Peter Straub Interview
Back at the end of the last Millennium I was given the opportunity to interview best-selling suspense and horror novelist Peter Straub for the FrightNet.Com Webzine. The original incarnation of that site has long since vanished and, with it, the online interview. I recently ran across my transcript of our emailed Q&As and thought it offered a fascinating glimpse of how a professional author approaches his craft. I offer it here, mostly unedited except for a slight reordering of some questions due to multiple email exchanges and narrative flow as well as the exclusion of any off-the-record exchanges between Mr. Straub and myself, whom I found to be a very gracious subject.
The Quintessential "Terrorist": A Chat with Peter Straub
The FrightNet Peter Straub Interview
© 1999 by Wm. Mark Simmons
No portion of this interview may be reproduced without permission.
|Wm. Mark Simmons: Stephen King (I think this will probably be the only time I invoke his name for this interview) once commented on Director Stanley Kubrick’s difficulty with the (first) screen adaptation of “The Shining,” saying that Kubrick didn’t believe in an afterlife and that it’s difficult to tell a ghost story with that perspective. How does religion fit into a horror writer’s kit, beyond the odd plot device? Do you have a coherent theology for all of your stories, a set of supernatural rules for how the unseen world operates? Do the rules change from story to story?||
Peter Straub: I suppose this is a deep, deep issue. Horror as conventionally defined, for the moment leaving aside “psychological horror,” commonly seeks its effects through a direct or indirect evocation of the supernatural, a realm existing beyond rational order and physical laws. The dead may rise and walk; inhuman beings may pass unnoticed among humans; the body becomes malleable and open to transformation; the penetration of the eternal into daily life renders time fluid and ungrounded; miracles - violations of natural order - can occur, for good or ill; significance and meaning must be shifted from the strictly human moral context and redefined to accommodate a radical Otherness. The Newtonian universe, no longer convincingly explanatory, becomes an empty, insufficient diagram, overshadowed in every way by a larger, more resonant mythology. Mysteries remain mysteries, authentically. When the supernatural is admitted into narrative, narrative moves toward the Gospels, it doesn’t have any choice. This does not mean that religion or religious faith actually have anything like a necessary role in the writing of horror fiction, because of course they don’t - the shared territory may be recognized or not, generally not. In my experience, most horror writers, me among them, are not practicing Christians or observant Jews, no matter how they were raised. (I was raised a Lutheran, and the stupidity of the sermons delivered Sunday after Sunday in our deliberately austere churches put an end to that.)
A great resonance is lost, but it is a resonance available only to believers (as in Brian Moore’s great novel of Marian insistence, COLD HEAVEN) and may be suggested in other ways. Vibrant, accurate writing linked with genuine imaginative strength can suspend disbelief for the length of a book, giving both reader and writer a convincing brush with vampires, ghosts or Ancient Forces. When horror’s conventional bag of tropes is not simply dragged into the wings to have its contents used like puppets, formulaically, in the fond hope that spooky things are effective because of course they are spooky, all of these things carry a metaphoric and psychological weight. They are linked to specific conditions, problems, conflicts, and desires, especially unacknowledged desires, in the characters who must reckon with them. Somehow or other, these characters brought them about, are responsible for their appearance.
And the authors of these characters place them in the kinds of dramas that come from horror’s trope-bag because, although probably not “religious” in the ordinary sense, they are instinctively drawn to metaphors and situations that enlarge base-line rational reality, that admit the otherwise unknown and refer to the presence of mystery. Horror holds hands with awe. At the back of its throat burns a taste for the sublime, which is always terrifying.
I interpret King’s remark about Stanley Kubrick to mean that the director was a strictly hard-line secular being, a rationalist whose absence of any sense of the mysterious, the numinous, of what might be called spirit, imposed drastic limitations upon his conception of THE SHINING. I think that’s a very interesting viewpoint, one that makes me re-think my response to the movie. But I do not think that I hold to any systematic theology or belief-system or have any ideas about the operations of the unseen. My ideas, such as they are, hover mid-way between Freud (a Jungian Freud) and a primitive form of mysticism.
Which is to say that I think the unseen is by and large located just beneath the skin of the seen.
|WMS: Hmmm...the horror writer as “Angry Jung Man....” Sorry. So what about “evil”? Does it begin in the realm of the unseen? Your stories make the case that each act of evil, each “wrong” that is committed, is the manifestation of older acts, earlier wrongs. You trace the history of certain “evils” as they reverberate through each life touched, a chain reaction of causes and effects, across generations—“The Hellfire Club,” for instance. What of the source? Does evil ultimately come from “beyond” or is its ultimate genesis found “within”? Are we inheritors from birth (genetically predisposed) or carriers (we must be acted upon before acting upon others). And if evil lends itself so readily to metaphor and symbology in horror fiction, why does the yin to its yang, “good” as evil’s counterpoint, seem mostly absent on the allegorical level? Or am I forgetting the endlessly stereotyped priest-who-has-lost-his-faith?|
PS: Evil, you say? Evil? That’s interesting. Jimmy Swaggart used to warble on and on about evil, and so did that other televangelist, the squat, funny-looking, boring one who was married to a weepy grotesque named Tammy Faye until various miscalculations caught up with him and he was jugged, oh, Jim Baker, that was his name, whereupon Tammy Faye hitched up with someone just as sleazy only as yet unindicted. Pat Robertson, whose genial twinkle could freeze your blood in an eye-blink, also loved to contort his Huck Finn-like mug into a mask of thoughtful sorrow and cogitate upon the mystery of evil, which was a dark, Satanic force so awesome in its power it could make you vote Democrat and decide not to send five, ten, a hundred, maybe even a couple of thousand dollars in aid of the Reverend Robinson. Neither one of those guys could hold a candle to Jimmy Swaggart, though. Compared to him, they looked like dweebs sweating out their freshman finals at a fifth-rate Bible College. Jimmy Swaggart, man, okay, he had a secret weapon, I grant you, by way of being Jerry Lee Lewis’s first cousin, but when old Jimmy reared back, buckets of sweat pouring out of his coiffure, whapped the Good Book against the breast of his cream-colored suit, stamped his pointy-toed Tony Lama rattlesnake-skin cowboy boots on the boards, and bopped away from the podium howling about EEE-VULL!, man, he practically had a soundtrack, you saw Jerry Lee dropping another murder weapon down a grate, jumping into a pink Cadillac, strutting into a club, sneering at the yokels, and pounding out _ There’s a chicken in the barn, whose barn, what barn, my barn. _ Those words will bring tears to your eyes, who gives a damn what they mean, it’s _ his barn _, man, that’s the point.
So I say, you shall know them not by their faith, but by their works. I say, evil is a shabby, fifth-rate demon in a dopey suit. His eyes just went damp with sincerity, because he is about to ask you to give him something he thinks he needs more than you do. In his view, this guy is incapable of error, so whatever he does is automatically right. Should you happen to fall to the pavement from a heart attack after ignoring his request, he will step over your body without thinking twice, for he has no chicken, no yard, no real passion, nor idea at all of what that means.
|WMS: The word on the street is that your next novel marks your return to your roots as a horror writer. Describe the role of horror in your writing career: roots? springboard? stepping stone? facet? axis? And will you be retiring as an “Amateur of Crime?"|
PS: MR. X, my new book, represents a return to the old neighborhood in a couple of ways: it’s about a Doppelganger, a tried-and-true figure from the good old trope-bag that has always interested me and I thought still had a lot of unused mileage, a lot of juice, in it. Once I started writing, the presence of the Doppelganger erased the boundaries of ordinary realism, so I found that I could invoke time travel; telekinesis; the existence of ancient gods, among them Pan; and the mythology invented by H.P. Lovecraft, along with Lovecraft himself. All of this was truly enjoyable, especially because of the imaginative possibilities that open up as soon as you realize, say, that one character really can look at another character, lift her off her chair, and float her around the room. At the same time, to me the book seems more like my more recent work than like GHOST STORY or FLOATING DRAGON. (It also seems, maybe only to me, different from everything before it, surprisingly funny and very assured.)
My roots are clearly in horror, and all of my work from JULIA through FLOATING DRAGON was firmly centered there. With every new book, I learned new things about horror, about writing, and about myself. From KOKO on, at the most obvious level the content changed to crime, detection, psychopathology, the mystery of identity - but I always thought the underlying themes and subjects were unchanged. The supernatural had become internal, a product of either deep-seated disturbance or extraordinary stress, but guilt, grief, shame, pain, loss, all of that, still drove my characters. The tidy resolutions, the orderly progress through scenes and set-pieces on the way to the revelation of the villain’s identity, the usual satisfactions of the mystery novel did not interest me in any way. When I could have launched a series about a great, old Holmes-like detective and his young, equally brilliant apprentice, I killed off the Holmes character. I shunned neat resolutions. I let a serial killer escape, after wrapping him in pity, sorrow and imaginative sympathy. For a long time, I kept focusing on Vietnam and the emotional consequences of having endured prolonged extremity. I didn’t want answers, I wanted exploration.
Mystery readers in general may have read and even enjoyed these books, but they never quite knew how to take them. Most reviewers, including the lazy and reflexive ones who mumbled about the plots and those noble, wide-awake souls willing to think about what they were reading, assumed they were horror novels. I came to the conclusion that horror is a remarkably vital, essentially indeterminate genre, capable of great flexibility. No other genre was like it, because all other genres were defined by subject matter, and horror asked only for an acknowledgement of the often fearful capacities of our unpredictable universe and the recognition that one way or another you could do a lot worse than to pull your head out of the sand.
|WMS: You share a life-altering accident and long convalescence at an early age with two of your characters. Which of them tends to be more autobiographical in the aftermath, Tom Pasmore or Tim Underhill? Wait. Let me rephrase that since all characters are autobiographical to some degree—that is to say that they come out of the writer’s well of experience and opinion and are all, therefore, somewhat autobiographical in stretching the definition. But there is a resonance in these two characters that seems to go beyond your other protagonists—at least for me. “Mystery” and “The Throat” are like differing sides of the looking glass, parallel worlds that look the same but are subtly different. Your life would seem to intersect with Tim & Tom at the event of the accident. In some ways Tim and Tom seem to be different sides of the same coin, bringing the two sides of Millhaven together at the intersection of the looking glass. I was curious if the amalgam of Mr. Pasmore & Mr. Underhill came closer to a representation of the author as narrator than any of your other characters.|
PS: Tim Underhill and Tom Pasmore resemble their creator in about equal measure, and the same goes for the degree to which they have nothing in common with him. They are frankly autobiographical constructs in only a few ways, chiefly our perhaps shared automobile accident and in Underhill’s being a full-time, professional novelist. I put it that way because most fiction writers, like most poets, work in colleges and universities and teach Creative Writing to undergraduates or MFA students, either as established faculty or as temporary adjuncts.
Underhill and I are among the roughly five hundred novelists - if there are that many - in the United States who support themselves entirely by ‘driving their pens,’ as Henry James used to say, and the fact of our joint membership in an ever-more endangered species brings with it all kinds of similarities.
Underhill and I both spend more time thinking about our work, about whatever is under way, than we could if we had teaching jobs. Most self-employed people wind up being consumed by their jobs, it’s all on you, there is no one else to blame or fall back on, and if he and I ran owner-operated doughnut shops or shoe stores, we’d spend ten hours a day behind the counter and another two or three in paperwork and other preparations. Writing demands far more isolation than other jobs require, and this combination of isolation and absorption tends to cause an even greater absorption in one’s work, leading to an even more pronounced isolation.
Of course, this is also true for Tom Pasmore, since no one could be more self-isolated and focused on the task than he. Tom is a deliberate portrait of the detective as a type of the artist, a person with no choice but to obey those desires, needs, obsessions and interests that alone permit him coherence and purposeful order.
Tim Underhill inhabits the world of his loving friends at 55 Grand Street, I have the luxury of a supportive wife, two wonderful children and my own beloved friends, but Tom seems to have only Sarah Spence Youngblood, an old girlfriend who drops in every two weeks or so for a few drinks and a long, long heart-to-heart. (I think these two people say AMAZING things to each other. Tom doesn’t need any more than what he gets from Sarah, but he does need that.)
Underhill and I at least take long walks, eat meals in nice restaurants, mooch around in bookstores and buy books, rent videotapes, fall into conversations with strangers, spend time in taxis and subways, go to art galleries, concerts, and museums, enjoy the pleasures of life in New York City.
Tom Pasmore hardly gets out of his house. Having been born into a situation which truly demanded to be investigated, he does virtually nothing but reiterate his destiny, that of being a private investigator. In a way, he represents an exaggerated, impossibly pure form of artistic dedication. As we discover in THE THROAT, Tom actually never experienced the physical trauma attributed to him in MYSTERY - Underhill was ascribing his own childhood experience of being struck by a car to him. Tom’s childhood contained more than enough disturbance and trauma to shape him as he needed to be shaped, that is, into a strikingly distinctive version of an ideal.
|WMS: In “Koko” you play the old shell game with presumed identities. In “Mystery” we are presented with two sets of ancient crimes in which the wrong people have accused. And in “The Throat” you peel characters as if they were onions, stripping away layer after layer of assumption and artifice until a quite different core emerges in contrast to the surface. Mystery writers rely on misdirection to keep the reader interested in finding out “whodunit” but your Blue Rose Trilogy seems more concerned with the nature of perception than lists of suspects. How did this trilogy come about? Was it a coherent vision from the beginning or did each book evolve as you wrote? And is it only a trilogy? What connections exist between these books and some of the stories in “Houses Without Doors?”|
PS: You’re absolutely right, the Blue Rose novels and the stories connected to them are - I should say, turned out to be - much more interested in overturning and undermining the conventions and conventional expectations of mystery novels than in fulfilling them, although I must immediately spoil the nicely high-minded flavor of that statement by adding that I would have felt like an utter fraud if I had not finally identified the bad guys and villains, come to final resolutions and restorations by way of dramatic climaxes, and otherwise done my damnedest to satisfy the reader’s expectations. Doing so was an essential part of the bargain, if the reader and I were to end in anything like satisfaction. But as I implied in my response to Question 2, the satisfactions and resolutions that gradually suggested themselves were not much like those in classic or even up-to-date mysteries. I used to like reading Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy Sayers. I am addicted to Robert B. Parker, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connelley, and Dennis Lehane, all very different from one another, and I would love to write something recognizably located in their shared territory. I can’t. I’d say that the closest I can come has some elements in common with Ross MacDonald’s methods and themes, Lawrence Block’s imaginative transgressions, and the more free-wheeling parts of THE LONG GOOD-BYE - the moments when Chandler seems willing to swing at any ball that approaches the plate - but it would be silly, I’d be flattering myself. Ross Macdonald influenced me enormously, Lawrence Block is a valued friend and an continuing inspiration, and Chandler amounts to a kind of template. That’s as far as it goes, which after all is pretty far. Once I got involved with the Blue Rose material, my own instincts, such as they are, took over.
The three novels evolved one by one, without any prior intention of writing a series of interlocking stories. Later on, it occurred to me that Tim Underhill could be said to have written ‘Blue Rose,’ which was done before KOKO as a kind of diving-board into that book, and ‘The Juniper Tree,’ which was written mid-way through KOKO. By the time this recognition appeared, Underhill had become a sort of alter ego. It seemed inevitable that he should narrate THE THROAT.
|WMS: Take us on a tour of your library/bookshelf. What writers were seminal influences on the young Straub? How have your reading tastes evolved? Do your reading rules vary between immersion in a writing project and time off in-between? (Authors/Subjects avoided during certain personal projects?) Do you impose any calculated constraints?|
PS: Ahem. You want to hear about my, so to speak, bookshelves. The first thing you should know is that I live in a five-story brownstone supplied, like most brownstones on the Upper West Side of New York, with five floors, each containing two reasonably-sized rooms connected by a hallway (on the second and third floors, also by an interior passage used as closet space)and a basement. In the basement there are a lot of ramshackle, more or less "found" shelves used to store foreign editions of my books.
One floor up, other, more recent foreign editions occupy a long bookshelf on the wall above the kitchen table. This handsome shelf was built and installed by the great jazz cornet player Mr. Warren Vache, who frequently drops in to admire his handiwork.
Two floors above that, a gigantic floor to ceiling oak bookshelf built by a philosophical gentleman named Ricky Eisenberg takes up the whole exterior wall of the long hallway between the informal living room at the front of the house and the bedroom at the back. This bookcase holds some of my books, but mainly tons of novels, poetry books, biographies, and autobiographies, most of which we brought here when we moved to New York from a big Victorian house in Westport, CT. (Something like every fifth or sixth time I walk past these books on one of my endless journeys up- or downstairs, I remember Stephen King walking into the Westport house, pointing at the bookshelves there, and saying to his wife, "Look, Tabby - fiction!")
In the second-floor living room at one end of that hallway, there's another, smaller floor-to-ceiling bookcase constructed by the philosphocical Mr. Eisenberg and jammed with a lot more novels, some of them mine, art and photography books, and stuff I'm tempted to call Esoterica mainly because I can't really remember what it is.
Across the room from this handsome object is a glass-fronted set of barrister's bookshelves, courtesy of those agreeable folks at Levenger, filled with nice first editions of books by Ford Madox Ford, Raymond Chandler, Henry James, Hart Crane, Daphne duMaurier, John Ashbery, and a bunch of other people, including Stephen King, and the leather-bound copies of my books bestowed upon me by my publishers back in the days when publishers were kindly, paternal outfits given to such gestures.
The next floor up, the kids' realm, is a desolate wasteland in no way brightened by the presence in the hallway of three small, cheap, waist-high, wooden bookcases crammed with thrillers and other overflow from above, the fifth floor - where another massive oaken book-world fills the exterior side of the hallway, this one so packed with yet more novels, poetry books, biographies, autobiographies, books about jazz, reference books, the black-bound volumes of The Library of America, graphic novels, oversized photography books, thrillers shoved in on top of one another, yipes, even a couple shelves of old manuscripts written in bound journals, that they have spilled out to form vertical columns before and alongside the bookcase. When you walk past this chaos and enter my office, it gets even worse.
Suddenly, books loom within another gigantic oaken case, this constructed by Ricky Eisenberg in a moment so deeply philosophical that he walled up two electrical outlets and a telephone jack. Another mountain of books rises from a glass-topped coffee table, and another fifty or sixty of the things cower beneath it. Apart from the two shelves at eye-level occupied by one first-edition copy of each of my books and the anthologies in which my stories and novellas first appeared, there seems to be no ordering principle: a shelf of mutterings about Freud stands above one filled with books by Emily Dickinson and my brilliant, charming friend, Charles Bernstein. On the one below that, my even closer friend Ann Lauterbach, who might be the smartest and most endearing person on the planet and is a great poet besides, a pyrotechnic miracle walking and talking amongst us at this moment, rubs shoulders with Rilke and Frank O'Hara. Diagonally upward from Lauterbach and friends are two shelves crammed with biographies of Benjamin Britten, Verdi, Puccini, H. P. Lovecraft, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emerson, novels by Paul Auster, my old pal and soul-brother Thomas Tessier, and some small-press books by Clive Barker and Robert Bloch.
Another shelf bristles with thick tomes entitled THE DEATH OF THE MESSIAH, THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS, THE NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY, PAGANS AND CHRISTIANS, FROM JESUS TO CHRIST, THE HISTORICAL JESUS, A MARGINAL JEW: RETHINKING THE HISTORICAL JESUS, RESURRECTION, THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS, and so on, which allow just enough room at the end for their natural companion, HUNTING HUMANS, a book about serial killers from Loompanics Press.
The young Straub, a dubious, deeply self-regarding yet totally unconscious character, graduated from the world of the Hardy Boys and books like THE GREENGAGE SUMMER into SF at about age 11, with an assist from the Modern Library anthology called GREAT TALES OF TERROR AND THE SUPERNATURAL. You couldn't find any horror novels where I lived in 1954, but the local drug store, local in the sense of being a mere thirty minutes away by bicycle, stocked lots of science fiction. I devoured Heinlein, Asimov, Van Voght, Blish, Ace Doubles, and anthologies edited by Judith Merrill and John W. Campbell. I loved Zenna Henderson's stories about "the People," whose extra-sensory powers spoke to my sense of isolation and feeling of being in possession of a unique, if mysterious, destiny. A couple of years later, when I was a freshman at Milwaukee Country Day school, I saw a novel called OF TIME AND THE RIVER in the fiction section of the school library and took it out because I liked the title. Its author, Thomas Wolfe, the patron saint of sensitive-arrogant, literary-minded adolescent males, instantly became my favorite writer. I saw myself in every paragraph, I swooned over the lyricism, his pain was my pain, where he quivered there quivered I. Everything Wolfe wrote went down my gullet, after that everything, or almost everything, by the writers he admired so much he could not keep from rhapsodizing about them in his books. SF had become a variety of children's literature, and I was reeling through ULYSSES, amazed by the discovery that grown-up writers talked about sex directly, head-on, without any coyness or messing around.
After that, I plundered the fiction shelves of that library and saved up to buy Modern Library books at Capital Court, the new shopping center half-way between our house and school. It was like the discovery of a world, the real world - in high school, I charged through Proust, Dostoyevski, Dos Passos, Huxley, Faulkner, Poe, Conrad, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Stendhal, Woolf, Forster, Tolstoy, plus tons of more popular, accessible writers, grasping about half of what I read but always with the sense of seeing at last how the world really worked, why people acted in the ways they did, what their actions meant. That was my real education, being led from one writer to another when I was so young that their nuances entered my bloodstream without mediation.
For a long time, my tastes in reading amounted to a more purposeful continuation of the process just described, that of homing in on a particular author whose work spoke to me and reading all or nearly all of what he or she had written. In graduate school, I got into Victorian novels in a big way and read most of Dickens, Trollope, the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Thackeray. During the three years after that, I taught a lot of these writers, along with DH Lawrence, whom I had begun to read seriously, and fell deeply into poetry, eventually to the point that, apart from detective novels, it was nearly all I read. The poets I especially responded to were Robert Bly, Mark Strand, James Dickey, Elizabeth Bishop, Adriennne Rich, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, James Merrill, the pantheon of the period (1966-1969), and above all, John Ashbery, then just beginning to make a name for himself and whose work appealed to me enormously. Over the next ten years, we were living in Ireland and England, and I kept on reading a lot of poetry while discovering or going deeper into English novelists like Margaret Drabble, Kingsley Amis, and Iris Murdoch, whose work I sort of inhaled and remains one of my favorite writers. Through translations in THE PARIS REVIEW I discovered contemporary French poets like Yves Bonnefoy, Jaques Dupin, Denis Roche, Andre du Bouchet, and spent a lot of time marveling over their work.
At a Dublin poetry reading in 1967 I met Thomas Tessier, and after we had both moved to London in the early 70s, Tessier got me interested in rereading Lovecraft and members of his circle, then in Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson. Both of us read the new horror novels just then beginning to appear, books by Tom Tryon, Robert Marasco, Frank DeFellita (I'm not sure I spelled that right), John Farris. We met Ramsey Campbell and read his work with great admiration. I tried Robert Aickman, but it would take me years to appreciate what he was doing. I also read a lot of books by David Plante and Paul Theroux, fellow-expatriates of roughly my age. I still read everything they write, and David Plante became a good friend. I also continued reading crime and detective fiction - while living in London, I discovered Ed McBain, Ross Macdonald, John D. Macdonald, Robert B. Parker and re-discovered Raymond Chandler.
Probably the single greatest shift in my tastes over the twenty years since we moved back to the States occurred through my continued appreciation of Ashbery and Ann Lauterbach's introducing me to Language Poetry and the Language Poets, first Charles Bernstein, then Bruce Andrews, Michael Palmer, Leslie Scalapino, Ron Silliman, and others. Once I got interested in what they were doing, conventional poetry, poetry written in ordinary low-key American speech patterns, became all but unreadable to me. It seemed banal, flat, tedious.
Poets like Michael Palmer, Charles Bernstein, and Ann Lauterbach, rooted in Ashbery's syntactical disjunctions, break up, overturn, and aerate normative language to foreground the words as used, allow space for interpretive imagination, create effects and suggestions not otherwise possible, resist the pull toward familiar gestures, intensify the moment-to-moment experience of reading, and oppose the official verse culture by emphasizing discontinuity, indeterminacy, openness, and the actual physicality of the language. A very thoughtful kind of generosity is built in to these goals. The distinction between high art and low art - such as, say, horror novels, cartoons, and the adventures of The Three Stooges - vanishes the moment you permit yourself to consider the possibility that a typical Three Stooges movie has more energy, inspiration, joy, and inventiveness that a typical performance by the Three Tenors, not to mention the kind of poetry welcomed by the Pulitzer Prize committee, the _ New York Times _, _ The New Yorker_ , and most university English Departments and MFA programs.
What I read is affected by what I'm writing only in the sense that sometimes I read for background and details useful in specific scenes or chapters. Of course, if I'm writing for eight or nine hours a day, I am unable to read as much as I'd like to, and it may take me weeks to get through a book. Apart from that, I go on in my normal way, buying and reading anything that interests me, new books by writers I enjoy, and books other people have raved about to me. I don't think I have ever imposed any constraints on my reading besides those created by taste and inclination.
|WMS: What are your work habits? Do you adhere to a strict schedule? Closet yourself in your inner sanctum sanctorum or take your laptop to the park? Take the phone off the hook? Play music?|
PS: Up until three or four years ago, I observed the hours of an unimaginative but reliable Trust Officer in a bank specializing in protecting the fortunes inherited by the wayward sons and grandsons of the rapacious old monsters who had actually made the money, by which I mean that I arose at the decent but distinctly less than ambitious hour of 9:00 a.m., settled in behind the desk an hour later, broke for lunch around 12:00, at 1:00 returned to my office, stretched out on the awaiting couch and enjoyed a delightful nap, and at 3:00 wandered back to the desk to work until about 6:00, when I downed tools and made a bee-line for the kitchen, there to reward myself for the day's work by triangulating a sturdy glass, a handful of ice cubes, and a liberal gurgle of gasohol into what used to be called a "cocktail." (In these more enlightened times, it is known as an "over the counter drug.") I worked just about every day, and I listened to one record after another, all of them by jazz musicians like Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Phil Woods, Paul Desmond, Lester Young, Bill Evans and Count Basie. (When we bought our first house, 79 Hillfield Avenue, in London, N8, aka Crouch End, the workemen we hired to fix it up finally concluded that I had to be a jazz critic.)
During the writing of THE HELLFIRE CLUB, my working day slowly but relentlessly migrated north. After a while, I was getting up at noon or 1:00, puttering around in the kitchen puzzling about whether whatever I was going to eat constituted breakfast or lunch, then reporting to my office around 3:00, working until 7:00 or 8:00, having dinner, and going back to work until 2:00 a.m.. 2:00 became 3:00 - my work day stretched out to nine or ten hours, most of them at night. I was still listening to music, CDs instead of records, but because I discovered classical music in the early Eighties, what came out my speakers was as likely to be Monteverdi, Mahler, Delius, or Wagner as Scott Hamilton or Paul Desmond.
I found a lot of advantages in working at night. No one ever calls, not even those pests in headsets who want to sell you a new credit card, a long-distance connector, financial expertise, or a subscription to a concert series. Delivery men in FedEx or UPS uniforms never ring the doorbell. Your friends almost never barge in, demanding that you listen to them whine about their miserable love lives, and your children do not come in to ask for money. There is another great benefit of keeping a jazz musician's hours instead of a Trust Officer's: you never ever watch television, nor do you miss it. When you do happen to see one of those half-hour programs everyone else adores, you cannot help being struck by how crass and two-dimensional the thing is. “Aha,” you say to yourself, “here's an over the counter drug you can get without ever leaving the house.”
Lately, I have been trying to move my hours back toward the equator. I miss mornings, and I am spending the middle of the day in gymns and pools.
|WMS: WordPerfect or Microsoft Word?|
|PS: I am devoted to WordPerfect 5.2, one of the last versions it put out before its absorption into a series of larger corporations that corrupted its product into a Word lookalike. WordPerfect is still better than Word, but 5.2 is ideal for writers. It handles long documents very easily, and you can arrange it to give you an extremely uncluttered screen. It lets you look at the buried codes for things like tabs, italics, boldface, font and font size, hard return, all that stuff, which is very helpful at times, but you can't do that in Word. At least, my wife says you can't, and she's been using Word for years.|
|WMS: The Vietnam passages in KOKO, MYSTERY, and THE THROAT resonate with such authenticity that I was surprised that you weren't actually a "vet." Why did you choose to "go there" in your writing and how did you find the territory?|
PS: I don't want to repeat what I have written on a number of earlier occasions about the origins of KOKO, so I'll just say that after reading a lot of background material about the Vietnam war and talking to combat veterans, a lengthy process that taught me a great deal, I felt that early experiences of my own, well-represented in my more recent novels, permitted me greater access to the traumas of being under fire, of enduring extended periods of fear and panic, of ongoing extremity, than ordinarily would be possible for a lifelong civilian. I realized that all trauma was in a sense the same, and I understood its consequences.
What I'm implying is that I empathized and identified with combat veterans, and this identification was not entirely spurious. There was a time when the moment I walked into a party, I knew right away which of the other men present had been in Vietnam. Most people have never had to live with fear of the kind that unhinges its victims and points toward craziness, and Americans in general tend to assume that the world is accomodating and benign. We do not want to think about grief and loss as a permanent part of life, a point of view that seems naive and reductive to anyone who knows better. Grievous pain and unbearable extremity transform the world, in fact they enrich it, once you accept the price.
If I had any success in representing the Vietnam experience, it was due mostly to what I learned from veterans and what they reminded me of in myself. The rest was a matter of trying to get the details right.
|WMS: What's the best part of being a "Horror" writer? What's the worst?|
PS: The best part of being a horror writer is that no one is ever going to take you too seriously, so you can do pretty much whatever you feel like doing. And since horror has few actual definitions, rules, and constraints, the writer's only real limitations are internal.
The worst part of being a horror writer is that look some people get on their faces when you answer the question about what kind of books you write. They might as well be staring at a giant bug. It's really off-putting. When I'm out in public, I usually answer the question by saying I write thrillers. "Long ones," I add.
|WMS: What frightens Peter Straub?|
|PS: Our boy Peter is scared by more stuff than you'd ever believe, but he figured out long ago how to deal with the situation. Writing is undoubtedly the most effective arrow in his quiver.|
|WMS: What is your advice for the writer aspiring to crack the Horror market?|
PS: In all honesty, I would advise any beginning writer to set aside all thoughts of "cracking the market," whatever the market in question may be, and concentrate on the actual task of writing. For most people, it's necessary to get all kinds of mistakes and errors out of the way before anything like real writing can emerge. The only way to get there is by producing one apprentice piece of fiction after another. Almost always, it takes years to move into the next stage. Unless you happen to be exceptionally gifted, your submissions will come back time after time.
Writing decently and effectively isn't even supposed to be easy. If it were, it wouldn't mean anything. Once you get most of your mistakes out of the way, you still have to discover your actual strengths, which can be done only by writing a lot more. Premature arrogance will cut you off at the knees. The good writers I know understand that they start over at zero ever day, and that humility before the demands of the task is the only way to stay honest.
Well, all right, let's say that our beginner has sweated over one imitative, second-rate mess after another, sent the messes out and had them either returned or ignored altogether, then hunkered down and kept on working long past the point where those who fancy the notion of having written more gratifying than the grueling process itself give up and start doing whatever they were actually supposed to do, and finally reaches the promised land and writes something marked by an individual voice, something that demonstrates real authority. At that point, if the something is a novel, an agent is needed.
Many are called, at least many suppose themselves to have been called, but few are chosen, because almost no one who starts off trying to become a writer, let me amend that to no one, can begin to understand how much sheer work is involved. It's even worse now, in fact it is much worse, than when I began. Publishers are no longer willing to support young writers, however meagerly, over the course of three or four books in the hopes of a breakthrough. If you don't show up armed and ready, the door stays closed. Many people have turned to the world of small presses and genre publications, which allow them to appear in print and get their names known amongst the hard-core, most devoted fans.
|WMS: Are there other genres that whisper to your fingers in the dark hours of the night?|
|PS: Nope. My fingers do not have ears.|
|WMS: Have you considered expanding into other media?|
|PS: Never. I'm still adjusting to the novelist's harness. It takes a lifetime to figure out this job. I do like the idea of graphic novels, though.|
|WMS: As mainstream literature has evolved over the years, has Horror kept pace or skittered off in a completely different direction?|
|PS: Everything evolves in its own way, but I no longer see any meaningful distinction between "mainstream" and "horror" fiction. I think writing is writing, and that all novels fall into one genre or another. In the Eighties and early Nineties, trade publishing houses pumped out so many inferior, formulaic, amateurish horror novels that general readers turned away, with the result that the authors of these feeble books started complaining about the inexplicable "death of horror." I blame O. J. Simpson. That's where the rot started. No, I blame Bill Gates, he's the criminal. Or do I mean Bill Clinton? Never mind, someone's at fault, whatever his name is.|
|WMS: Suspense...Horror...what's the difference? When does one become the other? Is there a "Horror Spectrum" and what are the gradations between infrared and ultraviolet?|
|PS: Your crafty, up to date horror writer takes care to describe himself or herself as a Suspense-producer at every possible occasion. The only essential distinction lies in the difference between the two feeling-states, and their relative flexibility, when translated into genres, nearly erases their shared boundary. I'd claim that horror, at its best and most generously defined, covers far more territory and allows for more emotional and psychological richness. Horror is a deeper, more profound emotion than suspense.|
|WMS: You've done a lot of interviews: what's the worst question you've ever been asked? The best?|
|PS: Foogeddabouddit. Whoo. Yipes.|
|WMS: Are there older, unfinished novels mouldering in your closet? Any stories that continue to defy a storyteller's resolution?|
|PS: The stuff that died on the table deserves to stay dead. We surgeons, you know, we all lose a patient now and then, that's bad enough, we don't want to talk about the poor dears.|
|WMS: Every writer doubtless dreams of selling more books, winning more awards, and making more money--beyond that, what's high on your list of goals?|
|PS: Really, the only goal I have is to be able to keep on pursuing that will-'o-the-wisp, that chimera, the novel so perfect, so resonant, so connected in its every part that it will float an inch or two above the ground. Apart from that, I'd like those smoothies at Publishers Clearing House at last to deliver the goods, discover that all along I possessed an unnoticed ability to play great jazz tenor saxophone, live unaltered and in full possession of my talents until the attainment of an exceedingly great age, and see my children achieve rich, satisfying lives for themselves.|
~ Finis ~