Interview: Steve Rasnic Tem
Steve Rasnic Tem is an American author, primarily known for his work in the horror and dark fantasy genres. He has written numerous short stories, novels, and novellas, often exploring themes of horror, surrealism, and the human experience.
His writing is characterized by a unique blend of emotional depth and fantastical elements. Tem has received recognition for his contributions to the speculative fiction genre, and his works have been nominated for and received various awards, including the Bram Stoker Award.
Some of his notable works include “Deadfall Hotel,” “Blood Kin,” and “The Man on the Ceiling,” the latter co-written with his wife, Melanie Tem. Steve Rasnic Tem’s writing often delves into the psychological and emotional aspects of horror, offering readers thought- provoking and unsettling narratives.
Where are you from? What is your background?
I grew up in Lee County Virginia. If you look at a map of Virginia you’ll notice that it ends in a triangle on the western side. That’s Southwest Virginia. I grew up near the western point of that triangle, only a few miles from both Tennessee and Kentucky in the heart of the Southern Appalachians. Coal country. Isolated. A gorgeous but disadvantaged area. I remember as a child, before the major highways were constructed, before there was even a public library in the county, watching the news with Walter Cronkite and thinking that the events he reported were about as relevant to the people where I lived as the news from Mars.
But things did change. The county got a public library (and more importantly a bookmobile!) around the time I was in Junior High. Never underestimate the power of the public library. It blew my small life wide open. The last few years of high school I was submitting stories to Ted White at Amazing/Fantastic, although my first sales wouldn’t be until at least ten years later, after getting a BA in English from VPI and an MA in Creative Writing from Colorado State.
What inspired you to become a writer?
We didn’t have books in the house until my brothers and I begged for a series of children’s classics my parents bought from a travelling salesman. Those, and library books, developed my hunger for reading, and my fascination with books on shelves and paperbacks on wire racks at the drugstore. I grew up within an extended family of enthusiastic storytellers. I could think of nothing finer than writing stories which would be included in those books. I’ve done other things for work in my life, but I’ve enjoyed nothing more than putting words down. For years I made the majority of my living writing manuals and online Help for software companies, in addition to fiction writing of course.
What inspired you to write the novels In The Lovecraft Museum, Excavation, and The Mask Shop Of Doctor Blaack?
Excavation was my first novel. I’d published a couple of hundred short stories by then, but I’d never tried a novel. I wasn’t sure I could do it. For me, the pleasure in writing came from completing things. The delayed gratification of finishing a novel didn’t appeal that much. But other writers were telling me it was a necessary career move. I’d submitted a short story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. Marion liked the writing, but felt the content and momentum suggested a novel. After looking it over I agreed. After three months I had a draft, including everything I could think of including. After another month of judicious cuts I had a version which John Douglas bought for Avon.
The Lovecraft Museum was always intended to be of novella (or short novel) length. I actually think this is the best length for an extended horror tale. I’ve never been particularly influenced by Lovecraft, but I’ve been inspired by his themes. His tales involve a particular sort of paranoia I’ve always found compelling. After having made several trips to England and being fascinated by their different solutions for the same household technology issues Americans face, I began to see England as possibly a kind of alternate universe (and vice versa). So what better place to put a museum devoted to H.P. Lovecraft?
The Mask Shop of Doctor Blaack, my only middle grade novel, began as a series of writing exercises I did on various old computers: the Commodore 64 and 128, the TRS-80 Models 3 and 100, and a couple of others.
I’ve always loved children’s books and I love Halloween. It just seemed appropriate to write a children’s book on computers which seemed to primarily appeal to children, with their colorful old-fashioned screens and big block lettering. I’d export the text via some clever cabling from one computer to the next, adding more of the story with each new computer I used. The final text was a huge challenge to clean up. I felt bad for the copyeditor who had to deal with this project.
You’ve been compared to great surreal writers such as Kafka, why do you think surrealism is a tough thing for people to accept as an art form, especially in film and fiction?
The average human being has a rather narrow view of what is rational, of what makes sense. That’s necessary, I think, for ordinary, everyday functioning. Who wants a surrealist accountant, or a surrealist airline pilot? For me, surrealism provides another source for metaphors for those things we can’t actually put our hands on, metaphors I can use to describe dreams, ambiguous emotional states, and liminal events. It’s a tool useful for creative artists of all kinds, but not particularly useful anywhere else. And it’s not easy to use—it’s highly subjective. A surreal image may mean different things to different audiences/readers. As a writer or visual artist you have to figure out what these images mean to you, and present them in ways that an audience (sometimes a relatively select audience) can apprehend them. Editing this kind of material is quite difficult. You have to develop an ear/eye for it.
There’s a great quote from Joe R. Lansdale about you, “Steve Rasnic Tem is a school of writing unto himself.” Are you comfortable with praise like that and criticism?
I’m not all that comfortable with praise. I grew up in a small southern town where bragging was frowned upon. Also, from an early age I saw my creative output as the only thing which was wholly mine, and any comment on it whatsoever embarrassed me a bit.
I’ve come a long way since then, but I’m still most comfortable just sending my work out there and what happens, happens. I do promote—I think you have to. I’ve simply made that an automatic process—I do the promotion I need to do when something comes out, and then periodically to remind people of my back catalog, but I try not to dwell on it. I simply so what needs to be done.
Every writer needs to get to the point where they’re their own best critic. Criticism is fine (and you should never take it personally or god-forbid answer it) but no one knows your process or your intentions better than you do, so critiques are likely to miss the mark in some way or the other. But they’re still valuable information—some more than others. They are (hopefully) someone’s honest reaction to your work. What you have to learn how to do is translate that critique into something that relates to your aesthetics and intentions.
What advice can you give to new writers?
New writers need to read, not only in their own genre but in other genres as well. Read the classics, read the literary journals, read the horror mags and anthologies, etc. I tell short story writers to read a thousand short stories—conscientiously—paying attention to how the writer begins and ends the story. What’s the strategy involved? Beginnings and endings are problematic for a lot of new writers and yet they have a wealth of technique at their disposal if they’ll just read conscientiously. Do the same with structure—how did the writer organize the story? How did the writer move from scene to scene and what was the purpose of those scenes?
The other thing that happens when you read deeply and widely is you get a sense of what is possible in storytelling. The approaches for telling stories, the types, the models, etc. You can’t really know what’s possible until you’ve experienced it.
How do you feel about the current state of genre fiction?
Simply put, there are more good writers of genre fiction now than I can remember during all my time as a reader and writer.
Do you think your environment, past area you’ve lived in, has an effect on your writing?
It always does. But the strange thing, and I’ve heard something similar from other writers, is that often you can’t write about a place effectively until either you’ve left it, or after you’ve lived in that place for an awfully long time. Distance is required, however you can acquire it. I also believe the landscape you’re in heavily influences the interior landscape of your imagination, which transforms the fiction you’re writing.
It’s also sometimes true that you write differently in different writing spaces. It’s at least worth an experiment.
What was the oddest thing you’ve ever been asked to do in your career as a writer?
Nothing particularly strange on the fiction side (except for the stories themselves), but during my day job as a technical writer I had all kinds of strange assignments. I maintained the technical specs for a major manufacturer’s plywood. I wrote online help for programs which designed wood frame homes. I wrote the documentation for a digital version of the I Ching. I wrote a letter informing employees they were about to lose the use of their company-provided trucks. And I wrote the manual for software which kept track of every vehicle in an auto junk yard, including every part on each of those vehicles.
What projects are working on now?
This year will see the release of Rough Justice from Centipede Press, collecting all my crime stories. I’m putting together another general horror short story collection, and I’m also working on a 27-story cycle of related tales called Queneau’s Alphabet.