10 Questions with James Sallis
Photo via flickeringmyth.com
James Sallis, first and foremost, is a man of many talents. We all know that Sallis is one of crime fiction's premier stylists, a storyteller who has constantly challenged the often constrictive devices of the genre and turned them on their heads with his sparsely poetic, innovative prose. Sallis is also a poet and co-edited, along with Michael Moorcock, the seminal science fiction magazine, New Worlds, helping establish the careers of literary juggernauts such as J.G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, and Norman Spinrad. On top of these many literary accomplishments, Sallis is a multiple instrument musician who regularly records and performs with his band, Three-Legged Dog.
But what James Sallis is best at is keeping his fans guessing on what he'll do next. His latest novel, the minimalist near-future/alternate reality thriller, Others of my Kind, is no exception. With the novels protagonist, Jenny Rowan, a young woman who was kidnapped as a child and kept in a wooden box under her kidnappers bed for two years until she finally escaped, Sallis has created one of his most emotionally vulnerable, yet self assured characters to date.
And if this newest release wasn't enough to celebrate, Sallis was recently awarded France's Grand Prix de Littérature policière for 2012's The Killer is Dying, and there was the announcement of the release of Black Night's Gonna Catch Me Here: Selected Poems 1968-2012 by New Rivers press, and the re-release by Mullholland Books of what I believe to be Sallis' most underrated novel, his spy thriller, Death Will Have Your Eyes.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
There were of course early miscarriages, but the first story I wrote that felt like a story, walked like a story, and quacked like a story was “Kazoo.” It was published in New Worlds. Two others quickly followed, one for F&SF, and one for Damon Knight’s Orbit, inculcating in me the absurd and sweetly naive notion that I could make a living writing. From such moments are lives ruined.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
I was 21 and impoverished – excellent training for a writer, by the way – so I probably took my wife out for a fine meal at Howard Johnson’s.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
As though in a pitch black room where I am trying to find the black door, stumbling over black furniture all the while. And I swear that furniture keeps moving about.
Mostly it’s all on computer nowadays, though each page, each line, gets questioned, revised, rewritten, buffed, trimmed and fileted hundreds of times.
Here’s what writing well feels like to me. I begin a story or a novel and it’s as though I almost see movement over in the corner of the room. But when I look that way, there’s nothing. As I write on into the story I start to hear breathing over there; there’s more and more furtive movement; and as I go on, the breathing gets louder, defined. That thing in the corner begins to take on shape….
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
We could talk for quite a while about that word “mistake,” implying as it does that, like characters in poorly written fiction, we have simplistic, monosyllabic motives, i.e., that we know what the hell we’re doing and are in control of it.
Commercially, not sticking to one genre might be construed a mistake. Who is this guy? Poet? PI novelist? Avant-garde weirdo? Fish? Fowl?
The sole “mistake” to which I’d admit without reserve: Not writing enough. Though I’m pretty sure laziness accounts for that more than does misdirection.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Molly Bloom. I wouldn’t have to say a word, wouldn’t even have to bring along my satchel of punctuation.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
There’s the very specific, almost physical pleasure of feeling a story or novel slip into form, become of a piece, a whole. A kind of click, that stops your breath for a moment. There’s the moment—with Others this was at the very start, before I’d written a word, when Jenny’s voice came to me as I walked down 16th Street in Phoenix—when you realize that you’ve fallen through into another mind, come to inhabit another world. And in many cases there’s the inability to read the final pages—of Salt River, of The Killer Is Dying, of Others—without crying, when, with those few touchstone pages, the whole of the experience floods back.
Where do you buy your books?
Truth to tell, I don’t buy a lot. Because of my many years as reviewer for the Washington Post, L.A. Times, Boston Globe and others, I still receive dozens of books weekly from publishers. Others are sent me directly by editors and by the writers themselves. And Gordon at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, for whom I write a quarterly books column, keeps me out on the dance floor with recent releases there. When I do purchase, laziness (see above) slouches me towards the Bethlehem of Amazon.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
We have specific tastes; we look to literature to provide different things. A review is in sort a thinking aloud about fiction, a conversation about it. I would ask only that the reviewer is indeed thinking, and that he or she is in fact in a conversation—with the reader, and with the heritage of the reviewed piece—rather than talking to him- or herself.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
“Write what you know.” Hey, guys, this all about imagination!
Your latest novel, Others of My Kind, originally started out as a short story, how many of your novels have started out as short stories?
Actually it began as a novel; the short story version that appeared in Phoenix Noir was carved at Patrick’s request from the novel while it was in revision. The Long-Legged Fly began as a short story but then wouldn’t shut up. And though I recognized Drive to be a novel from inception, the short story version was a test drive to see how road worthy it might be. All the others, I believe, arrived with book covers in hand.
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