I’m enjoying the great stories I read for this series of interviews and always come away from the Cirsova author conversations with appreciation for their work and backgrounds. I’m always learning something new and this week’s post with Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is no exception.
As always, we go far and wide. Uitvlugt’s knowledge of many things Japanese had me certain he had spent time there but he surprised me by saying he had never been. This was surprising as I have spent some time there but during our conversation he revealed many interesting things. He takes me deeper into haiku than the generally known 5-7-5 syllable structure, passes knowledge on how Japanese told time and I now have some reading to do on ancient board games. Once we move on, there’s even a link to furry science fiction horror. Didn’t know that existed. An excellent and insightful conversation.
In Cirsova Magazine you can find Donald’s work in the first and fourth issues. He won’t appear in this year’s editions but told me he would definitely be submitting to Cirsova in the future. You can find much of his other work in the list compiled below:
TheWritersArena.com (on hiatus this year):
http://thewritersarena.com/snapshots-by-donald-jacob-uitvlugt (one of Donald’s personal favorites)
Donald’s standalone stories available on Kindle…..
…..to include many that have the “free on KU” options:
https://www.amazon.com/Roll-Bones-Donald-Jacob-Uitvlugt-ebook/dp/B004OA6CPE (contains “Odin’s Last Boon“)
https://www.amazon.com/Things-Times-Richard-Farren-Barber-ebook/dp/B017T03064 (“Mr. Ted,” Donald’s personal favorite horror story)
https://www.amazon.com/Kzine-Issue-2-Graeme-Hurry-ebook/dp/B007207FWM (“Remote Control“)
https://www.amazon.com/Trenches-Psychological-Impact-War-ebook/dp/B010L7FTCU (contains Donald’s poem “Good Dog“)
Donald has a Twitter presence:
And a blog:
Scott Cole: In your blog you describe haiku fiction as “small stories with big impact”. Is there more to it than saving time with brevity and precision?
DJU: “Haiku fiction” is something I’m still in the process of defining, but here’s the short version.
The phrase came to me in an introspective moment, when I was trying to articulate what was unique about my voice as a writer. I like to write in a lot of different genres, including genre mash-ups. “The Hour of the Rat” is fantasy, “In the Sands of Rubal-Khali” planetary romance. But in addition to more-or-less straightforward science fiction, fantasy, and horror, I’ve also written weird westerns, Lovecraftian cyberpunk, and steampunk mysteries for younger readers. The ongoing “Trashling Tales” series on my blog might be considered urban (or perhaps landfill) fantasy, and my most recent story to see print is in an anthology of furry science fiction horror.
So I write a wide range of speculative fiction. Yet I’m a single person. Across that range, I felt there had to be some unifying principle, or at least a unifying set of features that made all of these stories mine. “Haiku fiction” came to me as the answer. It’s a set of techniques I use in my work no matter what genre I write, as well as the mindset in which I try to write. I don’t use every technique in every story, but this way of looking at fiction helps make the different sorts of stories I write my own.
One might categorize the techniques in my stories as falling under “small stories” or “big impact.” For me, even the most universe-spanning space opera or continent-crossing epic fantasy is always going to be a story about people. A tight focus on the individual makes even the largest canvas small. By small I also mean that I try to write clear, unvarnished prose. No chapter-long depictions of setting or Ciceronian sentences that go on for a page and a half. I try to keep the language clear, letting the nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting and making each adjective and adverb intentional. I don’t want my writing to feel at all “writerly.”
I try to achieve “big impact” by writing stories which connect emotionally to my readers, and also by writing stories that reward re-reading. I like telling stories indirectly, where the reader has to do a little work to completely understand what’s going on. I like planting deep cultural allusions in my stories. I feel this adds to the depth of my worlds. Even if every reader may not get every reference, I hope they will find the richness of that kind of writing rewarding.
“The Hour of the Rat” is a good example of what I’m trying to do. The opening haiku is meant to evoke a tone from the very beginning: a small creature encounters a vast world of culture about which it knows nothing. Nezumi finds herself in exactly the same situation.
The haiku also sets up a series of cross-linguistic word play: it contains the word “nezumi,” also the name of the point-of-view character. The word can be translated either “mouse” or “rat.” This calls back to the title. The “hour of the rat” in the medieval Japanese way of telling time refers to a two hour period roughly corresponding to European midnight. So the hour of the rat is not only when the story takes place, it also indicates it is Nezumi’s moment to shine.
I also am trying to tell the larger story—that of the cosmic struggle between the Spider and the Serpent—in an oblique fashion. The reader enters the broader world of the story with Nezumi and gradually pieces it together with her.
Yet on the other hand, it is a very straightforward tale of revenge. It comes down to people, the choices they make, and the consequences of those choices. Cosmic reverberations in a story of specific individuals.
SC: Off topic, but I’m interested in the means the Japanese told time in feudal times. How did they determine the hours, by the moon or stars?
DJU: I know more about the language the Japanese used to reference time than the means they used to determine the hours. The evidence does suggest that, as in Europe, the absolute length of the hours would expand and contract depending on the time of the year, with this flexible time even being incorporated into mechanical clocks. That would suggest a sundial being used during the day, but I’m not sure the means used during the night. Cities would have a bell tower that would ring out the hour, but how did the ringer know when to ring the bells? I’m not sure.
Interestingly, for set periods of time, the medieval Japanese would burn candles or wicks with knots tied in them. The amount burned would indicate the time passed. The high-end brothels would even charge their customers according to how many incense sticks were burned while the client was with the prostitute.
SC: Beyond the techniques mentioned do you attempt to follow a writing structure (no matter how broad or permissive) upon haiku-fiction such as the 5-7-5 syllable structure in a classic haiku?
DJU: (laughs) You opened yourself up to this, so here goes.
In traditional haiku, the 5-7-5 syllable pattern is actually one of the least important features, one that even the greatest classical master, Bashō, could dispense with on occasion.
More important are the seasonal words (kigo) and the so-called “cutting words” (kireji). The seasonal word sets the haiku within a particular season by mentioning an object, activity, or event culturally associated with that season. The cutting word is a kind of spoken punctuation that divides the haiku into two uneven halves and establishes a kind of emotional…resonance between the two halves.
I have on occasion written stories structured around the four seasons, though this would not work for every story. It creates a very formal structure, rather like the sonnet in poetry. It’s more common for me to take the tropes of speculative fiction and treat them like kigo. Many of my favorites among my own stories take ideas that have been around for a long time but present them in new modalities or in ways that I hope create deep reverberations within the reader.
Haiku comes from an older form of communally written poetry called renga. Renga was a kind of…literary parlor game, a kind of jazz poetry where each poet linked his own verse to the one just before—though often these links were very oblique. The cutting word is a way to create this kind of linking effect within a single poem.
I most often use this concept in my writing by using multiple points of view, either implicit or explicit. For instance, there are at least three stories going on at the same time in “The Hour of the Rat”: Nezumi’s quest for her combs, Fuyu’s quest for revenge, and the Serpent’s eternal battle with the Spider. Each storyline is meant to echo into and enrich the others.
I really should develop all this in a more systematic way. Let me close here though by mentioning two books I’d recommend to any writer who might want to enrich their own fiction by drawing techniques from haiku: Jane Reichhold, Writing and Enjoying Haiku and Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō.
SC: When you mentioned the eternal battle between serpent and spider I was wondering if you got that from Japanese folklore. I did find this tale about Hakuja no Myojin, The White Serpent God and wondering if this is where you received inspiration. The shape shifting is definitely a feature of Japanese folklore but for Yokai the spiders appear as women.
DJU: I draw my inspiration from the Japanese folklore contained in the collection by Royall Tyler, though the legends in that work sound a lot like the legends you mention. The idea of the Spider and the Serpent being an eternal manifestation of the the struggle between the two forces is my own idea, however, as well as yes, the Spider being male.
In the mythos of the story, the Spider is meant to be the embodiment of order and the Serpent the embodiment of liberty. Lawful evil versus chaotic good, in a certain sense—though many of the manifestations of the Spider don’t view themselves as being evil, and the Serpent doesn’t always act in a virtuous fashion.
I mean for the battle between the Spider and Serpent to be a false dichotomy…
SC: Did you spend time in Japan?
DJU: No, I’ve never been to Japan, just an avid arm-chair traveler. I’ve been fascinated by the culture since I was a child.
True story: my appreciation for Japanese culture began with a board game…. I was the sort of child that read encyclopedias for fun. One day I came across a picture of an ancient Egyptian board game, Senet. My efforts into researching the game let me to a book that also described Xiangqi (Chinese chess), shogi (Japanese chess), and Go. This lead to what has become a lifelong interest in Japanese culture.
SC: Are there genres you find harder to write than others or does your experience with genre mash-ups make your answer a firm no?
DJU: Hard science fiction is difficult for me because I don’t have the technical background to do it well. Nor is the Asmovian ”science-as-pseudo-religion” theme one I’m really comfortable with. Splatterpunk is not really to my taste; I’m more interested in the grotesque than the gore. And I’m not sure how convincingly I could write military scifi, having not experienced the military life myself.
Otherwise, I try to follow the story. I think that’s a more fun approach than letting genre hang-ups get in the way. It’s led to stories about feline interstellar bounty hunters, boys who survive the zombie apocalypse with the help of a toy tank, madmen who sacrifice themselves to sentient trees, and social workers who fall in love with jaguar gods. It’s been a heck of a ride so far!
SC: What about reading for leisure? Any preferences in genre?
DJU: I’m as voracious of a reader as my schedule permits. Often my reading relates to the second or third project down the road for me, but not always. I’m slowly making my way through Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series. I’m about halfway through a book on warfare in late medieval Japan. I’m dabbling in a series of pulp novels by a British author. I’ve recently finished a biography of Jim Henson (very inspirational for anyone trying to live the creative life). And for “light” reading, my Kindle always has some Golden Age comics. (A shout-out to the guys at the Digital Comic Museum: http://digitalcomicmuseum.com/)
SC: I’ve seen posts online describing how difficult the contemporary marketplace is for short fiction but seems you have been successful in getting your stories printed. Do you attract a specific type of reader / fan base with haiku fiction?
DJU: It depends a little on how one defines “successful.” I’ll never be able to quit my day job writing only short stories. Even if that were theoretically possible, I couldn’t turn out the quantity of stories that would require. But I have been able to earn some spending money (“pin money,” as my grandmother would have called it), much of which goes into books for researching my next project.
I also think it’s important to note here that that link reflects about ten years of working at my craft. I subscribe to the old school method of writing a lot of stories and submitting them everywhere. Many of them eventually find homes—to take the example of “The Hour of the Rat” again, that story had been making the rounds for four years before Cirsova accepted it. I also have my fair share of “trunk” stories too.
I certainly don’t think I’d describe the current short story market as “difficult.” I see new anthologies and publishing venues springing up every month. Webzines are always looking for new content. I do think that “haiku fiction” does match well with current attention spans and with the new ways of reading stories made possible by new technologies. For instance, I’ve also had a certain success placing my stories with podcast markets.
There will always be a desire for good stories; story is hardwired into human beings. I find more and more that the real challenge lies in drawing readers to your content in particular. I’ve had a lot of editors say very encouraging things about my stories, but I’ve not had a lot of feedback one way or the other from the “typical” reader…
SC: Have you given longer stories a try and if not, do you want to?
DJU: Oh, I certainly have an interest in writing longer fiction. The issue has mostly been finding the time and…duration of focus, so to speak. Writing a novel is a long time to be doing one thing!
More seriously, I’ve been percolating several ideas for longer stories for some time. The one nearest to completion is set in the same world as “In the Days of the Witch-Queens,” but perhaps a thousand years beyond the events of that story.
I’m still adjusting to life with an infant, but when I have my writing schedule figured out, I do hope to complete a novel some time this year. I can also see my Trashlings project become a longer work, ideally with illustrations…
SC: A review of your stories reveals many lead female characters. Is it easy for your to write from the female perspective or do you find it challenging?
DJU: Your question made me go back and actually look up the statistics. My math says roughly a third of my stories have a female protagonist and/or point-of-view character. This is complicated by defining what exactly counts as a published story and how to tabulate stories with multiple points of view.
I’ve never really found it that challenging to write from a female point of view. It’s really just figuring out whose story I’m trying to tell at a given time. Sometimes the protagonist happens to be a man, sometimes a woman. Gender is less important than following the story.
I feel that I’m in good company. C. L. Moore wrote both the Jirel of Jorey stories and the Northwest Smith stories. Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark is an utterly convincing male even though written by a woman. But I suppose I’d have to leave it up to my female readers to let me know how successful I am at writing from a woman’s point of view.
SC: From a technical standpoint how do you get into the frame of mind to write from a female character’s point of view?
DJU: I don’t have any concrete “tricks” to writing from a female POV. I suppose I’m somewhat Method about it—I do my best to see my character’s world through her eyes. Taking what I know about her, what would she do in this set of circumstances? All the interactions I’ve had with all the women in my life lies in the background too: my wife, my mother, my sisters, etc. Not that I try consciously to model any of my characters on anyone I know, but it gives my subconscious a set of data from which to work.
SC: Please list some of your literary influences.
DJU: I count G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and probably Walker Percy among my favorite authors, though I don’t think they’ve directly influenced my literary style. I really like the themes of Charles Williams, especially his depictions of the irruption of the numinous into the everyday world.
The DNA of Ray Bradbury is all over my work. My scifi draws from Cordwainer Smith and some from Jack Vance, and of course Edgar Rice Burroughs. Charles de Lint has influenced how I tell my fantasy stories, and to a lesser extent Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. For horror I try to blend the cosmicism of Lovecraft with the human scope of Richard Matheson.
Lately I think a little Jorge Luis Borges has found its way into the mix. And I think whoever I happen to be reading at the time probably rubs off a little more on my fiction that I’d like to admit.
The living author I’d most like to be when I grow up is probably Gene Wolfe.
SC: I like your mention of Gene Wolfe and may steal that for future questions. What in particular about Gene Wolfe makes you say this?
DJU: I like a lot of things about Gene Wolfe. Though his writing style is sometimes more opaque than I think I would want mine to be, I love the richness of so many of his worlds. He is definitely a writer that rewards re-reading. I like the wide variety of subgenres that he’s written in. I love many of his themes, such as personal identity and memory.
What I think I like most of all, is that he’s a “writer’s writer,” as others have called him. He’s the sort of storyteller that when I read his work, it makes me want to write. To write more and to write better than I do now. Something about the beauty of his stories are inspirational in that fashion.
I would love, looking back on my career, to be told that I’m a writer’s writer as well.
SC: How did you come across Cirsova Magazine?
DJU: I’m honestly not sure any more!
I have a couple of go-to sites when it comes to researching markets (especially www.ralan.com and www.horrortree.com) but I couldn’t find Cirsova listed on either of those the other night. I sometimes also find out about markets through my Twitter feed, but I couldn’t go back far enough in my timeline to see if that’s where I learned about the magazine.
I do know that I read Alex’s original call for submissions. I have a comment on that page made about a month after the original blog post, so I had to have found out about it somewhere in that four week window. Something about that original call really resonated with me—I think it was that he was asking for the sort of stories that I most enjoy reading. “The Hour of the Rat” had not found a home yet at that point, so I thought I’d give it a try, even though it sounded to me like Alex was really reluctant to take another fantasy story at that point in the process.
He loved the story, and that got me into the first issue. I proposed the idea of doing a kind of…spiritual sequel to the first story but in more of a Sword and Planet/Planetary Romance vein, and that led to “The Sands of Rubal-Khali.”
Alex is great to work with, and the passion and care that is so evident in the pages of the magazine is also there in his interactions with his contributors.
SC: Between your work, home life and writing you may not have the time but do you game (war game or role-playing) as a hobby?
DJU: I’ve never really played any tabletop RPGs. It’s mostly been a matter of time and not finding the right group. But I will admit that I’m old enough to have had my parents buy into the first “Dungeons and Dragons is of the devil” scare.
In college I found an online freeform (ie, no stats or rolls) game based on Star Trek that I played for several years. That game really re-ignited the fiction-writing bug in me after years where term papers were my only form of self-expression. For a couple of years I also tried an online fantasy game in the same format. I never had time to fully commit to that game, but working on the background for my character led to the world in which my Tales from The Veldt stories are set.
Even though I didn’t play tabletop, there was a time in high school when I did collect some of the manuals. I had several of the Middle Earth Role Playing books, and later some of the Call of Cthulhu books (fourth edition rules, I think). I enjoyed their information about Tolkien and Lovecraft’s respective worlds even though I didn’t play them.
Heck, I think I even have a copy of FASA’s Doctor Who RPG somewhere in storage!
SC: Don’t worry about that! I have a lot of old D&D manuals and some modules lying about. Fair bet I probably spent more time browsing the manuals and letting my imagination go than for actual play.
DJU: Hmm… I wonder if anyone has ever written a novel rolled from a discontinued RPG manual… There’s a thought…
SC: I have just finished Odin’s Last Boon from the Roll the Bones anthology. I’m not very familiar with the Norse sagas so have to ask if Kolgeir’s brewing of the special mead and his sacrifice enabling him to talk with Ygg is your creation or based on Norse religion.
DJU: I think I came up with the idea for the mead on my own, though Sampson in the Old Testament is probably in the background there somewhere as well as Arabic legends of the “mellified man” I first came across the legend in the Ian McDonald story mentioned there). There is evidence for sacrifices like Kolgeir’s in the Norse religion, though I don’t think for his motivations. One of the things that story is about is how unsatisfactory paganism truly is.
But sometimes I forget which ideas are my own and which ideas I’ve adapted from other sources, so it’s possible Kolgeir’s recipe and sacrifice were taken more literally from a source I’ve now forgotten. If anyone reading this finds the source, let me know!
SC: I’ve been by your Twitter account (@haikufictiondju) and wondering if you are thinking of crossing over to Gab or would that be too much work?
DJU: Twitter has been a good platform for me. It makes sense to me and I’ve made a number of friendships through Twitter that I’m not sure would carry over to another platform. I haven’t (yet) faced the sorts of problems I know others have had with it.
However, I know that a cloud looms over Twitter. I may be doing more research into other platforms soon.
SC: What are you working on now? Do you have any projects besides writing you would like to mention?
DJU: As I mentioned earlier, I’m still adjusting to life as a new father (our first child will be just shy of eight months as this comes out) so I suppose I’d say our son is the major project right now! Writing time has become more scarce, but I’m trying to sneak it back into my schedule.
Some of my current projects involve publishing previously printed stories in a new format. My short story project on Amazon is way behind schedule, but I do hope to get the next Tale from the Veldt out soon, with the next of Cale’s stories soon after. I’m also hoping to come out with an anthology of my short stories sometime late spring/early summer entitled La Danza de la Muerte. A few other projects along those lines are also in the works.
Sometime soon, there should be an audio version of “The Hour of the Rat” making an appearance as well!
In regards to new stuff, I do have a draft of an Eldritch Earth story nearing completion (missed the deadline for Cirsova 5 by a mile). I’m trying to put the finishing touches on a fantasy story set in an alternative furry Japan. And there are always ideas percolating in my head. I don’t like to talk about them too soon; I feel they lose their energy if I do. My blog or my Twitter feed is the best way to find out more.
SC: Thank you for your time and for the great conversation and congratulations to you and your wife on your new son.
Not sure if I can meet the deadline so I’ll have to apply some haikufiction principles to this story I’m trying to write for Misha’s latest literary group project!
DJU: Thank you!
Just remember that short doesn’t always mean quick! I’ve re-written some of my hundred word stories as many as nine or ten times. Strive for depth within simplicity, and follow the story.
Thanks for the killer questions!
I have a couple of “Blog Admin” items below.
First, I have a Google + page in which I maintain a list of links to all of my interviews/conversations plus links to all the Wargame Wednesday posts.
My easy choices to make below:
Short Stories / Novellas
“Athan and the Priestess” by Schuyler Hernstrom, found in Thune’s Vision
Swan Knight’s Son by John C Wright