[This issue, we sit down with short story author and novelist, Todd Sullivan. Here, he discusses how living in Asia has influenced his writing; his forthcoming fantasy, Blood Stew, which features a protagonist with a physical disability; and his future projects.]
ev0ke: What roles do spirituality, mythology, and folklore play in your stories? Do you find yourself drawn to one particular corpus of beliefs, or do you utilize whatever fits the story?
Todd Sullivan: I think the mythology and folklore of the cultures I write about play major roles in the narratives I craft. Examples like the dol hareubang/돌 하르방 (grandfather statues) of Jeju Island have shown up in my horror fiction, and the samjokgo/삼속오 (three-legged crow symbolizing power) in my fantasy fiction. It’s not only an attempt to be authentic, but also part of my writing style in general.
On a personal level, spirituality is important in my writing as a result of my upbringing. I attended Catholic school until I was 18 years old, but I am Baptist, and went to church almost every Sunday until I graduated from high school. Ideas of souls, the afterlife, and how spiritual forces influence the currently living, are major themes in all of my stories.
I don’t think I’m drawn to any particular corpus of beliefs. I tend to utilize what fits characters based upon the culture the narrative is rooted in. This will be a bit more elaborated upon in the answer to the fifth question below.
ev0ke: Most of your stories could be defined as fantasy or horror. What draws you to speculative genres? What do you find so compelling about them?
TS: I think the simplest answer is that it’s what was praised the most throughout my early years of writing. I’ve written fiction in the mundane world, and during my Masters program at twenty-eight years old, I attempted to get some of it published. However, my first published fiction at thirty-five years of age was a fantasy story with science fiction elements, and my second published story a year later was horror. I’m a big believer in doing what seems to be working, and for the next eight years, I wrote basically within those two genres.
Also, my brothers were into Dungeons & Dragons back in the ’80s when it was still a niche hobby, and my sister loved horror movies and books. They being my older siblings, it had a huge influence over what creative content I had access to as a child.
ev0ke: How has living and working in South Korea, and elsewhere in Asia, shaped your writing?
TS: As of now, everything I’ve had published was written in Asia. I’ll go into the importance of this regarding my writing style in the fifth question below, but being a foreigner in a foreign country for over twelve years has opened my perspective. Living in Asia makes my narratives more complicated, I believe, as through dialogue, I’m often left seeing the same world through different racial and ethnic viewpoints: Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Australians, South Africans, Indians, Middle Easterners, Westerners, etc.
Perhaps this is too big of a claim, but I do feel that I write global fiction.
ev0ke: The third volume in your Windshine Chronicles is set to come out soon. First, congratulations! Second, how did you go about writing this series? Did you have it all plotted out in advance, or did you wing it? Did the series ever surprise you with a sudden turn or strange development?
TS: I’ll elaborate upon this answer a bit more in the fifth question below, but first, thank you so much! I’m stoked to be having my third book and first novel (Books 1 and 2 were novellas) released from Mocha Memoirs Press.
The series isn’t plotted out, though there is a general ending I’m aiming for. I won’t so much say that I was surprised at sudden turns or strange developments in the series, though there are definitely elements that I didn’t see coming when I sat down and wrote page one of each book.
ev0ke: Blood Stew, the third volume in the Windshine Chronicles, features a protagonist with a physical disability. Why focus on such a character? And how did that effect how you wrote the story?
ev0ke: The answer to this is complicated, but I’ll keep it as brief and succinct as possible.
The foundation of my writing style comes from four or five (I forget now) summer writing camps I attended between 1997-2003 that the National Book Foundation used to hold. Unfortunately, the camps have been defunct for the past 15 years or so.
Writers in general are taught to, ‘Write what you know’. It is a matter of degree, ultimately, but the NBF Camps emphasized writing narratives taken more directly, or more directly led by, real life. Perhaps one can call it a gonzo style, or confessional style, of writing fictional narratives. Not the same, but similar.
If one could look at the progression of my fiction, they would see that it closely follows my real life. When I was in New Orleans, I wrote about New Orleans. In Atlanta, I wrote about Atlanta. When working with Indians at Baskin Robbins in my 20s, I wrote about Indians and Baskin Robbins. When I moved to New York, I wrote about New Yorkers. When I moved to Jeju Island, I wrote about Jeju people. When I moved to the mainland of Korea, I wrote about mainlanders.
I started writing Blood Stew around September of 2019. At the same time, I was interviewing for ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching jobs in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand. One such Zoom interview was conducted by two employees at a private tutoring academy in Taipei. I was eventually offered a position at that academy and moved to Taiwan in October 2019.
I had probably only written the first chapter of Blood Stew by this point, and the main character was still vague in my mind. I didn’t really know who he was, what his motivations were, what his obstacles were, etc.
The first day I went to my new job, I called when I was almost there to say I was imminent to arrive, and one of the interviewers told me he would meet me outside. As I walked down an alley to the location, he rounded the corner, and I remember this moment clearly: he was very thin, well dressed, had an obvious issue with his posture (scoliosis), and leaned heavily on a cane. As soon as I saw him, I thought, “You’re the one!”
So thinking back to Questions one, three, and four, I’m not exactly surprised by the addition of this character, as this is my general style of writing. My real day-to-day life shapes my narratives, and since Asia and its general ideologies have been my daily experience for twelve years, this has had a significant impact upon my writing.
The effect of having a disabled character in the story was that it created a major challenge for me as the writer. Blood Stew is book three of a quest fantasy series. So it’s kind of important that a quest is involved, but how can a young man who has trouble walking and exists in daily physical pain go on a dangerous journey of adventure?
I urge everyone to read the book and find out J
ev0ke: Your short story “Infectious” appears in Mágissa. Given the plethora of magical women in fantasy, how did you go about creating an original story for the collection? How did you tweak the trope, as it were?
ev0ke: I actually smiled when I saw this question, it caught me off guard.
This too is complicated, but just to give a more brief answer than the previous one, I worked at a kindergarten for a year in Suncheon-si, a city in South Korea. The kids were 4-6 years old, my first experience with prolonged exposure to students that age.
Humans at this point in their lives are really, really strange. Their grasp on reality is tenuous at best, and I began to see a narrative form in my head that answered the question: what if these kids could do some of the things they seemed to believe they can? What if they could transform into animals by simply crawling under chairs, or enter new worlds by drilling a hole in the wall with a pencil?
While I taught at this kindergarten, I had an enemy in the form of a little 5 year-old girl who was exceptionally intelligent, extremely authoritative, and very mischievous. She loved creating things and she loved destroying things. Though midway through my year there she finally accepted me as a teacher and authority figure, it took a six-month chess game of wills between the two of us before I finally eked out a win.
She became the main character of “Infectious” and the two followup stories, “Shove Push Stand” and “Land of Maiju.” I hope to one day write a YA novel series focused upon her misadventures.
ev0ke: You also have a Youtube channel where you interview authors about their work. What was the impetus behind the Youtube channel? And is there anyone you would love to interview, but haven’t had the opportunity yet?
TS: I wrote an essay on the origins of the project that I’m submitting now, but the impetus basically came out of a desire to continue creating visual content after I wrote the screenplays for the supernatural web series, For the Gods Open Eyes, which was filmed here in Taipei. That project lasted three months, and afterwards, I wanted to continue creating content combining writing with music and visual media. Interviews were the best option, as I can conduct them on my own, and it requires no capital to maintain.
I like the idea of interviewing people who I know nothing about. This pushes me to discovery, so there isn’t actually anyone I would like to interview. That may change one day as the channel grows, however.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your books?
TS: Online shopping venues are the easiest places to find my fiction. Each country has their regional version of Amazon, and the books should be available there.
ev0ke: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events do you hope to attend in the foreseeable future, either in person or virtually?
TS: Living in Asia, it would have to be virtually, but right now I have no plans for attendance. I will be leaving Taiwan soon, so my future is a bit in flux right now.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
TS: I have been writing poetry and essays, and wherever my next location is, I hope to become a part of, or start, a play series. I also am aiming to do another web series, though these projects require significant resources, so there’s a question mark over when I will begin them.