Down the Rabbit Hole with Julian Mortimer Smith

Julian Mortimer Smith is a writer, resident of Nova Scotia, and a board game enthusiast. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, AE, and Crossed Genres. Julian’s story, “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium,” appeared in the December 2014 issue of UFM, and I’ve since had the opportunity to chat with with him about plotting, character arcs, writing workshops, and a few other choice digressions:

LM: For those unfamiliar with the terms, “architects” are writers who completely plan out their stories before they begin to write them. “Pantsers,” on the other hand, fly by the seat of their pants, making their stories up as they go along. Where do you fall on the architect/pantser spectrum?

JMS: I do a bit of both. I usually start out pantsing, building out from a specific image or character or idea, but eventually hit a point where the story becomes unwieldy, and I have to take a step back and play the architect for the bit. Occasionally, I’ve had one of those great runs where I just sit down and bang out a complete story, carried along by a wave of inspiration — the way I used to imagine writing happened — but I find it’s only really feasible with very short stories. For longer pieces I always end up needing that scaffolding to keep things from falling apart.

LM: I’m pretty much the same, pantsing my way through the first draft and then using it as a foundation to build on. What to keep and what to kill is always a trick part. “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium” leaves a number of things to the reader’s imagination, such as the growler behind the curtain, the nature of the fox-like man, and the means by which the narrator extracts the final price. As a writer, how do you decide what to explain and what to obscure?

JMS: One of the things I love about speculative fiction is feeling as though I’m entering a world that’s ripe for play and exploration. Sometimes, the second half of a novel or movie is a process of slow disappointment as all the fantastical elements are explained and all the mysteries resolved. Tying everything up in a nice tidy package can be clever and satisfying, but also makes the world of the story feel smaller, less rich with possibility. My favourite stories are rough-edged — the ones that leave you with more questions than answers. I find that small details, mentioned in passing, are often more compelling than even the strongest plot.

I guess I try to explain enough to give readers a kind of guided tour while leaving as many open doors and windows as possible, so they can get a glimpse of a much larger world beyond.

LM: Your story certainly provided us with a tantalizing glimpse of a world that felt ripe with mystery and narrative potential. Will you ever revisit the world of Mr. Handlesropes and The Aficionados?

JMS: I’m working on a novel set in the same world as the Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium that will climb through some of those doors and window. I have also previously published two stories set in a place called Fumblers Alley [Barb-the-Bomb and Yesterday Boy and The Mugger’s Hymn]. Are all three set in the same world? I’m not sure yet.

LM: In “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium,” we’re presented with a desperate narrator who, until the final scene, appears to be a violent, drug-seeking gambler. As a writer, how do you get a reader to invest in a character like Mr. Magpie?

JMS: The protagonist isn’t very fleshed out in this story. In fact, I never even specify a gender; although, I’ve found many readers assume one way or the other. But right from the start, the character wants something, and that’s an easy (lazy?) way to ensure a certain amount of investment, whatever the motivations for wanting that thing.

LM: Many writers would be loathe to discuss their protagonists in such honest terms, so kudos for that. In collegiate writing workshops, writers are often encouraged to write stories where the protagonist changes in some way. They’re also told: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” When I reread the story to prep for this interview, I remember noting that the narrator was flat (our perception of her/him changes at the end, but s/he doesn’t). It’s one of the things that I really liked about this piece: the protagonist didn’t need an arc. I was totally invested the quest for the phial, drawn in by the intensity of the narrator’s need.

Have you done any writing workshops?

JMS: Yes, I’ve taken some writing workshops. During my undergrad at McGill University I took a creative writing seminar taught by Claire Rothman. Then in the summer of 2012 (about 10 years later) I took a class on writing dark fantasy through the School of Continuing Education at the University of Toronto, taught by Eve Silver. They were very different from each other in tone and structure, but both super useful. Writing classes force you to write and let you talk to writers about writing. Great instruction is the icing on the cake.

LM: What was the best and worst advice you’ve received in a workshop?

JMS: “Write what you know” is probably the worst piece of writing advice in circulation, at least if taken at face value. (Although, to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually received this advice — does anyone give it without giving careful disclaimers alongside? Maybe it’s an urban legend.) Having said that, I think there’s a kernel of good advice there. “Find out as much as possible about your subject, and don’t try to just make it all up” is good advice. The most inventive fantasy worlds often lean heavily on research (like Tolkien).

But for me, the most useful advice has often been tips about staying motivated and working hard rather than craft stuff. The idea that writing just flows out of you on a wave of inspiration is extremely attractive but extremely damaging to productivity. The most useful advice I received didn’t come from a writing class, but from an argument with a musician friend, who claimed that musical talent doesn’t exist, and that the best musicians are just the ones who work hardest at it. At the time I argued with her: “What about this prodigy?! What about that person with perfect pitch?!” Implicit in my reaction was the hope that I might have that kind of natural talent. I didn’t want to give up that possibility, and a part of me still doesn’t. But abandoning that notion has been the most useful thing for my writing.

This attitude also gives you a certain amount of distance from your work. I no longer think of my stories as an expression of my inborn talent. I think about them as things I’ve made. Like meals. If they turn out well, I’m proud of them, and enjoy sharing them with people. If they turn out badly — well, maybe I used a bad recipe, or put in too much salt, or whatever. It’s not a reflection on me. And I think that’s the best way to view advice from craft workshops — as reliable recipes to be followed or tinkered with. If you follow them too slavishly you’ll never really get a good feel for your ingredients. You can ignore them altogether, but don’t be surprised if your dinner turns out gross.

LM: You worked as a collegiate teaching assistant. Was your work related to writing, and if so, how did that experience influence your craft?

JMS: I worked for two years as a TA for a class called “Film & Society,” so it wasn’t a writing class, but it did deal a lot with narrative and form. I spent a lot of time trying to teach students to write (essays) with clarity and precision and avoid the kind of rough edges and open questions that I enjoy in fiction. I think good academic writing makes everything as explicit as possible.

LM: I think you bring up a good point about the stylistic differences between academic and creative writing. Aside from a sense of mystery, what else would you say that good storytelling needs?

JMS: I don’t know that a good story “needs” anything in particular (I’ve read a lot of great stories that violate many of the traditional rules of storytelling), but there are some ingredients that a lot of good stories share: specificity of setting, compelling characters, tension (and resolution of that tension).

What would you say good storytelling needs?

LM: For me, good storytelling requires an awareness that the reader needs a reason to keep turning the pages. Craft elements such as solid prose, creative premises, and deep characterization aren’t enough if I’m not invested. During my first week at Clarion West, instructor Elizabeth Hand talked about the way a compelling painting commands the viewer to look. As a reader/editor for several publications, I reject a fair number of well-written stories because they failed to draw me in. They didn’t command me to look.

JMS: That’s interesting. Do you think it’s more true for short stories than novels?

LM: With short stories, readers are typically looking for something they can finish in a single sitting. Novels have more breathing room; the reader expects to have an extended engagement with the narrative, so if a novel starts off slow, the reader knows that the author still has hundreds of pages to work with. If you’re two pages into a short story, and it hasn’t captured your interest yet, the next story in the publication (or a different book, or the TV, or the clickbait about the top 5 celebrity amputations) starts to compete for your attention. With novels, the reader expects to take breaks, but with short stories, if a reader stops reading voluntarily, there’s a good chance s/he won’t go back.

JMS: What about authors who are “difficult” or “hard to get into” but that you end up loving? One of my favourite fantasy authors is Mervyn Peake. The first book of his Gormenghast series, Titus Groan, famously starts with a long, dense description of the architecture of a castle. It goes on for pages and pages before introducing any of the main characters. It’s a bit of a slog. And yet that series is among my all-time favourite books. Would the book have been better if it had started out as a real page turner? I’m honestly not sure. Maybe it would have been.

LM: Some publications instruct their slush readers to reject a story as soon as it loses their interest. I think that the bottom line is this: don’t bore the reader–but that doesn’t mean that stories need to open with gunfire, mushroom clouds, or whirlwind sex. How a story keeps the reader’s interest doesn’t matter, just so long as it does. Take Nabokov’s Lolita for example: the narrator’s sheer audacity commands the reader’s attention as s/he wonders what Humbert will say or do next.

Since being published by UFM, another of your stories found a home at Crossed Genres. You’re on a roll! Any parting advice for aspiring urban fantasy writers?

JMS: Be patient. Magazines can take months to get back to you, and you might have to shop your story around to a dozen different markets before you hit the right editor, so selling your first story can take literally years. This can be dispiriting, but time and quantity make it easier to deal with.

Any given story sent to any given market has a very small chance of getting published, but if you submit 10 stories to 10 different markets you’ve increased your chances by an order of magnitude. And if those 10 stories get rejected, you can rotate them one market counterclockwise and send them out again.

It’s a bit like gambling, but playing the game is free, so there’s nothing to lose and your expected return is always positive. If you can think about it like this, then simply having stories out there in slush piles will start to feel like real progress.

To read Julian’s other stories set in Fumbler Alley, check out “Cabaret Obscuro,” “Barb-the-Bomb and Yesterday Boy,” and “The Mugger’s Hymn,” or visit his website julianmortimersmith.com.

LiamsquareLiam Meilleur is a submissions editor for Urban Fantasy Magazine and Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He attended Clarion West in 2013, has an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Binghamton University, where he teaches for the English department and serves as an editor for Binghamton Writes and the Harpur Palate literary journal.  You can read about his adventures as a genre writer in the literary world at a Rainy Day in Eden or follow him on Twitter at @illivander.

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