INTERVIEW: Paul Tremblay, Author of ‘Disappearance at Devil’s Rock’

Image provided by the author

It’s a great time to be a Paul Tremblay fan. Whether or not you realise, he’s one of the best names out there, writing innovative horror. He’s been around a fair bit now, but his recent novel, A Head Full of Ghosts won acclaim and awards. Now, with his latest, Tremblay has his sights set to scare us even more, with Disappearance At Devil’s Rock. Make sure to check it out. Then check out the interview, to see how such  a nice man can imagine such great terrors.

Who is your biggest influence as a writer? 
I’m going to be really annoying but I can’t pick a biggest or favorite for anything. I’ll try to be brief. Reading Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” stopped me in my mathematics-major tracks senior year of college. Then in graduate school I read all of Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, and Shirley Jackson, and emerged with a degree and a want to try writing a story. Reading Kurt Vonnegut then made me want to be a better person.

Biggest influence period? 
Punk/Hard/Heavy/Indie whatever music helped save me. Made me dare to think I might have something to say worth listening to. I tried having that happen through the guitar first, but I quickly found out that I was a better writer than a musician.

Favorite Book? Movie? Band? 
Book(s): House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
Movie(s): The Thing, Memento, Lake Mungo.
Band(s): (then) Husker Du, (now) Future of the Left.

Favorite food? 
Breakfast cereal, pizza.

If you could have dinner with one person living or dead, who would it be? 
Larry Bird.

If you could punch one person in the face, living or dead, who would it be? 
I’m a lover not a fighter. But Martin Shkreli.

What geographical place makes you calm? What place scares the life out of you? 
A lake. I want to live on a lake someday. Or next to a lake. Not literally on it. I don’t think I want a houseboat. The ocean kind of terrifies me. I don’t want to live on the ocean. Not literally on it….yeah.

Biggest fear?
Sharks. Nuclear Weapons. Sharks with nuclear weapons. The dark. People with Trump stickers on their cars. People who wear Kenny Chesney tee shirts. And in all honesty, I’m afraid I’m going to live to see the end of the world.

If your best friend could describe you in 5 words, what would they say? 
Tall, funny, nice, and pickle-hating.

You’re a voracious writer of horror, Sci-Fi, fantasy, and otherwise spooky stuff – you have over 9 books published, and a ton of short stories. How are you so prolific, and where do you come up with some of your subject matter? 
I have no idea how stuff gets done. I try not to think about it, honestly. If I do, then I get stressed out. I try to exist with the mantra “Stuff gets done; it always does.”  I don’t feel that prolific, especially when I see other writers posting 2000-word daily word counts on social media. I’m lucky if I hit 500 words a day, and that’s if I’m going good.

Most of my subject matter tends to come from bits of news items or stories that I hear from other people or little sparks of inspiration from other books, movies and music. I get a lot of ideas from music lyrics. Four of my six novels have titles that riff on lyrics.

You took a different path than most writers. From my research, and excuse me if it’s wrong – you got your masters in Mathematics at University of Vermont in 1995. Most writers, in my experience, aren’t a fan of math. What prompted that? 
Yes, it’s all true. My dirty math secret! I had no idea what I wanted to do or be when I went to college so I stuck with math because I was good at it. To make a somewhat long and boring story more tolerable, I applied to two math graduate programs because I’d messed up my math/education major (I was a math/humanities major) and couldn’t teach math without the education half. I gained entry into the University of Vermont with more than a little luck: I got a call from the Dean in late July of 1993, saying they had found my application under his desk when he moved offices, would I like to still be considered and accepted. So then I spent two years in Vermont struggling to get the math degree, but at the same time, it’s where I discovered my passion for reading and eventually writing. I can’t really explain why it happened. It just did.

I’ve found a few other math-types turned writers in my time. Including the amazing Stewart O’Nan.

In that same vein, you worked a warehouse job, and then taught high school and coached. What drew you back to writing? 
I didn’t start messing around with writing until I got my first teaching job. I had this nagging itch to try writing a story, though again, I’m not sure why as a twenty-three year old who had never written any fiction aside from the rare school assignment, thought he could write a story. I wrote it on an old word processor with a little rectangular screen about the size or length of the glasses now sitting on my face. I wrote seven whole pages and promptly lost them all to the word processor ether. I remember thinking that it was an important moment. Do I take that as a sign and quit, or do I start over, rewrite what I lost, and keep going? Since I don’t believe in signs (that’s not a reference to the M. Night Shayamalan movie, or it is?), I started over again and wrote the story. It was terrible, awful stuff (Death personified having a conversation with a serial killer) but I wrote it. And each time I wrote a new story after that I got better.

Did you work any other odd jobs? did  they impact your writing for the better or do you think they took away from that?

Cover for Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay
Image from Amazon

In general I think everything can impact your writing for the better if you allow it. Observing, listening, learning, only helps the writer.

In high school/college, my summers were spent working at the Parker Brothers factory, where my father had worked for 25 years. Perhaps it’s the lens of nostalgia, but it felt like a fun place to work for me. Everyone knew everyone, and everyone knew my father and called him by his nickname “Bones.” I had few different jobs there depending upon what was needed: I swept floors, unloaded trucks (both manually and with forklift equipment if they would let me), kept the assembly lines supplied with their Monopoly money and game pieces, and once ended up on the Ouija board assembly line, tucking planchettes into boxes as they whizzed by on the conveyor belt. For two glorious weeks they let me test a Nintendo game called Drac’s Night Out. I was so excited but it quickly got boring playing the same game over and over for eight hours a day.

My last year at the factory in Salem, the entire plant was called in for a meeting in the cafeteria. The managers lined the wall behind a podium. I had no idea what was going on, but I’d heard rumblings about a sale of the company. I remember it didn’t feel right in the room; nervous chatter, bad jokes no one laughed at. Then the new mucky mucks (whoever they were) in suits walked in and unceremoniously announced that Hasbro’s buyout of Parker Brothers had been completed and Hasbro was closing the plant in two months. The 200 plus people who groaned out loud, shouted,”No,” and “You can’t do this,” or said nothing at all, were now staring unemployment and harsh economic uncertainty in the face. Me, a goofy skinny summer temp, learning about the factory closing at the same time as all of the adults who had dedicated much of their adult lives to working for the company was a horror, and it was certainly a formative moment for my world view (for lack of a less pretentious phrase). And maybe sometimes I’m writing about that day and the anger, disbelief, and despair. I often find myself randomly thinking about that moment and the unhappy days that followed the rest of that summer.

Do you have any writing rituals? Do you have a time/place where you write, or do you bang out a couple hundred words wherever you can? 
If procrastination, too much time spent on social media, and then mercilessly browbeating myself for procrastinating and not being a good writer counts as a ritual, then that’s mine. Otherwise, I don’t have any. I’m more of a get-the-work done wherever and whenever I can, or when the opportunity presents itself. With Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I wrote a chunk of it while trapped in the bowels of Babson College’s athletic center while my son was at his Sunday baseball clinics.

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to be a writer/get published? 
Read, read, and read. Everything and anything. Reading stuff that isn’t good is important too. Learning to identify what doesn’t work in a story/novel is as important a lesson as what does work. And then write and always try to get better.

Regarding your latest – Disappearance at Devil’s Rock – there are nuances of technology and modern culture that are as (if not more) horrifying than any spooky stuff you could ever pen on a page – especially if you’re a parent. That was just one nuance to the novel though. Where did you get  the plot idea and the idea in general? 
William Morrow kindly offered me a two book deal with A Head Full of Ghosts being the first book. I spent most of the spring and summer of 2014 trying to come up with the next novel. I went through two other false starts on novels that didn’t quite work; I wrote ten page summaries for each. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock started with me taking a notebook and chair out into a thin grove of trees that overlook my house. I was looking for a different vantage point, something to get the ideas going. Worth a shot, right? While up in the woods I focused on what scared me now, and as a parent, a child going missing is certainly near the top of that list. Being in the woods also started me on thinking about the local state park, Borderland, that I often hike and bike through. With those early seeds, I knew I wanted to approach the disappearance of the teen with as much realism as I could muster, so the creeping in of technology and our cultural reaction to such narratives in the news cycle was bound to creep in. I also went into it hoping for some of the vibe from the Australian movies Picnic at Hanging Rock and Lake Mungo. I think both films do a wonderful job with presenting reality as just being a tad off.

As a writer, where do your characters come from? Are they based on acquaintances, an amalgam of people you meet, or completely contrived in your mind? I only ask because in the books I’ve read they are so real, so imperfect, like us. 

A Headful of Ghost by Paul Tremblay cover
Image from Amazon

Well, thank you very much. As a reader and writer, characters are always my first interest. I’m much more interested in who the characters are and what are the decisions they will make and why do they make them when confronted with a horror.

My answer is yes to all of the above. Merry from A Head Full of Ghosts, for instance, is an amalgam of my daughter, Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and a bunch of other bits and pieces that just felt like who this Merry was to me.

In general I always try to work with empathy in mind and definitely not sympathy. Frankly, if I hear someone complain that a character wasn’t sympathetic enough, I scream and die a little inside, and then I dismiss that reader’s opinion on anything relating to writing, movie viewing, life itself. I’m serious. Sympathy is easy and it’s lazy. Sympathy is rooting for the home team. Sympathy usually equates to oh-this-character-doesn’t-look-or-talk-or-think-like-me-so-I-can’t-sympathize. Puke…

Empathy is difficult, it’s a challenge, and it’s what makes some of us human. Empathy is the job of fiction, to make readers want to understand the who and why and complexities of people.

Last question – how did it feel to see that master of all things horror – S. King – said Head Full Of Ghosts scared the life out of him? 

It felt like biting into a York Peppermint Patty. Jesus, that’s an awful joke…

When his first tweet happened (August 18, 2015…yes, I have the date memorized), I was at the end of a grumpy day, and moving furniture around my house because that’s what you do when it’s really hot out. My phone started going crazy with texts and messages about the tweet. I stopped what I was doing, sat down at the kitchen counter with my laptop and a few cold adult beverages and basked in the warm social media glow for a few hours. I’m not ashamed to admit that I got a little emotional when I first saw his tweet. So, a very happy day to be sure.

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