5 Questions with Christopher Barzak on BEFORE AND AFTERLIVES, and the Shirley Jackson Award

[NOTE: This is part of a series of Q&As with the Shirley Jackson Award nominees.]

Christopher Barzak is the author of the Crawford Fantasy Award winning novel, One for Sorrow, which has been made into the Sundance feature film “Jamie Marks is Dead”. His second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing, was a finalist for the Nebula and Tiptree Awards. He is also the author of two collections: Birds and Birthdays, a collection of surrealist fantasy stories, and Before and Afterlives, a collection of supernatural fantasies. He grew up in rural Ohio, has lived in a southern California beach town, the capital of Michigan, and has taught English outside of Tokyo, Japan, where he lived for two years. His next novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, will be published by Knopf in 2015. Currently he teaches fiction writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University.

Christopher answered a few of my questions about Before and Afterlives, which has been nominated for Best Single-Author Collection!


KC: Congrats on the Shirley Jackson Award nomination! Will you tell us about your short story collection and what inspired you to write it?

Christopher Barzak: Thank you! I’m really excited to be nominated. This collection is kind of a retrospective from the first decade of my life as a writer of the weird and supernatural. The stories all have their own inspirations, but in general my work is inspired by the landscapes I’ve lived in—rural Ohio, decaying post-industrial Midwestern cities, southern California, and central Michigan. The stories all deal with the notion of turning points of great changes in the lives of their characters, or in the lives of their settings sometimes, like the haunted house in the first story “What We Know About the Lost Families of — House”. Hence the title of the collection, Before and Afterlives. Some of those turning points have to do with ghosts, one with an imaginary friend come to life, and a couple with merfolk, but no matter what kind of story—fantasy or supernatural or dystopic—they all speak to enormous changes, loss or transformation, and how people deal with those situations.

KC: What, or who, have been some of the biggest influences on your writing, and why did you first begin writing?

CB: So many, but I’ll name just a few. Writers like Shirley Jackson (which makes me so happy that the collection has been noted with this particular award nomination), Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Carroll, Angela Carter and Stephen King have all influenced my writing in one way or another. Growing up, my favorite kinds of stories were ones that spooked me, creeped me out, or gave me a sense of foreboding or eeriness, but largely set in the ordinary, domestic world, rather than alternate ones. I liked that blend of the real and the imagined, the familiar and the strange. I liked it so much I eventually started to write my own stories in this vein. There’s this essence of being in conversation with the writers you love, but there’s also this need to eventually write the exact story you need after you’ve consumed so many others of a certain kind. Maybe it’s the way anyone becomes anything. They start out loving something so much that eventually they have this need to make the thing they love so much.

KC: If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?

CB: I would have to say The New Gothic, edited by Bradford Morrow and Patrick McGrath. It came out in the early 90s. I was a college student at the University of Akron at the time, and I ran into it at a bookstore near campus. I read the first story, “Ovando” by Jamaica Kincaid, which I don’t think has been reprinted elsewhere (though it should be!) and quickly tore through the rest of the book. It was very modern, literary stories of horror and the supernatural, and I absolutely adored it. I took that book with me wherever I moved for the rest of my life.

KC: What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award?

CB: As I mentioned, Shirley Jackson’s stories and novels have been a huge influence on me as a writer. I was first introduced to her by a high school English teacher of mine who had us read the most famous story, “The Lottery” as an assignment. That was one very cool teacher, to assign a story like that. I was hooked, so hooked that I immediately went to the library after school that day to check out any other books I could find by Jackson. So being nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award is incredibly satisfying. I’m really grateful that the jury saw in my stories some of the qualities Jackson’s own writing exhibited.

KC: What’s next for you?

CB: Well, my first novel, One for Sorrow, was recently adapted into the Sundance Film “Jamie Marks is Dead” and it is being released to theaters and on VoD platforms on August 29th. I’m very excited for the rest of the world to see that film, and I hope it brings new readers to the novel, even though they don’t share a title.

After that, my next novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, is being published by Knopf in Fall 2015. I just finished the final edits for it, and am eager to see what kind of cover is developed for it. It’s a novel about a young man whose family is suffering from an ancestral curse that he needs to unravel before it destroys those he loves. And in the process, he discovers that he’s someone (and something) quite different than he ever realized (or remembered, perhaps).