Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lost in the Forrest: An Interview with Forrest Aguirre

Today's guest is Forrest Aguirre, author of Heraclix and Pomp.

The first time I remember seeing your name was for the Leviathan 3 anthology.   How did that come about?
Jeff VanderMeer was then actively running Ministry of Whimsy Press. I had contacted Jeff at one point to let him know just how impressed I was by Stepan Chapman’s The Troika, which I found at my local Borders. As a result of that contact, I joined the Storyville writers’ email group, a group of 15 or so authors and editors, mostly from the UK and the US. Jeff was a part of that group. Through our discussions there, we realized that we had a shared taste in aesthetics. He had already edited Leviathan 1 and 2 with co-editors, and asked if I’d be interested in being a co-editor on Leviathan 3. I had read the first two Leviathans, along with The Troika So I was very excited for the offer and accepted immediately. I really owe it all to Jeff. He mentored me on how to edit and helped me to avoid some of the pitfalls that sometimes plague new editors (who are also writers), giving advice such as “never put your own story in an anthology you’re editing.” I learned a lot from Jeff in that editorial process.

 Some time after that, your short stories started popping up.   Was the transition from editor to short story writer a difficult one?
I had begun writing short stories before editing Leviathan 3, but I was not very good at it. Editing Leviathan 3 helped me a great deal in understanding good story construction and, probably most importantly, the concept of “voice”. When you first start writing you can trip in one of two ways: 1) your writing is so generic that you have no “voice” or 2) the other extreme, where your “voice” gets in the way of a reader’s understanding. Now I had read a lot of fiction before that time and done my share of literary analysis in college, but I hadn’t seriously written fiction until my last year of graduate school. Since I was coming from an academic background, my writerly voice was awfully stilted and overly intellectual. I recall asking Jeff to have a look at a story I had written wherein I had used the word “myriad” a . . . well, a myriad of times. After red-penning that word several times, he simply wrote in the margins “You have to stop using that word!” And he was right. So doing the editing on Leviathan 3 gave me a more keen eye for my own errors, repetitive words, and bad constructions. It wasn’t a difficult transition to move from seeing the errors in other people’s work to honing my stories from the raw mess of a first draft to something more polished.

For those unfortunate souls who are unaware, give us the elevator pitch for Heraclix and Pomp.
Heraclix is a flesh golem, an artificial magical construct made up of the pieces of several dead men. Pomp is a fairy. They are thrust together by their mutual victimization by the Faustian sorcerer, Mowler. Pomp, who is immortal, is nearly killed by Mowler and must face the prospect that she can die. An accident kills Mowler, and Heraclix and Pomp are freed. Now Heraclix is mystified by himself. If he is composed of all these parts, who is he, really. Or, more properly, who was he before dying and being reborn? Underlying all these existential questions is the premise that Mowler might not be so dead, after all and, in fact, he might be striking a deal to seal his own immortality, at the cost of both the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires.

How did you hook up with Resurrection House for Heraclix and Pomp?
Mark Teppo knows my agent, Kris O’higgins. Mark was starting this new endeavor, Resurrection House, and Heraclix & Pomp had caught his eye. He offered, we accepted.

What would you say the big inspirations behind H&P are?
H&P started as a conversation in an apartment building hallway with one of the guys in my old Dungeons and Dragons group. We were talking about how you could run a cool 2-person adventure. I came up with the idea of a flesh golem and a pixie, simply because their respective strengths and weaknesses would complement each other well in the context of the game. That led to a short story, which is now embodied in Chapter 1 of Heraclix & Pomp. I submitted that story to John Joseph Adams, who sent a very nice rejection letter saying that it was on his short list for the anthology he was doing, but that he felt it would be best served with more “breathing room” as a novel. So I considered the end of the chapter and thought “well, what happens next?” This led to the novel. I was heavily influenced by certain music to provide a mood for each character, and that is reflected in the acknowledgements. As far as literary influence goes, there were several, including Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Schacter’s Searching for Memory, Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina, and Guy Davis’ graphic novel The Marquis: Inferno. I have a complete list of “Heraclix & Pomp’s Top 20” at my blog, which spills all the beans. Thematically, I wanted to explore what would happen when an immortal, timeless, and carefree being was suddenly faced with the real possibility of death. And, since I’m reaching middle age, I thought a lot about the role that memory plays in who I am today and how I see myself. But what if I didn’t know my past? How would that affect the way I think, my desires, my actions? And what if I wasn’t who I thought I might be? I’ve changed a lot since my teenage years – my high school classmates would hardly recognize me, not because of physical changes, but because of mental, emotional, and spiritual changes. So these questions were in the back of my mind the whole time I was writing the book.

If there was going to be an animated Heraclix and Pomp movie, whose voices would you use?
Heraclix would have to be Ron Perlman, either animated or live-action. Pomp would be Kate Bush in all her eccentricity that weird, squeaky voice she sang with in the 80s would be perfect for Pomp. Mowler would be voiced by Ian McDiarmad after he had gargled some hot gravel. Porchenskivik, Christopher Lee, the kinder, gentler version. Von Graeb would have to be Benedict Cumberpatch. I'd want the sexiest male voice I could think of, and that's it. For Von Helmutter, Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heros). Remember him? But he’s dead and probably not for hire. Second choice, Richard Griffiths. I'd want Neve Mcintosh as Lady Adelaide, simply because I loved her as Fuchsia in the BBC production of Gormenghast. Mark Hamill could do all the other voices by himself, probably.

Are you into historical fiction?   H&P seems more akin to historical fiction than fantasy at times.
That has more to do with my academic training than anything. I have a Master's in African History from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Truth be told, I haven't read much historical fiction, but I have read a lot of history!

When Forrest Gump was in the theaters, how long did it take you to want to strangle all the people making Forrest Gump jokes at your expense?
What people? Oh, are you talking about the corpses buried in my back yard? In all seriousness, That still happens. My snarky rejoinder is “Oh, ha ha ha ha! I've never heard that one before!” followed by the look of death. Seriously, people, can you come up with something more original?

Who is your favorite author?
Italo Calvino. I wish I could write like Italo Calvino. There's a dainty elegance undercut by a faint hint of cynical irony that I love in his writing. I have several others that I love to read, including Brian Evenson, Thomas Ligotti, Rikki Ducornet, Gene Wolfe, Alistair Reynolds, along with the classics, like Poe and Lovecraft. But Calvino takes my most-favored author slot.

What is your favorite book?
The one I'm writing at the time. It's impossible to pick one book that is my favorite. I have favorites in several sub-genres. For example, Hamlet's Mill is my favorite book on whatever it's on (good luck finding a thesis), while The Roots of Civilization is my favorite work on paleontology and Schacter's Searching for Memory is my favored book on neuroscience. But I'm hard pressed to think of a single non-fiction book that is my absolute favorite. As far as speculative fiction goes, I suppose Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun is my favorite science fiction series. I don't read a ton of fantasy, to be honest, but that Erickson guy has a good thing going so far. My favorite type of books are surreal, with a touch of magic, dark, and philosophical.

What are you reading now?
I just finished reading Hofstadter's Gdel, Escher, Bach, which was grueling and rewarding. Right now I'm reading Mieville's Perdido Street Station. I've read his other stuff, but had missed this one. I had a conversation with him once at a convention where we talked politics for about an hour. Thankfully he didn't ask if I had read it. By the way, China is a gentleman of the best kind. A scholar and a gentleman.

Is there a book that made you want to be a writer?
Yes! Stepan Chapman's The Troika. When I first read it, I was blown away. “People can actually write this cool stuff and get it published?” I said to myself. Apparently, they can.

What's next for Forrest Aguirre?
I am currently working on a science fiction novel tentatively entitled Solistalgia. I'm about 80% done with the first draft. It will need some draconian edits, but I'm pretty happy with the story and the characters, thus far. In the meantime, I'm sure you'll see the occasional short story popping up here and there. I'm also working on a role-playing game supplement that will take a while to get done. I have no illusions about actually making money from it, though, and will probably have to self-publish it as a labor of love. Of course, there's always kickstarter . . .

Any advice for aspiring writers?
Stop surfing the net and start writing. At the very least, take some quiet time to observe the world around you and write the perfect sentence about something or someone that catches your attention. Then build from there.

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