Before we fully begin, Evan James Clark has already joked that he looks like a snowball with a beard and I tell him only Hostess could make a better looking Sno Ball. I’m careful in this sit down interview not to make any extraneous utterances because if Clark is good at anything in addition to writing mind bending sci-fi and fantasy, it’s listening.
I was granted the privilege of reading his soon to be released novel, Tigerfish. (It’s available on Amazon for preorder, to be released April 30.) I sat down to talk with Clark one evening about Tigerfish, his prior two novels, (The Anachronist Girls & Halcyon Park) and his upcoming work, Paraiso Street.
From childhood years in San Diego, to the 2016 election, and up to 2019, Clark and I time traveled along the course of his biography. All the while, time marched from dusk to nightfall in Los Angeles, and night settled over his home in Iowa:
OI: You made a joke when we were coordinating a time for this about being in a landlocked part of the nation (Iowa), how long have you been there?
EJC: On and off since 93, and we’ve moved back and forth a bit. I’ve lived a couple different places in Iowa, different experiences. The transition at that age- culture shock is a good term to use.
OI: It’s a polite term, there’s the Midwest side of you.
EJC: Yeah, I don’t know, that sudden shift is something that has been really influential with me, and it probably shows up in the stuff I write.
OI: I do see the theme. I think it’s a little too easy for me to say I see a lot of Philip K. Dick in your writing, a line between humanity and inhumanity, but there’s also a core of people experiencing culture shock in a way?
EJC: The Philip K. Dick thing, one: that’s the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard, so thank you. Yeah, in preparing for this and brainstorming I had to look at some of the material and it’s funny that with Tigerfish when it was originally written it was meant to be a sequel to earlier material. I had no idea where it was going to go, thematically it was pretty different.
When I first started it I wrote that little bit on the first page about it taking place inter fabulas, between stories, and it didn’t mean anything at the time other than ‘hey, this might tie into other things,’ but looking at it with all the characters- everybody there is between something. In examining that against stuff I’ve experienced it’s one of those things where you go: I guess I was really writing about that. Not on purpose, but it does show up.
OI: The physical setting that’s real and tangible to your characters as a transitory space seems reflective of that emotionality you’re describing.
EJC: The setting- Spoiler Alert- having been conceived by a younger person as these sort of fantasies of a very different world and the way reality and the harsher more adult world is encroaching on this thing that was dreamed up as something pure and fun. Maybe that’s one of the in-betweens I didn’t intend. You’ve got people switching from your more childhood idealism to something cynical, but the best cynicism doesn’t think it’s cynical.
OI: There is that sense of sanctity in the early part of the story. I want to ask a couple relatively mundane questions first though, the cooking, I got hungry every other time I opened Tigerfish.
EJC: This is perhaps a little bit of my cynicism creeping out, being in a small relatively landlocked area, I miss food. Oh God, do I miss food. So I was able to write about the different kinds of food I was dreaming about. We’ve had a pretty big influx of people from other areas, so we’re getting better food! Not the kind I look back on and really miss. At the same time, I’m not in any way a master of culinary arts, so I had to make it on imagination.
OI: They say write what you know. You wrote the cooking so well I was convinced you had to have been a line chef in the past.
EJC: This is a secret, perhaps, but I have never worked in a food industry at all, but I am fat, so it balances out.
OI: Your professional history does include being a librarian though.
EJC: When I got into library work I was working on a degree it was mid to secondary ed, I managed to sneak my way into book based trades for as long as I can remember. I was with Barnes & Noble for about seven years, which was a fantastic experience and then from there got into the secondary ed aim. Along the line, I just started working in a Library part time and I loved it so much that when it came time for me to go, ‘well, I have to step back so I can do my student teaching, or I can stay here and aim for full time’ yeah I stuck with the library there. Library science is far underrated and I don’t think I have the aptitude for it. Really when it comes to books I just con my way through to any environment that’ll allow me to read.
OI: That’s the dream job, isn’t it?
EJC: Yeah, and sometimes you have to sneak in. there were perhaps times I was at Barnes and Noble- I was the receiving manager there for years so every book that came through there came across my desk. I probably lost an hour here or there going ‘this is interesting, I’m going to page through to chapter eight..’
That’s one thing that I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do, both in working in a library but it’s also a huge experience where you get to meet all sorts of people and it’s a way to serve a community as well as a concept of holding onto literacy and knowledge and making it accessible.
OI: Regarding the people that you’ve met, in your dedication of Tigerfish you blame Newman, so to speak: “For Newman, Look what the hell you did.”
EJC: Newman is a character, I’ve known him for a lot of years. A large, gruff individual you would see as- well, younger Santa Claus figure. With a little bit of misanthrope to him, and he was one of my major supporters with my first two big projects (The Anachronist Girls and Halcyon Park), and he’s really one of the people that said: ‘you have to do something more in this vein, and not give up or drift off.’ This book, the origins of it were kind of crazy. If I were not already in the position where I knew I had to continue writing stories like this? I might have given up.
OI: You mention the origin of this story, so where were you that led down this crossroads that you illustrated just now?
EJC: Before this my big project had been Halcyon Park, which was my love letter to Southern California and 90’s action movies. That’s where I experimented with figuring out how to write action scenes, and it’s also where I learned that you have to edit like you’re about to burst into flames. Because that book was originally something like 220K [220,000 words], so I cut about half of it.
That’s where some of the tightness of the writing comes from I think. After Halcyon Park, which had been such a huge project, I was sort of mentally exhausted and drifting between projects. I knew I wanted to start something, but if I began a project it would fall apart after maybe a few chapters, or maybe even ten or twelve chapters.
Normally, when I have ideas like that which haven’t progressed they go into a writing graveyard where I can pick through the bones of them later and add them together. That’s where some stuff in Paraiso Street comes from. With Tigerfish I had decided, foolishly perhaps, to do the NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writer’s Month] contest thing in November, and I decided I’d do that at the same time that I quit drinking.
EJC: See that’s what we call a mad decision, because I’m the kind of guy who before that would start the day by drinking the mouthwash. It had been a major issue that I got to the point where i said ‘I have to deal with it right now, I’m tired at every other aspect, and if I don’t make the change it’s never going to happen.’ So I started sobriety in early November and the writing came really fast. It was a different project. A really gritty crime story. Dark. I was doing 6,000 words a day, and a lot of that was coming through sweats and shakes.
That was November 2016, and we hit the 8th and everything went to hell with the election. It was one of those moments where the day after I stood there and said ‘I’ve got a lot going on right now and I’m not feeling well and my brain is going in all these different directions, but none of that is even close to the people who are just scared and traumatized and broken by what just happened, and not knowing what the hell is going to happen next week or the week after.’
That’s when I decided that I didn’t need to write a dark gritty crime story. I needed to write something that was- I don’t know is fun the right word? Less serious at least. I decided I’m not going to write a novel that lurches towards dystopia.
OI: Tigerfish has an awareness and inclusivity that I really admire. Hearing you talking about the election as a pivotal moment, it shines through in that story and those characters.
EJC: I’m going to be totally honest, I never thought that I would do anything with Tigerfish. After the first draft was finished I thought I’d throw it in the closet and never see it again. It was ‘out there,’ and it was one of those things that was exhausting to write, but in a different way.
I am super flattered by that. Inclusivity is a difficult thing because I don’t think I did it on purpose, if you try to write inclusivity and you’re too heavy handed you’re going to screw it up. You have to go out of your way to rewrite and some things don’t work, so you have to leave them behind.
Davie’s character in particular, having known not many trans people. After having written her for a while I had to consult a good friend of mine who is part way through transition and he had to correct me on numerous things. At the time I was like, ‘how am I going to go back and fix this?’ If I was ever going to let this thing see the light of day, I couldn’t screw that up.
OI: There’s an interesting sense of heightening in your books: one truth is never enough, your characters each have their own truths that they bring to the story, and the world has a truth of itself.
EJC: There’s a gray area, when you say each character has their truths, the important part is where those truths lean together. I know I tend to write about families- especially ones that are elected rather than blood. That’s been a huge thing for me in life in general but I can’t write a story that doesn’t have that sort of connection between at least two people and trying to reconcile where those truths end up. Jay and Davie are so completely different characters but their ability to see and empathize is so great that even though they have different truths they can easily access each other’s ideas.
OI: They very quickly become the best brother-sister duo I’ve read in a long time.
EJC: Which is great because I was so worried I had messed that up!
OI: Multiple times they return to the safe space of the restaurant together- the restaurant feels like a sanctum and home setting.
EJC: The way you said it, that home setting. I think it is a character in itself, and it’s also a character people have the hardest time connecting with. People are always looking for, and oftentimes not always finding that home setting.
In Tigerfish there is literally no home setting besides the one that are created by the people there. Davie’s restaurant is the closest thing to an intentional, individual place that the characters want to be at. Again, food is sort of representative of if the place is safe enough that you can sit and eat that’s a good spot to be in.
OI: It’s a very contained place- a small island- but they go on this fantastical journey. Is that something that you see that the universe expands both infinitely outward and also infinitely inward- that things are deeper and more complex than just the expanse?
EJC: That’s something I played with a lot when writing The Anachronist Girls. Part of the setting is this manifestation of time, you can walk down a hallway and emerge in 1877, or if you find the right door you might be 3000 years ahead of where we are. It’s always doors, whether it’s the greater or the lesser. You mentioned things going deeper, that happens almost word for word at the end of the book. I might explore that a little bit more in the future.
OI: The Anachronist Girls being your earliest available novel, did you have other work that preceded it?
EJC: No, I played around with writing- and by played around I mean I thought I was super serious about it and then I began learning things that made me go, ‘wait, I’ve gotta fix this.’ Actually the first thing that I published was a horror novel in 2014 called Movers, and this will sound odd but when people ask me about my work, I usually say the first one is The Anachronist Girls.
Movers is something I’ve disowned. I’m glad I went through the experience of publishing it, but it was a mess and there were some thematic things that when I went back to look at, I say “I don’t think I should be attached to this.”
OI: There’s a quote from Philip Young, ‘almost all writers show their chief debts in their earliest work.’ Disowned or not, what do you think is the chief debt you were grappling with for Movers, who were you writing it for?
EJC: That’s the thing, I didn’t know who I was writing it for and there was a sort of nebulous idea behind it. That’s one where a character has no home, is stripped of concepts of family and responds in really terrible ways. I guess that maybe was the deconstruction of the idea, and when I went on later to do The Anachronist Girls which is totally about home and family it felt much better in terms of material.
Like a lot of writers, there are always things like self-care and health issues which I wasn’t doing a very good job with when I wrote Movers, so there’s a lot of things I look back on that make me go ‘really?! I can’t believe I did that!’ but I did. I wrote about it a little while ago because for some reason Movers is still among my more popular ones, probably because it’s had the most time for people to look at.
It’s painful to say aloud, because I’m ashamed of it. Going back and looking at that main character and his motivations there is a huge amount of things like misogyny to unpack and knowing that even fictionalized that idea was in my head in creating the character makes me want to shower and scrub it all off.
OI: From that to Tigerfish, your latest work is the kind of work I think is to be applauded for its inclusivity. Movers is still dealing with a lot of the same themes, even if it’s mapped in contrast against where your values currently stand.
EJC: Perhaps it’s that sort of unconstructed step, you have to have some sort of footing to move ahead into stuff you really want to work on that really brings out the better aspects of you as a writer. I think it was Jeff VanderMeer wrote Annihilation and he’s got a fantastic book of essays called Wonderbook.
There’s a bit in there where he says that we ‘write from our scars.’ No matter how good of a writer you are, there’s a splinter that is the driving force in all of your themes. Movers was probably one of the things that helped me uncover that and look at the real things I wanted to write about. Study in contrast I guess.
OI: It sounds like through Movers you were able to figure out the topics you wanted to discuss even if you weren’t sure yet quite what you wanted to say about them.
EJC: I think that probably every author goes through that at some point and most being wiser than me don’t actually throw those ideas out into the world until they have a better idea of it. Whereas I was like ‘I finally wrote something! Quick! Publish it before it evaporates!’ Looking back, the experience of learning how to do things like publishing was worth it, and then I can always do things like hit ‘unpublish.’ I’m glad I had the experience and I’m glad it’s not in circulation.
OI: It’s done a lot of good judging by the trilogy you’re standing on, which is soon to be a quartet later this year with Paraiso Street.
EJC: I’m going to be totally honest, I am incredibly proud of Paraiso Street. I think it’s probably my favorite of the things I’ve written. That’s a dangerous thing when an author goes, ‘this is the best.’ What you said about there being an arc? That one really brought me to some stuff that I wanted to discuss for a long time. Obviously Tigerfish has its own reality, but Paraiso Street is set in a world that is not ours or even connected to ours.
In many ways looks like it, they have things like internal combustion, pagers- it’s a fantasy world aged up to 1991. There are ideas that come from when I was younger and living in San Diego. Having moved at the age I did, those younger days are clouded by nostalgia, I look back on it almost as a mythical time. Anytime I write about stuff having to deal with that setting and the culture I can get really enthusiastic.
At the same time, that one is really difficult to get right. I’ve rewritten it I don’t know how many times. Because the major conceit is in that world the dead have to pass through what is essentially a hideously complex immigration process that is being controlled by a clearly corrupt bureaucratic agency and it’s a really bad deal. The main character has made a living by sneaking people into the underworld. He refers to himself as a coyote.
It gets messy because as you can tell from my snowball like countenance, you can write inclusivity but you don’t want to butcher it or step on toes. That seems like I’m trying to soften it, but the truth is I can love cultures from Mexico, the Philippines, Guatemala- one of the most influential people on me when I was younger was a woman from Mexico. She’s one of the people who taught me to read and write.
Being surrounded by all those cultures growing up I can love those things but I cannot pretend or act like I’m part of that heritage. It’s appreciation without exploitation. I worry about crossing a line, and I hope that I can catch those and fix them because I do go into things like Mayan influenced mythology and various cultures. Even in Tigerfish writing about islander people that are clearly based on Pacific islanders. It can be easy to say ‘I like this so I’m going to write about this’ and not recognize that you can be disrespectful.
OI: That’s a line you walked very well in Tigerfish: you achieved empathy and representation without appropriation. You recognized each character’s history as their own and not your own.
EJC: I think that is something we really need: to read stories, fantasy, romance, whatever that are outside of our range and familiarity. We need to be reading stories that encompass all these views because frankly the world outside is amazing and incredible and the fact that we’re not embracing or celebrating some of it is bullshit, we need to fix that.
OI: Recognize you do not know everything and approach it with truth, empathy, and humility. Be willing to learn.
EJC: Fascination is fantastic and it’s a seed, but you can be fascinated by a building design but if you don’t know engineering it’s not gonna work out for you. You have to combine fascination with learning.
OI: Let’s say you had to recommend a novel for readers to pair with Paraiso Street like wine with steak. What would you recommend?
EJC: That is one of the most difficult questions I’ve ever encountered. That book had a lot of influences, but I might go with Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise, it’s part of a series but it can be read independently. They’re thematically similar.
OI: Our penultimate question comes from Chance Calloway: ‘If you could boil the essence of what you’re trying to put out into the universe into one word, what would that word be?’
EJC: I could just say the one word, but I’m going to go into an explanation.
OI: As you should.
EJC: Recently, I got to attend a lecture by a teacher who teaches religion and philosophy. He gave a lecture on career tips based on the vows of medieval priests or monks. Obedience, poverty, and chastity. It was a fantastic lecture, in fact it taught me the difference between chastity and celibacy. That was a fun one, in that he described it as celibacy being never to the carnal stuff, but chastity is being true to what you are when you are.
So when monks take their vow of chastity they were vowing to be true to being celibate monks. During this lecture, he stopped and went ‘you know most of these things I’m going to discuss are for the instructors here and the rest of you on staff, I love that you came but get from it what you can.’
I had to think about what things I wanted to be true to, and what gives me a sense of purpose in career and otherwise. I kept thinking: ‘I write. I make art.’ That by itself isn’t enough, so ‘why? Why do you do that?’ The answer I came up with is ‘joy.’ Art and joy and writing are all intertwined. Art is what we need to make the world valuable. I think the world might exist for the sake of art. I’m going to go with, ‘joy.’
OI: So what’s a question you’d like me to ask my next interviewee?
EJC: That ties back into that lecture as well: that idea of being true. Your question, I think, should be: ‘what are you true to?’ It goes beyond things like just art, writing, music-whatever. There’s that splinter. There’s that scar that is the one thing you are true to. Why? What is your why that is going to hold out through all the other things in your life?
Evan James Clark is the author of The Anachronist Girls, Halcyon Park, Tigerfish and the upcoming Paraiso Street. You can follow him on Twitter – @evanjamesclark; and on Instagram – @evan_james_clark_or_whatever