Sep 16, 2009

Keeping An Eye On... Laird Barron

It's Thursday (or close enough) and that means the next installment in the Keeping An Eye On Interview Series. Most of the authors on SF Signal's Watchlist would be shelved on the SF or Fantasy shelves in the local bookstore. Not Laird Barron. He does his own thing and he does it well. Barron specializes in the terrifying, the occult, the things that live in the dark and go bump in the night. Okay, he writes horror and, quite obviously, he's a hell of a lot better at it than me. But don't take my word for it. Take the word of Ellen Datlow, Jonathan Strahan, or Gardner Dozois. Or if you don't trust any of them as a result of some sort of Lovecraftian paranoia, you can look at the shortlists for the World Fantasy Award, Sturgeon Award, Crawford Award, Shirley Jackson Award, or the International Horror Guild Award. You'll find his name there as well. Laird's biggest work so far is probably his first collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories but I was pleased to report that he has since sold a second collection as well as a debut novel to be published in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

But now that my lack of authorial talent has scared you into submission, it's time to see what Laird had to say.

SoY: If we are keeping an eye on you, what should be looking for in the near future? What have you been working on recently?

LB: I have a novelette called “Catch Hell” coming out in Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound in October, and another novelette, “The Broadsword,” in S.T. Joshi’s Black Wings. Black Wings, also a Lovecraft-themed anthology, is due this winter. Ellen Datlow & Nick Mamatas recently co-edited an anthology called Haunted Legends, and my piece, “The Redfield Girls,” is in there. Tor looks to be releasing that sometime during 2010. There are some other pieces that I can’t divulge as of yet.

The biggest news for me is that Jeremy Lassen at Night Shade Books purchased my sophomore horror collection, Occultation, and my debut novel, The Croning. The collection contains two original tales and is introduced by the great Michael Shea. Look for Occultation in October, 2010, and The Croning in the summer of 2011.

SoY: If a reader has never heard of you before reading this, what is the one single piece of work of yours (novel, short story, comics, etc.) would you like them to read?

LB: Probably a novella called “Hallucigenia” that first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The novella is my favorite form. It possesses several advantages of a novel and none of the limitations of a short story. “Hallucigenia” hits a good cross section of themes and set pieces central to my work -- hard bitten protagonists, dark cults, insanity, gratuitous rumpy pumpy, esoteric lore, super science, monsters, and cosmic horror all tangled up in pulp-noir webbing.

SoY: I was happy to see that you sold your DEBUT NOVEL to Night Shade Books recently. What was your reaction when you heard the news? How is work on The Croning going?

LB: I worked on my first book, The Imago Sequence & Other Stories, with the gang at Night Shade. It’s a beautiful book. Eleni Tsami created the art and Claudia Noble designed the cover. They did a terrific job. So, it pleased me to no end that Night Shade picked up my new collection and green lighted The Croning. The first collection has done well critically and commercially, but this demonstrates faith on the company’s part and I appreciate that immensely.

The Croning novel is well on its way to a first draft. It’s about an elderly man who discovers his wife has kept some dark secrets from him over the course of their marriage. Or, high concept: Wilford Brimley Goes to Hell. The manuscript will be delivered to Jeremy Lassen by July 2010.

SoY: Out of all the authors on the list of up-and-comers, you seem to be the “horror” guy. What do you love most about the horror/dark fantasy genre? Is there a difference between the genres you read and what you write?

LB: Horror is my motor. It gets to me on an animal level and satisfies my impulse toward scenario building. Probably a product of a childhood that was often more about basic survival than maturing into a well-adjusted adult. I’ve always been plagued with vivid nightmares and much of my work originates from these seeds. Supernatural horror is an escape valve for my unresolved questions of spirituality. It’s my way of licking wounds that refuse to heal.

Most of what I read in my formative years adhered to pulp, fantasy, and science fiction formulas. Lots of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Louis L’Amour, Roger Zelazny, Robert Howard, etc., etc,. However, once I got into Poe and Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber, Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell, Michael Shea and Peter Straub, Michael Moorcock and Clive Barker, I felt like I’d come home.

On the balance, I’ve read a lot more nonfiction than anything else these past seven or eight years. I research my stories to a great extent. The research consumes a significant portion of my non-writing time. It often leads me astray as I tend to get sidetracked by divergent subject matter. I start out studying therapy for mental depression and wind up, hours later, reading about the mighty Argentine ant super colony that will inherit the Earth.

SoY: How are you finding the transition between the short form and writing a novel? Any advice to authors struggling with their first novel?

LB: I once wrote an epic fantasy of some three hundred thousand words. The manuscript is safely trunked alongside an emergency lighter. The process is similar to producing a novelette or novella, only magnified. I hesitate to dispense advice regarding novels. On the other hand, regarding fiction writing in general -- art doesn’t materialize from a vacuum. Read a book, watch a play, listen to music. Pay attention to your surroundings, turn everyday trials toward a creative purpose. Absorption is far more important than distillation.

For me, it boils down to ninety percent intake and ten percent output. That said, cultivate discipline, put yourself in The Chair on a routine basis, and make the words, the sentences, the paragraphs. Building mental endurance operates on the same principal as building a tolerance for physical exertion. If you want to run a marathon, you run. You want to become larger and stronger, you lift weights. For best results, you don’t train in fits and starts. Performance is a result of routine and regimented activity. Frankly, when it comes to writing, that’s the easy part, the part you get to control.

SoY: Which authors influenced your writing style the most? What author would fill in this blank, “If I can write a novel as good as ___________ , I’d consider my career a success.”?

LB: Sticking to horror/dark fantasy authors: Roald Dahl, Roger Zelazny, T.E.D. Klein, Michael Shea, and Peter Straub are all tremendous influences of mine. Over the past decade I’ve come to love Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, and Shirley Jackson. “The Summer People” is among my favorite stories; its atmosphere and characterization resonate with me, rattle around in my head when I’m putting my own stories together. If the last thing I ever did was write a novel half as remarkable as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or Peter Straub’s KOKO, it’d be the literary equivalent of dying with my boots on.
SoY: You grew up in Alaskan and even raced the Iditarod several times. What was that like? What’s harder; racing the Iditarod or writing a novel?

LB: Alaska is a tough place to live. Dwelling in poverty in the wilderness of Alaska, as my family did, is another kettle of fish altogether. I think growing up in an environment hostile to humans is a formative experience, physically and psychologically. Profound cold, profound heat, exaggerated extremes of light and dark, and intense isolation, are elements of the person I’ve become and inform the subjects I choose to write about. These days, I live in a quiet, shady greenbelt suburb with a house and a white picket fence. My snowshoes, guns, and knives are in storage. I’m fine with that.

The skill sets involved in wilderness travel and fiction writing don’t overlap much, except insofar as both require the ability to withstand prolonged interludes of mind-crushing boredom. Novel writing is fraught with its own brand of peril. However, I’m pretty sure I won’t be freezing my balls off during the process. That’s really all the encouragement I need to persist.

SoY: Your short story, "Procession of the Black Sloth," is being developed by Fineprint Productions. What is that story about? How is that going? What has been your experience with that segment of the entertainment industry?

LB: “Procession of the Black Sloth” is a novella about a security consultant sent to Hong Kong to hunt down a corporate spy. The protagonist takes residence in a compound reserved for foreign nationals -- an old, decaying structure that is inhabited by an insidious cult. It’s an homage to horror, especially that found in Asian cinema. I’m a devoted fan of Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa and have found inspiration in films such as Audition, Gozu, and Cure. The “Sloth” piece was original to The Imago Sequence & Other Stories, and my agent has taken a special interest in developing it for film. Developmental work on “Procession of the Black Sloth” is in the embryonic stage. A couple of other stories are actually farther along the path to production at the moment.

I’ve been contacted by a number of producers since my stories first began appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A couple of pieces were optioned. My collection attracted quite a bit of interest from Hollywood. Who knows where it all will lead? I certainly count myself fortunate to have film and lit agent Brendan Deneen on speed dial. A former executive with Dimension Films and others, he’s a good man to have in your corner.

SoY: If you have one, what your opinion of Hollywood “horror”? It seems like their take on horror recently is more torture porn than anything else. What would you like to see change?

LB: It’d be nice to see fewer remakes. I long for the return of the hard R film as a staple. Down with the jangling music, incessant jump cuts, and the almost sterile, clone-like similarity of pop films. Asian horror tropes have infiltrated Hollywood over the past decade-plus, but much of the complexity, the quirkiness, and unpredictability has been lost in translation.

SoY: What are your writing habits like? Do you have any peculiar writing habits that somehow work for you but everyone else would find quirky (and/or insane)?

LB: I’m a night owl. I do my best work between midnight and dawn. My sleep schedule is pretty odd -- I have a tendency to nap for two or three hours at a stretch rather than actually go into deep sleep. Every couple of weeks I hibernate for twelve hours.

SoY: You get to choose a single SF/F author (can be living, dead, or zombie) to write one additional book. Who do you choose and why?

LB: William Goldman. He hasn’t written a novel since Brothers, back in the ‘80s. Magic, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man, are all classics. I learned a great deal regarding characterization from reading his books and watching Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. Goldman has been one of the brilliant lights for many, many years.

SoY: What’s your favorite horror subgenre?

LB: I’m fascinated with the occult, the pursuit of forbidden lore, the consequences of attaining such knowledge. Cosmic horror, technology run amok. I also have a soft spot for tales that feature strong noir/mystery aspects.

SoY: What’s the best thing you’ve read this year?

LB: "The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti", a novella by Stephen Graham Jones, and several excellent collections: Mr. Gaunt & Other Uneasy Encounters, by John Langan, The Autopsy & Other Tales by Michael Shea, Worse Than Myself, by Adam Golaski, When They Came by Don Webb, Northwest Passages by Barbara Roden, The Darkly Splendid Realm by Richard Gavin, Eyes Like Sky and Coal & Moonlight by Cat Rambo, The Fungal Stain by Wilum Pugmire, You Might Sleep… by Nick Mamatas, and The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer.

Novels: Paul Tremblay’s The Little Sleep is a sensational work that beats crime conventions to a bloody pulp. I just discovered a novel from a few years back by Cody Goodfellow called Radiant Dawn. Goodfellow writes supercharged cosmic horror -- Lovecraft on crack..

Poetry: Unexpected Light by C.E. Chaffin. A veteran poet and editor, Chaffin’s work is spare, romantic, and dark as hell. I worked with him and his wife Kathleen Carbone at the now defunct Melic Review. Melic was a classy outfit, once recommended by US poet laureate Billy Collins. I have a great love of poetry and have written quite a bit over the years. I believe it’s helped refine my prose.

SoY: [Obligatory pimpage] Is there anywhere online that readers can follow you and your work? [/obligatory pimpage]

LB: Readers are welcome to drop by my journal The Imago Suite at imago1

Now horror is typically not my thing but I gave Laird Barron a try when I originally came across the SF Signal Watchlist and I came away impressed. It was something outside my normal reading patterns and a very welcome change. I strongly recommend The Imago Sequence as well as any of the anthologies featuring Barron's short work, particulalry anything edited by the wonderful Ellen Datlow.

As always, thanks to Laird for participating and thanks for reading. Come back next week for more!


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