Steve Rasnic Tem Interview

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Interviewed by Leanne C. Harper

Q: First of all, please give me some background.

A: I was born in Jonesville, Virginia, which is in the heart of Appalachia. I went to college at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and also at Virginia Commonwealth. I got a B.A. in English education. In 1974, I came out to Colorado and studied creative writing at Colorado State. Other than that, I am married, have three kids and live in a large house.

Q: That's good, with three kids.

A: Yes.

Q: Reading your stories and the introductions to them reminded me of something I had almost forgotten: you were first known as a poet. Why did you begin working in poetry?

A: I've always written both. When I finally decided that I really needed to do something about being a writer and to learn more about what I needed to learn, it occurred to me that, in terms of formal education, you really needed a formal education to be a poet. You didn't need a formal education to be a fiction writer. That's partly because the theory and practice of fiction is accessible because of all the books. For poetry it's a little bit harder to find your way because there are so many different schools and ways of thinking about it. I decided I wanted to study poetry at a graduate school level. I got involved in the writing program at C.S.U. and, although I was concentrating in both fiction and poetry, most of the academic work I was doing was in poetry.

Also, poems are shorter.

Although it can take a long time to write a poem. Actually, I find poems to take about as much time to write as a short story. But they take less time to revise--at least they do for me.

I started publishing poems. From there, I got interested in doing more prose poems. That seemed to affect the fiction I was writing then. The fiction got really surrealistic and strange and highly poetic. Then I went back a little bit and decided that the best poems were poems that had very simple kinds of surfaces. All the surrealistic energy went into the imagery instead of the language. The language wasn't so warped but maybe the images were. From there, writing more and more prose poems, the fiction was actually getting shorter. I started writing lots and lots of one thousand- and eight hundred- and nine hundred-word stories that were short-shorts but they were not structured like most short-shorts. Most of the short-shorts I've read hinge on a twist ending. Mine never did. They were meant to be complete in and of themselves. They were supposed to take you from point A to point B in a very, very short space. Prose poems and poetry taught me to do that. They taught me how to do a lot of things in just a very few words.

At that point, I started writing lots and lots of short fiction. In part because it gave me more freedom than poetry did. Poetry is still extremely difficult to write. It is also unforgiving. One bad line can destroy a poem. One bad line usually won't destroy a short story.

Q: Are you still writing poetry?

A: Yes. I'm not sending out much [to be published]. Occasionally, science fiction editors will ask me to write poems for them. I will usually try to do that. But other than that, the kinds of poems I'm working on now are pieces in which I've been rethinking what I have been trying to do. I'm trying to re-establish a voice for the poems. Because I write so much fiction, at a certain point it becomes hard to decide what's oing to be a poem and what's going to be a story. In the past, I would know right away but because my fiction has become looser and has gotten a wider range, I have been able to do more things in fiction. That has narrowed the area where I would do a poem to a very small area. I am trying to figure out what things to write about for poems and what line length matches my voice. But I'm still writing it.

Q: Why did you begin writing speculative poetry and fantasy--not necessarily in the "unicorn" sense but dark fantasy and horror-- both in poetry and in your fiction? Why did you fall into these categories?

A: I always wrote about fear and dark kinds of things. And I always tended to write stories that had a fantastic approach to the material, stories that emphasized the primacy of the imagination more than the primacy of the real world. I just backed into being a dark fantasy writer. I never thought of what I wrote as dark fantasy or science fiction or fantasy or anything like that. But that was always the kind of material I read, for fun. I never really thought of what I was doing as being the same thing as these other people were doing. But because the short story market seemed to have collapsed everywhere except in science fiction, fantasy and horror, I started sending pieces to editors. The first thing I sent out, "City Fishing," was to Ramsey Campbell for NEW TERRORS. It was based on a nightmare I had had and I thought, gee, this is kind of scary so maybe this is horror fiction. So I sent it and he bought it.

I started writing other things with the idea that I was writing horror fiction. I wasn't really sure if I was convinced of what horror fiction was at that point, but I started writing other pieces that seemed like horror fiction and selling those. Eventually, I took apart the pieces of my graduate writing thesis, which was stories and poems. I started selling those to science fiction, fantasy and horror markets even though when they were written I had no idea at all that that's what they were.

It is only recently that I have started writing about any traditional horror figures at all. The last couple of years I have written my first couple of vampire stories.

At some point, I decided that the things I was writing were some variety of the ghost story. I went back and reread some things that I had read as a child, especially M.R. James, and decided that these stories don't seem all that standard and traditional either. These stories don't have to be ghost stories. These could be something else.

Q: Most of what people have seen to date of your work has been very short pieces to short pieces of writing. You've just sold a novel, EXCAVATIONS, but that won't appear in print until early next year. Horror and dark fantasy have always been fields in which short pieces have stood out and been a major part of the body of that literature. Why do you think that is? Do you feel you can sustain the impact of a short work of horror over a novel's length?

A: For myself, my fiction has gotten longer. I have written one one-thousand-word piece in the last two years. Right now, my average story is five thousand words. Which still isn't super-long, but it is long for me.

As far as the field, I think that most horror novels are failures. I've thought a long time about why that is. Part of it is that that intense effect is hard to sustain. When you start writing a horror novel, you find yourself doing all these little tricks. One trick is to have the main character be the place. Maybe "trick" is too pejorative but it is somewhat of a gimmick in that, by making the place a character, you can write a lot longer without the prose getting really flabby. Or there is the multiple point of view novel, which you do to stretch it out.

A number of writers are experimenting with how to sustain the tone over a number of pages without giving everything away. Charles Grant is a good example of that. Some of his books will go on for a hundred pages before anything that you could put your finger on and say that's supernatural has happened. That's one way he does it. It may just involve having to work a little bit more on character to sustain these books.

The most successful horror novel that has ever been written is THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson, except it is not really a novel. If you look at it, it is a hundred and twenty or thirty pages. It is more like a classic novella. Even in its structure, it is a novella. I've heard the same thing said about mystery novels. That the only truly successful mystery novels have been really somewhat extended novellas. That structurally and everything else, they really are novellas.

But all this may change. Now that horror writers are thinking of themselves in more mainstream terms and are experimenting more and expanding what horror fiction is it won't be so much of a problem anymore. Where it becomes a problem is where the horror is central to the book. That's when it becomes difficult to sustain it as a novel, at least in my eyes, successfully. Once writers create novels about characters and about fear, and the supernatural elements become a part of that--not the main aim of that--writers will be writing more successful horror novels.

Q: That ties in to the next thing I was going to ask. Stephen King is famous for having normal people living normal lives when suddenly some supernatural element strikes at the heart of their lives and does things. Your stories are just as rooted in normality but the horror usually comes from that normal life and the "normal" relationships within that life. That connects, I think, with what you were saying about the place of the supernatural in the whole story.

A: What I think about fantastic literature of any kind, and for some reason it is more obvious in horror fiction, is that there is really a continuum. You can present these characters as if they are innocents who are being assaulted by the horrors or you can start with the very beginning, as if the horror comes out of something intrinsic to the character. There is a lot of debate about that but I think there is very little difference between the two. Even with Stephen King, there is a sense somewhere that these people deserve what they are getting somehow. They are so nice and they are so likeable, you are just waiting for them to wake up and realize that maybe some sort of flaw or something in them has caused this to happen. I don't know if that is Stephen King's intention or not but at least when I read his work that's the reaction I have. Even more so if you read his realistic fiction. There almost always is a direct connection between what they have done and what kinds of people they are and what happens to them.

You can do it either way. I am more comfortable with being more self-conscious about it and having the connection be up front as to what's going on here. For me, it is basically a principle of good, concise writing. Everything in the story should have something to do with the character. That immediately forces whatever fantastic events happen to characterize his character in some way. It has been more of a technical thing than anything else.

Q: One of the things that I find in your stories is that there is a blurring of the line between "real" horror--the vampire in the closet and the werewolf under the bed really existing in terms of the story--and what may be imaginary horror. In much of your work, events may be interpreted as outside forces working on the characters or it could be the neurosis or psychosis of the main character through whose eyes we see the events. Maybe it's real and maybe it's all in his head. Is that an effect you try to achieve or is that all in my head?

A: In part, I try to achieve that. But, again, that is an outgrowth of my feelings about technique. If you look at the story as an object you are making and everything in the story has to have something to do with every other thing in the story, therefore every scene, every object, has to have something to do with the main character. That's where you get into this blurring where it could be psychological or it could be supernatural. It is just the result of the fact that it is fiction. Some writers set out to write pieces which are almost realistic fiction with the added supernatural thrown in. I can't do that or I have no desire to do that.

But it's funny. It goes back to the fact that all this is a continuum. I know Charles Grant strongly states that he intends to write supernatural stories. He has talked occasionally about preferring supernatural fiction over so-called psychological fiction. Except when I read his work, it is always psychological to me. I read these events as having very direct connections with the characters. In part, I think that is really what all fiction is about. I don't know if this is really an outgrowth of a particular philosophy of mine, of an intent to be psychological. More, I feel that I have no choice because I am writing fiction which has to be psychological. In order for it to be non-psychological and to be somehow realistic horror fiction, we have to pull a lot more tricks. We have to somehow throw all this stuff into the story to make the reader feel as if they are reading a very realistic kind of tract. I suppose to me the more natural thing in fiction is for it to be psychological kinds of characterization.

I hate to bring up gestalt therapy but there is this old gestalt dream interpretation idea that everything in a dream is a pieceof you. So if you are in a dream and you are sitting at a table in a large chair and there is a dim light overhead, the dim light is part of you and the table is part of you and the chair is part of you. I see short stories the same way. It particularly becomes obvious in something like horror fiction when there is all this fear and anxiety going on. Part of the fear and anxiety is that you are beginning to see pieces of yourself in the landscape of the story. What is really frightening the character is something in him- or herself, not something so much out there. Or maybe it is that what is out there is also him- or herself and there isn't that clear a dividing line. To me, that's what fiction is.


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