We Push Up Against Change and Resist It, Sometimes Violently So: An Interview with Peter Grandbois

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I was very excited to interview author Peter Grandbois. Grandbois, who has authored six books, did not disappoint with his compelling and thought-provoking insights. His novel, The Gravedigger, was picked for the “Discover Great New Writers” program by Barnes & Noble. His hybrid memoir, The Arsenic Lobster, has also received high acclaim. More recently, Grandbois has completed six novellas. Collected into three books from Wordcraft of Oregon, LLC, each is called “a double monster feature.”  I gravitated toward his writing because I, too, delve into the strange and paranormal in my writing. Grandbois writes about strange and fascinating monsters that exist in the drudgery of everyday life, and I was fascinated to find out where these monsters came from.

Peter Grandbois’ first novel, The Gravedigger, is currently in pre-production as a major motion picture. His second novel, Nahoonkara, was ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year Award winner in literary fiction for 2011. He is also the author of a collection of surreal short fictions, Domestic Disturbances, currently a finalist for ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year Awards. His plays have been produced in St. Louis, Columbus, and on 42nd St. in New York. He is a professor of creative writing at Dennison University in Ohio.

Usually, when I read successful fiction about the paranormal, the author has worked hard to create a separate world where the bizarre is the norm. What struck me, while reading all three of your “double monster features,” is how your writing so easily convinced me that monsters could exist in our reality. For a few moments, I forgot that there isn’t a giant carrot or lagoon monster acting in Hollywood, or that there’s not a Glob monster in Ohio, working a mundane job in a cubicle. Where did the inspiration for these monsters come from?

I’m so happy to hear you fell into the fictional dream because, of course, that’s the goal of any writer—to make even the most bizarre and improbable events feel real. In this case, the blending of the mundane and the horrific, the malaise of suburbia with the fantastic is part of what I think of as domestic fabulism, a term I first read about in an article at Electric Literature.

The opening to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is the best known example. Gregor Samsa wakes up as an insect, but that’s not his first concern. He’s more worried about whether he’ll be late for work. Kafka is a huge influence and always in the back of my mind when I write.

As to the second part of your question, I take it to mean what’s behind the monster mask, or in other words, what drives these monsters? My answer would be that they are like any other literary character in that they are driven by their own yearning and fear. In the case of my monsters, it’s probably fear more than anything else that makes them monstrous … fear that they are not good enough, fear that they will never be the person they once were, fear that their children will end up like them (i.e. monsters), fear that the life they are living is not authentic. They are, after all, products of the Hollywood dream machine, and so the prospect of settling into a banal, suburban existence as many of my monsters have, can be quite frightening.

In your acknowledgments, you state that Wait Your Turn was inspired by the Clayton Brother’s painting “Six Foot Eleven.” You also acknowledge that “The Girl on the Swing” and “At Night in Crumbling Voices” was inspired by the 1950s films The Quatermass Experiment and The Mole People, respectively. The carrot actor, Jim, from The Secret Lives of Actors seems to be a monster version of Norma Desmond. Are there any other classic or modern movies that have influenced your work?

Actually all of the six novellas in the three “double monster features” are inspired by monster movies of the 1950s. Why the 1950s? Well, they had great monsters back then. Strange ones. Monsters that could only exist in the cold war fear of the Fifties.

For some reason there are very few monster movies and/or stories with monsters anymore. Our monsters have become serial killers and psychopaths, which, for me, are not nearly as interesting. Monsters, true monsters, in the sense of things that are “other,” these kinds of monsters are really manifestations of all that we’ve repressed or hidden, and by “we” I mean each of us personally but also our culture as a whole. Writing about real monsters allows me to play around with those things society wants to keep hidden.

That’s not to say these are political novellas. They are not. But they do deal with repressed desires, things that society deems monstrous. The novellas play with the notion of what is monstrous, what makes us monsters until by the third “double feature” the question of who or what is the monster really gets complicated.

Who and/or what else influences your work?

I read incessantly. I read all the time. I read lots of contemporary lit, particularly work outside of the U.S. I read classics. As a creative writing teacher, I read lots and lots of student stories. As an editor at Boulevard, I read tons of short stories from writers around the U.S., and it all influences my work. I even dedicated one of my previous collections to my students because I felt so many of the stories were in some way in conversation with things they were attempting.

However, I’m most influenced by the great Latin American writers, such as: José Donoso, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, and Clarice Lispector. For many years now Japanese writers have obsessed me, writers like Kobo Abe, Uchida Hyakken, Yoko Tawada, and, of course Haruki Murakami, and also so many great Eastern European writers like Magdalena Tulli or recently a novel by Ismet Prcic. There are many Americans, of course, too, like Laird Hunt and Brian Evenson, but the one who stands out most is Steven Millhauser. To me, he’s the greatest living American writer, and I’ve learned a lot from him.

Speaking of influences, your writing has been compared to the writing styles of Gabriel García Márquez, Ray Bradbury, and Kafka. What’s it like to be compared to such great authors?

It’s always wonderful and also a bit frightening when a critic compares you to a great name. I remember when my first novel, The Gravedigger, came out and many reviewers cited Gabriel García Márquez, I thought, Oh God, how is the novel ever going to stand up to that comparison. So, it’s a blessing and a curse.

That said, the comparison to Ray Bradbury really surprised and pleased me. I’d never thought about his influence, but as a teenager I read everything Bradbury wrote. Growing up, he was probably the most important writer to me, so of course, it makes sense. Recently, the monster novellas have been compared to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Brian Evenson, and Neil Gaiman, all of whom are flattering to be compared with, and two of whom have been big influences. I’ve never actually read Neil Gaiman, so I guess I better start.

In Wait Your Turn, the lagoon monster states, “[Monsters] run howling from [fire]. It may be the only thing the movies get right.” There are many disconnects between who your monstrous characters are versus what society puts upon them. Do you believe your characters ever have a chance to redeem themselves, or are there paths set in stone? Is there anything innately monstrous inside, or do your characters choose their own way?

One of the themes that runs through all my work is the shifting nature of identity and the ways in which that identity is circumscribed by ourselves, our loved ones, and the larger culture around us, and I think the monsters are no exception. Each monster is desperately trying to both escape himself and the fears that limit his actions and escape the ways in which society’s definition of him as a monster confines him and prevents him from becoming what he most desires and/or fears.

My novella, The Secret Lives of Actors, is a great example in that the main character, The Thing, is essentially a walking carrot. He can’t feel in large part because he’s accepted the definition thrown upon him by the culture at large that he is a monster incapable of feeling, and he rails and rages against that. In contrast, in The Stability of Large Systems, the Fly character, Andre Delambre, can’t escape the self-imposed limits on his identity that arise out of the scientific and philosophical theories that define his life.

I’d like to think these monsters have a chance at redemption, and the truth is a few of them make it, even if in limited ways. But most don’t. Just like the rest of us. The lie of narrative realism of the last hundred years is the epiphany at the end of every story and the fact that a character has to go through a change. This says more about our Christian roots and the American meta-narrative of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps than anything else. In America, so the line goes, if you work hard, you will progress, you will change. Of course, we all know that in real life most of us never change. We push up against change and resist it, sometimes violently so. That’s what it means to be a monster.

Although short in length, your novellas feel appropriately paced, and left me satisfied. These six novellas are collected in three books, each book called “a double monster feature.” What made you decide on this format?

The format was entirely the idea of the publisher, David Memmott, at Wordcraft of Oregon, or at least he had the idea of publishing them in pairs. I can’t remember who came up with the idea of the “monster double feature.” I think it was me, but I could be wrong! We were talking, and early on it became clear that in the production design we wanted to capitalize on the camp of those Fifties movie posters. You know: “It creeps! It crawls! It kills!” So, that became the aesthetic for the cover design, and I think at some point, I simply suggested that we should conceive of them as double features to continue that notion of camp and to perhaps suggest that reading them was like going to the drive-in. The fact that a review in Lit Reactor picked up on the drive-in concept was fantastic. I should say that originally I wrote five novellas and so At Night in Crumbling Voices was originally going to be published on its own since it was the longest, but then late in the game I had an idea for the novella which became The Girl on the Swing. I told David Memmott about it, and he said go for it! I’m glad he gave me the okay because that novella is my favorite.

Do you approach novella writing in any different way than with other writing?

Not really. I do have a sense of the length, what I can do in fifty to eighty pages and that does affect the way I conceive of the story, I think. Novellas are really wonderful in that they allow for the kind of world creation you see in novels but without the multiple plot lines of a novel. In that way, they combine the tightness of the short story with the depth of the novel. I really think novellas are the purest form.

I once saw a lecture by Tobias Wolff in which he argued that part of the definition of the novel was that it was something of three hundred or so pages with something wrong with it. He went on to say that the only perfect stories he’s read are novellas. I tend to agree with him. I dare anyone to find something wrong with Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, or Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, or Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, or Brian Evenson’s The Brotherhood of Mutilation, or Leena Krohn’s Tainaron: Mail from Another City, or practically any novella of Steven Millhauser’s, but particularly, The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne. These are perfect works of art, and they are all novellas.

In The Glob Who Girdled Granville, the narrator states, “what we fear to mention even to each other is the kind of courage it takes to stay and change our habits. To stay and risk everything.” As an adjunct English professor, I find myself falling into the habit of grading essays while neglecting my writing. Any insights into how one drums up the courage to change these habits, much as the Gregory Globs tried to do?

I wish I did. Part of the point of that novella is that we all fail to change our habits. Once again, those habits are part of the ways in which we write the narrative of who we are, of what we are capable. My own narrative, for example, is that I am a dedicated father and teacher, which then creates the “habits” of giving everything I can to my children and my students. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for writing. I think it was Beckett who said something like “Life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals.” Our habits make up who we are. They become the prison that cages us.

How do you balance your own writing with the demands and distractions of life?

This is the central question of my life, and the answer is always changing. Sometimes I balance writing and life well. Other times not. Most of the time I feel the writing gets sacrificed for the reasons I mentioned above. I used to fight this, but I’ve come to accept it. I’ve come to learn that my writing is fueled by the tension, the dissonance between my life and my art.

I try to write for a couple hours in the mornings. The operative word is “try.” It often doesn’t work out. But somehow, as my wife reminds me when I complain, I’ve still managed to be relatively prolific. The Girl on the Swing will be my seventh published book, and I’ve got two more as yet unpublished works.

I could see one or more of your novellas translated to the big screen. Who would you want to star in these movies?

Always an interesting question and a hard one for me since I so rarely watch movies and never see television (another way I balance writing and life). So, I better leave this one to others, particularly as my goal is and has always been to write books that can’t possibly be made into movies. It’s not that I don’t like movies (I say this as someone whose first novel is currently in preproduction as a movie in Mexico). Movies do some things really well, like plot and spectacle.

But I believe the best books open other worlds for us, worlds movies can’t possibly tap into. The alchemy of language and point of view that grants us access to layers of consciousness—movies can only dream of these things. For that reason, I don’t believe in the death knoll of books everyone keeps sounding. I think books will always be with us. They may take on a slightly different form. We may have to plug a jack into our brain and have the book downloaded directly, but it will still be given to us in terms of language. We need language. We need that access to the consciousness of another that only books can give us.

That said, I think Philip Seymour Hoffman would have made a great Glob.

Some of these stories are comically tragic, while others, like The Girl on the Swing, become unnervingly terrifying. When you wrote these novellas, did you have a tone for each in mind before you started work, or did the humor, tragedy, and horror develop organically as you wrote?

Great question! In general, the tone emerged as the story emerged. In each case, I found myself pleasantly surprised, and I think you are so right to point out the variety in tone. The first “monster double feature” (Wait Your Turn) seems to include a healthy dose of horror and camp, but with an emphasis on the horror. The second double feature (The Glob Who Girdled Granville) places more emphasis on the camp, while the final double feature as you rightly point out moves into darker terrain. I never set out to write a comic story or a serious one … the stories revealed themselves as they evolved, so as Andre Delambre (the Fly) is writing his journal entries, the dark tone and desperation quickly became clear, while the ludicrousness of the Thing’s situation, particularly when his rival arrives in the form of John Carpenter’s Thing from the 1982 remake, seemed so obvious I couldn’t resist. If anyone wants a sense for what most of the novellas are like, I might suggest watching The Evil Dead II. That mix of horror and camp captures it, I think

I’ve got to ask: Who are your own monsters?

It seems like there are a couple ways to take this question. One is who are my favorite monsters and there you definitely have to go back to The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Fly, both of whom really influenced me as a child. I loved monster movies as a child, just as I loved Halloween and all things scary. The Werewolf is also a favorite and reminds me I should probably try a werewolf story soon … and then there’s the alien from Ridley Scott’s Alien, something so different from our known world that it terrifies … and of course, that’s another definition of the monstrous, those things that are beyond are knowing, beyond what we can control. John Carpenter’s The Thing is also a favorite because it gets to that issue of identity and how we can really know anyone.

I think in a roundabout way I also answered the other connotation of this question, which is what things are we afraid of, what things make us monstrous … lack of control over our world, the shifting nature of our own identities, the inability to really know others … these are the things that really scare me. It’s interesting that all my examples are from old movies.

The fact is that very very few books deal with monsters … sure, in popular culture we have an endless supply of vampires and zombies, mostly though these monsters have been processed and manufactured to the point where they’ve become so cliché it’s difficult to say anything new with them—zombies as metaphor for the empty consumer feasting on the very brains of the Hollywood industrial complex that has entertained them to death. In terms of literature, a few monster novels come to mind that are all time favorites: Jose Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night and John Gardner’s Grendel. And then more recently, there’s Cold Skin by Alberto Sanchez Piñol, Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones, and, of course, House of Leaves by Danielewski. Love them all!

And finally, what projects are you currently working on?

My current project is a sequel to my first memoir, The Arsenic Lobster. This new memoir details my return to fencing twenty years after leaving the sport and uses that as a lens to examine what it means to grow old in America, a place that worships youth. I also have plans to adapt two of the monster novellas to plays—perhaps even making one of them (At Night In Crumbling Voices) a musical! And during the course of this interview I’ve been inspired to write that werewolf story and another story involving a rat that lives in a man’s back.

***

Cameron Contois teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is an MFA candidate in Fiction.

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