Ten Questions with Peter Straub: A Fan Interview
Peter Straub is an awarding winning novelist best known for his works in the horror and fantasy genres. He collaborated with Stephen King on The Talisman and Black House. His latest horror novel A Dark Matter comes out next week.
Praise for A DARK MATTER
“Peter Straub's new novel is a terrifying story of innocents-high school students in the turbulent sixties-who stumble into horrors far beyond their understanding. A Dark Matter is populated with vivid, sympathetic characters, and driven by terrors both human and supernatural. It’s the kind of book that’s impossible to put down once it has been picked up. It kept me reading far into the night. Straub builds otherworldly terror without ever losing touch with his attractive cast of youngsters, who age beautifully. Put this one high on your list.”
He kindly took some time to answer ten questions from fans. Enjoy!
Chris P, Supply, NC: Can you describe an experience that terrified you and how it influenced your writing at the time? A second part to that question is how have you used that experience to scare the reader in your work?
Peter Straub: When I was a kid, my parents used to spend part of summer vacation at various inexpensive resorts on lakes in Northern Wisconsin. One summer, we were in a cabin at a place that had a central building, where we ate and hung out, located on a long path through the woods and along the side of the lake. One night, I was walking back to our cabin alone when I saw something strange in the woods off to my left. It was dark, remember. Low to the ground, something round and hard-looking was shining up at me. Light came from it: it seemed to generate the bright light by itself. It looked a little like an eye, and it also looked totally inhuman. Either it was looking at me, or it wasn’t. Either way, the thing seemed purely evil to me. After two or three seconds of staring down at it, the thing scared me so badly I took off for the cabin at a run. Whenever I need to evoke evil, I think of that moment: the hard, shiny surface in the darkness, the bright silver light, and how frightened I was.
Brent C, Brooklyn, NY : A large portion of your body of work deals with the act of writing and its implications, in a manner that is uncommon in the genre in which your novels are marketed. Was this influenced at all by the works of others? And if so, who?
Peter Straub: I can’t think of other writers who have influenced me to think about writing itself in my books. Maybe Paul Scott, in The Raj Quartet. There’s a self-reflective, mulling-over quality in those Scott novels that did affect me very deeply. However, in my own life, I have often discovered that the truest way to figure something out or understand it better is to write about it—the best way for me to solve problems in my own life is to write about them. It’s no wonder I carry this attitude over into my work.
Jerry F, Brainerd, MN: What I like best about your writing is that you take us into it by easily identified emotions and the situations that stir them, such as "missing the boat" or being "locked out" of the situation with Lee's friends. (I read the excerpt on Facebook). You also share some of the frustrations of a novelist by saying a book has locked you out, or it wasn't meant for you.
My question is, has a book ever locked you out, not because you weren't the right writer, but because it took you through emotional channels or put you back in memories, places or "old selves", you didn't want to face at the time? And, if so, did you ever go back to them later?
Peter Straub: I don’t think a book has ever locked me out in the manner you describe. Maybe four or five times, I gave up on a book, but it was because I felt lost in it, that I could not see how to proceed, or that it bored me so much I had to give up. I have never returned to any of these projects.
Katherine M, Medford MA: I find that as a would-be writer, I second-guess a lot of what finally wrenches itself free from my brain and ends up on the page. Have you ever wanted to completely rework something you've published? Change characters, location, narrative style, for example? Not necessarily out of dissatisfaction, but maybe because distance has given you a new perspective?
Peter Straub: No, I am happy to say that I have never wanted to rework an older book completely. However, when I wrote my first novel, Marriages, I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually the book became an embarrassment, and I have kept it out of print ever since.
Carl L, Monroe, NY: Subterranean Press will publish The Skylark, which you have described as an earlier version of A Dark Matter. You have, and continue to publish with smaller presses. Can you give us your thoughts on small press publishing, and explain why you continue to support the small press industry?
Peter Straub: I love small presses. They have always published such great books, often in very beautiful formats. As trade publishing gets tougher and tougher as it deals with a contracting economy, more and more writers are going to turn to small presses to bring out their work. I think small presses have a very important function these days; they must pick up the slack and present good “mid-list” writers to the audience that continues to want their books.
India R, Duck, WV: When considering a name or names for characters, do you try to convey an allegorical meaning in the person's name, or is it a simple process for you?
Peter Straub: Usually, if a character’s name has a kind of metaphoric quality—like Conor Linklater in Koko—I become aware of it only later, when readers begin to discuss the book. What I am aware of is the name’s general “rightness,” a subjective matter, for sure, but we’ve all read fiction in which the names of the characters seem unreal and all wrong. That’s what I want to avoid. The only other factoid about names I can give you is that quite often, a character only really snaps into view for me after I have his name. So names are of great importance, clearly.
Eric B, Hydeville, VT: At what point in your life did you realize you would be a writer, and at what point in your career did you become comfortable with your ability as a writer? Where does your poetry factor into this?
Peter Straub: I guess I realized that I really would become a writer, that is, a writer of fiction who wrote as a daily practice and sought no other work, in about 1971, when I was a graduate student living in Dublin. I had just finished working on a novel, and understood that it answered more of my needs and called in more of my talents than poetry did. I was not doing well in my PhD program, and mailed my novel off to an English publisher, who accepted it. Bingo, a huge life-change! However, I did not become at all “comfortable” with my ability with and capacity for fiction until I had written four or five novels and was able to see that it was not all a fluke.
John K, Grand Rapids, MI: Your fiction sometimes hints or even alludes to another, maybe "truer" reality of great beauty and awe, which is revealed in moments of crisis or trauma. Is this just due to the psychological state of the characters, or do you believe (and mean to put forth in your work) in this numinous reality?
Peter Straub: Good work! Not everybody sees these moments of insight or transcendence in my work, which are of great personal and philosophical importance to me. These moments emerge from a number of profound experience I had been given throughout my life, and for which I remain intensely grateful. At such times, it seems to me that a layer of the mundane has been peeled off the face of the world, and what so dizzyingly, so incontrovertibly, glows and dazzles before me is the real substance of the world, sacred, alive, crammed with Being, and unbearably beautiful. This is staggering, incredibly moving, all but overwhelming. I guess I am describing a fairly conventional mystic experience, but they feel anything but conventional when I am in the middle of one. It is what we should be able to see all the time, but cannot. Habit and ignorance blind us.
Derek H, Tuam, Ireland: As an avid read of your books I've lost many an hours of sleep due to some of the content. Would it be a compliment if a fan told that you gave him a heart attack from one of your tales? What is the best, most treasured compliment you have received from a reader?
Peter Straub: You know, Derek, I’d be very unhappy if I learned that a book of mine had given someone a heart attack. I don’t want to KILL my readers! The best compliment I was ever given was told to me by a woman who was reading the final ten pages of a novel of mine when her contractions had reached the point at which it was time to drop everything else and get busy delivering her first baby. She refused to cooperate and made everyone, including her impatient baby, wait until she had finished reading the last page.
Carl L, Monroe, NY: Around the time of Lost Boy, Lost Girl and In the Night Room, I remember an interview or web posting in which you said you were trying to release books more frequently, and that they'd be shorter in length. Now you are releasing a lengthier book after a lengthy number of years. Did you find that this is just your natural style of writing? (I can't wait to read A Dark Matter. Thanks for countless hours of reading enjoyment!)
Peter Straub: It was a great plan, but it just didn’t work. I seem to need more recuperation time between books than I used to, and they get harder to write as I go along. Beyond that, more is at stake every time out; I want to grow with each book, I want to find out where I am supposed to be going as I move along, I want to see what it is I have all along been meant to discover or unearth. Of course, this will turn out to be whatever I have already done, but I do not want to admit it yet.