An Interview with Paul Tremblay

Conducted By: Emily Ball, Duncan Brown, Hailey Fragoso.

Paul Tremblay is primarily a horror author, with roots in detective stories as well. His career has garnered praise from other horror writers such as Stephen King, and he has won the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and Massachusetts Book awards. Tremblay went to undergrad at Providence College, and completed his Masters in Mathematics at the University of Vermont. He has since gone on to work as a high school math teacher in Massachusetts, while also working as a writer. His first short story was published in 2000, and he now has eight novels to his name, his most recent being ​Survivor Song.​

Interviewers: What kind of writer were you in college? Did you have an inkling in college that you’d become a successful writer?

PT: I wasn’t any kind of writer in college. I wish I had started then! At PC I ended up a Mathematics and Humanities double major for odd not-all-that-exciting reasons. The Humanities major consisted of a random mix of philosophy and history classes, with one English class. I took Lit 101 (or the modern-day equivalent) my second semester of senior year. Despite it being at 8 am (and I missed a few classes as graduation approached, sorry), it was a life-changing class for me. I really connected with Professor McLaughlin, who like me, was a big fan of punk music. But even in that class, we didn’t do any creative writing and I had zero inkling that I’d ever be a writer. I wanted to be a punk guitarist. I did, however, read a story in that class that helped turn me in a passionate, lifelong reader: “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates. I still remember the paper I wrote, comparing the use of violence in that story (and in “Greasy Lake” by TC Boyle) to a Jane’s Addiction song, “Ted Just Admit It.”

I: People see STEM and writing as two separate subject areas, but you walk the line between both of them. Has your experience studying Mathematics at Providence College and teaching math to students contributed to your writing in any way?

PT: While I’m certain my mathematics experience informs my writing because it informs who I am, who I became, I have a difficult time pinpointing or describing what ways the experience manifests in my writing. Because I was never a trained writer (never took any classes, never studied it in a formal setting; I was a member of a very informal writer’s group for a few years, but, honestly, it was an excuse for six of us who were friends already to meet at Trinity Brewhouse in Providence once a month and talk about our stories), I had to figure out the way that works for me on my own. That is not to say I haven’t had help along the way from many editors and writers. I am in the debt of many.

Anyway! I do think I approach writing in perhaps a more analytical manner than most. I am not a writer who can just spew out a quick, rough first draft (I wish I could). I write in small increments. I aim for 300-500 new words a day. The next day I begin by editing and tweaking what I wrote in the days before. If it’s a novel, I usually go back to the beginning of the chapter and then edit and add. I creep my way forward that way. I do no skip ahead to write future scenes. I write the book or story in the order in which I think things will happen (if that makes sense). By the time I have a full draft, I’ve already edited and re-edited most of the manuscript. Of course, I edit it again when I’m done with a draft. Maybe all of that is mathy in some way? I’m not sure.

There are more than a few of us math/writers out there. And there are plenty of science fiction writers with STEM backgrounds.

I enjoy teaching, generally. For my writing I find it’s a great daily lesson in character and voice. I’ve stolen slang from my classes and used it in two novels at least. Muhahahahaha

I: Your novel Survivor Song was published during this global pandemic and the subject is about how Rams and Natalie, specifically, experience this terrible, almost apocalyptic virus that forces the population to go into lockdown. Is this plotline a dramatization of the current situation? How does this storyline reflect your experience with the current pandemic, if at all? Did you use writing to cope with the pandemic? Did you begin writing this novel before the pandemic?

PT: I did not write the novel during the pandemic. It was published in July of 2020. Typically, with big publishers, it takes at least a year before a finished book then sees print (publishing schedule, the editing and copyedits, and marketing and PR plans, etc).

I started writing Survivor Song (featuring its outbreak of a super rabies virus in Massachusetts and a shortage of PPE and a shitty response from the federal government. Frankly, given the

nightmare currently temper tantruming in the oval office, it wasn’t difficult to predict that he wouldn’t handle a pandemic well. If anything, I way underestimated how much he’d suck.) in July of 2018 and turned in my draft to my editor, August 2019. Two months later edits were completed, and they even printed review copies of the book by late December 2019. So, I had no inkling of the coronavirus when I wrote the book. Part of why the novel feels like now, I think, was the result of research; specifically, the experience my nurse sister had during the Ebola outbreak of 2014.

I don’t think I would’ve written the novel during the pandemic. It would’ve been too on the nose. That said, anything I write now will be inflected and infected (sorry for the pun) by 2020. The novel I’m slowly working on now has nothing to do with 2020, but at the same time, it’ll still reflect my anxieties and worries experienced this year. It would be impossible for it not to seep in.

I: Your preferred genres seem to be horror and science fiction. How have you narrowed in your focus on these, and other related, genres? In a past interview, you mentioned briefly writing in the crime genre, do you have any plans to return to this?

PT: My first two novels published in 2009 and 2010 were quirky, humorous off beat crime novels featuring a narcoleptic privative detective in South Boston. My current publisher is re-releasing both in 2021. I never saw myself as a crime writer though. I just happened to have the story ideas so I wrote them. My first novel attempts were darkly humorous/satires before I wrote my first horror novel, ​A Head Full of Ghosts​ (the book that broke me out) in 2013 (published in 2015).

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in and terrified by horror. (I’m still a big time scaredy cat, afraid of the dark and noises in the house. Don’t judge me.) As a kid and teen, it was all movies. In my early twenties I became a reader (and I’ve read, on average, 70-80 novels a year since…many, but not all horror). I view horror as a large, amorphous genre, that encompasses many types of stories. One could argue that MacBeth is a horror story, for example (Don’t tell your professor(s)). I think horror, when done right, can get at art’s stickiest questions. If we boil down a horror story to the reveal of a terrible/horrific truth, my favorite horror narratives are the ones that ask the tough questions after the reveal: What are the characters going to do now? What decisions will they make? What are the consequences? Do they know the consequences? How do they live through this? How does anybody live through this? Those are the questions I always ask of my characters.

I have no plans to return to crime, per se, but never say never. I want to write whatever story moves me to write. That said, this new book I’m working on is a novel being presented as a faux-memoir of a kind of loser character (who is essentially me). I hope it works as a mash-up of literary humor and horror.

I: On page 22 of Survivor Song, you write that “this is not a fairytale. This is a song.” Obviously, the word “song” also appears in the title of the novel, as well. Could you elaborate on this idea, and its deeper meaning? What is this song representative of in your writing?

PT: I’m a frustrated punk wannabe musician at heart and I often get inspiration from music. Of the ten books I’ve published (some with small presses) about half the titles come from song lyrics, including my A Head Full of Ghosts (“My Head is Full of Ghosts” by Bad Religion).

When I had the idea for Survivor Song, sort of a zombie-adjacent story, I knew a few things going in: I wanted to make it a personal story, focusing in on two characters instead of a cast of thousands, and I wanted to make the story fast, tight, taking place over only 4 to 6 hours, and I wanted it to be unflinching and to tell the truth. I would describe most if not all of my favorite songs in the same manner. I wanted to write a book that makes me feel like my favorite punk/indie songs make me feel. Those songs are exciting, even menacing at times, but they also have this sweet tinge of melancholy when the last chords are done ringing. I wanted to imprint that feeling onto the book’s DNA somehow. No idea if I succeeded or not, but for me, a mindset like that is important when I’m working on a novel.

I: On page 9 of Growing Things, Merry fears that her father won’t return, and it is explained, “To Merry, their mother is a concept, not a person. Will the same dissociation happen with their father if he doesn’t come back?” – Is there anything that inspired you to write about the form of parental and familial abandonment which takes place in Growing Things? Is this also related to the ending in which Merry is left completely alone even by her sister Marjorie who dies at the end?

PT: So many of my books and stories feature children or teens, or they grapple with parenting in some way. Maybe it’s because I’ve never left the kid’s calendar: I went from high school to college then to grad school then teaching at a high school without any breaks between. Every June I’m ecstatic that school is over and every September I get totally depressed. Maybe that help keeps me in tuned to the emotional lives of kids and teens? I don’t know. But as I get older and lose memories of specific childhood events, I’ve never forgotten my inner emotional life as a child and teen. Those emotions are as easy for me to recall as what I had for lunch yesterday. Maybe everyone is like that, I don’t know, but I put it use in my fiction. Especially in horror fiction. I mean, being a kid one of the few universal experiences we all have, and what happens to us as kids molds us into who we are, so why not write about it, particularly as my perspective changes on the experience.

So yeah. I’ve written a lot about siblings or failing parents who are generally trying their best. Or parents who are struggling with an impossible situation or event beyond their control and refracting them through the eyes of their children.

I further explored that sister relationship between Merry and Marjorie in my novel A Head Full of Ghosts. They had more to say.

I: Was there any underlying meaning from Mr. Sorent desensitizing his students to violence and their impression of this as somehow okay and normal in “The Teacher,” to the power and influence which educators hold? Did your experience as a teacher influence any aspects of this story?

PT: This story is chock full of my anxieties as they relate to teaching. Mr. Sorent was inspired by another teacher I didn’t like very much as a person but was clearly a good teacher, and one who had a cult-of-personality hold on many of his students. Mr. Sorent is obviously stepping over the line with his lessons, but where exactly is that line? How much of a responsibility do we have to teach young people the worst about what has happened and continues to happen?

I: Most of your stories have vague endings which could result in more than one outcome after the story ends and leaves the reader to interpret what direction the story went. Why do you prefer this type of open-ended ending?

PT: I love me some ambiguity!

I will say that I try to make sure the ambiguity/open-endedness of a story isn’t a gimmick. It has to be part and parcel of the theme of the story. It should be the source of the horror, ultimately. Aside from families, it’s fair to say my other obsession is how our memories, identity, and even reality itself are a lot more malleable and ambiguous than we care to admit in our day to day lives. The ambiguity in my stories (hopefully) reflects that we really don’t know what our loved ones are thinking or what’s going to happen the next day, or the next year, or twenty years from, or the ultimate ambiguity, what happens when we die. We can tell ourselves and can believe whatever we want to, but we really don’t know. All of that is unsettling and frightening and thrilling and human and perfect fodder for a horror story.

I: The Cabin at the End of the World deals with a (supposedly) impending apocalypse. An apocalypse in stories can often be hard for readers to truly feel scared about; they always know that the good guys will blow up the meteorite, or stop the nuclear war, or whatever other threat there is. What were your strategies for making this larger threat still believable as a danger that the reader should care about?

PT: Similar with what I wrote about concerning Survivor Song, I started by making it personal and claustrophobic. Aside from things the characters see on a television screen, the entire novel happens at a small cabin in the woods. We meet and hopefully fall in love with a loving family: Eric, Andrew, and Wen. That they are put into an impossible, horrific situation, one in which they are also presented with an even more impossible choice, hopefully results in tension for the reader.

Also, it’s a very now novel. Apocalyptic fears are part of the zeitgeist, and question of whether or not the threat of apocalypse is real in the book hopefully resonates when we see apocalypses now whenever we turn on the TV or doomscroll on our Twitter feeds.

I: In an interview with CEMETERY DANCE you said that The Cabin at the End of the World served as a metaphor for our socio-political anxieties, and that it in part came from your thoughts of the 2016 Presidential primaries. Now that the 2020 elections are over, do you think this book would read the same if you were to write it again? Do you still see the same things that you thought were worth writing about four years ago?

PT: This isn’t to say that it’s a perfect novel, because no novel is perfect, certainly not any that I have written. But I wouldn’t change a thing in Cabin. Well, I wouldn’t change anything major. Those fears I had and wrote about in 2016/2017 have pretty much continued or come to fruition, including my mentioning that Trump cut funding to the country’s pandemic response division…cough. The book asks the following: Is the world ending or not? Are these invaders truly doing God’s work or have they succumbed to misinformation, hate, and fear? Will we, despite everything, choose to hope? Sounds like 2020 to me.

I: In The Cabin at the End of the World the four invaders are not the typical attackers in a horror story; they are polite, bumbling, and go out of their way to show that they are kind people. Was it easier or harder for you to make such “nice” characters into believable threats?

PT: Well, I’d argue that one of the four invaders was not a good person and (potentially) of a recognizable stripe. (How’s that for dancing around what I really want to say about Redmond or the men I named him after?) I found it harder to make Redmond seem more real, of the four, though. I’m much more comfortable trying to create empathic characters.

But your larger point/question is correct. I didn’t want all four invaders to be cartoon, mustache-twisting villains. I thought their experience — one of the characters in particular — was a horror as well and worth exploring. The feeling of having no choice or no say is a fear of mine, partly because the idea of loosening oneself from the burden and responsibility of choice/consequence can be intoxicating. At first blush that sounds almost blissful. But responsibility is the compact we make as members of society, and it’s the measurement of a person’s humanity.