Nathan Ballingrud stopped by the Arkham Digest for an interview. His first collection, North American Lake Monsters, was reviewed in May, and will be published in July.
AD: Much weird fiction seems to involve bookish type characters, sometimes misanthropic, but often anxious and different. Much of this is owed to the classic weird fiction writers, and is also a reflection of the authors. Your fiction instead features rougher, working-class characters. How has your background been an influence in your writing?
It owes a lot to my background. I led a pretty quiet suburban life as a kid, and by the time I was in my twenties and thinking seriously about writing, my well of experience was pretty shallow. I sold a couple short stories, but felt dissatisfied with them. They didn't seem to be about anything, or any real people. I didn't want to become the kind of writer who just supplies the filler stories in a magazine, the kind you read and maybe enjoy, but forget about ten minutes later. So I made a decision to stop writing. I'd rather not do it, than do it weakly. I moved to New Orleans -- one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the country -- without a job or a home lined up, and just made do for a while. I was a line cook, a bartender, I worked out on the oil rigs for a while, fell in and out of love a few times. You know: lived. I didn't think much about writing anymore. Didn't read anything with a whiff of fantasy or the supernatural to it. None of that was a conscious choice, by this point. I had just moved into a different kind of life, and I didn't need those things anymore.
Then one day, on the recommendation of a friend at the bar where I worked, I read a James Blaylock novel -- Homunculus -- and had such a damn good time with it that I decided to experiment with genre again. I went back to Lucius Shepard, whose work I'd loved before, and was powerfully reminded of the way fantasy can intersect with literature, and the way you could write about protagonists who reflected real people while still having fun with the tropes of the genre. I got the itch to write again. This time I felt like I knew something about the world. I wrote "You Go Where It Takes You," and things just started to click after that.
It's important to me not to write about bookish, intelligent, misunderstood characters. I think they're boring, mostly because it's too easy for them to become a kind of short-hand for the writer's own limited experience. I also think there's a danger of smugness, or self-satisfaction. You can tell when a protagonist is chosen to act as a stand-in for the author, or -- worse -- to be a vessel for communicating the author's political beliefs. I find it much more interesting to write characters who are not immediately sympathetic, and to work my way toward their humanity. It helps me come to terms with the ugliness in myself.
AD: Who would you consider your literary influences, both within the genre and without?
This is a fun question because I get to talk about writers I love, which is my favorite thing to do. Within the genre, I think my two biggest influences are Lucius Shepard and Maureen F. McHugh. Shepard's work has acted as a kind of lighthouse for me for years. He writes gorgeous prose, and he writes about the kind of people I identify with, and know from my own life. They're not heroes; they're just beaten people trying to survive. Whenever I feel myself drifting, or forgetting my purpose, I can pick up one of his books and be recalled to my course. McHugh is very similar. She achieves an extraordinary balance between the consolations of genre and writing about profound human concerns. It's the latter that always takes precedence in her work, and that's why it's so strong. McHugh and Shepard and writing literature, genre or not.
Outside of genre, there are many. Hemingway was the writer who made me stop writing until I could write with strength. I read a very short story by him called "A Day's Wait", just after making my first professional sale, that just stunned me. Raymond Carver. Steinbeck was a big one. Mark Helprin: his profound love of beauty in language continues to inspire. Sharon Olds, who writes heartbreaking, blood-soaked poetry. Tim O'Brien. John LeCarré, for writing about the human heart in conflict with itself and disguising it as spy fiction. I'm influenced by the pulps, including writers like Robert E. Howard and even Sax Rohmer; for all their many faults, there is something viscerally compelling in the unapologetic privileging of outrageous plot over character.
There are so many. Influence and inspiration continues to pour in. I've only recently "discovered" James Salter, and it felt world-altering. Daniel Woodrell is relatively new to me, too, and I find myself studying his technique quite a bit. I think anybody who reads vigorously and widely will always be opening themselves up to new influences. And that's how it should be.
AD: What scares you? Are there any works of fiction or film that have really stuck with you over time?
Mental illness scares me. Depression scares me. I've been around it most of my life, and have dealt with depression myself. The way you can watch someone's very psychology change, until it seems as though you're looking at an entirely new person -- someone wearing the mask of the person you love -- is absolutely terrifying to me. The mutability of identity. The way love can disappear. Everything else is just Halloween.
AD: Weird fiction and horror seem to be in a modern golden age. Are there any writers today who you think exemplify the genre?
The best thing about weird fiction and horror is that they're far too wide-ranging to be exemplified by any particular writer or group of writers. When you can point to Cormac McCarthy and to Karen Russell and say that they're both writing in that mode, then you have something too mutable to be quantified in any satisfactory way. That's a sign of health. I think questions like this are best answered by talking about which ones any particular writer respond to most viscerally.
In my case, both writers mentioned above figure prominently. Blood Meridian is one of the best novels of the last half century, I think, and Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is one of my favorite short story collections. Both use horror and and the weird to great effect. Laird Barron writes the best pure-product horror fiction today. For all the poetry and baroque imagery in his fiction, there's rarely a sense of affectation; you get the sense that it's a spiritual calling, that what we're reading is a translation of experience. His short story, "Occultation," is a perfect distillation of what makes him great.
There are so many that you're spoiled for choice. Brian Evenson, Leni Zumas, Matt Bell, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kelly Link, Quentin S. Crisp, Rhys Hughes, Jeff VanderMeer, Livia Llewellyn, and -- existing in his own gorgeous pocket universe, and arguably the best of us all -- Michael Cisco. That's just off the top of my head.
AD: What's in the future for Nathan Ballingrud? Any upcoming work you care to talk about?
I find myself drifting away from horror as an explicit form, and using it more as simply one ingredient among many others, in newer work. I'm also writing some projects that are designed to be more fun. This isn't a conscious choice; it's just a characteristic of my current mindset. I think it's dangerous for a writer to be wedded to a particular form. Stagnation and self-cariacature becomes too easy.
I have a couple of novellas I'm working on. One -- "The Cannibal Priests of New England" -- began its life as an online exercise, but I stopped posting it once it began to take life; I have more ambitious plans for it. The other is set on a mausoleum ship crossing through space. That one will probably be finished in the next handful of months. I'm working on a novel, as yet untitled, about an abandoned colony on Mars, set in the 1930s. This one is a joy to write, and I think it'll have enough weirdness and darkness to satisfy readers of this website.
Beyond that, it's hard to say. My comfort level with genre fluctuates a lot. There are times I love it, and there are times I can't stand it. I think it can be an effective tool, but it's important to remember that that's all it is. A writer must serve the story, not the genre. There are too may writers content to do the latter. I hope to be able to avoid that trap. That's why I don't self-identify as a horror writer, or any other kind of writer. I like to keep all my options open. So after this current bit of work of completed, what's next? I have no idea. And that's how I like it.