Fiction Fragments: Ed Kurtz

Last week, I talked with Lucy A. Snyder about her Lovecraftian space opera, Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars. This week, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Ed Kurtz.

edkurtzEd Kurtz is the author of over a dozen novels and novellas, including Sawbones, Nausea, Angel of the Abyss, and the forthcoming Boon. Ed’s short fiction has been collected in Nothing You Can Do: Stories and Blood They Brought and Other Stories. A Wind of Knives, a reissue of Ed’s queer Western novella, is out December 9. Ed lives in Connecticut with author doungjai gam.

Three Questions

GMM: When I finished reading your fragment, my first thought was, holy shit, I want to read more of this story. And my second thought was, is this story part of a larger subgenre? Are queer westerns a thing? So, I did a quick Google search and was reminded that yes, there is a history of queer and/or LGBTQ+ narratives (fictional and non-fictional) dealing with the American West. When you wrote A Wind of Knives, did you research the history of the queer West(ern), or did something else inspire your novella?

EK: There is definitely a small but vocal movement in academia and elsewhere to recover the lost and buried histories of marginalized peoples in the story of the American Frontier, which I should hope would pick up some steam as it goes along. One book in particular I cannot recommend highly enough is Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag (University of California Press). Chris Packard’s Queer Cowboys (Palgrave MacMillan) is also pretty indispensable. Now of course, these are both academic, non-fiction works. The only Western fiction dealing in queer themes that I’ve ever come across falls more under the umbrella of romance/erotica rather than traditional Western literature. That makes something like A Wind of Knives fairly rare and unusual, though I’d rather it wasn’t! It is my most sincere hope that younger folks will discover or re-discover the Western through this lens of the diverse stories yet to be properly told and ignite a new passion for such a rich genre with such a troubled and exclusive past. When I was writing the novella, then, no, there wasn’t much more to inspire it than my own desire to see someone like me in the kinds of stories I love to read.

GMM: Speaking of genres and subgenres, you’ve written under more than one fiction umbrella. What are your favorite genres to read? Do you prefer writing in one genre more than others? When you set out to write a piece, do you already have a genre in mind, or does the story evolve before someone else labels it as fitting within a specific box?

EK: It’s easier for me to say what I don’t do than what I do, but even then it tends to not be exactly true. For example, I can tell you I don’t write romance, and yet the vast preponderance of everything I’ve written, dark as it may be, tends to be love stories. I like to write about down-and-out people, folks who have been knocked around by life some in ways that maybe others haven’t so that it gives them a different perspective and maybe an edge. That kind of character is all over my work, whether it’s horror, crime, or Western. People you won’t find on the Hallmark Channel (though I find those people the most deviant of all). Most novels I’ve written started as more than one small idea over time that I eventually realized go together to form a bigger picture, so I wouldn’t say I start thinking about genre so much as who these people are and what kinds of problems they’re going to be facing. A Wind of Knives was originally going to be a sci-fi story, if you can believe it!

GMM: Something else occurred to me after reading your fragment. This reissue of your novella might be the last thing I see of yours in print. And, the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the terrible treatment you and others were subjected to by ChiZine Publications. If people are interested in learning more about the ChiZine controversy, they can read about it at their leisure.

Many writers, including myself, suffer from impostor syndrome and it often prevents us from moving forward with projects, or at the very least creates space for long periods of procrastination. ChiZine’s unethical treatment of you has led you to make a decision to quit writing altogether. I’m sure I am not alone in feeling cheated and saddened by that fact given that what happened to you hasn’t stolen your ability to craft good stories or diminished your past successes.

I know you can’t predict how long it will take for you to heal from this experience, but do you think there’s a story inside you that would change your mind about continuing your journey as a writer? What would it take for you to start writing again?

EK: There is at least one more thing you can expect to see from me later in 2020, which is my first full-length Western novel, Boon. The genesis of that one, which I wrote over the winter of 2018-2019 (and haven’t written anything since) is kind of fun. I had been tearing through dozens of traditional Western novels, all of them featuring these beautifully painted covers of white men astride horses against stunning vistas in the background, determined and hard, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how it would look if that rider was my Asian-American female fiancée instead? (So not very different from A Wind of Knives in that I’m still playing in the traditional Western sandbox, just without the white, straight, cisgender male exclusivity.) Eventually I sat down and just started writing the story of a Thai (then, Siamese) woman in 1874 on a nationwide mission of bloody, familial revenge. I like it a lot and hope others do, too. But really, I just wrote it for her.

Boon is the only novel I’ve written since 2015 other than a movie tie-in I did based on The Ranger. I hadn’t really planned on doing it, either, but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. In that sense, it is entirely possible that particular brand of lightning might strike again, but I honestly don’t know. My experiences in the world of the small press over the last few years has been so overwhelmingly traumatic in terms of the way people are treated and cheated that I’m not sure high school can measure up to the pettiness and ugliness of the whole thing. To date, I have published with well over a dozen small press publishers and can name only one that has ever consistently paid me on time. On the other hand, I can name five or six that never paid me at all and ran for the hills with my money. Meanwhile, I’ve watched at conventions and other writers’ gatherings how writers often step on anyone they can to get ahead, often with a smile on their face, just to see their name on the cover of a book. It’s silly and gross and just plain exhausting to deal with all of it when all I ever wanted to do was tell some stories I hoped others would find something valuable about. Most of this really came to the surface by way of the whole ChiZine debacle, of course, but as outlandishly awful as that situation is, it’s not entirely unusual, either. It’s a pretty ugly business, deep down, and too often the ugliest actors are rewarded for their bullshit.

So, yes, it remains within the realm of possibility that I’ll write again. I can’t say for sure either way. I only know I’m not doing it now, and I have absolutely no drive to do so at all.

The mere idea of it makes me feel nervous and nauseous, like I’d be walking back into an abusive relationship I’d already gotten away from. But for now, there’s A Wind of Knives, and Boon is coming. Also, there’s still a fair amount of stuff in my files that hasn’t found the right home yet, or that needs a re-release, so I expect there’s more Ed Kurtz on the horizon, even if I’m not writing it at this moment. After that, who knows?

Exerpt from A Wind of Knives by Ed Kurtz

The dusk gathered purple on the hills a few miles distant from Daniel Hays’ fence, the sun having vanished behind them. Clouds hung low to the earth, thin; nothing above them but gray-blue sky and the first emerging stars. Daniel narrowed his eyes and took it all in, a familiar view, common enough, though he had not yet grown tired of it. Most evenings he watched the sun set and the black night take control of his modest farm, those he did not spend away from home or sick abed. But it was never the same, not to one with an eye for the subtleties of Texas at sundown. This one in particular held its own, remarkable in the way the wispy clouds soaked up the color of the setting sun against the northern hills, the thrushes hurrying to the treetops before pitch fell. It was a time Daniel typically spent with Steven, his long-time hand, often on the porch Steven himself built three summers previous. Neither of them was on the porch tonight. Tonight, Daniel stood by the fence, grasping the sanded elm for support and keeping his gaze trained on the hills. Behind him, halfway between the fence and the main house, Steven hanged silent and still from the high branch of a juniper tree.

It was a beautiful evening, but a bad one. And bad beget bad. He spent a few more minutes with the sunset, and when it went from purple to a deep, dark blue, Daniel turned back to Steven and pushed a sigh out of his lungs. The corpse was stripped naked; red, raw stripes checked its back, its ass, and the backs of its legs. Blood had crusted black where the stripes opened, attracting flies. Steven’s face was a swollen, bruised and broken catastrophe, his lips split and curled to reveal broken and missing teeth. His feet were dark with the blood settling in the lower extremities. His groin was reduced to a yawning, red-black pit—they had sliced the man’s genitals off with a knife, though whether this was done before or after they hanged him Daniel did not know.

As good a man as any Daniel ever knew, Steven was the last to deserve such an outrage, though his simmering anger did nothing to heal the wounds, replace his severed manhood, or resurrect a purpling corpse from the dead. Daniel had yet to cry out, or scream, or rage at the gathering night, and in all likelihood he never would. Instead, he tramped back of the main house, to the shed, to collect a ladder and an ax.

He climbed the uneasy rungs and brought down the whole branch. Later, when all was said and done, he chopped the tree down and salted the soil. For now, he removed the rope from Steven’s red, ripped throat and carried the body in his arms to the bunkhouse at the south end of the property. Once the bunk served as sleeping quarters for half a dozen hands, hard working Texans who toiled on foreign dirt, Mexican dirt, for Daniel’s late boss. When the War Between the States broke out, those who were left lit out; either gone to war on conscription or run off further west, to keep from raising arms against the Union they still viewed as their own country. Only Steven remained behind. Three largely quiet years on the frontier, two men and the farm they worked. Now there was no one.

Daniel laid the corpse on the cot and arranged the legs and arms so that it almost looked at rest. Steven’s left eye stared glassily; Daniel pushed the eyelid down with his thumb, but it popped back open. He felt his throat constrict and averted his gaze to the shadows filling the corners of the musty room. Daniel struck a match and touched its flame to the wick of the lantern on the floor. The lantern offered little light, but enough to see that which he would have rather not seen at all. Yet none-the-less, he looked. He looked at what was left of Steven Houpe, a good man. It occurred to him then that was what he would carve on the marker when the time came: a good man. He could not think of anything better.

“I am sorry,” Daniel whispered, touching his fingertips to the cool palm of Steven’s hand. It was not enough.

Do you have a fragment that has yet to see the light of day? Blow off the dust and send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover? An Interview with Artist & Writer Dyer Wilk

Dyer Wilk author picGMM: Hi Dyer, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. Back in July, I had the pleasure of chatting with you at NECON 39. It feels like that happened a very long time ago, but I enjoyed talking with you about your artwork. Each piece had a story. Can you tell us about where your inspiration comes from, and how you got your start as a cover artist?

DW: Thanks, Michelle. It was a pleasure meeting you, too, and getting a chance to talk a little bit about the art I had on display. I think inspiration is one of those things that’s a mix of conscious and unconscious. It ends up coming from just about everywhere, whether I realize it or not. I spend a lot of time thinking about what a particular book cover needs to look like, and I give a great deal of consideration to other pieces of art that look or feel similar to what I’m hoping to achieve, but a lot of the time, after a piece is finished, I’ll look back at it and realize it reminds me of something I’d never thought about while working on it.

Of course, I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Art has always been a big part of my life. So, having it come full circle in unexpected ways isn’t unwelcome. My start as a cover artist was a lot like that – unexpected. When I was a kid I always figured I’d become a visual artist in some kind of professional capacity, even though I had no idea how to go about that. In my early teens, I decided I wanted to make movies for a living and was stubborn enough to major in film in college only to realize about halfway through that succeeding in Hollywood is highly unlikely, no matter how passionate you are about what you see as an art. It started to become obvious that there was a certain amount of poisonous egotism and greed surrounding the film industry and many of the people who work within it. Narcissism and back-stabbing aren’t something I want to be around, so that meant I had to look for something else to pursue. That led me to the idea of writing books instead.

After I started to see some of my short fiction getting published, I got to know other writers, and made a few friends. Occasionally, I’d share some of my artwork online. Sometimes as nothing more than a joke. Sometimes to cheer up friends who were going through hard times. But mostly because I have issues with social anxiety and it can take me a while to open up to people and get comfortable. If a piece of art I created could get across an idea in a way that I didn’t feel able to with words, I felt like I’d succeeded. But it did come as a surprise to me when people started to ask if I took commissions and what my rates were.

Freelancing wasn’t something I’d considered up until that point. I’d become so fixated on trying to get to a place where I could write full time that I hadn’t considering being able to make some kind of income by working on the other side of the writing business. Ironically, after a few years of creating book covers full time, I’ve learned a lot more about publishing than I ever did when I was focused on writing alone.

The Ranger coverGMM: What is the most rewarding part of creating the hauntingly beautiful pieces you had on display at NECON 39?

DW: Definitely getting a chance to display them at all and see the positive reactions that people had to them. A lot of the time I feel like book covers are an under-appreciated art form. We live in a world where most book covers are now stock photos that resemble thousands of other stock photos. They’re posted online where a reader will scroll through thousands of other book covers, and most likely stop for only a fraction of a second before moving on. That can make all the effort to make a book stand out by investing a lot of time and passion into the design feel a little futile. But it feels good to be in a place where that art is appreciated and seen as something more than just a product.

GMM: Are there any artists who have influenced or inspired your work? Classical, comic book, or other cover artists?

DW: There have a been a lot of influences over the years, but off the top of my head (and probably most influential on what I’ve been doing more recently), I’d say Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz, Russell Mills, John Jude Palencar, and Drew Struzan. Going further back, Michael Whelan, Frank Frazetta, Edward Hopper, Wayne Barlowe, Vincent van Gogh, Arthur Szyk, Alphonse Mucha, Gustave Doré, Bernie Wrightson, and Edward Gorey all definitely made a big impression on me. There are dozens of others who created various book covers, album covers, and movie posters that I’ve fallen in love with over the years. Sadly, I haven’t been able to track down the names of every artist responsible, which is a shame, because there are certain images that have absolutely mesmerized me – such as a particular paperback cover for The Dark Half, the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia, John Alvin’s poster art for The Lost Boys, Paul Whitehead’s album art for Foxtrot by Genesis, the VHS box art for a copy of Goldfinger that I bought in the mid-‘90s, etc.

GMM: You also write fiction. What are your preferred genres to write? How is the creative process different for you when you write as opposed to when you’re creating artwork? Do you prefer designing covers to writing fiction?

The Moore House coverDW: When it comes to writing, I prefer horror and science fiction, often with an emphasis on history. The writing process itself is very different from cover design. I tend to spend several weeks or months researching and outlining a book before spending a few more weeks or months writing it, whereas I typically spend only a few days working on the average book cover. For that reason, I feel like I get something out of writing that I don’t get out of cover design. I can live with a book for a long time and enjoy walking around inside that imaginary world, getting to know its characters. Book covers come and go very quickly, and when it’s a cover I feel especially attached to, it seems to pass far more quickly than I would like, to the point where I end up feeling up I must have missed something or could have done a better job if I’d had more time.

GMM: How has your artwork evolved over time? Where do you see it going in the future?

DW: When I was a kid, my art was less personal in a lot of ways. Creating art was definitely an outlet for whatever was going on in my life, but I didn’t really see myself in it until later. I was more concerned with emulating whatever movies or comics I was into at the time. But somewhere around my early teens that started to shift a bit.

I went though a lot of phases, like most people do, and the art reflected that. If it was a goth phase, the art was gothy. If it was a metal phase, the art was still gothy, but now I could say it was metal. And since my love of horror has been lifelong, any goth or metal-inspired art still manages to fit into that enough to where I don’t feel too embarrassed by some of the cheesier things I once designed. But what I did come to realize later is that all of that art is me. I can look at a handful of drawings I’ve created over the years and trace how I’ve changed as a person, from a kid who liked scary movies but didn’t know much about how truly frightening real life can be to an adult who has some difficult years behind him but still enjoys scary movies and creating horror-themed art because they’ve become cathartic in a way.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for my art, but I hope that I’ll continue to find some kind of fulfillment in it. That said, getting more commissions and having a little more artistic freedom on projects overall is definitely what I’d like to see happen.

Rigor Morbid LYB coverGMM: Are you making art that doesn’t end up on covers? What other visual mediums are you interested in pursuing?

DW: Freelancing sometimes has a negative side-effect of making me feel unconnected to the work. It’s rare, but there have occasionally been difficult projects with a lot of micromanaging, lofty demands for repeated changes, or hours of work being scrapped entirely. That side of things can be incredibly disheartening and leave me feeling like I’m only a set of hands that has to go through the motions and can’t contribute anything of myself to the art. But that also pushes me to explore art for myself whenever I can. I genuinely enjoy what I do most of the time, but when a difficult project comes along, I need to be able to sit down and put those same skills into something I care about, where there are no guidelines or expectations imposed on the work by anyone but myself.

A couple pieces like that ended up being displayed at Necon, but there are a lot more. The older I get, the more I realize that art (or at least the personal side of it) is a form of therapy for me. If I’m not sitting in front of the computer and painting digitally, then I’m working on something else that allows me to be creative. I’d very much like to shift back to working with real paint and ink. Waiting for something to dry isn’t always conducive to meeting tight deadlines, but there’s a certain look and feel real paint has that digital often lacks. Beyond that, I miss sculpting and working with Papier-mâché – both of which I haven’t done in nearly a decade now. I’d even like to pursue film on some level again, if the project is small enough, I could work with people I trust, and there’s an atmosphere during production that’s respectful and healthy for everyone involved.

TriggersGMM: What are you writing about at the moment?

DW: I’m currently working on a novel that I first started back in 2011. It’s been sitting in a drawer for a lot longer than I ever expected it to, but I don’t think I was really ready to write it during my first attempt. I was going through a very bad bout of depression at the time, and I couldn’t deal with writing about something along those lines until I was in a better place. It’s essentially a slasher movie in book form, but with a strong emphasis on the individual characters and the experiences that have led them to the terrifying situation they find themselves in. It’s definitely meant to skew more towards realism than cheesy B-movie fun though. I grew up watching a lot of schlocky gorefests on VHS, and I’m always going to have a soft spot for those, but I’m hoping to find a middle ground between the clichéd tropes and a believable reality in which people find themselves trapped and fighting for their lives, where the characters (including the antagonist) aren’t cardboard and we can actually empathize with them.