Wordsmiths: An Interview with Jerome Stueart

Wordsmiths: An Interview with Jerome Stueart

The Angels of Our Better Beasts-smallLast post, I had the pleasure of reviewing Jerome Stueart’s short story collection The Angels of Our Better Beasts, which is one of my favorite collections to date and something you all need to go read. (Seriously, here’s the link; I know you have money kicking around somewhere.) Jerome also did me the pleasure of an interview to discuss his writing practice, his previous projects, and some of the stories in his collection. I hope you enjoy as we ramble back and forth (and then go buy his book)!

Jerome Stueart writes fiction, memoir, science fiction and fantasy. His work has been published in journals, magazines, newspapers and on the radio–a list of which can be found under Written Work and Books. He’s a 2007 graduate of Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop in San Diego and a 2013 graduate of the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices. He teaches workshops on writing science fiction/fantasy and writing about faith. His co-edited anthology of science fiction/fantasy that explores faith, Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods, was published by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. His first novel, One Nation Under Gods, will be published in summer of 2018 from ChiZine.

Me: First off, thanks for taking the time for this interview, Jerome! There are a bunch of different things in Angels of Our Better Beasts that I want to ask you about. I’m going to start with the illustrations that you included with each story (and the sketches you create for people at conferences). Which came first for you: drawing or writing? And does one influence the other at all?

JS: Hey Brandon! Thanks for interviewing me. As to your question: I think you’re talking about in MY LIFE which came first. If so, drawing came first. I started drawing as a child — pictures of animals. Little cartoon talking animals, I think at first, based off a skunk puppet I bought when I was seven or eight. But immediately, I turned them into story. The skunk had a porcupine friend (both outcasts, of course) and they wandered through this flip pad I had. I also was introduced to comic books when I was nine or ten, and then my drawing took on more superhero images. Again, I immediately created a team and gave them personalities, but the drawings came just ahead by a nose.

IF you are talking about this particular collection and these stories, the stories came first. However, I will make a caveat. I had a long running cartoon strip in The Maneater at the University of Missouri-Columbia (4 years) and that comic strip, “Captain Bly,” slowly got wordier and wordier till I decided to do a novel based on it (talking polar bears and a research team) which morphed into “Lemmings in the Third Year.” I illustrated it after the story was done, but I had also drawn some of my scientists before from the strip. So in that one case the drawings came first.

In the case of the rest of the stories in “Angels of our Better Beasts,” the stories definitely came first. I knew I wanted to try my hand at illustrating these stories, so all my cartooning experience came in handy, I think. Several of the illustrations too are more metaphorical representations rather than literal. I am a big fan of illustrated texts. I like graphic novels, but I also love NC Wyeth and James Thurber and Rockwell Kent and other illustrators and the way they chose one image to illustrate a story.

I think I meant life in general, but you covered all the bases, so we’re good. How frequently were your comic strips published for The Maneater?

Every Tuesday and Friday, I think. I had to come up with something new twice a week. But a lot of us cartoonists (there were about eight of us) would gather together on Mon and Thurs nights and draw together.

Jesus, I was thinking weekly. That sounds intense. Was your process for the comics a lot different than writing short fiction?

My comics may have started out more scene-like, episodic, but they became more about narrative as I went, adding characters and plots which connected individual strips together. This just showed me they needed to be stories. I think the two processes are similar. I’m often trying to say more in pictures (narrative) than I am in dialogue. I used to also do thumbnail sketches to get an idea of layout, and black and white balance, and even tried to make sure something interesting was happening in every panel just so the worth of the strip wasn’t in the punchline panel. I think that’s the same with my fiction — I’m trying to balance the light and serious parts of a story along the way, and not just depend on the ending to make the story make sense. I appreciate the space I have now to flesh out characters and plots — but I miss the sense of accomplishment I got every Tuesday and Friday seeing the strip in print, and the camaraderie of other cartoonists writing and drawing together in the basement. Writing is often alone, and you don’t see a finished product for months or years.

I know that feeling, dude. Seems like the comic strip taught you a fair bit. Any lessons learned from your first short story collection?

I learned to trust my editor. I went in with some fears about a whole collection of my stuff together, and he reassured me about pieces that I felt were really early in my career, or pieces I wrote for the collection that I thought might need a lot more work. He even let me work on them till the deadline to get them the way I wanted them to look. I also learned about balance and arrangement of stories to say something collectively — when all of these things I wrote separately over the last 10 years are together, do they make something more interesting? Also, I had planned to include one last novella at the end, and he thought that might be too much of a weight at the end, and I agree now. I didn’t have time to do it justice. And it’s better to have a collection of solid pieces you believe in than rush things to fit the theme, possibly wrecking the whole balance.

I love the overarching theme to Better Beasts, and I enjoyed pondering that connection between the stories as I read. Were there particular stories that inspired the “beasts” theme at first, or did you go in with the idea for the theme and see which stories you could fit to it?

Yeah, I think I started with the stories that had actual animal beasts in them–Bear With Me and Lemmings and Song of Sasquatch and Old Lions — and thought — I may have enough to do a bestiary. So definitely they inspired the theme. And then, of course, I needed to fill the rest of the book. I soon found that some of my equally good stories had no physical hairy, scary beasts in them… in a traditional bestiary sense. Gods and vampires — I could stretch that since they were both acting so much like a scary monster to the main characters. I started thinking about other commonalities for the non-obviously-bestial stories, but still came back to secondary definitions of beasts — as scary things we create, sometimes just in our minds.

“Moon over Tokyo” “Bondsmen” “For a Look at New Worlds” “Why the Poets” and “You will Draw” don’t have typical beasts in them — but they have things people have created and personified as scary–they have people who have become scary to someone, become beasts. Both Tokyo and “New Worlds” have a spectre of being replaced by something technological — a smudge that becomes a geisha in a memory that threatens a marriage; a hologram that replaces a grandmother. The Poets in “Why the Poets” are cast as beasts by society — and outcast; the new version of our beloved spy is frightening to the former versions of him because he threatens everything; and in “You Will Draw” you could read Fame as the unpredictable beast in the room, though corporate interests are a good standby if you like. Certainly Renault thinks he can influence others with his fame — even at one point grant fame, and therefore protection, to others. There are minor scenes with animals in most of the non-beast-centered stories — I looked and found birds and dogs that play key inspirations for change, but that was mostly because I like animals and animals often end up in my stories! 🙂 I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Much as I want to ask you about every story, I’m gonna contain myself and focus on a couple, starting with “Bondsmen” because I’m a huge Bond fan (except for Daniel Craig). Where did the idea for this story come from? [For anyone reading this: the story involves every past film iteration of Bond banding together to help the newest guy]

Courtesy: jeromestueart.com

I think I wrote it in 1996. I am a huge Bond fan, too. I am amazed that so many actors can adopt the role and I still think I’m watching one man–James Bond. I just thought that every actor playing Bond might find the role a bit confining because he HAS to be this way or that way. And i wondered what would happen if the new guy just had an identity crisis, just decided to be his own man. What would the past versions of Bond have to say about that? When I wrote it, it just spiraled into absurdity, but it still found a true mark — that he was fighting “societal norms” and was going to be who he wanted to be. Unfortunately there are consequences in being who you want to be. I have to say though that it makes a fun piece to read aloud because I never wanted to say the name of the fictional person I was parodying, so as they got close to revealing it, I could have the repartee take over. It was so much fun to write and read aloud — it lends itself to a romp when you perform it at a reading.

It definitely skirts that line between absurd and didactic. But can you do the accents when you read it aloud?!

I want to focus on “How Magnificent is the Universal Donor,” because it’s a great twist on vampires — but originally published in 2010. Seven-ish years later, do you think it’s still possible to produce a well-written twist on vampires that stands on its own?

Not sure I would attempt the international accents! (though I do try for Sean…)

About vampires: I keep thinking these guys are done, and I keep being surprised and pleased by some versions — the Swedish Let the Right One In30 Days of Night in Alaska, and True Blood in Louisiana; Being Human was vampires and werewolves meets Friends; Daybreakers gave us a completely logical vampire-wins-it-all-dystopia; Twilight made it all about True Love Waits. I would have thought we were done with vampires before then. But as you say, many of these are 2007-2010 and even Evolve, the collection that contains “How Magnificent” came out in the height of that recent vampire popularity.

Each of those twists above give a vampire a new setting and context — and maybe that’s a key to keeping it fresh!

I don’t think it’s easy to sell a new Vampire story — but I think there is a love for vampires in many fans, and they would welcome a new twist if writers could pull it off. You’d have to break through the Lore and the stereotypes, but still keep something essential. Every ten years or so, we get one that reflects our society. I remember loving Love at First Bite with George Hamilton – -such an 80s film about finding love.

I won’t write another one, probably. That story made me so queasy just to write it. I don’t like to see blood. Or needles. I have a thing about needles. Needles are scarier to me than pointed teeth… But hey, give me a werewolf! I’m still not done playing with them.

I loved 30 Days of Night! I should watch that again … That segues nicely into my last question: what’s next for your writing? Werewolves, perhaps?

Haha. I’m never truly done with werewolves, I think. But I won’t be working on them in the near future.

oie_241202257ILNbKII’m working on a couple of pieces of short fiction — two pieces that need tweaking — a science fiction story about reparations to worlds you harmed during the last regime — this one particularly about a food-culture-focused society — and the chef who’s promoted to diplomat in order to negotiate peace and reparations with the world. Also, a story of rival sisters and the rival gods they believe in — one god tangible, visible, the other not– set in the same world as the novel I’m finishing this year for ChiZine, One Nation Under Gods, which comes out in June of 2018. It’s based off the short story of the same name that was published in Tesseracts 14, where Brett Savory found it and wanted the novel version. It’s an alternate history of the U.S. ruled by religion — gods who helped out with the founding of the U.S. — gods we created, but gods who now rule over us. They are a living visible part of American culture and society — and have made sure everyone is safe and secure and things are balanced. But they exact a high price for anyone who threatens that balance, especially those who can’t properly respect and praise them.

Until about seven months ago, I thought this was alternate history. It’s looking like it may be closer to reality.

All of that sounds awesome! Particularly the twist on the United States’ emphasis on God and religion among government officials, even though they claim a separation between church and state. Last last question (since I meant to ask about Wrestling with Gods and forgot) — having co-edited an anthology and put together a collection of just your work, which would you rather do again? And don’t say both.

Oh my. I don’t know too many authors who wouldn’t prefer to launch a collection of their own. I’m in talks to co-edit another anthology in 2017, so I’m excited about that — and it’s great to promote others’ work, but I’m a creative person who wants to write stories. I love to write and create worlds and create characters, and I like that a collection falls under my sole vision. I want to write 200 stories before I die, you know? I’m already planning the next collection — on purpose — by theming it now and writing to that theme. See if you can guess it after the next three or four stories are published! But I know that I want to sell a few novels in the next couple of years, and lots of short stories, so any next personal collection probably wouldn’t happen for a few years. So if someone said that I could only choose between co-editing an anthology or churning out another collection, I’d of course say my own collection! A themed collection made up of my takes on that theme? Yeah! It’s the best of both worlds! Maybe do it like singers do a CD, invite a couple of authors to duet with you. 🙂

Whatever it is you release next, I’ll be jumping on it. Thanks again for taking the time for this, Jerome, and best of luck on your next projects!

Thank you for all your work on this interview and review. You’ve made this a lot of fun!

An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon has been published in On Spec, Third Flatiron Anthologies, and The 2017 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide. His Stormtalons short story, “Wizard-sitting,” with the Ed Greenwood Group, is now available from Onder Librum and other platforms. Learn more at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly.

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