If you love pulp, comic books and role-playing games, you probably already know the work of author, editor and gamer extraordinaire James Lowder.
This transplant from the Massachusetts coast who now lives in the magical “kingdom” of cheese, Wisconsin, has enjoyed a long and storied career working in just about every aspect of book publication and the gaming industries. Lowder has made quite the name for himself, from writing dark fantasy to editing a popular series of zombie anthologies among many other pursuits.
Today he obligingly steps into our spotlight to tell us about his literary origins and the challenges he faces when it comes to juggling writing and editing.
Grey Matter Press (GMP): You have an extensive bibliography, as both writer and editor. Which job do you find to be more of a challenge?
James Lowder (JL): I find it much more of a challenge to write than to edit. With editing, you’re working from a fixed expression of an idea. My goal as an editor is to help the writer strengthen the work, make it align with her or his vision for the story as closely as possible. Sometimes that requires several passes and lots of changes, sometimes much less, but as editor I’m helping the author with a pitch or outline or draft that already exists. That’s not to say editing—or, more to the point, constructive, helpful editing—is simple or easy. It’s not. But the editor never has to face the blank page. That’s a challenge for the writer, to narrow every possible literary expression of an idea down to one.
GMP: If you could be an editor for any author, who would you most like to work with?
JL: I could create a long list from the books in my library. A few years ago I put together a mostly reprint anthology of werewolf stories, Curse of the Full Moon, and the table of contents is populated by writers whose work I admire: Ursula LeGuin, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, George Martin, Neil Gaiman—all creators whose original fiction I’d love to edit, too.
But the author I’d most like to edit is the one I don’t know. I enjoyed reading the slush pile when I got my start in the book department at TSR; I discovered several writers who went on to publish some marvelous work. I still enjoy reading submissions when I run an “open call” anthology. About a third of the stories in the Books of Flesh zombie anthologies I put together for Eden Studios were first publications. The chance to discover a writer who has never been published before, or someone whose work is new to me as an editor, is thrilling.
GMP: How did you decide on pursuing a career in the literary realm? Is it something you were interested in from a young age?
JL: I decided I wanted to write as a career in grade school and started creating original works in middle school. I completed several short stories, scripted and drew a couple issues of a comic book. They were all pretty terrible, but the point was to create something new. I was fortunate to study with several outstanding teachers throughout my K-12 years who encouraged me to create and to challenge myself. I dedicated my first novel to three of my high school teachers.
During the summer before freshman and sophomore years in high school I attended a terrific advanced studies program, Project Contemporary Competitiveness. That was where I had my first real experiences writing and editing for publication. The first year I took a journalism class and wrote several pieces, including a rather breathless review of the original Star Wars, which was new in theaters at the time. Again, not very good, but it was completed work that got in front of an audience.
The second summer, the administration’s plans for the yearbook fell through. I don’t recall if it was a staffing issue or a budget shortfall that caused the problem, but to make certain the yearbook happened that summer, a few motivated student volunteers got together and spent nights and weekends creating the content, then doing all of the editing and layout, without any real supervision. It was like one of those “Hey, let’s put on a show to save the farm!” scenes that used to be such a mainstay of Hollywood show business movies. I did a few illustrations for the yearbook, a lot of the layout and design, and contributed a short science fiction story of the “It was Earth all along!” twist ending variety.
That yearbook jam convinced me that the publishing process was special. It was wonderful to work with a team of creative people, putting together something for print and then sharing it with an audience. The best parts of that experience were repeated, at least in some small way, with the newspapers and magazines I worked on throughout high school and college, and with my first long-term professional gig in the book department at TSR. I still get a frisson of joy when a publishing project goes well, whether I’m participating as a writer or an editor.
GMP: Your story titled “Orphans of the Air”—which appears in Peel Back the Skin, an anthology released in June of 2016 from Grey Matter Press—centers on the Corpse, a former prosecutor who investigates a rash of child murders. How did you come up with this enigmatic character?
JL: The Corpse has been skulking around in my head for quite a long time. I created the character’s prototype using the Crimefighters role-playing game rules, way back in 1981. That version of the Corpse was a much more straightforward homage to The Shadow and The Spider.
Fast forward to 2002 and George Vasilakos, publisher of Eden Studios, asked me to contribute a novelette to run at the front of Pulp Zombies, a pulp-themed supplement he was planning for the All Flesh Must Be Eaten zombie horror role-playing game. The Corpse came immediately to mind and I set about writing a piece that involved him in a zombie-filled, apocalyptic alternate-history version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
I’d read more widely in the original pulps by this time and didn’t want to simply repeat the tropes and characters and themes familiar to fans of classic mystery man tales. I wanted to comment upon them, particularly the moral universe. In the original pulps, the hero is justified in everything he does. The universe is morally simplistic, with the villains deserving whatever horrible extrajudicial punishment the good guys dish out. “The Night Chicago Died” upends that and supposes an underlying moral universe that does not simply support the hero’s simplistic code of justice.
“The Night Chicago Died” was very well received. It was a finalist for an Origins Award and received an honorable mention nod in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. It’s become my most frequently reprinted work, most recently in Claude Lalumière’s anthology Super Stories of Heroes and Villains. I’ve written three prequel stories, including the short story in Peel Back the Skin. “Orphans of the Air” introduces a pair of supernatural resurrection men to the Corpse’s Jazz-Age Chicago and an objectivist take on Little Orphan Annie.
All the Corpse stories explore the morality of the mystery man pulps. So far, the stories have focused on the morality of the mystery man protagonist, but I also want to dig into race and gender and other complicated facets of the pulp genre. As you might guess, I have several more Corpse tales in the planning stages.
GMP: You currently reside in the beautiful state of Wisconsin, but if you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be, and why?
JL: I grew up in the small towns of the South Shore in Massachusetts, the area between Boston and Cape Cod. I’d welcome the chance to live in New England again. I can imagine myself living in a lot of different locations. Anyplace that values books and education, really.
GMP: Is there anything you are currently working on that we should be on the lookout for?
JL: In addition to “Orphans of the Air” in Peel Back the Skin, I have Corpse stories in the recent anthologies Genius Loci and Sojourn 2. I also have an alternate history/steampunk/horror tale, “The Shadow and the Eye,” in the anthology Ghost in the Cogs. I have a few more short stories in the works, too, but nothing I can announce yet. On the editing front, my most recent projects are the Lovecraftian fiction anthology Madness on the Orient Express from Chaosium and The Munchkin Book, an official companion to the popular card game that features essays about the game as well as original playable game content, from BenBella’s Smart Pop book line.