ADVICE TO A YOUNG WRITER

Hi, Mr. Straub
I’m a longtime fan of your work. (LOST BOY LOST GIRL was brilliant, by the way.) I’m a writer of fiction, too, although a vastly inferior one. I’m sure you won’t remember it, but a few years ago, you were kind enough to praise a story of mine in a letter you sent the editor of the magazine in which the story appeared. (The story was “Smoke”; the magazine was LORE, issue # 2; and this was somewhere in the vicinity of 1995. The editor forwarded me a photocopy of the letter, which I now hold in the same sort of esteem scientists reserve for Nobels.)

At any rate, as a writer who often struggles with questions of style, technique, and inspiration, it has often occurred to me how beneficial it would be to have an apprenticeship with a “real” writer. This I’ll never have, I’m sure. However, if you have the inclination, I have a handful of questions, below, whose answers would be extremely valuable to me in the evolution of my own work.

I should say up front that I understand you are a busy man with many responsibilities and too little time to give to the concerns of your many fans. I certainly don’t want to impose upon your or get in your way. If you don’t have time to answer my (admittedly often complex) questions, I completely understand. Nonetheless, in interviews you have always seemed kind and approachable, and I felt asking you was at least worth a shot.

The questions follow. If you choose to answer them, I thank you in advance. I’m looking forward to IN THE NIGHT ROOM, later this year. Please keep up the good work.

Yours,
Christopher Morris

CHRISTOPHER MORRIS: I have read HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS uncountable times. (It is my favorite of your works.) In interviews, introductions, essays, etc., I have seen you address many of the stories in that book, but rarely “The Buffalo Hunter.” (Although, in the Houses postscript, you state that it was inspired by an art installation.) I would love to know what the “kernel” — the original idea or aim — of that story was. Also: Did you intend it to be a novella? Or was it a short story that took on greater life than anticipated or perhaps a truncated novel? Has it ever been published in any independent form?

PETER STRAUB: I’m glad you ask about “The Buffalo Hunter,” because I’ve always liked that story, and it doesn’t seem to have been much noticed. As I said in the “Author’s Note” to HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS, it was inspired by a show — an art opening — called BED MILK SHOE by a friend who is a sculptor, Rona Pondick. Her work is often primal, and this show included several beds with baby bottles lashed to them. The next morning, as soon as I woke up I wondered what that kind of thing would look like if it were made without any artistic impulse. And what kind of person would make it? That morning, I went out and bought a bunch of baby bottles. Bobby Bunting came into view very early on. I knew I wanted to write a novella, and I had so much fun that it turned out to be a little longer than I had expected it to be.

CM: You are a writer who has from time to time used another writer’s work as a source of inspiration for your own stories. I wonder if this is a result of any artistic self-consciousness on your part? (I suffer from this a great deal and I’m always seeking ways to conquer it.) If so, do you have any techniques for defeating self-consciousness in writing? Are you from time to time affected by writer’s block or feelings of doubt? When beginning a new work, do you struggle for inspiration? How do you overcome these afflictions?

PS: I used John Fowles’ THE MAGUS and the great Melville story “Bartleby the Scrivener” as inspirations or subtexts for two things I’ve written, SHADOWLAND and “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff.” I’m not sure self-consciousness was really an issue here — it was more a question of being tremendously excited and moved by something I had read, then deciding to see if I might be able to do something with it. However, I do understand the question — self-consciousness can be as inhibiting in writing as it is in social situations. It amounts to a sort of hyper-awareness of the weight of the words being used and far too much awareness of where this stuff came from in the first place. Your influences threaten to overwhelm you. The worst thing you can do is lose yourself in the maze of how you happen to be echoing another writer’s situations or stances or prose. People find themselves rewriting the same fifty pages over and over, forever. The cure, to the extent that a cure exists, is to move forward, to keep writing and trust that in time what you are writing will feel like fresh experience, your own reality, not a meditation on another writer. I guess I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Sometimes you must wait for things to fall into place within yourself, but that is another matter. At those times, you are still working, although no one believes it. At the beginning of a book, I am very much feeling my way forward, paying attention to the feeling tone of the words as they appear on the page while still in a state of creative uncertainty as to pretty much everything that is to follow.

CM: In the “Biography” section of your web site you say (of yourself) that “At some point he became conscious of the central issues of his life, which recognition made it impossible to cast them into the patterns, however imaginative, of horror literature, as least as conventionally regarded.” I found this statement surprising. I would have thought that recognition of these “central issues” would allow you to employ them more directly in your fiction, but instead you say that this recognition has prevented you from using them at all. Can you expound on this? Is this still the case for you or have your central issues evolved over time? In what way did you discover these central issues in the first place? Also: are these central issues also reflected in your taste in fiction, or in the type of music you prefer? In other words, are these issues the primary concerns in the type of art you enjoy as well as in the type of art you create?

PS: What I was talking about in that paragraph was the process of discovering that I had become a horror writer because the material of that genre gave me permission to work with the images and emotions produced by childhood trauma. This deeply explanatory discovery came about through, was made possible by, lots of psychoanalytic work. Once I understood what my actual situation was, it no longer confined me, and I was free to use the very same kind of psychic material in more realistic narratives. So it isn’t that I was “prevented” from using what was central to me, rather that I was able to use it in more mature, more developed, more insightful ways. I can’t deny that my tastes really do reflect my internal themes: I am moved by work that investigates and honors the realities of grief, loss, pain, and mystery.

CM: As an artist, you have always seemed unafraid to take chances. You seem less conscious of — or at least to give less of a damn about — commercial concerns than most other genre authors. I would like to know to what extent (or in what ways) you have balanced your personal artistic agenda with commerciality in your career. On a given book, how conscious of “commerciality” are you when making the artistic choices you make? Have you been frustrated by the industry’s poor reception to any of your stories or novels (MRS. GOD, say)? If you were beginning your career today, in what ways would your approach to creating commercial fiction differ from the approach you took in your youth?

PS: MRS. GOD was poorly received? That’s news to me. Well, let’s talk about that novella. I wanted to write a story involving an old house and a governess, and instantly it morphed into a story about a man who was convinced that his wife’s pregnancy was the product of adultery and insisted that she have an abortion, which she did. Within, he knew he was wrong, and that the baby was his, but his jealousy drove him half-crazy. As a result of this history, the poor fellow is haunted and tormented by images of lost children and angry babies. All of the came directly from my own situation. I had finished the novel KOKO after working on for three years, and it felt as though I had lost my much-loved baby. Then publishers had it, it was no longer mine! Now, it should be clear from all that that I happily spent about four months digging deeper and deeper into a project that might have had no real commercial viability at all. Of course, it was a novella. Novels require a year to three years of involvement, and one must kep eating and paying school fees during that period. I had so much success so early in my career that I did imagine that my readers would stick with me in order to see where I’d come out in the end, but I also always wanted to keep them involved and interested. If I were starting out now, I’d do more or less the same things I did thirty years ago, except that I would turn to genre writing earlier than I did. But my impulse would be the same — to turn genre fiction into literature. That’s my real goal.

CM: In a recent interview (Oct 2003), you were quoted as saying (of LOST BOY LOST GIRL): “I wrote it in six months. In the past it has sometimes taken me three years to get to the end of a book. This experience was so much nicer and sweeter and more gratifying. It was the whole process without the pain. So I say to myself, “I would like to go through this experience again and leave the pain behind.” The way my decisions are being read are probably not all that accurate. I do want to do a book a year. I do want to sell more books, but it’s also kind of in the pursuit of authorly pleasure and achievement. I think I can get farther if I write more. I think I can go deeper into whatever it is I’m supposed to be exploring which is a certain emotional realm.” What is the “pain” you’re referring to? In what way does writing shorter books allow you to circumvent this pain? To what extent have your writing habits changed to accommodate this shift?

PS: Oh, the pain, the pain. Writing can actually *hurt*. After all, it is extremely difficult, in fact literally impossible, to create an independent reality, yet that is what novelists break their backs trying to do — they are trying to invent the truth. In my case, much of the pain was the product of getting in my own way, of interfering with the process in the middle of the process. Eventually, I learned to do what I knew how to do when much younger: I learned to listen to the words going through my head and write them down without quarreling with them first. You can always revise later. Essentially, it’s a matter of learning to trust your unconscious. I hope you might find something useful in my responses, Christopher. And thank you for your kind and generous words.