They Have It Coming: Jesse Bullington on Writing 2

Jesse Bullington is the author of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the forthcoming The Enterprise of Death.  This two-part interview finds him poised between an astonishing debut and a much-anticipated second novel.

Reviews of Bullington’s work are often enthusiastic and cautionary.  One reviewer for the Library Journal Review says of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, “This debut novel is kind of like the unexpurgated versions of Grimm’s fairy tales, as imagined by Chuck Palahniuk on some seriously bad drugs. Bullington clearly has a great appreciation for the rich history of folklore, and his viscerally evocative writing is excellent… A zestfully grotesque adventure; not for the squeamish or faint of heart.”

Below, Bullington and I talk about his writing process, hiking, handling violence in fiction, and subverting conventions.

What comes first – character, setting, plot, image, sight, sound, or something else?

Jesse Bullington: The theory is this: setting comes first, because until you have your place and, every bit as important, your time, you won’t have any idea what sort of characters you’ll have. Everyone has read fiction where the characters seem to exist in a bubble outside the particulars of their world, the sort of characters that could just as easily be popped into a wildly different era or place. Not good—we are all a product of our environment, and fictional characters should be a product of theirs, not the author’s.

After setting comes characters, because until you have a firm grasp on the personalities and histories of your characters you won’t know how they will impact whatever plot you might cook up. Just as we’ve all read texts where the characters seem to exist independently of their settings, we’ve all read work where the cast performs actions that seem wildly out of character but fulfills some predetermined plot arc the author had in mind. Until you know the setting you can’t know your characters, and until you know your characters you can’t know your plot.

That’s the theory, anyway—the reality is much more of a mess, with bits of character personality and back-story jostling potential plot points and conflicts and dynamics and scenes for brain space at two in the morning, but I do try to pin down my setting before really digging in to an idea. Often I’ll have a complete scene occur to me early on and much of the work is reverse-engineering to see how these characters got into this situation. The process is fairly similar for stories and novels in my experience, although I’m much more likely to make it up as I go along with a short story given the difference of stakes.

You’re an avid hiker.  How are hiking and writing similar?  In what ways does hiking feed your creative life?

Jesse Bullington: I actually find a bit of parallelism there, but that’s what we always do with our interests, isn’t it, find ways that they mirror each other? Aside from obvious references to mental versus physical exercise, discipline, etc., I think the main thing is that both require me to rein in my tendency to push through whatever I’m doing as fast as possible and instead take my time, paying very close attention to what’s going on in order to get the most out of the experience. Some of my hiking partners may disagree with my claims of adopting a leisurely pace, but I’m getting better about it.

In terms of feeding my creative life, hiking is about as creatively nourishing an activity as I can think of. Besides the inspiration that comes from being as deep in the wilds as one cares to venture, I use hiking as a stress-reliever and block-demolisher, taking to the hills whenever I get hung up on things. My modestly expanded waistline I attribute to being increasingly satisfied with my more recent literary output (ho ho—such wit!), but even when I’m not hung up on a specific problem I still utilize hiking as a general mental cure-all. Plus, it’s really pretty out there.

Have you ever met a convention that you didn’t want to subvert?

Jesse Bullington: They all have it coming, each and every one of them! Seriously, though, when I was working on The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart I was intent on subverting certain tropes and conventions…but the more I read and the older I get the more I suspect that I wasn’t quite so subversive as I thought I was. I’m an embarrassingly slow reader, and thus am not nearly so wide-read as I should wish to be, and I’m constantly finding stuff published long before I even started writing that was tackling the same issues—not that the battle is won and we should go back to writing predictable drek, but knowing what other people have already done is, obviously, indispensable information. Not falling into the old ruts and putting as many tropes on their ears as possible is fine and noble work, and it’s what I’m interested in doing with my writing, but it makes me feel kind of like a poseur to talk about how subversive my own work is—if you have to tell people it’s punk, and all. Good stories, well told, is the idea, and I’m of the opinion that good stories are often ones we haven’t heard a thousand times already.

What’s the secret to handling violence in fiction?  At what point does “graphic” become “gratuitous”?

Jesse Bullington: I don’t think there’s any real secret to handling violence in fiction, other than to research what you’re writing about even if you’re not going into graphic detail of the violent action on the page—if you’re going to give a character a concussion, for Asclepius’ sake research what happens when someone is concussed, don’t just base it on that one episode of ER you watched in 1997. If it’s worth writing down it’s worth looking into to make sure you get it right.

As for the question of graphic versus gratuitous, I suspect there isn’t a line at all between the two for some people, but for me it’s simply a matter of personal preference. I like realism and detail in fiction, and violence is one of those areas where even the most evocative writer will often gloss over what’s going on. I understand that, and I don’t think it’s a short-coming—people aren’t under any responsibility to write about things that make them uncomfortable any more than readers are obligated to read things that squick them out. For my part, I can’t foresee ever writing in detail about sexual violence, that’s my limit, although I’ve read authors who deal with it effectively.

With the Brothers Grossbart, believe it or not, one of the elements I specifically cut down on in revisions was the level of violence, but even after excising quite a bit of detail prior to publication I’ve still had critics compare it to the “torture porn” sub-genre of horror films, which really wasn’t my intention. That said, the vividness of the violence is meant to be shocking—violence and death should be shocking and brutal, not romanticized into some noble and bloodless activity.

What’s next for you?

Jesse Bullington: My second novel, The Enterprise of Death, will be released by Orbit in March of 2011. It’s a very different sort of novel than the Brothers Grossbart, and deals with a lot of important issues that I wasn’t able to work into my last book to the same extent—race, gender, and sexuality are all major facets of the story, and it turned out to be a more serious novel in the result. There’s still humor (I think!), and it’s another historically-set fantastical adventure, so fans of the first book should find a lot to like, but this time around my protagonists aren’t nearly as despicable as Hegel and Manfried Grossbart. I also feature more actual historical personages in this one, which is something I’m particularly pleased with—it’s a lot of fun to tie various real people together, and even more fun to embroil them in supernatural weirdness. For the cover Orbit is using one of the pieces by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch that I reference in the novel and a font that incorporates the alchemical symbols of another historical figure who makes an appearance, so right down to the packaging the work is steeped in the imagery of the era.

I have another novel I’m currently working on, but that’s all top secret clown business for now. Suffice to say it’s going to be different from my first two books, and I’m having an absolute blast researching and writing it. Keep watching the fens.

I’m also working on a collaboration with the artist Sandi Calistro for a very limited edition book that, as with the novel I’m working on, is still in the top secret hush-hush phase, but is really coming together into something bizarre and wonderful. As a huge fan of Sandi’s work, this opportunity has been really exciting, and as soon as things are finalized I’ll discuss it further over at my blog. Other than that, I have various short stories coming down the publication pipe, such as a hardboiled urban fantasy featuring the infamous NYC crime photographer Weegee, and I do a weekly film review column with Molly Tanzer that runs every Wednesday on our blogs and at the end of the month on Fantasy Magazine—updates on those can, again, be found on my website, and I’m always eager to hear from fellow readers and writers alike both there and on the usual social whatsit sites.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.