ENQUIRIES FROM THE DEEP: An Interview with Dark Fiction Titan John Langan

Greetings from the Ether,

As promised, we cap off our review series of John Langan’s work with an interview from out of this world, from deep within the Earth. If you haven’t yet, check out our reviews of Langan’s The Fisherman and House of Windows, and remember that this exchange will appear in Hinnom Magazine Issue 004, which is still set for pre-orders if you haven’t snagged a copy yet!

Alas, let us begin!

fisherman how
Covers of John Langan’s The Fisherman and House of Windows

CP: You have had an incredibly successful past few years. Between The Fisherman winning the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel and the releases of your short story collections, along with the reprinting of House of Windows. In both novels, you mention the long processes you’ve faced in completing these works. The meticulous nature of your language and structure shows careful planning and execution, unwavering patience, one could say. Could you delve a little into the creations of your novels? The struggles you’ve faced and the rewards that’ve come from your hard work?

JL: I suppose I should start by saying that I compose in longhand, on legal pads. When I wrote House of Windows and the first hundred pages or so of The Fisherman, I had a goal of one new page and one revised page per day. Each morning, I would wake up early—before, I liked to say, my internal editor was conscious—and rewrite the last page I’d written the previous day, cleaning it up and expanding it as I went, then moving onto a new page. If I felt at any point that the narrative had gone off track in some way, I would retrace my steps to the spot that had happened, and start over from there. Occasionally, I would jot down notes in the margins of the pages. For House of Windows, I wound up drawing a map of the layout of Belvedere House; for The Fisherman, I sketched Apophis. By the time I came to complete The Fisherman, my daily method had changed slightly: now I concentrated on producing one new page each day, revising it as I went. Once each hand-written manuscript was complete, I typed it into the computer, submitting it to another round of revisions in the process. When the books were done, my wife read them and gave me feedback on them, which I used for another set of revisions before sending the books to my agent. House of Windows went through one more round of revisions, after a first round of submissions to major presses failed to yield any acceptances. The narrative that comprises the majority of the book originally was told in more or less chronological order; I rearranged it to place the fight between Roger and Ted at the beginning.

I’m not sure my struggles writing the novels were any different from any other writer’s. There was the same effort to see the narrative through to the end, to get right details of character and setting, to avoid easy shortcuts. As for rewards: there’s the satisfaction of work well done, which should not be underestimated. When I was writing House of Windows, I said I wanted to write a book that, were I to be hit by a bus the day after I completed it, I could be happy to leave behind. I accomplished that. With The Fisherman, I borrowed advice the great Jeffrey Ford had given to my friend Laird Barron and wrote for broke, so to speak. I didn’t hold anything back. With each book, I’ve had the experience of flipping to a random page and thinking, “Hey, this isn’t bad.” Which is nice.


CP:
In both novels, your prose—as many have before stated—resembles the nature of more classical works. You’ve also openly spoken of the challenges you faced when finding the right publisher who understood the scope and unique voice that your fiction embodies. How did you come to find this voice in your writing? Has it always been there, or did it develop as you found your individuality as an author?

JL: I’ve always loved language, loved it when it’s extravagant, florid, excessive. I grew up reading the Marvel comics of the 1960’s and -70’s, and I adored Stan Lee’s hyperbolic, overheated style. The Mighty Thor and his quasi-Shakespearean pronouncements, the Silver Surfer and his sententious philosophizing, not to mention, the narrative Lee supplied for all the Marvel books, was as much a source of pleasure to me as the art of jack Kirby and John Buscema. I loved the stately grandeur of Tolkien, who was one of the first prose writers I was aware of (thanks to the animated adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was in grade school). During my teens, I gravitated to Stephen King’s colloquial storytelling and Peter Straub’s careful prose, as well as T.E.D. Klein’s mannered style (with some Charlotte Bronte thrown in for good measure). College brought me to Faulkner and Henry James, grad school to Dickens and Woolf. All of which is to say that I drew a good deal of my inspiration and sustenance as a writer from reading writing that was distinguished by its attention to language. For me, style is an inextricable part of what I’m trying to do as a writer. I’m always happy whenever someone notices the care I’ve paid to it.


CP:
I’ve found a consistent element in your works, throughout both your novels and short fiction, that I find very interesting. The details you evoke, the descriptions you so perfectly illustrate, craft imagery and scenery as if you were speaking of experience rather than a fictional story. Many say that method actors often become the characters in which they play, and I firmly believe that writers can become method authors with their stories, transporting themselves to these settings, into these experiences. Could you walk us through the process of your imagination when writing? Do the details appear on their own, flourish, and write themselves? Do they come from real-life experiences? If so, how and why, do you think?

JL: I’m tempted to quote Joseph Conrad here, his famous statement about his goal as a writer being to make you see what he sees as he sees it. There’s a whole aesthetic there which gets worked out in his approach to fiction, and which you see in writers such as Dickens, James, and Faulkner. I suppose I think of the writer as the one who notices things, specifically, the things that will bring alive a particular scene for the reader. But that’s an expression of their individual sensibility, isn’t it?

All of this is a bit general, I realize; perhaps a bit of personal reflection would be useful. I see my process as a writer as having developed a bit over the last decade and a half. When I started, I tended to think very deliberately about the story I was going to write, using the particular monster at its heart as a way of focusing my attention. A monster such as the mummy, say, tends to bring with it certain plot movements, certain imagery, and I used those conventions as a kind of frame to build my narrative on, even when I was working against or at cross-purposes to them. I didn’t write outlines for my stories, but I frequently discussed them with my wife when we were in the car, kicking around ideas with her. As we did so, the characters revealed themselves to me, beginning a process that continued as I sat down to write the story. I was aware that many of those characters shared certain personality traits, interests, or experiences with me, or that they had been inspired in some way by people I knew, but I also wanted my characters to have their own, distinct existences. As much as anything, I found each story needed a particular narrative voice, which tended to come to me in the first line and proceed from there. I don’t know that I thought about it in these terms at the time, but my goal was very much to inhabit the story, all the way down to the level of language.

In more recent years, I’ve become interested in writing stories that draw more directly on my autobiography, perhaps because I feel more confident in my ability to treat that material. I’ve become aware that everything is a potential source for a story, from half-remembered fragments from my childhood to overheard snippets of conversation. I’ve said before that, the more I write, the more I find I can write, and that seems more true to me now than ever.


CP:
I’ve seen where many have said, in agreement with our own statements in our reviews, that your work stands on its own, despite the weird and literary inspirations. Your novels and short fiction are original, frightening, and unforgettable. In the age of the New Weird, and with the flood of Lovecraftian inspiration in recent memory, how can authors attain individuality while maintaining affection for their inspirations? What are some techniques that help you capture that signature voice and the enthralling concepts we’ve come to love so much, while presenting the stories in a fresh, innovative manner?

JL: I think all art begins in imitation of other art. How else are you supposed to learn how to write a story but by reading other stories and doing what they do? I’m all for Jonathan Lethem’s idea of the ecstasy of influence, of embracing your influences with full enthusiasm, and writing through them to find your own style. As I see it, art is made of art; there’s no such thing as a pure, uncontaminated style. What is distinctive is the way in which your particular sensibility assembles its influences into a whole. Don’t fret so much about originality; instead, dive into what you love and absorb yourself in it, let it absorb you. Remain open to new things, allow them to interact with what’s inside you already. Embrace your passions.

 

CP: Bouncing off of your response of “inhabit(ing) the story,” I feel the need to mention the world-building in The Fisherman. You have a knack for unorthodox narrative structures, with a large part of The Fisherman delving into the story that Abe and Dan hear in the diner concerning the Reservoir, and then with House of Windows and its story-within-a-story structure. Whereas House of Windows uses a lot of real locations, The Fisherman takes some creative liberties. How did you find yourself building the history of Dutchman’s Creek? What led to the decision to make the retelling of the story such a large section of the book?

JL: I’m fascinated by stories. I grew up with parents who were both storytellers, and I’ve always loved narratives in which characters tell stories to one another (i.e. Heart of Darkness, Ethan Frome, My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, Ghost Story, Pet Sematary, etc.). I still love it when a friend or family member tells a story. My first two published horror stories, “On Skua Island” and “Mr. Gaunt,” make use of the story-within-a-story structure, so it came readily to hand when I began what would become my novels. In the cases of both House of Windows and The Fisherman, though, I thought the internal stories would be significantly shorter than they turned out to be. I should clarify here that, when I started each book, I expected it would be some variety of shorter narrative, most likely a novelette, maybe a novella. I had no plans for either to grow to novel length. This happened because each internal story kept revealing more of itself to me, expanding and deepening. In turn, this pushed the narratives in the direction of the novel. It also required an increasing amount of research. In the case of The Fisherman, I consulted a few local histories and watched a documentary on the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir. The idea was always for the past story to add resonance and significance to the events of the present story; otherwise, you would have a strange and not entirely satisfactory narrative. As much as I could, I kept the events of The Fisherman’s internal narrative within the larger bounds of the actual building of the reservoir. What I wound up with was a book that was really a novella within a novella, but I decided I was happy with that structure.

 

CP: As an experienced writer of both novels and shorter fiction, which one do you enjoy more? Do you have a specific story or work that you favor more than others? Why or why not?

JL: All of my stuff tends to be long; even when I’m writing a story for an anthology, it’s likely to fall within novelette territory (and increasingly novella). Writing a true short story that succeeds as such is something I’ve managed maybe a handful of times, possibly a little more. I tend to prefer to work at length; I enjoy the feeling of being able to explore character and situation in depth. My favorite story tends to change depending on the day, but I’m very fond of one called “Homemade Monsters” that appeared in Ellen Datlow’s The Doll Collection a couple of years ago, in part because it features Godzilla.

 

CP: With the difficulties you’ve faced in finding the right publisher for your works, and the success you eventually met when things aligned, did you develop any belief of the importance of being honest as a writer? Many might’ve felt they needed to alter their story or language to meet the expectations of the publishers and a lot of new authors may struggle with having their voices disliked or criticized. What are your thoughts on remaining true to yourself as an author, and concerning the importance of perseverance?

JL: I was fortunate in having found receptive editors for my stories pretty much from the start, in the form of Gordon Van Gelder, John Joseph Adams, and Ellen Datlow. Their support of what I was doing, no matter how bizarre, was a big help when I was trying to find homes for both my novels. I was also lucky to have friends such as Laird Barron and Paul Tremblay.

When it comes right down to it, though, you have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to expect that what you write isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste, and you have to be able to accept that and move on from it. There’s no point in chasing publishing trends; it’s better to try to write the best story or novel that you can write. A few years ago, Laird Barron pointed out something to me: if you go to Goodreads or Amazon and look at the ratings for a book such as Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, you’ll see that they fall at about the three-star range. If you check the reviews themselves, you’ll find a fair number of four- and five-star reviews, but you’ll also find an astonishing number of one- and two-star ratings, with the comments to go with them. If a modern classic such as Ghost Story can receive this kind of treatment, then you have to be prepared for what you write to attract the same knocks.

I guess this is one advantage of having studied English lit: I’m familiar with the idea that a writer’s success is not a foregone conclusion. Think of Melville: we consider him one of our greatest novelists, but his reputation didn’t begin its ascent until he’d been dead for about thirty years. This isn’t to sound overly pessimistic, but it is to say, if you’re writing for immediate widespread praise, you may want to reconsider that.

 

CP: The Fisherman was released just last year, the new printing of House of Windows back in July of this year. Despite the recent timings of these releases, do you have anything cooking in the pot? What can readers look forward to in 2018 from John Langan?

JL: I’m just about done with the new stories that will go into my third collection of stories, Sefira and Other Betrayals, which should then be out from Hippocampus Press in the late winter/early spring. I’ll also have stories in a couple of Ellen Datlow’s anthologies later in the year.

 

CP: We always like to end our interviews with a question for the readers. As many of our readers are authors themselves, I wanted to ask you: If there was one bit of advice you could give to a fledgling writer, what would it be?

JL: Write what you love. Be brave. Spend less time on social media, more time reading.

 

john langan

John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman (Word Horde 2016) and House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and two collections of stories, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (Hippocampus 2013) and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (Prime 2008). With Paul Tremblay, he co-edited Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (Prime 2011). He’s one of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards, for which he served as a juror during its first three years. Currently, he reviews horror and dark fantasy for Locus magazine. In early 2017, his next collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals, will be published by Hippocampus Press. Later in 2017, Diversion Books will release a new edition of his first novel, House of Windows, which will include new material, including a new story further exploring the legacy of Belvedere House.

John Langan lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife, younger son, and many, many animals. He teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Recently, he earned his black belt in the Korean martial art of Tang Soo Do.

 

Thank you so much as always for stopping by and if you enjoyed this interview, make sure to check out our others and follow us on social media!

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