Monday, March 22, 2010

First Blood: Laird Barron

Laird Barron is the author of two collections: the Shirley Jackson Award-winning The Imago Sequence & Other Stories, and the forthcoming Occultation; both from Night Shade Books. His work has appeared in markets such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, Lovecraft Unbound, Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror, Clockwork Phoenix, and The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It has also been reprinted in numerous year's best anthologies. Mr. Barron is an expatriate Alaskan currently at large in Washington State.

The first piece of Barron fiction I encountered was a tale in F&SF called “Old Virginia.” It was a knockout, pure and simple. A piece of situational suspense set in a contained environment -- not unlike The Thing, really, when you looked at the story in those terms -- but Barron brought so much more to the tale that it was scary. Anyway, “Old Virginia” was the kind of story that stuck with me long after I’d finished it, and it sent me looking for more of Barron’s work -- which was easy to find, because before too long he was putting together a short story collection with my friends from Night Shade Books, Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen.

After scoring an advance reading copy of The Imago Sequence, I knew Laird was definitely more than a one-hit wonder. In fact, he’s one of those writers (along with Jeffrey Ford and Andy Duncan) who frequently make me want to break my pencils. Really, he's that good. And when a protagonist named Partridge turned up in one of Laird’s stories, I was pleased to find that he enjoyed my work, too. After trading emails for several months, we finally had a chance to get together last year at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, and both Tia and I found Mr. Barron to be great company…and definitely one of the most interesting guys in the room.

PARTRIDGE: The first time I read Lovecraft's “At the Mountains of Madness,” I was on a backpacking trip in Northern California with nothing around but redwoods. It was an unsettling experience, to say the least. You're from Alaska, and you certainly dipped deep into the dark fiction well while living in a remote environment. Do you think that gave you a different view as a reader, and how did it mold you as a writer?

BARRON: I was born and raised in Alaska, a number of those years spent in wilderness camps as my family migrated with the snow. We raised huskies for travel and freighting purposes, as well as racing in mid-distance competitions and the Iditarod. Money was tight, but books we had and I read voraciously, often by kerosene lamplight. The Arctic isolation, the vast, brooding environment, contributes to a dark psychology that might dilute with time and distance, but never truly dissipates from the spirit. I’ve siphoned and filtered that energy, channeled it into the atmospherics of the stories I write.

Outside of its largest population centers, Alaska is a vast, austere landscape populated by raw, individualistic people, a lot of them fleeing troubles abroad and keen to fade into the veritable woodwork. Having spent years in seasonal blue collar industries such as commercial fishing and construction, I’ve broken bread with scores of persons who’d be quite at home in a Lucius Shepard epic -- Hells Angels, ex-con murderers, leg breakers, drug dealers turned snitches and on the lam, bouncers, washed-up NBA ballers moonlighting as strong-arm goons, prostitutes, professional psychics, DEA agents, and blue collar tweakers galore. I like to say I survived my youth. It wasn’t a picnic, but I don’t have to do much heavy lifting when I reach for a character or a scenario to base a story upon.

Touching again on the geographical influence of Alaska, I’ll give you a less abstract example of how the primordial energy of that area affects people from varied backgrounds. In the winter of 1993 I was racing a team of huskies across the imposing hills between the ghost town of Iditarod and the village of Shageluk. It was near sunset, thirty or forty below Fahrenheit, lonely wilderness in all directions, and the team trudged along due to poor trail conditions. I was tired, all attention focused upon directing the dogs and keeping the sled from crashing as we negotiated the treacherous grades.

Periodically, I noted old, old pylons made of sawn logs erected off the beaten path. Markers. Initially, I didn’t have much reaction, but as darkness drew down around us, the dogs’ ears pricked up and a general sensation of nervousness radiated from the team. Within a few minutes I was very much overcome by a sense of dread, a profound and palpable impression of being watched by an inimical presence. Later, I queried several of the villagers about the markers (which indicated trails to hunting and burial areas) and they told me that the region was absolutely unsafe to travel after dark due to aggressive spirits. In the years since, former racers, some of them hard-bitten ex-military men, trappers and hunters, have expressed identical experiences of the approach to Shageluk.

As I learned, it’s simply something almost every racer goes through if they find themselves in that stretch around dusk. Not a damned thing happened, but I haven’t shaken the creepiness of those vibes in seventeen years and it inspires me whenever I contemplate the antagonism between man and wild, the modern and the ancient, or what is known versus what is hidden.

PARTRIDGE: Tell us about your first short story sale. How long had you been writing and submitting when it happened, and how did it come about?

BARRON: I wrote from preschool age into my teens. Two full novels and several Frankenstein partials; dozens of stories and story fragments. Reams of bad, bad Robert Service-inspired poetry. Nearly a million words, perhaps more, from spending free hours filling up spiral notebooks, from scratching away in the dark with a flashlight and a sawed off pencil. Local papers printed some of my poetry. I submitted a handful of stories to places such as New Blood, Horror Show, and Grue, and received several kindly rejections.

Life intervened and I gave up writing until I was nearly thirty and long since relocated to Washington State with a job, a fiancĂ© and a stable lifestyle. I wrote a novel, showed it around briefly, then trunked it and began to seriously work on short fiction. “Shiva, Open Your Eye” sold from the slush pile at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to Gordon Van Gelder. The entire submission process spanned eight or nine months. Gordon was the third or fourth person to see the piece -- the editors at Writers of the Future and Space and Time misplaced the manuscript, and Talebones passed. Let me tell you, when I received the F&SF acceptance email, I was over the moon.

It was a huge moment and remains so. Authors have their milestones -- first sale, first reprint, first book, and so forth. Breaking into F&SF, being chosen for reprint in Ellen Datlow’s horror half of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, and winning The Shirley Jackson Award for The Imago Sequence, remain near and dear to my heart in a way unequalled by subsequent accomplishments. Of those three, being fished out of the slush pile and given a chance at a life I’d longed for since childhood looms largest in my mind.

PARTRIDGE: In a few years time you established yourself as a hot prospect in the field of the dark fantastic with several appearances in F&SF. Your first collection of short stories and novellas, The Imago Sequence, cemented that reputation. What was it like to make the transition from anthology/magazine appearances to a solo project like Imago?

BARRON: The transition was smooth. Over the first five or six years of my publishing career I was usually cold-submitting to Ellen and Gordon and the occasional anthology. I wrote all those stories to dovetail thematically, to reinforce one another as a sort of mosaic in case lightning struck and I was signed for a collection, but my day-to-day goal was more survival-oriented, more basic. The actual sale of the collection fell into place without much fuss or fanfare. Unbeknownst to me, people such as Kelly Link, Paul Tremblay, Nick Mamatas, Ellen Datlow, Gordon Van Gelder, Jeff Ford, Marc Laidlaw, and numerous others, had put in a good word for me with the Night Shade team and other publishing luminaries.

Jason Williams bought the book on speculation. He warned me that collections often tank and horror is a tough sell. A horror collection by a new author represented a major risk of losing money. They purchased Imago because the guys are true-blue weird fiction aficionados and they enjoyed my work as fans.

Happily for everyone involved, Imago sold through, was reprinted as a trade paperback that has also sold well, and was pretty successful critically. I can’t thank the people who supported me, the fans, or Night Shade, enough for the opportunity.

Procession of the Black Sloth was the original novella I wrote after Jason and Jeremy committed to Imago and that particular piece was my chance to create something indicative of a shift, a signpost pointing toward artistic and thematic change to come in the next collection, Occultation. Frankly, the process of creating this sophomore book has been significantly more complicated. All but the three original stories in Occultation were conceived as submissions to themed and un-themed anthologies. This presented the challenge of satisfying the guideline requirements of the anthologies while also writing stories versatile enough to cohere in a reprint collection in a meaningful and rewarding way. Later this spring we’ll discover how that worked out.

PARTRIDGE: A lot of readers -- including me -- are waiting for the first Laird Barron novel. I know you're working on one, and I also know that novels can be a long haul. So far, what are the upsides and downsides of the experience for you?

BARRON: Yes, I’m in the middle of a first novel. The Croning follows a geriatric scientist who has retired with his famous anthropologist wife to her ancestral farmhouse in Western Washington. The wife goes off on a trip and leaves our hero alone to putter about the house. Pretty soon, amidst a bit of spring cleaning, the old fellow begins to turn up bizarre artifacts, photos, and souvenirs suggestive of much unpleasantness in the vein of Bluebeard. He suspects his wife might’ve acquired some unsavory occult practices from her many adventures in the backwaters of the world…. The Croning is something of a throwback to occult/horror novels of the 1960s and ‘70s such as Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Tryon’s The Other, and the quiet horror of Grant and Klein. Except that it really isn’t like those stories under the skin, and you’ll see why if you read the book.

So far the process has been agreeable. I enjoy having more space to develop character and atmosphere, to dial in the mood. I’ve written several novellas in recent years and find that while the forms are different beasts, a great deal of craft-related, technical/mechanical process is still applicable. I imagine I’ll have a bit more to say once I’ve gone through the entire wringer of getting this project to the finish line.

PARTRIDGE: What's your best advice for writers starting out today?

BARRON: I think Joe Lansdale summed it up concisely in your recent interview with him. Nonetheless; speaking to short fiction authors -- start at the top when submitting. Scads of micro-zine credits don’t necessarily create career momentum. Don’t obsess over frequency and volume of submissions, but focus rather on quality and polish. Some say each rejection brings one a little closer to paid publication. Wrong. A stack of rejections isn’t an indicator you’re getting closer to the Promised Land, it just means you’ve gotten a stack of rejections. Ease back on work-shop/blog critiquing of published authors and spend more time analyzing what they’re doing correctly that you aren’t. Replicate their successful stratagems through your own unique filter.

PARTRIDGE: Clint Eastwood may forever be The Man With No Name, but over on your blog you're The Man With The Lee Van Cleef icon. What is it about Van Cleef that makes him the coolest cat in the spaghetti western universe?

BARRON: Man, it was Angel Eyes, James Coburn, or Lee Marvin. I watched The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with my dad when I was knee high to a grasshopper. There’s something of the Devil in Van Cleef’s smile, and there must be something of the Devil in me, because even as a babe in arms, I got it. It seems a virtue to always follow one’s job through.