Tim Pratt is a science fiction and fantasy writer and poet. His work has appeared in a number of markets, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Strange Horizons. His story Little Gods was nominated for Nebula Award for Best Short Story. His Impossible Dreams (Asimov’s July 2006) won the Hugo Award in the Best Short Story category. Tim is also a senior editor at Locus Magazine. Above and beyond all that, he is also an awesome human being, which is why he kindly accepted to participate in an interview for our magazine. Thank you, Tim!
Q & A
Iulian: Tim, your works began surfacing in the late 90s/early 2000s, and your career has exploded, in a good way, ever since. Tell us a bit about the time before the fame; how did you start, what pushed you to writing and when did you know you were ready?
Tim: My six-year-old son knows I write books, and he asked me the other day if I was famous, and I said, “I am tiny famous. People who really, really love science fiction short stories might have heard of me. But mostly I am not famous.” (Who wants to be famous, anyway? The famous writers I know spend a lot of time doing things that aren’t writing — talks, interviews, book tours, getting six thousand emails a day — and I don’t like doing those things as much. I’d take the money, though.)
But as for your actual question, I’ve been writing for as long as I could write, pretty much. I remember writing things in third grade, about kids who went to a bizarre alternate world full of monsters, but there’s a story in a shoebox somewhere at my mom’s house that I wrote in second grade, so I was clearly doing it by age 7 at least. I liked reading science fiction and fantasy and comics so I mostly wrote that sort of thing. I got a manual typewriter as a kid and later an electric typewriter — the latter changed my life. When I was a teenager I started submitting stories to magazines, a bit haphazardly — it was harder to find out how to do that sort of thing before the Internet, especially in rural North Carolina — and got more serious about doing so in college.
I made my first small-press poetry publications in 1998, and my first story publication in 1999 — I think I got paid ten dollars for that! In 2001 or so something clicked for me — I figured out how to write a certain kind of story pretty well, at least — and I started writing the stories that would be my first professional sales.
When you look at the timeline as a whole, I am revealed to be a very slow learner.
Tell us a few words about non-writer Tim Pratt. How did you grow up, any particular influences in your life, and, of course, what (perhaps odd) jobs have you had before going full-time writer? Since writing, have you ever considered any other career?
My assumption was always that I’d work some job I didn’t care about and write on nights and weekends, pursuing my true passion. It pretty much went that way, except I stumbled into a job I do care about in late 2001, and have been there ever since.
But going back, I did the usual sort of crap retail jobs in high school, and in college worked in the Dean’s Office of the College of Arts and Sciences for all four years. (That was great. Nice people, and lots of free meals, because whenever there was some fundraising event where they needed an honor student in attendance for local color, I was sitting there outside the dean’s office, so I was an obvious choice.) After college I worked for an antique store (which was awesome and paid crap), and then by luck and happenstance stumbled into a gig as a copywriter for the in-house advertising department of a big-box hardware store. I worked there for six months, being paid more money than I’d ever seen in my life, but I didn’t like the work much, even though my co-workers and boss were great.
I took that money I’d saved and moved more-or-less on a whim across country to Santa Cruz, California, driving three thousand miles in four days. My best friend was doing grad school out there, so we became housemates and I spent a year there sitting in cafes, writing my debut novel (The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl), and working for a wheelchair design/disability advocacy firm. (Which kind of cleansed my soul after working in advertising.)
Then I fell in love with my now-wife Heather and moved up to Oakland to be with her, and applied for a job at Locus magazine in the Oakland hills (it’s a trade magazine covering SF/F publishing). I got hired as an editorial assistant in the fall of 2001 and have been there ever since — now I’m a senior editor, do most of the news writing and the obituaries, a lot of the layout, occasional book reviews, etc. I work there four days a week, and on the fifth day, I stay home and write books. It’s pretty much the best day job a writer/editor can have, since I’ve met tons of people in my field, my bosses get it if I need time off for conventions or to hit a deadline, and there’s an immense SF library in the basement.
When not working, I hang out with my family, cook, drink beer in my yard (weather permitting), read in a hammock (weather permitting), make boozy popsicles, and watch horror movies. My life revolves around love and art.
You attended Orson Scott Card’s workshop early in your career, and later on the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. How important were these to you, how did they help you, and would you recommend beginning writers to invest their time and money in such an event?
I did a 10-day intensive workshop run by Orson Scott Card in 1996 (he had a relationship with the Interdisciplinary Studies program at my college, where he used to teach. It wasn’t his “boot camp,” though I think it was a similar setup). He was hugely encouraging, one of my first real supporters, and his support convinced me to keep pursuing writing at a time when I was thinking of giving it up in favor of something more practical.
In the summer of 1999, right after I graduated college, I went to the Clarion Writers Workshop and learned a lot. Many of my classmates are still hugely important to me personally and professionally (or both!). All my teachers had valuable insights to offer, but Michaela Roessner, James Morrow, Tim Powers, and Karen Joy Fowler all made particularly deep impressions on me. I think I would have become a decent writer anyway eventually, but they accelerated my development by years.
Clarion’s not for everybody, but it was good for me. In general, I think it’s a good idea for a new writer, at some point, to show their work to people who know something about the field they’re writing in, and who can be trusted to give honest feedback. You have to be ready to take honest feedback, though.
What would you call the defining moment in your writing career, the moment when you knew you turned pro? What story, market, or anthology had a part in that?
It’s hard to pin down to just one. I guess I’m a pro now. I sell most of what I write. But it’s a spectrum, not a border you cross.
I sold a story to Realms of Fantasy in 2002, “The Witch’s Bicycle,” a long contemporary fantasy novelette, somewhat ambitious, certainly the best thing I was capable of writing at the time. That was my first pro sale. I loved Realms — Shawna McCarthy has a great editorial eye, and you often got full-page illustrations for your stories, many of which I have framed and are hanging on my walls. I was a Realms regular for a few years after that — I think I published something like eight stories there from 2002 to 2007. Strange Horizons was also an early supporter of my work. I had a story there in 2000, not long after they opened up, and they published my story, “Little Gods” in 2003. That was a Nebula Award nominee, and the first time people started paying attention to my work in the field. In 2005 I had a story in The Best American Short Stories (something I’d never even bothered to dream about, as it seemed so unlikely), and won a Hugo Award for my story “Impossible Dreams” in 2007. After those last two accomplishments, the yammering voice of doubt in the back of my head quieted down, and I thought, “Sometimes, I’m pretty good at writing stories.” Now my only problem is that I don’t get to write stories ENOUGH, as most of my time and attention go to novels.
Publishing a lot, you deal with many editors on a day-to-day basis. Without naming names, unless you want to, do you find working with editors difficult, helpful, annoying, etc.? Any bad, or enlightening, experiences you’d like to mention?
Most editors are great! People don’t get into this business to get rich (if they do, they have made poor life choices). They do it because they love the work, and as a result, I can gleefully geek out with most of my editors, and love the opportunity to meet them and hang out in person. The worst things I’ve had to deal with were people who had ambitions that outpaced their competence as businesspeople. With a couple of minor exceptions, I don’t have any horror stories. I’ve been lucky.
You also find yourself on the other side of the wall in your position of senior editor for Locus magazine. How did you get involved with Locus and what does your role entail?
I covered some of this above. I write a lot of the news. I help edit the interview transcripts into final form. I do the obituaries (probably the part of my job I take most seriously). I help with doing layout and digital conversion (turning the print magazine into a readable e-book).
I heard that Locus was hiring soon after I moved to Oakland in 2001, and sent in an application. I got an interview and met our founder, Charles N. Brown (he passed away a few years ago). He offered me the job on the spot, which I found surprising, until I learned he was friends with Michaela Roessner, one of my Clarion teachers. I’d mentioned Clarion in my application, so he called her up and asked her about me; I guess she said nice things! For the first couple of years it was mostly filing and running errands and driving Charles around and cleaning out gutters, but I gradually took on more responsibilities.
I also edit fiction, having edited and co-edited a couple of anthologies (most recently original anthology Rags and Bones with Melissa Marr), and a little zine called Flytrap that I co-edit with my wife Heather Shaw. I love editing, because I love finding amazing stuff and showing it to other people and I also love giving writers money.
You write speculative fiction (short and long), poetry, and non-fiction. What is your writing process, and how do you manage to juggle so many things? Do you have clear goals set ahead of time, or are you more of a spur of the moment kind of writer?
My writing process is… I sit down and write stuff? I just write whenever I feel like it, unless there’s a deadline growing uncomfortably close — but I like writing, so I do it pretty often. I never developed any rituals or anything. I am a binge writer, by preference, when it comes to drafting — I like to spend several hours at a stretch pounding out words. Since becoming a father, such long stretches of uninterrupted time are harder to come by, so I’ve adjusted as necessary. In recent years I do most of my writing on my day off from Locus, with nights and weekends added in when a deadline looms. I produce about 300,000 paid words a year (which works out to just a bit over 800 words a day, which isn’t so much — not that I write every day). That’s enough for maybe three novels (most of my books are around 80 or 90,000 words long) and a few stories and reviews.
I am not a strict outliner, but I usually have some idea where a story is going when I begin. I daydream a lot; a crucial part of the process. I don’t usually know exactly how I’m going to get to my ending, though, and that provides a lot of the excitement in the writing process. Often when I reach the end, the original ending I had in mind no longer works, so I can surprise myself then, too.
I don’t juggle all that much. I work on one novel at a time, almost always. I might take little breaks to do stories or poems while writing a novel, but usually only when I have a deadline I need to hit. Ideally, I prefer to focus on one thing at a time.
If you were to choose one favorite novel and one favorite short story from your own works, which one would it be? Related to that, for people who haven’t read your works yet — what would be the best place to start getting to know your world?
My favorite novel is Heirs of Grace, a contemporary fantasy that came out as an e-book earlier this year, and will be out in print in June. (It is also the novel I most recently finished. These facts may be related.) I think I did exactly what I wanted with that book, and it’s a standalone, so there’s no commitment to a series if a reader picks it up. It would be a good place to start. By far my most popular books are my Marla Mason urban fantasy series, beginning with Blood Engines and going on for another eight titles, so far. Even they’re mostly standalones, though, being “ongoing adventures” of a set of characters rather than one big story cut into volumes.
“Cup and Table” is one of the best short stories I’ve ever written, as is “Impossible Dreams” (that’s my opinion, which is inherently suspect, but readers seem to agree). They are weird fantasy and science fiction, respectively. (I think my story “Antiquities and Tangibles” is underrated. I’m fond of it.) They’re all available free online in various places at this point.
You write a lot of reviews — who do enjoy reading lately? What was the last book that made a big impression, or, perhaps, a book you wish you could’ve written yourself?
I don’t review much anymore, really. Mostly just the odd small-press horror title that won’t get coverage otherwise, or crime novels that have enough of a supernatural element for me to justify reviewing them. For pleasure I mostly read crime and mysteries, and for those, I love Ken Bruen and Joe R. Lansdale (who also writes great fantasy/horror, of course) and Kate Atkinson, and the late Donald Westlake/Richard Stark and Robert B. Parker.
In the SF/F field, I’ve been enjoying K.J. Parker a lot in recent years, and will read anything Caitlin R. Kiernan writes, and I like a lot of Joe Abercrombie’s work. Lauren Beukes is great, too.
As for things I wish I’d written… John D. Macdonald once wrote that as a professional writer “you read everything with grinding envy or a weary contempt.” I felt some major grinding envy when I read Robert Jackson Bennett’s forthcoming City of Stairs. I don’t think I could have written it, but I wish I could’ve.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Oh, there are always things on the horizon. I’m writing a sequel to my Pathfinder Tales novel Liar’s Blade (which is incidentally one of the best books I’ve written, roleplaying game tie-in or not), will soon begin work on another Marla Mason novel called Lady of Misrule, and recently signed on to write a middle-grade novel I’m excited about. There are stories coming out here and there, too.
Dear Tim, thank you for agreeing to this interview and for providing us with such elaborate and detailed answers!
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