Interview with Nick Mamatas
Let the id do the writing:
A Conversation with Nick Mamatas
Conducted July 22 – July 25, 2009
Chances are you’ve heard of Nick Mamatas. Either that, or you haven’t. This isn’t just a ridiculous tautology; although as Nick himself states in the interview that follows, he’s “certainly not well-known,” since “no ‘average reader’ has heard of me,” there’s quite a large audience that has heard of him, and among such people, Nick’s reputation, both personally and professionally, looms large.
So this is just a roundabout way of getting at the old saw that “There are two types of people in the world.” In the present case, those two types are the people who have heard of Nick and the people who haven’t. Since you’re reading these words, you are now firmly in the former camp.
Nick offers quite a bit of personal biographical info about himself in what follows, so I won’t go into that here, other than to point out the salient facts. He currently lives in California and has degrees from SUNY Stony Brook, New School University, and Western Connecticut State University. He began his writing career in the late 1990s with nonfiction that was published all over the place, including in The Village Voice and Razor Magazine. He sold his first short story in 2000 (to Talebones) and has currently multiplied that by about 60. He is now a novelist, with three to his credit — a short one, Northern Gothic (2001), and two full-length ones, Move Under Ground (2004) and Under My Roof (2007) — that have earned him nominations for the Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award, starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, positive write-ups in the likes of the Los Angeles Times, a mention in Locus Magazine‘s list of notable publications, and an enthusiastic fan base. He edited Clarkesworld magazine from 2006-8 and then left to work for Viz Media as the editor of their line of Japanese fantasy, SF, and horror in English translation. Oh, and for several years he was an active member of the International Socialist Organization.
His work has garnered some major endorsements. Brian Keene calls Nick one of his favorite writers. China Miéville blurbed Move Under Ground as “An intense, inspired crossbred bastard homage-cum-critique-cum-vision.” Stewart O’Nan described the book as “a weird, wild ride” and said Nick “shows some awesome chops as well as some sad and funky soul.” And so on.
But his professional credits are only half the story, for Nick himself has become a kind of looming presence for those who know him either personally or through the Internet. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of a great many things, a lightning-quick verbal orientation, and a forceful personality, all of which have combined to earn him a reputation in the online horror community — where he has a valid presence even though he isn’t exclusively a horror writer — for being brilliant, fascinating, domineering, and/or overly confrontational, depending on whom you ask.
I myself got to know Nick a few years ago via the Shocklines message boards and then a few email exchanges, and then, last year, via real personal contact when we were both guests at Mo*Con III. In fact, circumstances put us together in a room at the hotel. I bought a copy of Move Under Ground from him, and when I finally read it, as I had been meaning to do since 2004, I was, in the profoundest sense of the expression, blown away, not just because its multi-leveled pastiche of Lovecraftian cosmic horror crossed with Beat philosophy and literary style (it features Jack Kerouac as narrator and Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg as supporting characters) was something out of my wildest dreams, but because Nick can write. Damn, can he write. “Born writer” the expression goes, and Nick, to my mind, is one of them.
His most recent publication is a short fiction collection titled You Might Sleep (2009). I finished reading it a week or so ago. Again, blown away. I have a new writer to rank among my favorites.
Nick’s signature style comes through not just when he writes fiction but when he talks, so maybe some of what follows will help you to understand his new position in my personal literary pantheon.
* * * * *
MATT CARDIN: Take us back to the beginning of your writing career. You’re doing film and video production and you decide you’d rather write for a living instead. You start with nonfiction and then add fiction as well. This overall arc can’t have been a purely business-oriented decision. Yes, of course, money and practical career considerations were involved, but you could have honored those by getting involved in multi-level marketing or earning an M.B.A. and working at a bank. But . . . writing? What inspired you?
NICK MAMATAS: I always enjoyed writing, though luckily I don’t have any of those tedious “And then I wrote my first book when I was four. It was seven pages long and about a magic pumpkin zombie and my mommy wrote it down for me” stories that writers (and non-writers) often use to transform their publications into the manifestation of personal destiny. A couple things happened:
I was in graduate school (for Media Studies) and one of the adjuncts was editing an issue of Art Papers. He asked me to write about digital environments, as at the time I was very into playing on tinyMUDs and he saw me hanging around in the school’s computer lab a lot and wanted to know what I was doing and why I was always giggling to myself. So I wrote an article over the course of an afternoon and got $100 for it, and later some copies of the magazine. And then I went to the very well-stocked magazine store on West 12th Street and 6th Avenue a few months later and saw the magazine there. (New York seems to be the only place in the US with magazine stores, and I’ve always loved them.) Somewhere in my backbrain I suppose my ideas felt more real now that they were actually available for purchase (and shoplifting), even if they only covered three pages of a store that contained a million or two million pages at that very moment.
I was also in a political organization, and a comrade of mine from South Korea asked me to help him translate a book about the Kwangju Uprising. It was an interesting challenge and we both foolishly thought that our connections on the left would get us published and a neat little advance for the book right away. We found out that it takes three years to write a book up to academic/political/peer review snuff and that while faxes from Noam Chomsky will get a book on an editor’s desk as opposed to an intern’s pile, even for university presses the marketing department is the real kingmaker. Some leftists we were!
At about the same time, I also got a job writing sample test questions for the Test of English in International Communication for a South Korean publisher (indeed, the mother of the comrade mentioned above). This was great as in the mid-1990s the US was in the midst of what was called the “jobless recovery” and the film and video work I was doing — mostly as a gaffer on film sets and as a floor manager on three-camera video shoots for a company called Vidlo Video — had dried up.
Then I saw the ad in The Village Voice looking for writers, which ended up being for a term paper mill.
And I met a woman and we started dating, and she had a large number of science fiction, horror, and mystery paperbacks. I read a lot of SF and some horror and tons of Marvel comics and Dungeons and Dragons stuff as a kid — a lot of Omni actually — but when I got involved in school and, later, grad school, most of my reading was political and historical material from the campus libraries and my main leisure activities were the MUDs and avant-garde films. So moving in with her and her big boxes overflowing with books allowed me to fill in the gaps in my genre education.
Between the papers and the Kwangju book and the test questions, I realized that I really really enjoyed working from home. So I started writing some short stories as well, most of which were awful, and I gave a novel a whirl too. About two years later, I sold my first short story. Nine years after that, after sixty stories and a few short novels and an anthology co-edited with the former Omni editor who taught me how great SF/F/H short stories could be, here I am. Being interviewed on an obscure blog!
MC: But as obscure blogs go, hey, this one’s the bomb.
What was that first published story?
NM: “Your Life, Fifteen Minutes from Now,” which is about a world where Andy Warhol’s old saw about how in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes is literally true. (I suppose this interview would be my fifteen minutes.) It’s perhaps my first or second real story — that is, a story that I could write that was not likely to be written by someone else. My previous attempts were mostly rip-offs of this or that SFnal or horror idea, with little “bursts” of me (a Greek monster, a revolution, whatever), but this was the first solid one.
It appeared in Talebones. My original hope was to sell the story to Adbusters, a magazine I enjoyed at the time, but after a few months and their non-acceptance rejection (the magazine doesn’t send rejection slips) it was August. Always a hard time for freelancers of any stripe. Nothing happens in August. On some ridiculous and humid night I decided that I’d send out the story again, but I literally didn’t have the money to spare for printer ink. Talebones accepted electronic submissions back in 1999 and I’d gotten some editorial feedback (“well-written, but X and Y . . .”) on previous submissions, so I sent the story to them. I heard back in early 2000 and ran around whooping it up in my house. My roommates at the time were surprised that I was so happy: I’d been selling non-fiction pieces in early dot.com venues like Disinfo.com and GettingIt for about a year, and Kwangju Diary had finally been released, so they thought it was odd to get so worked up over a check for eighteen dollars and a magazine with a few hundred subscribers. But I was happy.
MC: Trust me, I understand your excitement, even though your roommates didn’t. My first published story was a freebie. No pay at all. And I think I was as excited as you were about your Talebones sale. Maybe that accounts for why I still get so weepy whenever I actually get paid for writing something.
But back on point: This issue of a fiction writer’s first “real” story is a major one. How did it finally happened to you, that growth into your true fiction writer’s self? Was it a discovery of your native voice or what? I saw you say in another interview that you intensively trained yourself to write fiction even though you had already published lots of nonfiction. Tell me more about that.
NM: Did you know that the intellectual history of the 20th century can be summarized as one long and silly attempt to marry Marx and Freud? Well, I feel lucky, so let’s try again.
What I realized was that the stories I was writing had “work” all over them—that is, they read like the reading comprehension passages or model term papers I was writing. That in and of itself is fine, as anyone who has ever read a horror or SF short story knows. Most writing in the genre is only serviceable at best. But given the number of stories so produced, there was certainly no reason to select any of mine, right? What I had at hand, the only thing I had to sell, was my own self — my species being.
At the same time, working at the keyboard all day was sufficiently exhausting that I tended to be very tried when I tried to write fiction after a long day of non-fiction, test questions, academic writing, etc. I decided to write whatever came to mind and worry about it later. I also decided that I’d write short and try to complete an action — that is, write a short story in a single sitting since I wouldn’t be in the same semi-conscious state again. Basically, I let the id do the writing. This worked well enough that rather than just stumbling into it—most writers have an anecdote about the one story or the one chapter that came to them in a dream or that just spilled out of their fingers — I’d make an explicit attempt to cultivate the state of mind. It’s like the old gimmick of keeping a pen and paper by the bed or shower in case one has an idea, except that for a few days before I get ready to compose, I am always just about to go to bed. Luckily, most of one’s daily activities are mindless enough (I don’t drive, so there’s that too) that one can spend a lot of time working on it.
“What I had at hand, the only thing I had to sell, was my own self — my species being. Basically, I let the id do the writing.”
So anyway, I got to the point where I can cultivate this sort of alpha wave state and write a story in it, and the story will need very little if any second-round work. You can call it sheer economic need to create a comparative advantage or tamping down the ego and writing in a fugue or, as my taiji instructor might suggest, using sun (Spirit) to cultivate Yi (intention), which is entirely backwards for developing any gongfu. Of course, my taiji teacher also tells me fairly often “You’re sitting on the wrong butt!” so take that as you will. It is all pretty ass-backwards, but it also helps generate a euphoric state, and since writers are known for “depression” — no surprise there, just look at how they’re treated in the publishing industry! — I’m glad to avoid such drudgery by “sleeping” through most of it.
MC: I think a great many of your fellow writers might feel just a little jealous of your ability to “sleep” through the sometimes agonizing process of creating a story. It sounds hugely similar to what Dorothea Brande recommended with her explicitly meditation-type self-training exercises in Becoming a Writer way back in 1934, and also like Ray Bradbury’s injunction that writers ought to train the hands to work on their own so that the “secret mind” can do all of the writing, not as an occasional authorial felicity but as a regular, lifelong practice. Then there’s David Morrell teaching a basic neurolinguistic programming technique for writers in his Lessons from a Lifetime in Writing. You’re sparking all sorts of thoughts from me here.
In any event, it’s a fascinating to hear about this aspect of your creative life. Do you have any role models or inspirations in this regard, other writers whose creative processes and working methods have contributed to the development of yours? I ask because you made Jack Kerouac the narrator and William Burroughs one of the major supporting characters in your novel Move Under Ground, and of course they’re more than just a little famous for their experimentation with alternative modes of both writing and consciousness.
NM: Yes. Ellison’s typing in the window, Kerouac and Burroughs, Acker’s “plagiarisms,” all sorts of things like that. Ultimately, I wouldn’t say I write quite like any of them either as a matter of process or result, but I’ve always been interested in trying X for Y. Why not lift Kerouac’s voice for some Lovecraftian fiction, or use something like Stan Brakhage’s filmic methods for a story?
MC: Why not, indeed?
Let’s double back to a previously touched-on topic: your involvement in leftist organizations. Your interest and real-world experiences in such things show up frequently in your new short fiction collection, You Might Sleep, in the form of characters who belong, or at least attach, to revolutionary this and radical that. And I’ve noticed that in your stories these people don’t always appear in a positive light. Or let me rephrase that: They appear pretty much without exception in a strongly negative light. Or at least that’s the way I perceive it. In your fictional universe, revolutionary radicals are usually self-indulgent narcissists and occasionally bona fide sociopaths. Often they receive an inspired comeuppance. Tonally, your engagement with these things feels like it’s fueled by equal parts disgust, ironic wit, and genuine pathos, with a little bit of fantastic wonder a la magical realism thrown into the mix as well.
I’m thinking, for instance, of “Solidarity Forever” with its ugly story about two self-styled American radicals who inexplicably decide to engage a hideously inhuman act, after which they receive their just deserts and the story erupts into giddy and nutty fantasy for a climax. I’m also thinking of “Real People Slash,” where [**SPOILER ALERT**] the narrator turns out to be none other than a fictionalized Nick Mamatas, who’s involved in some revolutionary radical stuff with a crowd of typical (for a Mamatas story) pathetic narcissists, but who by story’s end has frittered off into a full-blown schizophrenic fantasy of Lovecraftian cosmic conspiracizing in which Nick recognizes that everybody besides himself has been taken over by the Mi-Go from Yuggoth.
NM: Aw, the couple in “Solidarity Forever” weren’t radicals, they were obnoxious middle class liberals! You can tell — well, I can tell anyway — because most of their politics had to do with personal consumption. One of the fault lines between liberalism and radicalism, after all, is that liberals continue to believe in the efficacy of the marketplace. A bit of regulation and some carefully conceptualized conspicuous consumption, maybe a Sunday with the Unitarians instead of a church that believes in churchy stuff, and everything will be fine. The radicals in the story are the players in the giddy and nutty fantasy climax, who had just become radicalized in the moment that the ideology of First World liberalism is made clear to them.
Though, of course, given the state of US politics, pretty anyone who doesn’t see the Book of Revelation as a no-nonsense guide to foreign policy and Atlas Shrugged as a battleplan for dealing with very destructive hurricanes — or the ones that land on black people anyway — may as well be Lenin (carrying Al Sharpton on his soldiers) so I can see why the liberal characters may seem radical to some readers. The story still works anyway, I think . . .
“Real People Slash,” as the title hints at, is more or less the story of actual people. My time in the ISO was rewarding in many ways, though I suppose I never got over the central absurdity of the class composition of the organization as it existed when I was in it. Leadership fell into place exactly along class lines, with the first people I’d ever met with trust funds running the show (because they had the time and money to always work on the newspaper and fund publications and whatnot) and working people being compelled to work harder/faster/more for the group by their wealthier leaders. That said, outside the US, various organizations associated with the same group tended to have a more organic class leadership and in the years since I moved on, the ISO has made a better effort to work in the class as opposed to recruiting Ivy League grad students.
There is some notion in weird fiction that it can work as a “warning to the curious” — a lot of these stories are in some way directed at the radical left, sympathizer to sympathizer. Further, radical critiques of society are systemic critiques: there are forces out there controlling our lives and we must make every effort to understand them, though they might destroy us. That theme lends itself to a lefty version of what you call “magical realism.” (Though I wouldn’t call anything I do magical realism, though some of the Greek fantasies take a shuffling step or two toward it.)
MC: Many thanks for the clarifications. Maybe you can similarly clarify or correct something else I gained from the stories in You Might Sleep, namely, a negative impression of the academics who sometimes show up in the stories. They all seem to be constituted of pomposity, obliviousness, and pretension, in admixtures of varying proportions. I’m assuming this may indicate something significant about your experiences and impressions of higher academia and its minions — but I may be wrong. Maybe you’re just employing this attitude as a fictional device. Or maybe it’s some of both. Hm?
NM: I suppose that having a little fun with academics is much like coming across that proverbial fish in a barrel and breaking out a bazooka. That said, I think I give the academic in the original novella in the book, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, a pretty fair shake. “A Sudden Absence of Bees” was originally published in Nature, an academic journal, and the profs seems to like it. Of course, the professor in that story was in the humanities, and science types enjoy seeing those cats take a drubbing.
I’ve been through two rounds of grad school and anyone on the left has encountered former activists turned tenured radicals, of course. I guess it’s mostly an extension of mocking the foibles of the American left and perhaps a bit of my experience as a term paper artist coming through. That, and I’m jealous of anyone who has to work only twelve hours a week. (Yeah yeah, they have to grade papers and deal with crying students and whatnot. I’m sure they all may as well be working in a South African diamond mind and having their asses checked for purloined diamond dust at the end of every fourteen-hour shift . . .)
I have a number of friends who are academics and when they complain about having to read papers and stories and whatnot, I always say, “Just give everyone a C.” One may as well, really, as grades are so largely arbitrary for the humanities and social sciences anyway.
MC: That thing you said in there, the part about being a term paper artist — you’re anticipating my questions before I get to them.
I remember being surprised when you told me about your erstwhile career as a writer of term papers when we met at last year’s MoCon. You wrote a really excellent essay about your paper-writing career for The Smart Set in September (“The Term Paper Artist,” October 10, 2008). NPR’s On the Media interviewed you about it later the same month. I’ve been wondering ever since then about the impact of this prominent act of self-disclosure on your current writing career, and even on your life in general. Have you taken any flak? Have you had any second thoughts? I’ll go ahead and say that I thought your performances in both the essay and the NPR interview were excellent, and I dug the way you used your experience as a paper writer to make some trenchant observations about the state of higher education. But I also noticed that the listener comments on the NPR interview got fairly heated. So, how’s it going in this area lately?
NM: I’ve taken a bit of flak, of course. Certainly, many people are heavily invested in what they think their college degrees mean. Other people were highly interested. I got an email from some fellow at Stanford wondering if any assignments from the “elite” colleges had crossed my desk. (Answer: Yes, but quite rarely.) A number of people wanted to know how to get in contact with paper mill brokers, often after sharing a sad story of being Dr. Starbucks Coffee-Server, PhD.
For me, given the nigh absolute corruption of higher education:
- outrageous tuition,
- financial manipulations that allow large colleges to essentially operate as hedge funds with the educational stuff being simply small PR units that do things like teach kids that Shakespeare! was! racist! (And indeed he was. Most people are.),
- massive classes in the large state universities—even fifteen years ago when I was in school, most of my classes in the first two years at SUNY Stony Brook had more people in them than attend, say, Marlboro College in all majors and all years—more or less designed to keep working class kids undereducated, and
- people entering elite schools like Smith or Bennington with a brace of high school failures for simple demographic reasons. (Forget Affirmative Action, I know a number of people who got into great schools simply because their parents were academics, they tested well on the SATs, and they were too white to really fail)
the question of “cheating” can only be a strategic one.
This isn’t a slam on learning; I just recommend that any kid going to school today spend a lot of his or her time in the library, badgering the reference librarians for access to journals, primary source documents, movies on film (yes, actual 16mm film prints!) and taking advantage of school that way. When one is given a hand of cards shuffled from the bottom of the deck, one can respond in kind. Of course, most term paper clients don’t see it that way. Many of them do legitimately just use the papers as a sort of custom Cliff’s Notes — I know because they often complain of doing poorly in class anyway because they rewrite what they’re given until it makes no sense. They are generally either lazy (but at least their tuition payments subsidize scholarships for the kids who work hard) or well-educated people from the former Soviet Union who need to go through school again and just need some English help (a lot of it is just editing what they do) or are basically in school because of some fantasy: they have kids, or they’re cops who want a promotions, or or or . . . they’re used to buying what they need, so they buy what they need.
As far as “The Term Paper Artist’s” impact on my career, not too much has happened. I was on NPR as you mentioned, and interviewed elsewhere. I’m pleased to announce that the essay is going to be reprinted in a textbook used in frosh composition classes as well. Back when I was in high school and college, I always had a daydream that one day I’d write something that would be in a Bedford Reader or some other essay anthology. So that’s one more dream come true.
MC: All of the above makes me more than a little curious to hear, even if briefly, an update on your experiences in grad school. The fact that you went back to grad school with that background as a term paper writer, and also as an increasingly successful and well-known author with all kinds of good buzz and blurbs about his work, and that you went through an M.F.A. program with other students who lacked those distinguishing marks, in order to earn the initials that would allow you to teach — it all strikes me as a fascinating story. Why did you do it? What’s the latest word on it?
NM: Successful? Not really. Certainly not well-known. “With some interesting publications”, maybe. Books sell a few thousand copies, certainly no “average reader” has heard of me. If this is success, failure must be submitting a story, having it intercepted in the mails by the NSA, and ending up in Gitmo for 189 waterboarding sessions.
“If this is success, failure must be submitting a story, having it intercepted in the mails by the NSDA, and ending up in Gitmo for 189 waterboarding sessions.”
Anyway, I got a sense, ’round 2005, that the economy was going to collapse, as the only thing left standing was real estate. Real estate bubbles are especially ridiculous because the physical plant of a home or office — the actually existing capital — is there for anyone to see. It’s not potential for profit in the same way owning stock in a firm is, it is an actually existing thing that may double in price in the short-term without any alteration to its basic essence. Nothing to run an economy on. When that bubble popped, as it did, the US economy would be a total wreck, as it is, and freelancers would suffer greatly, as they are now doing. So I figured school would be handy for a few reasons: a terminal degree can be useful, I’d have health insurance while in school, and I thought I’d like to get into teaching.
The MFA program itself — at Western Connecticut State University — was new. I selected it because it was low-residency, had Tor’s David Hartwell on the board, and had a professional thrust. Practical writing: journalism, business communications, whatever, was part of the training. So I’d write whatever stories and articles I’d normally write and hand them in for credit as well as for pay. No “genre panic” and no pie-in-the-skyism. Or less, anyhow. For someone who wants to walk out of a grad program with marketable essays and stories and a publishable thesis, it is absolutely a good place to go.
As an experience, it was pretty weird for me because I’d already been fairly widely published and had worked in publishing. All the old clichés of the workshop experience reared their head, and a few of the students simply seemed to feel that since they were already successful orthodontists (or whatnot) they clearly knew everything about writing and publishing as well. After all, writing was just like orthodontia or running a dry cleaners or being the parent to three lovable children with ADHD or owning seven dogs or whatever they were already good at. The only thing writing and publishing wasn’t like was . . . my authentic lived experience as a writer and editor. However, the program certainly prepared me for the expectations of incoming students.
I did teach at Boston’s Grub Street, a writing center, and enjoyed it greatly. I’m also going to be a faculty mentor at Westconn itself now — basically doing one-on-one tutoring for students interested in SF and popular fiction. No full-time gig yet, but the degree did help me get a full-time editorial job here in California. I’m the editor of Haikasoru, an imprint of Japanese SF in translation, and now that I don’t have to hussle for every lame little freelance job, I actually have a bit more time to write the sort of stories and essays I wish to.
MC: So what led you to want to teach?
NM: It’s just an extension of liking to read. I even enjoyed reading slush when I was editing, and didn’t send form rejections for Clarkesworld because I just organically enjoy trying to articulate what makes a story not work for a certain venue (or at all). Plus, those twelve-hour work weeks. And I can just give everybody a C!
(Don’t worry English department search committees, I wouldn’t really give everybody a C.)
MC: I’ll be sure to forward this interview on to as many English department search committees as I can locate — with your parenthetical comment still attached, of course.
But on a more serious note: Doom! You managed to broach one of my favorite subjects. As with you, my collapse-o-meter went wild a few years ago, and sure enough, here we are, with enough legs down remaining in our foreseeable future that I’m beginning to wonder if our economy might validly be likened to a mutant arachnid.
In any case, a couple of the stories in You Might Sleep involve dystopian settings and scenarios, and you even make explicit reference to peak oil in one of them, and this made me sit up and take notice since I’m pretty well plugged into the online doom community and have been watching this idea unfold for about six years now. So I’m wondering, what do you honestly think of the doom meme that’s currently frolicking through the culture at large? I haven’t experienced anything like it in my lifetime, this culture-wide belief, or at least a recognition that the belief exists, that we’re truly screwed in the long term. So far it looks like everything has been playing out very close to the way the doomers have been saying all along, except for oil prices, which have surprised some people by collapsing, although this is now being explained by the peak oil crowd in terms of the radical volatility that was always forecast for the post peak period. So, can I infer from the dystopian elements in You Might Sleep that you’re somebody who really expects that we’re staring into a future of future of ongoing collapse, or is that reading too much into your fictionalizing of certain current cultural tropes? I’ll lay my own cards on the table by saying that I, for one, have strong doomer sympathies.
NM: I’m not a doomer myself. Doom for whom, more like it. If the US finds its role as the quarterback of imperialism blunted, for example, that’s not a bad thing in my book. I’m not so crazily optimistic as to say, “Peak oil is the solution to global warming!” or anything like that, but in the end the forces that bedevil us are not beyond our control, not if we don’t let them be. It’s that radicalism again — a systematic critique but also working for a new system.
Of course, there are always shockwaves to deal with. It may be cool to see a corrupt banker go down, but if he takes the pensions of 40,000 retirees with him, that’s no good. Personally, I’m in okay shape. There are inflationary economic crises, which hurt people with money as their money is worth less. Then there is deflationary crises, which hurt people with capital as the price of things sink. Well, I have no money and I own nothing, so I’m doing all right for the moment.
I just believe in taking a long-term view. Sort of like the old saw about whether the French Revolution had a positive or negative impact on history: it’s too soon to tell.
As far as the stories go, I suppose that there are two kinds of dystopia: the dystopia of tyranny and the dystopia of collapse. As a writer, I’m more interested in the latter. Tyrannies too often look like utopias after all. (This is one of the themes of a lot of utopian fiction, which is closely related to satire.) In a collapse state, characters have more agency to do things, including building a new system in the void left by the old.
MC: Speaking of the stories, let’s talk specifically about one of them: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which, as you pointed out a minute ago, is a novella, and is original to your new collection (one of three new stories out of 22 total in the book). It’s told with a frame story set in a Turkish prison, and its young Greek-American protagonist occupies the titular status in his family and is thus endowed with certain paranormal powers, including, especially, the ability to kill people by looking at them and wishing them dead.
I found all of it fascinating, including the Greek-American cultural aspects. Obviously, this part comes from your personal background, but as for me, I have no firsthand knowledge of that American subculture. My greatest exposure to it has come from pop culture offerings like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. So I have no clue as to whether your portrayal of a Greek-American culture that’s shot through with folk-level superstitions and magical beliefs is authentic. So what I’m asking is: Is it? To my knowledge — which admittedly may be full of holes — this novella touches on elements of your own cultural roots more extensively than anything else you’ve written, so the centrality of superstitious beliefs and the protag’s mysterious powers, which you present in a kind of low-key, matter-of-fact manner, even portraying the protag a kind of functional atheist, make me curious.
NM: A 7/7 with the power to kill with his eyes I think I got from an old issue of the Weekly World News — that used to be a great weird gag paper, until recurring characters (well, not Ed Anger, who was always awesome) and cheap Photoshop gags ruined it. As far as the rest of the “Greekness,” yeah, that’s pretty much it. When I moved away from my family, my mother sent me a filakto in the mail. It’s a pouch with dried flowers from an Easter church service; protection against the evil eye. Every old person reports seeing ghosts and talking to dead relations in dreams. And the bit with the king baptizing seventh sons is also true. (I understand this is true in other European countries, such as Belgium.)
Yes, my own childhood and even some of my adult life was limned with superstition, or at least magical thinking, and there was always something else — some new wrinkle or superstition that I’d find out about. How one crosses hands when clinking glasses at dinner predicts marriages. The cousin who had lunch ready when my immediate family arrived in Greece for a visit because the grains in the coffee cup told her she’d be having company that day. Parsley behind the ear to loosen the tongue. The massive scar on a relative’s back from “kupes” — the application of a heated cup to suck out illness. Certain sorts of whistling believed to attract fish to hooks.
This was what I was thinking at before when I mentioned shuffling toward “magical realism.” Magical realism isn’t a mode of the fantastic, it is a mode of realism written by those whose social worlds are magical worlds. My social world isn’t fully magical — cue boring talk about immigrants’ children being “torn between two worlds” — which is fine by me as I don’t believe in the stuff anyway. It makes for intriguing fiction and, not to put too fine a point on it, there’s only two or three other people in the field able to write this particular sort of thing. So why not make use of an absolute as well as a comparative advantage in coming up with story ideas?
Also, there is a strain of radicalism in Greek politics and parts of the social world as well. (The island from which my parents are from was a dumping ground for Communists after the Civil War of the immediate post-WWII era.) You end up with the classic practice of praying to Jesus each night before sleep and then waking up in the morning to denounce God in order to get on with the work of the movement. Repeat the next evening as needed. So there’s some of that mentality involved. And the story is that of a blood feud between the main character and the President of the United States. So I was trying to play with this mix of Communism — a thoroughly modern set of beliefs — mixing with these traditional folkloric and social practices, like casual magic and the incredible self-confident and matter-of-fact pursuit of blood-for-blood vendettas. Of course, one of the reasons Bush43 gave for war with Iraq, in a speech to the UN, was that Saddam Hussein was “the guy who tried to kill my dad [Bush41].” So why should the state have all the fun when it comes to blood feuds?
MC: One of the things I like best about the novella — and I think I can say this without offering a spoiler — is its use of narrative frame breaks near the end. I cherish those times when fiction can simulate the existential experience of ratcheting up to higher levels of awareness, like waking from a dream. You use the technique to offer up a really powerful narrative climax. And given your aforementioned hypnagogic approach to story writing, I’m curious about how much prior thought and planning, if any, you put into such things. For that matter, how much prior thought and planning do you put into any of your stories? The ones in this collection are all characterized by really sharp and nifty narrative climaxes, often coming right at the final line of text. Do these moments just “happen” as a matter of authorial felicity, or is there a more conscious effort involved?
NM: Novellas are difficult to write in one sitting, so the structure of this one had more to do with stopping and starting. I suspect that Ligotti’s My Work Is Not Yet Done had a lot to do with Seventh Son of a Seventh Son structurally; I’ve always been enamored of that big narrative cleaver down the middle of Ligotti’s short novel anyway. I think there is even a metric similarity between the two titles, now that I’ve typed them both out.
Most of the final-line climaxes do come as an utter surprise: the sudden shift to first person in “Solidarity Forever,” the eyepatch in “Build a Trebuchet,” and a couple of others were like that. As far as the levels of awareness thing goes, my novella “Eliminate The Improbable” in New Dark Voices 2 does that with every single chapter. That one was conscious — it was actually a joke I was playing on myself. Some reviewers loved it (whether they “got it” or not I can’t say) and some found it obnoxious. I thought it was both lovable and obnoxious.
MC: I’ve not yet read that one. I’ll have to look it up. On another note, I suspect you may not be surprised to hear that I find the Ligottian inspiration for Seventh’s Son structure to be very interesting. To say the least.
A final question about Seventh Son of a Seventh Son: Whatever led you to write it?
NM: I occasionally and perversely get it in my head to write novellas. I’ve published four so far —the first, Northern Gothic, was my second published piece of fiction—and they’re all agonizing and tedious and I got stiffed on payment from one them, an avantporn piece called “Thit”, by Blue Moon Books and editor Michael Hemmingson. But I’ll continue to do them occasionally.
MC: You’re making me believe in those Greek psychic powers again. My next and perhaps penultimate question was — is — for you to offer your take on the current state of the publishing industry. How about offering some of your thoughts about the status of short fiction, since you devoted the introduction of You Might Sleep to the question of why anybody would write a short fiction collection these days.
NM: Pretty much all anyone has to say about the short story in popular fiction these days is, “You can’t make a living from short stories!” This is true. You also can’t make a living working five hours in pretty much any field. That question is really only relevant as regards opportunity costs — does a fairly successful novelist spend a few days writing 10 percent of novel for which he or she might receive $20,000 ($2000 for that chapter) or the same amount of time writing a short story for which he or she might receive somewhere between $200 and $500? The financial attractiveness of the former option means that people who write short stories tend to be people who enjoy writing short stories.
Well, those people write stories and so do would-be novelists who have swallowed the idea that one has to write short stories first, either as practice for a novel (which short stories are not) or to get attention/advertise (which hardly works when the writer doesn’t actually like short stories and thus almost always only writes mediocre ones). All we can do is pray that a great and fiery fissure opens up under the feet of these people and consumes them.
Then there is the academic production of short stories, which occurs only because stories are easier to pass around a workshop than either complete novels or novel chapters, so we end up with a third pool of dreck, this being the especially awful dreck-by-committee. Let’s summon up another fissure.
So where does this leave the short story? Two options, it seems to me. There’s a retrograde option and the avant option. The retrograde option is the option of subsidy and stasis. The publishers who start a magazine “so writers can have a market” (forget about the readers!) or for some ideo-aesthetic reason (e.g., “Back to the good ol’ days!” or “Slipstream sounds like something people might take seriously!”) are somewhat similar, in my mind, to community theater groups. You have the usual old bad actors and silly farts tromping across the boards for the umpteenth version of Our Town. A great play, you know. Enough characters for everyone to have a part! People know it from school! That’ll pack ‘em in the tiny tiny theater. And, of course, some community theater groups will go kur-aazy and put on some original play written by the spouse of the person in charge of bringing cake to rehearsal occasionally, and it’ll be all ridiculous and “wild” and much like plays were fifty years ago instead of one hundred years ago.
For community theater, feel free to swap in “Sunday brunch jazz saxophonists” or “the city-funded philharmonic.”
Then there is the avant option: instead of community theater, a black box in the dicey neighborhood. They do care about the audience, but are also happy enough if it’s very small provided the people in the folding chairs “get it.” Instead of Sunday brunch, the three-quarters empty nightclub with the four-drink minimum. Forget the city-funded philharmonic; think of the electronic musician doing sound collages and theremin music (with breakbeats, if he or she is a sell-out or suitably ironic). The audience for the avant option is as small as that for the retrograde option. New Music or square-dancing? You decide!
The difference, it seems to me, is that the retrograde option is defeatist while the avant option may at least prepare people for what is coming next — there is at least some inkling of trying something new. That something new may fall flat on the page, but be awesome if distributed on wireless devices, or if integrated into some other experience. I think of the sort of non-narrative avant-garde film of the 1940s-1960s. They were short, often abstract, seemingly incomprehensible, challenged even the most enthusiastic of the tiny audiences of film societies and college classes that managed to see the scratchy prints and . . . and . . . and . . . today those filmic techniques and themes are found absolutely everywhere in the visual media. Commercials. Video games. Feature films. Everywhere.
I’m a big fan of weird fiction. I like the old material. I like the new material — my friend Geoffrey calls folks like you and Cisco and Samuels “the children of Ligotti.” But I like a lot of other things too. I like the stuff I’m reading in lit journals such as Opium Magazine and crime/confessional/comic zines like The Savage Kick, and online at ChiZine and from writers such as Paul Jessup and Carrie Laben. I doubt any of the people I mentioned will be the one to change up the short story, but as I mentioned above, I take the long-term view. So I’m in favor of the ridiculous and the pretentious and the Twitter story and the well-read fans of Machen and the kids writing about their sweaty, swarthy parents (but only when not compelled to by lily white professors who say “Write what you know, like about what a victim I believe you to be”) and anything that isn’t simply the result of watching a lot of television and writing down what one half-remembers from some episode of a show and calling it a short story. The avant option may well be as dead as the retrograde option, but there is some ghost of a chance that from the latter something new can be born.
MC: You express yourself with great force when you talk about this subject, and that’s characteristic of your communication style in general. I think you’re aware that you sometimes ruffle some feathers with the directness and, as it sometimes comes out, supreme bluntness of your communication style.
And that brings me to the my final question: For the record, what’s the truth about Nick Mamatas, Combative Communicator? Is it like Rush Limbaugh, who comes on like a two-fisted brawler of words but then refers to himself as “a lovable little fuzzball” and tells interviewers — I’m thinking of the television interview he gave to Barbara Walters last December — that he’s the nicest, most harmless person you’ll ever meet? Or is it more that you just call things like you see them and have no patience with what you perceive as ignorance and idiocy? I’ll go on record first by pointing out that although I have witnessed your bluntness in action, and have been present for the fights and flamewars that have broken out online, and have thought, “Wow, that Nick’s a confrontational guy,” my personal interactions with you over the course of several years have never been anything but perfectly pleasant. And that’s not just an online thing; hell, you and I shared a hotel room together at MoCon last year, and we got along fine.
NM: Wow, you sure have spent more time contemplating Rush Limbaugh then I have.
“I just try to treat people as equals, which can be upsetting, as most of our lives are limned with hierarchy.”
Anyway, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, so anything I say here will be self-serving. I just try to treat people as equals, which can be upsetting, as most of our lives are limned with hierarchy. In the workplace and the family, there are certain people (subordinates, submissive spouses, children) who simply may not speak to us in ways we dislike. Also, we have our own bosses, dominant family members, older relations, whatever. whom we cannot speak to as we would perhaps want to. So, when we step out of these hierarchies, we often find ourselves confused and alienated. (I’m not immune to this myself either.)
I suppose that if there is a difference in person, it’s just a combination of body language and that in person people generally don’t start going on about how “we” need to kill all the Iraqis and such.
MC: Well, then there it is.
And whoops, I missed an obvious question: the standard and ever-popular, What are you working on now?
NM: I actually hate the “What are you working on?” question. I get asked it a lot, and it generally just feels like a gambit of some sort, like asking about the weather or last night’s Letterman monologue just so that one can share one’s own anecdote. Also, there’s been a recent trend amongst writers who describe their work by offering up ever-more involved lists of the “cool” stuff in what they are working on, e.g., “I’m working on a book about Norse gods and soda shops and zombies and airships and postructuralism.” Though I suppose that’s better than, “Well, my novel is about two sisters and then something happens to one of them, and that something happening to one is what happens to the other.” So I suppose I’ll just say stories, articles, maybe expanding one of the novellas, a collaboration with Brian Keene, and whatever I feel like.
MC: At root I think I’m not overly fond of that question, either, since it has become a canned event that’s tagged onto the end of every other author interview. Fortunately, I can tell you there were no gambits involved in my asking it.
Thanks for the words, Nick. Lots of interesting stuff here. Best of luck with You Might Sleep and everything else.