John Langan is one of those authors I only recently discovered (as in a few years ago) that made me shake my head and wonder where what the hell I was doing that allowed me to miss out on his amazing stories for that long? For years John has been making a name for himself as one of the best horror authors working today. That’s an opinion that I now share. Everything I have read from John I have loved and full discloser: he has appeared in a number of my anthologies and there’s a reason for that. The fact that he’s a really nice guy is the icing on the cake. So yeah, John Langan, if you’re not reading him you’re depriving yourself of the good stuff.
BMS – Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, John. Now before authors began to write, they were readers, so what were some of your earliest literary loves? Who inspired you and made you want to keep on reading?
I loved Marvel comics—this would have been when Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, and Roy Thomas were writing things like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, and Conan the Barbarian. I also read whatever reprints of earlier Marvel books I could get my hands on, which introduced me to Stan Lee’s hyperbolic style. I enjoyed Robert E. Howard’s stories when I was a kid, but it was reading Stephen King’s Christine when I was a freshman in high school that made me a writer. Subsequently, writers like Peter Straub, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor deepened my appreciation for what the written word could do. In more recent years, I’ve read and learned quite a bit from Henry James and Charles Dickens.
BMS – What is your favorite book or story and why?
I don’t have just one, but I have been thinking about William Kennedy’s Ironweed a lot, lately. It’s kind of the whole package: beautifully written, compelling plot, great sense of place, intriguing use of the supernatural. That said, I also re-read James’s The Portrait of a Lady last year, and man, is that a powerhouse of a novel. And I try to make a point of teaching Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier at least once a year, for everything it does with narrative. Which is to say nothing of Willa Cather’s My Antonia…
BMS – Do you recall when you first thought about writing your own stories? Was it a sudden epiphany, a gradual thing, or something else entirely?
It was first grade, when we were told we could draw a picture if we wrote a story to go along with it. I loved to draw, and had in mind a picture of King Kong fighting Godzilla. That began what was a lengthy process. In fifth or sixth grade, I wrote a long Halloween story that the teacher had me read to the class (it basically concerned a first-person narrator who discovers a very Nazgûl-esque figure in an old barn). I can still remember that feeling of reading something that had captured everyone’s attention. I wrote some imitation-Lloyd Alexander stuff around the same time, but it wasn’t until I hit high school and encountered Stephen King that my creative inclinations of the previous eight years coalesced and I realized that this was what I wanted to do.
BMS – What was your first sale and to what market?
The first story I sold was “On Skua Island,” a novelette that Gordon Van Gelder took for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
BMS – What is the best thing about being a writer?
The writing. And it’s nice to find out that you wrote something that someone enjoyed.
BMS – What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
The writing. And not enough hours in the day.
BMS – you have penned both short stories and novels, do you prefer one format over the other? How are writing the two different, other than length, for you, or do you approach each the same way?
My stuff tends to run long, so much of my experience as a writer has been with pieces of novelette length and longer. Obviously one of the advantages of working at length is the space it gives you to develop your characters, whatever situation you’ve faced them with, their responses to it. Obviously, too, short fiction forces you to concentrate, to distill all of this. I can’t remember who said that a short story was like the climax to a much longer piece that only the writer knew, and I’m not sure I agree with it, but it’s worth thinking about. Whatever I’m reading, though, I tend to follow the same daily routine.
BMS – Do you have a set routine as an author, like a specific time of day to write, a set number of hours you devote to it, or do you use longhand or just go right to typing it up?
As much as I can, I try to maintain the same routine. At this point, I do most of my fiction writing at night, after everyone’s gone to bed and the dogs have had their last walk. I write by hand on yellow legal pads with a Pilot Precise V7 pen. I try to finish at least one page a session, though there are times I write a little more than that. When I’m drawing toward the end of a story, my writing usually extends into the rest of the day. Once a story is done, I like to leave it for a certain amount of time—anywhere from a day or two to a couple of weeks—before sitting down at the computer to type it in. That typing is when I notice a lot of little editing details—repetitive wording, that kind of thing.
When I’m writing non-fiction, essays or reviews, I usually work at the computer, hammering away at the project until it’s done.
BMS – If I had no idea who you were and asked you the dreaded question: “So what kind of stories do you write?” how would you answer that?
You know, for years when I was asked this question, I would reply, “Horror stories,” with great cheer. And inevitably, I would watch the shutters slam down behind the eyes of whomever I was talking to. This, I understood, was because they associated the word horror with the worst cinematic examples of the genre. There was a certain aggressiveness to my reply, I think, a kind of chip-on-my-shoulder obnoxiousness that wasn’t really fair to the other person. I decided that my reply wasn’t doing me any favors, since what I wanted was to raise interest in what I was writing. I experimented with a few replies: “ghost stories,” “gothic stories,” but those sounded a bit too removed from what I was doing, so I settled on, “Stephen King kind of stuff,” which is a bit more informal, but which actually does a better job of conveying the end of the pool I’m swimming in.
BMS – If I asked you for three stories or books that would give a reader who is unfamiliar with your work the best representation of you as an author, what would those three be?
I imagine I would direct them to my 2013 collection, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, and tell them to take a look at the stories “Technicolor,” “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky,” and “Mother of Stone” within it. They might take a look at my new novel, The Fisherman, too.
BMS – You’ve been writing horror and dark fiction for more than a few years, how has that genre changed, as both a fan and creator, since the time you began writing until now?
From what I’ve seen, the genre is on an upward swing. In the last fifteen or so years, a host of brilliant writers have produced a really astonishing body of work: Nathan Ballingrud, Laird Barron, Michael Cisco, Brian Evenson, Gemma Files, Stephen Graham Jones, Glen Hirshberg, Victor Lavalle, Kelly Link, M. Rickert, and Paul Tremblay among them. More recently, there’s been an explosion of newer writers: Nadia Bulkin, Chesya Burke, Nicole Cushing, Orrin Grey, Mike Griffin, Carrie Laben, Livia Llewellyn, Usman Tanveer Malik, Anya Martin, S.P. Miskowski, Michael Rowe, Genevieve Valentine, and A.C. Wise, to name a very few. There’s an increasing and welcome diversity of writers trying all kinds of wild and wonderful things. If the larger publishers are still a bit hesitant about horror, they’ve been putting out more of it the last several years, and there some fine smaller presses that have showcased a lot of brilliant work.
BMS – If I asked you to predict where you see the world of horror fiction in the next few years, what would your answer be?
I don’t have much faith in my predictive abilities. I hope, though, that we’ll continue to see more work from members of communities that have been underrepresented in horror fiction in the past. I hope we’ll spend a little bit less time online and a little bit more time writing and reading. I hope we’ll be more kind to one another.
BMS – Several of your works could be called monster stories, and I love that. Many horror writers seemed to have turned away from good old monsters, so what keeps drawing you to use, and more often than not reinvent, them?
I like that the monsters come with their (often quite elaborate) histories, both in terms of whatever folk traditions they may have sprung from, and of any stories or novels that have used them before. That’s a lot of material you can use in the construction of your own story, a lot you can play with and against as you go. And I wouldn’t worry too much about horror writers turning away from monsters: there’s still plenty of interest in the monstrous, which I think is the real point of bringing the monster in, anyway.
BMS – You and I did a little something together that will be coming out from Dark Regions Press soon. I’m talking about the anthology called The Children of Gla’aki which has your story, “Mirror Fishing” in it. Can you tell us a little bit about that story, not only a teaser of what it is about, but how it came about?
I’m a big fan of Ramsey Campbell’s work. With Stephen King, Peter Straub, and I think Clive Barker and Thomas Ligotti, Campbell is one of the wellsprings of the horror literature of the last three decades. It’s not only his fiction, which ranges far both in terms of its technical ambitions and its dialogue with the horror tradition, but his editing work, which has concentrated on bringing attention to the variety of the field. So the chance to write something in response and tribute to his considerable achievements was a welcome one. Right off the bat, though, Gla’aki posed something of a challenge, given that the monster is supposed to reside in a lake in Campbell’s invented topography. But it occurred to me that the entity might not have entered the lake, but the water’s reflection, and if that was the case, then it might be accessed through any reflective surface. This led to the idea of using a mirror as a portal to that shimmering space. I had been writing a number of stories that deliberately incorporated elements of autobiography, and I remembered a visit a slightly older cousin and one of her friends had made to my family the summer after I finished seventh grade. That friend had interested me to no end: she did not accompany us to church on Sunday, preferring to sunbathe in our backyard. Suppose, I thought, she had had some knowledge of a figure called Auld Glaikit—“auld” being Scottish for old, “glaikit” the word for foolish that also sounded enough like the name of Campbell’s invention for me to pass it off as a coded way for disciples of the creature to refer to it without raising the suspicion of the ecclesiastical authorities. And suppose this young woman were to be interested in sharing her knowledge with the oldest child of the family with whom she was visiting. What might her motives be? How would a twelve year old boy respond to the attention of a slightly older girl, and to the revelation of something fantastic, frightening, on the other side of the mirror? (I suppose Campbell’s original lake is present in the idea of using a kind of fishing to open the portal from this world to Gla’aki’s realm.) It would have been simple enough to have her feed the boy to the monster, but I wanted something more complex. As for the rest…well, you’ll have to read the story to find out.
BMS – Can you share any info on what you’re working on now?
I’ve just wrapped up the original material that will be included in the limited edition of my second collection, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, which will be out later this year from Dark Regions Press. The additional material consists of about twenty thousand words of new writing, a long story, story notes, and an afterword in the form of a short story. Currently, I’m putting the finishing touches on the original novella for my third collection of stories, Sefira and Other Betrayals, which should be out later this year from Hippocampus Press. I’m also on the hook for nine stories between now and April of 2017, as well as a couple of short-ish essays. This is in addition to the reviews I’ve started contributing to Locus magazine. And the new novel I’m working on…
BMS – Any words of advice, or even warnings, you would like to give to beginning authors and for first time editors?
For new writers: write. Time spent on social media is not the same as writing, and should not be confused with it. Write every day, and write what you want to to the best of your ability. Make a list of venues you’d like to publish in; send your work to the venue at the top of that list and, if it doesn’t accept you, work your way down. Be patient: it may be three to six months before you hear a reply. Be patient: you may be rejected over and over again. (Remember, William Kennedy’s brilliant Ironweed was rejected by more than thirty publishers before it finally found a home.) Don’t worry about whatever work you have out; start writing the next one. And the one after that. Be kind and gracious.
For editors: don’t start a project you don’t have full funding for. (Kickstarter first, if you must, before inviting people to submit their stories to you.) At this point in time, professional rates for short fiction are 6-9 cents per word. Pay them. Pay promptly, once you’ve accepted a story. If you’re working with a publisher who won’t play by these rules, find a new one—or don’t be surprised when writers won’t work with you. Make sure the books you’re involved with have adequate publicity. Also: be kind and gracious.
BMS – What is the best way for people to learn more about you and your work?
Probably my blogsite, https://johnpaullangan.wordpress.com/, which has links to my books, interviews with me, and occasional posts about movies.
BMS – Thanks again for your time today, and for all the wonderful stories you’ve given us over the years.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.