Schlock Talks | Greg Bossert

Greg Bossert. Photo: Francesca Myman.Greg Bossert. Photo: Francesca Myman.

He may have won the World Fantasy Award for his short story The Telling late last year, but fiction writing is just the tip of the creative iceberg for Gregory Norman Bossert – an animation artist, sound designer and researcher currently employed in that vaunted castle of geekdom, Industrial Light and Magic (from whence the special effects for Star Wars sprang). In a revealing and enthusiastic interview, he lets us in on the source of his boundless creativity.

The fields you work in are quite varied: from writing to music and visual effects. How did you first discover your creative streak, and what was the first thing you attempted before branching out into various other fields?

I honestly don’t remember a time when I wasn’t either 1) reading or 2) drawing or putting on a play or a puppet show or building something with Tinkertoys or banging on drums or making Super 8 films or some such: I didn’t think of it as being creative, though, just as being a kid, and I apparently have never stopped being one.

I was also fortunate to have a creative and supportive family in which printing our own cards from woodblocks, building a harpsichord from scratch, or building a cake replica of our house was just part of day to day life.  My sister is a professional stock photographer and her daughter is developing some amazing visual art skills, so that creative tradition is ongoing!

That said, the one thing I didn’t do for most of my life, beyond a few childhood efforts, was write fiction. Through the 80s and 90s I was mostly focused on music and sound design, and after 2001 or so on film: you can see some of those projects at my website.

I only got into writing in 2009 – at the creaky old age of 47 – when a friend, artist Iain McCaig, dared me over pizza to write a screenplay. I wrote two that year, and then was encouraged by another friend, JC Hsyu (keep an eye out for her excellent stories!) to move into fiction.

2010 was a good year for my writing, with three stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction and six weeks at the legendary Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and I’ve been putting more energy into writing since then, though I’m still making my own short films and doing sound design and music for other films, and even contributed a few illustrations to Jeff VanderMeer and Jeremy Zerfoss’s fantastic Wonderbook.

Do you think your juggling of various creative areas helps you to keep creating? Or do you wish you had more time to focus on one particular thing?

I probably should focus more attention on fewer projects, but that’s unlikely to happen. My friends will attest that I am constantly grumbling about needing more time to write. But there are too many interesting projects involving too many interesting people, and I am constantly being lured into new distractions.

The advantages of being easily distracted are many, however; most of all, I value chances to collaborate with other people.  Projects like the One Minute Weird Tales videos – a collaboration with Ann VanderMeer and a series of great writers – challenge me in surprising ways. I like being surprised.

And when I am stuck on a story, there is always another one, or some completely different sort of project, on which to work. No matter the medium, the creative problems and challenges overlap in my head: it doesn’t feel so much like jumping from field to field as it does taking different angles on one continuous, frustrating, and (hopefully!) endless effort to say something useful and interesting.

You’ve done research and reference work for Hollywood productions like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Beowulf. What did that work entail, exactly, and what was it like working on such high-profile (and inevitably hectic) projects?

Ah, doing design research is pretty much the best job in the world. For one thing, I get paid for reading books, rummaging through old photos, spreading out old maps, tracking down obscure films, and did I mention the books?

But those tasks, lovely as they are on their own, are made far more dynamic (and challenging) by the collaborative nature of the job.  My goal as a researcher is much less to provide facts as it is to support and inspire the designers (or writers or directors).

It’s relatively straightforward to, for example, figure out what 5th Century Danes ate or what carols 19th Century Londoners might sing. But it’s much more challenging helping a designer come up with a mythical creature or a fantastic village without become mired down in trivial details (no matter how factual) or in received, clichéd ideas. And without telling the designer her or his business; that’s sometimes the trickiest part!

So, microphotographs of internal human organs might suggest the tunnels of Grendel’s lair, or a Medieval Book of Days might provide a colour palette for a mural. Designers (like writers) aren’t looking to be handed ideas; they have plenty, sometimes too many, of those. Rather, they are looking for those odd little details and synchronicities that push them past the obvious concepts into the new.

That sort of work is, I think, a great exercise for being a writer.  You have to leave your ego at the door: at the end of the day, you’re not the designer. Instead of “pure” creativity, whimsy, and caprice, your tools are observation and association, and a great deal of engagement with other creative minds. I find that approach extremely useful in my own projects.

But before your readers all rush off to look for jobs as film design researchers, I should note that this sort of work is rare and even more rarely well paid.  Most productions rely instead on an intern and a bit of Googling, and those directors and designers who do value this sort of work have usually already found someone which whom they are comfortable working. And hence, my other other day job in the film industry…

What’s the experience of working at Industrial Light & Magic? It is, after all, the seat of many a geek’s fantasia…

I love it, but probably not for the reasons you might expect.

For starters, shocking though this news will be to many:  there are no actual working spaceships at ILM.  There aren’t even physical models of spaceships any more, barring a few museum pieces hanging from the ceiling.

Instead, there are rows of desks with computers, at first glance no different than any other relatively high-tech industry.

What makes ILM (and the film business in general) rewarding are the folks who work there.  Right now, I’m working with folks who started in the business running optical printers – monstrosities that combined multiple film projectors with a movie camera – or building miniature sets out of foamcore and hot glue, or machining custom parts for scratch-built motion control systems. When they made an explosion, there was real fire, and sometimes real fire departments. That legacy of “we have no idea how we’re gonna do it but we’re gonna do it anyway” is wonderful.

But those folks are starting to retire, either contented with their careers or fed up with the changes in the industry, and the work that remains is more and more a commodity. The old California-based VFX houses and studios may soon go the way of all such things. One could argue whether that’s entirely a bad thing, and I am certain that there will always be some kid somewhere hanging a plastic spaceship from a string and videoing it against a sheet with holes poked in it. But I am nonetheless enjoying every day I can working with the folks who do that sort of thing for a living.

Could you talk a bit about the genesis of your story, The Telling, which won a 2012 World Fantasy Award? The way you present a rigidly ritualized and enclosed society suggests a narrative-genetic link to works like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Were there particular influences floating in your head as you were composing the story?

The single biggest inspiration for the story was the ‘Tell the Bees’ exhibit at the wonderful Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. That exhibit introduced me to the English/Irish tradition of telling your beehive of any major events, e.g. births and deaths. That made me think in general of how societies are maintained by traditions and superstitions, and in specific of the question: what if you tell something to the bees and they don’t agree? (I named a character after David Wilson, founder of the Museum.)

The Museum of Jurassic Technology gleefully – though with a perfectly straight face – mixes true and fictional ‘facts’, and I also borrowed that idea for my story: most of the aphorisms and superstitions in my story are made up, but a few are taken from real tradition. (Which ones are “real” I leave as an exercise for the reader…)

The story still didn’t come together until some random reading on the biology of bees inspired the idea for my main character, Mel. (This also inspired a rather challenging grammatical constraint for the story, which I again leave for the reader to discover.)

My first draft was very much focused on Mel and the bees, and on the wonders and dangers of superstition. The pastoral 18th/19th century texture came, I think, from my reading about folk traditions, as many of these were first formally collected and written down back then. For example, the dictionary in my story was inspired the vigorous tradition of amateur scholars and collectors in those centuries.

Once I was revising the story, I saw the ties with Peake and the Gothic style, and with the tradition of British rural mysteries. Naming my butler character the descriptive ‘Pearse’ was a conscious nod to Gormenghast.

I should add that the story benefited from some excellent comments by friends who read early drafts, including JC Hsyu, Karin Tidbeck, Jeff VanderMeer, Kai Ashante Wilson, John Chu, Kali Wallace, Leah Thomas, Tom Underberg, Dustin Monk, and Olivia Do, amongst others. (My apologies to those I am forgetting – it’s been a crazy couple of weeks!) And Scott H. Andrews had some excellent comments after he bought the story for his web journal Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Scott and BCS were also nominated for a well-deserved WFA this year, and previously for a Hugo: I have no doubt that BCS will be have many more nominations and awards under his guidance.

How did it feel to win the World Fantasy Award? Were you expecting it at all?

I was, and still am, absolutely gobsmacked.  To be honest, I am still a bit surprised (and delighted!) that anyone has read any of my stories.  At the World Fantasy Award ceremony, I was already clapping politely as the winner was announced: if my friends hadn’t been cheering I might not even have realized that they’d called my name.

I hadn’t really prepared a speech, but as it turns out, three straight days of constant talking had completely obliterated my voice, so all I could do was croak a few words into the microphone.

This was my first fantasy sale – my previous three sales had been science fiction – so again, I am mostly happy that anyone noticed and read the story, which is rather quietly obscure and decidedly un-hip. I’m also quite pleased on behalf of my character Mel, who is, regardless of myself, brave and curious and quite deserving of an award.

Winning the WFA is, more than anything, a big kick in the pants to get writing already! I feel like it has empowered me, as it were, to give my own projects a bit more focus for a while.

Going by your own experience, how hard do you think it is for someone to break into fiction writing at this point in time? Do you think the ‘terrain’ is friendly to new writers? What are some of the most important things a new writer should bear in mind?

Writing fiction is and always has been easy: all you need is a bit of pencil and a grubby piece of paper and Bob’s Your Uncle. But in some ways, it’s a better time than ever to get into getting your fiction published. There are so many excellent venues out there, worldwide, that can be discovered by readers and writers alike via the internet. On the flip side, there are more writers actively competing for those venues, and the general level of writing out there – in terms of both concept and craft – is extraordinarily high.

My best advice to new writers is not at all new, but is also not at all as adhered to as you might think: read a lot, write a lot. Writing is at least partially a craft, and as such requires practice. As such it is far more useful, I think, to write a dozen complete short stories than slog through, for example, an incomplete 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo.

As part of the ‘Hand in Hand’ fund-raiser for the Shared Worlds teen writing camp I added the advice: “Your story is not done until you have told it to someone you would not trust with your life.”

That’s a heavy-handed way (so to speak) of saying: send your stories out! Submitting a story to a magazine is thrilling, terrifying, frustrating, and an essential part of writing, and every rejection is a badge of honour and a goad to keep writing.  ‘The Telling’ was rejected five times before finding a home at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which is actually on the low side for me; I’ve sold stories that have been rejected a dozen times. So send your stories out, and distract yourself from the agonizing wait by writing more.

Workshops and writing groups and courses and books on writing all have their place, though for every excellent resource like VanderMeer’s Wonderbook or Delany’s About Writing, or fantastic programs like Clarion or Shared Worlds, there seem to be many that simply repeat received wisdom and dubious rules. Be selective in your influences, particularly when they want your money.

Oh, and absolutely take every chance you get to talk to working writers. My experience has been that writers  in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres are astonishingly generous and helpful. Please be respectful of their time and energy – even full-time writers struggle to find quiet moments in which to write – but when the opportunity arises, be it through a convention, a book tour, or a workshop, seek them out and listen to what they have to say.

Given that you’re involved in various creative fields at any given time… what’s next for you?

2013 has been a great year for me, with a science fiction story and a yeastpunk fantasy in Asimov’s and upcoming stories at Unlikely Story and Kaleidotrope. I’m actively working on a couple of wonking huge, complex fantasy novellas and a handful of other stories, as well as venturing back into screenplays with some of my concept artist friends. And I am finally pondering a few ideas for novels.

But I am sure I will get distracted: e.g. an idea for another short animation came to me in the middle of the night this week, a sort of pas a deux for two flying skulls, based on an ambient musical piece I did a few years back, which in turn was inspired by a speech by Amelia Earhart. I refuse to make grown-up plans, or rather, I am helpless at doing so. I’ll just keep playing, and being surprised.

Be sure to check out a brand new story by Greg Bossert in this month’s issue ­– coming to your screens very soon! For more on Greg Bossert’s work – log on to his website.