Q&A with Jack Skillingstead

Jack Skillingstead’s “Dream Interpretation” [in our November/December issue, on sale now!] went on a long journey of revisions to become the story that it is today. Similarly, Jack himself has come a long way—from a Star Trek-obsessed kid to a prolific author making his twenty-third appearance in Asimov’s pages. Read on to learn more about both of these fantastic evolutions!

Asimov’s Editor: How did the title for this piece come to you?

JS: Originally the story was about an astronaut who returns from a disastrous mission to Mars and is tormented, or at least harassed, by weird dreams, which are actually coming from the remnants of a race of Martians still living beneath the surface of the planet. I called those early drafts “Martian Dreams.” But the further I departed from the Mars idea, the less useful that title became. The story folder on my desktop eventually became simply DREAM STORY. In the end I settled on “Dream Interpretation” because of the psychiatrist/client relationship at the heart of the story.

AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

JS: As frequently happens, the story began as one thing but ended up as another thing altogether. I believed I wanted to write a story about Martians trying to communicate with astronauts. I thought these Martians would be real, physical beings living beneath the surface of Mars, shielded from detection until humans arrive. The Martians would somehow infiltrate the minds of sleeping astronauts, perhaps with a benign objective, perhaps not. In that first version of the story, mayhem quickly ensued. It turned into a sole-survivor story. The last member of the crew having discovered that the only way to avoid the Martian incursion into her mind was by staying awake until she was far enough away from the red planet to outdistance the mind-infiltration beams or whatever. “Martian Dreams” was a pulpy idea inspired by B science fiction movies like Angry Red Planet, which starts off with the return of a space ship from Mars and the only surviving crewmember telling her tale.

Anyway, that didn’t work. “Martian Dreams” was kind of fun to think about but I discovered I wasn’t that interested in fully realizing it. Nevertheless, I spent quite a bit of time hacking away at the original idea but was never able to believe in it to the necessary extent. Writing stories is hard. At some level you have to really love what is almost always, in the beginning, a fragile and broken thing. It’s like, Here’s this beautiful bird, it’s got gorgeous plumage, a nice crest, whatever. But the wings are so badly broken that it’s going to take a lot of patient work to figure out how to fix it and set it free into the air.

Gradually, I let go of the whole underground-Martians-shooting-mind-rays thing. This was a relief and a problem. More than half the story took place on Mars. A new direction meant dropping a lot of hard-won words. But if a story isn’t working, you’ve got accept it and move on. That’s part of the job. And you have to come back fresh and try again. That’s what writers mean when they say writing is hard. (I realize all writers don’t say it’s hard; this is just my personal perspective).

So “Martian Dreams” became “Dream Story,” which was just a place-holder title. When I resumed work on the story I looked for whatever remained from those earlier drafts that still felt alive and interesting. What I landed on was the psychiatrist/astronaut relationship. As I mentioned in my answer to the question above about the title, “Dream Interpretation” arose naturally out of that particular dynamic. Freud and dreams, all of that. But I think you could take the title itself as a metaphor describing the way stories get written. You have these often disconnected images and floating pieces of dialogue, like the remains of really vivid dreams that you can only partially recall upon waking. The writer has to investigate those images and make something real and coherent out of them. And, of course, entertaining.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

JS: Sure, of course. I’ve frequently visited the mental landscape of emotionally isolated characters, or characters who perceive or even manipulate a fundamentally different reality set. My early published work is especially full of this stuff. In more recent years, though, I’ve tried to broaden my scope and appeal to a broader range of readers. It can be really difficult to find your groove as a writer, and all too easy for that groove to become a rut. After a while, you can lose sight of the bigger world of possibilities. My last published novel, The Chaos Function, is a good example of narrative expansion. I think I managed to address my familiar thematic concerns while telling a big story with an emotionally satisfying character arc. If you don’t grow as a writer you risk spending your years chasing the ghosts of your original inspiration.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

JS: My first pro sale was to Gardner Dozois in 2002. When he left Asimov’s I continued to sell work to Sheila Williams. With “Dream Interpretation” I think I’m up to twenty-three sales to the magazine (and forty-five over-all). Asimov’s feels like home. That first sale opened the door to the life I eventually passed into. Beyond my personal connection, it’s a great magazine that has continued to evolve over the many decades of its existence.

Writing stories is hard. At some level you have to really love what is almost always, in the beginning, a fragile and broken thing. It’s like, Here’s this beautiful bird, it’s got gorgeous plumage, a nice crest, whatever. But the wings are so badly broken that it’s going to take a lot of patient work to figure out how to fix it and set it free into the air.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

JS: This is the story I like to tell people, and it’s more or less true. When I was a kid watching the original Star Trek I became absolutely obsessed with it. I mean, I wanted to be in that world. I know I’m not some weird exception. I’ve encountered many writers who say the same thing. Back then I wasn’t delusional or anything. I knew it was make believe. I read Stephen E. Whitfield’s book The Making of Star Trek and loved the whole idea of TV/movie production. But even then, at age eleven or so, I knew the real engine behind Star Trek was the writing. I didn’t want to be a TV director—I wanted to write the stories. I began looking at the credits on episodes, and that’s where I first saw names like Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, and others. I soon discovered that these were “real” writers—writers who did short stories and novels, so that’s what I wanted to do, too. Now when I say this is “more or less” true, I mean that the idea of being a writer had already occurred to me but it was unfocused. I had no idea how to get there. The Star Trek thing simply led me to the world of science fiction books and magazines.

AE: How did you break into writing?

JS: Oh, the usual way. I wrote for years and years, short stories and novels, and eventually the door opened. Before that first pro sale to Asimov’s, I’d had a couple of small press hits, but Asimov’s was different. It took me a long time. I don’t know if it was longer generally than other writers. What made the difference, besides becoming better on the page, was that I finally got organized about submitting stories. A turning point came in 2000 when I entered Stephen King’s On Writing contest and won. Before then, I’d all but given up on ever seeing my work in print. Then here was this famous writer actually making a comment about my little story on his own website. I remember feeling a resurgence of hope. Of optimism. I don’t even know why I entered that contest. It’s not like I’d ever entered a writing contest before, or that I had any real expectation of winning. Anyway, after that I put together a submission grid. Ten markets for the best ten stories I currently had hanging around. Almost immediately I started selling and have never looked back, except to answer questions like, How did you break into writing?

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

JS: Sure! My advice is: Don’t panic. Work steadily but don’t worry too much if your early efforts aren’t successful. Play the long game. Writing fiction really isn’t much like other professions, and I’m not talking about the money. Don’t take rejection personally. That’s a tough one, for sure. I’m convinced I would have published sooner if I’d been more capable of absorbing rejection without suffering shockwaves of insecurity and self-doubt. So I do understand the core difficulty, but still urge new writers to push their work out there and not give up.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

JS: Writer’s block is a psychological phenomenon, not a clinical diagnosis. Usually it’s tied up with fear of rejection, fear of inadequacy, fear of failure and exposure as a fraud. All of this stuff is in your mind. When I get “blocked,” as am now with a novel I’m writing, it’s because I don’t know enough to go forward. I could force it, and may do that as a last resort. But if I give my unconscious enough time, it will almost certainly come up with the information I need to proceed. The trick is to not succumb to unhealthy mental states in the meantime. Easier said than done, but there you go.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

JS: This is a tricky one. If you don’t take into account current events, especially major social and political shifts, you can’t write convincingly of the contemporary world, or the near/far future. For instance, who can anymore afford to ignore climate change, the threats of pandemic, or social media’s influence on society? But you must remember that you’re writing about people first. Spinning off on contemporary issues to the exclusion of character and story values means you run the risk of your work becoming dismally dated. Just look at some of the stuff published in another turbulent period of history, the 1960s. Of course, a lot of great work came out of that decade as well. I’m just saying, be aware of the danger.

AE: What are you reading right now?

JS: I’ve usually got a few books going. Right now I’m reading a biography of Truman Capote, Stephen King’s new novel, and Jane Eyre. Mostly, I’m loving the Bronte over the other two.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

JS: My website is: jackskillingstead.com

Twitter: @jskillingstead

Facebook: just search my name. I guarantee you, I’m the only Jack Skillingstead.

Jack Skillingstead has been publishing short stories and novels since 2003. His first story in Asimov’s was a finalist for the Sturgeon Award. He has also been short-listed for the Philip K. Dick Award. His latest novel is The Chaos Function, published in 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Jack lives in Seattle with his wife, writer Nancy Kress, and their Covid puppy, Pippin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: