In Convo with Paul Tremblay

Lisa Quigley – I actually read your two most recent novels—A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock—back to back. Needless to say, I’m a little traumatized. But, what intrigued me about both of them is that the supernatural element (in both of them) is never really explained or even really confirmed or verified. So you’re left wondering, was that aspect really real, or were they imagining it, or what? Which is almost more terrifying than having it explained, I think. Would you explain your thought process for choosing to make those elements of the novel more ambiguous?

Paul Tremblay – You are a wonderful glutton for punishment!  Or ambiguity…

Treating the supernatural as ambiguous (ie. is there really something supernatural going on or not?) is one of the links between the two novels. I wanted what happened in reality to be the most horrific aspects of each novel, with the hope that the ambiguity and maybe-supernatural would be what lingered and nagged at the reader once they were finished with the novels. Some of that satisfies my own skeptic’s brain; it’s difficult for me to commit to full on supernatural-ness. If that’s not a word, it is now. I try to take a realistic approach to the supernatural insofar as I think that if I were to personally experience a supernatural event, I believe it would be very subtle, difficult to describe or explain or identify. It wouldn’t be obvious that something supernatural happened and I’d be left with doubt and a sense of something being off, a glimpse of the cracks of things.

LQ – There’s a lot of social media in your newest novel, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, almost to the point of commentary in my reading of it. It’s like, there are all these pros and cons. It unites us in a really empowering, global way, but it can also be really horrifying when people’s unfiltered thoughts are just unchecked and on display like that. What are your thoughts on social media?

PT – Besides the ambiguous supernatural element, I wanted to treat Tommy’s disappearance as realistically as possible. I wanted to zoom in on the emotions that his friends and family would be experiencing, and also explore what the day-to-day would look like during the investigation, and what that all would look like now, particularly if something weird was happening at the edges.

There are definite pros and cons to social media. Without going too far down that rabbit hole, giving voice to the voiceless and instant data and reaction are/can be great things. At the same time, social media gives people as false sense of safety and comfort. Social media attention often muddies the waters and makes incidents/tragedies worse. Just last week the Twitterverse was sharing the name and photo of a man who was not the Dallas shooting suspect, right?

I’m addicted to social media and I’ve become more and more, if not frightened by it, then anxious over it.

LQ – I loved when Elizabeth goes down a google rabbit hole after her mother sends her the article about “felt presences.” And then the comment about how the article was the kind that people usually share without reading the entire thing. It’s funny, I remember being a kid/teenager, and when I wanted to learn about something, I had to watch a documentary or go to the library. Now, there’s google and, not to mention, everybody sharing everything (true or not) on facebook, on twitter, etc. It’s a virtual information shitshow. (Haha.) Do you think this has helped and hindered us and the way we now absorb information/learn things?

PT – It’s done both, though I fear that we may be reaching a point in the Internet’s brief history where we should be calling it the ‘misinformation age.’ That both Google and Facebook curate their algorithms and pages according to the users data, which means the user on sees what she/he is predisposed to believe in, which in turn hinders learning, discussion, and the sharing of true information. Instead, we get comments sections…

LQ – I’m curious about the decision to include Tommy’s journal entries as actually handwritten, along with his drawing of the “shadowman.” What was the thought process behind doing that, rather than allowing the reader to conjur these images with their imagination?

PT – I wanted the diary pages to look more personal, more like they actually came from Tommy. I think that kind of visual cue can make for a more powerful connection to the character for the reader.

The drawing of the “shadowman” is so important to the story plot-wise, I wanted the reader to have that image. Again, I think it help to build Tommy’s character; you get to see part of his personality, his talent as an artist, and whatever it was he saw or experienced.

Besides, it was also an excuse to ask one of my favorite artists, Nick “The Hat” Gucker, for an illustration. He’s such a talented and gracious guy. Now I have to write more books with pictures in them…

LQ – It’s hard for me not to compare your two most recent novels to each other, given that I read them back-to- back. And though there are similarities between them—I’m thinking of the blog/reality TV show in Ghosts, and the social media/Internet in Disappearance—they are also very different in tone, voice, and texture. Tell me a bit about your writing process—how do you hone in on the specific tone/style of whatever you’re working on?

PT – For every choice I make in the novel writing process, my first question is ‘does this serve the story? Everything from setting, character, style, and point of view. A Head Full of Ghosts would not have worked as a third person account. It would’ve been a cheat. Merry had to be the one telling the story and from her unreliable first person point of view. I didn’t think Disappearance at Devil’s Rock would’ve worked as first person as I needed multiple character point of views and it wasn’t going to be as expansive (and certainly nowhere near as brilliant) as Marlon Jones’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, where his story had the space for all those amazingly constructed first person voices. DaDR needed to be close third (for the most part), with a similar style and tone, I think, throughout, to help build a claustrophobic feeling.

LQ – More about your writing process: Your books often have terrible, dark secrets that are revealed at the end. Do you start off knowing what those things are and then work your way backwards? Or is the process one of discovery for yourself as much as it is for the readers?

PT – It depends on the story. I got lucky with A Head Full of Ghosts in that I knew the structure of the story almost right away. I knew where it started and where it would end, and I only had to figure out how to get from A to Z. When I get to work that way, I find it fun to have a beginning and ending in mind, and then the challenge is to find the winding path between them in the middle.

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock was much different. I wrote a 15 page plot summary before writing the book, and before that I filled a whole bunch of notebook pages with plot ideas and character sketches and the like. That book was pieced together over a much longer period of time and through many revisions and edits, including an ending in the first draft that was slightly different than what we ended up with.

For me it’s less about finding the process that works me, or any notion of a personal process, but the process that works best for that particular story. I think that keeps things fresh for me, and it feels like I’m starting over from scratch each time I start a new novel.

LQ – Something that makes me giddy is the way your novels are genre-bending. I’ve heard them described as ‘literary horror.’ Do you do that on purpose? What are your thoughts on the ‘genre’ vs. ‘literary’ debate?

PT – I do. It’s my agenda. Muhahahaha!

Horror remains, I think, the genre that is most associated with its worst works; the mostly crappy and exploitative Hollywood films (not the good movies, which are almost all indie productions).

That said, I do think we’re seeing a shift toward a more progressive and inclusive attitude toward genre, but you still see asshat comments (reeking of classism and narcissism, among other things…) like the following from Glen Duncan in a review of Colston Whitehead’s Zone One:

“Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, ‘Zone One,’ features zombies, which means horror fans and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy.”

I interviewed the great Peter Straub recently and he said the following as a part of an answer to the genre question: “…everybody of any sense, anyone who can read at all well, should understand it’s the way the things are written and not what their content is. There are good books and bad books.” I’m on team Peter. The very idea that horror genre elements would preclude or disqualify the use of character development, style, theme, symbolism, and any other techniques of literature is patently ridiculous.

Horror fans are not blameless in the literary vs. genre discussion as far too often readers will view or use “literary” as a pejorative. But as I said above, I’m hopeful these attitudes are changing.

LQ – Which authors did you grow up reading? Who were you most inspired by?

PT – I didn’t fall in love with reading until I was a mathematics graduate student. I didn’t know any better…

Second semester senior year I found my way into a freshman lit class (don’t ask) and I read Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” and it blew me away. I had no idea people wrote stories like that. Soon after, my girlfriend (now my wife) bought me Stephen King’s The Stand for my birthday. I inhaled it. And then for two years in graduate school, struggling to get my degree, I read all the King books, and moved on to Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, more Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, and so many more.

LQ – Who are your current favorite authors?

PT – I’m afraid to leave some of them off here, but, let’s go with…

John Langan, Laird Barron, Liz Hand, Stephen Graham Jones, Megan Abbott, Victor LaValle, Livia Llewellyn, Nathan Ballingrud, Jeffrey Ford, Aimee Bender, Junot Diaz, Mark Danielewski, Nick Mamatas, Kelly Link, Stewart O’Nan, Sara Gran, Michael Cisco, Brian Evenson, and I know I’m leaving off many others…

LQ – Okay, I’ve got to mention it: Stephen King blurbs your novel A Head Full of Ghosts. How did it make you feel to hear that that though he’s not easily scared, your novel terrified him?

PT – You mean August 19, 2015…yes, I have the day of his tweet memorized… I fell in love with reading, never mind writing, because of Stephen King. I’m not ashamed to admit that I got emotional when I read his tweet about the book.

Other friends had seen the tweet before I did and my phone was blowing up with notifications. It was a fun way to find out. I immediately sat down with a few adult beverages and my laptop, and watched people react to it for a little bit. That was a good night.

LQ – Do you have any book recommendations, anything new and fresh we should know about?

PT – Stephen Graham Jones’s coming of age/road/werewolf novel Mongrels. Joshua Gaylord’s werewolf novel without any werewolves When We Were Animals. John Langan’s epic The Fisherman. Livia Llewellyn’s collection Furnace. Laird Barron’s forthcoming collection Swift to Chase. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom. A little bit off the beaten path, but Karen Runge’s collection, Seven Sins, is just fantastic too.

LQ – We’ve got a lot of readers who are also writers. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

PT – Read, read, read, and read some more, and as widely as possible.

Also, it’s okay to have patience with your writing and career. Don’t let jealousy take over your mental energies. You can fool yourself into believing it’s healthy and motivational, but it isn’t.

*This interview originally appeared on Dwarf + Giant

In Convo with John Langan

Mackenzie Kiera – The Fisherman is such an intricate book. How long did it take you to write?

John Langan – About twelve years, all told. From the start, there were extended periods when I set the book aside, but it was never far from my thoughts.

MK –  How many phases did it go through?

JL – Really only two: the first, during which I was thinking of it as a long story, probably a novelette, possibly a novella; and the second, during which I was thinking of it as a novel.

MK – Did you always mean to write it with Lottie Schmidt’s story in the middle?

JL – Yes, that was always the plan. In fact, that was where I realized that what I was writing was no longer even a novella, but something much longer.

MK – What books did you read as research for The Fisherman?

JL – Mostly Bob Steuding’s The Last of the Handmade Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir (1989) and Alf Evers’s The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock (1972). I also made use of a documentary, Deep Water: The True Story of the Ashokan Reservoir (2002), by Tobe Carey, Bobbie Dupree, and Artie Traum. And I kept a copy of Moby Dick close at hand at all times.

MK – I have notes in my copy of The Fisherman of instances where I found references to not only Moby Dick but also to Frankenstein, Jacob’s Ladder (I suppose that’s more of a term than a book) and the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Did you mean to pull at these cords or did it just happen to twist together that way? I could be completely off the mark with this. I just know that ‘Call me Abe’ seems to be an instant throwback to ‘Call me Ishmael.” I suppose the question I’m trying to ask is: why did you choose to blend these tales together?

JL – Yes, the allusions in the book were deliberate, especially the ones to Moby Dick. Ever since I returned to writing weird/horror fiction at the tail-end of the last century, I’ve been engaged in this intermittent project of writing narratives that react in some way to texts in the American literary canon; I borrowed my personal name for them from D.H. Lawrence: “Studies in Classic American Literature.” At the time I began the novel, I’d mostly written in response to Henry James’s work. I’m a big fan of Melville, however, especially Moby Dick, so when I began work on what would become The Fisherman, I thought it might be fun to see what I could do with his work, so to speak. That opening line was intended to signal what I was up to to the reader. From there, as the novel progressed, it developed a centripetal pull of its own that drew in all sorts of other material.

MK – Lottie Schmidt’s story. My God. It has everything. It has a sorcerer, a sleeping princess, a hero and zombies. I loved how you seamlessly invited favorite childhood characters into this book. Can you comment about these characters? Were they always like this, or did they become so?

JL -It’s funny: until reading your question, it hadn’t occurred to me how much the central narrative of the book exploits those fairy-tale tropes (even though I make mention of the Grimm brothers in it). Initially, my concern was with creating a backstory that would set up the conditions for the present-day narrative; as I went further into it, though, the backstory became its own wild, elaborate thing. There were moments when I wondered about reigning it in, going for a story that was more restrained, elusive, but I remembered a piece of advice the great writer Jeff Ford had given my friend, Laird Barron, when Laird was writing his first novel. You’re going to be tempted, Ford said, to play it safe, to be understated. Fight that. Go for broke. Make the thing crazy. All right, I decided, that’s what I’ll do, too. The result includes things like the fairy-tale elements you identify. It’s been my experience that my creativity, if you will, is smarter than I am; I’m frequently amazed at what it comes up with.

MK – Would you argue that Death is a character in your book?

JL – Absolutely. But I think that Death is a character in pretty much every narrative—wasn’t it Don Delillo who said, “All plots end in death?”

MK – I feel like this book was a beautiful bridge between horror and literary. Did you set out, thinking that you were going to write a beautiful horror novel? Have you always leaned more towards horror in your work?

JL – I’ve always considered myself a horror writer; even when I was writing more in the vein of mimetic naturalism, in my twenties, my fiction tended towards the kinds of dislocations of character and experience that typify horror fiction. But I should add that I see no (necessary) split between horror and the literary. In my view, literary is an adjective, rather than a category; it’s a measure of the extent to which a narrative succeeds in terms of depth of character, elegance of language, thematic resonance, etc. Anything can be literary; to borrow a term from Henry James, it just depends on the author’s treatment of it.

MK – Were there any books that helped you the most or, had a profound effect on you and your work while you were writing The Fisherman?

JL – Moby Dick was front and center in my mind, but the further into the novel I went, the more I was aware of the influence of things I’d read when I was much younger, the stories of Robert E. Howard, for example. A number of reviews of the book have found traces of Stephen King’s storytelling aesthetic in it, and another interviewer pointed out the presence of King’s Pet Sematary in the novel, all of which now seems blatantly obvious to me, but of which I was not at all conscious during its composition.

MK – The end was so haunting. So perfect. Was that always the plan for Abe? To become a part of both worlds?

JL – Thank you! Yes, I knew that part pretty early on. Abe’s penultimate confrontation, though, was a relatively late addition, inspired by the ending of Laird Barron’s brilliant novella, “Mysterium Tremendum.” I wanted something that would give the last few pages of the book an added heft, and Laird’s story provided an example of how that might be done.

MK – Your other novel is House of Windows and you’ve appeared in ‘Best Horror of the Year’ several times. If someone out there wanted to read more of your work, what would you recommend to said reader?

JL – I’d suggest taking a look at my second collection, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013).

MK – Anything else you would like to add?

JL – My third collection of stories, Sefira and Other Betrayals, is forthcoming from Hippocampus Press in early 2017. My first novel, House of Windows, will be released in the spring of 2017 by Diversion Books; it will include a new afterword and a new story set in the titular house.

 *This interview originally appeared on Dwarf + Giant