Interview with Den Valdron

Author photo of Den Valdron
Today we will be putting all the tough questions to Den Valdron
He is an Alternate Reality/Horror/Fantasy/Science Fiction/ author who has been writing for over twenty-five years. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
You're very welcome. I hope you don't regret asking.
Den, what first attracted you to writing?  
I'm not sure. One of my very earliest memories is dragging my brother over in his high chair so that I could draw Batman adventures for him on the blackboard. Not sure what the story was, apparently Batman in the Batmobile is chasing someone on a road on the side of a mountain, and then the bad guy goes off the road and his car rolls down the side of the mountain. So maybe I was doomed to writing from the start.
I think I've always been attracted and wanting to tell stories. I tried writing stories in high school, and got a couple published in the local newspaper.  I think I was thirteen.  
And I wrote a third story, my Dad took that to the mill with him to show his fellow papermakers. I think that was the first time I made him proud. Looking back, I think, that was probably more critical than I realized.
It was a sort of affirmation at the right time - we all want to be loved, we all want to impress the people that we love. It's hard to do when you're just a thirteen year old. I was in a bad place in my life, bullied badly, isolated and beginning self loathing, and suddenly here was something I'd done that people, that my father found worthwhile. It was the first time it occurred to me that maybe I was good at something, good at anything, and maybe that planted the real seed.
Tried again in University. But most of the efforts were desultory. I'd have lots of ideas and notions, once in a while I'd write a story, but often there were incomplete works or half done, false starts and never was.
Then about thirty years ago, when my grandfather died, I was graduating University, just starting out, and his death hit hard. You lose someone you love, it's not easy - suddenly, I was faced with mortality. Did the whole life crisis and 'what's it all about' angsty thing.  I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, and that was it. I wanted to be a writer. I decided to get serious about it. But basically, I've always wanted to be a storyteller.
Nowadays, of course, I wonder if that was all a big mistake, and I've spent a lifetime endlessly chasing a rainbow. I wonder if maybe I could or should have done something else with my life, and I have a suspicion that if I'd done anything else, I'd been better off. But that's not how it works. It chooses you. You don't choose it. You don't pick the things you love, you simply love them.

I was in a bad place in my life, bullied badly, isolated and beginning self loathing, and suddenly here was something I'd done that people, that my father found worthwhile.

Who did you look up to at the time?  
I'm not sure?  Alan Dean Foster? I remember getting his Star Trek Log books, based on the animated series for Christmas from my grandparents and absolutely loving them. I think that may have been formative. I grew up in an isolated region, we didn't have Star Trek on television - only CBC in English and French. So that was one of my first exposures to science fiction. I think that and maybe some really old pulp magazines back when I was in the hospital.
And I remember Clifford Simak, and a novel called 'Runaway Robot' back in junior high school, that clicked with me so much harder than anything else at school. Decades and decades later, I'd find that little YA novel at an antique/junk mall, and snapped it up right away.
I think the first writer that really struck a chord way back then was Edgar Rice Burroughs. He's not really politically correct these days. But his Tarzan books were at the local library. The thing with Tarzan though was that I wasn't really interested in Tarzan in 'Africa' the ones I loved where were he went to Pal Ul Don, or journeyed to the Earth's Core, or hung out with Romans and Ant-Men.  The exotic, fantastic out of this world stuff.
H.P. Lovecraft, that was a discovery.  As was Steven King, who was just starting out - I remember reading Salem's Lot when it came out, so Carrie must have already been out, but I missed that one.
The next town over had just opened a shopping mall, and it had a bookstore. There was a little science fiction section. I loved that - Asimov, Clark, Heinlein, everyone was there. This was, I think, the seventies and eighties, when all these old pulp writers were getting reprinted in paperbacks, and so there was a revival. I remember Asimov in particular publishing a lot of collections, his own and other peoples, and even curating a 'Before the Golden Age' series. I remember Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions.  I remember Conan was big, although I never got into Conan. I was more interested in exotic worlds than power fantasies.  That was when I encountered Burroughs Martian novels, which I passionately love to this day.
Name three of your favourite books, and why they are your top picks.  
A Princess of Mars, anthropological levels of detail, the first truly alien 'aliens' and an insightful sympathetic approach to their world and world view, a genuinely likeable and engaging hero, and a romance. It was a novel with a heart as big as a house.  I've read it a dozen times.
Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow, a cheesy werewolf novel written entirely in free verse, but with some of the most goddammed beautiful language you'll ever see. There were points where I had to stop reading and just sit there letting the words run through my head again and again. I bought half a dozen copies just to give away.
Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie. Set in a fantasy version of renaissance Italy, a female mercenary betrayed and crippled, slowly crawls her way back to revenge. Love the characters, love the ruthlessness, the vividness of the setting, the turns and twists of the story. A book so good, once again, I gave it away as a gift.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?  
I've done both, and every approach in between, and they've worked out successfully.  I think that plotting, working out your road map, starting from point A and then writing B, C, D, until you get to Z works.  
Other times, I've just had a collection of ideas or scenes in my head and proceeded to write them in almost random order, and keep writing, filling in more and more scenes until ZAP! It's a novel!  I suppose that would be quilting?
Total pantsing is hard.  Typically, on a big project, the architecture of the work, the story evolves in my head, so it's not true pantsing. If I'm Pantsing a novel, well, a lot is getting invented along the way, but the decisions that get made circumscribe the work and I'm thinking a lot. 
Mostly I do serious pantsing with short stories. Basically, where you just write, with no idea what the next line is until you're writing it. That's hard to do, our brains are always trying to cheat.  You have an idea for a story - is that true pantsing if you develop it from there.  I think I've only done a few stories that were total balls to the walls pantsers where I literally discovered what happens next almost at the same time as the characters in the story.  But it's exhilarating.

What are your two least favourite virtues in a character?  

Confidence/arrogance/righteousness. The Establishment hero. The annointed chosen one.  I hate those dicks. They're special, and that's an excuse for every awful thing they do.  As for the rest of us, we're just cannon fodder.  The reality is that no order is perfect, any system can produce cruelty and victims, and simplifying the equation to good vs evil is often damaging and robs us of a lot of nuance.
Hypercompetence/Perfection.  The greatest swordsman in the world turning everyone into cutlets. The science genius who pulls miracles out of his butt. That feels unrealistic, and even boring to me. Characters are most interesting when they're challenged, when they have to struggle, and it's not ordained that they're going to win.
I like flawed people struggling to navigate through an uncertain world. So I suppose, basically reality, but with more Gee Whiz! Spaceships and Magic!  And where the good guys actually have an effect on the world.
What is your idea of insanity?  
Hmm.  I've known a few schizophrenics and talked to them. And it's always seemed to me that their logic holds up for them. It's like we were walking on a path together, and their path diverged, and it just diverged further and further, making sense to them, but only to them. I've known autistics and aspergers and have a sense of that skewed neurodivergent outlook. And I've known bipolars and depressives, alcoholics and addicts.  All of these would be insane in clinical ways.
I know the legal definition of insanity in Canada, which is essentially literally being unable to understand your condition. Not so much believing that your neighbor is a vampire and you have to stake him, but being fundamentally unable to understand that you are driving a stake through your neighbor and killing him. I've never met anyone that out there, and maybe I don't want to.  I can't conceive of such a mind.
But if we're talking colloquially, having known people who would have been considered clinically insane, and having seen, known or read about people who did terrible, irrational things - like school shooters, or wife beaters but who are considered sane...  I think that insanity is not so much a diagnosable mental illness, as a divergent path, a road, a line of thought or decisions, an emotional framework whose internal logic works and is meaningful for the person, but which is inaccessible to us and which produces utterly horrible or damaging actions.  Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer,  the guy who just torpedoed FTX, many other people would be clinically sane - but their actions are in a larger sense, irrational, immoral and often toxic. That's insanity to me.  Colloquial, not legal clinical.
The thing is that for such people, the logic works for them. It makes sense, it meets needs. That's what makes them so dangerous. Because by their lights, their conduct does make sense, and more than that, it works.  You can't really do anything with people like that but oppose them.   As opposed to people whose dysfunction brings them pain, at least they have the option of looking for a way out.  But the other kind... it works for them, why change, why even want to change?
What are your ideal writing conditions?  
Opportunity. Time. I'm not one of these finicky people who have to have the keyboard at the right height, all my pencils sharpened, absolute silence or the right kind of music. All that helps. But mostly, it's just the opportunity and time to do it, without too many distractions. Because life, my friend, is always distracting.

When we engage with life, we feel most alive, and that's when we are most prone to inspiration.

Where or when do you feel most inspired?

Intersecting, I think.  Talking to people, reading, having a discussion or discourse about ideas. Inspiration doesn't come from sitting in a room gazing at your navel. It comes from being out in the world, reading things, watching things, relating to them or processing them, or talking to people about things and ideas.  When we engage with life, we feel most alive, and that's when we are most prone to inspiration. Inspiration is the part of giving back, we absorb all these ideas and insights, conversations and things, and instead of simply passively soaking up whatever life is offering, like a sponge, we synthesize it, merge, divide, mutate, embroider, and voila! Inspiration!
What do you appreciate most in your friends/enemies?  
I've been taking stock of life recently. 
I don't have a lot of enemies left. Maybe none. I'm not sure what happened to them all - seems to have been mostly bad things that had nothing to do with me.  Not really feeling a strong need to invest in enemies these days.
I'm not sure that I have friends, or if I do, I have very very few. Much fewer than I believed.
I appreciate honesty from them both - knowing exactly where we stand with or against each other. Predictability from friends and enemies.
What I appreciate most from friends is the idea of them. That there are people who care. That's mind blowing. 
That maybe, when you're going down for the third time, someone will try to reach you and pull you out. That's not how the world works. But that's such a beautiful fantasy.
Where would you like to live?
I just came back from New Orleans, and it's got a powerful draw.  Maybe Halifax, maybe Vancouver or Victoria. Maybe Brisbane.  I like cities. I like downtowns, the lively vibrant cultural downtowns where people live and love and shine like stars in the sky.  Not the 'urban decay' downtowns.

In real life, I prefer not to meet my heroes, or designated heroes. They're best appreciated from a distance.

Who are your greatest heroes/heroines?  
In fiction or in real life?  I suppose John Carter in fiction. Cheerful, irrepressible, open hearted, a bit of a bastard but honest about it, heroic, but capable of true love.  
I'd really have to think about it though.  In real life, I prefer not to meet my heroes, or designated heroes. They're best appreciated from a distance.
My heroes would be the people with compassion, the people with gifts, the ones who work and struggle to make the world better.  Not the annointed ones, or the ones that get the statues, quite often they're just assholes. But the ones who just... make a difference.  
Ones who succeed, and actually make a difference, that's something.  Not really a fan of heroic failures.
If there was one recommendation you could give to authors starting out, what would it be?  
Quit. If you can quit, then quit. Writing is a wonderful thing, it makes me happy, it balances me and it makes the world endurable. But the business of writing is massively dysfunctional - its like buying lottery tickets but with blood, sweat and tears. It's a game of satanic whack-a-mole.  It's a dream you'll spend your life chasing, and no matter where you end up, no matter what you do, the end of the rainbow will always be somewhere else. Writing will break your heart.
If you can't quit?  Then write. Write a lot. Write nonstop.  And don't just write one thing, write a lot, explore.  The world is full of "Great Single Novels" and most of them and their writers get forgotten. Write a body of work.   Don't sweat good or bad, don't second guess. Your first audience is yourself. Write what makes you happy.
And beyond that - look for someone to groom you, reach out, make contacts, connect with people, there's a community, try and get into that community. Success as a writer is more connections than talent, and more connections than hard work.
That was at least three.  Sorry.
I'm not sorry.
What are the characteristics you believe make a great science fiction story?  
Authenticity.  It's the feeling as you're reading it, that the world you're reading is real, that the characters and situation are real, and that this actual world we're in is just the shadow.  That's a short answer (shocking) but that's really what it comes down to.   If it sucks you in and takes you away, if you stop being you, and your living room stops being your living room, and suddenly you're living in the world of James Holden or Captain Kirk, or Colonel Vimes from Diskworld then it's done it's job.

What is the title of your latest story?

Drunk Slutty Elf and Zombies.
Can you give us a synopsis of it?  
The main character, the 'Drunk Slutty Elf' is an incredibly damaged personality, but she's found a way to function through her dysfunction, basically like human car wreck riding a bicycle. She's a thief, and a competent one, careening through life.  And she's been waylaid by a Gray Space alien looking for the crashed pieces of his spaceship which have been flung through this fantasy world - so the alien gives focus and direction. The third member of the trio is a necromancer who is actually sort of a nice guy, if a bit insecure and downtrodden. Together they're ID (Drunk Slutty Elf), Superego (Alien) and Ego (necromancer).
Anyway, in this story, they're trapped in a City under siege, suffering through a zombie plague. The zombies aren't actually that bad, they're mild, and you can shoo them off by yelling at them, or giving them a good shove. The city is kind of desperate, the population is reduced to eating rats. Luckily, rat farming is a big industry, and to keep things going, the rat farmers harvest the zombies to feed the rats to feed the population....  Which might not have been a good idea, as the besieging army eventually finds out.
What sparked the underlying theme? 
"Any day you can't remember was probably a good day," I just found that extreme commitment to alcoholism, this incredibly damaged character, who was at the same time so relentlessly cheerful, self-confident, unreflective and unstoppable fun. She's basically a human car wreck, but also a force of nature - nothing stops her. That's a fun, fun character to write. I've come back to her through three stories, all total pantsers, and will probably write more.
Beyond that, I love the subversion of tropes - taking the expected story and turning it on its head. I loved the idea of an ineffectual zombie apocalypse, where the zombies were a nuisance. There they are shambling around, trying to bite and attack people, but they're treated as a mild annoyance. They hang their heads and look hurt as little old ladies shove them off, or they get yelled at or lectured. It's the Zombie apocalypse, the City is under Siege, the enemy is flinging screaming victims over the city walls with catapults... but people care more about their laundry or errands or the price of rat meat. I just had fun with it.
Are you working on anything else at the moment, or have the germ of an idea for another story you’d like to titillate your audience with?  
Well, I'm putting the finishing touches on another collection of funny fantasy and science fiction stories right now. The first volume was Drunk Slutty Elf, and this next volume will be Drunk Slutty Elf and Zombies.
After that, I kind of have an erotica collection in mind - Perversions and Infidelities. I might release that under another name.
And I have three novels I'm kicking around in my head - Goddess of Asylum, about a charming, quick witted, good hearted pathological liar who ends up having to deal with gods and demigods. In a sense, the protagonist is a kinder, gentler funnier version of Ulysses.  Then there's The War, a grimdark story of a city in the throes of a civil war and an Orc trying to survive in it.  Both of these are continuations or sequels/prequels of other works.
My big wannabe project is Empire of Mu. Did you know that there's a real lost continent in the Pacific?  Look it up, it's called Zealandia, you can see it on topographic ocean maps. Sank twenty million years ago.  Anyway, in this fantasy world, it never sank, and instead is a land of warring states, and an Alexander the Great / Napoleon figure comes along trying to conquer and unify it. So big epic, but also a character study of a damaged, brilliant person who almost unwillingly becomes a conquerer.  It's an intimidating but exciting project.
Once again, thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. I wish you all the best of luck in your writing endeavours!
You're very welcome.

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