A Conversation with Paul Tremblay
When I first started writing seven (or so) years ago, a lot was made of finding a mentor. I understood the idea – having someone out there who sort of knew the ropes and could help you along, give you advice, even tell you when you were screwing up. At the time, the HWA had a mentor program, but it also had something like a two year waiting list. I wasn’t actively searching for a mentor when I first read Paul Tremblay’s “The Teacher” (which you can listen to HERE), but by the end of that story I knew Paul was someone I wanted to know. I emailed Paul that day and soon found out we had a lot in common – we’re both freakishly tall (but I’m taller – Ellen Datlow said so!), the same age, both high school teachers, and have the same (good) taste in music. It wasn’t long before he was mentoring me along, but more importantly, became a good friend.
In this conversation held over a week or so, we talked about what qualifies as mainstream these days, writing for both big and small presses, shifty Canadians, and his most recent novel Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye.
Me: Here’s what I think is interesting about you – Writing-wise, I think there are two Paul Tremblays. There’s who I would call Mainstream Paul, the guy behind the two Mark Genevich novels, published by one of the “biggies”, moderating panels, and appearing in Ellen Datlow anthologies, and then there’s Punk Paul, the guy who writes pieces I would consider much more underground such as Swallowing A Donkey’s Eye (published by Chizine Publications) and stories like “Two-Headed Girl” and “There is No Light Between Floors”. It makes me curious to your process. Are you aware of your possible audience or even the market when you write, or do you – as it seems to me – write whatever the hell is interesting to you at the moment?
Paul: I did just figure out the three chords in Andrew Jackson Jihad’s “Hate and Kill.”
Yeah, I guess my two Genevich mysteries are my most mainstream stuff I’ve written. Mysteries/thrillers are practically default mainstream genres, at least, they are in today’s publishing world. I like to think most if not all my work is a little skewed, left of center, insert-cliche-equating-to-not-mainstream here. I wouldn’t bother writing a story if I didn’t think I had something different to say or present. I didn’t sit down to write The Little Sleep with the idea I was writing a mainstream novel (with all the connotations that pairing of words might have). I love crime/noir and I thought the narcoleptic PI was a good idea and would be fun to explore. When I finished writing it, I thought I had something that was quirky but would have some “mainstream appeal” (that’s writer-speak for sell a boatload of copies). Turns out, it sold a dingy-load of copies. Or a small sailboat-load.
In a way, it’s kind of presumptuous for a writer to proclaim they’re not mainstream. Does the writer get to make that choice or do the readers? By proclaiming (which I have, believe me) I’M NOT MAINSTREAM, is it an easy out for the ego when a book/story doesn’t sell or doesn’t perform like we want? I don’t know. I’m trying not to be coy. Clearly, there are artists and writers working with subject matters and ideas that are far outside of what can readily be identified as the mainstream’s interest.
Already, I’m clunkily talking around this, and working off of a negative connotation for the word mainstream. Does mainstream have a negative connotation for you, Kurt?
To answer the process question, though. I try to only worry about the story, the idea, and try to see it through to the best conclusion I see fit, and then think about trying to sell it after. Since I have a day job with health care, I can afford to be blissfully market ignorant when it comes to what I write. I mean, I’m not putting food on the table solely by writing. I can’t imagine that pressure if I had to do so. If I had to, I’d probably write paranormal mysteries from the point of view of the gardener’s dog or something like that. Paranormal dog mysteries sell, man.
Me: Dog mysteries are big now, so maybe paranormal dog mysteries are the next big thing. Just add zombie and mix, dude.
“Mainstream” doesn’t have a negative connotation for me, really, to me it means broad appeal. However, it certainly doesn’t mean quality in all cases. I think a lot of it goes along with the market and what sells and doesn’t sell. Your Genevich books – which are quality, btw – are straightforward detective novels and there is a good market in place. I read a lot of crime/mystery novels and your book fits in with those nicely, albeit with your own clear slant. There’s a quirkiness in those novels that is all you. You put your stamp on that genre with those books. Having read almost everything you’ve written, I know you didn’t sit down to write a mainstream novel, but I think there are plenty of writers who do it. They think “Okay, zombie novels are selling, romance are selling, so I’m going to write a zombie romance novel” and the result usually sucks because it’s not who they are. They’re chasing something that isn’t them, and are almost trying to predict the buying public’s needs after the fact. That pretty much never works, which is sort of what you’ve said here.
But you’re right, you and I both have the benefit and freedom of writing what we want because, as Mort Castle said to me once, we’re not “writing for your mortgage.” We have stable jobs and write for the love of it. The drawback is that sometimes we write things that can never sell for one reason or another and have to accept that. However, and here’s a hypothetical, if you were writing full-time, could you force yourself to write something clearly for the market even if you didn’t believe in it? You have a very defined sense of artistic integrity – at least I think you do – and wonder if you put that on the backburner. Basically, could you do it for the money?
Paul: Even with all that we’re throwing around about what’s mainstream and not, there’s certainly no guarantee I (or anyone else) could sit down and say, “All right, bellybuttons-full-of-zombie-bees novels are big right now, so I’ll write one of those and have it sell big.” Given the lag time between selling a novel and having it published, and the sometimes fickle nature of what sells and what doesn’t, chasing the market isn’t a guaranteed sale.
Thanks for the kind words for Genevich.
I don’t know if I’m totally comfortable with integrity as being the descriptor. In a lot of ways, I’m a selfish writer; I write to please me, and no one else. I like to think I write with the particular story’s integrity in mind though: that I’ll do whatever it takes to serve the story’s needs. If that makes sense.
I think I could do it for the money. Why not? Heck, I already sort of did it for the money with the second Genevich novel. After writing The Little Sleep I had no intention of writing a sequel/follow up. But the two-book deal with Henry Holt called for a second go round with Genevich. No Sleep Till Wonderland was written to fulfill the contract/advance. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer. But I’m glad I did it. I ended up with what I think is a very good book, and I learned a lot. I have huge respect for writers who can put out one novel per year on deadline. I know it isn’t easy. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love a three book deal from Giant Publisher X to drop in my lap again, but there’s less pressure on me when I’m just writing for myself. I don’t deal well with real life pressure. Unless you need me to make the game-winning three pointer, then I’m your guy.
I’d love to try and write a tie-in novel. If someone were to offer me a chance to write an X-Files novel, I’d be all over it. Or how about a novelization of the movie Ravenous? Or an American Horror story novel. Let me redo the ending of the first season please, in book form!
Me: I think when I say you have a sense of artistic integrity I’m referring more to the actual writing. I think there are writers who only focus on plot and the writing suffers (these books are usually unreadable to me), and writers who focus mainly on the writing and the plot suffers (I hate these books the most). But you seem to hold both in equal regard. I don’t think enough writers do that. Even if you were doing it for the money, my bet is you’d still walk that line. You could write a mash-up book – Glee with werewolves! – but it’d probably be the most literary mash-up out there.
And yeah, to write an X-Files novel? Sign me up, too!
You mentioned writing under the pressure of a deadline, so what about the pressure or difficulties of collaborating with someone else. You and Stephen Graham Jones just sold The Unlikely But Totally True Adventures of Floating Boy and Anxiety Girl to the new ChiZine imprint ChiTeen (Congrats, btw!). How did writing with Stephen come about and how did the process work out? I mean, that guy turns out two novels a year, it seems. Did you feel any pressure working with him or was it a relaxed, but serious, project?
Paul: I had an absolute blast writing/working with Stephen. He’s a very nice, patient, and has a easy-going personality. Nothing seems to bother him. I know, you’re thinking, “Paul, he sounds just like you!”
Stephen and I struck up an email correspondence after I’d read his novel DEMON THEORY. We got along swimmingly (I’ve always wanted to use swimmingly in blog conversation). I can’t remember when, exactly, I had the idea, but I pitched the idea of doing a co-written YA novel as a fun thing to do. While one person was working on the novel, the other could be doing his own thing, and vice versa. We went into it with no pressure or real expectations. If it didn’t work, that was fine, and if it did work, that was great too. Of course, I’d spend weeks toiling on my chapter and Stephen would be done with his in a matter of hours. We paused after rambling on for 20K words to refocus and work on writing a 10 page plot summary. After we had that down, we jumped back in.
The only pressure I ever felt was trying (and failing) to write as well as Stephen does, which is a good kind of pressure. I think the final product is a lot of fun. Very cool to see our two voices sort of melded and merged.
Me: I’m looking forward to reading it when it comes out next year. It’ll be a nice surprise, as it’s probably the only one of your projects of the last couple of years that I didn’t do an early critique for. I remember reading your latest, Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, probably – what? – four years ago? Can you explain how that novel came about for my reader(s) (Hi, Mom!) and how awesome my critique was in making the book sellable? (Okay, so maybe not the second part of that question).
Paul: Sometime in 2005 I was listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s ON AVERY ISLAND and the strange, droning instrumental “Pree Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” came on. I thought the donkey part of the title was such a compelling and weird image, I wanted to try writing a short story around it. Approaching it somewhat literally, I came up with the concept of Farm: the giant, Orwellian food supplier for City, with indentured workers forced to wear animal suits and the like. From there the story slowly grew into a novel. I took my time with it, with the initial draft taking two years, then a whole bunch more drafts came in the years after. Your awesome critique (dated June 2009 according to my records!) was indeed helpful and helped me tighten up the sections that needed to be tightened, which were mainly the few scenes in the limbo between Farm and City.
Me: And now that book is currently out through ChiZine publications, which, after The Unlikely But Totally True Adventures of Floating Boy and Anxiety Girl comes out, will be your third book with ChiZine. You have a long history with them – 2 Short Story contest awards, slush reader, one collection and two novels. What is the appeal of ChiZine to you and why do you think you fit so well with them?
Paul: The quarterly webzine Chizine, from day one, published the weird, smart, genre-bending stuff that I liked to read and wanted to write. I spent a few years trying to sell to them and to Gothic.net. In 2003, I obnoxiously, I submitted to their annual contest my story “The Laughing Man Meets Little Cat” with “Here’s your winner!” as the cheeky cover letter. I was totally floored and so excited that it did win. Shortly after that, friend/mentor Steve Eller left the editorial staff and he put in a good word for me and Brett took me on as a slush reader. I credit slush reading for Chizine for a few years as really helping me learn what didn’t work in fiction writing, which is as important a lesson as what does work. I loved working with Brett Savory and Mike Kelly. We had nary an argument and I wish those issues we edited were still somewhere on the ‘net. I’m very proud of those issues. Publishing with CZP feels like a natural progression and I couldn’t be more pleased with the job they’re doing with my books.
I fit so well with them because we have similar aesthetics/tastes in fiction. That and some of my ancestors are Canadian.
Me: I’d suggest trying to keep quiet about your Canadian ancestors. It might hurt sales. But yeah, you work and sensibilities are pretty much the perfect match for ChiZine. It has to be nice having found a place you fit in so well, especially considering Brett and Sandra are such good people. Well, at least Sandra is. Brett’s pretty shady.
I’m going to introduce a new element to these interviews and you’re the guinea pig. I’m calling it The Soapbox. This is your chance to let fly on anything on your mind: music, sports, self-promotion, embarrassing secrets about family members, the flags of the nation, etc. You get the idea. This is also your last chance to say anything on your mind as I’m giving you the last word. Go!
Paul: My last chance to say anything, eh? Well, here it goes.
–I grew three (in height) inches in one day.
–If I could remove only two people and their music from existence, it would be Jimmy Buffet and Neil Diamond. There is fierce competition for those two coveted spots.
–Everyone should be listening to Future of the Left. (Editor’s note: This song is brilliant.)
–My donkey novel is surprisingly personal.
–I wish more writers knew or cared about the difference between sympathy and empathy.
–I wish more people cared about my books!
–In high school, I once had to help carry my drunken sister out of the woods and bring her to the hospital. She was okay, but embarrassed.
–Dre (not the doctor, but Andre of Stoughton) wears short shorts.
–In my younger days I used to go to Stupid Dance Party at Club Babyhead in Providence.
–I fear my midlife crisis has begun.
–I’m afraid all the time.
–I am so very fortunate to be friends with so very many talented people. I mean that, truly.
–The Turtleman should wear gloves more often.
–Sometimes I imagine what every person I see that day would look like in a beard.
–I want to write the greatest horror novel ever written; I just don’t know what it would be about yet.
Oh, and Brett is very shady. —-
Me: So there you go. Really, Paul’s just a great guy. I know I say that a lot about the people I talk with on here, but it’s always true. All of his success is hard-earned and deserved, and he’s just a good guy to root for. Buy one of his novels mentioned above, or hunt down his latest collection In the Mean Time, which not only includes “The Teacher”, but “Two-Headed Girl”, one of my favorite stories of the last few years.