Charles Tan Interviews Rosanne Rabinowitz

Rosanne Rabinowitz’s novella Helen’s Story is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: Considering Helen’s Story and The Great God Pan were novellas, what is it about the format that interests you?

Rosanne Rabinowitz: I noticed that the novella category for the Shirley Jackson Awards includes seven nominees – the longest shortlist of the lot! Perhaps this highlights the special place the novella holds for fantastical fiction.

I gave some thought to that earlier in the year, when a critic – Matthew Fryer – included Helen as one of his favourites of 2013. This was much to my delight – and a touch of bemusement when he put Helen in the novel category. At just under 40,000 words Helen would be considered a novella in most camps, and that’s how I’ve viewed it. But a reader picking up the hard copy doesn’t have access to the word count.

Now, I’ve noticed that some novellas read as a longer short story, while others contain the layering you usually find in a novel. I’ve enjoyed both types of novella, but maybe the latter satisfies and resonates the most. Alice Munro is able to convey the time-span and complex story arcs of a novel in about thirty pages. Elizabeth Hand and Nina Allan have also written this kind of novella.

So I wondered: does word count alone define these forms, or is it the structure and mood that defines the short story, the novella and the novel? Can we look at the novella as a fictional form in its own right, which is neither extended short story or condensed novel? Since then, I’ve had some further ideas.

The novella offers a writer space to develop character and atmosphere. But it also lends itself to an intensity that’s difficult to maintain in a novel. And with a novel, maybe we do need some downtime just to hang out with the characters. This thought might just reflect my own taste in big and baggy novels, and the fact I’ve committed such a beast myself.

So maybe it’s that fusion of intensity with depth that characterises a strong novella – and that’s why the form lends itself so well to exploring the weird and strange.

Charles Tan:What made you want to tell Helen Vaughan’s perspective and how did Arthur Machen’s novella inspire you?

Rosanne Rabinowitz: I first read Machen when I was 12. In fact, my first encounter with Machen was through another novella,  The White People. Perhaps I was just at the right age to enjoy this tale about a neglected and imaginative girl who roams the countryside near her father’s house, seeking the magical and unknown. It impressed me so much that I went on to read as much Machen that I could get my hands on – my local library had old copies of Tales of Horror and the Supernatural and The Three Imposters too. When I read The Great God Pan, it didn’t cast quite the spell that The White People did. But its collage of events and voices fascinated me. I kept puzzling over it. So what did Helen actually do? What happened to her friend Rachel?

I’ve always loved the way The Great God Pan evokes landscapes of beauty and menace, of sunlight and ‘swaying leaves’ and ‘quivering shadows on the grass’. Machen is able to conjure such foreboding in a breeze blowing through a field in Wales on a summer afternoon, the odour of decay lurking beneath the scent of wild roses or a walk along a dank street off a busy London thoroughfare.

But Helen has no voice at all in The Great God Pan, and little actual presence. Her only real engagement with a main character comes towards the end when that old busybody Villiers barges into her bedroom with his ‘thick hempen rope’.

So what would it feel like to be Helen: brought up by a man who is convinced she is loathsome, shuffled between foster homes and boarding schools? She would have taken on a good deal of arrogance from her upper-class milieu but she also appealed to me as an outcast. She is, after all, partly human. She would be aware that she’s different from those around her, and wonder why.

I kept coming back to The Great God Pan for clues, and those speculations grew into Helen’s Story. While weird fiction often works by use of suggestion rather than revelation, I thought it was definitely time to explore some of these suggestions and make a few of my own.  And what would our Helen get up to in contemporary London? I had a lot of fun imagining that.

I’ve always been interested in the ‘other side’ of classic stories, especially from the villain’s point of view. One favourite book is Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of Mr Rochester’s mad first wife in Jane Eyre. I also remember a book that took on Great Expectations from Estella’s point of view. Reworkings of Dracula by Kim Newman and Brian Stableford also come to mind. There’s a grand tradition of fictional ripostes. I love the idea of literature as a continuing dialogue – even an argument.

Charles Tan: What was the most challenging part when it came to writing the story?

Rosanne Rabinowitz: Developing Helen as a character certainly challenged me. Contrarian that I am, I was continually tempted to make Helen ‘good’ – that is, a totally sympathetic outcast and rebel – in opposition to Machen’s portrayal of her as pure evil.

As mentioned, I did perceive arrogance in her character and sometimes she does treat people badly. Yet she would be struggling with isolation and an attempt to understand who she is. It took many drafts and critiques before I felt satisfied with the results. And of course, portraying a consciousness that is not entirely human is always a challenge.

I also have an ambivalent relationship with Machen’s story – on one hand, parts of it are truly evocative and haunting. On the other, there’s a definite ‘evil thy name is woman’ vibe going through it. So I wanted to treat the original with the respect and affection I felt for it, yet not pull any punches in confronting the way it deals with women and sexuality. And I certainly didn’t want to suppress the humour provoked by its more florid passages.

Well, Mr Machen himself liked a good laugh in the pub along with his whisky, so I think a satirical note or two does justice to the spirit of his work.

Charles Tan Interview Nina Allan

Nina Allan’s novella “The Gateway” is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: What research did you have to do for “The Gateway?”

Nina Allan: Not too much, to be honest. German language and literature have been close to my heart for many years, and I have long been interested in the civilian experience in Germany during WW2. I’ve never been to the Baltic coast, so I did do quite a bit of map-reading – an aspect of research that is always important to me in any case – to get the sense of place right. I had the uncanny and deeply affecting experience of visiting the concentration camp at Mittelbau Dora about six months after completing work on The Gateway, as well as visiting the eastern German towns of Wernigerode and Goslar, where my fictional Gelb brothers grew up and learned their trade. Both places felt oddly familiar to me, even though my only previous experience of them was imagined rather than actual. But I’ve found this is something that often happens to me – a kind of literary déjà vu.

The Gateway came to me in a rush, and from the heart. I was supposed to be writing a story inspired by the decadent Austrian writer Gustav Meyrink, but the narrative wandered off in a different direction. I’ve never been all that great at writing to brief!

Charles Tan: How did you come up with the history of the Gelb Brothers?

Nina Allan: I was reading a lot about the life and music of the German organist and composer Julius Reubke, who before his death at the age of 24 wrote one of the most difficult and innovative sonatas in the repertoire. Reubke’s background – he was born into a family of organ makers in the Harz Mountains – fascinated me, and I thought I might write something about someone like him. Somewhere along the way, musical instruments morphed into cabinets of curiosities, and then into the sinister and beautiful Palasten that are the particular speciality of my Gelb brothers. Writing their history was one of my favourite parts of writing the story as a whole. I have a fondness for invented artists, writers and musicians. I find invented biography alluring in general, whether in my own work or in other people’s.

Charles Tan: What struck me with “The Gateway” was the juxtaposition of personal tragedy with cultural tragedy. Were you conscious of these themes initially?

Nina Allan: Very much so. Readers – myself included – will generally find bald statistics difficult to absorb or to respond to. When you read that twenty million Russians, for example, died during the course of WW2, the information is both too bland and too appalling – it slides off our consciousness without being properly assimilated. Writing about individuals or small groups of people can be more involving for the reader and therefore ultimately more effective in conveying larger social, cultural or political actualities. Politics are never an abstraction, and the people most impacted by politics are not generals or warmongers or ideologues but ordinary individuals and families. As a writer, I’m interested in how those individuals and families react to changing circumstances, how they act and react when a safe environment becomes a dangerous one.

A fact too rarely acknowledged in British and American history is the Allied subjugation of Germany after WW1 and the indirect part that played in the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. In The Gateway, Andrew’s almost wilful blindness to what is going on in Germany is also a negation of responsibility, something that is later played out at a more personal level when he abandons the Emmerichs and refuses to tell Thomas the truth about what happened to Claudia. Thomas is patient and forgiving, determined to discover the truth about his own family life and the political life of his country.

Story is revealed through character, not through politics. But write the people honestly, and politics of some sort – interpersonal or international – will always turn up sooner or later. No one lives in a vacuum.

Charles Tan Interviews Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn’s  short story “Furnace” is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: What were the challenges in writing “Furnace”?

Livia Llewellyn: There was a massive challenge to writing “Furnace”, and it was an extremely personal one, but I’m going to be difficult and not say what it was. The reason why is because I believe that the more a writer reveals what motivated them, what terrible or wonderful real-life events prompted and informed the work, the more the work becomes “about the author” – and I don’t want anyone reading “Furnace” to be thrown out of the story, or any story I write, and say “oh, yeah, she said that exact thing happened to her”. That’s not fair to the readers. My fiction is informed by my life, but it shouldn’t be about my life. I want the readers to bring to it and take out of it whatever they want, and that should never be impeded by my presence.

Of course, readers are free to speculate what might have made “Furnace” so challenging to write, and they probably would not be wrong. But if asked point blank, I won’t confirm it!

Charles Tan: The town you describe in the story is quite vivid. Did you research this town, was it drawn from your experience, did you imagine it?

Livia Llewellyn: The town is Tacoma, where I grew up – I set most of my “suburban horror” stories in Tacoma, because to this day, and even after 20 years of living in New York, I’m still very much a child of that city, and I’ve never forgotten any of it. The streets I described in “Furnace”, the shops, the school and its crossing – all of that is real, including the house where my nameless protagonist lives. And yes, it’s not lost on me that my memories of Tacoma, both past and present, probably give me as much in common with the very obsessive and smothering mother in “Furnace” as the young woman trying to escape her. I know that says something about me both as a writer and a human, but I’ll let others have the pleasure of analyzing that.

Charles Tan: How did Thomas Ligotti influence (or not influence) “The Furnace”?

Livia Llewellyn: After reading about half of his published works, I realized that I would never be able to mimic or duplicate the complexity of his fiction. It’s extremely intellectual and highly philosophical – I can’t do that. Not that I’m stupid, but as a writer, it’s just not me. So, I chose a very female, very “Llewellyn” (if there is such a thing) subject matter – what happens both emotionally and supernaturally when a mother’s supremacy is threatened by her daughter’s puberty and ascension to womanhood – and then in writing “Furnace”, attempted to mimic Ligotti’s style. His sentences have a very particular and distinctive cadence and rhythm to them – if you start reading any of his stories out loud, you can not only hear it, you can feel it. It’s somewhat flat and disconnected at first glance, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s difficult to explain – it’s probably something I could more easily show by reading his work out loud to people than writing it down (and I have to say, my acting background and vocal work came in handy for this). Needless to say, I spent more time going over my sentence structure and reading “Furnace” to myself than probably any other thing I’ve written, just to make sure it was at the least somewhat reminiscent of Ligotti, from start to finish. I think I succeeded, to a degree.

Charles Tan Interviews Nathan Ballingrud

Nathan Ballingrud’s collection North American Lake Monsters is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: How did you settle on North American Lake Monsters as the story to center your collection on?

Nathan Ballingrud: I don’t really think the collection is centered around the story, so much as I think the title itself works well at defining the nature of all the stories. With the exception of “The Crevasse”, the stories all center around small town America — particularly Southern small town America. The phrase “lake monsters” works nicely as a metaphor for our own buried horrors. I also just really enjoy the suggestion of a field guide element derived from the title, although that’s worked against me a couple times. I’ve heard from a few readers who were disappointed that it wasn’t actually a guide to lake monsters. And you know, I get where they’re coming from.

Charles Tan: What was your criteria in selecting the stories to be included in the collection and their order?

Nathan Ballingrud: As far as which stories to select, it was easy: I used all of them. I wrote with glacial slowness over the last nine or ten years, and pretty much every finished story is in there. The only thing left out was a small piece called “The Malady of Ghostly Cities” I wrote for The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases (Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts, editors). I left it out because it was so tonally different from everything else in the book, and because I explored its central idea — people turning into cities — more thoroughly in “The Way Station”. Regarding the order, I knew I wanted to start with “You Go Where It Takes You”, because that story relies on the shock of the ending for its effectiveness. I thought that might be dampened if it was read after any of the others. I knew I wanted “The Good Husband” to round out the collection, since it was written specifically to anchor the book. As for the rest, I relied on what felt right. The drift of mood and tone. It was very unscientific.

Charles Tan: What were the challenges and expectations in coming out with your first collection?

Nathan Ballingrud: Aside from writing the actual stories, there were very few challenges. Small Beer Press has been a dream to work with, and I’d love to do it again. The whole process, from the acquisition to the publication, was extremely smooth. They were able to get a book of very dark, sad stories into the hands of a lot of readers who might otherwise never have given it a second glance, and for that I’m enduringly grateful. As far as my expectations go, they’ve already been exceeded. There were a lot of things working against the book. One, it’s a collection; two, of horror stories; three, by an unknown writer. Three strikes right there. I expected it to disappear pretty quickly. But people are responding very well to it. Despite the fact that it was ignored by PW, Kirkus, and Library Journal, and despite the fact that I’ve never seen it on the shelf of any Barnes & Noble, it’s finding its audience. And really, that’s the best thing a writer can ask for.

Charles Tan Interviews Will Ludwigsen

Will Ludwigsen’s collection In Search of and Others is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: How did you decide that “In Search Of” would the titular story for In Search Of and Others?

Will Ludwigsen: I don’t know too many other people for whom this is true in our modern mass-media age, but I was introduced to speculative “non-fiction” as a kid in the 70s before I discovered speculative fiction. Thanks to television shows like In Search Of and books by writers like Frank Edwards, I spent the first decade of my life genuinely concerned (and secretly pleased) that ghosts, vampires, witchcraft, demonic possessions, UFOs, and the Bermuda Triangle were all real things.

Almost everything I’ve written since addresses a little of my disappointment at learning they weren’t…and my desire to find or invent numinous things in the world.

When I wrote “In Search Of,” I didn’t realize it was a kind of distillation or mission statement for my entire fictive output: the weird things we believe about the big mysteries of existence are all really about the little mysteries inside us. Being wrong is really a kind of wish, and all of the stories in the collection are about people making those wishes and trying to make them true.

Charles Tan: What was your criteria in selecting the stories to be included in the collection and their order?

Will Ludwigsen: This probably undermines any illusions of artistry I ever projected, but the composition and ordering of stories for the collection was oddly subconscious. If I had anything in mind, it was a bell curve of length and feeling, lulling readers into longer dreams with shorter ones, giving them room to breathe.

The tiny stories between, things like “Mom in the Misted Lands,” were all actually written for my blog as challenges: I’d pick a public domain image, write for one hour, and post whatever I came up with. I had a pool of about forty of those to choose from, and I tried to pick the least literal ones, the ones with the quickest flash of strangeness showing above the surface.

What they all have in common, I suppose, is that they came to me in the post-Clarion period when I gave up on writing the kinds of stories that looked or sounded like stories “should.” Almost every story in that collection had a moment in its creation where I said something like, “Fuck it. I’ll tell it from the house’s point of view.”

Desperation and surrender…two surprisingly powerful tools.

Charles Tan: What’s the appeal of short stories for you?

Will Ludwigsen: When I was a kid, I loved jumping out from behind things to make my mother reel back, clutching her chest and yelling, “Ya gonna gimme a heart attack!” in her New York accent. Short stories are like that — quick blitzes of surprise and meaning that you drop on people and then run away.

There’s are probably many reasons that more people remember Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” than Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home (though both are great), but at least two of them are the story’s brevity and lack of answers.

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