We have developed the habit of horror on Dwarf+Giant. This goes not only for the classics and the icons of the genre, but for those making a mark, who are not yet household names. Here is John Langan, in conversation with Mackenzie Kiera – who keeps inviting these dangerous people into our cozy little corner of the interwebs. Thanks pal. If things go south, it’s on you. [Our interview of The Fisherman is here.]
Mackenzie Kiera – The Fisherman is such an intricate book. How long did it take you to write?
John Langan – About twelve years, all told. From the start, there were extended periods when I set the book aside, but it was never far from my thoughts.
MK – How many phases did it go through?
JL – Really only two: the first, during which I was thinking of it as a long story, probably a novelette, possibly a novella; and the second, during which I was thinking of it as a novel.
MK – Did you always mean to write it with Lottie Schmidt’s story in the middle?
JL – Yes, that was always the plan. In fact, that was where I realized that what I was writing was no longer even a novella, but something much longer.
MK – What books did you read as research for The Fisherman?
JL – Mostly Bob Steuding’s The Last of the Handmade Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir (1989) and Alf Evers’s The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock (1972). I also made use of a documentary, Deep Water: The True Story of the Ashokan Reservoir (2002), by Tobe Carey, Bobbie Dupree, and Artie Traum. And I kept a copy of Moby Dick close at hand at all times.
MK – I have notes in my copy of The Fisherman of instances where I found references to not only Moby Dick but also to Frankenstein, Jacob’s Ladder (I suppose that’s more of a term than a book) and the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Did you mean to pull at these cords or did it just happen to twist together that way? I could be completely off the mark with this. I just know that ‘Call me Abe’ seems to be an instant throwback to ‘Call me Ishmael.” I suppose the question I’m trying to ask is: why did you choose to blend these tales together?
JL – Yes, the allusions in the book were deliberate, especially the ones to Moby Dick. Ever since I returned to writing weird/horror fiction at the tail-end of the last century, I’ve been engaged in this intermittent project of writing narratives that react in some way to texts in the American literary canon; I borrowed my personal name for them from D.H. Lawrence: “Studies in Classic American Literature.” At the time I began the novel, I’d mostly written in response to Henry James’s work. I’m a big fan of Melville, however, especially Moby Dick, so when I began work on what would become The Fisherman, I thought it might be fun to see what I could do with his work, so to speak. That opening line was intended to signal what I was up to to the reader. From there, as the novel progressed, it developed a centripetal pull of its own that drew in all sorts of other material.
MK – Lottie Schmidt’s story. My God. It has everything. It has a sorcerer, a sleeping princess, a hero and zombies. I loved how you seamlessly invited favorite childhood characters into this book. Can you comment about these characters? Were they always like this, or did they become so?
JL -It’s funny: until reading your question, it hadn’t occurred to me how much the central narrative of the book exploits those fairy-tale tropes (even though I make mention of the Grimm brothers in it). Initially, my concern was with creating a backstory that would set up the conditions for the present-day narrative; as I went further into it, though, the backstory became its own wild, elaborate thing. There were moments when I wondered about reigning it in, going for a story that was more restrained, elusive, but I remembered a piece of advice the great writer Jeff Ford had given my friend, Laird Barron, when Laird was writing his first novel. You’re going to be tempted, Ford said, to play it safe, to be understated. Fight that. Go for broke. Make the thing crazy. All right, I decided, that’s what I’ll do, too. The result includes things like the fairy-tale elements you identify. It’s been my experience that my creativity, if you will, is smarter than I am; I’m frequently amazed at what it comes up with.
MK – Would you argue that Death is a character in your book?
JL – Absolutely. But I think that Death is a character in pretty much every narrative—wasn’t it Don Delillo who said, “All plots end in death?”
MK – I feel like this book was a beautiful bridge between horror and literary. Did you set out, thinking that you were going to write a beautiful horror novel? Have you always leaned more towards horror in your work?
JL – I’ve always considered myself a horror writer; even when I was writing more in the vein of mimetic naturalism, in my twenties, my fiction tended towards the kinds of dislocations of character and experience that typify horror fiction. But I should add that I see no (necessary) split between horror and the literary. In my view, literary is an adjective, rather than a category; it’s a measure of the extent to which a narrative succeeds in terms of depth of character, elegance of language, thematic resonance, etc. Anything can be literary; to borrow a term from Henry James, it just depends on the author’s treatment of it.
MK – Were there any books that helped you the most or, had a profound effect on you and your work while you were writing The Fisherman?
JL – Moby Dick was front and center in my mind, but the further into the novel I went, the more I was aware of the influence of things I’d read when I was much younger, the stories of Robert E. Howard, for example. A number of reviews of the book have found traces of Stephen King’s storytelling aesthetic in it, and another interviewer pointed out the presence of King’s Pet Sematary in the novel, all of which now seems blatantly obvious to me, but of which I was not at all conscious during its composition.
MK – The end was so haunting. So perfect. Was that always the plan for Abe? To become a part of both worlds?
JL – Thank you! Yes, I knew that part pretty early on. Abe’s penultimate confrontation, though, was a relatively late addition, inspired by the ending of Laird Barron’s brilliant novella, “Mysterium Tremendum.” I wanted something that would give the last few pages of the book an added heft, and Laird’s story provided an example of how that might be done.
MK – Your other novel is House of Windows and you’ve appeared in ‘Best Horror of the Year’ several times. If someone out there wanted to read more of your work, what would you recommend to said reader?
JL – I’d suggest taking a look at my second collection, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013).
MK – Anything else you would like to add?
JL – My third collection of stories, Sefira and Other Betrayals, is forthcoming from Hippocampus Press in early 2017. My first novel, House of Windows, will be released in the spring of 2017 by Diversion Books; it will include a new afterword and a new story set in the titular house.