Ralph Robert Moore Interviewed
Ralph Robert Moore made his Black Static debut in #37 with 'All Your Faces Drown in My Syringe', and another story of his, the wonderfully titled 'Kebab Bob', will appear in #39 if all goes to plan. Also in #37 I reviewed the author's latest novel, As Dead As Me, and so the stars appear to have aligned in such a way as to suggest that an interview with Ralph Robert Moore is in order.
Here's one that I prepared earlier:-
PT: A while back we had a discussion about what constitutes horror fiction, and if I recall correctly your requirement was that it be without hope. Can you reprise your theory of horror, for the benefit of those who don't read my blog?
RRM: I've always been struck by the fact that a lot of what we call "horror stories", although they certainly qualify as being a part of that genre, really aren't that horrifying.
Many stories within the set of what we identify as horror stories are, to me, "stories of reassurance".
My comment was that to me, a story that in its entirety evokes true horror (in the sense of the emotion rather than the classification), has to have as its basic element a sense of "unfairness" (rather than, "without hope").
The protagonist goes through life causing harm to others. He rapes, steals, murders, doesn't return his library books when they're due. At the end of the story, he's dispatched in a horrific way that's often specific to his crimes (i.e., someone who causes misery by stealing is drugged and his organs are stolen, etc.) That to me is a story of reassurance. The reader is reassured that bad people eventually get their due. The world is fair. But real horror is not bad things happening to bad people. That's reassurance. Real horror is bad things happening to good people. That's unfairness.
The protagonist faces a great evil that appears invincible, but at the last possible moment, just as the story is about to end, he or she finds something to defeat that evil (Christine: A big garbage truck; Day of the Triffids: seawater.) Once again, the reader is reassured the world is fair.
Neither of these examples necessarily result in bad fiction. But the scenarios don't truly horrify (even though they may have some horrific scenes). They reassure. The lesson we're taught is, the world is ultimately fair.
The movie Alien is a story of reassurance. People die, but the overall message is that evil is defeated.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not a story of reassurance. One person survives, although who knows in what mental state, but that family is still there, sharpening the big metal teeth on their chainsaw, waiting for the next set of victims. Leatherface is not punished for what he did.
So my point was that within the diverse world of what we refer to as horror is a subgenre of stories that are "true" horror stories in that they don't reassure the reader, and the way in which they don't reassure the reader is by having a central thesis of unfairness. For the sake of discussion, we can call this subgenre "Dread Fiction."
I'm being rather long-winded, and I'm only on my first answer, but let me just add that when I say "true" horror I don't mean that use of "true" to suggest there's something inferior to stories of reassurance. A lot of what I write, a lot of what most of us write, falls under "Stories of Reassurance".
PT: What consolations are there for a reader of "dread fiction"? What value does such fiction have, when we already know going in that it's all going to turn out badly and all we are left to discover is the mechanics of that?
RRM: Well, unless the reader starts a story already knowing its outcome (e.g., the ending has been spoiled, either in the media or by a spiteful friend), he or she won't know if they're reading dread fiction or a story of reassurance until they get to that last page. So the narrative tension is still there, as before. So far as consolations: To me, a story that operates with a conceit of unfairness can be liberating in that it addresses the utter wildness and unknowability of the world. We have different approaches we've come up with to pretend we know what life is, to pretend life isn't as wonderfully, weirdly frightening as it is. It used to be religion. Now it's science. But as I wrote elsewhere, "Science is a footnote to a text it cannot enter." And may I add, none of this unfairness needs to lead to nihilism. Nihilism, to me, is the ultimate naiveté. And of course, "unfairness" itself is a relative term, subject to perception. If a stranger sticks a pin in a baby, causing it to cry hopelessly in pain, is that unfair? I'd say it isn't unfair at all, if the stranger is a doctor inoculating the baby against mumps and measles. So there's also the possibility of using dread fiction to explore whether what we perceive as being unfair is truly unfair.
PT: As Dead As Me is certainly a bleak book. Reviewing it, I commented that, given the originality of much of your work, I was surprised you'd chosen to write a zombie novel. What is it about this particular genre archetype that appealed to you so much?
RRM: I first saw The Night of the Living Dead in a theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan, where it was on a double bill with Dr. Who and the Daleks, of all things. I had no preconceptions. The audience was lively, sneakers up on the tops of the seats in front of them, cracking jokes at the beginning of the film. But as that claustrophobic horror settled over everybody, one by one the audience quieted, breaths held to see what happened next. It was unlike any other horror film I had ever seen. The sheer banality of the horror-- people who shuffled slowly, who you could easily run around, but who could eventually defeat you by their sheer numbers, and their willingness to follow you without tiring-- had a big impact on me.
So I fell in love with the idea of zombies.
I wrote As Dead As Me over ten years ago, in 2000, after I had been laid off from my job (I was eventually rehired.)
Over the years, it "almost" got published a couple of times. But something always went wrong.
I wanted to write a novel about zombies, but I didn't want it to be the typical zombie tale. Because that had just been done too often. So I wrote a story that makes perfect sense on the surface, using the culturally popular idea of zombies, but that also contains a subtext.
The novel is about a man accepting his own death. Confronting what could have been, and coming to terms with what is.
The key to unlocking the subtext is the word, "honeysuckle." I hid the subtext in plain sight. I mean, it's right there in the title.
PT: One thing that particularly struck me about As Dead was the willingness of the characters to do whatever was necessary to ensure the survival of the human race, even breed with the zombies. What's your own view on this? Are ethics simply a matter of pragmatism, or are there cases in which some higher moral law applies?
RRM: Well, the survivors do have ethical codes. The Colonel tells them that no one will be forced to breed with zombies if it violates a particular person's sense of morality. The Colonel is doing everything he can to assure the continuance of the human race, and making a lot of distasteful compromises along the way, but it's extremely important to him that some sense of personal dignity is maintained. Or else, why are we fighting? I think that's one of the strengths of the book. Too many post-apocalyptic novels fall into the trap of the characters' worst sides coming out, but in my novel I wanted to explore the idea of decent men and women trying to rebuild the race without losing their essential humanity. Hard decisions have to be made. Some people are abandoned because it's expedient, some people have to be killed because even though they might survive, their injuries would slow down a military objective, some people who have valuable specialized talents might have to be given special privileges, all of which Jack, as the first person protagonist, struggles to understand, but the end result is to continue as a race. It's not pretty. I view the Colonel as a moral man who wants to do the right thing, but who understands that's not always possible. He was thrown into this position. He's a widower who was preparing to retire, and now he has to find it within himself to inspire a desperate group of men and women who are facing a truly horrific situation, and pretend he's not as absolutely terrified as they are. Because they need a leader, and he's it. And he does rise to the occasion.
My own view of this? Are ethics ultimately a matter of pragmatism? Does some higher moral law apply?
I believe there is a higher moral law. I believe there is nobility in each of us, even the most reviled among us, even though that nobility within an individual may have been badly treated, by the individual himself, or by others. I don't believe the world is meaningless, or that our existence is meaningless. I believe we are important.
We're born with two mysteries, the mystery of the world, and the mystery of ourselves. We don't get to solve either in the short gaming time we're given.
I was raised in a Catholic family. Like a lot of people, during my early teens I turned away from religion, for all the popular reasons, and became an atheist. I remained an atheist until my early forties. At that age, I started questioning the assumptions I had made decades before. Is there truly nothing that transcends this world? Is there really no continuance after death, or is death just another transition, like birth? And in re-examining my long-held atheism, I found myself more and more rejecting that approach. I do believe life continues. And I do believe there is a purpose to our lives, here on this plane.
Now, I realize that in this secular age belief has become an unpopular opinion, subject to derision. But like all the rest of us, I'm a writer, and if I'm not honest about what I see as the truth, that makes me less of a writer. Or maybe no longer a writer at all.
I have no interest in proselytizing. I'm not about to hand out pamphlets. And I still believe that religion is not the answer. But I do feel that it is vital for each of us to continue to challenge ourselves about what "this" is all about, throughout our lives. If we're absolutely convinced we already have the answer, one way or the other, I don't think we're truly appreciating the extraordinary complexity of existence.
PT: Although you've been widely and respectably published, for your story collections and novels you've selected the self-publishing route with Sentence. Why did you make this decision? What are the biggest advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing in your experience?
RRM: Over the years, I've had different publishers approach me about publishing a collection of my stories, but the deal always fell through. That's just the way of the independent press. These are the heroes of our genre. They work for little or no pay, next to no thanks, trying to promote the fiction we love. None of us could exist without them.
The failed attempts to get a collection of my stories published made me realize, in this DIY age, that I could compile a collection of my shorter works myself. Which I did, in 2009, with my collection Remove the Eyes. I published it through Lulu.
And it got great reviews, and decent sales. I continued to submit individual stories to journals, because I think any writer needs that validation, but it did occur to me that when it came time to putting my stories into a collection, I could do that as well as anyone else. And I would have complete control over the collection's content. In effect, I became a garage band.
Advantages? My stories are presented exactly as I want them to be. And I get to log into Lulu or Kindle every morning and see how many copies I sold overnight. That's a great feeling, Pete, to bring up a sales chart, and see that while I was sleeping, 10 people bought a Kindle edition of As Dead As Me.
The biggest disadvantage, as is true with many independent publishers, is that my books aren't available in brick and mortar stores for impulse buying. You have to go on the Internet, read a description of a book, and then decide based on that description whether or not you want the book. And that is a huge disadvantage. The potential buyer isn't holding the weight of my book in their hand. It's just an index finger resting on the left side of a mouse. And of course I need to add that although I know how to write a story, I don't know how to design a cover; and like just about all my fellow writers, I suck at self-promotion.
Since Remove the Eyes was successful, I followed up with a second collection in 2011, I Smell Blood. In both cases, the collections featured stories that had been published in a number of respectable journals and received Honorable Mentions from Ellen Datlow and others, mixed with a few stories I couldn't otherwise get editors to publish, because they were problematic in one way or another, but which I nonetheless felt had merit. Which is a nice mix.
I wanted my novel As Dead As Me out in the world, where people could read it. Although I'm prejudiced towards physical copies of books, it's clear that more and more people are switching to e-versions. When I published As Dead As Me as a trade paperback, it had steady sales, but the numbers were low. In the two and a half months the novel has been available in a Kindle edition, it's sold over 400 copies in the UK alone, and is still selling at a nice pace. Which is a great feeling. Lips want to be kissed, food wants to be eaten, books want to be read.
All of which is not to say I wouldn't still be interested in having any of my books published by an independent press. But it is nice knowing there's a viable alternative out there if a more traditional method of publishing doesn't happen.
PT: Who has had the biggest influence on your work and how?
RRM: I suspect for most of us, we're influenced by a wide variety of writers who came before us, a little piece here, a bit there, but I doubt most of us could say, This one person really shaped who I am as a writer. Because really, there's no one writer who stands so far above all others that their influence would be that profound.
Certainly, writers who have influenced me or inspired me in one way or another include Vladimir Nabokov, William Burroughs, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Julio Cortazar, Donald Barthelme. Each showed what you could do with narrative, each approaching the mechanism of telling a story from different angles. And William Gass' critical essays on narrative theory also impressed me quite a bit.
PT: Do you ever test out actions in your fiction by trying or simulating them yourself?
RRM: What an interesting question!
Yes, I do. If a character picks up a pen, for example, and it's a key action in that passage, I'll pick up a pen in front of my keyboard, to observe the muscles involved, and the shadows they create. I have several books that show artists' renditions of various human body motions, and I'll use them when describing what my characters do. I also own several "visual" dictionaries, which I consult frequently when I write. A visual dictionary separates the most common objects found in the world into different categories and sub-categories (Transportation, Boats; Clothing, Shoes), then includes an image of each object, labeling each component of the object. For example, the tiny circular metal hole you pass a shoe lace through is called an "eyelet." Sometimes the terms are too technical or obscure to use, but often they're not. I really like precision in writing. The delight's in the details.
PT: What software or devices do you use for writing?
RRM: When I started writing, I used a blue-inked pen and a yellow legal pad. They were my companion when I was young, much like a cigarette can be a companion. Halfway through revising my novel Father Figure, I decided to type the revisions, using a keyboard, directly into a software program (I think it was probably WordPerfect), and what a revelation that was! It was so much quicker, and adding or deleting words and phrases was a joy. I've never gone back, although I do still use legal pads for making notes on ideas that occur to me during the day. Currently, I write my stories using Word. I use a Dell desktop computer.
PT: What can we expect to see from you in the near future? What work do you have in the pipeline?
RRM: Something I've been doing recently, that I've never done before in all my years of writing, is collaborating with other writers. My first collaboration was with Ray Cluley, and together we created 'The Space Between', which has been sold to Michael Kelly for the next volume of Shadows & Tall Trees. Right now I'm in the midst of another collaboration, and once that's finished, I have a collaboration scheduled with a third writer. I won't name names for the latter two, since nothing is completed yet, but collaboration is exciting to me, two minds blending their ideas and styles to create something unique.
I have various stories coming out in the next six months or so in journals and anthologies, including 'The Dead Leave Small Bones', which will be in an upcoming issue of Cemetery Dance.
My most recently written story, 'My Vegetarian Girlfriend Finally Gets to Ride Toby the Talking Elephant', hasn't been marketed yet, but I'm looking forward to getting it out there. It's about didactic beliefs, and a woman who always has to have her own way.
A project I'm particularly excited about is a collection of interconnected stories featuring "death sensitives". These are people who in one way or another are able to influence the deceased, and the entities that are drawn to the deceased. What was most enjoyable to me in creating the stories was to write about people who have unusual abilities that can benefit people, but who really are not all that caring. In each case, what's most important to them is negotiating how much they'll be paid to help someone in need. To them, it's just a job. They're not nice people. My story 'We Don't Keep in Touch Anymore', published in a recent issue of Shadows & Tall Trees, is part of this story cycle. As of this point, the collection hasn't found a home.
Whenever I'm asked in an interview, What are you working on next, I always mention the novel Just Like Furniture, which is partly about a man who used to be famous, but no longer is. So I may as well mention it here. Someday, I might actually write it. I hope.
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