For The Illiterati, friends make the best critics
The screaming goats have summoned Mercedes M. Yardley out of the night. It’s eerie: No sooner has Ryan Bridger hit play on a video of goats screaming the Game of Thrones theme than Yardley materializes at the door, late (as usual, the others snark), claiming to have been “lost.” Sure. Whatever you say, Mercedes. But given her otherworldly bearing and her mojo as a writer of dark fantasy fiction, we’re sticking with summoned out of the night. If nothing else, it makes for a better story.
And better stories are what this evening is about. The five writers gathered in the living room of Billie and Mason Ian Bundschuh — creators of fantasy, horror, sci-fi and speculative fiction, who collectively go by The Illiterati — meet weekly to critique each other’s unfinished work. They offer support, share tips about where to submit stories and generally nerd out on literature and pop culture (“Joss Whedon wrote Toy Story?!”). Some have published more than others, collected awards, but no matter: Here, every voice is equal.
Now that the goats have screamed and Mason has played Radiohead’s “Creep” on a ukulele, it’s time. Let the carnage begin!
Yardley’s story “Last One Awake” is the first victim. “Read it,” Bundschuh reports. “Hated it. End of critique.” He throws the pages to the floor. Then he laughs, picks them up and begins a detailed analysis. He notes perspective shifts that might confuse some readers, and an awkward phrasing; he also draws hearts on the pages, because he loves it overall. One by one the other writers — Billie (Mason’s wife), Bridger and Matthew Czarnowski — take their turns. They dig deep but stay nice. Matt offers a particularly helpful observation: Yardley introduces her female protagonist in distancing terms more appropriate to a stranger, whereas the male protagonist, from whose perspective this passage is told, knows her quite well. Although Yardley has several novels to her credit — Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu, Nameless — this roundtable spit-polishing is still useful; it can up a story’s quality — and its salability. For each of these five, the other four are perhaps their most reliable sounding boards.
It’s hard to know how many of these informal working groups there are in Las Vegas. Surely dozens. They allow writers — among nature’s most solitary creatures — to mind-meld with others of their kind while getting (free!) expert help. Many groups leave it at that, but The Illiterati have bonded like a Tolkien fellowship. They’re all up in each other’s lives, rejoicing in milestones — as when Billie earned righteous bucks for a story she sold to an anthology — and mourning adversities together. They travel in a pack to conferences; they spent the time on a drive back from a recent event in Utah helping Yardley plot a book. (She referred to her latest, Pretty Little Dead Girls, as an “Illiterati production” thanks to their assistance — which included the writing of a theme song.)
“We can get away with doing what we do because of the culture of trust in the group,” Mason says. There are no kid gloves, but no competitive viciousness, either. Matt remembers his first Illiterati critique with a shudder; they didn’t hold back. “But when I left I was craving it,” he says. “I was like, ‘Can we do this again tomorrow?’”
“The main reason I’m any good is because you guys tore my stuff apart,” says Ryan, whom Mason’s dubbed “the king of story” (alas, an honorary title that doesn’t come with a castle), and among whose projects is “20 Bears,” about a man who, “with the help of 20 bears, must find a way to bring back the time of dinosaurs to make his father proud.”
Tonight, Matt’s tense story of a psycho postman incites a debate in the group — does the fight in the first third hurt the story’s plausibility? Back and forth it goes, as a smiling Matt takes it in: “I think it’s at the stage where all it needs is a bit of fine-tuning and it’s ready to submit.”
Mercedes M. Yardley and Mason Ian Bundschuh will appear at the Vegas Valley Book Festival to discuss Lost and Found in Las Vegas, the 2014 Las Vegas Writes anthology. Oct. 18, Fifth Street School, vegasvalleybookfestival.org