A Stuffed Donkey Named Herman, A Safety-Pinned Heart: An Interview with Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay is an American writer of contemporary horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction. His short fiction has appeared in such publications as Weird Tales, Interzone, ChiZine, Clarkesworld, and Best American Fantasy 3, and his short story “There’s No Light Between Floors” was a 2008 Bram Stoker Award nominee. His published books include the short story collection In the Mean Time (ChiZine, 2010) and the novels The Little Sleep (Holt, 2009), The Harlequin and the Train (Necropolitan, 2009), and No Sleep Till Wonderland (Holt, 2010). An accomplished editor, Tremblay collaborated with Sean Wallace for 2009’s Phantom (Prime) and with John Langan for 2011’s Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (Prime).

Tremblay’s new novel, Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye (ChiZine, 2012) is a dystopian satire set in the City/Pier world that he began developing in some of his earlier short fiction. The novel sets its sights on contemporary American society and finds an abundance of targets, from the corporatization of agriculture to the dehumanization of the poor to the flattening of political discourse. At the same time, the narrative grounds itself in its protagonist’s search for his missing mother through this absurd world, which keeps the book from sliding into abstraction.

Recently, John Langan interviewed Tremblay on behalf of Weirdfictionreview.com to talk at length about Donkey’s Eye, Tremblay’s approach to writing, and the intersection of his own aesthetic with the Weird, among other things.

John Langan:  Okay, so let’s begin with the obvious question:  the book’s title.  Where did you get Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye?

Paul Tremblay:  When I was a child I had a stuffed donkey named Herman, and I plucked out his button eye and…

Actually, sometime back in 2005 I was listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island and its instrumental, “Pree Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye.” As a writing prompt/challenge I decided to try and write a short story with the donkey title. The short story eventually grew into an odd duck novel. So many farm animals!

Langan:  Do you see any more extensive connection between the song or the album it came from and your novel?

Tremblay:  Not explicitly. NMH uses off-beat instrumentation and Jeff Mangum’s lyrics are built with dreamlike images and metaphors, so perhaps the general oddness to the proceedings in SaDE is in the spirit of NMH. My short story, “The Two-Headed Girl,” and within it the appearance of Anne Frank is more obviously inspired by NMH and their song, “Two-Headed Boy.”

Langan:  In general, do you draw inspiration/ideas from the music you listen to?

Tremblay:  Definitely. Music was my first love/obsession, and in middle school/high school, it was my escape and sanctuary. I picked up the guitar in college and I am, at heart, a frustrated or wannabe musician. I’m drawn to the primal immediacy of music, and the visceral emotional impact it has on me. My favorite music makes me feel and makes me want to feel. I like to think that my best stories/novels have or can have a similar effect on the reader.

I’ve written many short stories inspired by lyric snippets (“There’s No Light Between Floors” for one). Of my three novels and two short story collections, four have titles that are riffs on song titles: Compositions for the Young and Old is also a song by Bob Mould; No Sleep Till Wonderland is a riff on the famous Beastie Boys tune; In the Mean Time is a song by Helmet; and now we have NMH and Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye.

Langan:  Beyond its immediacy and emotional impact, do you connect with music on a more theoretical level?  What I mean is, there’s a kind of punk or neo-punk aesthetic at work in Bob Mould and the Beastie Boys, while I guess you could call Helmet alternative metal, and NMH might fall under the (admittedly vague) indie rock label.  As a writer, do you find yourself embracing any of these artistic stances – say, the diversity of styles that characterizes NMH’s work?

Tremblay:  Ever since I first heard Hüsker Dü and The Ramones I wanted to be in a punk band. I eventually figured out I was a much better writer than musician. I’d love to say, “Hell yeah, I’m a punk writer,” but I’d feel a little too self-conscious and fraudulent doing so.  But, yeah, the punk/indie ethos of working outside or at the edges of the mainstream certainly appeals to me. I still crave that adolescent rebellious thrill associated with the cultural weirdness of being somewhere outside of the mainstream. Basically, I want to hang with the cool kids. The really cool kids.

On the most basic of levels, and perhaps this is stating the obvious, I write about what reflects my interests as a reader and consumer of art first and foremost. The pollination and cross-pollination of influence is unavoidable in all artistic endeavors, and what else would any sensible writer do besides embrace it? As a writer, I’ve always wanted to explore different styles and genres, to mix and match like my kids do with Legos from different sets. I think I’ve done so to varying degrees of success. And I have to admit, I get a big kick out of having been introduced at various readings/conventions as “the horror writer, Paul Tremblay” or “the crime writer, Paul Tremblay” and most recently “the science fiction writer, Paul Tremblay.” Maybe one day I’ll just be introduced as “writer.” Isn’t that so punk rock?

Langan:  Do you see, then, any overlap between punk and notions of the Weird?

Tremblay:  Sure, why not? Beyond the idea of an aesthetic working outside of what’s considered mainstream or commenting upon the mainstream, if we look at punk and the varied artistic/political/philosophical movements that influenced it, which at its safety-pinned heart rejects the establishment, we can see more than a passing similarity within this notion of the Weird whose practitioners (Kafka, Lovecraft, Jackson, Miéville, Cisco, Slatter and so many more) ultimately question or reject reality.

Man, how’s that for a knotted, gnarly sentence? Maybe I should’ve stuck with, “Sure, why not?”

Langan:  That idea of challenging, if not outright rejecting, the establishment, seems to go to the heart of SaDE’s narrative.

Tremblay:  Yeah, SaDE is a dystopian satire that takes shots at western politics, culture, and consumerism. All of which are, frankly, easy targets. I tried to balance the exaggeration necessary for satire with credulous incredulity when the reader compares the fictional ridiculousness with real ridiculousness. For example, having my giant conglom Farm engineer its animals to have no vocal cords while telling the consumers that Farm only raises all natural stock, while also having to then pump in fake animal noises when giving Farm Tours is both bat-shit insane and totally (and unfortunately) believable.

Langan:  One of the things I find fascinating about the book is the use of those almost generic nouns to label places and individuals:  Farm, City, Pier, the Mayor.  It’s a technique that has a satiric effect, obviously, and it seems to express a vision of a world in which individual names have lost their meaning.

Tremblay:  Yes, definitely. And with one of the themes in the book being bureaucratic fantasy versus reality, those generic, almost Platonic noun names hopefully help with the blurring of the fantasy/reality lines. I also wanted the setting to be non-specific, out-of-place, and out-of-time, though still somewhere in 21st century North America, and let the readers fill in some of their own details/expectations regarding the settings of Farm, City, and Pier.

Langan:  In this regard, the name/place that strikes me most is Pier.  City – the place where the populace resides, check.  Farm – the place where the food for that populace is produced, check.  But Pier…Granted, you have to have something for City to be built onto, but why choose a Pier?

Tremblay:  SaDE is set in the world I first introduced in the cycle of four interconnected City/Pier stories I wrote in the early 2000s. Farm didn’t make an appearance in any of those early stories, which instead focused on the dichotomy between the technologically advanced City mysteriously built upon the decidedly low-tech giant wooden posts of Pier. With the homeless being shipped below City to the Pier, I figured the relationship between the two places could represent all kinds of fun stuff: a fractured, class-based society that thinks nothing of its discarded poor; our now increasingly shaky reliance upon depleted natural resources; a secularized heaven/hell. That, and I thought having a city built above a giant wooden pier looked cool!

Langan:  Do you see your creation of City/Pier as connected to the other fantastic cities that were popping up in the fiction of the time (i.e. Miéville’s New Crobuzon, Vandermeer’s Ambergris)?

Tremblay:  I’m a big fan of both Miéville’s and Vandermeer’s fiction, and in particular their works set in the aforementioned cities. However, my City/Pier world was at its inception more directly influenced by Jeffrey Thomas’ Punktown universe. His first Punktown collection (published by the Ministry of Whimsy Press) is a too often overlooked gem. I loved how Jeffrey used his otherworldly setting for a myriad of gritty Lovecraftian horror, SF, fantasy hybrids.

Langan:  How about your protagonist?  One of the things that strikes me about SaDE is the way that the larger satire keeps intersecting a narrative that’s much more personal, namely, his quest to find his mother.

Tremblay:  I wanted to ground the over the top wackiness of the dystopia in a personal story, one that hopefully by the end of the novel resonates emotionally. The juxtaposition of the larger dystopian world with the smaller (in scope) personal story was something I found thematically compelling.

So if my setting grew out of Punktown and other aforementioned fantastical cities, my protagonist grew out of my love for Billy Pilgrim, Kilgore Trout, and a slew of other Vonnegut characters. His genius is not just the humor, but the melancholy and genuine sense of humanity that Vonnegut brought to his best works. As wonderfully weird as those books are, my favorite ones read to me like a biography, or an autobiography. I tried like hell to do the same with SaDE. While I’m certainly not the narrator and this book isn’t a factual autobiography, it is the most personal story I’ve ever written.

Langan:  Could you expand on that?

Tremblay:  You’re trying to get me in trouble, aren’t you?

I started the first rough draft of this novel seven years ago. I went into the novel without a clear road map of where the story would go. With my other novels I wrote ten page plot summaries before sitting down to write them. With this one, I went with a more free-flowing approach, throwing in as many ideas as I could. Keeping some, cutting most. I ended up going to a lot of weird, dark places but I decided to trust my subconscious with a lot of it, trusting that even if I didn’t know what a particular scene or idea meant, that I’d figure it out by the end of the novel. It took a long time and many rewrites to build the book this way, but I’m pretty damned happy with the final result. Or pretty damned relieved with the result. Not sure if there’s a difference.

As far as story specifics go, I really don’t want to get too spoilery, so I’ll just say that much of what happens in this book are exaggerated or refracted real life experiences. Some of the experiences are mine, some belong to others. I tried my best to treat all those experiences with dignity. I have, however, never worn or a chicken or duck suit.

Langan:  How do you see what you’ve done in SaDE, then, in relation to your other novels?

Tremblay:  The SaDE universe is clearly a totally different beast than the South Boston setting of The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland. The Sleep novels are quirky crime novels (featuring narcoleptic private detective Mark Genevich) and are a bit more plot-driven then SaDE.  That all said, SaDE explores similar themes, and the emotional hearts of all three novels are very much rooted in their protagonists. Mark Genevich’s hallucinatory dream states give the Sleep novels a surrealistic, almost spec-fic edge. SaDE’s narrator is just as lost in his fantastical world as Genevich is in Southie. Yeah, Genevich and SaDE’s narrator are both working out some pretty heavy family stuff, but what binds them together is that their unsettled situations/circumstances shape their malleable sense of identity, purpose, and reality.

Langan:  So what’s next on the publication front, and can you say a few words about it and/or whatever you’re working on, currently?

Tremblay:  In Spring of 2014 CZP is launching their YA line (ChiTeen) with a novel that I co-wrote with Stephen Graham Jones. The book is SF or contemporary fantasy, depending upon how shoddy you think our science is. We’re still tweaking the title, but most of our title choices involve “floating boy” and “anxiety girl.” Working with Stephen was great fun. I thank him for tolerating me.

Right now I’m working, ever so slowly, on a new novel. I’m about 15K words into it. It’ll be a satire of publishing, education, and our obsession with apocalypse. Sounds like a keeper, doesn’t it?

Langan:  And is there anything else you’d like to say about SaDE?

Tremblay:  The novel is chock full of antioxidants and is high in fiber. As a result, reading Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye will keep you regularly weird for three months and four days. Some results may vary.

5 replies to “A Stuffed Donkey Named Herman, A Safety-Pinned Heart: An Interview with Paul Tremblay

  1. Do the balloons from City Pier make an appearance? I’m still haunted by that story…

  2. Hi Daniel,

    So glad the balloons have stuck with you! Alas, no balloons in this novel. But the priest from the City Pier stories is a character in the novel.


  3. Alas indeed. I do love that story. But I enjoyed City Pier as a whole, so I’m pleased to see you re-visiting it. Will have to give it a read.