In honor of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, currently underway in San Diego, California, I am conducting a series of interviews with some of my former classmates to show just how much success a Clarion student can have in only a few years after completing the workshop. Previously, I interviewed my fellow students Shauna Roberts and Kenneth Schneyer from the class of 2009 about their success. Today, I talk with another classmate, Grady Hendrix.
Grady Hendrix’s work has appeared in Variety, Slate, Playboy, the New York Post, the Village Voice, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Pseudopod, and is forthcoming in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. He attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 2009 and he’s the author of Satan Loves You, 2011’s second-best feel-good book about Hell.
Matt London: How did you first hear about the Clarion Workshop, and what inspired you to apply?
Grady Hendrix: I’d been a freelancer for a long time, writing about movies and pop culture, and then in 2008, all of that work ran out. It’s hard to convey how traumatic that year was: the Day the Freelancing Died. Budgets were cut, work disappeared, pay rates were in a death spiral and the streets were full of zombie freelancers newly broke and hungry for bylines. I had enough work to survive on, but I could see that the ice floe was melting and so, in a fit of pure impracticality, I decided that it was time to try to support myself writing fiction. Also, I wasn’t getting younger and I had to decide if I was going to write about other people’s work for the rest of my life or take a chance at creating some of my own.
Matt London: What was your fiction writing experience before attending Clarion?
Grady Hendrix: For the most part my fiction writing experience consisted of sending out stories and being greeted with silence. I wasn’t even getting rejections, I was just getting ignored.
Matt London: What was the workshop experience like?
Grady Hendrix: I come from a pre-Harry Potter world, where you’d get your ass kicked in school for carrying a science fiction or fantasy book around. I was deeply ashamed to read sci-fi growing up. So for me the Clarion experience was bizarre: here were all these adults who didn’t hide what they read. And, not only that, but they talked about it out in the open. On my first day I had a hard time keeping the refrain of “Nerds!” out of my head. Then people started turning in their stories and I had to take them seriously after that.
Matt London: Can you think of an instance when a comment from a classmate made one of your stories better?
Grady Hendrix: The first story people crit is one of your submission stories, and I was really uncomfortable that something I’d written was about to be discussed by a roomful of strangers. Previously my only outside critiques had come from my wife, and I had always been reluctant to stare at anything I’d written for too long because, you know, I figured it was all a precious work of genius and staring into the sun would blind me and ruin the magic. So to have a roomful of people suddenly picking apart something I’d written and poking around at what made it tick was a huge revelation. I had accidentally done some smart things! I had done some stupid things! And if I could figure out what I was actually doing I could get the smart to stupid ratio to go up. Talking about writing feels a bit like masturbation to me but, as most therapists would agree, masturbation is a natural and beautiful thing and you shouldn’t think of it as wrong or dirty. And that’s what I learned at Clarion. While I do have to hide my fetish for clowns deep down inside where no one goes, dragging the process of writing out into the sunlight and talking about it is a good thing.
Matt London: So at Clarion you learned how to masturbate… Can you talk about one of your instructors who inspired you?
Grady Hendrix: They all did, but the one who had the biggest impact, by virtue of being first, was Holly Black. I was in my one-on-one session with her and she had read something I’d written the night before and she said, essentially, “You can do this if you’re willing to work at it.” This was the first time I realized, “This is possible.” It was all just a matter of how hard I was willing to work. It’s a pretty nauseating/heady moment when you realize that your future is not determined by a government conspiracy, or our alien overlords in Area 51, or the voices inside the walls, but whether you’re willing to do the work.
Matt London: What was it like having close and constant contact with such big names?
Grady Hendrix: Robert Crais was the biggest name there and except for his habit of traveling from his dorm room to the classroom in a private helicopter, and the fact that we weren’t allowed to make eye contact with him, he was really just a normal guy.
Matt London: What was the most important thing you learned at Clarion?
Grady Hendrix: To shut up and listen to other people.
Matt London: Tell me about some of your writing experiences since completing the workshop.
Grady Hendrix: Most of us from Clarion have stayed in touch and we all still crit each other’s writing. To me, what was really valuable about Clarion is that I now have 17 people whose opinions about writing I truly respect. Everything I’ve sold since Clarion has been critiqued by them and in every single case their input made it better. I trust them because I know where they’re coming from, I know how they write and I know a little about how they think. Without them, I’d still be writing articles entitled, “Ten Ways to Make Money From Home on the Internet.”
Matt London: Either you’re a genius, or the workshop did something. You sold “Mofongo Knows,” one of your Clarion stories, to the anthology The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, forthcoming from Tor Books. Tell us about this story, and how you sold it.
Grady Hendrix: “Mofongo Knows” is based on a t-shirt a kid I knew in middle school used to wear to PE that had a picture of a monkey on it and it said something like, “Moko Knows.” That t-shirt has haunted me for decades and it morphed into Mofongo, who is a super genius science ape now elderly and trapped as an exhibit in a seedy carnival, owned by his old arch-nemesis. I wrote it as my second-to-the-last story at Clarion and Liz Hand and Paul Park really championed Mofongo. They made me rewrite it until I was sick and tired of looking at that big, dumb ape, and then rewrite it some more. I finally sold it and the editor asked for yet another rewrite. The lesson here: your story can always be better.
Matt London: Tell us about Satan Loves You, your self-published e-book. Why would an established journalist and short fiction author want to self-publish?
Grady Hendrix: Sometimes you just want to write something that’s all yours. No agent, no editor, no co-author. Just a little piece of the world that belongs to you. If I wanted to put Satan on trial for being a jerk, or if I wanted Hell’s demons to unionize, or if I wanted a Cheese Golem to be born out of a Sbarro’s pizza, I could do it. Satan Loves You is really personal to me. It’s a comedy about how the worst job in the world is running Hell because who actually wants to do that? A lot of it is based on the years I spent working gruesome jobs (weighing garbage at hotels, selling cheap jewelry on the phone) and I just didn’t want anyone else’s input. John Waters once said, “The enemy of comedy is good taste.” If that’s true, then Satan Loves You should be the funniest book on the market today.
Matt London: If I summed up your fiction in two words, I suppose they would be humor and cynicism. Is your attitude that civilization is doomed, so why not laugh about the end of the world?
Grady Hendrix: We’re all facing our own inevitable personal apocalypse. At some point, we’re all going to crap our pants, falls down twitching, get caught in some big piece of farm machinery, forget to wear our seatbelts, disappoint our doctors. We are all going to fail. I’m more concerned with what happens in the meantime. Life sometimes just feels like an endless series of bad jobs and bummers. We can barely pay for our health insurance, our rent is too high, our love lives are never exactly what we want them to be, we have spelling mistakes on our resumes, we have family come to visit for way too long and it feels like they’re never going to leave, we have unexplained charges on our cell phone bills, we spend forever on hold with customer service and clothes that fit fine last year feel tight and weird this year. Somewhere between doing laundry and death, I hope some people read what I write and it entertains them for a little while and takes their minds off this endless string of tiny indignities called life.
Matt London: What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are thinking of applying to Clarion, and those who are at the Clarion Workshop right now?
Grady Hendrix: To people thinking of applying: do it. The only thing you have to risk is rejection, and if you’re trying to be a writer, you should be numb to that by now. If you’re at Clarion right now: what the hell are you doing on the internet?
You can check out Grady’s short fiction here and here. He wrote an epic article on Choose Your Own Adventure books. Buy Satan Loves You. He read a selection during a reading at Readercon last weekend and rocked the house. His blog is often up to mischief.