Charles Tan Interviews Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What made you decide to set your story during the Great Depression?

I knew I wanted to write something that was a myth, of a sort, yet one that would blend entirely American myths with older, more savage ones. (I will not detail which myths those are, since that would take a lot of fun out of it.) I also knew I wanted to set my story in an environment that would test humanity in nearly every manner: physically, mentally, and morally. So in a way I did not choose to set my book in Great Depression; rather, it was the only choice.

However, I do not think MR. SHIVERS is historical fiction. The Great Depression it takes place in is more akin to our cultural idea of the event rather than the event itself. It is set in a story of a place and time, and not the place and time itself.

What are the challenges in writing a dark book, especially over the course of an entire novel? What is it about the novel format that calls out to you?

I do not think there are any intrinsic challenges to writing a certain style of book. Each story presents its own unique obstacles and problems for the writer. For example, two stories that have the same tone and voice could very well have wildly different challenges. Personally, I think that if you are experiencing the same challenges every time you write a story then you are probably doing something wrong, because you are either not learning or not trying something new, or both.

In the case of MR. SHIVERS, I did worry that it was too somber. Though it does have flashes of humor, these are few and far between. But eventually I realized that the characters, having done what they’d done and seen what they’d seen, would not even be able to recognize a joke, let alone make one. Humor does not belong in the places they visit.

In regards to the novel format, I like it because you are allowed to be messy, meandering, and bombastic. A novel is a symphony, a short story a quartet; the structures are bigger, so you can allow a bit of fluff here and there, which really brings the world to life.

Since your second book, The Company Man, is out, how do you currently feel about your first novel, Mr. Shivers? Is Connelly still your favorite character?

I think most artists who are just starting out tend to mimic their betters until they begin to understand what they’re doing. This is fairly evident in MR. SHIVERS, and even a little bit of THE COMPANY MAN. It was while I was writing that second one that I started to see flashes of my own voice as a writer, which I’ve begun developing with more focus. I will be very curious to see what people think of THE TROUPE, my third, because I feel that was when I had my “eureka” moment.

I don’t think Connelly is my favorite character. He was very distant from me, as were most of the characters, and I expect I did this intentionally: in that world, introspection is not valued. I do have a fierce fond spot for him – he surprised me more than nearly everyone else I’ve ever written – but at the end he was like so many other people in the book: a scarecrow-man, stripped down to nothing more than the will to survive.

I will keep mum on who my current favorite character is, since they do not yet exist in the published world, so discussing them would be a bit cruel.

Please help support the Shirley Jackson Awards. Click here for details.

Charles Tan Interviews Peter Watts

Peter Watts

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What is it about The Thing that appealed to you and made you want to revisit it?

Warning:  there are serious movie spoilers in the following answer.

Carpenter’s movie is perhaps the smartest monster movie I’ve ever seen, on all counts:  the script, the characters, the monster itself.  The fifties-era Howard Hawkes version showed us a creature which was presumably smart enough to travel between the stars, and yet whose actions when he finally got here amounted to no more than roaring and smashing things.  Ridley Scott’s Alien (much as I love that movie) gives us people who know there’s a killer alien on board and who will nonetheless go off looking for the ship’s cat all by themselves.  Stupid monsters and stupid victims seems to be a staple of the genre.

Now look at Carpenter’s “The Thing”.  The moment the humans realize they’re dealing with a shapeshifter, they burn everything that might be contaminated.  They start talking about serological detection methods.  They prepare their own food, keep an eye on each other, never go off alone (well, except at the end, but by then they’re running out of people to buddy up with).

Now look at the alien: it sees the blood test coming from miles away, and destroys the baseline samples.  Posing as one of the crew it disables the helicopter and the camp’s radio equipment in a carefully planned rampage that a) effectively isolates the humans; b) deflects suspicion away from it; and c) gets it locked away in a tool shed “for your own protection”– where it is free to build its own escape vehicle from the cannibalized parts of the wrecked chopper.  This is not just a monster, it is a thinking creature, and it’s a few steps ahead of our protagonists throughout most of the movie.

Then there’s the script itself, which is utterly relentless.  This is a movie that earns its nihilism.   Even at the very end,you don’t know who won.  You don’t know if anybody did.  There’s no tacked-on happy ending, no last-minute rescue.  The best-case scenario is that everybody dies.

So, yeah.  A fine movie, that stands up pretty well even today.  And yet there are all those dumb things about it, too.  The FX gaffes (am I the only one to notice that Copper’s forearm snaps off a couple of inches above where the thing bites through it?)  The (to be charitable) questionable biology:  the almost nuclear metabolic rate necessary to support that kind of rapid shapeshifting.  And how many desktop computers in 1982 came bundled with software that let you check the odds of your friends being taken over by an alien?  (Today, of course, such apps come standard on any iPhone.)

So I started out not only to pay homage to one of my favorite movies, but also to take a stab at retconning some of its dumber bits (a recent paper on “somatic evolution” — I blog it at —  gave me some inspiration on the biological front).

I was as surprised as anyone when it turned into a rumination on the missionary impulse.

What’s your perspective on fan fiction? During the writing process, did it occur that “The Things” might not be publishable or did you not allow it to bother you?

I’ve never really thought about fanfic that much.  Once or twice I’ve encountered fan fiction set in the universe of my own work, and I’ve been nothing but flattered.  I have a vague awareness that certain multinational conglomerates are fond of stomping on people who play in their trademarked sandboxes, but I never really understood the rationale beyond sheer dickishness; if the next Star Wars movie doesn’t do well, it’s not gonna be because some fan wrote a story about the gang-rape of Jar-Jar Binks.  And in the present case, I just assumed that my take was so utterly orthogonal to the original (think “Rosencratz and Guilderstern are Things”) that it fell under the rubric of “transformative work”.  It certainly wouldn’t be taking any money out of Universal’s pocket (on the contrary, I know of a few people who bought or rented the DVD solely on the basis of my story). So I never thought of it as a problem.

I only started to think otherwise when the folks originally slated to run the story insisted on a contract that explicitly left me holding the bag in the event that any Hollywood sharks did come cruising.  (I don’t hold their caution against them, by the way, although ultimately the story went to a different outlet.  But I do believe that if a risk does exist, it should be shared by all those who would otherwise stand to benefit.)

When we speak of horror, science fiction doesn’t come up often (although there are clearly works where both overlap). What’s your opinion when it comes to horror and science fiction, or is it simply that we’re not looking hard enough?

Unless you define horror as a genre that must explicitly contain some kind of supernatural element — which I don’t — I think the distinction is fairly meaningless.  Science fiction plays with the ramifications of science and technology.  Horror goes for the brain stem.  There’s no reason why a piece of fiction can’t do both; certainly some of science’s recent findings about the human condition are plenty horrifying in an existential kinda way.

Cinematic cases in point are almost too numerous to mention: “The Thing” (of course), “Alien”, the various body snatcher movies all qualify as horrific sf.  But there are plenty of literary examples as well: a lot of Stephen King, for example.  Hell, even my own Blindsight gets described as horror — I’ve been surprised by how often the word “Lovecraftian” got attached to a work which, by all accounts, is pretty solidly hard-sf. (And speaking of Lovecraft, the whole Cthulhu mythos can be regarded as science fiction of an especially squicky sort).  More recently, Dave Nickle’s marvelous “Eutopia” is being widely lauded as a masterwork of period horror — one critic compared it to early Stephen King — but nobody seems to have remarked on the fact that it is, in fact, a piece of science fiction that just happens to take place against the background of the Eugenics movement in 1911.  While there is creepiness and horror galore in that novel, there is nothing supernatural about it; all its monsters and mayhem are grounded in basic (albeit speculative) biology.

So, yeah.  Horror vs SF?  It’s like asking whether there’s an overlap between plot and character development.

Please help support the Shirley Jackson Awards. Click here for details.

Charles Tan Interviews Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas

Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did you two end up collaborating with each other and what was the collaboration process like?

Nick Mamatas: A few years ago, the Horror Writers Association, of which I was a member at the time, put out an open call for anthology ideas to its membership in an attempt to reinvigorate its HWA-branded book program. I quickly thought of the idea of regional ghost stories, retold and revised by real writers. It was a pretty commercial idea as such a book could potentially be sold to a regional publisher or a mainstream one, it could be marketed as fiction or non-fiction, and extant collections of regional folklore have strong potential as perennial backlist sellers.

I got a note back from the HWA basically saying that they liked my idea, and that they were surprised and disappointed—they hadn’t expected someone as obscure as I am to have a good idea. Could I get a co-editor among the ranks of famed HWA members? Well, Ellen came immediately to mind, so I asked her to join the project. We then couldn’t come to an agreement with HWA that would have made it worth our while to edit the book under its aegis, as there were just too many stakeholders—HWA, its agent, its book packager, etc.—who needed to be paid out of any advance we might have received. So Ellen took the book to Tor, where she had previously published anthologies such as THE DARK and INFERNO. After a year or so of the usual aging of the proposal (as with fine cheese, many publishers think book proposals will improve if kept in a cold, wet cave for an extended period), Tor said yes.

Ellen Datlow: Nick proposed the idea to the HWA but the organization thought he needed to find a co-editor who was a bigger name (although Nick’s visibility as writer/editor blogger has increased exponentially since we sold the book). He approached me and I said sure, but was a little hesitant because I had no idea if we’d be able to work well together. But then we decided to try to sell it on our own, because at the time HWA was involved in a partnership that would have taken too much of a cut for the anthology.

Nick insisted on a limited open submission process, something I’ve never used with my original anthologies for a few reasons that I won’t go into. He passed on about two dozen to me and I responded with my opinions of each one. From the start we agreed that each of us would have one “free” yes and one “free” no. I used my yes with an early submission that I liked more than Nick but he immediately backed down and said I didn’t have to take my “yes”. We agreed on everything else. When it came to editing the stories and working on rewrites, Nick worked with at least a couple of the writers extensively before we made a decision. And I think I probably did the same with a couple of other writers. And I think I did the final line edits.

I think we worked well together and I’d be willing to collaborate with Nick on another anthology.

What is it about regional ghost stories/legends that appeals to you? What made you decide to expand it to stories from around the world?

Nick Mamatas: “Expand” is the wrong word—the regional ghost story has ever been an international phenomenon. It would have been odd, and worth questioning, had we restricted the anthology to the United States. Tourists will go on ghost tours or thrill to some half-baked story of a local haunting while on their vacation to other countries, so it is not as though a regional ghost story is only interesting if you live next door to the haunted site. The opposite is more like it, really. I lived in Boston for a while, and really none of the locals seemed to care about the old cemeteries, the pre-Revolutionary era, or the events up in Salem and Ipswich.

For me, I always liked the idea of old houses and old places, probably having come from growing up in a railroad apartment from the nineteenth century that was falling apart onto my head, sometimes literally. Collections of regional ghost stories always disappointed me though, partially because they tend to be poorly written by either some breathless true believer or by the local university’s adjunct folklorist. Often it’s the story part, the motor of plot, that was missing. So why not put real writers to the task of finding a narrative within the anecdotes? It seemed obvious enough to me that I was surprised that there were few attempts to produce an anthology like HAUNTED LEGENDS before now.

Ellen Datlow: There’s such a rich variety of ghost stories and urban legends from around the world—how could we not? Ghosts exist in almost every culture—it’s both fun and illuminating to have stories about them.

What was your criteria–aside from the theme of course–in selecting the stories for the anthology?

Nick Mamatas: Ellen and I probably had different criteria! We had to agree on the stories, though each of us had a “magic button” to press that allowed for one override. Ellen could put in one story I hated, and I likewise. Too much agreement can eliminate more aesthetically extreme stories, after all, and its those stories that are worth re-reading and reprinting. For me, the main criterion was closely related to the theme: the traditional story had to be reinvigorated, usually through some act of revision. We received a number of well-written stories that simply repeated or retold the traditional tale without turning it inside out to better explore the innards of its plot and social function, and those we rejected. Editing isn’t just a matter of selecting and rejecting; I had a few writers alter the endings or structure of their stories to better express the theme before acquiring them. One was even edited via an epic AIM chat.

I also kept a little promise to myself made during my rejection slip days to read unsolicited submissions if I ever “made it big” in publishing. Also, it was easier to hold to the world theme by opening the anthology to over the transom submissions. No matter how large the Rolodex, and Ellen has a huge one, we would necessarily leave some people or some location out of our hunt. So in the so-called “slush” I was looking for the same, but had a special interest in writers utterly unknown to me. Having just edited Clarkesworld for two years, I had seen stories from nearly everyone in the field, but I was still surprised by Steven Pirie’s excellent story “The Spring Heel.” If I remember correctly, when I sent it on to Ellen I wrote a note saying, “And this one’s full of whores!”

There. Aren’t you glad I didn’t say, “I just wanted good stories”?

Ellen Datlow:  We wanted to invigorate the sub-genre of “true” urban legends, which usually comes across as badly written, unimaginative, and silly non-stories. We wanted talented writers to run with the idea—to give it a depth,  a darkness, a poignancy that most books of that ilk just don’t have.

Please help support the Shirley Jackson Awards. Click here for details.

Charles Tan Interviews Nick Kaufmann

Nicholas Kaufmann

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what made you decide to combine the concept of dragons with the undead?

It’s my pleasure, Charles. Regarding mixing dragons with the undead, it was a combination of factors. First was simple plot necessity. The Dragon needed an army. She keeps to the shadows and doesn’t want to be seen–it’s how she’s survived as long as she has–but sometimes she needs henchmen out in the world. I figured it would be creepy if those same henchmen were the reanimated bodies of her own victims, drones she can control and speak through. Second, I was–and still am–tired of the modern portrayal of the zombie. As much as I love Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” it’s got over four decades of, ahem, lifeless knockoffs to answer for, in both film and prose. The idea of the ravenous undead is a scary one, but after innumerable tales about a small band of survivors holed up and fending off crowds of mindless gut-munchers, I’d had enough. I became intrigued with the traditional zombie again, the one that’s more a metaphor for slave labor than for the perils of the Other invading our status quo; dead bodies reanimated to do their masters’ will with no regard for flesh eating or stumbling down city streets with plaintive moans and outstretched arms. One of my biggest fears, and a theme that seems to play itself out in my fiction over and over again, is the loss of self-control. The idea of your body or your personality being controlled against your will by something outside yourself, be it a tumor or a zombie master, terrifies me. The Dragon’s undead army is very much a representation of that.

Your protagonist Georgia is multifaceted and has her fair share of strengths and flaws. How did you come up with her character and what were the challenges writing her?

I read a lot of fantasy in my youth, and there was always a character, usually a boy, who was destined to go on to great things, to be the hero who saves the kingdom from the encroaching darkness. I enjoy standing tropes on their heads and seeing what falls out of their pockets, so I decided to make Georgia a “chosen one” as well: the last in a long line of dragonslayers dating back to St. George, destined to hunt and, like her ancestors, probably be killed by the Dragon. Except she rejects it. The Dragon has taken away everything Georgia loves, and so she turns her back on her calling, and on the Dragon too, and tries to lose herself in drugs. I was very concerned about portraying drug addiction accurately, but I was even more concerned about portraying a female character accurately. I didn’t want her to essentially be a male action hero with a female name, I wanted her to come across as an authentic young woman with some serious issues. I hope I succeeded.

When did you know that the proper length for Chasing the Dragon was that of a novella?

I didn’t. When I started writing it, I wasn’t sure how long the story would be. The novella kind of decided that on its own. It knew how long it needed to be before I did. I don’t mean to come off as esoteric, or to make writing sound like something created outside ourselves, but any writer can tell you that after a certain point the story guides you as much as, or even more than, you guide it. Chasing the Dragon didn’t spring fully formed from my head, of course. Nothing I write does. The novella took a lot of work and a lot of re-writing before it was even halfway decent, at least to my mind, but the length made itself known through the writing of it, if that makes sense. Like any story, it is as long as it needs to be. Any shorter and the reader would miss out on the little moments that define the characters. Any longer and it would have been padded out with unnecessary and unsatisfying tangents. I think it’s the perfect length. Besides, I find it’s better to leave readers wanting more than to overstay your welcome.

Please help support the Shirley Jackson Awards. Click here for details.

Charles Tan Interviews Laird Barron

Laird Barron

Hi Laird! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. The elephant in the room is all your nominations. In your opinion, how has your writing evolved over the years, especially when it comes to horror?

Hi, Charles. Can’t say whether I’ve evolved, but I hope I’ve learned a few things along the way. I worked different notes in Occultation; where The Imago Sequence dealt with horror through a hyper- masculine, noir lens, the new collection features, on the whole, a broader spectrum of protagonists, most of them quite ordinary. The focus is much more on relationships than gunfights. People dealing with each other, the wilderness, the inner dark. More focus on atmospherics, more attention to the ghostly and the weird. The third collection, The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All, is a fusion of the first two in many ways. I worked in cosmic horror tales alongside the occult and one pure ghost story.  Hope to see it out in a year or so.

A lot of your stories tend to be quite lengthy. Where are you more comfortable, the short story or novelette format? What are the pros and cons of each?

I prefer the novelette and novella forms; anything between twelve to twenty-five thousand words. The majority of my recent work is somewhere in that range, although I occasionally write a short story as well. I enjoy longer forms because there’s room to develop secondary characters and plots, more space for the darkness to expand, more layers of the onion to peel. I guess I’ve bought into that theory the core of art creation is akin to archaeology—you don’t write a story, you unearth it. My tendency is to keep boring in, to keep mining for the next black artifact my subconscious has convinced me lies in wait.

How did Night Shade Books end up publishing your second (as well as first) short story collection

The first collection came about after I spoke with Kelly Link at Readercon and she suggested I contact Jason and Jeremy at Night Shade. Turned out that Kelly and Nick Mamatas had championed my stories in Fantasy & Science Fiction and SciFiction to NS among others–this proved to be a huge boost for me. So, I dropped NS a line and Jason Williams took the collection a few weeks later. I ended up with a beautiful book, too. The guys made a nice offer for another collection and a novel. Occultation is equally gorgeous. Next, The Croning novel, which has been running behind due to unrelated life complications on my end.

Please help support the Shirley Jackson Awards. Click here for details.