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APRIL 2004

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Charles Coleman Finlay: All in the Details April 2004

Charles Coleman Finlay grew up in Ohio, studied literature at Ohio State University, went to England to study English and history at Oxford University, then returned to Ohio to receive a BA in English from Capital University in Columbus. His first story, "Footnotes", appeared in F&SF in 2001. Fascination with history informs much of his work. His 2002 novella "The Political Officer" was a finalist for both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards in 2003, the same year he was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He's published poetry since the late 1980s, and is the administrator for Online Writing Workshop. His novella "A Democracy of Trolls" (F&SF Oct/Nov 2002) is an excerpt from his current novel project, Wayward Son, with two more excerpts are forthcoming: novella "The Nursemaid's Suitor" (Black Gate #9) and novelette "Love and the Wayward Troll" (F&SF). His next stories due out are "Pervert" (Mar 2004) and "After the Gaud Chrysalis" (June 2004), both in F&SF. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.    
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Excerpts from the interview:

“I've sold about 20 stories in the past three years, mostly to Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF. The first was humor, 'The Game of Chicken'. The second (which he published first), 'Footnotes', reflects my academic background: it's a series of footnotes to a historical article written in the future, about a technological disaster, and you have to construct what happened yourself. SF so often tends to be about the heroes, the people at the center of change or rebellion; often there are SF novels with huge body counts, and the deaths just end up being a kind of footnote to the story, so we don't feel them — they aren't people to us. I wanted to take the metaphor and make it literal.


“As a kid, I tried to write adventure stories, science fiction and fantasy, but I didn't really have the skills. In college in the '80s, I was writing different kinds of fiction. I really liked writers like Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz. But Columbus wasn't exactly Bright Lights, Big City. I drifted away from both writing and reading SF for a while. Then, in grad school, I was talking with another grad student who had continued reading SF. He asked, 'Have you read Lois McMaster Bujold?' I had never heard of her. Finding her work was like an electric shock — it woke me up. 'Yeah, this is what I love; this is what I really want to do!' I remember going through all her published books, around six at the time, in a week. Everything else stopped. Then I was back in the bookstores looking, and there were all these authors I didn't know. I'd never read Samuel R. Delany, so I read my way through his work. I finished that last year of grad school having discovered science fiction again and feeling really excited about it, in a way I wasn't excited about academia.”


“Every story presents its own challenges. You have got to find what's unique in the story to make it fresh, to make the reader care about it. Sometimes I'll have a theme in my head or an idea I want to explore. Writers go back to the same tropes again and again. I recognize that I can't escape that completely, but I try to find fresh things with the characters, or imaginative ways of creating the dangers. 'A Democracy of Trolls', for example, is essentially a Tarzan of the Trolls story. Trolls have become standard fantasy props, so to take them and make them real again — their cares and concerns and culture — is a challenge. And in part, I wanted to write about my experience of being a parent. Parenting is all foreign to you. Babies are alien creatures. Way smarter than you expect. Everything about them is unexpected — particularly the speed with which my boys are growing up. In the larger context of the novel this story is excerpted from, it's also a 'lost heir' story where the son of a baron goes off and is raised by democratic trolls. I'm interested in the way politics shape people's reactions, the way they respond to the ideas and passions of politics. In some respects this is satire, since the trolls are voting on the most ridiculous things, and the impulse to vote on everything kind of immobilizes them at times. But I also wanted to address a contradiction inherent in a lot of our fantasy fiction: we all get benefits from living in a democracy, and yet our fantasy stories often have the wish-fulfillment of aristocracy — we identify with noblemen, tarted-up dictatorships, and autocrats. I wanted to question and undermine that. When my 'lost heir' returns to his own culture in the novel version, how does that contrast with the values he's grown up with among the trolls?”


“I've read a lot of poetry and written a bit. (It's been published in maybe 30 magazines). The first poet I responded to strongly as an adult was e.e. cummings. I like his sense of playfulness and his concept of the letter itself as the most basic unit of the poem, rather than the sentence or stanza. He breaks poetry down to its smallest part and builds it up. I find it hard to switch back and forth between writing poetry and writing fiction, but there's a play back and forth between them. There will be times when I'm struggling with the fiction and turn for a while to writing poems, and then I'll go back to fiction refreshed and energized. William Faulkner has a great quote about that, something like: 'People who can't write poetry write short stories; people who can't write short stories write novels.' I think there's a modern addendum to that: People who can't write novels write endless fantasy series. Fiction does different things than poetry. The basic unit of the structure in a story is the paragraph. I try to understand that — but I also want to write beautiful prose. So studying poetry should lead to better writing on the sentence level.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the April 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

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