Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pick Six with Alden Bell

(Okay, it's about time I got this feature rolling again...)

Pick Six with ________" is a variation on the traditional interview, as the subject gets to choose whichever six questions he/she would like to answer from a list of nearly forty items (questions and prompts pertaining to the writer's own work, as well as his/her thoughts on the world of horror).

Alden Bell is the pseudonym of New York writer and prep school teacher Joshua Gaylord.  His previous novel, The Reapers Are the Angels, was nominated for both the Philip K. Dick Award and the Shirley Jackson Award.  In November, Tor will publish the UK edition of Exit Kingdom, the prequel to Reapers (featuring Moses Todd as the lead character).  For more about the author, check out his website at http://www.joshuagaylord.com.

1.If you could collaborate with any living writer, who would you choose, and why?

Bell: I'd like to work with Tom Franklin.  Have you read any of his books?  You should.  They're these gorgeously rich Southern Gothic novels--and they've been completely influential on my own writing.  Start with my favorite, Smonk, which is a heady mix of western, adventure, horror, comedy and coming of age.  It's almost hysterical in tone, completely unexpected--and delightful from beginning to end.  Or, if you're looking for something more traditional, his more recent book Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a breathtakingly rendered southern noir about two boys and the horrors they encounter.  Mostly, I'd like to work with Franklin for purely selfish reasons: I'd want to learn everything I can from him.  I know of no other living writer who is so stylistically gutsy.  Do yourself a favor and check him out.

2.What is the worst writing advice you ever received?

Bell: "Write what you know."  I'm not sure why writing teachers say this.  It seems not only wrong but also downright damaging to beginning writers.  I think this is because many people in the writing industry are concerned with "authenticity"--they like to think the book that accurately reflects some objective reality is "good," while the book that builds its worlds outside accepted truths is "bad."  But, for me, the whole point of fiction is building worlds outside accepted truths.  I'm not sure what the point of writing is if not to take the real world and change it into something better--something whose uniqueness and purity is the result of one individual's writerly imagination.  If you just write what you know, you may feel constrained to report rather than fabulate--and that's a shame, no?  I like the boldness of someone like Edgar Rice Burroughs who writes about battles between Martian civilizations.  What does he know about Mars?  Nothing, clearly--but maybe there are beautiful princesses there!  Why not?  And after Mars, how about a book about the deepest jungles of Africa?  The last thing the world needs from a young, hipster writer who drinks too much and says clever things is a book about a young, hipster writer who drinks too much and says clever things.  What you know isn't interesting, so why would you want to write about it?

3.Which person in your life has had the biggest influence on your writing career?

Bell: I would not have been a writer at all if it hadn't been for Carol Mooney, my ninth-grade English teacher.  I was on track to becoming a computer programmer, then she came along.  I'd always been an avid reader, but I don't think I understood the power of books until she illustrated that power to me.  She stood in front of the classroom, talking about Charles Dickens or J.D. Salinger, and she made those texts feel important.  She gave you the impression that there was superior magic in literature that she could see and testify to--and she invited you to see that magic with her.  She implied that her life was grander because of the books she read, that the world was richer when viewed through the lens of stories.  And I was a sucker for it--I believed it wholeheartedly.  I began to love books so much that it wasn't enough to consume them.  I wanted to be one of the craftsmen who created the objects of magic.  I wanted to be behind the scenes, pulling the strings, making the dancers dance.  And so I became a writer to try my hand at making a little magic on my own.  And I owe it all to one vibrant teacher.

4.What is your biggest pet peeve about the current state of the horror genre?

Bell: I wish horror were more stylized.  Actually, I wish all contemporary fiction were more stylized.  So many creative writing courses teach young writers to be, above all, efficient--to put plot and character before language and style.  Over the past thirty years or so, writing has become infuriatingly industrious.  It panders to the lowest common denominator of a reader: the reader who is just eager to know what happens next and can't be bothered to slow down and luxuriate in language.  For me, that equates to a particularly joyless kind of writing.  I prefer fiction in which I can hear an author's distinctive voice.  I like the idea of picking up a story and being able to tell who wrote it just because the style is so unique.  Think about H.P. Lovecraft.  Now there's a writer whose voice you could hear from a mile away.  That's why we have the term "Lovecraftian."  Why don't we have the term "King-ian"?  I think because Stephen King is a storyteller--which is a marvelous thing to be--but he is not a wordsmith.  I'm sure there are plenty of readers worldwide who are grateful for this fact, but for me it's a bit of an annoyance.  I frequently find myself reading passages of Stephen King and thinking, "Okay, yes, I see how you've advanced the plot here.  But couldn't you have done the same thing a little more artfully?"

5.What do you consider the most disturbing scene you have ever watched in a horror film?

Bell: You know, I've been watching horror films for so many years that I began to think I was inured to them.  I haven't been shocked or horrified by a movie in a long, long time.  Or, at least, I hadn't been until I saw Martyrs.  Now, Martyrs definitely falls into the same category of "torture porn" alongside Hostel and Saw and The Human Centipede.  and normally these movies don't bother me so much.  I usually find them more offputting than anything else.   But Martyrs--I don't know.  That movie didn't just scare me--it made me feel bad.  Corrupted.  Defiled.  I couldn't get it out of my head for weeks afterward.  Without giving anything away about the movie, I would say that there are scenes which I wish I could erase from my memory.  The thing is this: it's cold horror--unmitigated by any kind of artifice or elegance or even convention.  I discovered something by watching this movie.  Screams are easier to deal with than silence.  Screams are a recognizable horror convention that make the audience feel safe.  I wish there had been more screams in Martyrs.  Instead, the quiet was just plain brutal.  Now, I say this not as a recommendation but rather as a warning.  You should not see this movie.  It is not meant to be watched.  Really, I'm not kidding.  I urge you to use good judgment on this one.

6.In your estimation, the best cover art ever to appear on a genre book:

Bell: When I was a kid reading Stephen King, I was fascinated by the paperback cover of his collection of short stories called Night Shift.  The cover showed a person's hand held up, palm facing you.  But the hand was bandaged--or at least partially bandaged, up to about the middle of the palm.  The bandages were in the process of being removed, and under them you could see that eyeballs had grown all over the fingers and palm.  They gazed at you with mild indifference.  I'm not sure why I found this cover so completely affecting, but I did.  I kept my copy of that book to this day because I didn't want to do without the cover art.  Eyes where they shouldn't be are always horrifying, aren't they?  Because it's never just an eye.  An eye implies consciousness.  To grow eyes on your hand is to stare back at all the foreign consciousnesses that have taken up residence in your body.  Who are those strangers?  And what are they doing inside you?  Of course, I was a teenager.  Don't all teenagers feel their bodies are filled with hostile strangers?


devilintheflesh.net said...

I might recommend to Alden Bell the books of Glen Duncan: 'The Last Werewolf' and 'Tallullah Rising.' Duncan is almost a Nabakovian, according to some critics, although I think he owes more than he cares to admit to Martin Amis.

As for Bell's criticisms of King(one of my faves), I get it: economy of language can be frustrating. But I might suggest he read (or re-read) some Chandler, or 'A Tree grows in Brooklyn', or another Jackson award nominee, Donald Ray Pollock, to see how beautiful economical language can be.

Joshua Gaylord said...

I'll have to check out Glen Duncan--I've never read him. Sounds like something I would really like.

And, of course, I adore Chandler and a lot of other writers of economic narrative style. I think I just get a little fed up with people who believe that kind of economy always equals good writing--and that anything a bit more filigreed is insufferable. I'm probably just reacting to the overwhelming prevalence of the Economic Mode as the standard by which most contemporary fiction is judged--when there are other more stylized voices out there that deserve to be heard.

But your point is most appreciated!