Thursday, September 18, 2014

Interview: Mike Allen

Author/Poet/Editor Mike Allen recently blew me away with his debut short fiction collection, Unseaming, and was kind enough to grant me an interview.

First off I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

You’re welcome, Justin! Thank you for inviting me to gab.

I have to admit, I was a bit blindsided by your collection Unseaming. Until now I've known you as a poet, and an editor (Mythic Delirium, Clockwork Phoenix). Unseaming collects short stories from a span of sixteen years, and quite frankly is one of the best short story collections of the year. Do you see yourself writing more short fiction in the future?

Thank you so much for the kind words! It sounds like, in your case, Unseaming had exactly the effect I’ve hoped it would. May the effect continue to spread!

Laird Barron’s introduction puts things quite succinctly: I’ve been writing fiction all along, with a story published here, a story published there, rarely appearing in venues that reach a large audience. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why; I’m definitely not one for comforting or crowd-pleasing. If I were, I would never have written so much poetry, heh.

On the other hand, it’s true that even though I’m a Nebula Award finalist – a published novelist even! – I’ve had numerous encounters with folks who know me as an editor or a poet but express surprise on learning I write stories; and I can find that frustrating. But on the third hand of this mutant, with this collection, I’m making a statement about who I am as a storyteller that I haven’t made before. And I’m stunned, in a good way, at the attention it’s been getting.

As for whether I’ll write more: of course. I have a new story in progress in my far future “Hierophant’s world” series (the latest of those, “Still Life With Skull,” appeared last year in Ian Whates’ Solaris Rising 2), and other tales flying to various places, hoping to land. The next short story bound to appear in print is my horror tale “Tardigrade” in Jason V. Brock’s mammoth (I mean MAMMOTH) 700+ page anthology A Darke Phantastique.

Your fiction revels in the dark and the weird. What attracts you to dark/weird fiction? Is your poetry also slanted this way?

Morbid curiosity certainly plays a role. My first exposure to Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" in third grade left me wracked with night terrors for months, and yet I was drawn back to that book again and again. (I now own a copy of that exact edition of Poe's stories, complete with the illustrations that disturbed me so.) Lovecraft had a similar effect, King, Straub and others. I eventually conquered these night terrors when I was a teen by saturating myself so thoroughly with horror stories and horror films that I achieved a sort of vicarious ownership of the things I found scary. Clive Barker's Books of Blood were the turning point, when I started to feel as if I was sharing in the author's wicked acts of creation rather than a victim of them. Perhaps my writing, when I bend it toward horror, becomes the ultimate expression of that ownership? I definitely enjoy crafting stories that others find unnerving.

The thing of it is, though: in hindsight I see evidence that I was always bound to become the person I am now, Poe or no Poe. The narrator of my story "Humpty" describes being attacked by a stuffed doll in his crib -- I had that exact nightmare as a tot. Or at least I assume it was a dream, I remember it as if it actually happened.

As for whether my poetry shares in this, I give you the words of my good friend Amal El-Mohtar, who wrote the introduction to my newest poetry collection, Hungry Constellations: "This is a man who delights in breaking bodies: butchering, splitting, flaying, dismembering, then seeding landscapes with viscera until they too become bodies—bodies invaded, bodies stuffed, bodies contaminated … this is a book of monsters."

When did you know you wanted to become a writer? What were early dark/weird fiction/poetry works that influenced you?

Honestly, I'm a late bloomer. I didn't get serious about submitting stories until my senior year at Virginia Tech. I made my first small press sale, to a pay-in-copy zine, right after I graduated, which let me trick myself into thinking my first professional sale had to be just around the corner, heh, heh. Nowadays I'd consider that first story (and others from those early days) unpublishable, but it's perhaps a good thing I didn't know that at the time.

On a side note, since you're asking about influences, it might be worth mentioning that the first story I sold was inspired by the music of Slayer, as was the much better story "Let There Be Darkness" that's included in Unseaming.

In terms of poetry, T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" stands tall in my youth, with its tarot cards and cities of the dead. As for stories, I've mentioned Poe, Lovecraft and King. I read Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" when I was pretty young, and it rather traumatized me in a way that kept drawing me back to it, much like good old Poe. I had a comparible reaction to Thomas M. Disch's nihilistic "Descending."

It's funny, I was a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, and in the tiny Appalachian town where I lived, there was no "fandom," absolutely no one who I could talk with about this genre stuff in a knowledgable way, so I explored in a vacuum. A well-meaning family friend provided a book called A Treasury of Modern Fantasy that I started wolfing down thinking it was more Tolkien/Lewis type stuff, but nooooooo, it was basically an epic collection of dark fantasy and horror, ranging from Clark Ashton Smith to Philip Jose Farmer, and lo! my fate was sealed.

The favorites I've discovered as an adult -- Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron -- have entailed dark joy rather than night terror trauma, heh.

Unseaming has an original novella called The Quiltmaker, which is a sequel to the opening story of the collection, The Button Bin. Why did you decide to revisit this story?

After "The Button Bin" lost the Nebula Award, I had the opportunity to share it with a film producer, who was intrigued (or so it seemed to me) but didn't think there was enough material there for a full-length movie. I had not at all planned to continue this story, did not believe it could be continued, but faced with this possibility (which, by the way, went nowhere) the creative part of my brain started worrying away at the problem.

Sometimes my stories start with an image. The inspiration for "The Button Bin" came as I was idly running my arm through a huge tub full of buttons at a local store and imagined the buttons adhering to my skin as I pulled my arm out. A new image came to me, of a woman trapped in a room with our, um, hero from the first story, trying to escape as he starts to violently unravel. More scenes followed, demanded to be written.

"The Quiltmaker" contains seeds for a third story, though I don't yet have a pivotal scene in my mind to serve as a springboard. We shall see how things go.

What stories/authors/books/poetry collections are on "Mike Allen's List of Essential Reading?"

My list of favorites has evolved over the decades. I just finished and was immensely impressed by Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance.) Those books reminded me of so many cool and disparate things: Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, Ligotti's best "horror in the workplace" stories, Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. But what he's done is something fresh, haunting, bizarre, gorgeous and full of compelling mysteries.

Laird Barron's existing collections of stories, The Imago Sequence, Occultation, The BeautifulThing That Awaits Us All, form a trilogy of their own, and I recommend them without reservation. (And I will never stop bragging about having published the title story of Occultation in the first volume of Clockwork Phoenix.)

Earlier this year I finally read Livia Llewellyn's Engines of Desire and was just blown away. I can't shut up about it. By all means, if you're a fan of horror, seek out that book.

Boy, I could go on. But since we're talking about horror, let me just say that David Hartwell's massive anthologies The Dark Descent and Foundations of Fear opened door after door after door for me. I made so many amazing discoveries wandering through those books.

What can readers expect from you in the future? Also, for unfamiliar readers could you discuss your other projects (Mythic Delirium, Clockwork Phoenix)?

My first novel, a dark, dark fantasy called The Black Fire Concerto, was published in 2013 by Haunted Stars, an imprint of Black Gate. I've written an even grislier sequel, The Ghoulmaker's Aria, that still needs a lot of work before it can go to press, but I hope to have it out next year. Sitting on the back burner, homeless but hopeful, is a 110,000-word novel that expands on one of the short stories in Unseaming, "The Hiker's Tale." And I've begun yet another novel, working title These Bloody Filaments, that shares a lot of traits and themes with the stories in Unseaming -- imagine black magic infesting the milieu of  Breaking Bad. Some characters from the Unseaming tales will turn up.

Man, Mythic Delirium and Clockwork Phoenix could warrant a whole 'nother interview. Mythic Delirium was once a poetry journal I printed and published twice a year; now it's a webzine devoted about evenly to both poetry and offbeat fiction. My wife Anita and I are about to re-release the first four issues of the webzine, repackaged as a print anthology, called, of course, Mythic Delirium -- and this anthology incarnation just received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which has us tickled to no end. (By the way, we're currently open to submissions. Guidelines are here:

Clockwork Phoenix is a series of anthologies that I initially subtitled "Tales of Beauty and Strangeness." For a summary I'm going to steal from one of Rich Horton's reviews in Locus, who wrote that each of the four books holds "a set of well-written stories occupying multiple subgenres, usually in the same story, often ambiguously." And those stories have racked up an astonishingly high number of award nominations and "best of the year" reprints for a series published by a micropress, so I like to think that though it's hard to explain exactly what Clockwork Phoenix is, it's something we do well. The cat's out of the bag, so I might as well repeat it here: Anita and I are planning to hold a Kickstarter for a fifth volume in 2015.

Thanks for your time.

You're welcome. Thank you for the questions!

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