Charles Tan Interviews Christopher Barzak

Christopher Barzak’s collection Before and Afterlives is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: How did you settle on Before and Afterlives as the title for the collection?

Christopher Barzak: I was attempting to find the right selection of stories for the collection, and having a hard time making decisions about which stories I felt belonged together. As a writer making a story collection out of the many I’d published in the first decade of my career (over thirty), I had a lot of decisions to make, and I was having a difficult time of it. I finally decided that I would stop trying to make those decisions until I had a title for the book. So I kept trying to think about the themes I saw running through the majority of my stories. Eventually I kept tossing around the word “afterlives” because so many of the stories are ghost stories, or else are stories of being haunted by memory or by loss of some kind. One day I was reading my Facebook feed, looking at updates from friends, and saw that one of my acquaintances had posted an album of photos for her weight loss program, and I initially misread the title of the album as Before and Afterlives, probably due to how much I had that word on my brain. For a moment I thought, What an interesting sounding collection of photos, I must look and see, are they spirit photography? And when I saw that they were instead weight loss photos, I felt dumb for only a second before I realized I had invented, by accident, the title for my collection, which is as much about life as it is about afterlives. Then all of the stories in the collection were pulled together, almost as if the title alone acted upon them like a magnet.

Charles Tan: What is it about the short story format that appeals to you?

Christopher Barzak: I love the short story as a form because of its elegance, how everything in it must be necessary, and I love how a good short story feels like it is as open and detailed as a novel can be, but in miniature, like a snow globe containing an entire world. Reading a good collection of stories can be like going to see an art exhibit. Instead of one large massive painting by an artist, you get an entire room with walls filled with connected work. There’s something about the room full of paintings (or the book full of stories) that can feel even more multi-faceted than a novel.

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

Christopher Barzak: As I mentioned in the question about the title, the stories in the book felt pulled into the book under the umbrella of the title. The criteria was mainly thematic: they must speak to change, to intense turning points in a character’s life, or to a change in something else, like the house in the very first story (“What We Know About the Lost Families of — House”), over time. Regarding order, I wanted to open the collection with some of the darker material that dealt more directly with stories of hauntings, and then move through a couple of other variants on the meaning of being haunted (the way that, for instance, one woman is haunted, to some extent, by herself as she continues to proliferate newer versions of herself in the story “The Other Angelas”. Or the way that a mother is haunted by a son who has not necessarily died but has disappeared due to an illness that causes him to vanish slowly over time, yet lingers as an unseen presence in “Vanishing Point”.) I wanted to display my range as a writer, too, which meant I needed to consider placement of stories that might be darkly humorous next to stories that might just be dark, so that I didn’t get long runs of stories that felt like their total feeling were too similar.

Charles Tan Interviews Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley’s short story “The Traditional” is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: For “The Traditional”, how did you develop the story? Did the apocalyptic setting came first, or the characters?

Maria Dahvana Headley: The characters came first – particularly the narrator, but then her boy came into focus too. The apocalypse came from that feeling you sometimes have when you’re falling in love, that none of it could possibly be real, that you could not be this lucky. So the apocalypse in this story is love’s opposite, and the love the two characters build is as realistic as I could make it. Also the apocalypse setting came from the notion that love, even real love, is a helluva lot of hard damn work. This is one part O. Henry, one part Ballard, on purpose. Love is messy and full of crazy offerings. Like, you know, body parts given as anniversary gifts.

Charles Tan: For a lot of your fiction, whether novels or short stories, they tend to be compact and precise. What’s the appeal of this style for you?

Maria Dahvana Headley: Hmmm. Compact and precise is flattering! I feel a little sprawling usually!  But yes, that’s part of the pleasure of writing a short – seeing how much information you can press into something quite tinily, using emotional shorthand and phrases that mean more than one thing. It’s a structural challenge. This story has the pleasure of taking place over six years, which means I could encapsulate whole years in descriptions of the anniversaries.

Charles Tan: What was the most difficult part when it came to writing “The Traditional”?

Maria Dahvana Headley: The final showdown between the narrator and the giant worm. I wanted to do something that would call back to a lot of different B movie monster battles, while being itself as well – the fact that she kills the worm with a bone comb made of her boy’s hand? Maybe that’s something we haven’t seen before. But we have seen people dive off cliffs in order to fight big monsters. That balance was hard to achieve. We’ve seen so many movie monster battles! I rewrote it a few times, but finally, I was like, sue me, she has to dive down the worm’s throat and kill it from the inside. I have a fondness for the classics.

Charles Tan Interviews Maureen McHugh

Maureen McHugh’s short story “The Memory Book” is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: What kind of research did you do for “The Memory Book”?

Maureen McHugh: I was rather intimidated because Ellen Datlow said that she and Terri Windling were thinking about doing a book of Victorian horror stories and I should think about writing one.  I don’t usually write historical fiction, although I love to read it.  I like the details of life; what someone doodles in their notebook in biology class or the kinds of things that a guy working in IT says joking around with a girl in IT.  How would I find out that stuff for a story set in Victorian England?

I started with a book called Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders and built a place in my head.  Sean Stewart (Perfect Circle, Mockingbird, and several other good novels) and I talked about it and he told me some wonderful details from Sherlock Holmes.  There’s apparently a moment in Sherlock Holmes where Holmes drags Watson to an alley in London and in the middle of the day, dramatically lights a match to reveal something written on the wall.  London fog (which we would call smog) was apparently quite a thing.

And of course, there’s the internet.  Once I had a place and a character, I started the story, and then as things came up in the story (like a trip to Brighton) I researched more about that.

Charles Tan: How did you develop Laura Anne as a character?

Maureen McHugh: Laura Anne comes from a couple of things.  One is this setting.  Because I knew about middle class and upper middle class Victorian life, I set my story in that milieu.  The other was that I’d worked with a person I believe is a clinical narcissist.  The word gets thrown around a lot, but in my life I’ve only known one person like this.  (Although I work in Los Angeles where I am told they abound.)

I didn’t understand a lot of the things this person did or why they thought the way they did.  They say ‘write what you know’ but I usually write to figure things out.  (It doesn’t mean I do figure them out, it just gives me a way to grapple with what I’m trying to figure out.)  Laura Anne is impulsive, has difficulty empathizing with others, and is selfish and amoral.  Today she’d be diagnosed as…something.  I don’t know exactly what.

That kind of character is going to make things happen.  All she needs is to want something.

Charles Tan: How did you decide that the scrapbook would be Laura Anne’s source of magic?

Maureen McHugh: Honestly, when I found out that the Victorians were kind of mad for scrapbooking I was charmed and delighted.  Scrapbooking is huge right now (huge and denigrated, ‘craft’ rather than ‘art’, a female thing.)  I have this love/hate relationship with scrapbooking.  Part of me thinks it’s awesome and part of me thinks it’s dorky.  I’m not a fan of the prevailing aesthetic and yet, some of the work is really amazing.  Imagine Joseph Cornell, the artist who made the little boxes, as a scrapbooker or scraper.

It’s charged for me, so I started with it as a mechanism for a kind of voodoo.  It just seemed obvious that what she scrapbooked would come true.  And it seemed just as obvious that it wouldn’t necessarily come true in the way she anticipated.  (The story of most of our lives.  I knew a guy who got a degree in Forestry and ended up an accountant.  He was quite fun and funny.)

So it wasn’t quite as much a mathematical equation as it sounds in this, but that’s how this story came together.  I found a way into an imaginative version of Victorian life, came up with a character based on my own obsessions, and then gave her the motivation to act.  And hoped the whole thing wouldn’t fall apart.

Charles Tan Interviews Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller’s short story “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

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

Sam J. Miller: Reading really great short stories excites me because they’re worlds in miniature, tiny self-sufficient ecosystems with their own laws of physics and nature and emotion. I love getting lost in a big fat novel full of weird worldbuilding and crazy magic systems, but I also love the way that reading a brilliant short story can take you on a swift, haunting tour of a little universe packed with people (human and otherwise) who make you feel real emotions. That’s also what excites me about them as a writer – the chance to create something wacky and powerful that can hopefully give someone else the same emotional sucker-punch feeling that great stories give me.

Charles Tan: What made you decide to format your story as a bullet list?

Sam J. Miller: Formal conceits for me work best when they fulfill a primal narrative function, like in Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History” where the screenplay format offers us a multiplicity of perspectives on events to highlight the fact that even history’s starkest and most objectively-horrific facts are shaped by where we stand when we observe them. So when this story began to take shape and I realized it was fundamentally about a person who can’t own up to his privilege and how it rendered him unable to truly understand his relationship with someone who doesn’t share that privilege, I realized that the list format would give me an interesting way to underscore his massive blind spot. We all have a long list of excuses for when we do bad things – like Tom Ripley says, “whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head? You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.” Listing reasons is Jared trying to make excuses for his actions. The real reason for the Slate Quarry Suicides isn’t one of the 57 that Jared lists.

Charles Tan: When did you know Jared would be the protagonist of your story?

Sam J. Miller: Jared is only a few steps removed from my own high school self; I was dealing with tons of bullying and had a couple dozen bloody revenge fantasies a day, but luckily I lacked the horrific superhuman abilities to make them come true. Also, I had no guns. My mom says I’m lucky I had already graduated from high school when Columbine happened, because I would have copy-catted that shit in a second. But what fascinates me about revenge narratives is that the protagonist always ends up becoming the villain – their mission makes them indistinguishable from the monster they pursue. I’m able now to see the many ways in which I’m privileged, but back then I could only see the ways in which I was oppressed. So for me, Jared was an interesting way to look at the way people who have been the victims often end up hurting others, including the people they care about.

Charles Tan Interviews Conrad Williams

Conrad Williams’ novelette “Raptors” is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: What made you decide to focus on the predatory nature of birds?

Conrad Williams: It’s not the first time. Over the years I’ve written quite a few stories that feature birds in some (usually ominous) capacity, such as All Your Dead Heavens, The Owl and Slitten Gorge. I wrote an unpublished novel called SIPPING MIDNIGHT when I was 20 that contained rooks and crows as signifiers of evil intent. I love birds, but there’s something about them that is primal and savage – anybody who has seen a bird of prey in action, or the thug that is the magpie throwing its weight around in a back garden will understand where I’m coming from – and of course it has been proven that they’re directly descended from dinosaurs.

Charles Tan: What were the challenges in writing Raptors?

Conrad Williams: The main challenge, I think, was creating a character that was alluring and yet possessed some numinous quality. And was quite possibly alluring because of that ‘otherness’. I also needed to have a protagonist who found himself utterly beguiled by this person to the point where he doesn’t know how to behave. He is confused, lost, frustrated. And deeply scared too. She’s a passive creation, superficially unaware of her magnetism. He’s so wound up by her that he experiences violent emotions towards her in the same moment of complete devotion. He knows something is wrong with this woman, but he can’t help himself. He’s swallowed the hook. I wanted the mood of the story to be like one of those strange summer evenings: sultry and grainy and poised on the brink of the magical.

Charles Tan: How did you come up with Dervla as a character?

Conrad Williams: The same way as with any other character, I suppose. I used to work at a very busy town centre bar with a high turnover of staff. She’s a synthesis of one or two real people and possesses a number of traits I’ve observed in friends and acquaintances of mine… the good bits, of course. I find it quite fascinating how some people, quiet people, tiny and birdlike in many ways, can wield incredible power over people much larger and more physically intimidating because of a rare beauty or physical attractiveness. I wanted to write about a person who could use this almost primal charm to disarm, but who also displayed predatory qualities during such vulnerable moments. A character as honeytrap, strong and focused, but who nevertheless needs the help of ordinary human beings in order to access her prey.