The prospect of working for the nameless company in your story is only a little scarier than the working conditions at some real-world employers. In fact, the Old Ones seem to offer a more generous—or at least more permanent—parental leave . . . What personal experiences or ideas inform “When You Work for the Old Ones?”
In Manhattan a few years ago, I visited the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. When you gaze up at the dark windows now—the building belongs to NYU—it’s hard to imagine the horror of all those garment workers, mostly immigrant women, who died in an inferno fueled by employer abuses.
We say it could never happen again, but of course it could. Across America, workers suffer from the heat or cold in big box warehouses as well as unsafe conditions in slaughterhouses and factories. We have older workers living in homeless shelters and younger workers jammed in illegal apartments. I feel lucky to be where I’m at in my career, but when I look at the younger generations, I worry about how their future employers will try to overwork, underpay, and generally suck the life out of them.
This story feels like a companion piece to “Rules for Ordinary Heroes” (Nightmare, May 2015) and fits neatly with your recent (and excellent) Lovecraft genre mashups. Many writers explore similar themes and narrative styles over the course of their career, and in this case you seem to be commenting on the misery of human existence and what motivates our actions and dark impulses. Cheerful stuff. As you write, are you conscious of these commonalities in your work, or do they only emerge or seem apparent later? Do you actively encourage (or resist) these personal trends when you’re aware of them?
As a (mostly) Buddhist, I’m fascinated by the idea that the thing that looks out from behind my eyes is also the thing looking out from behind everyone else’s. I wouldn’t say human existence is full of misery, but certainly we fail ourself (not selves) every day by ignoring the widespread problems of hunger, poverty, sickness, pollution, and unemployment because we think they don’t affect us.
When writing horror, I try to bring to the forefront some of these global afflictions while keeping the story focused on people doing the right things for the wrong reasons. We all have dark impulses, but often we are simply trying to survive—physically or emotionally—while powerful and malignant institutions muster against us. For this story, an unemployed war veteran (allegedly!) is trying to provide for his family and caught in a trap he barely recognizes, but which the reader might.
Clearly, reading Lovecraft has sparked something in you; in addition to your short stories, you’re also working on a military science fiction novel set “in a galaxy ruled by Cthulhu.” But what other stories and genres, or even nonfiction, do you see influencing your work right now?
I could read Karen Russell and Aimee Bender all day. Russell’s language sweeps me away, and Bender’s sense of the absurd is dark and unbalancing. For Russell, check out the snowy ghost story “The Prospectors” (bit.ly/1RF2ZI6). For Bender, prepare to be disturbed forever by “End of the Line.” You can read about the story in this Bender interview (bit.ly/2dFVIKs).
When I finish Colson Whitehead’s apocalyptic novel Zone One, I’m jumping right into The Underground Railroad. In nonfiction, I’ll read anything, and every week I have a special date night with The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Recently I listened to the thirteen-disc series A Colossal Failure of Common Sense by Lawrence McDonald, about the collapse of Lehman Brothers. If you’re looking for a book to give you nightmares about Wall Street, that’s the one.
Although you’ve mentioned on your website that writing a novel has been affecting your short story output, you still have been publishing an impressive number of stories in top venues. Do you work on both novels and shorter stories concurrently (and if so, how do you balance them), or is it strictly one or the other?
I read a tip once on procrastination. I think it came from Kristine Kathryn Rusch, but maybe not. She’s full of excellent advice for writers, so let’s just credit her anyway. The advice is to have many projects going at once, so that if you hit an obstacle—writer’s block, family illness, sudden schedule disruptions—you can bounce into project two or three until project one can be worked on again. I like that advice very much. So at any given time I’ve got at least two projects running, usually three or four. Also, writing a short story is like running a 5k; a novel is a marathon. It’s good to mix up the pace and duration just to keep from burnout.
As a woman of a certain age (I’m thirty-five, always), sleep can be a little unpredictable sometimes. I have a full-time job, an elderly parent to watch over, a pretty active schedule for exercise and socializing, and several cats who order me to clean the litter box every day. Balancing all that and writing too is like riding a bicycle on a tightrope while juggling hairballs. Difficult, but also rewarding. Except for the hairballs.
What other work do you have out now or soon? And can you give us an update on that aforementioned novel-in-progress? I look forward to reading it!
The Lovecraft-in-space novel is moving at a regular clip, and I’m having a good time with it, but for the next several months I’m also writing and publishing a series of time travel adventures starring U.S. Navy SEALs. As a history buff and former Navy officer once mistaken for a SEAL (by a very young and confused sailor), these are great fun to write. Also fun: druids, dragons, and secret societies. If that sounds exciting to you, please check out my website for updates at sandramcdonald.com.
Until then, be careful of the powerful and malignant forces working against us all. And of the hairballs.
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