Back in 2014, we featured an excerpt from Nicholas Rombes’ novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing alongside an interview with Rombes about his novel. Today we’re featuring a story that appears in the same novel called “The Insurgent” and to go along with it, we’ve got another interview with Rombes but this time we’ve asked him general questions about who his influences are, what he read growing up, and if there’s such a thing as “too weird.” Be sure to check out his answer to that last question for a interesting insight on why we need weird fiction.
Nicholas Rombes: I was born in 1965 and so my growing-up reading years were in the 1970s. The first book I can remember reading that shook me (other than The Guinness Book of World Records, which had some weird and grotesque entries and black and white photographs) was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The very first line—“It was a pleasure to burn”—was so shocking to me, and I wondered what sort of person could write that line. That led me to Robert Heinlein, and then eventually to writers like Kelly Link, Octavia Butler, Shirley Jackson and others. But up until I was around 12 or so I just read the same books—mostly by Bradbury—over and over again. And the TV shows at that time that fascinated and terrified me—both new ones and ones in syndication—were Space 1999 (with the great Martin Landau), Land of the Lost, The Twilight Zone, Project U.F.O., The Six Million Dollar Man, Lost in Space and Ironside. Raymond Burr’s character was both weirdly familiar and inscrutable.
WFR: What writers or storytellers do you look up to the most, in regards to setting models for your own writing?
NR: There are so many, but a few contemporary writers would include Roberto Bolaño (I think I’ve read everything that’s been translated; Distant Star, By Night in Chile, and The Third Reich resonate the strongest), Kelly Link, Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for models of how to convey tenderness in the midst of chaos, Brian Evenson (Contagion and Last Days especially), Elizabeth Hand (especially her Cass Neary novels), Rudolph Wurlitzer, Rachel Kushner (especially the last parts of The Flamethrowers), Dana Levin (for her poetry collection In the Surgical Theater), Rupert Thomson (notably Death of a Murderer), the short crime novels of Derek Raymond and also Jean-Patrick Manchette (there’s so much you can learn from Manchette about pacing and when to switch from exposition to dialog), Horacio Castellanos Moya (the most instructive are Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror, for how to handle humor and politics and sudden moments of brutality), Ellen Datlow (her editorial hand has touched so many of the stories I admire), and Koji Suzuki (the original author of The Ring novels, just for the sheer audacity of ideas, especially in his novel Spiral). And although they are not fiction writers, the theorists Jean Baudrillard and Julia Kristeva have served as a tremendous inspiration.
But I’ve also learned a terrific amount about visualizing ideas from several graphic novels (for lack of a better term), three in particular: Black Hole (Charles Burns), and King of the Flies: Hallorave and King of the Flies: The Origin of the World, by Mezzo & Pirus.
WFR: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? If someone tells you something you’ve written is “weird” is it usually a compliment?
NR: Absolutely it’s a compliment. Our house—I can safely say—is probably the only “suburban” house in Michigan that sports a gigantic Eraserhead poster that’s the first thing you see when you come in! I subscribe to the theory that the so-called “weird” is what reality actually is, and that we’ve slowly constructed elaborate narratives (political, social, scientific, etc.) to create a vital illusion of order and rationality. The Enlightenment was a hoax. Weird fiction and media are appealing because they remind us of what we’ve been conditioned to suppress or forget: the rules and niceties of civilization are important bulwarks against the chaos, but that does not make the chaos any less real. In “real life” we desperately need and want these bulwarks: they save us from our darker angels. So we turn to art—weird fiction, for instance—to satisfy our deep, primordial knowledge that, my friend, the universe itself is one very weird, improbable concoction.
WFR: Finally, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever read (or perhaps watched), and why?
NR: Honestly, I try to avoid anything that shows too much. I love the elliptical, the low-drone, the dark undercurrent, and find passages of Gus Van San’t film Gerry more unsettling than anything by someone like Jodorowsky. Having said that the strangest thing I’ve ever watched that sticks with me—and I know I’m not alone in this—is the film Possession, directed by Andrzej Żuławski. I’m sure there are far weirder films, but one of my criterion for “successful weird” is that is has to stick. And Possession sticks. Why? It’s hard to say, but one key factor is that there is no irony, no winking, no postmodern overt gestures.