How did “How Far to Englishman’s Bay” come to be?
I wrote the first draft on Valentine’s Day, and did it in mostly one sitting. That’s not my usual practice. I usually have to strain a story out through my fingers one word at a time over the course of many days, months, years. Now and then, though, I have (quite unconsciously) had a story growing in me like a tumor. I can see in “How Far to Englishman’s Bay” traces of things I’ve been thinking about for at least a few years, but it wasn’t until that one moment that it all took form and exploded out in sentences. I wrote the first paragraph and had no idea where it was going. Lo and behold, it was a horror story. Which must mean that I associate Valentine’s Day with horror stories . . .
In the story, Max seems almost disgusted by older people, and his fiftieth birthday causes him considerable angst—it seems to be a turning point. Does he just give up?
Age is certainly something that produces fear and disgust. It’s fear of mortality, but perhaps even more than that a fear of breaking down. I have a lot of friends who are considerably older than me, and I see it in them and even in myself—our bodies betray us, no matter how well we treat them. Our lives become something other than what we planned, for better or worse. We disappoint ourselves and others. The longer you live, the more you have to regret. If you are the sort of person who dwells on lost chances and old failures, age provides you more and more material. It’s a terrible way to live. If you don’t combat it, if you don’t find pleasure and joy (or at least contentment) in the present, if you don’t simply embrace the transience that is life . . . well, then you’ve probably made a pretty rotten life for yourself. If you’ve made a pretty rotten life for yourself, then you have only a few options: continue with the rottenness, change, or die.
Can the attack on Max be seen as metaphorical in some way, such as a graphic and visceral representation of the process of aging or how society views and treats elderly people (not that Max is yet “elderly”)?
The central pleasure of the sort of horror fiction that I most enjoy results from ambiguity. Such stories exist on at least two interpretive planes at once: the concrete events of the story and then the implications of those concrete events—basically, what the details of the story provoke in a reader’s mind. Such an effect, or possibility, is present in pretty much every text, since ambiguity is inherent to language (as anybody who’s ever tried to put together some complicated object by following written instructions has experienced!), but I’m attracted to those sorts of stories that acknowledge and encourage ambiguity because they carve out the most room for our own responses, our own fears and desires. The story is not complete without the reader, and the story will be at least slightly different for each reader. It’s very difficult to write such fiction, because ambiguity can easily slip into vagueness, one of the great enemies of effective writing. The challenge is for ambiguity to be productive, for it actually to do something in a reader’s mind, to open up options for interpretation without just creating blankness.
The fiction that appeals to me is fiction that can’t ever be summed up. For example, Lucy Clifford’s story “The New Mother,” or Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” or Robert Aickman’s “The Hospice” (a story that was, I think, very much on my mind as I wrote “How Far to Englishman’s Bay”). I wouldn’t presume to suggest that my story reaches their level, but it’s that style of meaning that I desire for it.
As for the specific content of this story, I really feel that while a fear of aging might be unavoidable, and disgust with the aged might be some sort of primal response to our own inevitable mortality, we’re healthier as individuals and members of a society if we train ourselves to overcome that fear and disgust. We need to work to really value, even revere, people who have spent more time in life than we have. I feel like I have a richer sense of the world, and of living, because I’ve gotten to spend time with people who are significantly older than me. The United States especially is a very youth-oriented society, and in my view that’s mostly been destructive.
If a reader finds my story to be meaningful as a representation of aging, fear of aging, and the social response to aging, I certainly wouldn’t object. But I also wouldn’t want the story only to be that.
What do you see as Jeffrey’s role in the story? And that of Carmilla, the cat?
They’re just the result of my trying to write about what I know. I like cats and I live in New Hampshire and grew up in a gun shop, so I have a few friends like Jeffrey, though I hope they don’t meet his fate.
I should say some words about that fate. We often focus on the, of course, grotesquely high homicide rate with firearms in the U.S. while not paying enough attention to the fact that the suicide rate is higher. Statistically, gun owners are more of a threat to themselves than to other people. If you live in this country and don’t know anybody who ever shot themselves to death, you’re lucky. Because my father sold guns, occasionally someone would buy one of those guns from him, go home, and shoot themselves. One of my childhood memories is of my father cleaning a gun for a woman whose husband had used it to kill himself.
You have an amazing blog (The Mumpsimus) on subjects ranging from “Warrior Dreams and Gun Control Fantasies” to “Race and Illicit Desire in the Great Gatsby.” Why is blogging important to you?
Thank you for the kind words! I started blogging because I had pretty much failed at every other form of writing, so I figured I might as well try that. I was very lucky in my timing—in August 2003, when I started, there were various blogs out there, but not many about books or science fiction, two things I decided to write about early on. A year or two later, there were more book blogs and even SF blogs than anybody could keep up with. But because I got in at the right time, some people paid attention, and it really reinvigorated my sense of myself as a writer, opening up a world of new friends, new influences, new opportunities. These days, I keep plugging away at it (much less frequently than in the early days) partly out of habit and partly because it’s good practice—I risk writing more off-the-cuff than I do in other formats. It’s important to have some sort of outlet like that as a writer, some way to put stray thoughts down, to preserve a bit of the rough draft of thinking. It doesn’t have to be public, but for me that’s part of its value. I’m a fairly introverted person who hates conflict, and so by forcing myself to say things in public that might cause people to disagree with me, I force myself away from comfort. Inhibitions are not a writer’s friend, so techniques to slay them can be useful.
Additionally, I have really eclectic interests, and a blog is one way to chronicle those interests, because the blog itself is now just associated with me, not a particular topic. Early on, I was happy with it as a “book blog,” but it hasn’t been just that for a long time now. Now it’s a collection of the stray thoughts and experiences that flicker through my brain and find a way to be expelled as words.
What else are you working on?
A bunch of short stories, because I have to write at least five bad stories for any one marginally tolerable one. (As my friends and numerous editors will attest!) I’m also working, quite slowly, on an academic book about 1980s action movies and their relationship to the Reagan presidency, tentatively titled The Reagan Imaginary. Eric Schaller and I are putting together the third issue of our very occasional online magazine The Revelator (revelatormagazine.com). And this fall I’m starting as a student at the University of New Hampshire in their Ph.D. in Literature program, where I expect I’ll continue doing some work on the writings of Samuel R. Delany, among other things.