Steve Rasnic Tem was born in Lee County Virginia in the heart of Appalachia. His latest novel Blood Kin (Solaris, March 2014), alternating between the 1930s and the present day, is a Southern Gothic/Horror blend of snake handling, ghosts, granny women, kudzu, and Melungeons. His previous novels are Deadfall Hotel (Solaris, 2012), The Man On The Ceiling (Wizards of the Coast Discoveries, 2008—written with Melanie Tem, an expansion of their novella), The Book of Days (Subterranean, 2002), Daughters (Grand Central, 2001-also written with Melanie Tem), and Excavation (Avon, 1987). Steve has also published over 400 short stories. His latest collection is this year’s Here With The Shadows, a selection of traditionally-inspired ghostly fiction from Ireland’s Swan River Press. Other recent collections include Ugly Behavior (New Pulp, 2012-noir fiction), Onion Songs (Chomu, 2013), Celestial Inventories (ChiZine, 2013), and Twember (NewCon, 2013-science fiction.) In 2015 PS Publishing will bring out his novella In the Lovecraft Museum. You can visit the Tem home on the web at www.m-s-tem.com.
[Alvaro Zinos-Amaro] To say you’ve been busy during the last few years would be an understatement. In 2012 you published the novel Deadfall Hotel and the short story collection Ugly Behavior; 2013 saw the appearance of no less than three more collections, Onion Songs, Celestial Inventories, and Twember; and so far in 2014 you’ve published the novel Blood Kin, and another collection, Here with the Shadows. What are the secrets to being so productive? Anything in particular spur this recent burst of publications?
[Steve Rasnic Tem] My productivity is a bit deceptive, actually. Both Deadfall Hotel and Blood Kin were books I’d been playing with for decades—I’m a bit notorious, actually, for writing 50% or more of a project and then dropping it because something else grabbed my attention (you might call that the Dog With a Rubber Ball school of writing). But as I’ve gotten older mortality has whispered to me that I might not complete these projects unless I focused and finished them now. I also discovered that I could make detailed outlining my friend (something I’ve avoided in the past). That bit of organizational breakthrough has allowed me to finish these novels.
Deadfall Hotel was actually ready to be published in 2009. It was going to be the follow-up to The Man On the Ceiling for the Discoveries line at Wizards of the Coast. But when they cancelled the line I got the novel back and re-sold it to Centipede and Solaris.
The fact that so many collections have come out the past few years is in large part because I’ve been working through a process of “summing up” my short story writing career, pulling together the different kinds of stories I write into collections of my choosing. Ugly Behavior collects the best of my noir fiction; Onion Songs reflects my more off-beat and playful tendencies; Celestial Inventories collects the less-definable, genre-straddling stories while still maintaining genre connections; Twember is the first collection of my science fiction work, and Here With the Shadows is my version of a traditional collection of supernatural fiction, in the spirit of James, Benson, Burrage, Blackwood, etc.
I actually don’t write that quickly. Most short stories take me approximately 3 months to write. But I work on several stories at the same time, and I write obsessively.
[AZA] You’ve talked about trying to “unschool your imagination” during the last ten years–a sort of freeing up of your creative process, if I understand it correctly, from common genre protocols/expectations. Has this had any impact on your productivity? Do you see your writing as continuing to become more “experimental” in the future?
[SRT] One of the things that happens to a lot of us as we make that transition from amateur to pro is that we learn control, and we learn to write our version of a professional story, one that communicates its meaning adequately to readers and which editors will buy. The disadvantage is that a certain amount of spontaneity can be lost. Your imagination becomes channeled in ways designed to create a story you know is sellable. I think in order to advance significantly in your craft you have to break that pattern, that programming, and in a sense start all over again periodically, let your characters tell you what needs to happen to them, let your imagination form stories which have no particular relation to genre or commercial storytelling or anything else. You have to let go of that notion that many pros have that they can’t afford to write a bad story. To write something wonderful sometimes you have to risk writing badly. I believe that’s when breakthroughs occur.
I think it has less to do with an experimental impulse actually than with finding a way to get the most out of your creative process. And I do think it increases productivity—when you learn to improvise you learn to “create from nothing”—you discover that the stories are everywhere. I hope I can carry that attitude forward as long as I’m able to write.
[AZA] Congratulations on Blood Kin, a terrifically effective novel. How did you arrive at its narrative structure? Did you know from the start that it would it would consist of two alternating timeframes–the telling of a tale, and the tale itself brought to life?
[SRT] That sense of the two narratives came to me quite early in the process. And I think it’s interesting how my goals for this novel, as they developed over time, just naturally meshed together. I wanted to tell the story of a family, and of a town, over time. In order to do this adequately I felt I needed a different, but related narrator for each time line. At some point I began to see the historical portion as a traditional southern gothic story (and it was exciting to pursue this approach, as an opportunity to write a full-fledged southern gothic piece), and the modern story as something more traditionally horror. I knew the risk would be that some readers would object to that kind of dual structure—some readers prefer that you go one way or the other. I just hoped that there would be enough readers (like myself) who would find that duality rewarding.
So it naturally fell into line that I had a southern gothic story narrated by Sadie, interleaved with a horror story narrated by her grandson, and not only did it give me the chance to explore in fiction the relationship between these genres, but I was able to provide the reader with three endings, one right after the other: the ending of the historical southern gothic story, followed by the ending of the modern horror story, followed by an ending that wrapped up the family narrative.
And thanks to the empathetic power possessed by this family I had a chance to do something that went beyond a normal dual point of view. Sadie would sometimes have a sensory experience, and we would see it through her senses, then again through her grandson’s senses as she told him the story.
[AZA] The pacing of Blood Kin seems quite deliberate. It builds slowly for the first two-thirds or so, and then piles on the horror during the last third, though there’s rich character development throughout. Can you comment on your approach to pacing in this novel and some of your other works?
[SRT] Some readers and writers view horror as part of the thriller genre, and so have expectations of stripped-down description and character development, and a breakneck pace. Although I occasionally enjoy that kind of book, it’s not my primary interest as a reader, and it’s not something I particularly want to do in my fiction, in part because I feel the movies tend to do that better. In my reading I’m looking for language which will sweep me up, description which will transport me, and characters with a lot of texture and emotional complication. Consequently, I try to build and reveal character and texture a bit more slowly, then when the horror unravels into the conclusion I want that to be as exciting as possible. Different books require different pacing strategies of course, but I think that’s a fair summary of what I was trying to do in Blood Kin.
[AZA] Chapter Six of Blood Kin, in which Sadie is involved in the preacher’s snake-handling church event, felt chillingly lifelike. How did you research or prepare for it? (Please don’t say the character of The Preacher was based on someone you knew!)
[SRT] I suppose I’ve been preparing for years to write that chapter. We had snake-handling churches in SW Virginia as I was growing up, although it was illegal, and so an underground affair. My parents had a fellow who did odd jobs for us—I didn’t find out until years later that he ran a snake-handling church a few miles away. In high school and college I clipped articles out of the local papers, I talked to people who had attended these churches, and the biblical verses in that chapter were quoted to me again and again. And that kind of Pentecostal church, minus the snake-handling, is pretty common where I come from. When I was in college at VPI my dad wrote me a letter outlining his experience visiting such a church when he got out of the Navy, and when an acquaintance offered to take me to a couple of services I jumped at the chance (I stayed in the back of the room and didn’t touch any snakes I assure you). Over the years I’ve also watched documentaries and listened to recordings. I never met anyone like The Preacher in Blood Kin, but once I had his character firmly in mind I was able to filter all that research through my conception of him and his voice. I ended up with much more than I needed for that chapter, and had to cut a great deal.
[AZA] Besides horror, dark fantasy, and crime, you also write science fiction stories. How is the experience different (if it is)? Have you ever considered writing a science fiction novel?
[SRT] For me the science fiction stories are more difficult. With any fiction I write I like to use echoes throughout to reinforce character and psychology, so that the landscape reinforces the meaning of the story, as does the setting description, key objects handled by the characters, etc. With a horror story, those mirroring elements are close at hand—I just need to pick, choose, and adapt them as needed. But science fiction tales take place in an extrapolated, completely invented world. So instead of picking them, I have to research and invent settings and items which not only make sense and appear plausible, but reflect and deepen the psychology of the characters. So these stories inevitably take at least twice as much time to write.
The novel I’m finishing up now (it’s not yet under contract, so I don’t want to say too much) is a blend of horror and science fiction, the sf elements acting as the mechanism which makes the horror possible. Hopefully it’ll see the light of day sometime in the next couple of years. I also have a more traditional, purely sf novel in mind—I’ve done the research and I’ve written some of the outline—hopefully that’s also something I can complete over the next few years.
[AZA] Who are the authors whose work most excites you today—whose books you buy, say, the day they come out?
[SRT] There are so many. I still buy and read every Stephen King book when it comes out. But there’s also Ramsey Campbell, Caitlin Kiernan, Laird Barron, John Langan, Simon Strantzas, Peter Straub, Toni Morrison, Robert Jackson Bennett, Brian Everson. And I recently did the introduction for Lynda Rucker’s first collection The Moon Will Look Strange—and it’s wonderful.
[AZA] You’ve mentioned in previous interviews a falling out of love and then a falling back in love with science fiction. Do you still read it today and, if so, is it mostly in short story form?
[SRT] I love science fiction, but yes, mostly in the short form. I read the magazines cover to cover—both print and online, and as much of the Year’s Best volumes as I have time for.
[AZA] Any future projects you’d like to comment on?
[SRT] Early in 2015 PS Publishing will be bringing out my novella In the Lovecraft Museum, in which I tackle Lovecraft’s themes head-on. And later next year Centipede will be publishing a giant collection of the best of my previously uncollected horror—Out of the Dark: A Storybook of Horrors—70 odd stories, 225,000 words.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is the co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When the Blue Shift Comes, which received a starred review from Library Journal. Alvaro’s short fiction has appeared in Analog, Galaxy’s Edge, Nature, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, and other venues; his poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling award and has appeared in Star*Line and Apex. Alvaro’s reviews and essays have been published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and elsewhere. Alvaro currently edits the blog for Locus.