S.T. Cartledge is a writer of poetry and Bizarro/weird fiction currently sweating in Western Australia (it’s summer over here, and it is damn hot). His book ‘House Hunter’ was one of the NBAS (New Bizarro Author Series) books in 2012. Soon Mr Cartledge will have a new book published through Eraserhead Press called ‘The Orphanarium’. Check out the cover art below, it’s a doozy!!
Anyway, I thought it high time I caught up with the man to have a chat about writing, his forthcoming book and to ask him what are his top 5 Bizarro books and just what the hell is Bizarro fiction?
TGR: I live on the Gold Coast, it’s damn hot here at present but you guys in WA really cop some serious heat. So, how are you handling the summer?!
STC: Ducted refrigerated air-conditioning. I don’t know how I survived without it. My partner’s parents have a pool, so there’s that too.
TGR: Tell us a little about your journey to writing. Where did it begin? Were you a big reader when you were younger and who were you reading as you grew up?
STC: I’ve always been a reader. I remember reading Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights Trilogy at a young age. I read a bunch of children’s fantasy and science fiction, as well as a bunch of John Marsden books (the Tomorrow Series in particular), and when I didn’t know what to read I usually borrowed a John Grisham novel from my parents. I started writing as a hobby when I was about 17 and starting to read a bit of H.P. Lovecraft. I went through a phase where my writing attempted to echo the authors I was reading at the time, Lovecraft, Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis. Basically, what I thought was cool and edgy, I tried to be those authors. When I discovered Bizarro, all rules went out the window and I just started writing whatever I felt like.
TGR: Is there much of a writing scene over in WA? If there is, are you actively involved with it?
STC: When it comes to fiction, it’s hard to say. I haven’t found a thriving scene, but I haven’t actively looked for one. There are a few book launches that come up on my radar, but nothing that really rips me out of the house. I’ve kind of found my home in Perth’s poetry scene. There’s a strange mix of content and styles with many overtones of distance and isolation. There are a lot of good local poets doing some pretty great stuff, and I’ve been lucky to be involved in a bunch of it.
TGR: There are people out there who have no idea what Bizarro fiction is, how would you describe it to a newbie?
STC: It’s a genre which defies conventions. It captures your imagination in ways that are far less common in other speculative genres like sci-fi or fantasy. It embraces the surreal and the absurd. It takes your wildest dreams and runs with it. There are no limits.
TGR: What was your first exposure to the genre and how do you think it has changed over the years?
STC: My first exposure was a short story called Candy Coated, by Carlton Mellick III. It’s probably still up online at Vice. From there I picked up Satan Burger by Mellick, and Lost in Cat Brain Land by Cameron Pierce. Bizarro has expanded so much in the time I’ve been reading/writing it. I think the writers themselves have grown and evolved a lot. They’re either pushing themselves further as writers, going for more complex narratives, or their writing has matured on to more complex themes and topics.
TGR: Outside of reading and writing, what else inspires you? Are you a movie fan and if so what are your favourite movies?
STC: I’m an anime fan, so I find myself drawing inspiration from works like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kill la Kill, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and directors like Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Hosoda, and Shinichiro Watanabe. Some of my favourite anime films are Ponyo, Paprika, and Wolf Children. Some of my favourite live action films are Inglourious Basterds, Watchmen, the Big Lebowski, and Mad Max: Fury Road.
TGR: Tell us about ‘House Hunter’, your first publication through Eraserhead as part of the NBAS series. How did that one come together and where did the idea come from?
STC: I pitched a whole bunch of ideas to Kevin Shamel and he asked me to write House Hunter based on my pitch. I wanted to make something completely mundane into something completely wild and fantastical. I took a similar approach with Day of the Milkman. Right now I’m in a surreal sci-fi/fantasy phase, but I’ll probably go back to reinventing mundane things again in the near future. I wrote House Hunter in a couple of weeks and then spent ages trying to get through the editing stage. It was while I was working on my honours thesis, so the timing was really hectic.
TGR: How have you improved as a writer since your first published story?
STC: I’ve got a lot more practice under my belt. I’ve got a lot more feedback on what works for people and what doesn’t. I’ve learned to focus on my strengths while keeping my weaknesses in mind. I’m never going to please everyone, but I’ve learned to be happy with my output, dedicated to my work, and open to criticism. Time and effort are the biggest factors to my improvement.
TGR: Your new book, coming soon from Eraserhead Press is called ‘The Orphanarium’, what can readers expect from it?
STC: It’s a story about a giant concrete city that’s completely enclosed. The creatures within (the orphans) know nothing about what lives outside. The creatures outside (elementals) take the form of all sorts of supreme powerful beings who manipulate the world around them in various ways. The story follows the orphan twins Daff and Dil, alongside their android friend Cyberia and their cyborg dog Killy. Together they find themselves thrust into battles which are far bigger than themselves. There is so much packed into the story, it’s difficult to boil it down to a linear hero’s journey or a simple sequence of events. This thing is huge.
TGR: The cover art is what drew me to the book. You must be stoked with it? Did you have any input into the creative process for the cover or did you leave it in the hands of the publisher?
STC: I discussed it with Rose O’Keefe, who edited the book. She was really passionate about the story and she came to me with an idea that she wanted to run with (a Howl’s Moving Castle type thing) and an artist she had in mind (Hauke Vagt). We discussed details, moods, colour schemes, and then she organised everything else with Hauke. I think it worked out so well because Rose had immersed herself in the story to the point that she understood what I had put into it and how the cover should not only represent the story itself, but also how it represents me as an author. Hauke did an amazing job translating that into art.
TGR: What did you find the most challenging aspect of writing ‘The Orphanarium’?
STC: The scope of it. The story began as a poem which turned into a 10,000 word short story, which then turned into a 43,000-ish word saga. It was a massive effort keeping the story flowing from chapter to chapter (it took me a little over 2 years to write). I wrote it in present tense with a simultaneous first-person/second-person narrator where “I” (Daff) tells the story of the Orphanarium to “you” (Dil), two characters who are active participants in the story. I also had these cactus spines in the story where they stab themselves in order to remember things that happened in the past, future, or present. I had a lot of unconventional techniques occurring simultaneously, and it was crazy challenging keeping them in line and making sure everything tied up well at the end. I was still tying up plot holes in the final proofreading stages, which was 2-3 years after I finished the first draft.
TGR: What do you think is the most important ingredient when writing a story? Is it character? Plot? Or something else?
STC: I’d say plot. Definitely. Plot and style. Books with interesting characters where nothing interesting happens just bore the hell out of me. I liked Bret Easton Ellis’ “Less Than Zero” considering its aimless plot, yet the sequel “Imperial Bedrooms” couldn’t keep me interested. I couldn’t have cared less for “the Great Gatsby” either. I like things to be fast paced or strangely compelling. That’s why I can like Blake Butler and J. A. Tyler where their works don’t exactly have a solid concept of character or plot. I guess that’s why some people read my stories and find that the characters aren’t as well fleshed out as they’d like or the plot was too fast. For me it’s about engaging with something unique. A story that cuts right to the chase or gives you an experience that you struggle to put into words.
TGR: If ‘The Orphanarium’ was picked up by Hollywood, who would star in the movie version?
STC: People often tell me that my books would work well as movies. I like painting visuals. The Orphanarium probably wouldn’t translate as easy. I haven’t specified ages for the characters, but I think Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things would make a pretty great Cyberia. Maybe Daniel Radcliffe and Elijah Wood to play the twins Daff and Dil? I’d probably be gunning for Christopher Nolan to direct.
TGR: Bizarro, as a genre has been talked about a lot recently, for various reasons which we won’t go into here. How welcome did you feel when you first entered the community and has much changed since then?
STC: I’ve always felt welcome in Bizarro. Some of my first online Bizarro friends were guys like Mellick, Cameron Pierce, and Jordan Krall, authors I was reading at the time when I was just figuring out who was who. At BizarroCon I first met the Bizarro authors/friends/artists in person and they were very welcoming. I’d think if/when I go back, the reception I get from them would be the same, if not stronger than before. I try to conduct myself well in spite of whatever personal dramas come up, and I think it’s important to not let that sort of thing divide you.
TGR: How do you approach the promotional aspect of being a writer?
STC: I think it’s something I will always need to work at, but I feel like it gets easier with time. So long as I’m constantly writing and publishing, I’ll have news that people will want to hear about, rather than jumping on board with whatever opinions are hotly debated at the time. I’d like to think my writing does all the talking, and I just try to nudge it on up without being too self-absorbed. I try to support my friends in the indie publishing scene where I can as well.
TGR: Mystery author asks you to collaborate on a writing project. Who is it and why?
STC: First person that jumps to mind would be Carlton Mellick III, and some form of bizarro-anime novel. I don’t see either of us as particularly collaborative writers though, so it would more likely be someone like Michael Allen Rose, Michael Sean LeSueur, or Karl Fischer.
TGR: What are your top 5 Bizarro books and why?
Cthulhu Comes to the Vampire Kingdom, by Cameron Pierce
This book had me emotionally hooked on the first page. Pierce’s writing here is beautiful and surreal, filled with fantasy and wonder.
Quicksand House, by Carlton Mellick III
This is the book I recommend to new readers. Mellick blurs the line between knowledge and reality in his worlds, and Quicksand House leads you on in ways that are devastating. It will break your heart.
A Town Called Suckhole, by David W. Barbee
This is textbook bizarro. It’s got character. It’s raw, it’s ugly, it’s weird as hell.
Motherfucking Sharks, by Brian Allen Carr
This book should be so absurd it’s stupid. It’s magical how a book called “Motherfucking Sharks” can be this brilliant. It’s the stuff that myths are made of.
Basal Ganglia, by Matthew Revert
This book is just stunning. Beautiful and tragic, surreal, spellbinding. It’s so easy to get lost in the beauty of it all.
TGR: What is your favourite flavour of Tim Tam?
STC: I used to eat the double choc and peanut butter ones a lot, but I don’t eat Tim Tams any more for dietary reasons.
TGR: What is your favourite book and why?
STC: I’d probably have to go with “In Watermelon Sugar” by Richard Brautigan because it is packed with beautiful, poetic language, while delivering a vivid and imaginative story with wonderful characters and settings.
TGR: Before you go, tell the readers about where they can find you.
STC: I’m up on Amazon and most of my stuff is available in print and on kindle. My stuff is on a bunch of other online websites too. I’m on facebook (with a personal account and an author page) and twitter (@STCartledge). I’ve got a blog at themanifold.wordpress.com
I’m also publishing poetry through Hawkline Press (on facebook/twitter/wordpress).
‘The Orphanarium’ is available from here. Go get it!