Joining me today is the highly acclaimed author, Jesse Bullington. Jesse’s first book, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart was a critical success, and you would be hard-pressed to find a book with a more divisive response from reviewers. Personally, I adored the book, so I’ve been itching to talk with Jesse for quite some time. His new book, The Enterprise of Death was released last week and it was the perfect time to catch up with him. Jesse also plans to stop by to answer any questions you may have, so be sure to make a comment or two. Orbit has also been nice enough to offer a copy of the new book to one commenter chosen at random. So with out further delay, the interview:
Justin: I think it’s been long enough since The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart was published that I can ask you to reflect a bit on the whole writing/publishing process of your first book. Was everything as you expected? How does it compare so far to your experience with your second book?
Jesse: It’s funny, because I thought I had very realistic expectations of how the process would go, and it turned out to be completely different than I anticipated. Mostly this was a good thing — I really expected the road to publication to be much slower, frustrating, and difficult than it actually was. Granted, it took me a couple of years to get an agent, but that was pretty much what I’d been led to expect, and in fact was a bit quicker than I’d anticipated, and after that it all went very smoothly. Everyone at Orbit is incredibly considerate of their authors, and I was consulted about everything, from the cover art on down. Again, I’d heard so many horror stories about the process that I kept expecting something awful to happen, but at a certain point I realized that I was in the most capable hands imaginable, and once I relaxed things went even better. Things with The Enterprise of Death have been every bit as painless, so to date the experiences have been similar.
I also wasn’t really expecting such a positive reaction to the novel, especially from authors I personally admire. And surreal and wonderful as it is to hear that someone whose work you love enjoyed something you wrote, hearing from random strangers that my book entertained them was somehow even more satisfying, and equally unexpected. Every single time I hear from a fan it catches me off guard in the best way possible.
On the other hand, I underestimated the effect having strangers bash my work on the internet would have on me. Early on I gave an interview, I think to Falcata Times, wherein I was asked if criticism bothered me, and I gave an answer along the lines of “hell no, I’m a badass new god who drinks the blood of haters breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” This was pretty easy to do before I’d really been hit with a load of negative reviews. Brutally honest book reviews are really, really important, and taste is of course subjective, but having something you’ve poured all this emotion and energy and thought into dismissed in a nasty and often personal fashion can really sour a day. I know, stop the presses, artists don’t like bad reviews, but it was something I wasn’t really expecting — normally I’m pretty good about taking criticism, I think, and most of the negative reviews I received didn’t give me pause — hell, many were positively helpful — but a few of them suckerpunched me with their vitriol.
Justin: What are some the most memorable reactions to your work, both good and bad?
Jesse: For all my whinging about bad press, most of the negative reviews I’ve received have been more amusing than hurtful, whatever the intention of the critic might have been. There have been calls for it to be burned, advisement on the necessity of taking a bath following a reading of the book, and the not-so-subtle implication that death would be preferable to reading the thing. I’ve also been compared to Satan, which is something of an accomplishment for a debut novelist, I think. One of the especially nasty reviews that actually got under my skin took a quote from The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart out of context to imply that I was misogynist, which was memorable in how awful an experience it was — one would think a professional critic could draw a distinction between a character in a novel and the author of said novel, but apparently not.
On the other hand, there have been some really great reactions, and for the most part that’s what I focus on. Being compared to authors I admire is a great feeling, and it’s interesting to see critics sometimes compare me to authors I haven’t read in ages but dearly loved when I did. In terms of a single soundbite, Kirkus’ remark that Brothers Grossbart was “as grotesquely pleasurable as picking a scab” sticks in the memory pipes, no doubt!
Justin: I think the burning one was mine. I meant it in the most complimentary way possible. I believe I also suggested the book could be given to any individual you wished to have condemned to hell. I did give it five stars though, securing my isle seat into the everlasting fire.
The Sad Tale was simultaneously both low-brow and literary. It’s that duality that makes me feel that your work is important to the fantasy genre. I had never read anything like it… and still haven’t. Will The Enterprise of Death continue to push the boundaries in similar ways?
Jesse: I hope so — for all the belly-aching above about bad press, I think shaking people up and sometimes pissing them off is important for art to stay fresh and exciting. Enterprise is fundamentally different from the Brothers Grossbart in a lot of ways, and so I expect some of the readers who really enjoyed my debut will be turned off by this new one — not because it’s even filthier or weirder, because I don’t think that it is at all, but because it’s a very different sort of book, and I suspect that some readers crave the comfort of knowing what to expect from a book. That is, having read and enjoyed something, they expect the author’s other work to closely hew to what they’ve already enjoyed, and if the follow-up is too different they’ll feel somehow let down. For me, nothing is more important than moving outside of our comfort zones and exploring new territories — so while Enterprise is going to push boundaries, they won’t necessarily be the same boundaries I tested with the Brothers Grossbart. I’ve bitten off more with Enterprise, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the response, be it positive or negative, will be stronger with this one.
Justin: I agree that the reader needs to be challenged from time to time. I love my Dresden Files for their straight forward story telling and good versus evil structure. I also enjoy books like your own where maybe I’m being messed with a bit. If done correctly, as I feel you do, it can create a truly unique experience for the reader. Now, I know you have an academic background in history and folklore, and that was quite apparent when reading The Sad Tale. It looks as if The Enterprise of Death is built on the same foundations. How much actual research do you have to do when writing?
Jesse: I do a lot of research, some of it online but mostly through the local university’s library system. I research before getting started with any novel, continue to research as I write, and then do even more when I have a rough draft to work from. I accumulate hundreds of notes to myself as I’m writing a novel on details to research. When necessary — and possible — I try to talk with experts about specific issues in addition to what I can get from my texts. With Enterprise, for example, I exchanged quite a bit of correspondence with the head of the Archeological Society of Berne, who was incredibly helpful. Since I like the idea of my work taking place not in an alternate history but in our actual record I try my best to keep things as close to reality as possible.
Justin: So tell us a little about Awa, the protagonist in The Enterprise of Death. How is she similar or different from your bearded brothers?
Jesse: In a lot of ways she’s the opposite of Hegel and Manfried — they’re straight white men, she’s a black lesbian. They’re western European mutts, she’s a Fon of Dahomey. They have a rigid worldview, and everything they encounter enforces this preexisting paradigm. She, on the other hand, is curious and open-minded — she’s a character in search of meaning even as she acknowledges such meaning may be beyond human ken, whereas for the Brothers Grossbart the meaning is obvious and irrefutable. I think she’s a much smarter character than either Grossbart, and as a result she’s more complex, more conflicted, and undergoes many changes throughout the novel, versus the rather static Manfried and Hegel. She’s also a necromancer, which would put her into immediate “witch” territory for those pious Grossbarts.
Justin: The Sad Tale was hard to classify into a particular genre. Fantasy is the genre it seems to mostly settle into. I think that’s partly due to the story’s bestiary. The Sad Tale had one of the more disturbing renditions of a manticore I’ve ever read. Does this trend continue in The Enterprise of Death, without giving too much away?
Jesse: It does. I’ve always been into history, and the folklore that grew out of it, so writing historical fiction wherein the beliefs of the day are taken as real is a very natural and fun exercise for me. If anything, Enterprise has more fantastical elements than Brothers Grossbart, but I expect with future books the pendulum will swing back and forth — one of these days I’d love to do a second word fantasy, but I’d also like to do historical fiction with little or no obvious supernatural elements.
Justin: There has been a recent uptick in the online debate about the nihilistic trend some believe fantasy is taking. If this trend were represented as an army, of course being lead by Master Colonel Commandant Abercrombie. You would be at minimum a flag bearer, and more than likely a frontline General. I imagine your coat of arms bearing two bearded fellows holding shovels standing over a mutilated corpse of some sort. My imagination paints this as a rather short and one-sided battle. Since one side obviously cheats and takes no prisoners (unless their attractive) and the other side is full of pixies and milkmaids… wait, I’m getting distracted, back to the topic at hand. Is fantasy really trending nihilist? In my opinion, fantasy is just reflecting trends that are happening in literature as a whole. Fantasy with more “classical” themes is still quite available. This newer edgier fantasy is just growing along beside it. What say you?
Jesse: Oh man, this debate. Honestly, it all just seems so pointless and facile — are we really going to pretend that this might be something new, that Robert E. Howard’s fiction wasn’t nihilistic? It would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that these attacks on “gritty” new fantasy authors carry a sometimes unstated but fairly obvious message that things were better back when everything was (often literally) black and white, ala Tolkien and Howard (one of the few genuine similarities between those two authors is their problematic representations of “exotic” dark skinned peoples). N.K. Jemisin and others have called this out as dog-whistling, and I’m inclined to agree — we should always be very suspicious of calls for a return to the good old days, and never more so than when said good old days consisted of awesome white dudes defeating the totally evil and bestial brown people. Hell, if that icky element wasn’t underlying this whole debate it would just boil down to “we like vanilla more than rocky road,” and I couldn’t care less what some old-guard windbag thinks of my personal sundae. Unless he posts a nasty review about my work, of course, in which case I’ll cry about it in a future interview.
I’ll add that one of the sillier, more clueless arguments I’ve stumbled over in the course of this debate is the idea that because many second world fantasies take their cues from Medieval Europe they must in turn be populated with characters possessing strong moral compasses or they become unrealistic. The reason given is that because the Christian Church played a huge role in Medieval European life the vast majority of the people of that era must have behaved a certain way, holding tight to Christian ideals and having uncompromising views of good and evil. This is idiotic — if that were the case, the Medieval period would have been a time of peace and unity and not, as is recognized by virtually every respectable historian, an era characterized by endless, bloody power struggles, with countless factions and individuals murdering and torturing each other every chance they could get, a time of political and religious turmoil where moral ambiguity was the name of the game. In short, the sort of setting which Abercrombie excels at rendering, along with his co-conspirators in the League of Nihilistic Guttertrash Perverts Invading Genre.
Joe Abercrombie is popular because he’s a great writer who tells great stories, not because he’s gritty and readers are looking for that right now — Abercrombie rocks and his novels are serious page-turners, end of story. For what it’s worth, I like Tolkien (The Hobbit more than The Lord of the Rings). I like Howard, although I’d hesitate to call him a great writer. Both of these writers have a cave troll’s worth of warts to take into consideration when discussing them, Howard more than Tolkien, but whatever. Both authors preferred Heroes and Villains to flawed, complex characters, and as you point out there’s no dearth of contemporary fantasy novels that take the “classical” approach to fantasy, with Chosen Ones and Dark Lords and All That Noise, so why bother complaining? Human nature, stupid, narcissistic, human nature. I’m a fan of Cugel the Clever but want fuck all to do with Thomas Covenant — who cares? Bah, just thinking about all those look-at-meeeee essays makes my brain hurt — the bottom line is that I’m in favor of reading things that I haven’t read a hundred times before, hearing new voices and tales, be they gritty or dreamy, mithril hard or harpy feather soft.
Oh, and the standard of my unit in LONGPIG is a skeletal-winged turnip with a wreath of gilded beard hairs floating over a platter of sundry cheeses — still time to enlist, Generalissimo Abercrombie is always happy to have another rosy-faced recruit in our septic trenches.
Justin: Nice! I will write Commanderalissimo Abercrombie and attach your sponsoring papers post haste! I’ll be enlisted in no time. I wonder what my life expectancy as a new recruit will be? Probably depends on how much faster I am than the other recruits… or if I have some special powers.
Let’s say you’ve been granted the power to be a were-critter. On a full moon you get to roam the countryside terrorizing locals, loping through their streets and possibly raiding their garbage. What denizen of the wild would you choose to be, and why?
Jesse: This is a good question, and one that requires both careful consideration and a resolute commitment to not make jokes about furries. Aquatic and flying creatures seem like obvious choices, given the potential for exploring new environs, but there is also the innate appeal of the wolverine aka skunk-bear — who wouldn’t want to be a giant musk-reeking ferret? But then what of the bat-eating centipede, which combines the wall-scaling abilities of a normal centipede with the sheer nightmarishness of a vermicious knid? Decisions, decisions. I expect that if you check back with me in, say, ten years time, I should have an answer for you.
Justin: Okay, expect a tweet from me in ten years, then… Which reminds me: I think it’s safe to say that technology has changed a lot in the publishing industry, and one of the things it has changed is accessibility to authors. The link between fans and authors is completely different than it was just 15 years ago. I remember writing letters and waiting weeks to get a response. Now I just drop an e-mail or a message via social network and get a reply, typically directly from the author. Twenty years ago I would have been thrilled to get a pun-filled form letter from Piers Anthony. How important is it for an author to create an online presence in today’s market? I actually think it’s gotten harder for new authors. You are now an essential piece of your publisher’s marketing team.
Jesse: For me the hardest part is staying on top of things without losing myself in the timesink that is the internet. Blogging on my website doesn’t really come naturally to me so I’m rather thankful for the social networking sites that help me stay somewhat plugged in without having to come up with fascinating essays for my website every week. In terms of interacting with fans, I’ve made a lot of friends that way, so again, I mostly see the bright side of it. I remember hearing that Vincent Price supposedly answered every fan letter he ever received, and I think that’s a very worthy goal — so far I’ve stayed on top of it, I think, but in all honesty I tend to be rather sieve-minded, so if anyone out there has dropped me a line and has yet to hear back by all means give me a gentle reminder.
Justin: I was recently perusing your website and stumbled across the Fan Art section. I have to say your fans really captured the spirit of the Brothers Grossbart. My particular favorite was the masterpiece by Bryce Dayton. I don’t really have any questions about them. I just wanted an excuse to post Bryce’s picture, which makes me laugh every time I look at it.
Jesse: Yeah, Bryce’s piece is a thing of beauty to be sure! I’ve never been much of an artist, so holding contests and such to coerce those more talented than myself to do what I cannot is one of the definite perks of my success.
Justin: One last thing. As a fellow facial hair aficionado, I must say yours is quite bold. Is it necessary for the male author/artist to partake in the art of pogonotomy (god bless Wikipedia)? Personally, I have entered into my Cave-Man period, not completely unlike Picaso’s Rose period. I remind my wife that it is essential to my very being to keep the shrub growing, but I have been known to take bribes in exchange for trimming. The last great shearing netted me an ipod.
Jesse: Shame is what happens when life attacks and you are unprepared — no amount of facial hair will save you at the Crunch. Generally speaking, however, a verdant facial flourish is rarely a bad idea for anyone, regardless of gender, sex, or profession; however, those who stare into the beard should know that beard also stares into them. The most important thing is to neither know nor show fear when the decision to cultivate is settled upon — when a friend expressed concern that his own Darwinian chin might cause strangers to incorrectly presume him a fixed-gear carrying member of the Hipster movement I offered him this quote from a manual I have found cause to consult over the years:
A fundamental aspect of beard-wearing is coming to terms with the fact that certain undesirables will attempt similar facialscape improvements. Do not let this dissuade you, for as Abalone Smythe commented in his editor’s note to the Summer 1874 edition of Moustachios Quarterly, ‘It is the bearer who makes the beard and not, as these dreadful day laborers with their ear wax stiffened curlicues would have it, the lip weasel that makes the gentleman.’ That Smythe was a charter member of the fascist Royal Harumph Party should in no way impinge on the underlying wisdom of his observation that one should tend, as Voltaire would have it, to his own garden.
—Col. Reginald Louche. The State of the Face, and Other Observations on the Decline of the Proper Dandy. Stratford-Upon-Avon, Briarheart Press, 1923.
That’s it for now. Once again I’d like to thank Jesse for spending some time with me. I will say that this was the most fun and interesting interview I’ve ever done. Be sure to leave comments and questions for Jesse. Every commenter will be entered to win a copy of The Enterprise of Death, provided by the nice folks at Orbit.