Paul Tremblay is the author of several novels, including the recently published Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and the World Fantasy Award nominated and Bram Stoker Award winning A Head Full of Ghosts.
Lisa Quigley sat down with him in cyberspace to get his take on everything from the supernatural, to social media, to the writing process, and Stephen King. This is their conversation.
Lisa Quigley – I actually read your two most recent novels—A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock—back to back. Needless to say, I’m a little traumatized. But, what intrigued me about both of them is that the supernatural element (in both of them) is never really explained or even really confirmed or verified. So you’re left wondering, was that aspect really real, or were they imagining it, or what? Which is almost more terrifying than having it explained, I think. Would you explain your thought process for choosing to make those elements of the novel more ambiguous?
Paul Tremblay – You are a wonderful glutton for punishment! Or ambiguity…
Treating the supernatural as ambiguous (ie. is there really something supernatural going on or not?) is one of the links between the two novels. I wanted what happened in reality to be the most horrific aspects of each novel, with the hope that the ambiguity and maybe-supernatural would be what lingered and nagged at the reader once they were finished with the novels. Some of that satisfies my own skeptic’s brain; it’s difficult for me to commit to full on supernatural-ness. If that’s not a word, it is now. I try to take a realistic approach to the supernatural insofar as I think that if I were to personally experience a supernatural event, I believe it would be very subtle, difficult to describe or explain or identify. It wouldn’t be obvious that something supernatural happened and I’d be left with doubt and a sense of something being off, a glimpse of the cracks of things.
LQ – There’s a lot of social media in your newest novel, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, almost to the point of commentary in my reading of it. It’s like, there are all these pros and cons. It unites us in a really empowering, global way, but it can also be really horrifying when people’s unfiltered thoughts are just unchecked and on display like that. What are your thoughts on social media?
PT – Besides the ambiguous supernatural element, I wanted to treat Tommy’s disappearance as realistically as possible. I wanted to zoom in on the emotions that his friends and family would be experiencing, and also explore what the day-to-day would look like during the investigation, and what that all would look like now, particularly if something weird was happening at the edges.
There are definite pros and cons to social media. Without going too far down that rabbit hole, giving voice to the voiceless and instant data and reaction are/can be great things. At the same time, social media gives people as false sense of safety and comfort. Social media attention often muddies the waters and makes incidents/tragedies worse. Just last week the Twitterverse was sharing the name and photo of a man who was not the Dallas shooting suspect, right?
I’m addicted to social media and I’ve become more and more, if not frightened by it, then anxious over it.
LQ – I loved when Elizabeth goes down a google rabbit hole after her mother sends her the article about “felt presences.” And then the comment about how the article was the kind that people usually share without reading the entire thing. It’s funny, I remember being a kid/teenager, and when I wanted to learn about something, I had to watch a documentary or go to the library. Now, there’s google and, not to mention, everybody sharing everything (true or not) on facebook, on twitter, etc. It’s a virtual information shitshow. (Haha.) Do you think this has helped and hindered us and the way we now absorb information/learn things?
PT – It’s done both, though I fear that we may be reaching a point in the Internet’s brief history where we should be calling it the ‘misinformation age.’ That both Google and Facebook curate their algorithms and pages according to the users data, which means the user on sees what she/he is predisposed to believe in, which in turn hinders learning, discussion, and the sharing of true information. Instead, we get comments sections…
LQ – I’m curious about the decision to include Tommy’s journal entries as actually handwritten, along with his drawing of the “shadowman.” What was the thought process behind doing that, rather than allowing the reader to conjur these images with their imagination?
PT – I wanted the diary pages to look more personal, more like they actually came from Tommy. I think that kind of visual cue can make for a more powerful connection to the character for the reader.
The drawing of the “shadowman” is so important to the story plot-wise, I wanted the reader to have that image. Again, I think it help to build Tommy’s character; you get to see part of his personality, his talent as an artist, and whatever it was he saw or experienced.
Besides, it was also an excuse to ask one of my favorite artists, Nick “The Hat” Gucker, for an illustration. He’s such a talented and gracious guy. Now I have to write more books with pictures in them…
LQ – It’s hard for me not to compare your two most recent novels to each other, given that I read them back-to- back. And though there are similarities between them—I’m thinking of the blog/reality TV show in Ghosts, and the social media/Internet in Disappearance—they are also very different in tone, voice, and texture. Tell me a bit about your writing process—how do you hone in on the specific tone/style of whatever you’re working on?
PT – For every choice I make in the novel writing process, my first question is ‘does this serve the story? Everything from setting, character, style, and point of view. A Head Full of Ghosts would not have worked as a third person account. It would’ve been a cheat. Merry had to be the one telling the story and from her unreliable first person point of view. I didn’t think Disappearance at Devil’s Rock would’ve worked as first person as I needed multiple character point of views and it wasn’t going to be as expansive (and certainly nowhere near as brilliant) as Marlon Jones’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, where his story had the space for all those amazingly constructed first person voices. DaDR needed to be close third (for the most part), with a similar style and tone, I think, throughout, to help build a claustrophobic feeling.
LQ – More about your writing process: Your books often have terrible, dark secrets that are revealed at the end. Do you start off knowing what those things are and then work your way backwards? Or is the process one of discovery for yourself as much as it is for the readers?
PT – It depends on the story. I got lucky with A Head Full of Ghosts in that I knew the structure of the story almost right away. I knew where it started and where it would end, and I only had to figure out how to get from A to Z. When I get to work that way, I find it fun to have a beginning and ending in mind, and then the challenge is to find the winding path between them in the middle.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock was much different. I wrote a 15 page plot summary before writing the book, and before that I filled a whole bunch of notebook pages with plot ideas and character sketches and the like. That book was pieced together over a much longer period of time and through many revisions and edits, including an ending in the first draft that was slightly different than what we ended up with.
For me it’s less about finding the process that works me, or any notion of a personal process, but the process that works best for that particular story. I think that keeps things fresh for me, and it feels like I’m starting over from scratch each time I start a new novel.
LQ – Something that makes me giddy is the way your novels are genre-bending. I’ve heard them described as ‘literary horror.’ Do you do that on purpose? What are your thoughts on the ‘genre’ vs. ‘literary’ debate?
PT – I do. It’s my agenda. Muhahahaha!
Horror remains, I think, the genre that is most associated with its worst works; the mostly crappy and exploitative Hollywood films (not the good movies, which are almost all indie productions).
That said, I do think we’re seeing a shift toward a more progressive and inclusive attitude toward genre, but you still see asshat comments (reeking of classism and narcissism, among other things…) like the following from Glen Duncan in a review of Colston Whitehead’s Zone One:
“Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, ‘Zone One,’ features zombies, which means horror fans and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy.”
I interviewed the great Peter Straub recently and he said the following as a part of an answer to the genre question: “…everybody of any sense, anyone who can read at all well, should understand it’s the way the things are written and not what their content is. There are good books and bad books.” I’m on team Peter. The very idea that horror genre elements would preclude or disqualify the use of character development, style, theme, symbolism, and any other techniques of literature is patently ridiculous.
Horror fans are not blameless in the literary vs. genre discussion as far too often readers will view or use “literary” as a pejorative. But as I said above, I’m hopeful these attitudes are changing.
LQ – Which authors did you grow up reading? Who were you most inspired by?
PT – I didn’t fall in love with reading until I was a mathematics graduate student. I didn’t know any better…
Second semester senior year I found my way into a freshman lit class (don’t ask) and I read Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” and it blew me away. I had no idea people wrote stories like that. Soon after, my girlfriend (now my wife) bought me Stephen King’s The Stand for my birthday. I inhaled it. And then for two years in graduate school, struggling to get my degree, I read all the King books, and moved on to Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, more Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, and so many more.
LQ – Who are your current favorite authors?
PT – I’m afraid to leave some of them off here, but, let’s go with…
John Langan, Laird Barron, Liz Hand, Stephen Graham Jones, Megan Abbott, Victor LaValle, Livia Llewellyn, Nathan Ballingrud, Jeffrey Ford, Aimee Bender, Junot Diaz, Mark Danielewski, Nick Mamatas, Kelly Link, Stewart O’Nan, Sara Gran, Michael Cisco, Brian Evenson, and I know I’m leaving off many others…
LQ – Okay, I’ve got to mention it: Stephen King blurbs your novel A Head Full of Ghosts. How did it make you feel to hear that that though he’s not easily scared, your novel terrified him?
PT – You mean August 19, 2015…yes, I have the day of his tweet memorized… I fell in love with reading, never mind writing, because of Stephen King. I’m not ashamed to admit that I got emotional when I read his tweet about the book.
Other friends had seen the tweet before I did and my phone was blowing up with notifications. It was a fun way to find out. I immediately sat down with a few adult beverages and my laptop, and watched people react to it for a little bit. That was a good night.
LQ – Do you have any book recommendations, anything new and fresh we should know about?
PT – Stephen Graham Jones’s coming of age/road/werewolf novel Mongrels. Joshua Gaylord’s werewolf novel without any werewolves When We Were Animals. John Langan’s epic The Fisherman. Livia Llewellyn’s collection Furnace. Laird Barron’s forthcoming collection Swift to Chase. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom. A little bit off the beaten path, but Karen Runge’s collection, Seven Sins, is just fantastic too.
LQ – We’ve got a lot of readers who are also writers. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
PT – Read, read, read, and read some more, and as widely as possible.
Also, it’s okay to have patience with your writing and career. Don’t let jealousy take over your mental energies. You can fool yourself into believing it’s healthy and motivational, but it isn’t.