Photo by Liz Trombi
Who would have thought that Philadelphia has a history of housing some of the greatest minds in science fiction and fantasy? From Isaac Asimov to Michael Swanwick, Philly has provided a home for the most imaginative minds. One such imaginative mind belongs to Gregory Frost.
When he isn’t teaching creative writing workshops at Swarthmore College he is busy writing incredible science fiction. He’s contributed to Apex, Asimov’s, and Analog magazines, but he may be best known for the Shadowbridge duology of novels.
How did you know that you were a writer? Sadly, I read something about an apartment fire. Could you share that story please?
Oh, that story. Well, I suppose the first thing I should tell you is that I had spent my teen years drawing and writing my own comic books, none of which were original at all, but I had a hankering to become a comic book illustrator. I loved talents like Russ Manning, Carmine Infantino, Jack Kirby, and I thought I wanted to do that.
So jump ahead a couple of years and I’m a painting art history major at a small midwestern college. During the spring semester of my second year I took a night class in “creative writing.” The woman who taught it (whose name I regrettably cannot now recall) wrote for television and liked the fantasy genres herself. And I was hard-wired for the fantastic by nature. I started writing short stories, and the more I did that, the less I painted–one form of self-expression consumed another.
Then the 3rd year of art school, one day while I was in class, the gas heater in my apartment malfunctioned and set the place ablaze. It was full of charcoal sketches and oil paintings, which as it turns out burn incredibly well. Three years of artwork gone just like that. Meanwhile I’d been writing on a crappy little Royal typewriter on the kitchen table. The fire had blown out a window in the kitchen and somehow sailed up and over the table. It melted the typewriter into abstract art.
But the story manuscript I’d written, which was sitting on the table beside it, was intact. A bit brown at the edges, but perfectly readable. I requested of the powers that be that they show me no more signs, thank you. I got the message.
Your writing is very visual. Considering your background in art, do you ever sketch your characters or settings?
Yes, all the time. I started out doing portraits, so sketching what my characters look like always happens at some early point. Since I first-draft stories with a fountain pen, those very messy drafts are usually full of sketches.
I found out awhile back in reading up on F. Scott Fitzgerald that Zelda sketched the characters and outfits for him as he revised The Great Gatsby. Sometimes that’s very helpful. I know other people who’ll cast their novels.
The Clarion workshop is legendary for featuring the some of the best writing instructors in science fiction and fantasy. Who did you study under when you attended the workshop?
Oh. Well. Our first instructor was Samuel R. Delany. This was 1975, and his novel, Dhalgren, had just come out 6 months earlier. Dhalgren is without a doubt science fiction’s most complex metafictional construction, standing alongside things like Lawrence Durrell’s Tunq and Nunquam, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Beckett’s Trilogy, and so forth. I can’t say I understood the book, either; but it was staggering. Thus, for a twenty-three-year-old fantasist, to be introduced to him was kind of like meeting God.
What I remember in particular was the one-on-one meeting I had with him. He just dissected my story without mercy, leaving me no place to hide. It was simultaneously brutal and very gentle, saying in effect “Here is a great deal about writing that you don’t know yet–and it far outweighs what you think you know.” That’s an amazing gift to be given. He also set the routine for those six weeks, stamping his vision upon all that followed.
And what followed was more great writers: Joe Haldeman, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, Damon Knight & Kate Wilhelm. An astonishing line-up. Of them all, I believe Zelazny had the most influence upon me–if you’d asked me who I wanted to be, it would have been Roger writing Nine Princes in Amber. He and I became friends and corresponded a bit over the years afterwards.
What was it about early Irish literature that inspired you to write Tain and Remscela?
For that you’d have to blame a childhood friend of mine, Ric Johnson, who gave me a copy of a concept album by the Irish band Horslips of The Táin Bó Cúailnge (which translates as “The Cattle-Raid of Cooley”).
I became obsessed with it, read Kinsella’s translation over and over, went back to Lady Gregory’s retelling, which had inspired him; then started doing research into Bronze Age Celts, Druids, all of the historical research, and finally mapped out the route of the cattle raid and with a couple of friends bicycled it from the site of Connacht all the way to the massive hill fort of Armagh in Ulster.
And in the researching I found all of these scraps of stories about Cu Chulainn, which if laid out in a certain order seemed to tell the story of what happens to him after his famous defense of Ulster in The Táin, which is a story of a superhero who has chosen to exist for this one incredible event and now it’s happened, and he’s over and done at eighteen. That was, in some ways, much more interesting than The Táinitself.
Michael Swanwick told me that he was going to steal one of your novel ideas if you didn’t write the book yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about the Shadowbridge novels and how they became a reality?
Another concept that slowly grew into an obsession. But at some point where the thing had started to gel, I was having a glass of wine with Michael in back of his house. I remember it being a cold night but we’d gone outside, and he said, “What are you working on?”
So I described the notion of the world of Shadowbridge to him (at that point I had no definitive characters or even a plot). And there was a pause, and then out of the darkness Michael said, “If you don’t write that, I’m stealing it.” Well, that’s the glove thrown down. You have to respond. Granted, I spent about seven years on that, as I had on Táin and Remscela.
As you can see I am really not the poster child for success in publishing, where they want two books a year out of you. I’m far too ruminative. Or lazy. One of those.
Can you tell us a bit about any projects that you’re working on?
Right now I’m working on a novel that I’ve been carving away at for three years, effectively written it wrong twice. If there’s a wrong way to go about something, I almost always try that first.
And I’m right this minute working on a novelette for an anthology of stories based on Dave Stevens’Rocketeer graphic novels–so here I am, come full circle back to the comics.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers of science fiction and fantasy?
Read everything, and read it with an eye to stealing it. Even if it doesn’t make sense why it caught your attention, write it down or paste it into a notebook, because sooner or later you’re going to go creating a world, and some weird thing you read about the benandanti in Friuli or how cowrie shells were currency is going to become critically important.
And you won’t know it until it does. Likewise how someone writes a particular story. Unpack it, figure out how they accomplished it. Then it’s there for you any time you want to use it. But, finally, no matter how clever you are with words, be sure you tell a good story. That’s the most important thing.