Where in the World is William Ashbless? – James P. Blaylock Interview

james blaylock

James P. Blaylock was one of the writers, along with Jonathan Carroll, that was at the forefront of reeducation of what Fantasy was or rather could entail, and it was work like The Paper Grail and The Last Coin that would eventually prepare me for what has come next which would include exploring frequent collaborator, Tim Powers. It would be easy to suggest that Blaylock was my first brush with what people call steampunk, but it was more than that, it was a step, one that was successful into what would eventually be several new worlds and spark possibility of appreciation of what constitutes most of my preferences: the unknown. If it was Zelazny who prepared me, it was people like Blaylock, de Lint, Crowley, and Carroll who first introduced me to words in fantasy like urban, whimsy, and perhaps even literary and more importantly how unimportant — as he puts it — how unimportant such jargon was before and after.

Blaylock has garnered Philip K. Dick and World Fantasy Awards for his past work, and has forthcoming projects like The Adventures of Langdon St Ives, a collection of his previous steampunk work, The Ape-Box Affair, Two Views of a Cave Painting, The Hole in Space, Homunculus, The Idol’s Eye,and Lord Kelvin’s Machine – a terrific sampler of Blaylock’s early work and Knights of the Cornerstone, a new novel.

This interview was conducted by Brian Lindenmuth and myself.

Jay Tomio — Your name seems to never be far from coming when the subject of Steampunk is brought up. In your words, what is “steampunk”, and were you conscious of it when you were writing in the late 70’s and early 80’s?

James Blaylock — I’m not overly fond of literary jargon, but the word “Steampunk” has evidently caught on, so I’m stuck with it. It seems to me that until the word was coined in… the late 80s?… writers could have had no idea that they were writing Steampunk. I didn’t. I loved (and still love) Victorian literature, and I simply wanted to write stories and novels with some of sensibilities and trappings of that era. I was reading wholesale quantities of Dickens, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and P.G. Wodehouse, and I had grown up on Wells and Verne, and so I fell naturally into what became a Steampunk mode, with, I think, a humorous edge. To my mind, Steampunk is an excuse to write stories set during an era in which science was largely imaginative and speculative, just like my own writing. I don’t have any actual science in me.

Jay Tomio — With that in mind, outside of your own work, Jeter’s, and that of Powers — what book(s) do you view as prime example(s) of what you believe Steampunk is?

James Blaylock — I’m sorry to say that I haven’t read any of it, only Jeter and Powers. (Someday I will.) Beyond that, I’m still a huge fan of Jules Verne.

Jay Tomio — You had to be submitting something like Elfin or Man in the Moon to Del Rey in the late 70’s around the time Terry Brooks’ Shannara sequence had to be just beginning. Without getting into the discussion of quality of the direction, it would become a significant move for Fantasy publishing — did you get a feeling of that at the time, or was it just a pitch, just a time? Was there a feeling that a market was about to be shaken up with Ballantine/Del Rey?

James Blaylock — I hadn’t heard of Terry Brooks and knew little of Del Rey Books. I wrote The Man in the Moon in reaction to Huckleberry Finn and The Wind in the Willows. I had no idea of its fitting into a genre, and I had no idea where I’d send it. It went to Del Rey only because Phil and Tim were writing books for Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey, and they offered to write letters recommending it. All of this occurred, of course, when Del Rey was having its first bestseller successes, and that no doubt had something to do with the fact that The Elfin Ship was in print for 10 or 12 years

Brian Lindenmuth — The Stone Giant came out a few years later then The Elfin Ship and The Disappearing Dwarf and it seems to carry with it a darker tone. If I remember correctly you’ve referred to the Balumnia books as being written in a different frame of mind, one that you’ve since moved away from and couldn’t revisit, if only because you aren’t that person anymore. What would a Balumnia novel written by you today look like?

James Blaylock — I suppose that my being doubtful about recreating the whimsical mood of those stories is merely speculative. Perhaps I could. Perhaps I will. Certainly I’d try if there were a real interest in my doing so. But it’s been over 25 years, and I’m doubtful about there being any such interest, particularly from publishers. It could be that The Stone Giant was darker because the viewpoint character was different. It could be that I was different, so to speak. It’s hard to say. It was interesting to me that some reviewers thought that the The Stone Giant was better than the first two books. I’d imagine that most of my readers preferred the first two. I prefer the first two despite arguments to the contrary. If I were to write a Balumnia novel today, I’d reread what I was reading then — Huckleberry Finn, The Wind in the Willows, Lud in the Mist, the P.G. Wodehouse books and stories, Nicholas Nickelby, etc., and I’d launch the book with Jonathan Bing as the main character while my sensibilities were infected by all this reading. Heaven knows what I’d come up with.

Jay Tomio — You have often collaborated with another fine writer in his own right, Tim Powers. When did this relationship start and what sparked such frequency in these collaborations?

James Blaylock — We went to Cal State University, Fullerton, together back in the early 1970s and became good friends. We invented William Ashbless (despite Ashbless’s denials) and, to put it bluntly, often collaborated on writing Ashbless poetry rather than go to class. That led to co-writing a couple of Ashbless short stories, which led, later, to collaborating on more serious short stories. In fact, however, there have been only 3 collaborations in that past 15 years or so.

Jay Tomio — Tell me about William Ashbless and his current whereabouts.

James Blaylock — Ashbless has an apartment on Xemino Street in Long Beach, California, although he’s often out of town (or out to lunch). He was originally a literary hoax that Powers and I played on the Daily Titan, the school newspaper at CSUF. In the years that followed he continued to produce poetry (49 poems in one sitting, as I recall, during one very long beer and coffee fueled afternoon in La Mirada). He’s still producing poems, although his main literary activity these days is to comment, usually angrily, on the work of Powers and Blaylock. He’s been fairly widely published, and websites have sprung up mysteriously, some of them overseas, some of them selling t-shirts and memorabilia. He hasn’t sued anyone yet.

Jay Tomio — You were able to pick the brain of one of my favorite writers who was also undoubtedly one of the great voices in fiction period. From a perspective more personal than most would have, what or how was it that Philip K. Dick was able to bring across what he did that was so different from the other SF giants of the time particularly the big III.

James Blaylock — I’m not certain that my liking for Phil’s work is consistent with anyone else’s. He seemed to me to be a mainstream writer who was full of sf stuff. I’m fond of novels about small people doing small things, which mainstream writers have always written. I’m amazed at the sf trappings in Phil’s stories — the very cool stuff that was used to good effect, for example, in the film version of Minority Report, or the fascinating premise in a book like The Man in the High Castle, and its look at human illusion. But Time Out of Joint is probably my favorite of his novels. Ragel Gumm’s radio shed and his attempts to leave town on the Nonpareil line and his run ins with Mrs. What’s her name — that’s why I read Phil Dick novels. I’m more interested in what’s happening in the neighborhood than what’s happening on Mars. And even on Mars, Phil still had one foot in the neighborhood. His sense of human tragedy, and of humor, was wonderfully intermingled, and that’s not easy.

Brian Lindenmuth — As someone who knew him what do you think about the ascendancy of Philip Dick’s literary reputation over the years?

James Blaylock — I think his reputation ascended for all the right reasons. I sometimes find myself smiling when I see him referred to as a guru of some sort, or as a high-flying literary intellectual (which he might well have been) because the Phil I knew would laugh at the idea of either one of those things. What struck me about him was his sense of humor and his immense generosity in pretty much every sense of the word. He was as ready to talk about rock music and cars and cats as about literature.

Jay Tomio — It felt like to me that Night Relics ushered in a new phase for you as a writer. Is this observation at all substantial? For myself, as a fan of yours for probably close to a decade now, I always view your works as pre and post that novel.

James Blaylock — That’s a substantially true observation, I think, although certainly there are later novels that have something in keeping with the earlier books. I’ve gotten letters from people worried that Night Relics and The Rainy Season and Winter Tides are “dark.” Some of them wonder what happened, what sent me off the rails. In fact, however, The Last Coin, which took me two years to write, generated characters that were hard to get out of my mind, and I adamantly did not want simply to write another similar book. We had a cabin back in the woods at that time, and the idea for Night Relics came to me when I was hiking alone in the back country on a particularly windy, creepy, lonesome afternoon. The origins of the story were so unlike those of The Last Coin, that I found it easy to shift the voice and the nature of the story entirely. I discovered that I enjoyed the setting, the heightened suspense, and the language of the story, and that (among other things) led to Winter Tides and The Rainy Season. On the other hand, it seems to me that there was a similar change in my short stories, and that there were a series of stories around that same time — The Old Curiosity Shop, Home Before Dark, Small Houses among others — that had a lot to do with mortality and were similarly dark. My wife, Viki, commented on that one day. “What’s with all these stories about old guys passing away?” I told her I had no idea. She speculated that it had something to do with my mother’s passing away during that time — something that wasn’t particularly easy, as you can imagine. So maybe there was a “new phase” there after all. It’s hard to see phases of any sort until we can look back at them.

Jay Tomio — Were you brought in by James Turner to Arkham? I look at the period he was involved with the publisher and on paper it just looks like the man had an eye for talent. Was there still some ‘magic’ at this time to be published by a publisher that had such great history and lineage?

James Blaylock — Jim Turner did indeed bring me into Arkham house. He was a prince, it seemed to me. I was stoked to publish with Arkham.

Jay Tomio — The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives is coming out via Subterranean later this year. Beyond the description we can read via press releases can you tell what on a personal level this collection contain from a personal and career perspective — any themes or ideas resonate more to you, or perhaps seem lackluster in hindsight to the writer/person you are now?

James Blaylock — I don’t have much to say here. I just finished a new, short St. Ives novel, in fact, which I enjoyed writing immensely. I reread the first story, The Ape-box Affair and was amused to discover that although I’m not quite as giddy a writer today, the style and substance of my St. Ives stories hasn’t changed all that much. Maybe that has to do with the fact that I’m still reading what I was reading then: I started Stevenson’s Deacon Brodie play this morning, in fact, and I’m trying to figure out which Dickens novel to read between now and school starting up in a month. Whatever world I inhabited when I wrote that first story, I seem still to inhabit it. Can’t think of any themes.

Brian Lindenmuth — Word around the camp fire is that you have been writing YA fiction over the last few years. Is this the case? If so, and given the market readiness of YA fiction now, will we see more from you in this vein?

James Blaylock — Without a doubt the world will see a YA book from me sometime in the near future. If it’s well received, the world will see more. Just who will publish them is still a mystery. One interesting side note. Someone writing into a Blaylock website complained about writers (including me) purposefully writing something called YA fiction, as if pandering to a certain audience.. I’m actually sympathetic to that complaint. I wrote the book in question because I found myself telling a story from the viewpoint of a young girl, and I found that I was caught up in her voice and way of thinking, and that I was compelled to keep writing. (It was in exactly that way that I wrote The Elfin Ship.) I referred to the novel as a YA novel merely because I was using the lingo of publishing, which I myself don’t care for very much. Years ago I wrote Land of Dreams without considering it anything but a novel. Turned out it was published in some countries as a young adult novel, only because the principal characters happened to be young adults. That’s publishing for you. Library journals reviewed it that way, too, for the most part. So at the hazard of explaining myself too much, I’ll say that my alleged young adult novel is written for readers of any age, and those readers will either enjoy it, or they won’t. I’m fond of it.

Jay Tomio — What can you tell us about the forthcoming novel, Knights of the Cornerstone and how long has this story been in the making?

James Blaylock — First, I’ll say that it’s perhaps my best book, for what that’s worth. It’s set in the desert, in a place called New Cyprus on the Colorado River. My character goes out there to visit his dying aunt and gets caught up in the machinations of… Because it’s a fairly completely plotted book, I simply can’t say anything much about it without opening doors that the reader had best open. For reasons too complex to go into here — not negative, by the way — I was something like 8 years between published novels. Once the idea for Knights came to me, however, the book was perhaps a year and a half in the making.

Jay Tomio — Your favorite, eh? What work would you have given that position before, or is it always the one forthcoming thus the one before in-between?

James Blaylock — Okay, I’ll cop to the fact that I’m generally most enthusiastic about the newest novel. Even so, I think this one is among my best. I can’t always distinguish between best and favorite, however. Prior to Knights of the Cornerstone, it would be The Last Coin. (I’m also fond of The Digging Leviathan and All the Bells on Earth. Many reviewers, however, insisted that Winter Tides and The Rainy Season were the best. William Gibson told me one time that he went into a Vancouver bookstore and asked for a copy of The Digging Leviathan. The owner of the bookstore asked him, “Do you know whether it’s supposed to be funny?” That’s pretty funny.)

Jay Tomio — One thing about Verne’s work is you see high concept that attract visual adaptations and it’s an element I’ve felt your work has always had. Has there ever been any small or big screen inquires and do you yourself think you have a work that you think would do especially well?

James Blaylock — Not much inquiry, actually. The Last Coin, which has an easily expressible concept, would be a natural, I think, and in fact there were a couple of years of film-oriented interest in the book, although no one ever took out an option. There were a couple of screenplays written, and in fact on is being meddled with currently. We’ll see what comes of it. Knights of the Cornerstone is also filmable, maybe more easily than The Last Coin. The right director could do interesting things with The Digging Leviathan. It would be a strange film, but there are plenty of strange films that did fairly well. If Spielberg reads this and calls in a query, give him my number. Cheers!