the reader that is different from the contract of a literary story.  Knowing what a mystery usually does and how it does it can help me to write a story more efficiently, playing on the reader's expectations even if what I ultimately do is frustrate those expectations for effect.

Vision: Who has influenced your writing?

Any words that enter my visual field are probably going to influence my writing.  I'm glad you didn't ask me who my favorite writers are.  I'm allergic to the idea of favorite writers.  I have some favorite stories, certainly.  Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place."  Frank O'Connor's "Guests of the Nation."  The title story of Barry Yourgrau's book Wearing Dad's Head.  Spencer Holst's "Brilliant Silence."  Today I seem to be making a list of stories by men.  Ask me tomorrow, when my mood is a little different, and I'll be able to think only of women.

Many good writers have influenced my writing, but many bad ones, too, and not only in the sense that they made me think, "I can do better than that!"  Sometimes a bad writer is terrific at revealing how some aspect of writing works, either by showing too much of the machinery or by failing in a way that makes me think about why the effort failed.

The good and bad are all part of the compost for the writer's imaginary garden.  This comforts me when someone reads a story of mine and dislikes it.  I'd really prefer to have every reader like everything I write, but if a particular story fails for a reader, I can hope that the failure is useful to that reader in some way, even if it's only to make her say, "I can do better than that!"

Vision: How has writing changed who you are or how you see the world? Are there themes that matter most to you?

I think writing helps me to learn (and continually re-learn) compassion.  Ideally, a fiction writer sees every character as sympathetic in some way.  No one real person sees himself as the villain in the story.  As we're conducting this interview, Saddam Hussein is on trial and -- according to one of his attorneys -- fully expects to be sentenced to death.  But Hussein also expects to be returned to power by the U.S. because he is the only person who can restore order in Iraq.  He believes that the U.S. will come around to seeing him as Iraq's national savior.  If I were writing about Saddam Hussein as a fictional character, I'd have to be able to see the world from his perspective.  More than understanding the logic of his views, I'd need to feel them, allow myself to be convinced by them.

Writing helps to get me beyond the limitations of my own skin.

As for what I do with that perspective, and as for the themes that matter most to me, I think the stories should speak for themselves.

Vision: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Has your career progressed the way you thought it would?

When people ask about how I got started, my glib answer has been that I lied a lot as a child, and I just kept right on doing it until, as an adult, I could be paid to do it.  That's not just a joke.  I think that telling childhood "stories" was good training in learning how to manipulate "reader response."

My career hasn't progressed at all the way I thought it would.  I'm not sure what I expected, actually.  More novels, I suppose, and looking over at my fellow passengers on an airplane to see them reading one of my books.  My career isn't like that, and I'm continually surprised by the actual developments, both good and bad.  I have my fantasies.  I imagine my novel-in-progress, Steam, being a huge critical and financial success.  I know that whatever really happens with that book, good or bad, will surprise me and almost certainly won't look anything like my fantasy or my fondest hopes.

Vision: Then there are the other parts of your life, as an instructor, business trainer, and motivational speaker. Did I miss any?  Do you consider teaching creative writing and doing workshops all part of the work writers should do?

I don't do much training or speaking outside of my MFA teaching these days.  As for whether writers should teach or not, I think that's entirely a question of the writer's skills and inclinations.  Not every good writer is also a good teacher.  In fact, a lot of really fine writers live so introspectively that they make terrible teachers.  I don't think there's any "should" in the writing life beyond the demands of the writing itself.  That is, the writer should be interesting on the page.  That's it.  Everything else is optional.

Vision: Are there common mistakes you see new writers making? What suggestions would you give them?

Good fiction supplies the reader with just the information that the reader needs in order to imagine the story as it unfolds.  A new writer may leave out information that the reader needs or else overload the reader with information that is mere decoration.  Good writing is efficient.

Getting the balance right is sometimes a matter of reading one's own work slowly and skeptically.  If your story mentions in passing that a character is a pooka, does your writing help along those readers who have no idea what a pooka is?  If you have to describe a castle to set the mood, do you leave out most of what you imagine (as you should) and rely on just those details that are necessary to keep the reader from imagining the wrong castle?

Learning how to properly help the reader through the story, sentence by sentence, is hard.  One way to learn is by getting it wrong and having someone more experienced show you exactly where you said too little or too much.  Another way is to read slowly and critically, one sentence at a time, asking why the author wrote just these sentences in just this order.  To read like a writer, and learn from your reading, it's necessary to slow down and read not so much for story as for technique.  This is a hard thing to learn to do since most writers write because they love story, and love being caught up in one.

Vision: Do you see the Internet as a good tool for upcoming writers? How should they be using it, if it is?

Google is a boon for research, particularly the sort of research that fiction writers so often need.  How do I say "Good afternoon" in Polish?  What kind of handgun might a woman conceal in her purse?  Driving east out of Manhattan, Kansas, what towns do you come to and where might a character stop for lunch?  What would the character see there?

But the Internet is also great for connecting with readers in new ways.  My short-short story subscriptions (described at www.shortshortshort.com) are possible only because of the Internet, and I'm sure that there are many other ways that the Internet can be used to connect writers directly with their readers.  How should upcoming writers be using the Internet?  Flexibly!  Creatively!  They should be using it in ways that I can't detail because they haven't been invented yet.

Vision: You are obviously using your writing talents all the time. But are all of these professions equal parts of you? Are some of these skills in place to drive the funds that allow you time to write? If so, do you see that as a positive, or a necessary evil?

I love teaching and speaking.  I love writing.  And each feeds the other.  Everything I do as a writer, speaker, or teacher feeds all the other things that I do.  If suddenly I had all the money I would ever need, I might reduce my teaching load, but I would still teach, would still do pretty much what I'm doing now.   I'd still give readings, would still give keynote addresses at writer's conferences now and then.

Vision: Was it clear to you when you started that 'being a writer' would involve of the rest of this as well?   Are these things you (and other writers) must do to be a successful writer? Or do you see yourself as an instructor who happens to write, or perhaps a marketing genius who is also a writer?

I am a writer.  Period.  Part of being a writer for me means working to expand my readership, which is where the marketing comes in.  And part of my own continuing education as a writer happens through my teaching.  Teaching in the MFA program helps me to think about what it is that I'm doing as a writer.  I'm a writer who enjoys speaking about writing and creativity.  But always everything I do is part of my writing identity, part of my effort to write the stories that only I can write.  If some professional activity doesn't support that core work, then I drop that activity.  Writing my authentic work is what matters to me.

Vision: Tell us about your book Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer. Jean M. Auel said it is a book that "will likely end up on every writer's desk, or it should." What is the book about?   How can people order this book?

 

Word Work is about successfully meeting the psychological and practical challenges that arise continually in a writer's life, everything from dealing with procrastination to getting one's love life and literary life to work in concert.  The book is in general distribution and should be easy to order if it's not already on the shelves of a local bookstore.  Amazon carries it, too.

Vision: This is a good place to bridge to your yearly subscription for writing. This is brilliant, and apparently successful. How did you get started?

I got started slowly!  The original deal was that subscribers would receive stories at a rate that depended on how many subscribers I had.  The more subscribers, the more stories.  Eventually, when I got up to the three-stories-a-month level, I felt I was writing about as many good short-shorts a month as I could manage.

I've got about 700 subscribers now, all over the world.  It's great to have an immediate audience for my short-shorts, and sending the stories to paying subscribers by email has had a minimal impact on my ability to sell the stories to magazines.

Vision: What are your feelings on the subscription? How long have you been doing it? Any pressure to come up with a piece every month?

I'm unreservedly enthusiastic about reaching my readers this way.  This is my fifth year of offering my stories by subscription.  The subscription service gives me deadlines and sustained pressure to keep generating high-quality stories.  With new subscribers joining all the time, every story is going to be someone's first impression of the service.  Pressure is a good thing, mostly.  I don't work well without pressure.

      One thing about the subscription service that I especially like is that I hear back from my readers.  For my magazine stories, I get maybe one or two fan letters a year.  But readers who receive a story by email are likely to hit "reply" when they particularly like a story.  Of course, that's also true of readers who disliked a story, though I don't much mind the occasional cat-call mixed in with the applause.  It helps to remind me how impossible it is to please all readers all the time.

Vision: How do you promote it?  Is it something you think other writers should do? Or is it only open to someone like you, who has garnered a degree of fame and success with the Nebula award and nominations, World Fantasy Award, and all the other high level recognitions?

I've promoted shortshortshort.com   in a variety of ways, working to establish a high Google rating for some key search terms, seeking print reviews and reviews on blogs, sending press releases about the service to get newspaper coverage.  Two of my local television stations have done stories about the subscription service.

The subscription service is a form of self-publishing, and self-publishing is always a hazardous place from which to launch a career.  I do think that shortshortshort.com has been successful in part because I already had some credentials from traditional publishing, and because I continue to publish the subscription stories in magazines.  But in writing, no two careers are the same.  Whether something like shortshortshort.com would work for another writer with a different career track is impossible to say.  If it looks like fun, try it.  Or better yet, invent your own new distribution channel and method according to your own writing passions, your own frustrations, your own psychological needs.  That's what I did.  @hortshortshort.com is custom made to suit me, and it would have been useful to me even if my subscriber base had never gone above 40 or 50.

Vision: And you also do lectures, guest appearances, and creative writing workshops?

As I said earlier, mostly I limit my appearances these days to my MFA teaching.  Well, that and overseas seminars.  I've taught in Crete with Eric Witchey, and we're hoping to repeat that seminar.  I may also teach seminars next year in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Vision: What does a normal 'work' day look like to you? How much is spent writing, how much prospecting, and how much is spent promoting? How much is devoted to fiction, and how much to these other sides of you?

I used to have very regular six-hour work days devoted to actual writing (as opposed to research or marketing).  Lately, I've worked a much more flexible schedule that aims simply at working a lot until things are done.  I don't really track how much time goes into one thing or another, but I do try to get started early in the day and keep working.  That sounds pretty loose, and it is.  I'm actually surprised that it's been working well for me.  I always had to write up schedules for myself in the past.

Vision: You have two collections of your short fiction: Wind over Heaven and Flaming Arrows. Do you have plans for any other books? 

Thirteen Ways To Water And Other StoriesThere are also the new collections, Thirteen Ways to Water (fantasy stories) and The Keyhole Opera (short-shorts).  As long as I keep writing the short-shorts, I'll keep assembling collections.

Vision: What do you have coming out that we should look for? What sort of things do you plan, or hope, to write in the future?

There's the novel-in-progress, Steam, which I've been offering a few chapters at a time as I write it by email subscription.  I think I'm at least a couple years from completion.  I hope that I'll be writing more novels, but that certainly doesn't mean that I plan to cut back on short fiction.

Vision: Thank you for taking this time for this interview. Any last words you'd like to say to our readers?

Polyphony Volume 2No advice universally applies to all writers, which makes me hesitate to offer any advice at all unless I know a lot about a writer's particular needs and circumstances.  So what I'm about to say should be taken with a pillar of salt.  It could well be that the opposite is true for any single writer.

However, I've found that I have been least happy as a writer when I went chasing after career goals or work that I took because it was offered.  I've been much happier when I have pursued projects that I wanted to do for their own sake or created my own avenues for making and measuring my success.  I think that writers need to be careful, when they pursue success, that they have defined it on their terms.  In writing, it's surprisingly easy to substitute someone else's definition of success for your own.

 Be sure to visit Bruce Holland Rogers' website at http://www.sff.net/people/bruce/ for more information!