Celebrating Our Elders: Interview with Steve Rasnic Tem
Steve Rasnic Tem is a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards. He won the Bram Stoker Award for his novel Blood Kin and his novel Ubo was a finalist. He has published over 500 short stories in his 40+ year career. Some of his best are collected in Thanatrauma and Figures Unseen from Valancourt Books, and in The Night Doctor & Other Tales from Macabre Ink. You can visit his home on the web at www.stevetem.com.
Did you start out writing or working in the horror field, and if so why? If not, what
were you writing initially and what compelled you to move into horror?
I started writing seriously in high school, writing science fiction stories and submitting them to Ted White at Amazing. My reading at the time was science fiction and fantasy, along with a scattering of folklore, Southern Gothic, and Gold Medal crime novels. My awareness of horror came from comic books, the Universal horror movies, and Shock Theater on Saturday nights. I was a fearful child, with much anxiety, terrible nightmares, and my family life included alcohol and abuse. My takeaway from church was that I’d been judged harshly by God and Hell was unavoidable. I was terrified of the dark and couldn’t sleep unless I was buried under piles of sheets and blankets. I wasn’t sure what to make of “horror.” The few ghost stories I’d read felt like spiritual fables, and other horror didn’t feel like fantasy, because terror and fear were an overwhelmingly real presence in my life. They weren’t just something you read in a book. I didn’t try to write horror fiction at the time—I think that subject matter hit too close to home.
I was an English/English Education major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VPI). I took every literature class VPI offered either for credit or auditing. I became enamored with the modern fabulists of the 1960s—Barthelme, Barth, Calvino, Borges, Brautigan, etc.—and attempted to write in that mode, but I couldn’t find an approach that fit the kind of subjects I wanted to write about, stories of nightmares and dream worlds and the secret, embarrassing realities people were reluctant to discuss. I hadn’t read that much horror, but I thought there might be a key for me there, so I read the Ballantine Lovecraft compilations and a scattering of anthologies. But something still wasn’t clicking. I worked on novels during that time which were a blend of science fiction, Southern Gothic, and fabulism. Both Blood Kin (begun in high school as a work of “local color”) and Ubo eventually evolved from those early writings.
I got into the master’s in creative writing program at Colorado State University in 1974 on the basis of some poetry and a few odd short stories (two of which eventually became my stories “Filmmaker” and “Firestorm”). While at CSU I started reading Ramsey Campbell and some of Dennis Etchison’s early short stories, then I backtracked and read their influences, particularly the James school and the early 20th century British ghost story collections. These turned out to be the keys which unlocked my storytelling. Almost immediately I wrote the story “City Fishing,” my first horror story and my first professional sale (to Ramsey for New Terrors). After that the flood gates opened and I’ve been writing horror stories ever since.
Who were your influences as a writer when you started out and who, if anyone, continues to influence you?
I’ve already told you who influenced me starting out, but I’m an enthusiastic reader, and that reading continues to shape my fiction. I’ve always seen the short story as a kind of fiction laboratory and I’m interested especially in the different ways elements of the fantastic are introduced into a story and how they mix with the realistic elements of the piece (and oftentimes when horror stories fail they fail in their portrayal of those realistic elements). I’m always reading new authors, or at least authors who are new to me, and the first stories I read in any anthology I pick up are the ones from writers I’ve never heard of.
For me it’s really about discovering new approaches to the material, different attitudes toward the “real” world and the psychological realities lurking behind it. I’m always looking for new ways into characters’ inner lives and exposing new areas of content to explore. The last few decades I’ve been at least somewhat influenced by a wide variety of writers and every few years I’ve seen a shift in my approach to fiction (obvious to me if not to anyone else). Just off the top of my head that list of influences would include (and it’s by no means exhaustive): Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, Claire Keegan, Yoko Ogawa, Ray Bradbury, William Gay, Ron Rash, Simon Strantzas, John Langan, Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Maryse Meijer, Robert Westall, Jose Saramago, Steven Millhauser, George Saunders. It’s a long list.
How have the changes in horror publishing over the past decades affected you?
Publishing trends usually don’t affect the content of what I write. A long time ago I made the decision to have a day job, a separate career as a technical writer & editor. I wanted a wife and kids, and children need health care, food, clothing, etc. and I felt I couldn’t count on the vagaries of a fiction writing career to fund my family reliably. So I’ve had the luxury of being able to write whatever moves me with less anxiety over the financial rewards (although those smaller rewards can make a huge difference in a household budget).
But despite that there have been affects. E-publishing, print-on-demand, and the rise of digital audio have increased opportunities for all kinds of writers. Most of my early backlist is available variously as e-books, paperbacks, and audio via Crossroad Press.
There are many more writers in horror, and more diverse writing than when I started. This has meant more competition when trying to make it into magazines and anthologies, but as a reader and lover of the genre it has been an enormous gift. One of the things which most appealed to me in horror as a reader was the stories seemed so new, different, and unexpected. These were unlike any stories I’d ever read before. Now the variety of viewpoints and cultures offered by today’s writers feeds my hunger for that kind of new and surprising narrative.
An increased awareness of cultural appropriation and who, exactly, has the right to tell a story has also become a trend in publishing. Years ago, I was mostly aware of this issue as it regarded indigenous stories. White, Anglo-Saxon writers were retelling the myths and legends of American Indian tribes. Some of the leaders of those tribes made it clear these were their stories and they didn’t want them appropriated. The issue wasn’t always clear to me, but I felt basic respect suggested their claim should be honored.
The ramifications of that issue have expanded since then, with people questioning whether anyone has the right to tell stories from the viewpoint of another race, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, etc. This is somewhat at odds with a typical complaint I heard throughout the 70s and 80s, that writers weren’t including sufficient numbers of sympathetic diverse characters in their fiction.
I’ve struggled with this issue in part because I want to be respectful of the “other,” but also because I believe one of the prime functions of both reading and writing is that it teaches and reinforces empathy. Where do you draw the line?
One straightforward argument is that the world contains a wide variety of human beings and so should your fiction. It becomes your responsibility to portray those characters accurately. You must do your research. You have to be conscientious and avoid the usual traps when writing the other.
Some of that research may involve hiring a sensitivity reader. I’ve done it once, when writing a short story from a trans woman point of view. The problem is the economics of writing don’t really support hiring a sensitivity reader for short fiction—it makes more sense at novel length. The other issue is finding the right reader. How representative are their opinions?
In any case, I take the issue seriously. There are stories I’ve started but haven’t finished because I wasn’t sure I was the right person to tell that story, whereas earlier in my career I might have pushed forward. At some point in the future I might change my mind, but for now it feels as if, at least with these particular pieces, my empathy may not carry me far enough.
Do you think you’ve encountered ageism? If so, how do you counteract or deal with it?
I think it’s a complicated issue. There is a natural process in the arts by which young, shiny new artists start pushing out the artists from the previous generation in terms of focus and interest. This has always occurred, and when I was younger I benefitted from this process. I think it’s to be expected.
And given the serious problems of sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia in our culture (and in publishing) I feel reluctant to complain. I’m an old white dude, and I’m quite aware of the unearned privileges I’ve acquired by being born into this particular form. I get why some people are anxious for the older white politicians to die out so some forward progress in our culture can be made. I often feel the same way, but it’s not because they’re white, or male, or old—it’s because of how they vote, of the dysfunctional policies which they continue to propose and support.
Human beings make assumptions about people based on very little evidence. We don’t see people in their fullness as individuals—we make an interpretation based on the select things we do see and believe. Sometimes it’s the way we think they look at us, or some stray statement they’ve made, or some perceived omission. We find this process comforting. It keeps us from being overwhelmed with data. And to resist this process requires diligence and effort. We comfort ourselves with the idea that we’re damn smart folks who can figure people out. The problem, however, is that this way of evaluating people is fraught with error. When we interpret and generalize human beings we are wrong much of the time.
Our culture tends to periodically set aside certain categories of people who, apparently, are okay to be prejudiced against. Overweight folks are one such category, and my being overweight probably causes me more personal pain during my normal day-to-day interactions than being in my 70s does. People dismiss you and make a variety of assumptions about your attitudes and behavior because of your weight. When I was younger some people dismissed me and thought I was ignorant because I came from Appalachia and had a thick, Southwest Virginia accent. One of the criticisms I saw of my novel Blood Kin (a Stoker winner), was “why would I want to read about rednecks?
Ageism certainly exists in the culture. People often underestimate what I can do or what I can understand because I have white hair and don’t get around as well as I used to. When I was a technical writer employers were sometimes skeptical of my knowledge of computers because of my age (some of my similarly-aged friends in technical jobs dyed their hair before interviews). Sometimes people assume I’m not familiar with new writers, movies, and music because of my age. They assume I must be conservative and nostalgic for the “good old days.” Nothing could be further from the truth. How much of this inherent ageism permeates the publishing industry varies according to everyone’s experience.
Since a large percentage of my output is in the form of short fiction I’m exposed to less ageism than my friends of similar age who are novelists. My short stories do not require an agent, and publishers’ marketing departments aren’t likely to worry that my sole contribution to an anthology of short stories might not appeal to a younger demographic, and anthologists don’t factor in my age when pulling together a table of contents.
But I do hear things. More than once someone in publishing has said in my presence—as a bit of marketing wisdom—that their audience “isn’t interested in the lives of old people.” Is that actually true? To me that suspiciously echoes a bit of marketing wisdom we used to hear decades ago to the effect that “black people don’t read.” Underestimating the audience has always been an issue.
I was in the audience for a panel on PR at a World Horror Convention a few years ago. One of the panelists suggested that the advice was mostly for young, up and coming writers. The suggestion was that PR wasn’t going to help older writers much, that their careers were defined and done? I felt embarrassed and dismissed.
Novelists my age tell me they have a harder time finding an agent because the agents want to work with younger writers who potentially have a long career ahead of them. A few years back I let my agent go for various reasons. If I try to find another I wonder if I will face the same thing. Novelists who have been at it awhile tell me publishers become less interested after a second or third book because “they feel they know what the trajectory of my sales figures is going to be.” And older writers who haven’t sold a novel in a few years tell me it’s much more difficult to come back from that kind of hiatus. Older writers will also tell you that being nominated for or winning major awards isn’t the boost to your career a younger writer might experience—publishers might ask a younger writer if they have a novel they can see. I’ve heard older writers complain that all they hear are crickets.
Do these responses reflect a simple knowledge or expectation of what works in the marketplace or is it actual ageism? Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
What do you wish you knew when you were just getting into the field?
I underestimated just how much of this profession is based on rejection and failure. There’s a good book about this, On Writing and Failure by Stephen Marche. It contemplates failure as the essence of the writer’s life. It permeates the careers not only of people who haven’t had much luck selling their writing, but it figures into the struggles of most of the major writers from Ovid to Dostoevsky, from James Baldwin to F. Scott Fitzgerald to T.S. Eliot. Personally, I’ve gotten to know several extremely successful writers who were disappointed or felt they had failed because they didn’t feel they were famous for the right books, or because they had financial success without critical success, or vice versa. Coming to terms with rejection and understanding how the shadow of failure may follow you your entire career may be essential in this business.
It’s also important to know what a rejection really means. All it means is a No, and you’re going to get a lot of No’s in this business. Usually, you’re not going to receive much information about why a story was rejected. Maybe a “not right for us.” When I started out I thought it meant that the story wasn’t good enough. I thought the editors were the experts, and infallible. But just like everyone else, editors have their own likes and dislikes. And even the best editors are fallible. Sometimes your story arrives on a bad reading day. Sometimes an editor is out of sync with your particular approach and if you submit enough times they may learn how to read your work. I’ve had stories rejected only to be anthologized later by the same editor. And yes, sometimes your story simply isn’t good enough. You may never know. It requires a lot of experience before you develop enough confidence and sense of your own process to know which stories work or don’t work and the markets for those stories. Don’t respond to the editor and don’t take it personally. In the meantime, send the story out to the next market on your list, preferably on the same day. And get to work writing the next one. After some time, you may be able to see rejection as an opportunity to try the story elsewhere, maybe at an even better market.
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
I have advice about attitude and advice about craft. At last year’s Stokercon the editor of a major magazine advised writers “Don’t be an asshole.” Pretty blunt, but wonderful advice. I cringe when I see writers being rude to fans, newer writers, and other professionals. Nobody wants to work with an asshole—I don’t care how talented you are. I’ve always told my kids to behave with kindness and humility in the world. You never know what another person is going through. You never know if you’re going to see that person again. It doesn’t cost you anything to be kind. And letting your work speak for itself is usually a better path, except when you’re in the occasionally necessary promotion mode, and even there less often means more. I try to respect people as a default. I try to call them by the names and the pronouns they prefer. To me that’s basic good manners. I may not always succeed. I might be having a challenging day, or I might miss some key cues. But I try. When someone works up the nerve to approach you they’re not always going to be at their best. A lot of people in this genre are awkward and/or shy. They may say the wrong thing. They may be unintentionally rude. But try not to be rude back. A kindness at this stage can be a wonderful gift for someone.
In terms of craft advice, I’d suggest getting into a good writers’ workshop. Immediate feedback on what you have written can give you some much-needed perspective. But I understand that workshops don’t work for everyone. I think a good reading program is essential. I suggest that new writers carefully read at least a thousand short stories—in all genres, including genres you’re not that interested in. Read what the New Yorker is publishing. Read a sampling of literary magazines. Read entire anthologies. But with each story think about the story’s opening—what is the author’s strategy here. Write down some of your favorites. Do the same for the story’s ending. What is the strategy? How did the writer provide a sense of completion? What is the relationship between the beginning and ending? Again, make some notes about some of your favorites. New writers are often stuck on how to begin and how to end a piece. This careful reading will provide you with a repertoire of possibilities.
Look at the story’s middle (sometimes referred to as the “troublesome” middle). How did the author take you from the beginning to the end? Is there a structure involved? Is there rising action or some sort of increase in energy happening? If there are subplots how do they add to the meaning of the story? Again, try to figure out the strategy involved. You can learn much from this kind of close reading. A book I’d recommend to every writer, whatever their skill level might be, is Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress.
Do you think older characters are represented fairly and honestly in horror fiction?
It’s an interesting question. It’s much easier for me to think of great portrayals of the elderly in mainstream fiction and in mysteries than in all of fantasy, science fiction, and horror combined. Whether that’s reflective of my own reading or if it’s an actual trend I don’t know. The focus in horror literature does seem to be on the young (as victims) and the 30 and 40 somethings who are heroically trying to contain the horror, but I don’t think you see elderly protagonists that often. You do have the four old men of the Chowder Society in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Then there’s Elle Ranier, a woman with Alzheimer’s, in Hannah Lillith Assadi’s wonderful The Stars Are Not Yet Bells. Most of the significant elderly characters in horror literature are vampires (who unfairly get to keep their young appearance until those final moments), or witches, a variation of the archetypal crone or hag (and who are described as being as ugly as possible).
Elderly characters seem to be much more prevalent in horror movies, where they are often portrayed as villains, trying to get you into their devil-worshipping cult, or emblematic of some lurking, ancient evil. An unfortunate trope I’ve seen in several movies is the ugly old hag who runs around naked trying to have sex with you. One of the things which bothered me in the recent movie X was its ageism. As in a number of other films the most hideous thing the filmmaker seemed to be able to imagine was two old people having sex, and then that old woman, unsatisfied, trying to have sex with the young. And the makeup is intended to make these two old people appear as ugly and disgusting as possible. It reminded me of the typical teenager’s attitude toward the thought of his parents or grandparents having sex—laughable or terrifying or both. It also had a rather unsophisticated view of sex, with the notion that satisfaction is only possible with a male with a strong heart and an erect penis.
It’s actually possible to find beauty in all of these aspects of aging.
There’s a lot to legitimately fear about growing older. As you enter your sixties it becomes a time of loss. You enter a period of life when you’re more likely to experience friends and loved ones dying around you. Loss of strength and mobility may curtail your favorite activities. You become more vulnerable to life-threatening illness. You avoid looking at yourself naked in the mirror anymore. Maybe you’re spending money on hair dye, cosmetic surgery, or anything promising to make you look younger. I don’t disapprove of these things if they make you feel better, but it bothers me that our culture sees gray as ugly, lines and wrinkles and crepey skin and age spots as unsightly. It’s actually possible to find beauty in all of these aspects of aging.
But in horror films fear of aging is often turned on its head, and old people become the thing we’re supposed to fear. To me this seems forced and unrealistic.
What are some of your favorite portrayals of older characters?
Here are a few: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
by Jonas Jonasson, A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman, Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, Our Souls at Night and Eventide by Kent Haruf, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene, Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan, Peace by Gene Wolfe, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, The Stars Are Not Yet Bells by Hannah Lillith Assadi.