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Interview: Horror author Matthew M. Bartlett

horror author Matthew M. Bartlett

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing horror author Matthew M. Bartlett, whose books such as Gateways to AbominationThe Witch-Cult in Western Massachusettsand the 2016 release Creeping Waves center on a terrifying Massachusetts town. Good works to check out now that we’re officially in autumn and thoughts turn toward Halloween . . .

First, a bit of background info, taken from Bartlett’s bio on Amazon:

horror author Matthew M. BartlettMatthew M. Bartlett was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1970. At an early age he was given as a gift the novelization of The Omen; not long after that, he inherited a worn copy of Christine by Stephen King. He began writing poetry while in the English program at Central Connecticut State University. An abiding interest in horror fiction led him to start a Livejournal page whose posts were his first forays into fiction: bite-sized tales accompanied by doctored daguerreotypes and his own photographs taken in Leeds and Northampton, Massachusetts. These posts centered around a long-dead coven using radio waves to broadcast disturbing and dangerous transmissions from the dark woods of Western Massachusetts. He continues to write dark and strange fiction at his home in Western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife Katie and an unknown number of cats.

Deck: How long have you been writing horror, and what kind of training or study did you have? Do you have experience in other types of writing?

Bartlett: I’ve been writing horror since late 2004, with a few minor attempts here and there before that. I was an English major in college in the late eighties and early nineties, but during that time I wrote mostly poetry. When I look at that stuff now, I see that a few poems had a strong horror component.

Deck: You mention in your bio several authors who have influenced you, among them H.P. Lovecraft. Given the central importance of Western Massachusetts in your work, I can’t help but think of what some call “Lovecraft Country”: the author’s fictional towns that were mostly located in Eastern Mass.: Arkham, Innsmouth, etc. What is it about Massachusetts that so richly inspires horror fiction? Do you hope to create a “Bartlett Country” legacy in the western part of the state?

horror author Matthew M. Bartlett
Leeds, MA. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Bartlett: The city where I live is basically a small downtown of very old buildings, surrounded by farmland and woods. Just walking down the street looking at the old houses and the edges of the forests can inspire ideas for writing. I don’t know that I have a particular need to create a legacy based on the locale; it’s more that when I picture the settings for stories, I picture them in places I see and have been. I’m pretty provincial that way; I just don’t have it in me to write stories that take place in, say, Brazil or Vietnam or Michigan or somewhere.

Most everything I write is set in Western Massachusetts, but I use parts of Connecticut where I’ve lived and worked as well. I just say they’re in Connecticut, or that other areas in Western Massachusetts are in Leeds, when they might actually be in Montague or Hatfield or West Brookfield or New Salem or Fitchburg.

horror author Matthew M. BartlettDeck: 
Of course, your story setting of Leeds, Massachusetts, is an actual town (or rather, a village that’s part of the city of Northampton, Mass.). Have any of the real-life residents of Leeds taken exception to you implying that they belong to a diabolical witch cult? Are there any challenges involved in setting horror stories in a real (smallish) town? As opposed to, say, using New York as a fictional setting.

Bartlett: 
My mother-in-law lives in Leeds proper, and she frets about the idea that people might be annoyed with me, or with her, because of my using Leeds as the name of the city. I have to explain to her that I and my books are nowhere near that well-known.

Deck: Besides the setting of New England itself, what other aspects of your life tend to feed into your dark fiction?

Bartlett: 
I think that I have a wide morbid streak, and I tend to worry. Worrying is essentially a creative exercise: you sit there and think of all the terrible things that might befall you. Writing deals with that worry so that it doesn’t become all-consuming and have deleterious effects on my day-to-day existence. It’s better than any drug. And, like many horror writers and readers, I love the autumn in New England, graveyards, horror movies, dark music, all that stuff. It’s a true inspiration.horror author Matthew M. Bartlett
Deck: You recently released Creeping Wavesa follow-up to your 2014 horror work Gateways to Abomination. What was your inspiration for returning to Leeds, rather than heading for a new corner of Bartlett Country?

Bartlett: I had ideas to further and expand upon the small mythos I’d started up in Gateways, and a few stories that trailed off in Gateways I wanted to continue in the next book. There will be more, most definitely.

Deck: What kind of advantages are offered by telling the story of Creeping Waves through smaller, mostly self-contained narratives rather than one main plot arc? Do you think that horror works best through shorter tales, or is that the approach that simply seemed to suit this particular material and setting?

Bartlett: I wanted to keep it entertaining, and to use different storytelling methods to further the overarching story. Though there are some stories that are of traditional length, I’m conscious of not wanting to bore myself, and not wanting to bore readers. I try to find the fine line between art and entertainment, I think.horror author Matthew M. Bartlett

DeckThe Witch-Cult in Western Massachusettsyour 2015 release, tells some of the back-stories of characters encountered in Gateways to Abomination. Do you recommend readers use this book as a kind of breather between your two main volumes? How did you get connected with your illustrator, Alex Fienemann?

Bartlett: People can use the book as they like. It connects up with stories in Gateways and Creeping Waves in what I hope are interesting ways, and I think it bears the occasional reread. I put out a call on Facebook for an artist, and a friend of mine put me in touch with a mutual friend. Her art was more whimsical and fantastical, so this allowed her to stretch, and I think she’s a natural for horror art, though she hasn’t returned to it, to my knowledge.

Deck: And you have a story in the horror anthology Lost Signalswhich just came out this summer. Its theme of transmissions and signals seems to be a perfect match for the evil radio station (WXXT) conceit that informs your Leeds stories — did you have any influence over the anthology’s theme? Or was the collection inspired by the recent popularity of audio horror like Welcome to Night Vale?

horror author Matthew M. BartlettBartlett: 
Ultimately I’m not sure what inspired the collection, but I don’t think it was me. When the submissions call was announced, I was up to my elbows in writing Creeping Waves, and hadn’t any time to spare. Later, after the deadline had passed, one of the editors, Max Booth III, sent me a message. He’d heard from a lot of people that they hoped I’d have something in the anthology, given the theme. At that time, my plate was clear, so I wrote a story, and then immediately thought it wasn’t good enough. So I wrote a second story, and Max read both and liked them enough to ask to buy both of them. I was very happy with this development, as I really wanted to be part of the book.

Deck: What keeps you up at night? Do you think that confronting the weird and monstrous in fiction helps us confront the mundane terrors of the real world?

Bartlett: My fears are awfully drab: I fear being unemployed, illness, loss, and death and nonexistence. I think fiction helps externalize those fears, or use them as metaphors. It’s therapeutic. Or it can be. I think both real-life fears and horror are ways to face having the metaphorical rug pulled out from under us.

Deck: Do you face any challenges or misconceptions from the general reading audience when writing in the horror genre? Do you try to target readers who already “get” the genre?

Bartlett: I don’t really try to target anything. I follow the muse. Anyone going in looking for werewolves or zombies or serial killers will hopefully read the previews available on Amazon and proceed with caution. I think people tend largely to think of horror in terms of movies, and consider horror books to consist of shock value and vampires. I don’t know, though, really, what people think. Those were guesses. I just kind of get on with it and hope that the books will find their people.

Deck: What’s next for you?

horror author Matthew M. BartlettBartlett: I have a story in a wrestling-themed chapbook with three stories in it [3 Moves of Doom, newly available as an e-book – J.]. It’s one of my favorites of my own stories, actually. It’s called DARK MATCH, and it introduces the seaside Massachusetts town of Hulse. I’m thinking more and more about Hulse, and what might be going on there. It’s exciting to get out of Western Massachusetts for a while and look at the ocean.

Also, I’ll have a new short collection called The Stay-Awake Men and Other Stories coming in early 2017 from Dunham’s Manor Press, a limited edition hardcover to be illustrated by the terribly talented Dave Felton. The stories are a departure from the Leeds mythos. I’m interested to see what people think of them.

Deck: We all know the big names in horror and dark fantasy — do you have any recommendations of books by current writers in the genre who may not (yet) be well known?

Bartlett: Tom Breen is a new writer (and publisher) who is doing very exciting and groundbreaking work. I also recommend seeking out books and stories by Adrean Messmer and John Boden.

Deck: What do you love to do in your spare time that has nothing to do with dark fiction?

Bartlett: I spend my spare time lounging with my wife and the cats, and seeing friends, sharing meals, talking. Nothing terribly exciting. But it makes me very happy.

You can connect with Matthew M. Bartlett through e-mail, Twitter, or his website, http://www.matthewmbartlett.com.

Just like a real book

indie books

Lately I’ve been carrying around a copy of my new, self-published book, The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntleyeverywhere with me. Showing it off at every opportunity: children’s birthday parties, backyard firepit gatherings, dentist appointments, wakes, etc. (Only that last item is a joke.)

One friend I handed the book to carefully examined the front and back covers, flipped through it, and exclaimed: “It looks just like a real book!”

Then she peered at the book again and the realization hit her: “It is a real book.”

Yes.

It can be kind of startling to recognize this, after a lifetime of only reading books provided to you by major publishers in New York. (Not so long ago, I had to make the same mental adjustment.) These days, anyone has the power to produce a “real book.” There is no magical rite performed over books by a sorcerous associate editor in a lonely, eldritch cavern beneath Random House Tower to make them real.

What do you need, then, if not an arcane validation from the isle of Mannahatta? Well, you still need to put in the work.

indie books mark huntleyYou need a great story, of course, and the persistence to make it even better. You need feedback from peers and beta readers. You need advance readers to line up reviews. You need professional cover design and formatting (I had excellent help from Damonza for Mark Huntley). You need somebody to print and ship the book (I used CreateSpace). You need a marketing plan, and an e-mail list.

But the point is, you can make it happen. You don’t need to wait for approval from some impossible-to-reach publishing maven you’ve never met, if you know in your heart that what you’ve written is worth reading.

I find that to be a truly wonderful realization — that there is nothing really stopping any of us but ourselves. That, if you can’t get past the gatekeepers, you can turn around and take another path altogether.

We’ve seen the growth of independent works in other media: indie music, indie movies, indie video games, even TV shows that have found a home in some other place than the major networks. And the results have been enriching for everyone. Now it’s time for indie books to have their rise. They’ve been real books all along.

My supernatural thriller The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley just came out in print, and it’s already got stellar reviews on Amazon. Check it out!

Five speculative fiction books about summer

Summer is a natural setting for, say, a romance novel: summer flings, unexpected love blooming in a little beach town, etc. It can be harder to track down sci-fi, fantasy, and horror books set during the summertime. Fortunately, I’m here to help. Here are five speculative fiction books that you can read during these waning days of summer. Or, save them until it’s cold again and you desperately need a shot of fictional sunshine.

1. Little, Big, by John Crowley

speculative fiction books about summerThis one bears explanation, especially since it’s at the beginning of the list. “But Jeff,” you say, “doesn’t this novel span not just all four seasons, but multiple generations?” Yes. It does. But read Little, Big and just try to tell me it doesn’t make you think of long, hazy, dreaming days in the summer countryside, throughout pretty much the whole book. The book is about a sensation most of all: a mood-place where reality and magic meet, where fairies don’t seem like such a crazy idea after all.

2. A Shadow in Summerby Daniel Abraham

This is the first bookspeculative fiction books about summer in Abraham’s medieval Asia-inspired fantasy series The Long Price Quartet, with subsequent books also named for the seasons (though, note that winter comes before autumn!). (Also note that Abraham is one half of “James S.A. Corey,” author of the sci-fi series The Expanse, which I’ve praised earlier). Ideas can be made into real creatures in the summer cities of the south. Jo Walton recommended A Shadow in Summer and its follow-ups highly.

3. Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury

speculative fiction books about summerBradbury drew on his own childhood to create this paean to summer, much of which started off as individually published short stories before being drawn together into this book. The book has only light speculative touches, mostly to add dimensions that represent the touch of magic that summer has when you’re a kid. Interestingly, Bradbury published a sequel, Farewell Summeralmost fifty years later — that takes place during “Indian Summer,” in October. So, you know, one last hurrah for summer.

4. Summerland, by Michael Chabon

speculative fiction books about summerA rare YA offering from Chabon, Summerland is the story of fairies and other magical creatures who are obsessed with baseball. A kid who sucks at the sport must journey on a blimp into a land of adventure and American mythology, etc. The author reins in his ordinarily baroque language somewhat for the kids, but still manages to slip in the occasional vocabulary-enhancing description. I have a signed copy of this book and you cannot have it. And here’s a bonus (non-speculative) summer novel by Chabon: The Mysteries of Pittsburghthe story of one young man’s sexual awakening in about the least mysterious city there is. Featuring motorcycles!

5. Summer of Night, by Dan Simmons

speculative fiction books about summerSo, think Dandelion Wine — a magical boyhood summer in Illinois — except with the awakening of an ancient evil added in. And really, shouldn’t that be added to every story? Simmons is probably best known for off-the-wall genre-melding (genre-busting?) books like Hyperionbut Summer of Night will scratch your classical horror itch, per the consensus. That’s what summer’s really for.

Honorable mentions

The Summer Job by Adam Cesare, a horror tale that sounds pretty fucked up (hat tip to this Lit Reactor article by Cameron Pierce, which also reminded me of the existence of Summer of Night); and pretty much anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, whose dreamily described settings will put you in a summer frame of mind, particularly in books like A Song for Arbonne

Tell me what I’m missing from this list! It’s all dudes with no female writers, for one thing. I know I must be missing a bunch of great speculative fiction set in the summertime.

Interview: Horror author Philip Fracassi

pablo (1)

Recently I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Philip Fracassi, whose horror novelettes ALTAR and MOTHER have been getting some terrific buzz from respected names in the field (and who was kind enough to endorse The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley). I was interested to hear about his inspirations as well as his take on the horror genre today. First, here’s a quick bio:

horror author Philip FracassiPhilip Fracassi is an author and screenwriter living in L.A. His screenplays include films for Disney Entertainment and Lifetime Television, and his latest thriller, Girl Missing, stars Francesca Eastwood and is available on demand via iTunes and Amazon. He is the author of the literary novels THE EGOTIST and the forthcoming DON’T LET THEM GET YOU DOWN, and the horror novelettes MOTHER and ALTAR, both by Dunhams Manor Press.

Deck: How long have you been writing horror, and what kind of training or study did you have? How long have you been writing in other forms, such as screenwriting?

Fracassi: I started writing in 3rd grade. Lots and lots of short stories with a focus on science fiction. I wrote my first horror novella-sized story when I was in 7th grade, mostly during Math class. It was about a group of kids fighting off a monster that lived in the park around which their neighborhood was built. Can’t remember the title…

I’ve been writing ever since, on and off, with varying focuses. Between 1998 and 2010 I wrote primarily literary fiction – short stories about relationships, etc. There were some creepy creature-features in there, but mainly literary stuff. During this period I wrote 3 novels – THE EGOTIST, DON’T LET THEM GET YOU DOWN, and HAPPY HOLLY. I’m planning on releasing these 3 books over the next 6 months as self-published titles via Amazon. THE EGOTIST is currently out as an eBook and used copies of the original print copy are around, but they’re stupid expensive.

I started screenwriting around 2011. Sort of fell into it. Started by writing movies about talking dogs for little kids, all distributed by Disney, including my first screen credit: a Disney movie called Santa Paws 2: The Santa Pups. I then developed my talent enough to write original scripts, and I wanted to focus on horror and the supernatural because A – that’s what I read ever since I was a kid and B – there’s a great market for horror.

I sold an original script called “Girl Missing” to Marvista Entertainment in 2014, and that was later broadcast on Lifetime Television and is now on demand via Amazon and iTunes. I have another supernatural thriller being developed right now called “Vintage.” Hoping that one goes into production in 2016, but you never know.

It was during this period of screenwriting that I had the revelation to start writing horror stories again. Cut to 2015, and I started writing what eventually became MOTHER

Deck: Who are your biggest influences? I couldn’t help but note that there are two characters in MOTHER named Howard . . .

Fracassi: My influences are varied, and writers I read and enjoy are not necessarily influences. I think of influences as folks who inspire me to create, or folks whose writing style inspires me to alter my own style, often significantly. While I’ll always write in my own voice, it’s definitely a chorus of other voices I’ve read over the years, as well. That said, my writing influences are classic giants such as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, M.R. James, and more modern horror writers such as Ralph Robert Moore and the great one, Laird Barron.

Deck: You work full-time in Hollywood. Has that world had any effect on your dark fiction?

Fracassi: No, not really. Other than my screenwriting sometimes sparking ideas for my prose. But living and working in Hollywood isn’t any different than anywhere else when it comes to exposure to dark ideas.

Deck: You recently re-released your novelette MOTHER, a story of, uh, domestic discontent (trying not to give too much away here). What was the seed of inspiration for this story?

horror author motherFracassi: MOTHER was inspired by the idea of sleeping next to someone you love, someone you supposedly know better than anyone, and reaching across the bed to caress that person one dark night, to touch that person and feel their warmth and love… and finding something else altogether. Something so dark and horrible that it might make you question not only what lies beside you, but who, or what, exactly you’ve been living with all these years.

Deck: The narrator of MOTHER is an unsympathetic character, even when compared to the frightening beings that show up later in the story. Do you think readers enjoy reading about the “jerk protagonist” in horror stories more so than other genres, in the hope that he or she might meet some kind of grisly comeuppance in the end? I remember enjoying many Stephen King short stories exactly for this reason . . .

Fracassi: Yeah, Howard is a jerk, for sure. But the idea was not to make him a jerk so the readers rooted against him, but more because I wanted to explore a character who was truly selfish, egotistical and borderline sociopathic. I could just as easily have made him a gracious, loving husband, and I think the overall affect of the story would still work just as well, perhaps even better than it did, but that just wasn’t a character I was interested in writing about. Who wants nice?

Deck: Your other recent novelette is ALTAR, the tale of a day at the pool gone horribly wrong. Did you have any difficulty writing from the point of view of the children in the story? Did you draw at all from your own childhood experience — fears, desires, etc.?

horror author altarFracassi: ALTAR is very much a glimpse of my childhood, albeit through a distorted lens. That said, I wrote the characters and setting of ALTAR in such a way as to set up a sense of nostalgia for anyone who ever visited a pool with their family, whether it was thirty years ago or three years ago. Everyone’s had that feeling of a warm Saturday afternoon in the car with family, smelling the sunscreen lotion and sticking to the leather of the seats, eager to hit the cool water… of course, in my version, hitting the water is the worst idea there is.

Deck: Why do you think we’re continually drawn to stories of horrible, monstrous, even inexplicable things just beyond the veil of the normal world? What are we getting out of it?

Fracassi: Entertainment. Pure and simple. To me, my stories are roller coasters and haunted houses, they’re places for you to ride and be thrilled, to walk through and be terrified. The only difference is that when you get off my ride, I want you taking a piece of the ride with you, embedded under your skin, in your brain, to emerge again when you’re sleeping or when you least expect it. My rides have teeth.

Deck: Do you face any challenges or misconceptions from the general reading audience when writing in the horror genre? Do you try to target readers who already “get” the genre?

Fracassi: I’m not really experienced enough or have had my work distributed widely enough to answer that question. My stuff is so niche right now, and my sales so targeted, that I haven’t had to deal with my work being categorized or shunned or pigeon-holed. That said, I write horror and write it proudly. Perhaps, you could say, I write old-school horror with a flare of the new weird. And there’s enough of an audience who will read a book by that definition that I’m not really concerned about not finding enough readers.

Deck: I attended a small-group discussion at Readercon with Ellen Datlow (editor of many short-story anthologies). One of the people in the group asserted that horror “doesn’t work” in full-length book format, which Datlow agreed with. Given that your most recent works are novelette-length horror (shorter than a novel), do you agree with that statement? Did you ever envision MOTHER or ALTAR as longer stories?

Fracassi: I agree and I disagree, depending on the story. Novelettes are wonderful for most horror stories because horror stories tend to be situational. Something very bad happens, somebody has to deal with that very bad experience, and then it’s over. In traditional novels, you’re world-building, you’re creating something that will take time to fully tell, time to fully experience as a reader.

That said, there are horror stories that need to be novel-length to properly tell.

horror author cujoHere are two easy examples from Stephen King: The Shining needs to be a novel. He needed to build the mythology of the Overlook, develop the relationships between the characters, embed the backstory so the horror makes more sense and has ties to who these people are. This, in turn, makes it all the more terrifying. Okay, now take Cujo, which is a novel that would have been a million times better as a novella. Cujo is a 50-page story stretched to 300 pages of worthless side-stories that do nothing to enhance what’s happening in the real story, which is the dog and what he’s doing to the folks who get in his way.

So, again, it comes down to the story. MOTHER and ALTAR are novelettes and I would never want them to be re-imagined as anything else. I think the story fits the page-length. I am, however, working on a novel right now, called A CHILD ALONE WITH STRANGERS, that needs to be a novel. There’s world-building that needs to happen, background information that needs to be relayed, relationships that need to be developed, so when the shit hits the fan, the way these characters interact, the decisions they make, can be understood and appreciated by the reader.

Deck: What’s next for you? I see that you’re teasing a book called Don’t Let Them Get You Down.

Fracassi: Right, again, I’ll be re-releasing my literary trilogy as self-published, print-on-demand books. I have a few stories coming out later in 2016 that have already been sold – two anthologies and a standalone chapbook.

I’m also close to a large deal for another novella, a collection (my first) and a novel for 2017. Hopefully I’ll be making that announcement very, very soon.

Deck: We all know the big names in horror and dark fantasy — do you have any recommendations of books by current writers in the genre who may not (yet) be well known?

Fracassi: Because I know so many writers and because there are so many wonderful books and I don’t want to leave anyone out, let me answer your question by saying first and foremost, everyone should be reading the work of Laird Barron. All of it. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a fan of Ralph Robert Moore, who has a few novels and a couple collections available. I recommend starting with GHOSTERS. Other writers you can check out are Christopher Slatsky (Alectryomancer), Michael Wehunt (Greener Pastures), S.P. Miskowski (Knock Knock), T.E. Grau (The Nameless Dark), anything by Ronald Malfi, Paul Tremblay, Adam Nevill of course, or John Langan. That should get you started.

Deck: What do you love to do in your spare time that has nothing to do with dark fiction?

Fracassi: Nothing. Not a damned thing. If I’m not writing, I’m reading. If I’m not reading, I’m watching something scary to inspire new ideas or a new way of seeing an old trope or whatever. That’s one of the great things about discovering that you’re a horror writer – you never want to be anything else.

You can connect with Philip Fracassi through Facebook, on Twitter, and at his website, www.pfracassi.com.

Three reasons to rank life over art

art versus lifeStephen King’s memoir-slash-writer’s-companion On Writing came out when I was in college. Just as I was deciding that yes, I would actually devote my incredibly expensive degree to something called “Creative Writing & Literature.” The timing couldn’t have been better for my favorite author to become my mentor.

I learned a lot from On Writing, principles that I’d carry with me through the next fifteen years or so as a writer. Write every day — don’t wait for the “muse” to show up. Cut everything you don’t need out of your stories, especially the dull stuff. The road to hell is paved with adverbs. And if your beta readers are all quibbling with different parts of your story, feel free to ignore anything they don’t agree on.

There was one lesson in the book, though, that I wasn’t ready to understand. That I, in fact, dismissed out of hand. King said:

“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Art versus life: fight!

At that time, as a twenty-year-old with big ambitions for breaking into the world of books, I couldn’t disagree more with King’s statement. I would, in fact, build my life explicitly as a support system for art. I would get a crappy apartment with my best writing buddy Benjamin, find a crappy job to keep the lights on and the breakfast cereals stocked, and live for writing. 

So it went. After graduation, the plan went into motion. Every day, riding first the Metro train and then the bus back to my little redoubt on the eighteenth floor of the high-rise in Silver Spring, I knew the day would really begin when I sat down in front of that ugly old Bondi Blue iMac and started typing.

Because, you know, the only way to succeed — in a brutal field like book publishing — is to throw everything into it, right? To bend one’s fiber of being into the shape of a manuscript?

At the age of thirty-six, with an increased Wisdom score (largely due to my capable therapist), I think I finally understand where this idea goes astray. And why making art a support system for life, as Uncle Stevie urged all those years ago, is the way to go after all.

Here are the three reasons why making life into a support system for art will fail you in the end:

1. Success is out of your hands.
art versus life
The wheel of beer, Redbones, Somerville, Mass. If only Fortune were always this kind.

If you work as hard as you can at your art, that will set the stage for your success. But it doesn’t guarantee a damn thing. The blind, dumb beast known as Chance may just decide to shamble across that stage and wreck everything you’ve built.

Because you know what? Audiences are fickle. Tastes are subjective. Somebody better at bullshitting, with an uncle in the business, may claim the spotlight you were chasing. The director might be sleeping with your audition competition. You might break an ankle right before the big recital.

We should do everything we possibly we can to position ourselves for success. But that last mile doesn’t belong to us. We may fail for reasons we’ll never understand. If you’ve staked your happiness and self-worth on artistic success, you may never actually be happy. Which brings us to the next point . . .

2. The goalposts are always moving.

art versus lifeWhat does “success” mean to you?

For me, back in the early 2000s, success meant getting a book published with one of the big boys. So that was the goal I chased, over and over again. Never quite reaching it. Partly because, in retrospect, the novels I was working on still had significant room for improvement. But primarily because most of my query letters never even made it to the people they were intended for. 99% of unsolicited agent or editor queries tend to disappear into gigantic, teetering stacks of paper poked at by overwhelmed interns in the lonely towers of the City. (See point 1.)

Then I embarked on a crazy adventure, attracted a fair bit of media, and landed a book deal. The book based on my adventure, The Great Typo Hunt, was published by Random House (since merged with Penguin to become Random Penguin House), one of the biggest publishers in the world. Success achieved, based on the original definition I’d set for myself . . . right?

Nope. I told myself that I’d forgotten to specify to the success genie that I wished for a published novel, not just a nonfiction book. After all, The Great Typo Hunt was just a silly book about fixing signs with correction fluid and Sharpies. My life would only be complete, and worth something, if I published a book truly aligned with my heart and soul, like a science fiction or horror novel. So the goalposts got pushed back.

A few more years passed. I wrote a great story about gaming and virtual reality in the future, and struggled to get my agent to give it a shot, or other power brokers to even give the novel a look. Eventually, I just published the damn thing myself, as the e-book Player ChoiceSo there, now I was successful: I’d written a speculative fiction book that I could be proud of, and anyone in the world could read it. There was no longer anything holding me back.

Except — now I really wanted the novel to be read by lots of people, and to make tons of money and attract much praise and cause a huge clamor for my next book and do you see how poisonous this kind of thinking is? Scientists call this the hedonic treadmill: as you achieve more, your expectations rise in tandem, with no permanent increase in your level of happiness or satisfaction.

Career goals are important because you need to sustain your motivation. But they won’t give you a lasting sense of self-worth. That goes double for any career goals you’re trying to achieve through artistic means, because . . .

3. Art doesn’t love you back.

Sorry. Art is a monstrous bitch/bastard.

Because art comes from within you — whether it’s composing music, staging the perfect shot, or writing a story so honest it’s raw — it’s especially dangerous to equate it with who you are. If you are living for art, and the art you’ve just produced is a piece of shit, then your inevitable mental conclusion will be that you are a piece of shit.

Then flip the sides of the equation: that nasty little inner voice will whisper that since you are worthless, you will produce nothing of worth. And that voice would so love to be proved right.

Or how about the artist so maniacally committed to their art that they achieve success at a terrible personal cost? Wrecking relationships, neglecting children, setting dear friendships adrift because, they’ll say, “This is the most important part of me — this is who I am!

art versus life
Thomas Mann, world-class asshole.

History can provide us with many truly awful examples of this archetype. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife with a penknife. Thomas Mann skipped his son’s funeral to continue with his lecture tour (his son had committed suicide, as would three of his other children). Hemingway destroyed several marriages and two sons (see this NYT article, “Good Art, Bad People”).

And the artists themselves spin down into insanity, more often than not, because we need those relationships with other humans to stay sane. You can’t turn to a manuscript for comfort, advice, and understanding. You can’t fuck a painting. Art doesn’t love you back.

Who does? The people around you. Your friends, significant others, kids, pets, parents, extended family. These people aren’t just part of your life; they are life. But bonds with other humans are always fragile. People may not stick around if you’re chronically placing art over life (them). That’s the worst part about the “life as a support system for art” approach: it’s self-fulfilling. Sooner or later you look up, see no one left, and think: Finally I can concentrate.

Stephen King tells the story of moving his writing desk from the center of the room to the side, as a symbol of resetting his priorities. I’m attempting to incorporate gratitude exercises into my daily routine, to remember the importance of and my appreciation for the cast of non-fictional characters that make up my own life.

Because, you know, the books are important to me, but they aren’t the most important thing. It just might occasionally take a daily reminder to drill that into my thick skull.