Saturday, February 13, 2016

Where Are They Now? Interview With S.T. Cartledge

by Lee Widener

Shane Cartledge is another writer that I first became aware of from working on The Bizarro Zombie Anthology That Wouldn't Die. His story of a zombie choo-choo train was one of the most original concepts in the book, and is indicative of his uniquely weird outlook. Here's a bunch of stuff I asked Shane, and a bunch of stuff he said in reply.

LW: How in the world did you get started writing?

SC: I've always been creatively inclined in one form or another. I grew up learning classical guitar and piano. I reached a limit there with the skills I could learn versus the practice and dedication to the art. Then I started playing around with music production using some very basic programs. That was where I started connecting with people online, and when my interest in making music waned I turned to writing. At that point I had just discovered H.P. Lovecraft and Palahniuk and a few other writers with a lust for violence and madness. That fed back into my own writing.

LW: Was it always weird shit?

SC: I don't think it was always weird. Before Bizarro I went through a lot of phases before I found my voice. After my terrible imitating Lovecraft phase and imitating Palahniuk I kind of got into steampunk. I read a small selection of steampunk books and tried writing one for my first NaNoWriMo. I was fascinated by cyberpunk and all the different offshoots of steampunk, and shortly after, I started reading manga and watching anime, and shortly after that, it was Bizarro.

LW: When did it turn weird, and why?

SC: A writing friend of mine came across Carlton Mellick's short story 'Candy Coated' online on Vice. She shared it with me knowing that I loved weird stories. I read it, loved it, found a few Bizarro titles that I liked, looked up a ton more, and I instantly knew that it was crazy weird and crazy fun. The first two books I bought were Satan Burger and Lost in Cat Brain Land. I read those in a day each and I scrambled back online for more. The more I read, the more I shared on Facebook. Some of the Bizarro authors I'd been reading connected with me on Facebook, and then I thought maybe there was a future in this for me.

LW: And how did this lead to your NBAS book?

SC: I started reading the NBAS from the second year. I read the details online and spoke briefly with Kevin Donihe about it. I had been working on a couple of stories and I had done a couple of online workshops to get more involved. I was doing a workshop with Garrett Cook which included a thorough description of the sort of process that Kevin Shamel was looking to go through to recruit new authors. Specifically, he wasn't after finished books, but high concept pitches which could turn into popular books. House Hunter was one of a whole bunch of ideas which made the cut. A lot of the first draft of House Hunter came together during that workshop.

LW: You mention taking a couple of workshops online. Who else did you take a class from in addition to Garrett? What are some of the things you learned in the workshops that you think helped you as a writer?

SC: I've taken three online workshops all up. One with Jeremy C Shipp, one with Garrett, and one was with Garrett and Bradley Sands. I think the biggest thing you can learn from a workshop is that you need to put the time and effort into writing if you want your writing to go somewhere. I feel like there's no big secrets to being a writer, there's just learning processes. Exercises help to motivate, and having mentors reading and commenting on your work is good preparation for what you need to do to make your writing stand out, and gives you some preparation for what it'll be like when it comes time to working with an editor. Writing is a solitary act, but when you take your manuscript to a potential publisher, it's good to have some support already, and knowing that finishing the manuscript is only the first step in a process that requires a lot of hard work.

LW: So tell us about your NBAS book House Hunter, and what it was like writing it.

SC: I feel like other bizarro authors probably get this a lot, but when House Hunter came out, I'd tell people it was a story set in a world where houses are living people, and one of the first things they'd ask in response was 'where do you come up with that?' or 'what made you think of that?' To me, these ideas may grow subconsciously from real things, but on a conscious level, they're born in a vacuum. I had the idea of setting an Alice in Wonderland inspired (and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind inspired) action adventure story in that world and it came together and I sent it to Shamel. Then came the edits. And I realised how much work there was left to go. At the time I was finishing up my degree and starting my honours thesis, and I think that pressure drove me crazy but I think it was necessary to get the story over the line. Day of the Milkman was a dream compared to that.

LW: Kevin Shamel was your editor?

SC: There were six NBAS authors and Kevin Shamel had five of us. Kevin Donihe had Gary. Shamel was great to work with, very supportive, great to talk to. He understood it all because he'd been through it.

LW: You mentioned that Kevin Shamel wasn't looking for manuscripts, but instead was looking for pitches that could be developed. What was that process like- moving from pitch to finished manuscript?

SC: You need to pitch the right thing to the right people or they won't care. It's important to think of your idea as a product, as a finished book, how it would stack up in the current book market. If you can't do that, it'll be a struggle to sell your book. But then you can find that pitch at any point when writing a manuscript, so really, each to their own, I guess. I think it is a process which helps focus your writing and gives you a clearer target in mind. I've had a lot of pitches floating around for a while now, and sometimes I take a few of them and blend them together, borrow ideas from one story to another. I don't get hung up on making this idea work if it's not coming together, and if it might fit better in a different scenario.

LW: What effect has having a book in the NBAS had on your life?

SC: It's opened the doorway to so many wonderful opportunities. I've met some fantastic people, shared some fantastic moments. Bought and read some amazing books. Got some free books from friends. Learned so much about writing and publishing. The NBAS feels like a faint glimmer of what your true potential can be. It's just there waiting for you to realise that the only difference between you and that other person is the amount of effort you put in. It's given me the permission to be ambitious, even if I fail one day, there's so many opportunities just waiting for people to take them.

LW: You live in Australia, but you came all the way to Portland for BizarroCon that year. That takes a lot of commitment.

SC: Connections and inspiration are the main things I took away from BizarroCon. I'd have to say knowledge was another big thing. There are so many crazy smart people there who got to where they are because they really knew their shit. I was a shy young author at the time, so I feel like I didn't make the most of the opportunities I had to really get to know people and form those stronger bonds, but years down the track, those bonds have become stronger and the insight and information I've gained have been a trickle-down effect. I'm constantly learning things, and it's brilliant. I just try to tiptoe carefully through the small press landscape, hoping I don't commit some tragic faux pas which will lead to my immediate career suicide.

LW: Did living in Australia present any special challenges either in the creation of your NBAS book or the promotion? Do you feel at all cut off from the Bizarro community, and if so, what have you done to counteract that?

SC: In the creation of the book, no. Promotion, yes. Do I feel cut off from the Bizarro community? Absolutely. I won't lie. It's rough. I met all these amazing people, and I've never seen them since. Some of them I talk to all the time. And I've made a lot of new friends since then. You talk to all sorts of different people online, you get a feel for who you click with. I tend to focus on that. Nurturing relationships with the right people. There's a lot of people I'd love to know better, and I probably would know better if I lived locally. And I'm still trying to figure out this promotion thing. That's the hardest thing I feel, not just about the NBAS, but about being a writer in this moment. It takes a lot of hard work. And not only that, but you need to be intuitive, to see the literary landscape for what it is and know how to tackle it so that you reach your readers. I'm always trying to write new books and trying to keep momentum going, build professional and personal relationships, keep my mind off missing the face-to-face contact I had at BizarroCon, and build a local presence. The hardest thing I've found is getting out into the real world and connecting with people in my home town. I'm getting there though.

LW: I have followed your efforts to promote your work at large book fairs in Australia with great interest. How did those events go for you, and do you have any ideas for other authors who might want to try similar events?

SC: I've done one major convention, a book launch, and a large toy/hobby fair. The convention and the fair were tough. The convention went pretty well due to the sheer number of people, but I feel like I'm yet to really harness the rabid nature of that demographic and pull them into buying bizarro books. I've been thinking about it a lot recently, how it feels less like some guy chasing his publishing dream and more about pushing my particular brand of fiction as a business. I think that will be the fuel that lights my fire going forward. Definitely the best event of the bunch was the book launch. I pulled in the right crowd, and sold more in one evening than I did in two full days in front of thousands of nerds, or than I do in many months of online sales. I think going forward, my advice would be to consider yourself as a brand, know your product and how to sell it. Keep it simple, and if there's not enough cool stuff on your table, find out what you need to bring people in and get it.

LW: What about life post-NBAS? What else have you published, what's on the horizon?

SC: I've published another novella through Bizarro Pulp Press, Day of the Milkman, which was received quite well. I recently self-published a poetry collection, Beautiful Madness, which has been doing awesome for me. I also had a novelette in the Strange Edge anthology, the Four Gentlemen of the Apocalypse. On the horizon I've got two manuscripts with two publishers at the moment. One is a trilogy of narrative poems and the other is a project I've been working on for the past 2-3 years. I usually struggle to define it, but it'll be my next novella/novel, and I once described it as 'a sprawling sci-fi/fantasy prose poem sort of thing, set in a giant enclosed city, following a gang of cyborgs and children as they fight lizard monsters and cosmic gods.' I think that's the best summary I've come up with to date. It's gonna be epic. I've also got a bunch of other projects and ideas floating somewhere in the pipeline, and I've got plans and hopes for working with a bunch of different publishers over the coming years, and I'm currently trying to start my own publishing endeavour, but I'm keeping that pretty quiet for the moment, until I'm ready to make that move in the (hopefully) near future.

LW: What about music? Is that still a part of your life? I took lessons briefly from my sister, who was a piano teacher, and I'm still sorry I didn't keep up with it.

SC: I don't play much any more, but I occasionally collaborate with musicians and I'll probably do a few projects in the future which will find their way online. If I can get my own piano some time in the next few years I'll probably pick back up on my music as a hobby. I think that'd be a good thing to be able to step away from the work of writing and the day job and the other life-things which have been taking up so much time of my life this year, which I know will continue well into the years to come. Life is busy, but life is good. A piano would be a good way to soothe the mind and break away from that hectic buzz.

LW: And now for the question I've been waiting to ask. It's certainly the most important topic, more important than than all this boring writing stuff. Have you ever been attacked by a dust bunny, and if so, how did you defeat it?

SC: Are dust bunnies real? I haven't been attacked by a dust bunny. Drop bears though... I was nine and camping when one fell on my tent. I had to fend it off with my emergency spoon. I think he regrets it though. He sent me a friend request on Facebook the other day. I haven't responded yet.

LW: Really? Dust bunny attacks in the USA are reaching epidemic proportions. Perhaps we should all move to Australia. Those drop bears sound terrifying though. Thanks very much for your time, Shane!

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