ET: First things first: what kind of stuff do you write?
LE: A year ago I would have answered, "Whatever I think makes good practise." My sole focus was the craft of writing. Since then I've found my own artistic purpose. I write what you might call "realist speculative" fiction. I see speculation as metaphor for life, on social, political and personal levels. I don't stick to Science Fiction, Fantasy or reality. My imagination just doesn't work that way. I don't want to fetter myself to any genre or type of reality. So long as it helps express some realistic, gritty story, any amount or type of speculation belongs, so far as I'm concerned.
Oddly, at the same time, I have a passion for Sword & Sorcery. I intend to produce one novel of what I'd call serious art per year, and do some hard-core violent S&S in the meantime. I write very quickly, so I can get away with it. I just have to find some way for fans (if I ever have any) to distinguish between them. And I'm not using a pen name.
ET: When and why did you decide to start writing?
LE: I've always wanted to write, but I hadn't always admitted it to myself. Everyone who really knew me thought I should be a writer. Sadly that list didn't include myself. Between the ages of 8 and 14 I really just wanted to change the world. I thought people weren't empathic enough. Then I started complaining about it in words, and well, here I am!
ET: How do you organize your writing time? Or do you organize it?
LE: That's a surprisingly difficult question. On most days, I don't have to organise. I almost always wake up excited about what I might create, and I just sit with my work and enjoy every second. But we all have off days. Sometimes I wake up feeling like crap, and I think about everyone who's stuck in an office somewhere, remembering all the days in which that was me, and I make myself work from 9 to 5. Back when I had a full-time job I just sat and wrote for a few hours every day after work. As for some kind of day-plan for writing, I don't have one.
ET: You're working on revising a novel. Would you like to give us your elevator pitch / quick rundown of the plot?
LE: After his sister's death, a young man finds himself in a therapeutic hospital. A victim of extreme passive abuse, he has lived in his imagination his whole life--no physical friends, and a completely subservient relationship to his family and sister. He has no understanding of why he's been stripped from his home, and at first sees it as a justified punishment. As therapy progresses and his self-identity improves, he begins to suspect a supernatural conspiracy that has plagued his life since early childhood, justifying his parent's subduction of him, and being responsible for his sister's death.
ET: Generally speaking, I tend to find the drafting process to be a messy joy, and the revision process to be plain hard work of the "chop wood, carry water" variety. How do you find the revision process vs. the drafting process?
LE: The only thing I find frustrating is my own impatience. I love writing, but I really want to make something of my life and make all the sacrifices worth it. When I started Paint the Raven Black I had no idea what story I wanted to tell. I just had my character, and a vague idea of him being in a therapeutic hospital. I've been in such hospitals, so I wanted to give a realistic perspective on them. The problem was, I pulled the trigger before I aimed the gun. It wasn't a pleasant mess. It was writing my way out of a black hole, trying to make sense of something I'd made nonsensical through poor practise. Had I more patience, I would have just taken a hard look at my idea, cleaned the slate and started again. It's the pondering phase I need to spend more time on. The reason for this ramble is to say, so long as I'm being productive towards sculpting a good story, I enjoy every second, no matter what phase of creation I'm at.
ET: Your short story, "Clement's Blessing" (Chrome Baby 1), features a protagonist with an unusual ability on the soft side of paranormal (he's different, but not Superman different). Its setting suggests a gritty realism. Does this represent a typical blend of story elements for you? What is included in your usual story-telling toolkit?
LE: I'm honoured that you chose the words "gritty realism"! Whenever I'm asked what kind of thing I want to write, those two words pop out. Clement's Blessing will in fact turn into a novel one day (maybe even my second). Realism and grit are certainly things I shoot for. I like stories to reflect our lives, and I like writing about the darker side of humanity. I write what I like to read, but more than that, I write what I can't read, because it doesn't exist yet and that frustrates me.
Now, I think any writer would agree that your question either warrants a very short or a very long answer. I'm choosing the latter so bear with me.
As far as reading goes, I only like books with gritty realism, in terms of narrative and theme. As for a storytelling toolkit, I suppose I'm always pondering the blind spots of humanity, and wanting to make people see. That sounds pessimistic, and even perhaps arrogant, but I think it's important to follow our artistic instincts. Ray Bradbury used to say he'd never worked a day in his life. He'd dream, meet people, ponder, learn and write. That's what I do.
The truth is I love people. I can sit and watch an elderly gentleman feeding birds in the park, just thinking about how wonderful it is to be full of sentience and spirit. Then I'll walk through the streets of London and wonder how many vibrant human faces I've been blinded to, simply for sheer quantity. I'll think about the facelessness of civilisation, about how many other elderly gentlemen could feed the birds if they hadn't died over some invisible, arbitrary line drawn by some angry, economically and/or politically powerful idiot, maybe centuries ago, named a "border", over some previously untainted land.
I think about such things because I love people, not because I hate them, but it's definitely such thoughts that make me want to write. I don't force my imagination in any direction, but gritty realism is what has to spring from my nature, and I'm very happy with that.
ET: You mention in your post "Giving Thanks and a Story" that "Clement's Blessing" was "one of the stories that got me an agent." Can you tell us about that process?
LE: My agent-getting process was insane. I've studied writing for a long time. I have an MA and an MFA in Creative Writing, with distinction (that's like straight A's, if you're North American). Once I finished the long apprenticeship, I just buried my head in my work, trying to improve my craft, comparing myself to the likes of Ray Bradbury and Guy de Maupassant, not submitting my work anywhere because it, obviously, didn't measure up. I even had the privilege of meeting Iain Banks once, hearing him tell me I was "wasting my talent" and "squandering my ability", but I never listened. Finally a friend, a published poet, insisted that I show him two short stories. I reluctantly acquiesced, and he loved them, insisting that he send them to an agent. Around three months later, Leslie Gardner (who represented Anthony Burgess--a serious woman with very high standards, and a serious long-shot for me) got back with a short critique of each story, which I took to mean that I wasn't good enough to be a client. My brother convinced me to write Leslie back and ask point-blank if she'd represent me. I reluctantly did so, and she got back 15 minutes later with a yes.
I was sitting on the sofa feeling sorry for myself, being consoled by my fiance, when I checked my phone and read the email. All I remember is my muscles, including those in my face, draining as I gaped at my phone and said something. I can't remember what. "Oh my god" or "Whoa" or "Bhu-duh-goop-ga" or something. Ruth (my fiance) asked if I was alright. She worried I'd just read that something terrible had happened. Then the smile came.
ET: In your post "Spank Me" (nice title), you draw on your martial arts training experience to talk about the process of undergoing critique. (I have a martial arts background too...had to look up Tukkong Musool. Looks hardcore.) Besides knowing that you can keep going despite fear or any other emotion, what has your martial arts training given you as a writer?
LE: Tukkong Musool is a military system. I was taught by Ebe Ghansa, Chief Instructor of the Gurkha Infantry and Senior Instructor of the South Korean Special Forces. I met and trained with the 27th Anti-terrorist Division of South Korea. To put them in perspective, the 606 are like the SAS or the SEALS. The 707 are the most elite members of the 606. The 27th, well, you get the idea. The amazing thing was, after training every day with Ebe, I wasn't blown away by the guys in the 27th. They were better martial artists than me. Of course they were. But they didn't beat me every time.
Ebe Ghansa (my teacher) taught me that you can get good at a thing through hard work, and once you're good, you can compete with anyone, even at the very top. It's a myth that the best fighters are invincible. When you're trained to be dangerous, that's it. If a person who's better trained makes a mistake, or takes you lightly, you'll probably win the fight. Ebe taught me that the great writers on my bookshelves aren't better than me. They might be better writers for now, but the difference is I'm still alive, in my prime, and I'm getting better every day. The only thing that will determine whether my work stands among the greats is me.
An aside: given that my other passion is Sword & Sorcery, and I've studied a great deal of Asian mythology, you can imagine where my blood and guts fiction might take you. Look up "Temple of Mirrors" at Short-story.me if you're interested. [Ed. note: here it is.] I wrote the story a loooong time ago, so it's not very good by my present standard, but it's the kind of gritty, realistic martial arts brutality that I intend to get into my S&S. No axe wielding Vikings for me, and certainly no "Blam!" "Kapow!" action. I know what real combat looks like, and feels like, and I will create fiction accordingly.
ET: In your post "Science Fiction and Post-modernity," you argue that science fiction's "Golden Age" was built on a foundation of challenging cultural norms, but because scientific development has become a cultural norm, it falls to science fiction to challenge science itself. I would argue that in our culture, science has become a new kind of fetish, wherein we throw all of our hopes and dreams with the expectation that somehow it will all come out right. So "science" represents not only discovery, research, and understanding how the world works, but the potential for redemption and all things good. Do you think science fiction has no choice but to continue to "go dark" in order to stay fresh? Is there such a thing as optimistic postmodern science fiction?
LE: There's a complicated question! I literally could write you a PhD thesis in answer, but I'll try my best to keep this brief.
Let me preface this by saying Post-modernity doesn't mean what most people think. You seem already to know this, but I'll clarify for readers. I mean post-modern in sociological terms. Many people just think it's like modern art, but even more so.
Sociologically speaking, Modernity is a time characterised by the idea of civilisation's forwards momentum. We were (and still are, some would argue) in the modern age for centuries. What's different now is that society has lost its eschatological referents (the tendency to refer our social values to a future state, one of presupposed self-evident value and/or significance).
Virginia Woolf once wrote an essay called Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown, in which she talks about what it means to construct a meaningful character. What makes Mrs. Brown so distinctly different in post-modern society from any other is that she can't know herself by any pre-defined societal value referent. She has to ponder herself in the mirror. That's where speculative fiction comes in. It has the power to create metaphors for our own realities, and explore reaches of character unfettered by assumption and social, psychological or even physical norms.
I think people do sometimes place hope in science, but I also think most people fear it. This is an age of extreme ambiguity. That's why distopian sci-fi has become both typical and popular. So in that sense it's "going dark", as you say. However I think that questioning the value of science is a good thing. I also think those questions have more than one answer, so going dark isn't the only option. Basically, so far as pure science fiction is concerned, I believe it's very fresh and topical to question the meaning and value of change, and change, really, is what science fiction has always been about. I think in that sense it can be a very interesting, diverse time, so long as writers do indeed question science and progression (Modernity) on the deepest level. I'm not so sure that's the case presently. SF is about change, and Post-modernity is about listlessness in the face of change. It's an interesting juxtaposition that I think can produce some really great art.
I don't think listlessness is inherently pessimistic, either. Modern society has done a great deal of evil as well as good. To question its inherent value and ask ourselves where we stand, now, as human beings is to ask what could make things better as much as to claim what's wrong.