An Interview with Nick Mamatas
Nick Mamatas is a writer who straddles interesting ground in contemporary fiction. He’s been called a horror writer, but that ’s not quite right. His nonfiction has been in the Village Voice, stories have appeared in places bridging the gap from slick magazines to homebrewed zines, from the Mississippi Review to the Brutarian Quarterly, and he’s been nominated for the Bram Stoker award for two of his longer works of fiction and Move Under Ground, his first novel, was also nominated by the International Horror Guild Award -- but his work lands on genre recommended reading lists because it’s provocative and mind-scorching speculative satire, not because it has skeletons jumping from the covers.
And with Under My Roof being released, what Mamatas is known for is about to change. Roof is a wise, witty and groundbreaking novel about a twelve-year-old telepath who tells the story of his father seceding from the United States and forming a motley commune. The book is written in the first person omniscient but it’s not gimmicky and, thanks to its subtleties and humor, the way it uses the unusual to give insight into the everyday, Under My Roof is going to end up on a much wider range of recommended reading lists. It’s not kinder, but -- especially in how it peeks into what it’s like to be the parent of a really bright kid -- it may be gentler.
In the horror world, Nick Mamatas may not need an introduction, but this new book isn’t a horror novel and deserves the new look, from a new audience, that it’s about to earn. Some may go so far as to call it a stunning leap forward by a writer who was already well regarded. Under My Roof is still cutting edge, maybe even transgressive, but -- heads up booksellers and book buyers, this part is important -- it’s a no-brainer for women’s book groups because it’s short, well-paced and full of ideas without seeming full of ideas.
With transparent prose telling the story of nuclear proliferation taken to suburban streets, from the pitch-perfect voice of the twelve-year-old narrator to the wonderful up-close look at how the neighbors, government and media might respond if a home in suburbia got the bomb, Mamatas has pulled off the rare feat of writing a novel that’s intelligent, joyfully probing and still breezy fun to talk about over appetizers or desserts.
How would you describe your writing to someone who isn't familiar with it?
Oh, I guess you could call it genre fiction -- fantasy and horror -- written by someone who really came to the genre from all the wrong angles: William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Liquid Sky instead of Star Wars. Hell, I was in my 20s before I read Stephen King, and now I've been nominated for horror fiction awards three times.
The nonfiction is a mish-mash of radical politics and jaundiced pop culture/counterculture reportage. I used to read Creem for the captions before it turned into an oversized Spin analog. The writing is really all motivated by my great desire to work from home so I won't have to get up early.
You're a Lovecraftian, so putting Cthulhu in Move Under Ground might not be shocking, but what made you want to use Jack Kerouac's voice of bop prosody for a narrator?
I'm a Lovecraftian? What does that mean? I'm surely not receiving invitations to write for all those Mythos anthologies that keep getting published. I just wonder why this question wasn't inverted. "You're a Kerouacian, so putting Jack in Move under Ground, might not be shocking..." Anyway, Kerouac and Lovecraft are two peas in a pod as far as I am concerned. Mother issues, check. New England outsiders, check. Aimed at but fell short of the Ivy League, check. Whispers and rumors of homosexuality, check. The center of circles of correspondents, writers, and now cults of readers, check. Long, baroque sentences that sometimes collapsed under their own weight to such an extent that they punched through space-time and became utterly weightless and perfect, check. Victims of dozens of horrible pastiches, check. Plus, if you read Doctor Sax, it's all there.
From the opposite perspective, H. P. Lovecraft invited other writers to use his mythos, but what do you think Lovecraft would've thought of Move Under Ground?
I suppose he would have been upset but polite. Declassed aristocrats are always polite to one's face, even if they fume and rage after the fact, in the privacy of their rooms or journals. How would anyone feel who has a book-length critique of their own fiction presented to them, in novel form?
How much research did it take to crib Kerouac's voice?
Oh, I just reread On the Road; I had it in my lap and would flip around while writing Move Under Ground. Mimicry is an easy skill. Most writers just mimic whatever came out three years ago, after all. I'd read enough Keroauc and enough about Kerouac in my life to hit the rhetorical high points.
You're editing Clarkesworld Magazine and three issues have run. How is it going so far?
It's going fairly well. Reading all the unsolicited submissions is a tedious chore, and there is what I can only call widespread confusion over what good writing is, but I enjoy the chance to discover new writers and pay them well, and I love the stories I've bought so far. The main issue is that with Clarkesworld I want language and voice to be important, and 90% of the writers who submit their work to me have absolutely no interest in language and voice. Imagine running a factory and soliciting bids to create some necessary widget that must be made out of platinum, and getting twenty proposals a day for pewter widgets. No matter how slowly or carefully I say "plat-i-num," most of what I get involves someone holding up their story and saying, as
slowly, but surely not as carefully "Peeeeew-tuuuur." Then some small fraction gets huffy. Everyone wants pewter widgets, dammit. In fact, pewter is so popular that cultural alchemy takes place and it becomes platinum.
And you’re currently earning an MFA. How has that experience been for you so far?
It's been shocking, honestly. I've never had a very high opinion of the MFA experience, as I've heard many tales from friends of mine who have been through some pretty prestigious programs -- and I've read plenty of mediocre stories from grads -- but I still was not prepared for just how viciously passive-aggressive some of the students can be toward their classmates and their teachers. The things I heard as anecdotes -- the flip-outs, the sneering at any level of success other than their own, the posing, the incessant brown-nosing and validation-seeking oriented toward the faculty -- are too often the actual rhetorical currency of the program. Of course, this is still a small minority of the students, but their volume belies their numbers.
Coming from an SF/F background, I came up with a pretty solid understanding of how writing and publishing can work: it's futile to argue with reviews, the money flows toward the writer, a rejection of a story is not the same as the rejection of one's personality or as one's identity as a writer. The SF/F writer/reader community has always been pretty close and writers accessible, so a lot of real information quickly and freely "leaks down" to the fans and aspiring writers. One learns a lot about how to conduct oneself as a writer without having to hand a college thousands of dollars to attend the literary version of Fantasy Baseball Camp first. But all of that is gone in this new environment. Being a student in an MFA program after having spent a decade selling your writing is like being in a burn ward and trying to dance with the patients, their skin scrubbed to the nerve. But, you know, if you want to teach, you need the magic letters, so there I am.
I hope that by next semester I'll actually win that crucial "double space your manuscripts" argument.
What’s your relationship with horror? You have an essay in a new book on writing horror and you’ve been nominated for a Stoker twice, but Under My Roof and Northern Gothic are published by Soft Skull, who aren’t known for genre…
Well, Under My Roof isn't horror. Northern Gothic is, and it is also a 25,000 word novella... not usually the sort of thing that would be published as a stand-alone trade paper original, unless, of course, an independent press comes on the scene. Soft Skull has published a wide variety of fiction: pomo stuff, politically engaged material, and stuff that skirts the edges of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. But their stuff, and my stuff, isn't the sort of material that is going to work as a mass market paperback original, or even as a trade paper with a skeleton or a spaceship on the cover. It's sometimes genre fiction, but it's not "slot" fiction. And that's why I have no money. On the other hand, I've also published short horror and SF in slick men's magazines such as Razor and music magazines including Germany's Spex, and made twenty times the money and gained twenty times the readers than I would have had those stories been more appropriate for the few digest and newsprint genre magazines that exist.
I like horror fiction, though I generally come at it as a writer from either an SFnal framework or as transgressive fiction. Do people still say "transgressive fiction"? I mean, printing up a few thousand books and meeting with the sales reps and sending out review copies and hoping to sell them all and make a 9% ROI within nine months just isn't transgressive, no matter how many people get fisted or murdered in the text, but still, as a tradition, the stuff labeled transgressive fiction is of interest to me. My friend John Langan is fond of saying that horror is very capacious, and it is. Horror necessarily deals with social trespass, so can be very handy at exploring all sorts of themes. It's also often, but not essentially, conservative, with the social trespass being reversed in the third act through the exercise of middle-class morality in the name of the family. I think the decline of the mass market imprints and the elimination of the horror section in the bookstore due to low sales is the best thing to happen to horror in a long time. The field is clear, so we can do new things now.
Under My Roof is, after a fashion, science fiction.
You’ve described Under My Roof as a book for young adults. How does it feel to tell children that there is no God, that the nation-state is a lie, and then teach them how to build a nuclear weapon?
Well kids, let me start off by saying that you shouldn't try to follow the recipe to make a nuclear weapon as provided in the first chapter of the book. Your genitals will fall off before you get halfway through.
If you're lucky. But it is funny to me how many people have asked me, with all seriousness, if I had any concern about building the nuke in the book. It's just high school physics, not nuclear secrets. Hell, if these were nuclear secrets, how would I have had access to them? A lot of it is just a pure fear and distrust of science. If you're against science in the first place, every set of hands are those legendary "wrong hands" that bad technology could fall into. Plato felt much the same way about the propagation of reading and writing to the lower social orders too.
Under My Roof is a young adult book in that there is no cursing or sex... well, YA books are full of those things anyway. Well, there is this kid, Herbie, and he's the hero and is wise beyond his years... no, wait, that's in all sort of adult literature too now. Mmm, it's short? YA books are still short, right? I mean, except for the War and Peace-sized brick of the last Harry Potter novel. But I do think kids should read this book. I mean, better they find out that the nation-state is a lie now, right? If you have some sullen cousin or nephew who is just beginning to slouch and respond to every query with a cracked-voice "Whutevah," you should buy him or her this book for the holidays. It'll be a life-changing event. For me, anyway.
Your work covers as much ground as a writer can, from memoir and journalism to pop culture criticism and a wide range of fiction, but, regardless, Under My Roof is still a shift from what you're known for, however someone chooses to define what you're known for. Was it tricky to balance punk rock transgression with doing something different?
"Punk rock transgression"? Is that like "Lovecraftian"? I'm not known for much, but I do think there are some similarities between Under My Roof and Move Under Ground, including that thunderclap of sudden knowledge that motivates a protagonist, for example. As far as balance goes, I have no interest in that sort of thing. I don't care about balance at all. The whole point of being a writer is not to have a boss, right? So why write things to order, or for the sales departments, or based on some ninth-hand estimation of what readers want? With all the effort it takes to get published and published frequently, if one is only interested in maximizing income, one should just spend half that energy on opening a dry cleaners in a strip mall somewhere.
Herbert Weinberg, Roof's twelve-year-old narrator, is telepathic and sometimes wise beyond his years. How hard was it to nail his voice? Did it change in the process of writing the book?
It was very easy to nail Herb's voice. I was an annoying twelve-year-old once as well, after all. I stopped writing the book to move across country, and then I wrote a little bit more, and then I moved across the country again and wrote the rest of it. In the midst of all this, I truly became an adult by joining the conspiracy against children of which we're all a part. I encountered some school kids being chaperoned across the street by their teacher and she pointed at me and told a couple of misbehaving children that if they didn't stop, she'd let me have them. Without thinking I raised my arms and growled to play along with the teacher's attempt to intimidate and terrify these dangerous six year-olds. After that, I realized what the ultimate message of the book had to be.
Along with humor, wit, and insight into the human condition, Roof is a political novel about Herbie's dad building a nuclear bomb and seceding from the United States, with a sharp look at U. S. interventions, be they Post-9/11 or involving Elian Gonzalez. Yet it's much more than a one-note "statement book." How high are the expectations for your new book? Is now the time for a fun, family book that questions certain policies of the U.S.?
Well, if Under My Roof doesn't sell well, I probably won't be able to publish another book without changing my name to some white devil monicker like "Geoffrey H. Goodwin" so I have some desperate hopes, if not expectations, for the book. As far as questioning certain policies, the important thing is that the book isn't an exercise in propaganda or a polemic. It's political because politics interest me. It messes with radical ideas because I'm a radical. In that way, it's not any different than some thriller author writing a novel about someone trying to assassinate the President. If you think the President is incredibly important you'll write a story about one. If you think the nation-state is an arbitrary and obsolete idea, you'll write about them being challenged instead. People only see agendas or preaching in books when the agenda disagrees with their own, or when the deck is too clearly stacked against alternatives. Even explicitly political fictions need a ragged edge, because the actions of your characters need to be overdetermined, not just politically determined by auctorial viewpoints.
Is it snotty to say that Roof has the potential to be huge (accessible with schools and book clubs, perhaps) in a way that some of your previous work might not be?
I suppose it's more accessible than, say, a novel about Kerouac in a Lovecraftian encounter with the abyss. Back when I wrote Move Under Ground I thought I was being all clever and could sell the book to both the Kerouac cult and the Lovecraft cult, but as it turns out I just found the still smaller cult of Keroucraftians. Earlier this year, a Finnish publisher that had read all the positive reviews of the novel asked for a review copy with an eye toward translating it. Months later the Finnish editor wrote back to say that he loved the book but that it was the single oddest thing he'd ever read. His firm was really more interested in a Jodi Picoult and the like. I guess there are easier ways to get a free copy of a book, but not if you're in Finland.
Under My Roof might be a bit easier to read than the 15,000 word novella about people who change their genders every day and have orgies as part of future business etiquette too.
Soft Skull’s website mentions that Under My Roof is inspired by Aristophenes’s The Acharnians. Both believe in truces and are antiestablishment, but what else does your novel have in common with The Acharnians?
Oh, lots of things. The dopey officer, the treaties hidden in/as food, women appearing and wanting entrance into the new community, a happy ending, the whole bit.
You've contributed to thirty-four books and none of them are with big, conglomerate publishers. How intentional is your commitment to the independent press?
Well, when I'm balancing my checkbook, it's not intentional at all. When I'm actually writing, I generally have few to any illusions about how receptive the congloms will be. My stuff isn't as out there as Danielewski's or Ben Marcus's, and perhaps would do better if it were. I suppose it's the usual story of "too literary for us" from the genre markets, and "too genre for us" from the literary markets. Or, with the nonfiction, "too pop cult" for the radical markets, "too radical" for the pop cult stuff.On the other hand, it's very handy, when talking to a publisher, to actually speak to the publisher as opposed to any of the layers of vat-born and Vassar-bred walls of flesh that big companies put between a writer and answers. Though conglom publishing is so ridiculous that even many "dropped" writers are turning to independent presses -- at least for their trunk novels and other minor works -- there are still opportunities in the indie press for writers who aren't just cranking out the same stuff as the usual midlisters.