Interview: Will Ludwigsen and the Weird

"I am looking for signs of imagination in the universe."

will_ludwigsenWill Ludwigsen’s fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Strange Horizons, and many other magazines. His first collection of short fiction, Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby! and Other Cosmic Insolence, appeared in 2007. A 2011 MFA graduate from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program in popular fiction, he teaches creative writing at the University of North Florida. He resides in Jacksonville, Florida, with writer Aimee Payne. His latest collection of short fiction, In Search Of and Others, is forthcoming this March from Lethe Press.

I recently interviewed Ludwigsen via email about his writing, his thoughts on weird fiction, and the inspiration for both his writing in general and this week’s featured story, “Remembrance is Something Like a House”… What kinds of fiction or stories did you read and watch growing up? Among all of that, is there anything in particular that you suspect of leading you down the path to writing the stories that you write?

Will Ludwigsen: I’m almost sick of typing these three words these days given the book coming out, but it’s hard not to mention the television show In Search Of. My older sister enjoyed it and I kind of watched over her shoulder, exposing myself to its imagery of the unexplained — mostly eerie Moog synthesizer music and fuzzy brown-washed photographs, which is what we had in the 70s instead of the Internet.

When I found the section of my elementary school library with all the books about ghosts, UFOs, and missing people, I was home. Starting with the “non-fiction” weird probably had a great influence because I believed it all as a kid –of course there were spirits around us, of course aliens had abducted Barney and Betty Hill – and it had this veneer of mysterious truth to it. At eight and nine years old, I felt like I was in on something that nobody else knew.

Just as influential was figuring out most of it was bullshit when I turned eleven or so. It changed my threshold for what was believable on the page, not so much the science but how it sounded. The more flamboyantly and breathlessly the phenomenon was described, the more likely it was to be crap. So I think I developed a hoaxer’s eye for more subtle and digestible gradations of the strange.

Part of the reason I’m not much of a fantasist writer is that I find it difficult to simply wave my hands and say, “Dragons exist. Carry on.” I enjoy reading that fiction but somehow I can’t write it. My imagination is too stunted by that early disappointment.

Damn you, Erich von Daniken, for lying to me about ancient astronauts! What would you consider your favorite weird or uncanny story or stories, overall, and why?

Ludwigsen: Good lord, I could list these all day long.

I’m not sure anybody but me would call it uncanny, but I love J.D. Salinger’s “The Laughing Man.” Others that spring to mind include Harlan Ellison’s “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” Stephen King’s “Strawberry Spring” and “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” Ellen Klages’s “Basement Magic,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Intoxicated,” Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” and T.E.D. Klein’s “Children of the Kingdom.”

Looking through all of those, it’s interesting how many of them involve an emotional intersection between life and imagination, a kind of instantiation of words into reality when a character is distressed. Our inner myths and delusions are like wishes that have a wondrous and terrifying tendency to come true. What writers or storytellers do you look up to the most?

Ludwigsen: In my cubicle at my day job, I have a photo frame with pictures of Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Stephen King. I did that originally so I wouldn’t forget what was important to me while people were yammering all around about health insurance, but now it’s fun to tell clueless visitors that they’re my grandparents and father.

One particularly bad day after saying that, I came within about a nanometer of crying there at my desk because, damn, I sure as shit wouldn’t be sitting in a cubicle if Ray Fucking Bradbury was my grandfather. Not because of the money but because he wouldn’t let me. Grandma Shirley would stone me. Ol’ Papa Steve would break my ankles with a twenty-pound sledge.

I feel dreadfully ordinary citing those three in the context of the weird because I’m sure many people think of them as hopelessly bourgeois, only pedestrianly weird. Where all three of them excel is imbuing the ordinary with the strange, which is where I tend to like it most.

My ideas about the weird being intimate and personal come from them, and so does my drive for a simplified style. So maybe they really are my grandparents and father.

Other ancestors include Patricia Highsmith, Robert Aickman, Algernon Blackwood, John Collier, and Ray Russell. Jeff Ford and Liz Hand are my uncle and aunt. Some of my siblings working today are Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn, Glen Hirshberg, Nathan Ballingrud…we’re a big creepy family like the Duggars except our god really exists and is called Cthulhu.

Not a one of those people would claim me in return, but sorry, we’re family.

Thanksgiving would rock, though, wouldn’t it? As a writer and reader, what draws you to weird, uncanny fiction more often than not? When, if ever, does it falter or fall short for you?

Ludwigsen: More than anything, I am looking for signs of imagination in the universe. I’m looking for alternate explanations of our lives that still include the proper amount of folly and selfishness and silliness and courage to still be plausible.

Ordinary” or “mainstream” fiction falls short (both as entertainment and mimesis) for me because it fails to account for how truly strange the world really is. I tell my students that the weird is ordinary and the ordinary is cliché, and there’s really no such thing as a typical person with a typical job. We only think someone is typical because we don’t know enough, and we think our lives are typical because we don’t consider all the odd or miraculous things that happen to us in a day; they smooth over in our memories into a bland average. The kind of fiction I like tries to dig them out again.

On the other hand, I’m sorry to say – largely because it implies limits to my own imagination – that there is a threshold of “too weird” for me that might be far shorter than it is for many other readers of the genre. When your story takes place in a tesseract of calcified prions balanced atop a tortoise’s back, I’m afraid you’ve lost me.

The only real downside to a genre based on “the weird” is that reading to repeat or enhance a particular feeling or sensory impression invites a burnout similar to porn. You start out with the Victoria’s Secret catalog and end up watching rubber-clad amputees writhing in a diarrhea-slicked mating cage.

Or…uh, so I have read.

In some genres, readers keep striving for the same stimulus but it has to become more and more outlandish to give them the same response. The result is an arms race of the weird in which the works become less and less human.

Tell me about a strange person in a strange place eerily attuned to his or her neurosis and you’re more than halfway to my heart. What inspires you the most in your writing? Where do you most frequently draw inspiration for your stories?

Ludwigsen: I talk about this far too often, but I grew up in an environment that, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll simply call…tense. Terrifying things happened at random intervals.

So I developed an inoculating defense against that of imagining things being far, far worse. Usually it begins, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if…” and ends with something that is so absurdly, horrifically bad that the only response is to laugh grimly like my Norwegian ancestors did after a troll attack.

Wow. That’s a very bleak form of inspiration, reading it there.

What it has led to now is this drive in me to literalize or twist or exaggerate reality to have some kind of meaning behind it, a personal meaning. I ask myself what seeing a ghost or being abducted by aliens does for the people who believe, and it inspires me to think that crackpots are really just way more imaginative myth-makers than the rest of us.

Do you spin your early life of neglect and sexual abuse into an alien abduction experience or do you become Aileen Wuornos? Neither are particularly good, but there’s at least the virtue of creativity in the first.

Jesus. That’s getting even more bleak. See? It’s like a reflex now.

Here’s a response worthy of my Grandpa Ray: I’m inspired to imbue the world with some sign of narrative intelligence, some sense that it is all worth it with sufficient perspective.

Yeah, that’s better. And true. How about your story “Remembrance is Something Like a House,” which we’ve reprinted elsewhere on this site? What inspired you to write that particular story? It’s quite a challenge to present a typically inanimate thing, like a house, as an active, moving protagonist of a story!

Ludwigsen: Writers sometimes talk about “turning a corner” in their work, and I’d say that “In Search Of” [ed. Note: the title story of his collection] was the beginning of a turn and “Remembrance” was its completion. The road I was on had been mapped by books and classes on writing in all the mechanical ways, and the road onto which I turned was a dirt track deep into “Fuck it” country.

I think a lot of corners in the arts get turned when folks say “Fuck it” and give up.

Remembrance” was my acknowledgement that I was never going to write a story “correctly” that fit the structures of writing books. It was me giving up. It was me sitting down and talking myself into writing down a bunch of things I loved, one after the other, even if nobody else read it. An abandoned house. Kids exploring in the woods. A crime scene. Weird signs and symbols with lots of revealing interpretations. Fathers and sons. Personification.

I’ve broken into many a building over the years, not as a vandal but as a busybody trying to reconstruct the lives of the people who lived there. They all tell stories. This one stalled until I figured out that I wanted the house to literally tell its story.

It stalled until I said, “Aw, fuck it. Maybe I ought to write it from the goddamned house’s point of view.”

Frustration, desperation, surrender: you’d be surprised how useful they are. One of the ongoing features on your website is this running series called Postcard Stories. Several of these have found their way into your collection, complete with the original accompanying art, which are usually public domain works. Can you explain why you started doing this and what you think it’s done for your writing overall? Do you have any personal favorites you can share with us?

Ludwigsen: Sometimes I think writing is like fighting a complex viral disease: it keeps mutating and you have to mutate along with it. I’m annoyed that I’ve never discovered a repeatable creative process for myself. One of the scary things about all the kind reviews for In Search Of and Others is that I don’t remember how I wrote those stories.

Though maybe that actually is my process, getting so involved with something that I don’t think about how I do it.

Part of the reason I started the Postcard Stories was to see if I could get out of my own way by writing quickly and without excuses, focusing on the thing and not how I felt about the thing. I set the goal of writing one a week in an hour or less based on a peculiar image I found online, and it resulted in about fifty stories that I posted to my website. About two thirds of them were awful, jokes or overly-literal interpretations, but I put them up anyway to hold myself accountable.

When I redesigned my site, I removed most of them, though I’ve kept a few favorites aside from the ones that appear in the book. I like “Nannah’s Cats,” “Violetta’s Workshop,” “Mail Call,” “Man of the Hour,” and “Timmy’s Freedom Ride.”

Postcard for "Timmy's Freedom Ride"

Postcard for “Timmy’s Freedom Ride”

What did I learn? I learned that the less I think about writing as some grand enterprise, the better I do it. The worst of the Postcard Stories were self-conscious and deliberate and the best were detailed and strange. What do you want to see more of, in literature and art? Not necessarily pertaining to weird fiction, of course.

What I want to see more of in literature and art is a sense from the artist that he or she empathizes with someone reading or viewing the work.

You know when someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, I had the weirdest dream last night,” and you wince because nobody in the history of the world has ever found another person’s dream truly interesting? It’s redolent with someone else’s symbolism, mythology, and endorphin response and you can’t summon a shit to give.

Yeah, that’s what happens when a writer drops off the ledge of self-expression and the work is all about him or her. It happens a lot because too many artists think the only two choices are total self-absorption or total sell-out to popular demand.

I think art might be a little better if more artists asked, “What is interesting or universal about my experience? How do I intersect what’s personal to me with what’s personal to other people?”

Somewhere between the loving mirror and the cynical focus group is where good art lives, of course.

Ludwigsen: : What other projects do you currently have in the works, and can you tell us a little about them?

Like everybody else, I’m working on a young adult novel. In my defense, it isn’t a marketing decision but a personal one: I want to aim stories at the same age group I was when they affected me so much. I’m writing a book that I wish I’d had in high school, about how growing up and getting your shit together doesn’t mean leaving wonder behind.

Right before the collection got those reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, I’d grumbled to my friend and publisher Steve Berman that I wasn’t sure I’d write short fiction anymore. It sometimes seems that there are far more people writing it than reading it, and the marketplace can be creepily incestuous, more designed to give writers places to publish than to give readers good fiction.

But I doubt I’d ever be able to give them up, those great experimental laboratories for risky ideas and techniques. I love that you can write them in a kind of fugue-frenzy, falling into a voice and just going through to the end. It’s like diving for a pearl, and I’m still developing the lungs to do that all the way through a novel. Finally, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever read, and why?

Ludwigsen: My freshman and sophomore undergraduates write some weird ass shit in the classes I teach, but I suspect that it isn’t intentional.

House of Leaves is pretty weird stylistically. Zodiac, the true crime book, is certainly about a very weird case. But I think I’ll go with the book that made me feel weirdest, Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness.

It’s the story of a man who has an irrepressible hope that he will soon reunite with a girl who broke up with him. He’s so hopeful that he buys them a house in which he lives on the weekends, pretending they’re together. He’s so hopeful that he writes her letters about the Situation – not the thug from Jersey Shore but the main character’s term for her approaching marriage.

It’d be a romantic comedy if he weren’t so tragically and astoundingly deluded that dangerous things go wrong.

About six months before my divorce, I read this book and it terrified me. It is the only book that compelled me to lie awake at night staring at the ceiling, wondering how much of my life was my own delusion and how much was real. Highsmith tells it with such realism that the weird elements – solely psychological – seem all the more harrowing.

It turned out that much of my life then really was delusion, and not the good kind when you think you can fly or see the future. A lot has changed since then, but I think I’m more vigilant over the quality of my delusions because of Highsmith’s book.

We all live lies, but the trick is choosing the more interesting ones.

See? The weird really is the personal.

Thanks for the very insightful questions! I had a great time.

6 replies to “Interview: Will Ludwigsen and the Weird

  1. Pingback: Weird Fiction Review Interview and Story - Will Ludwigsen

  2. You were always one of my favorite nephews, Will!!!!! What a great family we all have!

  3. All we need is our own reality show. In tonight’s episode: a dozen people quietly retire to their computers or notebooks to write. Next week: much the same.

  4. Dear Mr. Ludwigsen,

    It is seldom that an interview with someone is enough to make me want to search out their work on the double, but damn if this isn’t one of those rare cases. I already dig that you value humanity and empathy as much as other writerly aspects, and hate to say that your kinda bleak viewpoint on our foibly ways re: delusion becoming myth, and then maybe illuminating the original delusion, feel much like reality to me.

    Anyhoo… Thanks for the interesting read and I can’t wait to check out your work…

    Brian Lillie
    Ann Arbor, MI

  5. Pingback: Magpie Monday | Robert E. Stutts

  6. Pingback: 2013 By the Numbers - Will Ludwigsen