Interview with Paul Tremblay
by Devin Poore
to the sound of Bob Mould, Life and Times…
This interview appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 6.
PAUL TREMBLAY IS a busy man. He has had short stories published by the likes of ChiZine, Sybil’s Garage, Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, LitHaven, Pseudopod, and Horror: Best of the Year 2007, just to name a few. He has also worked as editor at ChiZine, Fantasy Magazine, and the original anthology Bandersnatch. He is the author of the short speculative fiction collection Compositions for the Young and Old and the dark fantasy novella CityPier: Above and Below. When he isn’t seemingly taking over the world of the speculative short fiction market, he teaches math to high school boys and helps run the Shirley Jackson Awards. His first novel, The Little Sleep, from Henry Holt Publishers, is out now and a sequel is in the works.
Last summer I grabbed a chair that had been tossed to the floor and sat down with Paul during a break at ReaderCon. We covered the usual writing questions, touched on his obsession with a group role-playing game named Mafia (which you can Google and read all about; Wikipedia, too), and found that the difference between genre and literary stories isn’t all that great. You can find Paul on the web at www.paulgtremblay.com —DP
Your upcoming novel, The Little Sleep, is about a narcoleptic private detective; unusual subject matter to be sure, but it’s a book with little or no speculative content. You’re principally known as a horror writer. Why a non-genre project for your first book?
You mean my first sold book. Heh. To be honest, I really didn’t give the lack of speculative element to the novel much thought. Although, and I hope this doesn’t sound trite, I think there is a speculative fiction attitude to the book with its underlying uncertainty; the idea that no one or nothing is safe and is to be questioned. The protagonist, Mark Genevich, is narcoleptic, and he suffers from a host of symptoms such as hypnogogic hallucinations, automatic behavior, blackouts, and cataplexy. For Mark (and for the reader) discerning reality, memory, and identity from his dreams is difficult at best.
Since the book deals with different perspectives on reality, did you set out to write a non-speculative story or did it come about in some other way?
I wrote the first chapter more than a year before I wrote the body of the novel. I used the stereotypical PI set up of a beautiful woman going to a PI’s office, but the woman has an outlandish story about someone stealing her fingers and replacing them with someone else’s digits. I originally imagined the novel was going to be a sci-fi urban fantasy detective stew, but I stalled after the first chapter, and put it away. Later, I happened to read about narcolepsy and that horrible disease seemed a perfect fit for my PI set up, then the title (The Little Sleep) occurred to me, and the novel took off from there.
Some of your short stories are also decidedly literary, with little or no speculative element. I take it that you enjoy a little genre hopping?
I became a better writer the day I stopped identifying myself as “horror writer,” and instead thought of myself as “a writer who sometimes writes horror.” Now I try to serve the needs of the story first instead of shoehorning every story kernel into a particular framework. If the story in question happens to work better as horror, fine, and if not that’s okay too.
So yeah, I do like a little genre hopping. I hope to be able to do it at novel length, going forward!
It sounds as if you do not consciously sit down with a mantra of “today I write horror”. Your story in Sybil’s Garage No. 3, “Holes” is also decidedly ambiguous in regards to its genre. Was that a conscious decision?
I think ambiguity is an undercurrent in almost all of my more recent work. As a reader, I enjoy stories that do not spoon feed and that can give even the most mundane scenes/occurrences multiple meanings or possibilities. Maybe it’s better put this way; I gravitate to stories with something to say, but that something to say always leads to more questions. To me, ambiguity is interesting, scary, and, well, real.
“Holes” was a very personal, auto-biographical story, one in which I wanted to have a heavy atmosphere of dread, even if the protagonist, or the reader (or the writer, for that matter) wasn’t exactly sure of the source or nature of the dread.
I think most of the best horror fiction takes advantage of ambiguity. Was Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” just crazy or could he actually hear the heart, or neither; was the killer manipulating you, only trying to make you think he was crazy? Horror fails, most spectacularly, when our inherent state of ambiguity is ignored, when the lines of good and evil aren’t blurred or muddied.
While readers seem to have no problem reading Hemingway one day and Gaiman the next, writers tend to stay within their chosen camps. Sometimes militantly so. Have you come up against any roadblocks or issues since you are not writing in your usual field, in regards to acceptance, thoughts of marketability?
In my admittedly brief experience, I’ve found that it’s (at least with the major publishing houses) less the writer being militant about sticking to their genre than publishers being willing to take a chance on an author’s book that might be outside of their genre, or outside of the perceived comfort zone of their readers.
I’m still quite new to the process so I haven’t come up against any roadblocks yet. Both my agent and editor have been enthusiastic about my other published work, but the test will be later this year after I turn in my second contracted novel, and then start pitching a speculative fiction craziness!
I prefer “follow-up.” Heh. To be honest, I didn’t write The Little Sleep with any intention of doing a series, and my agent and I didn’t pitch Sleep as a series, but Holt offered a two-book deal (second to be the follow-up) and, needless to say, we weren’t about to turn it down. I think Mark Genevich is complex and interesting enough to have more to say. He’s got another story in him.
How much credit is due short fiction to your novel success? Do you consider yourself more of a short story or novel writer?
Knock on wood, there, with the talk of novel success!
I learned to write with short fiction, as is painfully evident in my older stories. Transitioning to a novel was a challenge, of course. The Little Sleep is my first sold novel, but it’s not my first novel; it’s my 4.5th. 1.5 are safely buried in the trunk, never again to see light of day. 1 is likely trunked, though it’s the novel that nabbed me agent representation (no sale, though), and 1 still hope to publish later. Keeping score at home?
Honestly I think I enjoy short stories more, but they feel a little harder to write now that I’ve been in “novel mode” for almost two-plus years. But, yes, short fiction has been good to me. I was fortunate enough to meet talented folks like Steve Eller (editor, writer, HWA mentor), Poppy Z. Brite, Stewart O’Nan and so many more who have been great friends and mentors to me.
When starting a story, do you plot and outline, or follow the organic approach of just seeing what turns up on the page?
With The Little Sleep and it’s follow up, I’ve had to to plot/outline more beforehand by necessity. I’m not good enough to make up the mystery element on the fly. I used to (and still enjoy writing this way) sketch out a character and plop the poor sap in a few scenes to see where the mess might take me. For The Little Sleep, I had wrote 10 page synopsis before going back to that first chapter and adding to it. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. Ah, heck, I hate plotting and outlining. I’m much more interested in character building. But the outlining was a good exercise and extremely helpful for this particular project.
Did the novel conform to the synopsis?
It did, but not so rigidly that I didn’t tweak some scenes, add others, and the ending completely changed. I treated the outline as a rough map, one I could erase and move the longitude and latitude lines if I wanted.
Tell me about the Shirley Jackson awards.
During the winter of ‘07 a bunch of us currently associated with the award were discussing what they liked in horror, and how a lot of exciting dark fiction doesn’t market itself necessarily as horror. As we saw it, there was all this great fiction out there and it wasn’t necessarily being recognized by the horror/speculative fiction community. So with the blessing of the Shirley Jackson estate, we created the award to honor her name and the current crop of literary horror/dark fiction.
We’ve been so pleased and humbled by the overwhelming support offered from publishers, writers, editors, and readers.
Do check out our website for more info! www.shirleyjacksonawards.org
With the short stories, novels, and awards duties, how does your “real world” mesh with the world of a writer?
Being a high school math teach helps. Honest! No way could I be teaching English (grading essays and papers and vocab, oh my!) and get all my writing done. I generally teach Calculus and Geometry, have small classes, have a great comfort level with the material in those courses that, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time lesson planning. Bonus: if my kids are taking a test or there is a free period, my laptop is with me and I write as little or as much as I can. The Calculus classes are usually seniors and they get out early in the spring, so there’s more free time. While my fall and winter are very busy, the rest of the year I’m able to devote a good chunk of time to writing.
We’ve sat across each other many a time during a game of Mafia. What’s the appeal of that game to you, and what inspired you to take it to school and teach it to your students?
I love games. I hate losing, and I like arguing for the sake of arguing. I grew up in a very competitive family; it spanned the generations. Sundays were spent at my grandparents, playing cards with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the games usually got heated.
I think my childhood was different than most writers, at least in terms of hobbies and interests. As a kid, I did well in school but didn’t read much for pleasure. I spent most of my time in the backyard, shooting hoops by myself, maybe playing catch with my younger brother. I was not big or strong enough to play basketball in school. I essentially wasted my youth fantasizing about baseball and basketball. Mafia appeals to that craven little boy, yearning for victory.
As for the students… we play Mafia because I get to lord my momentary psychological superiority over them. That and they enjoy accusing me of lying about being in the village. But I am a villager.
Between teaching and writing, it sounds like you have the best of both worlds.
I have to admit, with the release of The Little Sleep coming, this year especially has been crazy busy with the double-workload. But I love teaching. The students’ energy does help to motivate me in general. The good days far outnumber the bad. The only thing that could tear me away from school would be possibly a full-time fiction writer. Yeah, I know, don’t quit your day job…
Okay, now, at the end, is there anything that I should have asked you in this interview that I missed? Anything you want to add?
A few tid-bits: The stories of me throwing a chair during a game of mafia have been greatly exaggerated, although I did jump out of a window once (ground floor) after being killed in the night. Everyone should read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I am a villager. Thanks so much, Devin and Sybil’s Garage!
© Copyright 2009 Devin Poore & Senses Five Press