Raymond St Elmo entered The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing into SPFBO this year. I loved this book. Loved it. No reservations, no problems, I absolutely recommend this book. Warning… It’s a bit strange. Imagine being let inside the head of a man who is very smart, so smart he seems mad (a bit reminiscent of Lewis Carroll.) That’s this book. He isn’t mad. He will certainly make you question what sanity is. Anyone who isn’t in love with words and books and magical realism might not get it. Because magical realism says mad things are very real (or at least could be real and definitely should be.) I think Raymond St Elmo sees the world in a beautiful way. I also love Borges. I laughed my way through the book. It made me very very happy. It’s about a programmer, a former translator for the NSA who becomes obsessed with a book he worked on while employed there. The book was composed of bird footprints and he summons the author Borges to help him make sense of things. Mayhem ensues.
Raymond St Elmo was kidnapped recently and… You can read the interview below.
Raymond St. Elmo is a programmer of artificial intelligences and virtual realities, who has no time for literary fabrications of fictitious characters and world-building. And yes, that was meant to be ironic.
A degree in Spanish Literature gave him a love of Magic Realism. Programming gave him a job. The job introduced him to artifical intelligence and virtual realities; as close to magic as reality is likely to get outside the covers of a book. And yes, that was meant to be cynical.
The author of several first-person comic-accounts of strange quests for mysterious manuscripts, mysterious girls in cloaks whose face appears SUDDENLY IN THE FLASH OF LIGHTNING. And yes, that was meant to be dramatic.
Note: No authors were harmed during this interview. Pay no attention to the screams and buzzing.
(St. Elmo comes to, bound in a chair. Squints into a cruelly bright light. From the shadows comes a voice: “Welcome to my lair, [author name]. Tell me about a great book you’ve read recently.”
“Where am I? Who are you? Who is Arthur Name?” There comes the buzz of an electric shock, the quiver of an electrified writer. The voice continues.
“Let’s try again. Tell me about a great book you’ve read recently!”
“Ah. I’ve been re-reading Andre Norton’s “Witch World” series. You may have noticed, life’s gotten weird of late. Norton describes weirdness really well. Turns it into a kind of philosophy of daily mystery. Can I speak to my lawyer?”
“Excellent. What’s your favorite song?”
“No, I’m screaming for rescue. But coincidentally my favorite song is ‘All Too Much’.”
“Okay, time to escalate things.”
“No! Please don’t escalate!”
“You get to travel to any book’s setting and world but you have to choose only one. Where do you go?”
“The Shire! Oz! Tormance! Cair Paravel! Amber! Barsoom! Hogwarts! Prydain! Anywhere fantastical. Anywhere that sets me free of the dungeon of existence.”
“Fine. How do you like to work? In silence, or with music?”
“Ah, I like to work at the kitchen table, watching sun patches cross the floor. Listening to the life of the house, the street, even just the wind in the bushes outside the window.”
“Do you prefer to type or to handwrite? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser?”
“I’m a programmer, you lunatic. They pay me to write code. I use that skill to construct stories. For me it’s the same damned brain muscles. Actually, it’s the same damned laptop.”
“D’you write in your underwear, or underwater in scuba gear?”
“Write in my underwear? Well, I have my name stenciled there. Not much room for a novel –“
“Tell me about your writing method!”
“I don’t have one. I make things up that I want to read. I never plan ahead. I feel a good story is like music that you hear for the first time, and yet you know how it has to go next. Is that what this is about? My secret method? Go kidnap Steve King. Or Neil Gaiman. Hell, I’ll help you zap Gaiman.”
“What/Who are your most significant fantasy influences?”
“Twain. He’s considered folksy; people don’t realize he’s Henry Ford scientifically examining what buttons you can push in a reader’s head. Also C. S. Lewis, for his love of the numinous. P.K. Dick, for his championing of the ordinary, Borges for his laughter at the infinite, Poe for his brooding black humor, his love of eloquent word-craft.”
“What was that for?”
“Sorry, hand slipped. What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?”
“In the writing classes of my day they taught us to Capture Reality by writing cleverly dull conversations, describing gray days and sad people staring out to sea. They flat denied that storytelling was a craft of joy and magic.”
“Can you tell me a little something about your current work(s) in progress?”
“If I do can I have a glass of water?”
“I have two books about a weird imaginary area of Central Texas. I’m doing a third: “Letters from the Well”. It centers about the post office in Hell, Texas. They get very strange letters.”
“How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?”
“I just don’t write. I’m my own publisher, editor and ½ of my main fan base. I can take my time.”
“Who are your favorite characters in literature or pop culture?”
“The Nice People. The helpers who aren’t center stage. The Faramirs and Michael Carpenters, the Sam Gamgees and Oz Scarecrows and Sancho Panzas and Atreyu’s. All the Weasley’s of the world. Not because I am humble. I’m damned proud. And so I covet the glory of those doing the real work of quest or adventure, usually while the hero is moping or being a jerk.”
“Do you have a favorite type of character you enjoy writing?
“Holy fools who pratfall through adventure, redeeming themselves with a good heart. I’ve done five. That’s probably enough.”
“Tell me about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.”
“’Fourth Mansions’, by R. A. Lafferty. It is a rare creation of modern myth that fits entirely within a story as a metaphor for reality. Which sounds dull; but the book is fast-paced lunacy, absurd, entirely mad. It made me want to write in imitation. Still trying.”
“Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle me with an elevator pitch?”
“Elevators are quicker and more comfortable than using the stairs. Often they have music-”
“Why should readers check out your work?”
“Because somewhere in my books must be fascinating clues to why I have been kidnapped by a lunatic and interrogated in a basement lair?”
“Also because I tell stories outside the fence of commercial limitations, gate-keeper inhibitions. Yet my books are written in constant awareness of the best of fantasy. Not in imitation, but in admiration.”
“Excellent. You can go.”
“But I want to talk about me some more. What about my childhood? Early loves? And just how much of a swordsman/lover/poet am I?”
“We’re done. Go home.”
“Did you know my middle name is Clarence?”
Read the book here.