An Interview with Gregory Frost
Kessel: Let's start with the most obvious and mundane of questions,
just to get it out of the way: Who are your influences?
Gregory Frost: My parents. They encouraged
reading, they let me read anything and everything, took me to the library
and let me pick out books. I chose, by some inherent magnetism, books
of fantastic stories. Barbara Leonie Picard's retelling of The Odyssey
is the first thing I remember picking out of the library. I think I'd
set a course for myself by then, though I certainly didn't know it.
Beyond that, I don't know, people are always asking authors which writers
have influenced them, who they read, whose work they treasure. I think
I was heavily influenced by two anthologies rather than, say, two writers.
Both came out from Playboy Magazine in the early 1960s; they
collected fantastic literature that had been published in the magazine,
and Playboy at that time was the leading light for good, literate
fantasy and sf, which you wouldn't know to read it now -- which, I fear,
tells us how far fiction has fallen in importance in America in forty
years. (You could say in the '60s that you were looking at Playboy
for the fiction, and even mean it.) The anthologies in question were
The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and The Playboy
Book of Horror and the Supernatural. They offered stories by Ray
Russell, John Collier, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Fredrick Brown,
and so on, and I think I read them nearly to pieces. I still have them
in sealed plastic bags on my shelves. I liked that one story could terrify
you and the next could have you laughing (well, mordantly). For me they
encapsulated the zeitgeist of the fantastic at a critical moment in
time. Ten years later, Playboy was putting out much less interesting
anthologies full of New Wave experiments that you forgot you'd read
ten minutes after you finished. Probably those two anthologies inform
my fiction as much as Roger Zelazny or Phillip K. Dick or anybody else
I was reading at the time.
As a result, I think my inclination is to emulate that, to do something
different every time. This is not the way to make a heap o' money in
the wonderful world of publishing, by the way, where you get rewarded
the most for doing variations on the same trick over and over. That's
how you build up a readership -- by becoming a reliable commodity. Personally,
I'd rather be reliable in the sense of turning in good craft every time,
if that doesn't sound too hubristic. I guess it's like being a farmer
and insisting that, although you planted corn here last year, this year
you're planting tomatoes. Crop rotation. It may be good for the soil
but not have the benefit of a survival strategy.
JK: So do you see any
thematic cohesiveness at all in the stories?
GF: I've noticed only recently that there
are themes that recur. A lot of writers seem to find themes that they
embed in their work, and I don't know that they're conscious of them,
at least not all the time. I think we're drawn to certain subjects or
ideas again and again, so that even though we discover new contexts
and concepts, we're unconsciously working those themes back into them,
like a particular color of yarn in a tapestry. With the publication
of Fitcher's Brides last year, I realized that I'm
either drawn to, or many of my stories warp into, explorations on the
theme of betrayal by authority. In "Fitcher," that authority is a type
of over-zealous Christianity that bills itself as having all the answers
provided you don't ask any questions and conform to all the strictures.
In "The Madonna of the Maquiladora," by contrast, there's a theme of
faith as well, but the betrayal is by a corporation that's using religious
iconography to manipulate and control its work force, which only implies
a larger distrust of religious matter altogether because of the background
of the second-person character.
In "Collecting Dust" (available elsewhere
on this site), it's parents betraying their children in adhering
to the American corporatist dogma that's already betrayed the parents
as workers and is destroying them -- destroying the family from the
inside out, which, frankly, is something I believe is happening in America
today, what Wendell Berry calls "an economy based on several kinds of
You look at this past election, at the administration's ruthless theft
of workers' benefits and protections while pretending to be compassionate
toward people and you see that this story is just barely ahead of the
curve here -- it's only about five or six years old. And it's weird,
you know, because I wrote it after using the premise of it as an example
in writing classes of the difference between contemporary American fiction
and fantasy fiction: that a contemporary work might explore the disintegration
of the nuclear family, but fantasy fiction would make the metaphor real
-- the family would actually be disintegrating. I think I latched on
to that example a decade ago, and at some point I realized that this
wasn't a bad starting point for a story. So, in a way, that story comes
out of the first Bush years. Who knew that someone would come along
and notch it up for real?
It's like Gardner Dozois once said about the predictive value of science
fiction: that it is overrated, and specifically that "while sf might
have predicted the automobile, it would never have predicted the change
in sexual mores as a result of the automobile." Norman Spinrad as his
most acidic could never have predicted a thoroughly contemptuous president
who managed to con the bulk of the public into thinking he was caring
and compassionate. Anyway, enough politics, or I'll foam at the mouth
and fall over.
To be fair, there are stories collected in Attack of the Jazz Giants
that have nothing to do with that "betrayal" theme, at least directly;
but I can see now that it's embedded in places where before I was oblivious
JK: Do you think it's
better to be aware?
GF: Not necessarily. I guess it depends
on what you mean by aware. I know writers who make a point of remaining
blind to what's going on in their fiction and are very powerful writers;
and I know writers who are preternaturally aware of every nuance and
are very powerful writers. I think you have two extremes in writing:
those who are purely intuitive in their approach, and those who outline
every miniscule detail before ever starting the actual manuscript. The
rest of us -- the majority of us, I think -- fall somewhere in-between.
Analytical probably saves time because you know your path in advance,
but intuitive perhaps offers more chance of surprise and discovery along
But the other version of "aware" is ... is it Eudora Welty who said
"I write to find out what I think"? That's me encapsulated.
Not long ago I was on a small panel at a literary conference with you
and Kim Stanley Robinson, which you'll no doubt remember. The topic
was "Politics in SF" and I got stapled onto the thing at the last minute,
so I did no preparation, and I do not function well without preparation
-- without that "finding out what I think" phase of preparation. So
I think really that I was the designated moron for the duration of the
panel, but by listening to you two brilliant fellows talk, I gained
a perspective on science fiction that I hadn't ever really taken the
time to codify, expressed most eloquently by Stan -- that all sf is
inherently political. Politics are embedded in some of my stories and
novels -- obviously "Madonna of the Maquiladora" carries an overtly
political theme, but if I look at others now where I wasn't conscious
of any political stance, I see that this is true, that all of it is
socio-political in nature. Critics have often labeled science fiction
as "the fantasy of the industrial age," but from that discussion with
you two, I can look at H.G. Wells as you presented him, and LeGuin as
Stan presented her, and then Zamyatin and many others since, and see
that sf has been politically charged fiction from its inception. I mean,
maybe that's inevitable without changing that definition of it -- as
art it paints the underbelly of industrial age's concerns and social
experiments as much as Upton Sinclair did, if not necessarily as head-on.
It just wasn't the facet of sf that I'd focused on before. And, besides,
I'm not really a science fiction writer.
JK: There's an unexpected
GF: I'm a fantasist. I'm hard-wired to
write fiction using fantastic elements to explore humans in some fashion.
A few of those stories, including my first two published works, both
of which are in the Attack of the Jazz Giants collection, are
indeed science fiction stories, but I'm not obsessed with the "science"
aspect of the fiction. Arthur C. Clarke is a science fiction writer
in a carved-in-stone way that I will never be. The science element is
only important to me in the sense that any research for setting, for
detail, is terribly important. You want to get it right. However, I
don't sit around going "Oh, I can't write this, there's no science fiction
in it." (laughs) Sorry, just reminded myself of a favorite Rowan Atkinson
line: "If Shakespeare had meant for Antony and Cleopatra to be a comedy,
he would have put a joke in it!"
Anyway ... I recently re-read Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber,
and you know, it's not remotely a science fiction novel. It's a fantasy.
Roger was always referred to as a science fiction writer but a lot of
his fiction is not remotely sf. He didn't seem particularly bothered
by that, and neither am I. And he was as much an influence on me as
a writer as anybody has ever been. I was mad about his fiction long
before I ever met him -- long before I knew that you were allowed to
meet writers. I can remember being just knocked flat by The Dream
Master and by This Immortal. Even before Lord of Light,
I was a disciple. Never would I have expected that he was going be one
of my teachers at Clarion, for which I thank Joe Haldeman, who talked
me into applying in the first place.
JK: Are you and Joe
GF: Absolutely. We began as teacher and
student but with Joe that's never been a hard line -- we never stood
there going, "Gosh, wow, Mr. Haldeman." (Okay, I probably did that at
some point, but I never let on and hopefully he doesn't remember.) He
taught me a lot, first at the University of Iowa and then at Clarion;
and he always made his students feel very comfortable in his presence;
he has always been sharing ideas, letting us discover how to make our
ideas better, which is what a good writing teacher does. He was reading
and being influenced by work well outside the field, too, and that was
something we had in common, a trait that rubbed off.
JK: What outside the
field has influenced you?
GF: Besides pancakes? Okay, fiction:
Amos Tutuola, The 1001 Nights, The Ocean of Story, Mikhail
Bulgakov, Mark Twain, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Conrad, Bruno Schulz, Raymond
Chandler, Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake, yada yada. But I have to say,
lists like this are fairly useless in that you've no idea how or where
the influence manifested. If you read all the short fiction in the Golden
Gryphon Press collection with a list of these writers in front of you,
maybe you can hunt up connections. But I'm betting you can't. And neither
could I. I can as easily argue that I was heavily influenced by the
collective that wrote under the nom de guerre of Franklin W. Dixon --
which is surely true. I must have read two dozen Hardy Boy novels at
some point. I had a Jones for those books. I had one for Leslie Charteris,
too, and then discovered that Brian Aldiss had a thing for Charteris
as well, in that he made him the central character in Barefoot in
the Head, and even stuck a "Simon Templar" joke in there to aid
the less clever. But, believe me, Charteris is not a writer you read
for stylistic influence. His style was to crime fiction what Lord Dunsany's
was to high fantasy. LeGuin in an essay talks about how Dunsany provided
the spark for her love of fantasy but that she knew well not to try
and imitate him. He was "inimitable."
Joe, I remember at Iowa, was very into John Dos Passos, and I think
Dos Passos probably influenced The Forever War, maybe as much
as Heinlein, but you'd have to ask Joe about that -- that might be my
revisionist memory at play.
You know, sometimes when he's critiquing a section of a novel of mine,
Michael Swanwick will say things to me like, "Okay, how would Nabokov
handle this section?" or "What if you were Faulkner, what would you
do here?" To me he's very gifted in being able to think that way. And
it shows how broadly he reads. I understand exactly what he's saying,
and there are occasions when I go for such an effect, where putting
on the "glamour" of a certain writer gives you temporary superpowers.
"Madonna of the Maquiladora" was written with an eye toward Carlos Fuentes'
"Aura" from the beginning. Michael is basically saying, I think, if
you're going to steal something, steal big. That is, if you take another
writer's words, that's plagiarism, but technique and craft is there
to be learned, used, borrowed, and built upon.
My painting instructor -- many years ago when I foolishly thought I
wanted to be a painter -- was a guy named Gaylord Torrance. And he said
once that everybody started out trying to paint like someone else, in
imitation. I think everyone starts out writing fiction that's like the
fiction they enjoy reading. For some of us that provides a comfort zone
to remain in and if you have a lot of readers who enjoy that place,
too, then you also have a huge financial incentive to stay there, as
I said earlier. There's nothing wrong with that. For others, it's a
starting point and everything afterwards is an attempt to transcend,
to outdo the perceived master or the last thing you wrote. You gain
experience and after awhile you maybe stop trying to prove something;
you just embrace your voice and let the story out. It's like -- I heard
a comment by Michael Caine once where he said that he could look at
his early films and see how strenuously he was acting in them; and that
if he were to do it again, he'd be quieter, because now he knows how
to get the effect he wants without having to jump up and down. I look
upon "Justin Morrell" and think something very similar. It doesn't make
it a bad or even lesser story, necessarily, but it is one that relies
on flash more than I probably would now. It's louder fiction.
JK: So, to jump --
if that's the right word -- back a bit, you're pleased with Attack
of the Jazz Giants.
GF: Incredibly. Golden Gryphon Press
-- Gary Turner -- was simply the best to work with. He gave me free
rein to assemble it, and actually chose more stories than I initially
did for it. I mean, he read everything. And he worked very closely with
Jason (Van Hollander) on the art work, the use of the interior artwork
and the story order that most complemented those illustrations.
JK: Your other books
were published by large commercial publishers. How do you feel about
Attack of the Jazz Giants being published by Golden Gryphon Press?
GF: Well, I think if I had a short story
collection come out from a big publisher, it would be flash-frozen and
spit out into the miasma of their list, because large publishers believe
no one wants to read short stories, that collections don't have much
if any of an audience, and that we're all damned and going to hell ...
no, wait that's Calvinists.
Golden Gryphon Press is the perfect venue for me. They've spent years
now cultivating an audience for their books, proving again and again
that there is a real place for serious short fiction. A number of their
collections have won major awards -- Jeff Ford's, Andy Duncan's books,
just off the top of my head. It became obvious very quickly that these
books are, for Gary and Marty, a labor of love. Look at their list,
at the production values of the books, and you can't help but feel that
Golden Gryphon Press is the most prestigious specialty press publisher
Personally, I hope they're in business a long long time ... because
I'm a slow writer.
JK: And yet you wrote
Fitcher's Brides in ten months.
GF: True. Part of that is due to having
done all the necessary research before I was offered the opportunity
by Terri Windling to contribute a book to her fairy tale series. When
it came time to pick a fairy tale, I wanted one that hadn't been touched
yet. There are just dozens of variants of the basic Bluebeard story,
and I settled on one called "Fitcher's Bird," which is about a wizard
who marries three sisters. Then I had to locate a context to make a
retelling different, and I'd done scads of research for a non-fiction
book about spiritualism in America, which included the myriad of cults
that started in the Finger Lakes district of New York in the early 1800s.
The story fit into that context as if it had been shaped for it. Because
of that, and because the fairy tale provided a tested armature, I could
focus entirely upon writing the story, and so it went much faster. Whereas,
usually, I'm floundering around in the dark, trying out different things,
making mistakes, feeling my way along, really.
JK: Have you done that
with other works -- built them on forms that already exist?
GF: Well, "The Road to Recovery" is structured
upon Bing Crosby-Bob Hope "Road" movies. I just imagined my own version.
So it's a "Road" picture in that the cast of characters includes Dorothy
Lamour. There's also a Sidney Greenstreet and a Peter Lorre character,
though they didn't grace any of the original "Road" movies. It's a subversion
of the series, too, in that neither one of these guys is capable of
doing anything to save themselves. They're rescued every time by the
women in the story. Otherwise, this is just a great big entertainment
and I hope people laugh out loud when they read it.
JK: How about the illustrations?
Did you have any input on them? What, to you, is the goal of illustrations
-- you used to be an illustrator, right?
GF: Not ever really a professional, no.
When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be a comic book artist, and
I drew and wrote my own comics, all highly derivative of course of people
like Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino. I didn't shift focus from the illustration
to the storytelling for a long time, but once I did, the illustration
took a back seat. I've done a couple of magazine covers, and did the
cover art for two of my own books, sort of by accident; and in my day
job right now I'm basically the art department for a small company,
and it gives me some immersion into the illustration world to appreciate
good illustration. I think Jason's artwork in this book is incredible
-- edgy and clever and complementary to the material. His art for the
Poe story ("In The Sunken Museum") is a stunner. Jason is like a film
score composer -- trying to create something that's wonderful on its
own terms but which exists in the first place to enhance a larger experience.
That's a very fine line to walk, and I stand in awe of anybody who can
do it as well as he does.
JK: What does this
collection represent to you?
GF: Ah, the critical question. "Jazz
Giants" represents for me the end to a long wait for recognition. Not
that I think someone will read this and have a "Eureka!" moment and
say "My God, how have I never heard of him?" But -- and I hope this
doesn't sound like sour grapes -- I think I've written a lot of good
stories and they've mostly been ignored, save by Stephen Jones in the
UK, who has put a few in his "Best New Horror" anthologies. So I'm a
household word in his house, but, you know, not next door.
JK: Do you know anything
about yourself as a writer that you didn't know before you put it together?
GF: Well, I said that I've come to recognize
some themes that I gravitate to, which maybe you only discover when
you have to stare at the whole corpus. What I hope is true is that I'm
still growing as a writer, that my craft, my skill, is forever evolving.
This is probably going to sound pompous, but writing is like the Japanese
game of go, in the sense that if you do it for maybe 70 years, you may
just start to master it. At least, I think that's going to be the case
JK: Where does it leave
you going next?
GF: Right now I'm in the middle of a
big fantasy project called Shadowbridge of which the "Meersh"
story in this collection is a piece. Beyond that, I don't honestly know.
My dad died in 2003, and I just froze up for a year and a half. With
one exception, I could write no fiction, and the exception ended up
being a father-and-son story ... where do you suppose that came from?
It wasn't even writer's block so much as writer's vacancy -- a very
weird, completely drained sensation. And I asked a lot of other writers
and artists about this, and people all had good advice, shared experiences
and the like, most importantly stressing that it was temporary. Carol
Emshwiller said she had gone through this same still period after her
husband died and that when she came out the other end of it, her writing
had changed dramatically. I'm waiting to see if something like that
happens to me. Maybe there'll be "before and after" collections someday:
"And these stories were all written after he became a reclusive loon."
JK: Okay, one more.
What do you want to leave your readers with?
GF: I hope that maybe out of this whole
collection, they'll find a couple of stories that continue on past the
last page, that they discover they're still thinking about days later.
That would be nice. Beyond that, I hope they're as greatly entertained
reading them as I was in creating them.
© John Kessel 2005.
This interview was first published as part of a booklet that accompanied
the first 75 pre-release editions of the Attack of the Jazz Giants
& Other Stories collection from Golden Gryphon Press (2005).
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