Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Monday, July 12, 2010
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In your novels, superstition and paranoia are key elements in the conflict. What made you decide to tackle these themes?
I have always been fascinated with how religion, or a belief in the supernatural, shapes our lives. It brings out both extremes of human behaviour. Think of the extraordinary lives of self-sacrifice and service which religions can inspire. Yet, faith can also bring out the very worst in humans, so many conflicts and atrocities throughout history have been committed in the name of religion and through superstition as well. Communities have cruelly murdered innocent people because of a superstitious belief that an albino child can bring the evil eye, or someone who looks too healthy might be a vampire.
In Middle Ages if you were born poor and without power, religion or magic could give you power. If you became a priest, a shaman, a toadsman or a horse whisperer, you could gain power over your community and that is still true today in many countries. In The Owl Killers the Church has the power of life or death over people, as well as holding the keys to the next world, but equally the pagan cult of the toadsmen, the Owl Masters, use superstition and magic to wield control over the villagers.
Even in this modern scientific age, in times of crisis and uncertainty, we are desperate to gain some measure of control over our lives. Sales of lucky charms, tarot cards and people consulting mediums shoot up when there is an economic crisis. There is currently a huge interest in angels, vampires and ghosts reflected in TV and books. People today claim not to be superstitious yet you only have to look at the little rituals most of us perform around sporting events or lottery draws or job interviews to know, there is still a part of us that hopes that by crossing our fingers, clutching a lucky mascot or wearing our lucky underpants we can influence events which are beyond our control.
I love the old saying which goes – “Just because I’m paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” In my novels Company of Liars and The Owl Killers, both individuals and the groups are driven by fear.
I’m fascinated by how people react when they are afraid. Not just isolated moments of fear, but a threat that continues to build day after day. I had a glimmer of that living in Nigeria during a bloody civil war. I experienced the terror of lying awake every night listening the talking drums and knowing that any moment I might be attacked. Soldiers in prolonged combat are only too well aware of the effects of prolonged fear.
We react to fear and threat no differently now than we did centuries ago. In recent years we’ve seen modern communities, when faced with the threat of HIV Aids, Bird Flu and Swine Flu, behave exactly as they did in the Middle Ages over the plague. Ordinary decent people will do desperate things when they are terrified and I think most of us are capable of doing things through fear that, when we are in our right minds, would appall us.
For me the effects of fear, both on individuals and communities, is one of the most interesting things to explore in fiction, because it reveals the dark-side of the soul which lurks beneath the civilised surface in most of us.
I read in an interview that you're dyslexic. How has dylexia aided you--and challenged you--when it comes to writing fiction?
Curiously many well-known actors and novelists are dyslexic. There is a much higher proportion in these professions than in the population as a whole. Dyslexics seem to be hard-wired to become fascinated, even obsessed, by words.
Dyslexia is one of greatest gifts a writer or actor could be given. It allows you to make unusual or even unique links between words, patterns and rhythms in language. Your brain weirdly connects unrelated words and images.
Like many dyslexics, I taught myself to read and write as if the written word was an entirely separate language which had no connection to spoken English. So I learned to tell to stories rather than write them. Now when I approach a novel, it’s as if I am telling a story to a friend, rather than writing on the page. Of course, I do write it down. (I don’t dictate it or use a ghost-writer, as some people imagine.) I write straight into a computer, but the story appears first as a series of visual images in my head. I see the scenes played out in my mind. I hear the voices of the characters as if I am in that place with them. I smell the vegetation, and feel the heat of the sun on my skin. I hope this helps readers to experience the scene rather than simply read about.
Grown up with dyslexia made me conscious of being different. Like most novelists I tend to write about people who are slightly at odds with the world in which they find themselves. After all, if you wrote about Mr and Mrs Average who were well-adjusted, perfectly happy, respectable citizens, they would be the most boring characters in the world to read about. So for various reasons – race, disability, sexual orientation, beliefs – my characters inhabit the margins of society. They are the outsiders looking in and in effect that is exactly what a reader is doing when they read a novel.
What made you decide to write novels? What is it about the format that appeals to you?
I was a strange little child who loved going to bed and insisted on having all the lights put out. In total darkness I could tell myself stories and disappear into the worlds I created, without the ‘real world’ interrupting me. I’d invent people whose adventures would continue episode after episode for weeks. Even at that age I think I knew that there was something wonderful about creating characters who’d start off under the author’s control, but eventually come alive and do things the author never expected of them.
When I was a little older, I had a tiny radio I’d smuggle into bed and listen plays such as the Mystery of Black Tor and other chillers, all totally unsuitable for a young child. Having only sounds to work from really fired my imagination. So writing novels is only an extension of a childhood game.
There is often more truth to be found in fiction than you would ever find in any non-fiction book. Non-fiction only teaches facts, and fact and truth are not the same thing. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is an enthralling adventure, but along the way the reader is able to explore and learn far more about themselves and about human behaviour – greed, love, loyalty, leadership, the effects of power – than you find in any psychology textbook. I think this is why most religious leaders have used stories to communicate and since ancient times, folk tales have taught us how to deal with the challenges of life.
In Company of Liars, I used the format that is one of the oldest forms of art known to man, a narrator who sits down and tells his audience or in this case the readers, about their life and adventures. In The Owl Killers, I employ five first person narrators, who each weave their stories through each other like whispers in the dark. They have different interpretations of the same events, and believe different truths, as people do in real life. But in both novels, the narrators, like any storyteller, constantly throw the tale open to the reader and asks the reader – what do you make of this? What do you bring to this tale?
The thrill and joy of any novel is that it is a unique reading experience for each individual reader. No two readers read the same story, because only half the story is written by the author, the other half is completed by the reader who brings their own unique experiences, personalities and imagination to it. In contrast, non-fiction is set up to say – this is how it is; take or leave it.
In the Middle Ages, people didn’t divide things into real and unreal, fact and fiction in the way we do now. Angels and demons, werewolves and sea monsters were as much part of everyday life in their minds, as cooking beans and ploughing the fields. They saw stories in the stars and omens in the flames of the fire or the way a bird flew across the sky. It is that way of looking at life I want to get back in my novels, the old tradition of telling a story where we don’t ask – Did it really happen? Could it really happen? – but one which each reader finds their own personal space to explore what the tale and the characters mean to them. Truth, not fact.
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did the two of you end up collaborating on "The Crevasse"? What were the challenges in such a collaboration?
Dale: We were sitting out on my deck lamenting the fact that neither of us were going to make the deadline for Lovecraft Unbound, when one us--can't remember who--suggested trying to write a story together to meet the deadline, which was mere days away. Nathan was only staying that night, so we spent the rest of the evening talking through the story, roughing out the scenes, and then divvying them up. By the time Nathan left we had a draft which we then refined over email.
Working with Nathan was terrific. There were few challenges at all, to be honest. We both tend to be territorial with our prose but we were able to compromise enough on the language to create a unified draft.
Nathan: Collaborating was Dale's suggestion. He had this idea -- an enormous stairway descending into the ice -- and suggested we try to write the thing together in a day. I was skeptical at first; I'd never collaborated, and wasn't sure it was something I could comfortably do. As Dale mentioned, we tend to be pretty strong-willed and proprietary when it comes to our writing. But the idea was cool enough, and our aesthetics are similar enough, that I wanted to give it a shot. We talked through the story that night and spent all of the next day writing it. It was an invigorating experience. We each know what the other brings to the table, and I think we tried to raise our game a little bit in an effort not to be outdone. Despite having blocked out the scenes the night previously, we still managed throw a few curveballs in there to surprise each other. It was a lot of fun, and I hope we do it again.
How has Lovecraft influenced your fiction?
Dale: Indirectly. What appeals to me is his vision of the cosmos--that human beings are tiny, not very important inhabitants of an infinite and uncaring universe. Lovecraft, I think, occasionally goes further and depicts a universe that is actively malign, but I think that's a step too far. It assigns too much moral agency to forces that are infinite and vast but essentially impersonal physical laws. Yet I think his concept of Elder Gods provides an interesting metaphor to get at those ideas.
Nathan: I agree with Dale here. It's indirect. But Lovecraft has influenced dark fiction more profoundly, I think, than any other writer of the last hundred years, and I genuinely believe we all feel his influence whether we're aware of it or not. What I like most about his work is the antagonistic stance he takes towards the reader. His stories are an assault on our myths of comfort. He is actively trying to stir unease -- not just on the surface level, for as long as it takes to read the story, but fundamentally, in the place where you define yourself and your role in the universe. Lovecraft is the most ambitious fantasy writer still being read.
The plight of the sled dog is, I think, the key to the emotional impact of the story. What made you decide to focus on the sled dog?
Dale: I don't know that it was a conscious decision. I think Garner's wartime experience and the loss of his wife are important also--the dog makes a nice metaphor for that, and his attempt to rescue it, in my mind, is an attempt to reclaim some sense of humanity and compassion in a random uncaring universe. But people react emotionally in powerful ways to dogs. In my first novel, I had a scene where a man discovers that his dogs have been deliberately killed and that's the scene people latch onto as most disturbing, despite the fact that several human beings also die in relatively unpleasant ways. Emotionally, I get this: I have a dog and it would be fairly devastating if something happened to her. Intellectually, though, it mystifies me. I think it might be the absolute trust dogs have in us, and the unconditional affection they offer--qualities we can't get in any human relationship--so any cruelty to them strikes as a violation of that unconditional trust and love and is thus particularly disturbing.
Nathan: Again, I find myself agreeing with Dale here. I think the dog functioned as a metaphor. To me, the story is about Garner's loss of himself in the war, the loss of his wife in a way that did not allow him to grieve at her side, and the hole that left inside him. It's the abrupt cancellation of everything he believed in, all at once. When the dog fell into the crevasse, I feel Garner invested it with all of that freight. Under any normal circumstance, I don't think he would have risked himself and the safety of the others on such a desperate impulse. But he had to believe, I think, that it was still possible to save something. It was his last grab at hope.
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did you settle on the plot--and title--of Vardøger?
(Warning: Contains spoilers!) The start point came from two directions really. Firstly, the simple idea of a hotel booking mistake that seems innocuous enough to start with, then people recognise you in a place you've never been to before and you start to think you're going crazy. But I didn't know where that goes, ultimately, until I thought, completely unrelatedly, about the British serial killer Peter Sutcliffe (The "Yorkshire Ripper") who is still in Broadmoor secure mental hospital to this day, I believe, after killing several woman, mostly (but not all) prostitutes. I wondered how a person like that stands up in court and faces the reality of their crimes. Well, maybe they don't face the reality, I thought. Maybe they completely blank it out and create a different reality in their heads, one they can live with, of an ordinary job and a happy marriage and family life, which is a total fabrication. And say, part of that fabrication was thinking Broadmoor is actually a luxury hotel? (Maybe this also came from knowing that when my wife's mother was in a nursing home with Alzheimer's, she thought it was a luxury hotel and the staff were all waiters.) So it became a doppelganger story: the doppelganger of Sean being the "real" Sean threatening to reveal to him the awful truth. As for the title, I didn't want anything obvious like "Doppelganger" which gives everything away, but I found in my research that the Norwegian variation on "doppelganger" was "Vardger". I like the fact that that word tells you absolutely nothing (unless your are Norwegian!), but has a nice ring about it! Also, I was damned if I was going to explain the word in the text.
Did you encounter any challenges in writing Sean's point of view?
Once the idea was thought out, and I'm a scene-by-scene planner by nature, I had to keep in Sean's mindset of believing he was a good, normal person and an innocent. He'd mentally separated out all his badness into his double. The tricky part was achieving the double-take (sic) towards the end where I wanted the reader to think Sean has finished his police interview downstairs and is upstairs with Monica packing to leave, but in fact that is his double, except we don't know it yet. The only way I felt I could do that was to do it filmically as if cutting between two scenes. I hope it works. I hope it all works, obviously.
Part of what underscores the story is the feeling of being accused of a crime you didn't commit. I often have a dream where I've committed some crime and I don't know what it is, but it's going to be found out, and I'm full of panic and remorse and fear and total dread and a feeling of "Who am I? Who is the real me? Have I been living a lie?". I haven't often seen that feeling caught in a story and, even though I didn't realise when I was writing it, I think that was in the back of my mind. I hate to think what that says about me!
How did Gray Friar Press end up publishing your novella?
That was a real coincidence. I'd finished writing it and I saw Gray Friar Press announcing the previous novellas in its Gray Matter series (Paul Finch, Conrad Williams etc). I thought, "Hello", because Gary Fry of Gray Friar Press had already published my first collection of short stories, Dark Corners. So I e-mailed him and asked if he wanted to read it with the thought of it as a Gray Matter novella and he did indeed, and actually put it out quite quickly. I'm really lucky it happened like that because there's not a million places you can send a novella. And a Shirley Jackson Award nomination is just such a tremendous accolade I can't believe it. Thank you!
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Since EXOTIC GOTHIC 3 is the third in the series, what are the challenges in sustaining the book's theme while still covering new ground?
The book’s mission is to give a literary venue for new Gothic fiction set outside of its traditional homelands (Ireland, the UK, France, and Germany). Expanding Gothdom means inviting the Gothic’s insane passions, accursed lands, frothy plots, and violent femmes to China and Tibet, Morocco and Ethiopia, or Brazil and Chile. Take it everywhere. Naturally, each land through its art, culture, technology, and history either disinters or births a Gothic creature substantially its own. Compounding that, ambiguity and hybridization seem to be the Gothic's killing strength and foggy nature, so again something different from what’s expected comes.
Now the primary challenge is translation. As an international writer, you’re more aware of how labor-intensive, time-devouring, and expensive translation of prose can be. While I am finding entrancing artists in ever more remote places, getting them into English remains a problem. This Series has had a windfall--a good number of stellar Asian and Oceanic artists who happen to write in English are contributing-- the Iranian dissident writer (now living in America) Farnoosh Moshiri, the Filipino novelist Dean Francis Alfar in Manila, the Fiji-born Kenneth McKenney and Fiji resident Kaaron Warren, and the Malaysian-born author Tunku Halim, who has lived in Australia almost twenty years. But I desire to bring many more writers in, especially from South America and Africa. So far, EXOTIC GOTHIC 4 (appearing in 2011) has all-new stories incoming from writers who hail from England, Wales, Scotland, Italy, Russia, India, The Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, and America.
How would you describe the current state of the Gothic novel and short story? How different is it from previous preconceptions?
There is good and bad news in the post-2000 period of Gothicism. At least in America and Canada, the good word is that a super-abundance of both Gothic short stories and novels, with or without Fantastika, is appearing. Publishers are willing to publish them, Hollywood to film them, and untold millions to read and view them. At this moment tables at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Chapters, and other bookshops groan under the weight of vampire novels and story collections alone, for instance. What’s more, in tracking each week of the last two months from when I write, I am staggered that Gothic-themed novels have consistently appeared in four to seven of the fifteen to sixteen slots on THE NEW YORK TIMES Best Sellers list (with those most favored Gothic situations appearing in the TIMES' capsule descriptions: “a letter from his dead wife,” “a family secret,” “girl goes missing,” “a ruthless foe,” “fallen prey to an ancestral curse,” “woman’s body found in London cemetery,” and “slave flees with her master to New Orleans”). I can’t remember a time in my life when the Gothic was as snugly embraced by the mainstream. Perhaps its appeal is that more of us seems now inside the neo-Gothic “villain” than before. Isn’t there plenty of proof for Fred Botting’s belief (a professor from England’s Keele University) that vampires are now “mirrors of contemporary identity and sympathetic identifications”? With their lives of luxurious consumption and wasted desires, the Undead do indeed seem, as Botting puts it, like “latter-day consumer[s].” Another change is in the nature of the central creature within the Gothic narrative itself—seeming to be less predatory and more protective of the human characters that entangle it. Rather than a vampire that ravishes, a novel presently might show the creature to have a purer love than our own. Moreover, another trend is the playful Gothic, with monster tales crashing into, say, Regency-era romances, producing all those literary mash-ups and manglings on the heels of Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestseller PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES—from SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS to EMMA AND THE WEREWOLVES, to MANSFIELD PARK AND MUMMIES and many, many more. My own preference is for more bite and inventiveness, but millions of readers like these rollicking Gothic collisions with Jane Austen (and other canonical writers).
Despite some interesting contemporary changes in the old preconceptions of the Gothic, though, the disappointing news is that the Gothic novels batting before us each month don’t live up to our expectations. They don’t seem novels that most people would read again. They pass the time, but shouldn’t a novel or novella do more? I worry that the Gothic lives in an eternal return, and just as it was denounced as trash in the 18th and early 19th Centuries (and not just by those still loving Neo-Classical forms, but by Romantics themselves), in a very few years that the overexposure will make the Gothic again an outsider. This gypsy orphan of a literary form may have won the lottery just now, receiving everyone’s attention and emulation, but before long it will be merely an orphan again without a shilling, living at the fringes and considered unworthy of reading. Part of that reaction is deserved if the writing is routinely slipshod. It could be recently that many writers have leaped on to the vampire bandwagon (or zombie cart or shapeshifter wheels) to tell the story they wanted to tell in the first place--a romance, say, or an end of times battle, or a quest story, or a tale of adolescent anxiety--without knowing the mystery and despair inside the Gothic well.
On the positive side, there are a small number of artists who truly redefine the Gothic now. They are stylistically artistic, experimentally successful, apt at genre-bending and blending, original, emotive, authentically scary and transgressive, and metaphysically or culturally significant, all with that strange alchemy of words that make scenes come back to us in dreams. If “myth is truth” and literature simply “words that provoke response,” as the Cheshire novelist Alan Garner once said in FACES OF FANTASY, then these works are both true and provocative. They also rejuvenate the Gothic with more mystery and dark secrets than we could reasonably hope for:
THE ANGEL MAKER (2005) by Stefan Brijs
THE BANQUET FOR THE DAMNED (2004) by Adam L. G. Nevill
BEASTS (2002) by Joyce Carol Oates
THE BLIND ASSASSIN (2000) by Margaret Atwood
THE BOOK THIEF (2006) by Markus Zusak
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN: PANDORA’S BRIDE (2007) by Elizabeth Hand
CANDLES BURNING (2006) by Tabitha King and Michael McDowell
THE CASEBOOK OF VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2008) by Peter Ackroyd
CLOWNS AT MIDNIGHT: A TALE OF APPROPRIATE FEAR (2010) by Terry Dowling
COLD SKIN (2002) by Albert Sánchez Piñol
THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE (2002) by Michel Faber
A DARK MATTER (2010) by Peter Straub
The DARK TOWER series (seven novels, 1982-2004) by Stephen King
THE DARKEST PART OF THE WOODS (2002) by Ramsey Campbell
THE DRACULA DOSSIER (2008) by James Reese
THE EDEN MOORE TRILOGY (2003-2007) by Cherie Priest
EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE (2001) by Margot Livesey
FATAL WOMEN (including novellas, “Rherlotte,” “Virgile,” and “Green Iris,” 2004) by Tanith Lee
FINGERSMITH (2002) by Sarah Waters
THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN (2008) by Kate Morton
FOUR SOULS (2004) by Louise Erdrich
THE GARGOYLE (2008) by Andrew Davidson
THE GHOST WRITER (2004) by John Harwood
GOULD’S BOOK OF FISH: A NOVEL IN 12 FISH (2001) by Richard Flanagan
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK (2008) by Neil Gaiman
HEART- SHAPED BOX (2007) by Joe Hill
THE HISTORIAN (2005) by Elizabeth Kostova
THE HORNED MAN (2002) by James Lasdun
HOUSE OF LEAVES (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski
JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL (2004) by Susanna Clarke
THE KEEP (2006) by Jennifer Egan
THE LITTLE FRIEND (2002) by Donna
LOST (2001) by Gregory Maguire
THE LOVELY BONES (2002) by Alice Sebold
LULLABY (2002) by Chuck Palahniuk
MARTHA PEAKE (2000) by Patrick McGrath
THE MEANING OF NIGHT: A CONFESSION (2006) by Michael Cox
MEMOIRS OF A MASTER FORGER (2008) by William Heaney (AKA Graham Joyce)
A MERCY (2008) by Toni Morrison
THE MERRILY WATKINS SERIES (ten novels, 1998-2008) by Phil Rickman
THE MONSTERS OF TEMPLETON (2008) by Lauren Groff
NEVER LET ME GO (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2005) by Cormac McCarthy
THE PORTRAIT OF MRS. CHARBUQUE (2002) by Jeffrey Ford
THE PUMPKIN CHILD (2002, a novella in the collection KNUCKLES & TALES) by Nancy A. Collins
REAL WORLD (2006) by Natsuo Kirino
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (thirteen novels, 1999-2006) by Lemony Snicket (AKA Daniel Handler)
THE SHADOW OF THE WIND (2001) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
THE TERROR (2007) by Dan Simmons
THE THIRTEENTH TALE (2006) by Dianne Setterfield
THURSBITCH (2003) by Alan Garner
WHITE APPLES (2002) by Jonathan Carroll
Actually, I’ve compiled a 700 page reference guide describing, analyzing, and evaluating these Gothic works above, to be published in 2011 from Scarecrow Press. The book, 21ST CENTURY GOTHIC: GREAT GOTHIC NOVELS SINCE 2000, is composed of 53 essays from illuminating commentators all over the world, and S. T. Joshi provides a splendid foreword.
How did you come up with the series title "Exotic Gothic", and why did you settle on "Strange Visitations" for this volume?
When the four texts from Penguin I assigned in my college Gothic course suddenly went out of print, I was adrift. I decided somewhat rashly to create my own. Somewhat like a child, I like the music that floats inside titles that rhyme (or almost rhyme). The word “Gothic” had to appear, and “Exotic” was the only rhyming word that came to mind, and it did fit with the concept of inviting international authors. I noticed that no other book on Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com had the title, nor was their any online domain with it, so that’s what I created, taking it to 74 publishers in 2006, and lucking out with the marvellous, award-winning Ash-Tree Press from Christopher and Barbara Roden. The other thing nibbling at me was this: I remember clearly from Grad School learning of all those writers of the American Literary Renaissance who disrespected Edgar Allan Poe, calling him lowbrow, dubbing him “The Jingle Man,” for what they heard as excessive rhyme. He was a fellow who they saw as rather hopeless and pointless, in his messy life, cousined wife, lost chances, addictions, and, of course, relentless rhyming. But to call him names went too far. So this is my rather humble tribute to Poe. I’m not so sure ghosts don’t exist, and with this rhyming title I salute him. And I give those other shades little payback, especially to Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson the man who supposedly gave Poe this tinselly moniker. So, Rev. Emerson, may your shade now enjoy a little EXOTIC GOTHIC 2: NEW TALES OF TABOO or prefer ye EG3?
“Strange Visitations” was chosen after I re-read all the stories and noticed the trend of a strange visitor appearing in most of them, often an inviting, but slightly-off woman. These figures turn out to be, as stated in the new preface, gory ladies all—they’re “cult fanatics, venomous were-snakes (the Asian and the African species), fantomes, forest djinns, sacrificial victims, devil girls, vampires, witches, tarted-up zombies, old ghosts, new-fangled fembots, and (not joking here) most favoured guests on The O’Reilly Factor, meaner than Ann Coulter with a chain whip.” They do such terrible things.
Along with the creating the concept, title, and author list, I have enjoyed finding images for the covers. The latest is a stunning drawing of Jason Zerrillo’s, influenced by Czech photographer František Drtikol’s “L’Étude.” EXOTIC GOTHIC 2’s cover was from a moody snapshot by English novelist Nicholas Royle of his friend walking in the Paddington Goods Depot of West London. And the first photograph, for EXOTIC GOTHIC, was from American bohemian Anne Brigman. The constant is to show a woman frozen in shadow, which I think is the most alluring and yet ambiguous thing in the world. What I concluded with in a 2007 interview with an Austin journalist on the first EXOTIC GOTHIC stands for the others: “The photograph was taken when it was dark—probably twilight. There’s a woman, alone, in the middle of the California mountains. She’s twirling and you see her from the back. She’s draped, dramatically, in a gauzy scarf . . . When she turns around, will you walk towards her or will you run away? Who is the vulnerable one?” To this day, that captures the most sublime and stilling Gothic moment for me: are we predator or are we prey?
First off, what is it about the short story format that appeals to you?
I love the economy of it. I love the way, quite genuinely, that you can work on a piece of writing and know that every single word has to justify its place. I think in longer pieces I write it's sometimes hard to stay focused on that, and inevitably to keep the overall pacing and rhythm right you get tempted by padding and detours. And speaking as really rather a lazy writer, who wants to get from First Idea to the endorphin rush of The End, I am thrilled that I can start work on a project on a Monday morning, and by Tuesday evening it may all be finished. It gives you so much more chance to celebrate and feel clever.
You've written for a lot of other mediums, such as plays. What are some skills that work well when transitioning from plays to fiction?
The joy of theatre - and also the terror of it! - is that you never escape the verdict of your audience. You may think you have written the smartest or funniest thing ever, but night after night, as you sit in that darkened auditorium, listening to the reaction of strangers around you, you're given a pretty honest wake-up call. There's no sound more grim, or more undisguised, than an audience who is bored. And the first thing you want to do is snatch back your play and just cut out all the bits during which people were yawning. I came to prose pretty late, after fifteen years or so exclusively writing drama - and I suppose my first instincts are to try to avoid all the boring bits. I can always imagine that theatre audience on my shoulder, even now I'm scribbling in paragraphs and punctuation, and I do my best to keep them awake.
There's a certain level of absurdity in your writing. In your opinion, what are the strengths or absurdity and comedy ?
The danger of absurdism is that it takes the reader to a world where nothing makes sense, and therefore nothing matters. But if it's used carefully - if you break the normality very precisely, and only in a specific area, leaving the rest of reality intact - then the comic contrast is really rewarding. You can break the rules of what the reader expects, so long as you stick to the ones you want to obey with strict rigour! Comedy's wonderful. There's nothing so dark or so emotional that it can't be told through comedy. Comedy and horror are the two things that deliberately try to provoke an audible reaction from the audience - and they're not so very far apart.
Friday, July 2, 2010
For The Little Stranger, what made you decide to write a ghost story?
I didn't plan for the novel to be a ghost story right from the start - I wanted to write a book about the class changes that Britain was going through in the period after the Second World War. But I set the novel in a crumbling country house, and found myself with a cast of unhappy, frustrated characters all in thrall to a world that was slipping away from them... In other words, the novel morphed into a haunted house story more or less by itself, and once I could see that happening, I realised that a novel of the supernatural was the perfect way to address the mournfulness and anxiety of post-war upper middle-class life. I was delighted, too, to have the chance to write a full-blown Gothic novel. I've always loved Gothic novels and films.
What kind of research did you have to do for the book? Who were your influences in writing this Gothic piece?
Because my previous novel, The Night Watch, was set in the 1940s, I already had a pretty good sense of the period - of how people looked, how they talked, what they wore, etc. For The Little Stranger, I visited a lot of country houses, and tried to get a feel for what life in such a house, with no spare money, would actually have been like; and because my narrator, Faraday, is a doctor, I read a lot of country doctors' autobiographies, and books about rural British life generally. I also read books about the paranormal - about hauntings and, in particular, poltergeists; and I read lots of stories of the supernatural, mainly ones by classic writers like M R James, Oliver Onions, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James, Dickens, Daphne du Maurier... I wanted the novel to sit very firmly within the Gothic tradition, even while I hoped that the emphasis on class would bring something slightly new to the genre.
How did the genesis of Dr. Faraday's character come about? What were the challenges, if any, in writing from his point of view?
As in lots of classic ghost stories, at first I wanted a narrator who would be relatively 'transparent', someone who would recount a terrible story to us without having been much implicated in the drama itself. A bachelor country doctor felt right - partly simply because, as a doctor, he'd have a reason for regularly visiting Hundreds Hall and observing its decline; and also because, as a man of science, he could maintain a sceptical distance from the unsettling events. At first, I was definitely anxious about writing from a male point of view. I was afraid I might not be able to make his voice ring true. But as Dr Faraday began to develop for me, I became interested in him purely as a character, with his own particular history, his own set of issues and quirks. There were certainly moments when I had to stop and think: would he, as a man, notice this? Would he phrase his feelings quite like that? But that's true of any character: whether they're male, female, or androgynous, your job as a writer is to make the imaginative leap that will take you inside their head. Dr Faraday really began to come alive for me when I gave him a more complicated relationship with the Hall than I'd originally intended. He ended up being only superficially transparent, with lots of dark, murky depths. He's not a very likeable man, I suppose - but, from a technical point of view, he was fascinating to write!
Monday, June 28, 2010
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In Midnight Picnic, one of the themes is revenge. What made you decide to tackle this theme?
I wouldn't say that I decided to tackle that (or any) theme. In my experience, themes emerge organically from ideas that are not so abstract. It's an inductive, not deductive, process. I wanted to write a story about a dead child taking a man through the world of the dead in pursuit of his killer; the basic themes are present in the idea. I was more interested in and compelled by the idea of creating a mood. I think of Midnight Picnic as a "mood book." In addition to writing something disturbing and otherworldly, I wanted to create a mood of peaceful fatalism.
What were the challenges in writing the book?
I wrote the book entirely at night. Maintaining a sleep schedule that allowed me to do this and to work at my day job was difficult. I took naps in my office during the summer when I wrote most of Midnight Picnic. I also had very strange dreams.
How did Word Riot Press end up publishing your novel?
The novel was originally to be published by the now-defunct Impetus Press, which published my earlier novel, Fires. The week before it was supposed to have come out, Impetus went bankrupt. (They hadn't printed any copies.) It seemed Midnight Picnic was totally screwed. But Jackie Corley at Word Riot stepped in, and the book was published only a few months late, despite a printing delay. Word Riot did a wonderful job. I thought the book was dead in the water and they came out of nowhere to rescue it.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. You've written both novels and short stories, but what is it about the short story format that appeals to you? Which do you prefer more?
I feel a little more comfortable with stories-- I like to race along and then be done. So writing a novel takes a lot of patience for me, but then when finished, I do feel different-- it's like a shirt that has stretched bigger and won't shrink back right away. it's harder for me to remember how to write a two page story. The pace of development is so different.
One of your strengths in "Faces" is dialogue. How do you develop your ear for character voices? Do you find it easy or difficult?
I like it when it just happens-- I can't really force a voice, but I could hear William pretty well. I think eavesdropping is a writer's great tool here. I will assign students to go eavesdrop which is a fun assignment to give. It seems rude, but it really is necessary, and I think a lot of us do it without even realizing. Cell phones are a good new frontier here-- with people talking so unself-consciously in lines and on trains.
What made you decide to use William's problem as the focus of the story?
I'd written that scene as part of a larger book that never coalesced. And this scene was a way into his daily life that felt more like a self-contained story than part of a novel. I just wondered about him: what was he seeing/why and how was he both perceptive and kind of out of it at the same time?
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. As a contributor to both Poe and Lovecraft Unbound, how have Poe and Lovecraft influenced your writing?
Hi, Charles. Thank you for the interview.
I’ve read Poe since forever. We had a set of classical literature lying around the house -- those old, fancy clothbound books featuring Browning, Burns, Coleridge, Poe…As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of my obsession with madness, decadence, and live burial beelines directly back to Poe. The Cask of Amontillado has stuck with me all these years. It probably frightens me more now than ever, his brief illumination of betrayal and sadism, how you never know anyone.
Lovecraft loomed on my horizon a little later. I think he’s attributed as my most overt influence because one can’t really approach cosmic horror without being compared to him, its most infamous practitioner. One is blessed or doomed, depending on one’s mood, with the Lovecraftian label for approaching the topic too closely or too often. Critics seem indifferent to the fact cosmic horror in its various manifestations was around long before modern authors such as Lovecraft and his circle perfected the genre. Close scrutiny of the Bible is a manifold revelation on that score.
Frankly, much as I admire Lovecraft’s devices, the foundation of my writing is based upon the psychological horror of Poe and latter day noir and supernatural traditions than anything else.
What are the challenges in writing a story that goes beyond pastiche yet still evoking Poe/Lovecraft's style?
The trick is to avoid evoking their singular styles and instead concentrate on exploring their themes, amplifying them. The big flaw I see in much of current updates of classical masters is that contemporary authors are often content to simply modernize, to paraphrase and recycle. If you go digging in the lagerstätten of weird fiction and simply take molds and impressions of those artifacts, if you do nothing more than reframe them, it’s a sin. What we often end up with is watered-down M.R. James, diluted Blackwood, knockoff Lovecraft. The exceptional exceptions aside, if you’re going to enter the realm of these archetypal giants, you need to bring something of yourself to the table -- a fresh perspective, your own techniques and devices. Your own fear. The canon has no need for Poe 2.0.
Your writing technique has certainly been evolving over the years and yet horror has been the topic of your stories. What makes you keep on going back to horror?
I could write a hundred years and not have the opportunity to try my hand at the entire spectrum that comprises the dark genres. But the real reason I return time and again is because fear and dread have become sullen, yet faithful muses. I’m very comfortable with the lizard. I’m in touch with the primordial part of myself that understands the darkened sun is the mouth of a god yawning.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did the concept for Apparitions come about, and what made you decide to publish it yourself?
Thanks for having me, Charles! The conceit was simply to put together an anthology of ghost stories and strange tales by writers whose work I’ve admired. The story had to feature some sort of apparition, whether overt or ambiguous. Ghosts, sometimes, can seem a bit cozy. There’s nothing cozy, I thought, about apparitions. I published it myself after the press that was going to do the book became extremely back-logged. Rather than shopping the book around again, (because, frankly, I’d done quite a lot of that) I asked the writers if they’d consider letting me do the book, and, thankfully, they agreed. I’m very grateful to them.
As an editor, what do you look for in a short story?
I’m not sure I consciously look for anything – I edit mostly by feel -- but empathy is something that I’m always drawn to, whether it’s me empathizing with the characters or characters showing empathy. If a story can make me walk in another’s shoes, that’s a great achievement.
What is it about ghosts and weird stories that appeals to you?
Everything! I love the depth and breadth of the genre. I love the language, the mood and atmosphere. Horror literature, more so than film and other genres, has the ability to dig deep and explore the human condition. I’m always interested in that other side. And the weird, ghostly tale seems the perfect vessel for such exploration. I love that little frisson of terror I get when reading a well-told horror story. Maybe it’s a cathartic experience. Horror, to me, with its deeply personal examinations of that other, fights against the drowning cloak of entropy.
Friday, June 18, 2010
How did the Jacaranda tree become a central image in your mind and became part of your title in "The Jacaranda Smile"?
To me, there's little more annoying than being jolted out of a narrative by an author writing about writing as a process, but not creating anything which seems like a genuine story--you get a look at the "magnum opus" somebody's been working on all this time, and you're like: "That's IT?" With "The Jacaranda Smile", I was working from the germ of an idea I'd had during my last visit to Australia--a story I wanted to write, but wasn't sure if I could. And eventually, the way I realized I had to frame it was as that sort of story--to make myself the protagonist, but also the monster. My description of the story inside the story incorporates a lot of the notes I wrote while on that trip, from architectural details to plot twists and character observations.
Most of the imagery in the story, if not its events, is taken directly from life. The apartment is an apartment my father and his S.O. lived in; there really was a jacaranda tree that you could look straight out into if you stood in the solarium. And during the period of my childhood when I was going back and forth to Australia, my Dad sometimes left me with my grandparents, his Mom and Dad, who had a house in the suburbs of Melbourne with a maple tree in its tiny front yard. I'd climb up there and read through every Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars book, in order, while wavering high above the neighbourhood. It became a symbol to me for the mixture of yearning and loneliness which embodied my trips to Australia in specific, but my relationship with my Dad in particular.
Said relationship remains simultaneously deep, disconnected, and volatile, even today. Frankly, I have no idea how he'd react if he read this story; not well, probably, though at least I have the patented "but it's fiction!" out to fall back on. But I haven't told him about it, and luckily, I doubt he'll go searching. As he's told me roughly a million times, horror's not his thing.
There's a lot of juxtaposition in your story, whether it's the narrator's life compared to her father, or her reality vs. her fiction. What were the challenges in using this technique?
What goes where, when, and why? When you're bending back and forth through time, using memory to inform and comment on two types of action--"real" and otherwise--it's really important to be able to keep a strict tally of pegs vs. holes. I thought about books and stories I'd enjoyed previously which did this extremely well, and tried to pick and choose what elements I wanted to poach from each; Peter Ackroyd's HAWKSMOOR comes to mind, for example, and Muriel Spark's "The Portobello Road".
But equally useful were tricks of pacing and layering I'd picked up from graphic novels and theatrical scripts, or radio plays. Though I haven't read "The Jacarands Smile" out loud in public thus far, I can see it working really well that way--single narrator, different angles, a soupcon of unreliability. It *is* challenging, but it's also fun.
How long did it take you to write this story? To get it published?
Like I said, I got the idea ten years ago, at least. Sat on it until, probably...three years ago, then began to peck away at it. The writing itself went surprisingly quickly after I broke through with the image of the bird in the fountain (again taken from life, though I actually ran across it when I was out with my son, who immediately tried to pick it up!) But I did despair a bit of anyone picking it up, because it seemed almost creepily intimate--a lot like very early stories of mine which were all-too-obviously based on personal experience. I think I was almost embarrassed by it.
Still, those are the qualities Mike Kelly said he liked most about it when he took it, maybe a year later, so there you go. Nobody really does know anything.;)
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In your foreword, you mention that for British writers, "the lines between genres seem far more blurred". Could you expand more on that thesis?
JM: Whether it's the publishing houses and their requirements for publication, the marketing groups or the writers themselves is a topic for debate, but the US has a very different set of sensibilities when it comes to published works. The authors coming from Great Britain are often better at cross pollinating the genres. A horror novel can also be an epic tale of pirates and a fantasy novel about a tapestry can also be a police procedural at the same time. It sometimes seems that the US has a bit of trouble with the very idea of mixing genres or at least a different perspective on whether or not it's a good idea. I don't know that either group is right or wrong, but there is a definite difference in the end result that was the very subject of the discussion which brought about The British Invasion anthology.
CG: Jim's got it right. But I think there's even more to it. In the U.S. marketing concerns have caused publishers to create strict categories for fiction over the years. The definition of what is a "horror story" is more narrowly defined here. In fact, it's often broken down into sub-sections delineating what KIND of horror story it is, and writers have naturally been inclined to include certain trappings or follow certain formulae in order to let publishers and readers identify what sort of story they're telling. This is unfortunate and self-defeating, creating these kinds of limits on storytelling. It hasn't affected every writer, of course, but it's part of the consciousness of most of us. I know that the UK hasn't escaped this phenomenon, but I do think it's far less an issue there, at least based on my own reading of British supernatural fiction. The edges of horror, and other genres, are simply more blurred, and I think that feeds imagination in the sense that there aren't as many ruts worn into the path that a writer might fall into, not as many elements that are familiar and easy for a lazy or distracted writer to fall back on.
Since there's three of you, what was the collaboration process like? Did all three of you, for example, had to like a story before accepting it? Or was it more like dividing the anthology into three parts?
TL: We split the reading duties, but if there was a story one of us liked the other two had to like it as well for it to be used. I don't think there were many disagreements, actually, but it was an interesting process to see who favoured what.
JM: It was a very different process, but I think it worked very well. I think, in the end, we had a very solid list of stories. And yeah, there were a few minor disagreements, but I think it stuck to the spirit in which we originally discussed the anthology in the first place, which was sitting in a bar and chatting about what we do and don't like in stories.
CG: There were certainly things about which we weren't in complete agreement. I think if we ranked the stories in order of preference, those rankings would vary considerably. But as Tim says, if a story didn't impress us all, it didn't make the cut.
What was your criteria for choosing a story? And related to that, how did "British Horror Weekend" find a place in the anthology?
TL: 'British Horror Weekend' was a genuine submission, but the writer thought it would be good writing it as Anon. We loved that idea. And it's a very funny story, and we were delighted to include it. As for criteria - it had to be a good story, well told, as simple as that. Good stories not well told, or average stories beautifully written, didn't make it in. And we think we managed to assemble a wonderfully diverse, consistently first-rate collection of modern horror tales.
JM: I tend to think a better question is how could "British Horror Weekend" NOT be included. It was hilarious and it was decidedly original. As for the criteria, Tim nailed that on the head.
CG: I should add the obvious, that the author had to be British (or Irish) by birth. And yeah, "British Horror Weekend" is one of my favorite stories in the book. It's a love letter to the UK horror community, and a blast to read. As far as I know, the identity of the author is still a secret, but I can tell you that the story was written by an author who is (1) NOT one of the three editors, as has been suspected, or any combination thereof, and (2) British. It's an homage to horror novels and films of a certain period, and a great deal of teasing as well.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What is it about the concept of family that made you decide to write "The Language of Dying"?
I wrote The Language of Dying as a kind of cathartic process - and also so certain memories wouldn't be lost to me as time went by. Although the piece is a work of fiction, I drew heavily on experiences I had when a friend of mine came to stay with me when he was dying. The last week was quite awful but also a fascinating family study. I think this 'waiting for someone to die' is a terrible time, especially as with each day that passes that person often becomes so much less like the person you knew. I think we all worry we won't remember the real person and only the unrecognisable mask of illness - but I've found that when I remember that particular friend now I always see him when he was whole and healthy. This makes me happy. I think he'd have been very pleased with the novella and that makes me happy too.
Your novella is unlike anything I've ever read before--and I mean that in a good way. What were the challenges in writing such a story, especially for the novella-length?
I knew that the subject matter was too emotionally strong perhaps for a full-length novel, and didn't have a huge amount of action in it, and so it was natural that it would become a novella. I'd never written one before (or since in fact) but I was pleased with that length. The challenges involved were mainly personal and stylistic. I chose the first person/second person present tense because I felt it fitted that sense of living in the moment that comes towards the end of a life and I also wanted the power to be behind the words as it were. I didn't want too much description but went for, what I hope is, really clean prose. Some things are weakened by too much description and I didn't want to patronise any reader who may have been in the same situation at some point.
Your second to the last paragraph, in my opinion, is very important as it makes a drastic impact on your story. What made you decide to include this scene?
I just had to go and have a quick read to see which you meant! I think the story was always heading to that point right from the start. I can't remember exactly why I included it now as is always the way a couple of years after you wrote something, but i think I wanted to create a sense of terrible liberation and freedom. It's up to the reader to decide whether it's a good thing or a bad thing.
Monday, June 7, 2010
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what made you decide to set your story in Japan?
To answer your question, it was in Japan that I encountered the shrike, and the shrike, particularly the shrike's sacrifice, was the imagistic impetus behind the whole story. Some time after I had encountered the shrike I made one of those creative leaps that are so necessary to writing anything of depth, and pieced that initial image together with something else that I wanted to express. The 'something else' could have been set anywhere, really, but the shrike made a Japanese setting most natural. Of course, this setting ended up as something that seemed inevitable, in that it then took me into areas of cultural and aesthetic comparison and synthesis between east and west as if that had been part of the plan from the beginning.
What are the difficulties in structuring a narrative where most of the conflict is internal?
As far as I'm aware, they are very much the same as the difficulties in a narrative where the conflict is external. The only difference is, one kind of narrative might have more appeal to a different kind of reader than the other. I am very much influenced by Japanese zuihitsu and other forms of writing where essay, fiction, autobiography and so on are mixed, however, when one leans to the fictional then one knows that the strict essay form of argument, which must be thorough, would be too heavy handed. You only have to gesture lightly towards the various points you wish to rally in your 'argument'. I've read Ligotti say in interview that he assembles his plots rather like an essay (or I seem to remember that), and that he is very careful in this process of moving towards a conclusion, and therefore baffled when people say his stories have no plots. I tend to write stories in a similar way. I know precisely what points need to be made to support my 'conclusion', and, as long as they are all there, in their right places, in my mind and in the story, I need only gesture towards them lightly. Or that is how I feel. Others may disagree. Also, I would say that, although there is not much action in Shrike, with this and all of my stories, I try to keep things sensual, and most especially visual. A flower can be dramatic. Or it can to me.
In a previous interview, you mentioned how you like playing around with categories, such as "demented fiction". Could you elaborate more on your definition of demented fiction and how it applies--or doesn't apply--to your writing?
Sometimes I have this clear in my head and sometimes I don't. About two weeks ago, I would have been able to give very fine detail on this question, as I was much preoccupied with it. But I didn't write down the thoughts I had at the time, and they have passed. I think that there's a kind of expectation of writers that they are somehow omniscient. At the very least, the art of writing fiction (particularly the novel) often seems to be the art of pretending to know everything. Dazai Osamu once wrote something like, "It's ridiculous to feel that one should straighten one's collar while reading a novel." To me, being demented in fiction not only means freedom to be imaginative rather than knowing, it means honesty about the fact that ultimately one knows nothing. Being demented by no means precludes being beautiful or elegant. One can very well be dementedly elegant, or elegantly demented. Demented fiction is also related to 'dadaoism', which Justin Isis and I have been championing on the currently sleeping Chomu blog. I think underlying dadaoism is the recognition that words are not the things they signify. The intention is not to give an account of reality, it is to create something new, outside of reality.
Demented fiction and dadaoism should be available in abundance from Chomu Press, which is just starting up. The first novel Chomu releases will be "Remember You're a One-Ball!" by me. It would have been included in my Rule Dementia! collection, but it was too large.
Friday, June 4, 2010
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did you settle on your premise for "The Pelican Bar"?
I knew of a girl who'd been sent to one of these places, and I've been haunted by her story for years. But "The Pelican Bar" is equally about the current torture debate in the US. I will never quite believe that torturing people is now something to be calmly discussed and argued about, much less the policy so many prefer.
I saw a posting online about torture that referenced these offshore jail/schools, and said, basically, why should we be surprised to learn people are fine with shutting foreigners away and torturing them? We've let these facilities do the same to our own children and never raised a fuss.
A few years back I went with friends to Jamaica and realized, in the midst of our wonderful holiday, that we were only a few miles from one of these places. It seemed like the torture situation writ small. We know what's going on at Guantanamo and in more secret prisons. We are sorry about it, but our own lives remain pretty comfortable. What really can we do?
Your story has a dark scenario yet your protagonist also develops a certain strength due to her ordeals. What are the challenges in juggling these two elements? Do you perceive the story as bleak or optimistic?
I hate and love the world with absolutely equal force. Sometimes one feeling is in the ascendant and sometimes the other, but mostly I'm teetering right on the edge between the two. My own life has been filled with so much beauty and love and good luck. Great friends, great food, great family. Health and happiness. How can I hate the world? It would be unthinkably ungrateful.
And yet, I know what lives of horror others live, often for no better reason than that someone is making (or saving) money off their misery. How can I love a place where that's allowed to happen?
As to my character Norah, she had a lot of problems before being sent off, but I'm not sure lack of strength was among them. I don't think she's gained much of value from this experience. But I'm just happy she's out! Albeit into this problematic world of ours, see above. I have no idea what will happen to her next. So the story strikes me as neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but on that edge between. Probably tipping toward bleak, if I'm being honest.
In some of your stories, the fantastical element is subtle. What is it about fantasy or science fiction that appeals to you, and how does it affect your fiction?
Although I traffic in the strange, I don’t think of myself as leaving the real world behind when I do so. I think that I’m acknowledging how bizarre and unlikely the real world is. I’m a political person, not a spiritual one. I don’t believe in magic or ghosts or gods or the power of positive thinking. I believe that Elvis is dead. I’m not happy about it, but there it is. But what I believe most of all is that the world will always exceed our ability to understand it.
Fantasy, science fiction and other fantastical approaches seem better suited to convey this fact than realism and so, in my attempts to depict the real world, that's what I use. The word you've chosen is subtle, which is kinder than ambiguous (which I hear a lot, but is also totally fair.) Here's the thing though: if I'm using fantastical elements to convey the parts of the world beyond our understanding, then ambiguity is unavoidable. Clarity would make the completely wrong point, that even the strange parts of life are comprehensible.
However, in the case of "The Pelican Bar," there is no doubt in my mind that the people running the facility are actual aliens. I have my reasons, but they're unpleasant, misanthropic reasons and I should probably keep them to myself.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
First off, “Each Thing I Show You Is a Piece of My Death,” is a collage of information. What made both of you decide to use this technique?
GEMMA: The funny part is that I was going through the Afterword in one of my short story collections the other day (THE WORM IN EVERY HEART, Prime Books), and found a large chunk in which I was talking about the appeal of an epistolary novel like DRACULA…this boring/voyeuristic mishmash of documentation which challenges you to read between the lines in order to figure out what’s “really” going on. M.R. James does that too, though far more subtly, and he’s one of my baseline inspirations.
And then, when I thought about how to best update that idea, it cross-bred somehow with my experience reviewing mock-doc horror films, as best embodied by low-res ‘Net-hype sensations like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and (most recently) PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. After I added in stuff that I’d learned about experimental film when covering that community here in Toronto to root it in a reality I was familiar with, and made up a suitable “urban legend” to base it around, I felt like I was ready to go.
But the thing which really dictated the story’s form was the concept of the Exquisite Corpse, which I stumbled upon quite late in the game…on the Internet, as I recall. So there you go.
STEVE: Another influence which deserves to be mentioned is Eric Heisserer’s ‘Net-only horror story “The Dionaea House” (www.dionaea-house.com), which really brought home to me the serious potential for creep and dread in the Internet medium--like Gemma says, the wonderful subtlety of implying the horror between the lines in what the narrative *doesn’t* say, through the utterly familiar format of text messages and e-mails. Combined with that was the opportunity to use what I think of as my “business voice”--that deliberately impersonal and bland style of professional writing and documentation any office-worker knows, with which I made much of my living for many years--to talk about utterly horrible things in the way I imagine police and medical clerks must have to; I wanted to see if the juxtaposition of an incredibly mundane style with an incredibly appalling subject would be as effective as I hoped it would be. (Check out Ramsey Campbell’s story “A Street Was Chosen” for an inspiring example of this principle in action.)
How did both of you end up collaborating for this story? What were the challenges--and rewards--working together?
GEMMA: I had had the basic idea for “each thing” some time before, but when the CLOCKWORK PHOENIX 2 deadline approached, I found it really difficult to both jump-start and carry through, probably because of the slightly non-linear nature of the narrative itself. I started discussing it heavily with Steve, who had some great character and structural ideas. Pretty quickly, it became obvious that the story would got faster and work better if we were both involved, trading back and forth on the actual writing. Steve has an amazing mind for organization, research and realistic detail, and by the end, I felt he had more than earned co-authorial credit.
The challenge is that you’re writing with your husband, but the reward is that you get to write with your husband. Though Steve hasn’t been published as many times as I have, he’s very much a capable, professional writer with years of experience; personally, I see this story as his introduction into the community, something he’ll hopefully build on when he starts sending more things out on his own. And the fact that we now also get to share a Shirley Jackson nomination? Crazy!
STEVE: What Gemma calls a knack for organization, research and detail I tend to think of as obsessive nitpickiness, but hey, it worked for Tolkien--who is, unsurprisingly, one of my favourites and inspirations; I love the detail and scope of classic worldbuilding, and the conviction and verisimilitude involved in getting everything right is as useful in horror as it is in fantasy.
Writing with Gemma is on one level remarkably easy, because unlike so many people, when she asks you what you think, she actually wants to hear your answer and is willing to work with it. On another level, it’s tremendously challenging; not only in that her standard of quality demands an equally high standard of contribution, but because she’s so open to ideas that it can be hard *not* to throw in my two cents’ worth more than absolutely necessary. (The hardest thing for any writer to learn is the distinction between “what will make this better” and “what will make this more like something *I* would write”, which is why writing and editing *are* distinct skill-sets.) But the sheer potential, and room for play, in this particular idea and format was just too much to resist; with impending deadlines as an excuse, we both went all-out at whatever occurred to us and just fit the result together afterwards. It seemed to work. ;)
In your opinion, what is it about the "horror in film" motif that resonates with readers (and writers)?
GEMMA: Well, I was a professional film reviewer long before I became a professional writer, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, and I do think it’s something inherent in the medium itself. Film, the literal “moving image”, is like a ghost; flat yet vivid, charged with an unnatural sense of life. The reaction many people had to the Lumiere Brothers’ seminal film of a train arriving at a station, when it was first shown in public, was almost universally one of stark terror.
Add sound, color, F/X, and the universal tropes of horror-thriller-suspense, and film also becomes not only capable of capturing the image of a human being which can endure, apparently unscathed, long after the person who originated it is dead, but also of allowing an actor to play out an infinite variety of fake deaths that often look more “real” than the real thing.
At its heart, though, we somehow know that ALL film is an illusion: Shadows on a wall, mostly blank space. It lies sixty times a second, and it routinely tricks your mind into filling that empty space with whatever your subconscious wants to see. That’s very frightening as a concept, no matter the genre involved.
STEVE: Film also, and somewhat ironically given our awareness of its illusory nature (as Gemma notes), has a unique claim to *authority*; the belief that “if someone photographed or filmed it, it ‘really’ happened” is more seminal to Western culture than most people realize even now. For a comparatively brief but utterly transformative time--basically, from the newsreel footage for WW2 to just before the theatrical release of STAR WARS--photography and film were the ultimate “proofs” of reality, the things that changed a narrative from a mere story into the Telling Of Truth, and could even change the course of nations, as certain iconic images from the Vietnam War still demonstrate.
This power’s been weakened considerably by the ease of modern CGI and Photoshopping, but it’s not yet lost, which is why films like CLOVERFIELD or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY pack such a punch, and why “real-time” footage of UFOs, ghosts and demons gets such high view-counts on YouTube. We want to *see* something, to have proof of Something Out There; and yet if a ghost or an alien or a werewolf or some other impossible supernatural phenomenon was caught on camera in full focused detail, we would all write it off as “special effects” in an instant--the alternative being too horrifying to contemplate. “each thing” is, in a way, simply a story about someone faced with exactly that situation who doesn’t have the option of explaining it away, and what happens when he tries to deal with it.
Monday, May 17, 2010
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Last year, you edited anthologies based on the works of two famous writers. The tricky aspect of such tribute anthologies is that the fiction might simply be homages and pastiches. How did you avoid this trap?
They weren’t exactly tribute anthologies, although Poe’s was published in honor of his Bicentennial. Each anthology was meant to be comprised of stories inspired by Edgar Allan Poe or H. P. Lovecraft. I tried to make it very clear in my guidelines that I did not want pastiches, that I wanted the writers to push the envelope by not using the sometimes overblown language of these two iconic writers but instead create something new using Poe and Lovecraft’s tone, thematic concerns, and especially obsessions.
Poe and Lovecraft are respected writers. What aspect of their writing particularly stands out for you, especially when it comes to the horror aspect?
Poe’s obsession with death and sometimes his language (particularly in his poetry). Lovecraft’s language and his obsession and dread of the unknown.
Both writers, in my opinion, flourished in the short story format. As an editor, what do you look for in a short story?
There are so many things I look for but most of them are subconscious. As I read, I either react positively to a story or not. And I’m excited by different things in science fiction, fantasy, or horror (although always, writing that either doesn’t impinge on the story or that creates the story).
But as we’re discussing my two horror anthologies, for me the best horror stories are those that embed themselves in my conscious (and possibly subconscious). Stories that won’t let go –whether they’re light or serious. Stories sharply told with a memorable character.
Keep an eye on this blog as we'll post the interviews over the coming month-plus!
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Awards Administrator email@example.com
Nominees for the 2009 Shirley Jackson Awards
Boston, MA (April 2010) -- In recognition of the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s writing, and with permission of the author’s estate, the Shirley Jackson Awards have been established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.
The Shirley Jackson Awards are voted upon by a jury of professional writers, editors, critics, and academics, with input from a Board of Advisors. The awards are given for the best work published in the preceding calendar year in the following categories: Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story, Single-Author Collection, and Edited Anthology.
The nominees for the 2009 Shirley Jackson Awards are:
Big Machine, Victor LaValle (Speigel & Grau)
Last Days, Brian Evenson (Underland Press)
The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters (Riverhead)
The Owl Killers, Karen Maitland (Delacorte Press)
The Red Tree, Caitlin R. Kiernan (Roc)
White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi (Nan A. Talese)
The Language of Dying, Sarah Pinborough, (PS Publishing)
Midnight Picnic, Nick Antosca (Word Riot Press)
“Sea-Hearts,” Margo Lanagan (X6, coeur de lion)
Shrike, Quentin Crisp (PS Publishing)
Vardøger, Stephen Volk (Gray Friar Press)
The Witnesses are Gone, Joel Lane (PS Publishing)
“Catch Hell,” Laird Barron (Lovecraft Unbound, Dark Horse)
“Each Thing I Show You Is a Piece of My Death,” Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer, (Clockwork Phoenix 2, Norilana Books)
“Lonegan’s Luck,” Stephen Graham Jones (New Genre 6)
“Morality,” Stephen King (Esquire)
The Night Cache, Andy Duncan (PS Publishing)
“The Crevasse,” by Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud (Lovecraft Unbound, Dark Horse)
“Faces,” Aimee Bender (The Paris Review, Issue 191, Winter 2009)
“The Jacaranda Smile,” Gemma Files (Apparitions, Undertow Publications)
“The Pelican Bar,” Karen Joy Fowler (Eclipse 3, Night Shade)
“Procedure in Plain Air,” Jonathan Lethem (The New Yorker, April 5, 2010)
“Strappado,” Laird Barron (Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, Solaris)
Everland and Other Stories, Paul Witcover (PS Publishing)
Fugue State, Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press)
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, Robert Shearman (Big Finish Productions)
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Penguin)
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, Kevin Wilson (Harper Perennial)
Zoo, Otsuichi (Haikasoru/VIZ Media)
Apparitions, edited by Michael Kelly (Undertow Publications)
British Invasion, edited by Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, and James A. Moore (Cemetery Dance)
Exotic Gothic 3: Strange Visitations, edited by Danel Olson (Ash Tree Press)
Lovecraft Unbound, edited by Ellen Datlow (Dark Horse)
Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow (Solaris)
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) wrote such classic novels as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as well as one of the most famous short stories in the English language, “The Lottery.” Her work continues to be a major influence on writers of every kind of fiction, from the most traditional genre offerings to the most innovative literary work.
The Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented at Readercon 21, Conference on Imaginative Literature, in Burlington, Massachusetts. Nalo Hopkinson, Readercon Guest of Honor, will act as host.
Media representatives who are seeking further information or interviews should contact JoAnn F. Cox.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Thank you to all the editors and publishers who submitted work!