INTERVIEW WITH NATHAN BALLINGRUD
Nathan Ballingrud is the award-winning author of North American Lake Monsters. His new novella, The Visible Filth, will be out later this year from This Is Horror chapbook series. He was interviewed by Carrie Cuinn.
Did you always know you were a writer, underneath everything else, or did the realization dawn on you later in life?
I always knew. Even when I was a kid, and talking about being an astronaut or a veterinarian, I always qualified it with, “And I’ll write books too.” I used to write little stories in elementary school, which the teachers thought were adorable and allowed me to read to the assembled class. At the time I felt like a rock star. Looking back, what a pompous little ass I must have been!
You went from studying literature to cooking on an oil rig, being a bouncer, a bartender, and now, back to literature and writing again. Does your life experience contribute to your writing in a substantial way?
Very much so. I was an insulated suburban kid growing up. I was profoundly introverted all the way through college. Leaving school, going out into the working world, opened my eyes up to the wider world. If I hadn’t done that, I’d be writing a very different kind of fiction today. Probably a very bad kind of fiction. And it’s not that I draw from those specific experiences again and again; it’s that they let me see a wide variety of human beings behaving in all kinds of ways. The lives of many of the people, mostly men, on offshore rigs are very isolated, very lonely. It proved too much so even for me, and I typically do well in that kind of situation. Bartending, on the other hand, is the opposite. Bouncing at a strip club, even more so. But in each of those situations you see people striving for some kind of human connection, and behaving in exaggerated ways. Everyone’s dial is turned up to eleven. Together I think they provided a great university in human behavior and interaction. I guess I sound like some alien anthropologist in this answer, but that’s often how I feel.
You’ve said that you sold your first professional short story in the 1990s, but after reading a Hemingway collection, decided that you needed to change your life – and didn’t submit your fiction again for several years. What were you chasing during that time, and did you achieve it?
I was chasing real world experience. Reading Hemingway, and then afterwards reading a lot of Henry Miller and Virginia Woolf, I became acutely aware of how ill-prepared I was to write about the world or the people in it. My first story was pretty decent, and got a nice mention in a Locus review, but I was unsatisfied with it. I was more ambitious, and Hemingway in particular provided a wake-up call. It’s funny, reading him not doesn’t inspire the same feeing in me at all, but at the time he was life-changing. And I think I did find it, because, if it gave me nothing else, it gave me the confidence to try.
You rarely post to your blog, your twitter account is only occasionally updated, but you’re much more active on Facebook. Do you think public social media, and especially a blog/online writing platform, are important for connecting with readers? Is it all, as you’ve said in a post, “like a bad party where everyone you know is there, but they’re all shouting at once.” What, then, is the point of an online persona?
I think online platforms do perform a service for writers, but it reaches a point of diminishing returns pretty quickly. When a book first comes out, or a sale is made, it’s useful for telling the people in your circle, on whatever platform, about it. But thats a pretty narrow circle if you’re most people, and after a short time you’re just repeating yourself to the same crowd, and risk becoming obnoxious. (A crime I think I may have committed with all my review links. Next time I’ll be more moderate, I hope.) And when writers are friends with each other, it quickly becomes a lot of people jumping up and down saying the same thing at once: buy my book. Notice me. Love me. Please, for god’s sake, somebody love me. (Maybe I’m just projecting.) I find that it’s more useful to me as exactly what it is: a social platform. I live in Asheville, which — while dense with writers — doesn’t have many writers who do what I do. I’m envious of my friends in the northeast, or the west coast, who seem to be able to spend actual time with each other. So it makes me feel like I’m at least a peripheral part of a community. I can have conversations that I can’t have in the physical world, unless I’m at a convention. It’s important to note here, I think, that online personas can be damaging, too. There are writers whose work I admired, but found their online presence so off-putting that I can’t read them the same way anymore.
You’ve recently found success with your collection, North American Lake Monsters, but you’re also already into your forties – an age most young writers think will mean they’re famous, dead, or have quit writing. In what ways has your age contributed to your work?
The killer question. This is something that keeps me awake at night, staring at the ceiling at 3 am. Objectively, I know that waiting until I was older helped me debut more strongly, and with better work. Objectively, I know that there are many writers who started late — even later than I did. But that doesn’t change the fact that it scares me and depresses me sometimes. I get jealous of younger friends who done more than I have. I’m a base, vain little man, when it comes right down to it. But, to more directly answer your question: I would have produced lesser work, because I was less prepared to write what I wanted to write. I think it would have sold, and I think I’d have a few more books out than I do now, but I think it’d all be pretty forgettable stuff. We live in a culture that fears aging, and I think that’s a terrible shame. I like myself so much more now than I did even ten years ago. I find the aging process to be pretty enjoyable so far; perspective increases, wisdom — I hope — accrues, and life becomes more beautiful. I recommend it for everybody.
You talk often about other authors’ books and you’re quite voracious in your reading habits. How important is reading to a writer?
Reading is crucial. I’m a reader before I’m a writer; if I couldn’t read, I don’t know how I’d get on every day. I love books. I love talking about them. I love the thrill of seeing a new book by a favorite writer, and of discovering older books by png dead writers. I’ve recently been on an English and Irish ghost story kick; I can’t get enough of them. These are writers I’d always known were there, but never gave any time to. LeFanu, M.R. James, Hartley … and these gave rise to the discovery of a contingent of modern writers, like Mark Valentine and Reggie Oliver, working a similar vein. Literature is full of discoveries like this. And I love knowing that there will be more.
You balance a dayjob, a child, and a writing career – how do you make it all fit into the day?
I often don’t. I feel that one of those is always receiving short shrift. My primary obligation as to be as a father, so that always comes first. I can’t quit the day job, much as I dream of it, so unfortunately when one loses out, it tends to be the writing. That’s a big reason my output has been so slow. My fondest dream right now is of selling a book for enough money that I can at least take six months off, to write the next one. Anything to get a little breathing room.
You’ve talked about how difficult it was to write “You Go Where It Takes You” precisely because you love your daughter so much. As a single parent, I understand both the temptation to let child-rearing be someone else’s problem, and the effect it has on a child when you do leave – I’ve seen my son’s reaction to loss and I’d never want him to lose me in the same way. Do you think that horror is easier to write when you understand the pain, or the joy that pain is taking away? Do you need both to be effective?
I think so, yes. That’s what works for me, anyway. I’m the biggest sap in the world. I scare easily, I cry easily. I’m every storyteller’s ideal target. There’s a character in one of A.S. Byatt’s short stories who says, “I believe every story as it’s being told to me,” or something very close to that, and that’s me to the core. So when I think of how fragile happiness is, or even contentedness is; when I think of how much pain and folly is committed in the drive for love; when I think of how desperately sad so much of the world is, when it really doesn’t need to be, I feel moved in an almost physical way. I think we make this place very, very dark. We do it to ourselves, in the world and in our own heads. We’re just terrible custodians of life. So that’s the engine for so much of what I write. That’s why I think of North American Lake Monsters as a collection of love stories. I really do. That’s precisely what each of those stories is about.
If you could wipe the slate clean – give up everyone who matters enough to you to be a distraction, have all of your bills paid for, and have the time to sit in a cabin in the woods with no connections or responsibilities – would it make you a better writer?
It would make me more prolific, and perhaps somewhat less poor, but it wouldn’t make me a better writer. The connections and the responsibilities are what make up life, and life is what we’re all supposed to be writing about, in one way or another. You have to engage. Somehow. On some level. In fact, I’m starting to feel very stagnant in my current life — I’ve been waiting tables for several years now — and I worry about that sense of stagnation bleeding into the work. I feel as though it’s time to shake things up again. It’s harder to do that now, though, as a single parent. I still have to figure that out.
You’ve talked about a love of pulp fiction, and crime, and that’s evident in your writing. Your characters are often living in a noir world, one which will never improve on a grand scale. They can only succeed or fail when measured against themselves. Do you think we live in a claire universe or a noir one? Any tips for surviving it?
I think we make the universe noir. There’s no question that the world we live in is defined by sorrow and pain. We can make pockets of light, and some people can spend their who lives there. But if you look out your window, if you’re at all realistic about the world, it’s so obvious that we’re sliding into the fire. But the world without us, I think, is a different story. I find a real sense of peace in thinking about the post-human world, and of our insignificance on the cosmic scale. Our cities over-run by plants. Our bones subsiding into the earth. The long quiet. That world isn’t noir at all. That world is defined by light.