Interview by Richard Dansky:
With A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay has catapulted himself into the front rank of American horror authors. Born in Colorado but currently residing in Boston, Tremblay teaches AP Calculus by day and then unleashes an entirely different set of horrors by night. His previous works include Swallowing A Donkey’s Eye and the short story collection In The Mean Time, both from ChiZine Publishing. Nominated twice for the Bram Stoker Award, he also serves as a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards. He was kind enough to take time out from his Guest of Honor duties at NECON to talk a little about the role of pop culture references in fiction, blogging as a framing device, and why he’s disappointed in Les Stroud, ahead of his appearance this Sunday (July 26) at 4 pm at Flyleaf Books [Facebook].
Q: First question: Do you believe in Bigfoot?
Do I believe in Bigfoot? I do not. You know, I kind of want to, but I’m kind of taking up the “no Bigfoot” position just as devil’s advocate because my ten year old daughter is so [into it]. She hasn’t watched it much in the last six to 8 months, but my daughter had a section of time where she was totally obsessed with Bigfoot. She has a Bigfoot t-shirt and loves the show [note: the reality show Finding Bigfoot, which features prominently in A Head Full of Ghosts] so I would playfully argue with her that there was no Bigfoot. “How come they don’t find any bodies” and she always responds with “well, they bury their dead”. But I have a hard time believing that there’s a Bigfoot.
Q: Just a spoiler alert here – the last few episodes of Finding Bigfoot, they have not actually found Bigfoot. I know that’s a tremendous shock.
Yes, it’s very much a shock. And I have to say, as a trash TV junkie, that I’m disappointed that Survivorman, Les Stroud, who’s a hero of mine because I can’t do anything like that, has now gone full “jump the shark” and is doing shows on Bigfoot now.
Q: And the interesting thing is that the people he’s doing it with are apparently disliked in the Bigfoot community as known hoaxers.
Are they really? That’s even more sad now. Les, what are you doing?
Q: But the reason for the Bigfoot question – and there is a reason – in A Head Full of Ghosts there are multiple references to the show Finding Bigfoot, references to River Monsters as well, and one of the framing devices is a reality TV show. The book really engages with the idea of reality TV and the way it blurs the presentation of truth. Why did you take that approach? What appealed about it?
If the ultimate goal of the novel was really to try to make it “Is she possessed? Is she not possessed?” and have that last throughout the novel, I wanted to add as many filters as possible. I think reality TV is a perfect example. It purports to be real TV when it’s clearly not. It doesn’t take much research to figure out that’s not reality at all, but it’s presented this way. That conceit – it’s “real” but we know it’s not – is to me, a wonderful filter to play with. And it was also a wonderful confluence of circumstance. I mean, these are shows that I’ve watched with my kids and we have fun watching them and we know that it’s not a real thing – mostly – but at the same time, it fit with the novel, because all these things about monsters, or things that you want to believe in – you want to believe that there’s this 800 pound fish in the river, or that there’s this giant ape essentially walking through the woods when, in the case of Bigfoot at least, there’s no credible evidence that I know of that it exists. So I thought, this is a nice little parallel to the story.
Q: Following on that without going into spoilers, one of the recurring themes in the book is the notion of the public face versus the private one, and which of those we choose to present at which time, and to whom. Do you think there’s such a thing as a “true” face to present?
I don’t know. I think it’s very hard. I mean, what is the true face? There’s politeness, there’s the sort of social compact that you have, and to me, that’s why as I writer I’m continually drawn to first person accounts. I like writing from the first person, and I like trying to build the other characters from the first person. Think of your own life – you have loved ones and friends, but without creeping yourself out too much, what you can do is to think about “How do I know them? I’m not in their head. I don’t know what they’re thinking. I only know them by their public face, or I know them by their actions or what they say. To me, that’s sort of the mystery of fiction. It lies there because you don’t really know other people.
Q: Talking about voice, all the narrative voices in A Head Full of Ghosts are female voices. There is the 23 year old narrator, there’s her 8 year old self, and there’s the blogger character. Why did you make that decision?
I don’t know if you can call it a sub-plot or a sub-theme, but I really wanted to address the history of horror, and some of its bad history – in particular, the exorcism/possession story, which on a lot of levels is very misogynistic, and I wanted to try to have a feminist or a woman’s viewpoint, and to talk about, for example, the sexualization of a 14 year old girl. Which is essentially what happens in The Exorcist and a lot of other possession movies. Just the idea of the literal patriarchy – religious white men come in and save the little girl who can’t help herself.
Q: What do you think of the sort of secularization of that kind of film, where instead of religious figures and priests instead it’s been independent filmmakers doing found footage and shakycams, and the way the genre has sort of evolved that way?
I feel there’s still that undercurrent that ultimately they’re going to bring in some religious white dude to at least try to save the day. In the case of my book, I wanted to have it so that when that happened, religion and the white priest made everything worse. The Last Exorcism, I thought, was pretty good until the ending, but it had that aspect to it. I’m trying to think of one that doesn’t have some religious figure coming in. Even something like Paranormal Activity, which I do think is a possession story ultimately, they do have someone come in to the house briefly to attempt contact, and then he flees. Which I thought was a good touch on their part. They didn’t have any attempt at exorcism, the guy was like “Eh, screw this, I’m out of here.”
Q: Speaking of the patriarchy, the father figure…
Q: He was laid off from a toy factory. This is something you’re familiar with.
My dad worked at Parker Brothers for 25 years and I worked there summers for high school and college.
Q: So what is the dark, hidden evil behind the toy industry?
One anecdote that’s humorous – I don’t know if my father was actually pulling my leg. I haven’t asked him, and maybe he doesn’t remember telling the story – They made Ouija boards at Parker Brothers. When I was a small child I remember being terrified, because we messed around with them and asked “Are you a good spirit?” It spelled out “At times”, and I couldn’t sleep for, like, two days. That sort of lost its luster as I got older and I watched them mass-produce Ouija boards. But my father told a story. At the end of his tenure he was working in the mail room, and he said there was a homeless woman who showed up with a really tattered Ouija board and she said, “I keep trying to throw this away and it keeps coming back. It has to be destroyed at the place where it was created!”
Q: So did they destroy it for her?
You know, I don’t remember the end of that story. I just remember that part of it. I’m pretty sure he was just pulling my leg. But my experience at Parker Brothers was that it was a formative experience for me, at least politically and personally. When I was there, you know it’s weird to think about a factory as a community, but everybody there knew each other. It was like this weird family vibe. So the managers were paid a lot of money but were friends with the people who worked on the assembly lines, and they would go out and play softball and baseball later. I was really blown away with how everybody really did know everybody. It was a factory, but maybe a couple of hundred workers, so there was that personal level of relationships and I’ll never get over [it]. They called us all to the lunchroom – summer help, regular people, people who’d been there 25 years – they called us in the lunchroom and said “Hey, Hasbro bought us out. We’re closing the factory in two months and you’re all going to be out of a job.” I just remember that I couldn’t believe that I was finding out – me, the shlubby summer worker – I couldn’t believe that I was finding out at the same time as my dad, who’d been there 25 years. To me, that was my introduction to what the corporate world really is. That scarred me, and I’ll never forget. I’ve actually used that in another story as well. It comes up in “The Harlequin & the Train”, which was a really small print run novella, but that’s always there, definitely.
Q: Blogging’s a really important device in A Head Full of Ghosts. It lets the reader step away from the immediacy of the moment and the real emotional intensity of the action, and it provides another, possibly more objective perspective. What’s your personal experience with blogging, and how does that inform your writing?
I used to blog a lot more before Facebook. When I first started writing I was on LiveJournal, which was a blog essentially, so I used to do that all the time. But now that I have Facebook it’s almost like microblogging with the posts. I read a lot of blogs, and the idea of instantaneous reaction to information is something that really interests me. And there’s the idea of Information Age versus Disinformation Age. How can people find out what’s real and what’s not real, what’s true and what’s not true when there’s just so much information out there on the Internet. How do you figure out what’s what. So that’s something that’s a concern-slash-fear of mine, that I’m very interested in. In terms of actually writing the novel, I knew I was going to use a lot of stuff that happened in The Exorcist and other movies, and I wanted the reader to know that, yes, I realize I’m doing this. So I thought a blogger was a great way to be somewhat objective, but also on the flip side, to muddy everything up. When something happens in the story, the reader might think, oh, that’s definitely a supernatural thing. But then the blogger comes in and explains how it could be not supernatural. So the blogger plays a couple of different roles for me in that way.
Q: You’re clearly concerned with these cutting edge questions of information and technology, but at the same time you’re going back to what is maybe the oldest trope in horror fiction. How do you reconcile those two? What’s the interest there?
You know, that’s funny. I didn’t necessarily think of it having to do with the old, well, I guess that’s not true. I mean, I feel like that exorcism trope is one of the few that hasn’t been updated literary-wise, in the form of a book. Even when I had the idea for the story, I was thinking, there’s been a lot of sort of literary updates of the zombie. Vampires are always around, and there’s been a slew of werewolf novels, but within the last ten years no one’s done [a possession novel], with the exception of a couple of really fine books like Sarah Gran’s Come Closer and Daryl Gregory’s Pandemonium. Those are the only two books within the last ten years that have tried to retell a possession tale.
So I was thinking “How would I do that now? What would a possession tale look like now?” And to me, The Exorcist and everything that came after it were just so looming. I couldn’t ignore it so I decided to go the other way and just roll around in it, and try to tweak it with pop culture and the culture that we live in now.
Q: The book is loaded with pop culture references. Is deliberate homage just something that crept into the voice, and why those particular references?
I’m a pop culture geek and I love pop culture references. I’m usually talking in half Simpsons references half of the time. But at the same time, I know it can be annoying to have a flood of pop culture references. I knew if I wanted to use them, they had to somehow be part of the story, they had to play a role other than “isn’t it cool that I know this?” Like Junot Diaz in his The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he does an amazing job with his pop references and having those be an integral part of the story. They fit the theme. There’s emotional impact to them. So I really wanted my pop culture references not only to point out, hey, this is what’s happening in the book, but also to ask why these references are important to us, why do we keep going back to them, why do we want to talk about them? And what does it say about me that I feel I have to make those references? How does that inform my self-worth in a weird way? And also to go into the whole thing of trying to make everything muddied. “This looks like this”- well, if this looks like this, could it be real or could it be supernatural, or could the pop culture reference be something that actually is supernatural. I wanted at that point to add so much information it would dizzy the reader a little. Hopefully not annoy the reader, but…
Q: I think with this audience it’s more likely they’re nodding along going “Yes, yes, yes”, because like you said, this is a foundational text of that sort of understanding for the people who enjoy that trope. People would pick it up and go along with it. At least, that was my response to it.
Yeah, especially people who know the references. I know they’d be reading like “Ah, this is this”. But then two pages later, the blogger is telling you “yes, this is from this movie”. I thought horror fans will definitely be into that. And hopefully people who aren’t necessarily steeped in horror and exorcism lore, for lack of a better term, would still experience a similar effect. “Oh wow, this is here, and then I have all this information. It’s sort of a little bit overwhelming.”
Q: Last question: How often do you get asked “Was it real?”
I get asked pretty often, some form of “was it real” or “what actually happened in the end.” I ran into one person here who really wanted to know and he was trying to corner me. I mean, I have my own two-bit opinion on what happened, but I wouldn’t dream of saying “This is the definitive thing”. I really did – no spoiler – try my best to make it so that if you wanted to think it was supernatural, there’s evidence there for you, and if you want to think it was totally rational and there was nothing supernatural happening, there’s plenty of evidence there for that as well.
Q: So you’re not going to go all Ridley Scott and come back in 20 years to say “No, no, she was a replicant”?
No, no, I don’t think so – unless they give me a big check. [laughs]
Q: Thank you so much for your time, and I’ll see you in Chapel Hill.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Durham author and videogame writer Richard Dansky is the Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft/Red Storm, with his most recent title being Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. He has published six novels, most recently Vaporware from JournalStone, and the short story collection Snowbird Gothic. Among his upcoming projects is developing the 20th Anniversary Edition of the legendary tabletop RPG Wraith: The Oblivion, from Onyx Path. He heartily encourages people to do terrible things to his book at http://pdtttmb.tumblr.com.