Kip Manley is not related to me. Eventually, probably, he is, if you go all the way back to the Black Hand. But that doesn’t count. Nobody goes back that far. Might as well say we’re both descended from Charlemagne (which we are, and so, probably are you).
What’s especially weird about our not being related is that Kip grew up in the same relatively rural corner of the same relatively rural state that I grew up in, at about the same time. We’ve never met in person, nor have any of our family members, so far as we can ascertain. Each of our families lived in its own sealed Manleyverse up there in northwestern Alabama, always passing the other Manley family without interacting, like Flashes vibrating at different frequencies. It wasn’t until I was safely in San Francisco, and he was in Portland, that our “paths” “crossed,” by which I mean that his wife’s brilliant science fiction webcomic, Dicebox, began to appear on a website I owned, and I noticed the name, and started asking questions.
Turns out he’s not only a fellow Manley, he’s also a writer. His City of Roses webserial, which you will find at or near the top of just about anybody’s “best of” list for serialized prose fiction (wherever you find people who pay attention to serialized prose fiction on the web, that is, which is a fairly rare find), has been running for years now, and really defining the whole medium/genre/whatever you want to call it.
That’s probably too hyperbolic.
City of Roses was an inspiration for me when I started serializing my own little story, anyway. He’s better at this than I am, though: K. Manley’s prose is an intimidating (for this writer) tour-de-force of loveliness and strength, playfulness and serious intent, magic and real. As for the story itself: think Through the Looking Glass crossed with Steppenwolf set in contemporary Portland, Oregon (you know, that place from Portlandia) with a bit of The Sopranos/Game of Thrones going on in there a little bit, too.
I’d never make it in Hollywood. I’m terrible at describing things — a fairly sad thing for somebody who calls himself a writer to have to say. Kip’s description is much more concise “a serialized phantastick on the ten thousand things & the one true only.”
I interviewed Kip on Facebook over the past few days. Here’s what came of it.
JM: You’ve talked about posting fiction on the Internet back in the era of Majordomo and UseNet. What was your first online fiction project, and how well did it go over?
KM: I’m pretty sure it’s nowhere at all available online; the only copy left is probably the fanfold printout in my files, so I’ll discuss it secure in the knowledge that no one out there can ever read it for themselves. In 1987 I went off to college (Oberlin) and among the many rites of passage was receiving my first ever email address. It was intercampus only; sending email to other schools required various oracular techniques and a great deal of patience: email would get eaten by the æther at an alarming rate. There was a thing known as Usenet, which I peeked and poked at once or twice; even more difficult to reach than other schools, and if you posted something, and it actually went through, you’d wait two or three days for it to propagate and appear.
Uphill both ways through the snow, I might add.
One of my new friends (now one of my oldest) was doing something with the email at once old fashioned and shockingly new: writing a serial and sending out the chapters to an email list she maintained. It started off as a light-hearted, crowd-pleasing satire of space opera and took a turn as it went on toward something darker, stranger, more bitter but no less funny: Douglas Adams, yes, but also and more to the point Sladek and Sheckley, and a sharp wit well-suited to slicing out hoary tropes, holding them up to the light, and skewering them to the wall.
But we were talking about me. I was so impressed with what she was doing, and the fun she was having (there was a fan club, and a student film based on the first chunk; this was good, funny stuff, and you can still trip over the occasional deeply obscure in-joke on the internets if you know what you’re looking for), that I sat her down and asked her permission to do likewise: write a serial, and email it out to a mailing list. (She’d had such a thrillingly new and different idea: I figured I’d better have her blessing!) With her puzzled and bemused imprimatur, I began sending out installments of my own serial: Hellions, which was a sort of Myth-Adventures in Hell, or the Inferno of Niven and Pournelle writ silly, with thinly veiled caricatures of classmates. It went over well enough, I guess; there were I want to say over thirty names on the email list at one point or another. And I set up a folder with read-only access to everyone in my student computer account, so readers could go back to look over earlier installments (but only those with direct access to the student network), and so: my first webserial, before the web as such even existed.
When Hellions ran its course, I wrote a second serial with the same basic publishing set-up: Caravan, and much better to my mind: science fiction, set on the ragtag merchant vessels that clung, remora-like, to the giant starships of the only aliens ever to achieve reliable FTL travel, tumbling with them from star to star–I couldn’t rattle off the influences at this point, beyond Gibson and probably a dash of Kim Stanley Robinson‘s early work, but I liked it, and it was much less popular. I kept trying to launch it into something in the years since, working in prose, then comics, but it never achieved escape velocity.
I also wrote a couple of pieces for Runic Robot, an early e-zine hosted over at the Rochester Institute of Technology (I think); one of them was a serial I wrote with another Obie for a Winter Term project, where we were alternating POVs in a first-contact story about a lost Terran space colony, but it was never finished, and has long since been eaten by the æther.
Hmm. You did say short, didn’t you.
JM: I said no such thing. Be as unshort as you’d like! Speaking of unshortness, though: I’ve noticed that City of Roses updates tend to be fairly substantial. Is that a conscious choice?
KM: Substantial? Yikes!
I went with roughly 3,000 words per entry for City of Roses; what could be read over a coffee break, or a quick lunch. I’ll run over or under that, but not by much. Judging from traffic patterns, most people manage to read an entry in about that amount of time, so that’s good.
Of course, City of Roses isn’t just a webserial: it’s also written for paper publication, in rather strictly structured 36-page 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 zines. Each overall issue is roughly 15,000 words overall; they’re all broken into six parts, or acts (which dictate the Monday-Wednesday-Friday release schedule): the shorter opening teaser, four main acts, and the (again, shorter) closing stinger. A structure basically stolen from television shows, back before they had commercial breaks every six minutes or whatever it is now.
It isn’t that I sat down with a calculator to figure all this out: I knew I wanted the television-like structure to each larger issue, which I wanted to contain enough action to feel like an episode of a TV show or a (non-decompressed) issue of a comic book; I knew I wanted the coffee-break length for each individual installment; when I went to lay it out, it all fit rather neatly into a 36-page zine template, and so it all got locked into that shape. It’s a rhythm in my bones, now. I can write to it almost without checking. (Though I’m always checking.)
JM: Portland feels like your Middle Earth, your Palomar, your Yoknapatawpha. Yes? No? What drew you there physically and what is it about the place that piques your imagination?
KM: Let’s see. I moved to Portland pretty much on a whim in 1995: we were living in the Pioneer Valley at the time, the western end of Massachusetts, and by we I mean a goodly portion of a household of up to 11 people at any given point. We were all underemployed, ferociously creative, procrastinatorily profligate, stewing in latency. Only a couple of the folks who ended up making the trip had ever even been to Portland; the extent of my own contact with the city had been an issue of Monk that focused on their stay in Portland, which made the whole place sound like, well, a Gus Van Sant film of a Walt Curtis novel. With more millet. Long story.
Once we got here, though, the whim got serious. Portland is, well. Portland is getting a bit hip now, what with the TV shows and suchlike, and the reputation as the most livable city and the most European city and all the various scenes that are aggressively not scenes and I can’t even debunk the cliches without tripping over more cliches, dammit. But suffice it to say after twenty-some-odd years of moving more than once a year, I’ve found the place I never want to leave.
Yoknapatawpha, Middle Earth, Palomar: all invented places, of course. I say that City of Roses is “very firmly” set in Portland, by which I mean as much as possible the settings are all real places you can go to, sit down in, kick the foundations of. But this is less because Portland is a magical, wonderful place that seems like it’s run by otherworldly conspiracies–it does, and it is, but that’s not why I ended up doing the story that I’ve ended up doing; there’s always been a chunk of my idea-generatin’ engine running in the background, looking at where I am right at that moment and saying things like hey wouldn’t it be cool if we had a duel on this bus? So I started putting that part of the engine to work, and I was also asking questions like what urban fantasy qua urban fantasy was, and why, and had very firm ideas at the time that to be true urban fantasy, as such, the fantastickal elements had to be grounded by a city as real and true as possible. I’ve backed away from that dogma since, but I already started building with those ground rules in place.
So I think something like this would have come from wherever it would have been I’d ended up, if not here. Valley of Pioneers, maybe. –The wonderful thing about counterfactuals, of course, is that they’re all equally true.
But one thing about setting something so firmly in a real place is how it anchors you to that place, even though that place is always moving. I’ve put settings in the backgrounds that no longer exist, like the Danmoore Hotel that have since been demolished, I’ve taken pictures of things for the covers that no longer exist, or have drastically changed, like the Zoobomb pile. (And the writing’s taken a while, longer than expected; six years or more of my time to get through three months of theirs. It’s going faster now, though. I hope to get through the last couple of weeks this year.)
Fixing myself and the story to that anchor has helped me to find the secret heart of it, and the city, or at least one of them (there are many hearts, not all of them secret): the melancholic tide of place-memory, the once-wases, the mightabeens littered all about you, if you only know how to see them. Maybe other people are used to this, but since I moved so often so much when I was growing up I never had a chance to see it, to let it accrete around me as it has here, over the past seventeen years I’ve spent in this one place. I’ve started playing with that disjunct, messing with “my” Portland, altering more than just what’s been destroyed in the interim, and the magical fabric I’ve overlaid: repurposing the T-Hows, for instance, or letting the Lovejoy Ramp stay up a little longer. It feels a little dangerous, doing that. A little like magic.
JM: You mentioned that City of Roses would be coming to an end fairly soon. After that happens, will you be starting something new? Resting a bit? Any ideas?
City of Roses has always been the television show I’d make if I had oodles of money and the sort of commanding personality that could bend the necessary army of artists to my whims; I’ve borrowed a lot of structural elements from television, or at least the Yankee arc-driven television shows of the late nineties and early oughts: the act structure, the overall size and feel of each installment, the overall arc and season approach. Television programs, for whatever reason, in this milieu have roughly, on average, twenty-two episodes per season, hence the cut-off.
But you’re always aiming to get at least five seasons done for that magic re-run money.
One of the nagging features of publishing in book form is that it’s mucked up the titles I’ve had in mind for each season, dimly glimpsed: the full 22 episodes, 330,000 words, would make for a door-stopping wodge indeed, so I’ve had to break the seasons down into two-volume chunks. At least with the current model. Which means where before I’d had one title, now I have two: season one is “Wake up…” (1 – 11) and The Dazzle of Day (12 – 22); once that’s done at the end of the year, I might take a bit of a break, but it’s on to the next: The Reign of Good Queen Dick (23 – 34)–and so forth, and so on, God willing, the creek don’t rise, etc.
But I do need to write a short story or two in there somewhere. Utterly different things. They’ve been nagging at me.
That’s the end of my interview with Kip Manley. I want to thank him for spending so much time with me! As for you: go read The City of Roses if you know what’s good for you! I have spoken.