April 2009

Geoffrey H. Goodwin


An Interview with Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay has sold over fifty short stories and he has had two previous books, but The Little Sleep, his first novel, is going to make him more widely known. It's neo-noir, that strange nook between hardboiled and what may eventually get called weirdboiled. In The Little Sleep, a narcoleptic detective who rarely gets a case that requires more than being good at Google is stuck with a big mess that barely makes sense to him, especially since he can't remember who hired him or why.

Poppy Z. Brite has described Tremblay's work by saying that "his eye is both compassionate and merciless..." and Mr. Brite (yes, Poppy prefers Mr.) hits it dead on. What makes Tremblay's work compelling is the delicate detail work, how he grounds his stories in the domestic moments as a way of making the exotic seem somehow less exotic. In ways, Tremblay's work has moments that are reminiscent of Stewart O'Nan or Glen Hirshberg, but, being weirdboiled, he's not really like anyone else at all.

Tremblay is also known for having edited for the dark fiction website Chizine and Fantasy magazine and his own short stories are well worth seeking out. One of the most interesting examples, "The Blog at the End of the World," can be read online.

Are you an American Idol fan?

Not really. The show has become ubiquitous, so I can't say that I haven't watched a season or two. All right, I'll admit I've watched it. Some of the talent can be compelling, but the presentation and schmaltz is off-putting. Just like my book. I'm kidding, of course. No, really, I am.

Boston has a number of writers who do present-day crime fiction. Why do you think this is and which ones do you read?

Is it terrible to admit that I've only read one Dennis Lehane novel (Mystic River) and haven't read any Robert Parker?

Maybe like NYC, Boston is sort of an American cultural thumbtack. You say Boston and most people (at least in the US) have an idea or preconception of the city. I mean, everyone still watches Cheers reruns, right? Part of the reason why I chose Boston (or South Boston) for the setting of The Little Sleep is its current popularity. TLS plays with many of the PI novel conventions and I wanted a city rife with reader expectations. Putting the novel in a familiar or type-cast city gives the reader a nice leaping-off point, but at the same time if affords the opportunity to undermine some of those expectations, and add further to the unsure footing of my narcoleptic detective, Mark Genevich. For example, the Geneviches are Lithuanian, not the Southie-standard Irish-Catholic. There's quite a large Lithuanian community in Southie most folks outside of Boston aren't aware of.

Are their any other books with narcoleptic leads?

There are, but I haven't read them. I do read books, though. Honestly! Lots of books.

In detective fiction, it's common for a detective's condition, skill sets or quirky situation to help drive their investigation but Mark Genevich's investigation runs in the opposite direction. What led to your choosing narcolepsy?

I wrote a scene with a woman coming into a PI's office and showing off her hand: she’d had her fingers stolen and replaced with someone else’s digits. I thought I'd penned the first chapter to some anything-goes, near-feature science fiction/horror/noir novel, but it didn't go anywhere the chapter away for almost a year. Later, I happened to be researching medical afflictions online (a fun pastime!), reading about narcolepsy, and the first chapter with the missing fingers made sense to me. 

The idea of writing a PI novel -- a genre that celebrates order and the lucid piecing together of clues to ultimately reveal truths and black-and-white conclusions -- that blurs the lines of reality and embraces ambiguity appealed to me. I started with Mark Genevich being the anti-private dick: not calm-cool-collected, not handsome, and not at all well-suited for his choice of career (and does he really even have a career?). As the novel progressed, I think Mark and his narcolepsy became much more complex, and hopefully, more compelling. 

How about the slew of Whitey Bulger books? You have to have at least read Black Mass, right?

I haven’t read Black Mass, but I did read All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Patrick McDonald, which is a very good memoir about growing up in the projects of Southie in the '70s, which was certainly during Bulger’s heyday.

I read All Souls years ago when I joined my first book club. We never did meet to discuss the book. And I think the club disbanded when I suggested we read a Clive Barker novel. I haven’t been invited to a book club since.

Will Christopher Baer. I'm certain you've read him...

Oh yes. I love, love, love his Phineas Poe trilogy: Kiss Me, Judas, Penny Dreadful, and Hell’s Half Acre. He’s an amazing stylist and Poe himself is such a complex, damaged character. You’re supposed to root for him, pity him, be pissed off at him, or give up trying to understand him. Clearly The Little Sleep owes much to Raymond Chandler in terms of inspiration, but if I had to pick one character from a noir series that Mark Genevich took serious lessons from, it’d be Phineas Poe.

Have your students or their parents read you work?

I’ve read an occasional short story to the kiddies at Halloween. Oh, and the school lit mag re-printed a flash-fiction piece of mine, “Perception.” It’s about an alien slug that takes over the world. Really, it’s true.

I don’t think many parents have read my work to this point. I’m sure that will change with this novel, if only because you’ll be able to buy it in most bookstores.

How did a single hand-written page from Mark's notebook end up getting inserted into the text?

Mark wrote some notes while asleep and in the throes of automatic behavior. I liked the idea of Mark -- early in the book -- directly presenting to the reader a hard piece of evidence that may or may not contain an important clue and less important scribbles and other ink messes. I thought it was a nice visual way to set the tone for the rest of the novel.

Once the copyright runs out and The Little Sleep goes into the public domain, provided the world still exists, for the record, is it okay if people add zombies to it?

I actually have a clause in my contract that adds zombies to the book the moment it goes into public domain.

The dad is an important character, in terms of revealing mysteries, but his onstage time is never in the present. Was it tough to have him lurk in the narrative without ever getting to actually talk to his son or for him to actually tell his story?

A big sub-theme of the novel is the past; about how inaccurate our memories of it are, and how we shape our own past as it continually shapes us. I very much wanted Tim (the dad) to be an important figure, but also to be sort of tucked away in the periphery. Mark has no real memory of his long-dead father. Mark does have recurring dreams of when he was five and helping Tim clean the up dog crap in their yard, but they don’t communicate directly in the dreams, they don’t share any conversations about the case or about each other. Resisting the urge to allow Mark to have a lucid, adult conversation with his father in the dreams was difficult, but I’m glad I was able to. The hard truth is that he’ll never know the person his father was, and how much that has ultimately shaped Mark’s odd and ever-morphing world.

How much research did you do on Southie?

My mother-in-law grew up in Southie and still has many close relatives who live there. I lived there, as well, in the '90s. I’m by no means a South Boston expert, but I felt confident that I had a baseline/working knowledge of the area. Of course, I realize that my knowledge is an outsider’s knowledge; living there for a handful of years certainly wasn’t enough to make me feel like I really knew the city or that I was a part of the fabric of the neighborhood, etc. And Mark reflects this: he isn’t really an expert in Southie, either. Yeah, his parents were born and raised there, but Mark grew up on the Cape, and now, as an adult, he rarely leaves his apartment and his gregarious mother is about the only socialization he gets in Southie. Mark is still very much an outsider to the city. 

My stomach fills with mutant-sized butterflies. Their wings cut and slash my stomach. Neurons and synapses sputter and fire and I can actually feel the electricity my body generates amping too high, pumping out too much wattage too soon and the circuit breaker flips, shutting me off and down. Not a blackout though. This is worse. I’ll be awake and I’ll know what’s going on. This is cataplexy.

With a musical and but hardboiled tone, Mark's situation, outside of dreams, stays reasonably present and linear, how hard (especially considering things like cataplexy in the above example) was it to keep his voice consistent?

The only thing more iffy than Mark’s present is his past. I figured the only way for this book to work (and to be fair to the reader) was for it to be written in present tense and almost exclusively linear. Mark is clearly an unreliable narrator, but he’s not purposefully unreliable; and I wanted the reader to experience what he did in real time. I think it’s the only way for the is it real, is it a hallucination? aspect of the book to work, and not have it feel like some terrible contrivance.  

Throughout the whole book writing process, I was conscious of his voice, and worked at making it consistent. I did a lot of reading aloud of sections and chapters; reading aloud consecutive chapters, but also reading early and late chapters, comparing the feel.

What elements of your previous two books helped in writing this one?

While writing the stories for my first collection (Compositions for the Young and Old) I started to find my general approach to fiction, and gravitated toward stories that focused, generally, on a singular character. City Pier: Above and Below was my first attempt at noir and hard-boiled fiction, featuring stories and cases set in a reality that’s ambiguous at best.

In my Clarkesworld short story from 2007, “There’s No Light Between Floors” I worked out a scene/sub-plot that also made it’s way into TLS.

You're often Paul G. Tremblay. Why was your middle initial left off of The Little Sleep?

I could’ve kept it, but my first editor at Holt suggested I drop the G, only because I had such a great author’s name. Try saying it out loud: Paul Tremblay. Come on, try it again, and annunciate.

As it was explained to me, being initial-less would make life easier on the publicity folks and whatnot, so I agreed to it. I still plan to use my G when I do small press projects and horror short fiction. Because, you know, G means horror. 

You've edited for several short story publications. What are three things in an opening paragraph that make you more likely to choose a story? (Provided that it doesn't immediately go off the rails on page two.)

As an editor, I’ll admit to being a total style monkey. I love me some sharp style that shakes its fists right from the start. A corollary to that is that an amazing/unusual opening line is desired; one the author backs up throughout the story. I prefer to be introduced to a character in the first paragraph with said character doing something or thinking something to reveal some sort of external or internal conflict. That’s not to say I haven’t purchased a story that begins with setting, but the setting better be as important as a character.

Um, is that three? Let’s pretend it is.  

The title is a riff on Chandler. Was it your first choice? How far along in the process did you decide to use that title?

The title occurred to me the instant I decided the detective in that odd missing-fingers chapter I wrote was narcoleptic. I had a chapter, a title, Chandler as a compass, at least initially, and built the rest from there.

What are some of the hardest things about teaching high school?

It’s a high energy gig, having to put on four shows a day, essentially. The kids know when you’re not on your game, too.

I’ve noticed that when I speak (in or out of the classroom), I tend to say things twice. I know I’m doing it but can’t stop it.  

The hardest thing, though, is purely my own personal melodrama; the kids I teach stay the same age but I’m getting older, and I have to, you know, deal with it. 

Is it true that you're part of a famous and elitist horror cabal that drinks the blood of its enemies? Because that sounds like a slight exaggeration... 

It’s not true. We enjoy the blood, of course, but the cabal isn’t very famous. We’re too elitist to subscribe to such bourgeois notions as fame. Proof? The readers of this blog don’t even know what we’re talking about. Lucky them.