Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lend Them Your Fears

Authors Nate Southard and Lee Thomas are the co-chairs of this year's World Horror Convention ~ unveiling itself (in other than stygian darkness) over four days in the urban paradise of Austin, Texas. I recently interviewed them for the Austin Chronicle ~ you can see that much longer transcript right here – and these are some of the highlights of our palaver at Quack's Bakery on 43rd:

Brenner: Why does someone go to a horror convention, much less
the World Horror Convention, in the first place?

Thomas: People can’t always talk about this stuff at work or with their families. A lot of times people just don’t get it. But you go to the con and suddenly it’s like you’ve got four hundred of your best friends sitting around talking about horror, y’know?

Southard: For a lot of us, it’s the one weekend a year where we can sort of function as a society, where we’re not all the quiet people standing in the corner wondering how to start a conversation. We can actually figure that out in this circle.

Thomas: The wallflowers become a weed species.

[Brenner makes a note: This Thomas guy, he's fierce with the soundbites.]

Brenner: So both of you guys write?

Southard and Thomas: Yes.

Brenner: And when did you get started on that? How old were you
when you thought, “Oooh, I’m gonna write some fuckin’ horror.”
Although, ah, you might not have phrased it quite like that.

Thomas: I was in third grade, but I don’t think that counts. I was basically breaking copyright on the universal classics. And I just wrote as a hobby. That’s what I did when my friends were playing video games or going out to the movies and whatnot. I didn’t even try to start publishing until about ten years ago.

Southard: Pretty much the same story for me, but I’d gone about it from a different angle. In middle school and high school, I always wanted to write comic books for a living. And through high school and college, that morphed into wanting to be a screenwriter. And I came down here and went to RTF at UT. Very odd, getting a screenwriting degree from a documentary school. But, by the time I graduated, mostly by reading and picking up on some authors that I hadn’t really heard of before, I found this new fascination with prose. And I’ve really been trying to focus on prose for about seven years now.

Brenner: What drew you guys to horror as opposed to the literary-fiction genre or sword & sorcery or something like that?

Southard: It’s just what I’ve always liked to read. Some of the first prose I remember was Stephen King’s collection Night Shift. And for the longest time I couldn’t actually read his novels, because they just took so long to get going, but maybe that’s because I was just a smart-ass little kid. But his short stories always fascinated me.

Thomas: I read anything I could get my hands on when I was a kid, and when I was nine or ten I picked up a copy of The Exorcist, because my parents had it in the house. I picked it up and read it and I was just was stuff I understood at that age. And I remember that I put down the book, and I was walking out of my bedroom, and my mother was standing at the end of the hall. And just the way the light hit, she was in silhouette, and I … I freaked. I mean, it was just this terrifying moment. And yet, on some level, I dug it. So I just kept reading, trying to find something like that again.

Brenner: Are there obscure horror writers – not new ones who are just starting out, but classic writers – who you would recommend to people who might not have heard of them?

Southard: I think the big one for me would be Jack Ketchum. In some circles, he’s pretty well known. But he hasn’t really had a huge break-out, he hasn’t really crossed over yet.

Thomas: And he’s our grandmaster for the convention. He’s a phenomenal writer. He’s very much from a literary background, but he deals with things that are so unpleasant, so difficult for people, that I think they take the warning seriously when someone says “You may not want to read this, because blah-blah-blah.” It’s difficult work for people to get their heads around, it’s extreme stuff. But with Ketchum it’s so well done.

Southard: He wrote my favorite book, but it’s a book I can’t read a second time.

Brenner: What book is that?

Southard: The Girl Next Door.

Thomas: They made a movie out of that about three years ago.
And it’s very disturbing stuff.

Brenner: Do y’all make a living solely from your writing these days?

Southard: I do not, no. [He sighs.] I’m still working a day job.

Thomas: I am. I can’t say it’s a terrific living, but, yeah.
I’ve been doing that for about six years now.

Brenner: Have you done that with just books, or have you had things optioned for movies as well?

Thomas: I’ve not made that jump yet. I’ve had producers who, well, they contact you every time you have a positive Publisher’s Weekly review, and then you never hear from them again. Or they want to talk to your film agent, so you send them to your film agent, and then you never hear from them again.

Brenner: Are there sub-genres of horror that y’all are particularly drawn to, like splatterpunk or ghost stories or true crime?

Southard: I find most of the best horror coming out right now to be marketed as more of the crime genre. Gillian Flynn’s two books, Ken Bruen’s American Skin, those are – you find them in the mystery section, but they’re horror.

Thomas: I prefer the supernatural work – except in the case of Jack Ketchum, which is all real-world based – it’s more fun for me when I’m writing, and when I’m reading it’s more enjoyable to see somebody bring something new to it.

Brenner: What do you guys think of the – not intentionally, necessarily, by any one organization – but the mass marketing of, the pop-culture force that is HP Lovecraft,
these days?

Thomas: I think it’s great, in a lot of ways. Because he was overlooked, but now people are starting to get it. And I think a lot of it has to do with where we’re at culturally, now. A lot of people are feeling pressed-in by these indifferent forces. Whether it's the government or their jobs or whatever, there’s a lot of that in our society right now. But I think people also realize, on some level, “It’s not just about me,” so they get into this idea that all of these forces that they can’t control are affecting them. And Lovecraft was all about that. The Elder Gods are wreaking havoc, but we don’t know it. We either don’t know it, or we come to realize that they don’t care about us: They’re not here to hurt us or do anything with us in particular, they’re just walking through, and we’re getting stomped on. And I think that’s coming out in fiction right now, a lot of great writers like Laird Barron and Wilum Pugmire.

Southard: Some John Langan stuff.

Thomas: There’s this whole undercurrent – many of them are British – none of the three we just mentioned are – but there’s this whole British movement, a very strong current of that, just waiting to break out. So maybe that’s what will follow the zombie trend, I don't know.

Southard: Just … no more mash-ups.

Brenner: Mash-ups?

Southard: Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Thomas: A classic novel, with some horror thing thrown on top of it.

Southard: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Thomas: Yeah, we really want all that to go away.

Brenner: Candide and Cthulhu.

Thomas: There you go, that’ll be the next one. Dibs on the title.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books

[Edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee
Soft Skull Press, 192 pp., $14.95 (paper)

So here's an anthology of writing about how long-form writing and reading, in the omni-connected, ever-distracting Internet age, is (possibly) threatened with extinction or is (more likely) changing to survive. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books is neatly summed by a back-cover blurb from John Wray: "I sat down to read it expecting a coroner's report and found a manifesto instead."

Fuck yeah, John Wray, you're not kidding: What a refreshing surprise in these days of lit-scene doom and gloom. Editors Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee have gathered essays and vignettes and such from a bright segment of modern scribes – a few of the names recognizable from The New Yorker's recent best "20 Under 40" issue, hey – who weigh in with author's-eye views in their engaging styles and do much to dispel the more funereal prognostication going on at the corporate level of booksmithery.

Rivka Galchen starts off the post-introduction considerations, her surreal "The Future of Paper" a palate-cleansing abstraction before the less fantastical responses are served. David Shields isn't among the lettered company in this volume, but his Reality Hunger: A Manifesto functions as a sort of welcome touchstone for several of the writers, especially for David Gates and Jonathan Lethem, whose back-and-forth emails (originally seen in PEN America 12: Correspondences) are as relevant to the subject at hand as they are cleverly revelatory in general. Treme writer Tom Piazza briefly interviews himself about the future of books. Reif Larsen, of T.S. Spivet fame, tackles the more hardware-oriented, structural side of things with his graphics-embellished "The Crying of Page 45." Kyle Beachy, aside from dissing the abovementioned Shields as "an asshole" who "doesn't believe in communion," offers a plaintive assertion along the lines of novels (that he finds important) being important because, c'mon, guys, you can feel how important they are. Emily St. John Mandel, on the other hand, thoughtfully welcomes our new e-book overlords: "The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable," says the staff writer for editor Magee's The Millions website.

Indeed: How did you access this very review, friend?
And how will it please you to encounter the contents of this recommended book?