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Part One of:
Cthulhu and Crazy People:
An Interview With William Browning Spencer
Conducted by Lawrence Person

Lawrence Person: I heard you finished your new novel. What is that about?
William Browning Spencer: You heard wrong. (Laughs) It's not finished. It has a deadline date of July. I was going to finish it earlier, but then White Wolf downsized and rescheduled, so it didn't matter. It's Irrational Fears. I've used that title a lot, first for a book that never appeared, then as a novella that came out in Ghosttide, which not many people saw. I was going to expand that into a novel, but, as it turns out, I only have two or three paragraphs of the original novella in the novel. Some of the characters have the same names, but they're not the same people, and it's not the same story, and it doesn't have the same things happening in it.
LP: So what you're saying is that writing the novella didn't save you any damn time at all.
WBS: No. I thought it would, but it didn't. I was hoping it would let me write this book quicker, but it didn't turn out that way.
LP: What do you know about White Wolf's big slowdown?
WBS: Well, I'm a little more positive about it these days. I think they did what they had to do. I think they came into publishing wildly enthusiastic and published a ton of titles. I think that a lot of agents brought them books which had been sitting around for a while, and they published way too many books, and now they're downsizing. I think it could be a good thing, actually. I wouldn't like to see them sink under, not just personally, I think it's good to have new publishers out there. They may be one of the few publishers who isn't terrified of horror fiction, since for everyone else it's the kiss of death, unless it's a vampire novel. So Irrational Fears is kind of a horror novel, I guess, an alcoholism horror novel, but it's not your standard. . . About ten years ago, everybody was writing alcoholism recovery novels, in which some plucky heroine decides to get sober and has lots of adventures and meets all these crazy people in these little rehabs. I really hated those.
LP: I managed to miss that trend.
WBS: That's because they weren't in science fiction. But they made them into movies later on. They were fairly irritating things. I thought it was time for a grittier and more bizarre, surrealistic alcoholism novel. I'm always accused of being a really surrealistic writer, and I guess I am, but I don't like most surrealism. The problem with a whole lot of surrealism is that it doesn't have any emotional content. It doesn't have any characters to root for, because it's just about ideas. My stuff is about people. A couple days ago, Gordon van Gelder sent me this thing he got on the Internet, the guy who does the Jonathan Carroll e-mail list reviewed Zod Wallop. He said it was a more successful book than Land of Laughs. I figure when a Jonathan Carroll fan says that, it's a good review.
LP: You know he's a Nova Express writer, Glen Engel-Cox.
WBS: That's who it was!
LP: He used to be Glen Cox, but then he and Jill Engel got married. They're a 90s couple.
WBS: So they do the hyphenated name thing. I had two friends that I wanted to get married, and I urged them to marry each other, because he was named Van Trees, and she was named Van der Vanter, and if they hyphenated their name, she could have been Linda Van der Vanter-VanTrees! That would have been a great name! However, I couldn't convince them.
LP: You know, good alliteration is not necessarily the best basis for a long-lasting relationship.
WBS: You may be right.
Pause for food. (Interview resumes back in LP's living room, surrounded by many books.)
LP: We were talking about White Wolf before we turned the tape off. Do you think they're going to survive, or do you think they're going to succumb to "Pulphouse Syndrome"?
WBS: I am optimistic that they are going to survive. The reason I'm optimistic is that I've got a book coming out with them, and I want them to do the paperback of The Return of Count Electric, which they already bought a year ago. And I think there's a really good chance that's exactly what they'll do. I think they will survive, because they have decided to fearlessly cutback and do only, maybe, two books a month instead of all the books they were doing, and stop doing the books that weren't getting them any money. I can't really tell the future, but I think they will. I'm more optimistic than I was before Christmas.
LP: Do you know what in their line wasn't selling? Was it the game related stuff?
WBS: I don't know. I've heard different things from different people. I heard the game related stuff was selling OK. I heard a lot of independent title horror novels weren't selling well. Somebody was telling me that even in downcycles of a certain genre, they will sell X number of copies, but in a down cycle in horror, they don't sell any.
LP: You've mentioned that you've had problems with all your publishers except St. Martins. Would you care to elaborate on that?
WBS: Well, I could go on real bitter rants about it, and they probably would not be any different from the rants my fellow writers go on. We all have this thing when we get together to exchange publishing horror stories. Who was it who said never attribute to malice what you can attribute to ineptitude? Well, I think that's probably what it is, more ineptitude than malice. I don't think I really want to get into that. (laughs)
LP: Along those lines, are all your Permanent Press books out of print now?
WBS: No, they're all in print. Now I can go on a long rant. They will stay in print as long as I'm alive. And the reason they will be in print is that as long as they're in print, Permanent Press gets half of subsidiary income. If I sell a movie for a million dollars, they get half. So for them to keep a book in print, which, with desktop publishing, is not as hard as it once was, they'll do it. My books will be in print forever. Andrew Klavan's first two books came out from Permanent Press, and his last book, True Crime, I think, he got a million dollars for. In an interview with Publisher's Weekly, he said "Oh yes, my first publisher, Permanent Press. They call them that because you can never get rights to your book back." (laughs) And I think that's true. On the other hand, to be fair to Marty Shepard at Permanent Press, the thing that he has done is really see that these books get reviewed, he's persistent with magazines and selling subsidiary rights. So some publishers who relinquish those rights, you never end up selling them anyway. And he recently sold Maybe I'll Call Anna to the Bertelsman Book Club, and that was a great thing to do, a book club with 6.4 million members. So in Germany that book will get read a lot! (laughs) Here in America it's pretty hard to find.
LP: So, if they're not out of print, have the first printings sold out, or are there books they're refusing to sell because they're collectable now?
WBS: There are absolutely no Maybe I'll Call Annas, because Marty called me up and asked if I could send him a copy. They're going to reprint it as a trade paperback. There are still a few copies of Résumé With Monsters, and that might sell out. But he still won't have to do anything, since it's in print in paperback at White Wolf through him. So he won't reprint that one. I think that one will actually be a collector's item. I think it was Willie [Siros] over at Adventures in Crime & Space who said they tried to get some and Permanent Press said "They'll cost you more." And Willie said "Wait a minute, you're a publisher, you can't do that!" (laughs) And Permanent Press still has about 500 of the short story collection.
LP: We touched on St. Martins. Were you happy with Gordon van Gelder as your editor?
WBS: I think Gordon's a brilliant editor. Partly because he does something really brave. Last year he was nominated for some award at the World Fantasy Convention, what was that. . .
LP: Best Professional World Fantasy Award?
WBS: Best Professional! And the reason is, in a world where you have people who are thinking of books in terms of "What's the hook?" and "How do we sell this book without thinking about the content?", Gordon manages to get a lot of odd books published. I don't think that's easy for an editor to do, because I don't think they like you doing that. Stuff like The Unnatural [by David Prill. See review last issue. - LP]. How many people are going to say: "There's a big seller! A book about embalming as the national pastime!" Gordon's very brave. He's a good editor in the sense that he doesn't meddle a whole lot. He'll sort of tell you what he thinks, that the book might be tightened up, but he won't tell you how to do that. I don't have any problems with Gordon, but it would be nice if he were real powerful. (laughs) If he owned a company-
LP: If he were God Emperor of Science Fiction. . .
WBS: He could say "This book is so good we'll print 200,000 copies." My theory about how a book becomes a bestseller is this: they print a lot of copies. If you only print 5,000 copies, and they sell them all, they go "Whew! We cleared out the warehouse! Thank God!" And they won't reprint them. The thinking is, when you walk into a bookstore and see a table full of books, you're more apt to buy that. Or a lot of people. (laughs) You're not, Lawrence! But that does sway the buying public, a certain number of people.
LP: So you were happy to see Gordon get the job at Fantasy & Science Fiction?
WBS: It's great. I think it's terrific, because. . .well, Neal Barrett's stories, and my stories, have some things in common, and that is we'll both start from a point where we're not really explaining a lot of things. Neal wrote this story a long time ago that I really liked, about these people who were working on a giant statue of Nixon-
LP: "Highbrow."
WBS: "Highbrow!" Well, these people were up there working on the eyebrow and fell in love. That story is not purchased by the kind of editor who asks: "So, why do they have this huge statue of Nixon?" The people who ask those kind of questions aren't going to buy my stories or Neal Barrett's stories. Also, I think that Gordon is a little more literary, whatever that means. He's familiar with a lot of things outside the genre. So he's not intimidated by stories that are just odd. When I was first reading science fiction, there were a lot of odd stories that today wouldn't be called fantasy or science fiction. But they just knew that "This story's not going to go anywhere else, because there's no place for it, so it's going to go here." And I think Gordon's willing to do some of that, and I like that. I think he would be willing to print stories that were almost mainstream, as long as they had enough oddness. This worries some people. Many people were worried that I had a story in the Year's Best Science Fiction that wasn't science fiction.
LP: We're going to get to that! Many of the characters in your novels end up in psychotherapy. Why is that?
WBS: I don't approve of psychotherapy. I hope that's clear in the books. The people who are in it don't profit from it, but it's one of the things people who are a little crazy wind up doing. I think that's one of the reasons people are always pointing out that Philip K. Dick and I have certain things in common. My characters are often very paranoid, often with good reasons, or reasons that seem good to them. And because I've been reviewed in mainstream venues, and in fantasy and science fiction. I get mixed interpretations. It depends on a person's background. People ask "What is real in Résumé With Monsters?" Or "What is real in Zod Wallop?" And the answer is: Everything! It's all real! And when I read that stuff to the science fiction people, they get that. It's like, "Sure! He's just swooped back inside himself at an earlier time." Mainstream critics are inclined to say "Appears to be a psychotic episode here."
LP: (laughs)
WBS: It's really what the reader brings to it. I was on a panel at Armadillocon talking about Zod Wallop. And someone else on the panel said "Well, if it's all just a dream, I'm not interested." And I'm not either. If it's all just a dream, I'm not interested. The stuff really does happen. The mainstream reviews of Zod Wallop were interesting. People who read it from that perspective would not be happy unless they could think "Well, there's a psychotic break at the funeral." And as a writer, I think it's OK to say "Alright, if that's your reading of it, that's fine."
LP: "All your characters are crazy from Day One!"
WBS: Yeah. Before I even published a book, editors would always write back and say "The problem with your book, Mr. Spencer, is that all your characters are crazy. We need at least one character who's an Everyman." But my experience was, I often really did understand the main character, and the other characters were no crazier than my friends. They were a lot like my friends. I have encountered some pretty odd people. I was told once when I was trying to write a book for a book packager, Bernard Geis. He handled people like the early Andrew Greeley, he discovered Jacqueline Susann-
LP: Oh boy, that's something you want on your tombstone! "DISCOVERED Jacqueline Susann" Right up there with the guy who invented penicillin!
WBS: Or cured cancer! Yeah. He told me that when writing a horror book, everything has to be very mundane, so that by the time the horror shows up there's lots of contrast. He had all sorts of formulas. He called me up halfway through this book I was writing for him. He said "We want the President of the United States in this book." It was set in D.C. I said "I don't know. . ." And he said "Bill, there's one rule for writing a bestseller. If there's a rock group, it has to be the world's most famous rock group. If it's a fashion designer, it has to be the world's most famous fashion designer. In bestsellers, you always have the biggest. So we have to have the President." And I said "What about Stephen King? He writes about people in little towns in Maine?" And he said "That's an exception."
LP: Another theme that shows up in both Maybe I'll Call Anna and "Looking Out for Eleanor" is that of a young, beautiful, but not quite sane woman who lures men to their doom. What made you want to write about that?
WBS: Marcia, a friend in San Francisco, wrote me a letter. She said "All your books seem to be about somebody trying to save some sort of vulnerable person, with mixed results." And I thought Jeeze! That's pretty horrible and frightening! She's just summed up my entire literary output! And the reason I write that stuff is it's semi-autobiographical. I meet a lot of guys who have read Maybe I'll Call Anna, and they say "Oh yeah, I slept with a woman just like that one time."
LP: So what you're saying is that there are millions of crazy women out there!
WBS: There are! You throw a rock, you're apt to hit somebody capable of having a psychotic break at any time.
LP: What a cheerful thought! Something to help me whistle along the day a little better!
WBS: This is true. It's not that you seek them out, just that there's a lot of them.
LP: Though you were living in the Washington, D.C. area at the time, you mention Austin at least in passing in Maybe I'll Call Anna.
WBS: Yeah. For no reason at all! I had never been to Austin before I wrote it. And after having moved here, I only realized it when I was retyping Maybe I'll Call Anna and I came across it. I hadn't lived in Austin or visited Austin when I wrote it.
LP: What was it that prompted you to move to Austin?
WBS: I had one friend that lived in Austin, and I had gotten divorced and I was kinda bored. I needed a change, needed to go somewhere different, and he said "Austin's nice!" And for quite a while you could live here cheaper than in the D.C. area. Now Austin's getting more expensive. D.C. has many problems. It's incredibly trafficy, and a lot of people wear business suits all the time. I didn't know any writers up there, and when I moved to Austin I immediately met a bunch of writers that I became friends with and hung out with. It was just much more welcoming for the arts. Here you're not considered to be utterly insane to be a writer, whereas up there, they ask what you're making as a writer, and when you tell them they say you're crazy. "Instead of typing novels, if you just typed up someone's government contract proposals, you'd be making more money," and this is very true.
LP: Who did you know down here?
WBS: I knew a guy named Paul Walters, who's a psychologist. He's got his own practice here, and he's always been pretty good about the fact that I'm always killing off psychologists (laughs). Having them get shot. Bad things happen to psychologists in my books.
LP: Having them poison people.
WBS: Yeah, and they themselves are often unsavory characters.
LP: How did you get to know Neal Barrett Jr.?
WBS: I met him at Armadillocon. We read each others books, he read the Count Electric collection, and I read The Hereafter Gang. And we realized immediately we had a lot in common. We both hated work, we both had the same kind of oddball characters who took themselves seriously. So we had a lot in common, and the more I got to know Neal, the more I realized we really do have a lot in common. Armadillocon's a great thing. Without Armadillocon I wouldn't have met Neal. And I met a lot of other writers, I met Lyn Banks, another writer, and Mary Willis Walker, the author of Under the Beatle's Cellar and The Red Scream. Just a lot of writers here. In that sense, Austin's been great.
LP: What prompted you to go to Armadillocon? Were you already thinking about writing science fiction at that point?
WBS: When I came down here, the only novel I had written was Maybe I'll Call Anna, which is very much a straightforward psychological suspense novel. But I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, and I had always wanted to write stuff that's real surrealistic. Early, unpublished novels that I don't have any more-my ex-wife has them-one of them was called The Endless Laundry. It's about a psychologist who moves to Florida to open a laundromat, and this egg that is worshiped by a tribe in South America winds up in this psychiatrist's possession. It's the egg that, when it hatches, is going to eat the Earth. I've always had a surrealistic streak in me. You're the book person. Who was it that wrote a book called Blood Sport? I think it was Robert Johnson or. . .
LP: (pulls a book out of the "to be filed stack" and hands it to WS) Robert F. Jones.
WBS: Robert F. Jones! Yes! A wonderful book! (Laughs) You're pretty amazing! Is this a first edition?
LP: Yes. If you go back and read the interview with Joe R. Lansdale, he talks about Jones, and I had it in the back of my mind to pick up his books. In the interview, Joe mentions Blood Sport, Blood Tide, and The Diamond Bogo. And Scott Cupp also recommended them at last year's Armadillocon, so I finally started picking them up.
WBS: Blood Sport is one of those novels that you say "What is it?" It starts out by very calmly stating that the Hassayampa River runs from China through upstate New York. And you go "Wait a minute!" And then as they go off on this very realistic, naturalistic trip into the wilderness, things begin to get really bizarre very quickly. At the end there's this duel between the good guy and the villain, where they're using flyrods with poison-tipped burrs and they're dueling it out in the middle of a raging river. I like this kind of thing, and I don't know what to call it.
LP: Some people have called your work, and work like that, slipstream. Do you think that's a fair description?
WBS: Well, I think that the word slipstream. . .is it true that Bruce Sterling is the guy who coined it?
LP: Actually it was Richard Dorsett, who then told Bruce.
WBS: Slipstream seems to be a word saying "we don't know what this is." So it's not very handy as a definition. I do think there's different kinds of things that aren't straight fantasy or straight science fiction. For instance, there's the South American magic realism stuff, and I don't think the people who read fantasy and science fiction are much interested in it. That's where the fantastic element is obviously a metaphor. It's like the author saying "Here comes a metaphor." In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the prettiest girl goes out to do the laundry one day and just floats up to heaven. We understand that this is a metaphor within what is otherwise a very naturalistic, realistic novel. It's not like you really get into the fantasy world, or have rules inside the fantasy world. It's like "Here's a metaphor. We're going to have a couple of pages of a metaphor, and then we're going to go on." (Pause) I've really wanted to talk about how often I'm compared to Jonathan Carroll. I have nothing against him, and I like Jonathan Carroll's work. I like the way Jonathan Carroll will go along in what is essentially a mainstream work, maybe even a sweet little boy meets girl story, and all of a sudden, he'll discover that his father is Rumplestilskin. In Résumé With Monsters, there's a lot of mundane, horrible detail about working in bad jobs. Rob Killheffer, who wrote a review of Résumé in Fantasy & Science Fiction, said something that I thought was really important. He said "Bill uses words like dread and ghastly that Lovecraft used to describe monsters, but he uses them to describe relationships." And it's true! I tried to use that overblown, Lovecraftian language for regular stuff too, because I find the world a little surrealistic, overblown, and Lovecraftian in that regard. And when I wrote that book, Marty Shepard at Permanent Press called me up and said "Bill, you use a lot of words like 'nameless' and 'eldritch' all through this book." He had never read Lovecraft and didn't know who Lovecraft was. And I said "It's intentionally Lovecraftian. There's a reason for this!" And that overblown prose is critical to the flat parts of the book, where he's not in an alternate reality of any kind. And I think often I'll tell people quicker than Jonathan Carroll that something's odd. A book that begins with someone marrying a catatonic in a wheelchair and the best man' a monkey, after the first chapter you're going to lose people who aren't your audience. I think my writing has more in common with writers like Thomas Berger and Charles Portis than with Carroll. Portis wrote books like Dog of the South and. . .
LP: True Grit.
WBS: True Grit. Berger wrote all those comic novels like Little Big Man, and Neighbors, real odd books with outlandish characters that were always in conflict. So in that sense, I don't think Jonathan Carroll and I are that alike. Reviewers lump us together because of the surrealism, and of course Zod Wallop and Land of Laughs are both "children's books come to life" books.
LP: When you started writing Zod Wallop, had you already read Land of Laughs?
WBS: I had.
LP: Did you know Zod Wallop would be compared to it?
WBS: No, it never occurred to me. A lot of things don't occur to me. I don't know how this works with you when you're writing, but it was only when I read a review that said "Of course, in Maybe I'll Call Anna the hero is a writer of children's books." And I had forgotten that, because it's so peripheral to Maybe I'll Call Anna, but he is a writer of children's books. And then another reviewer, in the New York Times, said "Of course, Bill's already sort of written Zod Wallop in Résumé With Monsters." And then the reviewer talks about how Résumé With Monsters has this echo of Lovecraft, and how Zod Wallop has an echo of children's authors, C. S. Lewis or whatever. Usually when I start writing a book I really don't have any idea what it's about. For Zod Wallop, for a long time I only knew that first chapter. And that book came out of trying to figure out "What's going on?"
LP: "I am confused! I will write some more!"
WBS: I think there's something to be said for writing as a problem solving exercise, and then going "OK, that was interesting, but how do I make sense of it?" Because it's cheating if it's just an arbitrary scene. It's like one of those bad movies that you know were done by committee who plotted it by saying "And we've got to have an explosion here, and somebody will fly out through the window in slow motion." And that's the plot.
Continue with Part Two of "Cthulu and Crazy People"
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