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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

#12 John Langan

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
John Langan

Paul Tremblay told me about John Langan a few months ago and after reading his interview here, as well as his books, I trust Paul's judgment; I was right in doing so. Enjoy the interview of an up-and-comer that I'm sure you'll be hearing a lot more about, soon.

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

A small herd of goats—maybe five or six—gathered near the grassy top of a modest mountain.  Their coats are almost comically long; their horns, undersized; the expression on their faces one of disaffection—indeed, they look like a talented child’s approximation of a goat.  At the very summit of the mountain, a grey stone box, its surface cracked, the cracks seemed with hardy lichen, rests.  The goats range nearer and farther from the box, but there is a certain distance they will not venture any closer to it, just as there is another distance they will not stray any further.  Ask one of the men or women who live in the village at the foot of the mountain about these animals, the stone box, and he or she will tell you that these are the Mourning Goats.  The man or woman will not contradict you when you state that their mourning must be connected to the box, but when you try to explore the matter further, ask if the box is a tomb, or a monument, or maybe an altar, he or she will refuse to answer you.  It is not good to speak of such things, you will be told, and that is all you will be told.  If you insist on hiking the mountain to examine the goats and their charge, you will see a look of panic flash across the face of the man or woman with whom you are speaking, but he or she will not stop you.  
2. You're a teacher at SUNY New Paltz, a story writer, novelist, non-fiction writer, father, husband, and practice karate-- that was tiring just to type out; how do you do it?

Well, I had to drop karate because my knees couldn’t take it, anymore, and I only teach part-time at SUNY New Paltz, which helps my schedule (if not my bank account).  Aside from that, it’s a balancing act.  I suppose it’s gotten a little easier in the last couple of years, as my son has reached school age, but even so, it’s a matter of prioritizing.  As just one example:  I used to try to do a lot more non-fiction—book reviews, especially—than I do now; that’s because I realized the number of book reviews I was writing was taking too much time away from my fiction writing, which was what I most wanted to focus on.  Life is fluid, so you have to be prepared to accommodate that.    

3. How has working with Night Shade Books been?  Do you see a lot of differences when working with different publishers as well as different genres of writing?

All things considered, I’ve been very fortunate in the publishers I’ve worked with.  Prime, who did my collection, Mr. Gaunt and other Uneasy Encounters, made sure that the book went out to a huge number of review outlets, as a result of which, I received reviews from publications such as The San Francisco Chronicle, The L.A. Times, and The Washington Post.  Night Shade took a novel, House of Windows, that the genre folks thought was too literary and the literary folks thought was too genre, and produced a lovely book.  When the hardcover didn’t sell as well as they wanted, they went back to the drawing board and redesigned the trade paperback edition, which has done somewhat better. 

Having worked with only two publishers, I’m not sure I’m qualified to make any kind of broad statement about publishing.  In terms of working in different genres, the only other genre in which I’ve published has been the non-fiction/academic one, and there, I’ve been very fortunate in terms of finding a number of editors who have been receptive to what I’ve wanted to write about.  

 4. As an academic, what are your thoughts on teaching writing, and learning how to write:  do you believe it's something that is taught, something that is just there, or something else?

I guess I’d have to say, “Yes.”  There’s no denying that some people have that facility with language and storytelling that we stuff under the name talent.  At the same time, no matter that raw ability, there’s always more that can be done to refine it, not to mention, to develop the discipline required to sit down at the page every day until the story or poem is done.  

A lot of this, I’m absolutely certain, has to do with how much and how well you’ve read.  We learn through imitation, and if you have that nascent ability with language and storytelling (which I suspect is far more widespread than we might think), then you want to allow yourself the maximum number of examples to learn from.  I know that writing workshops are very popular and certainly, they can be useful, but I’d suggest that it may be as, if not more, useful for a beginning writer to engage in a program of intensive reading, take a year or two and just soak yourself in the written word.

 5. I feel like most of my favorite authors have had very interesting jobs, any you'd like to share? Do you think that these experiences have shaped the way your writing has gone? Why?

My job experiences have been a tad less colorful:  aside from teaching since the mid-nineties, the majority of my past work-experience has been in eye-care:  in my younger years, I worked for both optometrists and ophthalmologists.  These were useful jobs, not because of anything to do with their specialty so much as because they brought me into contact with a wide variety of people, both in terms of my co-workers and the patients who came into the different offices.  (Now that I think about it, teaching at a state university these past years has done the same thing.)  It’s very useful for a writer to be exposed to as wide a range of people as is possible, since they are the raw material from which you will make your art.  That and stories:  the more people you meet, the more stories you hear, and what writer doesn’t love stories?    

 6. The first short story you had published, “On Skua Island,” was an 11 or 12 thousand word piece, which is quite long for a short story.  How did you get it in to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction? What did it feel like to have such a big piece taken by such a big magazine so early?

Yes, “On Skua Island” falls under that nebulous heading known as “novelette:”  too long for a short story, too short for a novella.  I submitted it to F&SF because they were one of the few magazines willing to look at such long fiction unsolicited.  (They still are.) I sent it to them the old-fashioned way, via snail-mail, and was astonished to receive a check and contract from Gordon Van Gelder within about a month.  I can still remember standing at the mailbox at the end of the driveway in my bathrobe, tearing open the envelope.  As I’m sure you can imagine, it was a big boost to the ego of a fledgling horror writer to have a story accepted by the magazine that had published Stephen King.  In addition, Gordon did a good deal to promote the story in the months leading up to its publication.  It was a little overwhelming; I had started at the top, not expecting to succeed there, and suddenly, I had and there I was.  It’s the reason I advise beginning writers to aim for the heights:  the worst that can happen is that you receive a rejection letter, the best is that you find yourself in a position of tremendous advantage.     

7. You've been teaching reading and writing for over fifteen years.  What's your favorite part, least favorite part?

I’ve loved the diversity of students teaching at a public university has brought me into contact with, and I’ve loved having the chance to expose them to a wide variety of literary texts.  As a writer, there’s no surer way to make sure you maintain contact with the classics than by teaching them on a regular basis.  I think I’ve benefited from returning to texts like “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and Heart of Darkness and The Turn of the Screw as many times as my teaching has made me.

What don’t I like?  Grading can be a bit of a drag, especially when you have a student who hasn’t taken the assignment seriously, and so has wasted their time and yours.   

8. In one interview you discussed that comics are slowly moving in to academia; do you see this as a shift in what is considered literary?

 Well, to split hairs, I see this as a shift in what modes of writing are considered worthy of academic attention; from what I’ve been able to tell, however, there hasn’t been much of a shift in the topics that are considered suitable for academic notice.  What I mean is, a comic such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which addresses the Holocaust and the vexed relationship between a father and son, treats subjects that are already considered literary; while a comic such as Eric Powell’s The Goon, which engages the history of pulp fiction conventions in a raucous and innovative fashion, is by and large still deemed beyond the pale.    

9. What's it like being a judge for the Shirley Jackson Awards? What does being a judge entail?

Being a juror for the first three years of the Shirley Jackson award was a great privilege.  No surprise, the job entailed a lot of reading, not just the books that publishers would mail you, but whatever you could seek out that might qualify.  I was quite pleased with the shortlists we arrived at:  if you wanted a cross-section of some of the best horror and dark fiction being written today, you could do a lot worse than use those lists as a guide.

10. You're co-editing a monster anthology called Creatures with another Mourning Goat interviewee, Paul Tremblay.  What's it like working with him; are you working on anything with any other authors right now?

Paul has been a real pleasure to work with; he’s uber-organized, conscientious, and professional.  To the extent that Creatures succeeds, it’s because of the weeks and weeks of hard work that he’s put into it.  At some point in the future, Paul and I are supposed to collaborate on what’s going to be a terrific short story or novelette; Laird Barron and I are also kicking around the idea of doing a story together.

11. In one of your Facebook posts you wrote that your son, David, was waiting to read the beginning of his first chapter book.  Was this a book he wrote, or a book he wanted to read to you? Either way, what are your thoughts on your kids getting into the literary world?

This was a book that David wanted to read to my wife and I; the title escapes me, now, but it had something to do with the labyrinth.  Since that time, though, he has begun work on his own book, The Dictionary of Monsters.  Yes, apples, trees, and all that.  My older son, Nick, has flirted with film-making at various points in his life; in fact, he was the one who shot and edited the trailer for my first novel, House of Windows.  He’s also written several screenplays for a cartoon series that would be great, if only he could find someone to take an interest in it.

On the one hand, there’s no denying the excitement you feel as a parent when your kid is doing what you do; there’s a kind of validation to it that is hard to describe and very gratifying.  On the other hand, kids have to find their own identities, which means that they’re likely going to wind up doing something different than what you do, the same way you chose to do something different from what your parents did.  That said, there’s no doubt that, whatever my boys choose to do, a facility with reading and writing can only help them. 

12. You're a two-time International Horror Guild Award finalist for short fiction and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters was nominated for the 2009 Bram Stoker Award.  Do you find short fiction easier than novels? Which is your favorite medium to write and why?

Well, short fiction can provide more immediate gratification (relatively speaking) than novel-length projects, both in terms of the speed with which you can finish it and in which it can be published.  Right from the start, though, my work tended towards the longer end of the spectrum, long-novelette/short novella, so moving up to the novel felt like more of a natural progression than it might have had I been writing short short stories.  (Indeed, writing shorter stuff is something I’m still working on.)  At this point, I haven’t completed enough novels to compare writing them to writing stories of any length with any kind of certainty, but I’m a sucker for a good novella.  At about a hundred pages, you have the freedom to develop your characters and the situation confronting them in some depth, but you haven’t completely sacrificed the concision of effect.  

13. I saw that you went to World of Fantasy last year:  what did you think of it? Do you think that these kinds of events are important to aspiring writers?

Since I was completely left off the programming, an omission that wasn’t confirmed until I was standing in the convention hotel, trying to find my name somewhere on the schedule, this past World Fantasy was not among the best I’ve ever attended.  I suppose that extra free time did allow to me to spend a little more time with friends I don’t get to see that often, such as Nick Mamatas, which was good, and to make the acquaintance of a number of writers I knew only through their work, such as Gary Braunbeck, which was also nice.

The usefulness of these events depends, I think, on the individual writer.  I didn’t attend my first convention until I’d had three stories published in F&SF, two of which, as you’ve noted, had been nominated for an award.  As a result, I received a very kind reception from the people I talked to, and found the convention experience, on the whole, an encouraging one.  Had I gone before I had anything published, I’m not sure how I would have felt.  Based on my observations, the genre community tends to be fairly welcoming; however, the younger me, who was even more prone to self-doubt than the older me, might very well have been overwhelmed by meeting real writers who were actually writing, and that might have done me more harm than good.

14. Do you think that making a good horror is about making a monster that you detest as well as sympathize with?

I think good horror is more about making characters with whom the reader will sympathize.  A good monster is nice, but if those it threatens aren’t compelling, then you get a kind of slaughter-fantasy that doesn’t seem particularly interesting to me.  That said, a good monster combined with good characters is pretty hard to beat.

15. You have a facebook page, blog, and twitter account; do you think that social media is important for literature, authors, and the future of the written word?

With a few, Thomas Pynchonesque exceptions, I don’t think you can avoid social media at this point.  Some writers, such as Jeff Vandermeer, have employed it brilliantly to their careers’ advantages; I would not lump myself in with them.  I’m not sure what the implications of social media will be for the future of the written word; to be honest, from what I’ve seen, it strikes me as a danger to a lot of writers, a great time-suck into which a lot of the energy that should be going to your fiction gets drained.  There’s also the danger in presuming that, because you have a certain number of facebook friends, or twitter followers, or what have you, you have achieved something, that whatever flame wars you’ve spearheaded count for something in your life as a writer.  I’m all for people expressing themselves online, and I’ve no doubt a number of worthy conversations have happened there, but fiction writers write fiction.  That’s what they do.  If you’re spending all your time online, you may be doing a lot of things, but writing fiction is not one of them.

16. Your 10 year anniversary is coming up this year (congratulations!):  is your wife your first reader and what's it like being married to a fellow academic?

Thanks!  In many ways, it’s hard to believe it’s been that length of time.  My wife used to be my first reader—actually, it would be more accurate to say she was my first listener:  once I’d written one or two thousand words, I would read it to her, and she would tell me what she thought.  And she was honest, ruthlessly so.  My wife understands narrative mechanics in a more deep and profound way than anyone else I’ve ever met; I probably learned more from the years we spent doing that than I had in all my writing classes up to then.  After our son was born, though, it became much more difficult to maintain that kind of process, and it fell by the wayside; though I still have thoughts of returning to it, someday.

Certainly, the nice thing about being married to a fellow academic is that there’s a level of understanding between the two of us that is deep and immediate; we don’t have to explain or justify things to one another the way we might if we worked very different jobs.  At the same time, our areas of study are sufficiently different for us to preserve some sense of our own identities.

17. What are some of the most recent things you've read-- shorts, novels, whatever--that have knocked your socks off?

This year, I shied away from compiling any kind of “year’s best” list because I’m aware that there’s a great deal of fiction that I either haven’t read yet or that’s slipped completely underneath my radar.  That admission out of the way, the books published this past year that absolutely blew my doors in were Laird Barron’s Occultation and Paul Tremblay’s In the Mean Time, both collections of short fiction.

With his first book, The Imago Sequence (2007), Laird seemed to arrive on the horror scene fully-formed, his plots a demonstration of the continuing vitality of what I guess you could call the cosmic horror tradition, his language a decanting of Cormac McCarthy, Wallace Stevens, and Roger Zelazny.  Occultation consolidates the gains of the previous book while expanding Laird’s range; I’m especially fond of his long stories, “The Broadsword” and “Mysterium Tremendum,” but there isn’t a clunker in the bunch.  Laird could stop writing today and the achievement of his first two books would be sufficient to rank him with the major horror writers of the last century.

Paul’s first collection, Compositions for the Young and Old (2004, rev. 2005), marked him as a writer to watch, and the stories he’s published since that time have shown a learning curve so steep it’s pretty much vertical.  In the last half a dozen, seven years, he’s written stories such as “There’s No Light Between Floors” and “It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks” and “The Teacher” that have vaulted him to the forefront of contemporary horror writers.  For a good couple of years, now, I’ve been saying that when Paul’s next collection came out, it was going to be a major event, and there’s no other way to describe In the Mean Time.

I’d also like to mention a collection I’m in the middle of, Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire, which is new this year.  Livia’s stories are a fierce, uncompromising blend of the erotic and the horrifying, and her book is not to be missed. 

18. As I'm sure you know, a lot of our readers are aspiring young writers.  What piece of advice do you wish you received when you started putting words down?

That’s a tough one.  I think it would have been something like, “Read widely and well, but trust the things you love to be sufficient for your ambitions.”

 19. What does your writing routine look like, every day, when the thought hits, morning, night?

I have a small office in the northeast corner of our house, and that’s my preferred place to work.  When I’m engaged in writing a new story or working on a novel, I sit at my desk and do my best to produce at least a new page every day.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself more able to write in other locations—in my class, when my students are critiquing one another’s work, or at the cafĂ© at the base of the building that contains my office—so if I have a decent block of time, I’ll try to use it to continue with whatever I’m working on.

20. You're currently working on your second short story collection and your second novel.  How are things going?  What can you tell us about either/both?

The collection is currently making the rounds at a number of different publishers.  It’s called Technicolor and Other Revelations, and includes eight stories, seven of which have been printed in places like John Joseph Adams’s first Living Dead anthology and Ellen Datlow’s Poe anthology, and one of which is brand new.  I suppose these stories continue the trend I began in my first collection, which is to say, revisiting the central archetypes of horror narrative and seeing what I can do with them.

My second novel has the working title of The Fisherman, and I’m probably about sixty percent done with it.  It’s about a fishing trip to a haunted river.  I hope to have it in to my agent come the beginning of summer.

Thank you, John!


1 comment:

  1. "Laird Barron and I are also kicking around the idea of doing a story together."

    Oh yes, The Blue Canary!