Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Big Easy, Big Ideas, and Brandon Black

For some time now, I've had the pleasure of knowing Brandon Black, a New Orleans-based writer of fantasy and science fiction. He has the particular distinction of being the editor of New Orleans' first locally-written and produced steampunk and gaslamp fantasy anthology, New Orleans By Gaslight. 

He has a terrific sense of story that's inclusive and expansive, and his posts on other areas of genre always give me something to think about. He's one of the nicest guys I know, and I see many similarities between our experiences and influences growing up. I had the chance to interview him this month in the middle of his busy schedule of writing and making it all work out down in the bayou.

Be sure to visit his website at:!

How did you get inspired to take up writing? Who are some of the writers who are enduring influences upon you?

My life has been woven through with stories. I learned to read from comic books. When we'd go over to my grandparents' house, I'd pull out this huge cardboard box of Golden Age comic books under my uncle's bed and just read for hours. I've never understood why they push such dry material on kids in school. Comic books got me to the point where I could read by the time I reached kindergarten and so they kicked me up into the first grade and even when I got there, I took reading class with the second graders. The Legion of Superheroes, the Avengers, the Green Lantern Corps and the Justice League are only a million times more interesting than "See Jane run."

My father was a physicist and he's the one who introduced me to science fiction (when I was a boy, he gave me an inflated astronaut instead of a teddy bear.) When I was old enough to understand it, we'd watch Doctor Who together on PBS. That's still one of my fondest memories of my father. But I'd have to say anime was the biggest early influence on me other than comic books. I remember the epic story of Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers here in the States), a crew of desperate young people making a trip of a hundred and eighty thousand light years, out to the Magellanic Cloud and back, in just one Earth year, with the goal of saving all life on Earth. That's a story!

I still remember that awesome moment in Robotech when I heard the narrator say, "Meanwhile, twenty light years away..." A transition. A simple transition between scenes and I was awestruck. This was a story of such scale, such scope that meaningful events were occuring simultaneously twenty light years distant from each other. I think that's when I started wondering if I myself could write science fiction.

As for authors whose work I revere, let's see: Larry Niven, Jack Vance, John M. Ford, Scott Cunningham, Louie Martinie, J. R. R. Tolkien, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Douglas Adams, G. R. R. Martin, and Neil Gaiman.

What’s your next big project you want to take on as a writer?

I want to write a huge sprawling epic of a novel. I want to write one of those three hundred and sixty thousand word books that panting for breath you can report to the police that you managed to bludgeon your attacker to death with because you had no other weapon with which to defend yourself.

I want to write a Great and Mighty Book worthy of Douglas Adams' line "and with a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command..." Yes! That's the sort of book I want to write! But I'm not ready. I'm not ready as a writer and I'm not at the point where I would need to be in my career. I can't imagine there's a publisher anywhere that would take a three hundred thousand word novel from a new author. They'd insist on cutting it into three books and making a trilogy of out it and that would really just kill my enthusiasm for it. I want to write an epic work, an integral work that reads as a single novel from beginning to end, despite its length.

And there's that other annoying minor point that I haven't finished a novel yet at all. I have a steampunk novel that I'm writing and I need to finish it. Once it's done, then I can start looking to writing something longer.

New Orleans has a strong literary tradition. In what ways do you feel that’s impacted your approach to writing?

Rather than sound bitter, I'll just say that while New Orleans does have a very strong literary tradition and there are many people of letters who are passionate about writing and literature here, that doesn't mean they are passionate about science fiction and fantasy. I received little to no support or encouragement from my instructors or most of my fellow students in creative writing classes, save for Dr. Blackwood at LSU. The rest of my instructors at various points actively tried to dissuade me from writing science fiction. One of them, a full professor and at one point head of his college's creative writing department said that he didn't understand science fiction so he didn't allow his students to write it.

Can you imagine ANY other genre where an instructor, a full professor, could get away with saying something like that? "I've never really understood Westerns, so I don't allow anyone in my classes to write them." They would have laughed him off campus! In his defense, and I never thought I would say those words, I wound up creating the New Orleans Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Circle for much the same reason. I had participated, eagerly and productively, in a writers' circle at East Bank Jefferson Library but had begun to notice as my work progressed that increasingly comments from the rest of the circle had begun to taper off. Whereas I had before received useful criticism about this or that story and where it needed to be changed, particularly as I began to settle on steampunk as my genre of choice, criticism devolved into "good story as always." And while that's appreciated, it's not useful.

As for New Orleans' fandom, the difference between them and the ivory tower has been like night and day. Fandom's been incredibly supportive of my work going all the way back to when I wrote Star Trek fanfic for the Krewe of the Enterprise newsletter. I've given panels on steampunk at Mobicon in Mobile, CoastCon in Biloxi and I've been a regular guest at CONtraflow here in New Orleans for the past several years. Fandom's been very good to me and I appreciate it.

Fandom here is why I dream of making New Orleans a great literary mecca for science fiction. Starting the Writers' Circle and the By Gaslight anthology series are just the opening moves. What I'd like to see here one day is a thriving science fiction and fantasy literary society giving out its own yearly awards, a quarterly journal of fantasy and science fiction based out of New Orleans and a yearly "Best Of" of New Orleans' science fiction and fantasy. I want to give back to local fandom all it's given me.

Being a writer is a tough process, and this year has been a little more rough for you than most. Can you tell us a little about what’s happening? 

After Katrina, I evacuated to Hendersonville, North Carolina and then to Decatur, Georgia and finally to Mobile, Alabama. I lost my job in Mobile and moved back to New Orleans. My job search was pretty abysmal and so I hit upon the idea of making a go as a professional writer. I hadn't written much of anything in years and I had pretty much given up on the dream of being a full-time author. But I wasn't finding much in the way in the local job market, so I decided to buckle down and do some writing. And I achieved some great early successes. I had a story story published in Dark Oak Press' Dreams of Steam III and another in Seventh Star Press' A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. I pitched the idea for New Orleans By Gaslight on my Facebook account and it's like the project slipped from my fingers and started rolling downhill from there. I was just entertaining the notion of doing an anthology and people were responding with "I've already started my story!"

New Orleans By Gaslight wound up being a big success, with the Times-Picayune running an article on the book and the East Bank Jefferson Parish Library throwing us a book release party. Things were looking good. But then, my health worsened and my car died. I should have put the brakes on trying to further my writing career and started looking for more conventional employment then. But I'd had this idea for a non-fiction book, something I'd been working on and off on since before Hurricane Katrina. I still had some savings and I was very confident about how my career was going and the profits that could be made from a nonfiction book. My researches had indicated that the industry standard was to pay an author an advance up front after accepting the book proposal and then work with the author to finish the book.

I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Publisher after publisher loved my book proposal. That too helped dig me deeper. Even when publishers declined to accept the project, they praised my writing and told me my book proposal was the best they'd ever read and it was only a matter of time before some company picked up the project. But no one did. At least, no one offering an advance. Months had gone by and the money I was counting on never came. Three publishers in the end contacted me interested in the book but none of them offered a cash advance and by that time, my financial need was pretty desperate. I couldn't even get an agent to intercede on my behalf. All my research had said that the easy, instant way to get an agent was to do everything yourself -- come up with an idea, write the sample chapters, identify publishers who printed material similar to what you were pitching, put together a book proposal and send it out to said publishers, all in the hopes of being able to say to an agent: "Look, I've got a publisher who's sent me a contract for my book, I just need someone to negotiate for me."

What I discovered was that if the publishers didn't mention a specific amount of money as an advance, that no agent was willing to take the gig. Their assumption was if they didn't offer X amount of money up front, the Y amount the agent might be able to convince them to part with wasn't enough for the agent to get out of bed for.

In the end, I was grateful to have an agent spell that out for me as too many other agents just said, "Great project but I don't think I'd be a good fit for it." I can't communicate the anger and frustration I felt, that I still feel, desperately needing money, having to turn to friends and family for my rent, for money for food and medicine, terrified of being homeless and all the while, sitting on a project that publishers and agents have said time and time again would be a lucrative success, is of great literary quality and worthy of publication, only to turn around and then say, "I don't feel like a good fit for it."

What are some of the great frontiers you feel more writers need to address in the coming years ahead?

Transhumanism is, as I see it, a great wall looming in science fiction's future. We're already living in the age of cyberpunk. We are fast approaching a time when people will be able to interface their brains directly with computers. I feel, at that point, that those people won't have much of anything in common with those of us who haven't experienced that and that that wall was and is a barrier to my literary interest. I can't imagine what it would be like to be a human being who could mentally slow time to microseconds and in that time, access the world's informational stockpile in order to make a decision.

What will a simple argument between boyfriend and girlfriend sound like when they both have computers in their heads downloading the internet? What will people care about, socially, politically, economically? When bickering about politics on Facebook is replaced with the instantaneous ability to fact check statements and download whole arguments, histories and philosophies in an instant, what will laws and human interaction even look like? What will entertainment look like? What will people care about?

Transhumanism offers to elevate humanity to godhood. And I suppose I'm too humble to want to write stories about real gods. When I do read and write about deities in fiction, it's humanized deities with goals and objectives and wants and desires that we as human beings have, not remote, incomprehensible abstract entities that have nothing in common with us because they've existed in some rarefied domain for millenia. When people move from being people to "being as advanced to us as we are to an amoeba" as Spock would say, how can we write about them? Why would you want to?

Bob argues with Rick about nth level transcendental hyper-dimensional tachyonic wave mechanics and how those wave dynamics replicate recurring patterns in hyper-time economics. Both Bob and Rick present computer simulations and studies based off those simulations -- that they've just now run in their heads -- to support their respective sides of the argument. I can't follow the argument. I can't follow their emotions. I can't follow their thought processes. An argument, a scene, that might change their lives forever might happen in the time I could blink. This crucible moment that led the two men to walk in different directions and work to change their society forever happened while I burped and tried to remember what I had for lunch. I don't know how to get past that wall.

What’s your advice for younger writers who are just getting started?

My advice to writers just getting started: Don't major in English. Don't pursue a creative writing degree. You can always take creative writing and literature classes as electives for another major. If you want to write science fiction, major in physics or engineering or computer science. You want a college degree that will help you put food on the table. You want a degree that will give you time and a comfortable lifestyle in order to write.

I majored in Military and Political Journalism and then got a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I have only once in twenty years gotten a job specifically because of those degrees. All they've ever done for me otherwise was let me check the box next to "do you have a college degree?" on an application. By comparison, I knew a guy who got a four year computer programming degree and from the day he stepped off the college stage had a six-figure job, in his early twenties. That's more money in a single year than my parents made together any year of their lives. I knew another who worked in computers and made so much money that he only worked every other year to finance his bachelor's lifestyle.

My advice to you is to find a degree program that you'll be happy with that'll get you six figures and take creative writing classes on the side. Trust me. You'll be so much better off.

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