I recently had an invigorating conversation with Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., one of the most fascinating novelists I know. Fortunately, we captured this conversation for you. It has a bit of everything — zombies, steampunk, zebra-striped aliens, the new publishing imprint Westmarch Publishing, and some clues about what’s coming next from both of our dark minds.
So you should definitely read this.
* cue Bach’s Tocata and Fugue in D Minor, played on pipe organ by Captain Nemo*
RICHARD ELLIS PRESTON, JR:
Okay Stant. Let’s begin. Why zombies, man? Why Zombies?
Zombies are cool…
Seriously, though, I was into zombies before they were cool. It just took me years to finish the project. Most zombie stories are set in an apocalyptic setting; mine aren’t. Mine are set thousands of years ago. I use zombies as a way of unburying our past, looking at history, religion, the way we’ve come to live the way we live and feel the things we feel. What has fascinated me ever since first seeing Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the idea of a body emptied of everything but mindless hunger, a body that can only interact with others by devouring them. That makes me clutch the arms of my chair and shiver, and it makes me think deep thoughts. What separates the living and the dead? I mean, really? All around us, we see people devouring people. We see people reducing others to mere objects to fear or feed on.
That is a zombie face. Just look at it, emptied of all feeling but
an intense desire to eat you. How can you not love that face?
In my fiction, I place zombies in distant historical moments – and not medieval Europe, either. Think Rome or ancient Mesopotamia. I look at how we never succeed in truly burying our dead. I look at how encountering mindless eaters forces us to confront our own hungers. I look at what we have to hope for, in a world, past and present, that wants to eat us. While we’re on the subject, why steampunk? There’s almost as much steampunk out there as there are hordes of ravenous dead. Yet your Romulus Buckle is beautiful. What drew you to this kind of fiction, and how are you making it fresh?
RICHARD ELLIS PRESTON, JR:
Firstly, I agree that zombies are cool. Yes, steampunk seems to really be coming into its own lately. I discovered it as its own genre about three years ago. At that time I was wanting to write a pulpy adventure action series about a ship crew in the tradition of Indiana Jones or Horatio Hornblower, but I’d been having problems finding the proper setting. I wanted strong female characters and some zebra-striped aliens tossed in. Modern submarines didn’t work. 18th century pirate ships didn’t work. Space ships didn’t work. When I hit upon steampunk and the idea of a zeppelin crew operating in a post-apocalyptic environment I knew I had found the roots of my world.
Since I was new to steampunk (although I am a huge fan of British history and the Victorian/Edwardian era) I wanted to make it accessible to people who had just discovered the genre, so while the story has a steampunk brain and organs, the skeleton is pure adventure tale. I tried to make the series unique by placing it in a frozen southern California and by introducing a strong ‘purer’ sci-fi element to it. It all makes sense in the end (I hope) but readers will have to stick with it to the end to get all of the answers as to how this world came about from the one we know now.
But here’s a question for you, Stant. How does a writer tackle the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, as you do in No Lasting Burial? How did you approach writing him? Were you afraid of any backlash, most certain to result, from expressing your vision of him?
I definitely found Yeshua of Natzeret to be the most difficult character that I have ever written. For one thing, there is an enormous weight of past depictions, from stained glass to Hollywood.
All of those past images are like an enormous pressure at your back, a locomotive driving your story toward a cliff. The joy and the challenge of telling this story was to tell it new and tell it raw. My novels are works of “weird fiction,” exploring the ways in which we become strange to ourselves and to each other. In the zombie story, our own flesh is made weird, is made strange to us. The story of the God-made-flesh is a truly strange story, and we forget that because so many generations of storytellers and sermon-writers have domesticated the story for us, made it safe and tame. When you read the original stories, you don’t encounter a domesticated, safe character.
My approach to this old, old story was to focus on two things. First, I focused on how people reacted to this enigmatic figure. You read the stories of ordinary people who are confronted with someone who doesn’t make sense, someone who is magnetic and inspiring and disturbing, all at once. Someone who flips your traditions on their head. Someone who tells you to invite beggars into your house or sell all your possessions. Someone who claims to know things no one can know, do things no one can do. Someone who is moved to tears at things that you don’t even notice. Someone who might be a madman, or a witch, or an incarnate God, or demon-possessed. At first it is very hard to tell. He is utterly strange, and the world you know appears to bend around him.
Second, I wanted to try to imagine what it would be like to be a mortal man in a mortal body and yet hear the suffering, the prayers, and the screams of all people, living or dead, across all of time. What would that do to you? Would it drive you mad? Would it drive you to extraordinary acts of compassion? Would it do both?
I wanted to make this story strange again, make it dangerous again. I don’t know if I was afraid of backlash, but I certainly anticipated it. This is not a stained-glass Jesus. This is a sweating, weeping figure who walks into your world and rewrites its fundamental architecture, or gets you to, despite yourself. I expect backlash. If you try to tell a Jesus story and you don’t get backlash, you’re telling it wrong; you’re telling it badly.
There’s a beautiful sculpture that an artist just revealed this month of a homeless Jesus lying on a park bench:
Some people are disturbed and affronted, and some people tried to call the cops to come remove this homeless man from their upscale-neighborhood bench. And some people were moved and rebuked and inspired.
I think I was going for a very similar effect, but the artist with his sculpture achieved it much more directly than I can do in mere words.
A question for you, Richard, while we’re on the topic of characters and stories that defy domestication. What scene in your own novels proved most wrenching to write, most difficult?
RICHARD ELLIS PRESTON, JR:
That was a great answer, Stant, and it provides a wonderful glimpse into the environs of No Lasting Burial. Your question is interesting because my adventure novels run in the vein of the old adventure serials—so far in the first two books there has been a tremendous amount of swashbuckling and action and catastrophe-escaping. The series takes a dark, tragic turn in upcoming books and when I sit in the quiet and think of some of the specific events approaching I want to cry. I can’t spoil what is coming by describing it, of course, but let me say that when these (hopefully) powerful and soul-wracking scenes must be put to paper, they will be awfully hard to write.
This is Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., by the way. Read his work. Seriously.
His website is http://richardellisprestonjr.com.
I’d say that one of the hardest scenes I’ve written so far is the hero’s (Romulus Buckle) flashback to injuring his adopted sister, Max, when they were young. Max is half alien with zebra-striped skin and struggles against prejudice every day of her life. For a number of reasons, Romulus is cruel to her in their childhood, always tormenting her. One day he chases her down a hallway and grabs hold of one of her long pigtails. She jerks loose and ends up hurtling headfirst into a doorway jamb, cutting her forehead open and leaving a scar. Romulus’ actions are terrible (his father lets him have it for this) and it is difficult to witness an injury to a child when writing the scene as it unfolds in your head. But it is an important moment for both characters. Max fights back against Romulus for the first time earlier in the scene (she stabs his shoulder with a geometry compass) and also Romulus carries a sadness with him into adulthood, a deep-rooted guilt, about how he treated Max when they were children (Max has always loved him and has long forgiven him, by the way, although her despair at her strange appearance was exacerbated by the way he abused her back then).
That was a difficult sequence to write because so much pain is folded into it, a pain which both characters still experience in their adult lives, though in different ways.
A question: I have a handful of images and items, subconscious denizens of my mind anchored deeply in the unknown reaches I suppose, which seem to always find their way into most everything I write. Some come from dreams I have and some come from nowhere, as far as I can tell. Instead of fighting their intrusion, which is always organic, I let these little bubbles surface inside the stories I write.
Just kidding in that last caption. This is what the author of the Romulus Buckle series,
formally known as The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin, actually looks like.
Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is just his alter ego, his Clark Kent, his Bruce Wayne.
Don’t tell him I revealed his identity, though. He’ll be angry.
One of these motifs is wind chimes. Wind chimes were ringing in one of the most vivid, haunting, profound dreams I ever had. I love the sound of them. And they appear, unbidden in the background, in most every story I write. In fact, I’ve come to expect it. I don’t think anybody would notice this constant element without my mentioning it because it is so small, but there is something comforting about always having that little tiny bit of my dream in all of my stories.
Richard is a writer that I respect & esteem highly, and I can’t recommend his novels enough.
I am also fiercely envious of his ride.
Stant, do you have any recurring items, motifs, themes, etc. like that which your brain seems to always want to blend into your writing?
I love wind chimes; I love listening to them. They are comforting. But I also love it when a storm comes up and the wind chimes burst into musical panic.
There are definitely recurrent images or moment in my writing. It’s not something I really think about except when I’m writing the scene itself and I run into them almost by accident and say, “ah!”
Wind in the grass. That’s one. In No Lasting Burial, Bar Nahemyah thinks the sound is “like God weeping in the grasses.”
Where the magic happens.
I think a recurrent moment is the discovery of something small and alive and beautiful after great catastrophe. A flower growing out of the side of a sand dune, or a gazelle stepping through the remains of a dead camp.
A character alone, looking up at the stars.
For whatever reason, these moments are written into me.
Oh, and this is me, Stant Litore.
Yes, I really do look like that. All the time.
Now a question for you. What is the one thing you avoid most, as a storyteller?
RICHARD ELLIS PRESTON, JR:
I love those themes and images you identified, bubbling up out of your subconscious. Ah, avoidance! I love your examples above, by the way. One thing I try to avoid is having two characters tell each other things that they already know, which I call “redundant ridiculous exposition.” I do this a lot in early drafts where I may not have a good handle on how I am going to structure a scene, so I just spill out the facts that I may want my characters to communicate to the reader. Of course, then I have a scene where two people who were sitting beside each other in a plane crash are having this weird conversation where they are explaining things to one another that they would instinctively know the other knows, just so I can give the reader the information. The trick is, of course, to create a dialogue transfer that both avoids this weird exposition and still provides the reader with the backstory and facts they need. The easiest way to do this is to introduce a character who wasn’t there at the event and thus needs a full description, but there are lots of more subtle ways to defeat that clunk-machine as well. But, because I know I do it as an early crutch, I am frantic to avoid it wholesale in later editing.
In Hollywood, cool dudes walk away from explosions without looking back.
And Romulus Buckle is always shown with his back to you.
Always. No matter how cool you are, you will never be as cool as Romulus Buckle.
Now, Stant, I’d like to hear about something you avoid in your writing, and I’d also like to have you introduce the story and environment of Ansible 15715, which is your newest short story release. And Ansible is also coming from the brand new Westmarch Publishing imprint – I am familiar with it – but you can also perhaps tell our readers about Westmarch as well. Ha, that’s THREE questions!
Three questions in one? You’re trying to kill me…
What do I avoid: Doing the same thing twice. I am very restless as a writer, constantly wanting to try a new challenge or technique.
Ansible 15715 is a frantic distress call from a woman marooned in time, a researcher desperately trying to warn humanity of an unexpected and terrifying threat. It’s unlikely anyone will hear her. Unless possibly you.
It’s a work of weird fiction and it is deeply unnerving—not a story you will soon forget.
Westmarch is a writers’ collective, a network of writers who barter services with each other, in lieu of a publisher. This allows the writers to retain more control over their own work and a higher royalty. For those who got their start in self-publishing, as I did, it’s a welcome environment. The intriguing thing about today’s publishing landscape is that the skills traditionally located in a publishing house are increasingly available for direct, writer-to-provider contracting. A savvy independent writer, for example, can contract individually with an established and well-known developmental editor, a copy editor, a proofreader, a cover designer, a formatter, and even a publicist. That amazing cover for Ansible 15715? That was by a Westmarch author, Roberto Calas, (robertocalas.com) who has 25 years of experience in design.
Of course, it’s much easier to simply contract with a publishing house that can provide all of those services under one roof, and a publisher may have marketing reach far beyond what the majority of writers have. That’s where writers’ collectives come in. They’re a third way, where writers tap into each other’s resources and networks in an organized way to assemble and promote their books, paying membership dues rather than a percentage of revenue.
Westmarch is a smaller collective, new and active and exciting, and made up of writers I respect deeply.
Last question for you, Richard: what’s next from you? What should readers be watching for?
RICHARD ELLIS PRESTON, JR:
That’s awesome info on Westmarch, Stant – and best of luck with Ansible 15715! Up next for me is the release of my third Romulus Buckle novel in November, along with a short story set in the same universe that will be used for promotional purposes. It is all going to come out in parallel with the release of Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk User’s Manual in which some of my steampunk work is featured. So, November will be a big month for me.
This has been an awesome chat, Stant! Thanks so much for having the conversation. I’d like to leave the reader with an idea of what you have coming up next, so please fire away!
My birthday’s in November, Richard, and I foresee what will be on my wishlist. What I have coming up next:
- A novella entitled Dante’s Heart, in which every time a young man falls asleep, creatures burst out of him intent on doing violence to the world. In hunting them down, he has to face humanity’s longing for violence.
- I Will Hold My Death Close, a novella in The Zombie Bible, coming out in August. You’re really going to like this one. It is a retelling of the Old Testament story of “Jepthah’s daughter.” Fleeing into the hills from a father intent on sacrificing her, she has to face the hunger of a deity, the hunger of the rising dead, and the devouring hunger of her people’s traditions and their past if she is to survive.
- Finally, I am working on another Ansible story. Shhh, don’t tell anyone. It looks likely to be just as unnerving and just as tragic as Ansible 15715.
My workshop is spewing out black and purple smoke as I work busily on all this. Lots to look forward to this summer! Thank you for this great conversation, and I am looking forward to November!
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Stant Litore | Richard Ellis Preston, Jr.