I couldn’t be happier than I am to feature this week’s guest, Ken Scholes. I had been trying to corral Ken for two or three months, but several events got in the way and many of the questions I had prepared for him were based on flat-out misconceptions. In order to get around these issues and present something both cogent and revealing, we arranged to get better acquainted over lunch at a restaurant near his home. As a result, much of what follows after his bio reads like the recorded conversation it actually was.
For those who don’t know him, Ken is an award-winning, critically-acclaimed author of five novels and three short story collections. His work has appeared in print for over fifteen years. His eclectic background includes time spent as a label gun repairman, a sailor who never sailed, a soldier who commanded a desk, a preacher (he got better), a nonprofit executive, a musician and a government procurement analyst. He has a degree in History from Western Washington University. A native of the Pacific Northwest, Ken makes his home in Saint Helens, Oregon, where he lives with his twin daughters and plays gigs at his local Village Inn Lounge. You can learn more about him by visiting www.kenscholes.com.
Although he’d been turning out stories for many years prior, 2009 was when the publishing world stood up and took notice. His debut novel, Lamentation, earned high praise—“Ken Scholes mixes wildly beautiful imagery with the sharply visceral; the profoundly mythic with the profanely human. These keenly observed stories of faith, love, and loss will resonate in your bones.” ~ Tina Connolly—as have his subsequent books. Followers of The Psalms of Isaak series that Lamentation began, may feel sorrow when the saga concludes sometime in 2017 with the release of volume number five, entitled Hymn, but also joy over its completion. Until then, his readers will have to content themselves with Ken’s short stories… an entirely pleasurable task, to be sure. At the interview’s end, we will take a look at part of that collection.
Several obstacles kept us from getting this interview out of the blocks as soon as we had intended. Most recently, you were out of town at the end of May. As I understand it, you were teaching a class.
I was at MisCon in Missoula, which is a science fiction and fantasy convention that runs every Memorial Day weekend from Friday through Monday early afternoon. It’s much like OryCon or the others here locally, but what I like about it is that it’s small and intimate and a lot of fun. Kevin J. Anderson was there along with Jim Butcher. Pat Rothfuss made an appearance. J. A. Pitts was there, as well as Peter Orullian and Rhiannon Held. It’s just a nice gathering of science fiction and fantasy writers. There were a ton of us. While I was in town, I did my Muse Management and Production in the Story Factory Workshop the day before the con started, so I offered a Con discount and I think maybe a dozen to fifteen people spent the day with me learning to write short stories.
You’ve told me you intend to write a book dealing with PTSD. That’s quite a departure from your usual fare. Would you care to tell us what inspired it?
I’ve had complex PTSD since early childhood. We factor probably age two is when it was fully in place for me. So it’s been a lifelong struggle that I wasn’t necessarily aware of having until my kids were born and my parents died all in a mad rush over about fifteen… eighteen months of my life in my early forties. Ultimately out of that experience, not only did I try out a bunch of other things for PTSD like medication, EMDR, cognitive behavioral therapy, I also discovered Dr. Eugene Lipov’s use of the stellate ganglion block—a nerve block for pain—and its effect on PTSD by rebooting the amygdala and turning off the panic signal. So I go into Chicago as needed for an injection to the C3 ganglia nerve cluster. It’s a normal pain treatment. It’s used in pain centers all around the country. It’s just not been authorized for PTSD yet by the FDA.
And what do you intend to include in the book itself?
In the book, I’ll be talking about my experience with Lipov’s work on the stellate ganglion block. I’ll be talking about my other experiences around PTSD: tips and tricks for living with PTSD, staying the course when it comes to finding the best path for treatment of PTSD, but certainly advocating at this point—because I’ve now been in remission for close to eighteen months—advocating that the people look to what he’s doing as a first line. There’s nothing invasive, other than an injection. There’s no ongoing medication. It’s a shot of anesthetic that shuts down the PTSD.
You’re involved in a lot of social issues and you’re now planning on using your kick starter books to address them. Do you want to tell us something about the book or books in that series and what you hope to accomplish in the near future?
Sure. I’ve been doing a lot of thought on how to expand my life in the direction that it needs to go in, now that I’m divorced and don’t have that second income supporting this writer. So one of the ventures I’m looking at is beefing up my indie pubbing presence. And in the midst of thinking about all of that, I suddenly realized that there really doesn’t appear to be an e-book publisher out there with a specific focus just on doing good: a social justice approach to publishing. For instance, I’ve had Walking Bear Media as a DBA for several years and have done very little with it, other than a few indie pubbed collections. And now I am looking at a team of writers coming together, both allies and transgender people, to address the bathroom laws issues that are cropping up in North Carolina and other parts of the country. So I am looking at a model, now, where a group of authors or creatives would come together to donate various bits of their art, whether it’s essays, blog posts, short stories they’ve already sold. I wouldn’t be looking for any real fresh material, other than maybe supporting essays. But primarily, I’d be looking for folks of passion who care about a cause, willing to offer up something that’s a reprint. Put it all together along with a plan for what they want to do that’s good out of the proceeds of that anthology, and then leverage a $2.99 book through Amazon’s Kindle, so that at a dollar fifty of that’s going back in. If you are familiar with the Amazon model, you get about two dollars back on a $2.99 book. So having three quarters of that go directly to whatever cause they’re wanting to work on seems like a good starting place. I’m hoping to do a few of those. We’ll start with the transgender bathroom laws anthology, and then we’ll see what we can do in the quarters ahead.
Can you talk a little bit about the METAtropolis book that you wrote with Jay Lake and maybe discuss a little bit about his passing?
Jay was involved with the initial METAtropolis, which was the brainchild of John Scalzi and Steve Feldberg over at Audible and they invited Jay along with a group of other writers. And then John Scalzi bowed out for various reasons and Jay took on editing that project for the second version which was METAtropolis Cascadia. At that point, he invited me in, along with a couple of other writers. And when I did that, I thought that it would be fun for Jay and I to connect our stories together, since we were best pals and we lived in within close vicinity of each other. So, he and I both worked off of each other. And he and I used the character and the setting from his first METAtropolis story, which I think was called “In the Gardens of the Night,” that dealt with a character named Tygre Tygre and a security officer named Bashar. I took that story and expanded it and set it later. I dropped in new characters, mixed with the Bashar character, to write the novella “A Symmetry of Serpents and Doves.” He then took the world that he had created in that first novella and did a story interconnecting with mine called “The Ball Dancers.” He put his at the beginning of the anthology and mine at the end of the anthology, and it did well. The anthology had an all-Star-Trek cast with various stories—mine, his, Seanan McGuire, Mary Robinette Kowal, Karl Schroeder, Tobias Buckell and I think Elizabeth Bear. I can be missing some names. But anyway, the second one went on to win an Audie Award.
And then for the third one, because Jay’s health was declining, he asked me if I would co-edit it with him. So we did METAtropolis Green Space together. And, out of that, we decided that, because we had so much fun at the last round, we would tighten the stories up even more so. And so this time around, he wrote the first novelette which was called “Rock of Ages.” And then, I took his novelette and added to it, creating a second novelette that basically stood alone, but finished out his story, and called it “Let Me Hide Myself in Thee,” referencing back to the old hymn, “Rock of ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee,” also bringing in the same characters.
So we had five novelettes and novellas set in the same universe, using the same characters, but we had not been able to find a print market for the entire METAtropolis Cascadia or Green Space projects. So volumes two and three lived on in audio, but nobody wanted to do a print version of these books. Then, Jay and I packaged it together with the five pieces, each written under our own individual names—three by him, two by me—and Kevin J. Anderson picked it up at WordFire. We were really fortunate in that we wanted to get this done and into Jay’s hands before cancer got him. And we managed, I think, by about two weeks. We put a copy of the book into his hands and two weeks later he was gone. It’s our first and only book together and I’m proud of it. Oddly enough, it’s not sold really well, but I’m hoping that it will pick up some steam as people start to hear more about it.
You recently finished the first draft of Hymn, the fifth and final volume of The Psalms of Isaak series. The series has taken several years to complete. Will you tell us about your journey?
I started the Psalms of Isaac with a short story that I wrote in 2005, and that short story evolved into the novel, Lamentation, which I wrote in 2006 over a mad rush of about six and a half weeks on a dare from Jay Lake and my wife at the time. It came together fast and everybody loved it instantly. It went out and landed the first agent that touched it. It went out and landed the first publisher that touched it. The publisher, Tor, loved the book so much that Tom Doherty said, “Hey, get all five of these.” I was about halfway into the second book when all of this happened. I came home from that experience and my mother died within just a few weeks of coming home from this whirlwind Cinderella trip to New York. So, we instantly were challenged around productivity and I found myself writing through major losses all the way up until this book, Hymn, the last book in the series. My mom died halfway into Canticle. I finished Canticle, and my nephew died while I was starting the revision process of the second book. I was halfway into the third book, Antiphon, when my father died. I was at the tail end, as I remember, as I typed the last sentences of Antiphon, while Jen and the girls were in the hospital right after they were born. I managed to get Antiphon done and then, at that point, I did not come around to finishing Requiem until 2012. That was a long, long gap. And, of course, that was during the time that I was dealing with PTSD at its worst. It was 2011 that I first discovered the block and I went off to Chicago to experience Lipov’s magic cure, so to speak. It’s great having a mad scientist in your pocket.
Of course, sales suffered as a result of Hymn not being written and Requiem not being written and turned in on time. But at the same time, I had such a splash front end, with world rights and foreign publications, that we were able to earn out my advance rather quickly. I had an advance against all five books and we had earned that out by the time the second book was in paperback. So we did well in that regard. However, it’s still not been a big money maker and sales have gone down with each book. My tardiness on the books has not helped that process at all, but the hope is that now it’s done—it’s ten years of my life that I’ve poured into this by group of people, these characters, the problems they’re solving—now that it’s a complete package, Tor can push it, I can push it. Now that it’s finished, more people may be inclined to pick up and start a new series.
Thank you so much for giving us all a glimpse into the often not-so-simple life of a writer. I, for one, am glad I persisted and cornered you.
For our visitors, here is an introductory blurb, followed by a very short story from Ken’s most recent work:
Scholes’s third Imagination Forest collection which he released in August of 2015 (after Diving Mimes, Weeping Czars, and Other Unusual Suspects) continues exploring the limits of speculative fiction in seventeen short stories whose genres include playful fantasy and SF as well as edge-of-your-seat suspense. Scholes revels in the offbeat and surreal, marrying otherworldliness with very real human fears and concerns, and his stories are all the richer for it. Curious characters abound, including “The Starship Mechanic,” about an alien mechanic fascinated with the holdings of a San Francisco bookstore, and a cat-woman trying to escape her former owner in “A Chance of Cats and Dogs.” The collection has a distinctive rhythm, with the novella-length standout piece, “A Symmetry of Serpents and Doves”, bookended by shorter vignettes. Scholes’s work is considerably inventive, and this collection showcases his versatility as a writer.
Awash in Autumn, the Queen Reflects
Every day is the same and yet different.
Emily goes to him on her lunch break, her eyes flitting over him and away quickly though she knows he knows. And Tony smiles and asks her what she wants but she always wants the special — his special — and he always adds magic to it.
“Pumpkin spice latte?”
Her eyes are on him. They are away again. “Please.”
Then, small talk. But the best conversation of her day. Concluded by the flourish of his art in the foam and money changing hands.
What magic be today? She looks a the foam and her eyebrows furrow. She doesn’t recognize the tiny image.
“You’ll see,” Tony says.
She sits in the park on a bench in the gray October day. She eats her sandwich first. Then her apple slices. Only after does she consider the latte.
Emily ponders it, then sips it.
She smiles and closes her eyes. He’s never done antlers before.
It is warmer in the clearing; she stands in it in her gown, the crown heavy upon her head. In this place, she is a queen. And the world is on fire around her, the leaves blazing autumn red and yellow, orange for as far as her eye can see. Her feet itch to run the leaf carpet but she waits for Tony, wondering how he will come to her in this place
He snorts as he runs into the clearing, scattering leaves with his hooves as he tosses his antlered head. He prances around her, then sets off east and she follows.
She runs after him, feeling the crown grow lighter upon her brow as she picks up speed. When she reaches him, she leaps and mid-leap, she lands upon his back and seizes hold of his neck.
They run the forest now, dodging fallen branches and racing through alternating shafts of sunlight and shadow. He carries her for hours before the trees fall away and they run old pastures gone to grass, leaping the fallen stone walls that occasionally intersect them. The sun is low in the sky behind them, the sky shot through with red, when she bids him stop beside a burbling creek.
There, she stretches out upon her stomach to drink her fill while the stag stands beside her doing the same.
Crickets are singing and she sees the forests that surround them in the distance blazing with glory beneath a crimson sky. Emily sees the meadow taking on the same glory. And the white hide of her friend, Tony. Last, she looks at her own arms washed gold and red in the setting sun, and closes her eyes. Glory shining everywhere about me and upon me, Emily realizes.
Awash in Autumn, the queen reflects.
When she opens her eyes again, there is just enough time to walk back to the motel and re-stock her cleaning cart. She drinks the last of her latte and when she walks past Tony’s espresso stand she looks away and smiles when he winks at her.
You can purchase it here: