Gregory Frost cannot be accused of being a one-trick pony. He is the author of fantasy and science fiction novels, short stories and articles, and a graduate of the writing program at the University of Iowa . He is a self-proclaimed survivor of many Sycamore Hill Writers Workshops, which also includes authors Jonathan Lethem, Karen Joy Fowler, and Judith Berman. He even claims he’s acted in some B-horror films. Philadelphia Stories spoke with Greg about writing weird fiction, workshop horrors, and other helpful tips.
What made you choose science fiction?
I don’t consider myself a science fiction writer. I’m a fantasist, which means that almost everything I write has a fantasy element, but only perhaps a quarter of my fiction can be classified as science fiction. Most of it is just "weird" fiction. My novel, FITCHER’S BRIDES, is a historical dark fantasy novel based on the Grimm’s fairy tale "Fitcher’s Bird" (a variant of Bluebeard); my novel prior to that, THE PURE COLD LIGHT, was a science fiction novel set in an alternate Philadelphia; and the two before that, TAIN and REMSCELA, were retellings of the Irish Cu Chulainn stories and thus categorized loosely as "high fantasy"–which means there were swords and magic. I’m hard to pin down, which explains my life of abject poverty.
[img_assist|nid=4288|title=|desc=Frosts’s latest published work is ATTACK OF THE JAZZ GIANTS, a short story collection, and the inspiration for that was “a desire to see a publisher produce a short fiction collection of mine.”|link=url|url=http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1930846347/qid|align=right|width=100|height=150]What inspired your latest work of fiction?
Well, the latest published work is ATTACK OF THE JAZZ GIANTS, a short story collection, and the inspiration for that was a desire to see a publisher produce a short fiction collection of mine. The latest novel, just turned in, is called SHADOWBRIDGE, and I’m not really sure I can elucidate its inspiration. It is in many ways the product of a lot of time spent reading myths, folk tales and fairy tales. Yet it resembles those only tangentially. It’s the story of a female shadow-puppeteer who lives in a world comprising the tales of our world, one made up of great spiral bridges, where each span of the bridge has a different cultural aesthetic.
Is it true you’re also a B-movie horror actor?
Oh, God. Let’s just say, I’ve been a very very "B" movie actor, twice–once in a horror film where I had an actual supporting role with quite a bit of dialogue and once in a truly grade-Z science fiction film where my part was so small I was ad-libbing my dialogue. Both were entertaining to be in, and the (dare I say "more legitimate"?) horror film allowed me to spend time in Hollywood and Arizona, shooting on sets, working with film crews and enduring hours of makeup, not to mention finding myself glued to a floor when the stage blood spattered all over me, which is corn-syrup based, hardened up after hours of takes. Oh, yes, those were the days….
You’re a self-described "survivor" of various writing workshops. How would you describe the workshop experience? Is it something you recommend to other writers?
I do recommend workshopping, but it depends on the individual writer’s temperament, too. There are writers–and I know a few–who should never workshop their fiction because they don’t want to hear criticism at all. There are also different kinds of workshops: there are teaching workshops, which include university programs like the Iowa Writers Workshop, the Clarion SF & Fantasy Writing Workshop, the Write By the Lake program in Madison, WI, the Gotham online workshop, the Writer’s Conference at Penn, the Philadelphia Writers Conference, etc., etc. These are all, one way or another, workshops where writing–fiction, poetry, playwriting, and so forth–is taught by (one hopes) published authors with good teaching skills. And there are peer workshops, where writers gather to critique each other’s work. Some of those are local and meet monthly or quarterly–there must be dozens of them in the Philadelphia area alone, and you can start your own–some draw from a larger pool and meet maybe once a year. These are to some extent socializing phenomena, which is often a healthy thing to do, as writing is so solitary that you can wake up one morning and discover that you’ve turned into a large potato named Gregor Samsa.
You also teach many workshops and classes. What advice would you put on your top three list of most important things a writer should know?
The first is the easiest and the most important and comes with an acronym: BIC, which stands for "Butt In Chair." This is the secret of all great writing. And of all incredibly bad writing, too. If you don’t sit down and do it, you aren’t writing. That should be obvious but it isn’t. Pick a time every day to write. Give up watching reruns of "Seinfeld" or, better still, "Friends." If, after you’ve committed to doing this, three weeks go by and you’re still thinking about getting started real soon now, stop pretending you’re going to be a writer and go find something else to gnaw on, ’cause it ain’t-a-gonna happen. Everybody thinks they want to be a writer. Ann Patchett wrote a great essay about being at a cocktail party and having a neurosurgeon tell her that he was going to start writing fiction, and her reply was to ask if she could borrow his office while he was doing that because she was thinking of practicing neurosurgery.
Second, while you are in the middle of writing, do not turn your critical guns on yourself. You can whine and bitch and tell yourself how awful your work is the rest of the day and night; but when you’re actually doing the writing, you are not allowed to do this. When you are writing, you are a god, a genius, the only person in the solar system who can write this story/book/poem/article. Besides, everybody’s work looks like raw sewage when they’re in the middle of it. Which leads to the third piece of advice.
Understand going in that nobody’s fiction looks good initially. It takes hard work to make something look as if it just sprang fully armored like Athena from your forehead. Don’t worry about it looking lumpy and jumbled up. It’ll get better. And you cannot fix it anyway until you make yourself finish the piece, because you won’t know the correct way to fix it until you do. In the middle of an ungainly, misshapen story, you can’t be certain of its outcome, and so you can’t be going back and repairing it, anymore than you can repair a house when all you’ve done is pour the foundation.
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
Yes, but it won’t help. Contrary to what I believed when I started writing fiction, no single work I’ve written has made the following work easier to write. I am forever hunting for what Jonathan Raban refers to as the "strategic voice" for the story.
But my process runs sort of like this. I start out writing longhand, with a fountain pen. I started doing this years ago because I typed too fast–faster than I could think–and the pen made me slow down. Sometimes I complete the whole draft in longhand, sometimes I’ll get revved up enough from that beginning to grab my laptop and proceed. I don’t know that this method would work for anyone else, as no two writers seem to work in exactly the same way.
I will outline a story, sometimes no more than a synopsis. For novels, I’ll often outline scenes and chapters just before I write them, just to have the arc–the distance the story needs to travel–fresh in my mind. I don’t adhere to the outlines but I need at least to pretend I know where I’m going.
What do you like to read?
Oh, all kinds of things, I’m omnivorous. Most recently, WILL IN THE WORLD, Stephen Greenblatt’s brilliant hypothetical biography of Shakespeare; before that Donald Westlake’s THE HOT ROCK–Westlake is simply an under-appreciated comic genius; before that Karen Traviss’s CITY OF PEARL, an sf novel, and Judith Berman’s BEAR DAUGHTER, a fantasy novel; before that Ben Yagoda’s SOUND ON THE PAGE, a book all about the critical voice in fiction.
Can you offer any advice to the many creative writers who are trying to juggle work and family, yet want to write fiction or poetry?
Only what I’ve said already–find a time to write. Diane McKinney-Whetstone in a keynote speech some years ago described getting up in the morning before everyone else in her family and going down to the basement of her house, where she’d set up a writing space, and writing. Every morning. She produced her first novel, TUMBLING, that way. If you want it–really, truly want it–you’ll give up late night TV or poker with Uncle Ed or whatever has to go, to make it happen. Peter de Vries said "I only write when I’m inspired, and I make a point of being inspired every morning at 9a.m. " That is pretty much writing in a nutshell.