Author Q&A: David Steffen
In "Helpers", author David Steffen brings us a new take on an old legend that's fresh, thought-provoking, and downright scary. We sat down with David to talk about the story's legendary roots, his nonfiction work, and some good, old-fashioned bathroom reading. Here's what he had to say...
Your story features the legendary character "Black Pete". How does your take on Black Pete differ from the legend?
It's a little bit hard to answer exactly how this Black Pete differs from the legend, because like so many legends, the details shifted drastically from century to century and country to country. Black Pete is one of Santa's helpers; that clashes with the modern American view of Santa Claus. Nowadays, Santa's helpers are all happy little elves who put together his toys. They are the happy laborers of a benevolent saint who gives to children. Today's American Santa Claus has been scrubbed clean of his darker history--the worst you can expect from Santa is to leave coal, or no presents at all. In darker days, he would actively punish children who had been behaving badly. At some point, his image shifted to a more purely benevolent character to keep in line with the Catholic church's definition of a saint, but in some countries he still has helpers who live on to represent that darker past, namely Black Pete and a devil named Krampus. In some legends, Black Pete (and Krampus) would help Santa Claus by carrying the toys in a big sack to give to the good boys and girls. Then they would use the emptied sack to carry away the bad boys and girls, presumably to be eaten.
So it's a little hard to say exactly where he differs, but I can say the parts that I did not base off of any particular legend. The main difference is that I gave Pete a new purpose for carrying away children in his sack. The most obvious reasons would be that he is planning to kill them, to eat them, or perhaps to ransom them. But instead he is recruiting workers to make toys for Santa to give away--in this way my story provides a transition between old world Santa's helper to his new leagues of miniature elf workers. This offers a rational explanation for why they are so small, as well. Despite this being a horror story, my version of Black Pete is less of a dark character than the old legends--many of these children he has saved from certain starvation on the streets, and has given them food and beds, and he is using them to help Saint Nicholas in his charity. He is neither purely benevolent nor purely malevolent. Also, he behaves more as an independent worker than as Nicholas' slave as he was in many of the legends.
How much do legends and folklore factor into your other work?
I have written a few other stories that tie into legends and folklore, though not by any means a majority. When I do so, I generally start with the traditional aspects, and try to add some kind of twist to really make it my own. For instance, I have written a story that is sort of a new epic of Gilgamesh, but I have added in science fictional elements into the mix so it takes the parts that I like the most about the original and mixes them into a novel plot arc. More than legends and folklore, my biggest recurring theme in my writing has been the nature of the afterlife and the nature of God (or other higher power). I find these topics endlessly fascinating, in part because any theory of either is improvable. There are so many religions that have different answers for either, but it could just as easily be something that no one has ever thought of.
You have a story coming up in the "Flush Fiction" anthology from the publishers of the Uncle John bathroom readers. How did that come about?
I am especially excited about that publication, because I have seen Uncle John's books at bookstores all over the US, and I know many people who do not read any speculative fiction who have read books in that series. Even if I were to be published in Analog, if I told these people about it they would shrug, but when I tell them about Uncle John's they say "Oh yeah, I've read some of those!"
I got a story accepted there in the usual way that a story gets accepted. They posted a submission guidelines page. They got a listing on Duotrope.com, which is where I heard about it, and I sent in a story that I thought was suitable. The particular story, "Mysterious Ways", ties in with my answer to the last question--it is a speculation on the afterlife. It shows an afterlife that is unlike any other I have heard of before--there are separations between groups of people, but the reasons for the partitioning are new. It's a very quick read at 500 words, so I can't say anything else without telling everything, but I am very excited.
You also run a nonfiction ezine at www.diabolicalplots.com. Which do you prefer writing? Fiction or nonfiction? (and why?)
Definitely fiction. I find the lack of boundaries much more exhilarating. I can write about whatever I want, and however I want to, as long as I can find some way to mold it into a story format. Ever since I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to create. First it was cartoons, then video games, but eventually I have settled on writing fiction, and I am actually sticking to this. The empty page is a blank canvas, and I can fill it with whatever I want.
I tend to struggle more with the nonfiction. I started the site because I wanted to have some kind of online presence to go with my writing, a place where people could find my bibliography, tell me what they thought of my stories, and so on. But I generally despise the usual kind of blog. The whole format just seems so... narcissistic, constantly talking about yourself in your own private space. I don't really like reading them, and I don't really like writing them. But I came across a blog that changed my view-- TalkToYouniverse by Juliette Wade. She used the blog format, and actually did something interesting with it. She found topics, discussing writing and language, and she posed them as open discussions so that people would interact with her. She took a format that is usually used for monologues and she made it into a dialogue. I loved it, and I decided I could do something like that, something that would provide content for people to read, but which isn't all about me. So I post reviews, interviews, focusing mostly on things about other people.
I sometimes struggle with providing content, though. I enjoy having a site, and I enjoy getting feedback on reviews, or especially on the "Best Of" lists. But nonfiction is much more restrictive in that I actually have to base it on something, whether it's a review or an interview, or even an editorial, it has to be based on something and informative in some way, while a fiction story can have much wider styles and content.
What's the first book you remember that really had an impact on you?
That's a bit difficult to answer. I remember some early books that had major impact, but I don't remember what order I read them in, so I'll just list a few. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is definitely up there. The man was a genius at nonsense, from nonsensical conversations to poems and songs, I love it. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance had me enthralled and really got me going on epic fantasy. John Christopher's Tripod trilogy got me
into some good science fiction. I read voraciously as a kid, so there are just so many!
What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?
The two best pieces of advice I can provide:
1. Cultivate a thick skin. The hardest part of this business is dealing with rejection. Even well known writers get rejected on a regular basis, and when you're starting out you will probably pile up a heap of rejections before you make a sale. Stick to it, keep improving your craft, keep writing new material, and you can do well. If you can stop writing without feeling like it's left a hole in your life, then you probably should--if you can't, then learn how to deal with rejection, and keep on going. I find that it helps to develop a submission routine and to stick with it. When I get a rejection, unless it has personal comments which I agree with, I immediately send it to the next market on my list. The more stories you have, the better this works. If you have only one story in submission, getting a rejection for it feels catastrophic. If you have 30 making the rounds, any one rejection is fairly inconsequential. I also try to stay optimistic in the general case ("I will sell a story again.") and pessimistic in the specific case ("This particular submission will end in rejection").
2. Critique and be critiqued to develop your craft more quickly. I cannot stress enough the importance of this. By allowing others to critique you, they can help you find flaws in your work, though you must keep in mind that they may not be the best judges of your work either. But more important is to critique others. In this way you can develop your critical eye, and eventually you can learn to turn it on your own work so that you can see what you like and don't like about it. After that, you may not even need critiques from others. For suggested guidelines for critiquing and being critiqued, see my article: http://www.diabolicalplots.com/?p=1606
I would highly recommend Baen's Bar as a way to do this. See the following page for instructions on how to use Baen's Bar: http://www.grantvillegazette.com/Universe_Annex_Submissions