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Laird Barron is one of the best contemporary authors of horror, noir, and dark fantasy. He is also the author of “The Men from Porlock”, The Croning and The Light is the Darkness.
Fata Libelli: You’ve been included in several Cthulhu anthologies and your name tends to be found associated with the adjective “lovecraftian”. But more than contributing to the Cthulhu Mythos per se you tend to focus on other aspects of the Lovecraftian universe —the impending sense of doom, the dark revelations. Although popping one or two Old Ones in there might be real fun, it seems that publishers these days are concentrating on other aspects of his literary universe, seeking not imitations or derivations but original works that evoke a sense of the lovecraftian. What do you think the adjective “lovecraftian” stands for? In your opinion, what is the literary legacy of Lovecraft?
LB: Hi, thank you for the interview.
Lovecraftian is commonly used to denote the cosmic horror elements of fiction—the tentacles and extra-dimensional monsters. HP Lovecraft’s remit was much broader than that. “The Picture in the House” is my favorite Lovecraft piece and demonstrative of his affection for good old traditional affect horror.
Apparently, and thanks to the tireless efforts of scholar ST Joshi, Lovecraft’s legacy is a synonymous association with the black weird. At the moment his status is that of godfather to cosmic horror.
FL: It’s widely commented that Lovecraft had a deep sense of place. So do you with the Pacific Northwest. And also having lived in Alaska, I assume, has profoundly marked not just your personality but your literary voice. Do you think that most fantasy fiction, be it horror, sci-fi, it’s about space and place as it’s about characters? Do you feel that somehow place “writes you”?
LB: Setting is often crucial in science fiction, fantasy, and historicals, but that still falls to the style and purpose of the particular author. I’m a product of my environment—Alaska, Washington State, Montana, the Hudson Valley… I have an affinity for rural settings in life and the primeval wilderness in art. As I’ve said before, my formative years in Alaska traveling with huskies in the wild, surviving blizzards and other hazards, freezing and starving, had a scarrifying effect on my soul. I transmit that flaw to everything I write. Sometimes it’s invisible. Occasionally, it’s disfiguring.
FL: Weird fiction, horror fiction, altough still the little brother of the other two big genres of the trio, seems more alive than ever. Not saying that it was ever dead, but it seems to be experimenting a resurgence. Now with TV series like True Detective people are discussing or even reading Ligotti, investigating who Robert W. Chambers was and hopefully looking for more to read. As far as the short story is concerned, this year the Nobel Prize was won by Munro, who only practiced the short story form. So, do you feel that the stars are right now and short stories, and maybe horror short stories, are getting more reads every time? Or all this will pass as an ephemeral trend?
LB: This too shall pass. But let’s ride the hell out of the wave while it lasts.
FL: And inevitably mentioning True Detective again, the HBO series has shown that noir an horror combine perfectly (curiously enough, Pizzolatto himself mentioned you as one of those weird writers worth reading). And that’s a genre that you yourself practice, and not dissimilar to McCarthy, either. What’s the thing that connects the two genres that makes them such a good coupling?
LB: Noir and horror are conjoined siblings. Both deal with various forms of darkness, the evil that men do, the lurking shadow. Characters in a noir story are seldom strangers to horror and horror protagonists living near the margins find themselves in a noir nightmare with terrible ease. There’s a grim inevitability inherent to the best works in these genres, a sense of falling into an abyss. They elicit a morbid compulsion to follow that descent to its logical conclusion.
FL: You’ve said elsewhere that novellas and novelettes are the best form for horror fiction. Incidentally, I personally think that’s the form you stand out the most, in pieces like “The Men From Porlock” or “Hand of Gory”, for instance. Is that a length you feel comfortable with? Was it more difficult to write your novel The Croning? Do you want to explore longer lengths?
LB: I favor novelettes and novellas. A longer piece allows for complexity of character development, secondary plots, and digressions. Horror novels are tricky because it’s difficult to ramp up and maintain dread over a great distance. See the works of Peter Straub (especially Ghost Story) for a lesson in how to properly execute horror at novel-length. He’s the modern master.
The Croning proved difficult to write because I was undergoing a traumatic upheaval in my personal life. As a result I composed most of it while visiting my brother Jason and his wife Harmony at their home in western Montana. I spent eight months in a bunkroom putting it together while everything outside fell apart. I came through the fire very much changed.
Novels are where the money is at. I’ll be writing more of them.
FL: It was Ballard who said, in a famous advice to writers, that you should stay true to your obsessions. Surely not an advice on the technical side, but I’ve found it’s one of the best advices to follow, especially when you’re feeling insecure about whether what you’re doing is worthy or whether anybody is going to like what you’re writing. Do you feel that staying true to your obsessions is what fuels your writing somehow?
LB: Writing advice, technical advice, especially programatic advice, is largely bullshit. There are best-practices and basic rules (made to be broken by anyone worth his or her salt), but on the whole the method that works for me isn’t going to do a damned thing for the next guy.
That said, I slot the Ballard parphrase under life advice. If you desire to be excellent, obsession is helpful in armoring one against the slings and arrows that will fly one’s way. Figuring out what our obsessions are is the tricky part. The best way to do that is to get away from the keyboard or set aside the pen, and live. Live hard enough, you’ll have something to write about and maybe you’ll even know what you really want to say. That’s as close to actual writing advice as I feel comfortable dispensing.
FL: No matter how many authors write against the notion of inspiration, we still have that romantic idea that you write under a certain state of mind and there you go, the rest is story (see what I did there?). But there are also those technically-obsessed writers who go on and on about form and composition and when they’ve finished they have actually killed the story, it comes out dead. It seems to me, although I’m not the first to say it, it goes all the way back to Horace who said that art is made of a mixture of inspiration and technique. What’s the process like to you?
LB: Writing comes much easier these days. Writing comes much harder these days. It all depends on the day. It’s easier in the sense that I don’t lack for ideas. I’ve written so much and so steadily over the past few years, I’m able to nail down ideas about as fast as my subconscious forms them. The actual creation process is relatively organic. I create a simple framework to contain that kernel of an idea, the white-hot seed, and allow it to gestate. It’s amazing how much of the growth will occur if you step back and allow natural forces to operate. Much of this has to do with not presumptively determining how a story will end at the outset, or what course the narrative will take to arrive at that destination.
The hard part is shutting down the editorial voice while I’m drafting. My critical side is aggressive; it’s seldom pleased. The good thing about steady work is the deadline factor. It forces you to let things go. Letting go has always been tough for me.
FL: Talking about another kind of inspiration, which artists, literary and other, do you draw inspiration from?
LB: The roots of my literary inspirations? Peter Straub, Michael Shea, HP Lovecraft, Roger Zelazny. These are a few of the authors who nurtured me during my youth. My favorite contemporary authors include John Langan, Stephan Graham Jones, Livia Llewellyn, Norman Partridge, and Aimee Beamer.
I draw a lot of sustenance from poetry and music. The poetry of Charles Simic, Ted Hughes, and Anne Sexton thrill me. Regarding music, I tend to favor individual songs to performers, but at heart I’m a rock and roll man. Johnny Cash, Blue Oyster Cult, and The Police still do it for me after all these years.
One of the great aspects of having a bit of success in the writing business has been working with a few visual artists—painters, graphic artists, illustrators… David Ho did fabulous work for my first novel, The Light Is the Darkness.
FL: I fail to remember who to attribute this quote to, I’m afraid, but there was someone who, being asked the question “why do we publish” he answered: “to stop editing”. But the truth is that, for a writer the work doesn’t finish when he has handed in the story to the editor. At one end we have the Raymond Carver case whose literary image is supposed to have been created by his editor, Gordon Lish. But that’s rare, and, well, if I wanted a different author from the one I have I’d hire another author. Usually the work of an editor is to present the writer at his or her best without altering his or her voice. Have you had a good rapport with editors?
LB: The best editors know how much to push, when to push, and when to back off. They don’t screw around with a writer’s voice. In fact, my editors have, on several occasions, defended my artistic choices during the proofing process. A good copyeditor is a writer’s armor and shield. A bad copyeditor is a disaster.
On the whole, my experience with editors has been pretty damned terrific. But I’ve been lucky enough to work with people such as Ellen Datlow, Gordon Van Gelder, and Ross Lockhart.
FL: Nowadays it seems impossible for an author to live without the social networks (well, it is not, Ligotti does it, but then again he’s not what you’d call a bestseller). However, aspiring writers might get the assumption that you live there in Twitter, like Scalzi (hi, Scalzi, we love you!) and the novels just sell themselves. And the opposite extreme is going Pynchon-style and cover your head with a paper bag. Self-promotion might seem inescapable if you’re a self-published author, but when you’re backed by a publishing house you expect them to do the job for you. How do you feel about promotion? Is it very time-consuming for you?
LB: Promotion is part of the job. I don’t labor over it.
FL: I certainly hope this interview wasn’t too much time-consuming, or at least not too boring. Thanks so much for accepting this interview. Is there something you would like to add?
Not all, and thanks again. I’m busy with many projects at the moment, including a dozen or so pieces of short fiction for various anthologies. I’ve also finished a crime novel and am nearly done with another collection—it’s a horror/dark thriller collection with Alaska as its touchstone. Michael Kelly and I are putting the finishing touches on the inaugural reprint anthology, the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One. We have high hopes for the series.