Your story, “Sleep Paralysis,” weaves together the topics of sleep paralysis, a medical phenomenon, and the task of an undertaker. Did you conduct any research before or while writing?
Very little research was required, alas. I’m an inveterate sufferer of sleep paralysis myself—it is truly a terrifying experience. For the last nineteen years, I’ve been writing a regular column (four times a year) for a journal published by one of the biggest makers of embalming equipment and chemicals in the world (I’ll let you speculate as to how I landed that gig). I’ve learned some tricks of the trade by reading the more technical articles. That said, there are no doubt some embalming errors in the story. I apologize for them in advance.
Many mysteries in this story are left unexplained. What led you to this approach? What are your thoughts on the nature of dreams versus reality?
Virtually all my stories are written intuitively. I don’t really choose narrative strategies consciously—I just see where the story takes me. This makes for lots of interesting course corrections along the way, alas, and more than a few abandoned fragments. (Maybe I should outline.) But I will say that I don’t like stories that over-explain themselves. I think fiction should be mysterious.
Dreams versus reality is a difficult question. Sleep paralysis dreams seem to bestride both states, and dreams (my dreams, anyway) seem real when I’m in them. As to the real function of dreams—well, I think that’s still a mystery. I kind of like it that way.
Your short story “Death and Suffrage” was adapted by Showtime, and appeared as a part of their “Masters of Horror” series. What was it like to see your work brought to the screen?
I had very little involvement—correction, no involvement—in the film, and it’s a very, very different animal than my short story. But it was strange—and kind of illuminating—to watch it after the fact, to see lines of dialogue that I had written, plot points that I’d dreamed up, presented in an utterly different context. It’s like I could see the bones of my story in a new skin. Very disconcerting, but also rewarding. It makes you realize just how many different directions a single story idea can go in. I should add that I liked the film, even though it wasn’t really my story. I was very fortunate that the filmmakers respected the premise, even if they took it in an entirely different direction.
You’ve said elsewhere that you haven’t held many odd jobs, instead studying literature and ultimately teaching the subject. Can you talk a bit about the academic perspective toward genre fiction? Does this differ from your own perspective as an author of speculative fiction?
Very simply, in my own experience the academic prejudice against genre fiction remains a very real thing—even as genre tropes continue to seep into the mainstream in the work of writers like Karen Russell and Michael Chabon. I expect the boundary to erode further as we go along, but I also suspect that academics will continue to hold pure genre fiction in suspicion. In my own view, the very best genre fiction is every bit the equal of the very best mainstream fiction, hands down.
Which horror authors do you find most inspiring and intriguing, and how have they influenced your work (if at all)?
I immersed myself in Ray Bradbury as a kid, the early, really good scary stuff. Early Stephen King opened another door for me. I read Lovecraft, but always found his work more interesting conceptually than in execution (except his revision of Hazel Heald’s “The Horror in the Museum,” which still freaks me out). Davis Grubb’s “Night of the Hunter,” like Stephen King’s work, showed me that you could root horror in the everyday, rural world I’d grown up in—an important lesson reinforced by the pastoral science fiction writer Clifford Simak. That’s probably the through line—all of them, with the exception of Lovecraft, showed me that horror could be rooted in my own experience.
Are there any projects you are currently working on, and, if so, could you tell us a bit about them?
Lots of stuff. Short stories forthcoming at Tor.com, in F&SF, and Asimov’s, all of them horrific if not explicitly horror. A novel in process (stalled, alas), and another one waiting in the wings. And I’ve just signed a book contract for a series of linked short stories—all of them horror to one degree or another—which is scheduled for publication sometime in 2015. Less said about that the better just now, but it’s coming along.
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