I loved “Houses Under the Sea.” You’ve mentioned that it was inspired by R.E.M.’s song “Belong,” which you briefly quote in the story. Could you tell us a little more about the genesis of the idea and how it evolved from that initial inspiration?
Sometimes . . . often, really . . . I’ll hear a lyric, a line or two from a song, and it’ll lodge itself in my consciousness, where it sits and ferments. Which is what happened with “Belong.” I’m a great fan of R.E.M. I have been since the eighties. When the album Out of Time was released in 1991 and I first heard “Belong,” that one line—“Those creatures jumped the barricades and have headed for the sea”—I heard it and immediately saw the image of people walking into the sea. I have no idea what the band meant, but that’s what I saw. Those lines, they struck me as simultaneously beautiful, sorrowful, filled with awe, somehow terrifying, but also joyful. And the image stayed with me for years. That was actually back years before my career as an author began, but it stuck. It didn’t coalesce into a story until 2004, but it was always, always there, germinating for those thirteen years. So, yeah. I doubt the story would ever have happened had I not been inspired by the band. Actually, R.E.M. have often inspired me. Their lyrics taught me a lot about writing.
I was surprised and pleased to see this story was partially set on Cannery Row. What kind of an influence has John Steinbeck had on your work?
Steinbeck was actually a tremendous formative influence. I began reading him in high school, and he was one of those eye-opening authors for me. He’s one of the writers who taught me invaluable lessons about characterization; that stories, novels, are not about events. They’re about people. When they stop being about people, you’re writing shit. Steinbeck also introduced me to the importance of profoundly flawed characters and their importance to literature. Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men, for example, or the cast of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. These aren’t characters many people would see as heroic or virtuous or strong, because too often readers are, I think, too afraid of their own weaknesses to sympathize or empathize with characters they deem “unsympathetic.”
In the two Cannery Row books, Steinbeck gives us bums, whores, and a marine biologist who exists outside academia. Beautiful, beautiful people. And, I don’t know, years and years ago, I was looking through a book of photographs of Cannery Row before it was essentially turned into the Disneyland attraction it is today. That exquisite, weathered, decaying desolation, what it became after the sardines were overfished and poverty set in and all the people moved on, leaving behind that shell. As with the line from the R.E.M. song, I filed those images away, knowing I’d need them someday. And when I finally found the story of Jacova Angevine, I knew the Row was the perfect setting. It exists—or at least once existed—as man’s fragile interface with the ocean. It exists in “Houses Under the Sea” as a parable of man’s simultaneous ruthless exploitation and awe of the sea, and, too, of humanity’s constant, idiotic romanticization of the past. The characters are not truly walking along Cannery Row. They’re walking along a theme-park zombie that once was the Row.
What research did you do for this story? Did you reread any Lovecraft stories before or while you wrote it?
When I’m writing, research is always a combination of what I already have in my head—which is sort of a disorganized encyclopedia—and on-the-fly research. In this case, I think that hard part was getting the science and technology concerning deep-sea submersibles as right as I possibly could without going to Monterey and climbing aboard the ships. Now, that’s how the story should have been researched, yes, but there aren’t many authors who have the luxury of that sort of thing, and I’m sorry to say that, Mr. Hemingway. So, I don’t know how many hours I must have spent studying ROV schematics and specs and whatnot, but a lot of hours. That, I would say, was the bulk of the research done immediately before and as I wrote the story.
As to Lovecraft, no, I didn’t read any of his stories while I was writing “Houses Under the Sea,” but I’d already read every bit of fiction he ever wrote, over and over again. I live in fear of pastiche, so if an author or authors—in this case Lovecraft, also Steinbeck—serves as an inspiration, I avoid reading them while I write the story they’ve inspired. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, his Deep Ones and Dagon, and especially Mother Hydra, they were all jumping off points—as were Steinbeck and R.E.M.—but I also wanted the story to be its own thing, not just some “mythos” tale.
By the way, Lovecraft wrote virtually nothing about Mother Hydra, which is one reason I’ve used that deity repeatedly. She’s really nothing more than a shadow in his work, a force he hints at. Makes her a lot more interesting to me than, say, Cthulhu. Also, it’s an opportunity to feminize the Weird. “Houses Under the Sea” is a tale of goddess cult gone . . . maybe gone wrong. Maybe gone exactly right. Probably, the story could have ended no way except the mass drowning. Willing sacrifice to that which is vastly greater than humanity. Or, conversely, it’s about mass hysteria and the danger of charismatic personalities. Regardless, “Mother Hydra” becomes a metaphor for, a personification of, the sea.
When you write stories like this that include pieces of news reports and found documents, do you start with them first, add them as you go, or construct them at the end after discovering where the plot takes you? How do you strike the right tone with each fragment?
I don’t know I’m going to need them until I get to that part of the story. Well, usually not. Here, our narrator is a journalist, so I had a pretty good idea those snippets were coming. But I didn’t write them or sketch them out before hand. I don’t use outlines, anything like that, when I write. But when I reached, say the CNN clip, I had to stop and spend a day or so reading CNN reports to get the feel of the voice down, because if I’m going to employ that sort of device, it absolutely has to be authentic. Same with those excerpts from Theo Angevine’s novels, and that was actually much more difficult than the news reports. I had to pause to create the voice of an author who isn’t me, whose work isn’t mine. Otherwise, I’ve failed. And I have to be able to sustain that voice across more than one excerpt, so they appear to have been written by the same author. This was something I had to do extensively in The Red Tree. Truthfully, this is one of the things I love to do, creating “found” artifacts within stories and novels—found film, books, paintings, whatever. It’s a fascinating device, and one I expect I’ll employ for many years to come.
We see the Open Door of Night cult again in your Tiptree-Award-winning novel, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, and meet someone else whose life it has changed. Did this story inspire the novel, or did the link between them grow in the writing?
No. The story didn’t inspire the novel. I didn’t even see the connection until I was very deep into writing The Drowning Girl: A Memoir. Then, well, it was just obvious to me. I don’t want to say too much about that, though, because I don’t want to spoil the novel for anyone who hasn’t read it, and, too, the Open Door of Night is, I think, a fairly minor element in the novel. By the way, the cult also makes an appearance in a story I wrote with Sonya Taaffe, “In the Praying Window.” It might crop up in still other stories, as well. I can’t recall offhand.
What can readers expect to see from you next?
At the moment, I’m finishing up the second Siobhan Quinn novel, Red Delicious, the sequel to Blood Oranges. These three novels came about after writing The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, because I was emotionally exhausted, and I needed to do something fun. So, I decided to poke fun at the mess “paranormal romance” and “shifter” porn has made of urban fantasy, to rip apart those conventions, deconstruct and disembowel them. So, yeah . . . I’ll finish Red Delicious this spring, and then write the last book in that trilogy, Cherry Bomb, this summer. Also, I’m scripting Alabaster, a series for Dark Horse Comics, a reboot of my Dancy Flammarion character who first appeared—in a rather different incarnation—in my second novel, Threshold. Subterranean Press will be releasing my ninth short fiction collection, The Ape’s Wife and Other Stories, this summer, or maybe this autumn, so I’ve been editing that. And I think that’s quite enough for one year.
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