Please welcome Nick Mamatas to The Qwillery. I Am Providence was published on August 9th by Night Shade Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Nick: I’d daydreamed about becoming a writer since I was a kid and read Sport by Louise Fitzhugh. The book wasn’t great, but Sport’s father was a writer who, though he struggled, got royalty checks more or less at random in the mail. That sounded pretty good to me, but of course I knew nobody who was a writer, and the only people I knew who had even attended college were my teachers at school. It was longshore, construction, or food service in my family.
I did go to college thanks to New York having an inexpensive and very good state university system at the time, and worked as a gaffer (electrician) in film and video production. I also got involved in the early pre-Web Internet, and in the mid-1990s wrote a couple of pieces for people I met in the underground film/video world about TinyMUDs, which I was very into. Then the mid-1990s “jobless recovery” hit and a lot of work dried up, so I turned to writing. At first, I mostly wrote term papers for a living, but soon began placing small pieces on digital culture and fringe politics on various websites like Disinfo.com. From there I landed freelance gigs for the Village Voice and dot.com 1.0 business magazines, and started editing political work for Soft Skull Press on a freelance basis. At around the same time, I started writing short stories, and chose science fiction, fantasy, and horror, as that is what I’d liked to read as a kid, and because short fiction in that field pays more than contributor copies. It took a couple years before my first story was published, and another year after that to get stories three and four, but then things started going more smoothly.
I basically turned to writing because I enjoy staying home all day and didn’t have any other skills except for the ability to lug heavy stuff and not electrocute myself, though now I have a full-time editorial job and have to go in to an office. I do treat myself to a nice lunch every day, at least.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Nick: I am totally a pantser. I do often have some idea of the end of a story or novel, but by the time I get to it I realize that it is insufficient and push ahead past one more reversal of fortune. I am, however, a formalist, so generally have a good idea of a structure before I start. I’ll know that a book has eighty chapters of one thousand words each before I know what happens in it, for example.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Nick: Since the birth of my child, getting the time to finish longer projects has been a great challenge, but in general the greatest challenge has just been locating an audience. My influences are widely varied, and so my work tends to be non-commercial commercial fiction. People who enjoy literary/transgressive/underground work rarely hear of my stuff because it isn’t reviewed in the right places, and people who enjoy science fiction/fantasy/horror read my stuff and often respond, “What the hell is this crazy shit? It’s like he’s mocking everything I love!” (which I am).
TQ: You are an author, editor and anthologist. How does being an editor affect your own writing?
Nick: The most important thing is that editing provides a steady paycheck and health benefits. For years I was “starving better”, hustling for every possible small check I could get my hands on. So if I wrote a term paper, or edited resumes, or quickly dashed off some copy for an educational website, and then had to write a dozen emails to make sure the check was going to go in the mail by Friday, and by that I meant Friday morning not Friday afternoon and by mail I mean a mailbox not just the office’s mailroom where an envelope might age like fine cheese over the weekend...
Having a full-time job actually made me more prolific, not less, as bills were paid and I was able to see a doctor and take some time to exercise, greatly improving my health. I had time to reflect, and write more, and plan out larger projects. My novels still tend to be short, but that’s an aesthetic choice I make, not an aspect of a time crunch.
You probably mean to ask if editing has improved my writing though, and yes, it has. I know how to cut out the boring stuff, or when to settle in for a long, slow, burn. A lot of the implicit forms and structures have become clear to me thanks to reading slush. It’s like finally understanding abstract paintings after closely looking at 10,000 of them. I have X-ray vision for form now.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Nick: The short stories I read in Omni Magazine as a child, which I was way too young for. Marvel and later indie comics from the 1980s. Non-narrative underground cinema, which I’d read about before ever seeing, so had to imagine what they’d look like. Zine culture and conspiracy kooks. Mid-20th century romantic realism of various sorts (Fante, the Beats, etc.). Nineteenth and early twentieth century ghost stories. Ratty paperbacks about Marxism and postmodernism and existentialism purchased from street people off dirty blankets in Washington Square Park. Bizarrely, hard SF, though I don’t write it.
TQ: Describe I Am Providence in 140 characters or less.
Nick: A murder mystery at a Lovecraftian convention, with a deceased narrator and an amateur sleuth alternating chapters, with satirical elements.
TQ: Tell us something about I Am Providence that is not found in the book description.
Nick: I give a shout-out to my favorite thing on the Internet--ASMR whisper videos on YouTube.
TQ: What inspired you to write I Am Providence? What appeals to you about writing Horror?
Nick: I was actually asked to write it by Jeremy Lassen, an editor at Skyhorse. He pitched me an idea he called “Bimbos of the Death Sun meets True Detective.” We’re in a golden moment of public interest in Lovecraft and of critiques of Lovecraft, so it made a lot of sense for me to do it. Other than that one sentence pitch, the book was up to me, and generally speaking it came spilling out once I figured out the structure.
I write dark fiction of various sorts, and horror is as good a name as any. One reason to write horror qua horror is that as a commercial endeavor, it is utterly marginal and thus one can really do whatever one wants with the themes and the tropes without being stopped by profit-minded publishers or angry legions of fans and tastemakers.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for I Am Providence?
Nick: I’ve been working in the Lovecraftian idiom since 2002, so at this point all my opinions and junk are pretty solid, so I can’t say I did any real research. I’ve also visited Providence several times, and the like, and as I was dealing with an amateur sleuth, I didn’t need to know a lot about police procedure or forensics. I can’t say I did much research at all.
TQ: H.P. Lovecraft is an author who comes with a lot of baggage for a lot of people. What appeals to you about his Mythos?
Nick: I presume you mean his racism, which was disgusting, pathological, and extreme even for his time. Anyone for whom that isn’t baggage I find extremely suspicious, which is one of the themes of I Am Providence. This is made even worse, though, by the fact that one cannot extract the racism from Lovecraft’s stories and have much left. Even when not really about human beings, Lovecraft’s great theme is deep history and the fear of degeneration, both personal and social.
At the same time, deep history is very compelling, as is a vision of an amoral (at best!) universe. Plus, there is a fair amount of unintentional camp in Lovecraft’s work, and some sly purposeful humor, so that is interesting. His work is open to all, but is still so closely tied to him as an originator thanks to the fact that most of his epigones, historically, have been writing slavish pastiche. Imagine if vampire fiction was called Stokerism, and most vampire novels were still about a handful of humans writing letters to one another about their vampiric troubles. We’re on the cusp of breaking out of that and creating a more generalized “mythos”, so I am keen to be a part of that project.
TQ: Do you have any favorite Lovecraft works?
Nick: My favorite is “The Whisperer in Darkness”, which to this day can be used as a narrative map for getting around Brattleboro, Vermont, where I used to live. It also combines horror and science fiction, plus integrates folklore into the events of the narrative, do I find it very compelling, even if it doesn’t make a ton of sense.
TQ: In I Am Providence who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Nick: They all came pretty easily; once I get a voice, it’s no challenge to keep at it. What was challenging was the third-person chapters focusing on Colleen Danzig, as there is always a tension between being close and subjective and thus revealing all her thoughts, and writing her as one might see her from outside for purposes of suspense. That balance--which is basically the balance between horror dread and mystery logic--was hard to strike sometimes.
TQ: Which question about I Am Providence do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
“Are all these characters real people that I’d meet if I went to a Lovecraftian convention?”
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from I Am Providence.
"One thing I didn’t think when I realized I was about to die was Oh God, why me? Honestly, I’m surprised that it took as long as it did. It’s a little late to confess one’s sins posthumously, and honestly I’m not sorry. But let’s just say I was a jerk to a lot of people."
"Not every table featured books. T-shirts abounded, many emblazoned with jokes about role-playing games that Colleen was pleased to not actually understand. Displays of pewter dragons and wizards seemed only mildly out of place, like a Seventh Day Adventist in a roomful of Mormons."
"In Lovecraft’s fiction, the outsider becomes the insider. That’s the appeal. The bookish little nerd, often with of aesthetic inclinations if not exactly artistic talent, figures out what is really going on. Ancient languages are deciphered, inexplicable phenomena examined, myths so obscure they can only be discussed in terms older than mankind are discovered to be the literal his- tory of the universe. And the texts themselves provide all sorts of insider jargon and references for the initiated."
TQ: What's next?
Nick: I am co-editing a special hybrid anthology with Molly Tanzer, called Mixed Up! Cool Cocktails and Hot Stories, which will pair classic cocktail recipes with flash fiction featuring the cocktail. That’ll be published in the second half of 2017 by Skyhorse, and should be fun, It’s a “gift book”, which means that the people who buy it won’t be the ones who read it. A dream come true!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
I Am Providence
Night Shade Books, August 9, 2016
Trade Paperback and eBook, 256 pages
The murder of an author at a horror convention uncovers an unspeakable terror beneath the printed page.
For fans of legendary pulp author H. P. Lovecraft, there is nothing bigger than the annual Providence-based convention the Summer Tentacular. Horror writer Colleen Danzig doesn’t know what to expect when she arrives, but is unsettled to find that among the hob-knobbing between scholars and literary critics are a group of real freaks: book collectors looking for volumes bound in human skin, and true believers claiming the power to summon the Elder God Cthulhu, one of their idol’s most horrific fictional creations, before the weekend is out.
Colleen’s trip spirals into a nightmare when her roommate for the weekend, an obnoxious novelist known as Panossian, turns up dead, his face neatly removed. What’s more unsettling is that, in the aftermath of the murder, there is little concern among the convention goers. The Summer Tentacular continues uninterrupted, except by a few bumbling police.
Everyone at the convention is a possible suspect, but only Colleen seems to show any interest in solving the murder. So she delves deep into the darkness, where occult truths have been lurking since the beginning of time. A darkness where Panossian is waiting, spending a lot of time thinking about Colleen, narrating a new Lovecraftian tale that could very well spell her doom.
Nick Mamatas is an author, editor, and anthologist. His novels have been translated into German, Italian, and Greek. His work has been nominated for Bram Stoker, Hugo, World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson, International Horror Guild, and Locus awards. Mamatas lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.