J.M. McDermott is a new and high-profile addition to San Antonio’s speculative fiction community, having moved from Atlanta earlier this year.
McDermott is author of the well-received dark fantasy Dogsland Trilogy — the final novel of which is forthcoming from Night Shade Books — and is a prolific producer of short fiction. His shorter work has appeared in Weird Tales Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and numerous other places.
He holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine.
Missions Unknown recently reached out to McDermott to find out what lured him to South Texas, what’s new in his life and work, and what inspires his deft, character-driven fiction.
You’re a Texas native, but you’ve moved around a lot, spending time in Georgia and Maine, for example. How did you end up in San Antonio?
My family has lived in Texas a long time, almost since my Dad retired from active military service for the Reserves when I was four or five. I did my undergraduate degree in Houston. I was only drawn out of Texas for specific things: graduate school in Maine, a stint at a video game studio in Georgia, and various episodes of world-traveling. I was in Georgia only as long as I was because I fell in love with a beautiful woman from Atlanta. After my marriage in September, my wife and I wanted to spend some time closer to my family, for a change. We had spent years in the same town as her people, even living with my sister-in-law for a while, in Decatur, GA, before the wedding. We decided to head out closer to mine, so she could get to know my people about as well as I know hers. With family property here in San Antonio in need of quality caretaking, and an improved economy in Texas, it was a great situation for everyone. I love being back in Texas, and I can’t wait to get back out on the convention circuit and run into all my old friends in Dallas, Austin, and Houston.
Never Knew Another, the first novel in your Dogsland Trilogy, utilizes a frame narrative. Why did you choose this technique to tell your story? What are its advantages over a more straightforward narrative approach?
The main reason I love to frame novels through the lens of a narrator, I think, is that it allows the author to spin a perspective on what’s being presented that provides one interpretation for the reader to agree with or disagree with based on everything else going on. In Dogsland, the narrators are definitely not sympathetic to the individuals they narrate. In fact, the Walkers of Erin are trying to kill all the demon children and burn the earth where they fall. But, placing this perspective in the role of narrator, and showing how human the demon children are creates a tension that can carry a novel, or a series of novels. Novels are built not on plot mechanics, or events happening one after another. Novels are about tension and release, like symphonies. The tides of under-the-surface tension builds like a psychic soundtrack carrying the readers through the “events” of the piece. Plot is a mechanical thing, mute and predictable. Tension snaps. Tension crackles and threatens and sings and falls limp on the ground. Tension is what I am interested in, not plot. Frame narratives create a simple tool for tension, built around the fundamental construct of the narrative conceit.
You seemed interested in exploring the nature of class in the book. The city of Dogsland is sharply divided along class lines. Talk a little about how important this is to the book.
I don’t think Americans know what poverty really means. I don’t think I know what poverty really means. I also think that it is easy to be wise when your belly is full, and the lights turn on at night, and the grocery store will sell you a frozen burrito any time of day or night. To me, when you take away those certainties, and throw people into a wilder situation, you see what they’re really made of. I think one of the allures of fantasy fiction is the ability to return the creature to the world of comfort – to strip away the comfortable until the material reality of the skin and bones of man is present again. It is a metaphorical presence, because it is a fictional interpretation of the presence, but where the meat and the dirt align, there is a truth that can be divined out of the blood scrapings. There is a truth to our material bodies.
I think poverty can become a kind of truthful grindstone. You don’t have the luxury of lying to yourself. If you do, you can really hurt yourself quickly. So, in this book, class divides are part of the question of cities, of humans, and of what it means to be us. In many ways, the worst people in the world of Dogsland are people no Walker would aim to kill, and would instead be the recipients of obeisance or mercy depending on their power and wealth, or lack thereof. But, is Jona any worse than the King of the Night? Is he any worse than the drug pushers or nobleman who push the drug pushers? And, how do these class divisions grind a soul? The nurture of the class intersects with the nature of the man – or the nature of the demon child. What does being part of an underclass do to a person, and to the society around them?
I guess I’m writing a whole series of books, in part trying to figure out how come we, as a culture, refuse to be the ones to walk away from Omelas. When we read that story, as kids, we always like to think we’d be the ones to walk away. Then, we grow up, get a job, get a mortgage, and we’re trapped there, in a comfortable cage, knowing the destruction we do to ourselves, our world, and each other.
Demons and shape changers are common in fantasy literature, but your approach seemed fresh here. What went into the worldbuilding you did for this trilogy? Did you borrow from any existing mythologies as you created the rules for the Dogsland world?
I am less interested in world-building than many of my peers. To me a world exists from the perspective of a character. I also wanted to coalesce a lot of my experiences being flat broke in Houston in my post-college days into a real thing. I wanted to take the experience of being a homosexual or transgendered individual in one of those towns like Benbrook or Hurst or Waverly or Victorian Rural England or anywhere the biological fact of your existence is considered an abomination by most of the people around you, where you sort of need to shield your true self from the people around you, and the people who most needed to fictionally live a message of tolerance would be people who would never read a book explicitly about a gay person!
I was thinking about how living like that would change a person, how being flat poor changes you. I was thinking about situations that change the people. The whole world comes from that, and is built around that. I believe that most members of my audience have read a few fantasy novels such that the worlds bleed together a little, in their memories, and the thing that remains is the characters and the tensions that define their reality. You’ve read squalor and urban decay before. You’ve read wolves and demons. I am more interested in showing you Jona Lord Joni, Rachel Nolander, Salvatore, and Djoss and the Walkers of Erin and all the lives they touch and destroy. The world services that, and otherwise ought to stay out of the way.
The books in the Dogsland trilogy are short, which seems to run counter to the trend in much of the fantasy on bookstore shelves. Are many fantasy novels too bloated for their own good?
I can only speak to my own perspective as a reader. I love Gunter Grass’ work. I consider Local Anesthetic a masterpiece. I have attempted to read Tin Drum every year, and there comes a point where I am just exhausted by the sheer volume and density of prose, unrelenting and gorgeous and wonderful, but unrelenting and unrelenting, and not a break or a breath to take in sight. I have to stop and put it away to digest, and inevitably this becomes a permanent rout. I think the form of the long novel benefits when the density of the prose is allowed to breathe. If the whole symphony was the flood of complex moving lines blurring together, it would not have the same weight and force of a melody singing to cut through the sound. A long novel can be a good thing, I think, when it has that sort of push – like the war marching ever-closer in Tolstoy’s War & Peace – but I suspect the genre, at the moment, would benefit from more chamber pieces, and ballets movements, and fewer big, huge things, because there is more room for density and experimentation in shorter works. it keeps the reader from using up their mental stamina before the end comes. A great book should be enjoyed, not endured. As I like dense prose and difficult books, I think I should strive to keep them on the short side, mostly.
As this applies to my own work, I believe that Dogsland isn’t really about the plot. It is about the people. The first book of the series tracks the path of loneliness that throws these characters together, after a long, difficult journey. The second book is how these two characters who, in many ways, have no one else they can realistically hope to love and to be loved with, are falling both together and apart because of the same forces of nature that pulled the together. The third book is about the long, fall. In one book, as one thing, the density of the prose of this particular project and the way I wanted to tell the story would have been detrimental to the story itself, for it would be exhausting to ride out to the long decline. It would also be distracting, because the plot would be too important to the reader, and the real narrative of the emotions and the setting and the way the world builds and destroys the systems of the world, wouldn’t be showing its bones beneath the veil of another tedious star-crossed love story.
Naturally, many readers disagree with my decision and many like it and many don’t even notice that I’m doing anything different, but time will tell if, when the third book arrives, that decision works or not. Perhaps I am a failure, and I am doing nothing to move the form of the novel anywhere new.
You also utilize a gritty, direct prose style that’s a sharp contrast to the more florid tendencies of epic fantasy writers. How did this style evolve?
I don’t think florid is a good word to use to describe a writing style. It is a derogatory ornamental term that indicates a triteness. (Ed: Which is exactly why I invoked it.) There are quite a lot of people that like the ornamental styles. In fact, I have been accused of being stilted and ornamental by people who consider the traditionally “florid” style of writing to be the standard by which others are judged. Rococo is a better term, I think, though, for the style that is engaged with the ornamental trappings of a fantasy world. Theirs is a world viewed from the outside, celebrating the alien-ness of the past and the future and the Otherness of the imagined space. In my work, I strive to see the world from the inside, and to celebrate the ways that humans are all humans are all humans.
In the case of this particular trilogy, the style was deeply inspired by the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, and the words of Ann Sexton. There’s a directness and intimacy to Ann Sexton’s voice that I tried to borrow, filtered through the perspective of a wolf-god’s growl and howl.
Every book is different, of course. I use a lot of conversational styles in the short stories in the collections DISINTEGRATION VISIONS, and WOMEN AND MONSTERS, that lack the directness of things, and strive for more rococo things.
In addition to your longer works, you’re also a short story writer. Do you find it more enjoyable to write in short or long form?
What I love about writing a novel is that you throw your whole self into it, body and soul, until your back aches and your eyes are breaking down from weariness, and your significant other wants to know when you’ll be going to bed. I love that it is an act that takes your whole self. It takes your whole mind. It takes all of you up and chews upon your imagination until you are a limp rag that did something big and important.
What I love about short stories is it is an act that takes your whole self for about a day, then again sometime later, and then maybe it’s done, and isn’t it nice to get to bed at a decent hour with the ideas out of your head? And isn’t it nice that you didn’t have to endure your own enjoyment of the act of writing?
I like them both. Fiction is fiction. I write fiction. I write both.
You also write both sf and fantasy. Which do you prefer? What are the benefits and challenges of working in each?
I don’t write sf or fantasy. I write fiction. I write plotless, character-driven fiction. The speculative elements are there for the convenience of pushing towards universal truths without having to address the veil of the real that must be created by convincing everyone I understand their world as they understand it as opposed to meeting me in mine directly. I find that the hyperreality of a “fiction fiction” piece makes me clam up because there is too much reality to filter out, and too many people who don’t see reality the way I do and will throw my work aside because it doesn’t fit the normalizing influence of consensus reality. Instead of convincing them otherwise, I throw some spaceships or demons at it, and suddenly no one realizes I’ve tricked them into reading a book about the persecution of homosexuality and the wage slave poor in suburban Bible-Belt communities. I prefer fiction where the unlimited potential of imagination is felt, not clever, and not cloying, and not bound to a status quo of the way things are or ought to be. I prefer that magical sense of mystery when I read and when I write. I want a world that doesn’t seamlessly blend with ours. I want a world that pushes what is possible for our world to be and to do. I want to push back at the edges of reality when I read and write, because in doing so I hope to encounter the places where what is truly real pushes back at me.
Some of your recent short sf work focuses on matters of health, healing and disease. Are these stories set in a shared world? Why are these topics something you like to explore in your fiction?
I’m working on a book related to these issues, definitely. I’m interested in the material reality of human skin and biology in a contrarian fashion to the futurists that see clones and artificial brains unlocking us from biology. There will be no immortality, yet. Not until we stop being what we currently consider human. There comes a point where no pill can save you, where no doctor or transplant can stop the inevitable decline, and I don’t think most people in this country really believe in their own death, deep down. We eternally believe ourselves who we were at seventeen forever until the blood is in our mouth and a doctor is telling us something we don’t even know enough biology to understand. I don’t want to say much more about these ideas, because the work is in progress, and I’d prefer to keep my ideas for the work itself, at the moment.
Most of my recent short fiction – at least recently published! – was concerned with Greek Mythology. My collection, WOMEN AND MONSTERS, took a first-person, limited approach to the women and monstrous women of the old myths. The men are so celebrated, so heroic. What they do to women is monstrous, in those old myths. For instance, Orpheus did not go to Hades for the benefit of Eurydice. He went there for himself, and she was supposed to just go along with him. Hercules was an awful human being. Thesseus was a liar and a breaker of promises. Such terrible things done, and they’re heroes. I re-imagined these old myths, looking to let the muses speak for themselves for a change, and tell their side. This work was surreal, and very literary in nature, and well-received by critics. I wish more people knew about it! (Well, now you know about it, at least!)
What’s next for J.M. McDermott? What should readers be looking out for?
I’ve been part of a shared world for a while now, doing original electronic stories with Phil Athans, Mel Odom, Jay Lake, Cat Rambo, Brad Torgerson, and Mike Resnick in an original fantasy setting called THE FATHOMLESS ABYSS. I’ve written one novella already, and I have to start on the next one here, very soon! Still, do check out what’s already out there, because Cat Rambo’s latest addition to the world is gorgeous, called SEED IN THE WIND, and my own recent novella, NIRVANA GATES is quite different from my usual work in that I do a lot of creatures and New Weird-esque monstrous things.
MAZE is coming. I’ve got this book I wrote about five years ago that’s been under contract for years and years. It’s finally coming out. It’s a mosaic novel inspired by how I’ve seen the movie The Labyrinth way too many times. I got to thinking that if I ever ended up in that labyrinth, I’d never get out. I’d have to find other survivors and make a tribe, hunt, grow crops, and live my life and my children would be there and my grandchildren. It’s a generational, circular, mixed-up mosaic text coming out from Apex Books soon. Man, it took a long time for this one to start moving out into the world, and I’m glad it’s happening.
The third and final book of the DOGSLAND trilogy is coming, too. WE LEAVE TOGETHER is sitting on my hard drive, waiting only on some paperwork to arrive before it flies out into the world, whenever it comes.
Finally, a request we love to throw at all our interviewees: Name your favorite sf/f/h books, movies and comics (five for each category).
(My answer would change about every five minutes, but here’s today’s attempt…)
1) The Left-Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
2) Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
3) Mission Child by Maureen McHugh
4) The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford
5) Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer
1) The Dark Crystal
2) The Labyrinth
3) Black Orpheus
4) Moonrise Kingdom (it’s a fantasy, I tell you!)
5) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
1) Calvin and Hobbes
3) V for Vendetta