An Interview with Alex Shvarstman

Alex Shvartsman was kind enough to drop by today to talk about his debut collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories. First off, introductions, which I will accomplish by shamelessly stealing from Alex’s author bio…

Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer. His adventures so far have included traveling to over 30 countries, playing a card game for a living, and building a successful business. Alex resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son. Since 2010, Alex  sold over 70 short stories to a variety of magazines and anthologies. His fiction has appeared in such venues as Nature, Daily Science Fiction, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, and many others. Find him online at www.alexshvartsman.com

ACW: Congratulations on the publication of Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma! Can you give readers a sense of the kind of stories they’ll find in this fine collection?

explaining cthulu cover

AS: I started writing in 2010 and hadn’t gone in for doing what the popular kids do and writing a novel. Instead, I hunkered down and wrote lots and lots of short stories. Gathered within this book is my best work, but it is not unified by genre or style.

In this collection you will find Vatican investigators charged with verifying miracles in outer space, fraudster magician taking on Donald Trump, a cybernetic assassin who can’t feel pain, and a kabbalist who teams up with a hacker to break into the metaphysical Book of Fate.

There are humorous stories and really dark ones, urban fantasy and space opera, serious examination of issues like free will, immigration, and ones’ humanity alongside terrible cat puns.

Most of these stories have previously appeared in professional publications (though there is a pair of brand-new tales), a number of them made Tangent Online Recommended Reading lists, and the title story won the WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction last year. It is my hope that every reader will find something to like in this book.

ACW: I frequently find titles to be the hardest part of a story. However, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma strikes me as the kind of title just begging for a story. Which came first, the title or the tale?

AS: In this case, the title definitely came first. Fellow writer and friend Sylvia Spruck Wrigley tweeted that she was having a difficult time explaining Cthulhu to grandma, and I immediately responded that it would make for a great story title. She graciously allowed me to use it, and the story unfolded from there.

 ACW: What do you find appealing about playing with Lovecraftian themes? On a related note, what do you find appealing about combining horror and humor?

AS: I’m actually not a fan of Lovecraftian fiction. Sorry! In fact, the title story was, in many ways, my examination of what the heck all these other folks find appealing about the sub-genre. I put poor Cthulhu through many indignities. He’s stuck in a pocket dimension shaped like a snow globe, and at one point grandma wants to sell him off by the pound to the sushi chains.

And while I’m being cantankerous here, let me also say that I don’t believe humor and horror can be combined well in fiction. The idea of a horror story is to evoke dread, and the idea of a humor story is to elicit the exact opposite response. So I cringe inwardly when people refer to ‘humorous horror’ as a thing. Which is not to say that you can’t tell a funny story featuring vampires and zombies and other horror tropes — or tell a wonderful tale utilizing dark humor. In fact, dark humor is the focus of my next anthology. However, I wouldn’t consider too many of my own stories to fall within this category.

 ACW: In addition to your writing, you’re also an accomplished editor, with titles including the Unidentified Funny Objects series, and Coffee. Do your writer brain and your editor brain play well with each other? Are there ways in which knowing both sides of the process help you, or hinder you when you’re wearing either the writer or editor hat?

AS: The editor and writer brains play wonderfully together: which is to say, editing is a great excuse not to write. Whenever there’s a writing deadline I’m inclined to edit and read slush and do a million other things involved with putting an anthology together, and when the anthology deadline looms I find myself wanting to pour a story out onto the page. My (overall) brain is a total bastard that way.

Seriously though, reading submissions and working with authors to improve their stories and shepherd them toward publication definitely improves my own writing. I find flaws in others’ work that I later recognize and strive to avoid in my own. It also takes a bit of the sting out of rejections: having been on the other side of that experience really makes one appreciate the process, and drives the point home that editors are rooting for you and are super-excited to find the next great story. And sometimes, they have to reject submissions because of fit and word count and a dozen other factors that aren’t indicative of the quality of the story itself.

 ACW: As if writing and editing weren’t enough, you also translate fiction. How do you approach the translation process? Do authors come to you with translation requests, or do you seek out stories you love that you want English language audiences to read and suggest translations? How closely do you work with authors during the translation process? Are there certain things you feel just don’t translate from one language to another?

AS: I was born in the former USSR and Russian is my native language. As such, I frequently read fiction in Russian and love being able to share stories that I really enjoy with the English-speaking world. So far, I’ve been the one to approach authors about translating their stories (I haven’t been turned down yet!). Typically I read the Russian equivalent of the “Best Of” anthologies and contact authors whose work has impressed me.

I generally complete a translation through Espresso Translations services and then sent it to the author for approval, rather than involving them more deeply in the process, but this is because English and other foreign languages aren’t taught as well in Russian schools as math and sciences, and most of the authors I’ve worked with to date, while able to communicate in English, would have a difficult time with some of the nuances of translation.

The trick to translation is to try and maintain the voice and tone of the author instead of recasting the story into something Alex Shvartsman would write. It’s a fun process and while I only do translations occasionally, it’s something I would love to find more time for in my schedule.

 ACW: Switching topics a bit, I’m intrigued by the line in your bio about playing a card game for a living. Care to elaborate?

AS: I made a living as a professional Magic: The Gathering player in the late 1990s. I traveled to every continent and over 30 countries to complete in tournaments, and won over $100,000 over the course of my career. I also set the record for most Grand Prix top 8 finishes (21!) It took another player nearly a decade after I retired from professional play to overcome that record and, as far as I know, I still remain second on that list.

ACW: Going back to books, you’ve run successful Kickstarters for several of your projects now. What’s your secret?

AS: As part of my day job, I consult on Kickstarter campaigns for gaming companies, so I had a lot of knowledge about the platform and marketing going in, but I had to adjust and re-learn many things because book kickstarters are actually quite different from game ones.

The best piece of advice I can offer someone considering a crowd funding campaign is: make sure there is something unique about your project and give potential backers an excellent reason to be passionate about it. It could be a worthy cause (think Women Destroy Science Fiction) or just a cool item that backers would really want to own and that no one else has thought to create yet (like my Coffee anthology.) It’s much more difficult to fund a project that doesn’t stand out (yawn: another space opera anthology, or another zombie tome), even if the book is perfectly good otherwise. Want more advice? You can always hire me to consult on your next project!

ACW: Now that you’re well on your way to conquering the world of short fiction as author, editor, and translator, what’s next for you? Any plans for longer form fiction? What other projects do you have in the works?

AS: I’ve been working (very, very slowly!) on my first novel. It’s called Eridani’s Crown and my 10-second elevator pitch for it is: the setting of Game of Thrones meets the character arc of Breaking Bad. At my current pace, you can look forward to reading it by 2020. With any luck, I will find a way to write faster. Or slower, if interesting short story ideas, anthology projects, or translations get in the way!

ACW: Thanks for dropping by!

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