December 2005

Geoffrey H. Goodwin


An Interview with Paul Bates

When asked for a photo to put next to his interview, Paul L. Bates responded with,I'll try to find a recent photograph in which I do not appear embalmed.” It may not be the best place to start talking about his debut novel, Imprint, but it gives an idea of how he sees things.

The next e-mail (with the twenty-year-old picture) apologized with, “I have nothing recent that doesn't look like either a heart-wrenching plea for fiber by the truckload or else significant grounds for suing the mortician for very big bucks.” This was followed by an offer to find a photo booth or make a copy of his driver's license.

Paul L. Bates has been in the small press writing trenches for fifteen years, finally selling this book to Five Star Publishing, an imprint of Thomson Gale, who sells over half their books through standing library orders.

Imprint is a dark and descriptive work, less of a thriller (though there's an ample measure of kisses and punches) than an all-out immersion into Wyatt Weston's responses and reactions to a fallen, post-apocalyptic world. The poor and desperate survivors get jammed into a single overcrowded city, while the wealthy and privileged live in a protective dome called “The Heartland.” Victor Crist, a powerful construction mogul, bumps into Wyatt on public transportation and offers him a job as a bodyguard and mercenary.

In somewhat Blade Runner (though slightly less Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) fashion, Wyatt learns why his society embraces collective amnesia.  Or, more accurately, Wyatt discovers where the denial comes from, but still doesn't see it. He's better off viewing the destroyed world from one remove. The answers Wyatt finds aren't the ones he was looking for or wanted to find, and Imprint's successful because of it.

On a bookgeek note, unlike most SF covers, Imprint's dust jacket actually shows the world that's described in the book. Probably because of Five Star's library connection, knowing that the cover might be worn apart by repeated borrowing, a stunning version of the artwork is printed right on the book. Prints of the cover can even be purchased here.

Photographs of Paul L. Bates on the other hand, are harder to find.

Imprint is your first published novel. How long have you been in the trenches?

I wrote my first poem around forty-five years ago, my first short fiction the following year. Most of that stuff is long gone, save a poem that won the high school literary magazine poetry prize a few years later, and some of the stuff I wrote in college. To be perfectly honest, at least twenty-five years of the forty-five were lost to writer's block. I had a spurt of literary activity in the late seventies that convinced me writing was what I wanted to do. Wrote about a dozen short stories and my first novel during that time. Couldn't sell any of it. Took another decade off before I found my muse around 1990 and have been plugging away ever since. The quantitative output since 1990 has been eight novels, seventy-odd short stories, and maybe a dozen poems. My standing joke has been that if Imprint is successful, I will become the geriatric poster boy for better-late-than-never success stories.

Wow, nine novels in total.  Did you ever consider giving up?

Writer's block is giving up, although not necessarily consciously. So yeah, I've given up lots of times -- for lack of inspiration. But wilt in the face of critical rejection --not really. I've rejected some of the things I later came to love, so I'm always hopeful that attitudes will change.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

It's more like favorite books than writers, but JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, Alexandra David-Neel's My Journey to Lhasa and Magic and Mystery in Tibet, some of Carlos Castaneda's books -- especially Journey to Ixtlan, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, and Clifford Simak's Way Station and Time and Time Again are among my favorites. All-arounders, however, would have to be Kafka, Borges and Lovecraft.

What does it take to build an alternate / speculative world that doesn't fall apart?

I see people as an integral part of their environments, so the environment and the people form a single unit. Modern man has adopted the rather ugly view of man passing through his environment rather than being part of it, which I think is utterly false and why we've made such a mess of the real thing. My characters are bound to their worlds, even disaster worlds like the one in Imprint. The characters shape their worlds and the worlds shape their characters.

Where else has your work appeared?

Small press venues. Possibly the names most likely to be recognized include Literal Latte, Lynx Eye, and The Chrysalis Reader.  Recently I've had some short fiction published in Zahir, Here & Now, and the SFF Net anthology Beyond the Last Star.

You've described your work as slipstream. Bruce Sterling suggested using this phrase to describe the "kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel." Presuming that the early twenty-first century is stranger still, is this what you're describing?

If I had to put a date on the events taking place in Imprint, I'd put it in the mid-twenty-third century.The city took many years to build, and has presumably been complete for over a century and a half. The wars, plagues, famine and universal social collapse which caused it to be built, however, would have taken place in the early twenty-first century, to be sure. The actual building of the city figures in the "sequel" to Imprint, called Dreamer. Hopefully there will be a demand for it.

Interesting, it's as if you've projected millennial tensions out a few centuries. And, of course, good luck with the sequel. Then, in an attempt to further clarify the term, how do you, personally, define slipstream?

Rightly or wrongly, the term means "blending of genres" to me, hopefully as an utter disregard for the boundaries created to define/limit/maintain whatever those boundaries mean to whoever lords those limitations over the rest of us and not simply as a mishmash of vampire-gun-slinging-space-lonely-heart-detectives.  I mean, someone wrote the first "mystery," the first "western," the first "horror," the first "fantasy," the first "romance," the first "science fiction."  Apparently someone else wanted more, and more and MORE.  Literary gluttony.  At their best, genre limitations aid authors to find their markets; at their worst they force silly limitations upon our creativity. 

Based on your writing, and with eight novels and seventy stories written in the past fifteen years, you seem acquainted with what might be called ritual.  What's your writing practice and process like?  Do you do it every day?  Pace in circles?  Scream into pillows?

The stuff I write as an exercise to meet any sort of arbitrary parameters such as daily output, or proof that I can make something absurd interesting turns out pretty brown pretty quickly. I belonged to a writer's group for a number of years that began its meetings by having the members take a "fortune cookie" line from a piece of published work as starting point, then develop it for twenty minutes. We each read what we had written aloud. I found I could always surprise, get a laugh or draw at least one gasp. But I also found that none of the written material was even slightly usable as a foundation on which to build anything of interest to me. It was kind of like a pianist doing elaborate keyboard finger exercises to strengthen his hands -- not the stuff he plays in public. So the short answer to your question is that I haven't got a ritual, apart from finding the inspiration to begin in any way I can, and failing that, to simply have the patience to let it find me. I guess I like my magic based on synchronicity rather than ritual. Soaking in a tub full of very hot water and plumbing my own depths is probably the closest thing to ritual I do, and then only when I know the idea is ready to gel.

You purchased the original artwork that was used for Imprint's cover.  You must have liked it. 

I loved it. Alan Clark is a masterful artist. We worked together for six weeks, discussing possible subjects, ways of presenting them before he began painting. I got the sense that Alan went about his art much the same way I approach my writing. Nice to know you're not the only fish swimming upstream. His website is worth a visit.

Imprint is written in the third-person and the present tense, but it's all seen through Wyatt Weston's eyes. What are his best and worst characteristics?

Wyatt's best characteristics, in my opinion, are his brutal honesty and his willingness to gut out anything to get at the heart of the matter regardless of the consequences.  His worst are his brutal honesty and his willingness to get to the heart of the matter regardless of the consequences.

As a follow up -- you've implied that your book explores the cultural problem of our "phenomenal capacity for denial." What is it about Wyatt that lets him remember even though he's surrounded by a society that intentionally forgets?

His denial is of a very different sort than that of the other characters who are trapped by it. Their denial is very social -- his is very antisocial. Antisocial denial allows one to find all the pearls lying in the road that everyone else misses. Social denial allows one to find the string to hold those pearls together. 

Imprint's "disaster" world is treacherous and corrupt.  You've cited the influence of 1984 and Brave New World.  What made you want to explore such a dystopian vision?

It appears to me to be one possible future for the human race -- one last attempt to prove our superiority as a species in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

Is it accurate to say that poisons, not just the types that are ingested, compel the actions of most of your characters?

No. Unless, of course, human nature actually is poisonous. That is an interesting supposition.

How far have you gotten with the "sequel," Dreamer?

I've got what you might call a second draft completed. It is presentable, coherent, even somewhat polished, but probably needs a bit of work. It is paced very differently from Imprint, looking at things alternately from the viewpoints of Walter and Jennie -- very secondary characters in Imprint who actually figure prominently in the "big picture."