Just over a month ago I conducted an interview with an author whose work I’d been itching to read for a good while after reading some of the superlatives bestowed upon him by Gary McMahon.
That author’s name is Simon Strantzas.
I read his latest collection, NIGHTINGALE SONGS – the review of which can be found elsewhere on this magical site of ours. He has two other collections available for your reading pleasure: BENEATH THE SURFACE and COLD TO THE TOUCH. If you’re interested in taking my advice you’ll seek out at least one of his collections. 39 tales of the subtly macabre, a few of which actually defy description. NIGHTINGALE even contains one of the best stories I have read in the last 30 years so I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed. If I had a reputation, I’d stake it on that promiseSum yourself up in 10 words
I write horror.
Unsurprisingly I want to start by talking about your latest work, NIGHTINGALE SONGS (NS). Firstly, you say this collection came together quicker than your previous books, BENEATH THE SURFACE and COLD TO THE TOUCH. Were the stories written specifically with the new collection in mind or are there some older tales in there, rewritten to suit the book’s voice?
(The Bibliography at the book’s rear tells us where some of the stories were previously published, but I’m wondering if you always knew the stories would come together under the NS umbrella?)
Nightingale Song was originally written for different publisher than Dark Regions, one who asked for smaller collection of all-new tales, and asked for it on a very short deadline. I worked feverishly to make it happen, producing an amount of work I had never been able to before. In many ways, it taught me valuable lessons about my abilities, and broke a number notions I had until then thought were truths. Due to a number of factors, that book was never meant to be, so I took that smaller book and supplemented its contents with a handful of tales I’d already published elsewhere, ending up with Nightingale Songs. In the end, I think it came together well. Most of the tales are quite current, but the book does contain two of my oldest tales. The first originally appeared in the first printing of Beneath the Surface, but when I decided to bring that book back to life after its stunted launch, I realized the story did not fit with the rest of the contents, and instead felt it would make a better addition to the new volume.
You say you have been criticized in the past for focusing too much on relationships. On a personal level I feel this to be grossly unfair – and perhaps even foolish – criticism as surely the best stories, horror or otherwise, have at least one relationship at their core? But I wonder if you could write a story without involving relationships whatsoever. What would that look like? Would it be easy to write or something not even worth trying?
I’m of two minds about it. The first is that relationships between people in love are the most popular form of storytelling there is, and for good reason. That, and our impending deaths, are the topics that concern us most. But I allow for the idea that perhaps a whole book of these sorts of stories is not ideal. As important as love is, after a while it can become numbing.
But I think of relationships as more than romantic love, and in that context I don’t really believe its possible to write a story without one. Everything is related to something, after all. We as readers want what we know best, and what we know best is how we feel about that which we love most.
In my review of NS, I let it be known that I feel MR KNEALE is one of the best short stories I have ever read – and I’ll happily shout that from the rooftops until I’m pushed off – so my first question is: which of your own stories do you feel is the best you’ve written?
However, I ended the review by stating my concerns towards today’s market. Your stories are wonderfully ambiguous, allowing the reader to utilize their imagination, but I wonder if there is a danger of this storytelling method becoming obsolete. More and more of today’s tales signpost their gore, replacing creeping terror with loud, obnoxious bloodshed. Do you feel your means of scaring is capable of surviving this latest trend? And is quiet terror more effective than its rowdier, brassier cousin?
As is no surprise, my opinion changes daily, but there’s a strong argument for the first tale in Nightingale Songs: “Out of Touch”. It accomplishes, to my mind, the rare feat of fully realized characters, plot, and theme, all intrinsically linked together. I try to focus on all these things when I write my fiction, and sometimes one outweighs the other and sometimes the seams between them are more visible than I’d like, but rarely does a tale fire on all three of those cylinders at once, and do so as cleanly. I remain very proud of that one.
A case could also be made for “Drowned Deep Inside of Me”, the tale that closes my first collection, Beneath the Surface. That one is a favourite for different reasons, more specifically the ability to synthesize my influences, but do so in a tale that is wholly my own. I don’t think anyone else could have written that tale but me, and that is something to hold tight to.
You say in NS’s Afterword that every writer is ‘trying to produce a work that will embed itself with the reader’. To hold with such a philosophy must mean you’ve been touched by the work of others. I know you’re a big Ramsey Campbell fan, but who else has managed to open ‘a door in the darkness’ for you?
The list is long, but imagine the nightmares induced by Thomas Ligotti, and the fever dreams caused by Robert Aickman are most to blame for making my work what it is. Both these writers come at the surreal from different avenues, yet both achieve the effect of frission that I find absolutely necessary in a weird tale. I am but a humble servant at those masters’ feet.
I’m also fond of a few writers working in the field today, including folks like Steve Rasnic Tem and Lisa Tuttle. Both these authors touched a nerve in me when I was first reading in the genre, and their work continues to be an inspiration to me.
What are you working on right now?
A few different projects, to be sure. I think it’s important to have a plan for both the near future and the far future, and every day I simply try to stay the course.
What are you reading?
I just finished a few ARCs I’d been given to blurb, but in terms of available fiction I’m working on Livia Llewellyn’s “The Engines of Desire”. A fantastically powerful writer.
Any favourite authors/books – and what are your 5 desert island books?
I haven’t the foggiest. I try not limit myself.
Are you a movie fan? Which 5 films have had the greatest effect on you and why?
In terms of my writing, David Lynch has been the greatest influence.
A less standard question: why no novel? Three collections, thirty-nine stories and no novel. Are you purposely avoiding the longer script or is this something you’re working quietly on in the background as you build your reputation for making people check the state of their underwear in this lovely industry of ours?
The one question everybody wants to know. And the one question it takes most of my patience to answer. The implicit belief is that every short story writer is simply a novelist-in-waiting, and writing novels is every writer’s dream. I suppose it’s understandable: the shelves are full of writers who once wrote shorts but now no longer do. Why this is the case is something you would have to ask them, but for me I can tell you that writing a novel is very low on my list of priorities. The art of the short story is staggeringly different from the art of the novel, and I have far more interest in the former than the latter. Short stories are like poetry, and the economy and structure appeal to me far more than the mess of a novel. I never say never, but I don’t expect to produce anything resembling a novel for quite some time, if ever.
Have you ever written a tale – or even a scene – that upon rereading have found yourself wondering whether it would be better to leave unpublished? That to give it the light of day would perhaps scare your loved ones so much that they might start questioning your sanity?
I’m spared from this because frightening my readers is the least of my concerns. I’d rather make the reader think, perhaps take a second look at what he or she might have taken for granted before. I want to alter the reader’s reality permanently. This is far more interesting to me than making someone jump.
If I do take pause while writing, it’s in deference to those from whom I have stolen bits of life so I might incorporate them into my work. People no longer tell me stories for fear it will appear in a book somewhere for all the world to see. To this, I plead guilty. But how was I to resist, your honour?
In today’s celebrity obsessed society, where failed singers, media prostitutes and ‘reformed’ criminals are given license to publish any old twaddle, is it possible to maintain the high standards writers such as yourself have introduced to the book industry? Do you agree with those who believe there is a danger of too much genuine talent being overlooked in favour of those rich nobodies handed opulent contracts to hire ghost writers? Or is this modern phenomenon just a phase that will go the same way as those that came before it? Are you concerned by today’s writing culture or do you prefer to do your own thing and let the world get on with itself?
I’m not terribly concerned with who publishes what because it doesn’t matter. The question implies that there are a finite amount of readers, and these readers will consume everything put before them. You might just as well ask if I’m concerned about the amount of text on cereal boxes as it might detract from my fiction. The truth is that there is enough room in the sandbox for everyone, and a reader who enjoys celebrity biographies is no more likely to enjoy meditative horror if those biographies were to vanish. Readers will read what they want, and if a writer’s work appeals to them, they will read it. End of story.
That said, I do feel there’s a dumbing down of society in general. There are many factors that contribute to this, but the end result seems to be not only a world where reading is forsaken in day-to-day life for other activities such as video games or social media contact, but where reading and knowledge is actively discouraged. In the United States right now the Republican primaries are in full swing, and there are candidates who feel only “snobs” want to send their children to college. Knowledge is no longer power, it’s actively selected against by the western world, and reading is discouraged at every turn. This is what frightens me most: this idea of thinking from the gut rather than determining the truth with the mind. It’s the dumbing down of the world in general that’s killing fiction. That, and the conglomerate takeover of publishers in the 80′s and 90′s, turning the love of bringing books into the world into a business like any other, where the focus is on the amount of money made rather than the quality of the product. Books as commodity, not ideas.
For the most part, writers want to write well, and write good material that readers will enjoy. That will continue, even if the outlets for those writers to publish wither, and even if readers for that work fade. What the future holds, I couldn’t possibly say, but I have to hope that the circle of readers will eventually stop shrinking and stabilize at a number big enough to support those of us who love the medium. Perhaps the days of living off being a writer are gone for good, but really, other than a few years in the 80′s, how many people in history have ever lived off their writing?
You’re a consumer of human flesh. Who do you have hanging in your freezer for future consumption?
Someone fat, I should hope. I wouldn’t want to risk restocking often.
What has been your proudest moment (in both your writing career and normal life)?
I try not to put too much value in writing career moments, as they tend to never be as exciting as one might think they’ll be. Regardless of the size of award you receive, few new readers will come to you. Regardless of the producer who wants to make a film of your work, likely nothing will come of it, no matter how much work you’ve done to make it so. Every threshold you see ahead of you, once reached, holds empty rewards, and you find yourself feeling no better about your status than you did when you started. Instead, I try to focus on being happy I’ve finished a piece, enjoy the act of writing itself. These rewards are tangible, attainable, and bring a level of guaranteed satisfaction. The day the act of writing stops fulfilling me is the day I stop. Everything after I type “THE END” is merely unnecessary garnishing.
How does it feel to hear someone likes your work? That when you switch onto Amazon, you see five gold stars next to your name? And what about the single stars? Do they make you want to reach for a six shooter? I’ll admit I had thought you’d be happier with my review for NS than you portrayed but that was probably my fault. (I really did like the collection – and love MR KNEALE. My concerns were more to do with today’s market and my fear that such brilliance will be overlooked for a gorier alternative).
Honestly, I’d take one new reader over 100 award nominations. Learning my work has connected with someone is the best possible feeling in the world. Even better are those rare occasions where I’ve been told my work has inspired the work of someone else. Part of the reason I wanted to write was to bring the same inspiration to others that I’ve felt from those before me, so to hear I’ve accomplished it in some small way is very gratifying.
I’m not sure how I would feel about a single-star review as I’ve never received one. I don’t fool myself into thinking this is some reflection on my abilities. Instead, it’s clear it simply means that only a handful of people are reading my work, and that handful is predisposed to liking my work. The message has reached the faithful, but the non-believers still haven’t heard the call. One day they will, and the negative reviews will come. I’ve accepted it, and plan to do what my instincts tell me: namely, write off any bad review as written by someone who doesn’t “get it”, and hold high any good review as having been written by a genius. There’s a lot to be said for trusting your own hype as a confidence builder; just as long as you keep an open mind to criticism and try to learn from it should it have any worthwhile lessons to impart.
Do you have a specific writing regime like any of those described in your NS Afterword or are you someone who writes as and when the mood suits?
I write regularly, except when I don’t. Real life has a habit of getting in the way, and there are often things that take priority over the work. And, sometimes, try as I might, I’m too blasted exhausted to string words together.
That said, I also try and remember this: you have to have your priorities straight, and sometimes writing has to come first. In the past I’ve tended to treat writing as something I did for myself, and believed it was selfish to put it over, say, washing the dishes, or some other errand that I knew needed doing, even though I valued writing more than those things. The end result was I would go weeks without writing a word. Once I understood this — that what I thought of as my number one priority was in fact being given the least attention — I knew I had to start saying no to other things, despite the ripples in my home life it might cause. Thankfully, there were none worth mentioning.
Are you a constant editor? Someone who wishes he could manipulate the story even after it’s been published, bought and raved over? Or is it a case of write, edit then leave well alone?
When putting together a collection, I will revisit every story in its table of contents, regardless of whether or not it was published before. I treat books with my name on the spine as official texts, and try to make them as perfect as possible. If that means taking a story that appeared previously in a magazine and rewriting it, I will do so. But once the tale appears in one of my collections, it’s the end of the road for revisions. Case in point: in the reprint of Beneath the Surface, I desperately wanted to add an additional scene to one of the tales, but resisted, know that time had passed on, and that tale had to stand on its own for what I was writing at that time. That said, I hold no issue with other writers revising their work. Ligotti has become famous for it, with his Subterranean collections contain much different texts of his early work.
Is writing a therapeutic process? A means of cleansing the soul or do you do it simply because of your love for the art?
Simple love of the art. I’m not plagued with the sort of demons that drive others to write. Instead, I’m merely exploring those darker regions in myself and those I perceive in others. I’m the sort who likes to understand how things work, whether it’s mechanical objects or emotional states. Writing affords me the ability to explore these things in minute detail, explaining to other just what I see. Sort of like an explorer, I suppose. Except the land I’m exploring is within, and the reports I’m filing are not to be trusted.
Who, where or what makes you angry? Does that anger feed your desire to write?
I don’t often get angry. Frustrated? Sure. But not angry. There’s just so little about which being angry will help. As a result, I don’t write from anger. My work is much more rational than that. For me it’s a cerebral, not emotional, exercise. Were I to try and write mad, I suspect nothing good would come of it. I like to write from a calm state, something that allows me to slip into the functional daydream state from which I write. Being angry only makes it harder to take the trip there, and instead would invariably leave me frustrated.
Back to MR KNEALE. To write about a convention and its people is a brave thing to do. Some people can be very sensitive and have an uncanny ability to find offense where none was meant. Personally I felt it was written with great sensitivity and humor but I’m wondering if anyone has been in contact to say ‘that was me’, or ‘is that how you really see me?’? What’s the best convention you’ve attended? Are there any stories you can share with the nation or would that involve National Security clearance?
No one has stepped forth and admitted their shame, likely because I did something cagey with the tale: I wrote about extremists, and also about a moderate. I suspect everyone identifies with the moderate. And that’s how it should be, because everyone is one to some degree. We make these straw men arguments all the time about whether it’s better to be one way or the other, but in the end it’s better to be both. Art and Entertainment are poles, and we all move fluidly somewhere between them.
It’s hard to describe what my favourite convention has been, because what makes a convention fun for me is rather mundane. I like meeting readers, like meeting contemporaries whose work I admire, like attending panels filled by genuine experts and not just by whoever would agree to be on it. I like cons where I feel as though I’ve learned something new. Unfortunately, most teach me nothing.
What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given – what advice would you give to someone about to see their first collection in the dealer’s room?
No one has really given me bad advice, probably because I’ve never been one to really ask for advice. I tend to follow my own instincts and, thus far, I don’t feel I’ve been led too far wrong.
The one bit of advice I can offer a writer with a collection in progress (rather than about to be published) is to make sure that collection is the best thing you can write. If it’s twelve stories long, those ought to be the absolute best twelve stories you can write. If they aren’t all “Grade A” material, keep writing. A great first book can launch a career like nothing else. It will rise where a mostly-good book will fade away. Do everything you can to make your book’s appearance a lightning strike on the genre. If you’re lucky, it will leave a mark.
Is the lifestyle of a writer one you would recommend?
There is no lifestyle to being a writer. One lives out his or her day, and in solitude tinkers with the keys for a little while, day in day out. The difference between being a writer and being a non-writer is so negligible that it barely exists.
But if you’re asking if I recommend the act of writing? Then, yes, unquestioningly. Just like I’d recommend reading, or drawing, or painting, or singing, or playing an instrument. Any form of artistic expression is worth doing, regardless of who or how many see it.
Paper, stone, scissors. Knife, gun, rope. They’re all on a table outside a room. Inside that room is the one individual you wish you could eradicate without consequences. If you choose the correct item, that individual and those consequences are no more. Which one will you choose? Do you stay and play or run away?
Run away. The death of another holds no interest to me.