Your work ranges widely—from playwriting to poetry to nonfiction and fiction. Do you also work in non-word-related mediums like painting, or do you know someone like Paints-No-More?
I don’t paint, but I’ve dabbled enough to have some concept of what painting entails. (My mother’s cousin is an art restorer, and I am endlessly fascinated by her work.) I will admit to drawing, but ninety-eight percent of the time, this takes the form of detailed contour maps, invented landscapes meant to either mimic or outdo existing physiography. I recycle most of these, but once in a while, I come up with a piece that sucks me in, demands my attention, and somehow renders in two dimensions what really ought to exist in three.
As for Paints-No-More, the studio space and the environs of the house and neighborhood are that of my actual grandmother, who really did paint beds of impatiens. Neither her personality nor my grandfather’s is specifically conjured for this story. The mole, however, the first one, that was as real as the day is long. My first exposure to maggots.
Some people say the key to horror fiction is hope. Would you agree? At the end of “Portfolio,” the narrator tries to conquer the horror in his grandmother’s paintings and to exorcise the demons that live under the surface of life—did you deliberately weave hope into this story?
I’m not a nihilist, never have been, and don’t intend to become so. In a good many of my stories and plays, I aim for a benedictory close, something on the order of, “The mass is ended, go in peace.” (Not being either a lapsed or practicing Catholic, I learned those lines through Leonard Bernstein.) The fact is, I was sleep deprived when I first drafted “Portfolio.” (My youngest son would have been about three at the time.) Whatever fever-dream the story evokes was probably fueled by that. As for the underlying tropes of horror fiction, hope is certainly one engine that keeps the genre going. That said, I’ve always been wary of analyzing the workings of “scary” stories, perhaps because, all evidence to the contrary, I don’t consider myself to be a horror writer.
For more on the subject of hope, it might be best to consult James Thurber.
The cabin-without-a-door leaves the reader wondering if the narrator, as a child, painted his feelings of despair or if it was simply a childish mistake—it becomes a symbol of the narrator’s growth. As you were writing, did you first think of how doors represent possibilities or did you start with the doorless image and the idea grew from there?
Oddly, I still remember how this came about. In the writing, I kept picturing the cabin in the snow with two walls visible, since you can’t see more in a “realistic” painting. One contained a window, while the other was just planks. After a while, I realized that this arrangement only implied a door—that any normal cabin would of course have a door, but that this cabin, being two-dimensional (and, perhaps, a symbol) could survive without. So I let my narrator make the same discovery. Presto, change-o. Emotional resonance. As to which of us is sublimating some deeper trauma, well. That’s for you to decide.
Samhain Publishing recently released another Renner & Quist novel, Bonesy. Can we expect more in this dark fiction series or are you working on something different?
I adore Renner & Quist. Renner’s the effete, mousy Unitarian Universalist minister. Quist is the ex-linebacker and retired private eye who partners with prissy Renner to “solve” the occult disturbances that for unknown reasons keep landing on their doorstep. Renner & Quist are like The Odd Couple, but surrounded by things that go bump in the night. Given that no writing is ever easy, the Renner & Quist titles have been very enjoyable to craft, the writerly equivalent of smooth sailing; I especially enjoy the opportunity to slip in bits of social commentary via their often opposed perspectives. The bottom line: I feel that with Renner & Quist (and this is a very rare sensation indeed), I know what I’m doing.
That said, none of the existing quartet seem to be selling, and novels take time to create. Part of the problem is the plethora of small presses: Not even the most avid reader can possibly keep up, or sort wheat from chaff. Another issue is how books get reviewed. I love working with Samhain, but they’re a mid-scale operation, and organizations like Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, not to mention major periodical reviewers like The New York Times or The Washington Post’s Book World, pay no attention whatsoever to houses of Samhain’s type. Finally, it’s been my experience that genre fiction has been Balkanized to the point where “horrific” supernatural fictions tend not to get reviewed by the usual speculative suspects—sites like SFRevu, Locus, or Tangent. The result: Large chunks of the ideal Renner & Quist readership don’t even know the books exist.
Now some have opined that I should spend my time getting really adept at manipulating social media. That this would solve my “platform” problems. Perhaps, but then I wouldn’t be writing . . .
Please understand, I’m not interested in doling out blame or whining. It is, however, my job as a writer to survey the lay of the land, to weigh mercenary vs. artistic decisions. So, while the seeds of a fifth and culminating Renner & Quist are very much on my mind, I have precious little incentive to spin the tale to completion. That’s okay, I suppose. I wouldn’t be the first author to have to set beloved characters aside, but Renner & Quist, as living, breathing figments of my imagination, surely deserve some closure. So who knows? Perhaps if you, gentle reader, were to purchase a copy or two? No pressure! And if you’d like to (safely) dip your toes into the Renner & Quist universe, their very first adventure, originally published in Not One Of Us #48, is posted on my website (bit.ly/perfect_wedded). Free fiction, yours for the plucking!
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