Gregory Frost on Shadowbridge, His New Fantasy Epic
Gregory Frost's Shadowbridge, just out from Del Rey, seems poised to intrigue both readers who like traditional fantasy and those who are into cross-genre or interstitial fiction, with its rich blend of interlocking stories set in an intricate fantasy world, combined with the mysteries of a possibly continent-spanning bridge. Frost has always been a meticulous and thoughtful writer, whose novels include Tain, Remscela, and, most recently, Fitcher's Brides. His short fiction was collected in a beautiful book from Golden Gryphon Press, Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories. In addition to writing fiction, Frost is also a wonderful instructor who has taught at the Clarion Writers Workshop several times and, along with Rachel Pastan, is directing the writing workshop at Swarthmore College. (Guests of the workshop this spring will include Frost's former teacher at the University of Iowa, T. Coraghessan Boyle.)
Shadowbridge has received fulsome praise from several sources, including The San Diego Tribune, The Denver Post, The Kansas City Star, and Fantasy Magazine. Gary K. Wolfe at Locus Magazine, the "Billboard" of the SF/F industry, wrote in part, "For all its painterly beauty, Shadowbridge is a tough-minded novel that confronts some disturbing issues, and that is remarkably efficient in the telling...Frost could be on his way toward a masterpiece." However, it also received a scathing review from John Clute at SciFi Weekly. We talked candidly about that review, about Shadowbridge, and about teaching in an email conversation earlier this month. (For more information on Frost, visit his website and his blog.)
Amazon.com: Let's cut right to the chase. Shadowbridge, which has received fulsome praise from most reviewers, was recently ripped by critic John Clute, which was followed by a series of posts online in your defense. Your own response to the review, in an email to me, was: "One should never review books while suffering from hemorrhoids." Although this gives me an inkling of the answer to this question, I have to ask: How do you generally deal with negative reviews? And do you think the reading public has any idea of how a negative review can ruin a writer's day?
Gregory Frost: Humor tends to be my way of reacting--which, as a lot of humor does, emerges from pain. I find negative reviews very painful. I think if you give a damn at all about what you write, you’re going to feel the sting of a bad review. If I started my day by reading reviews and hit something like that, I probably would spend the rest of the day if not the week unable to work. Michael Swanwick put me on to the best solution some years back when he explained that he has his wife read the reviews and decide if he should see them.
I think now, with the internet, we get reviews posted on fly-by-night genre sites by people who don’t know the difference between critiquing a work in progress in a workshop environment and a review. I might go so far as to suggest that some of them have no business whatsoever reviewing anything that doesn’t involve crayons. That can hardly apply to John Clute, so the most I can say there is I have no idea how I pressed his buttons, but the book does exactly what I want it to do and I’m sorry he was expecting something entirely different...at least that’s how his review felt to me. He also seems to be beating up the publisher for greedily splitting this story in half, you know, to make more money with two books instead of the one, whereas that was entirely my decision and not theirs. It was two books as it was pitched to Del Rey. At one point in its creation, I thought it might even be a trilogy, but as the story evolved, I saw that wasn’t going to be the case and I was not about to pad the thing out to make three flabby books (what Gary K. Wolfe in his review called “brown-bag trilogies”--gotta say, I love that term). So once again I had a lean two-book work. John seems to have reacted as though if it had been a trilogy, then splitting the story would have been okay, but since it’s only two, that’s not okay. Well, tough.
Amazon.com: Clute seems most incensed by your decision to have a flashback section featuring the childhood of your main character. Can you tell us why you decided to structure the novel out of chronological order?
Gregory Frost: The short answer is, I wanted the story to some extent to unspool, and not necessarily in linear fashion. As the structure is of tales embedded in the larger spiral of the story, I have no problem with introducing the character of Diverus as a tale that Leodora tells. As for why I didn’t start on Bouyan, on the island, with her childhood and just progress step by dreary step in traditional linear fashion like all good little high fantasy quest stories, the answer is, because I didn’t want to. The world for me is the world of the spans. That’s where things are alive and thriving. That’s what Leodora thinks, too. So we start out with her in her element, having left that island life far behind. She wants nothing to do with it anymore, and we can hardly blame her. It was an abusive, cruel, and very nearly deadly life. She overcomes it both emotionally and physically, but you have to see what it is she’s overcome to embrace her. I can keep spinning this particular plate on a stick for probably another hour, but the final answer is, that up on the tower where she imagines herself to be a god is where I wanted to start. And I think John, without knowing the shape of the entire story, cannot know if that’s valid or not. He may still feel it isn’t when he sees the other half of the story, but for now he’s only got part of the puzzle to work with and I think he’s tried teasing out answers and some of them are wrong.
Amazon.com: Shadowbridge has very personal characterization but a vast and mind-blowing concept behind it. While writing, were you thinking about how you needed to balance the two?
Gregory Frost: Definitely. The most difficult part of the world of Shadowbridge is that it’s nearly infinite in its scope, and I spent a lot of time wrestling that into one particular shape with one small group of characters and putting the rest of it aside. The writing of it was interrupted by the death of my father, which paralyzed me for about a year and a half, and I think that when I came back to it, something changed for me, and that had to do with characters--I feel as if something has allowed me to get closer to the characters than had ever happened before. It’s a totally subjective sensation, but unless someone can prove otherwise, I’m going to continue to believe it. It’s a character-driven story, in any case, so on the one hand it has that quest feel to it, but on the other hand it’s not operating with an “a causes b causes c” structure. It’s bending that.
Amazon.com: We had a chance to talk as fellow instructors at the Clarion workshop this summer, where you taught the first week. When teaching that first week, what are your goals for what you want to accomplish with the students?
Gregory Frost: I’ve now taught, in order, the third, the last two and the first weeks. So if anyone’s looking for a teacher for weeks two and four, I’m willing to try them out now. The first week was sort of a combination of saying “This is how hard you’re going to work” and “These are the people who are just like you--they want it just as much as you do and that should unite you all.” That’s the common thread. No two people write the same way, but they’re all stretching to produce finished stories, and what one person knows might aid another, who might in turn have the missing piece you need. You can have a Clarion where they all tear each other to pieces, or you can have one where there’s a collective process of teaching and learning going on. I tried to kindle the latter. Stan Robinson warned them the first night that they would bond with the others in their group in ways they’d never anticipated. He’s right, because he and I were thrown together in 1975 at Clarion and that friendship has proven unshakeable. Robert Crais, who drove up to speak to them at the end of week one, is another permanent friend forged out of that Clarion class.
Amazon.com: The second volume, Lord Tophet, comes out this summer. Is that your farewell to the world you've created here? What comes next for you?
Gregory Frost: I hope it’s not the farewell. I have another novel roughly sketched out at the moment. It involves the mythical Library of Shadowbridge that’s referenced numerous times in these two books. It doesn’t have the same characters in it at all, though because of the nature of the library, it no doubt contains some stories within stories again. However, at the moment, in those brief windows of time between teaching and running around promoting Shadowbridge, I’m working on what might be a series of supernatural mysteries. I’m halfway through the first of them, and now intensely aware courtesy of Clute that I don’t want to let five years go by before I finish one, or I’ll be in trouble.
(Thanks to Beth Gwinn for the photo of Frost reproduced above.)