Paul Tremblay is the author of five novels including The Little Sleep and A Head Full of Ghosts and of two short story collections. He is the co-editor of four anthologies, and his essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Weird Tales, and numerous Year’s Best anthologies.
What first attracted you to horror writing?
Short answer: The idea that almost twenty years ago the math geek that was me1 somehow thought he2 could write horror stories with something approaching a modicum of success seems downright delusional. I have a hard time explaining why I put down the guitar3, sat down in front of a word processor4, and hesitantly pecked out my first crappy short story.
Okay, that wasn’t a very short answer. I lied.
Longer answer: As a kid, I was a hopeless, card-carrying scaredy cat5. I couldn’t go to my own bedroom by myself without forcing my poor younger brother up the stairs ahead of me as a sacrifice/emissary. Forget about going into the dark, dank6 basement like, ever. Basically I was afraid of everything, including nuclear annihilation. This was the 80s7 after all. I think the very realistic and seemingly inevitable prospect of dying in a nuclear holocaust made my silly kid-fears of the dark and supernatural beasties more intense and seem less irrational. The melding of kid-fear with adult anxieties – that overwhelming sense of awe at the big bad universe that opens up before you – is a perpetual state of mind for many pre-adolescents and adolescents, I think. And it grows up with some of us8 too. Anyway, despite being terrified by the movies, it seemed natural to me that I religiously watched Creature Double Feature9 every Saturday afternoon. The images of killer shrews, lurid vampires, Godzilla, and the glowing Martian ghost from Quatermass and the Pit10 were indelibly burned into my brain. Fast-forward to me as a graduate student earning my mathematics degree, and whilst marooned in the wilds11 of Vermont I fell in love with reading Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, and eventually Shirley Jackson and a host of others. For years I thought I wanted to be a punk rocker, but the itch or want to try writing bubbled up unexpectedly during those two years in Vermont. So unexpectedly, I ignored the “try-it-why-not?” voice for a while before giving writing a go. I generally try to ignore the voices which, by in large, is a sound policy.
As a reader and writer, I’m fascinated with the horror of consequence and of decision more than the horror of the what-if. The stories that go beyond the reveal/affect of some horrific truth and asks of its characters, “So what the hell do we do now?” moves me, makes me feel emotions that can only be described within the language of story. In a way I think that’s very punk: “hey, here’s the truth and we’re so fucked, and what are you gonna do about it?” That’s what I want to try and do as a writer. Somehow.
What is your most notable work?
Notable? Hard to say. To this point the novel that has sold the most copies is my weirdboiled12 detective novel The Little Sleep. I’m also proud of my short story collection In the Mean Time and the work I’ve done with JoAnn Cox, John Langan, Sarah Langan, and Brett Cox in founding and administering the Shirley Jackson Awards13.
That all said, I really, really, really hope my upcoming horror novel A Head Full of Ghosts (June 2, 2015, from William Morrow) becomes my most notable work. If I’m being obnoxious14 I call it my postmodern, secular exorcism novel. Okay, fine, it’s an exorcism novel, one that focuses on the relationship between two sisters, with the older sister either being possessed or having a psychotic break as the family disintegrates, and oh yeah, a reality TV crew is there too. Fifteen years later, the younger sister retells the story from her point of view to a bestselling author. It’s all dark, disturbing fun, I promise. I wouldn’t lie to you.
What are you working on now?
Well, the aforementioned A Head Full of Ghosts is all done but for the shouting15. I’m currently working on a novel that involves a teen who mysteriously disappears from a small state park in southern Massachusetts. That’s all I’m prepared to say about that book since it’s currently kicking my ass, but I think I’ll eventually get the upper hand on it.
How much planning and research do you undertake before writing?
The amount of planning and research has depended on the book or story. For The Little Sleep I wrote a detailed ten page outline/summary of the plot while I also read a ton of classic noir novels and books on Raymond Chandler. For A Head Full of Ghosts, the writing was more free-flowing. I didn’t write a plot summary and only jotted down ideas and thoughts in a pocket black notebook. Going into that novel I knew where it would end16 and I knew it had to have a three part structure. Other than that, I dove in head first. As far as research goes for the Ghosts novel, if a lifetime of horror movie watching and book reading counts as research, then so be it.
Describe your writing routine.
I wish I had one, or a more disciplined one. On a typical day it involves me scrambling to carve out an hour or two. Then I usually fret, procrastinate, and browbeat myself for a bit before finally sitting down to write. I listen to instrumental music17 to help block out distractions. Most of the time I’m writing at night and then going to bed too late for my own good. But there’s no set writing time of the day for me. I try to steal a few mornings before school or greedily keep a free period to myself. Sometimes it just comes down to taking advantage of unexpected time and/or situations. For example, my son participated in a baseball clinic that took place over a span of four Sundays. During those four Sundays I wrote in the lower level of a college gymnasium with all manner of balls18 being bounced and thrown in my vicinity. Glamorous!
Who do you admire in the horror world?
I admire so many writers and take inspiration and ideas from everyone I read. Seriously. I do. And that’s not a cop out.
Fine, I’ll name a bunch of talented folks even though I’ll hate myself later for leaving people out. Megan Abbott19, Nathan Ballingrud, Laird Barron, Michael Cisco, Brian Evenson, Elizabeth Hand, Stephen Graham Jones, Sarah Langan, John Langan, Victor LaValle, Kelly Link, Liv Llewellyn and Yoko Ogawa.
Do you prefer all out gore or psychological chills?
I generally prefer psychological chills, however, I don’t mind gore as long as it serves the story and isn’t just there to be icky for icky’s sake20. Whatever the story needs is what the story needs. Most of my stuff tends to be more psychological but I’ve certainly written my share of purposeful violent shocks too.
Why should people read your work?
Because I am the greatest!
My covers are pretty? For some reason very cool writers like and blurb my stuff?
I like to think I bring a skewed point of view to stories and even the genre(s) I happen to be working within. I try like
hell to remain faithful to my vision of STORY X with no other considerations besides what I think STORY X is and should be which usually involves me pushing into really dark places and asking questions that make me uncomfortable. And if I’m uncomfortable, I trust that the reader will be that right kind of uncomfortable too.21
Recommend a book.
I’m going to be kind of lame and make this question about myself22. I’m going to recommend two books that very much inspired the characters and feel of A Head Full of Ghosts.
Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Stewart O’Nan’s The Speed Queen. You should read those two novels if you haven’t.
- Yes, math geek. The horror of math! My degrees are in mathematics. I have no formal background/training in writing.
- I’m speaking in third person in only the second sentence of the interview. I’m a tool.
- Well, that I can explain. I wasn’t very good at playing guitar.
- A Brother word processor with a screen the width of a cereal box top. This was the mid 90’s. Cut me some technological slack.
- I still am a scaredy cat.
- Fear of the dank is underrated.
- Man, just tossing around the decades here, aren’t I?
- You! If you’re reading this, then you are one of us. One of us! One of us!
- WLVI channel 56 in the Boston, MA area. This was UFH, baby, pre-cable TV. Jesus, I’m old.
- Or Five Millions Years to Earth, as it was called in the US. Kim Newman and BFI just put out a fun book length essay on the film.
- Well, I really wasn’t in the wilds, per se. I was in Burlington, VT, which is a great city. But I had a lot of free time to read. So work with me.
- Yes, that’s a term. Google it. And it’s so much better than noird.
- I think I passed obnoxious a while ago…
- There’s always shouting. BUY MY BOOK! See?
- Though not necessarily how it would end. There’s a difference.
- I consistently go to Mogwai, Lustmord, Swans, and the soundtrack to the movie Ravenous.
- Yes, balls is a funny word. In this case balls refers to both baseballs and basketballs as the college basketball team would practice behind me and the sad little table I claimed as mine.
- Yeah, not a horror writer per se, but her stuff is dark as hell and so damned brilliant.
- Icky’s Sake is the name of my band.
- What an awful answer. I’ve stared at this question for longer than I care to admit. My books are my arguments as to why you should read my work, but you have to read them to understand that agreement. Ah, there’s the rub.
- Hey, it’s my interview!
Photo by Michael Lajoie
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