Interview: Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem
Award-winning authors Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem will be the writers-in-residence at this year’s Odyssey Writing Workshop.
Melanie Tem’s work has received the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards and a nomination for the Shirley Jackson Award. She has published numerous short stories, eleven solo novels, two collaborative novels with Nancy Holder, and two with her husband Steve Rasnic Tem. She is also a published poet, an oral storyteller, and a playwright. In Concert, a collaborative short story collection with Steve Rasnic Tem, was published in August 2010, and solo stories have recently appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Crimewave, and Interzone, and anthologies such as Supernatural Noir, The Devil’s Coattails, and the Black Wings series. Her novels Yellow Wood and Proxy will be published by ChiZine Press in 2014 and 2015. Melanie is a social worker and a non-profit executive director. The Tems live in Denver. They have four children and four granddaughters.
Steve Rasnic Tem is the author of over 400 published short stories and is a past winner of the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards. His short story collections include City Fishing (Silver Salamander), The Far Side of the Lake (Ash Tree), In Concert (with wife Melanie Tem), Ugly Behavior (noir fiction, New Pulp Press), Onion Songs (Chomu Press), Celestial Inventories (ChiZine), and Twember (science fiction stories, NewCon Press). His novels include Excavation, The Book of Days, Daughters (with Melanie Tem), The Man In The Ceiling (with Melanie Tem), Deadfall Hotel, and Blood Kin, southern gothic horror released in March from Solaris Books.
You may visit the Tem home on the web at www.m-s-tem.com.
*Photo credits courtesy of Debra Lee Fanatia
This summer you will be writers-in-residence at the Odyssey Writing Workshop, something you previously did in 2005. This blog was not in existence then. So tell us, once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first pieces? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
Melanie: I don’t think there’s always a correlation between “doing something wrong” and not publishing, any more than “doing things right” always means getting published. I’ve been writing since I was about 6 years old, published my first poem (about the JFK assassination) in the high school yearbook and my first stories in literary magazines, and sold my first novels to Jeanne when she was editing the Abyss line for Dell. While I certainly hope I’ve learned and grown as a writer, I really think my career shows evidence of the “right-place-at-the-right-time” phenomenon. I doubt, for instance, that that poem would have been published if Kennedy hadn’t been shot my sophomore year.
Steve: Although I was submitting stories to Ted White at Amazing [Stories] in high school, and sending out the occasional poem, I’d mark my entry into the graduate creative writing program at Colorado State back in 1974 as the beginning of anything “serious”—at least, that was the point where I committed myself full time to being a writer. And during my 2 years in the program I placed poems and some short prose in nonpaying university and literary markets. Once out of the program, I joined the Northern Colorado Writers Workshop run by Ed Bryant, and sold my first piece of professional fiction to Ramsey Campbell for his New Terrors anthology in 1978. More sales followed pretty quickly after that.
As for what might have been wrong with those early pieces, I’m sure there were lots of things. For one thing, I hadn’t developed my own sense of story, so I was writing stories that sounded like other people’s stories, but with my own peculiarities of imagery and expression. It made for an uncomfortable mix—-it was hard to determine what these stories were trying to express, what their attitude was, what they were “about.” It’s a common problem in the beginning—you’re sincere, you have strong feelings, you have things to say, but you don’t yet understand how to embody these feelings in a proper story, so the result is a compromise which often reads as less than sincere.
Why do you think your work began to sell?
Melanie: Good editors? Luck of the marketplace? Brilliant writing? If I knew the answer to that question my work would be selling a whole lot more.
Steve: I learned to create scenes that embodied my feelings in the narrative and in the words I chose. Suddenly editors seemed to know what I was talking about (and I didn’t need a cover letter to tell them).
The two of you often collaborate with each other, as well as with other writers. Writing is usually regarded as a solo profession, yet more and more often we see collaborators (Delia Sherman & Ellen Kushner, Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck, Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez). Do you have any tips or tricks to impart to writers considering collaborations? How do you divide the process?
Melanie: It’s important for collaborators to share sensibilities and interests, while bringing differences to the project. Sometimes each of us writes from the point of view of a particular character, going back and forth in a kind of dialogue. Sometimes one of us will write for a while and then pass the piece to the other, who then writes for a while and passes it back; in these situations, we’re going for a “third voice,” one neither of us could have written individually.
Steve: I think that sense of a “third voice” is key. You have to leave your egos at the door. It’s not your story anymore—it belongs to that third voice. Which actually makes it a little easier to let go—you become an advisor and an editor for this third writer the two of you have created. As far as dividing up the work, I just try to make sure I get to write all the good parts.
How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do each of you do? How do you share revision tasks during collaborations?
Melanie: I’m a turtle-ish writer, slow but steady. I write every morning, and almost always begin by revising what I wrote the day before. Nothing leaves our house without our in-house editor—which is to say, each other—having read the piece and made suggestions and edits; we aren’t bound to accept them, but we consider them and revise accordingly.
Steve: Although a lot of people consider me prolific, it’s because I work on a lot of different things at the same time, but the individual projects take a while—most stories require months of work. Just like Melanie, I revise incrementally, and I’m not afraid to start over completely if necessary. So most of the effort goes into shaping the words I put down initially—revision is where the real writing occurs. And for collaborations we feel free to completely revise the other’s contribution—it’s the final result that matters.
You’re both well-known for writing short stories, novellas and novels. At least two shorter works, “The Man on the Ceiling” (written jointly), and “Deadfall” (written by Steve), were developed further. How did you know these stories would turn into long-form works? Did you feel these were really long-form stories and there was more to tell, did people see something more in them and clamor after you to develop them, or was it just a matter of revision? What was that process like?
Melanie: The Man on the Ceiling was hard to write, for all sorts of reasons. Emotionally it was draining. Creatively it was risky. The shorter version just didn’t seem to develop everything we had to say; readers and editors pointed that out, and we came to think so, too.
Steve: Charlie Grant edited the first piece of Deadfall Hotel, “Blood Wolf,” for his Shadows series. He fell in love with the setting and said this needed to be a novel. Some other friends like Al Sarrantonio said the same thing. And almost immediately I knew they were right—it was the fullest, most imaginative setting I’d ever created, and I realized I couldn’t afford not to use it to the fullest. It also suggested a natural structure—each section telling about the latest visitor to this elaborate hotel. The story deepened and became more refined, and the characters in the original story evolved as time wore on.
Do either of you have a preference for writing short, medium, or long works? Can you impart any advice to short story writers who want to try their hand at the long form, or vice versa?
Melanie: Different stories require different forms. I also write plays and the (very) occasional poem. Usually I can tell when the idea comes to me what form it wants to be in. Basically, I would advise writers not to think that writing a novel is just writing a longer short story, any more than writing a poem is just writing a story with shorter lines. The forms make different demands and have different things to offer.
Steve: I have a special passion for the short story form, but novels allow me to do things I can’t do anywhere else. If you’re a short story writer who wants to write novels, one of the things you have to learn is a special sort of patience—the thrill of the pay-off, the satisfaction of something completed, changes. It doesn’t happen every day or so anymore, unless you switch that expectation/satisfaction to the writing of scenes and chapters.
And although as a short story writer you may not outline, I think you’re likely to discover that outlining in some form greatly facilitates the creation of novels—it keeps things going, moving you through the relatively “dead” spots.
As writers-in-residence at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping and meeting individually with students. What is it about Odyssey that keeps you coming back? What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
Melanie: I love working with developing writers because I learn so much and enjoy watching them learn. Odyssey provides a nice variety of experiences and ways of interacting with people who are passionate about the written word.
Steve: I’ve always found that teaching others tends to deepen your own sense of craft, much to the benefit of your own work. And if I had one piece of advice to give it would be to read copiously. Not just genre fiction, but popular and literary fiction of all kinds, both the classics and new work, and even small press and university publications. This reading will build up your repertoire of story structures and approaches for beginnings, middles, and endings. It’s important to broaden your ideas about the options you have for grabbing a reader’s attention, building a narrative, and solving story problems. I know of no better way to learn that.