An Interview with David Demchuk
Award-winning author David Demchuk has been writing for print, stage, digital and other media for more than 40 years. His debut horror novel THE BONE MOTHER, published in 2017, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Amazon First Novel Award, the Toronto Book Award, the Kobzar Book Award and a Shirley Jackson Award in the Best Novel category. His new novel RED X will be published by Strange Light in August 2021.
I interviewed David Demchuk via a collaborative Google Document in July and August 2021 and in a Zencastr call on 28 August 2021.
THE BONE MOTHER is set on the border of Romania and Ukraine. And your family is originally from that part of the world. How much of that history was part of your life growing up?
It was my dad’s side of the family that was originally from Ukraine. My dad was actually born in Poland because by the time he was born the family had already fled Ukraine. It was already on a downward turn. And then he came with his family to Canada to Manitoba. I heard many stories and heard lots of information about Ukraine from my father, but I would visit my grandmother's farm fairly frequently, at least twice a year, but usually as many as four times a year. And while she did not speak English, she understood it very well. And my uncles all spoke very well and they talked a lot about what life for the family had been like in Ukraine.
They talked a lot about – because I was small – fairy tales, legends, folklore. My dad would tell stories as we were driving back and forth to the farm. Even though I couldn't swim, I was really fascinated with lakes and rivers. And there was a great anxiety about that, as you can imagine. So one of the first things I heard was the story of the rusalka, who of course is the spirit of a drowned woman who lives in the water and who will come up to try to lure you in and pull you under. And that was sufficiently frightening when I was five or six years old. But it was that kind of stuff. And we were aware of Ukraine having been subsumed by the Soviet Union. But we were very young to try to understand all of that stuff. Really what stuck were the fantastic and spooky stories.
What is it about folklore which attracts you and how does it relate to RED X and to **your writing, generally.
I've always had a fascination with scary stories from childhood, and much of what we were exposed to when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies was that resurgence around the occult. And obviously there were movies that I was too young to go to the theatre and see, but what you often had happen was that they were remade in a softer way with different names for television. And so I already started to get a foundation in American folklore and in British folklore, because that was the basis for a lot of those kinds of stories.
One of the first movies that I was taken to, obstensibly a children's movie, was DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, which was a Disney film with Sean Connery. And it's entirely based on Irish folklore, obviously. And some of it was terrifying – just completely terrifying. It was the classic Disney thing of, —Oh, we're going to pretend that something's light and lively and playful and funny; and then we're just going to throw death in your face with screaming horses and carriages from the sky and just come and scare your socks off. And so I became really attracted to this stuff because it was so different from traditional American horror storytelling. I developed a fascination first with British and Irish folklore, and then also with my own, as I discovered that Ukrainians had a folklore that was very different and very weird.
Baba Yaga would be a great example. She is very different from a Grimm's fairy tale. She's not uniformly evil. She's more of a trickster character than anything. And something that delighted us as children and puzzles us as adults is how her house is situated on one large chicken leg that hops around the inside of the forest. And this is bonkers. Where do these things come from?
And because of this, one of the things that I always loved about fairytales and folkore is that they had their own storyteller rules, some of which seemed contradictory, and some of which just made no sense whatsoever. And yet, as a child, you could just buy into that. Things would just happen for no reason and you would go, —Okay, sure. Or things would happen for a reason, but the reason would be lost to us because we were children. Like parents who would go and dump their children in the forest because they were too poor. We don't have the historical context for that as children.
My parents while not wealthy were okay. And I couldn't imagine a situation where my brother and I would be picked up and dropped off in a forest because my parents were poor. Things like that just were beyond the imagination. And yet they fascinated us. What was this world that people were living in? And it becomes a gateway to history. It becomes a gateway to other kinds of folklore. And it also becomes a gateway to the realities of the world around us. Even though we weren't that poor, other people were, so it was always a source of fascination for me.
And in RED X, I really wanted to go in a different direction from THE BONE MOTHER. First of all, not having a dozen monsters or two dozen monsters, but having just one which was a relief. And having one that I hadn't personally heard a lot about. That really fascinated me and was something that had a kind of ever-changing transformative quality to it. And also that could be sexy and disturbing; just that sort of menacing kind of feel. Then that situated in my own community, seeing that within the queer community and seeing how that would actually work. That was the big push for RED X.
Disturbing and sexy is exactly it. But before we go back to that, sticking on folklore a little bit, you talked about how children catch some things, but not others. And I was thinking, folkore really can be an insight into psychology for children, whether conscious or not. It shows how the mind works.
Oh, absolutely. First of all, I liked the fact that there is no context really in the children's story because a child doesn't have that kind of attention span and isn't going to absorb that kind of knowledge. So you're just left with questions like, —Why is there a woman living in the wood? Are there other women living in the woods? Why would the women be living in the woods? What situation could possibly provoke the women to live in the woods? And I had to face that when I was writing THE BONE MOTHER and I thought, —Okay, if these are the women who are the leftovers of war and are no longer at home in the village, and they're odd, they're weird, they're disturbing, they're extra poor, and this is the only place they can be, they're protecting themselves by being in the woods. I started teasing through that and I found that I could sustain a whole mythos around these women in the woods.
But to go back to the original question, I was doing a classroom visit a little while ago, virtually of course, and someone asked me what I thought about the fact that in a children's story like Hansel and Gretel the threat originally came from the parents as opposed to the stranger in the woods. The threat was originally from the parents. And what did I think of that? And I said that it's the truth. And I think it's a really interesting way to present children with the truth that there is much more danger from the people who are closest to you than there is from random strangers. This is just a fact of life. If you're going to be physically abused or sexually abused, it's more likely going to happen in the family, or among people who are close to the family, friends of the family, than it is going to be a random stranger who sees you on a bus. We are given a lot of information about the random stranger who will see you on the bus. Don't talk to strangers. Don't get rides with strangers. And that's all very good and it's very valid, but there's not enough education telling people about the dangers that lie at home.
And I think that part of that is just illustrating the psychological underpinning of things like family; of things like social value and social constructs of the way that people can relate poisonously or toxically to each other. There are the things that you might need to do in order to survive. Those kinds of things are right there in the material. I don't think they're necessarily there to educate people.
I love this idea of something horrific coming out of something which was created perhaps for benign reasons, and was then misunderstood.
Yes, and certainly when you hear stories being told by children, from things that they perceive, you get those kinds of distortions; you get those kinds of embellishments. And first of all, kids love them. They're fanciful. They're exciting. They trigger the imagination. But it makes a kind of a sense that's where that concept would come from.
In the same way that, for example, who, found evidence of dragons, very likely found evidence of dinosaurs you're working with the knowledge that you have and you're trying to elaborate on it with what you can imagine.
And only in time, do you find out what the reality really is? And, in fact, centuries later, until we have the technology to do it, many of the things that we don't understand now that we perceive, we may eventually understand, in centuries or generations when again, we have the technology and the ability to understand them.
So nothing is ever really off the table. If you're working in horror or you're working in fantasy or even science fiction that you're looking at the present, you're looking at the things around you, and then you're also looking at the possibilities of them. You're looking at what would it be if this could do this? What would it be if this was this instead, what would it be if this was alive, what would it be? Like those kinds of things. And then, if this was possessed, if this was a conduit of some sort, if this was, and then you just tease out, strands of something that could turn into a narrative. And that's probably one of the most fun parts of writing genre material is that kind of exploration.
When you wrote your debut novel THE BONE MOTHER, you had already written for the theatre. What are the biggest differences between telling stories in these two forms?
Theatre writing is collaborative in nature – it is meant to be interpreted by a director and designers and performers, and the audience in a way is also a collaborator, bringing their imaginations to the work in an active way. It is usually a collective experience in a shared physical space, where the audience’s response is a subtle (and sometimes not too subtle) contribution to the performance. It also happens in real time – there is no rewinding or rereading, no putting down the performance and picking it up again later. And the writing has to accommodate that. Writing for the page, you are directly connected to the reader and their imagination plays the role of director, designer, performer. Each reader will bring something unique to the experience. It is also intensely personal, intimate – it is (usually) a one-on-one interaction. And it is rare that a reader starts a book and reads non-stop all the way through to the end, so the writer has to be mindful of that as well – creating appropriate breaks, leaving ‘hooks’ that will bring the reader back, ensuring that the reader has some sense of where the narrative is going but not EXACTLY where.
IF BETTY SHOULD RISE is a powerful, pain-filled play which gives a voice to a woman who has experienced terrible abuse as a child. What throughline can you identify between your plays and your prose?
I have not been shy to work with difficult material, either on the stage or in my prose. I have tried to be sensitive in my portrayals of violence, abuse and horror, and always I hope with a larger purpose. I also have tried to create a path for viewers and readers to understand and empathize with the victims of violence in a direct and heartfelt way – not to abstract or sensationalize their experiences (though every genre and platform has its constraints and challenges in this regard), but to bring the audience as close to my subjects as possible, to understand their situations and see themselves in them.
In RED X, the sexy and disturbing RED X, the situations you're describing occur over a period of years, and over that time characters change and the landscape of toronto changes (the photographs you put on twitter touch on this, too). what is the arc of RED X, for you (if there is one); and how would you like readers to change as they read RED X?
RED X is unusual in that it follows an ensemble of characters over nearly 40 years, rather than a single protagonist, as they come to realize that a predator of some kind is taking gay men one by one here and there from Toronto’s gay village, and has been doing so for much longer than is humanly possible. So the arc of the story comes from this growing realization and the efforts of the survivors of the missing men to identify and stop the predator, if that is at all possible. The transformation of the city over the decades, and the ongoing structural homophobia that is part of life in the city, are contributing factors to the frustrated investigations into the men’s disappearances and to the predator’s continued success. It’s hard to say how I want a given reader to change as they read the book, apart from developing a growing understanding of the terrors all queer people face in a fundamentally homophobic environment and how community is one of the tools we have to fight our oppression.
How do you feel your writing about communities, about the perils and the dangers communities face, helps people to understand or think of ways of looking ahead? I was talking to P. Djèlí Clark recently, and he said something really interesting about how readers sometimes see elements of utopia in his work, but his worlds aren't utopias. They are different to ours, but there are still loads of problems. But what his readers are seeing – what readers from marginalised groups in particular might be seeing – are worlds which contain some improvement, some change; and that change is enough to make it a world they'd want to be in. And so looked at that way, the concept of utopia is very relative. And I wonder, do you see your stories, books like RED X, containing the seeds of, or hope for, better futures?
I don't think anyone would ever look at any of my work and describe it as utopian, but I totally get it. I think that's a great question to ask horror writers, because essentially what you're asking is, —In a hopeless context, where do you describe or place or or hint at the hope? Is there hope?
Certainly there is an element of hope at the end of RED X, which is not on trend for most horror right now. And there are some people who believe, and I'm inclined to agree with them, that if horror doesn't have happy endings you can have a qualified, happy ending. You can have a bittersweet ending. You can have an ending that has a brooding dread over a happy couple. But a truly happy ending, that seems weird in horror now. It didn't use to, but it seems weird now.
That said my characters, particularly in RED X, for a very large part feel lonely, feel isolated. The predator in the book capitalizes on this feeling of loneliness and isolation that some of my characters have and the characters that I'm thinking of in particular characters that are marginalized even within their marginal communities. And they are drawn somebody who sees them, they're drawn to somebody who wants to alleviate that feeling of loneliness and isolation.
So by the end of the book, the people who have lost people they become a kind of a rough community. They understand that they have something that they share and they to overcome that loneliness, that isolation that has disempowered them, it's only really through coming together as a community and recognizing the things you've lost together and the path that you have traveled together. And that you can see a way out of the situation that you're in and that you can take action in order to try to resolve that situation. That's absolutely, I think that's true as well in THE BONE MOTHER, but I think it's especially true in RED X that that much of the focus of the book is about overcoming loneliness and isolation, finding your people, and then using that strength that comes from being in a group with a shared history and a shared memory in order to move things forward in a positive way, despite everything.
It's about empowerment, as you say. And I think the common thread for me is always this idea of defending our humanity, or protecting people against whatever the horrors are. When we talk about people going missing and nobody really caring, how do we build that empathy, even in horror. On a narrative level, I think horror stories should be whatever they want to be. There's no rule book anyway. But I wonder how stories like RED X can help us understand the problems better and then create better solutions.
I'll give you an example of the paradox of this. The BLACK MIRROR series has an episode called 'San Junipero' which is about a young woman who finds a romance with another young woman in a resort town. And of course, because it's BLACK MIRROR, not everything is what it seems.
And I have so many friends who say, —Oh my it's so lovely. And I turn, and I say, —That is the most terrifying thing I've ever seen in my life. And you just discover for yourself what it is that other people would adore about it that I myself would find terrifying, right. a happy ending, but it's not a happy ending for me.
You talked about this idea of teasing things out. And also the idea of not just individuals protecting themselves, but communities and – this question is already spinning out of my control – but also the idea of how things are misinterpreted, and so there's all of that in your new book. The question is, how did you tease out those fantastical elements and how did you then interlace that with the idea of communities and also communities trying to look after them.
When I was writing THE BONE MOTHER, one of the things that, that attracted me to it as a concept was that I was going to create a kind of epic feel by having many little monologues, monologues by individual characters whose individual pieces added up, even if in perfectly into a portrait of say a village or a series of villages or families, or, a community and how those people would or creatures in many cases would have children and grandchildren that would come to the new world. This concept intrigues me.
And so when I started on RED X, I still had the desire to write about how event or events horrific supernatural, however you want to quantify them affected community of people. And so how to create that feeling of a community. And how do we explore that within, in this case, a fully contemporary context.
And so at the time that I started writing it, it was originally a play and I was originally writing it in 2014. There had been, I think up to then, three men who had disappeared in Toronto's gay community. Three men of colour. And there was concern about it in, in the queer community. It was talked about in the queer press, but there was not as much concern or awareness of about it in the larger community.
The other thing that's important to know about this is that there had always been disappearances in Toronto. And in other large cities as well. There have always been disappearances and murders in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Montreal, these large cities, particularly through the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties. There was the problem where gay men were being murdered and nobody really cared because it was assumed that they were being murdered in sexual circumstances. Gay men and queer people in general were not a protected group in any way. In fact, they were seen as being less than everybody else. They were subject to an extraordinary amount of prejudice and so many of the crimes were just never even investigated nevermind solved.
I didn't want to document those three men who had gone missing, but what I wanted to do was take that concept of missing men, missing men from the village, and explore that within the context of a play. And in that case, I wanted to throw back, as I do in the book, to 200 years in the past, when the city actually was first formed and someone or something arrives to the new world with the people who settle here and it basically feeds off the community. The play didn't happen, which was okay. I put it in a drawer and I went and worked on something else, which in fact turned out to be THE BONE MOTHER in the end. But as soon as THE BONE MOTHER was finished and I was happy with it I thought that I would return to that and see if I could turn it into a book rather than keep it as a play.
And by then more men had disappeared. And it became clear that there was even more to explore there. Again, not about the literal specific men who vanished, but just about this concept of how even now in the 21st century, people keep disappearing, possibly being murdered, what is and again, the investigations aren't really happening if they are, they're very, half-hearted what exactly is going on here. And that was that was largely the impetus for the book. I knew that I wanted to retain a supernatural element. I wanted to retain a monster and I wanted that monster to contain a number of possibilities for why this would happen. And that those would be revealed over the course of our understanding of the monster.
And the people who, apart from being the larger, I guess we would throw think of in an abstract way, the queer community. What I really wanted to show was the growth of a community of people who had lost some, each of whom had lost someone and who don't realize their community until they come together and discover what it is that they have in common, that they each have someone missing in their lives. And that happens over the course of the book.
That sense of not knowing they were part of a community until that moment, until that moment of crisis or loss, was something that you felt as well, as you lived in that community?
Yeah. I've experienced it a number of times. Before we had internet it was especially challenging. And I don't think people who have grown up with internet can really appreciate it. There was no real way – if I had a friend who I saw maybe two or three times a year, and something awful happened to them – I wouldn't necessarily easily know that something had happened to them. I would have to hear from somebody else – a friend of a friend; I couldn't look up and see, was somebody still on Facebook with somebody still on Twitter? I couldn't reach out easily to somebody who was a friend of a friend. I wouldn't know who their other friends were. And in the time of the AIDS crisis, this was particularly difficult because a lot of people were dying quickly. A lot of family members were ashamed. A lot of them did not want to let the world know that their child had died or what their child had died of.
Sometimes things happen where people had to move away abruptly because they had to get away from their families. You just wouldn't know. So it became. Sort of an understanding in the queer community that people can be lost at any time and you don't really ever necessarily find out why. And it's very painful.
And one of the things that was great about the internet era was that we were able to reconstruct a certain amount of it, and go, —Oh, okay, and so they did move to Vancouver, and they did die; they say it was liver cancer, but we suspect it was something else. With the internet you're able to do some of that kind of detective work.
But growing up queer and surviving meant that you always knew of people who possibly did not. And you also discovered that you had mutual friends or acquaintances. You would go to funerals, you would look across, you would see a familiar face and go, —Oh, I had no idea that we both knew this person. That was unfortunately a familiar feeling. Or that this person had a boyfriend and here's who that was. Or that this person worked with these people. I had absolutely no idea. It's that kind of thing.
In that sense, the internet is massively important. There are two ways of looking at it, and I think that there's definitely hope.
Yes. There are downsides to everything. But the upside is that at least with social media there and certain kinds of other platforms, There is at least the illusion that you know, more people really, you only know fractions of them, more people that you're more aware of what's going on in the world, that you have some sense of things that are beyond your front doorstep. And what injustices in certain countries that you feel you need to address. And injustices in your own country that you feel the need to address. Friends or acquaintances who are getting married, who are having children, who are moving away, who are coming back. And those shifts and changes, even if it's fairly superficial, still give you a sense of belonging.
It may not be the kind of belonging that you feel when you strip all of that away. And all you have of your community are your friends, their friends, the people who you meet at the bar and see at the bar or in other sort of, queer-specific circumstances or the people who come out for an event of mourning or an event of protest or something like pride, which, has a celebratory aspect to it.
And we used to look around at pride and go, —Who are all these people that we never see? Where do they live? What do they do? I have never seen this person anywhere I've ever gone. Are they all visitors? Do they all come in from out of town? Because if you're in a big city prides are very attractive that way. But you would just think to yourself, they all just go back to their lives. They all just scatter. And then you never S you don't see them for another year. And now it's possible to at least get glimpses of them online, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you have any real access to them as people or vice versa. They just exist almost in a kind of a voyeuristic way or with very sort of superficial, transactional kinds of exchanges.
Although it's fraught, obviously, I love the feeling of an online queer community, but I don't for a moment assume that a friendship, even with someone who I really like on the other side of the continent, is as true a friendship as somebody who is actually in my own city, who I see more frequently, who I have lunches with and things like that. But you can sometimes confuse yourself. Social media makes things seem easy when in fact they're not that easy at all.
And certain things become transparent which weren't before. You can learn things about people and know their politics whereas in the past a lot of that would have been entirely out of view.
Yes. All very true. And now it's easy to find out more of that than you would like. I would never normally know which of my American friends would vote for Trump because I wouldn't know. I would not have had a window into their day-to-day lives. And now it's possible to see who has voted for people, who was campaigning for people, who is anti-vax, who is anti-immigration, who votes for anti-gay candidates because there are other things in their portfolio that favour them. And it becomes this constant challenge where you ask, —Do I really know this person? This person really mattered to me; I had an image of them; and now that image has changed. But what really has changed and what do I do about that? That is just not really where it used to be.
It used to be a surprise when someone put a sign on their lawn. You had no idea how people were voting. People just did what they did, but now, as you say, it's transparent. There's a lot more information that's available to us, for well or for ill, about what's going on in everyone's minds. And we need to first of all check ourselves, and secondly look at the people around us and try to figure out how we can all move forward to a better place.
If this is in fact really is what going on is what is going on in people's heads. But yeah, it's I can see why some people, once they get a glimpse, they just flee all social media platforms and hide again.
I think it's very hard to navigate. It's very hard to navigate emotionally and very hard to navigate in terms of the amount of digging you feel obliged to do. I was looking recently at the news about Simon Callow and I thought, —There's so much work involved here, in terms of both understanding the positions and thinking through your perspective on it. So many brain cycles
And imagine having Simon Callow as your uncle.
Simon Callow exists for me only as a TV personality, as this sort of vague figure. And so I can decide whether to block him, or mute him, and never read about him ever again. All of those things. You're bumbling along in your life, you see this person once a year at Christmas dinner, and then you open up your computer and you discover he's a monster. And it's a question of, —What do I do with this? What am I supposed to do now? How do I fight with this person? Do I ignore this person? Do I refuse to ever be in a room with this person? How am I supposed to, as you say, navigate this? Because this person hasn't even told me this stuff directly, but in a way they've told me the world.
There are a lot of people when I was growing up and was in my early, twenties and thirties who were family members who didn't really have to deal directly with the fact that I was gay and they just they had their image of me. If I didn't say anything, then nothing was confirmed and everyone could sit together and be pleasant. But the moment that they made the discovery, everything changed. And so the question becomes how do they make the discovery? Did somebody gossip about me? Did I say something directly? Or did they read something somewhere?
And in the world of the internet, I'm out to everyone all the time because I just am. But if there were people who I hadn't been out to, it's easy enough to find like a ton of stuff about, and then, the person has to sit down and go what does this mean for me in our relationship? Our friendship, our family, our workplace relationship, whatever it is that it is. And so in a lot of ways, I think people use the internet too, as a passive way of outing themselves to some people in order to avoid the confrontation of directly outing themselves. And I understand why, I particularly understand why for younger people, because those conversations can be very hard to have. So if the internet can have half the conversation for you, that can feel really convenient. But the conversation still has to be had.
It all comes back to families.
Yes. I'm sorry.
It's that Philip Larkin line.
Oh yes, —They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
You have said that you are ‘a catalogue of phobias’ and that as you write more for a project, insecurities start to creep in. Yet it must take a lot of courage to face those creative fears and put a play like IF BETTY SHOULD RISE out into the world. And Maya Angelou once said that one of the most important tools for a writer is courage. Is courage an important tool for you?
Courage is important to me, though I feel it more through my characters than as a personal element – perhaps I’m foolish for thinking this way. You’re often told as a writer that it takes courage to write ‘shocking’ material, but I don’t think that’s true. If anything, it takes courage to connect yourself to that material, to bring yourself fully to it and invite the audience along with you. I expose a lot of my personal experiences in RED X, to the point where I was asked by a few close friends ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ It just seemed natural to me that if I was going to write about these events, these issues, that I would have to situate my own self on the page so that readers knew where I was coming from. Is that courageous? Maybe it’s just me being older, and being less concerned about what people think of me than when I was younger.
The page in RED X is an interesting topic. As I discovered, the layout and design of the page is very important in several places. And the whole book in that sense is not just a novel, but an artefact. There is a physicality to it which means you probably need to hold it in your hand to fully appreciate it. When did you first know there would be that aspect to it?
That was something that was present from the moment I started the book, though I wasn’t entirely sure how it would ultimately manifest. I have always been fascinated by books as physical objects, with properties that we take for granted but that could be explored or subverted or exploded in certain ways. THE BONE MOTHER had that aspect with the archival photographs, and I wanted to expand on that.
Early on, I told both my agent and my eventual publisher that I wanted the book to look and feel like something that would draw attention in the bookstore or in an online image, but that people would feel uneasy having on their bedside table or on their bookshelf. I aimed for something that would feel like a ‘haunted object’ or a strong presence in one’s environment.
The ear is another tool Maya Angelou said was important for a writer, so they can hear the language. How important is your own ear when you write?
The ear is essential – my whole career in theatre was about developing that particular aspect of my writing, paying close attention to how people expressed themselves, how they told stories, and then learning how to capture that in my work in a way that an actor could then pick up and perform for an audience in a way that brought us all together. Once you tune into that process, once you find that voice, or these voices, this unlocks a lot of other skills.
Has RED X unlocked skills? How has writing this book prepared you for the next?
One of my goals with this book was to explore a sustained narrative over a long period (with all the research that that entails), to create a kind of intimate epic, and to work with numerous interwoven relationships, romantic and otherwise. I really wanted to try to capture the creation, growth and change of a community under a particular kind of duress. So those skills were definitely strengthened as a result of working on this book. The next book is set outside of the city and focuses on one protagonist, so that will be a big change – but there will still be some historical aspects that will require considerable research, and an intermeshing of characters and relationships past and present to again create a community in a very different kind of peril.
THE BONE MOTHER is a story tied to a specific moment in space and time. And the horror in RED X grows out of the past of Toronto. What is it that draws you to exploring history through horror?
This is a good question. Very little of my work is ever set in ‘the present day’, whatever that may be. I am always fascinated by the hidden histories of marginalized people, in contrast to the ‘official history’ – whether that is the actual recorded history that we find in books and film and TV or the intimate unwritten histories of families, communities, villages, towns. This is one of the reasons, I think, that I’m so attracted to folklore, because it is an oral narrative tradition that runs in parallel and sometimes subverts the ‘official story’ sanctioned by those in power.
As you wrote RED X, how did you balance the social and historical, the autobiographical, and the fictional? And were there moments where the boundaries in your own mind became blurry?
These aspects were all important to me, from the book’s original conception straight through. It did take some organizational effort to keep fact and fiction separate and sorted in my mind even as I was merging them on the page. I was asked by a reader recently ‘How much of this is true?’ and my first thought was ‘Oh god this is such a complicated question to answer.’ I can answer it – but it would probably take a few hours!
I was really struck by a comment you made in an interview about silence as a curse. And it made me think about how on the radio, in radio drama in particular, silence can be a very powerful way of unsettling the listener. Silence draws listeners in. What does silence mean to you both aesthetically and thematically?
Silence makes sound possible. Silence makes speech possible. Silence makes stories possible. Just as without darkness, there is no light. Without silence, without those moments where there is an absence of sound, there is no revelation. I know I sound like a 1950s European film director sitting at the edge of the cafe patio when I say this, but silences are both the birthplaces of sounds and voices and stories, places of anticipation, and also the places where the depths and complexities of character and story are encountered, places of revelation. It is one of the most powerful tools that an actor or singer or storyteller has at their disposal.
When you start writing, are you thinking more about the sounds and the textures and the rhythms of say sentences and paragraphs? Or are you thinking first about the deepest structures?
Oh God. When I start, it is definitely about the sounds the rhythms of the text. I'm looking for small structures that can be repeated and that can be twisted and transformed over a shorter period of time. I'm I usually have a central image that I'm working with as I am utilizing those kinds of tools.
But in the world of plotters and pantsers I am very much a pantser. I will start out I'll start out possibly with a title. I'll start out possibly with an ending I'll start out possibly with a character too. And I may have an arbitrary structure in mind, but nothing that represents like a plot structure.
And I'll go with that for a while. I will just basically be like, —Okay, let's try to get five to ten thousand words of this and see what that looks like. Only after I get a chunk, like a significant chunk like that, do I sit down and first go backwards and go, okay, what's wrong with it? The beginning I said, it was March, and suddenly it's May; this character's name has changed; this thing can't physically happened in this space; things like that. So I do some fixing, but then I also extrapolate. That's when that concept gets nailed down.
Then, because I'm the kind of weirdo writer I am, I sit down and I go, —Okay, I want to insert myself into this narrative. How am I going to do it? Oh there are going to be essays between each of these installments. And then I don't think about it a lot, because I'm not very smart. And apparently that sort of feels like an outline to me. And then I go to the next section and the next section replicates in a lot of ways, the first section.
When I get to the third section, I'm like, —No, we have to shake it up; people don't want to read exactly the same structure in every single chapter. Even though I'm a structuralist or a formalist in this fashion, I can rearrange things and still convey the information I want to convey. And so the third one ends up looking different from the first, and the fourth one ends up looking different from all of them. And then in the fifth one, the catastrophe happens, and then you have to just find ways to resolve what you need to resolve. I don't recommend that anyone else work this way.
I think heavily plotted stories can be really interesting. Thrillers are a great example. I just read P. J. Vernon's book BATHHAUS, and even though he tells me that he too is a pantser, it feels very heavily plotted and very carefully choreographed. And I really admire that because I am not like that. And at all. So for me, plot is not the number one thing that I am reading a book for. So it's also not the number one thing that I am writing a book for. And the, and what plot looks like to me is very different from what other people would consider to be a plot.
Similarly, I, this will be odd for some people to realize my book doesn't really have a protagonist, so to speak until really about halfway through, there is a cast of characters. There is an ensemble and things keep happening to that ensemble so that it's shifting and changing. But I wouldn't say that there is someone who takes the lead in the book until really about the halfway point or even a little later, and then carries the book through to the end. And part of that is that I wanted to give the reader the impression that anyone could go at any time – everyone was up for grabs.
But I also wanted, again, to create a portrait of a community, an ensemble of people who are all grappling with what's going on among them in somewhat different ways to the point where some relationships form other relationships break up those kinds of things occurring, within the context of this predator taking people from within this group. And so that the anxiety you feel is not about one obvious person or another, but about the situation overall. So that's where I'm at.
In the photographic plates you use in THE BONE MOTHER, each individual is essentially mute, as photographs don't speak to us. But they can be given a voice – we can fill in the silence. Do you have plans to integrate photographs into your fiction again in the future?
I was going to say ‘not in the near future’, but then I realized that for the last few weeks I have been tweeting photographs of the locations from my new book RED X under the hashtag #redxhorror. So clearly photography still has a strong personal connection to my work in some way! I do enjoy exploring the visual and physical properties of the book in my fiction writing, so even if I don’t return to photographs right away, I will always be interested in experimenting with these aspects to create new and unique experiences for the reader.
Maybe there will be a special edition of RED X with the photographs, and also interviews, or newspaper clippings. Have you thought about the possibility of an ANNOTATED RED X?
An annotated RED X would be fascinating, but also a ton of work and would possibly double the size of the book – maybe it should have an accompanying website? Also, sadly, much of the information prior to the arrival of the internet is now hard to come by. The lesbian and gay archive here in Toronto, The ArQuives, has some of this, but a lot hasn’t survived. So many queer artifacts were considered ephemeral and disposed of, which sadly is in keeping with other aspects of the story RED X tells.
In an interview with AUGUR MAGAZINE you mention the SESAME STREET story where Grover warns of ‘the monster at the end of the book’, only for the monster to be Grover himself. And you say that the monsters you write are a provocation to your personal fears. What personal fears were you provoking as you wrote RED X?
I think I was provoking several kinds of fears. The more mundane/universal fears of violence and abuse, pain, illness, death, grief, loss. And then, something that horror writers are well equipped to explore, the fear of the monster in ourselves, that we have the potential to create and commit violence and pain and suffering as well as to receive it, that we can succumb to impulses of rage and revenge and victimize others. We all have these capacities, and that is a truly frightening thing.
You are publishing RED X at a time when Canada is grappling with a lot of history. Do you feel a change going on in the way your country is dealing with its past? And what more needs to be done to give voices to the victims?
For decades, for centuries, Canada (which is the name of the colonized nation settled by force on Indigenous lands) has told lies to itself about its origins, its defining characteristics, its vision and values as a country – peaceful, collaborative, welcoming, multicultural, a force of good in the world. All of this, correctly, is now being questioned and examined as we face the travesties and atrocities that we have committed and continue to commit against the people whose lands we have stolen. White Canadians in particular harbour a tremendous resentment towards Indigenous people for resisting assimilation, for preserving and celebrating their own histories and cultures, for decrying injustice, for grieving their lost and their dead, because in doing so they remind us again and again that we are the perpetrators of those injustices, we are the thieves, we are the murderers. A growing group of Canadians are finding that they cannot continue to ignore these aspects of our past and present, that we must embrace the terrible truth of ourselves as part of achieving reconciliation. And, most difficult of all, we must create the space for Indigenous voices to rise to prominence, and we must listen to them. That, I think, is where hope lies for all of us on these lands. But it is difficult and will only be more so.
How optimistic are you about the way voices in the Toronto LGBTQ+ community are being listened to today, in 2021? And what sort of reconciliation is required for the crimes of that past?
Despite everything, the era we are in now is still the best that it has ever been for LGBTQ+ people in Canada. We still have such a long way to go, but queer and trans* voices are much more present in the national discourse than ever before, and the voices of BIPOC queer and trans* people are growing in prominence as well. As for reconciliation, the authorities that have traditionally surveilled and controlled and punished queer and trans* people for being themselves and living their lives would like to believe that a hasty unquestioned apology (or worse, expression of regret) should be enough. It’s not, of course. Queer and trans* people fight every day for fundamental changes to the governmental, legal and medical structures that dominate our lives, and that is where those changes need to take place.
Are there specific topics or ideas that you're currently researching or reading about? And are any of those things that you would like to see turn into projects?
I, like many horror writers, am drawn to the challenge of writing a haunted house novel. They are a popular and well-loved form of horror story, and yet are difficult to pull off. What fresh perspective and insight can you bring to such a well-worn trope? Anyway, I’m working on one now, and I am going to see where it takes me. Of course it has a historical component as almost all haunted-house stories do. And I expect it will have a few unusual visual and narrative flourishes as well.
Perhaps a floor plan, or multiple metamorphosing floor plans.
These things are very much top of mind for me. I have a friend who has his Masters in Architecture, and he is helping me design and devise the house and its grounds, with the understanding that there is something special about the structure and its environment that make it a conduit for the presences that inhabit it.
And so that's what I'm doing. I'm doing a haunted house book. Currently it is being told from the point of view of the haunted house. We'll see how long that sticks around. And the house that it's about is actually located on a lake in I'm going to say Northern Ontario or the Ontario Quebec border.
I'm very attracted to these liminal spaces. These things we call borders that don't really exist.
And you're scared of lakes.
I am. I can't swim. Not a fan of lakes. Absolutely not. And I had a partner once who had a cottage and he wanted to get in the little rowboat and go out to the little island where the heron was. And I said, —You understand that if I end up in the water, you will have to knock me unconscious, because you cannot get near me; I am like a blender in the water and I will take you down. And we never got in the boat. We never got in the boat.
So it's a house on a lake in the north and in the world of the book, the house has been established scientifically as being haunted. The ghosts scientifically exist and much study has gone into for half a century into why. And how and what the ghosts actually are, but the house is also the childhood home of my protagonist and the childhood summer home. And so she has returned for other reasons. And for a very long time, I don't think she's not going to be able to enter the house. I think she's just going to stay at a cottage on the other side, but the house is going to effectively be calling to her and promising answers to her questions. It's going to be interesting.
My poor agent wants me to write a normal book and this may be the closest we get. I think she somehow thinks that normal books would be easier for me to write. And in fact, that's wrong. These are the books that are easier for me to write. If I had to write something that was a traditional sort of close third person, I think I would, it would probably kill me. So I'm just going to go my weird roundabout way.
Do you find yourself being inspired as much by visual art and music as by literature?
Very much so. Film, television, theatre and dance, painting, photography, architecture, music, video games, and of course fiction and nonfiction, all of it feeds into my work one way or another. Once I have a spark of an idea, I try to pull together a kind of ‘vision board’ of related material to create a context for the idea, a web of connections, and then use that as a jumping-off point for creating the actual work.
Are you at the vision board stage with the haunted house book, yet? And could the RED X board ever see the light of day?
My architectural consultant friend and I are continually trading images of houses back and forth, pointing out different structural details and logistical requirements. So I guess that counts as kind of a vision board. I would have to construct/reconstruct the RED X inspirations, though I did briefly have a tumblr that included some of the imagery that inspired me. I wonder if I backed that up…
Which writers do you admire, stylistically?
You were very clever to add that word. Toni Morrison, Andrew Michael Hurley, Michel Faber, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Carmen Maria Machado, Junji Ito. Robert Aickman. Shirley Jackson. Samuel Delany. It’s a long list, I could probably give you thirty or forty names. But this is a good start.
That's a long list. Regarding Samuel Delany, could you talk a bit more about his influence?
He is a pioneer for queer speculative fiction writers: one of the first out queer genre writers, one of our most prominent and most celebrated Black speculative fiction writers, and one of the first to write speculative fiction about characters and relationships across the racial and sexual spectrum. Many of us working in speculative fiction today owe a great debt to him.
Many years ago he received a chapbook of my earliest queer short fiction, titled Seven Dreams, and one of the stories in it was an inspiration for his momentous novel THE MAD MAN. He didn’t have a way of contacting me at the time, so amazingly he dedicated the novel to me. I found out about this roundaboutly through a writer friend who was in contact with him, and I was floored. We have since met several times, and he has been incredibly positive and supportive of my work.
When you just want to chill out, who do you read, or what do you listen to?
One of my very favourite writers, who we lost at a young age, Laurie Colwin, I love her work. It is the antithesis of mine, the exact polar opposite, buoyant and charming and effortless with delightful characters. Her short story collection THE LONE PILGRIM, her novel HAPPY ALL THE TIME. I am very fond of Anne Tyler too, also on the far end of the spectrum from me. Her work takes a little more time for me to settle into, but once I’m there, I’m there.
Streaming services have kind of ruined music for me, now I listen to playlists instead of artists which is a shame. I’m a Tidal subscriber so the lists have names like Pop Somber, Imaginary Twin Peaks, Modern Horrors, Murder Ballads. (What did you expect?) That said, I have taken a great deal of comfort from the disco resurgence during the pandemic, so the recent works of Kylie Minogue, Rina Sawayama, Dua Lipa, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jesse Ware, Phoebe Bridgers, Little Mix, Charli XCX, anything that lends itself to dancing in my living room. SOPHIE was a revelation as a producer and performer and she will be greatly missed.
Have you made a playlist for RED X? And was there music playing as you wrote it, or thought about it?
I did at one point, though it could probably use a few adjustments. You can find the latest version on Spotify. Much of the music is from the bars and clubs and queer events and gatherings that have meant so much to me over the last forty years or so.
What are your feelings as the RED X publication date approaches? And what are your plans for after the publicity storm passes?
The month before a book comes out is the worst time, as there is little you can do other than wait for reviewers, interviewers and other writers to read it and make their thoughts known to the world.
One fun thing I got to do was record a portion of the audiobook, which I understand will be available on the same day as the physical version. It will have its own unique spin on the story and some of the visual elements the book contains. As for after the storm, that’s always a good time to rest up, catch up on my reading and then tackle the new project as time allows.