JAY LAKE, Author - Interview

This week, I welcome author Jay Lake. In addition to loving his work, Jay is a constant source of inspiration to me as he blogs openly and honestly about his ongoing fight with cancer.

Jay Lake

Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. His new novel ENDURANCE is out from Tor Books on November 8th, 2011.

Endurance by Jay Lake

Endurance by Jay Lake

ANTHONY: Thanks for taking the time to join me, Jay. So, The 2011 Hugo Awards were presented in Reno, Nevada on August 20th. You were tapped as MC this year. How did that come about, and what hijinks did you have planned? Did you channel the spirit of Neil Patrick Harris and do a downscale but hysterical musical number?

JAY: I was asked by the Reno con com. Given that they are largely drawn from Pacific Northwest fandom, this isn’t too surprising — it’s folks who’ve known and worked with me for years in various capacities. As you know, Worldcon having come and gone since you asked me this question, we were sort of the Smothers Brothers on Quaaludes. Which was a lot of fun, and a heck of a lot of work. My only regret is that we didn’t have a teleprompter, as our need to rely on the script was pretty obvious from the audience. I do my best work improv, but the Hugos are far too structured for that sort of technique to be successful.

ANTHONY: As a previous Hugo nominee, give us an idea of what the awards ceremony is like, and how it feels waiting for your category to be announced.

JAY: Well, the awards ceremony is very different for the nominees that is for the rest of the audience. (Also, this just in, sun rises in east.) All those categories before yours? Time wasting piffle for the main event. All those categories after yours? What categories? One becomes very focused on trying not to look like a total prat when someone else’s name is called out from the podium. Truly, it is a very intense experience, waiting to hear. The habits of certain presenters make this experience even more questionable than otherwise, trust me.

ANTHONY: You’re one of the most prolific writers I know. It feels like every time I go to a book store, I find another anthology with one of your short stories. Where can we expect to see your short fiction in the coming months?

JAY: Not a whole lot, given my cancer adventures. My writing time has been cut by more than half for the year these past two years, and I’ve really had to focus on getting novels done and out the door. So I’ve been badly neglecting my shorter work. There is a pretty big novella coming up at SUBTERRANEAN which is a prequel to the SUNSPIN novel sequence, “The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future”. That’s probably my most significant piece of forthcoming short fiction right now.

ANTHONY: Short stories, novellas, novels of varying lengths … you’ve talked in the past about predicting a work’s appropriate length and the “span of control” a writer has. For my readers unfamiliar with the concept, can you summarize it and talk about how it affects your own work?

JAY: “Span of control” refers to how much of a story a writer can keep in their head at once. Work that falls within the span of control can be addressed organically, by following the headlights and essentially making it up as the writer goes along. Work that falls outside the span of control requires a lot more deliberate attention to craft. My personal experience is that for the most part, my work within my span of control feels much smoother and more crisp to me.

For reference, when I was first publishing at a pro level, my span of control was in the low thousands — two or three thousand words. These days I can hold an entire novel in my head, up to about 200,000 words. However, when I’m doing that, I have to work pretty continuously, day in and day out, to keep the voice and continuity intact.

ANTHONY: Do you find that your “span of control” has been influenced (positively or negatively) by your on-going surgical and chemical battle with cancer?

JAY: Yeah, it has suffered. Not so much from the surgeries, which are unpleasant but fundamentally acute events. But the chemotherapies really fry my brain, especially as they progress further along, which blunts a lot of my cognitive skills. Span of control lessens, I have to work a lot more from notes or at shorter lengths, et cetera.

ANTHONY: The work of yours that has moved me the most, as a fellow cancer patient, is the limited edition short literary novel THE SPECIFIC GRAVITY OF GRIEF. As your fight continues, is there any chance the book will be re-released in a broader print run so that more people can experience it?

JAY: We plan to put out a low-priced trade paperback at some point in the hopefully not too distant future, yes. I want the book to be read more widely, especially by people who don’t have cancer but may have someone in their family or social circle who is battling the disease.

ANTHONY: That’s great to hear. I’ll be looking forward to the release. In terms of novels, you seem to have become quite comfortable working in trilogies (with associated short stories): The Clockwork Earth series has run three books (MAINSPRING, ESCAPEMENT and PINION), ENDURANCE, the second book in your Green trilogy (preceded by GREEN and followed by KALIMPURA) is due out in November, 2011, and you’re currently working on a hard-sf trilogy. Are you crafting them as trilogies because that’s your current “span of control,” or because our popular culture seems obsessed with trilogies lately?

JAY: MAINSPRING was an accidental trilogy, market-driven. Likewise GREEN, which was absolutely written as a standalone. So SUNSPIN, the space opera trilogy, is the first time I’ve sat down and deliberately worked in the form from word one.

I think trilogies work for readers because they mimic the three-act structure on a larger scale. Three is a magic numbers in Indo-European cultures, pace Georges Dumezil’s work on tripartite religious structures. Beginning, middle, end. Red, yellow, blue. Father, son, Holy Ghost. Cheeseburger, fries and a Coke. GREEN, ENDURANCE, KALIMPURA. How could I not hop on a five thousand year old cultural bandwagon?

ANTHONY: Good point, and I for one am glad you did. Steampunk. Hard SF. Fantasy. Horror. Literary fiction. Is there any genre you’re not comfortable working in? Can we perhaps expect to see a cozy mystery in the future?

JAY: Probably not any cozy mysteries coming up, but I am seriously discussing squeezing a collaborative urban fantasy into the schedule of writing over the next year or so. I like to stretch. 

ANTHONY: Every writer has those “trunk stories” that will never see the light of day. With over 250 short stories and close to a dozen novels in print, I have to ask: is there anything in your trunk?

JAY: Oh, god yes. My first novel, THE JANUARY MACHINE. Any number of finished-but-trunked short stories. Quite a few novel outlines. My trunk is legion, for it is many. Heinlein notwithstanding, I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

ANTHONY: And my usual last question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to recommend it to someone who has never read it?

JAY: SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe. That’s almost my perfect book, rivalled perhaps only by Wolfe’s THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS. It is an exquisite work of language, thought and storytelling merged into a unitary whole, that drives the reader to deep consideration of the words on the page. If you’re simply reading to escape and be entertained, it’s quite likely not your cup of tea. If you’re reading to expand the borders of your mind, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Thanks for the interview.

ANTHONY: Thanks again, Jay! Stop back any time!

You can follow Jay on Twitter as Jay_Lake, find him on Facebook, and read his blog on his website.

JAY LAKE, Green - Book Review

Green by Jay Lake, isbn 9780765321855, 368 pages, Tor, $26.95

I’ve read several of Jay Lake’s short stories. What I usually like about his work is how the sense of place and the sense of character are equally important, how neither aspect overwhelms the other, and how both combine to move the plot forward.  Green is the first of Lake’s novels that I’ve read, and I’m glad I chose it to start off with because it has the exact same qualities I’ve enjoyed in his short fiction.

Green is the story of a girl taken from her home at an early age and raised through her early teens in The Pomegranate Court, where she is trained to be a Great Lady. If she succeeds in her training, she’ll become a favored toy of the Duke of Copper Downs; if she fails, she’ll be sold off to some outlying lord’s manor to be used however that lord sees fit. Throughout her education, she has no real name, simply being called “Girl,” and no real friends amongst her teachers except for Federo, the man who took her from her home, and The Dancing Mistress, a mysterious member of a feline race who teaches Girl more than just dancing. It seems as though Federo and the Dancing Mistress are preparing her for something, but can she trust them?  She is eventually given the name Emerald in the court, but chooses to call herself Green.

There is far more to the story than that, of course, but I prefer to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible.

I described Green, when I was about halfway through the book, to a friend by saying it was “languid, but not slow.” One of the things that amazes me about the book is that it covers, in 368 pages, three distinct phases of Green’s life (in fact, several times I found myself thinking that in the hands of another high fantasy author, each section of this book would have been a 400-500 page book of its own). So the pace of the book cannot be said to be “slow.” And yet, Green’s voice as she narrates is melancholic, languid, pining for what she thinks she has lost. Lake takes the old “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” trope and really drives home, through Green, the fact that we never really understand what life is like for others when the only lens we have to view it through is that of our own experiences. Green repeatedly finds herself confronted with how her life might have been different, and each time it happens there is the potential for her to change her thoughts — and yet, like most normal people, she retains her anger and her wish for something different despite all evidence that the life she was handed is in some ways better than the life she would have left had Federo never found her.  Of course, it’s not that simple, and I think in the end the best we can say is that Green’s life would have been brutal and dangerous either way.

So the book may feel languid, thanks to Green’s voice, but it is not at all slow. Events happen, and in the nature of the world, we don’t always know the outcome because we’re getting the story from Green’s point of view completely and she is not a narrator who tells the story out of order. If she were, that great languid quality of her voice would be lost. Because she is a child of two societies (continents? they are separated by a vast sea), it is inevitable that Green will journey back to the land of her birth, just as it is inevitable she will return to Copper Downs to finish what was started. The reader can sense this inevitability, but Green herself drops very few hints at it.  When Green leaves for Kalimpura, I did have a momentary thought of “that’s it? Lake is just leaving this whole plot thread hanging to go off in search of a completely different story?” That momentary thought is to Lake’s credit. It shows that I was caught up, perhaps more than I thought at the time, in what Federo and the Dancing Mistress were really up to with Green. It shows that a jarring, but perfectly logical, change of scene and storyline, was exactly what the book needed, and more importantly it was exactly what Green needed.  It proves, as I said earlier, that events happen and sometimes we are not privy to the outcome. Especially in the type of world in which Green lives. There is no internet, no cell phone service, not even a magical approximation of those things. So when Green is out of touch with what is going on in Copper Downs, so are we. Even when she hints, from whenever in her life she is narrating this, that there were events going on that she had no awareness of … she still doesn’t tell us what those events were. She perfectly replicates the insular life she lead.

I feel a bit like I’m rambling. I haven’t addressed the other characters. It is hard, in a first-person narrated tale, for the reader to get a sense of other characters’ inner lives except through the viewpoint of the narrator. Still, perhaps because of Green’s own fascination, I find myself hoping that sooner or later Lake will write a story from The Dancing Mistress’ point of view. Or from Federo’s, or Septio’s, or any of the Lily Blades we meet in the course of the book. They all strike me as interesting characters, and I know it’s not unheard of for Jay Lake to write novellas and shorts that add depth to the worlds he’s created.

I also haven’t addressed that sense of place. There are two major locations for this book: the city of Copper Downs, where Green is effectively raised, and the city of Kalimpura, where she furthers her education.  Lake does a great job of showing us the differences in the societies Green inhabits by describing the differences in the cities she encounters. Copper Downs feels very European, Kalimpura very Asiatic. Those are gross simplifications, but they’ll do for the review. Green’s two societies don’t war with each other — they trade (although even that is implied to be limited) and otherwise co-exist across a vast sea. But they are almost ideologically at odds with each other simply in the way they are structured. And that, of course, feeds into the primary problem for our main character, as she tries to figure out who she really is, and who she wants to be.

I highly recommend Green as an example of what High Fantasy can be. It doesn’t all have to be over-written and bloated. It doesn’t all have to feature a cast of thousands that are difficult to keep track of.  In Green, Jay Lake gives us an intriguing fantasy world with political and social depth and a main character worth following through multiple adventures.  He also gives us a book that feels complete in and of itself. I know he’s already at work on at least one sequel, but you can read Green and feel like you’ve gotten a full story with nothing lingering forcing you to read a second or third book.