Interview with Nick Mamatas

"If writing can do anything—and it can—why not do everything all at once?"

EXIF_JPEG_T422Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Bullettime and the forthcoming Love is the Law. His short fiction has appeared, or soon will, in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Weird Tales,, and the anthologies Lovecraft’s Monsters and Best American Mystery Stories. An excerpt of his debut novel, Move Under Ground, is available on site this week as our featured fiction. You can find more from the author at his personal website and his blog.

I recently interviewed Mamatas via email about his thoughts on weird fiction, among many other things… What kinds of stories did you read growing up? Among all of that reading, what was it that made you really get serious about becoming a writer, or thinking about the kinds of stories you wanted to write?

Nick Mamatas: I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, which shouldn’t be a surprise since those are the books given to little smartypants nerd boys. I liked comedy as well — I really enjoyed Douglas Adams and he was a huge deal to me, but I read Terry Brooks and the usual sword crowd too. I liked Space Cadet when I was a kid as well, but didn’t go ape for Heinlein like many people from the generation before mine did. Whenever I came across one of Heinlein’s political points, I’d think he was just kidding. Daniel Pinkwater’s Yobgorgle was totally my jam when I was eight years old.

When I got a little older, I started reading very widely. I raided my uncle’s bookshelves and found Vonnegut, and famously managed to get a copy of Naked Lunch from the local public library despite being a little twerp of a kid. Around the same time, the films made from Ira Levin’s books—The Boys from Brazil, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Stepford Wives—started airing on free television in the mid-afternoon so I watched them, then read those books as well. It’s a shame that nobody talks about Levin anymore, though of course we use his concepts all the time.

I read an extremely large number of Marvel comics too. I liked Spider-Man because he lived in a shitty apartment by a subway station, just like me.

I always had an idea in my head to be a writer, but knew nothing about how to go about doing it.  A fair number of my relatives are immigrants who do not read English, so it wasn’t as though I had any models or a cousin who had gone to college with someone who had published or anything like that, at all. (Just the other day I was having dinner with a friend with a Native background, and she pulled out a book by Louise Erdrich that her father had suggested to her. I tried to imagine my father lending me a book that he had enjoyed, or that was about “our people”, and couldn’t conceive of what he might hand me.) All I knew about writers came from the book Sport by Louise Fitzhugh — Sport’s father was a poor writer who lived off royalty checks that arrived more or less randomly. Well, that sounded fine to me. And like most little kids, I had really just conflated wanting to be a writer with wanting to be an astronaut, or wanting to be Spider-Man, anyway.

When I was ten years old, I was given as a Christmas present a subscription to Omni Magazine. It was far too old for me — full of sex and weird concepts and whatnot — but it was a science magazine and it was at the time advertised on the television, so my grandfather’s sister thought it was a good idea for her great nephew who got good grades to have a subscription. The short stories there blew my little mind to pieces: I remember especially “God is an Iron” (though I think I read that in an Omni anthology later on), “Outer Space Rock’n’Roll”, “Red Star, Winter Orbit” and “Amanda and the Alien.”

I’d say a mix of all those things still influence me today. What really made me get serious about wanting to be a writer was getting involved first in radical politics, and then in the “World of Darkness” LARP scene in New York. Until then I had been working as a gaffer and camera operator, and was interested in movies and video. Then work dried up, and I had Internet access and there was the opportunity to write either reports for the radical papers and zines, or about digital art and what the Internet meant just as the Web was rolling out, or characters and scenes for LARPs, and I started doing it. I realized that I liked working at home, by myself, so I got serious about it. What would you consider your favorite weird stories, overall, and why?starry-wisdom-1

Mamatas: I don’t want to talk about individual stories, as my preferences change frequently, but one seminal book for me was The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H. P. Lovecraft. I mean here the first edition, from 1994. (The recent reprint is lacking a story or two, and shuffled the order in an unsatisfying way.) It was my Rosetta Stone — it had Burroughs in it, and comic book guys such as Grant Morrison, and more “traditional” weird material. It was virtually everything I liked, at once. That book was a revelation; it suggested that other people liked what I liked. Not just some of it, but much of it. How would you explain your own preferences in literature, then? Especially in relevance to The Starry Wisdom. What were the qualities of the writers and stories included that made it such a creative touchstone for you (Burroughs, Morrison, etc.)?

Mamatas: Well, I was intrigued by the weirdness of it. In a lot of so-called weird fiction, the weirdness comes from the setting or plot. The language is more or less straightforward. Sometimes it’s a bit decadent or anachronistic, but even that is justified by the settings. Some of the fiction in The Starry Wisdom was formally weird rather than just conceptually weird. I like both kinds of weird; I especially like when one manifests the other.

If writing can do anything — and it can — why not do everything all at once? The typical answer is just that people don’t like that sort of thing. SF/fantasy is often held to “pane of glass” language because otherwise the concepts discussed would be difficult to understand. Transparent prose is an artifact of implied reader stupidity, and of a suspicion of coming off as too artsy, or precious. For me, the opposite is true. If we know Lovecraftian themes and tropes well enough, we can and must do whatever we wish to the prose to reinvigorate what’s become a hoary old bestiary and set of scares. Guess what, Adam? You’re still an insignificant speck of flesh and time in an infinite uncaring universe! Boo! Ha! That does lose its scare factor after enough iterations, doesn’t it? So then, what writers or storytellers do you look up to the most?

Mamatas: I just sat here muttering to myself “look up to look up to look up to” and can’t even decide what you mean by your question. I was very happy to meet Samuel R. Delany earlier this year, and Olivia said to me, “Oh, he’s your hero, isn’t he?” and I was utterly bemused. Of course he isn’t. I just love his writing, and his writing about writing!  And from afar he struck me as a friendly person, and I prefer to spend time with friendly people regardless of what they do for work. Earlier this year, someone asked me if I’d ever met Harlan Ellison and I said “No”, and then he asked if didn’t I want to, because clearly Ellison’s an influence, but I couldn’t think of why I might want to meet him. Ellison doesn’t come off as very friendly — if he did, sure I’d like to meet him, even if he were Harlan Ellison the illiterate ditch-digging harmonica player.

Or do you mean which writers do I wish to emulate? I don’t know if I wish to emulate anyone; I just do it. I like certain techniques, like the delayed reveal of a first-person narrator I got from Vonnegut. I like the breathless matter-of-factness of Kathe Koja (especially Kink) but I don’t know if I look up to the writers. Just what they do. That’s a really interesting response. This idea of absorbing what you like from writers you enjoy and moving on is so much healthier than outright hero worship, but even beyond that you’ve made this distinction of a writer as a person independent from his or her work. Do you think readers conflate the two more often than they should with certain writers, letting the impact of one element determine their enjoyment of the other? I can’t help but think of Ellison, since you mentioned him, but also Lovecraft.

Mamatas: Sure they do. Of course, authors do that themselves. Lovecraft’s racism limns his stories. He was terrified of degeneration, of civilization being consumed at once by both the past and the future. I’m on the far left — many of my stories have characters who are leftists, or deal with left themes. If you’re a political opponent, you may find my creative work annoying as well.

At the same time, clearly aesthetics is an axis that intersects politics (or personality) without entirely entwining with it. A superior reader should be able to recognize quality work and appreciate it even if it betrays some loathsome politics or annoying personal foibles. The Bolshevik Trotsky can admire the work of the fascist Celine, but only because Celine was a genius in his own dark way, and Trotsky an excellent reader. When confronted with a pile of shit, it’s easy to give it up for political or other reasons. A lot of my friends are now boycotting Orson Scott Card because of his activism on the issue of marriage equality. I’m boycotting Orson Scott Card because I’m a grown-up and know how to read well. How would you classify yourself as a writer, then? There’s this really impressive diversity to your writing across the span of your body of work, moving between and mixing different genres at times.

Mamatas: I am extremely dissatisfied with how I’ve been classified. I think I made a wrong turn somewhere. In the early 2000s, I had a choice. I was selling personal essays to the Village Voice (which nobody else was doing at the time) and placing them in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and knew a ton of people in the fledgling scene — I could have doubled down on my non-genre writing and been a literary journalist/ fiction writer, or I could have become a fantasist. Genre fiction short stories — my preferred form — paid more in the short term, so I decided to concentrate on that. Ten years later, to the extent that I’m known at all, I’m basically a cranky editor in SF/horror whose stories — which I consider fairly straightforward — are widely derided as artsy-fartsy, and outside of SF I’m a generic “sci-fi guy” who dares show up at events such as the Associated Writing Programs conference.

Like a friend of mine told me some time ago, “Well, your books sell like you’re writing avant-garde bullshit, but you’re taken about as seriously by literary tastemakers as a pulp writer from the 1930s.” PS: the guy runs a bookstore in San Francisco, and even he can’t sell more than one or two copies of my books. It’s the worst of both worlds, a perfect nightmare position along both axes of literary endeavor. My idiot dream was to crossbreed the fantastic and the avant-garde, but as it turns out nobody likes that shit except perhaps the readers of Weird Fiction Review, who are surely the cleverest and most discerning readers in the whole wide world.

Having said all that, I still love SF/fantasy/weird fiction. And I love avant-garde fiction, and I love realism. Or rather, I love some small fraction of all of these. Most of everything is garbage, naturally, but to find the good stuff you have to stake out a particular mound of landfill and start digging. There are also immense commercial pressures on even unsuccessful authors like myself; it’s almost impossible for a writer to write as widely as he or she reads. Try something interesting in SF and you’ll get rejection slips reading, “This is great; our readers won’t get it so we can’t run it.” Speak on any topic outside of fantasy at an academic conference, and you’ve made an outrageous faux pas. A court jester is only supposed to remind the king of his mortal weaknesses, not give actual policy advice, no matter how much he knows.

A few years ago, I started reading a lot of crime fiction. Not so much detective fiction, or books about the police — I mean stories in which a crime or social trespass occurs and people try to deal with it. Noir. The good little bit in the landfill of crime crap. I started writing it too, and publishing it via The Big Click. So far I like it a lot and I’m getting good feedback from the marketplace; my third or fourth ever straight crime story, “Thy Shiny Car in the Night,” is being reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories. It’s like banging my head against a pillow instead of against a wall. So anyway, I’ve started calling myself a crime writer.

I am also extremely interested in alt.lit, but right now I feel like the creepy old dude who still hangs around the local high school he has long since graduated from when I interact with that community. Why do you think those fandoms/readerships – the fantastic and the avant-garde/literary – have been so resistant to crossbreeding? Also, do you think there’s been any improvement on that overlap in the past few years? Do you see any potential for improvement at all?

Mamatas: Publishing is a form of industrial manufacture. The university is a form of ideological manufacture. It’s difficult to find a strange little book if all you have access to is what a chain offers you. It’s difficult to make a case for greasy kid stuff in the halls of the academy if you actually want to be taken seriously.

In addition to buying books, people also buy identity. It’s not unusual for someone who is a fan of SF/F to say that science fiction fandom is their “tribe” or “people.” Forget nation, ethnicity, or social class — if you buy the same paperbacks, you’re in the same group with all sorts of smelly weirdoes. And of course there are plenty of literary lifestylists too. Scraggly neckbeards for the men of the former group, stylish bobs for the women of the latter group. The anime club versus the poetry reading! The hilarious thing is that if a writer really wants to jump from one group to the other, all he or she really need do is change agents.

I suppose that there has been a tiny bit of improvement, thanks again to industrial manufacture. I think it was Colson Whitehead who suggested that the recent trend of literary writers using genre tropes comes from the ubiquity of the VCR in the 1980s. Every nerd watched the same movies, whether they were part of the literary demographic or the skiffy. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ghetto wall, some folks were just dissatisfied with what they get to read and write. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren sold a million copies when it was released, but were it a new book today there’s no way it would be published by a commercial science fiction house. Industrial manufacture trends toward homogeneity, but the best readers really do want heterogeneous reading experiences despite it all.

Now that publishing is collapsing, there’s an opportunity for things to get better, but post-industrial economies don’t really serve industrial workers (in this case, popular fiction writers) very well. And colleges are tiring of subsidizing the avant-garde. They too need to focus on the bottom line. We need to invest in STEM fields, or else the next Angry Birds might be a Chinese product! The Red Chinese, Adam!

So perhaps we’ll all meet in the gutter outside the burnt-out ruins of the last bookstore, trading self-published electron formations and drinking cheap wine out of paper bags…except that paper bags are a dime each now.

I’m typing out my answers during Holy Week. Orthodox Easter is in May this year. I’m not religious, but I figured I’d try a version of a fast for this week. Not the full-on vegan-starvation thing, just no meat. It’s very challenging, because I’m used to living a certain way. Now dinner isn’t just an exercise in eating anywhere or pulling anything out of the freezer, but thinking and planning first, and resisting certain temptations. Pizza without sausage, cereal instead of eggs, lentil soup for lunch and spanakopita for dinner instead of just on the side.  It takes concentrated effort to change one’s habits, even for a brief period. Walk into a bookstore, and try a whole new section where the author names are unfamiliar and reputations unknown? Very challenging! Ditto ebooks — Amazon makes much of its money by push-promotions of certain titles based on prior purchases. How will you even find what you don’t already read? After all this talk of genre crossbreeding and publication, I’ve love to ask what inspired you to write your novel Move Under Ground. What led you to write a story of Lovecraftian horrors arising in the mid-20th century with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs as starring characters?

Mamatas: Well, it was basically my idiot dream. Appropriate an exciting voice (Kerouac’s) to reinterpret an exciting conceptual framework (Lovecraft’s). Few people read Lovecraft pastiches for the prose, after all.

The proximate cause was a conversation my friend, the writer Joi Brozek, related to me. She was journaling in a bar and a guy started hitting on her by telling her that he too was a writer, and that he was working on something that combined “On the Road with…surreal realism?” Yes, even the ellipsis and question mark were part of his come-on. Well, that sounded fun to me, and Lovecraft seemed to meet the criteria for “surreal realism” so I went for it.

I also had foolish mercenary reasons. People read anything Lovecraftian, and anything about the Beats. Both authors are cottage industries, where even tertiary material such as their letters, and memoirs from people who met them, are published. So I figured I’d be able to sell the book to both Lovecraftians and Beat fans — you know, like I thought The Starry Wisdom anthology did! Of course, I ended up selling the book primarily to the intersection of the two fandoms instead.

I also had a goal of writing a book that would last ten years, as discussed in Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. I figured the novel would at least stay novel enough to be a conversation piece. Move Under Ground was first published in 2004, and here it is 2013 and I’m still being interviewed about it, so it looks like I’ve nearly achieved that goal at least. One of the things I really admired about Move Under Ground was how seamlessly you grafted the notion of Cthulhu and his forces rising up and transforming America with this honest awareness of the decline of America in the 60s, as Kerouac and the Beats saw it. It’s really not much of a stretch at all, especially when you read the novel. Was that something you already had in mind before you started writing, or did it manifest as you wrote under the assumed perspective of Kerouac and your own reading of Lovecraft?

Mamatas: I think Burroughs really did all the heavy lifting for me. He saw the systems of the world, the ruling elite, and even language and rationality itself as otherworldly, malefic, and unknowable. How difficult was it to write that novel in the voice of Kerouac? What did you do in order to adopt that particular voice, as you saw it?

Mamatas: I reread On the Road and attended a marathon reading of Big Sur out on Northport, Long Island. That was it. I’m a very good mimic. If I read a few pages of an author, I can come up with a passable pastiche. You mentioned previously your work as an editor, which is really extensive and impressive, most recently with your acclaimed anthology The Future is Japanese. Aside from a story’s given fit for a particular editorial project, what really makes a story stand out to you? Conversely, what would bug the crap out of you in a story?

Mamatas: A story that stands out for me is that one that leaves me hungry for more. Total closure, with every loose end tied up, doesn’t work for me. I want a story I keep thinking about afterward, a story that lets me talk about social experiences and phenomena in the real world more clearly thanks to its existence.

Lots of things annoy me in stories, some of which are even in fashion right now. I’m thinking specifically of long and portentous titles, and the lazy overuse of scene breaks in place of subtler transitions between scenes. This is pretty much the flavor of the month right now, sadly. Incidentally, this is often the result of an attempt to become more “literary” on the part of newer writers, but they end up just sounding like early twentieth century sentimental fiction, with a dash of decadence. Gertrude Stein still hasn’t been born in their timeline. No wonder the crossbreeding you ask about hasn’t occurred yet.

I also dislike stories where the point of view zooms in and out of the character’s head for no other reason than the author wishes to obscure some information, stories where the characters have no libidos at all, stories that suggest that the social realities of the American middle class circa the 1950s will mysteriously regain a hegemonic power in the future for no reason other than the fact that the author cannot conceive of another future, stories that build up a character’s backstory and life experiences just to manipulate the reader into feeling something when the character has his or her limbs pulled off by evil tentacles a few pages later, and stories that start with intense descriptions of the scenery but that by page two just turn into a discussion between two floating heads in a featureless landscape. It’s all bullshit. What kinds of projects are in the pipeline for you now, in terms of writing and editing?

Mamatas: This year I have my first crime novel (though it contains a soupcon of the supernatural), Love is the Law, coming out this autumn. 2014 will see my zombie novel The Last Weekend published in the United Kingdom in a limited edition. I might be editing another Japanese-themed anthology for my day job, and I also adapted a book into a graphic novel for it. That’s not been announced yet though. I also did a little quicky book for Quirk Books called Quotes Every Man Should Know. I paid off my last bit of credit card debt with that, so it’s my favorite book of all time. Finally, what do you consider the weirdest story you’ve ever read, and why?

Mamatas: “Tattoo” by Kenji Siratori, I suppose. You can read it here:

Actually, you probably can’t read it. It took me quite a while to finish it. Three months. I read a paragraph a day at most.

While trying to find the URL, I stopped over at the website for Creation Books, which published Siratori and also The Starry Wisdom, plus many books on film and surrealism I really liked. I’m sad to report that they appear to have gone out of business this year, in 2013. Everything is terrible, everywhere.