A LITTLE OF EVERYTHING

The latest Written Backwards interview is with John Langan. author of such novels as House of Windows and The Fisherman, as well as numerous fiction collections, including Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy EncountersThe Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographiesand his latest Sefira & Other Betrayals. His work can be found in magazines and anthologies all over the world. We discuss a little of everything …

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Michael Bailey: When overhearing people discussing the fiction of John Langan (because I often find myself doing most of the listening and not much of the talking while in crowds), I often hear things like “literary” and “quiet horror.” What do you consider quiet horror, and likewise what do you consider literary?

John Langan: “Quiet horror” is a term I associate with the years surrounding the Splatterpunk movement, when it was thrown up as a more restrained alternative to the work of Skipp & Spector, Schow, etc. At the time, quiet horror was connected to writers such as Charles Grant and Steve Rasnic Tem. If I’m not mistaken, Doug Winter wrote a review essay arguing (compellingly, to my mind) that the apparent differences between the groups were vastly outweighed by their similarities. In the years since then, the term quiet horror has been employed in a less-systematic way in an attempt to identify works of horror in which the emphasis is on atmosphere and subtlety of effect rather than more dramatic narrative moves. Although I haven’t made a systematic study of it, I have the sense that it’s applied to those writers we associate with the classic tradition of the ghost story, with M.R. James or Susan Hill. The problem is, if you read James’s fiction, then you’ll find that there’s a lot of delightfully over-the-top stuff going on. (I also suspect that this more recent use of quiet horror is an attempt to draw a line between it and more cinematically inflected fiction, i.e. zombie narratives.)

As for the word “literary,” it’s one of those that tends to cause all manner of uproar, isn’t it? As I see it, the most important thing to remember about “literary” is that it’s an adjective, not a noun. In other words, it describes a certain set of characteristics that can be applied to any kind of fiction. What those characteristics are may be subject to debate, although I’m reasonably sure they would include attention to character and style. I think it was Nabokov who said that the literary is that which we are always rereading, and I like that definition very much.

MB: In the acknowledgments for your debut novel, House of Windows, you wrote, “This book had a hard time finding a home: the genre people weren’t happy with all the literary stuff; the literary people weren’t happy with all the genre stuff.” Who is your intended audience?

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JL: It used to be that I read everything I wrote to my wife. So while I wrote whatever I did because I wanted to read it, myself, she was my first audience. Then, after our son was born, it became harder to maintain this practice. I still have her in mind as my ideal reader, but these days, I’m also thinking about friends such as Laird Barron, Stephen Graham Jones, and Paul Tremblay. Anytime I write something that these guys like, I know I’ve made contact with the ball.

MB: Who do you write for? Who should anyone write for?

JL: At the risk of being redundant, I write for myself, my wife, my friends, and then anyone who’s willing to pick up the story or book and give it a chance. I’m not sure that there’s a universal answer for the second question—although it would seem to me difficult not to be writing for yourself—but I think you should write for whoever helps you to write. If writing for yourself alone is enough to make that happen, then that’s great. If writing for someone else helps, then that’s fine, too.

MB: Having read The Fisherman, which won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel a few years ago, I would have to say that I would consider it a multitude of things (horror being one of them), but not necessarily any one thing over the other. It’s horror, sure, but it could be considered cosmic horror, or Lovecraftian, or “quiet,” the way Victor LaValle’s wonderful novella The Ballad of Black Tom is a little of each of those things. What do you consider The Fisherman?

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JL: I’m happy to call it a horror novel, but that’s because I subscribe to a big-tent view of horror, in which all manner of narratives can be gathered under its folds. I tend to think that fiction in general is a fundamentally hybrid or mixed art (an idea indebted in no small part to the ideas of the literary critic M.M. Bakhtin), so it seems to me entirely appropriate that all manner of genres and sub-genres should be part of a novel.

MB: Is there a need for genre and sub-genre? I recently read a post by a prolific writer in which he stated (not verbatim) that he doesn’t write horror, or science fiction, or any one thing; he simply writes what he wants to write, and lets other people determine what they want to call it. Do you agree?

JL: From a critical perspective, I don’t see anything wrong with having categories that allow you to point out similarities between different works of literature. From a reader’s perspective, I don’t see anything wrong with having categories that allow you to find books that are similar to those you’ve enjoyed already. And from a writer’s perspective, I don’t see anything wrong with having a tradition to engage with in my work. So I guess as long as the genre category functions in an expansive way, in a way that brings more to the critic / reader / writer, I’m quite happy with it.

MB: I once overheard an editor say that she wished you wrote more often. Your first novel was published in 2009, and your second in 2016. But between that seven-year span you also published two fiction collections: Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008) and The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013), and co-edited an anthology with Paul Tremblay called Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters. That’s four books in seven years (five if you count the anthology, which I do, because I know how much work goes into them), which I would say is a good pace. Do you wish you wrote faster, or published more often?

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JL: Over the past several years, I’ve published a reasonable number of stories—as well as, very recently, a third collection of stories. My problem is, in part, that many of those stories have appeared in smaller press publications, which someone who’s read, say, The Fisherman may not necessarily have heard of. But I have enough material for at least another three collections after Sefira, and I’m hoping to do something about that sooner rather than later.

I do, however, wish I were one of those writers who can toss off a novella in a week. In part, my daily process means that I don’t work particularly quickly: I do a lot of revising as I’m writing. I’ve also learned that some works require more time than others to complete, and may need to be put aside for a while. (This was the case with both The Fisherman and Sefira, the title piece in my new collection, both of which took me years to finish.) And while I’ve enjoyed a great deal of success with my writing, it hasn’t been enough to support me and my family, which means I need to work a day job, which cuts into my writing time. In addition, I’ve been reviewing horror and dark fantasy for Locus magazine, which also requires a certain amount of time that would otherwise go to fiction writing.

Moving ahead, I’d like to devote a bit more time to writing longer works, especially novels.

MB: What are your writing and / or publishing habits? Do you write when you want to write? Do you set goals?

JL: I try to write every day, with a goal of completing a page a day. When I’m not working a day job, it’s easier to maintain that schedule. In terms of publishing habits, I’ve tried to say yes to every invitation to contribute to an anthology I’ve received. (Which I suppose has cut into my novel writing.) I have immediate goals, usually to have something done on or not too far past the deadline. My long-term goals are a bit more nebulous: I would very much like to complete one hundred stories and ten novels—arbitrary numbers, I know, but ones that help me have some sense of how I’m doing, overall. I think I’m up to around sixty stories, with several more underway; while I have plans for another six novels if I can ever find the time to write them.

MB: You have been a finalist for the International Horror Guild Award, a Bram Stoker Award nominee for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection for Mr. Gaunt, and won for your novel The Fisherman, as well as serve on the Board of Directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards. What do awards mean to you, and what do you believe they should mean to other writers?

JL: The recognition an award nomination brings is a fine thing, while an award can certainly make your day. In my case, the Bram Stoker was the award I had first wanted to win, back when I was a teenager and it was created, so while I could not have complained had any of the other writers I was on the ballot with won it, there was a special delight in hearing my name read out on that night.

At their best, awards can shine light on deserving work, leading readers to writers they might not otherwise have encountered. That said, in any award process, there’s always going to be work that is overlooked, that may not come to light until years later. And even if you win an award, you still have sit down to write the next day. So awards should be enjoyed, but not used as the final measure of success—which is, after all, having readers for your work.

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  1. July 29th, 2019

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