Félix García is back with us with another of his amazing interviews. In this case, he talks with Nathan Ballingrud whose short story collection, Ecce Monstrum, has been recently published in Spanish by Fata Libelli. Hope you enjoy the interview and notice that you can read a translation into Spanish at Fata Libelli's website.
Félix García: Let’s begin assuming you, as many of contemporary readers and writers, have been attracted to literary horror by the boom that this genre had in the 70’s and 80’s (S. King, P. Straub, etc.) Nevertheless, many of you have ended up in a literature very different from these formative models. Which are the main differences between that so called golden age and this one that we could label as weird renaissance?
Nathan Ballingrud: That’s an interesting question, and one I’m not sure I have the right perspective to answer. I suspect people a generation from now will be better able to say. That being said, the writers of today have the advantage of drawing from the imaginations of those that have come before. Whereas they wrote in response to the generation which preceded them, we write in response to their own work. We’re just the latest iteration in a long conversation.
FG: As far as I know, your first stories started appearing in magazines and anthologies, kicking ass as Athenea from Zeus skull, that is, without any noticeable learning period. And this, after what I fancy to imagine as a lairdbarronesque life, working as waiter in New Orleans and cook in offshore oil rigs. How do you come to writing in that time of your life?
NB: Like many writers, I knew I wanted to do this since I was a kid. I definitely had an apprenticeship period; it’s just that I chose not to submit most of those stories for publication, and I was fortunate enough that those I did submit were mostly rejected. So though it might seem like it happened all at once, it took many years. I’m grateful, in a way, that there were less avenues into print when I was in my twenties. I’d not like to be dragging those stories behind me today. I learned that fairly early on, too; I knew I wasn’t writing the kind of thing I felt like I’d eventually be capable of, so I chose to work the kinds of jobs, and live in the kinds of places, that would put me into contact with different perspectives on the world. At some point in my early thirties, without even really thinking about it, I felt ready, and I started writing again. I think it’s extremely important for writers not to get too isolated from the world around them. You have to keep in touch with the world. That’s much more important than keeping current with the latest trends in literature.
FG: Focusing now in North America Lake Monsters, the collection Ecce Monstrum stories are taken from, I notice a clear will of drawing up the classic horror tropes but for the significant exception of the lovecraftian pantheon. Explain to us, please, this abhorrence to tentacles.
NB: I don’t abhor tentacles at all. I get great joy from reading Lovecraft, and other kinds of cosmic horror. But it doesn’t reflect what’s inside of me: my own fears or anxieties or obsessions. I don’t care about humanity’s insignificance; in fact, I find comfort in it. To write effectively -- whether or not you’re writing horror -- I think it’s important that you write about whatever unsettles you, or nags at your spirit, or puts a thorn in your heart. For me, it almost always comes down to the misunderstandings in close relationships, or the way love can lead you down strange avenues, sometimes to your peril. The classic tropes of horror fiction have always held great appeal to me; I think they’re still powerful symbols, if properly used. Part of the fun of using them is rediscovering what made them terrifying to begin with. They can be wonderful tools for magnifying a variety of themes.
FG: Your stories bring up characters living crucial moments, just in the act of making the decisions that determine them to the reader and themselves. In this sense, comparisons with Raymond Carver are justified, although in your stories that crucial moments usually include some supernatural or monstrous element that catalyzes the conflict. When it comes to build these characters, do you turn to observation, to your own personal experiences or established archetypes?
NB: I avoid archetypes with characters whenever possible. Archetypes can work well for the monsters, but you have to be mindful of how you’re using them, to avoid falling into cliche. For my characters I rely on both observation and personal experience. There’s a lot of both in North American Lake Monsters. A lot of myself, a lot of what I fear I might be, and a lot of what I see in the people around me. Writers should be observers of the human drama, which means more listening than speaking. Writers should do their talking on the page.
FG: I’m asking the same thing about the places. In a recent debate, Scott Nicolay emphasized very eloquently the need to use places you are familiar with, and it’s obviously a successful method for him. Does it also work for you?
NB: It does. Most of my stories have been set in New Orleans and the southern Appalachians, two places I’m very familiar with. Atmosphere is vital to horror and dark fiction, and setting is often the bedrock for atmosphere. Familiarity allows you to access elements of setting that will not be available to those who haven’t experience it first-hand: the smell, the air pressure, the hidden pockets. I wouldn’t go so far as to call that kind of familiarity a need, but it’s certainly a boon.
FG: In the last years we have watched some “indie” horror films as It Follows (2014) or The Babadook (2014) that resonate deeply with what’s going on in the literary field, although it seems that Hollywood blockbusters go against the tide. How do you see the mutual influence between horror literature and horror film?
NB: I’m not sure I agree that those movies resonate much with what’s going in the current literary field. I think they resonate with the writers, because they’re terrific films, but they seem more engaged with the tropes of other, older horror films than they do with the current literary scene. The new Netflix series Stranger Things is another example of this; it engages with the horror tropes of the 80s -- King and Spielberg, most obviously -- and arguably not at all with anything from the new century. I think this is typical. Writers are often much more directly influenced by movies than vice versa. No doubt this is due to the nature of the movie making business, which tends to proceed glacially and with extraordinary timidity. Thankfully, there are signs that the filmmaking world is starting to notice what’s happening on this side of the fence, with forthcoming movies based on works by Jeff VanderMeer and Laird Barron. Others, no doubt, are percolating behind the scenes.
FG: If I were to judge by your recent works (I’m thinking now of “The atlas of Hell”), a clear influence of contemporary comic book -in the line of Vertigo or Image- can be noticed, which translates in that a growing focus on the plot without detriment of weird atmospherics. To me, this relates you even more to classic pulp. Can you talk to us about this topic and say if we can wait similar things in your future works?
NB: Oh, definitely. I love comic books, and I love pulp fiction. I think some of the most interesting writers today are working in comics -- Mike Mignola, Emily Carroll, and Matt Fraction, to name a very few. I love the wild inventiveness, the unapologetic striving for entertainment value, the pursuit of joy. None of this works at cross-purposes to the atmosphere, weird or otherwise. On the contrary, pulp and atmosphere are natural cousins. More challenging is avoiding cliche. Part of the appeal of pulp fiction has traditionally been its reliance on predictable settings or outcomes, functioning as a kind of literary comfort food. When working with these trappings, I try to subvert those expectations. As in earlier stories like “Wild Acre” and “The Good Husband”, I try to use genre trappings -- in this case, pulp or comic book trappings -- to tell different kinds of stories, which might lead to unexpected endings. I’ve been having a lot of fun pursuing this new avenue.
FG: In Spain we have a settled bias against short fiction. Press houses consider collections and anthologies as poor sellers, and readers seem anxious to punish their wrists with doorstoppers the heavier the better. Nevertheless, there’s a view in the horror field, a view that dates back to Edgar Allan Poe, that short stories are the ideal vehicle for literary horror, or even, that the sensation of dread cannot be maintained through the length of a novel. As a known short story writer who is writing at least a novel (as far as I know) at the same time, where do you stand on this controversy?
NB: I think there have been novels which maintained the atmosphere of dread very successfully -- Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings, Adam Nevill’s No One Gets Out Alive -- but I think it’s fair to say that successful examples are much rarer in the long form. Horror fiction relies as heavily on atmosphere as it does on character, so it really thrives in the short story to novella range. You can’t consider yourself a connoisseur of horror fiction if you’re not engaging with short fiction. Most of the true classics are found there.
FG: Finally, it has been two years from North American Lake Monsters release and what your devoted readers want to know is if there is another collection coming our way. If so, will it be only previously published material or unpublished one? Where would it be published?...
NB: Absolutely! My next collection of stories will be published soon -- probably in 2017 -- by Small Beer Press. It will be called The Atlas of Hell: Stories, and will have a lot of stories which engage with the pulp themes we’ve already talked about. Most of it will be reprints, but there should be two brand new pieces. It’ll be a lot different in tone from North American Lake Monsters, but it will have the same underlying aesthetic, so hopefully readers will come along for the ride.