AN INTERVIEW WITH SIMON STRANTZAS
I’m really honoured to have the great Simon Strantzas over for a chat. Simon is one of those authors who up until now I’ve kind of avoided. I’ve always considered him to be one of those authors that were just to clever, for my rather simple tastes. However if you check out my ongoing review of his latest collection Nightingale Songs, you soon find out that I am in the middle of discovering just how much of a talent Simon is.
GNOH – Hi Simon, thanks for dropping by for a chat, how are things with you?
There are no complaints from this end. Thus far the new year has been quite kind to me, and to many of those friends I hold dear. I only hope the kindness continues.
GNOH – It’s a small world, or so it seems. It turns out that you were high school buddies with my very good friend Andrew Leonard. How much for some tasty bits of embarrassing gossip about Andrew?
Oh, I could reveal horrible truths about the boy, I assure you, but it’s safest for us all if I remain mum on the subject. Let me just say the Andrew and I met so long ago that were we to stumble across our younger selves now we would hardly recognise them.
GNOH – And it turns out you know Ian Rogers, who was one of my favourite discoveries of last year rather well as well. I thought Canada was huge. Does everyone know everyone else, because of all the huddling together due to your nations fear of the dark?
You are not far off. At least, in regards to huddling. The country is indeed large, but the majority of its population is concentrated along the southern border. This leads to a bit more familiarity with each other than one might suspect.
That said, the local “scene” for horror fiction is still relatively young. Canadian horror fiction — whatever that might mean — is only now really starting to make waves, with writers like Rogers, Richard Gavin, Barbara Roden, Michael Kelly, and so on, and publishers like ChiZine taking the lead. I expect the country’s contributions to the genre as the whole to only grow over time.
GNOH – In five words describe who Simon Strantzas
Incredibly handsome and graciously humble.
GNOH – And in five words describe who Simon Strantzas strives to be?
Both slavishly feared and loved.
GNOH – Can you remember what first sparked your love of the horror genre?
I can remember no initial spark for my love of the dark and the weird. What I can remember is a long drawn attraction to the dark, to the mysterious, to imagery that inspired equally parts awe and dread. These things floated in my psyche for years without a conduit until I discovered the horror genre during the eighties boom. Those were the salad days, but they also almost burnt me out on the genre. The fiction progressively got worse, and I might have moved on altogether had small presses like Ash Tree and Tartarus not sprung up to introduce me to forgotten masters. I credit these publishers with helping to train not just me but most of the new wave of literate horror writers.
GNOH – What do you love and hate about the genre?
I love the ideas, the philosophies of horror. I love that through abstraction and metaphor it can portray the world as you feel it to be, even if you know it’s in reality some other way. I love that the genre can be so wide, so expansive, that it can tell almost any kind of story, convey almost any kind of emotion. I love it because it can be so very very smart if we give it the chance.
But I dislike that we don’t always give it that chance, that we sometimes take the easy way out with it. We think “Oh it’s only horror, it’s only a lark, so it doesn’t have to be good.” Now, to be clear, I don’t think there’s anyone putting the time in to write who isn’t trying their damnedest to write well, and I don’t think horror must be cerebral to be any good, but I do think there are a lot of writers who don’t see or don’t want to see that the genre can do so much, can go so many places. They have their corners and don’t want to push themselves to explore. I’ve been called a horror snob, and perhaps that’s true. Maybe this is “bullshit pretension”, but I can’t help believing that we should all be struggling to write the most entertaining and smart fiction we can, and do so with language as perfect as we can manage. I think to give any less to our work is to sell ourselves short; I don’t care if you’re writing a Big Foot story or metaphor for the oil crisis.
GNOH – Can you remember why you decided to take up writing?
I took up writing because I had nothing left to hang onto. I had started and given up on so many things in my life, had allowed myself to coast for as long as possible, that one day I looked up to realise that I had absolutely nothing to show for my time here on this plane. Undoubtedly, I was wrong, but I felt this way, felt isolated from my creative self. I’d written a bit before and during this time, but very haphazardly, very noncommittally, and once I realised I needed to find something that would give my life meaning, I asked myself what it was I truly wanted. The answer was to become a writer, so I made a vow then and there that unlike so many other things, at this I would not fail. So far, it’s proven to be the right call.
GNOH – With regards to your writing, who would you say has been the biggest influence on you?
Undoubtedly, Robert Aickman, for he showed me that fiction did not have to make literal sense to make emotional or intellectual sense. His work conveys a dreamlike atmosphere, where the narrative ground for the reader is never solid. This manner ties in very well with the early writings of Thomas Ligotti, and the ideascapes of Lovecraft. All these writers and more helped shape my view of a nightmare world, one that I continue to explore with my work.
GNOH – How would you describe your writing style?
I know how I imagine it to be, but in reality I’m assured it’s very clean and unadorned. Where I achieve my effects is likely in the imagery I describe, and in the negative spaces between what my characters say and what they do. My work tends toward the quiet, the implied, but there’s a streak of strangeness that separates it from the traditional ghost story. If anything, I like to think my work straddles a line between the ontological “outer” horror and the psychological “inner” horror in a way not normally done. It’s my niche, so to speak, and what I imagine I’m most known for, even if I do, on occasion, like to try pushing beyond it.
GNOH – And is there a connecting theme that runs through your writing?
I suspect the biggest theme in my fiction is that nothing, or no one, is as it seems. My first collection’s title hits that nail right on the head. Beneath the surface, there is something more. My goal is to explore that unknowable space.
GNOH – What is the hardest part of being a writer?
The actual writing. There are so many distractions in the world these days that it’s easy to do anything but write. After all, it’s work, and who wants to work, especially if like many writers one holds down a full-time day job as well? But we do it because we must, because no matter how hard it is to put that first word down, we know that once the words start to flow there is nothing like it.
GNOH – Your books are not available as e-books, is there a reason for this?
No reason. Digital rights for them have been acquired, but at this point the options have not been exercised. For myself, as much of a technophile and ebook proponent as I am, I was still raised in a world of paper, and as a result I want to see my books appear in physical form, at least initially. Perhaps one day we’ll see electronic copies. Perhaps one day soon.
GNOH – Short stories are your medium of choice. Why did you chose this form of writing. I’ve always thought short stories are harder to do well than novels. You don’t exactly have a lot of room to create a satisfying tale.
On the contrary, you have all the room you need. Novels are nice, but a good novel weaves in and out and around, exploring many different ideas and those places they intersect. Novels are all about “the big picture”, but my writing is the opposite of that — it’s concerned with the minutiae of existence. For that sort of work, the short story is ideal. It’s about focus; about exploring the intimate. Short stories are closer to poetry than to novels in that it requires a certain economy of words to fully realise what one wants to convey. While many of my contemporaries branch off into the world of novels (some with more success than others) I’m quite content to remain working in the short form, obsessing and over-thinking every emotion for maximum dissection. Have you ever seen those exploded view diagram popular in engineering? You see an item like a automobile engine, but all its parts are pulled out to the edges to show you how it all fits together. I see short story writing like this: taking an emotion and exploding it to see how it works. That’s where my interests lie.
GNOH – are we ever going to see a novel from you?
About a year or so ago I started one, but I found myself frustrated by the experience. I tend to write by keeping the entire story in my mind so I can weave different threads and themes together. With the novel, I soon ran out of space, and started forgetting what had transpired earlier. It left me feeling adrift and I gave up. I later realised that I had no real desire to become a novelist, so why was I trying to be one? I’d forgotten the first rule of writing: be true to your muse. Now that I’ve given up the attempt at writing a novel I find myself far happier.
GNOH – Your debut collection was described as “one of the most important debut short story collections in the genre”, does this sort of praise hang about your neck like a millstone at times?
Not particularly. It was very nice of Stephen Jones to say, but in the end it is simply an opinion, and everyone has their own (hopefully, one just as informed). It’s more important to me to live up to my own ideals of what my fiction should be and convey than it is to try and live up to someone else’s impression of it.
GNOH – Beneath The Surface was your debut collection, can you tell us about the journey the book took from writing to seeing print?
Most people don’t realise that my first two collections were written pretty much concurrently. As I wrote the occasional Lovecraftian or Ligottian tale, I started to think about how much I would like a book that collected this thread of my work. I knew it all was of a single thematic vision, and I hoped it might serve as a marker of what I could do. I approached Humdrumming, a new press in the UK who was doing fantastic work at the time, and they were just a eager as me to see the book in the world. So excited was I that I made the trip across the Atlantic to FantasyCon to attend its launch. It was a great trip, but sadly the joy of releasing the book was short lived, as six weeks later the press imploded. No more than 100 copies were ever printed.
The book lay dormant for a couple of years, during which time copies began to increase in price on the secondary market, and I began to consider reprinting it. There were things I wanted to change in the first book, material I wanted to add, and I thought a new edition would allow me to make it the book I’d always wanted it to be. Dark Regions was excited about the project and let me reissue the book in what I like to think of as the definitive edition. It’s the way I always wanted it to appear. Imagine then my joy when it seemed to finally discover its true audience among connoisseurs of the weird. I’m very happy with the result.
GNOH – What lessons did you learn from the journey, and what would you differently?
What I learned from all my books thus far is that a collection ought to be more than simply a collection of stories. It needs to be a single, cohesive unit, with its own grander message to tell. These are the books that affect readers most, reverberate within them. Keep them thinking days after the covers are closed…if they ever are. I don’t know if I would have done anything differently, however. Those steps led me here, after all.
GNOH – Do you have a favourite story in the collection, and if so why?
“Drowned Deep Inside of Me”. That story so clearly best displays my ideas about fiction, from the surreal imagery to the implied sense of menace and dread. Rarely have I managed to pen something so purely my own. What surprises me most is that readers are reluctant to mention it to me when discussing the book, which leads me to believe that I failed to communicate all the ideas I wanted to in the tale. Perhaps I was too clever and left the landmarks too buried. Or, perhaps I’m nowhere near as clever as I think. Some days, I could go either way about it.
GNOH – There are two editions of the book, how does the second revised edition differ to the first? They also have different covers, which is your favourite?
Though I stand by the first edition, over time I realised that one tale did not fit with the book’s themes, and other tales I’d held back the first time had suddenly become available. I knew I wanted to pull the one and insert the others, and I thought that since I was already revising the book, I might take the opportunity to go all the way with it and make it truly a singular piece. To this end, I added a new afterword that helps to illuminate my trials in crafting the book. I think others will agree its quite riveting.
The original cover of Beneath the Surface remains a favourite of mine (for obvious reasons) but I felt that reusing it would possibly damage the book’s reception. I feared new readers would see it and recall seeing the first edition advertised. Viewing the book as “old news”, they would be less inclined to sample it. A new cover, I believed, would remedy this. Seeing as the book did much better in its second incarnation, I can only assume there was some merit in the assumption.
GNOH – Talking of covers, you also create covers as well. You did Gary McMahon’s How to Make Monsters. How did you get into the design game?
Rather unexpectedly. Though I’m not a designer or artist by trade, I have some background in the field, and I had spent a long time imagining what the cover to Beneath the Surface ought to look like. Once I had the idea, I decided to mock it up for my publisher so he might hire a “proper” artist to do the work. However, I immediately fell in love with that mock up, and soon my publisher and I agreed that I should complete it for use as the actual cover. Once that piece appeared, I started receiving calls to do more work. The cover to How to Make Monsters came out rather well, but the next few projects fizzled before seeing the light of day. Eventually, I became too busy to continue creating cover art and backed out or refused jobs. Now, no one asks me to create their covers, which suits me fine. I would much rather be known strictly as a writer. It’s who I am, after all.
GNOH – How important is a good cover to you, and do you cringe as much as I do when you see a terrible cover? Personally I think the “don’t judge a book by its cover”, is a load of nonsense. Looking at some of the covers out there, if that is what the author thinks is good, then how can I trust their judgement on their own writing?
Oh, a good cover is essential, and speaks volumes not only about the author, but about a book’s contents. What you must remember however is that writers, generally, know next to nothing about design. The same with many small press publishers (those who cannot afford a proper art director). These folks may not even see how a cover is poor, or if they do they are unable to communicate why. Some bow to whatever idea their publishers suggest, worried that they’ll somehow earn a bad reputation, or perhaps have their book cancelled from under them. I do not suffer these fears. If it comes down to being unhappy, I’d rather remain unpublished. This game is as much about perception as it is about talent, and one must insist on having the best presentation possible. Yes, it’s the words that are most important, but getting people to read those words is nearly as important.
GNOH – Your collection Cold To The Touch, was published by Tartarus Press, how did you come to work with these guys?
I have been a fan of Tartarus for many years. I still own many of their early editions, including their collected two volume Aickman omnibus. When the time came to publish Cold to the Touch, I suspected that because of their love of Aickman, Machen, and other weird icons, they might love my work as well. So I approached them and the rest, as they say, is history.
I would love to get the book back into print one day. Right now, copies on the secondary market are starting to increase in price. Some might be tempted to let the book lay so as to make it a collector’s item, but as they say, we writers want most to be read. So, I expect the thing will appear as soon as the time seems right for it. For now, I’m more interested in getting fresh eyes on my newest collection and working on brand new tales.
GNOH – How would you say Cold To The Touch differs from Beneath The Surface?
Cold to the Touch is a more psychological book than Beneath the surface, and also less grim. There is hope in its pages, of a sort, and emotions run high. It’s a more accessible book in some ways, but its also less cohesive on the whole. Cold to the Touch feels to me like a collection of short stories, whereas Beneath the Surface a single treatise on the darkness.
GNOH – Your new collection has just been released by Dark Regions Press. What is the significance of the title?
It will make more sense to readers once they encounter my tale, “The Nightingale”, or perhaps read John Langan’s wonderful introduction to the book where he mentions it. Suffice it to say, the songs represent the different tales in the book, different notes and melodies of midnight music.
GNOH – Does this collection have a common theme?
It seems isolation is a strong undercurrent to this one, people trapped in places and lives they want desperately to be free from. But the same air of haunting loss and regret that fill my other books is present here. Frankly, I can’t see ever being rid of them. They are always there, waiting in the wings.
GNOH – Your short stories all have wonderful titles, what comes first the title or the story?
Almost always the story. On those rare occasions I find a great title, the story it inspires tends to go off the rails instantaneously and ends up in a completely different direction, one ill-suited for the original title. However, what I can say happens often is that I’ll occasionally come up with a title during the later stages of my drafts, and if it’s a good one it will then influence the direction of the piece, or at least add some hidden dimension previously unheard of.
GNOH – How well has the launch gone?
Fantastic! I think the hardcovers will be gone before February, which would mean we sold them all in about six weeks.
GNOH – How much thought do you put into the running order of the stories in your collections? Does the reader get more if they read them in order?
The running order gets a tremendous amount of thought. It’s absolutely essential to do so. I’ve often said that a good collection starts strong, gets strong again in the the middle, then ends with fireworks — all without overstaying its welcome. Many readers will read out of order, thereby eliminating the careful work I’ve put into the arranging the tales, but that’s something I cannot control. What I can control is the experience of the reader who reads in order. They, I think, get the best experience from my collections that I can offer.
GNOH – I’ve just read the first story in Nightingale Songs, and as my first exposure to your writing ( I know I’m hanging my head in shame as I type this) I was blown away. What can I expect from the rest of the collection?
I’d hope more of the same, if not more of the more. There are some of my favourites waiting for you in those pages, and I hope you’ll find yourself surprised by some of the turns as well. I try to take my fiction to different places, even if my characters going there seem to be the same ineffectual losers that wander my other tales. What can I say? I like to punish the unmoored.
GNOH – What albums would you pick as a soundtrack to your three collections?
I would never want to box my fiction in that way for the reader. I prefer they choose their own soundtracks (or none should that be their choice). I will say that I nearly never listen to music while writing — it break the dreamworlds I’m creating of gossamer threads — but if I do it tends to be instrumental post rock or ambient music. One of my favourite artists to listen to as of late as I write is Gruntsplatter.
GNOH – Looking around the internet and the reviews of your books, you come across as being a writers writer if you know what I mean. Many talented and gifted writers hold you in high regard. And I must admit, I was always a bit wary about reading your work. I thought it might be a bit too highbrow for me, that’s more of a criticism of myself. Do you sometimes think your reputation holds you back from a wider audience?
I don’t really expect my work to ever be accepted by a wider audience. The sort of thing I do caters to snobs like myself, who want their fiction to be more idea-driven than plot-driven. I certainly wouldn’t turn away wealth and fame if it were to come knocking, but I’m really just content to write what I do as best as I can and let the chips fall where they may. If that means a wide swath of readers are too intimidated to try my work, well so be it. Likely they aren’t the sort who would like my work to begin with. Speaking personally, I’d never turn down a book by a “writer’s writer”. In fact I’m likely more prone to picking that book up. I’d imagine my readers are the same.
GNOH – What do you do when you are not writing?
Thinking about how I should instead be writing, invariably.
GNOH – Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you have lined up.
There are a few anthology appearances I have in 2012, including the King in Yellow and the Ligotti tributes Joe Pulver is editing for Miskatonic River Press. I’m also working on my fourth collection of fiction, but I’m talking my time with it. With three books in the world already, I feel like I can slow down a bit and refocus on what I’m doing. With luck, that new focus will take my work to the next level and beyond.
GNOH – Many thanks Simon for popping over for a chat. Look out for my real time review of Nightingale Songs. I’ll be starting it very soon.
You can find out more about Simon and his books by clicking the link below.
And you can purchase his books by clicking on these links