Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More questions with Laird Barron

Last month, I had the opportunity to interview Laird Barron, a writer of thoughtful, dark horror stories. You can read that interview here. He was kind enough to allow me to ask some follow up questions, one of which came from a reader comment. His answers are below.

On a side note, I wanted to mention that Sarah Langan, one of the other great horror writers of today, had good things to say about Barron's upcoming collection Occultation.

1) I am curious if you have to change your writing approach when you incorporate Asian mythology into your stories, as you did in the "The Procession of the Black Sloth." When using familiar myths, like the Christian idea of the devil, or even the Lovecraft Mythos, the reader brings a background which will enhance their reaction to and experience of the story. As Asian myth is alien to many Western readers, my guess is that the prose has to do more work. Did writing "The Procession of the Black Sloth" lead to any peculiar challenges like this?

I conducted a significant amount of research regarding the physical and historical geography of Hong Kong and the Eighteen Hells, or Diyu. Getting these aspects right presented the greatest challenge other than formulating the novella itself. Procession of the Black Sloth is an homage to horror in general, but most especially to Asian horror cinema, and as such, I've found the great body of world literature and film has prepared Western audiences to receive the material. Koji Suzuki's Ringu cycle and films such as Uzimaki, A Tale of Two Sisters, and Ju-on are examples of work that has penetrated Western consciousness and reshaped the imaginative calculus. And of course, anime and manga are powerful and prevalent forces here in the U.S.. In any event, Sloth deals with the reciprocal nature of the universe, a concept that transcends East-West artistic traditions and gets to the root of human fascination and dread, the heart of spirituality we all share in one guise or another.

2) In your answer to why you write horror (see prior interview), you noted that horror reminds readers of their own animal natures. You also mentioned that you enjoy crime fiction, which, at its best, is often a form of social criticism. How important is criticism to good horror, even if that criticism is muted?

An aspect of social or cultural criticism is simply another layer of the cake. I value complexity and nuance, I like the idea of creating a piece of art that provokes and incites, although as an entertainer, my first loyalty is to the object itself -- the characters, their circumstances, the impending or ongoing conflict.

I'm fascinated with the Judeo-Christian influence upon, and the criticism and conflict inherit in, a good deal of Western horror literature. However, I resist applying conservative religious ideology to my fiction as a statement of morality, or as a code for how one should interpret the text. I believe in good and evil in a broad sense, but I've lived too close to the bone for the simplistic criticism implicit in routine Western horror to hold any appeal, or frankly, any credibility for me. Many of my characters are seedy according to societal norms -- drug abusers, adulterers, petty criminals, drunks and assorted debauched types. While these activities and lifestyles generally exceed my personal comfort level, I don't punish the characters who are slaves to their vices. People often come to a bad end in my stories, but it's not because I've lowered the Hammer of the Gods on them for their promiscuity or doping, it's because the universe is a meat grinder. Those who dwell beyond the societal norms often find themselves exposed to predatory forces. Ultimately, I prefer to depict people as I’ve known them; I prefer to serve as a reporter of events and let the reader draw his or her conclusions. Questions interest me far more than my own limited wisdom to provide answers.

As a coda to this topic: I'm pretty frank and rather offhand regarding my depiction of carnality and the use of drugs and alcohol. This characteristic of my writing reliably touches a nerve of a subset of readers, which I think is understandable given our social upbringing and the sheltered nature of the typical person in our culture. Nonetheless, I confess amusement when the criticism of a protagonist's drug or alcohol use is that it seems too excessive, that it is unrealistic. To those gentle readers I can only say, you need to spend some time on a fishing boat in Dutch Harbor, or in a trapper’s cabin in the Alaskan bush, or among refugees from the hard lights of Vegas, or roaming the mean streets of Anchorage, or Fraternity Row in Seattle. I might actually be guilty of understating the case in regard to the debauchery and eccentricity of people I draw my characters from.

3) From a blog comment : "I note that the author grew up in Alaska (according to the interweb, anyway), which seems like fruitful ground for artistic inspiration. I would be interested to hear if there were any specific personal experiences that LB has had - in Alaska or otherwise - that have shaped him as an artist."

Which leads into the reader question (and thank you). My youth in Alaska was formative. I’ve endured poverty on a scale rivaling rural Depression Era existence. I’ve starved, frozen, survived cancer (thanks to the Elks Club) and routine illnesses that were left unchecked because my family lacked the means to pay for doctors or dentists. Alaska can be a rough place and life in Alaska as an impoverished kid is a nightmare. If I had a dollar for every fistfight or scrape I got into during my first twenty-odd years, I’d be able to treat myself to a royal steak dinner.

Alaska is dark and ancient and when encountering the vastness of its seas or the awesome trackless wastes of its interior, I’ve frequently come to grips with my mortality, my flea-ish aspect. The climate is extreme and savage. I’ve probably logged around fifty thousand miles riding or running behind teams of huskies across some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. That’s a lot of time to dwell upon one’s thoughts, to provoke the demons and the devils of the subconscious.

Because of the particulars of my upbringing, I had a lot of experiences with the raw and criminal elements of society. I’ve spent time in various circumstances with Hells Angels and drug dealers, arm breakers and thieves and the wealthy individuals who acquire the services of said drug dealers, poachers and arm breakers. When I write about somebody getting knifed or sticking a needle in their arm or discussing the brutal or debauched routines of their lives, it’s something I’ve seen or trod entirely too near.

Live and let live is a survival trait one acquires in such conditions. I may not approve, but unless I’m depicting a psychopath, I err on the side of neutrality and the old proverb, There but for the grace of God go I…. Certainly a consequence of provenance.


Brack said...

Having read most (but not all) of The Imago Sequence, I found that I have been drawn into the stories by two complementary but distinct aspects of the stories: (i) the strength of the narrative arc on a macro level, e.g. the plotting and character development [even if those characters usually range from the unsavory to the diabolical], as well as (ii) the unsettling beauty of the diction and tone on the micro level. Does either aspect of the work tend dominate the author's creative process? In other words, does LB generally formulate the bones of a story and only then stitch the flesh of sentences and paragraphs around it, or does he build the framework of a story around discrete images or phrases that come to him in a moment of inspiration?

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your question(s)and for your kind words.

My process is a combination of both. A lot of my stories spring from nightmares or visceral images that descend in a moment of inspiration.

I've often described my creative process as one of osmosis, or being akin to my imagination as a radio antenna receiving signals that must be sifted for meaning.

I don't think art is necessarily nascent to the creator. In my case, it feels more like my role is to translate signals that emerge from the subconscious into something comprehensible.