This post is part of the Candlesticks and Daggers Interview Series run by contributor Sati Benes Chock. For more about the book, please follow the link here.
Excerpt from Joel Goldberg’s story “Anglerfish”
A wail, unlike anything heard before on sea or land, emanated from the cargo hold; a damp, echoing shriek mixed with fear, anger, and sorrow. Pym gazed at the crewmen scattered about the living quarters. Brows raised and furrowed. They looked at one another, then looked down at the floor. Three more sounds, along with steady vibrations, pierced the floorboards. Thud, thwack, rrrip. The floorboards stretched as a phantom force slammed against them from below. A wave of jitters swirled about the room.
“Kill it! Kill them! Send the beasts to hell,” screeched the young, timorous sailor.
Sati: Hi Joel! Can you tell us a little about how you became a writer? How did you begin? Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?
Joel: I’m going to say it started in second grade. My teacher, Mr. Wong, convinced me to enter a science fiction story, called “Apollo 18”, into a writing contest at my school. I really impressed the moms and dads who came to our class to watch us read. I especially impressed my mom – as she tells me, at the time, she was surprised I could stand up in front of an audience and entertain people. I’m usually calm, quiet, shy, an observer, and it’s been true my whole life. At readings, I like turning the tables: the audience sits quietly while I present my thoughts.
I placed second in the writing contest behind my neighbor, Kenneth Kane. I was devastated.
You are also a journalist. Is there ever tension between these two sides of you—truth and fiction? How do you find balance between the two?
They say non-fiction is about the facts while fiction is about the truth. Right? I’m not sure I agree. To me, writing fiction is like designing a game. You want to challenge the reader because the reader will feel bored or ripped off if you don’t. At the same time, if it’s too confusing or drawn-out, they’re going to get frustrated and give up. The bottom line is: games are fake. I believe, at best, they’re simulations of life.
Journalism, which I think is a specific style of non-fiction, forces you to interact. You conduct interviews, you review published information. You dedicate yourself to observation and conveying observations with dispassion.
It’s still a juggling act, and this balance gets thrown out of whack all the time. My friends and family, even coworkers, tell me to “keep it real” or they tell me “you’re in your own head,” while other times they say “don’t be so serious.” I’m not sure how long I can keep writing non-fiction and fiction, if I want to keep my sanity.
What do you read for fun?
Sports articles, haha. I usually read fiction, but I’m very impulsive about the type of story. I don’t have a favorite genre or anything, but I like stories that are philosophical and character-driven. House of Leaves, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and The Millennium Series were all fun for me.
I’ve read a lot of biography and autobiography over the last year. Right now, I want people to tell me who the they are and what they’ve been up to. I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The View From the Cheap Seats and Dennis Lehane’s Sacred, and I’m enjoying both.
This is going to sound like bragging, but the stories in this book are pretty fun!
Where did you get the idea for “Anglerfish?” I looked up a picture of one, and they are terrifying! I noticed that they also have fascinating predatory and mating habits, such as bioluminescence (and you use this this in your story, of course). I can well imagine that all of this alone might have spawned a story, but how did you think to marry it to a science fiction tale with a strong historical component? Do you usually write historical fiction? It seems to come very naturally to you.
The idea came from my nightmares! I’ve never seen an anglerfish in person – they live a mile under the surface of the ocean, or something like that. But in photos, they are ugly, strange, and creepy. That got my attention, and I thought it might keep a reader’s attention, too. The name Pym is a reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which someone recommended when I told him the subject of my short story.
I learned about anglerfish in biology classes – or watching the Discovery Channel, who knows – so the science fiction aspect came naturally. The historical component was a shot in the dark. I hadn’t written or read my own piece with a historical component prior to “Anglerfish,” and I’m not sure I would classify this as historical fiction. Historical language and situations were an intentional part of the creative process, so glad you noticed and appreciated that!
If you could tell beginning writers one thing about the publishing process, what would it be?
Before you submit, make sure your piece fits your editor’s and your publisher’s needs.
Some writers have rituals that they feel helps them with the creative process. Do you employ any rituals, or do anything regularly that helps keep you on track with your writing?
Great question. No, I don’t have any rituals that support the creative process. This is a real problem for me, and I want to develop some. However, I do participate in a weekly writing workshop, which gives me a chance to explore ideas.
You placed as a finalist in Glimmer Train‘s Very Short Fiction contest, which is quite hard to do! In fact, your short story, “14 N 3rd,” was one of over 1,000 submissions. Well done! Any advice for anyone entering contests?
Don’t do it! I think it’s a crapshoot whether a publication will accept your work, unless it’s specifically tailored to their needs. If you’re dead-set on submitting your work, Duotrope is a good resource. I searched Google to find Glimmer Train’s contest and a handful of others.
The Glimmer Train contest was a nice ego boost. When I submitted “14 N 3rd,” I didn’t think the story was complete. I was frantically submitting it to publications and sharing it with people. I hadn’t heard of Glimmer Train before I submitted the piece. Looking back, I’m glad they didn’t publish “14 N 3rd.” The story wasn’t a story, yet.
Any future projects (or anything else) you want to tell us about?
I’m working on a novel, which could be a series of short stories. It’s based on experiences and environments I grew up with: Philadelphia, Jewish families, racial and class tension, unrequited love. I probably need to narrow my focus to make it work. I want it to be something other than science fiction.
I can’t believe I said, “I’m working on a novel”. It could take thirty years to complete at the rate I’m going.
Joel Goldberg was raised in the peculiar dimension known as the outskirts of Philadelphia, adjacent to Valley Forge National Historical Park. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., a world far more bizarre, where he works and writes. His reporting has been published in National Geographic Magazine’s “Pop Omnivore” blog and National Public Radio, and he placed as a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contest.