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Author Interview: Caleb Wilson
2015-12-19 · by PJ Anthony
tagged Blog / Interviews
Caleb Wilson’s non-interactive stories have appeared in Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He has also written interactive fiction including HOLY ROBOT EMPIRE, Starry Seeksorrow, and Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow. He can be found online at Tumblr and Twitter. He and his wife live in Illinois. He is the author of this week’s reprint, Lime Ergot.
This interview was conducted via instant messenger in December 2015.
PJ Anthony: You’ve been writing IF for over a decade now. Which pleases you more, writing IF or non-IF? What’s the most fun for you?
Caleb Wilson: Well, I like writing both—and they’re kind of mixed up a little in my mind. I first started writing IF in college, and around the same time I started writing non-IF short stories. I used the transcript of an IF game I’d written to get into the big writing workshop class. I think the professor thought it was some kind of weird post-modern story. One thing I really love in IF is writing descriptions of rooms, and sometimes than comes through in my non-IF, too.
PJ: I love how your stories, IF and otherwise, bring full-on-no-holds-barred-unapologetic weirdness. I know ‘weird fiction’ has made somewhat of a comeback since the early days of Lovecraft and such, but it seems like you’ve ridden that wave for years.
Caleb: I definitely like weird writing of all types. I think IF is really good for weird fiction, too, because you can hide the strangeness a little under the surface and let people search around for it.
PJ: Which is fantastic fun! Lime Ergot was released December 8, 2015 on sub-Q. I believe you wrote it for EctoComp 2014. How did you approach the story given the short period of time you had to craft it? Prep? Outline? Tons of caffeinated beverages?
Caleb: The rules for EctoComp were that the piece had to be written and programmed in 3 hours, but time for planning was allowed. I spent a while brainstorming—I think I came up with the title first and the rest of the story flowed from that. It had to be relatively quick to produce, so I came up with the idea of making the main form of interaction examining the surroundings, which leads you to more things to examine, and so on. I also spent about half of my time writing out a transcript of what the whole thing would look like, so when I was programming I could just cut and paste. (And eventually I went back and added a bit of polish—I probably spent another five hours on the sub-Q version.)
PJ: I loved the single-room technique. Especially since it wasn’t obviously a single-room. It feels so much bigger.
Caleb: Thanks—yeah, that was also out of necessity. Adding more rooms would have taken too long!
PJ: The use of misdirection was perfect. I had to take a mental step back and evaluate my behavior toward the story. Finally figuring it out was great fun.
Caleb: In a way, the main character is almost paralyzed.
PJ: Inform and TADs are classic IF platforms. Your stories on IFDB are crafted with Inform. Any desire to branch out and try another? Given the surge of new interactive fiction platforms, I mean. Inkle, Undum / Raconteur, Twine, etc.
Caleb: I won’t ever try another parser platform. I’m not very good at programming, and am just barely able to get a handle on Inform by constantly referring to the code of other games I’ve made. But I would like to try Twine: I just need to come up with a good story idea (something that wouldn’t be possible in Inform). I really like the way Undum and Raconteur stories look on the screen, but the programming is beyond me.
PJ: So, why IF? How did you get your start? And (oh my) to submitting an IF game transcript to get into a non-IF workshop.
Caleb: Yeah, in retrospect that was kind of ridiculous. I had started writing IF a few years before that—I found the IFmud, which was where a bunch of people involved in IF hung out, basically in a huge chatroom, and you could ask for help with coding things, or just make endless jokes and witty comments. I took part in a few little things they called Speed-IF, where you’d have a few hours to make a game (a lot like EctoComp) except you’d also have to put in various random features like evil sea life or a bear—it felt kind of like an improv theatre game. That’s what my earliest games are, and they’re pretty bad. I also wrote them using an older version of Inform, which looked more like a regular programming language and was much harder for me to figure out.
PJ: IFmud has spawned many a fan and many a creator. You must have really wanted to craft a game to dive into the guts of programming. Did you have any exposure to programming languages prior to that?
Caleb: Actually a tiny bit: I had taken a few programming classes in high school. C++, and some form of BASIC.
PJ: So you kind of had an idea what you might be getting into.
Caleb: I had an idea. The problem I have with programming is that, unless I’m doing it constantly, I forget everything. I tend to write my IF in a big rush so I don’t forget how to make everything work.
PJ: Any prior exposure to IF? Experience any Infocom games or other interactive games that made you go “Yes, I want to do that!”
Caleb: I played the Infocom game “Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It” some time in grade school. At that point I didn’t have any idea that people could make games like that!
PJ: You have attended the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. What impact did that have on your craft? Was that the workshop you brought the IF transcript to?
Caleb: No, that was a college workshop. I went to Clarion in 2007, the first year it moved to San Diego. At the time, I hadn’t written any IF in years. I was trying to get short stories published instead. I had a sort of crisis of confidence whenever I worked on IF, feeling like I was making a mistake and should be concentrating on other things. I’m finally starting to get over that—and that’s also one of the reasons why I’m so excited about sub-Q; I’d really like to bring those two worlds together a bit.
PJ: You’ve definitely crossed the streams. Lime Ergot is not only an entertaining puzzle-type game, the prose is good stuff as well.
Caleb: Ah, thanks!
PJ: I love the endless parade of nom de plumes on your IFDB stories. Was that so you could enter the contests (ShuffleComp, EctoComp, ParserComp) anonymously? Do you put much thought into the choosing of the names or is it just some random selection at the time?
Caleb: I didn’t really care about being anonymous, I just thought pseudonyms were fun. For the ParserComps (where the games are based on songs chosen by the other entrants) the pseudonyms were also made up by other entrants, and then my other ones were either anagrams of my name or in the case of Lime Ergot, which was originally by “Rust Blight”, I decided on a sort of fungus-based plant-disease feel.
PJ: What do you have cooking? IF / non-IF? What is the next thing we can expect from you?
Caleb: Right now my main project is an IF one—I’m working on something for Choice of Games, though that won’t be out for quite a while. Probably the next thing to come out will be a non-IF short story I wrote for an anthology called “Swords v. Cthulhu”—and it actually does have a vague IF connection, because I tried to write it in Inform at first and it didn’t work at all.
PJ: Choice of Games, excellent. To be published by their Choice of Games (CoG) brand or their Hosted side?
Caleb: It will be their CoG brand. It’s about a musical genius in 18th-century Europe, so lots of intrigue, musical rivalry, and wigs. It’s definitely the biggest project I’ve ever worked on before, IF or non. It’s really different than Inform—it feels a lot more like writing regular prose to me, except that it has to branch all over the place.
PJ: You have a book blog, Astrobolism. What a great mashup of authors and genres and themes!
Caleb: My main goals with that is to keep track of what I’ve read, otherwise I forget. I’m pretty far behind now, so I need to add a bunch.
PJ: I see one piece of fiction The Adventure of the Pyramid of Bacconyus available online. Are there any other works we can point your readers to?
Caleb: There’s a very short story of mine here: PodCastle 306: Flash Fiction Special – Tales Of Strange Inspiration. It’s in audio form.
PJ: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know? Anything at all?
Caleb: I can’t think of anything else. Thanks for reading? This is the first interview I’ve given!
PJ: This is the first interview I have conducted! THANK YOU for putting up with my wild flailing. Future interviewees will benefit from your sacrifice.