Tremblay discusses the writing life, literary horror, how we perceive genre, and his latest novel.
Some of the best praise for new fiction comes from Stephen King. This is what King had to say after reading Paul Tremblay’s new novel: “Tremblay’s new one, The Cabin at the End of the World, comes out in June. You should mark it on your calendar, it’s that good. Thought-provoking and terrifying.” The Cabin at the End of the World is about a gay couple and their adopted daughter, Wen, who go on vacation to, as the title suggests, a cabin in the middle of nowhere. At the book’s opening, we find Wen playing outside as a lumbering and slightly disheveled man charges down their driveway, insisting he is a friend, telling Wen she needs to let him into the cabin. She buys it for a moment, before the rest of his group rounds a bend in the drive, carrying particularly alarming farm tools. From there the novel takes off, mixing elements of home-invasion horror with apocalyptic fiction, all while focusing on the struggles of a family against the outside world.
Tremblay did a reading at my library a few months back, and the entire audience was enthralled by the opening to his latest novel. Pick it up at your favorite indie bookshop or local library and see what mesmerized them so much. He was kind enough to talk to me about the writing life, horror fiction, and his latest release.
Corey Farrenkopf: If you had to pitch your newest novel to a campground full of random people sitting around a bonfire, how would you sell it?
Paul Tremblay: With marshmallows. Marshmallows are kind of weird. I’m not a huge fan. I mean, they’re fun when they get molten and melty at the end of a stick, but I always burn my mouth because I’m not all that smart or patient.
Marshmallow’s aside … It’s my twist / take on a home-invasion story. Two men and their adopted daughter are vacationing on a northern New Hampshire lake when four strangers show up at their cabin unexpectedly, claiming that they need the family’s help to prevent the end of the world.
I think that all three novels fit together in a thematic arc. All three are about families in crises, and all three involve an ambiguous supernatural element. AHFoG has a lot of sleight of hand and narrative pyrotechnics. DaDR has more of a mystery structure and is the slowest burn of the three. Cabin is perhaps the most focused, explicit, and in your face (for various reasons), yet it’s the most allegorical of the three.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing Cabin at the End of the World?
I was most concerned with portraying Wen’s experience as an adoptee with dignity and hopefully a level of authenticity. Bigger picture, it was a challenge balancing character building with the pace and building of suspense. I didn’t anticipate having to find the spots or beats in the story where it was necessary to give the reader a bit of a break or a slight release of tension before building it back up again.
What is your least favorite trope in the horror genre and why?
The home-invasion story is one of my least favorites. Part of the appeal was the challenge of writing one I would enjoy reading. There are no absolutes, and of course there are home-invasion stories that I do enjoy (Wait until Dark and Hush, to name two), but I’ve found many of the recent entries of that subgenre to be too reliant upon sadism and violence without reason or consequence and too thin in character and empathy.
What are five books you believe every writer needs to read to understand the landscape of literary horror fiction today?
That’s hard. I’m sure I’m leaving an important book out, but in no particular order: Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels, Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, John Langan’s The Fisherman. I’m trying to keep to five, but how can I not add any book by Laird Barron, and the collections from Livia Llewellyn, Nathan Ballingrud, and Nadia Bulkin, and … Fine. I’ll stop.
Which antagonist / monster from any horror movie / book / TV show / comic would you least want to learn is watching you through your window right now?
I’d rather not any murderous villain or hungry beastie watching me, to be honest. I try to avoid actual peril whenever I can. But I’ll go with a recent one, the monsters from the movie, A Quiet Place. My knees and back (from years of physical self abuse) are to the point where standing up, bending down, changing position, elicits a groan. I would not last long in that must-be-quiet world.
What is your favorite element of writing horror? What is your favorite element of writing literary / mainstream fiction? How do you blur genre lines in your fiction? Is it conscious or subconscious?
I like the idea of genre engagement, of joining into a conversation with the works within the genre that have come before and the ones that have yet to be written.
I enjoy some level of realism that I suppose is an element of literary / mainstream fiction. I don’t consciously sit down thinking I’m blurring genre lines for the most part. I try to stay focused solely on serving the needs of the particular story on which I’m working. Working that way allows me to mix some genre lines without realizing it and without anxiety.
Some people still argue over the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction. What is your opinion on the matter? Do you think the distinction is still relevant today? Do people still scoff at certain genre labels in your experience? Any good personal stories on the matter?
The divide grows smaller, but it’s still there. Particularly with horror. Of the speculative genres (SF / Fantasy / Horror), horror gets taken the least seriously, I think. Some of horror’s bad reputation is well earned, but it’s frustrating to have horror continually judged by its least successful or one-dimensional works. I’ve attended some large literary festivals in recent years and have had literary folk generally respond with “oh, I don’t read that” when I tell them I write horror. I had one poet laugh in my face, which wasn’t all that nice, to say the least.
There’s no objective reason anyone can point to that proves a horror story is innately inferior or that it’s doomed to fail as a work of art because of it being horror. Anyone saying otherwise is being intellectually dishonest. It’s obvious to me that class continues to play a huge role in the lack of academic and literary acceptance of horror and genre / popular fiction (fiction historically written by and for the working class).
Can you describe what the Shirley Jackson Awards are, why they were started, and what part you play in the award?
The Shirley Jackson Awards have been established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.
JoAnn Cox, Brett Cox, John Langan, Sarah Langan, and I founded the award in 2007. The International Horror Guild awards were closing up shop, and we thought that would leave a bit of a hole. Our aim was and remains to recognize the best works in each category, promoting the idea that horror is indeed a healthy and diverse genre, while honoring Shirley Jackson’s considerable legacy. For the first few years of the award’s existence I was a juror, but since then I’ve been behind the scenes as a board member, helping JoAnn and the crew administrating the award. JoAnn is the real hero of the award with the amount of time and effort she puts into it. Also, the jurors who give freely of their reading time (and they have to read a lot) are the heroes, too.
Can you describe a typical writing day for you? How does that compare to an ideal writing day in your mind?
I don’t have a typical day. I’m still a full-time high school math teacher, so for much of the school year I’m scrambling to find an hour or two to devote to write. Sometimes that’s before school or during a free period, though mostly it means I’m writing at night before I go to bed.
I don’t dwell on what the ideal writing day might be because I don’t want to be disappointed in all the days that aren’t ideal. Any day in which I get writing done is ideal to me.
What is your go-to advice on editing?
Jeez, I don’t know if I have any go-to advice. I do a lot of editing as I go. When the writing is going well, I aim for 500 new words each day. The next day I edit what I wrote in the previous day(s) before moving on. I always cycle back and tweak and edit and then I add a little more and slowly inch forward that way. When I’m finished with a draft, I print it out and usually read it out loud, too, though I do keep in mind a story isn’t necessarily meant to be read out loud. I don’t want to focus too much on how it sounds.
I haven’t given any advice yet, have I? Find what works for you. (Er, great advice, Paul). Trite, yeah, but I think it’s true. So much of writing and how it works is subjective.
But also, don’t be afraid to try new things. With Cabin, for instance, I tried a new editing technique. Post-draft I underlined the dialogue of my seven characters with different colors and pens, so I could more easily read one character’s dialogue in one sitting. There’s a lot of dialogue, and I wanted to make sure the voices were distinct. I’d never tried that in the editing phase before. The very act of all that underlining helped me notice some rhythms and tics I don’t think I would’ve noticed otherwise.
How do you plot your novels? Do you start with the characters and let them lead the way, or do you know all the events ahead of time?
It depends on the story. I usually have a general idea or concept of the big events, or the macro-view of the plot, and then I let the characters determine their paths to and between those big events.
Some novels I spend a month or so writing a 10–15 page summary. I usually do that for the books that are more like mystery novels in their structure (The Little Sleep, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock). I’ve also written a few novels without writing a summary beforehand (A Head Full of Ghosts). It’s almost like choosing a mindset or tone for the novel before I start. (Do I summarize or do I fly by the seat of my pants, or shorts, if it’s summer?)
Best go-to advice on developing characters?
Every story is different. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach. Generally I treat all my major characters with empathy. Even the ones who are distasteful or do terrible things. If nothing else, it helps as the author to better understand character motivations — understand why they make the decisions that they’ll make.
How did you get started as a writer? Any advice for young writers on submitting to literary agents or to magazine editors?
I didn’t get started until my mid-twenties, which is later than most, I think. And initially, writing was more of a hobby for me, as I was messing around with music and songwriting. I quickly figured out that I was a much better writer than a musician.
Advice: find a support network or a group of likeminded writers (insofar as you share common writing goals) to talk to and share the joys and struggles. I think that’s important. My group of writing friends have helped me through the lows, and they keep me grounded during the highs. You will get rejections — a lot of them. Try not to get too discouraged. I would also advise patience and don’t give in to the temptation simply to give away stories for free or to self-publish right away. Through my years of rejects (I had over 200 agent rejections during a span of almost two years before landing my agent), I learned from many of the letters and comments. I would not have become a better writer if I had simply self-published everything I wrote the instant I was finished with a piece.
What are you working on now, and what can we expect to see on bookshelves soon?
The Cabin at the End of the World came out June 26th. I just turned in my short-story collection, Growing Things and Other Stories, to my editor. Nineteen stories with one novella and one novelette that haven’t been previously published. Some of the stories have connections to my novels, as well. That will be published summer of 2019.
I should be starting on my next novel any day now (TBD). I’m also trying my hand at a short (15- to 20-minute running time) screenplay for a super double-secret project.
Whose new novel or short-story collection are you looking forward to this summer? Or Fall? Or Winter?
I’m really looking forward to new novels from David Peace and Patrick deWitt. I’m also looking forward to other people reading Megan Abbott’s new novel (I got to read the ARC), which comes out in July. Also, John Langan’s new short-story collection due out later this year, too.