Grace and the Business of Horror: an Interview with Michael Rowe

Interviews

Rowe pic 2

By Maurice Mierau

Michael Rowe lives in Toronto and is a horror novelist and award-winning journalist. Recently he was in Winnipeg to promote his new novel, Wild Fell (ChiZine), and endeared himself by proclaiming his love for Manitoba winters on an exceptionally cold day here: he lived in the province for four years as a high school student.

Rowe is the author of two collections of essays (Looking For Brothers, 1999 and Other Men’s Sons, 2007), a book of interviews with erotica authors talking about censorship, pornography and popular culture (Writing Below the Belt, 1995) and an acclaimed anthology editor (Sons of Darkness, 1996 and Brothers of the Night, 1997 with Thomas Roche; and Queer Fear, 2000 and Queer Fear 2, 2002.) He has won the Lambda Literary Award, the Randy Shilts Award for Nonfiction, and the Spectrum Award, and been a finalist for the National Magazine Award and the International Horror Guild Award. His first novel, Enter, Night (2011) was a finalist for both the Prix Aurora and the Sunburst Award and will be published in German by Random House in 2014. Wild Fell, his second novel, was published this month by ChiZine Publications.

Let’s talk about genre. So-called literary novelists, in my opinion, are genre writers too, they just don’t like to admit it. But calling your work horror is maybe a bit crude. You deal with the supernatural though in your latest work, with a malevolent ghost in Wild Fell and the title of course names a haunted house too. So my question: tell us about your relationship to genre, how you occupy it, play with it, and so on.

I have no issue with the term “horror writer” or “horror fiction” at all. If that’s how my I and some my work are described, I’m in superb company that includes Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, and has encompassed, deliberately or not, writers like Henry James, M.R. James, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dan Simmons, Douglas Clegg and Clive Barker, let alone some very exciting contemporary crossover writers like Christopher Rice, Benjamin Percy and Justin Cronin. Winnipeg’s own Susie Moloney has staked her claim in the field brilliantly over the course of several novels, as has the American writer Sarah Langan. I don’t believe Anne Rice considers herself a “horror writer,” but her novels have certainly been embraced and exalted by the canon.The company is top-drawer.

The first Gothic novel published in America was Wieland: or, The Transformation by Charles Brockden Brown, first published in 1798. Horror fiction has been around for a while, and hasn’t always been greeted with the snobbishness and dismissive hostility with which it’s sometimes seen today. As Peter Straub has said, over and over again, literature is either literature or it isn’t. It’s not about the subject matter; it’s about the caliber of the writing.

WildFell-cover_with-Barker-blurbWild Fell is unambiguously a gothic ghost story in a contemporary setting. I’d have written it whether or not there was a “horror genre” or a “ghost story genre” because it’s the story I wanted to tell. “Genre” is a term that’s most useful to academics, and perhaps bookstore clerks who need to know where to file books on shelves. To writers of supernatural fiction, our stories are the ones that interest us, and the best writers of supernatural fiction write about people, and the effect of supernatural incursions into the lives of those people.

My first novel, Enter, Night, was a vampire novel, but by the time the vampires show up in the novel, there are already plenty of human monsters, and their creations, on the page—the monsters of religious colonialism, sadistic parents, brutalization inside families, anti-Native prejudice, poverty, the tyranny of small-town bigotry. In my opinion, the best horror often derives from interpersonal human relationships, and the human condition in general. You need to care about the characters on the page, either pro or con. The supernatural is a wonderfully piquant sauce in cases like that. Certainly I’d like to think that was the case in Wild Fell, where the ghosts are as much loss of memory, abuse, and illness, as they are manifestations of malevolent supernatural entities.

What got you started as a writer interested in the supernatural or horror? Was there a moment of original inspiration? A primal scene perhaps?

Horror was my preferred reading as a child. I was very drawn to Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the darker Disney heroines. By the time the 70s rolled around, I was deep into Marvel and DC horror comics and paperback horror novels. In my mid-teens, I started writing and publishing poetry. I left university in second year to become a freelance journalist and had a twenty-five year career writing for newspapers and magazines. I didn’t really give the notion of myself as a horror writer much credence in those days, even though I edited four anthologies of original short horror fiction during that time and wrote about horror films for Fangoria magazine for seventeen years, and read horror, as well as other genres, constantly.

It wasn’t until 2005 that I wrote my first long-form fiction, which, as it turns out, was horror—a novella titled “In October” that was published in 2006 as one of a triad of horror novellas called Triptych of Terror: Three Chilling Tales by the Masters of Gay Horror. So when I wrote Enter, Night it wasn’t the result of any primal scene or event. In a way, I was going back to my own roots as a reader of horror fiction, but what I brought to the table was a quarter century of observing people at close range, asking a lot of questions through my journalism, and analyzing the human condition as I understood it through my essays. By the time I wrote my first novel, I’d already published three nonfiction books—two essay collections and a book of interviews. Becoming a horror writer was like coming home after living abroad for a couple of decades.

What is your relationship to movies as a writer?

I’m a child of my age, so naturally movies are a huge part of my life. I love movies, but I’ve never had any serious desire to be a screenwriter. As a writer, I’ve certainly been moved and inspired by movies. I often write to soundtracks, which are ideal for fiction writers. They’re beautiful, designed to stir emotion, and usually don’t have lyrics to interfere with my writing process. And of course, I’m stimulated and inspired by powerful imagery, as most sensitive people are.

How did you first get published? The first book often has a story.

In the summer of 1992 I went to Harvard to do a couple of fiction workshops over the space of two months. During that time, I met the man who would later become my mentor, John Preston, who was, among other things, an accomplished writer of erotica. He was also an accomplished gay social historian, journalist, and anthologist. We became friends, and he published my first two essays in anthologies he was working on— Sister and Brother (HarperSanFrancsico, 1994) and Friends and Lovers (Dutton, 1995.) Around that time, Canada Customs was in the process of seizing gay and lesbian literature from Little Sisters Bookstore in Vancouver under the pretext that it was harmful and pornographic. That case so incensed me that I decided to do a book of interviews with erotica writers on the topic of censorship and pornography. It was titled Writing Below the Belt and was published in hardcover by Richard Kasak Books in 1995. There’s not much of a story there, except that on the day it arrived via FedEx, I almost missed the delivery and chased the truck for half a city block screaming and waving my arms like a lunatic.

With regard to the publication of my first novel, Enter, Night, I pitched it at a liquor-fuelled party at a science fiction convention to Brett Savory of ChiZine Publications, who, like me, was also liquor-fuelled. I’m sure it’s the only context in which a Canadian classic vampire novel set in the early 1970s featuring a vampire Jesuit priest sounded like a winner. I always tell young aspiring writers to learn how to drink like ladies and gentlemen. You never know when you’ll find yourself pitching a novel in an imbibitional haze, at a party, at a genre writer’s convention.

How do you connect with your audience?

In terms of physical connection with an audience, I try to respond to emails, I run a vibrant Facebook page, I attend conferences and conventions, and I’m always happy to answer questions from people who are curious about something I’ve written. I appreciate it very much when people take the time.

I was fortunate to learn, early on, the difference between the kind of writer who treats his fans well, and the kind who really should never leave the house because they are nasty, sour pieces of work. When I was young and unpublished, I met these two guys. Both of them were idols of mine. When I told one of them how much I admired his writing, and that I’d collected the limited edition hardcovers of a trio of his novels, he said, “Well, you must have an awful lot of time on your hands to waste.” And not in a nice, ironic way, either. The other one, whose primary fame is as a sort of Boswell of famous horror writers, was equally unpleasant on the occasion I met him.

On the other hand, I had the great fortune of having dinner with Stephen King on the set of Stephen King’s Storm of the Century when I was there to interview him for a magazine. He’d flown in from Maine that day—a dreadfully humid, swelteringly hot summer day—and he clearly hadn’t had much sleep the night before. He was there to visit the set, consult with the producers, do the interview with me, then fly back to the US, all in the space of the late afternoon and early evening. He gave me a flawless interview.

When you transcribe a Stephen King interview, you realize that what sounds like colloquial man-on-the-street rambling is actually flawless spoken prose, with all the punctuation verbally in place. When we stepped out of his trailer, we saw that the producers had not been able to contain the extras in their holding area. There were about fifty of them waiting outside his trailer. And King, who had every reason to say, “Oh God, no, I’m sorry, I’m just running, I can’t do this now,” signed every autograph with the sort of grace that you’d have to see to believe. I’ve never forgotten that object lesson in author courtesy. Peter Straub is another one—a gentleman to the fingertips who takes time and care with his audience above and beyond the call of duty. I detest the term “class act,” but both of these men are stellar examples of what the phrase is intended to mean.

While I would never dream of comparing myself with either of those two legends, with regard to the audience for my books, I guess the short answer is that my audience connects with me, really. I don’t have a specific audience in mind when I write something. I try to write it for myself as honestly as possible and hope someone listens in when it’s published because what I wrote interested him or her. In my experience, the more honest you are, and the more vulnerable and raw you’re prepared to make yourself on the page, the more likely someone is to have had a similar experience, or at least be willing to experience yours, through your work.

Who comprises your audience?

They run the gamut in every sense of the word.

How do you see the role of publisher? Why don’t you self-publish?

I’ve generally been very lucky with editors and publishers, and never more so than currently with Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi of ChiZine Publications, who’ve published my last two books. Self-publishing is apparently the way a lot of aspiring writers are going today, but I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned. I like the idea of having my work purchased by an actual publishing house, and I think there’s value in having learned and honed my craft over a number of years, then reaching the point where someone wanted to publish it, instead of waving my credit card at a printing house and become an instant “novelist.” I realize that there are several massive self-publishing success stories, and I think everyone finds their own level of satisfaction based on what they’re looking for in a writing career. At this point, I’m not sure I’d derive the particular satisfaction I crave by going that route. That may change at some point, but that’s where I’m at now.

You have a distinctive stylistic signature. How do you think about style in your work?

I don’t actually think about it, except in terms of the setting of the story. For instance, there is a colloquial quality to a great deal of Enter, Night that is perhaps less evident in the first-person narrative of Wild Fell, for reasons to do with the first-person narration in that novel. One of the terrific benefits of writing in any sort of traditional Gothic style is that you’re allowed to indulge in a degree of lushness. No one wants a book that is too purple, or cluttered up with flowery prose, but a painterly, visual quality is germane to that style of writing.

I admire modern minimalism as practiced by, for example Benjamin Percy, in his novels The Wilding and Red Moon, as well as his short fiction; he masters it. It’s very beautiful, and it’s very muscular and spare. His writing is considered by some to be a stellar example of the Neo-Masculinist style. If that that style of writing is “yang,” mine is very “yin.” I’m good with that. It was a very happy day for me, some years ago, when I realized that while I could admire and even envy other writing styles, as long as I tried to ape them I would never find, let alone write in, my own voice. Thank God I know when something sounds like me, versus when my writing sounds like I have an entirely inappropriate literary crush on a style I admire but which doesn’t suit me at all. I probably would have enjoyed writing in the nineteenth century.

How did you get Clive Barker to blurb your book?

I’ve been the beneficiary of extraordinary kindness on the part of Clive Barker. He knew me primarily through my nonfiction writing and my journalism in The Advocate. At the time, he’d said some very kind things about my Queer Fear anthologies, that they’d “forever changed the shape of horror fiction.” He’d been very supportive of Enter, Night, so when Wild Fell was being sent out by my editor for blurbs, as novels are, before they’re published, I asked Clive Barker if there was any possible way he’d be interested in taking a look at it. He was very busy at the time, so when he agreed, and when he liked the book very much, I was delighted. When the blurb came through, I was blown away.

I’ve been an admirer of Barker’s since I was young, so it felt like a benediction of course, and one which I’d never take for granted. But again, as with King and Straub, the real lesson for me here was observing a writer of significant standing, in this case a legend like Clive Barker, taking the time to offer his hand to a less-known writer to whom he owes nothing, and indeed, to a less-known writer who has nothing to offer in return. That’s called grace. You can’t buy it, you can’t teach it in any writing seminar, and it’s sadly rare enough to be celebrated whenever it manifests, not just in writers, but in anyone.

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3 Comments

  1. Maurice Mierau
    Posted December 19, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    I should add that Michael fielded the same questions live in front of an audience of about 20 in Winnipeg on Dec. 6, at the Arts & Cultural Industries facility in the Exchange district. Michael was at least as articulate and funny in person as he was by email. That context included two Winnipeg horror writers, Chadwick Ginther (frequent TWR contributor), and David Annandale. I was the moderator.

  2. Phil Dahlen
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Is this an exact transcription of a live verbal interview, or the result of a written exchange interview ?
    Thanks.

    • Maurice Mierau
      Posted December 18, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      It was an email exchange.

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Contributor

Maurice Mierau


Maurice Mierau is editor of The Winnipeg Review. His new book of poems, Autobiographical Fictions, is just out with Palimpsest. His previous book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, was recently shortlisted for the 2016 Kobzar Literary Award.