This is another combo-job this time with an interview I conducted with Gregory Frost about his fantasy novel Shadowbridge and writing, followed by my review of Shadowbridge below it.
Hope you enjoy!
This time around we have a writer whose work has been recognized as a finalist for honors like the Hugo, Tiptree, Nebula, and Sturgeon award. More recently he has created the setting and series of Shadowbridge that first drew life in his short fiction but realized in a novel for the first time in Shadowbridge. I read the novel last year and loved it and its conclusion, Lord Tophet is set to be published later this month by Del-Rey. You can read my review of Shadowbridge to get you primed for the interview should you require it.
Shadowbridge is a setting constructed by stories and to talk a bit about it we present its architect, Gregory Frost, to chat about its construction, its future, as well as some talk about Clarion, Comics, and Zelazny.
Jay — For the reader who waited for Lord Tophet to come out to pick up both books. Paint us a picture if you will: What is the reader stepping into in visiting Shadowbridge?
Gregory Frost — A world that’s an accretion of all of our possible myths, fairy tale elements, folk tales, oral tradition, and even the glosses on those that you can pull from Shakespeare, Blake, Byron and Rosetti. The world considers itself eternal and infinite, only because no one knows how big it is. No one has sailed around it, and there are stories that you’d fall off if you tried. The Ash Girl lives there somewhere, as does Captain Sindebad, though you won’t see either of them in this duology. But as such a construct, Shadowbridge’s very substance is storytelling. So the main character is a 16 year-old girl named Leodora who, disguised as a character named Jax, performs shadowplays for people. She’s a story collector. That’s what she does — gather up all the stories she can find and fit them to the venue she’s playing. She is the daughter of Bardsham, considered the greatest shadow-puppeteer who walked the bridge spans of Shadowbridge; and she has more talent than he does. She believes in herself, in her skill, against all odds. And the more she travels, the more she learns about the nature of stories, until she even hears someone tell a bastardized version of her own story. She has become a cottage industry of tales about her. And somewhere, on the far side of the world, there’s a sinister figure who has reason to want her silenced, her performances stopped. And that’s about all I want to tell you, I think.
Jay — Using an artist or performer as the central protagonist is not new to readers, but when did the idea of utilizing a puppeteer draw so much of an interest to you to feature in a two-book sequence.
Gregory Frost — It started with Leodora’s father, as did I. I wrote a story, “How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes” back in the late ’90s for Asimov’s magazine. It ended up short-listed for the Sturgeon Award. I’d been an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania and served two years on the board of a children’s festival they put on there. One of the aspects of serving was meeting performers (I got to hang out with Tom Paxton, whose music I’d been listening to for decades, and to witness a performance of Vietnamese water puppets, which are astonishing) and even shepherding some of them around. One was Richard Bradshaw, an Australian shadow puppeteer of great renown. And Shadowbridge was in a kind of nebulous, formative state at the time, and I’d been teasing out the idea of incorporating Balinese shadowpuppets in some way just because I like them. Anyway, Mr. Bradshaw very kindly allowed me to sit inside his booth and watch him perform. To my astonishment, he carried the puppets and the dismantled booth with him in two boxes. So his boxes transformed into the undaya cases that Soter has retrieved and kept, which were Bardsham’s original. And the name Bardsham itself is Mr. Bradshaw’s name, messed about with, which provided me with an echo both of Shakespeare and of the sense of things not being what they appear to be — all in one name. So suddenly I had a character, and an occupation for him, and I’d been reading Navajo Coyote tales, so I sat down and wrote a trickster story framed by the redoubtable Bardsham. It all fairly assembled itself. When it came time to write the novel, though, I didn’t want to use Bardsham because in a sense I felt like I’d seen enough of his story in “Meersh.” I can’t tell you just when I discovered that there was far more to his story than I thought. Instead, his daughter became my main character.
Jay — You have cited Michael Swanwick as someone who pushed you to write these books — what did he tell you he saw in Shadowbridge?
Gregory Frost — Michael read portions of the novel in various stages of development, as did his wife, Marianne Porter. When I first mentioned it to him — back before all that I outlined above had transpired — it was an idea predicated on some sketches I’d done, and which actually suggest more of a science fictional premise than what we have. I don’t remember at what point I figured out it was a world of stories (certainly after I met Bradshaw), but I do remember explaining a lot of this in his back yard at night, and him staring hard at me in that demented way that Michael can, and saying, “If you don’t write that, I’m stealing it.” So, I did, if only to protect myself. Michael says he pointed me to Somadeva’s Ocean of Story. That I have no clear memory of, so I accept his version, because I did certainly arrive at that as the structural inspiration. It turned out the University of Pennsylvania had two copies of all ten volumes of the only translation in their library, and I began checking the volumes out, one after the other, reading these really nautiloid tales inside tales inside tales. And by the time I was into the second volume I knew I was working with a world of and about storytelling in the Ocean of Story/A Thousand and One Nights traditions. I’ve had a couple of fantasy writing friends semi-jokingly point out I have written two fantasy novels with no sword-fights or hobbits or quests for (your object here). And that’s undoubtedly due to my reaching for a much older tradition than most “brown bag trilogies” (as Gary K. Wolfe calls them) source.
Jay— What were the science fiction elements that were in your original idea of Shadowbridge that may shock readers who have read Shadowbridge? Isn’t a span where technological advancement possible?
Gregory Frost — Oh, I think the spans as conceived of originally were simply the places where adventures happened, and where the different social strata mixed — so it was much the same notion but with a different context. But I tossed around the idea of humanoid aliens who had jewels in their skulls through which they communicated; and really, that’s about as far as I went down that road. It quickly became apparent that it was a dead end, that I wasn’t in an sf universe at all. The world was salvageable. The science fictional treatment of it was not. My guess is that, as I’d just written a sf novel, The Pure Cold Light, I gravitated automatically toward sf.
Jay — I don’t know what it is but I keep seeing works popping up that are less derivative of some traditional fantasy influences and moving on to a favorite of mine, one Roger Zelazny. Excluding the very common elements of Chaos and what amounts to connected realities — In Lord Tophet you go as far as recite a story of someone walking a pattern — I was wondering how or what did Mr. Zelazny do to influence you as a writer and specifically in Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet?
Gregory Frost — A couple of things. He was one of my teachers at Clarion way back in 1975. We became friends after that (he accepted the Guest of Honor invitation that year at the first Icon, a science fiction convention I co-chaired in Iowa City, Iowa). Corresponded off and on after that. But I had been reading Zelazny’s fiction for a full decade before that — his novels and short stories, starting, I think, with the serialized “Dream Master.” Growing up in the ’60s I’d read, you know, the usual suspects — Williamson, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, etc. — but there was something in Roger Zelazny’s work that resonated for me in a way that nobody else’s stuff did. I mean, I love P.K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany, Gene Wolfe, Robert Sheckley — lots of writers from that “formative” period in my reading; but Roger stands out, and I still go back and re-read his work from that period with great pleasure and am still inspired by it. The idea of a multiplicity of realities, of realities that are mirror-images or shadow images…I can trace much of that to his influence.
As for the pattern, while Amber turns on this notion of walking a pattern, that wasn’t really my source , as the labyrinth and the maze are ancient ideas (as I’m very sure Zelazny knew). When I was writing Shadowbridge, I had a job down the hill from Neumann College outside Philadelphia, and I would hike up the hill at lunch to sit and write in their lovely convent garden, which happens to include a labyrinth. And one day as I sat there, someone was giving a tour to a group of students, and I listened to the guide explain the history of the labyrinth — that you walked the pattern with a question in mind, and when you reached the center you stood and meditated upon it, opened yourself to the solution, and then you walked the pattern in reverse, carrying that answer with you, unwinding your dilemma. So when I was embarking upon the second book, Lord Tophet, I added Diverus’s warning to Soter that they needed to carry Leodora back out of the Dragon Bowl along the lines of the pattern that had appeared there. It wasn’t until later, while revising the manuscript, that I thought, “Huh, just like with Amber.” The synchronicity of life never ceases to amaze me.
Jay — You have participated at Clarion as student (in 1975) and as a teacher as well (three times). Do you see any distinct differences in what is taught at workshops now as opposed to what you were taught, and if so what are the most distinct differences?
Gregory Frost — Totally subjective…but I feel that the line-up of instructors now comprises a lot more writers who teach outside Clarion, people who teach writing at least for part of their livelihood. As a result, I believe there’s more learning through exercises going on in the workshop. The trouble with any Clarion-like entity — and it’s a problem for both students and teachers — is that such workshops are more focused upon short fiction writing than novels. These aren’t the same form at all, something I’m much more cognizant of now than I was as a student. In six weeks you’re expected to produce — generally — 4 to 6 stories for workshop critiquing. Good novelists are not necessarily good short story writers, and vice versa, and good novelists may have a really crappy time spending six weeks writing short stories. The last couple of times I’ve taught at Clarion I’ve tried to speak to that difference a little bit, and also to emphasize the other thing that gets lost in the mix: revision. You write six stories and have them critiqued…well, all you’ve done, in effect, is first-draft six times. When I look at the weaknesses, the flaws, in workshop format, the biggest one I see is this failure to address revision. And the relationship between drafting a story and revising it is somewhat akin to the distinction between writing short and long fiction. You’re not doing the same thing. With revision, you’re not even using the same skill set. When I co-taught the last two weeks of Clarion with Maureen McHugh, we enforced a ban on writing new stories for a few days, and tried to push the group to revise something for us. Again, this is completely subjective. For all I know, the instructors in the ’70s had exactly the same concerns. I just don’t recall the topic of revising being much discussed.
Jay — What writer do you tend to view with some amount of incredulity on their being able to — in your mind — write top notch novels and meaningful short fiction?
Gregory Frost — You know, as soon as we go down this path, there’s going to be someone who says “Hey, what about me?” and I’m going to have to say, “Oh, yes, you, too — sorry I didn’t think of you just then.” (And having thus protected himself) off the top of my head that list would have to include Karen Joy Fowler, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Swanwick, Jeffery Ford, T.C. Boyle, Jack McDevitt, Maureen McHugh, Liz Hand, James Morrow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Most of those are people who can shift gears not only from short to long, but from voice to voice — stylistic gear-shifting. I teach the opening line to Michael Swanwick’s Iron Dragon’s Daughter, because it’s identical in form and function to the opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I think he came by that intuitively, not by consciously imitating Marquez — it’s an opening sentence that incorporates both the arc of the book and the arc of the first chapter, a compression that seems to be something only fine short story writers pull off. T.C. Boyle has done that, too, in his novels.
Jay — Much is made of literary or genre-based movements now. Being a writer that was in workshop with people like Zelazny in the 70’s, I was wondering were writers conscious of essays by the likes of Judith Merrill — as many of your influences are routinely cited as part of the first creators affected by aspects of the ‘New Wave’. Was a shift palatable or is it more historical recounting? Considering when you started writing — and with liking Conan at least had some interest in Sword/Sorcery and your appreciation for alternate realities, was somebody like a Moorcock not somebody that you especially drew from?
Gregory Frost — I’m sure there was a shift going on. I don’t think our genre or any genre is in stasis. If it is, it’s going to die. No, I think the New Wave was effectively sfnal flavored metafiction. At the same time you have Coover and Barthelme and Barth experimenting, fragmenting, transforming contemporary fiction extra-genre, you have Moorcock, Ballard, et al experimenting inside the genre, and Harlan Ellison collecting and in a sense codifying the experiment with Dangerous Visions. Science fiction had different kinks to work out than did mainstream fiction, but even so something like Barthelme’s Game would have been right at home in one of Ellison’s anthologies.
As to the other question, certainly Moorcock was an influence. Elric and his soul-drinking sword were simply too cool to ignore. More than Howard, though, I was a huge fan of Leiber’s Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser. The seriocomic tone he struck in particular attracted me, and no doubt there’s some of it in Lyrec, my very first novel, which was a S&S fantasy novel with a few sf elements thrown in. If someone published it now, it would be a YA novel.
Jay — While playing their part in their own story all your characters have something they carry that is pitiable — even sad. Who do you find most pitiable?
Gregory Frost — I’m sure it would be Leodora, although I don’t think I would characterize her as “pitiable.” She’s got some pretty hard bark on her. Some intense, even brutal, things happen to her, but she transcends them. She is, like a lot of classical heroes, a plaything of the gods. There’s even a character in the books who comments that the last thing you want is to get the attention of the gods. Indeed, you read myths, you find that having the gods pay attention to you always ends badly. It’s true, though, that the main characters in the books — Leodora, Diverus, and Soter — are cursed with demons of one sort or another, real or imagined, or punished in some way for their talent. Even the story of her parents, when it finally emerges, is one of sorrowful tragedy. Soter tells Leodora her father’s story in the first book, and the reader might recognize that she is walking a course parallel with it — again, that notion of there being patterns to things.
Jay — You have waiting areas on spans called Dragon Bowls — a place for people waiting to be touched by the gods. From where did you pull this concept?
Gregory Frost — One of the first images I started with on the spans was of a man with a box strapped to the front of him and a crank handle on each side, and he walked around turning the handles, which in turn caused a light on the top of the box to glow. So he rented himself out as a guide at night. That eventually gave way to the idea of the torchbearers of Vijnagar, and I don’t know if he even made it into the books but as an afterthought. But that inceptive image led me to the question of how and where did the gods produce these loopy gifts, and how does this process work. Then, following on “Meersh”, I wrote a short story about people sitting on a dragon beam around a bowl somewhere and telling stories to pass the time. One of those stories ended up in the books — the two nasty brothers who get what they ask for, and what they deserve — but the short story itself was abandoned. Anyway, it kind of cemented the notion of the beam (a dragon beam is a real architectural term, by the way), and the bowl, and how they operate. By the time I was reaching the end of the first book, that process became critical. I didn’t know until perhaps 20 pages from the end of Shadowbridge that Leodora was going to go stand in a bowl as a joke and the thing would ignite and take her. It was all, as Michael would say, lizard-brain driven.
Jay — In your world the library is often alluded to. Why is the library an almost mythical place in Shadowbridge?
Gregory Frost — In part because it’s the repository of all stories — at least so far as legend has it, the Library collects all the versions of all the stories in the world. Interesting that you bring it up, though, because the third book I’ve sketched out on Shadowbridge is about (and called at this point) The Library of Shadowbridge. So, kids, remember to email Del Rey and insist they publish more Shadowbridge adventures. Oh, yeah, and drink more Ovaltine.
Jay — How many novels can you foresee in Shadowbridge and can we expect to see any short fiction in that setting?
Gregory Frost — Three novels at the moment. I have no vision of book four. But as part of the difficulty with the first book was containing something that could sprawl in a million directions, so the world could contain a million novels and stories. Short stories…maybe, but with books that are themselves about stories and are full of stories, the idea of writing stories outside the books seems almost antithetical. Really, I’m kind of like one of the Dragon Bowls; I’m just waiting to ignite.
Jay — Are there non-Shadowbridge novels in the works or is everything currently being focused in this setting? I’d imagine it must feel both freeing and otherwise as you can almost showcase any story idea into this platform.
Gregory Frost — Right now I’m about 20,000 words away from a complete draft of a contemporary supernatural thriller set outside Philadelphia. I hope to pull a series out of that, and lo, for the first time ever, have even come up with ideas for three novels with these characters.
I have sketched out a third Shadowbridge novel if Del Rey wants one. It has nothing to do with these two — different setting, different characters, although still all circling the idea of how important it is to know stories. As you say, this world offers nearly infinite possibilities, and there were lots of stories originally imagined for the two Leodora books that didn’t get used, didn’t find a place as it turned out.
Jay — Have formerly discarded stories, ones that just didn’t work on their own as publishable pieces found new life in Shadowbridge?
Gregory Frost — There is one tale in the first two Shadowbridge books that’s a short story I could never quite get a handle on. It’s told to Leodora by the Ondiont Snake. I’d written a version years ago that did not include Death as a character or, for that matter, the snakes. It never did sit right, and like many other half-baked ideas, went into an “open cases” folder. Writers are like cops. We have these open files that sit there gnawing at us until we find a way to resolve them: nobody wants to have unsolved cases. That one tale is the only one so far that’s come from elsewhere. The rest were created specifically for the books, and one was extracted from the books and repurposed as a stand-alone story outside of Shadowbridge. And the original “Meersh” story is itself too long to work as a tale within the frame. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll assemble a collection of stand-alone Shadowbridge tales the way Mike Mignola has yoked some shorter Hellboy stories together now and again.
Jay — Speaking of Mike Mignola — and your interest in art — any chance of some sort of illustrated Shadowbridge product?
Gregory Frost — I would be more than happy to have someone take on Shadowbridge. Visually, as the Thomas Thiemeyer covers show, it could be stunning; and I would think, lends itself to storyboards. As for Mignola, I’m reading his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser at the moment, having somehow missed it the first time around. It’s a lot of fun. So, Mr. Mignola, the collaboration operators are standing by…
Jay — In an interview with Jeff VanderMeer you claim that it was your decision to split the contents of Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet into two books as it was the original pitch. Looking back at the finished product now, did it work out the best for it in terms of storytelling?
Gregory Frost — The best…I don’t know. Someone else has to decide that. It’s how it worked out. I knew the story up to the cliffhanger ending of book one. That part of it took a long time. What with a lot of things that happened — other book opportunities, day jobs, deaths — it was about seven years in the making. So when my agent, Shana Cohen, took the manuscript to market, that was what I had — a book that ended on a cliffhanger. We sold it on that. I knew by then where the next part went, but the second half felt to me like a different book unto itself, one where Leodora has become this sort of superstar, and where she spends a good deal of her time hunting for the Pons Asinorum, the Fool’s Bridge, as it’s known. It’s a compulsion, a mystery. And while the first part of the story is of her discovering her calling and her way, the second part is of the world itself discovering her while she discovers her own emotional maturity
Jay — I think writers like yourself and Catherynne Valente have recently — even if inadvertently — presented or rather reminded people of this new path that is firmly connected to epic traditions (or at least definitions) — who was the intended audience for the Shadowbridge novels; whose fan base did you think you could draw from?
Gregory Frost — People who like stories. It’s two novels about the power of storytelling, about the power that comes with knowing the true story of something, rather than the equivocations and obfuscations. I’m a fairly political person, and I know perfectly well how that opinion emerges from what I think about the pathetic excuse for a Fourth Estate we now have in this country, where Britney Spears’ panties trumps whatever execrable act our government has passed, in terms of what’s reported to us. The true story is always hardest to get, but it’s the only one you should ever listen to. The rest is just noise and propaganda masquerading as news. Sorry, rant concludes here (he said, wiping the spittle from his lips). The fan base for the book would also include readers who want something that is not just the same by-the-numbers fantasy story again. They want to be surprised. They want a different journey.
Jay — A mistake readers and reviewers make is associating characters with the author, however in some sense the Shadowbridge novels are about a girl retracing and finding her family — even if to say goodbye. You told John Kessell that the loss of your father prompted advice from other writers with a similar experience — did you eventually find that your writing had changed?
Gregory Frost — I should let someone else make the judgment call on how loss affects the writing. I think any major life event influences what boils up out of you. Carol Emshwiller is the writer who told me I could expect my writing to change, however. Some months after my father died, I found myself in a weird dead zone. Wasn’t even writer’s block. It was something else, like null space. And it lasted nearly two years. The only thing I managed to write in all that time was a story called “So Coldly Sweet, So Deadly Fair” that got published in Weird Tales. It’s about Abraham Van Helsing’s first encounter with vampires, and it came from the only comment in Dracula where Van Helsing reveals some of the tragedy of his own history. So my story’s about the distance between father and son, the blindness in the father reagarding his son’s behavior while he’s off hunting down revenants. And anybody who reads it — as you say, mistakenly associating the circumstances with mine — would conclude that I was gay and had been unable to tell my father this before he died. Which isn’t what the story’s saying at all. It’s the emotional truth of the story that parallels, not the specifics. I believe that’s really what emerges out of the writer — emotional truth is what you spend all your time lying in order to evoke.
Jay — What is your favorite Leodora story?
Gregory Frost — My favorite one that she tells is the final one in Lord Tophet. It’s the culmination of everything she endures, all that she learns about herself and her world. It’s the story she was meant to tell. I enjoyed, too, her first telling of the little thief’s tale, where you get to see her working the puppets, training herself. That was fun to write
Jay — Regarding that last story, with such an element and I was wondering as the novel went and it become more and more apparent that the novel had to end in that manner — a story destined to be told by the one person who could — did you ever at all feel trapped by that?
Gregory Frost — No, not trapped. Relieved. I think if your story is working, the further into it you go, the more choices you’ve made — the more intersections have been navigated, turns and paths selected, and others discarded. So by the middle of the book (which is where a lot of people bog down, too), you’ve made enough choices that you start to be able to see a route to the goal. I had an idea of the goal, of the final tale Leodora performs, very early while writing the first book. So the second half, Lord Tophet, was much easier to write because so much had been selected and deselected.
Jay — When did you know that a brothel was going to be the location of what was really your ‘horror’ segment of the novels?
Gregory Frost — I think there are a few horror segments in the books. One is when Leodora’s uncle assaults her. I pulled no punches with that. I wanted it to be clumsy, ugly, and stupid — the way violence and violation is. The brothel is the second, and certainly the longest one because it’s about Diverus acclimating to this new world where he’s aware but doesn’t know yet what skills he has. I knew the paidika was going to be in the book from the very beginning. I’d read some of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s travel writings of his time in the Middle East, and he fairly graphically described such a brothel. I did not want to write about a boy’s brothel as such, however, but I didn’t want to lose the horrorific aspect of that, either, and so the afrits were born, and if anything they made it more horrific, more powerful. Someone told me it reminded them of China Mieville, and I’m quite comfortable with that comparison.
Jay — One always seems to be confronted with various ‘games’ in your novels and Leodora gains at least a couple of stories in this manner — just the way it worked out or is there some dynamic to games that you were speaking on?
Gregory Frost — I hadn’t really looked at or thought about games as a thematic element, although I suppose they are there in some of the novels. Mostly, they’re part of the setting. In Tain and Remscela, in Fitcher’s Brides, the games are part of the historical context, but you’re right that I am probably drawn to them — most likely as a way to have characters do something. With Shadowbridge, the games are kind of an extension of that first story, How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes. In that story Meersh the trickster collects all manner of games, which seemed an appropriate behavior for a trickster. He didn’t know how some of them were played, but he was obsessively drawn to them. Even in the world of the dead, when he needs to be hurrying, he’s compelled to pause and watch the shades playing a board game. He can’t help himself. And that element spilled over from the story into the novel, so when I created the span of Hyakiyako, I knew someone was going to have to play the game of gō. It turned out to be a kitsune, and became the nexus for one of the stories Leodora receives. However, I knew none of the specifics before it all transpired. So, I guess in a sense I’m drawn to games as expressions both of human communication and trickery, as I’m drawn to con men and tricksters as characters.
Jay — You play with or allude to several myths we are familiar with and have done so in other novels as well. While Shadowbridge enforces that stories travel and are shared, in some sense spawning children of their own (some bastards) — what region or era contains stories that most affected you, or that you simply enjoy the most?
Gregory Frost — The first book I can remember choosing from my local library as a child was Barbara Leonie Picard’s retelling of The Odyssey of Homer. The cover jacket imitated characters from Greek black figure urns: one of Homer strumming his lute, another of the Sirens flying off to assault Odysseus. I just devoured that book. And I had a 78rpm record of the story of The Trojan Horse that was set to Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges suite, with the result that mythic material and Russian music are forever united in my head. Epic adventure, monsters and sorceresses… I was so hooked on the fantastic from that moment on, it was all I wanted to read. So Homer and the Greek myths were central to my development. But I love The 1001 Nights, and have Burton’s text and gloss, as well as Hadawy’s, which is more interesting for revealing how these stories collected, and which were the core stories and which came later. Most of the tales we think are the core stories are in fact the ones that were added late. Aladdin was even created in the style of the original tales, an imitation that came to be seen as iconic.
When I was preparing to write Tain, I spent years diving into Celtic mythology and Indian mythology as well. Terri Windling, my editor on that book and its sequel, recommended some texts. I read retellings: Evangeline Walton, Lloyd Alexander, and Lady Gregory; epics like Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki’s Saga. African mythology — at least one story I’ve written came out of reading African myths, and there’s surely a span or two expressive of that. So, favorite, I can’t say exactly, but I find mythology to be rich and rewarding when it comes to shaping stories.
Jay — If there has been a criticism of Shadowbridge it is this perception of an unrealized or under utilized setting that exists in a manner that allows for the exact opposite. For myself I always viewed the story of Leodora as a story itself that would one day be told and we were viewing it as if. I really thought the novel quite lyrical in a sense we can listen, and even get lost for a moment, but we never stray so far we can’t hear the tune we are being led by though, we can see that which is out of earshot. What do you say about this and as a writer what does the concept of world-building mean to you?
Gregory Frost — I don’t think I’ve seen that particular criticism. Yes, the possibilities are such that I could have run through a hundred different culturally referential settings to get to the same place in the end. To me that would have resulted in a needlessly bloated work for the mere sake of producing a typical fantasy doorstop. As you’ve correctly surmised, Leodora’s story is the larger, enfolding one, and I had no intention of drowning it beneath too many others. I tried to strike a balance.
Holly Black gave a lecture to my students at Swarthmore this past spring, and said in fact that she is always seeking the balance of the disparate elements when writing a book. Place too much emphasis on one thing and you lose something else in the noise. If the book is about “A” and you dwell unnecessarily on “B”, the reader will either forget that “A” is there, or not be certain which thing is important. That balance is purely an intuitive thing — I know I have learned to perceive it more clearly over time.
Stories comprise a series of intersections — of moments, characters, ideas — either flowing together or crashing together. In a way, your job is to navigate the route correctly while holding the reader’s hand and taking them along with you. There’s a joke a woman friend of mine made when she arrived to join us for dinner. Her husband was supposed to be with her, too, and we asked where he was. She explained dryly, “He saw something shiny.” Laughter aside, that’s a danger for any writer — especially for writers of the fantastic. It’s so easy to fall victim the “Ooh, shiny!” trap. After all, the world is thrilling to you, too. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be there. World-building for me is knowing as much about the world as you can, beforehand. You’re charging your battery with information so that you have all of that material to hand as you write, because you’re only going to end up showing us a smidgen of it all. Unless you’re writing Last Letters from Hav, where the tour and history is the story, we’re not going to see it all — and I’d wager even Jan Morris knew more than made it into that lovely book.
Jay — I’ve read that you initially had aspirations as an illustrator. Were comic books a love of yours at any time and are you still a fan?
Gregory Frost — God yes. I was a comic book fanatic in the ’60s, had a subscription to lots of DCs (Green Lantern remains my favorite), bought anything drawn by Jack Kirby, loved the Conans of Barry Windsor-Smith. I was one of those kids who just sat and drew things all day long. In class, all over my notes. At home, when I wasn’t building models of something, I was drawing or reading — which probably means my brain was equal parts awe and airplane glue. I went through a period of writing and drawing my own comic books. I have some early examples in a box, safely hidden from view forever. And egged on by a high school art teacher, I started painting, and when it came time to go off to college, I enrolled as an art major. And I right and truly sucked, I think. At some point I took a class in creative writing, started writing stories, and just stopped painting. I will still sketch characters and places. For Lyrec, my first novel, I did a series of pictures in pen and ink. For Tain and Remscela, I did pencil sketches of two of the characters, intending to do a series of all of them, but I got bored and stopped with the first two. I did a sketch of London Bridge circa 1300 that became a reference sketch for Shadowbridge. But Thomas Thiemeyer absolutely captured it with his cover art. I might do a sketch, but I could never have painted such a wondrous cover as he did.
As to the “are you still a fan”, I got hooked back into the Green Lantern this spring via the Rebirth series. I’d missed out on Hal Jordan’s death and metamorphosis. I enjoy a lot of graphic novels — “V” for Vendetta was magnificent. Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer I can read over and over. I love Fables. I think Willingham managed to do with that something that a lot of us who work with fairy tale material would have happily done if only we’d thought of it first. I delighted in Ruse when it first came out, too — Butch Guise’s illustration is great, as is P. Craig Russell’s in his Nibelung books. Anyway, yeah, I still turn to graphic novels and comics now and again. Anyone wants to step up and do illustrative justice to Shadowbridge…that email again is email@example.com
Jay — I think the latest Green Lantern stuff is fantastic and look forward to next year’s stories as Johns closes his ‘trilogy’ with the Blackest Night arc. When you were first picking up Green Lantern was that the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams stuff or earlier? Furthermore, while the covers on your first two books are — I think — incredible, I think you named a proper artist for the third — Barry Windsor Smith! Were you a Conan reader before, or was the MARVEL run your introduction?
Gregory Frost — I’d read some of Robert E. Howard’s stories before I ever saw the comics. In some ways, Smith’s Conan was too slender, the linework too refined for the barbarian, but I love his style anyway. With GL, I was reading him from the very beginning, from the Showcase comic where he first appeared, which was even before Gil Kane gave everyone his distinct nose jobs. I’ve looked at them since, now that they’re being archived, and they’re ridiculously simple stories, especially compared with all that’s going on in the GL universe now.
Jay — Tell me about this cabal you are apparently a part of, The Liars Club.
Gregory Frost — Ah, yes, the Illuminati of Philadelphia. The Liars Club is a collective of working novelists and authors in the area. The mastermind behind it is Jonathan Maberry, who has already won two Stokers for his supernatural thrillers. It includes L.A. Banks, Jon McGoran (who has written police procedurals under the nom de guerre of D.H. Dublin), Kelly Simmons (Standing Still), Duane Swierczynski (The Wheelman), and four other authors. We organized to gather together every few months. We hope to help each other with promotion, setting up venues for readings and signings, etc. The idea is that collectively we can do more damage…er…accomplish more. And, I’ll tell you, it’s a lot more fun signing books in a dead mall beside two other equally aggrieved writers.
The vision of a bridge probably invokes the feeling of simplicity, a means to go from A to B or vice versa, at time ornate, but more likely, sensible, serviceable, and functional, but bridges in fiction have led us to many memorable moments. Whether the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, Goats Gruff, Jon Orr, or perhaps most memorable to me, a standoff between brothers, Benedict and Brand, fans of speculative fiction have tread many bridges and with Shadow Bridge, Gregory Frost brings to us a world made of bridges, bringing a literal walkways to the figurative that exists all around us.
The town drunkard was the first to bring Leodora to Tenikemac as a baby and he would accompany her as she fled. Soter, the man who preserved the legacy of Bardsham, the puppets of the former master of shadow play, and passed them to his heir. Soter is the bridge to the past, prone to converse with the dead, and while his intent seems true, you get the distinct impressions he does his best to lay low, perpetually on the run but nor trying to look like it and his new, or perhaps life-long charge has raised the stakes. Is his habit due to reflecting on past digressions or the future he was waiting for? Or perhaps — he just enjoys his drink. There is guilt, there is pride, and a sense of duty.
In between the travels, two deviations highlight the novel. One to tell the story of the company’s third member picked up along the way. It’s a the story of a boy left abandoned with an abandoned home who is used as bait for a divine lottery and then sold to service to a Harem with a twist -drinks and spirits included. A musical savant/avatar, you lose yourself in his song, as although brief telling you get completely immersed and you don’t realize you left one story for another — it was always about Diverus wasn’t it? — until a member of the audience reveals a familiar face. We also get a recurring story, of creation and death, a tale of a fisherman — the original dreamer — and his wife, that adds to the immediacy of the story as they recount the mythology and origin of Shadow Bridge itself.
There is a fourth member, the secret companion, an enigma that will remain as such…
“There is much to life that seems random, events for which no obvious purpose is apparent even though they may compound. In the aftermath only can a pattern be discerned — missteps lead to an inevitable conclusions, an inescapable fate, sometimes doom and sometimes triumph. We curse the one and pretend to be responsible for the other, while neither fortune is true”
The most amazing aspect of the novel may be its constraint. There is a real story. Frost can go anywhere, along the bridges of a multiverse, and he seemingly does, but it all spirals back, every step is relevant, even if we don’t know it as a fact when we whimsically take it, at once Florentine and Shinto. But it never just dissolves into a fever dream — the characters and their problems are substantial, if it is an experiment, they are the control. What made something like Amber such a terrific read was that you while one can clearly witness the endless possibilities of walking through Shadow, Zelazny never forgot his story; and while Frost’s weave and use of point-of-view is a bit more ambitious, you only ever lose the story long enough for it to find you around the next corner. The segues from one environment to another, from one span to another is smooth. It doesn’t come off as abrupt absurdism, it’s not a book that demands constant leaps of faith even when we find ourselves in mid-jump, and it is able to maintain an authentic feeling of travelers on the road. For this reason, Frost’s makes us feel we are not seeing his finished products being deconstructed recorded on paper, we feel like we are there as he constructs it. The telling is as refined as the product thus far.
Often times when following a troupe’s travels in our reading, the journey feels as if it’s what occurs between the author’s real passion or the exact opposite, destinations are end point, rest areas in between the actions create bonds between characters in the process of running away from troubles or chasing after themselves — and in the aptly titled Shadow Bridge we have both. Nothing feels like an extension of the other, everything is unique, everything is fantastic, we touch the mythic, we share stories with gods, then we go to find our next job, drink our next beer, catch our next fish, stare at and converse with our monuments, we play board games…with Kitsune.
A planned duology, what we also see is the development of a concept — a universe — for even more stories whether future novels or short fiction to inhabit. From parades to ‘the end’, more stories of the dragon bowl, there is fertile ground for revisiting all manners of stories in a Willinghamish way. There are preexisting cases such as a call back to call back to Frost’s fine collection Attack of the Jazz Giants and other stories, where one story — a Sturgeon finalist — entitled How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost his Toes was referenced, as Leodora viewed her puppets:
“The figure of Meersh stood alone and somehow wretched”
And later, the master story teller tells him — the Trickster — to go back to his own story.
It’s a beautiful story but not in the same vein I have described in more recent reviews, it’s not Valente who both whispers and screams at us with the voice that makes us anticipate each equally; Frost charms us in manner like Paul Park did last year, and there is a feint lyric in the background, a harpist in the wind, that is beautiful but has a grace that goes beyond skin deep that brings to mind the strengths of several of my most beloved reads, but only in flashes, before forming its own vision. When confronted with just having the first book in a story, upon reaching its conclusion there are many possible reactions. Disappointment, anticipation, satisfaction, disconcertion, and Frost leaves us looking back believing the phrase, “we build too many walls and not enough bridges”. As we look forward, the idea that we may be a part of something special is more than a mere passing thought. We aren’t just looking forward to a worthwhile journey, we just stepped out of one., and yet we feel like we are continually chasing it and are never left feeling lethargic as at the same time we sense it stalking us. The novel physically weighs in at well below 300 pages, but you come out of it with more in the experience than you do multiple installment tomes promising swords and truths, blood and stone — you can trip on its shadow.
I’m hooked, the serenity of a fisherman’s dreams and the chaos of the beings who inhabit it offers a middle ground we can all find our place in, in this case one of the best reads of the year and this is just the beginning. I’m a traveling man this year this year; the best books of this year I encountered when walking the road and crossing a bridge.