Fri 26 Jun 2015
by Jessi Cole Jackson
Steven L. Peck is a university biology professor and teaches classes on ecology, evolution, and the consciousness of the human mind. He has published over 50 scientific articles. Creative works include three novels with mainstream publishers, including A Short Stay in Hell and the magical realism novel The Scholar of Moab, published by Torrey House Press and named AML’s best novel of 2011 and a Montaigne Medal Finalist (national award given for most thought-provoking book). He has been published in Abyss & Apex, Analog (Fact Article), Daily Science Fiction, Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Nature Futures, Pedestal Magazine, Perihelion, and many others.
Jessi Cole Jackson: Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind “Tales from Pleasant Grove”?
Pleasant Grove is the small town in central Utah where I live, and it is so ordinary as to be rather unexciting sometimes. I began to imagine short vignettes about a much stranger city. I wanted a Pleasant Grove that was weirder and more exciting. I started writing these down, and soon I had an entire collection of Pleasant Grove stories that portrayed a world where anything could happen. I tried to keep the small town feel, but mixed it with far more magic and adventure.
Jessi Cole Jackson: What is your typical writing process look like? How do you come up with your ideas? Do you have any rituals or superstitions attached to your writing sessions?
That’s a great question. I usually try to write at night at a given time, but I have to admit I’m not very consistent. Sometimes, though, especially when I’m really excited about a story, it takes over my life and I can’t put it down. Usually, so much that I’ll lay awake at night running through the story in my head. Several times this has produced new characters or even new plot lines.
Jessi Cole Jackson: I love the details of your story. They are specific and telling, making each moment feel real and immediate. At the same time, your protagonist is an everyman who could stand in for any one of us. Do you think most people would swap out their fears, or be like Hal, comfortable with the devil(s) they know?
Steven L. Peck: I think I’d be more the Hal type. I like the devils I know. And there is a slight streak of superstition that runs through me whenever there is a change, for example when I have to change seats on an airplane there’s always this discomfort that I’m not where I was supposed to be. I don’t take it too seriously (I’m a scientist after all), but it’s still there putting a little pressure on something that really is silly to worry about.
Jessi Cole Jackson: Is there a fear you would get rid of? Which jar would you choose to take its place?
Steven L. Peck: I wish I could lose the fear of pickpockets. I travel a lot, and I have this irrational fear I’ll get pickpocketed. I never have been, but I’m always on the lookout. It’s completely crazy. It’s almost as if I think pickpockets are magical beings that can get through any defense and that I’m helpless to their tricks. I’d take a jar with some fear I was absolutely sure that I was never going to run into, like a fear of deep sea angel fish that live so far down in the ocean depths that my chances of ever running into one are almost non-existent! (But as the story shows, these things have a way of backfiring).
Jessi Cole Jackson: The voice of your protagonist is very distinct. Did you work on cultivating his voice or did it come to you? Do you do anything to ‘find’ your characters?
Steven L. Peck: It seems to me that it’s almost as if my characters find me. They just appear whole-cloth as if we meet by accident. One of my novels (The Scholar of Moab) was about an ordinary kid working in the mountains for a geology company. I didn’t expect it, but one day in my mind’s eye a conjoined-twin cowboy road up and started talking to my main character. It changed the entire book, and I never saw it coming. Characters are like that when I write. They seem to exist almost independently of me and I am only a kind of medium that encourages their visit from another world.
Jessi Cole Jackson: I’m always interested in what people do when they’re not writing. You’re a scientist, philosopher, and professor, correct? Where’s the intersection between those passions and fiction for you?
Steven L. Peck: It seems funny to say, but in being a scientist and a philosopher of science I’ve found that my imagination the most critical talent I have. I’ve always loved discovering things, and I’ve found that the real art of good science is the ability to ask the right questions. The hard part of science is looking at the world and trying to discover what’s the next question to ask. Answering them is usually the easier part. Find good questions and discoveries follow. I think it is the same in fiction. Asking questions of our characters and settings are what set up the magic that follows. Trying to see what motivates them and what situations will best draw out the question you are exploring in your fiction, I think are the hardest parts of all. I honestly believe that my being a fiction writer and a scientist really play on the same strength.
Jessi Cole Jackson: What projects are you currently working on? Could you point readers to other stories of yours, either forthcoming or published?
Steven L. Peck: A lot of my previously published short fiction can be found on my website, including my Daily Science Fiction short story and myNature Futures story, including a number of others. In addition to the collection of Pleasant Grove stories I’m working on (and my hope to find a publisher soon!), I have a book of short stories coming out later this summer, called Wandering Realities, published by Zarahemla Press, which I’m very excited about. It’s about one half speculative fiction and half literary fiction. My most popular book is A Short Stay in Hell and a volume of short stories set in the Hell of this novel is going to be published soon as well (with one by me, too!). It’s got some best selling horror writers contributing (I’d name them but contracts have not been finalized—watch my website for news). The book also is going to be made into a full-length feature film by David Spaltro (Director of the just released horror film, In the Dark) and filming starts at the end of this year. I’ve also got a couple of novels I’m putting the final touches on and hope to start shopping them soon. One is a follow-up to my book, The Scholar of Moab, called Gilda Trillim: The Shepherdess of Rats, and the other a young adult fantasy called, The Airships of Gumpta.
Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in New Jersey, though she’s not from there. By day she builds costumes for a Tony Award-winning theatre. By night she writes stories, questionable poetry and lots of abandoned outlines. When she’s not working she enjoys cooking, reading, and exploring local farms. You can read more about her sometimes exciting (but mostly just normal) life at jessicolejackson.com.