Author to Author with Martin Cahill


I met Marty at a reading with Maria Dahvana Headley , Victor LaValle, and Daniel Polansky. I’m so glad to have introduced myself to him because he is so active as a writer. He does reviews and pieces for and has several of his own short stories out for you to read. He took time to answer questions that I had about short stories and long form that might be helpful to those pursuing both styles of fiction. You can find the most recent line-up of his work here.

Story Crafting

What comes first: The world or the characters?

Is it weird to say a little bit of both? Often times, it will be one or the other that will start the ball rolling, but at some point they synthesize. “How would a family of mad scientists deal with grief?” is all well and good until you need to figure out what world they could possibly occupy. “This is a world run off of memory magic,” is a neat statement but only gains some traction when you figure out who would be manipulating that magic and for what purposes. So, I’ll stick with the answer of a little of both, though that fluctuates of course based on the story.

Your work on “Bear Language” (Fireside Fiction, May 2017) is incredible. How do you decide on the voice?

Thank you very much! That means a lot to hear. “Bear Language,” is very much a story of someone stuck in two worlds, and having to reconcile a lot of very real-world, adult ideas in a very short amount of time. So making Joanna young was definitely on purpose. I mean, first of all, kids are resilient as hell, and have a much better threshold for dealing with strangeness, horror, or oddities, much more than many adults sometimes. So Joanna accepting a lot of hard truths or secret languages is made easier by being so young and not trying to pick everything apart. Secondly, she’s still young enough to be able to pick up bear language in many ways. Just as she can accept more adult ideas with ease, it’s also far easier for her to see magic than it is for her brother. The rest of her voice just came from someone trying to do their best to keep everyone together and safe. The story dictated how that unfolded.

Where do you draw inspiration?

“What if?” It’s the strongest question in the writer’s toolbox, and whenever I’m throwing things together, or are stuck in the middle of a plot, that’s the one that gets brought out, clamps itself into my brain, and gets turned up to 1.21 jigawatts.

Among your various published works, what’s your personal favorite scene that you have written?

Woof, that’s a tough one! They’re all fun and I look at them fondly for different reason. But let’s see, here are a few: “Bear Language,” when Joanna finally stands up for herself. “A Glass Kiss for the Little Prince of Pain” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 2016), when our memory assassin, Glass Kiss, feels too much shame, guilt, and fear to kill her mentor, so she does something even more gut wrenching to him. And action wise, look for a scene at the end of my newest story out in Shimmer, “Salamander Six-Guns,” when a cowboy named Copper finds himself facing down the mythical Momma Scales, and her fearsome appetite. Also, writing all the food scenes in “Godmeat,” (not out for some time), was especially gratifying and mouthwatering.


Short Stories vs Novels

When an idea sparks, how do you differentiate if it’s something for short form or long form?

Easiest way to know is to just start writing. If you’re cracking 7,000 words, and easily have more story to tell, then that’s a novel. But in a less flippant answer, it depends on the goal of the story: Is this something with a finite moment, conclusion, lesson, emotion, character arc, etc? Can you get to where you need to be under 7000 words? Or is this a larger story, with bigger, moving pieces, in more complicated dances, with top hats and canes and a Fossie number thumping in the background, where the set changes with the songs, and characters can rise and fall and rise again higher than ever? Look at the scope. That will tell you if you’re in a musical or just a ten-minute scene, to push the metaphor.

Do you have any advice for people deciding to pursue one or the other?

Same advice for both, actually! Finish. Your. Work. Whether it’s the shortest of short stories or a twenty seven book volume of the untold tales of a woman hunting the scorpion god that killed her family across a world so deep, so immersive, so lived in, it makes J. R. R. Tolkien look like a peddler of dreams and a charlatan with a cheap pen, nothing will happen until you finish it. So finish it. Yeah, I know it’s hard. Life gets in the way. But finish it. Seriously. It’ll feel good. It’s the high you’ve been chasing. Finish your damn story. When it’s done is when you can send it out into the world. So finish it. I believe in you. (PS I’m calling shotgun on Esmeralda Stabs Scorpion Gods, this was just an example).

What are some challenges that you face between short stories and longer fictions?

For short stories, it’s knowing exactly what needs to be in there. Short stories are often a window into a different world, a brief pit stop at the next universe over to see, to learn, to know, to love, to fear, however briefly. You’re not going to write four pages describing a city corner. Short stories need to be lean cheetahs, they need to be efficient and brutal in their length, in their ability to get the reader from Emotion A to Emotion B in a single page. And it’s hard. I’m still not good at it, but that’s why you work at it. Novels are a different beast, and can really mess with your short story brain. Because you don’t have to rush, the economy you’ve trained for is no longer necessary. You can take your time, and build your world, but that’s when you run the risk of building a beautiful skyscraper but forgot to buy chairs and desks and water coolers for the inside of it. You need to keep up the emotional vibrancy without sacrificing the shiny outside. But again, this comes with practice, (though if anyone knows ANY shortcuts, drop me a line, novels are hard, k thx).


Writing, Publishing, Etc.

I know you participated the Clarion Workshop. Any advice for writers looking to do an M.F.A.?

Hmmm, well an MFA is different from Clarion, though at Clarion you ARE getting an MFA education, except you know, it’s being shoved into your brain in six weeks. Let me break it down: If you’re looking to do an MFA, the only thing I’d ask you to ask yourself is if you’re doing it for the right reasons. Are you pursuing this to take the time to become a better writer, to have workshop experience, and to become qualified to teach as well? Or are you doing this to hide away from engaging with the world? I don’t know many who would be willing to admit to the latter, though I will say, I was considering an MFA a few years ago because of that very fear. I still do want to get my MFA someday, but I know that I’ll be doing so for the right reasons now. (Sorry, Past Marty. Just know that we turned out okay).

Secondly, if you’re considering applying for a dense workshop like Clarion, my advice is to not self-reject. Anyone can go to these workshops, and they’re worth it, but I see a lot of writers feeling their work isn’t good enough or they’re not good enough which is, in a word, hogwash. It’s scary putting your work out there, but don’t let it stop you from trying because you’re nervous. And finally, this piece for ALL writers, considering any sort of formal or informal writing education, I say this: These programs can be expensive, and they can be exclusive, and they can be time-eaters. If there are circumstances in your life keeping you from attending or applying, then those don’t make you less of a writer, or different from any of us trying to make shit up while balancing a day job. You are still a writer, and you are still awesome. None of this elitist bullshit here, no thank you. And there are spaces online, communities to join where you can find those critiquing spaces, and cadres of other writers who support you, and can help you get that critical education. But the important thing is to write, no matter what. As long as you write, you’re a writer. End o’ story.

When it comes to getting words on the page, what is your process? How do you make the time?

My process is stealing time whenever I can. A few minutes on the subway to jot down some notes; a lunch break at work to flesh out a character; burning that sweet midnight oil so you can end on a chapter and not a cliffhanger. You just…you find the time. Like exercise, you carve out the time and the space when you can. And just like hitting the gym, you don’t need to go every day to be effective. But it does need to be as consistent as possible. Every little bit helps. My process is usually a terrible sine wave of incredible productivity mixed with days of absolutely terrible work production. But when it’s consistent is when I’m happiest. Even if it’s just an hour three times a week, it helps. But the process is really just get it on the page as often as you can.

How many projects are you working on simultaneously or is it one-at-a-time?

Actively? Usually one or two Big projects. I’m outlining a novel while writing another one. On top of that, the short stories that I can carve out time for, or finish for a deadline, or the reviews/articles/essays I’m working on. But unconsciously, things are always whizzing and bouncing in my brain like pop rocks in soda. Like many of us, my brain doesn’t do the whole “turning off,” thing. So while I juggle a few major projects, everything else is just lying beneath the surface in wait.




One thought on “Author to Author with Martin Cahill

  1. Pingback: Reading Recap: June 2017 | Jo Ladzinski

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