The Conscious Interview, with David Nickle

To repurpose Stephen King’s oft-repeated recommendation of Dan Simmons, I am in awe of David Nickle. An author vast of talent and thick of beard, Nickle has burst onto the Canadian horror scene with a number of ChiZine releases over a very short time, all of which showcase a writer unafraid to take chances. His novel Eutopia is brilliantly original horror, Rasputin’s Bastards is a spy thriller unlike any other (it has psychokinesis and squids!), The ‘Geisters is a ghostly ghost story, and Monstrous Affections is as good as short horror fiction gets. He’s easily among the best in the genre out there today, and I’ll heartily punch your nieces and nephews in the kidneys if you disagree.

The official bio:

Author and Professional Beard Model David Nickle

David Nickle is a Toronto-based author and journalist whose fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies like Cemetery DanceThe Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, the Northern Frights and Queer Fear series. Some of it has been collected in his book of stories, Monstrous Affections. His first solo novel, Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, led the National Post to call him “a worthy heir to the mantle of Stephen King.” His most recent novel, Rasputin’s Bastards, was called supernatural eeriness at its best. [ED: This bio didn’t include The ‘Geisters, a novel that spurred The Toronto Star to proclaim that “few writers do psychosexual horror as well as David Nickle.”] He also works as a reporter, covering Toronto municipal politics for a chain of community newspapers.

Describe your latest release in a tweet.

The ‘Geisters: love, terror and the modern marriage. #TOpoltergeist

Now, describe it as a movie pitch.

Think Rosemary’s Baby, with the role of Rosemary played by Carrie White.

Now, as a new Tintin book.

Tintin on the Bench: When Tintin accompanies Captain Haddock on a wine tour to the Niagara region of Ontario to keep him out of trouble, the two stumble onto a wedding between a young Canadian woman, a South African lawyer—and something else, a terrible spirit that at first only Snowy can see.

Since 2009, you’ve published a collection and three novels, and have another collection and a sequel to Eutopia in the works. What’s the rush? Are you being hunted down or something? Do you need a place to hide?

It has seemed like a wild and prolific ride. But it is really a trick with mirrors. When Monstrous Affections came out in 2009, I’d nearly finished Eutopia, my “first” novel—but Rasputin’s Bastards was in the can. Because of its length and complexity, it had had a tough time finding a publisher, and I’d been shopping a shorter version of it with even less success (it really didn’t condense well). ChiZine picked up Eutopia, and it did well for them—well enough to publish the long version of Rasputin’s Bastards. And that did well enough for ChiZine to light a fire under me and get me to finish The ‘Geisters in time for 2013. This year, the new collection is Knife Fight and Other Struggles, comprised largely but not entirely of newer stories (Monstrous Affections bent toward a lot of earlier stuff). And then, I am taking another year to finish Volk, the sequel to Eutopia.

Your work is remarkable for its variety. I can only think of Dan Simmons as a comparison of an author able to jump genres and styles with apparent ease. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

It’s a conscious decision, in a passive-aggressive way, I guess. It is a conscious non-decision, in that I’ve avoided settling in on any one narrative interest, and the interests that I’ve got are fairly broad, at least by hard-core genre standards. I cut my teeth as a young reader on Stephen King and Larry Niven and Ian Fleming. As a reader, I’m open to the sense-of-wonder and rigorous speculation of science fiction just as much as I am to the glamor and intrigue of espionage writing and the terrible awe that comes from reading a really powerful horror tale.

And really, as a writer I don’t separate myself much from my impulses as a reader. I want to write the kind of fiction that I want to read. I’m not sure that this is a strong commercial impulse, and I know that early on Simmons had some trouble jumping about different genres too. But I do take his general success in spite of that as encouragement.

It’s a cliché to ask, but where do you get your ideas?

Different places. I’ve taken a lot of aesthetic inspiration from my childhood, spent in part with my dad and brother in central-to-northern Ontario. That setting is something that I’ve mined a great deal over the years.

Do NOT sit next to this man.

There are stories that come from observation, or bits of scenes at least. Just a few weeks ago, I was working on Volk while riding the subway—and coming upon a crucial scene involving a very powerful maniac. I wasn’t sure where to take it. But as I opened up my laptop, a fellow I can only describe as a very powerful maniac sat down beside me and struck up a conversation, that veered from writer’s block to describing personalities by blood type and ended with a request that I divulge my birthdate, for some magical purpose. It terrified the whole subway car, and when I got to Broadview, a relatively busy station where I might credibly claim to be transferring to a streetcar, I excused myself and got off to wait for the next train. I spent the rest of the trip transcribing what I remembered of the conversation. And now it’s in Volk, in a different context but more or less intact, and it’s pretty damn scary if I do say so myself. But I can’t, because I owe it all to the subway maniac.

Sometimes stories are suggested to me by reading other stories. “Looker,” in the new collection, came to me after reading a collection of Roald Dahl’s old stories intended for adults. I was struck by his genuinely perverse nastiness, and took it as a challenge to be at least as viciously mysanthropic. And I think that it comes pretty close, if I say so myself. But I can’t, because Dahl.

What, in your opinion, makes a successful horror story?

I think a lot of the things that make a successful story make a horror story work: stakes, characters and situations that engage a reader’s empathy, richness of setting. More specifically, and subjectively: the story’s got to surprise me in some way—and in so doing, give me a sense of a deeper reality.

Why do people read horror? And don’t give me that “we all like to be scared” shtick.

I actually don’t like to be scared so much as I like to glimpse the unnamable. I am assuming that is the same as it is for others:

Nightmare fuel

The cover of Monstrous Affections gives me nightmares. Why did you inflict this on me? 

To make your nights more interesting.

Seriously, what have you got against nightmares? I’ve had some fantastic ones lately—deathly school-teachers, sentient tornadoes, haunted buses taking me to nowhere, final exams from courses I was supposed to have finished 30 years ago, strange twelve-legged insects that burrow in my ear and give me tinnitus renditions of Rhapsody in Blue…

You’re welcome, Corey. (Also, you should thank Erik Mohr, the boy genius who came up with that illustration.)

I’m going to list a few of your short stories. Can you tell me the impetus behind each?

“Night of the Tar-Baby”

That’s tough to say. I think probably the title came first, and I built on that. I was also interested in working with a non-traditional monster (at the time, I’d had my fill of vampires and ghosts and demons and such) and I liked the premise behind a tar baby—that it was a kind of passive-aggressive monster. Anyone who can control their rage and back off can survive an encounter with a tar baby—but you try to mix it up with one, and you’re in a serious mess.

So in the story, the tar baby becomes a kind of invoked household god of protection—and also a weapon, for the undeserving patriarch.

“Janie and the Wind”

“Janie and the Wind” was one of my observed-reality stories, based on an amalgam of some people and situations I’d seen growing up in central Ontario cottage country. City folk who spend summers and ski trips in that part of the world might have a skewed view—that the Muskokas, for instance, are fundamentally a summer-playground for the Rosedale-and-Bay-Street gentry. There’s certainly a lot of money in and around Muskoka. But it is also a place of staggering poverty, both for individuals and for social services and other niceties of civilized living. So it started with these impoverished, uncared-for characters… and moved into the territory of the Wendigo, with which I admit taking considerable liberties.

“Swamp Witch and the Tea-Drinking Man”

Swamp Witch!

I had, when I wrote that story, been thinking about a couple of things. Foremost, I think it was an exercise in style—I wanted to tell a story that played like a long, noodling roots-music ballad, filled with tall tales and back-woods magic. I was thinking a lot about the old Jim Stafford song Swamp Witch too. And I felt it was high time to write a love story…

“The Mayor Will Make a Brief Statement and Then Take Questions”

When I’m not writing stories, I spend a lot of time doing journalism, covering Toronto City Hall. [This story] was inspired by the David Miller mayoralty—in particular the scrums, which would always begin with those words coming from the mayor’s press secretary. The story, which is just a little bit longer than the answer I’m writing to your question, was inspired by the so-called Summer of the Gun, when a rash of shootings in at-risk neighbourhoods wound up falling at the mayor’s feet. Miller was roundly criticized by his opponents for not doing more. But really—in the immediate aftermath of gunfire and death and grief, what can anyone do? Miller took it in the jaw then, and finally again when he tried to get ahead of the crisis with gun legislation and social service enhancements. The Mayor… deals with a crisis that’s even more difficult to get hold of.

I’ve written one other mayor story, “Knife Fight,” which appears in the anthology Masked Mosaic, and is the title story for my upcoming story collection. It’s fair to say that one takes some inspiration from Miller’s successor.

Harryhausen’s Cyclops from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD

“Polyphemus’ Cave”

Always wanted to write a cyclops story. Cyclopses  are just cool. And if you’ve spent any time with Ray Harryhausen’s film library, damn destructive, and let’s be honest, damn sexy too. When Michael Rowe asked me for a story for his second Queer Fear anthology, it just seemed a natural.

Although I mentioned this above, what’s next for David Nickle?

Very soon (which is to say this fall) there’s my second story collection, Knife Fight and Other Struggles. It includes more recent stuff than Monstrous Affections did (which makes a bit of sense) and also, I think strays further from classic horror. There will be at least one and possibly two clear-cut science fiction stories, and some weird magic-realist stuff involving the War on Terror, mega-churches, and cookery. It’s also got stories about demonic possession and haunted books, though, so hopefully it won’t be too much of a departure.

I’m also working on a sequel to Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, called Volk. It will be out in 2016 and I can’t say too much about it not having written too much of it just yet.

Click here for The Subconscious Interview with David Nickle, wherein we learn of chickens.