Schlock Talks | Nathan Ballingrud

Rage and bad life choices appear to have fuelled Nathan Ballingrud’s critically acclaimed short story collection North American Lake Monsters, but he assures us that he’s not all about horror and despair as he looks forward to experimenting with various genres now that he has emerged as writer to watch out for with the field of speculative fiction and beyond.

Though you’ve mentioned that you want to pursue other genres, North American Lake Monsters is very much a horror collection through and through. What drew you to crafting stories in this particular vein, and consistently enough to create an entire collection out of them?

The bulk of the stories in North American Lake Monsters are definitely horror stories, no question. I love horror fiction. I’ve loved it since I was a kid. When I first started writing with an eye on publication, I tried writing contemporary fantasy. I was fresh out of Clarion and so that’s what was on my mind. It just wasn’t a satisfying experience, and the stories themselves, while competent, were nothing special. Then I stopped writing for a while – about eight years, actually. When I came back to it, I had a chip on my shoulder. I’d gone out and experienced life; my own experiences did not fit well with a lot of the fantasy I was reading in the journals like F&SF or Asimov’s, which seemed very safe and tidy. (This was in the early 2000s, before the online venues really came into their own). I wanted to be a discordant voice; I wanted to be the drunk at the party. There was a real sense of antagonism toward the reader when I sat down to work. I wanted to upset their sense of equilibrium – not by scaring them or making them read about horrible things, but by getting them to love people we’re conditioned to hate.

I hate the smug self-satisfaction of the judgmental. It’s disgusting to me. I wrote ‘You Go Where It Takes You’ and, shortly afterwards, ‘S.S.’ I didn’t know I was writing horror. I was just writing about the world I was living in. It was only later, when people started calling it horror fiction, that I realized that I’d circled around to the fiction I loved when I was younger.

That’s when I started reading it again, too, and realizing – with great happiness – that it was as vibrant and as relevant as ever. And that it was as antagonistic as ever. I still have to approach my stories that way, though: I don’t think about what kind of stories they are. That tends to short circuit the process; it makes me too conscious of form and context. I have to think only of the character, the setting, and the impact I’m trying to deliver. Because of my nature, more often than not that tends to be horror.

North American Lake Monsters

The collection is arguably a ‘breakthrough’ for you, though you’ve been writing quite a while with perhaps a slow frequency. What would you say has changed about the way you approach writing now… if it has in fact changed at all?

I think a lot about my approach has changed. For one thing, I’m working very hard to change that slow frequency of output. I wrote about one story a year, and that collection was a long time coming. I don’t want to wait that long for the next one. I’m 43 now, which is a late start for a writer, and there’s a lot I want to get done before the end. So I’m more regimented now, I’m more disciplined. I don’t wait for inspiration to hit; I chase it. That’s obviously good for my output; whether or not it’s good for my fiction remains to be seen. Another thing that’s changed, though, is my intent behind them. I don’t feel the anger as often anymore.

Other things have happened to me in the intervening years: I’ve been raising a daughter; I fell in love with somebody who did not return it; I’ve nurtured a kind of truce with the world. And so now, when I dip the bucket in the well, other kinds of stories are coming up. There are still some horror stories, but now there are other kinds too. And I’m grateful for that. Not because I want to turn away from horror fiction, but because life is so wide, so full of beauty and heartbreak, and I want to write about it from other perspectives too. I feel like I cleaned out a lot of the rage inside me with the stories in North American Lake Monsters.

The stories in ‘Lake Monsters’ have been compared to Annie Proulx and Raymond Carver, largely due to the fact that your settings tend to be ‘mundane’ and/or domestic, and that you focus on characters existing on what could be perceived to be the lower rungs of society. Did this grow out of your personal experience and surroundings, and why did you find this particular milieu to be conducive to the horror genre?

It did grow out of personal circumstances and surroundings. I quit school before graduation and I left my home in North Carolina to move to New Orleans, because I felt there was something I wasn’t seeing about the world. I wanted to be a writer, but more than that I wanted to be an honest writer. At that point I had written a few of those safe fantasy stories I mentioned earlier, and I knew something fundamental was missing from them. So I made a decision to throw myself into the wider world. It was reckless, and in some ways I’m still paying the price for that. I never did finish school, and I make my day-to-day living waiting tables right now – a job I hate.

There are still many days I wish I’d finished school and taken the more responsible route. But it gave me what I wanted as a writer, and I think it was worth it. I was poor, living amongst people who were poor. While I was a bartender and an offshore cook I met a lot of people who had morally compromised themselves in very serious ways. I compromised myself, too. I lived with mental illness in several different guises. And at the same time, I was reading a lot of realism. Both Carver and Proulx are favorites of mine, and it was in this period that I discovered them. Hemingway and Richard Ford were also huge influences. When I finally came back to writing, I still loved the fantastic, still wanted to work in that mode, but I wanted to bring what I learned from that life and from those writers with me. As far as horror goes, I think horror accommodates any milieu. This just happened to be mine.

On a related note – because most of your stories operate with this rhythm – do you consciously think about where the ‘shift’ from ‘realistic’ to ‘supernatural’ will occur in your stories, or does it tend to happen naturally, and during your first draft?

I usually know exactly where it will occur. With these stories, I wanted to write about people grounded in realism, who brushed up against the fantastic. I wondered what it would do to them. In stories like ‘You Go Where It Takes You’ and ‘The Monsters of Heaven’, I consciously set about writing stories about the background characters of the main story. In the first case, it seems to me the main story would be about this guy and his weird cargo of skins. What about some waitress he spends the night with in his travels? What’s her story? In the second case, the main story would be this weird plague of “angels” driving the world mad. The natural questions would be: How did they get here, and why are they here? I didn’t care about that. I wanted to know about this couple who were caught up in the wake of this event, and how it affected them.

‘Wild Acre’, too: some people get frustrated with that story because the question of the werewolf is never answered: it attacks and is gone forever. But the survivor of the attack has to live with it. What happens to him? What is that like? So yeah, the shifts are very specifically placed, because it’s the reaction to those shifts that provide most of these stories with their energy.

Perhaps the clue is in the title – and, of course, it’s more than just a clue in the way you evocatively use the settings of your stories – but the ‘American’ element is hard to ignore: though the psychological turmoil your characters go through is universal, the settings and social predicaments their put in have a distinctly American texture. How did this occur as you were writing the stories?

This is simply a function of me writing about the world I live in. I knew I wanted the collection to feel cohesive, to share a kind of running theme. So I kept the focus on people struggling in the America I know. It wasn’t a conscious choice so much as it was a side effect of maintaining a specific focus. My goal is to write as truly and as honestly as I can about the characters in the story. And I believe that much of the human experience is universal; if you write clearly enough about one person, you should be able to reach people across a spectrum of experience and perspective. At least I hope so.

You’ve maintained a serialized story – The Cannibal Priests of New England – on your blog. Have you got any other such projects in the pipeline, and will they differ significantly from ‘Lake Monsters’?

I’ve discontinued that on the blog because my ambitions for it have increased. It’ll appear on its own some time in the future. But yes, there are other projects in a similar vein – I don’t want to talk about them too much here, because sometimes discussing an idea will rob it of its momentum in my head – and they will differ in some strong ways from the stories in North American Lake Monsters.

I’ve been having a lot of fun reading pulp fiction lately – I love the wild, unapologetic energy of it – and I want to incorporate some of that sensibility into some of my own stories.

‘The Cannibal Priests of New England’ is very much a result of that impulse, as is another longish project I’ve begun – ‘The Wormcakes of Hob’s Landing’ – which is a generational story about ghouls, brains in jars, and plants who masquerade as human beings.

‘North American Lake Monsters’ is full of very serious, heavy stories. But I don’t want to keep repeating myself. Now I want to have some fun. I want to see if I can write stories like that. Which doesn’t mean I’ve given up on horror, by any means; there are two novel ideas waiting their turn in line which are very much in the tradition of the ‘Lake Monsters’ stories. Like I said earlier: there’s a lot to get done. I hope I get a chance to do it all.

Be sure to check out Nathan Ballingrud’s short story ‘S.S.’ in this month’s issue of Schlock Magazine – going live very soon!