Fletcher is no stranger to the readers and fans of Black Gate. His articles and reviews are not only well-written, insightful and entertaining, they are extremely popular, as well. He is the “reviewer extraordinaire,” and his reviews have led me to read many books. I trust his opinion and his taste in what makes for a good novel. Fletcher is also one of the most voracious readers I have ever met; even in my prime, when I was reading about 2 books a week, I couldn’t top him. Tireless and energetic, Fletcher amazes me with his wonderful reviews, which are also very well written. He is not a “book critic,” however, as you’ll find out when you read my interview with him. He is a reviewer of books. A Master Review Writer. I’m happy I met him through social media, proud to call him my friend, and grateful to him for his great reviews of my books.
So let’s begin, shall we? Let’s see if we can find out what makes him tick, what he likes to read and his whole process for reviewing a book.
So, my friend… why don’t we start off with you telling us a little about yourself?
I’m a born and bred Staten Islander, New York’s forgotten borough. I grew up in the local library, getting my first library card at age five and my first legal job there at age fourteen.
I grew up in a house surrounded by thousands of books, particularly sci-fi, fantasy, and history (non-fiction). My parents, and the local librarian, Ms Herz, are responsible for making me an obsessive reader. I blame them as much as I thank them.
At what age did you really start getting into reading? Did you start off with reading comic books, children’s books, pulp magazines, etc?
As I said, I grew up in a house packed with books and got my library card (an all access one) when I turned five. My earliest memories of reading, outside of Dick and Jane, are of fairy tales, assorted children’s adventure books, and kid’s comics (Richie Rich, Hot Stuff the Little Devil, etc.).
We had a Folio Society edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with really scary pictures that I was almost obsessed with. As I got older I just grabbed whatever looked good. Both my parents read sci-fi and fantasy and I soon gravitated to that. My dad was someone who should’ve been a history teacher instead of a systems analyst. He had hundreds of history books (the best of which sit on my shelves now), and I started looking at them when I was pretty young, as well.
Why did you decide to start writing book reviews? Have you written any fiction or non-fiction? If so, tell us about it. If not, do you have plans to start writing? In what genres?
Six-plus years ago, I set out to be a better writer. I always wanted to write, but never forced myself to be disciplined. At the same time, I was getting back into swords & sorcery. There was a ton of great, new stuff coming out — James Enge’s Morlock books, Jason Waltz’s Return of the Sword anthology, for example. I decided to put the two things together and just write about books and a genre I really dig, and it’s worked out really well. Surprisingly, people were interested in what I had to say. I became part of a community of critics, commenters, and writers, dedicated to heroic fantasy. Eventually, it led to me being asked by Black Gate’s editor, John O’Neill, to contribute to his site.
I’ve tried my hand at fiction, with little success. I suspect I lack the patience and work-ethic, and probably talent, it demands. Nonetheless, I may try again.
What genres and/or literary style do enjoy reading the most?
I grew up reading only sci-fi and fantasy. Today, I mostly read fantasy. For all sorts of reasons I read almost no sci-fi anymore (though I did just buy Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem). I also read a fair amount of history (all sorts), crime, and horror. I also read some literary fiction (man, I hate that term — all literature’s literary!). Right now I’m making my way slowly through Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov.
I’m a devourer of magazines and newspapers. I still have print subscriptions to the NY Post and the NY Times (talk about cognitive dissonance!). I also have four or five magazine subscriptions going at any given time. My background is in public administration and government, and as distanced as I am from that these days, I still spend a lot of my time reading about politics and public affairs.
Short essays are my favorite sort of non-fiction reading. If a writer can hook me in the first paragraph or two, it doesn’t matter much the subject — geopolitics, theology, government corruption — it’s all good.
What are some of your literary “guilty pleasures?”
I have no literary guilty pleasures because I don’t believe any reading is guilty. Since we read for a host of reasons — escape, insight, etc. — we all need different things to read at different times. So, while I’ll probably never pick up a Harlequin-style romance, I could never look down on someone who buys stacks of them in a used-book store.
The first seven Dread Empire novels by Glen Cook
Besides the “entertainment factor,” what do you look for in a book? What draws you to a certain book: Title? Subject matter? Characters?
I’ll hedge and say “It depends.” Sometimes it’s for the strange beauty of the prose like Clark Ashton Smith’s or Cordwainer Smith’s. Other times, like with Philip K. Dick, it’s for the madness of their storytelling. Then there’re characters, such as in Glen Cook’s Dread Empire series. So many different things can attract me to a book.
Heck, I have a friend who used to read certain books just because they had a DK Sweet cover, and I totally got that. It’s all a question of mood, or timing. Or how cool the books look.
What type of stories appeal to you most as a reader and reviewer: plot- or action-driven, or character-driven? Or doesn’t it matter, as long as the story grabs you?
I suppose I prefer plot-driven fantasy. Even in a short story, I want some depth of background and atmosphere to give resonance and meaning to the action. Action isn’t really a requirement if those first two things are done well. There’s not a whole lot of action in Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane story, “Undertow,” and it’s one of his best.
When I write, I strive to make people feel. I write for the heart, first, and the brain, second. Now… what type of books affect you the most — stories that pack an emotional wallop? Or stories that are more cerebral, stories that make you think?
I’ll stick with S&S, and there I definitely want an emotional wallop. It can be fear, adventure, even sorrow, but the story’s got to deliver. If cerebral is what I want, there are plenty of other things I can read. When I’m reading swords & sorcery, I want to feel the adventure and danger. S&S should drag me out of the mundane world and shake me by the neck.
Larry Niven’s Known Space series (Ballantine Books)
Touching back on the previous questions, name a few books you found highly emotional, a few books you found to be extremely cerebral? And a few books that you think found the perfect balance between the two?
Wow, that’s a tough one, but I’ll try. Again, I’ll stick with fantasy and sci-fi, it’ll be too hard if I don’t.
More Known Space
On the emotional side, I’ll go with the original four books of Glen Cook’s Dread Empire series. Things he did to Mocker and company still hurt thirty years later. There’s some real, gut-punching stuff in those books that really stand out after all this time.
For the brainier side of things, Larry Niven’s Known Space books, especially Ringworld and Ringworld Engineers. His characters are alright, but it’s in the realm of big, brash ideas that he excelled.
CJ Cherryh’s Chanur quintet
As for a great mix of the two, well, I’ll say C.J Cherryh’s Chanur books. Space freighter captain Pyanfar Chanur is one of the best sci-fi heroes I’ve read. She’s a dynamic character, roaring thru the stars, enmeshed in plots that’ll leave you dizzy trying to follow them, and fighting space battles to thwart threats to her race. At the same time, it’s one of the best hard SF series, packed with discussions of physics and truly alien aliens.
What genre of fiction have you not yet read or written about? Are there genres you aren’t interested in reading?
I’ll go back to romances. I have no real interest in them, though I have read and enjoyed some Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. I do have fantasy romance by Carole McDonnell; Wind Follower, I’ve been meaning to give a go. After that, nothing comes to mind.
Name a few of your favorite literary characters and tell us why they are your favorites?
Among my favorite literary characters are:
Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita): She is the heart of this tale of the devil coming to 1920’s Moscow. She’s an embodiment of true and self-sacrificing love.
Andrew Vanbergen (James Blaylock’s The Last Coin): More than a little self-deluding, a brain filled with half-assed schemes, and a wife he’s not always deserving of, he reminds me of myself way more than I like to admit.
Captain Sam Vimes (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books): Vimes is the toughest cop to ever walk the streets of Ahnk-Morpork, a city that could swallow Lankhmar whole and grind its bones to flour. As a lifelong New Yorker from generations of New Yorkers, I love Vimes’ total dedication to his city and its people. It’s what I wish more New Yorkers were like. He’s funny as hell, to boot.
What are you reading now? What books are you looking forward to reading in the future?
Right now I’m reading Cixin Liu’s mind-blowing The Three-Body Problem, M. John Harrison’s A Storm of Wings, and Robin Waterfield’s Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire. I’ve also got a Charles Saunders’ story, “The Return of Sundiata,” and a new magazine, The Audient Void that I need to get to in the next day or so.
I’m already looking forward to the next two books in Liu’s trilogy, The Dark Forest and Death’s End. I’m also itching to get at Jim Cornelius’ Warriors of the Wild Lands, a collection of pieces about a dozen frontiers — a “volume of twelve bios of the most badass Frontier Partisans in history, from North America to Africa.”
Your reviews are very in-depth. Tell us about your review process, such as: Do you take notes? Highlight certain sentences, paragraphs or whole sections of a book?
Thank you for calling them in-depth. That’s my always my goal, but the reality for a lazy man like me, getting a book read a reviewed in a week isn’t always easy.
When I read, I mark out certain passages. It’s why I prefer reading e-books. It’s so much easier to just highlight something with my finger instead of having to attach a dozen post-it notes that are always falling out.
I try to understand where the author’s coming from and where he or she hopes to take me. I’ll always give the writer the benefit of the doubt. By which I mean, if they wanted to do X and accomplished it, even if I don’t like X, I’ll give them credit for it.
Then I write. Sometimes, it comes quickly and I crank out 1100 words (the average length of my reviews) in a couple of hours, other times it takes a day or two (or three) to find the right way to describe the book, what makes it work, and explain my reaction to it. If I get it done fast, I go back over it to see if it makes sense.
The real secret to my reviews is my editor; my wife Hallie. Each Monday night, she subjects my new piece to close scrutiny. Since she’s not a big fantasy reader, so her editing is really valuable for making sure it makes sense to anybody who reads it. When something is illogical or expressed poorly, we go over it together until it’s fixed. It can’t get pretty heated at times, and it’s worth every moment of it. There’s a good bit of her writing in some of my reviews and they’re all the better for it.
Since I see my role at Black Gate as a promoter of the best in heroic fantasy (AND historic adventure, and whimsical fantasy — see my reviews of James Blaylock and Jeffrey E. Barlough for that last one) more than a critic, I avoid writing about books I dislike. I don’t want to write mean things about writers. I appreciate the effort that goes into writing even a bad book. I don’t need to denigrate their work. The only writers I’ve been mean to are dead: Lin Carter and Sprague de Camp — and neither one’s reputation is going to be effected by me.
I guess where I’m toughest, and try to be a serious critic is in my monthly Short Story Roundup. In addition to letting readers know what’s good and bad out there, I want to engage in a serious investigation of each story. I want to get under the hood and figure out what makes them run (or seize up), and where they fit into the larger scheme of heroic fantasy. I hope I’m providing help to the authors by giving one more round of feedback.
Even though short stories are the heart of heroic fantasy, where it works best, it doesn’t get all that much attention, so I try to do my part. I really need to thank John O’Neill for a platform at Black Gate — thanx, John!
Thank you, Joe, for doing this. Your essay How I Met Your Cimmerian (and other Barbarian Swordsmen) and your loving enthusiasm for S&S had a substantial role in helping me find my own voice as a promoter of this stuff we love. It’s also where I was first hipped to Ted Rypel and Gonji, so thank you for that as well.
Fletcher… thanks for your kind words and for reviewing not only my books, but the books of so many deserving authors. And thank you for taking the time to participate in my new “interview” program. This has been an interesting and most fascinating interview, and I appreciate it. — Joe Bonadonna
Joe Bonadonna’s last article for Black Gate was A Scare You Straight Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare: B.C. Bell’s Bipolar Express.