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WHY CAN'T YOU WRITE SOMETHING NICE?:
AN INTERVIEW WITH LYNDA E. RUCKER
Conducted by Steve Duffy, © July 2016
Lynda E. Rucker is an American writer born and raised in the South and now living in Europe. Her stories have appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies. She is a regular columnist for Black Static, has had a short play produced on London’s West End, and won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was published by Karoshi Books in 2013.
Steve Duffy: So first of all, congratulations on the Shirley Jackson award!
Lynda E. Rucker: Thank you! Congratulations on yours as well! I was really surprised to win.
SD: Thank you! I wasn’t at all surprised that you won. Will the winning story be appearing in the new collection?
LER: Not in this one, no: these are all stories that were published around 2012-2013, plus two new unpublished stories.
SD: (Studies table of contents) Ah, there are some great stories here. I see “The Wife's Lament”, which I remember from Supernatural Tales. Are there, I wonder, a few autobiographical elements in that story, which has for its protagonist a woman from Portland moving to the UK?
LER: Actually, there really aren't, not in that one! I talk about this more in the story notes, but that one really arose from wanting to build a story around the Old English poem of the same title.
I do often draw on autobiographical elements in the fiction that I write, but I think by the time it is shaped into a story, it is often unrecognisable from what it once was. Often it's a matter of taking many different bits and pieces and putting them together: like almost anyone who's spent a lot of time in other countries, I've had the feeling of culture shock and homesickness, but rarely in the specific ways or over the specific things my characters do. (In fact, people often think my characters have terrible times in certain locations because I hated those places myself, which is just not the case at all.) And I tend to write about places I've been, so, for example, most of my characters are, like me, either from the American South or the Pacific Northwest.
Another element of using autobiography in fiction is exaggeration. So, for example, I think it's a very common experience, when you're as young as Penny, the protagonist in this story, to get caught up in an unrealistic infatuation with someone - whether it's a real relationship, an unrequited crush or even a celebrity obsession - in which you build them up in your head and imagine that by osmosis you will become someone else as well. In a way it's kind of part of the process of finding your identity. For many young women, as well, there can be a kind of fascination with older men as Ian is in this story - a sense that their interest in you somehow empowers you, but that can also quickly turn to insecurity in an actual relationship because, well, you're still just barely done being a kid, you haven't had time to accomplish anything particularly exciting or to really become who you are going to be. So there were a lot of dynamics I wanted to exaggerate and write about in that story, but I was drawing more on broad and generic experiences than anything particularly concrete - there are other stories in the book that are more specifically autobiographical.
It only occurs to me just now, as I'm answering this question, that in a way this story has a lot of parallels to the book Rebecca, which is one of my favourites, in that a naive young woman is swept up in a whirlwind relationship with a much older and more sophisticated man who may or may not be a sinister figure. Really, though, the genesis of this story is embedded in my translation of the poem itself, which people will have to buy the book to read more about in the story notes!
SD: Quite right! I'm always really pleased when a writer includes story notes. The vibe I get from that story, and from all of yours, I think, is bound up with this wonderful combination of characterisation and sense of place. Both have a reality about them, which I think really helps to “sell” the story, in the sense of making it work for the reader. The feeling of real people, in real situations, and then the fantastic or uncanny element working its way through . . .
LER: Yes! It's what I love best in fiction, really, is reading about real people in well-grounded settings. Last year, Gary Fry wrote a really insightful review of my first collection on his blog that opened with this line: “My overriding impression after reading Lynda Rucker’s first collection of short stories is that of a writer who loves both horror fiction and mainstream literature.” He's absolutely right, and I think it's one of the elements that makes horror fiction such a strange, hybrid beast. It's often lumped in with science fiction and fantasy - and I do think it belongs there, in part; I love and feel a part of those genres and it's why I get very angry when I hear people moan about things along the lines of “What are all these icky horror people doing mucking up our nice fantasy conventions/awards” (sentiments I've heard more than once expressed regarding both the World Fantasy convention and awards and the British Fantasy Convention and BFAs, to name names).
SD: “Ugh! I simply wouldn’t have them in the house, dear!”
LER: However, I also think horror fiction has equally powerful roots in mainstream fiction as well, and I consistently find that many horror writers, and generally the ones I consider the best, often cite at least as many mainstream influences as straight-up “genre” ones. Nina Allan wrote a terrific piece on her blog several years ago called “The Trouble With Horror”, and in part, it's about how in order for horror stories to work, they must be powerful stories first and foremost. It's a wonderful article that I return to periodically and agree with completely.
SD: I couldn't agree more. Now, another writer for whom places were “prolific in suggestion” was of course M.R. James. And there's a lovely Jamesian piece in the new book, which immediately took me back to North Norfolk - and simultaneously to Christmases past in front of the television!
LER: Yes! I loved writing that story! For me, stories often begin with a place or an image, and last summer, I was in Happisburgh, in part to geek out over the connection with the TV version of “A Warning to the Curious”, and I was standing in the cemetery at Happisburgh Church, looking at the sea beyond, and the story's title, the image of a sinister figure out near the sea, and the character of Fern Blackwell kind of came to me all at once. All of the places in that story are very real and can be visited, including the Signal Box!
SD: I’ve done the Happisburgh tour myself! And a trip to Norwich Cathedral Close is also recommended, for fans of the TV adaptation of “The Stalls of Barchester [Cathedral]”.
LER: We weren't fortunate enough to grow up with the Ghost Stories for Christmas in America, of course, and in fact I think most Americans had never heard of them until the last decade or two. The I ever learned about them was when I saw “The Signalman”, about twelve or fourteen years ago. I'm sure the grass is always greener and all that but I'm increasingly convinced that British children in the 1970s got much cooler programming than we did over in America.
SD: On the other hand, you could stay up late and watch Kolchak, so there's that.
It's worth pointing out, as an addendum to what we were saying earlier, that while M.R. James is often claimed for the “cosy” school nowadays, there aren’t many lines that send a shudder through me like the description of poor old Paxton at the end of “A Warning To The Curious”: “His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws were broken to bits. I only glanced once at his face.”
LER: Oh yes! Not to mention the awful creature in “The Mezzotint” that appears to be making away with a baby in its ghoulish grasp.
SD: There are more nods to the greats elsewhere in the collection. “The Queen in the Yellow Wallpaper”, for instance . . . ?
LER: Yes! That one began with the title, actually – it literally just popped into my head out of nowhere one day, I hadn't been thinking about Robert Chambers or Charlotte Perkins Gilman or anything in particular, but the moment it did, I knew I had to build a story around it. So, of course, obvious nods to both of those writers and their work in the title and throughout the story.
It may be blasphemous to say this, but I think I actually like the idea of the King in Yellow more than Chambers's stories themselves, with a few exceptions, such as the supposed extracts from the play (I think “Cassilda's Song”, for example, is beautifully chilling). And of course with the reference to “The Yellow Wallpaper” I wanted to bring in a bit of modern feminist sensibility as well. Of course, contemporary women's lives are not circumscribed in the way that Gilman's unnamed narrator's life is in her masterpiece, but I still think many women feel pressured to fall into certain roles, particularly in relationships, so I wanted to explore an element of that in the story as well.
That's another one that I especially enjoyed writing!
SD: It shows! Yes, I absolutely know what you mean about the idea being so perfect that the execution can sometimes lag behind. Of course, there's a feeling that writers often get when they finish a story – or is this just me? – the feeling that they haven't quite done justice to the idea.
But I loved “The Queen in the Yellow Wallpaper”. There's a real desperation, an ache, in the narrative voice.
LER: Thank you!
SD: And then, when we see in the table of contents a title like “Where The Summer Dwells”, of course we're immediately put in mind of Karl Edward Wagner, another writer who revelled in the evocation of place and mood.
LER: Wagner is definitely a beloved influence, a fellow Southerner as well. In complete contrast, the title here came last, but when the story was finished, the title “Where the Summer Ends” would not leave me alone. It just felt like the perfect title for this story as it is for Wagner's story, and although mine is very different, they both make use of the Southern landscape and milieu.
SD: I can see that! You evoke that milieu with the same unsettling accuracy as Wagner. This is the best sort of homage, really: neither pastiche nor “updating”, stamped with an absolutely individual narrative style. There are passages in this story that will genuinely freak the attentive reader out: the story of the three black dogs, for instance . . .
LER: Oh, thank you. One funny thing about this story is that I originally set out to write kind of a gentle, melancholy fantasy. I still actually believed I had done so until people started pointing out to me that it was actually quite dark and disturbing and then Steve Jones picked it up for Best New Horror. There's some kind of lesson in there about how some of us just appear to be compelled to write this sort of thing . . . !
SD: "Why can't you write something nice?"
LER: Apparently, I am incapable!
SD: We’re running out of time, but I very much want to mention the terrific haunted-house story, “The House on Cobb Street”. Do you find it fun working with the archetypes of the genre, like the haunted-house tale?
LER: It depends on the archetype. There are plenty that leave me cold, but I absolutely love haunted houses and can't get enough of them. (I didn't actually realise when I put this collection together how many variations on haunted houses it contained!) Ghosts also never get old for me. I'd like to do more with witches as well as the occult, spiritualism, and secret societies, those are definitely all favourites – I’m a lot less interested in doing much with traditional monsters although I'm always up for a challenge. I do think anything can be made fresh – I quit declaring myself tired of vampires ages ago because every time I did, someone came up with yet another interesting take, and who would have believed someone could breathe such fresh new life into a possession tale as Paul Tremblay did with “A Head Full of Ghosts”?
SD: I was going to mention the reoccurrence of haunted houses. Which is fine by me!
LER: Haunted houses also kind of tie into something that I think recurs in this book and throughout a lot of my work which is the idea of a “haunted” place – maybe not always by ghosts, but by something – or places where the veil between worlds is thin and the numinous can be encountered more easily. I think of Machen and Blackwood as among the writers who are particularly adept at exploring this.
SD: That's really interesting. Do you think it ties in with the idea of the genius loci – the distinctive atmosphere of a place, what used to be thought of as the tutelary spirit?
LER: I do, yes, and real places absolutely do have a powerful atmosphere about them. Some of it is simple association, of course – there are places I love because I have happy memories of them – but some places just have a certain feeling about them on first encounter – a profound sense of peace, or enchantment, or, on the other hand, some places, for no discernible reason, have an awful feeling about them. The fact that I get these strong feelings about places probably accounts at least in part for the fact that setting does play such a strong role in many of my stories.
SD: I think anyone reading the collection will feel the strength of your affinity with those places. I’ve really been looking forward to this book – thanks so much for chatting about it! We could have gone on like this for the rest of the day!
LER: Thank you, Steve! I enjoyed it!
Steve Duffy’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies in Europe and North America. His most recent collection of weird short stories, The Moment of Panic was published in 2013, and includes the International Horror Guild award-winning short story, "The Rag-and-Bone Men". In 2016 his story "Even Clean Hands Can Do Damage" was given the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette. Steve lives in North Wales.
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