Charles Tan Interviews Jeff VanderMeer

 

 

Jeff VanderMeer

 

Hi Jeff! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Aside from your short story “The Third Bear”, you also have an essay of the same name. How did the concept of The Third Bear originally develop and how did you finally settle on the title?

 

I was asked to write about fairy tales from a male perspective for a book of essays put together by Kate Bernheimer called Brothers & Beasts. I’d already been building up a kind of mythology around a man transformed into a bear for a story called The Situation and for the essay I more or less deconstructed and then reconstructed the whole idea of “three bears” around very different precepts than the actual folktale. In doing so, as sometimes happen, bits of story and plot got mixed in with the essay, and at some later point I found I had to write the short story too. My idea about a “third bear” is that this bear was outside of the confines of stylized folktales, and more like the literal versions of the originals. That the third bear was a kind of senselessness—beyond comprehension, as are some acts and situations in our world. And that as a result, sometimes folktales were inadequate for dealing with reality, because reality is messy—it doesn’t have discrete beginnings, middles, and ends, and stories that try to say reality has order to it are telling a lie.

 

What was your criteria in selecting the stories for your collection? How about the sequence of the stories?

 

I wanted to focus on stories that expressed a search for the inexplicable, the strange, the unknowable. For something beyond ourselves. In terms of the sequence, I wanted to start with the heart of the matter, “The Third Bear,” and then pull back from that horror into more subtle explorations, letting each story resonate in the heart of the next as much as possible, before opening up again at the end into the ultimate search for the unknowable in the last story.

 

What were the challenges in writing “The Quickening,” which is original to the book?

 

Knowing that a rabbit eating rabbit stew was the second key image in the story, after the first one, and to know when to create a sense of the luminous and when to create a more down-to-earth mood. But perhaps most essential was not being too nice. I kept recoiling from the central act that takes place in the story, toward the end, and then eventually realizing it was inevitable and to not go in that direction was a lie. And also that easy explanations for the rabbit would also be a lie, and that my decision in that regard would leave some readers expecting a certain set of tropes puzzled. But that’s okay—a puzzled reader is better than a bored reader.

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Charles Tan Interviews Stephen Graham Jones

 

 

Stephen Graham Jones

 

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did The Ones That Got Away end up being published by Prime Books and how did you decide on which stories got included in the collection?

 

How Ones ended up with Prime is that “Raphael” was supposed to be in Prime’s Horror, the Best of the Year 2007, which I think somehow died. But I guess that got my work on Sean Wallace’s desk. And then — I think this is beforeOnes, anyway — I also placed “Captain’s Lament” with Clarkesworld, which got me in his office again. Oh, wait. Right around then, Paul Tremblay and Sean were editing Phantom, and I was lucky enough to sneak my story “The Ones Who Got Away” in there. So, I mean, Sean probably thought I was waging some campaign or something. Which of course I was, and always am. On January 12th, 2008, then, he finally succumbed to all my mental telegraphy and emailed, asked if had considered getting my horror stories together into a collection? I think I got the email in a hotel in Boulder. I was up here scoping for a place to live, or picking up a bad-idea truck. And I said yes and please and thank you, of course, and then at some point Sean said let’s call it The Ones That Almost Got Away. I think up until then I’d been leaning toward The Meat Tree, maybe. Though I had a lot of titles cooking. Anyway, yeah, that rocked, and, the more I thought about it, the more it rocked. So then we were both kind of surprised when the cover came back The Ones That Got Away. It was kind of halfway between the title story and our intentions, but the words were all locked together so cool, and the cover was so pretty, and Sean said we could call a re-do, of course, but I was already saying please and thank you and yes again. Now I can’t imagine it being called anything else.

 

As for what stories, that was not an easy task. First I just piled all my horror stories into one file, then I started sneaking in dark stuff, then kind of science-fiction themed stuff, then just bloody and violent and disturbing stuff, and that was ridiculous. Way too much for one collection, and no kind of theme or anything running through it at all. And collections need . . . not so much continuity, but a feeling that they’re all kind of orbiting the same person, anyway. The same small set of ideas. So I gave myself that filter, only let myself choose stories that were in the same neighborhood as each other but weren’t quite cousins, if that makes any sense. I didn’t want any repeats, I mean.

 

This meant cutting a cool zombie story and some other stuff, and it meant rehabbing “The Meat Tree,” which turned out to just require prose-level fixes, as the story was there. However, selecting these, trying to make them into a real collection instead of some kind of unearned ‘greatest hits’-trick, what I finally had to go with were ones that scared me. I figured I’d have to let that be the center. There were a lot of others that I was jealous of — I can’t write X way anymore, don’t know how I ever dreamed that premise up, on and on — and a lot that I thought exhibited what I consider my meager strengths on the page. But that’s not what a collection’s about. So I just finally went with the ones I didn’t like to read too late at night. And, until Laird Barron’s so-cool, completely surprising introduction came back, I honestly didn’t know that there were so many kid pieces in there. I mean, ‘kid stories,’ I guess. There’s pieces all over the collection, of kids, adults, dogs. Well, no — when trying to sequence these stories, I did realize I couldn’t let the kid-voices merge, just because I didn’t want any character continuity suggested from this story to the next. But I never saw it in the real way Laird did. Not until he did, anyway.

 

What’s the appeal of the short story format for you and what are the challenges in writing for such a medium?

 

What I so dig about the short story is that you’re in and out in an afternoon. Just Sunday (it’s Tuesday now), I’d been up half the night with this terrible nightmare. Which is nothing unusual. But I had to be out the door at six or so, for my son’s swim meet. On the way, though, I bought this little dollar notebook, because I could feel my hand getting all twitchy, wanting to write. And I did. Got about three-thousand words down by nine, longhand (laptops and pools don’t mix), then read and watched the events, then got home about three in the afternoon and, by, I don’t know, six, I think, I’d transcribed and finished the story. Seven-thousand words and change. And it terrified me. And, in writing it, I realized it was all stemming from this lamp my wife had bought at a garage sale the day before, which I kept seeing in the rearview of the car that day. Anyway, I’m in the middle of a deadline novel, so didn’t need to be jacking with unsolicited stories, but the story didn’t care, was messing with me. Monday morning, I added two thousand more words, then another thousand after lunch. It’s sitting at ten thousand now, and’s the scariest thing I’ve done, I think, and, what? I invested ten hours or so? It’s so completely worth it. I mean, even if it somehow doesn’t sell, still, I’m so proud of it, feel like I cheated, getting it written.

 

And that’s how all the stories are for me. I never mess with one for longer than a few days. If it’s broken, throw it away, I say. That’s what I like so much about them. I mean, with a novel, if it’s broken, you nearly always feel this guilty push to rehab it, right? At least I do. I’ve fallen in love with the characters, this made-up place is so real, all that. With stories, I fall in love as well, but it’s a different kind of love. Not a one-night-stand kind of thing, but . . . I say it’s the slight investment that draws me, but it could also be the shape. The end comes so fast after the beginning, and you have to use so much economy, have to find all these elegant little workarounds. They’re fun, I guess. The problems built into the form of short stories — maybe ‘mode’ is the good word? — they’re problems I get a rush out of playing with. And every once in a while one turns out all right.

 

What was the genesis of “Crawlspace,” the story original to this collection?

 

Just the usual: my life. When my son was young, still in the crib, I found that if I read horror too late at night, he’d always need us to come get him. And, I say ‘us,’ but if I was reading horror, I’d usually find some way to accidentally wake my wife up, so she could walk down that dark hallway. I’d go with her, of course, to show I wasn’t being lazy, but I’d be watching behind us, too. One of my uncles used to always tell me I had a leaky brain. Maybe he was right, I don’t know. Or maybe I’m just making stuff up, seeing connections where there’s just coincidence. But isn’t that how fiction gets made? Paranoid people and dreamers already have the toolkit for writing. Anyway: horror movies? My son would sleep right through me watching them. And through me writing horror as well. I wrote all of Demon Theory with him sleeping on my chest. But reading horror, that’s always completely different for me. I get scared when I write, sure — okay: terrified, shaking, can’t get out of my chair but can’t stay here either — but reading the scary stuff, that’s keying a different part of my brain up, I think. The part that leaks.

 

Anyway, so I wrote “Crawlspace,” which at the time was called “Gabriel,” I think, and was a novella, a sister piece to “Raphael,” and I wanted to use a lot of other angel-names too, do a whole collection like that, but I don’t know any more angel names, and if I had to look them up I’d feel like I was cheating. It was pushing twenty-thousand words, I think. And it had this cool interdimensional portal way down in the grime of this apartment complex’s derelict swimming pool, and some way-cool stuff going on with somebody crawling on roofs. But it was too unfocused, was kind of just me, stacking up some jump-scares, trying to foist it off as a story. So, for Ones, after Sean said let’s do it, I found that “Gabriel” really and truly scared me, in spite of the fact that I could see the cracks in it. And, I say I don’t stick with a story for that long, but cutting it down to size — and it’s still long-ish — that might have taken two weeks, even. And I kept giving up, deciding it was unrecoverable, that it was broken at the conception level. But then I’d be walking down our hall at night and the story would be real for me all over, and I’d be running to my bedroom, diving for the covers again. So I finally just wrote it down like it felt, I guess. I haven’t reread it since then, either. It still scares me, is too real.

 

 

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Charles Tan Interviews Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What is it about the Booth family that interests you as “Booth’s Ghost” isn’t your first (and hopefully not the last) short story you’ve written about them? 

Actually, Mary Doria Russell is encouraging me to write a novel about the Booths and I am seriously considering it.  I’ve been accused of being fascinated with John Wilkes, but I deny this.  My last story was about the conspirators and particularly Mary Surratt’s innocent daughter.  My current fascination is Edwin Booth and his sister Asia.  The destruction of their lives through the acts of their younger brother is such a Shakespearian story, human-sized but also immense, epic, and the fact that half the players in it are Shakespearian actors is irresistible.  And I’ve always been interested in the people on the edges of the great events.  I like the stories about the stories.  

How did you decide that “Booth’s Ghost” would make its debut in What I Didn’t See and Other Stories?

Small Beer wanted at least one unpublished story in the collection and Booth’s Ghost happened to be the one I was writing at that time.  I’d been thinking about this story for quite awhile — years in fact — so when I was finally ready to write it, I was able to go quicker than my usual pace.   I was particularly pleased to find that it had a happy ending.  I don’t manage those often.

What I Didn’t See and Other Stories is a tight and strong short story collection. Who decided what stories went into the book and how did Small Beer Press end up publishing the book?

Thank you!  Kelly Link and Gavin Grant and I had been talking about a possible Small Beer collection for a couple of years.  I wanted a good collection and I don’t think I’m able to see which are my best stories and which not so much.  I like them all the same, which means some days I like them and some days I don’t.   So I asked Kelly and Gavin to make those decisions.  They made suggestions and I agreed.  So easy!  A perfect working relationship.

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Charles Tan Interviews Lily Hoang

Lily Hoang

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did you decide to narrate “The Foxes” the way you did, with all the layers and juxtaposition utilized in the piece?

When Nick Mamatas, one of the co-editors of Haunted Legends, first approached me about the anthology, I didn’t have any place-centred ghost stories at my disposal, so I asked my parents about ghost stories they remembered from their childhoods. They couldn’t think of any. My mother went so far as to buy me a boot-legged dvd of Vietnamese ghost stories, but it turned out to be a collection of cheesy b-movies. Then, my father remembered the story about the foxes. He told me the tale. Then, my mother told me a completely different version of the tale. They both circled around the same characters, but the narratives were almost antithetical. This is one of the greatest pleasures in oral narratives: their evolution and movement. The narrative form of “The Foxes” is intended to mirror the way oral narratives are passed down and around. Each time the story is told, something is changed, made more gruesome, made more fantastic. But at the same time, the way both of my parents told the story, there was a politic to it, maybe a subconscious feminism and anti-colonialism. My retelling of their story magnified these political tendencies, while playing with metafictional and form.

What’s the appeal of the short story format for you and what were the challenges in writing your story?

I very rarely write short stories. I prefer novels. Novels are messy and there’s room in them. Short stories are clean and precise. I tend to think in the longer form. I generally write short stories when an editor solicits something. (The exception is that I wrote a collection of short stories a couple years ago. I asked roughly 25 writers for stories they had started but couldn’t or wouldn’t finish. More information about that collection can be found here: http://jadedibisproductions.com/UNFINISHED.html.) But when I wrote “The Foxes,” I hadn’t written a short story for a couple years, maybe. I had a hard time making my ideas fit. The narrative seemed too grand. After trying to approach the story a few times, I found that juxtaposing disparate threads of the narrative allowed the story I wanted to tell to emerge, on its own.

Could you share with us how family has impacted your writing, and how it influenced your stories?

My parents and family were a very large component to my first two books, which have fair amount of autobiography in them. Other than that, I am always trying to make my parents proud. The fact that I’m a writer – no matter how many books I publish or accolades I receive – is a failure to them. I was supposed to be a doctor. I continue to write stories and books in order to make up for the deficit in their lives because I’m not a doctor. My family also instilled in me a very strong work ethic. I have an actual addiction to being productive. I guess there are worse addictions to have.

 

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Charles Tan interviews Joey Comeau

Joey Comeau

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What was the inspiration for One Bloody Thing After Another?

Horror movies. I watch a lot of horror movies. I love them. I love that they can be funny and strange as often as tense or scary. And I *really* love when they slip into unexpected sadness. I wanted to write a horror book that touched on all those feelings. An optimistic horror book.

What were the challenges in writing a story that includes a lot of elements and different genres? What made you decide to combine them all into one book?

I don’t really think of different genres as different kinds of writing. It seems fine to have a book where different kinds of things happen. I wanted to write a monster book where the monsters had real people who cared about them. Also, I wanted to write a book about an old man and his stupid dog, and their love for each other. And I wanted to write a book about a headless ghost! I wanted to write about all these ideas, the way I always have a million ideas, but these ones sort of clung together in my head, because they all were about the terrible things people will do to protect someone they love.

How has your experience writing for comics influenced/impacted the way you write fiction?

It has definitely made me more comfortable with brevity. Why say something in 1000 words when you can say it in 200? Why not just say a thing? I like plain language and simplicity. Clarity! When you only have 20 words or so to express an idea in a comic, you get more practice with brevity and clarity, for sure. And I think it’s improved my fiction writing.

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