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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

#6 Paul Tremblay

20 Questions with Mourning Goats

I didn't know of Paul before In The Mean Time came out, but after reading it on my trusty Kindle, I want to read everything he's done. First up, The Little Sleep! He's also working on a project with Stephen Graham Jones that I'm excited to see. Anyway, enough with my excitement, here's another great interview with a great writer! 

1. What comes to mind when you hear, “Mourning Goats?”

Oddly enough, I do not think of a farm animal that may or may not provide cheese depending
upon its mood. I do not think of a farm animal that may or may not be in the service of Satan.
Instead, I instantly think of a literary blog/interview website!

2. With two novels, two short story collections, and two novellas published, you’ve seen many different sides of publishing, what do you think is the hardest to break in to? How did you do it?

Certainly, the big NYC publishers remain the most difficult to break into. How did I do it? Stubborn
persistence, some talent, and a whole lot of luck, I guess. In 2003 I finished writing a quirky-
comedy novel called PHOBIA. I managed to get pre-blurbs (for lack of a better term) from two
amazingly talented and gracious writers: Poppy Z. Brite and Stewart O’Nan. Then I spent two
plus years collecting over 200 agent rejects. Most of the rejects went something like: “This is
funny and original, but we don’t know who we can sell this to.” I finally got my book on the desk
of Stephen Barbara, pretty much by accident. I’d sent a query to another agent who no longer
worked at the agency, but Stephen got the email and wanted to take a look. He understood the
book, suggested some revisions (his suggestions were spot on) and he took me on as a client. Of
course, we didn’t sell the novel (the publishers said the same thing the other agents said: “Funny,
original, but we don’t know who we can sell this to.”), but Stephen stuck with me. The sap.

3. I feel like being a writer isn’t anywhere near as lonely as it used to be, since we now have blogs, social media, websites, etc. It’s much easier to reach out to anyone. What do you like/dislike about this new accessibility?

The relatively new accessibility is my lifeline, frankly. So many of my good friends, and favorite
writers and lit reviewers/bloggers are not geographically close to me. My being able to keep in
touch with them so easily and frequently is not only a boon to my own work but to my sanity.
Being able to have online corners and crannies where the struggle is shared is supremely
important. At least it is, to me.

What I dislike is the exponentially expanding crush social media/information/sites that make it
more difficult to figure out where a writer should be spending her/his time wisely. I dislike the glut
of self-proclaimed genre experts (any genre, pick a genre) some of whom do more harm than
good, in terms of their disseminating wrong or biased information (in regards to what’s happening
in the genre(s)). Don’t get me wrong, with book coverage all but disappearing from print media
outlets, book bloggers/reviewers are vital in filling that void. I guess what I’m saying is I wish more
of the online folk were less interested in star f*cking, less interested in personal agendas, and
were more interested in promoting diverse, healthy, inclusive genres and literature in general.

4. You are an advisor for the Shirley Jackson awards, what does that entail?

A few years ago (and with the help of a whole slew of folks behind and in front of the scenes) F.
Brett Cox, JoAnn Cox, John Langan, Sarah Langan, and myself established the awards with the
blessing of the Shirley Jackson estate. For the first two years, I was a juror. Since leaving the
jury, I’ve assisted the administrator (JoAnn) and also served as an advisor. An advisor simply
keeps an eye and ear out for works that would potentially be a good fit for the award, and sends
those should-read-work-X suggestions to the jurors.

5. Thank you for In The Mean Time, it was brilliant, do you think short stories are easier or harder than novels?

Thank you! They may be harder to do well. Still, it’s hard for me to compare the forms, to
compare writing a 70,000 word novel to a 6,000 word short story. They are, obviously, different
beasts. My first attempts at novel writing were pretty flawed: I was a short story writer trying to
write a novel. Which meant that most of my early attempts at novels were loose, plotless, and
lacking some narrative drive. With The Little Sleep (and the novels after), I wrote a ten-page plot
synopsis before writing the novel, which I’ve found tremendously helpful.

But now that I have a handful of novels under my belt, writing short stories are more of a
challenge than they were pre-novels. A challenge, if nothing else, to keep the word counts
manageable: ie out of the dreaded novelette/novella range.

6. You’ve said that you didn’t start seriously writing until 2000, while relatively new to it all, you’re doing great, how do you explain your success?

Well, thanks. The why of whatever success (your mileage may vary on the definition of that word)
I’ve had breaks down in exact percentages:

--62.3% the kind help from other editors/writers and in the early-early going, friends and family
who were and are willing to read my stuff and offer feedback and criticism.

--10% chronically overactive imagination

--11.1% pessimism and negativeness

--0.3% talent

--16.3% my own damn hard work.

Man, I hope that adds up to 100%.

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to think about. The questions at either end of the pole—“Why does
my stuff get read?” and “Why doesn’t my stuff get read/bought more?”—tend to scare/freak me
out, so I try not to dwell on either for too long.

7. Being a writer and working in a high school...are you scared for the future of literature?

Communication? Language in general? LOL...

I’m not really concerned about the future of language/communication as it’s always been

If by the future of literature you mean publishing, then yeah, I’m scared. Despite my previously
claimed 11.1% of pessimism, I’m trying to remain positive that publishing will not continue to
devolve into a Mad Max world where the mid-list completely disappears, where the only genre
books published will be fad based and feature zombies or steampunk, where big names writers
are the only writers selling books, and where good books are hopelessly lost in a sea of self-
published ebooks.

8. When researching, I kept reading about Phobia, can you tell us about it, and, what’s happening with it?

PHOBIA is about Cam Cleeves, a neurotic dude with a whole host of odd fears: including the fear
of the inability to complete simple tasks. Think Confederacy of Dunces in Boston.

Nothing is happening with it. It’s in the trunk. Maybe some day, it’ll get out there. But I’m not in a
rush. It did it’s job for me, as far as I’m concerned.

9. You are working on a Young Adult novel with fellow Mourning Goats interviewee, Stephen Graham Jones, what has that been like?

Stephen has not been callously trashing my contributions. He has not compared my writing to
the inchoate scratching of a syphilitic Aye Aye. He has not issued any sort of threats, mocking or
otherwise, should I fail to live up to his lofty standards. He certainly has not promised to cut off my
fingers, in sections, one knuckle at a time, for every typo and grammatical mistake I might make
in our manuscript.

*sliding note under the door. HELP ME is written in old ketchup, at least you hope it’s old

Of course, I kid. It has been and continues to be an honor working with Stephen. He’s been
one of my favorite writers for years, and now, he’s a cherished friend who will never beat me in

10. What’s your favorite part about teaching? Also, would you consider teaching fiction?


Well. I suppose I do enjoy working with kids. I enjoy teaching/telling people something they don’t
know. I like being part of that discovery: the discovery of some new nugget of truth. It’s almost like
writing in a way. A writer’s job should be to tell the truth as how they see it.

I’ve had a few opportunities to teach writing workshops and they were a blast. I would definitely
consider teaching a writing class. But at the same time, I’d be terrified of being exposed as a

11. What were the biggest differences you saw at the publishing houses?

At Holt I’ve had multiple editors, publicists, marketing conference calls, and other more sort of
businessy (for lack of a better made up word) responsibilities and pressures. The smaller presses
tend to be a count-on-one-hand number of people show. So bigger reach and power with the big
house, a more personal touch with the smaller presses.

12. You have a master’s degree in mathematics, most writers I know relate math to masochism, how were you drawn to it? Do you feel any connection between mathematics and writing?

As an unambitious kid, I stuck with math because I was good at it. And I more or less followed
that path in college and grad school. Although, I only got into the UVM master’s program because
the dean of the math department fortuitously was moving his office in July of ’93 and he found my
lost application under his desk. Three days later I was in and had a teaching fellowship to boot.

I enjoy the logic and the order of math, particularly calculus. I enjoy the creativity that the higher
levels of math require. I enjoy the funky symbols we get to use too.

I don’t think there is much of a writing connection to math, but perhaps I take an analytical

approach to writing. I’ve never been able to just get a quick rough draft out and then chisel away
at the mess until the final product appears. I plod ahead one sentence at a time, revising as I go,
and I always write in order (by in order, I don’t mean every story I write is linear, far from it. I just
always start at what I think is the beginning of the particular story I’m writing and sally forth until I
type the end, wherever that end might be).

The End. (er, but only the end of the answer to that question!)

13. I just read that the New York Times is going to have an e-book top-seller list starting next year. Do you think this is necessary? Are e-readers a different breed than book readers?

I don’t know if it’s necessary (is anything necessary?), but it’ll be interesting to see if the list
mirrors the hardcopy best sellers list. I’m not sure we can conclude much about an entire group
of people like that (e-readers). I guess if nothing else we can conclude they can afford to buy
a relatively expensive electronic e-reading device of some kind (phone, computer, or separate
device). I do find myself annoyed with the people who give books one star reviews because the
kindle price is too high for their liking; espousing a lame-brained rationale of “oh the authors could
stop this if they really wanted to.” Because yes, that’s how publishing works.

14. The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland are your two published novels can you tell us anything about the third novel, Sleep at the End of the World? The title tells me that it might be true trilogy ender.

Well, it’s a novel that might not ever happen. I’m currently not contracted to write a third Genevich
novel, and I’m not working on it now. If I were to write a third, that would be the title and it would
be the last.

15. You have a very eclectic style, who are some of your biggest influences? Are you reading anything now that you want our readers to know about?

I like to think I have a lot of influences, that everything I read influences me in some way. Writers
I continue go back to for inspiration include Kurt Vonnegut, Aimee Bender, Stephen King, Stewart
O’Nan, Chuck Palahniuk, and Jim Shepard.

Favorite books from 2010 that folks should read: Craig Davidson’s Sarah Court, Aimee Bender’s
The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake, and Laird Barron’s Occultation.

16. In your Velvet interview, I love that you said, “when the writing is going good, I'm writing scared." Can you explain this a little more? Do you feel this often?

I’m scared that I’m not serving the story correctly, that I’m screwing up the plot or character or
voice up. I’m scared that I’ll have nothing important to say. And I write scared that no one will like
it, or worse than no one liking it: it’ll be met with apathy. A reader giving a shrug.

I feel this way whenever I’m writing fiction.

17. Do you write every day? Specific times? What does a normal day look like to Paul Tremblay?

Lately, I’ve fallen into doing most of my writing at night. But I still try and get stuff done at school
if I have a free period. In the spring, when my school schedule calms down a bit, I can get more
stuff done at school. Otherwise, it’s at night, after the kids go to bed. I don’t sleep enough.

18. You’ve started a “mainstream lit novel,” can you tell us anything about it or do you keep that a secret until you’ve completed it?

Yeah, I don’t want to really say anything about it. I’ve written a brief summary, and I’m afraid that
if I say anything, then I’d be honor-bound to write it. I haven’t decided if I’m going to go for it yet.

And I’m afraid if I talk about it here, Stephen will break my toes for admitting that I’m not solely
working on our YA novel all hours of the day.

19. If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice before undertaking the writing of your first novel, what would it be?

Do you mean my first attempt at a novel? Or my first sold novel? My first sold novel is really like
my 4.5th novel.

For The Little Sleep: I’d tell myself to add zombies and/or sparkly vampires.

For my first ever attempt at a novel: I’d tell myself to relax and that it was okay to screw up, even
okay to fail. Then I would’ve told that handsome bastard to write a plot outline/synopsis before
sitting down to write the novel.

20. Other than the YA novel with Stephen Graham Jones and the mainstream lit novel, what else are you working on now?

Besides anything else I might’ve mentioned above, I’m co-editing with John Langan a reprint
anthology called CREATURE! Thirty Years of Monster Stories. No werewolves, vampires, or
zombies. Monsters.

John has yet to threaten my lovely fingers and toes like Stephen has. Give him time….

Thank you!


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