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!