Steve and Melanie Tem are rare birds in the writing profession. Each has carved a successful and distinguished name in both short stories and novels, but they are also known for their successful and compelling collaborations, the most famous being the novella (2000) and then novel (2008) The Man on the Ceiling.
In this multilayered work—
In 2000, the novella earned a unique distinction of being the only novella to win the World Fantasy, Stoker, and International Horror Guild Award. Since then, Steve and Melanie have continued to produce highly regarded and evocative stories both on their own and together, and recently began a stint as contributors to the Storytellers Unplugged writers blog (check out their most recent instalment here). They have also been active teachers and instructors of writing for years. Here, they consider The Man on the Ceiling, a project that was saved from purgatory.
Jason Ridler:The Man on the Ceiling is a rather unique work in terms of form and content. It seems to be an experiential document more than a novel, similar to those of war veterans who choose to use the tools and freedom of fiction to explain the often fantastic and awful experience of war. What was the genesis of the project? What literary tradition did you think you were working in when you set out on this project? Why chose this kind of form instead of, say, a memoir?
Steve Tem: It all started with the novella. We received an anthology invitation for a book in which the authors would use themselves as characters. The editor wanted a few completed stories to use in the sales package to sell the book to publishers. That's something I never do—
I'd even based one semester of a freshman composition class I'd taught at Colorado State on the book The New Journalism, which included self-conscious reportage by people like Tom Wolfe, George Plimpton, and Hunter Thompson.
In fiction, this approach to narration has often been used in support of the idea that fiction is dead, or somehow lacking in its ability to chronicle contemporary life, which is exactly opposite my own beliefs. And I think it was my strong opposition to that notion that fiction was inadequate to "real" life as well as my own belief that there are layers to real life which can only be accessed via the powers of the imagination that made me want to tackle this project. We also had a Valentine's Day reading coming up at Denver's Little Bookshop of Horrors and we needed something new to read.
Melanie required some convincing. It made her uncomfortable; it felt self-indulgent.
Melanie Tem: Self-indulgent creatively; I wasn't confident we—
ST: Actually, it made me uncomfortable, too—
"Experiential" is a good word for some of the threads running through the book, but that's only one ingredient in the mixture here. We also mined our imaginations for the figures and images we have used in our fiction in the past—
That mixing of experience and imagination has led some people to call The Man On The Ceiling an "experimental" work. But I try not to use the word "experimental," particularly within the context of the genres of the fantastic. If you've read widely enough, you find that almost every technique or approach in fiction has been tried. We have reviewers and even editors within the genres who refer to second person narrative, and even the use of flashbacks, as "experimental." It's ridiculous. Certainly second person is a challenge, and perhaps only suited to the rare story, and the poor use of flashbacks can destroy momentum, but experimental? Please. It's a narrow view of the range of fiction. If anything, when you're honestly trying to capture the emotional potential of an inspired idea, all writing is a kind of experiment. You may have to try out and discard different strategies in order to find the emotional heart of a piece. And you have to be open to the spontaneous poetry and change of narrative direction your characters deliver to you, and be able to change your structure and use of metaphor and maybe even the very "meaning" of your story as a result.
So the tradition for The Man On The Ceiling, such as it is, is a blend of the new journalism and the self-conscious anti-fiction (or "death of the novel") movement from the 50s and 60s. You can even go back to Tristram Shandy, a self-conscious work which is often referred to as the first "modern" novel. The Man on the Ceiling was never intended to be a memoir. Since one of the things it's "about" is the intersection between life and fiction, well then, there had to be some fiction in it.
MT: Steve is a lot more knowledgeable about literary theory and tradition than I am. Most of the time when an idea comes to me, it announces its form—
JR: The book is made like a mosaic of experiences, from writing advice to family history, but what holds these together is the strong yet dual voice of the novel. Given the collaborative nature of the book, I was astounded how well this worked in centering the work. Was this smooth yet alternating voice a particular challenge?
ST: That was the only thing easy about this book, which may have encouraged us that we might actually be able to pull it off. Melanie and I have written something like 18 stories together and one other novel (Daughters). We have been each other's first editor/reader almost since the day we met. Close to 30 years. We have very different proclivities/themes in our writing, but our aesthetic, our sense of what's "good" writing, is almost identical. When we write together, we create a "third voice," but it is a voice that is almost second nature to us by now. It is the voice of our marriage.
MT: I don't know if I'd say that, exactly. It's one voice of our marriage. It's the voice of our creative marriage. One of the interesting and scary things about how we worked together on The Man on the Ceiling was editing each other's sections. Here I was, reading my beloved husband's account of an event that had traumatized us both, reading the intense and beautiful and heart-wrenching ways he talked about that and so many other things upon which that event had cast light and shadow—
JR: For me, the heart of The Man on the Ceiling was the wonder and hardship of family life, and the particular challenge of how a family survives the death of a child. Knowing that most of the book is biographical gave the novel a tragic but substantial weight. Can you talk about how easy or difficult it was to bring so much of your personal lives, including the most personal moments, into a book?
ST: Starting with the novella, it was a matter of baby steps, feeling our way through and gradually revealing more. I was kind of appalled once we got into the novel and discovered we were going to have to reveal even more of ourselves in order to make it work. And I had to make the decision to write about myself at a time when I was both at my best and at my worst, to again live inside a time in which I was distraught, and feeling as if I'd spin apart at any moment. That "Steve" in the book is both me and not me, but I knew that people would make assumptions about me based on that characterization. I didn't attempt to capture my wacky sense of humor, or my usual calm approach to the small hassles in life, because that wasn't what the book was about. That still makes me uncomfortable at times, but that's what the work asked for. Part of our work ethic has been that you do what the project requires. Sometimes that means reading three books and watching four documentaries simply to get a ten-page scene right, or interviewing someone you'd rather not even be in the same room with, for the sake of your project. Most anything you try to do really well requires a huge emotional commitment, not just in the arts, but in athletics, business, and God knows, in parenting. A heavy emotional price is paid. I tend to reject the image of the suffering artist—
MT: One way I think about the "Steve" and "Melanie" characters in The Man on the Ceiling is that they're distillations of parts of ourselves, looked at in a particularly intense context. It wasn't my intention to write a self-portrait; that would really feel self-indulgent—
JR: I read The Man on the Ceiling and David Morrell's Fireflies around the same time and they seem to be kindred spirit works; especially since, I believe, both of you appear in Morrell's book as the bereaved parents. Have you read Fireflies and if so, what did you think of the work?
MT: I read Fireflies in the months right after Anthony died, along with every other book by or about bereaved parents I could find. I was frantic for examples of how to bear this, how to let it in and be strengthened and deepened by it rather than destroyed. David's book helped me in that way.
ST: Someone else has said a couple like us were mentioned in the book, but I honestly can't remember. Fireflies came out six months after Anthony's death, so if we're in there, it had to be added last minute. David is a very fine writer, and a good person—
MT: In addition to the hero's journey motif, Black River also has a plot arc about bereaved parents throughout human history. I drew strength from knowing that parents have lost children since there have been parents and children; people say it's unnatural, but it isn't. It's not an uncommon human experience. If other parents could do it, I could, too. Inventing those bereavement stories in different historical settings made me feel not alone. The duty to do everything in my power to make the work rise above personal therapy into art that would mean something, that would matter, stretched me creatively and psychologically.
ST: I wrote more obliquely about the experience. "Ice House Pond" was the first story I completed after Anthony's death, about a man who loses his family in an accident, and is in a sense frozen by it. "In The Trees" was a more direct translation of what I was going through—
JR: I know you both read each other's work, but what was the first story or fiction you decided to work on together? How has that process changed over the years and how does it differ or mirror the way you approached writing The Man on the Ceiling?
ST: Our first collaboration was "Prosthesis," a science fiction story for Asimov's. It was originally my story, but I got stuck. The female protagonist just wasn't coming alive. I asked Melanie if she could see what she could bring to it, and we worked it out from there. Most of the collaborations since then have been planned. We decide what sections we'll write, or we keep it looser, just handing the story back and forth. Sometimes she comes up with the initial plot; sometimes I do. It's the blended voice that really makes it work.
MT: Sometimes we write from different points of view, each of us taking one or more and writing all those sections, as in The Man on the Ceiling or Daughters or some of the collaborative stories. Then the voices are less blended and we aren't so directly going for that "third voice" Steve mentioned earlier. Other times, as in the novella we just finished called Bees from the Hive (which began as an idea for a solo novel which I could never seem to write by myself), there's only one viewpoint character and we each write and re-write everything until the third voice emerges. I wouldn't say these processes have changed over the years. I would hope we've gotten better at them!
ST: The Man on the Ceiling book differed from the novella mainly in terms of scope and ambition. We figured this would be the last time we did anything like this, so we tried to make it as complete as possible. It's a testament, you see. You don't get many opportunities during your lifetime to write a testament.
JR:I was sad to see that the WOTC Discovery line, the imprint that published The Man on the Ceiling, was cancelled this summer. What was it like working for them and what is happening with the novels you had slated to publish with them?
MT: I admit to some apprehension about being published by a company known mostly for gaming-related tie-ins. But Discoveries treated us and the book well. They, especially our editor Phil Athans, really "got" it.
ST: Phil Athans is a terrific editor, period. Whatever kind of book he's editing.
Unfortunately the two books—
MT: Our agent, Bob Fleck, was pretty confident when Discoveries folded that he'd be able to re-sell the books quickly. Then the economy tanked. I'm trying hard not to be discouraged and just keep writing. Some days that's easier than others.
JR: You both have varied experience as instructors and teachers. I was honored to be one of your students at Odyssey in 2005, and noticed the collaborative way in which you lectured as well as critiqued. Steve was often like a surgeon, providing keen insight in a very targeted fashion on key areas of a story's structure and theme, while Melanie was more like a GP, going head to toe over a story, from voice to word choice. How did you develop these approaches and what do you think of the importance of established writers helping out the next generation?
ST: I think that division has developed simply because of what we both tend to look at in other people's work. Melanie's very line-by-line. I tend to be obsessed with looking at structure, how the emotion is expressed structurally, how tone is established, and what's missing, what's not working that makes the engine of the story stall.
MT: I've been teaching a writing class here in Denver for going on eight years, and I work with individual writers in person and via email. In those settings I try to look at larger elements of story like structure as well as the details. I love teaching and mentoring. It's exciting to me to be part of a writer's development.
ST: One of the best things about the genres is this tradition of passing things on, of nurturing those coming up. A lot of it is pure self-interest. We love stories and we want to read good stories. The health of storytelling matters to us. I've been dismayed lately to hear some professional writers advise new writers to "forget short stories," as if they were passé, ready for the dustbin. Perhaps they think that's a wise commercial decision. In the long run, I think it's a poor decision, if you care about the literary health of the genres—
JR: Steve has also penned a series of very insightful and constructive essays on various aspects of writing fiction. And you both have been members of Storytellers Unplugged, which traffics in writing advice and essays. How have you enjoyed the experience of non-fiction writing on the craft? What essays should people be reading by you?
MT: For months now it's been my assignment to transcribe the recordings of our Odyssey dialogues/lectures so we can see if we have material for a book on writing. Other things keep taking precedence. Part of the reason is that I'm just not sure the world needs another book on writing.
ST: Well, they should go read all our Unplugged columns, naturally! We've loved doing them. Some day there may be a book. I don't know if there's really a market for a writing book by us, but we certainly want to do one. We have a certain point of view that I don't always see expressed in books on writing.
JR: Steve is perhaps most closely associated with short stories and poetry, while Melanie made her early name with novels. Do you have a preference for a particular form? How do you think working in one form helps another?
ST: I like short stories because of that immediate gratification, and the fact that they're like little narrative laboratories—
MT: I don't think I have a preference for one form over another. When I've been working on a novel for a long time (such as my current in-progress one, which has now been in progress for two-and-a-half years), ideas for short stories, plays, poems, oral stories come to me, and when I can't stand the novel anymore I take breaks to write something else (one reason why this one, which is a real bear, has been going on for so long).
ST: The old advice was that you should start with short stories and work your way up to novels. That works for some, but I also think some writers are just naturally novelists, and some naturally short story writers. And some both. Everybody has their own path. Sometimes in our attempts to give advice we generalize far too much about the process—
MT: As to how working in one form impacts another: There are some specific influences, of course, such as how the care about word choice required by a short story makes me more careful about word choice in a novel, or how writing plays improves my ear for dialogue in prose fiction. Mostly, though, for me it's important to exercise as many creative muscles as I can. And it's fun.
JR: You have both struggled and succeeded in maintaining your careers during times of turbulent change, from the busting of the horror boom to today's economic hardships. Have you noticed trends all writers should be wary or aware of in terms of the biz?
MT: I can't think too much about the biz. It makes me anxious, takes up time, sends my thoughts flying (or creeping) off into pointlessly dangerous territory like "why do I do this, anyway?"—
ST: My advice is to forget trends. There's no predicting them. And there will always be changes in the technology and economics of publishing which you're going to have little effect on—
JR: Most writing advice is very simple, (read a lot, write a lot, never stop learning), and still very true. But what other advice on the craft would you give a young writer (read outside your genre? Ignore trends? Read more Steve and Melanie Tem?)
ST: Absolutely read outside your genre, and read outside your chosen form. Then you won't be telling people that second person narration is experimental. And when you're writing a story, make it a priority to find its emotional engine as early in the process as possible—
JR: What is the next great thing we can see from both of you guys?
ST: In November Centipede Press plans to publish a collection of all of our short story collaborations (including The Man On The Ceiling), plus one original novelette, "Bees From the Hive." The title of the collection is In Concert. Speaking Volumes is coming out with a six CD audio collection of my stories this summer, entitled Invisible. It will include a number of uncollected stories. I also have the usual gaggle of short fiction coming out from Asimov's, Interzone, Postscripts, Clockwork Phoenix, Phantoms (Prime Books), Paradox Magazine, etc.