Interview with James Cambias

James L. CambiasJames’ story “The Wolf and the Schoolmaster” appears in The Clockwork Jungle Book (Issue #11), and he’s previously appeared in Shimmer’s The Pirate Issue (Issue #7) with his story “The Barbary Shore.”  His website is

Q: If you could talk to any author from the past, who would it be?  Why?  Who would you NOT want to talk to?

A: The author I’d most like to sit down with for a long evening would be Mark Twain. He’s a tremendous paradox:  most of his work is in a very personal voice, frequently first-person.  At least two of his major works (Innocents Abroad and Life on the Mississippi) are memoirs or travelogues . . .
. . . and yet Twain himself is a mystery, hiding behind his pen name even after he (and it) became internationally famous.  Even his face in photos is a bit like a mask, with the big bushy mustache and eyebrows as camouflage.  Who was he, behind the Mark Twain makeup?

An author I don’t really want to talk to is H.G. Wells.  I admire his work, I might even like him — but in a way he kind of embodies the “original sin” of science fiction.  That sin, of course, is SF’s deep discomfort with democracy and its fondness for dirigiste, technocratic solutions.  The “one right answer” imposed on people for their own good.  Wells is the wellspring of that tendency and I’m afraid that if I had dinner with him we’d be throwing things before dessert.

Q: And would you use a character to speak to that author, or yourself?

A: Why, yes.  Mr. Shepton in “The Wolf and the Schoolmaster” is talking to Wells, pretty directly.

Q: If you got to borrow a character [or several], who would you choose?

A: Tough question.  I’ve done one story, “The Vampire Brief,” using an established character (Hellboy, from the comic by Mike Mignola), and it’s tricky.  One always wonders ,”Am I getting this right?”  I care about getting things right, possibly too much.  The character I’d most enjoy playing with, I think, is the Doctor, from the Doctor Who series.  He is probably the most under-utilized character in science fiction despite having been on television for nearly half a century.

Q: Do your characters talk to you?  Do you see the stories as images?  Do you ever argue with characters you hadn’t planned?

A: I tend to agree with Connie Willis, who once said that her characters do what they’re told without any back-talk.

Q: Have you ever wished for a particular character — or idea — to walk into your story?  Has that happened?

A: God, yes.  I frequently have to create characters through a kind of intellectual brute-force approach:  “Who do I NEED in this story?”  And what does that character have to be like in order to do the job?  When inspiration comes unbidden it’s a relief.

Q: Do you ever get to a certain point, reading a story, and feel the click! as you have got to the point of no return/can’t stop now?  Does writing ever feel that way?  If you had to liken writing to anything, what would it be?

A: When writing does feel that way it’s the greatest feeling in the world.  There’s a scientist at Chicago, Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi, who has studied the phenomenon — he calls it “flow.” When we achieve the state of “flow” we are living Socrates’s definition of what is good:  each man doing what he does best.  I’d say the biggest difficulty comes when that state happens too early in the process, so you’ve had the fun of the “winning move” and still have to play out the endgame of actually writing it.

I’ve read various metaphors for writing — a battle, a love affair, etc.  I tend to approach my stories as puzzles to be solved.   This means that writing, for me, involves a certain amount of walking around and muttering to myself.

Q: What piece of writerly advice do you wish someone had given you?

A: The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard was from Mike Stackpole, who wrote a great ‘blog post about writer’s block — he said that if you can’t figure out what will happen, that means you don’t understand the characters and their motivations well enough.  It’s excellent advice and I wish I’d heard it twenty years ago.

Q: What kind of advice do you wish characters listened to?  Or offered?

A: See the Connie Willis quote above.  I don’t want advice from my characters.  That being said, as a reader I get very impatient with characters who act stupidly, especially when it’s not consistent with their other behavior.

Q: Is there something you do that no one ever asks you about?  This can be anything — something unusual you eat, playing poker as a day job, a hobby, whatever you like.

A: Since I’m still not very widely known, people don’t ask me about all kinds of things.   Being from New Orleans I do spend a surprising amount of time thinking about food, but I seldom get asked for recipes.

Q: Particular favorites for books, movies, series, comics, blogs, etc.?

A: Four of my favorite books are Kim, by Rudyard Kipling; Declare, by Tim Powers; Excession, by Iain Banks; and  the Borges collection Labyrinths.  My favorite movies include Repo Man, Blade Runner, Casablanca, and The Third Man.  At the comic shop my “pull” is Mignola’s Hellboy, Aaron Williams’s PS238, and Busiek’s Astro City; I also read Foglio’s Girl Genius and Burlew’s Order of the Stick online.  My taste in ‘blogs is eclectic — see the blogroll on my own ‘blog, “Science Made Cool.”

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