Spencer Ellsworth is, first and foremost, a fan of FXXK WRITING but is also the author of the Starfire Trilogy from Tor.com, beginning with A Red Peace and Shadow Sun Seven, released in 2017, and concluding on February 27th with Memory’s Blade. You can read up on him and subscribe to his newsletter on his site, spencerellsworth.com.
JSR: Let’s destroy the myths of the writing life… Where are you right now and what are you wearing????
SGE: I can tell you neither of these things! Okay, I’m actually… at work. On lunch. Wearing a sensible pullover from Costco.
JSR: Fancy! And a writer who has a day job. What are the odds? Tell the good people what you do to afford the lifestyle that allows you to write space fantasy?
SGE: Buy clothes at Costco, for starters. I work at a small college. I am the one-man, Distance Learning department. And I teach a lot.
JSR: Pretty sure my socks are Costco. Now, most interviews will tell tales of salad days and always wanting to be a writer, but here we will be doing something different. We will be trading blows via questions and answers to cut to the heart of being working writers who have ten courses or great kids to take care of. First! Spencer, what’s the WORST part of being a debut writer?
SGE: I started out as a short story writer, and as a short story writer, one has a lot of ups and downs—Yay! My story is out!—Boo! No one cares about short stories!—Yay! Someone, anyone read it!—Boo! They didn’t like it.
A novel release from a major publisher is all the above dialed WAY, WAY UP. There are way more reviews and way more readers, and there are way more chances to feel like you’ve utterly failed and will never publish anything again.
So when a Publisher’s Weekly reviewer disliked my book enough to get the main characters’ genders wrong, I couldn’t defend it by thinking, “Well, no one reads that.” People definitely read PW reviews. Someone simply copy-pasted the PW review into Goodreads, actually. At the same time, it was much more encouraging to see the good reviews in places that people did read—Tor.com, Barnes & Noble, and writers I actually admire, like Kameron Hurley & Tobias Buckell, randomly tweeting that they liked it.
But the WORST part is different for everyone—what’s the worst part of being a debut writer for Jay?
JSR: The worst part gets funnier as we push away from the launch (which proves comedy is tragedy plus time). I am hated and loved for the same reasons. For some, a novel with sex in it made it unacceptable… despite the title, the plot, and the clear indication in the blurb that sexy things would happen. At the same time, I’m hated most for being “progressive” in pulp. My hero isn’t racist or sexist! Between these poles is MY fave review, from Kirkus, which accused me of BEING the main character Brimstone (i.e. he has a leering eye, which means so does the author!). Sigh.
SGE: That’s annoying especially because I liked how Brimstone unabashedly embraced that pulpy voice. It’s a particular kind of thing, and I like how it sets us up for a certain set of expectations that don’t necessarily pay off in the way we expect. But of course, when a book signals clearly what kind of book it’ll be, some people immediately see it as every other book in that category. And of course, authorial intent is usually what readers tell us it is.
JSR: Har! As if my intent matters! So as a teacher with a full course load, leading a department, and being a husband and father, do you still have daydreams of being ONLY a writer? And if so, knock it off!
SGE: Yep, of course. The first time I read FXXK WRITING I printed off the “Kill your porn dreams” quote and stuck it to my wall. But it would be nice just to be able to do this shit full time, eh?
JSR: It would be… until you see how many people burn out and collapse and hate themselves because they could, and then could not, do it. I had to shake off the BE RICH AND ONLY WRITE bullshit because it was killing me. I replaced it with MAKE THE FUCKING MOST OUT OF IT AS YOU CAN… and things got better, psychology- and career-wise.
Which begs the question: what’s the biggest fail you’ve had as a writer, and what did you do in the wake of the HOLYFUCKINGSHIT moment when it happened? Short story or novel or craft-wise? Ever send Gordon Van Gelder hate mail???
SGE: My novels are only a few months old, so in a year I might say that my first trilogy was a major fail! Ain’t that fun?
Professionally, my first should-have-been-high-profile, short story sale ended up being a weird rejection. I won a contest that was supposed to lead to publication in an anthology. Mine was the only story the judges loved that the anthology editor ever rejected.
Personally, way back in 2012, I had sworn by blood and thunder to finish a novel in time to pitch to my now-editor during a summer workshop. Because 2011 was my “evil year,” I never finished it, kept on writing it long after it died on the page, and told my editor, “I was going to finish something for you, and it got so bad it made me sick.”
I did send her A Red Peace three years later, but it was tough to admit that, man. I bought into the cult of the tough guy, the glory of the deadline, the infallibility of my own production.
Have YOU ever sent GVG hate mail?
JSR: No, came close with some others. Never did it because it’s professionally stupid, so I’ve probably ranted in a journal about how cruel and unfair things are until I realized no one cares and this isn’t productive.
SGE: You’re a teacher, as am I. Have you ever experienced the issue that so many teachers (usually career creative writing profs) complain about, where teaching robs the well for writing?
JSR: Yes. Much of teaching is GIVING creative ideas and support to help others build something that requires expert guidance. It’s a similar well, at least for me. So when I was teaching sixty hours a week, six days a week, I gave up on writing. Didn’t give a shit. I only did it when that labor pulled back. And granted, giving up meant only writing two novels in two years because someone ELSE asked me for stuff. There is a different switch that flips when someone says I WILL PAY YOU FOR YOUR WORK as opposed to what we usually do, which is toil in obscurity and then hope someone might like it in five to ten years.
So there is a relationship. However, it manifests itself in weird ways. For instance, I wrote more kid-friendly pitches for comic books. I kinda got the teenage mind from dealing with them for 40 hours a week. When that was done, I started feeling more like my age and interests.
How about you? Does teaching keep your writing young or make you pine for more blood and guts in science fantasy?
SGE: I may be the only teacher who doesn’t feel that. I find that the more I’m in the classroom, the more ideas I get. I meet real people with real needs and real problems, and it’s all grist for the mill, man.
But as you point out, the time commitment, oy, the time commitment. Grading is the Devil’s Own Time Suck, prepping lessons takes a lot of time… and being a normal human being and a dad to my kids takes up time.
This weekend, I was camping with my kids and started to wander off, looking for a good place to write. I realized that my kids were about to make bows and arrows and slingshots, and that was actually HEY WHO KNEW way more fun than writing, and I was about to miss out on some of that Serious Actual Human Time. You know that feeling?
JSR: Not from being a parent, but yes. And frankly, as we’ll all be dead at the end of our four-score-and-ten, I think those moments are important. I am very tired of writers who write and read and never do anything else and think spending times with humans is the enemy of art. Fuck dat. And Stephen King ended his book with a great note. “Life is not a support system for art; art is a support system for life.” Think about it: the joy of watching bows and arrows with the pups is fuel for amazing stuff in life and fiction. You watched their imaginations get lit live. You spent times with humans you love. How can’t that give your work empathy and depth? If you ever write about the parent/child relationship, it won’t read like hackwork or the Brady Bunch.
For me, I take it from doing other arts and, well, surviving in America—which brings me into contact with zany groups of people. Improv. Punk rock. Theater. Magic. Wrestling. Reading about this stuff is awesome, but fuel for my writing also comes from experiencing it. I spent an afternoon with a slight-of-hand magician who knew Muay Thai and beat up abusive drunks at the local dance club in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Never would have got that story if I just stayed at home!
Can you think of other moments where life among the fam or school or work or church was a driver for awesome story stuff?
SGE: I want to meet the vigilante, sleight-of-hand guy now.
I’m agnostic these days, but I spent my younger days as a Mormon missionary in the backwoods of North Carolina. As much as I have mixed feelings about the whole organized religion thing, there’s a lot a writer can learn from wandering around with “Jesus” on their shirt. I met guys who had left their home county in the Appalachians just once or twice, and that included World War II. Met a whole lot of people in the projects and the trailer parks, and learned pretty quickly that you couldn’t sell religion the way we were supposed to sell it… although that didn’t stop me from trying for a couple of years.
I’ve noticed that those big, wrenching life changes tend to have dividends in creativity a few years down the line. After the aforementioned 2012, the Year of Sucking, I started my current job and had an outpouring of ideas in 2014.
JSR: And that’s sometimes how it happens. The dam breaks after a wall of stress. Then it’s an embarrassment of riches. Is this when your series was picked up?
SGE: Kind of. It’s one of those stories that sounds Cinderella—I had written the first few chapters of a space opera, and I was going to a workshop with my now-editor and had nothing else to bring. My now-editor liked it, told me to write more, and I ran all the way home and took a week off work to finish the thing.
I also wrote a teen mainstream YA novel that summer that went nowhere, but it was nice to try something different, have a reason not to be an old fogy about the music I was listening to, and actually listen to current stuff.
JSR: Avoiding the present is the first sign of old age! And I hear more and more about these kinds of stories: connections through human contact, a cool idea that’s almost there, etc. Reminds me a little of Ken Scholes and how Jay Lake challenged him to write an entire novel in a couple of months so he could show his agent. Sometimes it’s helpful to know how different deals come about so you are not a slave to common anecdotes about slush piles, etc.
SGE: Exactly. Of course, if you know Ken, you also know that the next four books in his series were a bitch to write, and I found that as well about writing on commission. It’s awesome to get paid. It’s hard to produce something when it has to be as good as the first, the same length as the first, oh, and you’re writing during the election of Comrade Cheeto. With my third book soon out, I’ve been relieved to hear that people feel like it closed the deal and that the whole series works. But damn, there’s always another side to that exciting rush of the initial book. For every Star Wars where everything comes together, there’s Marcia Lucas divorcing George during Return of the Jedi.
But there’s also something I want to stay on for a minute. Most writers get better because… they have more confidence… because they’re on contract… because they feel wanted. I have a good friend, Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, who’s an amazing writer. Just incredible, and she works at a slower pace than me but produces much better stuff. (Go look up her stories “Talking to Cancer” and “Concessions” from this year.)
She always asks how I’m so prolific, and the honest answer is “I got a book deal and suddenly I don’t wonder whether I’m cut out for this gig. I know that I can sell a book, and that goes a long way to putting ideas on the page.”
JSR: I’d agree. There is endless dialog, most of it empty, on traditional and independent publishing or self-publishing. I’ve done all of them, and each has trade-offs. But for all the talk of liberation and control, I’ve seen more good come out of working with publishers who know and like my work. If my Kindle novels had made me thousands of dollars, perhaps I’d feel different. But I have a different kind of professional cache because I have books in B&N without driving there and throwing them at the shelf. A group of people think you can do a job and get it done well enough to be paid.
Were you ever seduced to do ebooks before your Tor release?
SGE: Ha, no. Initially it was a pride thing—”Sniff, sniff, I shall be a REAAAAL writer”—but now that I have some perspective, I just think that trad publishing is a better place to start because you get exposed to a lot of readers. You make less money, but unless you can game the algorithm, it’s hard to find that audience through self-pub alone.
I often tell people, and I’m gonna get flack for this… do not self-publish your first novel. And by first, I definitely mean the first you ever write, but I also mean the first one in general. It’s better to see what a publisher does (and doesn’t do) and attract some readers through a moderately okay series at a major publisher and parlay that into a self-pub audience. Agree? Disagree? Tell me how I’m wrong and misleading the youth.
JSR: NOPE. Is the first chair you made worth sitting in? The third? The first meal you made was awesome? There are some writers who REALLY push the “get everything on Kindle” approach. Then you read one of their 100 “novels” (most about 30 pages long), and they are flaming garbage. And these are ones who have published legit novels for advances, and no one will touch now. They prey upon fear and desire and offer bad advice that amount to illusions of how publishing works. They are best known for advice, not art.
I wrote over ten novels before I got my deal. Glad that most of them are lost in the tomb of obscurity. How about you?
SGE: Oh yeah, I think A Red Peace was my eleventh novel. Someday they’ll use my 280,000-word, wannabe-Robert-Jordan opus from high school for aversion therapy.
JSR: HA! My “Writing Under the Influence” of Joe Lansdale novels are great to remind me I no longer suck a bag of rocks!
Okay, time to wrap this up. Ask me something, I ask you something, and we let the fans decide whose jabs got the TKO!
SGE: Who wrote the book of love, and why’d they go do a terrible thing like that?
JSR: Pretty sure it was Gilgamesh, who was far more literate than his epics would demonstrate, but sadly the editors of Game of Thrones turned it into torture porn!
If you had to erase one Golden Age of Science Fiction writer from history, who would it be and why?
SGE: Oh sheee-it… You know what, I never liked Heinlein. Also, if we erase him, we’ll get rid of at least a few Twitter trolls.
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