Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today: James Van Pelt, has been selling short fiction to many of the major venues since 1989. He was a finalist for the Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, Locus Awards, and Analog and Asimov’s reader’s choice awards (his 2020 Analog novella, “Minerva Girls,” won that year’s Anlab Award for best in its category). Years and years ago he was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He still feels “new.” Fairwood Press recently released a huge, limited-edition, signed and numbered collection of his work, THE BEST OF JAMES VAN PELT.
Thanks so much, James, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
James Van Pelt: When I was in elementary school, I had a teacher who would read to the class student essays that she thought were the best from her students. One day she chose mine.
I’m pretty sure that’s what planted the seed. Bless teachers who use student work as examples!
However, I first consciously decided I could write after I’d been reading science fiction for several years. When I ten or eleven, I swallowed up science fiction wherever I found it. I read through all the science fiction in the school library, and then read all that was available in the kids’ section of the public library. The librarian gave me special permission to read in the adult section. After a while, I started to think that being able to write a book that would make readers’ hearts pump harder, or sit on the edges of their seats, or cry or laugh or think would be the coolest thing in the world.
But, when I was that age, a two-page report to be written over the weekend was monumental. How could someone write that much! It would kill me. So the idea that anyone could write an entire book seemed . . . well . . . science fictional.
Then I read Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I’d read short stories before, but none like those. Heck, some of those stories were only a page long. I’d never be able to write a novel, but maybe, just maybe, I could write a story a page long.
Ray Bradbury convinced me I could write. My English teacher told me I was good.
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
JVP: My first published works were poems in my high school’s literary magazine, and then I sold a poem to Star*Line, the magazine of science fiction poetry when I was around 30, but I count my first publication with my first short story.
In 1988 I went on sabbatical from my high school teaching job to get an M.A. in creative writing at U.C. Davis in California. I was submitting work regularly and collecting rejection slips. One afternoon, I got a phone call. I didn’t recognize the voice on the other end. He didn’t introduce himself, but he started talking about a story I’d written. At first I thought he was a professor or another student, but after a minute, I realized he was an editor talking about a story I’d sent him. He wanted to buy it, but his magazine was called After Hours, and a requirement for all the stories was that some part of it had to take place at night. My story had no night scene in it.
I changed one sentence, and he bought the story. I walked on a cloud the rest of the day. In many ways, I’m still walking on that cloud.
JSC: Have you ever taken a trip to research a story? Tell me about it.
JVP: When I was writing more poetry, I invented a poetic genre that I called “locationals.” I’m not the first writing to do this, but I hadn’t heard anyone talk about it. A “locational” is a poem written in the place that it’s about. I live near the Colorado National Monument, sort of a mini-Grand Canyon. I wrote a series of poems as locationals about the area while hiking through it.
I’ve done the same with some short stories. I wrote a story about pickup bars while visiting pickup bars (It turns out that writing while in a dance club on a Friday or Saturday night will attract attention—If I had been bolder, the act of writing itself could have been a successful pickup technique). I wrote a story about a cemetery while sitting in a cemetery. I wrote a story about a creepy children’s library while in a children’s library. I’ve written about classrooms while in a classroom.
I haven’t traveled anywhere exotic to research a story (otherwise I would have visited Ireland or Scotland numerous times), but I do think going to the place you are writing about is a great idea.
I hear that Tom Clancy went to London to research an early Jack Ryan novel. He was looking for the convincing details he could evoke in the book. He said the first thing he noticed that in the touristy sections of town the city crews had painted big arrows on the street at pedestrian crossways showing the direction of traffic because American tourists kept looking left before crossing streets and getting creamed by busses coming from their right.
That’s a convincing detail to include in a book.
JSC: How long have you been writing?
JVP: This question has two parts for me: I started writing for publication in elementary school. I wrote a poem about a volcano that I thought was cool, so I sent it to Scientific America. Six months later they sent me a reject with the explanation that they never published poetry. I kept writing the occasional poem or story for many years. Very occasional. Many years
I started writing seriously in my late 20s, producing short stories more regularly. I went to a writing conference when I was 29 or so, where Ed Bryant was one of the featured pro writers. You could submit a story for an individual critique. When I sat with him, he said, “If I tell you up front that this story is irredeemable shit, everything I say after will sound better, right?”
It wasn’t until I applied for grad school in creative writing in 1987 that I started writing seriously. I was 33 in ’87. This is the second part. I wrote a collection of stories for my thesis, and once I finished in 1990, I wrote consistently with publication in mind.
So, if I start with the poem in 4th grade, I’ve been writing for 58 years. I’d say my serious writing started 40 years or so ago.
I sold my first story in 1989. I’ve sold 176 since then and two novels. Oh, and a few poems, but they weren’t about volcanos.
JSC: How did you deal with rejection letters?
JVP: I used to pin them to the wall (when rejection letters were actual paper letters that came in the mail). Then, as no wall was big enough to hold them, I put them in a file cabinet to take to my creative writing classes so they would know what would inevitably be a part of their publishing journey.
I used to read them like a mystic staring into tea leaves. Some publications had tiered rejection letters, where there would be an encouraging letter, a neutral one, or a man-you-are-so-far-away letter. Which one did I get? Occasionally there would be a personalized rejection. I’d try to pull as much meaning from that as I could.
What I realized, though, after some time, is that all rejections letters are exactly the same regardless of what they say. The message is “This story isn’t right for us for this editor on this day. Send it somewhere else where the right editor will find this to be the right story on the right day.”
Once I received an encouraging rejection with suggestions for revision. I looked at the suggestions and thought they were wrong. I waited a month, didn’t change a word, and resubmitted it. The editor said the new version was much better and bought it.
I don’t recommend others do that, but I learned something from it.
JSC: What is the most heartfelt thing a reader has said to you?
JVP: When I wrote my first novel I was a part of a writing group. I’d submit a new chapter as I finished it, and finally, after four years of submitting chapters, I gave them the last one. I can tell you, I headed to that meeting with a lot of fear. Now they’d have a chance to sum up their thoughts about the entire work. There would be no implied excuse that any problems they pointed out would be handled in a later chapter. There were no later chapters.
The house where we held our meetings rotated. This meeting was in a very sweet, elderly woman’s home. I rung the doorbell. She answered, holding my manuscript. She looked at me and said, “This was . . . beautiful,” and then she cried.
JSC: What was the most valuable piece of advice you’ve had from an editor?
JVP: The single best piece of advice an editor gave me came from George Scithers and Amazing Stories. He rejected one of my early efforts with this note: “I hope while you were waiting to hear from us on this story that you were working on your next.”
I’ve known too many beginning writers who hung their hopes on one project. Having that rejected destroyed their hopes, and in a couple cases made them quit.
A friend of mine once compared the works he wrote in the past to coyote scat. He said, “The old stuff I wrote only shows where I’ve been. What matters is what I’m doing now.”
Somehow that ties into Scither’s advice. He moved onto other editorial positions, ending at Weird Tales. I kept writing the “next” story until he finally started buying them.
JSC: What was the weirdest thing you had to Google for your story?
JVP: Research is a rabbit hole. It’s scary, and when looked at from a distance can be revealing of character in a disturbing way. I know tons of writers who worry a crime will be committed in their neighborhood, and their browser search history will somehow implicate them.
I started writing pre-Google, so some of my research involved asking people weird and disturbing questions. I called my doctor once to find out if bone cancer might cause a person to have both legs amputated. He grew very concerned and started quizzing me about my symptoms. It took a while to convince him it was research for a story, and I’m not quite sure he believed me when we hung up.
The toughest research I did, though, happened at the high school where I taught. I was writing a story with teens in it, as I often do, and I realized I didn’t know what the current code students used when they wanted to invite a date to go somewhere to make out. It occurred to me that “make out” might not even be the term they were familiar with. When I was in high school the code was, “Do you want to go to a drive-in?”
Drive-ins don’t exist anymore. When I asked the question, I knew that the question, “Do you want to Netflix and chill?” was already outdated. So, how does a 60-year old teacher ask a teenager a sexual question without raising the kind of suspicion no teacher can endure?
Eventually I found out the current code is “Do you want to hang out?” The question changes meaning based on context. “Do you want to go to the mall and hang out?” is clearly neutral, but “My parents are gone for the weekend. Do you want to come to my house and hang out?” is not.
JSC: What’s your writing process?
JVP: I love reading answers to this question because they are eccentric and unrepeatable. People ask it I think because they’re hoping for a secret key to unlock their own process: a magical set of steps, like incantations, that will manifest into beautiful fiction.
Dalton Trumbo wrote in a bathtub. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing at an easel. E.B. White wrote in his living room, despite the chaos of his family around him. Kurt Vonnegut spent most of his days NOT writing, but reported he did a lot of sit ups and pushups. Barbara Kingsolver said that her head is so full of story that she gets up at 4 a.m. to get started.
I’m retired from teaching. I get up between 6:00 and 7:00. Eat, read the news, cruise YouTube videos (really, this is a problem), and start writing around 10:00 or so. I have a tendency to write in bursts, getting back to the computer several times a day. I’m riding a streak right now of writing at least 200 words a day that goes back to November of 1999.
Before I retired, I still did the daily 200 words, but my spaces to write were more constricted. I could do the minimum before school, during lunch, during a planning period, during a staff meeting, after school before I left the school (an empty classroom is a wonderful writing space), or before collapsing at the end of the day.
The majority of time I write on a MacBook Pro (I’ve written on a computer most of my career), while sitting in a comfortable recliner I bought specifically for writing. I listen to music or ambient noise from YouTube videos as I work—one of my favorites is an “Ancient Library Room” with rain, thunder and crackling fireplace.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
JVP: I’m 99% a short story writer, so I’m always composing a story or two (or three). Right now I have two stories open on my computer. One is a piece about a retiring English teacher working in a near future classroom, presenting Hamlet to students for the last time. I return to teachers and classrooms often in my work, so I’m in familiar territory for me, but there’s always more to say.
The second piece involves the power of books, O’Neil cylinders, and external fixators. It’s impossible to summarize it, unfortunately, and writing it is kicking my butt.
My wife points out to me that at some point in any writing project I complain that the work is interesting only to me, beyond my ability to write it, or incomprehensible. Evidently despair is a part of my writing process.
As far as what is coming next, I’m answering this question in early March. I have stories coming in Asimov’s, Analog, and Daily Science Fiction.
And now for James’ latest book: The Best of James Van Pelt:
From a giant spider that can’t be ignored in a high school classroom, to humanity facing a mutagen plague, to the last two robots witnessing the end of the universe, this comprehensive collection includes sixty-two of the best stories from James Van Pelt’s fertile and wide-ranging imagination that have appeared over the last thirty years in Asimov’s, Analog, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, Talebones, and numerous other science fiction and fantasy publications.
From “Miss Hathaway’s Spider”:
The next day, Miss Hathaway marked her roll sheet mechanically, making tidy black checks in the exact middle of each square until she came to Melba Toast’s space. Her desk was empty, but Melba herself, wrapped in a long white cocoon, hung from a net of threads coming out of the confusion of web above the class. Only her eyes peeked out, open, awake, but unfocused, as if she were seeing things beyond the walls.
After a long moment, Miss Hathaway marked Melba tardy, reasoning that although she was not in her seat when the bell rang, she was in the room.