Thursday, 5 November 2009

INTERVIEW: Jesse Bullington

You might be mistaken for thinking that the gentleman in the image is the lovechild of one Hercule Poirot, but its actually one Jesse Bullington, author of the The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. Blending his passion for Folklore alongside a talent for writing this offering will have readers grabbing it off the shelves and heading for the tills (unless its the old Grossbart discount) quicker than a ferret up a drainpipe.

After all you don't get a recommendation from Jeff VanderMeer easily and we have to agree. So we wanted the chance to chat to this mysterious newcomer to learn a bit more about him, here, is our offering to you and hopefully it won't anger the gods who'll inflict a harder punishment upon us than those brothers therein...

FT: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

JB: Well, as far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to tell stories, and nothing will make us think we need to do something like a very strong desire for it. As far as afflictions go I would say that I got off light, if that’s what it is.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

JB: I’ve been making things up since I was a very small child, and writing them down came at the same time I learned to write—it was another way to get the stories in my head out, just like drawing or talking. It was, compared to those other modes, far less precise, and so I never really took to writing as my preferred mode of storytelling until I was 10 or 11, I think. I remember being eleven years old in the Netherlands and knowing I wanted to be a writer—I was dead certain my first novel would be published by the time I was sixteen.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

JB: I think that writing a good short story can be harder than writing a good novel; I’ve always done better when I have more space to work with, and to date am a better novelist than a short story writer, I think. That’s not the same as saying if you’re good at short stories you can write anything, of course—there are certain authors whose short stories I love that can’t carry a novel, in my opinion.

My favorite short story that I wrote is “The Bear and the Sea” ( which was published in Chiaroscuro, and I think it proves that writing short stories and novels are entirely different—I feel it works stylistically as a short story but wouldn’t as a novel, and to assume just because one can do a short story they can also do a novel is to conflate what are two very different exercises. That said, I’ll reiterate that I personally find short stories harder to write, and so see where this idea got its legs.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

JB: I would try to persuade them by being very upfront about the fact that the book is a dark comedy with quite a bit of heretical theological banter and period details to break up all the bloody action sequences and creative profanities. If that didn’t sell them on it I’d try recommending some of my favorite authors to them, and once they saw what wizard taste I have in fiction they would doubtless be persuaded to give my novel a go. I suppose if I were to attempt to define the novel I would describe it as historical dark fantasy with a satirical bent.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

JB: Fast-paced, action-packed, and gritty dark fantasy about twin graverobbers in medieval Europe that combines black humor with horrific supernatural elements.

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

JB: Umberto Eco comes to mind, but also Kentaro Mirua—Miura’s probably a better pick, actually, because new English translations of his stunning manga series Berserk are released every two months, instead of every five to ten years like Eco’s novels.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

JB: A little from column A, a little from column B. I try to have my characters, especially my protagonists, sussed, and I usually have a fairly good idea of where I’m going, but I tend to eschew outlines whenever possible. It’s not so much a question of letting the pen take me as it is the characters; they’re the ones acting according to their personal motivations, not mine, and the last thing I would want to do is force them to take certain actions just to make my plot easier. Most of my best bits, I think, are the ones that hit me as I’m working, and so the less I’ve got mapped out the higher the concentration of inspired sequences versus pre-determined ones.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

JB: Hiking relaxes me enormously, as does a piping hot bath afterwards, and the occasional tipple of whiskey, whisky, or gin does wonders as well. In terms of what I’ve recently reads I just picked up Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch and so far it is blowing my brains out of my nose in the best way possible. I also recently finished Raymond Queneau’s The Blue Flowers, a surrealist novel from the sixties heavy in fun historical details, as well as various comic books by Warren Ellis and Alan Moore and “Outside the Box,” a bang-up short story by Lynne Jamneck. Usually, though, I tend to eschew fiction in favor of research reading when I’m deep in a novel, as is currently the case. Philip Hall’s The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science was the last research book I completed, and found it to be a great read for anyone interested in the era, as well as the man himself.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

JB: The old Japanese manga and anime series Lupin III–I discovered it as a kid, and despite how dated—and occasionally offensive—it is I still get the craving for the animated grandson of Maurice Leblanc’s master thief Arsène Lupin. How can anyone not love an artist and writer who goes by the moniker Monkey Punch?

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

JB: When I met my wife she introduced me to her ferret Duncan, who was rescued from a shelter, and I fell for him pretty hard—I’d always been a dog person up until that point, but the power of the weasel could not be undone. What a lot of people don’t realize is that ferrets you find in pet stores are bred in a rather deplorable fashion, and due to the ferret farms spaying and neutering them at a very young age to get them into stores while they’re at their cuddliest ferrets are more or less doomed as a species to chronic health problems, not unlike many purebred dogs. Said health problems are expensive, which is not something pet stores like to advertise, and as a result many of the unfortunate creatures are set loose into the wild, where they perish, or surrendered to shelters, where they perish unless they are adopted. Anyone interested in keeping a ferret would do a great deal of good by seeing if there are any rescue programs in their area or calling their local animal shelters rather than supporting a cruel industry by purchasing them from stores.

Getting back to the letter of your question, we currently have four rescued ferrets, Banshee, Cooper, Audrey, and Windham, and they are wonderful, wonderful animals—mischievous, to be sure, but more playful than anything else. They’re also escape artists and mock-pugilists, and neither so wild and pungent as their detractors claim nor as cuddly as their sleepy cage-demeanor would imply; they are the most energetic animals I’ve ever come across. As for their traits showing up in the book, I’m afraid this tangent has all been for naught as they are sweet and innocent creatures, and thus far removed from the character traits of my characters.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

JB: I know the question is which character, singular, but I’m going to cheat and say the two most fun characters were the Brothers Grossbart themselves, Hegel and Manfried. They were the most enjoyable because when you have two characters who are so close in personality exploring their differences is both a challenge and a great deal of fun. Playing them off one another, and finding ways to subtly showcase their more unique characteristics, was my favorite part of the writing process.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

JB: Not at all, I hope—I can be honest to a fault, I suppose, as can the Brothers Grossbart, but I much prefer to jump around an issue than confront a hard truth head on, unless I’m cornered. I find the brothers scary, and what with my obvious lack of both beard and ever-present weapon they would probably consider me a witch.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

JB: Hiking, as I said, is both a hobby and a method of mentally relaxing. I love the outdoors, and a stern constitutional not only gives me time to think over a project but also reminds me to pay close attention to setting. I’ve recently moved to the edge of the Rocky Mountains, which is brilliant in terms of jump-starting my imagination—the mountains are simultaneously fantastical in appearance and as grounded in reality as one can get, and the overlap of these two as mist settles over them puts one in a writing mood like nothing else.

I also love traveling, reading, watching movies, playing games of every stripe, admiring art, listening to music, and, when I get the chance, attending concerts and the theatre. All of these impact my writing, in a myriad of ways—I learn writing and story-telling techniques from the movies and books and such, music puts me in a mind to write and helps set a mental mood, interacting with friends helps with character, and so forth. Every aspect of my life falls victim to my theft where the writing is concerned.

FT: Where do you get your idea's from?

JB: An elf. She rooms with the ferrets, and whenever I get hung up I trade her a thimbleful of brandy and a speck of cheese and—no, seriously, sometimes I hit on something at random, often when I’m bed, and other times I’ll be talking to a friend or reading something unrelated and the cartoon light bulb will go off over my head. Any ideas I get are the product of my experiences, be they literal experiences or something I heard somewhere, or imagined, or dreamed, and then I’m off and running. I seem to remember Phillip Pullman mentioning in the afterword to his His Dark Materials trilogy something like he ripped off everyone and everything he has ever encountered to further his writing, and I thought that summed it all up rather honestly.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

JB: Back to the hiking again, I’m afraid. Few things can’t be sorted mentally by a long, brisk walk, and those that can’t are usually vanquished by the post-hike bath. Music can also help break whatever block I’ve come across, and when all else fails I set to editing what I’ve already got, and generally by the time I’m back up to the problem area the block’s been cleared.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

JB: I have, on occasion, sat up late working, especially when a deadline looms. At present I’m able to focus on the writing fulltime, and since I have the luxury I’m working a rough nine to five schedule, with shorter shifts on Saturday and Sunday. My family and friends are very understanding, even when I tell them I’ll be done in ten minutes and don’t finish for two hours—less annoyance from the house on the hours I keep than on my inability to tear myself away when I’m really into it despite whatever oaths I might have made as to wrapping up.

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

JB: I listen to a wide array of music when I’m writing, and I actually compiled a wee soundtrack sort-of list on my blog a little while back ( My personal preference leans toward putting a track on repeat for hours at a time rather than listening to a playlist I’ve made.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

JB: I assumed going into it that it would be very hard and competitive, and that was certainly borne out. On the other hand, I never expected to get all the help and support from industry veterans and novices alike that I’ve been receiving. Frankly, all the misconceptions I had came from assuming that it was more cutthroat than it’s been to me so far.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

JB: I really wish I had a choice Marlowe quote to respond with, or even something from Old Willy, but alas, I’m drawing a blank. I suppose I think of writing as, er, writing be the pursuit of communication. Writing is as imperfect as any method of communication, but I feel that it is very much the attempt to convey something internal in an external fashion, using language and parable and metaphor and everything else in the arsenal to get something across that otherwise would forever escape expression.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

JB: The Enterprise of Death is the title, and it is about a young woman who becomes the unwilling apprentice of a terrible necromancer. She is an African slave marooned in Europe just as the Reformation and the Inquisition are getting under way, and as she is forced to undertake a hopeless quest she finds herself an outsider in every conceivable fashion—her skin, her gender, her sexuality, everything brands her as alien and dangerous. It will be a less comedic novel than The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart but shares a lot of the other characteristics—a grim historical setting, a rogue’s gallery of period characters, brutal action, and my own take on the supernatural, but I’m definitely going in a different direction with this one.

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

JB: Let me see…Livejournal, in particular my friends list (,
Francesco Francavilla’s site (—an artist my friend Orrin just turned me onto, Jeff VanderMeer’s Ecstatic Days (, Paper Fruit (—a blog my friend Molly keeps, and finally Twitch (, a film review site I’m partial to.

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

JB: I took a single creative writing class in college at Florida State University but found that the literature and history classes I took did a great deal more good—I learned to write, for better or worse, by reading.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

JB: I’m a pretty harsh critic when it comes to my own work, and I long ago realized my tastes were at odds with what is popular in terms of fiction, so although a form rejection from someone I never met stung, it was no worse than what I was telling myself. Acquiring a thick skin is mandatory, but mine was already fairly leathery by the time I started getting rejections. Crying in a bathtub also helps.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

JB: Lacking health insurance is terrifying when you get right down to it, and in the US private health care is astronomically expensive, so that’s hands down the worst element. On the other hand, writing fulltime is the most fulfilling way of earning a living I could possibly imagine.

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