Survivor Stories | Q&A with Horror Novelist Paul Tremblay

The multi-award-winning author of The Beast You Are: Stories tells LJ of his love for the short story format and why he thinks “write what you know” is “terrible writing advice.”

The multi-award-winning author of The Beast You Are: Stories tells LJ of his love for the short story format and why he thinks “write what you know” is “terrible writing advice.”

You often break readers’ hearts in your books, but you never leave them without hope. You also leave the reasoning behind the horror up for grabs, allowing an interpretation of either a rational explanation or a supernatural occurrence. What is your thinking around these choices?

I think most horror stories are survivor’s tales, even if the only survivors, the only witnesses, are the readers. There’s some hope there, right? Seriously, though, I do find horror hopeful in the very act of that truth reveal. There’s communication between the writer and reader; a recognition that something is wrong, something is not right. That’s a hopeful act.

As far as the supernatural ambiguous elements goes, “Write what you know” is terrible writing advice, but “write your obsessions” is good advice. Those thematic obsessions are likely going to be there anyway, even without conscious intent. Why not put them to work for you?

I’ve long been obsessed with how slippery/malleable memory, identity, and reality are, particularly in the age of virtual lives and misinformation, and that obsession manifests in the ambiguity of my stories. What’s scarier than not knowing who or what we are or what this is we’re living through?

Put another way…I want my stories to feel real, to feel like they could happen, which often translates into giving the reader evidence of rational explanations for the possible supernatural events. I’ve always thought if I were to experience something supernatural, it would be subtle, something just slightly off, and in the moments and days after the suspect event, I’d explain it away, or at least I’d try to. But that fear and wonder would linger and tether me to that moment of liminality. As a reader, I love and fear that liminal space. I love when the author trusts me to participate in the story, to do some of the work, to ask myself the hard questions. Those are the books and stories that stay with me long after I close the cover.

Moving on to your upcoming book, The Beast You Are: Stories. What is it about the shorter form that still calls to you?

Two short stories helped turned this math major into a reader. One of the last college classes I took was a Lit 101 class. Long boring story as to why I was a senior in that mostly freshman class, but it was in that class I read T.C. Boyle’s “Greasy Lake” and Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” Those stories opened my eyes and brain and world. I’ve been drawn to short stories ever since. I first started messing around with writing in the mid-to-late ’90s, and I almost exclusively wrote/worked on short stories for a decade. Horror has a long and rich tradition within short fiction that I remain eager to explore as a reader and writer.

In general, I love the form’s intensive, at times obsessive, close-up view of scenes or moments. My favorite short stories somehow turn those moments into their own Big Bangs, hinting at the origins and secrets of the wider universes in which they and we live.

This new book is anchored by the brilliant, titular novella. It is an anthropomorphic animal story, told in free verse. What led you to exploring this new frame and style?

I think every writer has an anthropomorphic animal story in them. Watership Down (both the film and the novel) is an all-time favorite. I saw the movie when I was around 10, I think, and on the big screen. Despite being a card-carrying scaredy cat, that movie didn’t scare or scar me. It fascinated and thrilled me to no end and was my first exposure (or at least, the first that I remember) to a story that so directly engaged with politics. Later, I fell in love with ’80s cable TV staple Secret of NIMH and Animal Farm by George Orwell. I’ve long wanted to write something Watership Down–inflected, and my friend Chris Irvin published his own, wonderful Wind in the Willows–meets–Fargo novel Ragged, and that was the final push I needed to head into animal land. Well, the final push was William Morrow asking for another short story collection. I’d had the idea for The Beast You Are kicking around, but I figured that at a novel length, it would be a tough sell. But, ah, as a novella within a collection, that I could sneak by them, could do. And novella is the proper length for this story, I think. I hope. Why free verse? I love Toby Barlow’s L.A. werewolf novel in verse, Sharp Teeth. Most of my books/stories start with me being a fan, my wanting to try something that’s too cool not to try.

My aim with the story was to create this animal world—um, plus a giant monster?—that would let my imagination run wild (not a pun, I swear) while still, hopefully, remaining in tune with some of the vibrating frequencies of our own world.

What authors are you really excited about right now, especially ones readers may not know about yet?

In the early months of 2023, I’ve read a handful of books that are now all-time favorites of mine. Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez is a stunning, decades-spanning tale of what came before, during, and after the Dirty War in Argentina, told through a cosmic horror lens. The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud, a Portis-like western on Mars in 1931, is an amazing mix of genres (almost all of them!), and the result is a melancholic wonder. Short story collections—Boys, Beasts & Men by Sam J. Miller and White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link—play and interact with genres in ingenious and inspiring ways. I would also recommend any books/stories by Nadia Bulkin, Laird Barron, Stephen Graham Jones, Victor LaValle, and John Langan.

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