Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Feature: Interview with Laird Barron

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Laird Barron's short stories have appeared in publications like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Sci Fiction. Last year, Night Shade Books released his short story collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, which won the Best Collection award during the 2007 Shirley Jackson Awards.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! You've made a big splash with your horror fiction. What's the appeal of horror for you?

Hello, Charles.

The appeal of horror? Frisson addiction. A troubled youth. The compulsion to peel back the scab. Perhaps an inclination toward paranoia. All that and a couple of brushes with the inexplicable.

When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Was it always horror for you or were there other formats/genres you want to explore in the future? Where can we find some of your poetry?

I figured it out in elementary school and pursued serious writing into my teens: mostly epic fantasy and space operas. The horror element didn't consistently appear until much later. I abandoned writing for a few years, then due to a combination of circumstances became serious again. This revival likely has to do with finally feeling as if I've lived enough to say something. I'm driven, purposed, now. I realize there are miles to go and that keeps the fire lit.

You can find my poetry archived at Eclectica, Stirring and the now defunct Melic Review, probably a few other pieces scattered across the web. A lot of it has disappeared.

How did Night Shade Books end up publishing The Imago Sequence and Other Stories?

It was painless. Unbeknownst to me several terrific authors had recommended my work to Jason and Jeremy at NS. I talked to Kelly Link at a convention and she encouraged me to query them. I did. They responded right away and requested the entire manuscript. This was mid summer. One night in late fall, Jason called me and said they'd decided to bring the collection out. Night Shade is a premiere press. I was staggered by the acceptance.

I think it was an advantage to have published with F&SF and Sci Fiction and then reprinted several times. This proved extremely fortunate in that we soon discovered I'd acquired a decent sized audience due to the exposure -- far more exposure than if I'd come up through the small press. I'm grateful the stars aligned and I hit a seam in the market; and that's really what it amounted to as far as I'm concerned. These factors probably made my horror collection a safer risk, because there's no doubt NS took a leap of faith.

You inject science fiction elements in some of your stories. Was this something you always wanted to explore or did you want to break certain assumptions when it came to the horror genre?

Beyond Stephen King, I wasn't familiar with much horror until I was in my mid to late teens. Once I discovered Ramsey Campbell and Michael Shea, I was hooked. Prior to that I devoured science fiction and fantasy. Mostly science fiction, however, and there's no denying its early influence. Heinlein, Vance, Zelazny (who straddled genres), Van Vogt, Brackett, Norton, and so many others.

The science fictional elements of my stories are generally derived from my attempts to naturalize the supernatural. I've a fascination with quantum physics, zoology and entomology, a lot of which appears in my work. I'm toying with some ideas for near and far future stories, maybe a space opera.

Regarding the breaking of assumptions -- I wouldn't presume to do that. On the other hand, I'm quick to push back against people who define horror as a marketing category that consists exclusively of women being slashed by lunatics and cannibal families poaching city folk. Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, Charles Grant, T.E.D. Klein... some of the finest work that has been done occurred in the field of horror. And it's ongoing.

Who are some of your favorite authors and/or what are some of your favorite books?

Old standbys include: Lord of Light, and My Name is Legion by Roger Zelazny; Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy; Polyphemus by Michael Shea; "Red Nails" by Robert E. Howard; Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein; Ghost Story and Koko by Peter Straub; and Night Shift by Stephen King.

What in your opinion makes for a good horror story?

The same things that makes for any kind of a successful story: setting, plot, characterization. Specific to horror, I highly value mood and atmosphere, a sense of impending doom, the blurring of reality and psychosis. I prefer novelettes and novellas because they present more opportunities to savor this element of gathering dread. Short stories offer their own distinct pleasures, but in the main I believe the novella is the sublime length for horror fiction. Done well, you get a compact novel for your money.

How did you develop as a writer? Did you really, as Nick Kauffman put it in his Fearzone Review, "burst onto the scene in the early '00s as a fully formed writer"?

Nick is far too kind. I'm fortunate in that most of my development occurred in private. Prior to my debut in 2000, I'd written well over a million words, but sent out a miniscule number of submissions. Ellen Datlow and Gordon Van Gelder picked me up right out of the gate. As a consequence, I benefited from a rigorous editing process administered by among the best in the business. Datlow and Van Gelder make writers look good. A lot of authors, especially those who work their way up through the small press, don't receive that kind of mentoring.

What's the most difficult story you've ever written? What story took you the longest to write? (Are they one and the same?)

"Procession of the Black Sloth" and "Parallax" were difficult. I edged out of my comfort zone in both of them. "Parallax" required about nine months to complete. It was maddening. However, I learned from that ordeal and put the lessons to use when constructing "Procession of the Black Sloth," which is a full blown novella and a bit more ambitious than anything I'd previously attempted.

Of the five (or six) senses, which do you think is the most effective sense to develop when it comes to horror?

All of them are vital from the standpoint of transferring the real world to paper and creating the illusion of reality. However, what animates horror for me, what I try to translate and communicate to the reader is my own fear, my own sense of dread. I look at what scares me and share those things. The primal instinct, the lizard brain is always lurking in all of us, muttering in its slumber. I tiptoe around the sleeping beast and take notes.

How did you go about getting published? What was the biggest hurdle?

I sent out a handful of stories as a teen, then stopped. In 1998, after finishing a (now trunked) novel, I wrote "Shiva, Open Your Eye" and sent it around. A small magazine said no thanks; another lost the manuscript, as did Writers of the Future. Gordon Van Gelder was stop number four. He bought it two weeks later. My greatest hurdles to reach that point? Probably the same things that afflict many young authors: utter, grinding poverty, a lack of support. I was emphatically told by many people that writing was a waste of time, a foolish dream, that a person had to be fabulously lucky or have the right connections in order to be published. Fortunately, I'm stubborn -- I never accepted the theories of pedigree or secret handshakes. Most importantly, I eventually separated myself from the naysayers, put my head down and kept writing. My future wife dusted me off and pushed me along. She deserves a great deal of credit for helping me achieve my goals.

What's your scariest experience?

During the '91 Iditarod I was trapped with my dog team in a blizzard on the Bering Sea coast about fifty miles south of Nome. We were pinned down for about thirty-six hours in whiteout conditions -- the temperature dropped below negative forty Fahrenheit with gusts of up to sixty miles per hour. That was a bad situation. I've joked that I actually bought the farm out there on the ice and this is all a fading dream, or maybe I side-shifted into a reality where the best possible outcome was realized.

In your opinion, which is more terrifying: Cthulhu's Old Ones or the real world's various pantheons?

I'd have to go with the various world pantheons. Inventive as Lovecraft was, he's only one man (with a few dozen co-conspirators) pitted against the combined ingenuity and guile of innumerable storytellers whose work dates back to ancient times. No lone artist could hope to defeat the conspiracy of world mythology.

In a recent blog entry, you mentioned having a real-life doppelgangers. What would you say to your doppelganger if you met him (or if he's reading this interview).

Hey, have you happened to see any of my royalty checks?

Anything you can tell us about the novel you're currently working on?

I'm working on two novels. I don't want to say much about them except that both are contemporary; one is a noir thriller with lots of sex, violence and explosions, the other a more atmospheric piece modeled after '70s style occult novels, but with tentacles.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

More is always more. That is all.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

My short story "Strappado" will appear in Ellen Datlow's Poe anthology in early 2009; she also acquired a longish novelette called "Catch Hell" for her Lovecraft Unbound anthology slated for 2010. I recently sold a novelette to another prominent editor for an as yet unannounced anthology. More on that down the road.

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