Monday, July 12, 2010

Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud Interview (with Charles Tan)

Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud

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.

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