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An Interview with Mike Allen

Mike Allen was kind enough to drop by my blog today to talk about his latest collection, The Spider Tapestries, among other things. The Spider Tapestries is out on March 1, but there’s a Goodreads giveaway going on right now, so after you’re done reading Mike’s interview, head on over and enter for your chance to win. Now, to get things started, as I frequently do, I will shameless steal Mike’s author bio by way of introduction…

Spider TapestriesMike Allen edits the critically-acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix and the long-running magazine Mythic Delirium. His books include post-apocalyptic dark fantasy novel The Black Fire Concerto and career-spanning poetry collection Hungry Constellations. Mike’s stories have popped up in places like Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthologies Cthulhu’s Reign, Solaris Rising 2 and Tomorrow’s Cthulhu. His poetry has won the Rhysling Award three times, and his fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. By day he works as the arts and culture columnist for the daily newspaper in Roanoke, Va., where he lives with his wife Anita, a goofy dog, and two cats with varying degrees of psychosis. You can follow Mike’s exploits as a writer at descentintolight.com, as an editor at mythicdelirium.com, and all at once on Twitter at @mythicdelirium.

First of all, welcome and congratulations on the publication of your latest collection! I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at The Spider Tapestries, but for those who haven’t, would you care to provide a taste of what’s in store?

Thanks, Alison! The Spider Tapestries samples my writing at its absolute weirdest. It’s funny for me to say that, because just about all of my published stories were born in Bizarreland. But these seven stories (and I always wanted it to be seven, I think because of the rhythm of “Seven Strange Stories” as a subtitle) represent the tales where I pushed hardest against the boundaries of what a story can hold –and in some instances, how a story can be told.

My first collection, Unseaming, had some wacky story structure and surreal plot developments, but I think all the tales in that book can be unambiguously classified as “horror.” While the stories in Spider Tapestries run amok through genre conventions. I tend to describe the book as “half as long as Unseaming and ten times weirder.”

You blend a lot of styles in The Spider Tapestries. One style I was particularly intrigued by was the weird-noir of Twa Sisters and Still Life With Skull. Could you talk about where that voice and world came from? Are there other stories set in this universe? Perhaps a whole story cycle, or even a novel?

“Twa Sisters” was the first, and it came about as a kind of kooky convergence. On the one hand, my buddy Patty Templeton introduced me to the art of Alessandro Bavari, whose astonishing photo-manipulations contain a whole cosmos of post-human decadence. One the other hand, my great friend Nicole Kornher-Stace dared me to write a story the way I write a poem. She was thinking in terms of my use of language, but that’s not the only tool I use in poetry. I’ve written a lot of ekphrastic poetry, and I’ve written concrete poems that arrange words in shapes on the page to convey sci-fi concepts, in deliberate tribute to works by Alfred Bester and Harlan Ellison.

So I decided to write an ekphrastic story based on Bavari’s imagery, and added concrete poetry techniques to convey how the two entities that live inside my first person narrator’s brain have independent points of view. I challenged myself to just make up the story as I went rather than work from an outline, which for some reason led to that mock-noir tone. That established the atmosphere for all that follows. I began “Still Life With Skull” as a lark and finished it for Ian Whates’s Solaris Rising 2 anthology, drawing more inspiration from Bavari’s work. It was a fun exercise: I assumed those surreal images were photographs of real events, and then tried to deduce the who and the why.

I have actually drafted a third story in the sequence, called “The Three-fold Feather,” that will probably end up as a novelette once it’s all spit-polished. I can’t fathom where I’m going to sell that story, but that’s a problem for another day.

In addition to your short fiction, you’re also an award-winning poet, a novelist, and a newspaper columnist. Do you have separate compartments in your brain for each type of writing, or do they all flow into one another? When you need a break from writing all together, are there other creative (or non-creative) outlets you turn to in order to recharge your batteries?

The different types of writing do require some compartmentalization, but not as much as you might think. Stringing together the paragraphs of a news story and stanzas of a poem can be remarkably similar, for example. Often, both are non-linear in structure, and I’m writing them with a mind toward juxtaposing elements so they convey maximum information and impact. When I’m writing a story, I don’t concentrate near as much on cadence and quirky word choice as I do with a poem, and yet, if I had a dime for every response to my work that included some variant on “You can tell the dude’s a poet” … I’d have a nice pile of dimes, heh.

I’ve quite deliberately maneuvered things so that darn near everything I do in my life connects to writing in some way. I love hiking and I’m something of a movie snob, and that might well be about the sum of what there is to know regarding how I spend my time…

On a somewhat related note, you also edit Mythic Delirium, which in its current iteration is a magazine of prose and poetry, and the Clockwork Phoenix anthology series. Do you ever sleep? Or, to put it in a slightly more seriously, how do you balance all your projects? Does your editorial work influence your writing, or vice versa?

I didn’t graduate college with any ambitions to become an editor. In 1995 an acquaintance asked me to edit an anthology, claiming he would provide the funding. This turned out to be a lie, but I had already acquired all the stories and poems before I figured this out! I finished the project on my own dollar, and on the scale of what could be expected from a self-published, Kinko’s-copied, saddle-stapled book in that era, it was a success that actually opened some doors for me. That book , New Dominions, is long forgotten, but it showed me that I could pull off that kind of project. So I kept pursuing them.

How do I balance them? Quite poorly! I do sleep occasionally though.

My writing and editing do cross-pollinate, but it’s difficult to explain exactly how. As an editor, I get introduced to writers who are working well outside the mainstream (some of them I catch while they’re still on their way toward re-defining the mainstream). That’s great for me, in terms of discovering creative regions to explore that are new to me. As a writer myself, I know what my hopes are in terms of how an editor will treat my work, and so I use those as guidelines for how I approach editing. I think my tastes as an editor are significantly different from my tastes as a writer, though: more breadth of subject matter, more light to balance the darkness, fewer monsters and corpses.

At conventions, you have been known to roam the halls wearing a truly fabulous hat. It looks like the kind of hat with a story behind it. Is there a story, or is it the sort of thing where if you told me, you’d have to kill me?

Alas, the hat you reference has vanished into the aether! A natural outcome, I suppose, for a gift from a Goblin Queen (i.e. Amal El-Mohtar, co-editor of Goblin Fruit). My wife, Anita, must be given due credit for having added more and more decorations to that hat until it achieved extreme fabulousity — everything on it referenced something I had written. A replacement may be in the works.

I have no doubt that the new hat will be every bit as fabulous as its predecessor! Anyway, now that your second collection is out in the world, what are you working on next?

I am revising a novel, Trail of Shadows, that’s an expansion of one of my stories from Unseaming, “The Hiker’s Tale.” I’m also busy promoting my newest anthology, Clockwork Phoenix 5, which you know as you contributed an awesome story to its pages (he said with a grin).

Aww, shucks! You’re too kind. Thank you for stopping by!

Thanks for letting me do so!

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