Tonight (Thursday, June 18) at 6:30 pm, Downtown Durham’s 106 Main hosts the city’s second Noir at the Bar event, with eight authors of dark fiction from across North Carolina holding court over drinks to talk about their work, including Durham’s Eryk Pruitt (Dirtbags, Hashtag) and Chapel Hill’s Jeremy Hawkins (The Last Days of Video), as well as Asheville’s Nathan Ballingrud who took the time for an email interview ahead of tonight’s event. Ballingrud is the author of the award-winning 2013 collection North American Lake Monsters (Small Beer Press) and the recently-released novella The Visible Filth (This Is Horror). Listening to Ballingrud read his story “The Good Husband” from North American Lake Monsters at Quail Ridge Books a couple years back, I could feel my chest tightening, my breath straining, my stomach clenching. He infuses his work with such realism and dread, an unease born of infidelity, weakness and inadequacy, of irrevocable violence, of disconnect, of inevitable mistakes, of decay. Whether grounded in the everyday dirt of reality or, as he does as well as anyone I’ve read ever has, on that rusted knife’s edge between our reality and another which lurks, ever-present even if not mentioned directly, under the surface, just out of your peripheral vision, or even in your own mind. The Visible Filth combines elements of crime fiction and The Weird, with nods to books like Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow and films like Koji Suzuki’s The Ring, as bartender Will deals with the aftermath of a fight and a misplaced cell phone. I’m looking forward to catching up with Nathan, Eryk, and Jeremy, and meeting the rest of the fantastic lineup that Eryk has put together for this one. See you there!
Q: What are some of the essential differences to you when writing horror v. dark fantasy v. weird v. crime fiction, other than, say, “in some of them there are some possibly supernatural bits”?
I’ve never set out to write crime fiction, so I’m not sure I can answer that. I even like to keep descriptors like “weird” and “horror” out of my mind when I write. I like to keep my own mental field as uncluttered by genre expectation as I can. As far as differences go, crime fiction seems to me to be more about the condition of our society. When I think of the novels of Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, Patricia Highsmith, John D. MacDonald, and others, the focus is either on transgressions against the social order, or they’re interrogations of that order. Horror fiction — if you’re going to set aside the supernatural for the purposes of this question — seems more focused on personal transgression, whether that’s spiritual or physical. Now, that’s a simplistic answer to a question which deserves several thousand words devoted to it, and I’m not sure I won’t change my mind about it as I think about it further.
Q: Tending bar is one of the staple occupations of crime and other dark fiction. Particularly a dive bar. How do you make these elements more than “genre markers”, keep them interesting and not just variations on a theme?
In my case, I just ignore its role as a genre marker and draw from personal experience. I was a bartender for several years, and I loved the job. I could fill a book with bartender stories. When you draw from your own life, it’s easier to avoid cliche. The protagonist of The Visible Filth is not me, of course, and the other characters are entirely fictional. But the energy of the place is drawn from my experience. And so are the cockroaches.
Q: You took a turn as audiobook narrator on The Visible Filth, and I thought you did a fantastic job conveying the sense of inevitable consequences, a rising weird unease through physical description of facts, detached yet not indifferent. How was that experience of recording your own work, alone, for you? What equipment did you use?
I really enjoyed it. I was surprised by how long the finished product was, and I’m indebted to Michael Wilson at This Is Horror for doing an outstanding job editing my very rough cut into something coherent and clean. I used a very affordable piece of equipment called the Snowball, from Blue Microphones, and recorded into GarageBand on my Mac. Very simple. I’ve harbored a secret ambition to write and record an internet radio drama for a long time, and this experience only stoked that particular fire.
Q: Do you listen to audiobooks, or any of the fiction or storytelling podcasts? Any favorites?
I don’t. I’m such a book fetishist; I’m not happy unless I’m reading the story from a printed page. I don’t even like ebooks. I listen to podcasts all the time, but I have to get my fiction from an actual book. I’m a dinosaur, I know. But I’m a happy dinosaur.
Q: You’re teaching at Shared Worlds again this summer at Wofford College. What do you hope your students can learn from you?
Teaching at Shared Worlds is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. The students are teenagers, many of them turning their hands to fiction for the first time, so my primary focus is to foster the joy that both reading and writing deliver. I’m not there to pound rules into their heads so much as I’m there to help them get excited about writing. Writing is a key out of so many cages, and I’ve never met the teenager who didn’t feel like they weren’t stuck in one kind of cage or another. It’s part of what being a teenager is all about. To see them get a sense of the possibilities it affords them, and a sense of their own power, is a true privilege.
Q: Have you ever been to a “Noir at the Bar” event before? Any idea what to expect?
Never! I’m looking forward to it, and I hope it’s the first of many. I’m expecting brawls, of course.
Q: What’s coming out next for you? What are you working on?
I have another collection nearly assembled, and I’m working on a novel. And maybe one day I’ll get that internet radio play in the works. So no official announcements just yet, but soon!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nathan Ballingrud is an American writer of horror and dark fantasy. His first book, the short story collection North American Lake Monsters, was published in 2013 by Small Beer Press to great acclaim, including winning the Shirley Jackson Award and being shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Bram Stoker awards. He lives in Asheville, NC, with his daughter.