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Interview: Nathan Ballingrud

Nathan Ballingrud is the author of Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell, and North American Lake Monsters. He is a two-time winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, and has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Bram Stoker awards. His novella “The Visible Filth” was adapted into the movie Wounds, written and directed by Babak Anvari; and North American Lake Monsters is in development as an anthology series at Hulu. He lives in Asheville, NC.

It’s hard sometimes to find a good place to begin, so I’m going to throw it to you: When did you first realized that you wanted to write stories? What kind of stories or authors do recall as being formative in your starting your journey as a writer?

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember—long before I had any idea there was a business aspect to it, or even work involved. I just knew I wanted to tell stories. The earliest book I can remember really lighting my heart on fire was an illustrated story by Ruthanna Long, called Witches, Ghosts, and Goblins: A Spooky Search for Miranda’s Cat. It had witches, haunted houses, pirates, and even a giant, if I recall correctly. A truly glorious book. I read it to pieces. When I was a teenager, I fell under the spell of Stephen King, of course. Then Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Robert McCammon . . . they were all foundational. After that, I defected from horror and fantasy and lived for many years in realist country. Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and Annie Proulx had a profound influence on my thoughts about literature, and my own ambitions.

You are a 1992 alum of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, but after your first professional short fiction sale with “She Found Heaven” in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1994, you went on a sort of hiatus for nearly a decade. What was it that changed your trajectory at that point? Perhaps more importantly, what was it that brought you back to writing and publishing?

It was a Hemingway story called “A Day’s Wait.” I had just sold “She Found Heaven” and I was feeling pretty good about myself. It hadn’t appeared in print yet. I was visiting my friend, the writer Dale Bailey, and paging through Hemingway’s collected short fiction. I read that story and it kicked me in the heart. I couldn’t believe something so short could be so powerful. I decided I didn’t want to write light, ephemeral stuff. I wanted to write fiction like that, fiction that swung a hammer. I was at least self-aware enough to realize that I didn’t have the tools to do it yet. I was a naïve kid, with no real experience of the world outside my own home, or of a few years at college. I decided I’d rather stop writing than write bullshit.

For the next several years, I stopped thinking about writing. An unfortunate side-effect of my little epiphany was a prejudice against fantastical fiction. I stopped reading genre for a while. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my desire to write again came about at the same time I started opening myself up to the genre again. Two writers brought me back: Lucius Shepard and James P. Blaylock. Shepard’s writing showed me how stupid my short-lived aversion to the genre was, and Blaylock rekindled that simple joy of reading about wonderful things. Pure delight. I owe so much to those guys. Needless to say, I’ve long shed that particular prejudice.

Many readers’ first encounter with your work was with your first collection North American Lake Monsters (Small Beer Press, 2013, bit.ly/2ITR7pw). When you look back on that collection now, six years after it was published and sixteen years since the earliest story in there was first published, what are your immediate thoughts?

I’m proud of that book. I don’t ever go back and read it—the few times I’ve peered through it, all I can see are things I’d like to tweak, sentences that seem a little too precious to me now—but it’s an honest book, and it’s reached a lot of people. A lot of writers don’t get that, and even if my career collapses today, I’ll know I’ll have done something good.

Part of what readers responded to in that collection was your ability to craft emotionally complex characters on society’s margins in order to re-examine familiar genre elements. Whereas horror sometimes tends towards escapist hero narratives or punishment-focused morality plays, the supernatural or unnatural often isn’t the driving force in North American Lake Monsters. Instead, a catastrophe of angels happens in the background of “Monsters of Heaven,” the beast of “Wild Acre” appears only once, and the titular lake monster is dead and rotting before the story begins. These are little genre spikes into otherwise very “literary” stories. Was that the sensibility you were aiming for when writing them?

It was. I’d spent a lot of years just barely scraping by financially, and I lived around people who had never gone to school and felt as though they had no prospects. These were good people, and—especially as I started reading genre material again—I didn’t see them represented very much. It’s possible I just wasn’t looking in the right places, of course. But generally these people were background elements in other stories, and I wanted to bring them to the foreground. Specifically, I wanted to write stories about side characters. What happens if we focus on these people, and push the supernatural element into the background? What happens to these characters who only brush up accidentally against the supernatural, against someone else’s bigger story? That was the core impulse behind the stories you mention, and others like “North American Lake Monsters” and “You Go Where It Takes You.”

In that regard, where do you see your influences from outside the genre? For instance, more than a few reviewers have compared North American Lake Monsters to works by Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson. Those comparisons spring to mind given the collection’s focus on blue-collar protagonists and crumbling families, but your control of the written word and ability to inhabit your characters’ emotional lives make those comparisons deeply apt. What non-horror influences do you find in your work, and how do you meld that influence with genre elements?

Carver definitely, as well as Hemingway and Proulx. Hemingway was probably the biggest. Richard Ford is another. His short story “Rock Springs” in particular. Alice Munro. Reading the realists (that might not be the proper term for them, but I have no academic training, so apologies to those who know better) has been enormously helpful in training me to dive deep into the psychology of a character, and to make that the fulcrum point of a story, rather than external elements. As to how it’s melded, well . . . that all happens on the subconscious level. I think all writers just throw a variety of things into the cauldron, and what happens in there is a mystery.

In a more direct question of influence, could you tell us what you learned from co-authoring the story “The Crevasse” with Dale Bailey? Did working with someone else make you more conscious of particular elements in your style? Was there any particular element of his work, either in style or process, which struck you in comparison to your own?

At the time, Dale and I were very similar writers. I think we’ve branched out from each other a bit since then. What made that collaboration possible—and even easy—was that we were up against a very tight deadline. We’d each been invited into Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound anthology. I was visiting him (we’ve been close friends since Clarion), and we were lamenting over the fact that we weren’t going to make it. So we decided to see if we could write something together over the course of a weekend. He had a central image—a staircase going down into the earth, in Antarctica—for which he’d been trying to find an idea for several months. We started with that, hammered out a rough story, and we each wrote our sections at the same time. We were done in about twenty-four hours, and then we took the next week to revise it. It’s a pretty good story, I think, but not a process I’m anxious to repeat. I don’t think he is either! We’ve talked about collaborating again since then, but I think we’ve evolved into very different writers.

It’s always difficult to try to make observations about artistic development from the outside. What we readers see is only that portion which is finished, submitted, published and (usually) collected—it’s a subset of a subset, the selection of which is often beyond the author’s full control. Perhaps you can see your own arc more clearly, though: was there a point where exploring characters’ reactions to brief intrusions of the Weird or horrific shifted instead to immersing your characters in the Weird or horrific to externally dramatize their emotional lives? Was there something that guided the change from “Wild Acre,” say, to “The Waystation” and “The Good Husband”?

Within that book, I can’t isolate a single point. “The Way Station” felt like a risk to me, and I still think it’s the weirdest story in there. I’m a restless writer, I think, and I don’t like to hit the same note too often. (One of the criticisms North American Lake Monsters received was that it did that very thing. Maybe that’s true.) In all three of the stories you mention, the supernatural represents an intrusion into the life of the protagonists; the only real variance is the degree, and how they react. In “The Good Husband,” which was the last story written for the book, we pass from one state of being into another. The supernatural is almost totally transformative. I’m not sure I can see any more clearly than readers can, though; maybe even less so. I’m not inclined to ask too many questions of my subconscious.

In a way, this brings us to your newest collection Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell (https://amzn.to/2KMLqeW). From a reader’s perspective, it seems that your work has been trending towards embracing more overt fantastical elements. A reader who starts with “You Go Where it Takes You” and then dives to the dizzying world of “Skullpocket” may not even immediately recognize them as stories by the same author. Do you feel that, in your earlier work, you were employing the fantastic elements towards a different effect, or was it a more like a learning process? Do you see moving towards more intertwined fantastical elements as a step in an artistic development, maybe even a growing comfort with the unreal, or is there not a linear element to it?

Hmm. Yes to all of that? Maybe to some of it? Some of it is growing confidence in myself. Some of it is not wanting to be a one-note writer. I love small psychological dramas, and I also love boiling excess. I did get a lot of confidence from the reception North American Lake Monsters received, and that both worked for and against me when writing the stories that make up Wounds. I came to believe that maybe I had the skill to pull off a “Skullpocket” or “The Butcher’s Table,” but I also felt a lot of anxiety about the radical shift in tone. I worried almost constantly that I was shooting myself in the foot, squandering whatever good will I’d manage to accumulate from NALM. But I just couldn’t write the same kinds of stories again, even if I’d wanted to. I liken it to drawing water from a well: I lower the bucket, and I accept whatever comes up. These were the stories that were coming up. Now, different ones are coming up. I hope readers will accept these occasional shifts, but I understand if some don’t.

Is there a particular story that you remember writing and thinking, “Well, that’s not a Nathan Ballingrud story . . . or is it?” Or was the change one that came about more gradually, but which readers aren’t privy to seeing?

“The Atlas of Hell,” which was the second one to be written for the new collections. (“The Diabolist” was the first.) I was reading a lot of Richard Stark at the time, and I wanted to play with some of those toys. I wanted to try something different, too: a story which was all engine, something that didn’t concern itself as much with the psychology of the characters. I wanted to have a good time, basically. And of course I also wanted to subvert the tropes a bit: Oleander is overweight, and a coward. That made him more interesting to me. I love reading about the sleek human sharks that are the protagonists of a lot of these kinds of books, but I’m not interested in writing them. This is a long-winded answer to your question, but yes, this story is the first that made me wonder if I was making a mistake in moving away from the territory I’d staked out in NALM.

Let’s pivot, then, and turn to your influences within the Weird and horror. North American Lake Monsters seemed to often set about deliberately recontextualizing traditional monsters, but Wounds is a different beast entirely. For example, while “Skullpocket” reminds me a little of Brian McNaughton’s ghoul stories and “The Diabolist” or “The Butcher’s Table” might suggest Matthew M. Bartlett’s mythologies, those comparisons are more about the liberated strangeness that seeps out of these stories, rather than specific reference points. What kind of genre influences do you see in your work? Have you seen those influences change over the course of your writing career?

I’m always being influenced by other writers, painters, filmmakers, and musicians. Art always exerts an influence. I can specifically point to Clive Barker, of course. Barker writes about horror as a transformative presence, something I recognize and identify with in a visceral way. The horror is beautiful. When I encountered The Books of Blood and The Damnation Game years ago, I felt like I was reading something holy. It’s part of my DNA now. And of course it would be ridiculous not to acknowledge the influence of “The Hellbound Heart” on my own dream of Hell. Clive Barker feels like a spiritual father to me. Other influences for these stories are primarily visual: EC comics, Zdzislaw Beksinski, Mike Mignola, Charles Addams, and the animated movies of Tim Burton and Santiago Caruso.

In addition, it seems like during the period between collections your published works started getting longer. While the longest stories in North American Lake Monsters were about thirty pages, the “The Visible Filth” was a full, standalone novella, and “The Butcher’s Table” in Wounds is even longer. Was there a change in your process that led to these longer works? Is there a dividing line in your mind between the short story and these longer, but still not quite novel length, works? If so, what do you think the power is for each form?

I’m finding it more difficult to keep things short. I haven’t decided yet whether or not this is a problem. In stories like “The Butcher’s Table,” there’s so much setting work to be done, but I don’t want to take anything away from the characters, so naturally it just takes more words to do it all justice. With something like “The Visible Filth,” I was dealing with more plot than I was accustomed to, but I had the same concern for the characters. It was crucial that I spent enough time in Will’s head that the reader could understand where that final scene came from. Lately I’ve been trying to come up with some short pieces again; I don’t want to lose the ability to do that.

Speaking of, I have to ask: Any plans for a novel in the near future?

I’m nearly finished with one now. It’s due to the publisher this year. It’s another tonal shift—Mars in 1930—so again, I hope readers will trust me enough to follow me down that road. I feel like these first three books are staking out the territory I’ll be working in going forward.

If I might make a momentary digression, “The Butcher’s Table” is a wonderful story and a fitting conclusion to the stories collected in Wounds. Is “The Butcher’s Table” the same story that you had mentioned in other interviews a few years back as something called “Cannibal Priests of New England”? If so, how did it change from the latter to the former? In general, where did this inspiration for gentlemen diabolists come from?

It is! The original idea behind it was that I wanted to write a serialized story, published on my blog. It would be something that I made up as I went along. Very off-the-cuff. It was fun, but it quickly became more complex in my head, and I realized it deserved to be treated like a proper story, not a game. I put it on the shelf and let it marinate for a while. It wasn’t until after I’d finished “The Atlas of Hell” that I realized it was part of the same narrative. The gentlemen diabolists were from an unpublished story I wrote, in the club story tradition, called “The Candlelight Society.” That story died on the vine, but I loved the idea of kindly old devil-worshippers telling their tales, and it turned out they were the missing ingredient I needed to make “The Butcher’s Table” work. I still love them, and I hope one day to have a book of stories just about them.

Back to Wounds as a whole, I must draw attention to its evocative subtitle: “Six Stories from the Border of Hell.” That’s not just puffery, either, as almost all of the stories have explicit ties to an actual Hell. Your Hell is both a metaphysical place and a literal one—a continent that can be reached (if one knows how to pierce the veil) and which is populated by cultists, demons, and other strange things. How did you come up with your particular incarnation of Hell, and what is it like working within such a loaded mythology? Were there any particular conceptions of Hell that you found yourself either drawn to or pushing against?

It evolved organically; there was never an intention to create a mythology. That didn’t come about until I figured out how to write “The Butcher’s Table.” Once that came into place, I had fun making small connections here and there. “The Maw” was written while I was still in the middle of “The Butcher’s Table,” for example, so it seemed quite natural for the Black Iron Monks to make a cameo. Some connections were more thematic than overt, such as the language of Hell, which appears in “The Visible Filth” as well as the pulpier stories. I don’t intend for all of these to be in the same “world,” necessarily. I don’t think Will shares a setting with Jack Oleander or Jonathan Wormcake, for example. But the thematic connections are real enough.

I didn’t want to hew too closely to an existing version of Hell, though obviously I borrowed liberally from Christian tradition. There’s a line from “The Monsters of Heaven”—Is Heaven a dark place?—which I repeated in “The Visible Filth,” because I like to complicate the idea of what our conceptions of Heaven and Hell really are. The angels who appear in “The Visible Filth” and “The Butcher’s Table” are decidedly horrific; conversely, love is a product of Hell, and the imp from “The Diabolist,” as well as all my Satanists, are obsessed with it.

Besides the literal existence of Hell, the other thread running through Wounds seems to be the existence of love. Moreso than North American Lake Monsters, where affection only surfaces occasionally and usually in strained form, it seems like actual love is a driving force in the likes of Wounds stories like “Skullpocket,” “The Maw,” “The Diabolist,” and even “The Butcher’s Table.” Were the twin threads of Hell and Love ones that you set out to explore together, or did they unexpectedly intertwine? What do you see as the relationship between these forces?

I very much intended to explore them together. Love drives us to extremes, and often leads us to do terrible things. We’re often deranged by it. We all need it, we all ache for it. Its absence ruins us. I’m fascinated by this. This is where the idea of the Love Mills came from: it’s something manufactured in Hell.

One of the most enjoyable structural elements of Wounds is how many of the stories share overlapping elements and references which slowly but surely weave a web of a unified Hell mythos. When did you decide to begin stitching these stories together to create a larger whole? What sort of opportunities or limitations do you see in creating an overarching mythology?

As I mentioned above, I realized these stories had a common thread when I was about halfway through writing “The Butcher’s Table.” They all concerned themselves with angels and demons in some way, a few of them dealt with the idea of hearing a corrosive language, they indulged—to varying degrees—in EC Comics or Hammer horror tropes, which made them very different from the stories in NALM. I was far more concerned with how these stories harmonized with each other than whether or not they created a workable mythology.

I don’t see any limitations in doing this, because I’m not creating a strictly defined mythology. The first and the last story in the book are the only ones that really share a set of rules, as far as Hell is concerned. If I were to write more about Jack Oleander or Captain Toussaint—which I intend to do—then maybe I could talk more convincingly about a mythos. Right now, Hell operates as a thematic hub. There are only two pairs of stories I think of as definitively connected: “The Atlas of Hell” with “The Butcher’s Table,” and “The Diabolist” with “Skullpocket.” Both are settings I’d like to revisit.

“The Visible Filth” was recently adapted into a movie, also titled Wounds (dir. Babak Anvari), which premiered at Sundance 2019. What was it like to see that story go from page to screen? In particular, what was it like to relinquish sole authorship of the novella and entrust it to a screenwriter, director, actors, crew, etc.?

It was a surreal and exciting experience. Being flown out to Sundance to see the world premiere of a movie based on something I’d written was a thing I never even imagined I might experience. Sitting there in the dark, listening to famous actors say lines of dialogue I’d written while slumped on my couch, wondering if I’d ever write a decent story again . . . it’s hard to describe how that felt. I felt like I’d stumbled into a life that didn’t belong to me. I felt strangely guilty. But mostly I felt grateful, and I feel that still. I don’t know if I deserved it, but it came, and I cherish it.

I had no qualms about entrusting it to other people. My novella is still there and it will remain. This was something else. I trusted Babak Anvari and his team, and I understood completely that the movie was his project, not mine. I’m not precious about that kind of thing. When you cash the check, you pass the idea to another artist, who will do their own thing. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Still on the topic of that adaptation, has being able to see a different interpretation of your original idea changed how you see your own work? Has it made you think about what others take from your work in a way that might influence your own creative process?

In general, no. At least not in any way I’m conscious of. With that particular story, Babak and I talked at length about what was going on in the background—the kind of information the protagonists are never privy to, and how best to convey that to the audience. A sense of mystery is crucial to that story, but the conversations made me realize I’d been too vague. I added a few details to the story before its inclusion in Wounds, which is why that’s now my preferred version. He fleshed it out in a slightly different way for the movie. So I found working with him brought a fresh clarity and new insight to the story, one which I’m grateful for.

As a final word on adaptations, while we were preparing this interview, it was announced that Hulu has ordered an anthology series based on North American Lake Monsters. That’s tremendously exciting, and lots of readers are eagerly awaiting this show. Given your prior experience trusting your works to others, are there any specific NALM stories that you’re eager to see how this new team will interpret? Are there one or two that you have an attachment to which you’re a little nervous about?

I’m not nervous about any of them, especially after having spent a couple weeks in the writers’ room, and getting a sense of the writers on staff and how they work. They impressed the hell out of me and I have full confidence in them. I’ve always thought “Sunbleached” would translate well to film, so if they decide to use that one, I’ll be especially curious to see how they do it. (The season is eight episodes, some of which will be original material, so they won’t be doing all the stories right off the bat.) I’d also be particularly interested in seeing adaptations of “The Good Husband” and “The Monsters of Heaven.” I guess we’ll find out soon. Sometimes I’m really overwhelmed by my good fortune.

Along those lines, and maybe also dovetailing back into your experience at Clarion, you sometimes participate in a writing group. Being part of a group allows you feedback on works in progress, but obviously the final authorial decisions lie with you. What is your writing process like, and at what point do you bring in other readers? The worlds you conjure up and the level of refinement to your craft suggest a singular vision, but is that the case?

By “writing group” I assume you mean the Sycamore Hill writers workshop, in which I’m an occasional participant. That’s more of a critique group; writers bring in completed drafts, which are read and critiqued by other professional writers. That experience rarely impacts the actual drafting of a story; it’s more for fine-tuning. I don’t tend to bring in other readers, as a rule. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. I think Dale Bailey is the only person who’s read most of my stories before submission. I’m not very good at describing stories before they’re written, and I don’t like soliciting opinions while they’re in draft. It knocks me off track more often than not. And yes, the worlds I write about are entirely my own. I don’t write by committee.

One of the pitfalls of social media accessibility is a temptation to try to read an author’s personal experiences into their stories. For example, your author bio lists residences and work experiences which readers might see in “The Visible Filth,” “S.S.,” or “Wild Acre,” but while North American Lake Monsters resonates with readers precisely because it feels so grounded, it must be difficult when readers assume that you are your characters (especially since most of them are quite flawed). When you write something more overtly fantastic like “Skullpocket” or “The Butcher’s Table,” then, do you find that freeing?

In some ways, yes. But the characters in both those stories are still flawed human beings (or ghouls), and I write a lot of my own flaws into them: selfishness, fear, impatience, bouts of willful ignorance, etc. It’s true that some readers seem to have trouble with the distinction between drawing from emotional experience and drawing from lived experience, or between taking your emotional experience and applying it to characters with dangerous beliefs and actually having those beliefs yourself, but mercifully they seem to be in the minority.

As we wrap this up, when you look back over your two collections, are there any stories that you look at and think that you would handle differently now? If you had to pick one, which story would you rewrite today?

All of them, and none of them. I don’t look back at finished stories very much, because all I see are flaws. I see the areas where I struggled for days, I see the compromises, the stitches and the weak joints. If I’m lucky, most of that will be invisible to other people. In any case, the stories are finished. I can’t worry about them anymore; there are too many others waiting to be born that need my attention.

Finally, what’s coming up next on the horizon? In addition to the concrete projects that you’re working on, are there any still-nebulous ideas or goals that you’re working towards? Given the movement from North American Lake Monsters to Wounds, do you have any wild guesses as to where Nathan Ballingrud will be in 2025?

I’m working on a novel—working title The Strange—which represents yet another tonal shift. This one is set on Mars in 1930. I’d like to write a few lean novels featuring Jack Oleander from “The Atlas of Hell,” and I’d like to write a lot more about Hob’s Landing. I have a trio of novellas—I think of them as Lunar Gothics—which I hope to complete in the next year or so. Three ideas for horror novels, one of which is well underway. Some more things, too nebulous to mention just yet. Now that I have more time on my hands, I’m confident in saying there won’t be any more six-year gaps between books. Not if it’s up to me, anyway. As for what 2025 will look like—I couldn’t even guess. Good, I hope. Good for us all.

Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White has lived in North Carolina, New York, and the Pacific Northwest. He is a 2017 graduate of the Clarion West Writing Workshop, and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in venues such as Daily Science Fiction, A Breath from the Sky: Unusual Stories of Possession, Nightscript Vol. 2, and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6. Gordon is also an Assistant Editor with Kraken Press and conducts reviews and interviews for various outlets. You can find him online at gordonbwhite.com or on Twitter at @GordonBWhite.