“Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” first appeared in 2010 in The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology, edited by Christopher Golden. You began Tweeting, er, Twittering the year before. What inspired the story? Was this unique format one you had wanted to experiment with, or did you first conceive of Blake and her family’s trip as a more traditional narrative?
Bernard Malamud once suggested that a coffin with a corpse in it is the ideal work of art: form and content are perfectly matched to one another.
Whenever I come across a new form, I’m always curious to see how it might be bent to fictional ends. And horror has a long history of using the most novel means of communication to create unexpected shocks. Dracula, for example, used letters, telegrams, diary entries, and wax recordings to stitch together a dark tapestry of unease. Blair Witch Project employed apparently unedited documentary style footage to disturb the audience. And so on. I’m sure after just a few months on Twitter I was already fishing around for a way to make use of tweets in a story.
How did you write “Twittering”? Did you draft it in Twitter to limit yourself to 140 characters? How involved were you in creating the @Tyme2Waste and @caseinSD accounts? (They’re still online, by the way, though it seems @bevsez did something to get her account suspended.)
Yeah, that’s right, I wrote each tweet in the Twitter entry field, but instead of posting them, I cut and pasted them into my story. Later, though, I created at least two fake accounts, and posted the first third of the story online. I still get Twitter updates from @caseinSD.
What’s the status of the film adaptation of “Twittering”?
It’s passed through a couple of hands and a couple of potential directors. I’m not sure there’s ever been a fully developed script, though, just talk. At the moment it’s available again, after a period of development with Mandalay.
I think this story is particularly effective because it feels more immediate than even a story told in first person present; many readers have become so comfortable with the Twitter format for communicating and receiving news as it happens. This format also affords the opportunity to convey Blake’s deteriorating mental state just by the way she types—as well as continue the story after she can’t. Your first Tweet, on Jan. 4, 2009, was “Becoming far more wired than I need to be.” So say we all. Since then, you’ve become fairly active on Twitter. Twitter clearly has advantages over long-form blogging, or even Facebook posts. What do you like about it and about social media in general?
Well, actually, I burned out on Twitter about half a year ago, and I don’t really hang out there anymore. When I put something up on Instagram, or Tumblr, or Medium, those services will automatically post a link on Twitter for me, which is a useful way to grab some eyeballs. I have a curated list for news that I glance at sometimes. But that’s about it. I don’t post directly or engage anymore.
Blake’s mom says that Twitter is just like the circus: it has its fire breathers, its clowns, its acrobats, its full-time lion tamers. I ran away with the circus for about five years. Then I went home. Turns out the circus life isn’t for me.
Speaking of short form vs. long form, you began your career writing short stories, including one of my favorite stories ever, “Pop Art.” Now you’re better known for your novels, but you’re also writing comics and editing short story anthologies. Do you find it easier to sustain horror, dread, and anticipation in short stories versus novels, or is it more satisfying to spend more time with the characters and their situation?
Thank you—I’m glad you liked “Pop Art.”
I love short stories. I love to read them and I love to write them. I feel like certain short tales of the uncanny are like a single gong on a lonely bell—they reverberate for a long time after you’ve read the last word. M.R. James only needed fifteen pages to make an impression that could last a lifetime.
That said, to create an overpowering state of suspense, you probably need a few hundred pages. The reader has to have time to fall in love with your characters; then, as the danger mounts, your reader will fly through the pages to find out what happens next. Empathy is everything. The more your audience invests in your characters, the more deeply they will feel each and every threat. No empathy, no suspense.
Your next novel is The Fireman, publishing on May 17, 2016 from William Morrow. Can you tell us more about it and anything else you’re excited to be working on now or publishing soon?
The Fireman is the story of the whole world catching fire. A pathogen gets loose, an incurable spore nicknamed Dragonscale. When you get it on you, it makes beautiful tattoo-like patterns, delicate black lines with gold speckles in them. But then, in moments of stress, it begins to smolder; if you can’t control your anxiety, you burst into flames and die of spontaneous combustion. The spore spreads rapidly. People are burning on every street corner. Hospitals are going up like torches. And as things begin to break down, a young pregnant nurse named Harper contracts the infection, and makes a decision to stay alive long enough to deliver her baby (which has a good chance to be born healthy). Soon she discovers an unlikely ally: a nearly mythic figure named the Fireman who is also carrying the spore, but has somehow learned to master it.
It’s a big old beast of a novel, but if I’ve done my job well, it should be a quick read. That’s out this spring, and then I’ll be following up with a collection of novellas, hopefully by fall of 2017. That’ll be a first for me—I’m slow, and it’s usually three years between books. I love the idea of having a couple things out back-to-back for once.
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