Interview: David Barr Kirtley

How did you first come to discover the Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs?

I’d been vaguely aware of the series for many years, and had read some pastiches, such as “A Princess of Earth” by Mike Resnick, but I didn’t actually sit down and read the books until this anthology came along. One of the nice things about writing for theme anthologies is that you sometimes discover stories you wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to. For example, I was first exposed to two of my favorite things ever, zombies and Lovecraft, because of theme anthologies.

What do you find appealing about the characters and milieu?

I think Barsoom is a wish-fulfillment fantasy in the purest sense. Wish-fulfillment is often looked at somewhat askance, but I think it’s a venerable and vital tradition, and I think it’s an amazing fact that fiction has the power to project us into a world that satisfies our deepest longings. One of those longings is that our friends and lovers be loyal, and loyalty among the heroes of Barsoom is bone-deep.

What sort of an influence do you think the Barsoom books have had on the development of fantasy & science fiction?

For me, reading Barsoom was like discovering a close relative that you never knew existed. There was that instant sense of familiarity and recognition, because I could see how strongly it had influenced some of my favorite books, such as The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny and The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. Zelazny’s protagonist Corwin is similar to John Carter in a lot of ways — he’s a consummate swordsman who doesn’t remember where he came from and who’s lived on earth for centuries without aging. The influence of Barsoom on Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is most apparent in terms of the episodic, self-contained chapters, many of which have a dreamlike weirdness to them.

Who is your favorite character in the Barsoom canon? (And why?)

Tars Tarkas. His name sounds cool, I really like the idea of a green, four-armed warrior, and his backstory is tragic and compelling. I admire his determination and discipline, and later, when he becomes friends with John Carter, I find their durable friendship touching.

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

My story “Three Deaths” is about a Green Martian named Ghar Han who loses two of his arms in a duel with John Carter.

What’s was the genesis of the story–where did the initial seed for the story come from?

The thing about Barsoom that struck me the most was definitely the four-armed Green Martians. They’re just so wonderfully weird and visually striking. I started thinking about four arms vs. two arms, and what it would be like to go from one to the other. The story grew from there.

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

It was challenging because of the deadline. (I only had about a month to research Barsoom and turn in my story.) I continued to read more Barsoom as I was working on the story, all the time hoping I wouldn’t encounter anything that would invalidate my central premise. There was also a pretty strict word limit, and it’s often tricky with a short story to finesse things so that the sequence of events is straightforward enough to fit the word count but doesn’t feel contrived. It’s also the case that you spend a lot of time agonizing over different possibilities that then seem plainly wrong in hindsight. I spent days trying to decide whether or not to include a fight with a White Ape. Now I can’t imagine why I would have even considered it.

What kind of research–other than, perhaps, rereading the Barsoom novels–did you have to do for the story?

I spent a lot of time browsing fan websites, looking at some of the different ways that people had conceptualized Green Martians. I also read a good chunk of Master of Adventure, an Edgar Rice Burroughs biography by Richard Lupoff.

Any new work of yours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add?

My story “The Disciple” was just reprinted in New Cthulhu, which collects some of the best Lovecraftian fiction of the past decade. My story “Power Armor: A Love Story” will be appearing in April in the John Joseph Adams anthology Armored from Baen.