Simon Strantzas Interviewed
In the current issue of Black Static (which is still stranded in 'development hell'), I review Nightingale Songs, the latest collection by Canadian author Simon Strantzas, and to complement that we have a lengthy interview with the writer.
PT: For many the horror genre is defined by the emotion of fear that it tries to evoke in the reader, but in several interviews I've seen you disavow any interest in frightening your audience. So what is your own personal working definition of horror? How do you differentiate its intentions and effects from those of other genres, such as science fiction and crime?
SS: I suppose I don't really think of what I write as "genre" -- a strange thing, considering I absolutely identify myself as writing in the horror genre. The horror I most enjoy reading and writing, just like the crime and science fiction I most enjoy, to my mind are no different from any non-genre literature I read. Certainly, there may be impossible creatures in my work, but so too are there in Wuthering Heights. These things I write are stories about the human experience, using metaphors of the supernatural to explain its varied aspects. A giant in the basement of a divorced man's former home is no more meant to terrify than a college professor's marriage crumbling when his infidelity is uncovered. For me, the supernatural is simply another tool in telling a story.
But it's a tool I return to most often because telling stories this way, exploring our existence through metaphors of danger and ineffability fascinates me. I simply find it more interesting to view the world through the prism of horror than not.
I suppose I think those books that truly deserve the "genre" classification are those that offer the reader little more than what they might expect. The cover promises a possessed truck, and the book is simply an extended chase by a possessed truck. Or deranged lunatic. Or frightful spectre. Those books that take the common effects and tropes associated with horror and endeavour to expressly explore those. There is an audience for that -- there's a comfort when one knows what to expect -- and if it's a writer's interest to mine that field, I am more than happy to let him or her do so. But I don't feel quite so compelled. I'd rather try to challenge my readers on some level, imbue my fiction with greater thematic weight so that once they place the book down the story itself -- not the experience, but the meat of the tale -- stays with them, informs their future days to some degree.
My own personal definition of horror is very broad and all-encompassing, but the aspect of it I work in is quite narrow. It is indeed about what horror means rather than what it does.
PT: You've also said, 'I love the ideas, the philosophies of horror.' Do you consider horror to primarily be a literature of ideas? What would be your response to those who decry such a perspective, who claim that by its very nature horror encourages negativity, compels us to dwell on the bad side of things rather than the good?
SS: Yes, I very much consider horror to be a literature of ideas, of images, of lasting effects. I find imaginative, awe-inspiring horror to be the most affecting. Awe is woefully the most undervalued tool in the horror writer's toolbox, and I think more writers would be wise to call upon it more often. Horror that works towards being beautiful is so much more affecting, I'd think. And I say this not simply for the sort of work-with-literary-ambitions that I create, but for everything in the field. I can think of little more wonderful than a loving, awe-inspiring description of some unnameable beast from the fathoms. I want to imagine that creature and fully understand what a sight it is to behold. I want to be attracted as I'm being repulsed. Show me why this story is worth telling; show me why I should care.
I also think one of horror's chief objectives should be to hold a mirror up to readers and show them what they don't want to see. Horror's mission is to expose the darkness that lies beneath everyone. Does this encourage negativity? No, I reject that. What it encourages is a better understanding of ourselves. Too often, I think, in this fast-paced world of electronic devices we become distracted by lights and baubles and never stop to reflect on ourselves, on those secret primal thoughts and fears that rattle in our brain. Horror helps uncover these, shines a light on them. None of us are all good or all bad. We exist on a spectrum, and to turn a blind eye -- consciously or not -- to all that might be dark in us is akin to buying a house but not looking in the basement. You may be able to live comfortably there for years, but trouble is brewing, and you won't realise how bad it is until it's far too late.
Every horror writer I know, across the entire spectrum, has one thing in common: they're normal people. These folks spend more time than most readers wallowing in the darkness, and yet they are often happy and well-adjusted individuals (as well-adjusted as any writer can be, at any rate). If they can spend that much time up the Congo and come back unscathed, I'm sure the rest of the world has little to worry about.
PT: You've talked about writers such as Aickman, Campbell and Ligotti, and their influence on your work. Do you read outside of the horror genre, and if so what? Do any of those non-genre writers influence you, and if so how?
SS: I do read outside the genre proper, though in many ways I still consider every work of fiction I read to be horror. I don't really differentiate. Writers outside our genre include Paul Auster, Steven Millhauser, and John Irving. I also read work from other genres like thrillers and noir fiction (both of which share much with horror). Cornell Woolrich is a particular favourite, as is the work of Hammett and Chandler.
Though it's true that there is much for the writer to learn outside his or her genre of choice, so is it true that sometimes what one truly enjoys is firmly within the genre. Should passions be avoided simply for the sake of being more widely read? What is the sense in reading if one cannot read what one most desires?
That said, I do indeed learn and am influenced by these non-genre writers. Good fiction is good fiction, and each bit is further grist for the mills. The Canadian author Kenneth J Harvey has had an intense effect on my work, even though on the surface one might not see it. Any story I tell with its sexuality sublimated owes at least as much to him as it does Robert Aickman. The joy in reading non-genre work is the discovery of alternate solutions to common problems. Analysing any one genre to a great degree causes one to reinforce a singular method of telling tales, and over time these methods can become worn, predictable, even in the greatest hands. By exposing oneself to alternate methods, doors can become unlocked, and truly innovate work can occur.
PT: In the story 'Mr. Kneale' there's a dialogue about the tension between art and entertainment. I'd characterise the difference in terms of awareness of the audience and its expectations. How aware are you of the audience for your work when writing? Do you ever 'compromise' for the audience?
SS: I think your characterisation presumes the horror audience is only a certain way. Though I grant that there are readers who prefer the more standard tropes of the genre, I know there remain quite a few readers who are looking for something more in their fiction. Something more challenging intellectually. Something headier. We see this in all media, of course -- there is the mainstream, and there are the fringes, and it's in these fringes the truly interesting/groundbreaking things happen, though perhaps more challenging than those who enjoy the mainstream want. And who's to say they should? We shouldn't mistake the general audience with the entire audience. We, all of us who write, have had to make the decision at one point in our careers as to whether to follow the trail toward mainstream success, or continue to remain behind in the dark strange woods. We each choose differently, and I don't blame any of my peers for heading toward the light in hopes they might one day be one of the rare exceptions who make something of themselves. But I'm not one of those people. Instead, I remain behind, focusing on writing slightly more esoteric tales.
As a result, my audience never factors into what I write. Perhaps I'm lucky in that regard as a short story writer: the money is so small there is never a temptation to do cartwheels so I might sell more copies. And if not for money, I can think of little incentive to compromise my vision, to become one of those who follow that mainstream trail. In my estimation, these writers often (though not always) burn out in the spotlight, and disappear from general consciousness completely. On the other hand, I am in this game for the long haul, hoping to one day create enough of a mark on the genre that my work will be remembered. This sort of writing rarely pays off in the here-and-now, or is even fully appreciated in its time. Yet, this is the level I strive for in my work. And I tend to appreciate the work of others who appear to feel the same way.
PT: The dream world features in 'The Deafening Sound of Slumber' and there is an oneiric quality to the imagery in many of your stories. What's the strangest dream you can remember having? Do dreams inform your fiction?
SS: My dream world and fictional world couldn't be more different. I do not suffer nightmares, nor experience anything remotely horrific in my dreams. Instead, there I am often a musician, or spy, or involved in some thriller scenarios. My dreams are of me being smarter and more capable than others, which is a direct contradiction to the sort of horror I write, where my protagonists are in over their heads without knowing it, or knowing why. They are ignorant and obtuse to their own foibles, and this often leads to their downfall.
Yet I think it would be a mistake to say dreams don't play a factor in my writing, for what else is writing but dreaming on the page? I've said this so many times that for a while I almost believed I thought it up myself (I didn't -- I stole it from King's On Writing), but the act of writing is the act of dreaming, albeit while awake. When I'm in the "zone", so to speak, I merely transcribe the events of my dream as they happen, subtly guiding them to take linear shape. The words then are like grooves on vinyl, and my pen the needle. I record the dream so that a reader can pick up the book and replay it in his or her own mind. And, just like the vinyl record of this simile, no two people experience it in the same way.
I realise this all sounds like a bit of mumbo jumbo, but I truly believe the act of falling into a dreamlike state while writing a story, and the act of falling into a dreamlike state while reading that story, is no mere coincidence. It's how we communicate with each other on a different level. This is what makes the arts so affecting, and why they more easily manipulate us than hard truth ever could. It also explains why black and white film is so much more effective than colour at conveying mood and emotion -- as its shades are unlike real life, each frame takes on the appearance of dream. Can you imagine the moon landing in colour? Could it ever have captivated our attentions if it had been so? I truly wonder.
PT: You use female protagonists almost as often as you do male in your stories. Do you find it easy to write from a female perspective? What do you need to guard against when doing so?
SS: I often wonder how unique writing from both perspectives is, especially in fiction written by a man. I'm very conscious when doing so that I don't simply write a story where the genders are interchangeable. I like to think that each of my female protagonists could only be female, that the story, as told, could unfold no other way were there not a woman at its centre. I make no claims to be an expert on the "female experience", and likely unconsciously avoid anything that speaks to being a woman directly, but I do believe the sexes differ slightly in their take on the world, and I use this to my advantage to tell the sorts of stories I want to tell.
Not that I do this consciously, of course. Rather, when putting a story together, I simply know from feel which of the sexes the tale requires, and simply move in that direction. I've tried ignoring that instinct and switching genders, but invariably that tale fails as a result. So I stick with what my gut tells me.
I imagine it's simply a by-product of the sort of tales I tell. Those stranger, more ghostly stories require a lighter touch than a traditional man could bring. Granted, my male characters aren't the sort to be winning any tough-guy competitions, and are more liable to cry than to fight, but still they have a history behind them of a western patriarchal society, and are influenced by its lessons of action over thought as much as the rest of us. Writing as a woman, then, allows me to put that filter aside and write from a place with a different connection to the world.
All of the above makes my work sound like an absolute bore! But it's not -- or, at least, not because of what's cited above.
PT: Tell us a bit about the Canadian horror scene. Which writers should those of us unfamiliar with Canadian horror keep an eye out for? How do you feel the national literature is different from that of the US or UK? What would be its distinguishing traits?
SS: Much like the country on the whole, the Canadian horror scene is spread out so wide that it's difficult to properly encapsulate it. We have authors on the west coast such as Barbara Roden, crafting ghostly-inspired classically-informed tales, all the way to the east coast with authors such as Willie Miekle and Steve Vernon. As far as I can tell, however, the bulk of the horror fiction that comes out of Canada -- by this I mean the fiction that plays some role on the world stage, or at least that I hear about on a regular basis -- originates from Toronto and its surrounding areas. Here, the concentration is surprising. Authors such as Gemma Files, Michael Rowe, Ian Rogers, David Nickle, and Richard Gavin all work, and yet all in different forms of the genre. Then we have publishers like ChiZine Press, who are making waves both in terms of output, and their ability to get that output seen and read by venues outside horror's incestuous circles. And, finally, let's not forget Michael Kelly, whose quality of fiction is only surpassed by his delicate skills as an editor. His journal, Shadows & Tall Trees, is the best thing to come along from any country in a long time, and his anthologies -- both the Chilling Tales and Apparitions series -- are stunning in the quality they offer. Any fan of the sort of fiction I write would be wise to purchase these volumes and a subscription to the journal.
Canada, I've always said, is an interstitial place. Situated where we are, bordering the United States of America, we feel their pop culture influence upon us all the time. And yet our nation's history is tied so closely to the British Commonwealth that it still informs our government, our sense of humour, our attitude. I don't think it's a coincidence the USA and UK are also where the majority of horror fiction flows from, and it is almost inevitable this would cause a mishmash of influences upon Canadian writers. Let's also not forget that Canada is a large and wide land, and its population quite small compared to its size. You could travel not very far from any city and end up alone in ancient forest. This distance and isolation informs our national spirit, I think. That loneliness is omnipresent, on the edge of everything we do. It's almost a matter of national pride, and I think it further informs our connection to the supernatural.
PT: In the internet age, authors are often expected to also perform the role of publicist. What are your thoughts on this? Is it something you're happy to do? What personal lines will you not cross?
SS: Frankly, I loathe it. It seems so crass. I suppose my mental model of how a writer is to conduct himself is tied to the way the world seemed to work when I was young. Writers then didn't seem to ring bells and shout from rooftops. Instead, they quietly released their work, and readers found it. Or so it appeared to me at the time, not having access to my literary heroes in any way beyond seeing the occasional interview. Nowadays, we have nothing but access to our heroes, and I wonder sometimes if this makes them less valuable to us.
Yet I realise this promotion is a necessary evil. The world has grown so fractured over the last twenty years that attention spans are lower, and the rise of technology seems to have put spikes in the coffin of the Book -- that stalwart and strictly analogue medium. It's thus grown increasingly difficult to get readers' attention, let alone keep it, so it seems the burden now is increasingly on the writer.
That said, I also firmly believe that if a publisher has invested money in my work on an act of faith, I owe it to them to do my damnedest to make sure that money is recouped and more. I know of authors who let their books die on the vine because they feel their job is done, and wish to do nothing more than return to their keyboard. I can't imagine in this day and age that those writers will have much of a career in front of them. For my publishers' sake and my own, I want my books to sell to as many interested readers as possible.
But I'm also keenly aware that it's not me flogging the book that will get it into the most hands, it's readers flogging it to each other. Because of this I try to avoid openly promoting my books in a never-ending stream, and when I participate in various forums whose members might be interested in what I do, I do my best to first become a valued member of that forum. By contributing to the virtual conversation, I feel I earn the chance to mention my own work. I do it judiciously, however, and when others do the mentioning for me, I attempt to let conversations run their course without much more than a thank you.
I'm sure we all know writers who cannot keep quiet about their work. I try very hard to ensure I never become one of them. I also do my best to not force my work upon people. There are writers who will try and sell their local postal carrier a copy of the latest novel, but to me that only seems like increasing the sale of a single book. I'd rather find those readers who will fall in love with what I do. It's they who will buy the future books, and help promote them all to anyone who will listen.
PT: Tell us a little about the Shadows Edge anthology that you're editing for Gray Friar Press. How did the idea for that come to you and how did the project move on from there?
SS: Thin places have always held an interest to me -- those places where realities bleed into one another, where you feel something you can't explain. Inevitably, I wished an anthology about this sort of thing from different voices would come into existence, and when that didn't happen as quickly as I wanted I realised perhaps I ought to edit it myself. I first mentioned the idea to Gary Fry at the World Horror Convention in 2007, and it intrigued him, but the timing simply wasn't right. The idea lingered, however, so much so that a few years later I took a serious stab at it with a co-editor. This too fizzled out due to conflicting schedules and an already increasing workload. At least, that's what I told myself. The true reason it fizzled out was that my plan from the very beginning was to edit an anthology that captured the wave of new strange fiction that had been gaining momentum over the preceding few years. I thought it was high time someone collected these talents and put out this generation's Prime Evil -- a flagpole book to mark the wave. However, before my co-editor and I could get our book off the ground, the writer Joseph S Pulver beat us to the punch with his Ligotti and Chambers inspired volumes. Between them, the two volumes boasted nearly all the writers my co-editor and I had listed, and suddenly another book collecting them would be just another book. The wind in my sails died fairly swiftly.
But that run-through gave me a lot of notes, and when finally my schedule freed up and my interest returned, I knew it was time to make my thin places book a reality. I touched base with Gary Fry once again and he too was ready to move ahead with it. So here we are.
I've already received many of the stories that will make up the final volume, and one thing I had to face right off the bat was that my definition of a thin place differed from other writers, even those whose work shares the same space as my own. At first, this was distressing, but as more and more tales came in I realised this was much better than my initial concept for the book -- the varied approach mimics the idea of thin places themselves -- like a multi-faceted prism. A perfect microcosm of the horror genre.
The book has been a roller coaster adventure, and certainly taught me a lot about how these things are made. I've alternated between excitement and trepidation, joy and discouragement, but all the while I held faith that when the tales finally started to flow in, I would be nothing short of amazed. And at least in that case I was right on the money.
PT: How does the role of editor compare to that of writer? Did you find it difficult to reject work from fellow authors? To what extent are you a 'hands on' editor? How do you think wearing an editor's hat and seeing things from the other side of the desk will affect your own writing?
SS: So far, my greatest challenge is as you suggest: rejecting fellow authors. Shadows Edge, unsurprisingly, is comprised of authors whose work I enjoy immensely, and have long anticipated building a book around. Thus, each time one sends me a piece I am thrilled to see it, and subsequently have trouble approaching it with the cool distance I ought. Had I the chance to do it over again, I might have taken a different tack in putting the book together. But alas I do not, so instead must somehow temper my enthusiasm and judge each piece on its relative merits. Thankfully, there was a reason I selected each and every voice for invitation, and on the whole they as a group have risen to the task of the book. As I said before, it's a different book than I initially imagined, but in many ways a far better one.
When it comes to directly editing the stories, I can only do so one way: as though I was the author. Thus, in some cases I have asked for extensive rewrites to stories to make them the best (in my estimation) they can be. Sometimes tales just do not work the way we construct them, and it's not immediately apparent until an outside voice weighs in. I have tried to be that voice where it's been needed, and offer any advice I can from my own experiences in the field. Granted, at times it's a bit nerve-racking to offer suggestions to writers with extensive pedigrees, but to have faith in one's instincts is essential as a writer, and thus I suppose just as essential as an editor. That said, I'm always mindful of stepping on an author's vision for his or her own piece. These authors know their craft well enough to know what they intend to convey, and I worry about stepping too far over the line in an attempt to correct them. From my own experience, I've had editors ask for changes that proved they had no real understanding of the story I was trying to tell, and I certainly didn't want that for any of the writers working on this project. So I offered my suggestions judiciously, always reminding the author that these were only suggestions (though suggestions that could decide their story's fate). To this, most authors have responded well and have had their work, in my opinion, strengthened because of it.
In this sense -- that of treating editing other's stories as though editing my own -- there is little difference between being a writer versus being an editor. Both jobs have required scanning work for inconsistencies and offering suggestions to improve them. It doesn't matter to me if they are words I have crafted on the page or words that come to me fully formed. They are all stories, and I want to offer them all the love I can.
All the above said, I can't imagine this brief foray will play much of a role in my own fiction. If anything, this proves a much needed distraction from the incessant darkness that grinds away at the base of my soul, causing me to spit out these horrible nightmares. But the darkness will return, likely stronger than ever.
PT: Over the course of your career, what's the achievement you're most proud of and what do you feel was your biggest mistake? How do you feel you've changed as a writer? Do you still have the same concerns as when you started out?
SS: Achievements are funny things: when you achieve them, they don't seem anywhere near worth the hassle in the first place. I remember when things felt like they were changing for me -- it was 2008, and in the span of a month I had stories selected for Cemetery Dance, and Steve Jones' Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series. The former was a magazine I remembered fondly from growing up with the genre, and its importance as a landmark couldn't be overstated. The latter... well, I needn't tell you about the latter. To say I was astounded would be an understatement. And yet, not too long afterward, the shine on those achievements dulled. Sure enough, I was still washing the same dishes, emptying the same waste bins. My world did not change at all, and I forgot those achievements. In some ways took them for granted. This is normal: it's what we all do, and what makes us interesting animals -- this strive for something more, to not rest on our laurels.
But that has consequences; namely, not being able to appreciate what you have. So sometimes I like to try and step back from the train I feel like I'm on and look at what I've done, what I've achieved in my short time on this plane. I try to imagine speaking to a seventeen-year-old version of myself, and wondering what that young boy is thinking. Probably, he would think I've reached the top of the world. And maybe he'd be right. Who knows? I think it's better to appreciate where you are sometimes instead of rush to where you want to go.
But I've made mistakes. I've made huge mistakes. Perhaps the biggest was letting myself get too tied up in some of the more negative aspects of our genre. Without going into detail, I've spoken too freely when silence was the better option, and sunk to levels that I should instead have risen above. All that's in the past, though, and I've turned a new leaf in that regard. It leaves me happier at the end of the day, which is all anyone really wants, isn't it?
As for what concerns me now... well, when I began writing, and for the first few years, I was obsessed with putting a book of my fiction together. I'd had some minor recognition with my tales, but if one thing is true in this business it's that books make a reputation. Since I had no aspirations to write a novel, the only option was to write enough stories to fill a hundred pages. Only when I had a book on the shelves did I feel confident people had a source to go to if they were interested in my work, but Beneath the Surface didn't tell the whole story, so I had to quickly follow it with the quieter Cold to the Touch. Now, with Nightingale Songs complete and in the world, I finally feel I can rest in a way I never could when I began. Now readers have somewhere to turn if interested, and have a wide selection of styles at their fingertips. I can relax and focus better on what interests me most. Take my time with what I do. The pressure to publish has gone.
PT: What can we expect to see from the pen of Simon Strantzas in the near future?
SS: Currently, I'm somewhere in the midst of a fourth collection of fiction. I'm hopeful the thing comes together in the next few months, but I fear it may take longer than I initially anticipated. Stories that were supposed to remain reasonable lengths have stretched and slithered far out of control, and even while I try to rein in their unruly appendages, more seem to sprout in their place. I am currently weighing my options: is it better to buy a collar or an axe? Like the stories it contains, the book may end up being far different than initially anticipated. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't experiencing both excitement and dread in equal measure.
Concurrent with that is of course Shadows Edge, which should rear its head in the new year. I'm currently working through the edits of what I have now, and am expecting some more stories to appear on my doorstep in the coming weeks. I'm hopeful the book astounds others as much as it astounds me.
In the meantime, my fiction can be found in upcoming venues like Best New Horror 23, the new Zombie Apocalypse: Fight Back, the Chamber's tribute A Season in Carcosa, this year's World Fantasy Convention souvenir book and next year's Chilling Tales 2 and Black Wings 3, amongst other places.
The future beyond gets a little murkier, but I've always believed a writer ought to have a plan, and I certainly have one worked out. Only time will tell how well I adhere to it. I have my hopes, dreams, and aspirations for where I want to be. Let's leave it at that, shall we?
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