I'm delighted to bring you yet another instalment in our ongoing interview series here at Smash Dragons. This week I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with Laird Barron, an author who I both admire and respect. We spoke about a lot of different things, from his upbringing in Alaska right through to the impact of novellas on genre fiction.
I hope you enjoy it!
Laird Barron, welcome to Smash Dragons.
First up, tell me a little about yourself and your writing career so far.
Hi! Thank you for the interview. I was born and raised in Alaska. My family lived in a wild region of the state. Throughout my teens and early twenties, I trained sled dogs and participated in long distance races. I departed from that life during the mid-1990s and moved to the Pacific Northwest. I’d always written, but around the new millennium I made a concentrated effort to become a professional. Gordon Van Gelder and Ellen Datlow bought early stories and matters gradually accelerated until one day I looked around and realized I’d built a career. These days, I live in the Hudson Valley near the foothills of the Catskills and am working on numerous projects.
You've lived an incredibly fascinating life so far. I’m curious, how has your upbringing helped shape the fiction you write today? What influences from your life permeate throughout your stories?
The wilderness made a lasting impression when I lived in and traveled through remote areas of Alaska. Consequently, I developed a soft spot for the blue collar aesthetic. My mother’s Christian fundamentalism and explanations for the arcane contents of the Old Testament continue to haunt the benighted districts of my subconscious.
I was a heavy reader from preadolescence onward, and that continues to guide me. Literature was succor from an unhappy childhood. Many of the books available to me were classic pulps, westerns, Golden Age science fiction, and the like—a few of those narratives concerned man versus nature. Robert E Howard, Jack London, Louis L’Amour, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and so on. Those authors forged the core of my creative personality. Writers are in dialogue with ghosts; I hope I’ve picked good company.
I read somewhere that you started writing as a young child? Is that true? Can you remember the first story you wrote and what it was about?
The first coherent piece I recall was a science fiction story in second grade. An homage hybrid of Star Trek and Lost in Space. The teacher took it home and typed it up. She was the only teacher who ever encouraged me, but that encouragement stuck in my mind.
When my father relocated us into the woods, supplies became dear. I wrote on both sides of college-ruled paper, margins be damned. I hid my pencils from my younger brothers like I was stashing contraband in a prison cell. For many years I had one of those grooves in my index and middle fingers. Been a while; it’s easy to forget, but the lizard part of my brain never has.
What was the first story you ever sold?
Gordon Van Gelder at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction gave me my first pro sale. An homage to Lovecraft’s cosmic horror called “Shiva, Open Your Eye.” It’s a strange non-story that I could reasonably expect to see published today, but in 2001 it was a longshot to breach the big five slush piles. Getting into F&SF several times in the early Aughts opened doors. Then Ellen Datlow reprinted “Old Virginia” in her year’s best and bought “Bulldozer” and “Parallax” for SCI FICTION, and even more doors opened.
I am grateful to Gordon and Ellen for the initial break and ongoing support. They’ve published some of my weirdest, craziest material and that gave me confidence follow my muse down a few dark and winding alleys.
People often pigeonhole you as a writer of cosmic horror, whereas I think your work has a much wider scope than that. You seem to revel in things like noir fiction and gothic horror as well as cosmic horror and weird fiction. I’m curious, are you someone who is creatively restless? Do you feel to the need to constantly strive against being labeled and bound?
Cosmic horror and eternal recurrence aren’t my only bag, but it’s big enough to crawl into.
It’s probably more accurate to say my work focuses on gritty characters undergoing trauma. Those are the most prevalent elements. Lately, I’ve written a lot of stories in the occult thriller and psychological horror veins.
Resisting labels is a thankless exercise. I embrace my influences, and yes, I revel in certain genres because the work, the mucking and gutting and battling, brings me enough visceral joy that I am able to continue. HPL has his roost on my shoulder, along with other dubious angels. Peter Straub, Cormac McCarthy, Robert E Howard, and Jack Vance are ones I’ve mentioned time and again. Guys like TED Klein, Norm Partridge, and Jeff Ford are important to me. I also admire many newer writers, such as Livia Llewellyn, Paul Tremblay, John Langan, Phil Fracassi, V.H. Leslie, Brian Evenson, Adam Nevill, Victor LaValle, Stephen Graham Jones, Gemma Files, Darren Speegle, S.P. Miskowski, and Selena Chambers.
Regardless, in recent years my stories are more often categorized as “Laird Barron” stories rather than Lovecraftian. As for restlessness, yes, that’s fair. Artists should always be swimming forward.
Your work obviously draws a lot of comparisons to H. P. Lovecraft. Do you welcome that comparison, or do you try and transcend it? Do you think Lovecraft deserves the recognition that he currently has, or should others also have equal notoriety in the field?
It would be disingenuous to deny the Lovecraft influence, particularly in regard to my cosmic horror stories. It’s safe to say I’ve synthesized that inspiration and made it my own or else the praise and criticism of my corpus would manifest along entirely different lines.
HPL is getting what he has coming, for better or worse. Among the Old Ones, Clark Ashton Smith deserves more credit, so too Dunsany. For raw influence, Edgar Allan Poe still wears the heavyweight belt.
I’ve also seen a lot of chatter regarding your take on Thomas Ligotti and his philosophical nihilism. What did you mean when you referred to him as an anti-influence on you and your work? What is it about Ligotti and his particular ethos and style of horror that doesn't appeal to you?
The anti-influence comment is tongue in cheek. We tend to attack similar themes from opposing angles. Ligotti has drifted far from character-driven narratives while my genre influences are front and center. His worlds end with a whimper; mine rage against the dying of the light. All to the same effect for hapless characters, alas.
My criticism of Ligotti has concerned his nonfiction. Despite my own struggle with depression, I don’t find antinatalism or pessimistic philosophy to be tenable. I’ve also said plenty about it elsewhere and probably with too much acid. These days, I chalk it up to a fundamental difference of perspective. We’re all on the same road, plodding forward into the great dark.
One of the things I adore about your storytelling is how it often explores the notion of toughness, and how that toughness is undercut by forces beyond anything we've ever had to deal with. Does this fascination for hardened characters stem from your love of the noir tradition?
I value toughness. You can’t always be the strongest, the fastest, or the most cunning. To some extent, you can make the decision to persevere, to endure. Everybody loses, in the end. Meanwhile, perseverance and endurance will win the day more often than one might expect.
The poor, rural Alaska of my youth was home to a tough crowd. In that respect, I’m sure it shares commonality with other economically depressed regions. Certain elements set Alaska apart—darkness, isolation, institutional paranoia, and an alarming incidence rate of depression and mania. Certain characters of mine are action-archetypes—the spies, the enforcers, the Pinkerton thugs. These certainly adhere to the noir and crime traditions; and the pulp, thriller, and western traditions as well.
On the other hand, I admit to bemusement at labeling some of my generic characters as “tough” in that evidently it doesn’t take much by Alaska standards to impress the average critic. Abusing alcohol & other substances, toting weapons, and getting into punch-ups was a well-earned stereotype of Alaskans circa 1980s and 90s.
I was weaned on John D. MacDonald, Donald Westlake, and Robert Parker, and you get the drift. My affinity for noir cuts deep. True grit isn’t a matter of victory or defeat, but resolve and perseverance. Contemporary noir authors I admire include Richard Thomas, Donald Ray Pollack, Tom Piccirilli, and Kaaron Warren.
Setting is an important factor in any story. The Pacific Northwest features prominently in your work. What is it about that region that draws you in and motivates you to write stories set in it? Do you visit these regions to get a feel for them before you use them in your tales?
So many ways to tell a tale. Setting and atmosphere interest me the most. I’ve visited (or invented) the vast majority of Pacific Northwest locations mentioned in my stories. Washington State, especially the hills east of Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula, are rugged and lush. Drive a few minutes out of Olympia and you’re in the woods. Western Washington wears a friendlier mask than most of Alaska, but it possesses secrets, some of them dark. As a writer, I’m obsessed with secrets. As a horror writer, I’m drawn to the underlying darkness.
Do you remember the moment when the idea for Old Leech first appeared?
John Langan’s novelette “On Skua Island” contains a scene where researchers attempt to decipher a runic message. One of the symbols is an odd kind of Ouroboros. It was a neat minor detail that John didn’t plan to develop any further. This was back in the early Aughts and we’d decided to occasionally overlap our works in sneaky ways. I snagged the symbol for “The Broadsword” and decided it wasn’t a worm or wyrm, but a leech. The damned thing took on a life of its own from there.
There’s a rumour floating around that you have dabbled in fantasy fiction as well? Is there any truth to that? Will it ever see the light of day?
True. I wrote and then trunked and epic fantasy novel back in the late ‘90s. It will never see the light of the day. High fantasy, dark fantasy, and classic sword & sorcery were popular when I was a kid. The Conan collections with the Frazetta art had gotten hot; same deal with Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Fritz Leiber’s Newhon/Lankhmar tales, and a whole slew of books and stories by Zelazny. Those writers crossed genres with impunity. They set an example for those of us interested in baroque weirdness that bleeds across a spectrum from Golden Age science fiction to high weird. I loved that stuff. Still do.
Recently I’ve written a couple of novelettes for anthologies helmed by Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran. Those stories are set in a weird, black fantasy universe; a number of characters from my other tales possess analogues here. If all goes well, I’ll write many more in the setting.
I have to admit I was very shaken by your story regarding the experience you had on the approach to Shageluk. Have you been back there since? Do you still participate in the Iditarod?
I’ve been away from Alaska and the Iditarod for twenty-one years. Fate makes liars of us sometimes, but I doubt I’ll ever return.
I was delighted to read that G. P. Putnam’s Sons had acquired your Coleridge noir novels. What can you tell me about these books? Does the first one have a release date yet? How satisfying is it to return to your crime and noir roots? Will these novels incorporate elements of horror and the supernatural?
I’m grateful to Sara Minnich and Putnam for picking up the first Coleridge novel and its follow-up. My agent, Janet Reid, has worked hard on my behalf since The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Building a career in publishing is a sure way to get tenderized every day; it’s good to have people like Janet helping me hold the line.
The first novel is scheduled for early 2018. Straight noir (although that encompasses a wide range), no supernatural elements. Nor is it horror, but the horrific undercurrent is strong. A couple of scenes were difficult to write. I’m sure they’ll be difficult to read.
The overall experience of writing the novel was extremely satisfying. Isaiah Coleridge arrived like an old friend who randomly comes and goes. When he’s around, he’s a dark star pulling everything into its gravity well. He tells you a lot about what he’s seen and done, and a lot of it is terrifying, but it’s never the half of what he knows. Drinks your scotch and bandages his skinned knuckles, then is in the wind again.
You're a big fan of the novella and novelette, and have gone on the record stating that they are the ultimate form of horror and weird fiction. Why do you feel that they are the ultimate form of horror writing?
There’s room for doorstop horror novels if the story will bear the weight. Peter Straub’s Ghost Story and Stephen King’s The Stand are prime examples. That said, I consider novelettes the supreme forms of horror. Novelettes provide enough narrative lift to escape the gravity of “trap” stories—there’s room for characterization and plot in a novelette. Novellas are the heavyweight division of short fiction. Done well, condense the expansiveness that serves other genres well. Horror narratives suffer from too much explication and too much familiarity. Novellas provide a fast, hard rush. A literary popper.
As an Australian I am quite proud of the speculative fiction scene we have here in this country. I’m curious, do you know of any Australian writers? Has any of their work caught your eye?
Alan Baxter is coming on; he has a strong, blue collar style. Kaaron Warren mixes noir and horror with tremendous skill; she’s a national treasure. Margo Lanagan is another favorite. Lanagan has a hell of a range and her work punches hard. Angela Slatter has made a name for herself. Consistently excellent. I’m also a massive fan of artist Matthew Revert. Artists often collaborate to breathe life into literature and he’s one of the best and most versatile I’ve encountered.
If you had to pick 3 other authors to be in your zombie apocalypse team who they be and why?
Brian Keene, because nobody knows zombies like Brian Keene knows zombies; Weston Ochse because Weston is one of those guys who knows his way around firearms and sharp implements; and Stephen Graham Jones—Jones is known as the Zombie-Whisperer.
I often think to myself that your stories and mythos are perfectly suited to being adapted by mediums such as television or film. Any plans on the horizon in that regard?
Filmmakers have optioned a few of my stories over the years. My film agent, Pouya Shahbazian, is one of the best around. He’s put me in touch with many industry pros. At the moment, Philip Gelatt is working on an adaptation of “—30— “as a feature film. It’s in postproduction.
What frightens Laird Barron? Do you believe in the paranormal?
Physical and mental degeneration weigh on me. The inevitable loss of loved ones and our dear short-lived animal companions. The ever dwindling popularity of literature.
As for what I believe… let’s say that I’m skeptical of unverified reportage. I’m skeptical of attributing divine or demonic causes to inexplicable phenomena. I believe in the paranormal in the sense that we simply haven’t indexed the contents of the universe.
You've spoken in the past about being particularly interested in the trends that are occurring within the publishing industry. I’m curious, what’s your take on the horror scene right now? What trends are starting to emerge within the genre in your opinion?
Horror and weird fiction are in a good place. Thanks to the small press, thanks to the internet, and thanks to a powerful surge of related programming on network and cable television.
The core of polished, accomplished writers seems to grow every year, especially in short fiction. Good work is being done on the novel front, but short stories are where the action is right now. Horror has long suffered from a lack of diversity and, in certain cases, full-on misogyny. More industry professionals are cognizant of the problem and acting to change the climate. It can’t happen fast enough.
The scene is diversifying in terms of who’s making waves -- Priya Sharma, Victor LaValle, Wilum Pugmire, Usman Malik, and Alyssa Wong, to name a handful. The field is also diversifying in terms of method and subject. From a sort of postmodern approach exemplified by Paul Tremblay, Brian Evenson, and Stephen Graham Jones, to the willful deconstruction of the tradition by John Langan and Livia Llewellyn, the remit of horror is broad spectrum.
Lovecraftian fiction is hot. It remains to be seen how long that pot will boil. I’m encouraged that plenty of writers are vectoring off the main trajectory. The best of them seek to mutate genre, not perpetuate its conventions.
Most cherished book on your shelves? Why?
Depends on the day. Today it’s Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian is an indictment of Manifest Destiny, the Westward Expansion, of Hollywood and its portrayal of the west; it’s confrontational and bellicose. The sheer brutality of it affected me like I’d swallowed poison or taken a shot to the liver that I didn’t remember. Blood Meridian is a reminder that literature isn’t always tame. It can bite you.
Take me through a day of writing with Laird Barron. Do you have a particular routine that you adhere to, or do you take every day as it comes?
Man, the mechanical process is not exciting. No schedule, no ritual. I spend a lot of hours getting my stories wrestled to the ground. I write every day except for travel or illness or some act of the gods. If you asked me what I’ve done the past five years, writing would be the answer.
What are you working on right now? Any more news on your next collection ‘Swift to Chase’?
JournalStone commissioned several novellas that follow-up X’s for Eyes and Man with No Name. I’m working on several short stories and assorted nonfiction pieces. Quite a few stories written over the past year or so are swooping onto the radar. I recently finished deliberation on the World Fantasy Award with a panel of excellent jurors. It’s a draining experience, although I’m proud to have participated.
Swift to Chase will arrive in early October, 2016. This one dives deep into psychological horror and thriller genres. Giallo and exploitation films interest me. I’m a 70s and 80s kid, so slashers interest me too. Stephen Graham Jones explores these genres and renews them with his singular vision. Brian Evenson does as well. Both of them build upon what has come before and it’s inspiring. I want to bring my own lens of weirdness to bear and see what happens. Swift to Chase is the first phase of a larger progression.
My early collections (The Imago Sequence; Occultation; and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All) primarily focused on the Pac NW with occasional excursions abroad. I designed them as a loose trilogy. The next wave deals with Alaska in much the same manner. Readers have asked about the cosmic horror content—cosmic horror laces a story here and there; it’s a consistent universe (or two).
Finally, you once described writing tips as mostly bullshit. So, bearing that in mind, what’s the best advice you can offer to budding writers and editors looking to knuckle down and break into the industry?
For writers: Always be writing, even when you aren’t writing. Apply elsewhere as required.
Laird Barron, thanks for stopping by!
Laird's work is available online and at all good book retailers. I don't say this lightly... if you haven't read any of Laird's work you need to immediately. He is, in my opinion, one of the best genre writers internationally right now. You can check out his Amazon page here, or Barnes and Noble here. You can also stay up to date by stopping by Laird's website. Pre-ordering for Laird's upcoming collection Swift to Chase is also available here. I'd highly recommend that you pre-order it soon (pre-order details will be available on websites such as Amazon, Book Depository and Booktopia in the coming weeks). It's going to be an absolute mind bend!
Until next time people, be nice to each other and keep on reading!
PS - I'd like to acknowledge the artists who have designed and worked on Laird's covers. They are Eleni Tsami (Imago Sequence), Matthew Jaffee (Occultation), Dan Ho (The Light is the Darkness), Cody Tilson (The Croning), Claudia Noble (The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All), Matthew Revert (X's For Eyes), Robert Grom (Man With No Name), Chuck Killorn (Swift to Chase). Laird's author picture is by Jessica M.