Nick Mamatas "The key to effective satire is having the clever character who sees what a sham society, the universe, whatever is get shit on by the society, universe, whatever."
Hello, Nick, and thanks for joining us. Tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
I write a lot of things—short fiction, essays, the occasional novel. I also compile anthologies, edit books, and make a nuisance of myself, though I’ve been doing less of that last these past couple of years.
Up next for you is a re-release of Move Under Ground, your 2004 novel that mashed up Kerouac and the Beats with Lovecraft’s mythos. What inspired you to write a book that intersected that particular Venn diagram?
Youthful idiocy. I was in the now defunct but still legendary St. Mark’s Bookshop in Manhattan one day in the early 2000s and saw on the remainder pile a volume of Jack Kerouac’s letters. I knew that Lovecraft’s letters had also been collected, and thought Wow, if people will even read letters by an author, some novel about that author would also be very popular. And what if I had two authors… Further my friend Joi Brozek had recently shared with me an anecdote about how someone had tried to pick her up in a bar by telling her that he was working on a novel that was “On the Road meets…surreal realism?” (Question mark his own.) And that sounded like a plot and structure to me! And I could mush two authors together and get both fans of Lovecraft and fans of the Beats to buy my book. This was my error; the only people who bought the book were fans of both Lovecraft and the Beats—a Venn diagram with a very small intersection.
Your goal with Move Under Ground was to write a book that people talked about over a decade later. Clearly that’s happening with its re-release. Can you walk us through how the re-release came about, and whether there have been any changes to the book?
Well, Move Under Ground is one of those cult novels—not a cult classic, which are widely read, but a cult novel, which means that almost nobody read it, though everyone who reads it is inspired to become a writer, or at least to get a job in publishing. And that’s what happened. Just over a year ago, Peter Lenz at Dover Publications sent me a direct message on Twitter asking to reprint the book. He’d read it years before when he was a little nerd, and then grew up to be a big nerd and got a job in publishing. Dover is mostly known for inexpensive “thrift” editions of public domain material and paper doll books and such, but had recently begun experimenting with reprinting work by living authors, and as I have a pulse I qualified.
Lovecraft looms large in your work. The Damned Highway (co-written with Brian Keene) combines Hunter S. Thompson with H.P. You have a collection of Lovecraft-themed short fiction called the Nickronomicon. Even one of your crime novels (I Am Providence) takes place at a Lovecraft convention. What is it that brings you back to him so often?
Typecasting. I should say that most of my work is not Lovecraftian. Two and a half novels are out of nine and a half, and about twenty short stories out of 120. But when I published “That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable” a Lovecraft/Raymond Carver mash-up short story that got some attention thanks to being in Lovecraft Unbound, an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, I made a tongue-in-cheek complaint about never being solicited for Lovecraftian fiction anthologies. Anyway, a bunch of editors took the hint, and the work started rolling in. Also, Jay Edidin, Datlow’s editor at Dark Horse was excited about the story and open to me pitching novels, so I figured I would like to try Lovecraft again. Brian Keene is a huge Hunter S. Thompson fan (as am I!) so that seemed like a natural, plus I only wanted to write half a book.
I Am Providence was an idea pitched to me by editor Jeremy Lassen, who wanted something like a mash-up between Bimbos of the Death Son and True Detective, the first season of which was popular at the time. So I did it, and despite it being born in someone else’s brain, I Am Providence is a very personal novel.
“Boys, almost all boys, too fat or awkward or arrogant for sports, and not actually bright enough to achieve top marks, find their ways to the darkest corners and dustiest shelves, and there Lovecraft is waiting.”
Wonder and Glory Forever is an anthology you’ve put together that will be out in November, and again, it is based around Lovecraftian fiction. How did you pitch the anthology? And how did you choose the stories?
Last year, I was laid off from my job at VIZ Media—it was a very amicable split with a nice severance package and all that—so I had some free time and needed some money. I came up with a couple of reprint anthology ideas, one of which was Wonder & Glory. (The other was a midnight movie/creature feature/Famous Monsters-style anthology of stories, if anyone out there recently tripped and fell in a supermarket and wants to use their settlement money—and their head injury—to get into publishing.)
There’ve been a million Lovecraftian anthologies, and I’ve had stories in a couple that sold well enough that I actually got royalty checks for them. I also saw a thematic gap; most Lovecraftian fiction either cultivates dread or attempts some kind of goofy humour, but the stories I tend to prefer instead mine the undercurrent of awe and the sublime in Lovecraft’s own stories. There’s a strong trend in horror fiction and cinema to identify with the monstrous as opposed to the human element; this is why horror fans tend to dress funny and have odd haircuts. I wanted the anthology to make a case for this underexplored theme, especially as it relates to the phenomenon of cult fiction—the outsider finds a community where they finally belong after being initiated by some greasy weirdo who pressed a worn, used paperback into their hands.
The pitch went around to a couple of presses and earned the usual sorrowful but definitive rejections, but when I saw that Peter Lenz had done an anthology or two for Dover, I asked if they ever accepted pitches by external editors, and he said yes, and then Dover soon snapped it up.
The stories were easy for the most part—I read a lot and was able to get 3/4ths just from depending on my own memory. I also poked around old fanzines, downloaded a couple more obscure anthologies, and hunted for similarly thematic work from prominent authors. There was one piece I just couldn’t afford to acquire, and the late author’s agent stopped responding to my pleading emails, and another piece that got entangled with Hollywood and thus I could not publish either, but for the most part Wonder and Glory is what I wanted it to be.
Under My Roof, I Am Providence, and plenty of your short fiction is satirical. Satire is hard to make work over a full novel, yet both of those books tick along perfectly. What’s the key to effective satire? How do you draw it out over a full novel?
Is satire hard to make work over a full novel? I don’t know if that’s the case, though I will say that I tend to write very short novels. Under My Roof is barely 40,000 words—in fact it was reissued as part of my short fiction collection The People’s Republic of Everything. I Am Providence was short enough that the publisher wagged a little finger at me, and so I commissioned the creation of pages from a fictional fanzine described in the book to fill up pages and thicken that spine. Readers in the US like to buy their fiction by the pound.
The key to effective satire is having the clever character who sees what a sham society/the universe/whatever is get shit on by the society/universe/whatever. Nobody likes a snotty know-it-all until they get shoved face-first into a puddle.
My co-blogger Beth would like to know what—in addition to its source material--inspired the heavy metal-tinged novel Sabbath.
Oh, Sabbath isn’t inspired at all by its source material, which is radically different. In the original graphic novel, the Presipope (half-President, half-Pope!) rules the earth from the Watican (six-sevenths Vatican, one-seventh Washington!) and then Hell’s Greatest Torturer climbs out of hell to kill the Seven Deadly Sins.
The copyright holder and his publisher, who later got a job creating movie-ready projects for Macmillan, realized that Hell’s Greatest Torturer fuelled by the wailing of the damned to kill grotesque monsters who melt people with their stomach acid and such would not make for a good movie, so they sat down and wrote a four-page treatment for a project about a knight who is brought to the current moment to kill the Seven Deadly Sins, and they hired me to write a book inspired by that treatment. And I did, though I also made many changes to that story.
My personal inspirations were hanging out in the East Village in the early 2000s with a woman with curly red hair, the films Highlander and Warlock, and the bands that used to play L’Amour in Brooklyn when I was growing up. I never owned many records, but the college radio station WSIA out on Staten Island was dominated by student metalheads in the late 1980s, so I heard a lot of music that way. The extremely goofy Manowar as probably the main musical inspiration.
Link to Sabbath Review
You’ve written a lot about the importance of short fiction, and your love for it. If you were trying to hook people unfamiliar with your work with some of your short fiction, what would you recommend?
I’d recommend my recent collection The People’s Republic of Everything, which collects the “best” (I guess!) of my last decade of short work.
In addition to your fiction, you’ve written a lot of writing advice—some at LitReactor, some collected in your book Starve Better, and elsewhere. I appreciate that your advice is never the overly reductive advice found elsewhere. You also run plenty of creative writing classes. What do you enjoy about this? What are the concepts you hope the students learn?
Ultimately, I’m a formalist, and so I have a knack for seeing structures that undergird plots and themes. I’m not a very commercial writer, but I have good commercial instincts as an editor, and so I teach as an editor. I’m very prescriptive. Cut those first three pages! Make sure your protagonist is always doing something and not just being pushed around by the universe! Learn that words have connotations as well as denotations! People almost never scream dialogue, but they may shout it. Those words are not synonymous. Stop typing BANG! when a gun goes off in your story, and stop writing sentences about eyes doing things, e.g., “His eyes hopped around the ballroom, looking for the punch bowl.” That sort of thing.
I want my students to learn that the ego is always the enemy, whether it says “I’m great!” or “I’m awful!” Many people sign up for creative writing classes out of a need to be punished. It’s bizarre. Just stay home. I also want my students to consider the possibilities that language isn’t a poor substitute for direct brain-to-brain communication, but can be deployed with sufficient dexterity that even the shortcomings of language can be used to make something more interesting. Think of a rock song that keeps the buzz of a guitar being plugged into an amp, and the squeal of feedback, to add sonic information to the song even if those sounds wouldn’t be transcribed on sheet music.
RH: As someone who’s been involved in speculative fiction from a variety of angles—editor, writer, instructor—what trends do you see likely to happen soon?
NM: I think the themes, social concerns and the peculiar mix of the quotidian and the speculative most often seen in fan-fiction will come to predominate in speculative fiction. So books will be less plot heavy and more focused on the everyday interactions between characters, the subaltern will be given voice (sometimes effectively, sometimes clumsily), and everyone will be pretty horny all the time.
And finally, what are you working on currently?
I’m currently writing a speculative thriller called The Second Shooter. It’s about mass murders and the consistent but most often false eyewitness claim of second gunmen that are quickly announced as breaking news, and just as quickly vanish from the narrative as the police build their own version of events for the media to promulgate.
Thanks for joining us!
I’m funnier without context.
Okay, you want context.
I’m a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat.
I like, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns.
I’m unconundrum on reddit.