A fixture within the Austin science fiction literary scene, acclaimed short story writer Patrice Sarath recently celebrated the release of her first novel, the contemporary fantasy Gordath Wood. Sarath took time out of her busy schedule to sit down with RevolutionSF editor-at-large Rick Klaw to discuss first novels, horses, day jobs, and why it's okay to suck.
How has the response been to Gordath Wood?
So far the response has been very gratifying. I’ve been getting e-mails from readers (who, I would like to emphasize, are perfect strangers) who said they stayed up all night to read the book, who love the depiction of the bond between horses and people, who loved the story and want to read more. There have been a few less than stellar reviews, but mostly, people have said they’ve enjoyed it. I love hearing that I made someone stay up all night reading. I’ve done it so many times myself and I know how that goes, when you can’t put a book down. To me, that’s success.
Why horses? Why not ask, why air? They’re horses! They’re beautiful, a little bit dangerous, and they take you places all the while giving you great power.
You live in Austin, TX and yet the story takes place at a stable just north of New York City. Why did you choose the NY locale as opposed to the legendary horse friendly Texas?
I grew up a horse-crazy kid in Connecticut, not far from where the story takes place. I rode on the trails I describe in the book, and back then, you really couldn’t tell where you were. New York, Connecticut, it was a different world. Hence the novel. And while I have ridden in Texas and it was fine, the riding trails of that part of New York were a very special experience.
Riding in early winter snowfalls, riding in the autumn when the leaves had turned and the air was almost gold, riding in the summer when the fields were green and you could gallop forever. All of that was a fantastic experience that I tried to capture in Gordath Wood.
You dedicate Gordath Wood to Valerie. From the warmth of the dedication and the fact it's in your first book, she was an important person in your life. Who was Valerie and how did she impact the writing of this book?
Valerie was a dear friend whose death, in a plane crash in Guatemala, left a huge hole in the hearts of her friends and family. She was bright, funny, creative, and did I mention funny? We could get each other laughing until we cried. We had many conversations long into the night about writing and art, and those conversations encouraged me to write. She was our daughter's nanny for a while too, which was kind of funny because none of us knew what we were doing when it came to taking care of a baby. That baby is all grown up now and entering college, so we did okay.
Are you planning on further stories set in Gordath Wood?
Yes. I’m writing a sequel now, and I’m also plotting out a series of short stories for my blog that will center around some of the secondary characters. These stories won’t need to be read in order to understand the novels but the idea is that they will help add to the richness of the world.
Will the sequel for Gordath Wood be published by Ace? Any idea when the book will come out?
Yes. Schedules are always a funny thing, but it looks like it will come out next summer, just a year after Gordath Wood.
This is your first novel after many acclaimed short stories. Do editors and fellow writers approach you differently now that you have a novel out? What about friends and family?
My friends and family have been so incredibly supportive from the time I sold my first short story (for five bucks, by the way) and they are so happy for me now that I have sold a novel. It’s like they turned the support up a notch. The local writers here in Austin, and you know there are one or two here, have all been really supportive as well. More so perhaps, because we all know how hard it is. As for the magazine editors, eh, I still get plenty of short story rejections. Nice to know some things never change.
How does your approach to novel writing differ from your other types of writing?
I don’t know yet. I really did kind of wing it for this first novel, and that is sort of the approach I take with my short stories too. I often start with a scene or a bit of dialog and write around that. With the novel, I ended up writing scenes out of sequence as a way to help me remember what I was writing toward. Basically I’m making it up as I go along.
By day you work as a business writer and editor. How does this affect your fiction writing?
It creates discipline. I write about banking and financial services and you can’t just wing that. It takes a lot of research. I read a lot of financial documents. I have to write something every day and it has to be clear and explanatory. I think my style is an amalgam of this clear and simple approach along with seeking the right imagery, the telling detail.
And my fiction writing also affects my day job. After all, fiction is going after an emotional truth. That’s a little harder to come by in business writing but it’s still there. Take the subprime mortgage crisis and the collapse of Bear Stearns. That’s a soap opera of epic proportions!
You can’t tell that just from the financial documents either. It's all personality, hubris, greed, and humility. It’s like the Iliad or something. So yeah, there's a quid pro quo of sorts.
Is a novel set in the volatile, soap operatic world of high finance in your future?
There could be except that no one would believe it. You can't make that stuff up.
Are you planning/ hoping to one day write fiction full time at some point?
Oh yes. Who ever says they want to keep their day job?
As an active member of the Slug Tribe, an Austin writers group, and a workshop teacher, what advice do you offer for newer writers attempting their first novel? Do you find that teaching and working with other writers helps you with your own writing?
Just write. Writing is hard, but it gets easier.
Be consistent. Write every night or on a schedule you can live with. You don't need eight hours of empty time to write. You'll just end up wasting about seven hours of that.
Know the difference between rituals that get you in the right frame of reference to write, and mere procrastination.
Dare to suck. Everyone does, and everyone gets better.
Something I have seen novices do over the years (and have done myself) is they write below their ability. If you think that a particular market will be "easy" to break into, you'll waste your time writing down to that market. You won't sell anything that you think is dreck, so why write it and submit to a market you hold in contempt? Write up instead. Stretch yourself and your abilities.
I love teaching because it's a way to pay it forward. I know that people say, "you can't teach writing," and I think that's true, that writing can't be taught. However, writing can be learned, and workshops are a great way to learn. I like the camaraderie of workshops too, the sense that you're all in it together. And everyone learns how to critique their own work by critiquing others, so I highly recommend getting into a writer's group or workshop to learn that skill.
What's next for you?
There are a few more short stories that are coming out in various markets, including a reprint of my SF/ horror story, "Pigs and Feaches." It first appeared in Apex Digest and is going to be reprinted in Best New Tales of the Apocalypse (Permuted Press). I also will be working on a bunch of short stories that are clamoring to be written and have been jammed up in the queue this past year as I finished the sequel to Gordath Wood. And there are a couple of novel ideas that have nothing at all to do with the world of Gordath Wood.