Charles Tan interviews Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominee “Things to Know About Being Dead.”

Hi Genevieve! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In “Things to Know About Being Dead,” what made you decide to tacle Chinese vampires?

I knew I wanted to write about a non-Western vampire tradition, especially as my protagonist was Chinese-American; it gave me a chance to subvert some assumptions about vampires in the European tradition.

What were the challenges in writing YA fiction?

There’s often a particular intensity in teenagers that’s easy to get across in, say, film (that time-honored archivist of the longing stare), and you want to be able to transfer that same tension to the page. Plus, rare is the teenager whose inner monologue isn’t running anxious circles around whatever’s actually happening externally, so that has to be taken into account, as well.

While I wouldn’t call it outright horror, some of your fiction has this tinge of darkness and/or tragedy to it. What’s the appeal of this element for you?

I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing someone can answer on their own behalf! I suppose I’m just an enemy of fun.

Charles Tan interviews Nadia Bulkin

Nadia Bulkin is the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated author of “Absolute Zero.”

In “Absolute Zero”, what made you include the Stag-Man?

The entire story came together as a result of my taking a trip through western Nebraska, and I think deer have an interesting place in the social eco-system out there – they’re wild animals, and they’re beautiful, but they’re mostly seen as giant pests who can mess up your car and cost you lots of money in repairs if you hit (and kill) one in the dark – so hunting is not just recreation, but obligation and social duty.  Our standard relationship with animals and nature is one I’ve never been able to wrap my head around.

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

I feel like it’s conducive to experimentation.  My favorite short stories are like punches to the gut that you don’t see coming, and when you look around trying to figure out what just happened, you still can’t piece it together.  They’re perfect for horror.

What is it about horror and its elements that makes you include them in your fiction?

That’s the million dollar question, right?  Right now my answer is that I really like the hidden/revealed dynamic in horror – that so much of it involves the ugly parts of ourselves and our world that we almost kill ourselves trying to conceal, or control.  Given the amount of desperation and hatred that goes into this concealment effort, no wonder that stuff comes back to us in such terrifying form.  In that sense “horror” really squares with how I see society in general, so it feels very honest to write horror.

Charles Tan interviews Nathan Ballingrud

Nathan Ballingrud is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated short story “Sunbleached.”

Hi, Nathan! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what’s the appeal of vampires for you?

I have to be honest: when I was approached to write a story for this anthology (TEETH), I came very close to saying no. Vampires have very little appeal for me these days. They’re everywhere you look these days, and I can’t even see the word anymore without cringing. That said, my indoctrination into the horror genre came when I was a kid, and my mom let me watch Salem’s Lot on tv. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, and I’ve been chasing that thrill ever since. I thought about that, and I thought about Stephen King’s short story, “One For the Road,” and I realized how much fun it could be to write a story in which the vampire is downright scary. Our culture has rendered vampires into soulful cover models, or guilt-ridden, self-loathing weaklings. I decided to write about the vampire I loved as a kid, the creature that first brought me into the genre: the predator. The shark. And what appeals to me about that vampire is that it is merciless and yet terribly beautiful, terribly attractive. And not necessarily in the physical sense. I decided to write about a vampire that had been burned nearly to death by the sun: about as far away from physical beauty as it was possible to get. If a vampire’s primary tool is seduction, how would he use it, looking like he did? What would he do? That was a lot of fun. And I’m pleased to note that there has been a larger reaction against the pretty vampire, as evidenced by good, dark vampire novels by Michael Rowe and, soon, Glen Hirshberg.

What were the challenges in writing for a YA audience?

This froze me for a while. The story had a lot of false starts as I tried to figure out what YA really meant. I don’t read a lot of YA fiction and so I had some misconceptions about it. I felt like I was supposed to be writing for children, and I didn’t know how to do that. Nor did I really want to. Finally, though, I just thought about what I was reading when I was fourteen or fifteen — it was Stephen King, for Christ’s sake. I thought about the kind of story I would have wanted to read when I was that age, in a book like this, and the scales fell from my eyes. In the end, I decided to just write “Sunbleached” as though I was writing it for adults. I kept the profanity to a minimum, but other than that I let loose. The end is graphic and very bleak, and I was kind of surprised it passed muster. You must never condescend to your audience; I had to relearn that to write this story.

What’s the appeal of the horror genre for you and what makes you keep coming back to it, or at least including elements of it into your fiction?

The appeal is that it reflects the world I know. The human world is, by default, a sad and uncaring place, and it takes a committed energy to carve out a niche of safety and love. I respond to horror fiction because it seems honest and true to me. I’ve been reading horror pretty steadily since I was a kid. To me, horror is a lot like comedy: it’s very difficult to do well, and pretty ridiculous when done badly. I think of it as the literature of antagonism: at its best, it undermines conviction in authority and convention, it interrogates societal norms and even personal moral infrastructures. A literature which engages us in this way is vital. I can’t help feeling that people who disdain this genre are somehow hiding from themselves; that there are places inside that they’d rather not acknowledge. And, you know, that’s understandable. But it’s also somewhat dishonest. The thing is, though, horror exists all over the place outside the genre, too. I’ll go to my grave maintaining Donald Ray Pollock is writing horror fiction, for instance. You’ll find it in Richard Price and in Cormac McCarthy. In the poetry of Sharon Olds. It’s not just a genre, it’s an atmosphere. And that’s why I have resisted the “horror writer” label. It’s not out of disdain for the genre; just the opposite. It comes from the belief that it’s too big to be codified in terms of genre, and from the fear that, were I to try to do that, my writing would devolve into parody. It’s just like writing YA: I had to stop thinking I was doing it in order to do it. I was accused once of being disloyal to the genre for resisting the label, but that just strikes me as absurd. Horror is everywhere, and it’s a part of the world that fascinates me right now. But the world is too big, and the human experience is too big, for me to identify myself so specifically. I reserve the right to be whatever kind of writer I want to be.

Charles Tan interviews S. P. Miskowski

S.P. Miskowski is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novel Knock Knock.

First off, what was the most challenging aspect when it came to writing Knock Knock?

The most challenging aspect was establishing the point of view that would work best. When I found the point of view the story opened up for me.

The first draft of Knock Knock was about a young couple coming to live in a small town in Washington State and falling under a malignant, possibly supernatural influence. The husband had relatives in this rural town and was content to live there temporarily. The wife (Lydia) was pregnant, missed the city, and felt trapped by circumstance. The early draft alternated between third person omniscient and third person limited (Lydia).

This approach was never quite satisfying. I wanted to look more closely and intimately at the town and its inhabitants. I wanted to do more than catch glimpses of them from the perspective of an outsider. Lydia was a bit of a snob. She had a tendency to reduce and caricature the country people she met. All along I thought there was a deeper story hidden in the lives of the town’s residents. Eventually I would also discover Lydia’s real connection to the town.

I tried looking at the interior world of a resident. This was better. It provided a contrast, and I ended up with the story of Ethel, a woman who didn’t want to have a child. I wrote a whole draft of the novel following Ethel. That was too bleak for me! I started longing for another contrast. And I wondered what it was that made Ethel afraid to have a child.

Considering Ethel’s friends Beverly and Marietta as they might have been in grade school gave me the idea of a childhood oath, a bit of foolish magic that prompted an uncontrollable entity. The more I wrote about these three girls the more I wanted to see them advance through several decades. How does the girl become the woman? How does the oath haunt each of the girls?

In each chapter I took a different character and adopted third person limited point of view. We see the town from all of these vantage points. In this way I was able to cover many years and changes in a novel that is 300 pages long instead of 700 or 800. I hope the shifting perspective allows complexity and subtlety in a book where I am not doing extraordinary things with language. I think the novel is both straightforward and layered.

How different was writing a novel from writing short stories and plays? Did the latter influence the former (and vice versa)?

I began my writing life with short stories and had quite a few stories in literary magazines before I turned to drama. Theater was a lark. I took it up out of a desire for camaraderie in the creative process. I stayed because the theater artists I met were wonderful people with a lot of talent and wit, and because the form was such a challenge.

In novels and short stories you can cheat a little if you want. You can show for a while and then tell. You can let the reader know the ideas and themes without sounding ridiculous. On stage this hardly ever works. Unless you’re deconstructing you have to strive to build your ongoing ideas into the structure of the play. You have to use repetition, juxtaposition, contrast. Having characters stand around discussing the play’s ideas will be deadly unless you’re Tom Stoppard and it’s a comedy about people who discuss ideas.

The discipline required to write drama, therefore, was good practice. Sometimes I got it right and sometimes I failed, but the struggle was worthwhile. I think my short stories are better for it. In a short story I’m now less apt to pontificate than I was in my twenties. I trust the reader to figure out what the story is about, if that matters to her.

Novel writing seemed so daunting that I never expected to tackle it. Then I encountered a place, an imaginary town where people construct their lives around local myths and personal fears. This place required a novel in order to expand and take on the nuances I wanted it to have. So without knowing exactly how to write a novel I pursued the story and made changes as I went along.

Last week I finished a novella related to Knock Knock. It’s fairly complex for a novella. Yet it took a fraction of the time to write. I knew the characters well and I knew from the beginning it was crucial to establish the point of view that could sustain the book. So I gave it a lot of thought before I started, and the writing took less time than I expected.

Ultimately, the writing process is largely solitary whether you’re writing a novel, a short story, or a play. A play or a novel is a long haul. If you’re writing a play that long haul is punctuated by moments when you gather with charming, delightful people and read the script out loud. That’s fun. Then you have to go away again and write the next draft. So the nuts and bolts are slightly different, but there is no way around the solitude. You are alone in a room inventing a world.

What’s the appeal of horror for you?

Horror is merely an extra layer on literary fiction. It is the acknowledgment, by the author, that mortality is horrifying. The idea that we must die and everyone we love must die. I think horror is a perfectly reasonable response to that.

For years I read more general fiction and was vaguely dissatisfied. What I found appealing was fiction that people usually labeled dark or strange. Flannery O’Connor’s work is too easily dismissed as moralistic. Whatever her personal beliefs, her fiction is often marvelously ambiguous and edged with an awareness that we are all playing for time in an uncertain universe.

I always liked strange writing, even if it was non-fiction and came from a place and time that was foreign to me (Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” for example.) Editors and directors have always said that my stories and plays are dark and strange. So embracing horror is nothing more than recognizing that what I have to say, and how I say it, is often dark, even when it’s funny.

Charles Tan interviews Donald Ray Pollock

Donald Ray Pollock is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novel The Devil All the Time.

For The Devil All the Time, what was the transition from writing stories to novels like?  Was the novel always the goal?

I tend to write very spare prose–most of my short stories are somewhere between 9 and 12 pages–so the thought of writing a 250 page novel was a bit intimidating at first, to say the least.  I finally decided that the only way I could do it was to write a very fast, sloppy draft, and then begin revising (in the past, with writing stories, I pretty much just moved slowly ahead with one finished sentence at a time, but realized writing a novel that way would take me years).  The first draft took maybe 4 months, then I revised and changed it considerably over the next two years.  As for the novel always being the goal, no, I can’t say that was the case.  When I decided to try to learn how to write (I was forty-five and had been working in a paper mill since I was eighteen), my aim was just to write one decent short story.  I thought if I could do that, then I would be satisfied.  But good things happened, and I landed a publisher for Knockemstiff, my first book, and then they asked for a novel.

You’ve created an ensemble cast of compelling and disturbed characters.  What was your approach in developing these characters?

I just kept typing!  I suppose everything and everyone in the book came from a wide variety of influences:   movies like Night of the Hunter and Badlands, psychological horror stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” crime fiction, the nightly TV news, people I’ve met, etc.  I wanted, if at all possible, to present the characters in a way where the reader might find a bit of empathy for them, no matter how horrible they might be, and that was certainly the toughest thing to do.  Though I tend to see the world as a sad and violent place, I think there are often “legitimate” reasons for the way most bad people turn out the way they do.

What made you choose Ohio as the setting?

Well, I’m fifty-seven years old and I’ve lived in southern Ohio, in the same county actually, all my life.  I believe “place” is very important in fiction–as someone once said, “Nothings happens nowhere”–, and Ohio just happens to be my place.  I realize that this might sound a bit constraining to some people, but good stories happen everywhere, not just in big cities or exotic locales.