Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.
Paul G. Tremblay is a prolific author whose fiction has appeared in publications like Razor Magazine, CHIZINE, and Weird Tales. He also served as fiction editor for CHIZINE and co-edited various Prime Books publications. His upcoming book is The Harlequin & The Train published by Necropolitan Press.
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, when did you know you wanted to be a writer? What would your 12-year old self think of your present situation?
Thank you, Charles.
Jeez, I barely remember that 12-year-old kid. I do know he was afraid to go down into the basement, wanted to be Larry Bird and live with his parents forever, so I don’t think he even thought about what the moderately-aged (can I say young?) adult him would be doing.
I was always daydreaming and making up stories in my head, but I didn’t start writing until much later in life. Post-graduate school actually. And this sounds awful, but my Aunt got me a true-crime book on serial killers for Christmas one year (Merry, merry!). I read it and had an idea for a story about a serial killer meeting Death (a la Piers Anthony) and gave it a go. It was a terrible story, but I finished the darn thing (on a Brother word processor that ate my first attempt at the story) in 1996. I wrote on and off for a few years, but didn’t get serious until 2000, when I made my first sale.
Ekaterina Sedia has a great interview with you over at Strange Horizons. There, you mention dabbling in song writing before you got serious about fiction. Care to elaborate on that? What were the other careers you considered? (A basketball pro perhaps?)
I wish I was a basketball pro. I can shoot very well; but I’m short on strength, quickness, and all around athleticism.
Dabbling was about the extent of the songwriting. I borrowed a friend’s old four-track recorder (borrowed it for two years, heh) and scratched out some simple songs, laying down guitar, vocals, bass tracks, and collaborated on a few songs with a friend who played drums as well. It was fun, but I’ve always known that I wasn’t a talented or dedicated enough musician to truly make a run at it.
Other careers? I like my summers off, so being a teacher was an option. And on most days, I do like working with kids.
What actions did you take when you decided to pursue fiction writing seriously? When did you consider yourself a professional writer?
I joined the HWA in 2000, shortly after making my first sale. I joined their mentor program (an affiliate member gets assigned to an active/professional member) and was paired with a fantastic mentor (writer/editor Steve Eller) who has helped me tremendously throughout my career. Besides the HWA, I sought out like-minded authors/editors (new and established), and was fortunate enough to get noticed by Poppy Z. Brite and Stewart O’Nan; having their ears to bend has been a real boon to both my writing and my general knowledge of the business side of publishing. Also, in general, I try to read as much and as widely (in terms of genre) as I can in addition to working on my stories and books.
I don’t think I considered myself a professional writer until last October when I sold THE LITTLE SLEEP to Henry Holt.
A lot of your writing tends to be horrifying. Was it intentional (and if so, why) on your part to tackle that particular subject?
When I first started, I identified myself as a horror writer. And for much of the early part of my burgeoning career, it was intentional: I would sit down with express purpose of writing a horror story. Now, it’s kind of hard to explain why I intentionally wrote horror stories, or believed that “I’m a horror writer” was some kind of badge of honor. I think, initially, it was about comfort level, sticking to material that I was familiar with. But, I got to a point where I realized it was a disadvantage to try and shoehorn every idea into a horror genre backdrop. Instead of serving the needs of the particular story or characters, I was forcing the issue too often. The day I stopped identifying myself as a horror writer, and instead, a writer who sometimes writes horror was the day I instantly became a better writer. My interests and concerns tend to take me into darker areas as it is; there was no need to pigeonhole everything into the horror genre. I wouldn’t have written PHOBIA or THE LITTLE SLEEP if I’d never taken that step. Both books are still dark, and address many of my anxieties, but from a different angle.
What I love about your writing is that the horror tends to be subtle and quite different from what you'd expect from a conventional horror story. What made you decide to go that particular route? Is it difficult (well, we know writing is difficult...) for you to come up with such ideas or does it come naturally?
Well, thanks, Charles. I don’t know how unconventional I am, but generally, I aim for subtle, which is likely a byproduct of my general fictional interest: the characters. Characters come first for me, and I tend to build the story around them, or least, make the story about them. I don’t know if the characters first approach is any more difficult than other approaches that result in (hopefully!) well-written fiction.
A source of personal inspiration is a conversation I had with a well-known editor from a well-known publisher back in 2001. In a pitch meeting he asked what kind of horror I wanted to write and I told him subtle, character-based, etc. He said that I wasn’t good enough to write character-based horror and that I should focus on atmosphere, as atmosphere was what horror novels were really about. The atmosphere bit is bunk of course, but he was right at the time about me not being good enough yet. Still, it pissed me off sufficiently that I still remember it quite clearly, and in low moments, it motivates me.
While I’ve had more than a few of my characters, settings, or scenes inspired by true events, I don’t think there’s a real pattern to my ideas, or any consistency to where they might come from. The eureka moments are fun when they happen, but more times than not, it’s about forcing the issue (like right now, getting started on book 2 for Henry Holt); writing as work, actively finding or searching for your ideas.
Does your Math background aid you in your writing?
I’m not sure to be honest. On some level clearly it does, as everything that I’ve experienced helps to inform my writing and its perspective. I do tend to be analytical in my writing approach, I suppose. I’m not one to just sit and let everything spill out and then fix/rewrite later. I tend to plod along, plan, and rewrite and revise as I go.
Math (particularly calculus) appeals to me because of its intricacies and order. Fiction (the kind of stories I want to read and write) explores the opposite of order—chaos and the unanswered questions of our individual and collective experience—but in an orderly way. No matter how experimental a piece gets, you still have to place the letters, words in their assigned spots for the story to make sense on some level. That’s sort of like calculus, right? We’ll, I’m sticking to it…
Do you read your stories to your children? Or are you saving them for when they grow older? Have any of your students read your work?
My kids are too young for most of my stuff, currently. My son is fascinated by the publishing process though (and he’s a scardey cat, just like me!) and he likes to look at the book and magazine covers.
Yes, students (usually the seniors) have read some of my short fiction. The reaction is generally positive. They get a kick out of the math teacher publishing books. Every so often (though not as often as I would like) I’m invited to an English class to talk about a story or the process. And every Halloween, I read the short story version of “The Harlequin and the Train” to my Geometry students. They’re afraid of me after, and it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
Let's talk about your upcoming novella, The Harlequin & The Train. This was previously a short story. What made you decide to expand it into a novella or why this particular story? Any existing stories you have that you plan on expanding in the future?
Because of PHOBIA (a currently unpublished novel), I hooked up Kris Meyer (Co-producer of a bunch of Farrelly Brothers movies). He also read COMPOSITIONS FOR THE YOUNG AND OLD and really liked, “Harlequin…” and thought it would make a good movie. He sent (and is still sending) the short story to various people he knows in Hollywood, and nudged me to try and write a screenplay for it. I tried it, and I’m not a very good screenplay writer, but I liked many of the elements I added to the “Harlequin…” story, so I turned the screenplay into a novella. Confused yet? I do think the novella is much more successful thematically than the short (going from 4K words to 37K helps, me thinks). And I love the idea of telling the reader to highlight certain words yellow. Makes me feel big and powerful…or like those writers who write choose your own adventure stories.
How did Necropolitan Press end up publishing the novella? How does it feel to be the "herald" of this revived publication?
One of the first writers I ever met was Jeffrey Thomas. I was an admirer of his work, his Punktown stories in particular (my short story “The Dilky Never Landed” appears in his anthology, Punktown: Third Eye) and Jeff was always kind and very supportive of my early endeavors. He wrote the introduction to the first edition of COMPOSITIONS. Last summer, he approached me at Readercon, wanting to publish a collection of my “City Pier” stories. Prime had already done so, but I pitched him the novella instead, and he loved it.
Don’t know if I’m much of a heralder, but it’s been great working with Jeffrey and Nick Curtis, and hopefully the novella will be received and do well for all of us.
What can you tell us about your upcoming novel The Little Sleep? Was this the first novel you ever wrote or is it more along the lines of this is your first publishable novel that got picked up?
Since, at heart, I’m a lazy, lazy man, let me paste some rough summary copy that we’ve been working on for the book here:
“Jennifer Times, a rising local celebrity, walks into private detective Mark Genevich’s South Boston office with an outlandish story of stolen and replaced fingers. Mark awakes from his narcolepsy-induced hallucination to find the woman gone and on his desk, a manila envelop holding two black and white photos, one nude, of Jennifer.
His investigation puts him at odds with everyone he encounters; Jennifer Times, the aspiring pop star; the Suffolk County DA, a South Boston hero and powerful local politician; his mother Ellen, who owns Mark’s building and helps finance his business; his long-dead father, Tim Genevich, who appears to Mark in a recurring dream; a mysterious and violent pair of goons who may or may not be real; and a desperate man from the Cape who could be the key to the case he doesn’t even have.
As Mark slowly finds as many answers as dead-ends, consciousness and reality are as tenuous as his grasp on the ever elusive case. Wildly imaginative and with a pitch-perfect voice, The Little Sleep is an homage to the sardonic, reluctant, and flawed heroes of the pulp past.”
SLEEP is not the first novel I ever wrote. That book (written in the mid-to-late 90s) was a King rip-off and is locked safely away in a password protected trunk. I started another horror novel that petered out about 150 pages in. Then, in 2003, I wrote PHOBIA. It’s a satire/comedy, no real speculative elements to speak of. On the strength of PHOBIA (almost two plus years after writing it), I landed my agent Stephen Barbara (Donald Maass Agency). We were unable to sell it at the big houses, however, often hearing: “this is funny and original, but we can’t sell it,” which was hard to take. After PHOBIA didn’t sell, I pitched Stephen my Little Sleep idea. He loved it. I wrote it April-August 2007, and it sold in late September. Oh, I do have another novel (dystopian satire) in the can, that I hope to sell after SLEEP and it’s follow up.
So yeah, it’s my first novel, but not my first novel.
How does one make the transition from fiction writer to editor? What were some of the difficulties that particularly challenged you?
I’ve found editing to be a gratifying experience that has helped my writing immensely. Learning what-not-to-do in fiction is as important a lesson as what to do. And, finding a great story in the submission pile is a unique and addictive thrill.
The difficult part for me was trying to take the writer-me out of the editing equation, to not ask the question, “Would I have written it that way?” because the answer is irrelevant. The needs of the anthology or the magazine have nothing to do with how I would’ve written or approached someone else’s story.
You currently have a lot of projects that involve editing with Prime Books. How did you catch their attention? Any work from them that we should be keeping an eye out?
Sean Wallace published COMPOSITIONS in 2004 (and again in 2005) and through our many conversations (and with the help of my work as fiction editor for CHIZINE, which was my first editing gig) we found that our fictional tastes were extremely compatible.
Keep an eye out: For short fiction, Clarkesworld (not Prime, but Sean co-edits with Nick Mamatas) and Fantasy Magazine are must reads. Prime books that I’m very much looking forward to are Kathy Sedia’s ALCHEMY OF STONE, and short fiction collections from Stephen Graham Jones, John Langan, and Nick Mamatas.
Can you tell us what it's like being co-editor for Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Bandersnatch, etc.? What's the dynamic like between you and Sean Wallace? (i.e. Both of you has to like the story?) What exactly is it that you do as contributing editor for Fantasy Magazine?
When I first started working with Sean, I was the first reader for Fantasy Magazine. Which meant slush, all slush all the time, and we’d discuss the stories I put in a ‘maybe’ pile. Much to Sean’s credit, that gig evolved into a position where I had equal say in what went into the magazine, as was the case with the anthologies.
With Fantasy, Bandersnatch, and Phantom (forthcoming) we generally agreed on most stories, but in cases of disagreement, we deferred to the other if there was a very strong feeling one way or the other. We have disagreements, but they’ve been infrequent. We’re both very excited about the forthcoming release of Phantom, and think it’s our best collaborative work to date.
I left Fantasy Magazine in October, essentially, and I retained the “contributing editor” title because many of the stories I had acquired would still be appearing in the ‘zine well into 2008. At this point though, FM all Sean’s and Cat Rambo’s show (for the fiction) and I’ll be losing that title soon.
As an editor, what do you look for in a story?
Besides the obvious “well-written” criteria, I want a story that has something to say, usually something difficult to say. I want complex characters put into situations that force them to make hard decisions that have consequences. I want a distinctive style and feel to the story. I want it all!
You're currently one of the judges for the Shirley Jackson Awards. Could you elaborate on the mission and vision of that particular awards, why you think you got picked as a judge, and what the judging process was like for you (at least those that you can publicly talk about)?
The jurors for the award (F. Brett Cox, John Langan, Sarah Langan, and I), the administrator JoAnn Cox, and advisor Ellen Datlow, founded the awards with the goal of recognizing literate dark fiction. I like to think that the nominees on our final ballot (http://www.darkfantasy.org/shirleyjacksonawards/sja_2007_finalists.htm) not only comprise some of the best works in dark fiction, but also challenge the usual notions of what horror or dark fiction is or can be.
It has been and continues to be an honor to work with everyone involved with the Shirley Jackson Awards, and we’ve had tons of help along the way from so many good friends and respected professionals. Truly, the support from other has been a highlight of the whole experience thus far.
While the jurors have a common goal, we differ in opinion frequently enough that it’s a good thing, and hopefully will translate into a vibrant pool of nominees and winners every year.
Who are some of your favorite writers or what are some of your favorite books?
To name a few, in no particular order: Kurt Vonnegut, Kelly Link, Stewart O’Nan, Joyce Carol Oates, Chuck Palahniuk, Jonathan Lethem, and Aimee Bender.
Favorite books: House of Leaves (Mark Danielewski), The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (Aimee Bender), Slaughter-House Five (Kurt Vonnegut), A Prayer for the Dying (Stewart O’Nan), The History of Love (Nicole Krauss), The Contortionist’s Handbook (Craig Clevenger), Deathbird Stories (Harlan Ellison), Gun, with Occasional Music (Jonathan Lethem), The Book of Days (Steve Tem), Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)…am I annoying yet with my list?
A few more then…. Some favorite reads from 2007 include Sharp Teeth (Toby Barlow), Generation Loss (Liz Hand), Like You’d Understand Anyway (Jim Shepard), and The Imago Sequence (Laird Barron).
Based on your wealth of experiences, what advice can you give to aspiring writers?
Read, read, read, and read some more. Don’t give your work away for free. Don’t surrender to the temptation and misconception that beginning writers have to start at the bottom. Aim at the best markets right from the start. When you get rejected (everyone gets rejected) analyze what the editors have to say, and then keep writing and rewriting and submitting.
How about aspiring editors?
Editors should also be reading widely to have a sense of what’s current in fiction, and what has already been said. Be willingly open to different ideas, viewpoints, and presentations. Try not to edit with a template of “good story” in mind. You need to be flexible.
What's your favorite equation or do you have any Math trivia you'd like to share?
My favorite is most simple: The derivative of ex is ex.
Anything else you'd like to plug?
If you insist…
Pre-order my novella! http://www.necropolitan-press.com/biblio/Harlequin.php
Buy the Phantom anthology this summer!
Please, please, buy THE LITTLE SLEEP in March 2009!