A Conversation with Steve Berman

Interviewed by Jerry Wheeler

Living in New Jersey, Los Angeles and New Orleans among other places hasn’t been enough for speculative fiction author and Lethe Press owner Steve Berman. He’s spent many years creating his own worlds, most notably for his acclaimed young adult ghost novel, Vintage, and his Fallen Area series. Add to that nominations for every accolade from the Lambda Literary Award to the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards and you have an extremely talented and knowledgeable author/publisher/lecturer. I got a chance to speak with him for Out in Print recently about his influences, his processes and his plans for the future.

Jerry L. Wheeler: What made you decide to start Lethe Press?
Steve Berman: Back in 2001, I was the Marketing Director for a small religious press (don’t laugh). Print-on-demand technology was just beginning and Lightningsource contacted me. The more I learned, the more I considered how POD might help me with my writing career–at the time I was a bit stalled and thought a self-published short story collection (which became Trysts) might be the way to attract attention. So I founded Lethe Press with the intention of not only releasing my work but also work that had been long forgotten… thus the name.

JLW: What do you like about publishing? What do you get from it that you don’t get from writing?
SB: Well, I really do like to help other writers. So if I can help another’s voice to be heard, I’m pleased. And, well I can release and support the genre I care about the most: queer speculative fiction.

JLW: As an accomplished horror/speculative fiction writer, what scares you?
SB: I’m flattered you consider me “accomplished.” Loneliness scares me. The thought of being stuck in an apartment, old and frail, and not having anyone to call or speak with. Dying alone to me must be the worst death.

JLW: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
SB: In elementary school I used to write and illustrate these horrible spy-spoof stories. The other kids would groan when I told them. Somehow I got a bit better, sold my first story at age 17, and was (foolishly) convinced writing was so easy. Hah!

JLW: What attracted you to speculative fiction over other genres?
SB: My mother adores the old Universal horror filmes and would ask me to watch them with her as a kid, so I’ve grown up loving the fantastical and otherworldly. As a writer, I appreciate the wealth and depth of strange elements and themes in a writer’s arsenal to best express his ideas. Want to write about something forbidden? You can use an apple, made of emerald, that falls from a dead tree. See? Seems easy, right?

JLW: Who are your writing influences?
SB: My influences have changed over time. At the start, I wrote very bad horror stories. I think I read too much Barker and Lovecraft. Then I started reading more magic realism like Jonathan Carroll. And my writing took more of a turn to urban fantasy. Then I started selling young adult fiction and I became a devotee of Kelly Link.

JLW: How did you become interested in young adult fiction?
SB: It was never my original intention to write a young adult novel. But Vintage turned out that way; my best friend Holly, who has always wanted to be a young adult novel informed me that I had ventured into that field. An accident? Perhaps. What I appreciate about teen readers is that they feel so passionate about books. They inhale them, cherish them. When was the last time you went out on a date with a guy who expressed that sentiment (and if you have, let me know if he has a brother…).

JLW: What’s your creative process like? Do you outline or just have an idea and write from there?
SB: A weird idea or situation will strike me hard and fast. I’ll write a few lines or paragraphs down. Take a break. Some days later I’ll flesh out more. Eventually, I’ll strike a wall. That’s because I have not really discovered what sort of story I need to tell. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re writing the correct story. So I take a few weeks off, but I’m still always turning the story over in my head. Rotisserie style. If I’m lucky, there’s that epiphany and I can go back and finish the tale. I also rely on critique partners a great deal. Holly Black and I have been reading and helping each other’s writing for over a decade. I can also call upon such writers as Jameson Currier, Alex Jeffers, and Will Ludwigsen. It’s not enough to simply send them the story; you need to tear it apart, rip that rotisseried bird to the giblets as it were, to find the oyster and what you need to tell.

JLW: Have you ever had an idea that you can’t seem to write but still won’t go away?
SB: Plenty. But if I told them, they’d get loose and find new Daddies. So I best keep them secret.

JLW: Who do you read these days?
SB: Well, I read a lot of everything. Short gay-themed essays and fiction for Best Gay Stories. Gay fantasy, horror and science fiction for the Wilde Stories series. This year I’m a judge for the Cybil awards (an online award given to the best in young adult fiction). Add the work of friends and I barely have time to read for pleasure.

JLW: Can you ever turn off being a writer and editor, or do you internally edit even when you’re reading for pleasure?
SB: Never. It’s one of the reasons I’m a very slow writer. I’m constantly revising, in my head, on the “page” (screen? monitor?). I have to force myself to write sloppy with some first drafts just so they will gush forth and can be revised later.

JLW: Are there places you won’t go or subjects that are too taboo for you to write about?
SB: Nope. I don’t write many graphic sex scenes these days because they have become tiresome. I wrote a fair amount of erotica for a period, but I quickly discovered what intrigued me the most about the stories was the weird elements I was adding. Soon, the smut diminished as I went odder and odder…

JLW: What can we expect in the future from Lethe Press?
SB: Hopefully many years of good books

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