I recently interviewed my friend and frequent collaborator Garrett Calcaterra. He’s a busy guy; he teaches English and music theory at a university in southern California, plays bass for his band Wheelhouse, has two great big dogs, and is working on revisions for his second novel. I interviewed him about his book Umbral Visions, which recently came out from Gypsy Shadow Publishing.
Garrett: I’ve got my beer in hand, ready to roll.
me: Okay. Question number one. When did you start writing fiction?
Garrett: Wow, the first time I can recall writing fiction was back in 2nd or 3rd grade. I remember writing an illustrated story that I had to laminate and bind as a school project. The story was post-apocalyptic, and took place at San Quentin Prison. That’s about all I remember. Also, it somehow grossly ripped off Star Wars. I do recall that.
me: What is the first book you remember buying?
Garrett: Actually buying myself? My mom is an avid reader (and a huge fan of fantasy fiction), so usually I grew up reading whatever books she just finished. Probably the first book I bought on my own was something from David Eddings.
me: Ha. Mine was probably Eddings too. Or maybe Piers Anthony
Garrett: They’re pretty enchanting to teenagers it turns out.
me: Can you tell me about the genesis of Umbral Visions? And a little about your writing process in general? Are you a rewrite-as-you go kind of guy or do you prefer to complete drafts before tinkering?
Garrett: Umbral Visions is a weird book in that it’s made up of two stand-alone novellas, and I wrote them probably 4 years apart from each other. The first one, “The Shadow,” started as a short story, but it was way too underdeveloped. I workshopped it in a writing group I was in and got some great feedback, including the idea from Mindi Combs to include some meta-fictional elements. For the rewrite, I completely re-outlined the story and started from scratch.
The second novella, “The Key Ring,” I went in knowing it was going to be a novella. I outlined that one pretty heavily, too, but the first draft came out pretty damn close to the final product. I got some great feedback from The Inklings II to polish it up and fill in some plot holes, character problems, etc., but the rewrites weren’t too bad.
I will say that my process for novellas is more similar to the process I use for writing novels. I take way more time with world building, character development, etc., whereas with short stories I start with an idea and just go with it, see where it takes me.
me: You have a couple of different writing groups. How important do you think it is for writers to get feedback from others? Is there any downside to peer review?
Garrett: Yeah, I’m in two writing groups right now, the aforementioned Inklings II, and The Biscuits. I think it’s absolutely essential for new and up coming writers to be in writing groups. No matter how good you are at writing, it’s still impossible to read your own story with any semblance of objectivity. Some parts of the story you think are abundantly obvious may in fact be way too subtle, or visa versa. The only way to know is to have an objective reader give you honest feedback. I imagine Stephen King has his own personal editor who gives him that sort of feedback, but for those of us who aren’t hugely successful yet, we need those writing groups.
They essentially function as co-ops. The only drawbacks I see are if there are some huge egos in the group or any sort of pettiness. The feedback needs to be honest. That means being forthright if part of a story isn’t working. It doesn’t mean being a dick and lambasting someone else’s story to make yourself feel better about your own writing.
me: Okay, moving along, both of your stories are in the horror genre. Do you have a favorite monster?
Garrett: Good question…Cthulhu has to be up there. If I can reference a movie, the alien from Alien freaks the hell out of me.
me: What do you think about the following China Mieville quote: “I think that all science fiction or fantasy has inevitably allegorical aspects.” Do you agree?
Garrett: No. Certainly speculative fiction can have allegorical aspects, but I feel like that limits what speculative fiction is, and indeed, I’d argue GOOD speculative fiction is something much more than just allegory. I prefer George Martin’s definition, that the speculative element (i.e. fantasy elements, sci-fi elements, horror elements) are merely window dressing, and what it really comes down to is putting characters in conflict to see how they react. Jim Blaylock told me a cool story along these lines once.
Blaylock wrote the first draft of a straight up literary short story. A couple had to evacuate their home because of a fire or something and it triggered a big argument between them, but the trigger–the fire–was inconsequential. In fact, after looking at the pay rate for lit mags as compared to sci-fi mags, Blaylock realized he’d get paid way more if he turned it into a sci-fi story. Instead of a fire… he changed it to some sort of Orson Well “War if the Worlds” UFO threat. Just like that, from literary to sci-fi. He sold it, and I believe it won some awards.
me: I didn’t know that story. That’s pretty awesome.
Garrett: I completely forgot about it until I read your question.
me: You’ve mentioned Blaylock and Martin. What other authors have been an influence on you as a writer?
Garrett: Well, since I just mentioned “literary” fiction, I’ll mention Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff first. Hawthorne and Poe definitely have influenced me, too. The vast majority of my influences, though, are spec-fic writers: Tolkien, CS Lewis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Le Guin, HP Lovecraft, Stephen King. I should also mention humorists like Bill Bryson and Patrick McManus.
me: That’s an impressive list. Most, if not all, of those writers are from another time, however. One of the biggest differences about being a writer these days involves social media. What are your feelings on blogs, twitter, fan pages, etc? How involved should an author be in promoting his/her own work?
Garrett: Like it or not, social networking is part of being a writer (or entertainer of any sort) these days.
I’d certainly prefer to spend time writing, but my shit isn’t going to get read by anyone if I’m not out there marketing it. The publishing industry is evolving just like the music industry and the old way doesn’t cut it anymore. Unless you’re some huge name, publishers aren’t going to give you a big marketing and promotion campaign. You have to do it yourself. I say I spend almost a third as much time marketing via Facebook, Twitter, my Blog, and more traditional marketing methods (sending out copies of books to get reviewed, sending out press releases, etc.) as I do actual writing. It makes me feel like a schmuck sometimes, but if I drink enough, it doesn’t bother me too much.
me: It seems like it would be very difficult to succeed now without using those tools.
Garrett: Yeah, I don’t see how you can make it as a new writer otherwise.
me: You have a band. Does your music knowledge influence your writing? Do you add poems or lyrics to your stories? Or is the rhythm of your prose affected?
Garrett: Ha! Yeah, you’d think that being a writer and all, it’d help me write good lyrics. That’s definitely not the case. I can’t write lyrics worth a damn. I can’t write poetry worth a damn either, for what it’s worth. I leave lyrics to the singers in our band and stick to writing the guitar parts and coming up with broad conceptual ideas for the lyrics–that’s it. It’s weird, both writing and playing music are creative endeavors, but I feel like they use completely different aspects of the brain.
Oh, I should plug my band, since you gave me the opportunity. We’re called Wheel House, and …we rock. (See, how ingrained marketing has become to me?)
me: If you had to choose, would you rather be award winning or best selling?
Garrett: Tough call. I won’t lie and say being filthy rich doesn’t appeal to me. Ultimately, it comes down to creating a good product, though, and to me that means award-winning. I wouldn’t complain about being either one, though.
me: who was your favorite Beatle?
Garrett: George, hands down. He wasn’t an ego maniac and he wasn’t Ringo.
me: There really isn’t another answer to that question, but I had to check. That’s all the questions I have. Thanks for taking the time for our interview today.