Interview with Fred Warren

Please Welcome…Fred Warren

(*Originally posted September 2010)

This month our interview guest is Christian speculative fiction novelist Fred Warren.

Fred Warren’s short speculative fiction has appeared in a variety of print and online magazines, and his first novel, The Muse, a modern fantasy of inspiration both divine and diabolical, debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books. It is a 2010 Carol Award Finalist in the Speculative category.

Fred works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training, which pays the bills but isn’t nearly as much fun as writing.

He’s happily married to the world’s most enchanting woman and has three delightful children and two overfed dogs.

So now, let’s see what’s happening in Fred’s world…

WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with you. What have you been up to lately?

Fred Warren: Writing short stories—that form is my first love and comes most naturally to me. My most recent story, “Rubes,” is about a traveling circus that encounters something strange and wonderful when their train breaks down in a desolate stretch of Kansas prairie. It’s featured in the current issue of the webzine Reflection’s Edge.

I also have two novel projects underway: a sequel to The Muse with a new supernatural conflict revolving around dreams and destiny, and a science fiction adventure about a runaway heiress on the lam from from family, police, alien gangsters, and a self-appointed guardian angel with a talent for mayhem.

When I’m not otherwise writing, I’m a regular contributor to the monthly Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour, and I do some slush reading for Lyn Perry at the Residential Aliens ‘zine.

WhereTheMapEnds: I’m pleased to see Christian speculative short fiction having a bit of a renaissance. WhereTheMapEnds supports The Cross and the Cosmos, which is an ezine dedicated to short Christian science fiction and fantasy. This winter we’ll be putting out in book form what will hopefully be the first annual compilation of stories published by The Cross and the Cosmos.

What is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?

Fred Warren: Speaking of traveling circuses, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is probably my favorite novel within the spec-fic genre, if you exclude C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which, to my mind, are in a class by themselves.

Bradbury has a very poetic style of storytelling that I enjoy, and his imagery is simply mind-boggling. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a tale of two young boys who confront a horrific evil in the form of a mysterious circus that literally blows into their town one night. It’s about friendship, courage, self-sacrifice, family, and coming-of-age in midwestern America. It’s also about spiritual warfare, and though I wouldn’t call Bradbury a Christian writer (I think he’s a lapsed Baptist), I can’t think of a more powerful fictional illustration of the battle for our hearts and minds than this one.

WhereTheMapEnds: Ah yes, Mr. Bradbury, the last living master of speculative fiction. Most people don’t know this, but he attributes his habit of writing every day to the actions of a carnival entertainer named Mr. Electrico. Seems Mr. Electrico touched a young Ray Bradbury on the nose, made his hair stand on end, and told him to “Live forever!” Now with eleven novels, and dozens of short story collections, I think maybe he’ll do just that, literarily speaking.

So, Fred, what made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?

Fred Warren: I didn’t start out trying to write Christian spec-fic. I just wanted to write good stories. It wasn’t long before I discovered that my faith was always turning up in my writing somehow. It’s reflected in the underlying themes, the conflicts my characters face, the choices they make, and the consequences of those choices.

When I do deal directly with faith, I’m usually exploring a crisis in which a Christian character’s relationship with God is challenged in some way. They come out stronger and better for the trial, even if they stumble along the way, and it has a positive impact on people around them.

Speculative fiction is a great genre for writing that kind of story because it allows me to drop ordinary people into extraordinary situations and imagine what might happen.

WhereTheMapEnds: Absolutely. I still maintain that speculative fiction is the most natural platform of all the genres for examining issues of eternity, faith, and good and evil. And if you think about it, the Bible is filled with true stories that do exactly that: Drop ordinary people into extraordinary situations and show how they respond.

How was your first idea for a Christian speculative novel received (by anyone: spouse, friends, parents, agent, publisher, readers, reviewers, etc.)?

Fred Warren: The Muse started out as a very simple concept: A frustrated writer runs out of inspiration. As the old saying goes, he’s “searching for his muse,” but he discovers his muse has been looking for him, is something much more than a metaphor or ancient legend, and has some very disturbing ideas about the nature and purpose of inspiration. My hero moves in short order from fighting writer’s block to fighting for his soul on the battlefield of his imagination.

Everyone who looked at the first draft liked it very much, which surprised me. I thought it was a good story, but I’m an eccentric. Then Grace Bridges at Splashdown Books expressed interest in publishing it, and I was flabbergasted.

My most memorable reaction, though, was when my wife finished reading the manuscript for The Muse and returned it to me with tears in her eyes. At that point, I figured I was on to something.

The Carol Award nomination was a bit of a shock, especially when I saw the other finalists. It’s exciting to have my story numbered among works from authors I admire.

WhereTheMapEnds: Congratulations on being named a finalist! As many of our readers know, WhereTheMapEnds is directly associated with Marcher Lord Press, a small publishing company specializing in Christian speculative fiction. We are pleased that four of the six finalists in the Speculative category for this year’s Carol Award are Marcher Lord Press novels. The other two are yours and The Vanishing Sculptor by Donita K. Paul.

What is your favorite speculative genre to read? To write? If they’re different, talk about that.

Fred Warren: A quick count of my published writing scores thirteen sci-fi, eleven fantasy, and one horror story, so my tastes are pretty balanced between science fiction and fantasy. And I write the sort of stories I like to read.

I prefer soft sci-fi. which is more character-focused and less about projecting technology into the future, and contemporary fantasy, in which a little bit of strangeness intrudes into our everyday world.

WhereTheMapEnds: Yes, we’re all for strangeness around here. What have you seen that encourages you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Fred Warren: I think this is a great moment in time for Christian spec-fic. Readers are looking for something beyond the “same-old, same-old” and we have a new generation of writers who are stepping up to challenge the timeworn assumptions about what Christian fiction is and can be.

There’s also a growing community of small, independent publishers, folks like Marcher Lord Press and Splashdown Books, leveraging modern information technology that brings costs down and makes it easier to take a chance on young authors who are just beginning to gain an audience.

And the mainstream is taking notice—the Christy Award Jill Williamson won this year [for By Darkness Hid] and all your Carol Award nominations are evidence of that. Hey, it wasn’t long ago that ACFW was ACRW—American Christian Romance Writers. Publishing is a more democratic process than ever before. The big challenge is to maintain quality while providing increased accessibility and publishing opportunities for aspiring writers.

WhereTheMapEnds: It has been an amazing year for the independents. Since its inception, Marcher Lord Press has had seven novels recognized as finalist for some award, and at least two of those have gone on to win their category. (Starfire won an Epic Award, and By Darkness Hid won both an Epic and the Christy.) We’re both humbled and honored.

What do you think Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing will look like in three years? Five years? Ten years?

Fred Warren: I think the Christian spec-fic market will continue to grow steadily, we’ll see more of the shift toward electronic publishing and paperless books, and we’ll have a lot more good stories to choose from.

The ongoing debates about where to draw the line between Christian and secular fiction will continue, as will accusations that Christian fiction is just a sanitized rip-off of better secular fiction.

That last problem is completely in our hands. If we can hold ourselves to the highest standards of craftsmanship and create new trends rather than just follow the market, we’ll get respect, and people will be more inclined to seek out our stories and listen to what we have to say.

WhereTheMapEnds: Absolutely. Christians serve the most creative individual in the universe, there’s no reason to think we can’t be salt and light creatively, as well. That’s why I think Marcher Lord Press books like Starfire, A Star Curiously Singing, and The Dark Man (or any MLP book, really) are such important books—because they are utterly original. You’d be hard-pressed to find any secular novels like them, yet they are truly Christian and thoroughly speculative.

What advice would you give to someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative fiction?

Fred Warren: Be patient. Take the time to learn about the mechanics of writing and the building blocks of a good story. Find a group of like-minded writers who will share honest critiques of your work, and practice with them. Send your stories out for publication and don’t be discouraged when most of them are rejected. Learn from your mistakes and use them as fuel for growth. Trust God to help His truth shine through your writing. Finally, have the courage to ask and answer the “what if…” questions. God knows the future, but we certainly do not, and it’s not heresy to wonder about it.

WhereTheMapEnds: Well said! What’s the best book or seminar on fiction writing you know?

Fred Warren: I’d like to put in a plug here for writing communities and forums. There’s a lot of power in getting together with a group of other writers and exchanging critiques. They’re also a great source of information about the publishing process, how and where to submit your work, and common pitfalls encountered by new writers. The mutual support and camaraderie is invaluable, especially when you’ve had a string of rejections and are ready to throw in the towel.

I’m active in the Lost Genre Guild, an online community for Christian spec-fic, and Liberty Hall Writers, a critique-focused online group for writers actively seeking to publish their short fiction. Liberty Hall’s a more diverse group, with Christians, atheists, and everything in-between, writing in a variety of genres. I also meet face-to-face with my local ACFW chapter each month. There are many great writing communities out there. Find one that fits you and get involved.

WhereTheMapEnds: Excellent advice. WhereTheMapEnds has an official forums site, as well. The Anomaly is a thriving community of wonderfully strange Christian novelists and readers who love wonderfully strange Christian fiction.

So, what’s a cool speculative story idea you’ve had lately?

Fred Warren: I saw a window sticker the other day, one of those things that tilts your world a bit. It said, “Future Mortician,” and below that, “I’ll make you pretty when you’re dead.” Not the sort of thing most people would proudly advertise, but I loved the attitude, and the spec-fic potential of a future mortician is incredible when you think about things like those plastic-injected cadavers on the museum tour and mix that up with virtual reality and robotics—a simulated “you” could attend your funeral and chat with the guests, for example. We already have tombstones with holographic photos and even embedded video players. Of course, for a Christian writer, the whole topic of how we deal with death and its implications is rich territory, with or without the speculative element.

WhereTheMapEnds: Ooh, that is good, Fred. Something I’m sure Ray Bradbury would gleefully dive into.

What’s the best speculative story (Christian or secular, book or otherwise) you’ve encountered lately?

Fred Warren: I’ll focus on short fiction, since I think that’s the place to go if you’re looking for promising new voices in the genre—it’s like scouting the minor leagues for the next superstar baseball player.

On the secular side, one of the coolest things going on right now is the emergence of some very talented multinational authors who write about cultures and ideas we don’t see often in the U.S. market. I encourage you to check out the work of French-Vietnamese author Aliette de Bodard. In her story, “After the Fire” (podcast link), a survivor of a global holocaust awakes from a nightmare-filled hibernation to discover her sister, and another nightmare, awaiting her. Set in an alternate universe where the Chinese Empire never fell, the story weaves ancient Chinese traditions into a high-tech future, and wrestles with timeless themes of guilt and atonement.

On the Christian side, I’ve been enjoying some retro space opera by Johne Cook, featured at the webzine Digital Dragon: “Blessed are the Peacemakers” and “Blessed are the Persecuted.” Johne’s Rand Tenerife specializes in the sort of two-fisted space diplomacy immortalized in Keith Laumer’s Retief stories, but Tenerife is also a new believer struggling to put his faith into practice in a very confusing and duplicitous world. Fun, smart stories with a lot of heart. Another writer to watch is Alice Roelke. “Sky Voices,” published online last year at Ray Gun Revival, is a reflective little story about loneliness, and desperate hope, and small things with a formidable power to bring human beings together, against all odds. After you read it, I bet you won’t think of the phrase, “two ships that pass in the night,” quite the same way again.

WhereTheMapEnds: What else would you like to say to the readers of WhereTheMapEnds.com?

Fred Warren: Jeff, many thanks to you and the crew at WhereTheMapEnds for the chance to stop by and chat a bit. This is a great forum for Christian spec-fic, and I wish you continued success in your future endeavors here and with Marcher Lord Press.

That’s All for This Time

Glad to have you here, Fred! A big “thank you” for taking the time. You can visit Fred online here.

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