Interview: Tais Teng, A Modern Renaissance Man

Tais Teng, A Modern Renaissance Man

By Angelique Fawns

 

Tais Teng is a Dutch writer and prolific creator in several languages and mediums. Not only does he write fantasy fiction, science fiction, hardboiled detective mysteries, and children’s books; but he also illustrates, sculpts, paints, and works as a writing coach. Born Thijs van Ebbenhorst Tengbergen, he found this name a tad long to put on the cover of books (and for English readers to pronounce) so he chose Tais Teng as a pen name.  With more than 100 published books and 200 plus short stories, I was fascinated to learn about the multi-faceted career of this talented (and comedic) creator. Spoiler alert. Did you know he created the Ziltpunk movement? Read on to learn more.

 

AF:  You wear a lot of hats in the creative world! Can you tell our readers how you make a living and what your favorite branch of income is?

TT: Well, yes, I wear a veritable Tower of Babel of hats. I am a writer, an illustrator, a writing coach, and a sculptor. Each uses a completely different part of my brain. 

Writing comes very close to lucid dreaming to me. If I start a sentence, the words arrive almost as a voice-over, telling me what to type next. Sometimes it switches into the fast-forward mode and I get whole paragraphs or even half a page. I have to type like mad then before all those words fade back into the racial unconsciousness. It feels exactly like a sugar cube dissolving in hot tea.

Almost all things I do are in deep concentration,  in hyperfocus. If someone enters the room, I probably won’t notice. Even it is a burgler: as long as he doesn’t take my keyboard, I just go on writing.

 I don’t really believe in any muse or even inspiration. A professional writer should be able to write at any moment. It often feels like my fingers move on their own account and I have to pause after some minutes to read what I have written.

When my children were very young, they would climb on my lap while I was typing furiously, just like cats, and then I was instantly able to become a father and build a quite passable tower with wooden blocks.

It is a very useful talent to have learned: if I am interrupted, I can just go on writing the story at a more opportune moment.

Perhaps the story will be a bit different, the princess marrying someone else or deciding to become a fur trapper, but I seldom have a problem coming up with a new scene. 

When I can’t finish a story or find a suitable ending. I just start something new and one, or two months later, it feels fresh and interesting again. To find a suitable ending is no problem then. Looking at my writing map, I have only one unfinished story waiting for the right resolution. 

There is also one children’s book that I started because I had one of my best titles ever: “What the Snow Tiger told Natalya.” It will be a Russian fairy tale of the darker kind. 

 

AF- A Lucid Writer, what an interesting concept! I wish the words came that easily to me. Do you often collaborate with other writers?

 TT- I love writing with others! 

I started out with Paul Harland, and we were so in tune that we could finish each other’s sentences. Later on, his writing style became more ornate, a bit like Clark Ashton Smith or Wordsworth, more prose poems than stories.

I tended to drift in the direction of a much clearer style: short, terse sentences, with strong emotions more important than descriptions of melancholy landscapes. Think hard-boiled detective or Hemingway. The older Larry Niven stories or almost anything by Joe Haldeman was what I tried to emulate. 

In our system, we would correct each other’s sentences to get a more even writing style. In the end, he was making my sentences twice as long, while I was removing every second adjective in his text. For several stories we still plotted together and then one of us got to write the tale. We could still fuse our imagination but writing didn’t work.

As a kind of swansong, we wrote a Mythos novel together: Computercode Cthulhu. It was a near-future horror novel, set in the UK.

Right now, I have written some 120 novels and more stories than I can count.

I am a very bad bio- and bibliographer of myself. Luckily, the ISFDB Bibliography knows quite a lot more about my stories, but even my unknown biographers have trouble keeping up with my output.

Today, I often  have those writing-jam sessions with Jaap Boekestein or Roderick Leeuwenhart. Both have a fantasy that is as baroque as mine, and they can write in many different styles.  All three of us work as easily in English as in Dutch.

With Jaap, I made a collection of climate fiction and started the Ziltpunk movement: optimistic climate fiction set in future Holland where everything went wrong, but people still find a lot to enjoy in their lives. Think of immense mangrove forests in front of the coast to stop the tsunamis, or a mile-high dike reaching all the way from Gibraltar to Copenhagen. 

Our strangest bit of geo-engineering was lifting our whole country high above the sea by injecting sulphuric acid in the underlying chalkstone, turning it into the much bulkier gypsum. 

Some years ago, scientists tried the system as a proof of concept on a small field in the South Netherlands and, Lo and behold! the ground rose several centimeters. That is a far cry from the half a mile we would need, but it is a start.

 Quite a lot of our stories are set in Buitendyks, an enormous floating shantytown far from the shore, made up of obsolete oil tankers and polystyrene rafts. 

One of our longer ziltpunk stories was published by Future Science Fiction Digest, “Tidal Treasures or Growing up on the Mile-High Dyke.” 

Living mostly below sea level, we Dutch are very conscious of climate change and the rising waters: to deny it, your IQ must be truly substandard. 

 

AF- If I ever visit Holland again, I am going to look for ziltpunk inspiration. What has been your most famous accomplishment?

TT- In the nineties, I got moderately famous as a writer of YA and children’s horror. I was interviewed at least once a week, appeared several times on TV, and people recognized me on the schoolyard or in the supermarket. 

Alas, such fame is fleeting…  

Still, I look fondly back on my eight-book series about a class of very special children and their long-suffering teacher. The Dutch title is De Griezelklas  which is best translated as The Monster Class.

My protagonist is a young witch, who is helped by her long dead great-great-grandmother who once was feared in the whole county and who urges Meral to follow in her footsteps. While Meral really wants to become a Wiccan, healing people with wondrous crystals and punishing the wicked. With that last desire, she is at least a bit in tune with her grandmother who lives in a rather hot country.

Two of my favorite children were a kelpie girl who could change into a beautiful, beautiful horse and then gallop down to the river and drown her rider. Which she then devoured. She is always having trouble with her weight because human flesh is rather fatty.

The other is the dwarf who is carrying a sledgehammer to smash the toes of anyone who calls him “Hey, little boy!” 

I seldom write children’s books anymore, but still like to do YA now and then.

 

AF- What is your most recent work about?

TT- My most recent English novel is Phaedra: Alastor 824. It is part of the Paladins of Vance imprint and is set in the universe of Jack Vance. The grandmaster was long one of my shining exemplars. When I was a teenager, I wanted to grow up to be Jack Vance.

Both of us delighted in using a lot of ornate and rather obsolete English words or making up our own.

The Blurb of Phaedra: Wake the living Galleons at your peril…

The Elder Race once ruled the entire Alastor cluster. Fierce predators, they tore suns from the sky, leaving the worlds of their enemies to freeze in the dark. Now only the Galleons are left: living ships that sail the world river which girds Phaedra: Alastor 824.

After the death of his father, Gunnar arrives on that ancient world, trying to find a new home. Having two girlfriends sounds like a good start, but Lavoine is the deeply tricky daughter of the last Voodoo queen, and Semele a fierce huntress who has sworn never to kiss a boy until she Walks with the Galleons.

And now Lavoine is trying to wake up the Galleons and bring back the Elders…

According to the reviews, the novel isn’t exactly Vance but quite readable in its own right. I guess the story is about 20% Vance and 80% Teng. Which isn’t bad for the fulfillment of my teenage dream of growing up to become Jack Vance.

 

AF- Can you tell me more about your illustration work?

TT- I mostly work digitally now on my covers and illustrations, the kind of pictures they call photomanipulations. Think of a collage of dozens of photos, which can change color, shrink or expand.  Anything I can’t photograph, I can still paint. It helps to have started painting before there were computers. 

There is rather nice interview about my painting techniques. Especially my use of fractals.

I can still draw with a pencil or paint with a real analog brush, but the computer is so much more versatile.

Long ago, an oil painting took two weeks before you could paint the next layer, so I used acrylics and an airbrush for the covers.  Oils are so easy to fake in Photoshop and on my screen, they dry in a millionth of a second and the airbrush never sputters. No cat can leave pawn prints on the still wet surface…

I never make sketches anymore and am mostly using my own photographs. Calling me an enthusiastic photographer is a severe understatement: my right hand is wedded to my camera or phone according to my wife who too often touches cold steel when she wants to take my warm hand. 

Sadly, some conservative publishers still ask for sketches. 

I finish the picture and turn it into a kind of rough, B & W sketch and send that. If he approves, I send the already finished original. 

If not, well, Photoshop pictures are easy to change. I can move figures to another part of the landscape, make them bigger or smaller, give them a billowing cloak instead of a military uniform. I know anatomy, but it is much easier to take a picture of myself in the right stance.

There is one technique I still like to do hands-on: scraper board. You use a carton with a chalky layer and paint a silhouette in black ink, or even cover the whole surface. You next scrape the ink away with a scalpel, making details, which can be quite intricate and a little like etching. https://www.deviantart.com/taisteng/gallery/68425976/scratchboard-illustrations-for-glazen-speren

 

AF- No wonder your covers look so ornate. How did you get involved in coaching other writers?

TT- I often get manuscripts from writers who just began writing and decided to type a trilogy before they wrote their first story. 

First of all, I have to convince them to start with a single stand-alone novel.

One of my clients finished a nine-book series which wasn’t all that good. She took a very daring step and had them all printed and bound in nice leather. She put them in her bookcase, so anyone could admire them. Then she went to me and said: “I want to learn how to write.”

I mostly help them with plotting and sometimes ghost-write a part of their novel. I have written so many books that I don’t really need to see my name on everything I write. Probably, I am more an artisan than a showman who is mainly selling himself. Though I’m not that averse to talking about myself.

Teaching the basics and more intricate tricks of writing a story is interesting work: I like to teach and anyone who is willing to pay to learn the craft, is driven and ready to listen.

 

AF- The basics are often the hardest to learn. You’ve also thrown sculpting into the mix?

TT- For a long time I used oven-dried clay like Fimo and Sculpy. Often that was to model a monster for illustrations.  The figures for Warhammer are a bit like the things I made.

Today I like to work in mergel, a kind of sandstone that is easily worked.

I am a great fan of gargoyles. When I have used my head too much writing stories and novels, it is nice to switch to sculpting. To use my hands and get dirty.

Carving a statue is quite different from painting, where you have to fake depth. With a sculpture, I have to see all sides at the same time in my mind’s eye, a bit like a Picasso painting.

The stone is standing on a massive turntable, so I can reach all sides easily.

Have a look at them: https://www.deviantart.com/taisteng/gallery/66691519/sculptures 

 

To finally answer your question: I use a mixture of all these things to get an income. It is mostly divided between writing (a bit more English than Dutch) and making covers.  Before I did quite a lot of lectures and workshops at schools, but corona dried up that well.

 

AF- That is a lot of hats! I’m curious, what was your dream job when you were growing up? 

TT- I wanted to be a spaceship pilot. When I was eight, nobody could imagine that we would go to the moon and then wouldn’t build a nice domed city there and only send little cars with cameras to Mars.

No, one could take the monorail to the Dutch air and spaceport Schiphol and there would be standing rows of moon rockets for a weekend trip, with the Mars and Jupiter liners in the back, for people who wanted to take a big holiday. All, with the famous pilot Teng at the joystick.

Sadly, by the time I could make a career choice, space pilot was out. The rockets were still only giant firecrackers and the space stations oversized dustbins and not magnificent rotating Von Braun wheels like in the old stories.

It didn’t matter. There were a lot of interesting things to do: such as writing about those rockets, painting, and drawing. Strangely, I didn’t go to art school  or studied languages, but chose biology. 

It truly interested me, like all things scientific, and genetics and ecology were suddenly hitting their stride. It felt like being part of a science fiction story, with me the intrepid researcher who was looking at all things man was never meant to know. 

Still, by the fourth year, I was already spending most of my time painting and selling posters and illustrations and I stopped with biology.

It wasn’t a blow to science: I am a very untidy person and don’t like adding numbers or counting red-eyed fruit flies. I would have been a bad, bad scientist.

 

AF- That sounds like the title of a book, “A Bad, Bad Scientist.” Was there a tipping point, or moment your career really took off?  

 TT- I had a flying start in about everything, coming in by way of the fandom.

When I was a teen, you had a lot of Dutch and Belgian fanzines and I was in most of them, writing and doing illustrations. 

My first big break was making illustrations for the German SF prozine, Perry Rhodan. I drew robots, aliens, exploding spaceships, alien cities, technical drawings of sliced open mile-wide spaceships. 

If you google Perry Rhodan and Tais Teng you can probably still find them.

After I had won several SF prizes, a Dutch publisher asked me if I had enough stories to fill a 60.000 word collection and I said, “sure, no problem. But give me two months to revise them.” 

I didn’t have even half of that number of words, so I spent a hectic two months writing the rest. Most were far better stories than those I already had, so I probably work best under pressure.

I told my publisher I was also an accomplished painter and could I make my own cover?

 “Show me,” he said,  “and then we’ll decide.” 

I ended up airbrushing all covers of their science fiction line. 

Another publisher asked me to write a novel and I did. It was my first attempt to write something that long, but it worked. Also, he liked the way I painted, so I did the cover and about twenty interior illustrations.

Later I rolled into the children’s books.

It started out with an editor of the children’s magazine Taptoe, who had read my first collection, asking me if I could write a science fiction story for middle-grade children?

Any freelancer knows that one should always answer such a question with a firm ‘Yes. I have done that before.”

That weekend, I hit a writer’s high and wrote three stories on my not even electric typewriter and send them the next Monday. They took all three.

I have written about 60 children’s novels since, ranging from picture books for kindergarten readers to YA.  

 

AF- You have found success as a writer, do you have any hints for other writers trying to make a living as an author? 

TT- Let’s start with some simple rules, that are carved in granite, though, in fiery letters.

Rule one: Never, ever start your writing career with a trilogy before you have at least written a dozen short stories.

Rule two: Finish any story you start. That is almost as important as rule #1.

Rule three: Send them to a publisher. If their only home is the hard drive of your computer, you might as well not have written them. Keep sending them until you start selling them. For me, a story only exists if it is printed. It doesn’t have to be on paper: a well-read website is as good. 

Never give them your story for free. They might tell you that you’ll get exposure. That is one of the dirtiest words in the creative business. You’ll never get a plumber to repair your spurting faucet for exposure. And you won’t be read on a site that is so unknown or amateurish that they won’t even pay you one cent a word.

The same about charity collections. Writing is one of the worst paid occupations in the world. If anyone needs charity, it is you.

 

There are some things that people may tell you that are pure balderdash. 

Write only about what you know is one of the most insidious advices.

How many ghost stories are written by ghosts, how much splatterpunk by serial murderers or SF tales by flying saucer aliens?

You have to do your research, though. If you set your thriller in a city you have never visited use at least Google street view. It is even better to talk to someone who has lived there and ask her what she found most annoying about that place. Such details make a place believable. 

Say you have never visited Amsterdam?

You might be inclined to mention the canals, the famous red-light district, or the sickly sweet smell of marijuana.

Ask any citizen who lives in the center, and she’ll tell that the most annoying thing is that there isn’t a grocery shop or butcher to be found anymore, but only streets after street with Belgian wafer and Nutella shops. The bachelor parties of decidedly lower-class English tourists come in a close second, with them vomiting in the canals from the picturesque bridges. 

A final rule that supersedes all other rules: You are allowed to write one novel about your awful youth and monstrous parents and siblings and that is it. One, no more.

 

AF – Your stories and illustrations have been sold around the world, can you talk about the differences in global markets?

TT- I sell most of my SF, horror  and fantasy stories in the USA or the UK. The same goes for covers and illustrations. 

You can make a good living in the Netherlands writing children’s books and YA novels. I did for years. You have to write a lot of books, though. At least two or three a year. There is no longer a paid market for short stories, especially not for science fiction.  

There once was a rather good State program, if not exactly lavish, to support artists. In the last ten years, our government has shifted from helpful to citizens to ever more right-wing and stopped all such foolishness. Art is a hobby, one of our ministers has publicly declared, and shouldn’t be subsidized. It is better to reserve those monies for deserving multinationals or investors.

 

AF- That breaks my heart a little. Artist are important for national identity. If money wasn’t an object, how would you spend your days?

 TT- Like I do right now: writing, painting, and carving stone. And trying to learn at least one new thing every month.

I am quite happy in the house where I live right now, close to a lot of parks and forests and several rivers and lakes. I can make my statues in the back garden.

 

AF-  What is in the future for Tais Teng? 

TT- I am not bored or sitting with idle hands. I have sold about eight stories that still have to appear, and a space opera novella I wrote with Jaap Boekestein is set for publication in October.

Recently I published a collection: Welkom, mijn prooi

It is a series of Arabian Nights stories set in a parallel world where King Salomon defeated the jinni using the flaming sword of archangel Michael. It was rather overkill, using a weapon meant to destroy the monsters of the Apocalypse.

His single blow left a 600 km crater in the middle of Arabia. This became the Inland Sea, which was heavily contaminated by magic fallout. 

Today I made the cover for the Dutch Yearbook of speculative fiction “Edge Zero”.

Last week I finished the cover and the inside illustrations for a collection of the prose poems of Clark Ashton Smith, which a colleague who admires CAS as much as I, translated into Dutch. Perhaps there will be an English edition, too.  

Speaking of that wondrous grand master of the eerie, I have been writing stories set in his far future continent of Zothique. Like my Vance novel, it is about 20% Clark Ashton Smith and 80% Tais Teng. 

It is a heartfelt homage, not a pastiche.

I think I’ll go on writing them until I have enough for a collection. I have already sold six of the eight stories to English language SF magazines.

 

AF- Any insights or predictions for the future of your industries?

TT- There are more places online to sell your stories than ever. But the competition is getting stronger, too. 

But learning to paint is much easier than when I started. So many really good painters are quite willing to show you their tricks, and most of them are quite a lot better than Bob Ross.

For beginning painters, deviantart.com is a treasure cave worthy of an Aladdin.

We are living in a renaissance time: the sheer number of people guarantees that there are more accomplished artists than at any point in the past. 

Masterworks are no longer the hidden treasure of a few ultra-rich: we can see many of them on the web and zoom in until we can see the very brushstrokes.  

 

English website: http://taisteng.atspace.com/

art: https://taisteng.deviantart.com/

facebook: https://www.facebook.com/taisteng

twitter:  @TaisTeng

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/taisteng

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