Marvels and Horrors: A Conversation with Tim Pratt
Long before winning a Hugo and a Rhysling, Tim Pratt worked as an advertising copywriter (briefly), and as a tech writer and office manager for a disability advocacy company. In 2001 he moved to Oakland, CA and landed a job as editorial assistant at Locus Magazine.
Born in Goldsboro, NC, as a child Pratt traveled with his mother, living in Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, and West Virginia, then back to Goldsboro. He graduated from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC with a BA in English, and then attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 1999.
That same year, Tim Pratt’s stories started showing up: “53rd Annual Mantis Homecoming Dance” in Maelstrom, and “Angel of the Ordinary” in Drabblecast. In 2000 he had the poem “Visions” in Star*Line; plus more short fiction publications, including “The Fallen and the Muse of the Street” in Strange Horizons. Once his writing career had started, Pratt never stopped; instead, he cranked into high gear, continually putting out fiction (usually multiple pieces every year) and poetry.
By 2002, Pratt was appearing in readers’ polls and earning major awards nominations. To date, he has appeared on ballots and short lists for the Sturgeon, Stoker, Nebula, World Fantasy, and much more. “Soul Searching,” a poem published in Strange Horizons in 2004, won a Rhysling Award, and short story “Impossible Dreams” in the July 2006 Asimov’s won their Readers’ Poll and earned Pratt a Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
Meanwhile, Pratt also edited Star*Line from 2002 to 2004 and coedited Flytrap with his wife Heather Shaw from 2003–2008. He also edited reprint anthology, Sympathy for the Devil, and coedited original anthology Rags and Bones with Melissa Marr.
For most folks, this would be more than enough to keep them busy. But Pratt’s “high gear” is a world apart. Already an accomplished and prolific short story author and poet, as well as a respected editor, in 2005 Pratt came out with debut novel, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, with Bantam Spectra. His first novel was a Mythopoeic Award finalist and won the Emperor Norton Award for best Bay area novel.
As T.A. Pratt, his urban fantasy series with “ass-kicking sorcerer” Marla Mason hit shelves in 2007, beginning with Blood Engines. In 2010 he had science fantasy The Nex; he had contemporary fantasy Briarpatch in 2011; and “gonzo historical” The Constantine Affliction in 2012—written under the name T. Aaron Payton; plus novella The Deep Woods with PS Publishing in 2014. He has also written gaming tie-ins for Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder Tales, and more.
Tim Pratt has authored over twenty novels, including a dozen books in the Marla Mason series, the more recent Axiom space opera trilogy (The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and 2019’s The Forbidden Stars, published by Angry Robot), plus several collections, including his latest, Miracles & Marvels.
He writes a new story every month for patrons at www.patreon.com/timpratt and continues to sell short fiction professionally. His newest book is The Fractured Void, a media tie-in for the Twilight Imperium game. His upcoming novel is Doors of Sleep, due from Angry Robot in January of 2021. Tim Pratt lives and writes buckets and buckets of words in Berkeley, CA, with his wife and their son, River. He even occasionally collaborates with family, saying, “My son and I designed a fun fast science fiction card game, and are in the process of making it pretty (had to commission a lot of art).”
If ISFDB is to be believed, your first stories came out in 1999. Not only do you have an incredible amount of work out, but you have so many different kinds of work, spanning two decades. You also have upcoming books with various publishers, plus your short story exclusives on Patreon. What does it take to stay in the game for so long and to sustain a career?
It’s true! My first story was a nasty little piece of horror in a stapled ’zine called Maelstrom SF, edited by Dave Felts. From small acorns grow modestly sized oaks, etc.
As for the secret to my longevity, I just . . . like writing. I always wrote a lot. I started writing fiction steadily when I was in second or third grade and just never stopped. If all the markets suddenly stopped buying my work, I would still write it. (I would admittedly revise a lot less, and as for proofreading, pfft, never again.) If I didn’t enjoy writing, I would stop; take away the element of fun and challenge and experimentation, and frankly, there are other endeavors with a higher ratio of return to effort. Written fiction is just my favorite art form. Certainly, there are aspects of the profession I find less fun or interesting or rewarding, but it’s worth doing them to get all the parts I do like.
On a professional level, there are two other crucial elements for longevity, which I’d call “don’t be precious” and “try stuff.” I debuted pretty strong, sold five books to Bantam in like a year and a half or something, and then publishing had its great collapse in 2008 and I was suddenly out of contract and couldn’t sell to a major publisher. Other people in that position quit writing, or quit doing it professionally. But I decided I shouldn’t be precious. I took on interesting work-for-hire gigs that would teach me things instead; how to write for kids, how to write sword-and-sorcery, how to write satire, etc. For original work, I went to the small press. My feeling is, if you can’t sell out arenas anymore, there’s no shame in playing small clubs for your devoted fans.
Being willing to innovate went right along with that. If I’d kept getting good advances from major publishers, I wouldn’t have experimented so much, but I explored crowdfunding and self-publishing with great success. I did the Patreon thing so I could focus on stories more. I edited anthologies. I expanded my sense of what my career could be. When urban fantasy was waning commercially, I thought, that’s fine; I like doing other stuff, too. I like space opera, so I wrote some space opera, and my career had a nice little renaissance. Don’t be precious. If something isn’t working, try something else. Play for the love of the game.
You moved around quite a bit as a kid. And now you have Doors of Sleep coming up, where Zax is constantly on the move, against his will, jumping from world to world. Do you feel like moving had any kind of impact on you that shows up in your fiction?
Hmm, most of the moving around was before I was particularly self-aware. My mom was eighteen when I was born and a single mom, and we rambled all over the south mostly (some Missouri and Texas too), but we settled in North Carolina when I was five or six, so it felt pretty stable. (A lot of my deep psychological wiring certainly comes from those formative years, but I don’t remember much.) I always liked road trips, though, and love seeing new places. When I went to college, I moved about as far as I could while keeping in-state tuition, to the mountains of North Carolina, where they had this weird stuff called “snow.” After college I loaded up and drove across the country to California to see what was up out here. I honestly expected to be more itinerant than I am, but I met my wife, had a kid, got a job I liked at Locus instead of the succession of crap-jobs-while-writing-on-the-side I’d envisioned, and put down roots. (When my kid graduates high school, I may do some more rambling, but he’s only a teen so it’ll be a while.)
Doors of Sleep is written as a series of journal entries relaying the story of Zax’s travels. Did you experiment with perspective and land on this style as the best for the story, or was the book conceived with this style in mind?
I started writing about Zax a few years ago in stories for my Patreon, and though the character changed a lot between the stories and the novel, they were always first person. The literal journal aspect came later, and I chose it for the book because it allowed me to play with point of view (my favorite thing!) by having other people take up the story and write in Zax’s journal occasionally. I was also inspired by various other travelogues, written in the first person; I love Bill Bryson’s various accounts of his journeys, and Jerome K. Jerome’s fiction/memoir hybrid Three Men in a Boat is a longtime favorite.
What are the advantages and the challenges of this approach, and how did you deal with the challenges?
With a diary format you’re not even inside a character’s head; you’re reading the things that character chooses to write down, which is a challenge and an advantage. Unreliable narration is always a treat; Zax tries to be pretty honest, but like anyone, he emphasizes some things and elides others. The big limitation is that you’re stuck with just a single point of view, but of course, I cheated and had other people write stuff down in his journal for various reasons a couple of times in the novel. It’s a format that’s great for building suspense, because the character can say, “This is what we’re going to do,” and any experienced reader of fiction will know it won’t work out that way.
While Doors of Sleep has this fantastical/wonder element to it, with a dazzle of tons of efficiently sketched worlds, there are also horror elements, and the suspense of the chase. The Zax and companion dynamic reminds me of Doctor Who, but through a journey that adds a dash of Rick and Morty. What is the heart of the story for you, what do you want people to know about this book?
My agent read the synopsis and said, “It’s like Doctor Who combined with Quantum Leap,” which is a good comp, if alas a bit dated. (I did like Quantum Leap when I was a kid.)
For me, the heart of things is Zax and his desire for connection, when he has a condition that makes lasting connection almost impossible. There’s a reason I started the story with him finding Minna as a companion, instead of writing about one of the other companions he lost or who chose to leave him; she wants to stick by him, and sees him as more than a ticket to a better life. Minna values Zax on his own merits, and he was so desperate for that. And later they’re joined by Vicki, who just hungers for knowledge and new information, and traveling with Zax is a perfect way to get a never-ending stream of new data. Zax gets to be not so alone, for a while at least, but there’s always the constant danger of being separated from them forever, which is a nice drumbeat of suspense.
Sometimes new writers will ask “how do you know who your main character should be,” and one traditional answer is, “whoever would suffer the most,” and that’s Zax: trained as a harmonizer, a sort of social worker, he does his best to help people and make meaningful connections, but he always has to leave, so he never knows if he made a lasting difference. He’s a character who is lucky to ever get beyond the lowest tier on the hierarchy of needs, and even attaining that tier is a frequent challenge.
Felix, the protagonist in The Fractured Void, starts out in a very different situation: he’s been rewarded with command of a ship, but punished by being shoved off to a region of space that is ostensibly boring. How would you compare Felix and Zax—and in what ways do you relate to them most?
They’re pretty different! Felix’s big flaw is that he acts too impulsively and doesn’t think consequences through as much as he should. I punish him in this novel by giving him what he wants: excitement, real responsibility, a challenging mission . . . and it’s mostly awful and painful and dangerous. He’s also pathologically self-confident and happy to solve problems with violence, whereas Zax does his very best to eschew violent solutions. What they have in common is a deep affection for their friends and the understanding that you do better as a team than you do going it alone.
Will readers who loved the Axiom books find The Fractured Void just as tasty? Are there important similarities that will delight fans; or is it really speaking to a different audience?
I got the gig writing The Fractured Void because of the Axiom books, so probably! It’s a tie-in to the legendary Twilight Imperium strategy board game, a brain-meltingly complex space opera world with lots of alien species and cultures and multiple overlapping axes of conflict. Editor Marc Gascoigne is the one who bought the first Axiom novel when he was at Angry Robot, and when he moved over to Aconyte and took on the Twilight Imperium project, he thought of me. (He says “when he jotted down T IMP my handwriting rendered it as TIM P so it was obviously a sign from the heavens.”) There’s certainly the same sense of found family I have in the Axiom books, and banter, and snark. The antagonists in The Fractured Void are more sympathetic than the Axiom or their allies (who are just super awful, because writing villains like that is fun sometimes). In fact, my favorite characters in the book are the duo who pursue Felix: Severyne and Azad, operatives from rival polities forced to work together against a common enemy, who develop a really great frenemy vibe.
Are the Axiom books really over, or do you have more fiction planned for that universe?
I wanted to wrap up the main story in a trilogy, but I didn’t tell all the stories I had in that world. I did a Kickstarter for a collection called The Alien Stars, and that’s coming out in the near future: It’s three novellas, each about a character from the original trilogy who didn’t get sufficient time to shine, in my opinion: the cyborg engineer Ashok, the alien Lantern, and the artificial intelligence Shall. The novellas turned out really well. I’m super happy with them and was so glad to return to that world.
We see a number of creatives utilizing Patreon and similar platforms to generate income and perhaps even to make the most of their creative property. Is Patreon a good model for most authors, is it the future of publishing? Or is it a platform some will find hard to utilize to significant effect?
The mantra of all freelancers should be “multiple revenue streams.” Patreon is one of my many streams. Some people make a living from Patreon, but I couldn’t; I guess I’m a Patreon mid-lister, pulling in $700 or so a month (sometimes more, sometimes less, but I’ve been doing it for five and a half years and it’s pretty stable now). That’s not at all bad for a short story, especially since I sell some of them as reprints later. I started the Patreon less for money than for art (though I like money); I love short fiction, but wasn’t writing much because novels had taken over, and I knew if I promised people a story every month, I’d re-center short fiction in my creative life. That’s been awesome. I don’t think stuff like this is necessarily the future, but it’s part of a future.
As for whether it’s good for other authors . . . if you have a readership already, and want to commit to an ongoing thing, for sure. You can’t crowdfund without a crowd. If no one is listening, it doesn’t matter how beautifully you sing, you know? I had the advantage of a proven track record quality-wise as a short fiction writer, and I’d done a lot of crowdfunding in the past, so I also had an audience that trusted me to deliver what I promised. (I haven’t missed a month yet! Though a couple of them were squeakers. I keep thinking I should write a bunch of extra stories to have in inventory in case of disaster, but I keep not doing that.)
My friend Toby Buckell says crowdfunding is a three-legged stool. I’m just gonna quote him. There’s “a leg of having a strong social media presence and profile. A leg of haven proven that you can deliver on the project and have delivered in the past. And lastly, a leg of a project that is compelling in and of itself.” Ideally you have all three. I did, though a couple of the legs were maybe shakier. If you do, yeah, go for it. If you have two of them and they’re really strong, go for it then too. Otherwise, could be hard.
One of your recent Patreon stories, “Last Halloween,” is a horror short featuring a young woman who revisits some of the most terrible moments of her life. What is the allure of horror for you, and what makes a great piece of horror fiction?
One of the things that interests me as a writer is exploring how characters react psychologically to extreme circumstances, and terror and dread elicit such reactions. I also just love monsters and creepy shit and nightmare logic and the sense of reality coming apart underneath you. That stuff appeals to me on a very basic level that resists any kind of explanation or analysis. The horror stories I love best are the ones where there’s a sense of dread that gradually builds and then there’s a snap at the end. (Ray Vukcevich’s “Whisper” is one of my favorite horror stories, right up there with Kelly Link’s “Monster.”)
I also like horror that’s rooted in the character’s experience, past, or personality. Not necessarily in the sense that they brought it on themselves, just that their horror experience connects somehow psychologically to their personal circumstances. I do enjoy the school of horror where bad stuff comes out of nowhere and characters just have to deal—that’s a lot of Stephen King’s work, and he was the first horror writer I ever read—because that’s life; you get natural disasters, you get cancer, you get run over, life turns on you. But even in those cases, I want the way the character reacts to be unusual in some way because that reaction is informed by their past and personality. Horror where a sort of generic every-person runs away from a monster doesn’t work for me. The monster should never be more interesting than the person they’re trying to eat.
What do you consider to be some of the best horror you ever wrote, and why?
I did one on my Patreon called “Through the Woods” that I like a lot, with a kind of classic premise: dysfunctional couple have a car break down in the woods on the way to Thanksgiving and bad stuff happens and hard choices have to be made. I had another called “Fool’s Fire” in PseudoPod about the dark gods of the GPS, the successors to will-o’-the-wisps who use to lead people to their deaths in the woods; now they’re the ones who trick people into driving off bridges or into lakes or down dead-end streets in bad parts of town. Probably the best one I’ve written in years was “Sometimes You Get the Bear,” set in a world where, whenever a person is about to die of any cause at all, a giant spectral cave bear comes and kills them. Then a guy decides to go on a bear hunt to kill death. That’s in my collection Miracles & Marvels.
Looking at your short fiction, which are the stories that stand out most for you, which are most important to you, and why?
“Little Gods” started my career in a lot of ways; it was a Nebula finalist (thanks, short fiction jury!) and was the title piece of my debut collection. “Hart and Boot” was in The Best American Short Stories 2005 (thanks, Michael Chabon!), and that didn’t hurt; it was the title piece in my second collection. “Impossible Dreams” won a Hugo (thanks, Hugo voters!). That’s probably the holy triumvirate in terms of influence on my career, being reprinted a bunch, etc.
More personally, I love my story “Cup and Table” from Twenty Epics and reprinted at PodCastle, because it was challenging structurally, and I totally nailed the ending. “Another End of the Empire” at Strange Horizons is the only story I’ve written that came out on the page exactly the way I saw it in my head. “Happy Old Year” at Drabblecast is my homage to Twilight Zone stories, so I was super happy when Benjamin DeHart made it into short film The New Year.
What are some of your favorite pieces reserved for your Patreon folks, and what do you like about those pieces?
I put most of my very favorites in Miracles & Marvels last year. From this year, “Beneath a Black Moon” is a story about gardening and transcendence and I think it turned out really well; I read Susanna Clarke’s awesome Piranesi and started thinking about occult practitioners and that story bubbled up. (It doesn’t have much in common with Piranesi besides those occult concerns, but those are the best inspirations, when you can’t even see a clear connection, I think.)
“Revenance” is really cool; it’s your classic horror story about someone who gets killed in a hit-and-run and returns as a spirit to exact revenge on the driver, but my spirit has ethical and moral concerns about murdering the person who killed him. “The Bodies” is about a guy who finds a dead body . . . and then another dead body another day . . . and then another . . . until it’s clear something supernatural is up; that came from a conversation with my friend (and author! Her debut story is coming from PseudoPod next year!), Sarah Day, about people we knew of who’d discovered dead people (or in one case, a head) and how it messed them up.
Huh. Those are all horror stories. Why am I so focused on horror stories in this pandemic election year. Who can say.
What else are you working on, what else do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?
*quiet sobbing* I have a lot of deadlines. When I get anxious, I take on extra work, because it gives me a sense of control; you’d think knowing this about myself psychologically would allow me to do something about it, but no. A while back I decided to write four books by Fall 2021. One of them is done (The Alien Stars), one is in process (the second Twilight Imperium novel, The Necropolis Empire), and the other two will happen: a sequel to The Doors of Sleep and a project that cannot yet be confirmed but nevertheless looms before me. (It’s fine, actually, I sat down with a calendar and worked it all out, there’s enough time. The key is to not have any hobbies.) Oh, and my wife Heather Shaw and I are doing our traditional winter holiday collaborative story for PodCastle again this year! Those are always fun.
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.