“The Play Date,” James Van Pelt’s chilling contribution to the Coppice & Brake anthology, gives a new, twisted perspective to any adult reader with fond–or otherwise–memories of time spent in gifted and talented education classes. Read on to learn more about James, and the story behind the dark fiction of his piece in our latest anthology.
Q: What do you write? How long have you been writing? What are your preferred genres and why?
A (James Van Pelt): I write primarily short science fiction, fantasy and horror, which I started in elementary school, fifty-five years ago, but I didn’t get serious about it until I was in my late 20s. That’s coming up on forty years of writing. My dad probably is the one to blame for my interest in science fiction. He was an aeronautical engineer, working in the American space program as I grew up. He also loved science fiction (and science fiction movies). I cut my teeth on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and the Godzilla movies, among many others.
Q: What do you find the most challenging about the writing process, and how do you meet that challenge?
A: The biggest challenge for me is being as productive as I would like. I retired from teaching high school English two years ago, but despite the extra hours, I’m not writing any more than when I worked full time. I’ve been working on self discipline.
Q: What was the worst writing advice you ever received? The best writing advice? Why, and how did it affect your writing?
A: The worst writing advice I was given came from my mentor in grad school who said he didn’t see much of a future for my writing because I was too literary for the science fiction/fantasy/horror magazines and too genre for the literary magazines. I guess that’s more a prediction than advice. Since grad school, I’ve sold over 160 short stories, many that have been reprinted in my five short story collections, and I’ve also sold two novels. I’ve also had stories selected for various year’s best anthologies and been a frequent award list finalist. All I can conclude from his gloomy forecast is that he didn’t understand the science fiction/fantasy/horror market.
Fortunately I decided to submit my work anyway.
The best advice I received came from one of my early rejections. George Scithers, the editor at Amazing Stories said, “I hope while you were waiting to hear from us on this story that you were working on your next.”
Since then I have spent way more time worrying about the progress of the current story than wondering about the fate of the last.
Q: Of the characters you’ve created, who is your favorite, and why?
A: Tough question since the characters of each story fit the story. They are my favorite for that story. However, if I have to choose one, I’ll go with Tomika Corbett from my short story, “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet.” There’s a lot of a young me in Tomika. She loves the promise of space travel, as portrayed in the Tom Corbett books. She’s imaginative, bookish, and feels a little out of place in our world.
Q: What draws you to the genre of horror/dark fiction? What do you find there that you don’t find anywhere else?
A: Horror and dark fiction are a part of the larger circle of the fantastic, which includes science fiction, high fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk, alternate history, etc. For some reason, everything I write has a tendency to turn to the fantastic. I like the possibility for the broader, more complicated world that fantasy implies. Sometimes that means I veer toward horror and dark stories.
Q: If someone asked you to recommend books/stories similar to what you write, who/what titles would you be giving them? And, why?
A: I truly admire Ray Bradbury for his wild imagination and frothy prose. I started with THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and then plowed through everything else he wrote. The stories in TMC, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC and his novels, particularly, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES turned me on to reading and later onto writing. I’d also recommend any of Connie Willis, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King or Daryl Gregory’s collections (everyone should read Daryl Gregory’s “Second Person Present Tense.”) I don’t think most people consider short fiction much. If those authors can’t hook them, they are stone.
Q: What inspired your story in this anthology? Tell us the “story behind the story.”
A: I listened to Ray Bradbury’s advice to young writers, which was “Write a story a week for a year.” He suggested that writers would learn a lot, and that it was nearly impossible to write 52 bad stories in a row. I was hardly a young writer when I started my year of short stories in 2015, but I figured I always have a bunch to learn. “The Play Date” came out of that writing streak. I had been thinking about a parent’s power to create or destroy in their children’s lives, and it wasn’t a long leap to take that idea literally.
Q: Why horror? Why do you write it? What about the genre appeals to you as an author?
A: In my thinking, all horror shares the same theme, which is “Something awful out there is going to get you.” It’s a bleak theme, but it also seems to be the most universal of the themes (after all, if you consider death to be awful, it will get us all). Sometimes I write stories that explore the different ways that theme can be expressed. I don’t consider myself a horror writer primarily. My stories often hinge on a hopeful note, but sometimes the story requires the darker turn.
Q: There are a number of subgenres/tropes/flavors of horror. Where does your story fit? What drew you to this particular category?
A: I often write ghost stories. They seem to be great metaphors for our unwillingness to accept the uncompleted journey. Ghosts are about unresolved guilt or revenge deferred or responsibilities cut short. Besides, they creep me out.
Q: What’s next in your writing journey?
A: I always have a short story or two in progress. My publisher is planning on a BEST OF JAMES VAN PELT (so far) collection at the end of the summer.
James Van Pelt
James Van Pelt is a full-time writer in western Colorado. His work has appeared in many science fiction and fantasy magazines and anthologies. He’s been a finalist for a Nebula Award and been reprinted in several year’s best collections. His first Young Adult novel, Pandora’s Gun, was released from Fairwood Press in August of 2015. His latest collection, The Experience Arcade and Other Stories, was released at the World Fantasy Convention in 2017. James blogs at http://www.jamesvanpelt.com, and he can be found on Facebook.