Sci-fi/horror/fantasy writer Steven L. Peck has had an incredible year. Here he talks about his new novella A Short Stay in Hell, reveals what he's learning about book marketing, and explains how a platform as a blogger helped to launch his writing career. --JKR
When did you start writing fiction?
Seventh grade. I wrote a long epic poem on weasels. The class bully came up to me afterwards, and he had a tear in his eye. He said, “Peck, that’s the best thing you’ve ever done!” So that was my first creative moment.
What have you published so far?
I published a lot of poetry. Last year I was nominated for the Rhysling Award for a poem published in Tales of the Talisman. Most of my published poems are speculative poems or nature/wilderness poems. Four of my poems appear in the new collection of contemporary Mormon poets, Fire in the Pasture. But I’ve had short stories, science fiction stories, published. I have a sci-fi novella in the recent book Monsters and Mormons. And like all writers I've written a lot without having it published. I’ve written way more stories than will ever see the light of day, mostly fantasy and speculative fiction.
And you’re also writing adult fiction.
I had self-published A Short Stay in Hell before and it gathered a kind of underground following, especially locally and online. Strange Violin Press saw it and wanted to publish it. Within a single month, Torrey House Press wanted to publish The Scholar of Moab, Cedar Fort wanted to publish my YA novel, and Strange Violin Press wanted to publish A Short Stay in Hell. That must have been in March of 2011, last year.
It’s surprising because I had been gathering rejection letters for years. I think it’s actually because I had been attracting attention in the blogging world that gave me some name recognition that I hadn’t had before. I was blogging for By Common Consent and Mormon Organon, a blog about faith and science.
What are you learning about this process of becoming an author?
The marketing is the hardest part, and least enjoyable for me. I was never made to sell anything. I’m learning that it’s a very hard process. There’s a lot of competition. I think everyone has noticed that the number of readers of books is going down, and writers of books is going up. It’s becoming harder and harder to attract people’s attention to books. Reviewers are overwhelmed with everything published. The funny thing too is that it’s taken away time from writing, which is the part I enjoy. When I’m writing, and I get in the mode, I’ll think five minutes has gone by and it’s really been four hours. Everybody knows I’m a terrible editor. I don’t mind revising, but I can’t find mistakes.
The Scholar of Moab kind of defies category. How would you describe it?
I’ve described it as magical realism, but it’s hard to classify. It's like a cross between Kurt Vonnegut and Wallace Stegner. That’s been the struggle with marketing. I was at a book reading, and talking to someone who said he had given up trying to describe the book to people. He just started telling them they had to read it. “It’s about alien abductions. . . and a two headed-cowboy . . . and . . . .” It just doesn’t lend itself to description. You really have to read it. I can promise it will make you think.
How would you describe A Short Stay in Hell?
I describe it as existential horror. It’s in the tradition of Camus and Sartre in terms of trying to capture an aspect of eternal existence that’s terrifying. The character is in hell. He wakes up and is told that Mormonism isn’t true. The one true faith was Zoroastrianism. There’s an opening scene where a demon explains that he’ll be sent to hell for a short correction period. And that’s the point of irony for the book. The demon sees he likes to read, so he is sent to a hell that God has designed based on a Jorge Borges short story. God liked the story by Jorge Borges and decided to build a hell around it. And that’s where the main character begins to understand eternity and how long it is. So the book follows him in various places in these infinitely stretched periods. It’s really about facing eternity, and getting a sense of what that actually means.
How does this fit into people’s desire to know more about the afterlife?
It’s not meant to be an accurate depiction – there’s no pretense that this is what people will actually face in the afterlife. But it does capture some of the horror of living forever, and what that really would mean. The hell isn’t actually all that bad. It’s no fire and brimstone of eternal suffering. But someone who reviewed it on a horror book blog said, “This is the most frightening book I’ve ever read.” That’s because it gets claustrophobic as the reality of eternity sets in.
How is word getting out among readers of horror and fantasy?
Through Goodreads, it turns out and through reader's blogs. My editor sent out a Goodreads competition and gave away ten books. . That was a month before publication. That attracted 1400 hits from people who signed up for the giveaway and from there a few hundred people on their list to read.
What is next for you in your writing?
I have a secret project ☺. I’ve also got a science fiction book I’m working on, in the spirit of The Martian Chronicles. It’s a series of short stories that all tie together in a way. And I’m playing around with some magical realism sorts of things too. The way I write is very organic. I don’t plan much. I write, and then things grow. With The Scholar of Moab, I started writing one thing, and then a two-headed cowboy showed up and demanded to be included. And The Scholar of Moab was made a finalist for the Montaigne Medal, which is a national award for small presses. It’s an award for the most thought-provoking book. The winner will be announced at the end of April.
Well, I’m rooting for you.