Bernie Mojzes is a member of my critique community who has some upcoming releases related to fairy tales and folk tales, two things very close to my heart. I’m pleased to invite Bernie to my blog to discuss them and other writerly matters. Welcome, Bernie! Please share something about your approaching releases.
Bernie: Thank you, Gemma. I have two stories coming out right around April Fools’ Day, which I’m sure we all agree shares the honor of being Best Day of the Year with Halloween.
“Hyena Brings Death” is set in North Africa during World War I (1914-18), and draws from two sources. The first is an old Taureg tale of how death came into the world. (Interesting fact that I only became aware of now, but works well for the story—”Taureg” is Arabic for “abandoned by God,” while the nomads’ own name for themselves, “Imohag,” means “free men.”). The second involves the use of airplanes as weapons of war. This was a new technology, and the first time anyone had dropped bombs from above was only a couple years earlier, during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. For the first time—as a soldier, as a civilian in a war zone—you not only had to look out for danger, you had to look up. In this story, Hyena scavenges far across the Sahara, looking for parts to build her own aeroplane, to wage her own war. “Hyena Brings Death” was written a long time ago, and has finally found a home in the dieselpunk anthology, Grease Monkeys.
Gemma: I’ve read the excerpt of that story, and I’m very glad it’s found a home. And your other imminent release?
Bernie: “Three Days of the Cuckoo” appears in Grimm Machinations, an anthology of steampunk interpretations of Grimm Fairytales. This story is a loose mashup of the first two Elves stories in the Grimm collections (“The Shoemaker for Whom They Did Work” and “The Servant Girl Who Stood In as Godmother for Them”), set on a background of an industrializing world where exploitation and brutal poverty was more the rule than the exception, and the legal framework that protect workers did not yet exist. This was fun to write, especially trying to figure out what a steam-powered helicopter might look like.
Gemma: In our critique group, I had the pleasure of reading the first draft. Despite the rather dark circumstances at first, the brilliance and resilience of your heroine really captivated me, and I felt very rewarded at the end.
Gemma: So when are these coming out?
Bernie: Grease Monkeys and Grimm Machinations are both coming out in late March or beginning of April this year. They’re launching April 1 at the Tell-Tale Steampunk Festival in Baltimore, and are also available through the current Kickstarter campaign (along with a bunch of extra bonuses as stretch goals are unlocked!). The Kickstarter ends February 21st, so if you like steampunk, dieselpunk, or Poe, don’t dawdle.
Gemma: Not to mention if you like fairy tale retellings for adults!
Bernie: How can you not? The magic of old folk tales is that the telling changes with the teller. What the Grimm brothers recorded was more of a summary, a template, upon which a storyteller would improvise and elaborate. It was the storyteller’s job to make the story live and breathe.
The folk tales aren’t just entertainment; they serve other functions. They can be cautionary tales (don’t wander into the woods alone, don’t trust strangers, don’t go swimming in the river by yourself) or morality tales (don’t be mean, share your toys, don’t be too greedy). They can be all about the virtue of respecting authority and knowing your station in life, or about resisting authority and overcoming your station in life. The templates of the stories themselves are full of empty spaces crying out to be filled, and as such contain multitudes, at least potentially.
One thing I’ve noticed about them is that there’s often one little fact that, if you think about it, just doesn’t make sense. In “The Goose Girl,” for instance, the princess and her maid are sent travelling to a distant kingdom, where she’s to marry the king, with a wagon full of treasure that is her dowry. Alone. To me, that’s the piece that doesn’t make sense, and that’s the place to dig in to find a version of the story that makes that anomalous fact makes sense. That’s where the real story is.
Gemma: I know what you mean. It may be a case of not making sense on a gut level. When I was younger, I was charmed by the story “Kari Woodengown.” When I read it more recently, I was indignant and incredulous about how the story ended – I really liked Kari, but the choice she made at the end just made zero sense to me. I was moved to write a retelling. Do you remember when you realized – or decided – that you wanted to be a writer? And what moved you to that?
Bernie: Oh, it feels like it’s something I’ve always wanted, ever since I learned that books were written by people, and not just generated ex nihilo by the library. I think discovering the Earthsea books (by Ursula K. Le Guin) cemented it. I was a voracious reader as a child, and loved nothing more than to lose myself in these worlds. More than that, I wanted to discover new worlds myself and wander through their cities and forests, and maybe find a way to bring those worlds to life for other people. And I still can’t think of anything better to spend my life doing, if only it paid the bills.
Gemma: Nor can I. Can you trace some of your writing history?
Bernie: My first potential publication was in high school, when my English teacher submitted a crappy poem (all my poetry is crappy) I wrote to a poetry contest where it apparently placed high enough to win something more than a certificate of participation and was to be published in the newspaper that held it. Sadly, immediately upon notice, said newspaper (The Philadelphia Bulletin) went out of business, and I don’t remember whether my piece ever went to print. Certainly an auspicious beginning.
Gemma: Well, that’s simultaneously encouraging and frustrating. I’m glad you didn’t give up.
Bernie: I wrote constantly in high school and college, but by the time I’d gotten to grad school, the time I had to give to fiction dwindled, as did the brainspace available for the stories to percolate. I didn’t get back to it until the company I worked for was disastrously acquired by another company, and in the aftermath I found myself shell-shocked and unemployed. I decided then to take that time and rediscover how to write. I worked on a novel or three, wrote some short stories, joined some online critique groups.
In 2006 I went to FaerieCon in Philadelphia and just as we were leaving, I saw a vendor with a lovely little anthology called Bad-Ass Faeries, and spent the last $12 dollars in my wallet to buy it as a gift for a crit partner who had sent me a short story of cantankerous leprechauns. She, in turn, posted a review of it in her blog, which the editor saw, and subsequently invited both of us to submit stories to her second anthology. Bad-Ass Faeries 2: Just Plain Bad came out in March 2007, with not one but two of my stories in it, which is probably bad for the ego of any debut author.
Gemma: Sadly, I understand those books are out of print, but Best of Bad-Ass Faeries is still available.
Bernie: True, and as a result, my first published story (which contains a paragraph that embarrassingly has more point-of-view changes than it does sentences) is still in print. Since then I’ve had short stories published in the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Adult-rated fiction, and even the dreaded “Mainstream.” I owned/edited the online zine Unlikely Story (which went on hiatus back in 2014-ish due to work/life imbalance and whose website (www.unlikely-story.com) has become weirdly broken and needs some attention), as well as anthologies, including Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix.
Gemma: What are some pieces you’re particularly proud of?
Bernie: I’m usually (though not always, in retrospect) proud of the stories I write, often for very different reasons. I am very interested in playing with narrative, form and style. For example, in “From the Horse’s Mouth,” another Grimm retelling (of “The Goose Girl,” which I mentioned earlier), there are multiple narratives nested inside a framing narrative. The framing narrative is in second person, where the “you” in the story could be one of a number of people, and left to the reader to resolve the ambiguity (or not).
Gemma: And readers who want to ponder that ambiguity can find the story in Gaslight & Grimm.
Bernie: In “Reinventing the Wheel,” neither of the two primary characters of the central plot made for good point-of-view characters, so I needed someone more personable to tell the tale. That ended up being a character I’d planned for something else, Wheel-Leg Malloy, who’s happy to interrupt the plot to… Well, maybe I should just let ‘ol Wheel-Leg himself ‘splain it:
That was what they call a rhetorical question. I heard you just fine the first time. “Who in tarnation is she, Malloy?” Well, first of all, them’s mighty strong words, Mr. Ward, for a boy ain’t had cause to pick up a razor yet. Me? ’Course I cuss like a rabid badger. You earn one cuss word for every gray hair, and I got so many I can clear out a church in five minutes flat and get it struck by lightning to boot.
Second, I’m working up to it, building what you call narrative tension. Storytelling ain’t just a regurgitation of the facts. It’s putting those facts into an order, telling them with the right flow, the right cadence, the right rhythm to build to an emotional impact. It’s character development, and plot, and world-building. And most of all, it’s a-weaving all them things together, careful-like, like a spider, and all’a you my precious little flies.
Gemma: Wheel-Leg Malloy sounds like quite a character! He also seems to have quite a grasp on storytelling; I think I’m caught in his web and I’d read that story just because of him. Which tends to come to you first – plot or character, or…?
Bernie: Honestly, I don’t know. Or more accurately, it depends on the story. Stories come from so many places—from dreams, from a fragment of a scene seen almost film-like, from gestures, from a misheard phrase or the feeling a song creates. Like: there’s a gesture, and a sigh, and a frown at someone across a table, and the scrape of a chair as they stand up. Then it becomes my job to figure out who the person is that did these things, and why, and so on. So maybe it’s neither plot nor character, sometimes? One phrase I’ve heard that makes sense to me is that “plot is what characters do,” and I’ve had plots take a hard left turn at Albuquerque because a character has grown into someone who would never do what’s needed to be done to move the plot forward as planned. The story is a thing, for me, to be discovered holistically, building from whatever fragment of it I can get my teeth into first, which maybe throws me off the spectrum entirely.
Gemma: It’s kind of an arbitrary spectrum to begin with. “Plot is what characters do” is an interesting take. Unexpected character growth can be a really excellent outcome.
Bernie: It’s true. Sometimes a character will do or say something that brings the story into a new focus, that really defines the whole meaning of it in a way that you didn’t expect, and then when you go back to make changes to the earlier parts of the manuscript to make it consistent with the new direction, you find that it’s been there all along. It just took that long for the characters to get tired of waiting for you to catch on.
Gemma: Along with characters and all these other influences, are there places that you’ve lived (or visited) that especially affect your writing?
Bernie: Having lived in Philadelphia is certainly an influence. Philly has its own flavor of dysfunctional functionality. I lived in an apartment complex in Mt. Airy that was deeply weird, and was interconnected with what we affectionately called “The David Lynch Memorial Basement.” Lets see, what else? 1980s San Francisco (moreso than its current incarnation). A lonely forest path somewhere in central Minnesota in winter. Novi Sad, back when it was still Yugoslavia, and also Mali Losinj, on the Adriatic Sea. Auschwitz, as a kid, where we found strange stones in the path, and the guard told us those were bone fragments, “more come up every time it rains.” Skopje, a few months after the war, where the pain was written in bullet holes in the walls and half-crumbled homes, still occupied, with the optimism of life pushing up through it as groups of young people walking past it all, excitedly talking about a new band they’d just seen.
Gemma: that is deeply haunting. I can’t even imagine the impact those last two places must have left.
Turning from the past to the future, what is your next project you hope to do?
Bernie: Oh, there are so many in flight. I really should finish one of them. Let’s see:
- Ari & the Nicer Gang – Dieselpunk novel set in a world where the Mongol Empire still exists in the early 20th century. This is a sequel to a short story about a mind-control device, “The Power of Her Position.”
- As-Yet-Untitled Pirate novel (affectionately called “Untitled Pirate Dreck”) – It’s tempting to say “a post-apocalyptic world,” except the apocalypse is ongoing, as insatiably ravenous demons seep up from fissures in the earth and are carried wherever the wind blows them, and the notorious Captain Deadbeef and his crew fight to save as much of civilization as they can.
- Kudzu – an illustrated novel with talking raccoons and a possibly sentient giant kudzu plant. In space. This one is up in its unfinished form at http://spacekudzu.com . Artwork by Linda Saboe.
- As-Yet-Untitled Faerie novella – Urban fantasy set during World War II. This one is a sequel to my first ever published story, “Moonshine,” and has the hero and the villain of the earlier story teaming up in unexpected ways to defeat the Nazis.
I think Ari gets my attention first, and then I need to figure out what’s next.
Gemma: Since I’m reading Ari & the Nicer Gang in our critique sessions, and I am on tenterhooks wondering what happens next, that definitely gets my vote. I took a glance at Kudzu – and promptly got sucked into reading more than I intended. The art is excellent, too.
Bernie: Linda’s a wonderful artist. She’s done illustrations for several books, but most of her work is more traditional media. She was also the art director of Unlikely Story, and contributed some of the illustrations there. You can see more of her work at https://croneswood.com/.
Gemma: I just visited her website and wow, that’s some beautiful natural and supernatural art! How can readers connect with you?
Bernie: I’m on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/brni.x (I used to have a Twitter account, but that’s been decommissioned).
There’s also a horribly out-of-date website at http://www.kappamaki.com (like, 8 years out of date). I really need to get that fixed up, if I can remember the password… Or maybe I should just start from scratch. I guess it’s time to re-learn WordPress. And maybe fix the Unlikely Story site while I’m at it.
Gemma: Thanks for joining me on my blog, Bernie. I’m looking forward to reading your new stories!