where the writers are
Interview with Nathan Ballingrud

At last, I've heard back from Nathan Ballingrud, short story writer and author of "North American Lake Monsters." He's written a marvelous book and excellent Halloween read. Please check it out after you read the interview. 

 

P.S. Some mild spoilers in this interview!

 

How did you get involved with Small Beer Press? What was the publishing process like?

I've been a fan of Small Beer Press since their early days - they publish a lot of writers I love, from Maureen McHugh to Angelica Gorodischer to Geoff Ryman - but it never occurred to me to submit to them, because they generally steer clear of horror fiction. They've published some dark work by Elizabeth Hand, but not enough that I thought they'd be interested in this book. However, I got an email one night from Gavin Grant, asking if I had enough stories for a collection. As it happened, I did.

The publishing process was as smooth as glass. Small Beer is one of the best independent publishers around, and they know what they're doing. If there were ever any bumps on the road, I never knew about them. They collaborated with me on the cover, were both thorough and accommodating in the copyedit stage, and came through on everything they promised. Together we produced a lovely little book and I couldn't be happier.

The responsibilities and vulnerabilities of parents and children feature in your work. Can you talk a bit about that?

Being a single father is probably the defining characteristic of my life. It's hard for me to imagine what I would write about if I hadn't become a father. Watching her grow, anticipating the challenges she'll face, helping her deal with them to the limited extent that I can, is pretty much what I'm here for. I'm probably going to dissolve into the air when she grows up and moves away. So when I write, those concerns and obsessions follow me to the page.

My own parents divorced when I was young, and my ex-wife and I divorced when my daughter was five, so I think a lot about that experience too. I hasten to add that the parents in my stories are not like my own parents at all; they were always present, working very hard to raise my brother and I. But the strange dynamic of families under extreme duress, or simply drifting apart, or misunderstanding the language of love, is endlessly fascinating to me.

You have the most disturbing werewolf story in this collection. What inspired your use of unreal (werewolf) and real (survivor's guilt)?

Thanks! I'm fond of that story. It tends to get very stratified reactions, because it quite purposefully does not resolve a lot of the tensions it presents. To me, that means it's doing it's job. I like to take a fantastic situation and look at the effects it would have on people's lives, after it passed, rather than focus on the traditional genre resolutions. With "Wild Acre," I didn't care to follow the werewolf after its attack. In real life, a random survivor would not suddenly become an action hero, tracking the thing deep into the woods. He'd just have to live with it. What would that do to him? What would it specifically do to a man who was invested in traditional expectations of what a man should be? I had a similar impulse in "You Go Where It Takes You": the fantasy story there is about the man with the cargo of skins he can change into, being pursued by some supernatural force. Someone else can write that story.

I wanted to write about the people he brushed up against. What happens when the numinous or the horrific brushes against the boundaries of your life, only to disappear again? How are you changed? Can you recover? Do you want to?

"The Crevasse" reminded me of negative space - it had a kind of lovecraftness (in the best way). What authors inspire you?

I'm inspired by so many writers, and the list grows all the time. I can point to some who were foundational for me: Ernest Hemingway, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison. But as I grow and continue to read, I'm freshly inspired all the time. Annie Proulx is an inspiration, as is Richard Ford, Lucius Shepard, Maureen McHugh, James Salter, Lauren Groff.

I came to the pulps late, but they influence me too: Lovecraft, sure, as well as Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore, Clark Ashton Smith, Leigh Brackett. Comic books too. I'm an omnivore when it comes to stories. My influences are constantly shifting. It's exciting that way.

"The Way Station" was delightfully surreal. Do you think you may explore New Orleans as a venue for horror in the future?

I wrote that story as a kind of farewell to the only city I really loved, and the only one, to date, that I really felt at home in. I missed the storm; we moved to NC a month before it hit. And although in every objective sense I know how fortunate I was, I nevertheless felt a terrible guilt at not being there for it, as though I had abandoned someone I love in her hour of need.

New Orleans is still in my blood, and I'm sure I'll revisit the city in fiction. Whether it'll be horror or not, I don't know. It just depends on what kind of story it comes dressed in, I suppose.

"The Good Husband" and "S.S." were the most disturbing of the bunch for me. They're sort of deeply twisted love stories that make you want to scrub the darkness out of your brain afterward. After writing these pieces, what could possibly scare you? Do you just yawn your way through Halloween?

 

I'm such an easy mark! I'm very susceptible to horror, which is probably why I love it so much. Movies scare me; I still can't watch Session 9 by myself at night. It's genuinely stressful to even try. Video games too. I tried playing Silent Hill and I couldn't finish it. It just did me in. Horror stories scare me if they're written very well (the bar is higher here for me, probably only because I'm a writer myself). I think that if this stuff didn't really scare me, then I couldn't work in the genre effectively.

I can't imagine feeling passion for something that didn't affect me viscerally. So, with luck, horror stories will always have me pulling the covers over my head.(End of interview.)

Thanks again to Nathan for answer so many questions about the book, and Happy Halloween everyone!

A. Vose