“Soft” was published originally in J.N. Williamson’s Masques anthology in 1984. You’ve stated before that the story was inspired by the AIDS epidemic. Can you tell us more about how it developed from there?
Well, the trigger for the story was this steroidal bodybuilder at a gym I frequented complaining about how the country was going soft. An image of boneless people flashed through my head and I went, “Hmmm . . .”
I needed a way to melt those bones and chose a virus. I modeled the soft virus on the early days of AIDS when the syndrome was called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). The term AIDS came later. Back then, it was thought to be a result of the constellation of infections that were part and parcel of the urban male homosexual’s promiscuous lifestyle. There was talk also of a possible single etiologic agent, but that was only theory then.
The real-life confusion seen in AIDS’ early years is reflected in the confusion and vacillation displayed by the story’s authorities regarding the etiology of the softness.
It’s not a pleasant piece. Publishers Weekly called it “vivid and viscerally wrenching”—exactly what I was shooting for.
Reportedly, Williamson’s requirement for stories in Masques was “Scare me!” Your story has a horrific virus, rats, and of course the humans who deal with it all in violent, selfish ways. What scares you?
Depending on the day: being understood (I’m used to being misunderstood), writer’s block (hasn’t happened yet), being stuck in one genre.
You entered the horror genre with your novel The Keep in 1981, and “Soft” was one of your earliest short stories. What first drew you to the horror genre?
Always wanted to write horror. The first story I ever wrote at age 7 was about a haunted house. But the horror market didn’t exist in any meaningful way when I started writing, so I wrote my second love, SF. (My formative years were filled with monsters and rocketships.) When the K-Man blew open the horror door, I jumped through with The Keep.
“Soft” was reprinted in your first story collection, Soft and Others, in 1989. Nearly a decade later in your third collection, you joked, “Maybe I should have subtitled the collection ‘Watch Wilson Learn How to Write.’” What did you learn from “Soft”? Given the benefit of your experience now, is there anything you wish you had done differently in it?
You’ve done your homework, I see. “Soft” was pretty solid from the get-go, but some of my early SF stories in the ’70s used a lot of passive constructions that I learned to avoid as I went on. In some cases, I let the ideas overwhelm the storytelling. The story should be king.
Do you have a particular writing process or routine?
Up early and start hitting the keys during the first cup of coffee. Minimum 2,000 words a day when on a first draft; never rewrite, rarely even look back until the vomit draft is done. Then go back and tidy up and add nuances.
What other work do you have out now or forthcoming?
Tom Monteleone and I put out Family Secrets, the second in our YA series about a place called Nocturnia. My first post-Repairman Jack novel is a mystery-adventure that will be a summer book for 2016. I think it will be as fun to read as it was to write.
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