What inspired you to write "The Janus Tree"?
As is often the case with me, bits and pieces of the story came from different sources. At the core is my memory of the only actual fist fight I’ve ever had. It occurred in 8th grade, and as in “The Janus Tree,” the thing that made the deepest impression on me wasn’t the completely ridiculous fight but the surprisingly complex personality revealed by the bully I believed I was confronting.
Then there is the astonishing, tragic, fascinating history of Butte, Montana, which really was the richest city in America for a very brief time and is now an environmental disaster area whose inhabitants are still struggling to redefine their hometown decades after the largest mining companies abandoned the region. In my story, I use the name Silver City for Butte. That name actually first appears in a melodramatic but wonderfully colorful and affecting novel called WIDE OPEN TOWN by the Montana writer Myron Brinig, and is meant as an homage of sorts.
Did you have to do a lot of research for the story?
My Silver City is a sort of impressionist’s dream of Butte, and while resemblance is not only inevitable but intentional, the city in the story is my own invention. A number of the historical events mentioned in the story, from the mining laws to the boxers that the narrator researches, are again based on actual events or people. But the formation of this piece came less from pure research than from living in Montana for several years, delving into the incredibly rich past of the whole place, and then letting everything I’d seen and discovered mix itself up with my own memories.
What elements are needed to make a horror story effective? Were you conscious of this when writing "The Janus Tree"?
I don’t believe in any one set of elements that will always make a horror story—or any story, for that matter—effective. For me, each individual piece generates its own set of requirements and poses its own challenges. “The Janus Tree” is driven, I think, partially by the volatile, unpredictable, and increasingly desperate kids at its heart and partially by the scarred and transfigured landscape. Therefore, I devoted much of my writing time on this story to infusing the whole brooding, half-imaginary streets of my Silver City with life. I also tried to give every character the space to develop into layered individuals hopefully capable of seeming disconcerting and sympathetic at the same time.
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