Thursday, November 20, 2014

Publishing News: Word Horde set to release in December the trade paperback edition of THE CHILDREN OF OLD LEECH, featuring a new cover by Dalton Rose and Scott R. Jones

I am a short story writer.  And while I have ideas for novels, and will most likely begin work on them soon, I see myself at this stage in my writing life primarily as one who most enjoys scribbling things out in the short form.  Novellas, novelettes, short long fiction, long short fiction, flash fiction and micro fiction - I like it all.  There is a certain compressed power to a complete tale told in a small, confined space. Like a focused punch delivered by a master martial artist, or gunpowder dumped into a metal casing, turning sparkling fire into a deadly concussive force.

All that stated, I realize that to most of the reading and publishing public, the novel is king/queen, and this prevailing fact is no different in the realm of horror fiction.  But, for my money, shorter works are and have been the lifeblood of the dark, the supernatural, and the weird, from the very beginning.  Think of your favorite works of speculative fiction, and I would hazard that many (most?) of them would be classified as something less than a novel, in terms of word count.  I know it is that way with me, as the individual that I consider to be the most talented English language writer of all time (Flannery O'Connor) wrote in the short form. My favorite story of all time is "The Lottery," which is a short story.  My favorite weird fiction writers - Ligotti, T.E.D. Klein, Machen, Bradbury, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Poe, Blackwood, Bierce, Bloch, William Hope Hodgson, Fritz Leiber, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Karl Edward Wagner, Michael Shea, Joe Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell and a host of newer writers currently working in the field - all write either primarily in the short form, or have devoted a large portion of their output to the same.  The premiere dark fiction novelists, including King, Barker, Gaiman, Lawrence Block, and George R.R. Martin, wrote hundreds and hundreds of short stories between them.

In short (my apologies), I am a short story writer, and a short story fan. It just works for me.

Over the past several years, I've been fortunate enough to have my short fiction appear in numerous anthologies, and while all of them have been wonderful opportunities for which I am extremely grateful, several of them have come with a little added zing, based on publisher, editor, theme, or ToC.  A project that combines all of the above is The Children of Old Leech - edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele for Lockhart's Word Horde press - which is a "tribute to the carnivorous cosmos of Laird Barron."

Barron's work was some of the first horror fiction I read that wasn't penned in 1930's during my deep immersion into the genre, and has always remained some of my favorite, especially in terms of atmospherics and overall bleak-as-shit cosmic horror. As such, I was quite honored when Ross and Justin invited me to submit a story to a tribute anthology to Barron and his own unique mythos, which combined savage cosmicism with dark wilderness tales, occulted aristocracy, black magic, and bare knuckle Noir.  It's a cosmology that has always resonated with me, and so I was thrilled to see what I could come up with that would fit into the Barronverse.  What emerged was my story - a novelette, actually - "Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox," which serves as an homage to my beloved Beats amid an homage to Laird Barron. Two birds with one tribute stone, and all of that.

The story has receive positive reviews, and - more importantly - the anthology itself has been met with critical accolades and impressive sales.  As such, Word Horde is releasing The Children of Old Leech as a trade paperback in December, sporting a snazzy new cover featuring artwork by Dalton Rose (for a Slate article on Barron) and cover design by Scott R. Jones.

Even if you already have the original hardcover release, featuring that iconic cover by Matthew Revert, it would behoove (and behoof) you to pick up The Children of Old Leech in paperback, as I have a feeling that both will be considered bookends of each other in days to come, as Barron's dark star continues to ascend, and these unassuming works of indie fiction being created today become codified, carved into the damp cave stone of weird literature's canon eternal.

Original artwork by Dalton Rose

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

TC Review and Interview: John Claude Smith leads us through an AUTUMN IN THE ABYSS, now available from Omnium Gatherum

For the past few years, I and many of my colleagues have written and spoken at length about the Weird Fiction Renaissance currently taking place amid the long and twisting halls of genre fiction.  More writers are doing more work in speculative fiction than any other time in the recent past.  And while the double edged sword of self publishing services, POD, and electronic media platforms have provided easier access to that once elusive - and now often murky - label of "published work," removing necessary gatekeepers and truncated the time it takes to move from amateur to legit, some strong grain is being sifted to the surface amid all of that overeager chaff.  

One of these Renaissance Men is certainly John Claude Smith, who proves his weird fic mettle in his second collection Autumn in the Abyss, published by Omnium Gatherum, a book of five bleak, well crafted tales just as liable to punch you in the gut as twist some dark corner of your mind, tied together with the sinewy connective tissue of recurring characters and familiar thematic overtones.  This is cosmic horror, but this is also body horror and gore, with several of the stories plumbing the cruelest pits and most deviant acts perpetrated by humankind, much of it playing out in front of an audience of curious eyes not native to this planet.  To Smith, we are not the center of the universe, nor are we alone in it, and that is a very unfortunate thing, for a variety of reasons that become viscerally evident as each story unfolds.  Dark forces have found our planet, and have reached out to it - to us - to study, to absorb, to form unholy alliances, embodied by the mysterious Mr. Liu, who shows up in several of the stories like a jaundiced tether, tying the collection together.  Smith is a fetching stylist with an unflinching eye and a thoughtful take on modern horror fiction, showing us the beauty, the barbarity, the abyss that lies inside all there is.

The title tale kicks off the book, and serves as its longest and possibly its strongest piece.  Admittedly, as a hopelessly romantic fan of the Beats, I'm probably biased toward "Autumn in the Abyss," but even without the callbacks to (and cameos by) a variety of Beatnik nouns, this story stands tall as a huge and engrossing work of uncanny fiction.  While researching the public disappearance of "visionary poet Henry Coronado" - think a Ginsberg/Kerouac/Burroughs amalgam meets Thomas Ligotti - an agoraphobic investigative writer uncovers various clues, recollections, and interview fragments that begin to unravel the mystery that abruptly ended the career of a Beatnik star immediately after his first public reading - albeit a reading that ended with the death of nearly everyone in attendance.  Smith shows a familiarity with the subject matter that blends the druggy jazz of the Beats with the dark yearnings of those intellectually and spiritually curious seekers who came well before them.  It is also - at its heart - a rumination on the power of of the spoken word, in which what qualifies as a "poem" and what can be classified as a "spell" or "incantation" or even "summoning" is often nonexistent, and only differentiated by what words are actually spoken, and in what order.  "Autumn in the Abyss" is a fascinating work, worthy of the title (which is fantastic), and a perfect anchor tale to launch the collection.

"Broken Teacup" is a leering stare into the nauseating depths of human depravity, and the male lust for sex and death, often not in that order nor separated from one another.  Smith's background in music journalism makes itself felt here through a confident handling of the sonic underworld where it crosses over with snuff erotica. This was a hard story to read, mostly because I know that such people are living and doing their business right this very second all around me.  "Broken Teacup" marks Mr. Liu's first arrival in the book, but certainly not the last, and with each arrival, we see further into the mythos of Smith's dark universe, and the ties that bind our reality to what swirls just outside it.

The "wealthy Chinese gentleman" returns for a consecutive appearance in "La mia immortalita," John Claude Smith's requisite tale of a tortured (torturing?) artist, as it seems every writer of horror/supernatural fiction has one inside their pen, struggling to get out much like the waiting shape inside the slab of uncut marble.  What will one sacrifice to achieve immortality through their art? I guess it depends on who is asking, and what they can offer.

Similar in graphic rendering to "Broken Teacup," the story "Becoming Human" takes on the tropes of the charismatic serial killer, a frustrated detective, and the copycat phenomenon that sometimes follows in the wake of a high profile murder spree of spectacular savagery.  But, instead of treading the old familiar ground played out so often in film, television, and dog-eared paperback, Smith leads us in a new direction, elevating the story into the realms of not quite cosmic horror, but certainly cosmicism, as the horror elements are undeniably and concretely of this earth, buoyed by the atmospherics of the outer dark. "Becoming Human" is certainly my second favorite story in the collection (just behind "Autumn in the Abyss"), as it is both brutal and poetic, including some beautiful, thoughtful prose on prison, humanity, and on the tragic squandering of love.  It could be just a coincidence that both this story and "Autumn..." are also the book's longest works. Regardless, I'd love to see Smith work more in the longer form, be it novella or novel, allowing his graceful style room to roam and dance with his feet while unlocking new monstrosities further up the body.

"Where the Light Won't Find You" is - relatively speaking - probably the weakest piece of the bunch, closing out the collection on not quite as strong a note as the start.  But, it does give us another piece of the Mr. Liu puzzle, who returns for his third and final bow.  The story takes place almost entirely inside an unremarkable movie theater, and is plotted like a modern pulp rendering of fantastical fiction from an age gone by.  And while I certainly enjoyed it (I'm a sucker for the pulps), I didn't think it quite lived up to the lofty bar set by the other stories of Autumn in the Abyss. No matter, though, as it is a minor quibble and probably a bit of nitpicking, as the collection is so strong overall.

Admittedly, I have not read Smith's debut collection, The Dark is Light Enough For Me, but I have read and published his fiction in the past ("Beautiful," which appeared in the acclaimed Strange Aeons Issue #13), and based on everything I have seen so far from John Claude Smith, he is major talent with a firm place at the table of contemporary weird fiction writers currently carrying the smoky torch of supernatural literature. The Renaissance continues...

Hi, John.  Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with The Cosmicomicon.

My pleasure, Ted.  I look forward to digging into the questions.

I like to start out each interview with a bit of background on the interviewee.  Your bio lists work as not just a prose author, but also a writer of poetry, song, and journalism.  What first got you interesting in writing, and how has your journey with the written word played out?

My journey has been a long, erratic mess, but that’s life, so I keep pushing forward.  I remember being seven years-old and reading a story by H.P. Lovecraft in an anthology and amazed how, with words, he had created an ambiance that was real, tangible, and I wanted to do this as well.  But I did not pursue writing at that time because art was my main interest back then as I had a talent for drawing, something I hope to explore again in the future.  Fast forward a few years, my teenage self starts in with rock ‘n’ roll lyrics that evolve into poetry.  Most of these are bad, but there are flashes of something taking shape, the seeds of obsessions and even stylistic nuances that would imbue much of my later work.  Flash forward again, late twenties and I realize I need to get serious about this writing gig, because I keep going back to it as life tumbles onward.  Getting serious means writing every day and sending out submissions.  Acceptances come in small presses for a few stories written under a pseudonym, Kiel Alexander, a name chosen because when you’re named John Smith, something more distinct is necessary; I added John to the beginning of the pseudonym in the early 2000s before switching over to my real name (I think…), John Claude Smith.  Stepping back in the timeline, while working in a record store I start writing in-store reviews, branching out to magazines such as Outburn, Side-Line, Industrial Nation, Alternative Press, and more.  Review writing takes over my life.  A few years caught in this cycle pushes fiction to the background.  Life shakes, rattles and rolls on and splinters to a point where, after the dust settles, I tell myself to quit messing around with reviews and get back to fiction.  More sales, more publications, a relationship break-up that inspires my first as yet unpublished novel, but at least it let me know I could do it.  A second novel follows, more stories, refinement, growth…and my first collection, The Dark is Light Enough For Me, is published.  Then a second collection, Autumn in the Abyss, is published early 2014.  Constantly taking it all in and stretching as a writer.
A stand-alone novelette published in limited quantities, Dandelions, and here I am, a couple weeks away from the completion of another novel—number three--and where am I as a writer?  Still learning, still discovering, finally understanding the lie many of us tell ourselves, that we need to write, though so many allow life to take the reins while we get the writing in when we can.  Understanding it because, though I have claimed this before, only now do I really get it.  I have to write.  Every day I need words.  I am at a place where I sense what’s happening has depth, resonance, something more…and that something more is what I want to investigate.  So, how has my journey with the written word played out?  Maddeningly inconsistent in its consistency.  Not as I would have planned, but with what’s in motion right now, I know everything that has come before has set me up for the stories and novel that demand my attention, without wavering.  The inconsistencies banished forever.  I might finally be… a writer.

There is a distinct strain of Cosmic Horror in your work.  Was the exploration of alien terrors a conscious choice?  What other practitioners of Cosmic Horror do you read, and/or have influence you as a writer?

I've always had an interest in Cosmic Horror, though it was not the focus of my early stories.  I just wanted to write gruesome, atmospheric, or just down and dirty Horror.  I believe there was a shift once I got into music journalism.  What?  That’s right.  A lot of what I reviewed was instrumental, experimental soundscapes.  Everything from dark ambient to power electronics.  I used these sounds to create worlds and creatures within the reviews.  Much of this type of music, particularly the dark ambient, tends to utilize cosmic references and suggestions of deep space origins.  Bands like Inade and Endvra sonically skirt along the edge of oblivion, though they often bring those elements into the dark pockets of our world as well.  Either way, this type of music was paramount in my writer’s mindset, steering me away from the more familiar horrors and along dark roads less traveled.
The Old Master CAS
As for writers, the usual form the foundation, from Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft, to more current practitioners such as Laird Barron.  There are more obscure writers I've been lucky to learn about via friends in the Weird Fiction community online that I am checking out as I am always looking for something else to shake up the imagination in unique ways.

Judging by social media, and backed up by “La mia immortalità," you seem to be a lover of the visual arts as well as the written ones, taking great pleasure in the beauty of the image.  How important is this to your daily life, and how does it inspire and possibly inform your writing?

Art is necessary in my life.  Art in all forms fuels me constantly.  Music, obviously, as well as all sorts of visual forms of art, from paintings to digital to sculpture to…wherever art is headed.  I’m interested and want to see more, know more.  Paintings and digital work constantly inspire ideas and stories or at least scenes to be incorporated in a tale.  As with the music reviews, I let the art take my imagination wherever it wants to go.  You mention “La mia immortalità,” the inspiration for the story was the famous (and my favorite) sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  Viewing his sculptures at the Borghese Gallery in Rome, Italy, of Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina, and so much more throughout Rome, I was awestruck.  Before seeing these in person, sculpture was a backburner interest.  Now, well, how can a creative individual not be inspired?

You have also spent many years serving as a reviewer of dark and heavy music. Did this background play into the writing of "Broken Teacup"?

Absolutely.  I've reviewed many a CD that could very well be what is described in that story, as created by the fictional band, Texas Chainsaw Erection.  The actual inspiration for the sample in the popular underground hit within the story (“Curly Straw”) parallels a sample I heard early in the track, “Whoredom,” by Taint.  Now, most of what I listened to in the noise field was not of this perverse foundation, and a lot of that is fairly unlistenable, but much of it works for me.  The sheer ferocity of noise as well as the willingness to go to places most would avoid, what with those samples meant to make the listener squirm with discomfort—not unlike what I like to do with some of my fiction.  Music in all forms shapes a lot of my tales.

Another spark of inspiration for this tale was a short story by John Everson—I believe it was “Let Go”—that opens with a truly despicable character, yet by the end the reader almost feels sympathy for him.  I wanted that here, but probably went so deep into the darkness sympathy was well out of reach…

What else inspires you?  What are your Muses?

The world around me.  Everything.  There are no limitations to what can inspire if one lives one’s life with eyes wide open.  Taking in a movie about Pasolini in Rome a few weeks ago triggered a story dealing with the nature of the artist and how far is too far.  How far is too much, perhaps, in trying to make a point.  A request for an anthology with the editor making a couple of suggestions, then my mentioning it to my girlfriend, Alessandra, she tosses in her two cents, and another tale is in motion.  An article online about [place obscure subject matter here].  Watching the dynamics of people at a recent concert. Eyes wide open. Always.  

Other writers, too.  This is rather obvious, but great writing is high on my list of inspiration.  Recently, Scott Nicolay’s debut collection, Ana Kai Tangata, melted my brain and restructured it with different patterns and what-not.  (The story that followed this process—oh, my!)  The Children of Old Leech, the Laird Barron tribute, just amazing.  Made me want to write a tale for the next installment.  Re-reading Lucius Shepard, Samuel Delany, while looking for new writers who know what they are doing, like Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, whose debut collection, Weird Tales of a Bangalorean, I’m digging the tones, the vibes, just wonderful.  It’s a constant search for writing done right, for writing that moves me.

The enigmatic - and infinitely "well-connected" - Mr. Liu makes an appearance in several of your stories.  Without giving anything away, what can you tell us about Liu?  How was he created, and what is his purpose in your work going forward (if, indeed, he will live on past Autumn in the Abyss)?

Mr. Liu was, as I like to think of a few characters that have come out of the blue or perhaps out of the pitch black, a gift.  I remember writing “Broken Teacup” and thinking, okay, what happens now?  Show me.  And there he was this ancient Chinese fella with the hot-wired connections.  Balance is essential for me in a lot of ways, Mr. Liu just became my emissary for a broader scope of possibilities dealing with the subject.  Pieces of his history have trickled through the other stories, primarily “La mia immortalità,” toward the end, but it’s still coming to me.  There will be at least a few more stories for him, including one with a female protagonist that goes to unexpected places, as well as an origin story that could end up in novelette or even novella territory.  There’s a strong idea that he’s not even Chinese, but circumstances…altered him.  Working on this story early in the new year, I expect.  Though making plans, c’mon, just this last week, with a novel to revise and get to the publisher and a getting deep into a couple other stories, I had a new story demand my time, wrapping up in less than a week.

Speaking of cameos, and as a huge fan of the Beats, I applaud your inclusion of Jack Kerouac in the title novella, as well as the setting within the Beatnik literary world and the shout outs to many of the greats.  Is this a love letter?

A love letter…and a reaction to a lot going on around me at its inception.  I was in Rome, Italy, a couple years ago, visiting my girlfriend, Alessandra.  She was immersed in research for a bio on a famous American poet at the time—still working on it as I type this, with a self-imposed deadline of getting it done next year.  She started telling me all she was finding, even some elements that might sway me, if I was writing it, to step away if they were true.  They don’t seem to be, but that opened my mind to the tale of an agoraphobic’s research into mad poet, Henry Coronado, and his loaded poem, Autumn in the Abyss.  (Though, of course, I did not know he was an agoraphobic until I started writing the tale.  All the writers reading this know how that works…)  In discussions with Alessandra, she mentioned Beat poet, Lew Welch, who left a suicide note in his truck at a campsite, never to be seen again.  That opened up the beginning of the story for me, gave me a way into it…and it just unraveled from there.  Add to this my love of words, not just as you read them, but in this case, as if they were sentient, well…  Over two white-hot weeks, that tale poured out of me.  Final revisions with my publisher shaped it into the weird tale it is.

As for adding real people in my fiction, it’s something I picked up from J.G. Ballard, perhaps the most influential writer for my work, though Clive Barker has his stamp on some of the more obvious elements, I’m sure.  (Many pieces go into the never completed puzzle of whatever the heck I am doing.)  Ballard used Elizabeth Taylor as the obsession of Vaughan in Crash, my favorite novel.  Though others have used known, real people, in their fiction, Crash was the novel that made me think…why not?  So, the Beats in Autumn in the Abyss…and William S. Burroughs is a driving force and makes an appearance in my novel WIP, “Riding the Centipede.”

In many of your pieces, the human characters in the story easily outstrip the "monsters" in violence, cruelty, and depravity.  Was this intentional, or some unconscious projection of your feelings on humanity?

It stems from my fascination with the darker aspects of what it means to be human.  Whether intentional or unconscious projection of my spin on humanity, it varies with each story.  But I know it’s always there, this curiosity about what drives those who allow or choose or are slaves to perversions of psychology, philosophy, sexuality, and addiction, to run their lives.  I like getting my hands and mind dirty as it’s a more honest approach to characters, their development, motivations, and the wily inner thread of monologue that speaks to them…and each of us, always.  Stuff that nobody admits having thought, but it’s there, we all do it.  What if your partner or friends knew what really was going on in your head?  Oh, my…  Point being, if I’m going to go to the darkest places within a character, I won’t flinch.  But I also want, at all times, to remain in touch with the human side.  For example, with “Becoming Human,” I know some people even into the hardcore side of horror squirmed when reading about the serial killer/rapist/psychological cipher, Krell.  Yet the key to that story, in showing such brutality, is as much about Detective Vera and his finally getting back to what matters to him, his wife and their love.  In finally becoming human again.

A love of the work of Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Jr., and other writers who delve into their addictions fuels much of my work.  As well as friends I know who have gone to very dark places with their own addictions and obsessions.  As well as me and my outsider mindset, something I was born with—there is evidence of this from a very young age—though being raised in your average middle American family, I also learned how to, yes, balance my interests, the fringe with the more commercial, I suppose.  I am here, jotting notes, learning always.  Funny, in writing this, it veers into one of my favorite topics: perspective.  How we each view the world and live our lives.  After all, one person’s logic is another person’s lunch.  Or…well, yes, something like that.  Bon appetit!

How did you get hooked up with Kate Jonez and Omnium Gatherum?  With a roster that includes some extremely well-regarded authors, it seems to be a hot indie press.

I’d enjoyed what I had read from Omnium Gatherum, following their progression as they grew into something of a force.  We had some contact and she mentioned wanting to work with me.  Perfect…so I sent her a novel that she passed on, saying it was a bit too straightforward and Lovecraftian for her.  I was bummed, then studied some OG titles and realized Autumn… would possibly work for her because it’s a tale that fits more what she likes, something that bounces around in time or at least has a variety of things going on.  I sent it her way and she was happy to accept it.  But in order to make the book long enough to get a title on the spine, we needed to add some words.  I sent her the three Mr. Liu stories and she loved them.  I thought we were set.  But a status on FB asked some questions—I forget what exactly—and in the process, I sent her another story, just so she could get my spin on whatever that status had questioned, not even thinking about adding the story—“Becoming Human”—to the book.  But when she sent the edits, she’d added it to the TOC, stating it was her favorite story of the batch.  The editing process for the book was a fabulous experience, spending all day one Saturday reading the tales back and forth to each other, shaping everything properly.

I hope to have more work published by OG, especially the novel that’s this close to completion, because part of the inspiration for it was comments she made about the rejected novel.  You want wild and crazy, eh? Okay…

Tell us a bit about your debut fiction collection, The Dark is Light Enough For Me.

In a sideways manner, I found out one of my FB friends was an agent.  She wasn't a full-time agent anymore, but I had sent her the passed over novel noted above, well before Kate read it, and she loved it and wanted to represent it.  She sent it around, got it to some of the Big Six, it got stellar comments but nobody bit because they didn't know what to do with it.  While she was doing this, at some point she mentioned being one of the main people behind the publisher, Ampichellis, and thought getting a collection out would be a good idea. I jumped at this, because I enjoyed her feedback and thought it would be good to work with her; and I really did enjoy the whole process.  We put together the best stories, a variety of moods, and she worked diligently on cover art that we both liked.  This was a long process, tossing out ideas, finally settling on the artwork, whipping it together, and getting it released 11-11-11.  I consider it a good introduction to my writing as some of my best work is included (“I Wish I Was a Pretty Little Girl”—title stolen and manipulated from a Brighter Death Now song—“Plastic,” “Strange Trees,” the title story, perhaps another tale or three).  I’m proud of it, even as I know it’s of a time and I would hope I have advanced as a writer.  I can read the stories and enjoy them, but also want to tweak them a bit here and there, but have moved on since then, so they stand as is and quite well at that.

Is it "John" or "Jean"?  If the latter, how many people pronounce your name as "Gene" on a weekly basis?

John.  I get the occasional Jean, not often, but enough to just shake my head and smile.

What's next for you?  What projects do you have in the pipeline?  Where can we find you online, and your published work?

I’m completing a novel, a kind of quest/manhunt through the dark frontier of drug addiction and altered realities, the aforementioned, “Riding the Centipede.”  Another collection is in the works, too.  The main deal is just to keep writing!

A handful of titles are upcoming in anthologies including “The First and Last Performance of Varack” in the Monk Punk & The Shadow of the Unknown omnibus; I was told they wanted surreal Lovecraftian tales, so this was the result.  Actually, been getting a lot of requests for Lovecraft-related tales, so there’s “I Am…” in A Mythos Grimmly—a mash-up of fairy tales and Lovecraft--and two other tales in this vein, one getting sent out later today as I type this.  There’s a few other tales including one for the second volume of Axes of Evil and one for Soul Survivors II, as well as a second novelette to be released early 2015 by Dunhams Manor Press, called “Vox Terrae.”

You can find me at the usual hangouts—Facebook, Twitter, even Google+ though I don’t remember the last time I was there, and Goodreads—all listed under my full name for easy search.  There’s also a blog, The Wilderness Within:

Thanks again, John, for the interview, and best of luck with all of your future endeavors.

You’re welcome and thank you so much, Ted.  I had a thoroughly enjoyable time going through these questions.  We’ll have to do it again sometime.  :)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Publishing Update: Reviews of THE MISSION

Cover design by Ives Hovanessian

Upon abandoning a long, mediocre stretch as a screenwriter and officially entering the ring of dark fiction in 2010, I've had many stories published in various anthologies, publications and other mediums.  But it wasn't until 2014 that the very first stand-alone book of my work came out with The Mission, which was released as a limited edition chapbook by Dunhams Manor Press/Dynatox Ministries, founded and run by the gifted writer and publisher Jordan Krall, one of the hardest working fellows in indie press.

The book shipped throughout August and September, and the feedback so far has been wonderfully positive.  The Arkham Digest published a review in early October, while Daring Defenders put up a piece on The Mission several weeks back.  Recently, several authors I admire, respect, and count as inspirations in the Speculative Fiction omniverse have chimed in with their thoughts on The Mission, including Laird Barron, Nathan Ballingrud, and Jeffrey Thomas - three greats spinning their craft at the very top of the field.  I'm so very appreciative for all of these reviews and blurbs, and although they cannot lift sales with the book being out-of-print, it is still a lovely thing to know that your work connected with a reader.

As The Mission is not listed on Amazon or Goodreads or any of the usual review sites, I've decided to wrangle reviews into one electronic corral, for personal posterity if nothing else.  This will be - and has been - updated as necessary:

Award-winning author of the Weird, the Noir, and the cosmically horrific Laird Barron wrote:
"The Mission--an unholy union of Cormac McCarthy's annihilating moral vistas and filmmaker JT Petty's dark vision of the West."

Shirley Jackson Award-winning dark fiction author Nathan Ballingrud wrote:
"'Goddamn a thief that salutes you first.' 
THE MISSION, by Ted E. Grau, reads like a classic weird tale. It has echoes of Howard, Lovecraft, and even a hint of Clark Ashton Smith's 'Tsathoggua,' but written with greater worldliness and sharper, cleaner prose. A band of unlikely soldiers set off to track down two Lakota warriors in Nebraska, and stumble across something fantastically strange and terrifying. Creepy, bizarre, and fast-paced, this novella satisfied on all fronts.
'Ebke snorted. He had no dog in this fight. Didn't care for a damn thing in the whole wide world, including his own hide. The kind of man who was just born hollow, who just went where he was supposed to. Didn't matter, though. When the chips were down and the dander up, it was always light against dark. To hell with this New World.'
'Farm boys ain't exactly expert trackers. Good to have at your side in a saloon dust up, as those coffee can fists always found purchase, but rosy-cheeked plowboys weren't born bloodhounds like those with a more suspicious nature.' 
Coffee-can fists. I love that. This is the first in what will be a series of stories about Salt Creek, according to the back-cover copy of this sadly out-of-print novella. I'm on board for the full ride."

Acclaimed Horror, Lovecraftian, and Weird Fiction author Jeffrey Thomas wrote:
"Last night I finished THE MISSION. I can’t express how much I enjoyed it – it’s a knockout. Just one of the most engrossing, riveting, creepiest stories I've read in a long time. Truly, this is the most muscular, gritty, thrilling approach to horror I've experienced since I read Laird’s latest collection (and I include the entire contents of CHILDREN OF OLD LEECH in that assessment...). I was out there WITH those guys, in that hard landscape… experiencing one mind-boggling mystery after another. 
Grau packed an incredible amount of strange revelations and dangerous encounters into one novella, without it ever feeling crowded or overdone. He just pulled that Wild Bunch of cowboys in deeper and deeper, took them further and further, and me as a reader along with them. I hope to see a return to this location and these thoroughly intriguing mysteries in future work, as the back cover hints. 
So very impressed. He just consistently impresses…but this one is especially noteworthy. I don’t know if it quite tops THE SCREAMER, which I have a special fondness for and consider a modern masterpiece, but I’d say it’s pretty damn close. 
Again, I’m proud to possess #1 of this chapbook, which somewhere in the near future could become quite the collector’s item!"

Rodney Turner of Daring Defenders said:
"I recently acquired The Mission, a weird western by T. E. Grau published by Dunhams Manor Press. I’m sad that it was a limited run because this is a fucking excellent little book. If you didn't get your hands on it, light a candle and mourn your loss.
OK, that is quite enough mourning. Let’s get to it! 
The Mission is the tale of a rag-tag group of soldiers on the trail of a pair of Native-American fugitives. A chance encounter in a town that shouldn't exist sets in motion a chain of events that shatters the sanity of our protagonists. 
This not the West of 1950’s cinema with its bright blue skies and crimson mesas. From the first paragraph, Grau drags the reader into an ugly world. A world in which humanity’s self-inflicted horrors walk hand in hand with the ancient secrets lurking in the frontier. 
Grau’s pacing is frenetic, evoking the sense of urgency felt by the narrator and his companions. Like any good story, The Mission made me feel less like a reader and more like a powerless observer carried along inside the narrator’s head. It is not until the characters arrive at the titular mission that we really catch our breath. Grau gives us a brief moment of wonder and discovery, but it is a moment colored by the fact that the light at the end of the tunnel is just the reflection of the Reaper’s scythe. 
I’m going to give this one a 5 of 5."

Reviewer and editor and all-around voracious Horrorhound Justin Steele of The Arkham Digest wrote:
"I've always been partial to the Weird Western... T.E. Grau’s The Mission serves as prime example of what can be done when these two genres collide. The novella starts off with a typical Western plot; a group of Army men are on the hunt for a couple of Native Americans. Grau shows what can be accomplished when combining the West with the horrors of Lovecraft, as the men make some strange discoveries. 
The tension of the group is already thick when the novel begins, with some members clashing over racial differences and just skimming the boiling point. Once the stage is set, the already palpable tension ratchets into overdrive for the remainder of the novella. As the group is beset by strange occurrences, such as finding an out of place town where a town shouldn't be, the Captain does his best to stay cool and keep his group from tearing each other apart. 
Some of The Mission brought to mind The Men From Porlock or Blackwood’s Baby by Laird Barron. All three stories are period pieces featuring groups of tough guys coming face to face with horrors beyond their comprehension. Grau nails the rough tone required to portray these types of characters, making for a story that has already moved high up on my list of favorite Weird Westerns."

Bizarro author David Anderson wrote:
"A few months back, in the thick of summer, I was given a copy of T.E. Grau’s THE MISSION and happily accepted it. Limited to 50 hard copies (I got a digital review copy) I was excited to be able to dig into this tasty gem from Dynatox Ministries’ Dunhams Manor Press...
Grau, who’s work I've read before, not only continues to amaze me with this story but sets a new precedent. The ending is terrifying, and stuck with me for long after the story. I can look back on that feeling of hopelessness and cosmic doom and smile because it was invoked so well. Anchored by a really well done Western Story motif, THE MISSION has a cast of characters that immediately launched off the page and held my interest throughout. The pace is amazing, and given the smaller format here we are just HANDED the goods right away and they keep coming. Fans of Lovecraftian fiction will love, love, LOVE this, as it invokes the dread of the Mythos in a very classic way. There have been a lot of experimental Lovecraftian releases like Jordan Krall’s NIGHTMARES OF A LOVECRAFTIAN MIND that explore different ways to tackle the Mythos, but here Grau delivers what fans of classic Lovecraftian Fiction crave most – cosmic monsters! And scary stuff! There’s still enough to tickle your cranium, mysteries to explore, but we still get some hair raising chills. 
THE MISSION is a valuable edition to your collection."

Editor David Binks wrote:
"I highly recommend it.  Well written, good pace and it seemed to have a hint of Clive Barker which is always a good thing.  Everville comes to mind.  The characters were believable and flawed like most of us.  Grau takes the reader into the flat lands of Western Nebraska, a part of the world he knows and describes very well,  building up the suspense as he adds more ingredients to the mix. And if that weren't enough, we realize that we are reading a Lovecraftian work. My only hope is that this becomes a full length novel one day."

While The Mission is no longer available as a chapbook, it will be included in my debut collection of short fiction, which should be completed quite soon.  More updates as they are made available.

Monday, July 21, 2014

TC Review & Interview: Nathan Ballingrud roars from the gates with NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS, his powerful debut collection of the weird and the brutal from Small Beer Press

In writing stories that are firmly entrenched in the horror genre, the temptation is always to dance around the human element for a bit before rushing headlong into the supernatural.  Glancing at the homo sapiens just long enough to fulfill some literary obligation before full-on ogling the monsters.  It's easy to get caught up in such obvious Big H Horror signposts, as those fantastical elements are what drew most of us to the genre to begin with.  But that sort of "too much of a good thing" is what can often ruin a great story, much like too much sugar can ruin a coffee, too much salt can render a stew inedible.  A master chef doesn't go overboard with the spices in their gastric preparation, but elects to show restraint, and in doing so, introduces and opens up every ingredient in the meal, instead of clubbing one over the head with something that should be subtle and not overpowering.  THIS IS GARLIC!  THIS IS CHILI POWDER!  OMG HOW YUMMY IS ALL THIS EXTREME FLAVOR!

Subtlety - in appreciation and also in practice - is learned for those in which it does not innately manifest, and the older I get, and the more weird/horror fiction I read (and write), the more I appreciate such elements of subtlety as context, allegory, metaphor, and the interplay of the human condition.  That the very same tales also deal with werewolves and vampires and sea monsters and alien gods is just icing on the cake.  In these sorts of piece, taking the focus off of the obvious monster allows the reader to discover beasts so much more terrifying and infinitely more brutal.  They weren't necessarily born monsters, so have few if any excuses when they decide to don monstrous trappings.

Nathan Ballingrud weaves just this sort of dark literary tapestry, employing a subtle yet powerful hand in his stories filled with broken people and sometimes monsters, and in doing so, balls up a knotty fist that hits you so hard the bruise will never fully heal.  This perfectly balanced style is on full and glorious display in North American Lake Monsters, Ballingrud's debut collection of brutal, fiction in the short form from Small Beer Press, which was recently awarded a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award in the category of Single Author Collection (sharing the honor with Before and Afterlives by Christopher Barzak), and is currently nominated for a 2014 World Fantasy Award.

These are startling tales that root down to the meat and bones of who we are as humans, in worlds both familiar and those that are intertwined with the fantastical. Cleanly rendered reality plays set amid backdrops of the weird, where the horror can just as easily come from your garden variety mother or father, son or daughter, showing us that anyone, anywhere is capable of very bad things, depending on the vagaries of their day-to-day situation, and the choices they willingly make.

Guilt and frustration cut a grievous through line down the center of many of Ballingrud's tales in this collection, fully realized to the nth degree in "The Good Husband," which is not only my favorite story in North American Lake Monsters, but one of the best short stories I've ever read, in any literary genre, or no genre at all. From the first page, the life-altering decision of a self-centered man struggling with a marriage to a clinically depressed woman is so unexpected that it stole my legs out from under me. Just like with most of the stories in this collection, every action has a reaction, and ultimately a consequence, and this is fleshed out with devastating effect in the narrative.  Just when you think every story has been been told...

Coming in just behind "The Good Husband" in the quality category is "You Go Where It Takes You," which dips us into the life of a waitress and single mother living on the edge of Gulf in Louisiana, possessed of few joys and even fewer options for anything better in life, making her decision to spend time with a seemingly very Average Joe who asks her out almost an afterthought.  Told in Ballingrud's strong, often poetic yet unencumbered style, we are hit with a surprise jab about 2/3 of the way through to stun us just enough to set us up for the decapitation that waits at the end.  The final image of the story stayed on my mind for weeks, and still pops to the front of my brain on occasion.

It's often what Ballingrud doesn't write instead of what he does that distinguishes him from his peers.  For example, in "Wild Acre," he doesn't focus on the events of what are very clearly a werewolf attack that befall a group of friends at a construction site in a new housing development.  Instead, he explores the much more interesting angle of survivor's guilt for the guy who got away, documenting the survivor's guilt in excruciating detail.  It's an extraordinary way to handle the often played out circumstances of supernatural monsters killing poor, hapless humans, and yet another example of Ballingrud viewing horror fiction with a new, innovative eye that sees things different than the rest of us.

The fetid splendor of New Orleans, where Ballingrud lived for several years, features prominently in many of the stories here, including the surrealist "The Way Station," as well as the page turning "S.S." which veers away from the weird to stomp its muddy boots on the carpet of reality, following a wannabe skinhead as he attempts to make his bones with the local legit hardcores. This is a haunting, thought provoking piece, mining true horror from areas not normally associated with it.

One of these more classic horror tales is "Sunbleached," which is a vampire story worthy of Matheson, sinuous, heartbreaking, and refreshingly creepy, which is a rarity in vamp fiction these days. "The Monsters of Heaven" combines Ballingrud's skilled handling of failed relationships with an otherworldly discovery in an alleyway, that changes the dynamic between two people in unexpected ways. "Crevasse" appeals to my inner (and outer) cosmic horror fanboy by screwing down the classic combination of wonder and dread with the uncomfortable whimper of an injured sled dog, bleeding out on the ice deep inside a fissure.  Both sad and creepy, this is great example of alien horror that doesn't take its marching order from Lovecraft, but does tip the hat to the old maladjusted gent from Providence.

The title tale is just as much an examination of fractured family dynamics and the difficulty in putting the pieces back together after blowing up the nuclear unit as it is about a strange creature that washes up dead on the beach of a secluded mountain lake.  Ballingrud once again balances the familiar with the unknown, allowing them both to feed of of each other, strengthening both host and parasite at the same time.  It's a deft balancing act, and undercuts most of his work in this collection, with extraordinary results.  In doing this, the writer creates stories that are as relatable as they are fantastical, teaching us about ourselves as he exposes new ways of telling a horror story.

I try to make it a habit to read as many of the short fiction collections that come out each year. Some stand out. Some do not. A few rise above, and feel as if they are pushing genre fiction forward, giving strength to horror fiction's (rightful) claim to literary legitimacy, and keeping strong the long tradition of excellence for stories rendered in the short form. North American Lake Monsters is one of those collections, which should be part of the landing party when horror fic sends its ambassadors down to the surface of Planet Literature to draw up the cosmic map of written word ownership.  He's one of our best, our brightest, our most unique, who is tilling up new ground in an over-farmed back 40.  North American Lake Monsters is an important work of speculative fiction, that will stand up to the weathering of the ages.  I cannot wait to see what Nathan Ballingrud does next, and where he takes us, as readers, and as members of the dark fiction community.
If you could write like he does, you'd be smiling, too

Thank you, Nathan, for taking the time to sit down with The Cosmicomicon.

I think it’s only good manners to properly set the table before one starts serving the food, so – if you could – please give us a bit of background on your career.  When did you first start writing, and was becoming an author always a goal?  What and who are some of your influences, in terms of what you like to read, and what you think has bled into your work?

I started writing stories when I was still in grade school. Being a writer was always part of the plan. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was, “An astronaut and a writer,” or some variation of that. I didn't really know how to go about the business of it until I went to Clarion, back in the early 90s. I made my first professional sale within a few months of that experience, but then I stopped for quite some time. I just didn't feel ready. I had a lot of reading to do, and a lot of living. It was roughly 10 years later that I started writing with what I consider to be my natural voice.

There are so many influences, and they’re constantly changing. The big horror writers of the 70s and 80s were very influential - King, Straub, Barker, McCammon - and later I discovered the realists, and fell under their spell for many years. Writers like Richard Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver. When I started to drift back into fantasy and horror, it was after being caught by the work of writers like Lucius Shepard and Maureen F. McHugh. Of course there’s also the inspiration of place - New Orleans, the Appalachians, the more abstract idea of the South; and of music - Pink Floyd, Ani DiFranco, Nine Inch Nails, Glen Hansard; and comic books - the work of Mike Mignola, Rick Remender, the EC Horror pulps … I could go on forever about influence. I think a writer should remain in active conversation with the culture, which will provide a constantly shifting range of influences.

You've moved around a bit, geographically-speaking, writing while you did, which shows up in your work.  Do you think some stories were specifically born in places like, say, New Orleans, that never would have been written had you never lived there?

I think so, yes. Or, more specifically, they would have looked a lot different. “The Way Station” is specifically about New Orleans, and saying good-bye to a place you love, and that you felt defined you in some way. It was cathartic to me, and I doubt it would have existed without my having lived there. “S.S.” feels like a very New Orleans story to me, even though its central conflict could have been set in any number of places. “Sunbleached” is a Gulf Coast story, and couldn't work in the way it does anywhere else. I don’t know if I can say the same thing about the stories set in the Appalachians. New Orleans affected me so deeply. I’m still writing about that place, and I suspect I always will.

North American Lake Monsters is such a fantastic title, as it’s evocative, strange, and instantly intriguing.  How did you settle on this name for your book?  With this your debut collection of short fiction, how did you hook up with Small Beer Press?

I stole that title from Mike Mignola. In one of his comics, one of the characters is described as being away cataloging North American lake monsters, and I loved the phrase so much I knew I had to write a story around it. When it came time to title the collection, we considered it along with “You Go Where It Takes You” and “Monsters of Heaven”. This one seemed to please the most people. I like it because it suggests a kind of naturalist’s handbook. It appeals to the cryptozoologist in me.

I was lucky with Small Beer Press, in that they approached me at just the time I had a collection ready to shop around. I never would have thought to go to them myself; I believed my stories were too dark, the horror too overt, for their tastes. It just goes to show that you should never make assumptions about what an editor does or does not want to see. Small Beer has been a dream to work with, and precisely because they’re not known for horror, the book has gotten into the hands of a lot of readers it might otherwise not have. That’s been a significant boon.

You write about vampires and werewolves, cosmic creatures and the undead, yet somehow the underlying focus of your stories seem to be about everything BUT the supernatural parts.  What fostered your interest in marrying the intensely human with things that dwell in the realms of the fantastical?

I think it was all those years spent reading everything but fantasy and horror, reading Carver and Annie Proulx and James Salter. I really thought, for many years, that I was done with genre forever. I was just planting different seeds. This wasn't intentional or strategic at all; I was just reading what I loved. And that stuff all gets tossed around in the mixer. By the time I started writing again, I had rediscovered my love for the fantastic, and the idea of writing strict realism seemed limiting and dull. Like throwing a tarp over the most exciting part of your imagination. But I didn't want to abandon what I loved about realism either, and the way my emotions were so deeply engaged by those stories. I wanted to include everything I loved.

Staying with the thematic, guilt and regret are two major elements I picked up on in your stories, which are – for my money - what make some of your tales so incredibly gut wrenching.  That relatable human element.  Has it been a conscious choice to explore such things?  Have you ever been surprised by what you have said in a story, when you may had not meant to explore that when you first started the piece?

That’s a good question. It’s my belief that one of the best ways to write a strong story is to write about what shames you. God knows my life is heavily freighted with guilt and regret. I just decided to hit those areas hard. To try my best not to blink. I did sometimes, but other times I know I didn't, and I sent some of those stories into the world with a twinge of fear. I don’t know if I’ve ever surprised myself, but I have noticed themes that were not apparent to me until later on, sometimes pointed out to me by others. All my stories deal with parents and children, in some way; relationships between lovers are often doomed; and a reader recently asked me why I keep referencing teeth. I hadn't realized I did that until he said it. I still don’t know what that’s about.

In addition to the dynamics of adult and romantic relationships, parenting looms large in several of your stories, as well, including “You Go Where It Takes You,” “The Way Station,” and the title piece “North American Lake Monsters.”  Not to get too personal, but do you think being a single parent has brought this part of your life into your fiction?

There’s no question. Being a single parent has informed my fiction profoundly. Even when I consciously try not to write about parents and children, I find that it keeps creeping back in. The fear of failing in that responsibility is almost impossible to overstate, as I’m sure any parent knows. And of course you can’t help but fail, in a hundred minor ways, no matter how much you strive not to, and despite all your successes. That’s the heartache of it. You’re going to do damage, no matter what. It almost makes me afraid of what I’m going to find to write about when my daughter grows up and moves out on her own. Maybe cats.

I count “The Good Husband” as one of the darkest, and most startling short stories I have ever read, as well as one of the best.  How did you come upon the concept for this work?  To your knowledge, have other readers reacted the way I have?

That one gets some pretty strong reactions. I've had people cry at readings, which was somewhat alarming. It wasn't easy to write, in a couple of ways. The title provokes the natural expectation that it’s ironic, that the husband in the story isn't good at all. And while that’s part of the truth, it’s not the whole truth. I wanted to write about a man who is trying very hard to be good, but is going about it an a destructive way, whose love is actually making things worse. It was hard to achieve that balance. It was harder, personally, because it’s a subject I have some experience with, and writing about the very selfish feeling the husband has - maybe she can’t be fixed, maybe it really would be better for her if she killed herself - is one of those points of shame I was talking about. There’s nothing noble about that thought. It’s a gross, base thought. But I think it’s one a lot of people have. And the guilt that follows that thought can be destructive in its own right. I wanted to write about how love can distort you. The feedback has been generally pretty good on that one; it’s my favorite one in the book.

What do you want to impart with your work, and what do you want readers to take away after they've finished reading one of your stories/books?

I don’t sit down with the intention of imparting anything, really. I want to not waste the reader’s time. That’s my primary objective. There’s so much being thrown at us these days; we’re bombarded constantly with short story collections and with novels and ebooks and the promotion for all of it, there’s such a rattling clamor, that when someone actually sits down to read one of my own, my goal is for them to think that it was worth their time. For it to stand out somehow, and to linger in the memory. A reader deserves more than static.

What is your take on the current climate of Weird/Horror Fiction?  Do you think the emergence of many new small press outfits has helped or harmed the genre(s) overall?  To dig deeper into the corpse of a dead horse – and to rudely put you on the spot - what is your opinion on self-publishing?  Good or bad for the future of fiction?

I think weird/horror fiction is in the midst of a real renaissance, perhaps the most significant since the age of the pulps, which is nothing but good news. Small press has played a defining role. Not only does small press allow for more esoteric work to see print, it also provides a place for short fiction and novella-length fiction to thrive, which is the real life blood of this genre. Furthermore, it allows for some of the less well-known practitioners of the genre to return to print and be discovered all over again: Manly Wade Wellman, Clark Ashton Smith, Lucy Boston, Arthur Machen, Leigh Brackett, Karl Edward Wagner … all writers I’m able to read now thanks to the efforts of the small press. Weird fiction and horror fiction would be in a sorry state without it.

Self-publishing is not intrinsically good or bad. It’s just a tool, and can be put to use well or poorly. Most of what’s being done is wretched stuff, but that’s true of just about anything. Many fine writers, like Jeff VanderMeer and Rhys Hughes, have self-published at one point or another in their careers, too, to good effect. I think it’s good that the tool is there to be used; it’s just unfortunate that it’s so often used badly.

You have admitted in the past to being a “slow” (I hate to use that word), deliberate writer (although your pace seems to have picked up recently).  What is your daily/weekly writing schedule?  When do you prefer to write, and why?

I used to be very slow. I would average about a story a year. And it’s not as if I was laboring over every sentence for that length of time; I just wouldn't write for a good nine or ten months out of each year. Within the past couple of years, the pace has picked up considerably. That said, I don’t keep to a rigorous schedule. I’ll try to get in 500 words a day, which is a modest goal, and one I don’t always meet. But the words accumulate surprisingly quickly even so. I prefer to write in the mornings, with coffee at hand. My mind feels fresh, and I like the feeling of an open day ahead of me. It lets me feel unhurried, unpressured, which in turn helps me think. At night I’m usually very tired and I don’t often have the patience to write. I bring a notebook with me to work, and I’ll jot down some sentences or wrestle with a story’s problems when I get some downtime. Like most people, I guess, I just squeeze it in when I can.

What does winning your first Shirley Jackson Award mean to you?  You're also nominated for a World Fantasy Award, with some pretty stiff competition.

This is my actually my second one. My first came in the award's inaugural year, in the short story category for "The Monsters of Heaven". I lost a bunch between then and now, though, so it definitely feels good! Especially in this category, in a year when there was such an abundance of great collections of dark fiction. Aside from the ones on this ballot -- Michael Marshall Smith, Will Ludwigsen, Kit Reed, and Christopher Barzak (with whom I tied, and I was lucky to do so) -- there were outstanding books from John Langan, Caitlin R. Kiernen, Laird Barron, Lynda E. Rucker, Reggie Oliver, Mark Valentine, Karen Russell, Stephen Volk, Ramsey Campbell ... and that's just off the top of my head. It was truly an amazing year for short story collections in our field, and that Lake Monsters won is just a bit of luck.

Yeah, being up for the World Fantasy Award is kind of mind-blowing. My fingers are crossed, but that ballot is a killer: Caitlin R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, Reggie Oliver, and Rachel Swirsky. I can see anybody walking home with it. it's also up for the British Fantasy Award, which I'm really excited about. The British horror and dark fantasy scene is so exciting right now; I feel like somebody accidentally invited me to the cool kids' party. I'm happy to just sit in the corner and watch everybody circulate, and hope nobody notices that I don't belong!

Frankly, I'm just happy NALM is part of the conversation. It's already far exceeded my expectations. Anything from this point on is gravy.

What is next for you in terms of projects either on your plate or on the horizon?

Most of the stories I’m writing now are quite different from the ones in North American Lake Monsters. I want to stretch my boundaries a bit, try some new things. A lot of what’s coming is more influenced by pulp fiction and by comic books than by realism. I might lose some of my readership, but I hope most of them will come with me. I’m writing a novel set on Mars in 1930, which I hope to finish fairly soon. I've been working on a novella called “The Cannibal Priests of New England”, about which I hope to be able to announce some good news in the near future. There are two stories in Ellen Datlow anthologies which will act as lynchpins for larger works: “The Atlas of Hell” (Fearful Symmetries) and “Skullpocket” (Nightmare Carnival). Although both are pretty dark, they’re written to be fun more than anything else. I’m especially looking forward to expanding the universe of “Skullpocket”. I have a novella called “The Visible Filth” coming soon from This is Horror, and another one, as yet unwritten, due to the REMAINS imprint at Salt Publishing. And more ideas lined up, waiting their turn. There are days when it’s hard to think, because I want to write them all right now, at the same time. I’m really looking forward to it.

Thanks again for your time, Nathan, and best of luck in all of your future endeavors.  We will be watching closely.

Thanks so much, Ted!

Hands that crack walnuts, mind that cracks skulls

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

TC Review & Interview: Acclaimed horror author and Punktown creator Jeffrey Thomas scores big with collection WORSHIP THE NIGHT, now available from Dark Renaissance Books

Cover by Erin Wells

It only took me one page to fall for Jeffrey Thomas.

It was several years back, and I had just received Unholy Dimensions - which is one of the best "concept collections" that I've ever read, Lovecraftian or otherwise - via the post as a gift from the author, and after choosing to remain undeterred by the rather uninspiring cover (as an admitted art/design snob, I always judge books, in whatever small way, by their covers), I dove in excitedly, based entirely on Thomas' reputation amongst fellow writers of the dark and Mythosy.  The opening story in the collection was titled "Bones of the Old Ones," and by the time I'd finished that first page, I knew that I very much liked the way this Thomas fella put together a sentence, how he etched out a scene and drew up his characters.  How he melded crime fiction with science fiction in one story, and how he paid homage to classic Weird lit in another.  How he built his worlds and all the new and dark things that exist there.  Punktown.  Lords of the seven moons, how I swooned hard for Punktown.

Much like a woman knowing within the first five seconds of a blind date if they're ever going to disrobe with that person wiping their brow across from them, a reader often knows after that first page if they're on board with an author, or looking for the exit.  For me, with Unholy Dimensions, it was love at first sight, and that affection has only grown with each new Jeffrey Thomas story, novella, and novel I've read since then, and there have been many.

In addition to being a precise stylist who weaves in enough poetry without turning purple, Thomas is one of those Big Creators, who has carved out vast swathes of newly tamed real estate from the jungle of the abyss, with the most famous of these being the above-mentioned Punktown, the fictional frontier planet that serves as a crossroads for a menagerie of races and entities all struggling to thrive and survive in a bleak, proto-Lovecraftian universe.  And while Punktown put him on the map, and is his most recognizable brand, he's written so much more than that, including a series of stories and novels set in his version of an urbanized Hades, and dozens of other stories and books situated in more general Speculative Fiction arenas, that have been translated into numerous languages around the globe.

Thomas is an important writer of Horror Fiction, and based on his output, range, and immense talent, he deserves to be a household name in the genre, mentioned in concert with the elite writers of dark literature over the past two decades.  Maybe he already is (I don't get out to conventions much), and if so, there is some justice in the cold creative world.  I just know that writers like Thomas should be writing for a living.  Full time.  Cashing checks from Big Apple book deals that allow him a comfortable existence without the need for a distracting "day job," where each hour spent away from the keyboard is another hour ripped from the dark canon.  Thomas was put here to write books of scary stories and Cosmic Horror.  Black, unsettling stuff, and lots of it.  He can surely shoulder the burden, based on his bibliography, as well as his recent and upcoming slate of projects.  Hopefully, someday very soon, The Bigs will come calling, and Jeffrey Thomas' emergence in the shopping mall book store (do they even have those anymore) will finally come to pass.  It has to work out that way.  How can it not?  I mean, Front Shelf writers belong on that Front Shelf, in the mall or otherwise.

With that preachy preamble behind us, I can put away the soap box and move on to the topic at hand, which is Jeffrey Thomas' recent collection Worship The Night (Dark Renaissance Books, 2013).  I say "recent" and not "latest," as I requested a review of the book not too long ago, when it was Thomas' newest release, coming out on the heels of Encounters With Enoch Coffin (written in collaboration with famed Lovecraftian scribe W.H. Pugmire).  Today, as of press time, it is now his second most recent collection, as Ghosts of Punktown was released just last week.  So, you see what I mean about the whole "prolific" thing.

In Worship The Night, Thomas gives us eight substantial tales that run the dark gamut while showing his range, in terms of tone, location, and POV.  Starting with the cover image, many of the stories here seem intensely personal, revealing a candor that is refreshing in Horror Fiction, which can sometimes drape itself in a detached, Kubrickian facade while bloodlessly describing scenes of profound violence.  For what I count as the strongest stories in this collection, Thomas digs deep into his own meat and bones to reveal fresh terrors told in that clean, elegant way that marks all of Jeffrey Thomas' work

"The Lost Family" opens the assembly, and features the seraphic protagonist from his novel Fall of Hades, picking up her trail somewhere midway through that book, giving it a feel of a unearthed chapter.  Thomas' construction of the landscape (cityscape?) of Hell is incredibly interesting, and made somehow simultaneously more hopeful as well as hopeless than your usual portrayals of the Underworld.   An eternal realm of endless terrain is compressed into a claustrophobic crawl through the machinery of damnation, in a realm that is more dangerous than I thought possible.

"Counterclockwise" is the collection's sole Punktown story, and it's a dandy, centering on the bizarre mechanics of one of the many alien cults that have taken up residence on this rough and tumble planet, in this case the mysterious Groi (hmm).  A massive clock tower - "a nightmarish wedding cake of black metal, tiered layers that tapered to the huge clock face that surmounted it" - built across the street from an apartment building drives a tenant to distraction, and then to a whole lot more.  Uninitiated readers also get an introduction to the Choom, the wide-mouthed species indigenous to Oasis (nicknamed "Punktown" - a local epithet that stuck) who collaborate with the human settlers now running the megalopolis, from shipping to shopping to the police force.  Thomas' deft handling of alien races, and the unwholesome monuments they erect, is on full display in that yellowish green clock face of "Counterclockwise."  gur... gur... gur..

"The Holy Bowl" flies in the face of its often comical ruling deity, and possesses a tone that reminds me of the works of Mark Samuels or Thomas Ligotti.  Grim, mean, and hopelessly cold.  I've never read a Jeffrey Thomas story like this, and was pleasantly surprised by the vague familiarity of the setting, and the brutality that waits therein.

"In Limbo," written specifically for this collection, is the first of the outwardly personal stories in Worship The Night, which lends the work a resonant weight that is as heart rending as it is chilling.  Written during the confluence of Hurricane Sandy, Halloween, and what Thomas terms "Life itself" in 2012, "In Limbo" sets a story to which we can all relate in a setting we all recognize, and then drops that cozy, tattered quilt over the cliff into a ravine of nightmares, where the End of Everything might be just outside your door, and seeping into your home.

In "About the Author" and "The Strange Case of Crazy Joe Gallo," you can see Thomas having fun, spoofing trope-chasing while celebrating truth being stranger than fiction in the former, and playing fast and Lovecraftian loose with gangland history in the latter.  Oddly enough, I picked up The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the End of the Underworld from the library the same week as I received Worship The Night.  I haven't yet read the Gallo book, but I'm certain - much to my chagrin - that I won't find any Mythos undertones, nor homages to S. T. Joshi in the official biography of this charismatic Mafioso.

With these light interludes concluded, the plate is cleared for the two remaining stories, both of which are sizable slabs of spitting darkness that seem to build off of each other. "Children of the Dragon" takes our male American protagonist (probably not-so-coincidentally named "French") to Vietnam, a country with which Thomas is intimately acquainted.  In looking for strange, possibly mythical creatures in the haunted jungles and lakes of Southeast Asia, our cryptozoologist first falls for a local bar girl, who becomes his key to discovering hidden-in-plain-sight secrets he never dared imagine.  "Children of the Dragon" is essentially a Lovecraftian piece, set in real world locations visited by Thomas himself, doused in a patina of cosmic dread.  This, of course, grounds a darkly fantastical tale in the minutia of reality, giving it a vibe of being not only wholly possible, but most likely true.

In "The Sea of Flesh," we see the United States - specifically, Salem, Massachusetts - through the eyes of an American-born child of Vietnamese immigrants, and her struggles with identity in two worlds that don't fully embrace her.  This is a 40 page novelette, which could have been expanded out into a full-on novel with just a tad bit of padding, but thankful stays mean and lean and included as the final story in Worship The Night.  "The Sea of Flesh" is a big, layered story populated by complex, multidimensional characters that struggle with job and family, secret desires and the dangers of shared dreaming.  Especially in Salem, around Halloween, days after a rotting hulk of fleshy matter washes up into the harbor.  It's an award-worthy work of Horror Fiction, and I found myself hoping that the story would never end, partly out of a desire to stay in that bluish world of sporadic joy and crushing sadness, but also because I could see the clouds of doom building on the horizon, and wanted to keep them at bay before they could overtake the land and flatten the souls living there.  Some people deserve happiness, and never get it.  Some find it, and then have it taken from them.  Both are cruel, but the latter is the cruelest.

TC:  First of all, thank you for taking the time to sit down with The Cosmicomicon and share with all of us.  It’s a true honor to have someone of your stature and talent gracing the electronic pages of TC.

JT:  You’re too kind, Ted. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to speak about my work – you’ve been very supportive of it.

If you could, and for anyone living under a very heavy and stubborn rock the past few decades, give us a little background on your writing career.  When did you sell your first story, and how did that feel?  Has the “thrill of the sale” gone away over the years?  

Without digging through my records, I’m going to say it was a story called “The White Bat,” accepted by a small press zine called Dead of Night, in 1990. I was over the moon, because I was thirty-three at that time, and had wanted to be a published writer since I was a young boy. In a very humble way, that dream had been realized. That was the start of a long string of sales to small press zines, though that same year I also sold a story to Fangoria’s sister magazine, Gorezone. Ten years later, after having placed stories in a number of anthologies along the way, my first two books came out in rapid succession: the collections Terror Incognita (Delirium Books) and Punktown (Ministry of Whimsy Press). It’s been book after book since then, with most years seeing several published. I feel it was the critical success of Punktown that got that snowball rolling, so I have Jeff VandeerMeer to thank for publishing that book. As for the continued thrill of the sale…well, there are times when I feel a little jaded, which I think is natural, as is the fact that I’m more excited by some sales than others. Naturally, a “best of” or higher profile anthology sale is going to be greater cause for celebration. Sometimes I have to turn down requests to contribute to certain anthologies or publications, because of time constraints (I have a day job, don’t ya know). If I catch myself thinking, “Oh man, I just don’t have the time for that,” as if impatient or overwhelmed, then I need to mentally slap myself and remember the days when being published in anything was still just a dream. For an analogy, I’m reminded of when I was married to my first wife and one night she was feeling romantic, but I was playing "The Legend of Zelda," and I was like, “Come on, I’m in Level 8!” I had to stop and go, oh my God, what happened to me? You know, when you’re younger and going to bed with someone is all you aspire to. So, we need to reevaluate our perspective sometimes! Still, the years have also brought more realistic expectations about being published, and whatever it is that constitutes “fame.” I know I’ll never be famous, so that subdues the fires to a steady low burn, but knowing I have readers who come back to my work keeps those fires from going out altogether.

I think influences are fascinating, and am convinced that childhood interests follow a person for the rest of their lives. With that so clumsily proclaimed, what authors (or genres) did you read during your childhood?  What was your first brush with dark fiction and the fantastical?

I agree about those childhood influences. When I was a kid, "Planet of the Apes" was my favorite movie, and I think it sticks with me to this day…mainly, using science fiction or the fantastic as a vehicle for satire or social commentary, as I do in my far-future Punktown stories. When I was about ten, my favorite novel was Oliver Twist, and likewise I think that book inspired something that recurs in my work: the notion of a person trying to hold onto some kind of goodness at their core, to maintain their dignity, in an environment of oppressive darkness, as Oliver did as an impoverished orphan and later in the company of criminals. That theme of endeavoring to walk upright in a crushing universe is not only important to my Punktown stories, but my series of stories set in Hades, as well. As for my other childhood fiction reading, it was much more geared toward science fiction than horror, until I got into my teens and read novels like I am Legend and The Exorcist, though of course I’d always loved horror movies.

Even from a young age, did you always see yourself as someday becoming a writer?  Was this vocation preordained, or did it become unavoidable later in life?

I've wanted to be a writer since I could write at all, though it mostly started out with my own little comic books. At ten I was trying to write novels, at fourteen completed my first novel, and at fifteen submitted my first novel to a publisher. (It was rejected; as I say, it wasn’t until I was forty-three that I sold my first book.) That novel was a weird combination of "Planet of the Apes" and "A Clockwork Orange." It takes place on a planet colonized by humans, where the indigenous beings are simians. Strife exists between the humans and simians, and youth gangs comprised of either or both races are getting into all kinds of mischief. I think anyone familiar with my Punktown stories can see something larval there. But yes, maybe it was preordained that I become a writer, because the gene is strong in my family. My father was a locally published poet, my mother wrote poetry and a newspaper column, as a teen my sister wrote a newspaper column, and of course my younger brother Scott Thomas is a respected author of horror and fantasy. It was my destiny!

Unlike some contemporary writers of cosmic horror and fiction termed “Lovecraftian,” you use actual names, locations, and other bits of HPL’s work in your own, instead of dancing around it.  Was it a conscious choice to write straight-ahead Lovecraftian fiction, or did the ideas just come out that way on the page?

When I first started writing Lovecraft-inspired work, my inclination was usually to link it directly to his universe, and most of those earlier works were collected in my 2005 book Unholy Dimensions. These days I’m less inclined to name names, preferring a Lovecraftian vibe or approach in the broader sense of that term. Though it depends on the project. For the collection Encounters With Enoch Coffin, which I coauthored with W. H. Pugmire, we both made direct use of Lovecraft’s world and creations.

It might sound crass, or possibly inappropriate, but I feel compelled to mention this:  For as many years as you have been writing, the output you have shown, the creation of a brand new world of limitless possibility (Punktown), and with the quality of your work and the accolades it has received, I just can’t figure out why “Jeffrey Thomas” isn’t a household name in the more gentrified parts of Horror/Weird Fiction Town.  All that said, are you ever confused as to why it is harder for some writers to break through to that next level (a relative term) than others?  I know it’s not about skill, as Big Publishers have come calling for lesser talents.  Is it timing?  Genre?  Expertise in dark arts of convention politicking?

These things aren’t always about level of skill, you’re right. It may sound cynical or like sour grapes, but I’m certain schmoozing and politics can play a part in one’s level of success. You see it, it’s plain. Also, bombastic self-promotion has taken some writers farther than their skill level might merit. And yup, luck and timing. And then I have to squarely blame myself for not trying harder to crack the larger publishers, after suffering disappointments in the early days of my career. But I think you really hit on something when you said genre, and here is where I might really prove to be my own worst enemy. A large percentage of my output has been set in Punktown, and those stories blend the genres of science fiction and horror, not to mention crime fiction and, well, everything else but the kitchen sink. I think most of us who love science fiction movies also love horror movies, and you see horror and SF mixed freely in movies all the time (come on: "Alien"). But when it comes to reading, I don’t know, I think for most people it’s still either/or. SF purists might not care for the strong horror elements of much (though not all) of my Punktown work, while many horror readers may not feel comfortable with a futuristic, extraterrestrial setting. To me, it’s chocolate meets peanut butter, so I don’t get it. But let’s get back to the part about me not being proactive enough; that’s been a big problem for me. I’ve had three mass market novels, and for all three of them, the publisher approached me, asked me to write them something for them. Had they not done that, to this day I might not have had any books that were released by a larger publisher. I don’t know, maybe I just don’t like those long waits for the big houses to reply one way or the other. Maybe I became too comfortable on the level where I stand, and move laterally rather than reach higher. But I’m still pleased with my career, still very grateful. Again, you have to stop and remember being that guy who completed stories only to file them away in the closet, unread and unknown. I count my blessings that I have a bunch of gorgeous indie press books with my name on the cover…and yeah, those three mass market books (A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Dealers, Deadstock, and Blue War) will always be feathers in my cap.

Now that I got you in trouble, let’s change gears at bit, and get to Worship The Night.  This seems like one of your most personal collections, with stories like “In Limbo,” “Children of the Dragon,” and “The Sea of Flesh” seeming to hew very close to the reality bone.  Was this intentional, to dig so close to home?  Or was it just a matter of timing, with the stories reflecting what was going on around you at the time?

I didn’t set out to make Worship the Night a more personal kind of collection than others; it just developed that way via the law of averages, since a lot of my stories – sometimes even the most fantastical stuff, like some of the pieces in my latest, Ghosts of Punktown – draw on my personal experiences, or at least my emotional/psychological state. But however it came together, yes, Worship the Night did turn out that way as a whole. It’s a cathartic process, writing that type of story; but more importantly, it can make the work connect with the reader on a deeper level. Maybe the reader has been through the same kind of experience, or something analogous, and certainly the reader has felt those profound emotions before, experienced those fears or desires. That stuff tastes different on the page when it comes from some level of reality. You aren’t faking it. (You know how a CGI person, no matter how highly detailed, just never looks truly alive?) It’s potent raw material, but it can be tricky to make it work in a fictional presentation, where entertainment always has to be your foremost concern.

Based on its characters, plotting, themes, and execution, I find the novella “The Sea of Flesh” to be an achievement in contemporary horror fiction, and see it as a story that could have easily stretched into a novel.  Did you have any size constraints on it when you began writing it?

Only roughly was there a constraint to keep it on the shorter size as a novel. The story came about when Sea Wallace of Prime Books asked me and my brother Scott to each write a short novel inspired by a piece of artwork created by Travis Anthony Soumis, which became the cover for the finished book, The Sea of Flesh and Ash. But publication was delayed for some years, so eventually we moved the book to an emerging publisher, Terradan Press. The book hasn’t received much exposure, though, hence my decision to reprint “The Sea of Flesh” in Worship the Night. (And Scott’s short novel, The Sea of Ash, is thankfully going to be released as an ebook by Mike Davis of The Lovecraft eZine, who loved Scott’s story to death.) I’m satisfied with the length of the story, though I suppose I could have opened it up further. I think most any short story could be made larger, and a lot of novels could be much more condensed. Some novels feel bloated to me and overstay their welcome, so my own don’t typically get too bulky. My feeling is that the horror story is usually best served by the short form. In the end, unless I’m writing for an anthology with a set word limit, I like to let a story be the length it wants to be, organically.

As you have included “Counterclockwise” in Worship The Night, I want to talk Punktown a little bit, as I find it to be a very rich, varied, and often terrifying world that is an important landmark in the map of cosmic horror fiction.  How and why did you create Punktown, and what did you originally want to do with this place?  Has it lived up to its promise, and has it surprised you while constructing it, block by block, story by story?  How many more Punktown stories do you think are out there?

I came up with the whole fundamental concept of Punktown while riding with my dad somewhere, maybe home from my job, back in 1980. It just sort of burst up from wherever it was brewing in my subconscious, or my muse lagoon, or what have you. I wanted to write of this weird city – more phantasmagorical than strictly science fictional – where any kind of surreal craziness could go down, sort of like a literary Bosch painting. I think the setting has exceeded my initial expectations; it’s grown outwards and upwards over the years, like the city itself. Because all Punktown stories function independently of each other, and rarely carry over the same characters, there’s so much yet to be experienced there that I could no more tire of writing about it than another writer might tire of writing about this world.

“Children of the Dragon” first appeared in the book Geschichten aus dem Cthulhu-Mythos from Festa Verlag as a German translation.  You seem to have a healthy following in Germany (as well as Russia, Poland, and Greece) for your books, both in print and audio.  How did Punktown spread to the Old Country?

The same way I sold those three mass market books: they approached me! Thank God my publishers are more aggressive than I am. Germany’s Festa Verlag was the first publisher to do a translated edition of one of my books: a German language hardcover of Punktown, which featured artwork by H. R. Giger on the cover. Giger signed all the signature sheets, as well. Other translations came later, including a Taiwanese edition of my novel Letters From Hades. I continue to work with Festa, a great publisher, and these days my sales in Germany are stronger than my English language sales. And yes, there was even a three volume set of Punktown stories done as wonderful audio readings, by professional actors, from the company Lausch.

Is the project to turn Punktown into an RPG still in the works?

It is, though it’s unfortunately been moving more slowly than everyone had hoped. It was funded by the publisher’s Kickstarter program, which went over $4,500 beyond its $9,000 goal, but I think the delay has mainly come from transitioning the game from Miskatonic River Press to Chronicle City, who came into the picture late in the game (pardon the pun). All the text is finished, but there’s the matter of getting the interior artwork and maps created.

Tell us a little about your newest book, Ghosts of Punktown.  How has it been working with Dark Regions Press?

I actually turned Ghosts of Punktown in to Dark Regions a few years ago, but I think the delay there was again one of transition: from previous owner Joe Morey to his son Chris Morey. (I’m fond of both guys, Joe being the publisher of Worship the Night via his new imprint, Dark Renaissance Books.) Chris has been awesome to work with; he really wants to make this book something special. Ghosts of Punktown is my darkest Punktown collection, and I guess that’s saying something. It apparently left its Publishers Weekly reviewer in need of smelling salts. The violence in some of the stories all but blinded the reviewer to any other of the book’s qualities or merits. It was a case of a book ending up in the wrong reviewer’s hands. Conversely, Rue Morgue was highly favorable and didn’t mention the violence at all. That being said, it is an intense bunch of stories, and it isn’t inappropriate to feel disturbed by them.

As a huge Kris Kuksi fan, how did you score one of his works to use as the cover of Ghosts of Punktown?

I can’t recall where I found the first examples of his remarkable artwork, but when I did I went straight to check out his web site. I was so blown away that I entered something like a desperate panic – I needed this guy’s work to be on the cover of Ghosts of Punktown! I approached Joe Morey and asked him if we could request using one of Kuksi’s preexisting sculptures as our cover image. Joe said go for it, and so I approached Kuksi himself and found him to be very cool to work with. Later on, Chris Morey went back to Kuksi and asked if we could use a second image on the back cover of the deluxe lettered edition of the book. Kuksi consented, and not only that, agreed to sign all the lettered edition’s signature sheets, as well. I’m blessed to have had some of my favorite artists represented on the covers of my books: not only Giger and Kuksi, but people like Stephan Martiniere and Alan M. Clark.

I usually ask this of writers, especially ones who have been writing for more than just a few years, and who have made an impact on speculative fiction:  How has the nature, makeup, and tone of the weird/horror fiction scene changed during your tenure in the trenches?

I’ve seen a major change, from work that was influenced mainly by bestsellers like Stephen King to work inspired by more weirdly imaginative and daring authors (ironically, from further back in the literary annals) like Lovecraft, Chambers, Blackwood, and so on. I think all the talk and controversy surrounding New Weird and what it is, and if it is, was beneficial in that it stimulated more thought about weird fiction in general. And the massive anthology The Weird, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, not only furthered that conversation but helped expose current writers to a richer legacy of fantastical fiction than they were perhaps exposed to before. We’re in a new golden age of the weird tale (oops, I used “new” and “weird” in the same sentence; sue me), with people like Livia Llewellyn, Michael Cisco, and so many others delivering artistic, exhilarating, unpredictable work. Within just a couple of months I read new collections by Laird Barron, John Langan, and Nathan Ballingrud that just blew my mind. Unfortunately, the work of these brilliant authors will never reach the level of sales of King’s work, but the horror connoisseur who seeks them out will be richly rewarded.

What do you hope to see out of weird fiction going forward?  

More of what I’m seeing now…more and more of it!

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers of horror fiction, or fiction in general?

Read me to learn how it’s done. Sorry, I’m trying to be more concise as the interview draws to its close. And I need to sell books, bottom line.

Any last words, before I replace the blindfold and light up the cigarette?

Cigarette? What are you trying to do, kill me?

Thank you very much, Jeffrey, for sharing your time, energy, insights and stories with us.  We wish you only the very best, both on and off the page, and look forward to reading your work for a long, long time.