Q&A with James Robert Herndon

Our readers were introduced to new Analog contributor James Robert Herndon with his short story “Eulogy for an Immortal” in our current issue [on sale now]. Read on to discover how the story came to be and where James finds his inspiration.


Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

JRH: “Eulogy for an Immortal” came from a union of two things.

The first thing was that I had just discovered woodworking and loved it. For people who spend a lot of time in their heads, finding a tactile hobby you enjoy can be so pleasurable that it becomes all-consuming. There was a brief period in which I looked at almost everything through a woodworker’s lens. Could I build a chair even more comfortable than the one I was sitting in? Could I build new kitchen cabinets out of scrap materials? Could I build an addition to the house all by myself? A few months later, at the Clarion West Writers Workshop, I decided to write a story about a more extreme version of that mania and how it could affect other people. I had a long conversation with my classmate M. Huw Evans about whether or not it might be possible to make plastic using the approach described in the story, and if so, what the process would be. (Any chemistry errors are entirely my own.)

The second thing was that I had been reading and thinking a lot about human space travel. In particular, NASA and the early days of the US space program. Beyond the excitement and romance of interstellar flight, which captivated me as a kid, I realized that there was also a mental flight from mortality going on. Space travel is a literal escape from life on Earth, and for some of us, it seems to offer an emotional escape from everything that comes with having a finite life. The vastness can be a soothing and powerful counterbalance.


AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

JRH: All the characters in this story are responding to pain in ways they hope will provide relief—total immersion in a hobby, watching a lot of television, focusing on family instead of one’s own health—but these things only intensify their suffering as time goes on. I try not to respond to pain that way, but like most people I do it all the time.


AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

JRH: The tension between what is real and what is imagined. I see it everywhere, which is probably why nearly everything I’ve written touches on it. I’m guessing it will continue to make cameos in my work. Fortunately, it’s a broad theme. If I only wanted to write about the tension between sad robots and yellow crayons, I might be in trouble.


AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

JRH: I tend to agree with the writer Stephen Chbosky: “There’s no such thing as writers’ block, you’re just editing too early.” If I get stuck on a story, it’s usually because I’m attacking it with a red pen before it even has a pulse. Editing makes me feel productive in the short term, so it can be tempting to edit even when it’s too soon for that. But if I let the story have an open destiny for a while, then things usually keep moving. Things grind to a halt when I get impatient and try to spit-shine something I don’t yet understand.


AE: What inspired you to start writing?

JRH: Like many of my peers, much of my early life exposure to storytelling came from television. Some of my earliest attempts at writing involved corrections of what I’d just seen: I’d rewrite an episode of Muppet Babies or Voltron to make it my own; changing the setting, lengthening the good scenes and truncating the boring ones, and introducing myself and my friends as vital characters. As I grew older and became an enthusiastic reader, I’d occasionally respond to books the same way, but I’d begun to have more fun writing stories from scratch based on my own ideas.


AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?

JRH: In high school, I was a lifeguard at a city pool. Constantly scanning your field of vision in search of trouble—maybe this is useful training for a writer, but it wasn’t great for my anxiety level. I also worked at a bookstore for several years, which had more tangible benefits. Beyond access to all the books, having a retail job was a great excuse to study people without being weird, and it was a boot camp for learning patience: I had to listen to everyone no matter how they behaved. Today, I work in the field of digital accessibility, which involves making apps and websites easier for people with disabilities to use. The work can be difficult, and it often requires absolute unmixed attention. This can lessen my energy for fiction now and then, but it also helps me maintain an ability to focus on a single thing for a long time, which comes in handy at the writing desk.


AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

JRH: I’m currently working on a novel that I’m very excited about. I’m also rewriting an old story that I’d given up on, but now I think I know how to make it come to life.


AE: What are you reading right now?

JRH: Right now, I’m reading Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties and am enjoying it very much. Some other books I’ve liked recently are Kate Greathead’s Laura & Emma, Henry Lien’s Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword, Bryan Camp’s The City of Lost Fortunes, and Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters.


AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask? 

JRH: I am a relatively shy and quiet person, but I enjoy performing. I like reading in public, I like playing in bands, I like improv classes. I used to think it was odd for a shy person to like these things, and to some people I guess it is, but shy people who enjoy performing are everywhere.


AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

JRH: Learn how to finish things. A lot of writing workshops (rightly) emphasize the importance of rewriting, but new writers can sometimes take this advice too closely to heart. They get stuck in a loop in which everything needs one more pass, one more draft, and nothing can ever be officially done. I still struggle with this sometimes. But learning how to finish things should be taken as seriously as any other element of writing. Deadlines are often helpful, and so are benevolently naggy friends.


AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

JRH: www.jamesrobertherndon.com



James Robert Herndon’s stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Halfway Down the Stairs, and the Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction anthology. His story “Mammals” was selected by Jeff VanderMeer as the winner of the Omnidawn fiction contest and is available as a chapbook. He lives with his wife and dog in Atlanta and is currently working on a novel. His website is jamesrobertherndon.com.

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