Fantastical Possibilities: Jesse Bullington on Writing 1

Autumn is starting to settle in here in the Blue Ridge piedmonts.  The leaves are turning on the trees and molding on the ground.  The weather swings day to day, from “just right” to “too darn cold”.  There’s weirdness in the air.  Lots and lots of weirdness.  It’s a time for strong coffee, lightweight flannels, and good books full of fantastical possibilities.

It’s time, I dare say, to read some Jesse BulllingtonBullington is the author of The Sad Tales of the Brothers Grossbart and the forthcoming The Enterprise of Death. I first encountered Jesse Bullington’s work a few years ago on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog and was hooked, first, by VanderMeer’s description of Bullington’s then-unpublished first novel:

Set in the Middle Ages, it follows two thieving, murdering brothers as, forced from their home due to their crimes, they travel across Europe having outrageous adventures. It reads a bit like a collaboration between Kafka and Sam Peckinpah, with a pinch of Catherynne Valente’s retold folktales. It’s very violent and readers must resign themselves–as I did, willingly and with eagerness–to the fact that the main characters are murdering bastards. No heroes here. The prose is muscular yet clever and relatively transparent. Unlike some novels of this type, the reader doesn’t have to acclimate both to the moral dissonance and to a more purple style.

From the “outrageous adventures” to the “moral dissonance” I was totally hooked.  Orbit Books snatched up that novel and Bullington’s career was off and running.

Below is the first of a two-part interview with Bullington in which we discuss writing fiction and reading good books.

What, ultimately, do you write about?

Jesse Bullington: People, particularly under-represented or marginalized ones. Monsters, particularly under-represented or marginalized ones. The intersection of the two. Life, the universe, and everything. Myself, through a hundred lenses, beneath a thousand disguises. Vomit, gore, and turnips, as one critic observed.

What do you enjoy about writing?  What do you not enjoy?

Jesse Bullington: Pretty much the entire process is enjoyable, from hashing out ideas mentally to trying them on the page to coming up with something better halfway through a draft and having to start over from the top—writing is undeniably hard, often frustrating, and even painful work, but it’s also incredibly fun and rewarding. Researching for a project is likewise enjoyable, but I’ll readily admit that few things are as miserable as not being able to find the answers you’re looking for after hours and hours of digging. Outlining is one of the few elements of the process that I take almost no pleasure from, and I avoid it whenever possible.

What role does speculative fiction play in the world?

Jesse Bullington: At its best, speculative fiction manages to simultaneously offer escape from and engagement with the reality of the reader. In the past I often focused on that latter facet, the ability SF has to connect with the real world and real problems through an infinite number of lenses, but in talking to friends I’ve come to realize that by harping on about that aspect so much I come across as being dismissive of the escapist qualities SF offers, which is a pity, since good SF can give us both possibilities in one concise package. Too often we talk about escapism in a negative aspect, but really I find it to be incredibly healthy—sometimes the only way to retain one’s sanity is to completely divorce yourself from reality and all its tragedies for an hour or two. That good SF can provide that escape and still offer new insights into the very world the reader is escaping is what makes it so special, in my opinion.
What can a writer who doesn’t usually read speculative fiction learn from reading within the genre?

Jesse Bullington: Well, that depends entirely on what SF they’re reading, doesn’t it? Answering questions about genre tends to lead us into dangerous waters, or at least muddied ones, but I think as a general rule if someone enjoys reading, period, then somewhere out there is a SF work that he or she will enjoy even if said reader has never previously enjoyed a piece of SF. That’s just the odds—SF is no more homogeneous than literary fiction, historical non-fiction, or anything else one might read, and crossovers occur on even the most minute level. To actually answer the question, I think the main thing that one might learn is that SF is in no way uniform, and the best examples are every bit as brilliant, well-written, creative, and important as more, ahem, mundane works, but with the added bonus of monsters and rayguns and old gods and new approaches to reality. Reading teaches us absolutely everything there is to know, and that’s just as true of speculative literature as it is of literary fiction.

With that in mind, I think it’s every bit as important for people who don’t usually read outside of genre to have a peek on the other side of that damn fence—there’s a lot of great stuff out there, and too much of it goes overlooked due to prejudices and preconceptions. In the interest of full disclosure, I should own that I’m not particularly well read where SF is concerned, though I’ve been trying to catch up. I’ve always been the sort of person to read based primarily on the recommendations of friends, which has taken me there and back again more times than I can count but has also led to my reading quite a bit of non-speculative work, and so while I love the fantastical possibilities that SF affords I think we would all be better served by reading more broadly.

Who are you reading these days?

Jesse Bullington: Right now I’m partway through Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, which is pretty damn phenomenal thus far. It’s the definition of fearless storytelling, and she does stuff I don’t know if I’ll ever have the guts to do. Earlier we were talking about people who don’t usually read SF looking into the community, and this work would be an ideal place for non-SF readers to start.

As I mentioned above, I’m a slow reader, and rather eclectic in what I go in for, but some recent novels I’ve enjoyed and been excited by include Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro, Marc Laidlaw’s The 37th Mandala, Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and Nick Mamatas’s Move Under Ground. Short story-wise I was completely taken with Laird Barron’s Occultation, a truly phenomenal collection, and I’m eagerly anticipating digging into Stephen Graham Jones’s The Ones That Got Away after reading his novel Demon Theory and Paul Tremblay’s In the Mean Time after checking out his The Little Sleep—they’re both authors who combine talent and ingenuity with an unabashed love of the grotesque, and I can’t wait to settle down at length with their short fiction. I’ve also been reading Italo Calvino’s Difficult Loves; Calvino is one of my favorites, so much so that I’ve delayed reading his entire body all at once and instead treat myself to one of his books every year or two. Also still need to pick up Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists, come to think of it, as the bits I read from a friend’s copy were every bit as brilliant as I expected.

And at the risk of appearing to engage in cronyism, I need to single out a few of my fellow Orbit authors whose work I’ve found incredibly worthwhile: N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Philip Palmer’s Red Claw, Amanda Downum’s The Drowning City, and Robert Jackson Bennett’s Mr. Shivers are four novels that are as unlike in style and content as one is liable to get in a cross-sampling from an individual publisher, but are uniformly bold, accomplished, and frequently brilliant. I really can’t recommend them enough, and that they all happen to be released by the same publisher as myself should be seen as further proof that Orbit, as a company, knows where its towel is.
Other than that, I’ve been shifting gears to Research Mode—when I’m deeply involved in a project I tend to phase fiction out of my diet and focus on the nonfiction. The titles I’m currently engaged with might give the game away where my current work in progress is concerned, but I always include a bibliography in the back of my books so whenever time comes to pass I’ll single out the really thorough and well-written non-fiction I’m currently engaged with.