Are you related to the Straub beer folks?
No, but I wish I were. Oddly, the current president of the Straub Brewery is named Peter Straub. I’m happy to say we never get each other’s e-mails.
What’s it like to be a world-famous celebrity author?
Well, you’d never believe the anguish, the hardships, the sheer pain of being one of the most famous people in America. First of all, I can never leave the house without wearing a wig, a hat, and sunglasses. This is extremely tiresome, especially when I go to the movies. The people behind me keep punching me in the shoulders and yelling at me to take my hat off, so I am often compelled to turn around and whisper to them “Mind your manners, bub, I’m a world-famous celebrity author!” Besides that, there’s that incessant horde that gathers each and every day in front of my charming little palace on the Rhine and throws pebbles up at my windows. There are days when I truly wish I were an anonymous hack, but they are few in number.
Why do your write such creepy stories?
My stories are creepy? Honest to God, to me all those stories seem to be accurate representations of real life. All right, maybe some of them are a little alarming. But being alarmed isn’t all that bad. It tends to keep your pulse rate up.
Who is Tim Underhill? What does he look like?
Tim Underhill is of course one of my alter-egos, and my favorite one. He is an author, like me, only he went to Vietnam and I did not, and he’s about 20% better looking than I am. Now, 20% isn’t that much of a difference. When we go out together, people often mistake us for one another. I’ve written a lot more books than Underhill. I guess he’s a little constipated. On the other hand, I like him more than he likes me. Half the time, the guy never returns my phone calls. And how can I describe his appearance? He looks something like a cross between a baseball mitt and a champagne glass. He also looks like a lot of actors, the ones playing supporting roles who walk onscreen and make you say, “Oh yeah, that guy. I wonder what his name is?”
I Google’d “Millhaven, Illinois” and got a lot of stuff about your books, but nothing about the city itself. What gives?
You idiot, Millhaven isn’t a real city! Well, I should modify that. It’s real, but it’s real only in fiction. I invented this place as a stand-in for Milwaukee, WI, so that I could take enormous liberties with the city of Milwaukee without offending anybody who actually lives there. A lot of the Milwaukee landscape can be found in beautiful little Millhaven. However, Millhaven has been home to a great many more serial killers than Milwaukee was ever blessed with. I like Millhaven, though, and in my mind I often stroll down its leafy streets, wondering where all those groans of agony are coming from.
What’s this Peter Straub/Nick Cave connection?
Years ago someone with a connection to a Nick Cave newsgroup let me know that he had used some of my fiction as sources and/or material for his songs. Naturally, this pleased me enormously. It is a great honor to have your work alluded to in that way by another artist. I love the whole idea. Nick Cave is a talented, compelling performer and I could see that some of my work would fall very neatly within the territory that interests him. Eventually we wound up e-mailing each other, and he sent me a very nicely signed copy of one of his CDs. It would be nice to meet him one day.
Was Putney Tyson Ridge a real person?
You know, there are people in the world who do think that good old PTR is or was a real person. I find that very endearing. It means that these folks take me to be a person of such extraordinary generosity and such a profoundly thick skin that I welcome the most harshly dismissive comments about my work, my character, and my wife, and happily plaster them all over my websites. Since I mention my wife, I should add that she once said to me, “Peter, you’re so smart – you made Putney have the initials PTR, which is your name with the vowels left out.” Until that moment, I had been completely unconscious that Putney and I more or less had the same name.
Where you ever in the army? Did you fight in the Vietnam war?
I never had that honor.
Who’s your favorite writer?
I guess I have to say Henry James. At least that’s what I’d say today. On other days, I might choose Raymond Chandler, or Charles Dickens, or Wilkie Collins, or on other, other days, a real long shot, like Donald Harington. In some ways, John Ashbery will always be my favorite writer.
What scares you? I mean *really* scares you?
If you want to know the truth, and you don’t, an enormous number of really ordinary, banal things frighten me. See, I told you you didn’t want to know. I am a flagrant, up-front coward. In moments of great stress, I freeze like a statue. I have found this disgusting trait to be extremely useful professionally.
So what’s Mr Stephen King really like?
Mr. King, Steve, Stevie, is an extraordinary human being. A great many people live inside his skin, and all of them are bright, funny, obsessed, devoted, sensitive, and hard-working. This is a guy who loves his family the way you’re supposed to love your family. I admire him enormously.
What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said or written about your work?
That’s easy. In 1979, Elmore Leonard said in a review of GHOST STORY, published in the Detroit Free Press, that it was “hype, not fiction.” I resented Elmore Leonard for years. Then I finally got over it, and when I read his books I realized that he was entitled to say whatever came into his mind about me. In May, 2004, I introduced myself to Elmore Leonard at a wedding of a mutual friend. It was the first time we’d ever met. A strange expression crossed his face, and he motioned me aside. He said, “You know, I’ve owed you an apology for 25 years. I don’t know why I was so stupid. I think I must have been drinking.” I told him that I’d forgiven him years ago, and then I rested my forehead on his shoulder.
Lawrence Block once said that I was a national treasure. You can hardly get much better than that.
What’s your favorite drink?
My favorite drink used to be alcoholic but I do not drink alcohol anymore. At present my favorite drink is cranberry juice and club soda. It is tasty, refreshing, and enlivening.
What song do you sing in the shower?
My voice is of such shattering beauty that I dare not sing anywhere, even my own shower. For my own safety, I must keep this talent to myself.
What’s your family like?
Terrific, gorgeous, smart, gabby, maybe a little compulsive. I have a wife, a son, and a daughter. They’re all amazing people.
What’s your secret fantasy job?
Since my fantasy job is identical to the job I have, I have to answer that question in this way: Ideally, I would create a book so interdependent and self-sustaining in its parts, so wondrously connected word by word and paragraph by paragraph, so charged with the joy of language, that it would actually float three or four inches above any table where you try to set it down.
OF ALL THE BOOKS YOU’VE WRITTEN, WHICH IS YOUR FAVORITE?
When people ask me to recommend a book, I usually name MYSTERY, because its both accessible and reader-friendly. It would be a nice introduction to my work. But my favorite probably has to be KOKO. It was a very difficult book to write, but somewhere in the middle I saw that I had raised my game and felt as though I had reached a new level. Maybe this feeling was delusory, but I’ve never wanted to feel as though I was working at a lower level than I was in KOKO.
What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?
Back when the older version of my website was under construction, I answered the questions posed to me, which were not exactly those most frequently asked, in the above manner for a variety of reasons. The first among these was that I thought I was being funny, and being funny was important to me. That twice-distanced yet overwrought manner now seems a little hysterical to me (in the sense of “hysteria,” not “hysterically funny”), a little off-base and misguided. Beneath the supposedly side-splitting, also highly deflective irony, I thought, could be sensed an echo of the emotional noise that had set the irony in motion. The childhood traumas skittered over in the Bio section, written at the same time, seemed to me to be visible even when most submerged–their clamor informed a great deal of my life, even then. I was pretty raw. These days, what so greatly dented my childhood (and really, if you want complete description all you have to do is read THE THROAT) is pretty much like the weather, to be acknowledged as a feature of the landscape you see through the windows, but not of central importance — no matter how often you might have been struck by lightning in your childhood. In the FAQ answers above, I was skating fast, or so I supposed, because I knew how thin was the ice beneath me.