Thursday, June 26, 2008

Charles Tan Interviews Nathan Ballingrud

Does your experience as a father have any bearing or impact when you wrote "The Monsters of Heaven"?

In as much as I can't imagine a worse situation than losing your child and knowing you're the one responsible for it, yes. Like many parents, I'm sure, I can't imagine life would be endurable afterwards. Being a parent is the highest responsibility afforded to us. I suspect single parents like myself are particularly sensitive to that. I know I frequently worry about failing her in some fundamental, yet currently invisible, way. The protagonist of this story fails his son on a catastrophic level. To me, it's absolutely the worst thing imaginable, because it brings with it the possibility of the child's continued suffering, and -- possibly even worse -- a sustained, doomed hope for all parties.

But as much as fatherhood impacted this story, I think it was more deeply affected by being a husband. I went through a divorce just before writing the bulk of this story, and that experience was a huge influence. There's nothing like a divorce to make you question your self-worth, and so I sought a kind of catharsis, I think, by writing about a man who was living at the bottom of the barrel, who had failed in his role as a husband and a father in just about every sense. Right or wrong, the means by which many men gauge their own value center around their effectiveness as a family protector, their virility, and their strength. That some or all of these notions may be outdated doesn't change the fact that many still set their scales by them. If these things are lost or undermined, is there any value left? If so, how do you find it? How do you measure it?

"The Monsters of Heaven" uses powerful imagery and juxtaposition. How conscious were you of these elements?

I was very conscious of them. The element of horror fiction I respond to most viscerally is the juxtaposition of horror with beauty. In this I am very much influenced by early Clive Barker. I like to take it a little further, though, and apply it both to characters who might initially seem unsympathetic or even criminal, and to events which taken at face value seem ghastly and unforgivable. In this story specifically, there are two characters whose marriage is dissolving in the wake of their child's disappearance. They want to go on together, ultimately, but in order to do so they must pay a grievous price. Parents have to do this in real life, all the time, on a much smaller scale. Whether it's surrendering custody or simply acknowledging the thousand minor failures in a normal life, they somehow have to come to terms with letting their children down. It's a selfish act that's absolutely necessary for survival.

As for the imagery, well, that's where I have the most fun as a writer. As a reader, I respond to strong, vibrant imagery in a story, maybe more so than to any other sensory detail. Maybe that's because I'm a child of the cinema, or maybe I'm just wired that way. In each of my stories there's usually one image that stands out as a personal favorite, usually because it comes without forethought and signifies that the story has taken on a life of its own; often it's a small detail that doesn't impact the actual narrative at all. In this story it's of the obese man on the tv news stepping out of his house and holding aloft the severed head of an angel. It made me feel like things were happening in the story that were beyond my sphere of influence, and that's always a good feeling.

What was the inspiration behind your story?

Fear. Plain and simple. When I write horror stories I write them because something scares the bejesus out of me. I'm not talking about monsters, of course. Monsters are just the pulpy element that makes the story fun to write and, I hope, to read. I'm talking about losing your family, bankruptcy, illness, powerlessness ... the things that we're all vulnerable to. I'm not afraid of serial killers, for pete's sake; I'm afraid of being inadequate. If written well and honestly, I believe horror stories exploring these more mundane fears can be as scary and disturbing as anything the genre has to offer.

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1 comment:

David said...

Im proud of you, son. That landscape of the mind you describe is very familiar to me. And to many others, Im sure, which is no doubt part of why your work is getting attention.