Today I get to interview debut novelist JM Frey. I stalked her a little bit when I was researching our mutual publisher, Dragon Moon Press, before I signed with them. Not only did she forgive me for that, she’s turned out to be just lovely. Her debut, Triptych, is out now. Let me tell you, it’s wonderful. You want to read this. Buy it today, or wait until Monday, April 11, for Make Triptych #1 on Amazon day.
Either way, get it.
Now, here’s the fancy intro I copied straight off (read: plagerized) her blog:
She is also a freelance voice actor, model, and speaker. She appears as a guest on podcasts, television and radio programs.
A bit about Triptych:
“A stirring adventure, as well as a tender love story, from a first time author who truly embraces the limitless possibilities the future may bring. JM Frey’s Triptych satisfies any sci-fi reader looking for a different take on the first contact motif, or anyone looking to explore the possible evolution of human sexuality and love.”
–Nadine Bell, Filmmaker
for Lambda Literary
Now for the fun part. It was such a great interview that I didn’t want to cut any of it, even though I really asked her too many questions. So I’m posting it in two parts. Tomorrow there will be more!
You’ll find my occasional inserted comments in italics.
Your website says you are a fanthropologist and pop culture scholar. What is that exactly?
I’ll be honest and admit that I sort of made that word up. It comes from an online community I belonged to an age ago called “Fanthropology”, whose name itself is a mash-up of “fandom” and “anthropology” – so, the anthropological study of fans, our activities, our culture. (Yes, ‘our’; I am a big fan girl myself. Not fair to study what you’re not willing to do).
I have a BA in Dramatic Literature, and for my MA, I did a program that would let me study fandom: the Masters of Communications and Culture at Ryerson and York Universities. But describing my course of study to people, especially fellow students, was hard. It wasn’t pure sociology or anthropology or cultural theory because I looked at technology, legalities, and policy as well. The easiest way to describe it was “fanthropology”, and so I became a self-dubbed “fanthropologist”. (How cool is that?)
Now that I’m graduated, this generally means that I appear places (on the radio, on TV, at conventions, etc.) and talk about the fascinating things fans do and love, and why they do or love them, from an academic perspective. I teach fans about themselves, or sometimes I consult with media companies on how best to attract and retain the very loyal fanbases who love to really get into the media text. I also publish essays, and go to academic conferences to read papers.
There are some fans who would prefer that people didn’t expose our culture to the mainstream, because it generally ends up painfully derogatory, like it did with the Trekkies documentaries. But I feel that generally happens when people from outside fan culture try to study it – which is why I encourage fans to become self aware. While, yes, there is an inherent bias if we are talking about ourselves, we are also less likely to be negatively judgmental or ‘Other’ ourselves. The only way for fans to be seen in a positive light is to stand up and speak for ourselves. Fans do amazing things – for instance, the amount of money David Hewlett’s Squirrel Army has raised for Doctors Without Borders is astonishing – and we deserve not to be derided in mass media.
Your debut novel, TRIPTYCH, was released last month. Tell us a little about it.
It was 2007 and I was living in Japan. There was no central heating my apartment (there rarely is in apartment buildings), and on this particular January evening it was 4 degrees outside and about 2 inside. I had given up on my heaters providing enough warmth and had biked up to the local onsen (public baths) for a soak.
Enjoying the sensation of having feeling in my toes again, I reflected that on that particular evening it was my mother’s birthday, which then led me to reflect on how different our lives had been so far. I, for one, was surrounded by naked Japanese women in a public bath. My storyteller’s brain liked that comparison, grabbed it, and ran with it – “What if?” it said (which is how it always starts, so the rest of me braced myself), “What if 25 year old Mom met 25 year old me? Would we like each other?” I thought we would, but of course that would make for a boring story, so my storyteller’s brain added, tantalizingly, “But what if you didn’t?”
From this came the novella (BACK), which I began immediately after I got home from the onsen and polished while laid up in April with a knee injury. After a bucketful of rejects from literary magazines, it eventually sold it in early 2008. The feedback from the story was great, and more than one person wanted to know what happened next. At first I wasn’t interested by the idea of writing more – the short time-travel story was enough. I had nothing left to say about this particular mother and daughter duo.
But readers pointed out that I had hinted at a deliciously fascinating alternate future when discussing the daughter character’s back story. They wanted more of that, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wanted to explore that world as well. Between marking exams and preparing lessons at the high school where I worked (all on crutches), I began to write ‘what happened next’, this time in the alternate near future, from the point of view of a nonhuman.
The polyamoury aspect of the book was the most surprising part. I didn’t see it coming, not a mile off. But one of my beta readers mentioned off hand that it sounded like my alien character was sleeping with two of my other characters. I said, “No, no, of course not…” and went to go correct the sentence where I had made the mistake. But then, of course, my storyteller brain poked me and said, “But what if he was?” (I love it when that happens!)
I’m glad she mentioned it, because it changed the thrust of the whole narrative from being about the mother-daughter relationship to being about all the major relationships in the daughter character’s life – with her parents, her husband, and her lover.
I thought at first that I would write a second short story set in this world, perhaps even a series of short stories from the points of view of many different characters, but gradually the second short story got longer and longer and I realized that what I was really writing was a novel. I scrapped the idea for a series of shorts and began to figure out a beginning, middle and end for a single narrative – I called the three sections just that, “Beginning” (the short story (BACK) ), “Middle” (the second short story), “End” (a short story I intended to write next). This gave me the idea to actually structure the book in three segments, use three narrators and POVs, and to focus on triads – love triangles, one child families, past-present-future, polyamory, and deliberately being meta about traditional story structure. The chapters were later renamed.
I completed the first full draft of the book in the summer of 2008, sitting at my parent’s kitchen table back in Canada. My mom came home from work to find me weeping over my laptop on the day that I had written “the end”, but I think the emotional reaction was mostly from the pain medication – I’d had corrective surgery on my knee a few weeks before.
I spent the next year and half revising, polishing, querying, getting rejected and starting the polish again, while simultaneously doing my Master’s degree. From the time I began the story to the time I pitched it to the editor who eventually signed it, it was almost exactly two years (January 2007 to April 2009), and about fifty five drafts, if you count the novella. I revised through 2009 and sent it back to the editor in December, I think it was. In April 2010, Dragon Moon Press announced that they were picking it up! The draft that is the final book is number sixty four, I think.
What is your favorite thing about this story?
Kalp. I love him to bits. (Me too!) I kind of wish I had a Kalp plushie. I desperately miss spending time with him, the most of all my characters. I have no desire to write a sequel novel – I feel that TRIPTYCH is complete in and of itself, and to write another novel would actually be detrimental and trivialize the story that I tell in the book – but I have lots of ideas for little scenes and things that I would love to write up and publish as short stories in anthologies, and they’re almost all about Kalp and his world. But I also don’t want to reveal too much, because I want Kalp’s appearance and his home to be personal for each reader.
I think my favorite part has been the world building – I loved being able to really sit down and think about a world where the hegemonic cultural norm had society forming a life built of triads instead of in binaries, like ours. To be able to stand back and scrutinize culture has been my greatest joy in school, but to then be able to apply all that learning to creating a plausible and sustainable alien culture? That was awesome.
When did you first consider yourself a writer? And/or when did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I never wanted to be a writer as a kid. I wanted to be an actress – I wasn’t actually doing too bad, getting there, until a mishap with a shady agent and the busted knee. I dreamt of Tony awards, but the reality is I was probably never going to get further than bit parts on TV and theatre. I was okay with that. I did some webseries, short films, a few documentaries and some extra work. I still do a bit of short films and community theatre, but obviously now I can’t dance or stand around too long.
Writing was originally just a way to get the ideas I had for films and plays onto the page, or something to keep me busy back stage or between classes or takes. I’d always loved telling stories, but I channeled it into performance, not prose.
I began my first novel, “A Touch of Madness” at the age of fourteen, I think. All twenty or so hand written pages of it are still in my story-morgue file box somewhere. Of course, I didn’t know it was a novel then; it was just an idea for a movie that I was writing down with full description. After that I quickly discovered fanfiction, and threw myself into that culture with abandon. I have to have written thousands and thousands of pages of fanfiction over the years. Again, I never had any intention of writing “profic”, but the more feedback I got and the more I improved, the more readers started telling me that I had the talent to be a ‘real’ writer. (Uhg, I hate that division. Fanfic writers are ‘real’ writers. It’s not like they just pretend to put words down and make up narratives and tell really effective stories. They actually do it. And there’s some fanfic out there that is far more engaging and well written than some of the published stuff I’ve slogged through.)
I was working on a really epic fanfiction with huge backstory at the time, so I decided to yank all the interesting and original elements I had been developing out of the fanfic, and shape them into their own novel. That became “Dsr”, a book that took me years to complete, and the first real novel I ever wrote. (I haven’t started shopping that one, because there’s about five billion things that need fixing in it, and I don’t even know where to start.)
When I got finished with “Dsr” I was happy to realize that I had all kinds of other original ideas, and began to write them down, too. At first it was just for the love of writing the stories, but at some point I thought, “Hey – I’ve put all this work into these. Maybe someone will pay me for them.” From there I sold some articles, poems, and short stories, and nobody threw rotten fruit at me, so I decided that I would try something bigger.
TRIPTYCH was the first novel I intended to write, polish, query and sell as a marketed project from the get-go. Once I was offered publication, that was when I thought, “Oh, hey. I’m a writer. And you know what? I like this! It would be awesome to be a full time writer!” That was when I began to seriously work at it professionally, and throw time and energy behind the marketing, and my other projects.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Each idea comes from a single sentence. The sentence is often ends up somewhere in the book, rarely the beginning, and that sentence is the seed for the rest of the idea. The novel sort of blooms around it. I write a bit that comes after, a bit that comes before, and then whatever comes into my head. I later shuffle and rearrange the spontaneous scenes and ideas until a frame of a plot emerges. Then I go in and fill in whatever else is missing, generally not in order.
I make up these sentences from conversations I hear, snatches of songs, images that influence me, just thoughts that drift by. Generally they end up scribbled in note pads and taped to the wall. I have a whole file of these sentences on my desktop. Then I think about them and what sort of story they could be the seeds for.
For example, the sentence for TRIPTYCH was “There was a UFO in my strawberries.”(I LOVED that line.)
The concept of the book comes after I start writing scenes, and usually I create a thesis that helps shape the whole thrust of the novel. It’s the academic in me, I can’t help it. The thesis for TRIPTYCH is “What if there was a world where the standard cultural and biological model wasn’t in binaries, like on Earth, but triads?”
Sometimes the rejected sentences become poems, instead. My poem “Water Garden”, which is published in The White Wall Review Issue #32, is one such sentence. I’m thinking of maybe publishing a chapbook of these sentences-that-didn’t-make-the-cut one day. I could call it “Not-Novels”! That would be fun.
Love that. More JM Frey tomorrow, folks. Stay tuned!