Greetings from the Ethereal Plane,
In dark fiction, there are many voices who have clambered their ways into the skulls of readers. Though the influx is large, it is rare for one of these voices to nestle into the consciousness of readers in the way that T.E. Grau’s work has accomplished. He who the Gehenna Post has named, “Dark Fiction’s Most Promising Young Voice.” We began a review series for Grau’s work, reviewing both his Shirley Jackson Award-nominated collection, The Nameless Dark, found here, and his novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore, found here. Grau has been paving his way steadily and meticulously into the realm of dark fiction, crafting unforgettable fiction along the way. His new release, I Am The River from Lethe Press will release in February of 2018. While we await the next chapter in Grau’s stunning resume of horror and dark fiction, let’s dive in to the unknown and learn where his newest piece will take us.
CP: You have burst onto the Dark Fiction scene with much praise and the anticipation for your new work, I Am the River, is well-deserved. As an author, voices such as Laird Barron and Adam Nevill have praised your work. Could you describe for our readers the steps that your career has progressed in recent years? What aspirations and goals do you have for the future?
TE: I’m so grateful for the support of fellow writers. That was very important in allowing me to get my first collection published by Lethe Press, as I was mostly unknown to the publisher until my work was recommended online by Nathan Ballingrud (who graciously agreed to write the introduction to The Nameless Dark), and Laird Barron. Once the collection found a home, the blurbs I asked for and received from major names in horror and dark fiction around the world still blow me away. I was treated very kindly by so many colleagues and authors I admire, including Adam, and I’ll never forget that.
Following the release of The Nameless Dark, the critical feedback was thankfully positive, and the collection received a nomination for a Shirley Jackson Award. That led to an increase in offers to release my work with various publishers. I agreed to a publishing deal with This Is Horror to publish my next project, which became the novella They Don’t Come Home Anymore, taking us up to the present, and a few larger projects on which I’m currently working. It wasn’t planned this way, but each successive book has grown in terms of size and scope, as the collection reflected short stories and novelettes, They Don’t Come Home Anymore was a novella, and my current project, I Am The River, will certainly be a novella, and might grow itself into an outright novel. I’ll know more in late August when I finish the book.
In terms of future goals, I want to write my proper novel (“proper,” in terms of planning it to be novel-length from the start) Salt Creek, and finish and release a second collection or short fiction (title and cover already set and secured, but not released at the moment). Beyond that, I’ll write what appeals to me, and see where it all fits.
CP: You spoke of authors treating you very well when you burst onto the scene, even those you admire. For our readers, who are mostly authors themselves, what about connections and friendships creates such a strong bond that helps authors like yourself catapult into the mainstream? How would you recommend other authors learn from this historical style of camaraderie (E.g. The Lovecraft Circle)?
TE: Well, I’m certainly not in the mainstream, but I do appreciate the vote of confidence.
Writing is like any creative scene, in that it runs on talent and relationships, and talent creating relationships with each other. Helping each other, creating something larger than oneself, sort of like an unofficial union or guild. Strength in numbers. I believe in things like this, although I also realize that it’s very rare when this actually happens, as self-interest and other issues usually–pardon the pun–trump generosity, cooperation, and support.
That said, camaraderie is important. Supporting other writers and their work is important. Essential, even. Paying forward to newer and emerging writers the support and assistance you have and continue to receive is important. I’ve tried to do that as much as I can, within my means.
A supportive community can grow great things. For example, Seattle became the mecca of music in the early 90s because most of the bands knew, supported, and jammed with each other. They were a scene, and when the big labels came calling, a lot of them got a shot. That’s powerful, as a scene draws interested eyes, while a collection of scattered individuals sometimes makes it difficult for gatekeepers to target and pin down, and often more trouble than it’s worth, as they don’t have the time or the understanding to do the necessary work to uncover the gems that can and will change the cultural landscape.
This needs to happen in the writing community, and has, to a point. More is necessary, though. No one will care if we don’t care ourselves.
CP: It is very notable that, as an author, you have a distinct ability to craft narratives that differ in each story/work. Many writers maintain a voice that is consistent, often choosing genres and themes that are similar in style. Most of your stories are incomparable, standing on their own and independent of one another. How did this ability develop and what inspired you to be such a versatile writer?
TE: I’m not really sure how this developed, but I suppose it might come from my interest in so many things, including history, geography, astronomy, religion, sociology, race, family, and gender dynamics, and the occult, and a mild faculty for vocal mimicry. These interests show themselves in the stories I write, as I like to write about what interests me.
I also think that certain stories should/could be told in certain style, or in a certain setting, that might not be commonplace or similar to my other stories. Texture, tempo, and rhythm can vary, based on the influencing factors of character(s), location, time period, and the underlying messages (if any) in the piece.
I’m not a musician (that broken down ship sailed long ago), but I imagine that it’s similar to what songwriters experience when writing a song, in that how it sounds is based in large part on what the song is about, and the purpose of the song being written.
CP: You have been nominated for the Shirley Jackson award for Best Single-Author Collection, among many other accomplishments. What event or moment, as an author, was your proudest? What do you feel was the turning point for you as a writer?
TE: I was most proud when my wife and daughter held my collection in their hands for the first time as a finished, published book. That somehow made it all real, that I had finally accomplished something substantial as a writer after doing it for most of my life. Secondarily, seeing a book I had written on a library shelf for the first time was very, very satisfying. I felt like a tiny, miniscule part of the larger literary body. I’ve always been in awe of writers, books, and libraries, and now I could finally join myself to that stream of cultural permanence.
There are two major turning points in my career as a writer. The first was when my wife Ivy encouraged me to stop writing screenplays and write prose, which is what I secretly always wanted to do anyway. The next was a feeling that I should—and could—stop writing homage fiction or pastiche and write my own stories in my worlds. Lovecraftian fiction served as an entry point into writing short stories, as it gave me an avenue to frame my work and get it published in Lovecraft—or Cthulhu-themed—anthologies, and I’m very grateful for that. But after I found my legs, I realized I could trudge up on the mountain on my own two feet. I think many writers of dark and horror fiction have followed a similar route into realizing their own individuality as an author, going back to the 1930s, so I’m certainly not alone in this regard. Regardless of what I write going forward, or my personal feelings about the man, I’ll always owe Lovecraft a debt of gratitude for opening up his multiverse to be plundered by others, which allowed uncertain writers like me to grab onto his coattails and hitch a ride into the meeting room.
CP: As we have noted in both our reviews for The Nameless Dark and They Don’t Come Home Anymore, respectively, there are notable influences in your writing, primarily Lovecraftian and Liggoti-esque for your collection, and what we found to be thematic material relative to Stephen King’s early work. Were we accurate with these suggestions? If not, who has inspired you as an author?
TE: Lovecraft is certainly an influence, especially in my earlier work, as touched upon above. Ligotti is also an influence, I think, although it’s tough to tell. Knowing the difference between writers that have directly influenced the way I write in a discernable way and those who I admire greatly is difficult to determine, at least by me. Tonally, Ligotti is an inspiration, to be sure.
I don’t see King as an influence, although it’s certainly possible, as I have read a lot of his work throughout my life, and certainly in the last five years. I don’t see many similarities between he and I, although we probably share many of the same influencing factors. I adore King, both as a person and a writer.
My main influences—those that I can see and feel—are Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and Lovecraft. Authors that I have read and admire and from which I draw inspiration include Ligotti, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, T.E.D. Klein, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Lawrence Block, and Cormac McCarthy, to name a few.
CP: Concerning themes, could you delve into I Am the River a little? How will it be different from your previous outings?
TE: I Am The River will be my longest work to date, and is different in that the point of view changes from first person to third throughout the story. The protagonist is an African American veteran of the Vietnam War, hiding out in Bangkok five years after the war, unable to return home as he works through the horrors he has seen and unleashed, and the dark presence that haunts him on a daily basis, which often comes to him as the hound Black Shuck. The story deals with the nature of war and the impact of those who fight, endure, and survive it, sleep paralysis, PTSD in a time before it was diagnosed or even recognized as a legitimate side effect of trauma, the processing and resolution of guilt, anger, and fear, and the covert—and often incredibly strange—psychological operations carried out during the Vietnam War by the CIA and other agencies in an attempt to win a war that we were clearly losing, contrary to every battle assessment, body count, and press release.
I get to explore lots of things in this book that I haven’t fully dealt with before, and it provides me a chance to write about a misunderstood war that inflicted—and continues to inflict—so much physical and psychological damage on so many people on so many sides, including my own father, who fought in Vietnam.
CP: Concerning I Am The River, a 1990 film that is—still to this day—very underrated, comes to mind. Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. Going on to inspire franchises like Silent Hill, the film delved into the psychological experiments conducted during Vietnam. Why do you think this topic is so heavily ignored and what inspired you to explore its reality in your writing? How will your novella differ from previous portrayals of the events?
TE: The baseline elements–PTSD, sleep paralysis, and a particularly strange and totally real PSY-OP program created during the Vietnam War–were brought to me by a filmmaker who was interested in developing a film project that explored these concepts. He’d read my work, and first approached me to adapt one of my published stories for the screen, which he is doing right now. In the meantime, he asked if I could come up with a story that included those particular elements without any direction relating to story and character, and what I created is I Am The River. So, in a sense, it’s a commissioned piece, in a very loose definition of the term, although all of the characters, settings, and plot are my own.
I’ve never seen Jacob’s Ladder, but from what I know of the plot, there aren’t many similarities other than the shared setting of the Vietnam War, and the use of flashbacks. The PSY-OP in my story isn’t an experiment, it was an actual program created to deliver terror to the enemy drawing on their belief in the supernatural. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.
As for why this topic is routinely ignored, I really have no idea, other than many of those who fought in Vietnam don’t seem too eager to talk about it, so it’s up to dummies like me born after it was over to attempt an interpretation of what happened there.
CP: It says on your Amazon author page that you are currently working on another collection and your first novel. What are the plans for these works? Do you prefer longer or shorter pieces? Why?
TE: My second collection should be a varied work, showing where I am now as a reader and writer, which is a bit different than where I was seven years ago. I want to do something interesting with the presentation of the book, as well, and am working with my wife on several ideas to make it something of an “enhanced” print edition.
My novel Salt Creek is probably best described as The X-Files meets Willa Cather with a touch of Twin Peaks. In it, I’ll explore the “lost” town and geographic region of Salt Creek, Nebraska, a peculiar place named for a salt water stream in the middle of the prairie that doesn’t appear on any maps, but is—at least from time to time—quite real. Salt Creek features heavily in my novelette The Mission, and is nodded to in a few other stories. The novel will help further the mythos and well-hidden history of the place, and build on it for this and future works.
Regarding my preference for shorter or longer pieces, I like both, as some stories should be told briefly, giving just a glimpse of an ongoing world, while others demand a longer, more thorough investigation. The story itself will tell you how large or small it wants to be, provided that you listen closely and stay true to the guiding spirit of the tale. Stories never lie, unless they’re forced to do so.
CP: The technique of authors using world building for short fiction, connecting several of their stories to the same central universe, seems to be at an all-time high in popularity—whether it be a single author or several operating within the same realm of fiction—with the massive resurgence in Lovecraftian popularity. How did the setting of Salt Creek come to be a place that you used for multiple stories? Why is world building just as important for short fiction as it is for longer works?
TE: Going back to my first days of writing prose and horror fiction, I wanted to create my own reality, build my own version of our world, inspired by contemporary writers like Ramsey Campbell (Severn Valley), Jeffrey Thomas (Punktown), Laird Barron (the Old Leech mythos) and W. H. Pugmire (Sesqua Valley), among others, all of whom crafted new universes in which to house many of their stories. This was appealing to me, especially as a kid who grew up reading high fantasy fiction, where so many novels were set in specific realities created for those books and characters. Places like Krynn, Prydain, Middle Earth, Forgotten Realms, and the lands of the Belgariad and the Hyborian Age were as real to me as anything on an actual map. That left a powerful impression.
In creating Salt Creek, I decided early on to build out this familiar but slightly askew world in the Sandhills of Nebraska, which is a strange, bleak, and sometimes beautiful place, although future tales will expand the “network” into connected locations in California, Pennsylvania, and other areas across the globe. I’m very much looking forward to pulling more real estate from the void as my writing continues.
World building obviously isn’t essential, and can become a crutch, but it’s also incredibly fun, ceding more architectural power to a writer, and providing an efficient way to frame a series of stories, characters, and locations in one unique universe where the rules bow to the discretion of the creator. To answer your last question, I think world building is just as important for short fiction as longer works because short fiction is just as important, in general, as longer works. More so, sometimes, as some of the best and most effective works of fiction, for my money, are short stories, not novels.
CP: On a closing note, we always try to have a final question that relates to helping young and aspiring authors tread their paths. Hearing advice from writers one admires is often a very powerful tool that can benefit new authors enormously with their own trajectories and career paths. If you had to give one single strand of advice to a young author, what would it be? And why?
TE: Whenever I’m asked this question my answer is always the same–read more than you write.
Consider yourself an athlete, where training and practice time far exceeds the time spent performing in an actual contest. Hundreds, even thousands, of accumulated training hours go into one three hour game or match. Think of boxers, martial artists, football and basketball players. Think of long distance runners, who log hundreds and hundreds–even thousands–of miles to train for a race that is never longer than 26.2.
The same can be said for writers, with reading as their training. The act of writing is also training, obviously, but more resembles an end result contest than practice. However, that foundational repetition of the fundamentals that leads to the best athletic performance (ball handling in basketball and soccer, route running in football, batting practice in baseball, etc.) can only be achieved through reading, and reading far afield from normal habits and comfort zones, taking in the best literature this world has produced, and breaking it down inside your head, absorbing traces of its DNA, and then hopefully synthesizing this fuel when you write your own work. It’s absolutely essential to becoming a good, and a better, writer. Uncultivated natural ability will only take you so far. Training, discipline, and hard work will take you the rest of the way.
T.E. Grau is the author of dozens of stories and other written works, including the books They Don’t Come Home Anymore, Triptych: Three Cosmic Tales, The Lost Aklo Stories, The Mission, and The Nameless Dark, which was nominated for a 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Single-Author Collection, and ranks as the bestselling book published by Lethe Press in both 2015 and 2016. His most recent work is the novella I Am The River, which will be published in late 2017 by Lethe Press. Grau lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter, and is currently working on his second collection and first novel.
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