Interview with Philip J. Lees

Philip J. Lees’ short story, Duets, appears in the Winter 2007 issue of Shimmer. Check out his website.

Questions About The Story

Where did the idea come from?

From seeing the light reflecting off my guitar, maybe? From the Shakespearian line, “If music be the food of love, play on”? The truth is, I don’t remember.

How did the story change as you developed it?

I think this was one that came into my head pretty much fully formed, in terms of both plot and style. After all, it’s quite short. It was just a matter of writing it down (just!).

You know the advice “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings.” Was there a scene or line that it really hurt to cut, but cutting it made the story stronger? May we reprint that scene or line? Or link to a very old version so that we may marvel at how much it changed?

The nice people at Shimmer asked me to cut the original introduction—about 100 words. I didn’t really want to do that, although I could understand the reason for it. Whether the story is stronger for the change is, I think, a matter of taste. As a reader, I have an old-fashioned preference for a slow opening to a story. I enjoy the sensation of a door opening on a different world and being drawn into it, immersed in it, before the action begins. The modern tendency is to hurl the readers directly onto the bobsleigh run and let them figure out where they are and what’s happening while they’re already hurtling down.

In the case of “Duets,” the short opening introduced the first person narrator and set the tone of the piece. Not strictly necessary, I admit. I think the story works fine without it. By all means print the deleted paragraphs if you like (though I have the feeling this answer is not what you were looking for).

As a rule, I feel pleased when I can cut something from a story. It means that I’m making an improvement, and that I’m close to getting it the way I want it. My early drafts tend to be underwritten, rather than overwritten, so the first revisions usually involve more adding than subtracting. Pruning away the dead wood is the final stage.

How is this story like your other work? How is it different?

Duets is not typical of my work, but then, none of my stories are (insert smiley here). Really, though, my fiction is all over the place, from literary stories involving characters I’ve encountered while living in Greece, through crime and mystery (sometimes with a speculative element, sometimes not), magic realism, fake mythology, to straight science fiction with spaceships and aliens.

Duets was something of an experiment in a couple of ways. It was the first time I’d written anything that involved magic (although whether the reader interprets it in that way is a matter of choice: as Clarke’s Third Law states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”). More importantly, I wanted to play around with a more formalized, but at the same time lyrical style of writing, aiming to use musical rhythms in the prose and musical metaphors in the storytelling.

Questions About Writing

What writing projects are you presently working on?

I just finished a short story that examines the intersection of TV game shows and euthanasia. I have two or three other stories half written and I will finish them very soon, really I will. I’m also working on my third novel, Triple Jeopardy, which is a cult religious futuristic ecological thriller detective mystery story set in multiple alternate quantum realities. So far, I have a complete outline and the opening chapters. Another work in progress is a non-fiction article about how the Internet will affect home computers and the software industry (I am, or was, a bona fide computer scientist, among other things, so I have some credentials for this kind of speculation).

On the business side, I’m seeking a publisher for my second novel, The Changelings, which is about space exploration, human cloning, planetary colonization, interracial relationships, and all that kind of thing. At some point, I hope, I’ll also need to find an agent to represent me. I try to keep the short story submissions going out on a steady basis, not letting them languish on my hard drive.

Are you satisfied with traditional labels for genre fiction? Do words like “speculative,” “slipstream,” and, for that matter, “genre” cover it? What would you suggest?

I don’t like putting labels on any kind of creative output or on the people who produce it. However, I recognize that publishers, booksellers and the reading public (if there is such a thing any more) need to have a way of categorizing fiction. There are serious problems, though. To start with, nobody can agree on standard definitions. I once put a story of mine through a critique group and at the end I asked the question: Is this a science fiction story or not? The answers ranged from “Definitely a science fiction story” to “Contains no science fiction elements at all.” I wasn’t surprised. Then there’s the lack of consistency. Much of Michael Crichton’s fiction, for example, fits my personal definition of science fiction (I think that Jurassic Park fits any reasonable definition of science fiction), yet most people don’t think of Crichton as a science fiction author.

Living in Crete has made me more aware of mythology, and when you think about those ancient tales it’s clear they were the science fiction and fantasy of their time. Take the story of Daedalus and Icarus, for example—a story that almost everyone knows. I would say that it is clearly science fiction, because technology plays such a pivotal role. The Minotaur was an animal-human hybrid—another science fiction trope. Hercules was the first superhero, and so on. So what we call ‘speculative fiction’ and think of as something cool and modern is in fact one of the oldest forms of storytelling.

If we absolutely must have a name for it, I suppose I prefer speculative fiction, which at least suggests that it includes some aspect of the unreal, be it magical or technological. Using a catchall word like ‘genre’ is just a way of dodging the problem.

In any case, I’m happy to leave the labeling to the professors and the literary critics. I don’t think it matters what you call it: there’s just good writing, and not.

Do you think living for so long in a different country from the one where you were born has contributed to your writing?

Definitely. Learning about another culture has been fascinating in itself, but has also given me a different perspective on the society I grew up in. People who spend their whole lives in a single cultural milieu inevitably come to believe that the values and codes of behavior they’re familiar with are simply “the way things are” and don’t realize how much of it is arbitrary. So what is seen as polite in one culture can come over as priggish and standoffish in another, for example. On a broader ethical level, a large part of what people consider as “right versus wrong” is not a matter of absolutes, but can change depending on the local conditions and the point of view. Being aware of that gives me more freedom as a writer, because I don’t have to be blinkered by presuppositions. Matters like this have always been grist to the writer’s mill, of course, and if you look at writers’ biographies you find that many have lived in more than one country or have traveled extensively.

In more practical terms, becoming fluent in modern Greek has made me more aware of the capabilities (and the limitations) of my native English. With languages, as with cultures, there’s a huge difference between knowing just one and knowing two.

Do you have a specific food or drink that you consider a writing staple?

No, though I do tend to treat myself to a bottle of good wine to celebrate good news on the writing front (like having Duets accepted by Shimmer).

Do you work with a critique or writers group?

I used to participate in the Critters on-line workshop and I learned a lot there. I exchange critiques with a number of other writers, some of whom are present or former members of that workshop, others not.

Does your work tend to explore any particular themes?

I’m interested in characters who learn something about themselves, through the way they respond to circumstances or the way they interact with other people. One of the grandest themes in fiction is when a character, through stupendous effort, transcends his or her own limitations and becomes more than before. Of course, you can’t do that all the time or it would become trite.

On the other hand, I think that speculative fiction is a wonderful way of carrying out thought experiments involving technological or social issues. It’s much better than plain philosophical discussion because it lets you ask the question, “What if . . .?”, while being free of any constraints whatsoever.

It’s been said that readers can be divided into two groups: those who like The Iliad and those who like The Odyssey. Which camp are you in?

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the former; on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the latter. On Sundays I can’t remember the question. Really! Who comes up with this stuff?

Of course, the correct answer is that readers can be divided into two groups: those who believe that people can be divided into two groups, and those who reject such a ridiculously simplistic notion.

Random Questions

What is your darkest secret?

I’m sure there must be one, but it’s so horrendously awful it’s erased itself from my conscious memory.

Have you ever eaten a crayon? Tell us about it.

Not crayons, but as a child I used to chew on plasticine. That’s what we used to call it in England. I think in America it’s usually just called modeling clay. Lots of different, bright colors, for kids to play with. I can still remember the taste. Yum!

Fast food: Yea or Nay?

Neither. It’s an oxymoron.

All-time favorite movie?

Hard to say. Citizen Kane and The Third Man would be on the list. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is certainly a leading candidate. Several of Gilliam’s other movies, too. Richard Attenborough’s semi-biographical Gandhi was amazing. Kubrick’s 2001 is still my yardstick for science fiction movies.

What are some of your hobbies?

I play bridge on a fairly regular basis. In the cooler months of the year I like brisk walking for getting the blood and the creative juices flowing. I listen to a lot of music, mainly jazz. I enjoy web programming and sometimes I even get to do it for money.

Is there anything that you would sell your soul for?

No. Anybody who’s read any significant amount of fiction knows that it’s always a really bad idea.

Quiz: How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb? Please explain your answer:

Certainly not more than two. More than two writers together as a group are incapable of accomplishing anything at all practical. Two writers might be able to collaborate long enough to do it, but by the time they finished they’d also have changed the socket, the light fitting, and the entire décor of the room.

So that leaves us with one writer. However, the correct answer is NONE: because writers like the dark.

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Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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