Fiction Fragments: Paul Tremblay

If you missed last week’s Fiction Fragments, you missed a great interview with Linda D. Addison. Linda has been an inspiration to me since I attended my first World Horror Convention back in 2013, but it was her acceptance speech for her Lifetime Achievement Award at StokerCon in 2018 that made me want to be just like her when I grow up. Do yourself a favor and check out last week’s Fiction Fragments with Linda.

This week, I am super excited to welcome award-winning horror writer Paul Tremblay to Girl Meets Monster. I’ve really enjoyed Paul’s work and look forward to reading more. And, hopefully, I’ll get over my social awkwardness enough to talk to him beyond saying “hello” the next time I see him at an event.

Paul Tremblay has won the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and Massachusetts Book awards and is the author of Survivor SongGrowing Things, The Cabin at the End of the World, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, A Head Full of Ghosts, and the crime novels The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland. His essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly online, and numerous year’s-best anthologies. He has a master’s degree in mathematics and lives outside Boston with his family.

twitter and instagram: @paulgtremblay
website: www.paultremblay.net
author photo credit: Allan Amato

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Paul. You’ve had a lot of success with your writing, and that success is well-deserved. Back in March, I interviewed Bracken MacLeod, who has also had some success with his work, and I asked him to talk about the concept of impostor syndrome. For many writers, even after they’ve had their work published and had some success with their writing, they still experience feelings of doubt about their writing. As a writer who has won some prestigious awards, does that kind of recognition make it easier or more difficult to approach your craft? Personally, I suffer from a fear of success, because success often means there are greater expectations for your next effort, and that also means more work on your part. Has success in your writing been helpful or a hindrance?

PT: Thank you for having me here, Michelle.

I never feel like I know what the hell I’m doing in writing, or in life, frankly. The self-doubt, particularly while in the middle of a novel/story, doesn’t go away, and if anything, has intensified, which is more than kind of disheartening/disappointing. While having published books under my belt helps my confidence a little (proof that I have in fact, somehow, finished books before), it only helps a little. I’ve found a more regular writing schedule is more effective at keeping the self-doubts from becoming paralyzing; it’s easier to chalk up a bad day as simply a bad day if there are good or so-so days surrounding it.

Successes (however those might be described, from selling a story to a market or editor you really wanted to work with to signing a book deal) certainly can be a hurdle to the next or new project. For novels, I try to make each one feel different in some way (it could be something as simple as switching up the music I listen to when writing, a new notebook for notes, or even a tweak or change in process or approach) if nothing else to remind me this new book is not the prior one. It is its own thing, for good or bad. When I struggled during the writing of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, my follow up to A Head Full of Ghosts, I emailed my friend/mentor Stewart O’Nan. In the email I whined that this new book wasn’t coming as easily (the lie of memory; all your completed stories or books were easier to write in your memory than in the moment) and while I felt confident about AHFoG, I feared that this new book wasn’t going to be as good, etc. Expecting a pep talk back from Stewart, he instead sent me exactly what I needed to hear. He wrote, “Eh, not everything you write is going to be great.” He was of course correct, and I laughed, released a lot of my self-imposed pressure with an exhale, and grinded out a book of which I’m very proud.

GMM: I enjoyed your fragment. I assume the title is a parody of Shirley Jackson’s novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Based on what you’ve shared, I get the feeling this story is set in a post-apocalyptic amusement park with a fairy tale theme. I’m not 100 percent sure what’s happening, but our narrator is interesting and seems well-informed about the world around him/her. Without giving away too many spoilers, what is the premise of the story and what can you tell us about the narrator?

PT: Yes, it’s definitely a riff on my favorite Shirley Jackson novel and I’m not 100% sure what’s happening either! Heh.

When my two kids were younger, we took them to a regionally famous amusement called Story Land. The park is really geared for kids younger than 10 years old with each ride and attraction based on a fairy tale. During one visit a thunderstorm cropped up and the four of us (along with some other families) holed up inside a giant pumpkin. Well, it was some form of plastic and mortar (maybe?) pumpkin. And as my mind tends to wander to horror/weird scenarios, I imagined what would happen if we had to live at the park, what would drive us to live at the park? Clearly Cinderella’s castle would be the prime real estate if people were going to divvy up the place. The ‘castle’ in my title references Cinderella’s at Story Land. The narrator of this story is more sinister than Merricat Blackwood, but I tried to make him playfully mischievous. There has been some sort of apocalypse and people are living/surviving at the various rides and attractions within the amusement park. An absurdist premise, but one I hoped would play on people’s post-apocalyptic fantasies: the idea that yes of course *you* would be one of the ones to survive. Maybe not on the Polar Coaster though? Our narrator covets and schemes to take over the best place to live in the park, the castle (because of its size and easily defendable location), though as the story progresses his mental state disintegrates.

GMM: Many writers have been affected by the pandemic and the political climate. Some positively. Some negatively. Have changes to expectations around your course delivery as a teacher had an impact on your time? Has your productivity changed? What projects have you been working on that keep you motivated to stay on track?

PT: It has been difficult to focus on writing/creating, difficult to tear myself away from news, particularly online news, and difficult to not perseverate on worries and real-world fears. I’ve been more forgiving of myself for not being as productive (in terms of words written) as I would like. But I do force myself to write at some point as I do have a novel contractually due in May of 2021. As the calendar turns to fall, I’m not sure how going back to school will impact my writing work, and to be honest, I’m not even sure what school is going to look like, even at this late date.

After having a difficult time doing so when stay-at-home began, I have been doing a lot of reading, which, for me, is as important as writing to my work as a writer. My two prior novels, The Cabin at the End of the World and Survivor Song purposefully reflect (I hope) the anxieties of living in Trumplandia. And with Survivor Song in particular, it has been strange releasing a virus/pandemic novel. So, I don’t have any interest in writing about *this* pandemic, at least not directly. The project I am currently working on is a novel, one (thankfully) I had the idea hit me in late fall of 2019, so when I am able to write and sink into the book, it has been a welcomed escape from reality. Though I have noticed our now sneaking in and in unexpected places (given the novel starts in 1988).

Fragment from “We Will Never Live in the Castle”

polar coaster

Mr. Matheson lives over in Heidi’s Hill, we confab every three days in the old mist tent between the World Pavilion and my Slipshod Safari Tour, but today he’s late for our date, he scurries and hurries into the tent, something’s up.

Mr. Matheson says, She took over the Polar Coaster, he says, I don’t know if Kurt just up and left or if she chased him off or killed him but he’s gone and now she’s there.

I thought we’d never be rid of that idiot kid, he used to eat grass and then puke it all up.

I say, Who is she, what’s she look like, does she have a crossbow?

He says, She’s your age of course, medium-size, bigger than my goat anyway, and quiet, I didn’t get a great look at her, but I know she’s there, she wears a black cap, she just won’t talk to me.

Why would she say anything to him, I only talk to him out of necessity, necessity is what rules my life, necessity is one of the secrets to survival, I’ll give other secrets later, maybe when we take the tour.

Mr. Matheson and me have a nice symbiosis thing going, he gets to stay alive and enjoy a minimum base of human contact, he keeps an eye on my Slipshod Safari Tour’s rear flank, last year he saw these two bikers trying to ambush me via Ye Olde Mist Tent, Mr. Matheson gave me that goat’s call of his, he is convincing, I took care of the burly thunderdome bikers, they tried to sneak down the tracks and past the plastic giraffe, the one with a crick in its neck and the missing tail, typical stupid new hampshire rednecks, not that there’s a new hampshire anymore, live free or die bitches, their muscles and tattoos didn’t save them, little old me, all one-hundred-thirty-two pounds of me, me and necessity.

Mr. Matheson is clearly disappointed she won’t talk to him, whoever she is, he’s probably taken stupid risks to his own skin, and by proxy mine, trying to get her attention, it’s so lame and predictable, because of the fleeting sight of a mysterious girl the old man would jeopardize my entire operation here, Mr. Matheson is down to his last goat, the house on Heidi’s Hill is a small one room dollhouse with a mini bed mini table mini chair, no future there, it’s a good place for a geezer with a white beard going yellow, straw on his face, getting ready to die, no place for a girl, she needs space, the Polar Coaster is a decent spot, back when Fairy Tale Land was up and running the Polar Coaster was one of the most popular rides, I never got to work it, they kept me over on the Whirling Whales, a toddler ride.

At the Polar Coaster the fiberglass igloo and icebergs are holding up okay, they make good hidey holes, warmth and shelter in the winter, shade in the summer, some reliable food stores, wild blueberry bushes near the perimeter of its northern fence, birds nest in the tracks, free pickings of eggs and young, small duck pond in the middle of it all and with ample opportunity to trap smaller critters, the Polar Coaster might be the third best spot in the park behind my Slipshod Safari Tour and Cinderella’s Castle, of course, third because it’s a little too out in the open for my tastes, everyone who comes to Fairy Tale Land always goes to the Castle and then the Polar Coaster.

I ask, Do you know her name?

Mr. Matheson says, She won’t talk to me, remember.

Yeah, I remember, but sometimes it’s hard when every day is the same.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Dark Blood Comes From the Feet: An Interview with Emma J. Gibbon

Emma J. Gibbon is a horror writer, speculative poet and librarian. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including Wicked Weird, Wicked Haunted, and The Muse & the Flame and on the Toasted Cake podcast. She also has a story upcoming in Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror from Haverhill Publishing. This year, she has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award for her poems “Fune-RL” (Strange Horizons) and “Consumption” (Eye to the Telescope). Her poetry has also been published in LiminalityPedestal Magazine and is upcoming in Kaleidotrope. Emma is originally from Yorkshire and now lives in Maine in a spooky little house in the woods with her husband, Steve, and three exceptional animals: Odin, Mothra, and M. Bison (also known as Grim). She is a member of the New England Horror Writers, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, the Angela Carter Society, and the Tuesday Mayhem Society. Her website is emmajgibbon.com.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Emma J. Gibbon’s anthology of short horror fiction, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of literary horror tales that put relatable characters under the microscope to show us the darker side of the human condition. Gibbon takes us to weirdly familiar settings that quickly turn macabre, like a strip club in Purgatory, a Lovecraftian orphanage, a day at the beach that would make Cronenberg proud, and a haunted house on a hill that I won’t forget any time soon.

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Emma. Congratulations on the release of your short story collection, Dark Blood Comes From the Feet, that comes out today! I really loved reading your stories, not just because they were well written, but also because I couldn’t help wondering where the stories came from. You write about a diverse group of characters from different backgrounds with different experiences and I kept wondering which of those characters were you. That might seem like a strange thing to wonder for some people, but because I write dark fiction as well about women of color, there is a part of me in each story. Some really terrible things happen to the people in your stories, but at the most basic level, they’re human. How much of yourself is in this collection? Where do the lines blur between you and your characters?

EJG: Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! That’s a really tough question to answer because in a way, they are all from me but are separate at the same time. I’ve had an interesting and varied time on this earth so far, so it does sometimes feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives. There is no doubt that I use elements of myself and my life when I create characters, some on a surface level and some on a deep emotional level. When I do the latter, it’s often not a conscious decision but something I realize later, sometimes years later. For example, on a surface level, the narrator of “Cellar Door,” Karen, resembles me in that some of her memories she mentions are my memories and she lives in my house. That house is my house! That basement is real! I’m not convinced it was the best idea, it’s like I haunted my own house.  But personality-wise, she’s not like me. Janine in “Janine” is a character I have enormous sympathy for. She is someone who had the cards stacked against her from the start, who made some bad choices and has really suffered for them, much more than she deserves. I have the sense that I could have easily been someone like Janine, but I was just luckier.

Ultimately, there is a lot of me in this collection, probably more than I like to admit. Dark Blood Comes from the Feet, is a line from “Cellar Door” and it’s a reference to having old trauma that you have trouble letting go of. I have a lot of stuff that I psychologically scratch at, over and over, old wounds. They’re in my stories but I skew it and dress it up in monsters and distinct voices and the supernatural so that I don’t even recognize it myself at times.

GMM: While reading the stories, I compared your work to other writers in the genre, including Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Cronenberg, and there’s even a reference to Donnie Darko (Tolkien), which brought a smile to my face. Which writers have had the most impact on your own writing style? Whose stories inspired you the most?

EJG: I do love Donnie Darko! And thank you so much! That’s a very flattering and intimidating list! I definitely have a group of authors whose work has inspired me. I know I’ll forget a major influence but a very obvious one is Shirley Jackson, but also Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, M. Rickert, Kelly Link. I think Brooke Bolander is astonishing. I’m inspired by many people writing horror right now. More than that though, I think the key is I was an early and voracious reader who came from a family that weren’t huge readers. We didn’t go to the library. My parents bought me books, but there was no way they could have kept up with me. I read everything and did a lot of rereading (I’ve slowed down since then, I mean, the internet exists now.) I’d get books from car boot sales (the British equivalent of yard sales). Half the time I didn’t have to pay. I think people were a bit weirded out by this little girl carrying a stack of Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock books, I especially liked the ones with the yellow edges, so they just gave them to me. Because my reading was very autodidactic and random, I have a personal canon that’s my own. I had no sense of high or low culture (which I still think is nonsense anyway,) or genre or nonfiction vs fiction, so I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then V. C. Andrews, an anthology of classic ghost stories and Salem’s Lot with a book of feminist stories. Much later, I’d carry on this habit even as I specialized in English—Macbeth with The Mammoth Book of Vampires Stories, a nonfiction book about the cultural effects of tuberculosis with The Name of the RoseWide Sargasso Sea with The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. So all of these stories are all in there and they come out in my stories in a completely unconscious way.

GMM: You have an incredible talent for showing us the horror and reality of the settings in each of your stories. I’m an avid reader, but I also have spent a lot of time watching and studying films in many genres, which I think has had an impact on how I tell stories. Would you say that the written word, or film images have inspired your work more? What films have influenced the way you craft a scene?

EJG: Thank you so much! That really means a lot to me because I have aphantasia. This means that I don’t imagine or think in visual images. It’s hard to describe but I have a strong internal dialogue and think in concepts (almost as if my mind can feel the edges of a 3D representation that I can’t see.) Some of my settings are based on places where I have lived or visited—as I said, the house in “Cellar Door” is mine, the tunnel in “Bobby Red-Eyes” really existed when I was a kid (and Bobby is an urban legend in my hometown), the Black Shuck Tavern is based on a famous Hollywood nightclub. Others were research, I’ve never been to any of the places in “Whitechapel,” for example.

I am very influenced by film too. I grew up in the peak-VHS 80s with very little screen supervision, so we watched a lot of horror films. My big ambition as a teen was to be a music video director. I was a double major in college in English and Art History but most of my art history classes were the history of film or film theory and honestly; it burnt me out a little. A lot of my favorite films are before then. So films like Heathers, The Lost Boys, Donnie Darko, Amadeus, The Faculty, Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nightbreed and May have had an enormous impact on me. Despite the aphantasia, it’s the colors of the scenes that I often remember and the way they affect mood.

That said, I’ve been influenced and inspired by all kinds of things—personal anecdotes, scenes from my own life, books and movies, music videos, songs, photographs and other pieces of art, TV shows and video games. It’s the story that I’m always most interested in, not necessarily the format.

GMM: I enjoyed reading all of the stories in your collection, but I have a few favorites, including “Devour,” “Cellar Door,” “Whitechapel,” and “St. Scholastica’s Home for Children of the Sea.” Which stories in the collection are your favorites, and why? Which were the most difficult to write?

EJG: As far as being hard to write, two stand out particularly. “Cellar Door” because it was the kind of story I have always wanted to write and fear of failure meant I couldn’t get out of my own way for the longest time. In the end, I made it a NaNoWriMo project and got a good chunk of it done by not looking back as I wrote. “This is Not the Glutton Club” was hard because I hand wrote it while bedridden with pneumonia! It was also the story that needed the most research, and my Facebook friends really saved the day on that one!

It’s really hard to have favorites, they’re like children (I’m guessing). What is nice is that I’ve got enough distance between them all that I like them all. I don’t regret putting any of them in there. I do really like “Sermon from New London.” It was a lot of fun to write. Should we get to the other side of the apocalypse, I think there are worse ways to survive than being part of a matriarchal cult based on punk music. It was first published on the Toasted Cake podcast performed by the editor, Tina Connolly, and there had to be a language warning because there is so much swearing in it. What really makes me laugh is that when I played it to my husband, he didn’t notice, which I think tells you about the level of discourse in our house!

GMM: While you write from the POV of both male and female characters, your strongest characters seem to be women and girls. And, even though terrible things happen to them, not all of them are victims. Many of your female characters make the most of the bad situations they find themselves in, and become survivors. Would you say that feminism has had an impact on how you create your female characters? Or, are you simply showing us the strength of the human spirit? Rarely, do your stories have what I would consider a happy ending, and I really appreciate that. How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never read your work?

EJG: Feminism definitely plays into it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind straight white guys, I even married one! But they have had their time being at the center of stories. They’ve had centuries of being the heroes and saving the day. I’ve made a conscious decision to give people who don’t traditionally get to be the protagonists take center stage or have the happy ending—women without children, women who are not straight, trans women, working-class women. Part of it is being a woman from a working-class background who has not conformed to social convention and having mainstream fiction just not resonate with me at all because of that. I still have a way to go. My writing is far too white, for example, and that is something I have to work on—my experience of the world is not a default and I think the more that I reflect the world as it is, the more powerful it is when I tilt it somewhat. Something that is at the core of who I am is that I will always root for the underdog, always. There is never a time when I’m on the side of the people with all the power so that’s going to come through.

I’ve had to pull myself up from the ashes a few times in my life, start again from nothing and reinvent myself. I’ve seen people, especially women, do that again and again and I like to reflect that in some of my stories. It makes you stronger, like tempering steel, but it has a cost, you can get brittle and break. Even the phoenix has to go through the fire.

Describing my writing style is difficult. It’s one of those things where I would be interested to know how other people describe it. A lot of it is instinctual. Once I get the voice of a story, it usually pulls me along. That said, I like to challenge myself to see if I can write in a wide a range as possible—can I write a nested story in the voice of a Victorian gentleman? What if I had an unreliable narrator talking to someone who wasn’t there? Can I write a speech in mostly misheard punk lyrics? What would Shirley Jackson do? I think that is what it comes down to mostly: What would Shirley Jackson do?