Today I get to interview my good friend, Marshall Payne, a fellow member of SFWA and writer of some of the quirkiest and most dazzling short science fiction and fantasy I’ve read. Marshall’s published dozens of short stories ranging from the bizarre to the thoughtful and wacky. Not only does Marshall write genre fiction, he’s read a ton of it, having served for a long time as an editor and reviewer for The Fix and Tangent Online. He’s here to tell us about reading, writing and life . . . and also about his upcoming fantasy novel, Petrol Queen, and his first collection, Bullet and Other Stories.
Your published work so far has been in short fiction. How many short stories have you published?
Forty-three to date, in such markets as Aeon Speculative Fiction, Talebones, Brutarian, and two of the Triangulation anthologies to name a few. More than half of them are science fiction, the rest fantasy and horror. My Brutarian sale got me into SFWA. An 800-word horror story that I wrote one Saturday evening and sent off the next day and sold it. I got 18 cents a word for that one. If only they all paid that well and life were always that easy. If only . . . It took me 600 rejections to make my first pro sale. So it goes.
Many of my visitors read and write gay male fiction. Do any of your stories feature gay men or have a gay theme?
Yes, I have a story called “Edward’s Second Shot” in Wilde Oats. It’s a time-travel tale about how King Edward the Second was saved from a horrible death and brought hundreds of years in the future. Edward runs off from his caretaker, who later finds him in a gay biker bar where he’s made many new friends. I’ll be including it in a future collection entitled Pandering Dwarves and Other Time-Travel Tales.
Your first collection, Bullet and Other Stories, just came out as an eBook. What can you tell us about that?
It’s a collection of six science fiction stories that run the gamut of my various narrative styles. Included of course is “Bullet,” which was published in End of an Aeon, along with “Sausages” from Talebones, a gonzo generation-ship piece where I wink a lot at the grand master of reality problem stories, Philip K. Dick. “The New Elementals” is a flash piece about an uptown girl and a downtown boy and their ill-fated romance―she’s light waves and he’s radio waves. “Vector” features a bit of gay prison sex in an intergalactic setting and a young male courtesan trying not to spread the demon goddess who lives within him. It’s available on Amazon.com and Smashwords.
Tell us more about Petrol Queen. The novel tackles serious issues, but what I found most fascinating about it is the crazy way you mash familiar fantasy tropes with contemporary characters. Is this by design? Or did it just happen?
With Petrol Queen I purposely set out to write a secondary-world contemporary fantasy that’s not really urban fantasy (no vampires or werewolves). It has a gritty, industrial setting, which I use as a backdrop to show the struggle of the have-nots of society and the revolution they foment to overthrow the powers that be.
Instead of vampires and werewolves, I created my own supernatural creatures. At the forefront is Corona, a half-haint caught between life and death, trying to maintain her corporeality as she struggles to get by as a street hustler. There’s also the highly-sexed paquoes who communicate telepathically and are used as seers, and the sky-haints, creatures born of the industrial smog above the city of Brotos. And I found a new twist on dragons. Now long extinct, except for their queen, their liquefied bones and magic are being pumped from the ground to fuel the military’s supersonic fighter aircraft. The queen dragon J-mu lives on inside the refinery’s owner Ziane Kont, whose daughter Lana is next in line to carry the dragon spirit and is horrified by the thought. Petrol Queen is a dark fantasy with sly humor and hope.
I’ll be putting Petrol Queen out in eBook soon, along with its two sequels, Corona and Corona Rising.
You’ve chided me about not sending out my stories enough. What can I say? I’m shy. You definitely aren’t. Tell us your philosophy on getting your work out and getting it published.
It helps to have a lot of short fiction ready to go out, but back when I was concentrating on short fiction I tried to keep twenty or more stories making the rounds. Like most writers, I’d start at the top and work my way down. I’d have long dry spells where I couldn’t sell a fire extinguisher to a burning man. But then the pendulum would swing back and I’d start selling like crazy. I sold eighteen stories in 2008, the year before that only three despite subbing the same amount. The magic eventually works if you keep rubbing the lamp.
Following up on that, eBooks: the salvation of modern literature or the end of civilization as we know it?
I was one of those people who swore he’d never go ebook. It’s true, eBooks are the death of civilization. They spread mites, scurvy and cause rickets in the young and old. Ebooks will make you go blind! Then I bought a Kindle. I don’t think I’ve picked up a dead-tree book since, except to move it out of my way. Anyone who says they loathe eBooks and eReaders, I ask them if they’ve really tried them? It took me one day with my Kindle to make a believer out of me!
As far as self-publishing my own eBooks, I’m just getting started, but I see a bright future. Sure, there’s a lot of junk out there, but there’s also some good stuff, too. Like everything else, water seeks its own level. The trick I think is to turn out a good product and do everything you can to help word of mouth garner a growing readership. Also, some of my fiction is of such a nature that traditional publishers would probably never touch it, but I’m convinced there’s a readership out there. Ask me again in five years, but till then I’m going to give it my best shot.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
Years ago on the writer’s workshop OWW, someone told me that I was trying too hard, trying to make my fiction too complex. Which was a nice way of saying my prose was too purple. I think most writers go through that. While I’m definitely not a fan of stark, overly simple prose, I’ve grown exceedingly tired of fiction that smells of the lamp. In my reading I’m delighted when I can find a writer who employs the perfect metaphor that’s not strained, a narrative with the right amount of eyeball kicks and zingers, a style that illuminates the story’s characters without hiding them behind excessively ornate language while still being expressive. The perfect style rides the middle between the two extremes. That’s the kind of writer I decided I want to be.
Best compliment? That I have uncommonly original ideas and can write snappy dialogue. I believe you mentioned that a time or two. I hope I remembered to say, “Thank you!”
Because we’re friends, I know you have been or still are a rock musician, writer, cat lover, Texan and like to tilt at windmills. How have some of these experiences shaped your fiction?
I think all my years of being a performing musician gave me a certain confidence that bleeds over into my writing. And I imagine all the bars I’ve played in, and strange people I’ve met there, have found their way into my fiction. You can almost always tell a writer who hasn’t seen much outside of the classroom, library and genteel wine-and-cheese party. Not that I don’t value those experiences, but since I often write about the grittier side of life, there’s nothing like having lived it. Still, I like sending a street-wise strumpet to a soignée dinner party in my fiction. Or a refined matronly type to a den of iniquity. Contrasting disparate American cultures is fun to play around with. I do a lot of that in Petrol Queen, and since the setting is a secondary world, it affords me more freedom of invention.
I’m working on another novel series that begins with Jimmy-Don and the Texas Hill Country Ordeal. This is more of a straight-ahead urban fantasy, sent in San Antonio. The cast is mostly Hispanic to reflect the culture here. Jimmy-Don Autry is the stage name of singer-songwriter Jaime Jimenez, who claims to be the bastard son of the late Gene Autry. Jimmy-Don likes to be fanciful with the “truth.” Much of my musician experience went into creating his character. There’s magic, mayhem, Kafka and Johnny Cash. The first book in the series is finished, and I hope to have it out after Petrol Queen.
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, fictional or real, who would it be?
Frank Zappa. The man had a great mind and a singular wit. And it would be a chance to prove, perhaps, that I’m half as unorthodox and idiosyncratic as he was. Maybe he could bring Captain Beefheart with him in case things just aren’t weird enough.
[Here's a Zappa quote: “I don't care whether I'm remembered. As a matter of fact, there's a lot of people who would like to forget about me as soon as possible, and I'm on their side!”]
I love discovering new writers and their work, so help me expand my bookshelf. Name and tell me more about one book you recently read and loved.
Naming specific books is hard, but I will name a couple of writers who do the sort of thing I’m always on the lookout for: Michael Swanwick and Paul Di Filippo readily come to mind. I like wild, inventive ideas, a healthy amount of decadence, and an acerbic wit in fiction. These two authors almost always satisfy my off-beat craving while employing interesting characters. It always comes back to the characters, though. Any of the above fictional attributes are worthless without characters to bring them to life.
Any pets that you would like to tell us about, share a pic?
I live with novelist Jaime Lee Moyer and our two cats, Gilly and Morgan. Two SF/F writers, two cats. A perfect balance.
Where can your readers stalk you?
Not in the nightclubs any more, as I lead a quieter though no less incorrigible lifestyle. I have a blog on LiveJournal called Marshall’s Super-Sekrit Clubhouse, where I do sundry weirdness and even the occasional thoughtful post on writing. I have a website. I’m also on Facebook. I’m on Twitter, too, where I’m still trying to figure out how to pin down the meaning of life in 140 characters or less…and failing.
Here’s an excerpt from “Bullet”:
Eighteen years ago I found myself on the moon, firstborn, tits at twelve. We’d given up our view of the Pacific Ocean for a sterile moonscape. My father was reassigned to LB9 and permitted to shuttle the family with him: Mother, the two brats, Timothy and William, and me.
Our living quarters were tiny with no right angles—anywhere!—designed as a psychological inverse to the monotony of lunar life. But our quarters were still a series of dreary pentagons, where five walls could never become a home.
I remember Father going to work each day after gulping four cups of coffee. Though I knew he was one of the test pilots conducting the experimental velocity tests that approached near light speed, I was unaware of the risk involved, the shortcomings of physicists and their formulas. But my father was a special kind of man. Though he often drank too much, and some called him arrogant, it was inevitable that he would be lead pilot for this landmark mission. He was the finest of the fine.
Thank you, Marshall, for stopping by and sharing your work with us. You're proof that a writer's life can be both work and a heck of a lot of fun!