With the application deadline for the 2015 Clarion West Writer’s Workshop fast approaching (February 10th), I took the opportunity to interview a past participant about his writing accomplishments, ambitions, and experience at the workshop.
Alex Kane lives in west-central Illinois, where he works as a freelancer, plays too many first-person shooters, and blogs about culture and technology in his spare time. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his stories have appeared in Omni, Spark, Digital Science Fiction, and the YA anthology Futuredaze, among other places.
1. When did you first become interested in writing and when did your passion for writing begin to take serious, I’d-like-to-be-published form?
Alex: As I recall, Lego was the first artistic medium I dabbled in. The Lego Movie spoke to me in a pretty profound way, actually, because as a kid it was never a mystery to me that these little colored blocks—some specialized, some just generic gray bricks—were really a method of storytelling. You could build a spacecraft, or a steamship; you could reenact a shootout from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, or a scary scene from some old black-and-white monster flick. But, most importantly, you could paint with your raw imagination . . . anything you wanted to see happen, anything that went on in your head, you could build it. That was huge.
Then there was a big chunk of my childhood where I wanted to be an artist, or a professional illustrator—this sort of went in and out of style with me during flights of fancy that lasted until the first year or two of college. I even played guitar for a time, and wrote lyrics for this garage band some friends and I put together. That didn’t last.
But throughout this whole on-again, off-again love affair with storytelling and writing, I always knew that words—prose fiction, comics, screenplays, maybe even videogame scripts—would be my true creative domain. At age ten, I started writing chapters of what I called a “novel,” and then at thirteen, I set out to win the regional Young Authors competition. So I wrote a 200-page manuscript, submitted it, and won.
During college, I landed a part-time job as a retail banker, which as fortune would have it was located first at a new facility with scarce customer traffic. Unable to browse the web freely in all our downtime, we were discretely encouraged to read books, and I was the only one who did. Paperbacks like On Writing by Stephen King, which had been on my shelf for years, finally got the love and attention they deserved. And once I realized that King had published his first professional short story at age twenty or so, that lit a fire under me.
Several months later, I “sold” a story to a horror anthology that never made it into print. I was never paid, and the piece went into the trunk where it remains to this day—but I made some amazing friends out of the brief rollercoaster ride of the experience. My first professional publication came a couple years later, shortly after I’d turned twenty-two.
2. What sort of things do you typically write? What is your favorite thing you’ve written so far?
Alex: I’ve written weird fiction, horror, space opera, and a lot of work I’d classify as “post-cyberpunk” science fiction. My short story “Fragile Magic” is slated to appear in Richard Thomas’s forthcoming Dark House Press anthology Exigencies, which also includes stories by a lot of folks whose work I admire, like Usman Malik—that’s probably my favorite thing I’ve written so far, even if only because it’s the one piece I’ve been revising and submitting the longest without giving up on it. I’ve written a lot of stuff since I wrote “Fragile Magic” that later went into the trunk, and rightly so, but I somehow always knew that I’d achieved something very strange and very personal with that piece. It owes a great debt to the stories in Joe Hill’s collection 20th Century Ghosts, I think, which was a huge inspiration to me when I was going to college and really trying to find my voice as a writer.
3. You were chosen to attend the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2013. What was that like? What were some of the biggest lessons you learned there?
Alex: That experience was tremendously formative for me as an artist, and as a person who has come to understand just how difficult it is to lead a life that allows for creativity as a means of earning professional income. I spent a lot of my time in Seattle reflecting on the banking job I’d grown so resentful of, my relationships, and the creative work I’d been doing leading up to the workshop. I came to broaden my approach to reading, writing, and even form—I’ve recently been making an earnest effort to get into writing comics, for instance—and once I got home after the whole six-week shebang, it was only a matter of time before I’d have to leave the bank job and move onto something that made me happy, rather than miserable.
In any case, I’m now a full-time freelance writer and copyeditor, and my soul is well on its way to mending after five long years of spouting brochure bullet points and sales pitches.
So: don’t remain in a career that isn’t doing you any favors, creatively. Because it really isn’t.
4. Do you have any advice to offer someone who might be interested in getting into one of the Clarion workshops?
Alex: First of all, I applied two or three times and received form rejections in prior years. Once I’d written my best now-published story, “Nootropic Software Blues” (Spark: A Creative Anthology, Vol. IV, Brian Lewis, ed.), I received acceptances from both Clarion and Clarion West. Given the instructors at Clarion West in 2013—particularly Joe Hill, whose books have been hugely influential to my own work in various ways—I chose to go with Seattle over San Diego, though there’s no way of knowing whether that was the practical choice or not. When it comes right down to it, you’ve got to go with your gut sometimes. Definitely don’t apply once, then, and give up when you don’t get in right away. Be persistent. It’s a little costly, given that both workshops require an application fee with your submitted stories and essay, but if you can afford to apply to both places once every year, do so. You’ll get in, so long as the administrators see some spark of passion and inventiveness in your work.
5. What project(s) are you working on right now? What projects do you have lined up for the future?
Alex: I don’t want to say too much, because certain publishers prefer to keep titles and such under wraps until an official announcement’s been made, but currently I’m collaborating on a limited-series comic book proposal, or pitch, loosely adapted from one or two of the stories I wrote at Clarion West. Without giving too much away, I will say that it’s a space opera with elements of both post-cyberpunk fiction and mythology. And it’s more than a little like the stories I was telling as a small kid with his Lego collection, which is a nice full-circle feeling.
6. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a writer? What have been the biggest rewards?
Alex: Taking rejection and being persistent as the years go on and your critical faculties grow more and more keen sounds like the real challenge, but it’s really not. Instead—for me, anyway—it’s the day-to-day discipline involved in writing regularly and reading widely, especially since my attention span is about what you’d expect from a twenty-five-year-old of my generation, living and working in this bizarre new century so full of technocultural shock on a daily basis.
But when I force myself to set goals and make good habits, which is admittedly a constant struggle, I find that completing any given project, or even just a project milestone along the way, brings me vastly more satisfaction and excitement than the sudden, brief thrill of a short-fiction sale or job offer or what-have-you. It’s important to do this for the love of the craft of storytelling, because success is a fleeting, nebulous thing. And it doesn’t make me feel half as good as writing does most of the time.