Charles Tan interviews Reggie Oliver

Reggie Oliver is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated The Dracula Papers (novel) and “A Child’s Problem” (novella).

For your novel, The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar’s Tale, what made you decide to explore the Dracula narrative?

Dracula is one of the most compelling characters in all fiction, but little or nothing is said in the Bram Stoker novel about his origins – how he came to be a vampire. I am interested in origins, particularly the origins of evil. The facts of serial killing are banal and sordid: what is compellingly interesting is how a human being, not so dissimilar to us, comes to be a serial killer. Bram Stoker’s original title for Dracula was “The Undead”, and here I found the clue, because the most interesting thing about Dracula is not that he sinks his fangs into the necks of young maidens, but that he has lived for hundreds of years and could potentially live forever. We all of us, in some way or other, want to live forever, and so I discovered both an understanding of my central character and the perennially fascinating central theme of this book: the craving for immortality.

What drew you to Richard Dadd’s painting of “A Child’s Problem”?

Richard Dadd was a promising painter of the early nineteenth century, and, had he not gone insane and murdered his father, he might have had as successful a career as his friend and contemporary W. P. Frith, and been no more interesting. Insanity however gave his work a quality unique among his contemporaries and seldom matched even till today. That quality is one of brooding menace and profound psychological unease. All of his mad paintings have a palpable threat, but that threat is enigmatic. The atmosphere that comes off his painting “The Child’s Problem” is frightening, but why is it frightening? It appears, like so many Victorian paintings, to be telling a story, but, unlike those other “sane” paintings, the meaning of the story is unclear. The painting both compels and mystifies, and it would not leave me alone until I had lifted the veil on at least part of its mystery.

Does your experience as a playwright influence the way you write fiction (or vice versa)?

I began my writing career as a playwright and I still write plays. One is about to go into production as I speak (or write). Plays happen in real time and so structure is all important: every event, every scene has to advance the narrative and make its point. I tend to write my stories in “scenes.” I tend also, wherever possible, to rely on dialogue to convey character and atmosphere. A great many of my stories are first person narratives and the narrator is rarely if ever a simple alter ego. This gives me the opportunity to engage the reader in all kinds of interesting games to do with “unreliable narration.” Remember, of course, that unreliable narration does not mean unrevealing narration. I have a one man show which I have performed based on two of my stories which are character monologues. Essentially I see myself as a story teller rather than a story writer. And the watchword for the story teller, as Henry James used to say, is: “Dramatise! Dramatise!”

Charles Tan interviews Tim Waggoner

Tim Waggoner is the author of Shirley Jackson Awards nominee The Men Upstairs.

Hi, Tim. Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what was the most challenging part when it came to writing The Men Upstairs?

Writing a novella is always challenging because of the form. Sometimes you need to use a short story technique, sometimes a novel technique, sometimes a technique that’s a strange fusion of the two. This challenge is a huge part of what makes writing novellas so much fun. The most challenging part of writing The Men Upstairs was probably balancing the different types of horror — sexual, psychological, surreal — so that the story didn’t seem like an ill-fitting, patchwork mess but instead something the reads (hopefully) like a seamless, organic whole. In my horror I often try to create stories that are both grounded in reality and darkly dreamlike. Finding this balance is always challenging, but it’s also what I love about writing horror.

What made you decide to juggle elements of desire, sex, and appetites in the narrative?

The story developed from several incidents in my life. One was observing a woman crying in the lobby of a second-run movie theater. Like everyone else, I walked by her at first, but when I thought to go back and see if she needed help, someone else had stopped to speak with her. I thought that incident would make a great opening scene for a story. A second incident was having a strange group of men move into the apartment directly above mine. A third element isn’t a specific experience, but rather a series of them. Over the years, I’ve come to know several people who’ve suffered sexual abuse, so when I decided to begin the story with a woman crying in a movie lobby, then added in a group of strange men she was fleeing from and the man who was trying to help her, sex and desire — both the positive and negative aspects — arose naturally from the combination of these various elements. A more general answer is that desire, sex, and appetite are all very primal aspects of the human experience, and the more primal a need is, the more powerful it is. It seems to me that the most effective horror fiction deals with such primal elements.

When did you know that this story would be a novella? How did it end up getting published by Delirium Books?

Shane Ryan Staley at Delirium invited me to a write something for his novella series. Not a very interesting answer, but it’s the truth! So when I cast about for ideas, I decided to combine the story elements I mentioned above because I knew they would allow me to write a long story, but one that wouldn’t be too long. Sometimes when you write, you can let the material find its own form and length. But when you purposely set out to write a short story, a novella, or a novel, you need to make sure your idea — on combination of ideas — will suit the task. Sometimes the dog wags the tail, sometimes the tail wags the dog, but in the end, all that matters is you deliver a good story.

Charles Tan interviews Ann VanderMeer

Ann VanderMeern is the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated co-editor of The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.

Hi Ann! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what made you decide to revisit the concept of Thackery T. Lambshead?

The first anthology, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, was and still is a very popular book. We’ve had so many people ask us when we’d do a sequel. However, the last thing we wanted to do was another anthology of fake diseases. Plus we don’t like to repeat ourselves – we’d prefer to do something new. We liked the idea of stories built around Dr. Lambshead’s “collection”, the secret life of objects, so to speak. And because we love to work on highly visual books, we thought it would be cool to have various artists create pieces of the “collection” and have different writers provide stories about these items. As with most of our books, one idea led to another and the project took on a life of its own. I love that all of these imaginations were brought together in one book. And many of our contributors didn’t know each other before, so it was an opportunity for embracing new collaborations.


How did you decide on the sections of the anthology and where each contributor/contribution will be “categorized”?

We wanted this book to be designed similar to what you might see in an art exhibit catalogue or even an auction house. But beyond that we wanted to have all this great original fiction. In addition to the stories behind the objects themselves, we wanted full on short stories, so we asked for stories about Dr. Lambshead, or the cabinet in general, in addition to the art/fiction collaborations. We approached certain artists, such as Mike Mignola and Greg Broadmore, who provided several pieces and we made those areas separate sections, assigning the writers based on multiple factors. In some cases the artist asked for a particular writer and in others we provided the finished art pieces and asked the writers to select one to write about.

Once we read the fiction that came in, we were able to make definitive categories, although we had them loosely defined ahead of time. It was necessary to see the entire project before we could put it all together. And that also allowed us to approach other people for contributions we thought would make the book even more wonderful. We were lucky to connect with some talented artists and writers that were willing to go along on this crazy adventure with us and understood what we were trying to accomplish. Plus we had John Coulthart creating the section title pages, too, based on our direction and feedback.

And because we were asking for very specific art and fiction, we couldn’t really be an open anthology – it was by our invitation. But because we advocate open reading periods whenever possible, we thought we should do something….so…we came up with the idea of the exhibit pieces at the back of the book. We put out a call for submissions on Jeff’s website, asking people to submit short-short pieces that describe some unique cabinet items. We told everyone we would select 24 for the final book. We had well over 300 submissions and we did end up selecting 36 in the end. That was win-win.


What was the collaboration process like and could you share with us some of the work that went into the editorial process?

This particular project had multiple types of collaborations. Not only were artists and writers collaborating on their contributions with each other, but each individual was collaborating with all the other contributors in various ways. It was pretty striking how many stories came in that referenced other ideas, events, etc in other stories that they could not possibly have know about ahead of time. It was almost like we were all mind-melded together – ha! But the best part of this book was being introduced to so many new (or new to us, at least) voices. Some of our early contributors made suggestions of other people we might want to consider. In addition, many other writers and artists were introduced to each other through this project. I could definitely see everyone being inspired by everything else. It was so much fun!

And our editorial process for this book? Not like any other book we’ve ever done. As I said earlier, we don’t like to repeat ourselves, even though this might mean we’re starting all over again. Jeff and I work so well together. Our strengths and weaknesses complement each other, plus our workloads are different. So when I have more free time I can do more in while Jeff is working on other projects and vice versa. Now, this isn’t to say we never had any arguments, because we did. But we lay out the ground rules ahead of time with each other for each project.

I have to say, Jeff and I were looking over the number of contributors we published in 2011 in our various anthologies and we had well over 600 people represented. That’s a quite a large number of unique talents. We’re truly blessed.

Charles Tan interviews Ellen Datlow

Ellen Datlow is the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated editor of the anthologies Supernatural Noir and Blood and Other Cravings.

Hi Ellen! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Consistently year after year, you continue to produce at least one anthology that’s tinged with darkness. What makes you come back to this theme?

I’m often asked why I love horror and I find that it’s a difficult question to answer. There’s an edge to good horror that I don’t find in other fiction–what do I mean by “edge”? The deliberate exploration of the dark side of human behavior. A deliberate fictional intrusion into the unknown country of death–so much horror is about facing one’s own or one’s loved ones’ death and/or annihilation of self. I admit I’m struggling here. How can one explain why one loves life but loves reading stories of horror and terror? I’ll leave that to the psychiatrists (smile).

Can we talk about brainstorming a theme and a title for anthologies? How did you come up with the concept for Supernatural Noir for example, or when it comes to a common theme like vampires, how did you settle on Blood and Other Cravings as a title?

Supernatural Noir was the follow up to Lovecraft Unbound, an anthology I edited for Dark Horse. My editor actually suggested the theme and the title came naturally out of that. Blood and Other Cravings is the third vampirism anthology I’ve edited (Blood is Not Enough and A Whisper of Blood were the first two)and it seemed important to have the word “blood” in the title. Titles either just come to me or I agonize over them.  A Whisper of Blood was agony to come up with (David Hartwell– my editor on that one– and I spent the four hours in a car to and from Boston for a panel, throwing ideas at each other. ) Luckily, Blood and Other Cravings was one that just popped into my head. I knew it was perfect for what I wanted to do.

When working with writers on a story, what are some of the techniques you employ to help the writer improve the story?

I’m not sure it’s a “technique” but if I know I’m going to buy the story but I think it needs work, I ask a lot of questions.

Basically, how I work though is:

First I’ll read the story through and take notes as I go (if I have questions or comments about something that jumps out at me as I’m doing my first read).

If I know that I’m going to buy the story or love it enough to work with the writer to get the story into buy-able shape, I’ll give it a closer look and note responses/questions/suggestions throughout. The last things I do during a line edit is note repetitions of phrases, words, images to make sure the author is using them deliberately and not repeating them by accident. I also look for “tics” aka placeholder word usages. I may see one word or variation of a word used too many times (with search and replace it’s easy to check this in a ms) and ask the writer to delete or reword about 20 of the 25 uses (of course, I cannot think of an example right now).

I never rewrite but I might occasionally suggest a different way of saying something and ask the writer if she agrees and if not, ask her to come up with a different rewording. I may ask the writer to combine and tighten up two loose paragraphs that seem to say the same thing. I’ll often ask for clarification. I may ask for a trim when a writer’s research gets in the way of the story. Each edit depends on the individual story. It’s more difficult with writers I haven’t worked with before because I don’t know how he’ll react to my edits. A crucial part of being an editor is being able to persuade an author that his story needs fixing and get him or her to fix it…

Charles Tan interviews Glen Hirshberg

Glen Hirshberg is the Shirley Jackson Awards nominee of the collection The Janus Tree.

For The Janus Tree and Other Stories, how did you decide on the stories to be included in the book, as well as the sections which they fell under?

The Janus Tree collects all the short fiction I’ve published since my last collection, American Morons, plus two new novellas.  Beyond the concerns that I suspect are present in everything I do, there was no intended thematic structure to the book as a whole.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the stories’ origins, as much as their themes or structures, dictated the book’s sections. Long stories are home base for me, and so I’ve front-loaded Janus with those. The section called “Tales From the Rolling Dark” collects all the stories I’ve read on tour with the Rolling Darkness Revue. The Revue is a performance/live music/ghost story reading project I co-created with Peter Atkins and Dennis Etchison that does shows in the American west and sometimes further afield every October. As all of those stories were written to be performed aloud, they’re naturally shorter and punchier, and they tend to be voice-driven.

The last two novellas are from a series I am developing, inspired by an astonishing series of photographs I spotted online (see the link below) of an abandoned public school book depository in my hometown of Detroit. All of these stories focus on the implications of the end of the book as physical object.


What’s the appeal of short fiction for you?

I don’t that it has any specific appeal. That is, I really try not to set out to define the shape or length of something before it exists. I try to let the form of any given piece develop naturally. The exception to that would be the Rolling Dark, stories, as they really can’t be longer than 4000 words or so. Which creates all sorts of healthy, anxiety-ridden challenges for an atmosphere-guzzling language junkie like me.


Majority of your stories in the collection begin with quotations. Why do you favor this technique?

I think I just love reading, honestly. The opening of a story seems like one more perfect excuse to share something fabulous that I’ve found, or that someone shared with me.