posted by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro at Thursday 26 January 2017 @ 6:50 pm BST
The journeys taken by my most recent novels from idea to completion have been lengthy and complex. Deadfall Hotel (Solaris, 2012) began as a novelette first published in Charlie Grant’s Shadows series in 1986. My southern gothic Blood Kin (Solaris, 2014) started with a few paragraphs written during my senior year in high school in 1968. And now comes UBO (Solaris, February 2017), a dark science fictional exploration of violence, begun during that eventful summer of 1969 (Woodstock, the first man on the moon, the Chicago 8 trial, the Manson murders and the Stonewall riots).
Generally speaking, I’m a “quiet” writer, preferring subtlety and understatement over graphic imagery, but violence has always preoccupied me–it’s that aspect of human behavior which troubles me most. So as I’ve done with all things which disturb me I’ve studied it obsessively, holding it close in order to keep it far away.
I began UBO at a time when I knew I wanted to be a writer but I had no idea how to become one. But I knew how to read and study, and although these activities had never kept me safe, at least they kept me occupied. I started collecting books on violence, reading extensively about its most iconic progenitors: Hitler, Himmler, Stalin, Jack the Ripper, et al, and I made copious notes for the novel I knew I would someday write.
I have no good excuse for the length of time many of my novels have taken. It’s not as if I worked on them every day. In part, I suspect, it’s because I fell in love with completion, and so I’ve built a career out of all those short stories (over 400 now) I’ve completed. Novels require a tolerance for delayed gratification. This is exacerbated by my tendency to drop the current novel every time an intriguing short story idea appears.
The other factor is that I’ve usually had a pretty good sense of both my abilities and my limitations. Although I’ve started many an ambitious project, I generally procrastinate until I believe I’ve acquired the skills necessary to do them justice.
And so it was with UBO (Except that wasn’t its name at first. Initially it had no name—it was just “that novel about violence.”) At the time it was first conceived I didn’t know how to write a decent short story much less tackle a novel. And so I continued to read, and study, and dream.
A dream, in fact, gave me the title, and the first hints at some sort of narrative. I dreamed that I had awakened, and found myself flying through the air in excruciating pain. A giant insect had hooked its claws through my hands at the base of my thumbs, and looking around I saw hundreds of other people in similar straits. Eventually we passed the moon, and after a period of unconsciousness I witnessed our descent onto a structure either man-made or natural which resembled the letters “U,” “B,” and “O.”
By this point I had finished a Masters in Creative Writing at Colorado State and I had achieved some success at selling my short stories. In the early 1980’s I was invited to attend a “mini-Milford” writers’ workshop high in the mountains of Leadville, Colorado. Ed Bryant was the organizer, and like the original Milford workshop, both local and out-of-state professional writers would be offering up their work for discussion and critique. I decided to workshop the first few chapters of UBO.
It was an unusual experience. Leadville is over 10,000 feet above sea level. At some point they brought in oxygen tanks for our guests from the east coast, but even the Coloradans were struggling with the altitude. Between critiques writers were passing these tanks around. The night before we workshopped the fragment of UBO we went out for spicy Italian food. I woke up in the middle of the night with intense chest pain, thinking I was having a heart attack. Then I felt the acid rising in my throat. Later I would discover I had developed a hiatal hernia. I spent much of that night sitting in the cool windowsill gazing at the stars because somehow that comforted me.
Many of the attendees didn’t much like what I’d done with UBO, although most admired its ambition. Some questioned whether you could write about that kind of violence in any palatable way. Of course it was a different time then, but it was also clear that I still had some tonal challenges to solve. Writers like Ed and Connie Willis and James Kelly and John Kessel had useful suggestions which I would eventually use in my rewrite of those chapters. And the book did have its champions, Dan Simmons and Carol Emshwiller among them.
I continued to work on UBO for the rest of that year. Our two youngest children were 7 and 5 at the time. My daily schedule was to work on UBO for about half the day, as deep in the minds of the Himmlers and the Stalins and the Rippers as I could go, and then go take care of my kids, playing games and reading them stories. Eventually the discrepancy between these two worlds was too much for me—I wasn’t up to the task either psychologically or technically—and I put UBO aside. But I continued to read, and study, and dream about the violent content of that book.
I’m not sure exactly why, but in 2014 I picked it up again. I did feel more skilled as a novelist, and I better understood some of the character and descriptive choices necessary to make it readable for a more general audience. I’d also written a brief description of UBO that was apparently intriguing enough that my editor Jonathan Oliver wanted to see an outline. Novel outlines were something I’d discovered with Deadfall Hotel—much to my surprise they made a morass of inspirational materials much more manageable. I would also soon be 64 years old. What if I didn’t live to finish it?
And I must confess—I was ready to get rid of all those violent research materials. I wanted the shelf space for new and more pleasant things. So I created a “physical outline.” I sorted all those books according to subject matter (types of violence, historical figures covered, etc.)—hundreds of them—into piles on a table along with folders full of notes. I then started removing stacks of materials which represented characters and sub-themes I didn’t think would fit into the full narrative I was imagining. A dozen or more volumes on Hitler were the first to go. I played with the ordering of the piles for a while. Then I looked at the historical characters more closely. I tried to pick a day or an event in Stalin’s life, in Himmler’s life, etc. which best embodied the themes and the traits I wanted to accentuate. Once the research materials and story notes roughly resembled the novel I wanted to write I recreated that physical outline on a few dozen single-spaced pages. All that remained was to write, and read, and study, and dream, and write some more until I found the right scenes and the right language to fill in the holes so that this 46-year-old project could be delivered to the world in February.
About the Author
Steve Rasnic Tem’s last novel, Blood Kin (Solaris, 2014) won the Bram Stoker Award. His new novel, UBO (Solaris, February 2017) is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such historical viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper, Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler. He is also a past winner of the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards. Recently a collection of the best of his uncollected horror—Out of the Dark: A Storybook of Horrors—was published by Centipede Press. A handbook on writing, Yours To Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Fiction, written with his late wife Melanie, will appear soon from Apex Books. Visit the Tem home on the web at: www.m-s-tem.com