Interview: Tim Pratt, interviewed by Dave Thompson

Briarpatch By Tim Pratt
Narrated by
Dave Thompson via ACX for Timothy Pratt c/o Curtis Brown, LTD
Length:
10 hrs and 9 mins
Release Date:
08-27-12 

Article and Interview by Dave Thompson

For the general public, Tim Pratt is one of the best kept secrets in fantasy fiction. I say this not just as someone who loves to read (and listen!) to Tim’s work, but as someone who who has bought his stories to be featured at PodCastle, a podcast run by Anna Scwhind and myself. Tim creates interesting characters who always feel real, and typically puts them in a world similar to ours, with several very subtle differences. At a young age, Tim discovered he could entertain himself with his own writing, and has never stopped, becoming quite prolific. He’s written and sold over a hundred short stories (it wouldn’t surprise me if by the time this is posted, it’ll be 200), and has written fifteen novels, including the Marla Mason books (as T.A. Pratt), and The Constantine Affliction as T. Aaron Payton.

A year ago, I got to read Tim Pratt’s incredible contemporary fantasy fiction novel Briarpatch. As soon as I started reading it, I completely fell in love. Also, I knew it was a story that my voice was a good fit for. I’d been curious about taking a shot at reading audiobooks for a couple years now, so I emailed Tim and asked him if there were any plans for an audiobook. This … maybe isn’t the best way to go about becoming an audiobook narrator. But I knew Tim and felt comfortable asking him, and I felt comfortable that if he didn’t like the idea, he’d tell me.

And so, this past summer, I spent just about every free moment I had recording Tim’s amazing book. (The recording process could probably be a whole other post.) [Editor’s note: Why yes, Dave, it could be a whole other post. Thanks for volunteering.] We used ACX, which was very easy to work with. When I turned everything in, I kept waiting for Tim to tell me that he wanted me to do something different (maybe even the whole thing). Instead, he told me how happy he was with it, and how much he liked some of the character voices. (Dave’s note: I am not Roy Dotrice or Jim Dale. I have a very minimalistic approach to reading, which is part of why I knew I could read this one.)

And now, the book is out! It’s even got a review! A positive one! People have bought it! Yay! I feel pretty lucky, to be completely honest, to have recorded Briarpatch at all, let alone as my first audiobook.

When I told Sam about all this, he suggested I interview myself about the process. Luckily, thus far, he’s settled for me interviewing author Tim Pratt, who is decidedly more interesting!

INTERVIEW:

Dave Thompson: Hey, Tim! Thanks so much for being willing to let me ask you some questions about Briarpatch! To start off, Briarpatch has a very American feel to it, and even alludes to the Br’er Rabbit/Uncle Remus stories. But Briarpatch is absolutely contemporary. What was it about those stories that influenced your novel? Were there any other influences?

Tim Pratt: I wouldn’t say it’s particularly American, as America is a place that contains vastnesses and multitudes; I grew up in the deep South, and now live in Berkeley CA, and despite a more-or-less common language and access to the same mass media, there are some striking cultural differences. Briarpatch is really very particularly Bay Area-an, about Oakland and to a lesser extent the East Bay in general and bits of San Francisco. I spent a lot of time walking around Oakland, and discovering all these little paths and parks and secret stairways and tunnels and fountains, and naturally began imagining that some of them would lead to even *more* secret worlds. That was the essential genesis of Briarpatch: to make literal and fantastic that sense that you might discover new worlds over the next ridge or up the next shaded stairway.

As for the Uncle Remus stories, they didn’t have a *lot* to do with it; I just liked the image of worlds tangled up together like a mess of thorns and briars, and so thought naturally of Brother Rabbit’s comfort in the briar patch, a place that would be disorienting and unpleasant for most people.

Other influences would include Tim Powers’s Last Call, another California contemporary fantasy (though his Southern California is different from Northern California in many ways); I thought of it often when writing my novel, and my character Arturo Glassini is a sort of sideways nod to the character Arky Mavranos from that book — a sidekick who has his own important journey to make.

Thompson: I know you’re a big Stephen King fan, and to some degree, reading Briarpatch made me think a lot about The Dark Tower – not so much the plot, but the way Stephen King used those books and characters and setting to tie a lot of his fiction together. With the worlds of Briarpatch, it seems like you have the potential to do the same thing. In fact, at times I thought I recognized settings in the Briarpatch that connected to some of your short stories, and even your Marla Mason books. Are there connections between these worlds, or is this just me being overly excitable? I could really geek out here, but I’d like to hear your thoughts before I embarrass myself!

Pratt: Yeah, I do admire the whole multiverse thing, and sometimes feel the same impulse to connect my fictional universes that King apparently feels. Characters from my short stories often pop up in my novels, and vice versa. Still, there are some of my fictional worlds that are essentially irreconcilable — the superhero stories like Captain Fantasy and the Secret Masters obviously don’t take place in the same universe as my Marla Mason urban fantasy books, and the world of The Nex is likewise it’s own reality, and many of my short stories are set in their own imaginary worlds. But Briarpatch is potentially a way to connect even those mutually-exclusive worlds — they all exist, somewhere in the Briarpatch; some are just more *plausible* than others. But all could, in theory, be reached from any other.

Whether I’ll actually do anything with all that potential connectivity is a different question. It’s possible to make things too neat, after all, and too much multiverse-crossover stuff can have the unhappy effect of making those fictional worlds seem too small, cozy, and constrained, instead of weird and sprawling. I don’t imagine myself doing a crossover (Marla Mason and Captain Fantasy battle Ismael Plenty!) any time soon. I’m not averse to jumping the shark, necessarily, but I don’t want to jump so far over the shark that you can’t even *see* the shark anymore.

Thompson: One of the things that I love about your work is how human the characters are – they all have their own personal motivations, they are all the heroes in their own personal stories, and even if you don’t like some of them, you can sympathize with them. Did you have any particular favorites? Were some of them harder to write than others? And do you see yourself returning to some of these characters or this story at some point in the future? (You know, in a less-vaguey Roland totally got a call out in Hearts of Atlantis-type way?)

Pratt: I love a lot of the people in this book, I have to say. Orville Troll and Bridget’s story is delightful to me. Arturo is great, especially his scenes with Echo. And as far as loathsome villains go, Echo is one of my favorites. Ismael’s exothermic weariness was fun to write. I despise Nicholas — he’s simply a traitorous little shit, with very little to redeem him, a small man with small ambitions, whereas Echo is at least MAJESTIC in her villainy.

Darrin is actually the character I found the most slippery to write, mostly because his essential quality is that he’s a seeker, a searcher — for Bridget, for his origins, for a purpose in life.

We might see Echo again. She’ll get bored with being a queen eventually, and who knows what damage she’ll cause after that?

Thompson:A lot of your short fiction has been podcasted, either at the Escape Artists Trifecta, and also The Drabblecast. Some authors seem hesitant about podcasting and Creative Commons. What do you appreciate about it? Has having your worked podcasted benefited you at all?

Pratt: Oh, I don’t know that it’s benefited me, apart from reaching tens of thousands of new listeners/readers… 🙂

Not a month goes by that I don’t get fan mail from someone who discovered my work via podcast. They have been wonderful and awesome and I owe a fair bit of my success to them, I suspect.

Besides, the podcasts pay, and since I sell them a lot of reprints, they pay me for doing zero new work. As a writer, getting paid again for something you already did is always lovely. I’ve also had the opportunity to do some audio originals, though, which is fun — it forces me to think about writing specifically for that audio medium. I think I’ve done a couple of audio original stories that would work much less well in print (like “Origin Story.”)

Thompson :Let’s talk about Marla Mason for a minute. Originally, you wrote four books in this series that were published by Bantam Spectra. Then the series ended, and you decided to self-publish the next volume. You’ve now done three additional Marla Mason novels on your own, via your website and most recently Kickstarter, and you’re planning to do at least one more. I’m not even sure how many short stories there are in her universe, but there’s a lot! What are the big differences between the processes? Have you been surprised at how the series continues to grow and expand? And what do you think the fan-base loves so much about Marla?

Pratt: The biggest difference in the process, now that I’m self-publishing, is that I have to do a lot more than just write a book; for one thing, I have to create various rewards — chapbooks, limited editions, creating my own e-books, etc. — to thank the donors who support my work directly. (They are awesome amazing people and I love them for letting me continue to write about these characters.) Commissioning cover art. Finding proofreaders. Etc. Fortunately I do print publishing layout and digital conversion at my day job all the time, so I have the skills. I’ve also been lucky to partner with John Teehan of Merry Blacksmith Press for the past couple of books — he produces the print editions, I handle the e-books. He’s a much better book designer than I am, so it works out well for everyone.

For the new books I serialized them online, and sometimes I was only writing chapters a week or so ahead of time. That was an interesting experience — working live without a net, making adjustments on the fly. For the most recent novel, Grim Tides, I wrote the whole book before I started serializing it, though, which was… rather more restful. I think I prefer that approach. There’s an energy to serializing live, but it comes at the cost of *expending* a lot of energy!

I was fortunate, for the first four books, to work with the marvelous editor Juliet Ulman, who taught me a *ton* about how to construct novels. So I feel like I have a handle, pretty much, on how to tell the stories I want to tell about Marla. And I have first readers who are willing to tell me when I screw something up, and copyeditors and proofreaders to keep me from making too many big egregious mistakes.And I do owe Random House for building my audience . Without their support early on, and the great distribution they had for the first four books, the series wouldn’t be a success — they’re the reason people heard about the series in the first place, mostly.

As for why people love Marla, I’m not sure. I love her because she DOES STUFF. She doesn’t brood or dither. Her greatest strength is also her greatest weakness: she refuses to admit defeat, and she just. never. stops. She also tends to have very little distance between thought and deed, which makes her a fun character to write. When a plan of action occurs to her, she follows it, immediately. She’s great at tactics. Not so great at strategy. And she’s amusingly foul-mouthed.

Thompson: Okay, okay. That’s enough about Marla. You did the audiobook of Briarpatch through ACX. What did you like about ACX – did it give you anything audiobook companies couldn’t?

Pratt: Hell, Dave, you tell me! I didn’t have to do much, apart from approve the chapters you uploaded. It is kind of cool being able to pick my own narrators, create my own cover art, etc. We’ll see if it’s successful. The whole self-publishing audiobooks thing is very much an experiment, and I’m eager to see how it turns out.

Thompson: What can readers and listeners expect next from you, both in text and audio?

Pratt: I just published a gonzo-historical/steampunk novel, The Constantine Affliction, under the name T. Aaron Payton (and we’re in talks with an audiobook publisher about producing that one).

I did a Kickstarter for my third story collection, Antiquities and Tangibles (the first two were traditionally published with small presses, but I figured I’d give crowdfunding a try this time; wow, it went well). That will be out in late 2012, if all goes well.

In late 2013 an anthology I co-edited with Melissa Marr, called Rags and Bones, will be coming out. It’s got stories by Kelley Armstrong, Holly Black, Carrie Ryan, Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, and more, and is very awesome.

Looking way ahead to 2014, I should have a fantasy novella called The Deep Woods coming out from PS Publishing. And there’s another Pathfinder Tales novel or two in the pipeline, probably another Marla Mason novel (tentatively titled Bride of Death), always new stories coming out from various places… Oh, you know. I keep busy.

Thompson: Glad to see you aren’t slowing down, Tim! Thanks very much for taking the time to do this!

Bonus! A short sampling of Tim Pratt’s short stories in audio:

  • The Secret Beach (A short, surprising contemporary fantasy, read by me!)
  • Fable from a Cage (A short, surprising, non-contemporary fantasy read by me! I don’t think in general I’ve got the best voice for more tradition Epic/S&S fantasy, but when I read this one, I knew I wanted to record it.)
  • Cup and Table (Not read by me, but easily one of my absolute favoritist short stories ever. The epitome of cool.)
  • Impossible Dreams (Also not read by me, but this is a sweet, charming story that won Pratt a Hugo several years ago. If you like movies, check this one out.)
——

Dave Thompson is the host and co-editor of PodCastle, the fantasy fiction audio magazine. His own fiction has been published by Bull Spec and Apex Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @krylyr.

 

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