Friday, June 20, 2014

Interview: Scott Nicolay

One of the standout story collections of the year so far is Scott Nicolay's Ana Kai Tangata (the deluxe version contains an extra chapbook), which I reviewed here. Here's a recent interview I conducted with this breakout author.

When did you first discover weird fiction, and what is your own personal definition of what is considered weird fiction?

One of my very earliest memories is standing next to my mother in the kitchen and telling her about my imaginary monster least I think now they were imaginary. I was obsessed with monsters and weirdness and all things macabre as far back as I can remember. Perhaps from before birth. I was an early reader as well, so relatives sometimes brought me advanced books one would not normally give a child. Kind of like giving a piece of fruit to a trained monkey, I suppose. When I was seven years old, my Uncle Ed came down from Massachusetts and left me a copy of Frankenstein and a Scholastic books collection called 11 Great Horror Stories, one in a series edited by Betty M. Owen. “The Dunwich Horror” was the anchor tale in that volume. I was drawn to the story by the cover blurb “Wilbur Whateley’s diary was not the ravings of a madman. The Dunwich Horror--huge, ravening, and invisible--was REAL!” It did not disappoint. I still return to “The Dunwich Horror” year after year. Though some dismiss it is derivative and inferior, I find it to be one of Lovecraft’s most technically accomplished works, and above all, a masterpiece of atmosphere and dread. Lovecraft became the first writer whose works I sought out by name. Coincidentally, my Uncle Ed lived in the same area of Massachusetts where Lovecraft’s fictional Dunwich was set.

A few years later I finally found more of Lovecraft, as well as other writers of the Weird such as Hodgson, Blackwood, Clark Ashton Smith, and John D. Keefauver. The ‘90s brought me Aickman, Klein, Ligotti, Lamsley, and Jean Ray, as well as S.T. Joshi’s essential critical study, The Weird Tale. During the ‘80s and ‘90s I also read very deeply in Noir, and I came to understand Noir and the Weird as two aspects of the same thing. Jim Thompson hit on this commonality when he said, “There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I've used every one, but there is only one plot–-things are not as they seem.” In Noir, that revelation occurs at the social and/or political level, whereas in the Weird, the revelation is about our place in the universe...or lack thereof. I wrote a few stories in the ‘90s, though fortunately none of them were published and none of them survive.

A few years ago, as I was beginning the stories that now make up my book, I wrote down some guidelines for myself that I could use to refine my approach to the Weird. I used the “Dogme ’95” film manifesto as my model, and I originally posted my “Dogme 2011” on Facebook for a few friends to see. Later, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer asked to print it at the Weird Fiction Review Online, where it generated a little controversy, something I am apparently becoming good at. Some readers took it as a set of prescriptive rules, and there were a certain amount of “rules are bad” gut reactions. But really, I never meant it for anyone other than myself. All the stories in Ana Kai Tangata are “Dogme 2011” stories though, and I feel this gives the collection a certain thematic and esthetic coherence. Interestingly enough, Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation works perfectly as a “Dogme 2011” novel, not that I imagine I had any influence on his work. It’s more a case of two trains on the same track, with his far ahead of mine.

Much of your own fiction tends to be novella-length. What attracts you to this story length? Do you ever see yourself going even longer by writing a novel?

I let the stories grow the way they need to, following the principle framed by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley that “Form is never more than an extension of content.” Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” and his method of “Composition by Field” are well known to poets, but I have found his ideas applicable to prose fiction as well. While I was writing the stories in Ana Kai Tangata, I began consciously allowing atmosphere and characterization to drive my narrative, rather than plot. I feel that plot is the most artificial element of narrative--it’s this illusion of structure we impose on the artificial worlds we writers create. Which is not to say my stories don’t have plots--they do--but I let those plots grow together with the other elements. In this way, I hope that my stories present a more realistic and immersive world within which the reader can encounter elements of the Outer and Other.

As for tackling a novel, I have no immediate plans. Obviously, novels are more lucrative for a writer to pursue than stories. By some definitions “Tuckahoe”--at over 42,000 words--is a short novel. I could’ve stretched it further, developed certain aspects and tried to make it a stand-alone novel or even a screenplay, but I did not have a sense that the story itself wanted to go there. I feel it is complete as it is, and though I write long, I do not pad. Everything in my stories has a purpose, whether or not it is apparent to every reader. The majority of readers and reviewers have picked up on that, so I feel I was successful in that regard.

I do have several ideas that might support a narrative of novel length, but I am not developing any of them at the moment. Not all are Weird fiction, by the way, at least not in the sense of Weird/Cosmic Horror. The main one is a YA novel which is already over 30,000 words long. I expect anything I write will be “weird” in some way, big “A” or small “a.”

At present I am working on at least five stories of varying lengths, several of which are for invites and/or commissions...and of course, I have that large ongoing translation project.

Having said all that, I am very interested in the novel, and the possibilities it represents for Weird Fiction. I think there are only a handful of truly successful “Weird” novels. Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. William Hope Hodgson’s novels, especially The House on the Borderland. Medusa by E.H. Visiak. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree. And most recently, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. We have enough successful models now of how the Weird can succeed in the novel form that a critical mass may be imminent. Perhaps the Weird is finally about to complete the full transition to the novel--and from there to the screen--that its cousin Noir made generations ago.

Your first collection Ana Kai Tangata has stories that share certain themes. For example, a few stories feature caves, and some end with the protagonist about to be "devoured" or something similar. How do your own personal fears, experiences, and thoughts bleed into your fiction?

Obviously, I am not claustrophobic. Caves make me happy, though of course the cave environment must be treated with respect. I have no special fear of heights either, but I am a little more skittish about rope work after a 2004 accident in which I was dropped over twenty feet during vertical caving practice and broke my back. Now I’m Titanium Man. Unfortunately, personal circumstances and the closure of nearby caves due to White Nose Syndrome, a fungal infection that has decimated hibernating bat populations in the Northeast and continues to spread across the country, have made it difficult for me to continue caving. I haven’t had any serious underground time since 2009, when I served as the field archaeologist on a cave expedition to Rapa Nui.

Though I definitely draw on my own experiences in my tales--“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn,” as Charlie Parker said--that doesn’t mean my protagonists are versions of me. They may go some of the places I’ve been, may share some of my experiences, but none of them are meant to represent me. That said, large portions of several of my stories describe events that actually occurred.

Your story "The Bad Outer Space" features a child narrator that comes across as genuine, which is no easy feat to pull off. What challenges did you face while writing through such a narrator?

That story came as naturally as any of the others, if just as slowly. I credit Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat” as my initial inspiration for choosing that approach, although I consider her story one of the finest Weird tales ever told, and I hesitate even to invoke its name in relation to my own work.

I don’t feel that I faced any special challenges in writing that story, and in fact many key elements simply came to me when the time was right. I was lucky to have a major author as first reader on that one, and he helped me tighten up the language. I might have been trying a little too hard to get the narrator’s voice in earlier drafts, but with a little help from a friend, I relaxed it and let it become more natural.

What do you believe to be the best weird fiction out there? What authors, novels, anthologies, and stories should readers familiarize themselves with?

As I’ve said before in various forums, I believe we are in the midst of a Weird Fiction Renaissance, and that The Weird is finally coming into its own as a legitimate literary genre or form. This is the golden age of Weird Horror, this here, this now. So many people point to True Detective, but True Detective was faux Weird, and I think the ongoing success of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is far more important, and points to the readiness of the general readership to embrace the well-written Weird.

This is really a loaded question, as my answer will inevitably leave out a host of brilliant authors. Among contemporary writers of the Weird, Campbell, Kiernan, VanderMeer, Ligotti, Cisco, and Barron have all achieved mastery. Lansdale is also a master, and our finest living storyteller, though the Weird is only one of his many modes. He “gets” the Weird though. Lamsley and Klein if they were still writing, but they are not. Hot on their heels are such writers as Livia Llewellyn, Richard Gavin, John Langan, Matt Cardin, Simon Strantzas, Allyson Bird, Joseph S. Pulver Sr., Stephen Graham Jones, Gemma Files, Kaaron Warren, and Paul Tremblay, all of whom work in the Weird to varying degrees. The late Joel Lane. Nathan Ballingrud’s first collection North American Lake Monsters last year was a masterful debut that blended the Weird with other approaches to horror. I am honored to be part of this year’s class, which includes such huge talents as Daniel Mills, John Claude Smith, Damien Angelica Walters, and Simon Strantzas, all writers I admire. Strantzas is the giant among us of course. There are many others, but those are the writers I have read most closely.

In the future, I recommend readers keep an eye on Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Suresh Subramanian, Michael Griffin, Anya Martin, and Selena Chambers, as well as some exciting authors who blend the Weird and Bizarro, such as Nikki Guerlain, Josh Myers, and Jordan Krall. Bizarro is a very exciting genre altogether, and I expect to see more cross-pollination with the Weird. Nicole Cushing, for example, is a major Weird fiction author who began in Bizarro.

2014 has been a good year for you, Ana Kai Tangata was published and garnered some excellent reviews. Do you have any other fiction slated to be published this year? What else can you tell readers about your plans for the future?

So far, so good. I am grateful beyond words that so many readers appear to have understood my work just as I intended--I honestly never expected that. As a poet, you are taught to be happy if anyone gets anything at all... And I am especially grateful to those who have written complimentary reviews of the book, most of them people I knew little if at all beforehand.

As for new work, I have a story in Word Horde’s Laird Barron tribute antho The Children of Old Leech. Since you co-edited that with Ross Lockhart I presume you are fishing for a plug, so here it is. The story is called “Tenebrionidae” and I cowrote it with my son Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay, based on his experiences riding freight trains across the south. I’m proud of what Jesse and I accomplished with that one.

I also have a piece in The Starry Wisdom Library Catalog, which is due out sometime soon, and there is one older story that is still kicking around. Beyond those, I am working on several stories, mostly for commissions or invites. It’s too early to comment on any of those, however, and they probably won’t appear until 2015. Each new story is a struggle, but writing them causes less pain than not writing them.