Interview: David Barr Kirtley

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“The Ontological Factor” is about an anxiety-prone young man named Steve who’s sent to look after a mansion belonging to his great uncle, who recently died. On his first day there Steve discovers a strange padlocked doorway that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and he encounters a mysterious intruder named Asha who can walk through walls. Steve soon finds himself caught up in high-stakes intrigue involving an interdimensional fugitive and a multiplicity of parallel worlds.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

Years ago I was hanging out with John Joseph Adams in Grand Central Station. We were waiting for some friends who ended up being really late, so we passed the time by talking about some of our favorite childhood novels, and we discovered that we had both been big fans of the Myth series by Robert Asprin, and John suggested I should write an homage to that series. I thought that was a good idea, and started working on a few ideas, but none of them ever really panned out. When Robert Asprin died in 2008, I decided I should really get around to writing my tribute story. His novel Myth-ing Persons features a padlocked doorway that leads to a parallel world, and I’d always liked that image, and wanted to write a story about a house full of such doorways. Another favorite series of mine is the Amber series by Roger Zelazny, which includes the idea that Amber and its royal family possess a firmer reality than other worlds and their inhabitants. I expanded on that a bit, positing that every parallel world and every person and object in it has a different level of solidity compared to every other world. Once I put those two ideas together, I was able to build out the rest of the story from there.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Yes. For such a breezy, lighthearted piece, this really was a nightmare to plan out. The idea of different worlds all having different levels of reality is fun, but it raises all sorts of thorny issues when people and objects from different worlds are all interacting with each other. It was also tricky trying to figure out what Asha’s backstory was, and why she would need Steve’s help. I did an immense amount of juggling things around to have it all make sense, and I don’t even know how many times I had to change my mind about how many doors were in the house. Later installments of Asprin’s Myth series were famously long-delayed, and in his introduction to one of them he remarks, “These books only look quick and easy to write. Honest!” I now have much greater appreciation for the truth of that statement.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

It’s personal just in the sense that I wrote it as a tribute to my favorite childhood author.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I did no research whatsoever, unless you count rereading the Myth series twenty times growing up.

What is the appeal of parallel worlds stories and/or portal fantasies? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about them? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

I think the appeal of portal fantasies from the point of view of the reader is the idea that with minimal effort you could suddenly find yourself living a more exciting, important life. I think the appeal of parallel worlds from the point of view of a writer is that it enables you to write about basically anything you can imagine, while still using characters similar to yourself and your readers. The more we learn about science and geography, the more tightly circumscribed stories set in our reality become, but with parallel worlds you can really let your imagination run wild.

What are some of your favorite examples of parallel worlds or portal fantasies (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

The ones I mentioned above — Robert Asprin’s Myth series (beginning with Another Fine Myth) and Roger Zelazny’s Amber series (beginning with Nine Princes in Amber) — are definitely the two that are my favorites and that had the biggest impact on me. I like them because they’re briskly paced, full of witty dialogue, and possess a profound sympathy for those who are looked down on because they’re different. The Amber books are also beautifully written and richly allusive.