An Interview with Josh Rountree

Josh Rountree was kind enough to stop by today to talk about his new collection, Fantastic Americana, published by Fairwood Press. To kick things off, allow me to introduce Josh by way of his author bio.

Josh Rountree writes horror, fantasy, science fiction, and whatever else sounds good at the time. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Realms of Fantasy, Bourbon Penn, PseudoPod, PodCastle, Daily Science Fiction, and A Punk Rock Future.

His second short fiction collection, Fantastic Americana: Stories, will be available August 10, 2021, from Fairwood Press.

Josh lives in Texas and tweets about records, books, and guitars @josh_rountree.

Fantastic Americana CoverWelcome, and congratulations on Fantastic Americana! It’s a really wonderful collection. Care to give folks a sense of the types of stories they’ll find in its pages?

Thank you! The collection contains a mix of genres: dark fantasy, weird science fiction, cosmic horror, alternate histories, and stories that live on the fringes. I have a couple of novelettes in the book, but all the rest are short stories, many of which appeared in magazines and anthologies over the last fifteen years. Two are original to the collection. There are stories here about wolves and witches, dark bargains, and magic portals; post-apocalyptic angel hunters and people living in fairy tale worlds of their own creation; ghost chickens, giants, rock stars, and well-intentioned demons; rocket ships to Mars and Cold War espionage at the end of time. Characters that may be fundamentally broken, but still keep hunting for hope.

Appropriate to the collection’s title, a theme that runs throughout is the mythologizing of America – taking real life historical figures and moments and making them larger than life, or on the flipside taking a classic tall tale such as the story of Paul Bunyan and making him more human. What keeps drawing you to this particular theme?

I love reading history, and I’ve always enjoyed writers who undercut the popular narrative of America and approach it from a more critical angle. Larry McMurtry is one of my favorite writers, and much of his fiction is about deflating they Hollywood built myth of Texas and the American West. As a sixth generation Texan, I can attest that we’re in love with our own history, and even today we have people in power who want to keep teaching the mythologized version of Texas and the West, instead of recognizing the more difficult historical truths.

I feel like a lot of these stories are about people getting stuck in certain times and places, and needing to move on without necessarily knowing how to do that. They all want to leave, to go someplace better, but they aren’t sure where that is. The story “Chasing America” is about Paul Bunyan on the run from giant killers, and it shows the giant getting smaller and smaller as the years progress, and the country seems to shrink along with him. Paul Bunyan is a walking talking representative of Manifest Destiny, and his actions continue to screw things up, no matter his intentions.

I also just think it’s fun to play around with historical figures and give them new stories. And I love mixing it all with twentieth century pop culture – fast cars, music, video stores, old moves, urban legends, whatever. Pulling this collection together, I realized that there are a few stories set in the future, a ton of stories set in the past, and only a couple that have a contemporary setting. I don’t think it’s just nostalgia that causes me to write about other times, but more a desire to rearrange all of these myths into something more relevant to today.

Music also plays a key role in a lot of your stories, and sometimes even the intersection between music and mythology where rock stars become literal legends. What role does music play in your life as whole? When it comes to writing specifically, how does music shape your stories? Do you listen to music as you write, or have a mental soundtrack in your head for certain stories? Have you ever written a story inspired by a song that puts your own interpretation or spin on a musician’s lyrics?

Music has a heavy influence on my stories for sure. I’ve been an obsessive music fan since I was a kid. I listen across a broad spectrum of styles, and read a lot of music biographies, so those work their way into my stories quite a bit. Most of the musicians I read about are pretty flawed, often because of the lifestyle required to reach the level of fame they’ve aspired to, and I think that makes them interesting characters to write about. They are sometimes broken, but always striving, and always driven.

I find it creepy how dying young is such a fast lane to eternal stardom. We don’t want these people to die, but when they do, we buy their records in droves. We make sure our kids are wearing tee shirts with their band logos. Our magazines commemorate the tenth, fifteenth, twentieth anniversary of their deaths. We’d rather have more music, but we console ourselves with the legend. We make these rock stars (and actors) part of the pantheon of America. And then, I guess, people like me write stories about them and perpetuate the myth. It’s pretty dark, but also kind of irresistible.

Unfortunately, I can’t listen to music while I write; I basically need silence or some sort of low background buzz like in a coffee shop. But I will often have songs in mind when I’m writing, or even have a specific song inspire a story. “Can’t Buy Me Faded Love” is an obvious example from my collection. This one basically came to me as a title, and I had to figure out a story to go along with it. But often it’s a little less concrete. I may set out to write a story that feels like a certain song makes me feel. That’s really hard to achieve, and I don’t think I ever have, but it sets me off in the right direction.

The stories in this collection include fantasy, science fiction, horror, and a good deal of genre blending. Do you have a favorite genre to write in? When you set out to write a story, do you do you do it with the intention of writing say, a science fiction story, or does the story come first and the genre, tone, and voice follow as the story unfolds?

I love writing in a variety of genres, and really, I consider anything with a speculative element fair game. On occasion I’ll set out to say, write a horror story, particularly if I may have a certain market in mind, but often, once the thing gets going, it sort of takes on a will of its own. At that point, I’m not going to jump in and force the story to be horror if what it really wants to be is near future science fiction. The horror idea I started out with will still live in the bones of that science fiction story, and hopefully the combination of the two is something better than I’d have come up with on my own.

I think some of my best stories happen when I combine genres, either on purpose or by happy accident. A few of the stories in the collection, I can’t say for sure whether they’re fantasy or science fiction or something else, and ultimately, I don’t think it matters. When I first started submitting my writing for publication, I was definitely targeting specific horror and fantasy markets, and I tried not to let the stories stray too far from the path. Eventually I gained more confidence in my writing and started weaving in some of the non-speculative genres that I love – westerns, crime, historical fiction. After that, I began having a lot more fun, and a lot more success. And though I’m a fan of science fiction, I never really considered myself a science fiction writer. But it kind of elbowed its way into the stories with everything else, and I’m surprised now at how many of my stories fall under that umbrella.

Fantastic Americana is your second collection. Your first collection, Can’t Buy Me Faded Love, came out over ten years ago. Did you find the process of putting together a collection different the second time around, either in terms of your personal approach, or in terms of the publishing landscape now versus then?

Yes, it was a completely different experience this time. One of the main differences is that most of the stories in Can’t Buy Me Faded Love were originals. I’d had some success selling to magazines and anthologies and had built up a backlog of stories that I realized all had some sort of musical element. This included a novella called “Indie Gods” that I had no clue how to market at the time. This was still in the waning days of self-addressed stamped envelopes for submissions, and frankly the prospect of marketing a standalone novella was a little daunting to me. But it fit in with the theme of these other stories I’d been writing, and I added a couple of reprints that I considered two of my strongest, and a collection was born. I had worked with Deborah Layne at Wheatland Press when she bought one of my stories for her phenomenal Polyphony anthology series that she edited with Jay Lake, and Wheatland was publishing some of my favorite writers like Howard Waldrop and Bradley Denton. We talked about it at a con, and Deb was kind enough to take a shot on a book full of what I guess could best be describes as rock and roll fantasies and alternate histories. And she got Howard Waldrop to write the introduction, which still kind of blows my mind. I’ll always be grateful.

But I came to Fantastic Americana with a different sort of collection in mind. I’ve been selling stories since 2002, and apart from the two stories I mentioned from my first collection, none of them had been reprinted. I love these stories but reading them would mean tracking down out of print anthologies, finding old magazine issues from years ago, or hoping they were available in web zine archives. I wanted for quite some time to collect my favorites into a new collection, so I made the shortlist of stories I wanted absolutely to include, added a couple of new ones that fit the spirit of the book, and I realized most of them fit very well with the theme of Fantastic Americana. I’ve always been a fan of Fairwood Press and the short fiction collections they’ve released over the last twenty or so years, and it was a dream come true to work with Patrick Swenson to produce this book.

Switching gears completely, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

I’ve never had any strange or interesting jobs, but I worked at a video store in the early nineties and that directly influenced me to write a story in the collection called “Rewind.” We were always in stiff competition against the larger chain store that had a bigger selection, and the grocery store next door that rented movies cheaper, so apart from weekend nights, that place would sometimes become a ghost town. It often felt like we were on the verge of going out of business, and that informed “Rewind” for sure. Apart from the lizard people, invading aliens, monster hunters, and mech suits, the story is a pretty good reflection of that place as I remember it. Not the worst job ever for a twenty-one-year-old who loves movies.

I also worked on my Grandaddy’s cotton farm when I was a teenager, and that influenced some of these stories as well. Until I put this collection together, I don’t think I realized how often sandstorms appeared in my writing. But growing up in West Texas and spending time out there in the fields, they seemed always to be lurking. It still feels very visceral to me, and that landscape tends to become a character of its own when I’m writing about that time and place.

Now that Fantastic Americana is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

I’m always working on new stories, and I have both a novella and a novel that I’m shopping, so fingers crossed something good will happen with those. Later this year I have a new story appearing in the third issue of the fantastic new magazine, Weird Horror, published by Undertow Publications. It’s called “A Red Promise in the Palm of your Hand” and is another in a loose series of dark fantasy stories set in nineteenth century Texas. If you enjoy “February Moon” and “The Guadalupe Witch” in my collection, you might like this one as well. I’m having fun with these, and plan on writing more.

Thanks for stopping by!

And thank you for the opportunity!!

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