Category Archives: Interviews
I’ve come to realize that I have two sorts of readers: those who discover me via my early absurd/comedic /Bizarro work and express surprise when they find out I’m not writing much Bizarro anymore, and those who discover me from my more recently-published horror fiction and express surprise that I ever wrote Bizarro. I haven’t talked about this transition very often, but reviewer Jessica Lay asked me about it in an interview posted today at her website, Freelathon.com .
To coin a crude analogy — consider this interview to be a sort of Rosetta stone. It details the “Point B” to explain how I got from “Point A” to “Point C”. It says just about all I feel I need to say about the transition.
We talk about other stuff, too (like my messy office, and how the Cincinnati Reds keep me from free-falling into the Ligottiesque abyss)!
Pseudopod listener Mari Mitchell interviewed me for her blog Tea with a Cheshire Cat. In the interview, I chat a little about the inspiration(s) behind the story “The Orchard of Hanging Trees”, as well as the various life experiences that drove me toward the horror genre.
That’s not a statement I make lightly, either.
Some of you may know that I spent almost five years (from 2003-2008) in a sort of brooding, fuzzy-brained rut in which I didn’t have the concentration to read or write much fiction. Then, in the fall of ’08, I attended Context, a book-focused convention in Columbus, Ohio (my first con in years), and discovered a copy of Unwelcome Bodies at the Apex table. I didn’t know Michele Lee very well at the time, but she had accompanied my old friend Debbie Kuhn to the convention. Michele highly recommended the book, and I’m so glad she did. It was a two-fer: the beginning of getting to know Michele, and the beginning of getting to know Jennifer Pelland’s work.
Unwelcome Bodies blew away my past stereotypes of what science fiction had to be. Somehow, over the years, I’d forgotten about the tradition of social science fiction. I also hadn’t realized — for whatever reason — that SF could also be gritty and grotesque. It reignited my passion for reading. At the risk of sounding maudlin, it helped me rediscover a part of myself that I thought I’d lost forever. So, when I discovered that Apex Book Company planned to publish Machine, I felt I should repay the favor by using my blog to focus some much-deserved attention on Pelland’s work.
And now, without any further ado, the interview.
Nicole Cushing: I’ve read and admired your short fiction collection, Unwelcome Bodies. Most of the stories in that book seem to relate to our connection with our bodies, and the way you explore that connection struck me as unique. Your stories have a dark edge, but this isn’t “body horror” in the style of Clive Barker or Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild”. Why are bodies important and why is it important that we write about them in ways they haven’t been written about before?
Jennifer Pelland: I suppose it simply feels natural to me to write about the dark side of the human body, because I’ve always had such a fraught relationship with mine. I spent most of my life as someone who simply saw my body as an awkward, easily-bruised conveyance for my head, and as such, its demands and betrayals were a constant source of annoyance. When I was young, I became very aware of just how fragile a state “able-bodied” was, and would to do things like try to learn to write left-handed (in case I had an accident like Johnny Tremain), or to read braille (in case I went blind like Mary Ingalls), or to type with a pencil in my teeth (in case I became a quadriplegic like Jill Kinmont). And then puberty brought a whole new host of horrors.
But at the same time, I did enjoy the lush pleasures of the body that came from floating in cool lake water, or drowsing with heavy limbs in bed, or having a full belly, or getting a really good back rub, so I knew that bodies couldn’t be all bad. Mind you, the full belly pleasure ended up being fleeting. When I got my adult metabolism and had to learn to moderate my intake of delicious things, that was an entirely new body betrayal right there.
So I suppose that’s why it was so important to me to find ways to write about my uneasiness with the meat sack that housed my brain — my relationship with it was so weird, I had to do what I could to explore it so I could attempt to make sense of it.
However, in the past few years, my relationship with my body has changed radically. I’ve become a performing belly dancer. That’s all about reveling in the body. Sure, I’m frustrated at my two blown knees, and my complete and utter inability to be even the tiniest bit flexible, and by the fact that I have an incredibly difficult time layering moves without looking like I’m having some sort of a seizure, but when I perform…it’s all about sharing my enjoyment of what my body can do.
Needless to say, I wrote Machine and all the stories in Unwelcome Bodies before I started getting halfway decent at dancing. I’m still trying to figure out what to write about now, and how to make time for writing in between the full time job and dance practice. As much as I miss my writing muse, I have to admit, there are far worse problems to have.
N.C.: It seems to me that both reading and writing engage the heart and mind, but not the body. In fact, I’ve noticed that if I’m engaged in reading or writing for a significant period of time, I can grow distant from my body. For me, it’s almost a dissociative experience. I drift off somewhere else. I don’t exercise. I get “all up in my head”. Then I run across your fiction, which throws me back into consideration of my body, of all bodies, as well as the social aspect of bodies – the sex and politics and ethics of bodies. I think that’s what makes your fiction unique, and also quite important.
Do you ever consciously plan to throw the reader back into consideration of his or body, or is this just something that grows organically out of your fiction? If you buy into my premise that lots of people seek escape from their bodies (via entertainment, or substance abuse, or over-intellectualizing things) why do you think this is? Why are our bodies, so often, unwelcome?
J.P.: If I do that, it’s completely unintentional. I suppose it has to be difficult to read about bodies without thinking of one’s own. I certainly always have. If I read about any sort of different body, be it the result of a birth defect, an accident, or a willing or unwilling body mod, I become acutely aware of my body and will find myself imagining what it must be like to live in a body that’s been changed or that differs from the so-called “norm” in that way.
As for the “sex and politics and ethics” — I’m very glad to say that I’ve known many incredible people in my life who very from the aforementioned so-called “norm” in a variety of ways, and by talking to them and watching them interact with the world, I’ve gotten an amazing education in the dignity in all flavors of humanity. This isn’t to say that I haven’t committed/do not commit/will not commit some truly horrific ableist and privileged fails. But what it means is that I try very hard not to let the characters in my writing be confined by the societal definitions of “normal” or “healthy” or “proper.”
And on the topic of the desire to escape the body, I can only come at it from the perspective of a nerd. There’s a lot to be said for launching yourself into a world that you cannot physically inhabit, either because we don’t have a space program, or because there is no such thing as an elf, or because humans can’t breathe water, or because this is not the 24th century…or…or… Sometimes, I think that to fully inhabit a world like that, we have to decouple from this one. And that’s not a bad thing. Imagination is what drives us to change things, and if that means we need a little vacation from our body, so be it.
N.C.: Can you tell us about Machine? In what ways is it similar or different from Unwelcome Bodies? I mean, obviously one is a collection and the other is a novel, but are there nuances in theme that you explore in Machine that you’ve never explored before, or new ways you explore old themes?
J.P.: Machine takes place in a future where sick people can have their consciousness transferred into a mechanical replacement body that looks and feels just like their flesh body while they wait for their flesh body to be cured. The protagonist, Celia, loses her wife in the process, and in her grief, eventually falls in with a group of illegal body-hackers who modify their bodies in ways that redefine gender and humanity. So in that respect, it’s very much a story along the same continuum as those in Unwelcome Bodies. But because I have an entire novel to spend in one person’s head, I get to take my time bringing her on her body-defying journey. And I get to populate her world with many more people on similar journeys to hers, which means I get to show off that broad swath of humanity I was talking about earlier. But at its core, it’s a love story with body dis-ease at its core, so I guess it’s classic me. Oh, and like Unwelcome Bodies, if a child gets within 500 feet of it, you’ll get a visit from the DSS.
Jack Ketchum’s books have sold over three million copies. He’s won four Bram Stoker Awards. Stephen King has referred to him as the “scariest guy in America”. If that’s not enough to pique your interest, how about this: he was a protege of Robert Bloch and served as literary agent for Henry Miller.
This month, Laughing at the Abyss is taking a detailed look at Ketchum’s Stoker-winning Halloween story “Gone” in a three-part series. Part one, posted last week, provided a synopsis and analysis of the story. Today in part two, we hear from Jack, himself. He tells us about the inspiration for “Gone” and explores the connection between horror fiction and trauma.
Nicole Cushing: I always enjoy it when an author shares his or her thoughts about a story (as Harlan Ellison has done in his famous story notes in his collections). I know that it’s been over ten years since “Gone” first appeared, but can you share with your readers any memories about how it came together?
Jack Ketchum: When I was growing up we lived on a dead-end street, and almost every house on that street — about fourteen of them as I remember — was built on the post-World War II GI Bill. That meant that, with only two exceptions, all the kids on the street were Baby Boomers, only a few years apart in age. The same was true of most of the streets nearby. Halloween was always our favorite holiday (unless you count the night before — Mischief Night.) It was one of my mother’s favorite holidays, too. She made most of my costumes on her Singer Sewing Machine. Superman, Peter Pan, etc. We had a tub filled with water where the kids could bob for apples and apple cider for all of us thirsty trick-or-treaters and slabs of homemade pumpkin pie for the moms and dads of the younger ones. Then we…grew up. Went to college, moved away. Got too old for kids’ stuff. And I remember my mom’s very real sadness when on Halloween night hardly anybody came around anymore. When Rich Chizmar asked me for a story for October Dreams I knew that was what I wanted to write about, that sadness. Only I gave it a darker underpinning than just us kids fleeing the nests.
N.C.: I first read “Gone” in October Dreams. Since then, I’ve started reading your collection, Peaceable Kingdom, and have discovered that several other stories touch on themes related to trauma and loss (in particular, the loss – either literal or metaphorical – of children). I’ve been kicking around a theory that horror fiction is, quite often, the literature of trauma – that horror readers and writers tend to be folks who’ve had more than their fair share of life’s dark side. This might not be an entirely new idea. Gary Braunbeck explores the notion in To Each Their Darkness. Do you think there’s anything to this? Is horror the literature of trauma?
J.K.: Sure it is. And loss. I remember after 9/11 having a conversation with Peter Straub in which we both admitted we had no idea what the hell to write about. The real-life trauma was too huge, especially for us New Yorkers. With me this lasted for months. Finally I got the idea to write about terror, only on a small, personal scale, and what emerged was the novella Closing Time, about a guy who robs bars at night, not so much for the money as for the thrill of terrorizing the bartenders, set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (to make the connection). I’d just broken up with a woman I loved very much and based the bartender on her, with myself as the model for her ex-lover, who just happens to go looking for her that night — with terrible consequences. I thought I’d broken my dry spell about writing about terror. Clever me. But when I re-read it I realized I hadn’t written about terror nearly so much as I’d written about loss — my own loss. And then, a reader of mine told me subsequently that he thought that pretty much everything I’d ever written was about loss. I’d sure never thought of it that way. But when I checked back into my stuff, damned if he wasn’t right.
N.C.: In “Gone”, the story starts with the protagonist already in a dark place, and progresses to an even darker place. I think it’s fair to say that many of your short stories progress in a similar fashion. In a Locus interview Caitlin Kiernan once talked about her propensity to inflict misery on her characters. She’s quoted as saying: “…I’m wondering, ‘Why do I do this to people?’ I keep dragging these poor characters through these horrible things – it’s just what happens when I write. Am I a literary sadomasochist, or am I only trying to accurately describe the way things are?”
I’m curious if you’ve ever asked yourself that question. What’s your answer?
J.K.: It’s a cliche to say that I proceed from the dark side into the light, but sometimes a cliche is simply truth put simply. Yeah, I put my characters through hell, but I’m also interested in human resourcefulness under pressure and the power of love, friendship, and courage. I don’t think I’ve ever harmed one of my characters gratuitously — even those who richly deserved a world of hurt thrust upon them. You have to have compassion, even for your bad guys. I always want to look inside.
N.C.: Last question. Currently the book and film versions of The Woman are enjoying quite a bit of publicity, but I’m wondering if you’re working on any new short stories?
J.K.: The answer to that one’s easy. I haven’t for a while. But yup, time for a short one or two.
Next week this series of articles on “Gone” concludes with part three — a look at the story’s continuing influence. If you have comments about this interview, please feel free to post them in the area below (note that comments will be moderated). — N.C.
Just thought I’d post a few odds and ends here on the blog before I start packing for Context 24 this weekend in Columbus, Ohio.
- The Austin Post interviewed me. The article sheds light on the bizarre dream that inspired my fiction collage experiment, How to Eat Fried Furries, and also discusses my future endeavors in genre and literary fiction
- The mystery of “Whatever Happened to prolific UK horror anthologist Richard Davis?” (first explored here last weekend in the post “Horror Anthologies from the ’70s”) was solved by Ramsey Campbell, David A. Riley, and others on the Shocklines forum.
- I’ll be attending Context 24 in Columbus, Ohio. I didn’t think I’d be attending this convention, but circumstances sorted themselves out so I could. You can catch me Saturday afternoon in the dealer’s room selling and signing copies of Fried Furries and the anthology Werewolves and Shape Shifters: Encounters with the Beast Within. I’ll be arriving in the afternoon Friday and will be leaving Saturday evening shortly after dinner.