Find out which superpower author Nick Mamatas wishes he had, and whether or not he’s ever eaten a cockroach in our interview below.
Nick has a new short story out in the flagship issue for flash mag Brain Harvest: read “Patmos Like Pink Elephants” here.
If you’re hip with the genre, you’ve already heard of Nick Mamatas. He’s an essayist, novelist, blogger, and short story writer extraordinaire. He’s a genius charmer with an acerbic wit, a fast-talking tour guide of the Museé Mechanique, and a former Term Paper Artist. If it’s weird–and has anything to do with H. P. Lovecraft–Nick knows about it. Join Genre Chick Alethea Kontis as she shares karethopita and a mati with her fellow patrioti.
Alethea Kontis: The title of your collection is You Might Sleep… what’s the rest?
Nick Mamatas: “…but you’ll never dream!” Like all proper book titles, it is a line from a song by The Smiths, specifically “Suffer Little Children,” about the Moors murders. I suppose I liked the idea of the events in these stories happening while people sleep, figuratively (or literally I guess), and remain unaware of what’s going on around them.
AK: What appeals to you about the short story format?
NM: People talk about the death of the short story, but I think that the short story is everywhere. Every 30-minute sitcom is a short story, every anecdote we tell our friends is a short story, all the bits of novels we actually remember and think of warmly are short stories embedded in a larger narrative.
For dark fiction, the short story is also a handy “delivery system”–who’d want to read a whole novel of nothing but distressing events and circumstances, anyway? (This is why most horror novels are actually just mysteries or suspense novels–or even domestic melodramas–with horrific interludes anyway.) Poe’s old idea of representing a completed action in a story, in something that can be read in a single sitting, is important.
AK: They say “Write what you know”–have you ever eaten a cockroach or a broken thermometer?
NM: For the former, probably. I grew up in Brooklyn after all, in the 1970s and 1980s. Roaches were everywhere. Years later I lived in Jersey City and owned a home with a spare apartment, which I rented to a friend of mine and his Canadian wife. Once, at 1 a.m., she started frantically banging on the door to my apartment. It was obviously an emergency so I answered it, and she said, “Nick, I was upstairs in my kitchen and saw a roach!” I just laughed and closed the door.
AK: What fascinates you about morally reprehensible characters?
NM: I wouldn’t say I’m fascinated by them–they do make for interesting stories, since their motivations are generally the same as everyone else: they want love, security, and to feel as though they are a part of something greater than themselves. But they just go about achieving their goals in a very different way. And, of course, there is the issue of history. The Holocaust is probably considered one of the most reprehensible acts in history, and it clearly is one. However, it is so obviously evil because it ultimately failed–Hitler was defeated, Judaism and European Jewry weren’t totally wiped out. Were it successful, it would just be a footnote in history along the lines of American Manifest Destiny or something. People shrug off the genocides of the Western hemisphere because they were successful! So the horrifying becomes normalized when the social trespass becomes a social foundation. That’s the really interesting thing, I believe.
AK: What are the challenges of putting yourself as the main character in a story? Where does the line fall between fiction and fact?
NM: In “Real People Slash,” which is a mash-up of sort of indie/punk memoir-confessional (popular in some circles in the 1990s) and H.P. Lovecraft, there is only one false fact. As a joke I’d say that in the real events, there were two friends of mine both named Roy, and I changed the name of one of them to keep the reader from becoming confused. All the other stuff, about every other human being on the planet being replaced by alien fungi, necessitating my move in 2005 to Vermont where I’d find a dimensional rift, that’s true.
But of course, as an alien fungus in the shape of an Ingram employee, you know that already.
AK: When you look at people, what do you see?
NM: Alien fungi! Well, I suppose it depends on the person, really. I suppose I notice if they smile or not first. People should smile more.
AK: Are you, or have you ever known, a seventh son of a seventh son?
NM: Neither, but I do know a seventh son. For whatever reason he decided against repeatedly impregnating his wife until he ended up with seven sons. I guess he didn’t want 14 or 18 kids for some reason, despite all the magic powers a seventh son of a seventh son gets. Of course, in the novella in You Might Sleep…, a seventh son of a seventh son only has one supernatural ability: he can kill whomever he wishes just by looking at them. But I’m sure that can be handy. Especially if one lives in New York and there are roaches everywhere.
AK: Are you superstitious?
NM: No, and by no I mean yes. We’re all creatures of habit to a certain extent and human beings are natural pattern-makers, not natural scientists. So superstitions do emerge. I don’t take them seriously, but I suppose that like many people I make wishes when I see a digital clock reading 11:11.
AK: NPR blasted you in a recent interview over your former career as a “Term Paper Artist.” What was the response to that?
NM: I don’t listen to much NPR, so I was surprised to find out, the hard way, that like Rush Limbaugh et al., they bring guests on their radio programs and then edit out 24 minutes of a 30-minute interview. Your tax dollars at work, folks. At any rate, the best way to deal with the problem of model term papers is actually to eliminate grades. College students are presumably adults and thus should be motivated to learn for their own sake, or at least for the sake of competence and skill-training.
If they’re not interested, they shouldn’t be in college, soaking up resources. A few professors have complained that they spend a lot of time in their history classes and such teaching their students how to write a decent term paper. Well then, why are those students in school? The obvious answer is that they are being rooked out of tuition money. The university system has nobody to blame but itself for shoving students by the hundreds into lecture halls, handing over the teaching to young assistants, soaking up $100,000+ per student over four years, and then practicing grade inflation to give everyone A’s and B’s for doing nothing. But if professors complained about that, their own paychecks might be at risk.
AK: What are you working on now?
NM: More stories. I do have a novel running around New York as well, but in the past three weeks I’ve written three short stories. I’ve definitely decided that instead of trying to write long stories I don’t like (novels), I’ll stick with writing short stories I do like.
I am co-writing a novel about a Hunter S. Thompson-like figure in Lovecraft’s New England though, and with Ellen Datlow, I’m co-editing an anthology of regional ghost stories called Haunted Legends. That book will be released by Tor Books in 2010, and features work by Joe Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, and great new writers like Carrie Laben and Lily Hoang.
AK: If you could be any superhero, who would it be and why?
NM: Not a specific superhero, but I always wanted the power of teleportation. Probably because I cannot drive. I also think international politics would go much more smoothly if I could appear behind a head of state and smack him or her in the back of the head during a press conference, and then vanish again.