Paul Tremblay has won the Bram Stoker Award, British Fantasy, and Massachusetts Book awards for his work in the horror field. His novels horror novels include The Cabin at the End of the World, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, A Head Full of Ghosts, Survivor Song, and the story collection Growing Things. He is also a crime novelist with the Mark Genevich series.
Paul was kind enough to sit down with me for the crossover issue of Grimdark Magazine and chat about the horror genre in general, the unreliable narrator in horror, and his newest novel, Survivor Song.
[GdM] You have a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Vermont. How did you get from mathematics to writing? Are there creative similarities between the two?
[PT] One of the last classes I took as an undergraduate was an English/Lit 101 kind of class to fulfill a humanities requirement. That class and Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” sparked a little pilot light of reading in me. A few months later, Lisa (my wife), bought me The Stand by Stephen King for my birthday, which ignited that pilot light into a flame in a furnace. (Um, work with me, here.) Yeah. Anyway, I went off to UVM, and in my free time I read all the King books I could get my hands on. From there I branched out to Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker, and more. After two years, I earned my master’s by the skin of my teeth, but I also had an inexplicable itch to try writing some short stories.
Higher levels of mathematics require creativity. I never got there, though, in math. That said, I think my math background helps with some of the analytic aspects of writing, my constantly asking questions of the story and their characters, sort of like programming in a binary 0 or 1 language. Every choice you make in a story is a 0 or a 1 and it leads to the next choice and the next.
[GdM] Two of your first novels, The Little Sleep and No Sleep until Wonderland, feature a narcoleptic detective, Mark Genevich. The stories have been described as hardboiled crime noir. What inspired these? Are you a fan of hardboiled crime stories like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler?
[PT] While my first and foremost love is horror fiction, I am a fan of noir/hardboiled, particularly Raymond Chandler, but also Sara Gran, Will Christopher Baer, and Liz Hand’s Cass Neary series. The Little Sleep started with an image of a big city PI in his office and a beautiful woman walks in—the stereotype of a detective story—but her case is bizarre. She holds up a hand and bandages are wrapped around the bases of her fingers. She says someone stole her fingers and replaced them with someone else’s. When I first had the idea, I thought I would do a PK Dick kind of noir story, but didn’t get anywhere with it. Later, when I researched sleep disorders (I had an acute sleep apnea that resulted in surgery) and stumbled across narcolepsy and hypnagogic hallucinations, I knew the woman’s fingers weren’t really stolen and my PI was dreaming. The books spooled out from there, with Mark himself being the ultimate mystery of the novels.
[GdM] Who is P.T. Jones? How did you arrive at that nom de plume?
[PT] That guy owes me money!
Stephen Graham Jones and I co-wrote a now out-of-print YA novel called Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn’t Fly. It’s SF/F or F/SF (depending upon how shoddy you think our science was). It was an absolute pleasure to work with Stephen, who is kind and generous and beyond talented and hard-working. At the end we decided to Brundlefly our names into P. T. Jones and let that guy take all the blame.
[GdM] Your books have a way of leaving the reader unsettled. There is nothing straightforward about how the stories take place. Have you always been drawn to horror that leaves you questioning your interpretation of things?
[PT] Thank you, and the short version: yes!
Memory, identity, and reality are more malleable than we like to think they are, and I’m fascinated by those cracks within things and within us; those liminal spaces our imagination and hope and fear try to fill. Existence itself is ultimately ambiguous, right? Or at least its end is: what happens when/after we die? You can think you know or believe you know, but you (me included) don’t and can’t really know. I think most horror stories poke and probe at that final unanswered question, even without having to directly ask it.
[GdM] Your novels have a very intimate nature to storytelling. Rather than the grandiose big picture, you tell stories that look into a smaller section of humanity. It is a doctor trying to help pregnant women during an outbreak, two loving fathers facing tough choices, or a reality television show of a family who is possibly descending into madness. What attracts you to such intimate stories versus writing something more all-encompassing?
[PT] The all-encompassing thing intimidates me as a writer, frankly.
As a reader, I connect with more personal stories. Even for a math person like me, the numbers can become too big, too faceless, too numbing in scope. Focusing on one person or one household’s story often grounds or humanizes an event. Or maybe put in another way, all our stories are small, and I mean that in an intimate, humbling, and beautiful way. The awe and horror of the world is how we’re fated to be continually caught within the gears of events beyond our control. And, so, now what? No really, I want to know. What do you do now? What does one person do when they’re caught in the middle of the maelstrom, whether the maelstrom be a super rabies outbreak, economic disaster, zealot-eyed home invaders, or even the cruel will of the universe. I find both horror and hope in those individual stories.
[PT] When the novels were first optioned it was very exciting of course, and it remains exciting. But. Also. There’s a lot of waiting. Most optioned things don’t get made. Like mine won’t get made. But I hope they do. Unless the films are bad, then ask me this question again. I joke (mostly). I’m cautiously optimistic. In the case of A Head Full of Ghosts, which is a book about influence and the horror genre, I’m excited to see what someone else’s interpretation or twist on that story would be. For Cabin, my hope is the prospective filmmaker(s) hew closer to the text, as I imagined the book as a stage play when writing it. I feel very protective of some of those characters.
[GdM] Tell me about the Barretts from Head Full of Ghosts. Their predicament was scary as hell.
[PT] It was my hope that readers would find the Barretts to be flawed but tragic and humane figures. The story is told from the point of view of the youngest daughter, Merry. She was eight years old when her parents allowed a reality TV crew to document an attempted exorcism of Marjorie, who is fourteen, and exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia. John and Sarah were desperate enough economically to say yes to the show and the exorcism. The novel is a mix of family drama and ambiguous horror.
For so many of us, the childhood realization that your parents aren’t in control, cannot always keep you safe, and do not know what is best for you in every situation is a horrifying but human discovery. I think that’s partly why family drama mixes with horror so well.
[GdM] In Head Full of Ghosts, there is a doubt, a psychological horror that pervades the novel. Do we know what we think we know? It keeps the readers off-balance. Are there other books that influenced you in this style of storytelling?
[PT] I already mentioned the story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and it’s a brilliant ambiguous story dripping with dread and menace. Specific to A Head Full of Ghosts, two novels that inspired my main characters Marjorie and Merry were Speed Queen by Stewart O’Nan and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Both novels dwell in a liminal space, but take very different approaches to the material.
Otherwise, I’m a sucker for novels/stories that skew and play with perspective and reality and ontology. Books like House of Leaves (Mark Danielewski) and Come Closer (Sara Gran).
[PT] It was a strange experience to say the least. In the months leading up to the release I found myself apologizing to people who had read or would read the book, which was and is ludicrous, but that reflected the stew of fear and emotions I was dealing with, that all of us were dealing with.
Since I get asked a lot about the timing of finishing the book and pandemic: I turned in my final copyedits for the novel to my publisher in early November 2019. I think the parts that feel the most ‘prophetic’ are due to the information I gleaned from my sister, Erin. At the start of the novel, I wanted to learn what a local hospital’s response to an epidemic might look like, and I leaned on Erin, who is a nurse at one of the largest hospitals in Boston. Her experience with a brief (in the United States) brush of prepping for a possible Ebola outbreak in 2014 made it into my book in the form of a text exchange between nurses and Dr. Ramola Sherman. As far as forecasting that the Trump administration would be woefully unequipped to handle a pandemic and there being rampant misinformation regarding my fictional virus, I don’t think either was hard to predict. If anything, I underestimated the depths of ineptitude and how mainstream virus and now vaccine conspiracies would become.
[GdM] You chose rabies as the disease vector in Survivor Song. The infected reminded me of the dog in Stephen King’s Cujo. Did you do a lot of research into how rabies would affect the human body?
[PT] Yes, though most of the research was a happy accident prior to my having an idea for the book. When I walk my dog, I tend to listen to audiobooks, and at least a year before I had the idea for Survivor Song I listened to/read Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus because, why not? I had no idea how awful and strange the virus was. All I knew (or thought I knew) was foaming mouths and giant needles jabbed into your stomach.
In July 2018 I had the what-if that sparked the novel. I can’t tell you the what-if because it spoils the book. But, I wanted to write a somewhat realistic zombie story, or zombie-adjacent story, and rabies fit the bill. I then re-read the rabies book and found gobs of rabies info online as well. Yes, I said ‘gobs.’
[GdM] Natalie and Ramola have an authenticity to their characters. You have a switching point of view between the two of them. However, most of Natalie’s character is shown through her recordings to her unborn child. Why did you choose to express Natalie’s character this way?
[PT] Thank you. I wanted the bulk of the story to be from Ramola’s point of view as I ultimately ask her character the most difficult questions of the book. I wanted to have some of Natalie’s voice and POV in there as well, but I didn’t want the two characters swapping chapters. I also didn’t want the responsibility of telling the readers what it felt like to be eight and a half months pregnant. I obviously don’t have any experience with that. Natalie’s recordings for her child aren’t about what is happening to her in the moment but are instead these intimate moments between a mother/parent and a child they haven’t met yet. I hoped the weight and import of those one-sided conversations would be meaningful to her character but also build suspense in a way, too.
[GdM] Natalie and Ramola’s story takes place in real-time, over 8 hours. What were the challenges of writing in this type of time frame?
[PT] The most challenging part was attempting to make each moment realistic and (hopefully) plausible, while balancing the action of the story with more quiet, reflective times. Also, trying (and likely failing) to keep the flashbacking to a minimum. Though when I did have flashbacks I wanted to keep them purely relevant to the moment in the story.
Most of the writing for me is a feel thing, honestly. I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing most of the time (don’t tell anyone), but I trust when it feels right.
[GdM] Finally, what are you reading right now? Have you read anything lately that was amazing?
[PT] I am currently listening to the audiobook Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe. It’s about the Sackler family and the billions they’ve made in pharmaceuticals, most recently with creating and distributing and marketing Oxycontin. It’s harrowing, infuriating stuff. I’m also reading Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez, a novel about the trauma of living in post-Pinochet Chile and it’s also quite harrowing. Later this summer, keep an eye out for Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith. An epic, decade-hopping ghost story in Vietnam. My favorite of 2021 so far.
Interview originally published in GdM#27.