A Life is a Fractured Narrative: An Interview with Paul Tremblay

Hey folks, now’s as good a time as any to announce the release of Burgess Springs Season 1: The Complete Edition. An immersive audio drama that I co-wrote with Elisabeth Strayer, Burgess Springs is a little bit Serial, a little bit Twin Peaks. With The Complete Edition, we’re happy to present the entire first season in an uninterrupted, “feature film” format. Just a fun little bonus for Halloween weekend.

Okay, on to the interview!

If you’ve not heard of Paul Tremblay, you likely haven’t been paying attention to the literary horror scene for the past ten years. (I don’t mean “literary horror” like a distinct genre, I just mean horror presented… literarily.) 

From Paul’s terrifying take on possession in A Head Full of Ghosts to his modern-day pandemic/zombie novel (which came out before the 2020 pandemic) Survivor Song, each of Paul’s novels takes up a classic horror trope and turns it on its head. I’ve found his writing to be relentless. When you think that there’s nothing more that could be thrown at these characters, just around the bend comes something worse, stalking down the hall.

Paul’s work (with the exception of the short stories, sometimes) plays along the margins of the knowable. (It seems like every interviewer asks him about “ambiguity” and I tried very hard to steer clear.) The Pallbearers Club had me convinced there was a vampire afoot one chapter and absolutely sure there wasn’t any such thing in the next, a sine wave of certainty through the whole damn book.

Perhaps the biggest news we get into with this interview is that Knock at the Cabin, the feature film adaptation of Paul’s bestselling The Cabin at the End of the World, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, now has an official trailer, and folks, I’m scared already. (Coincidentally, Cabin was the first of Paul’s novels I read, picking it up, unwisely, while staying in a cabin in the woods in the Adirondacks).

While we don’t dig into many plot details, there are probably some very light spoilers for Paul’s novels here, if you look hard enough. Because some people care about that kind of thing.

We talk about Paul’s prewriting strategies, finding your community, teaching, solar panels, and toilet paper. Enjoy.

The following interview has been edited for clarity. Screw brevity.

NL: I don’t think we could chat today and not bring up the trailer for Knock at the Cabin. How did it feel seeing that first trailer?

PT: It’s definitely a strange experience. I did go to the set in May, so it wasn’t totally jarring. I was used to thinking of Dave Bautista as Leonard, and some of the other [actors in their roles], so I got a sense of what it might look like. But yeah, seeing this trailer is very exciting, very unmooring. 

I don’t mean that in a negative way, but a big chunk of what Leonard, or the actor Dave Bautista, says in the trailer is essentially verbatim out of the book. I really should try to go to a theater to see [the trailer] on a big screen. I think that would make it seem more like a real thing and less like a YouTube video. 

NL: I knew that the movie was happening, but I haven’t been paying attention to the casting, so seeing both Dave Bautista and Jonathan Groff onscreen together—I got very excited.

PT: I did get to talk to Jonathan quite a bit on the set. He was very complimentary to the book, very nice.

NL: What were those conversations like? Did the actors ever ask for notes?

PT: In the early going, one of the actors, through M. Night, asked a question about her character’s motivation or something like that. I honestly can’t remember what I said, that’s typically something I’m not worrying about. 

Well that’s not true. I mean, I think of [characters] less in terms of “What’s their motivation?” than, you know, “Who are they?” I know in actor or movie parlance it’s, “Oh, what’s his character’s motivation?” I think it can make sense to ask that of fiction as well, but I just don’t think of it in those terms, if that makes sense. 

Jonathan, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Abby Quinn were the actors that I got to talk to the most. After a scene they would go outside and sit off to the side, and I would kind of scurry over and talk to them, because they look like they’re having a good time. But it’s funny, in the book, in the acknowledgments, I thanked my editor for saving me from making like a disastrous decision, or something like that. That was the first thing they wanted to know. “What did your editor change? How did she save you?”

I explained it wasn’t even at the draft level. I had presented her the book as basically a ten-page summary, as an idea. It was very rough. This was me trying to get back on book deal, because my previous book deal had finished. I just wanted to send this idea to my editor to see what she thought. And she thought it was great. She said, “Do to the invaders have to be all men?”

I was initially thinking, “Oh, it’d be a story about the violence that men do.” And after Jen asked that, I was like yeah, they don’t have to be all men. That would be dumb.

NL: Was there a scene in particular, which you originally wrote for the book, that you were excited to see them filming in person?

PT: The day I arrived, they were sure shooting a scene where, after a sacrifice is made, they see stuff on the TV. Obviously, we weren’t seeing what they were seeing on the television. But I was watching Dave Bautista react to it, and talk to everybody else in the cabin, and I did get to see a couple of dailies, without getting too spoilery, of the first onscreen death. I got to watch that, and that was really intense. I think that’s gonna mess people up..

NL: There was a recent Boston Globe interview with you, from just after the trailer came out, where you mentioned that you were sitting right behind M. Night, watching him work. That just kind of caught me, because I feel like, for writers, the work springs from our attention to things. So what were you paying attention to, while watching Shyamalan direct? And the follow on to that is, is film production something that you’re interested in pursuing?

PT: I’ll answer the last part first: oh, definitely. 

And, you know, maybe in a more active role. What does that mean? Most likely being in on the screenplay if it’s an adaptation. I’ve been working with a couple of young filmmakers, and we’ve been [taking out] a pitch for most of the summer. And I’ve learned a lot, they’re super talented and super nice. That’s been a lot of fun. As a writer, I don’t get to collaborate very often, if at all. So that’s a part of the film process that I’m interested in.

NL: Are you the screenwriter on that pitch?

PT: One of the filmmakers would direct, and myself and another would write the screenplay. It’s one of my short stories that we’re trying to adapt into a feature-length film. 

When I say I watched Night work, I mean, he essentially would go give directions to the actors—I can’t say he does this all the time, but from what I saw, the two days I was there—when they were filming in the main room of the cabin, he would set up the shot, talk to the actors, and then he would retreat to this room, that was like a bedroom of the cabin, and watch it on the screen. 

I found myself fascinated with what was happening around us, some of the minutiae, like the script coordinator. He really seemed to be holding everything together. All the things that he had to be in charge of: if Night told him, “Hey,  cut that, save it,” [the script coordinator] would be able to reference which shots they saved, he would have to check with the screenplay to make sure the continuity was there. 

It seemed like everybody was going to the script coordinator for all sorts of stuff. At one point, I was sort of half joking, and I said to him, “Hey, you secretly run this whole thing, don’t ya?” Everyone was very giving of their time, it was a cool experience.

NL: Okay, let’s rewind a little bit. You mentioned a ten-page summary you sent to your editor. What does your prewriting look like, in general? What do you do before sitting down to start drafting?

PT: I have a bunch of small notebooks of varying sizes, and that’s where the prewriting really happens for me. A lot of times it’s me writing out character sketches or what ifs, and then, if I think it’s going to be a novel idea—I’m not going to write the summary in longhand—but I’m going to write some blocked out pieces that [I’ll use] eventually when I go to write the summary. 

If I write a summary, which I’ve done most of the time, but not for every novel, I do type that up. But every book is a little bit different. And a few times, I mentioned with Cabin, I was sort of forced to write a summary. I really only summarized the first two thirds of the book, because the rest I wasn’t sure about and just hand waved. 

For something like Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I actually did quite a bit of work on the summary. And even then, when I finished it, I wasn’t totally happy. But for me, the summary is just to have the bare bones of what the thing might be. Something to serve as scaffolding. And then I’m okay to, if I want to work on this side of the building, I can go off in a different direction, but the scaffolding’s there to keep me from falling down.

NL: Have you ever fallen down in the middle of a novel? Has the scaffolding ever collapsed under you?

PT: [with great trepidation] Uh… It’s been a while since it has…

NL: Sorry! Maybe I shouldn’t ask this. Dangerous question.

PT: [Laughter] With A Head Full of Ghosts, I was a hundred pages into another novel, but I didn’t write a full summary, so there wasn’t a lot of scaffolding, it was a lot of freewheeling. I ended up tossing that novel to the side when I got the idea for A Head Full of Ghosts, which was a very smart decision on my part, even though at the time it was quite stressful. 

I think what’s happened most of the times where the scaffolding has fallen apart, is that I’ve written summaries for other things that never actually become a novel. And sometimes that’s because I’ve pitched it to my editor and she didn’t like it. Or by the time I wrote the summary, I was like, “I don’t know if that works.” And then I just end up deciding not to work on it.

Jesus, knock on wood, I’ve never written the summary and then started writing the book and been like, “Oh, no, I’m not gonna do this at all.”

NL: It’s kind of the dead letters of a writer’s career, right? These things that get sent off and then recede. 

I’m still thinking about the early stages. I forget where you mentioned this, it might have been in an afterword or in another interview, but you mentioned that for Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, you went and sat in the woods to think. Can you talk about that a little bit? Why did that seem like the right thing to do? And have you done other other things like that to try and get ideas going?

[Paul laughs.]

PT: I was laughing at myself because going into the woods was a total act of desperation on my part, for that book. 

…going into the woods was a total act of desperation on my part… 

You know, I think I was getting in my own way a little bit. I wrote A Head Full of Ghosts, felt really good about it, sold it, and then my editor’s like, “Okay, what’s next?” Most of the summer of 2014—How many, jeez, I think I pitched her four other novel ideas first, to varying degrees of depth. 

Some of them might have only been a couple pages. And because this was my second chance with a big publisher, I really wanted to make sure that my relationship with my editor was strong. I didn’t want to spring a book on her that she wouldn’t like or wouldn’t be on board with. So I spent most of that summer trying to come up with, “What the heck’s going to be the follow up?” 

It was funny, there was one idea that I think I liked more than she did. And there was one idea that she liked more than I ended up liking, which is kind of weird. So Devil’s Rock ultimately became almost, not the compromise piece, but it was the final one where I just said, I need to change where I’m working, change my headspace. 

In my yard, there’s a little bit of woods next to me, but it’s up a little, very weedy hill. I hardly ever go up there, but I went up with a chair and just said, “Okay, what scares me?” And, I thought about a child going missing, and being in the woods made me think of Borderlands State Park, which is one of my favorite places. And then some pieces started falling into place from there. 

Since then, though, because that was a while ago, I’ve been surprised by how many times I’ve had to come up with an idea fairly quickly because of the demands of a book deal, which is a wonderful thing to have. I do find that pressure helps a little bit, even though it can be very stressful.

But multiple times I’ve come up with a novel idea after a different one has been rejected, and I’m traveling. It happened with Cabin at the End of the World. I sent my editor a ridiculous summary of a novel. A thirty-page summary, that’s why it was ridiculous.

NL: You sent a novella of a novel.

PT: Essentially, yeah. To the point where I didn’t want to write it.

When she rejected it my agent was devastated. But I was like, “Oh, phew.” [My agent] told me that [my editor] wanted the short story collection, but wanted a different novel. I said, “Okay, I’ll come up with something else.” I happened to be in Los Angeles at the LA Times Festival of Books, a big literary festival. And on the plane ride back, you know, I have one of my idea notebooks, free writing notebooks, out just trying to come up with ideas. 

And I happened to draw a little cabin in the notebook, without paying attention. Then I started thinking about horror stories that happen in a cabin, home invasions—I don’t really like home invasion stories. But that made me oddly excited to try writing a home invasion story. And it spilled out from there fairly quickly. 

The sketch of a cabin that became a major motion picture.

Similarly, after Cabin—it was the summer, actually, that Cabin at the End of the World had come out, July of 2018, my last book of that deal was due in August of the next year. I hadn’t started yet, so I was kind of panicking—I had this idea for another novel. It would have been a big, messy book that was trying to riff off of Bolaño’s 2666 a little bit, it would have needed three parts, and it would have been really long. You know, maybe someday I’ll go back to it. 

But I think in 2018 I felt like I wasn’t ready. I kept putting off writing the summary for it, and putting it off and putting it off, until it got to the point where it was like, “Oh, I’m never gonna be able to finish this in a year, I’m gonna have to come up with another idea.” I was actually on a train with my friend and publicist from Titan Books. She was taking me to some British cities on an old fashioned book tour. And while I was on the train I came up with the loose bones of Survivor Song in my notebook on the train. 

So I don’t know. Sometimes you weirdly, subconsciously train your brain to come up with ideas in odd places. For me, it’s become travel. And also in the shower, weirdly. I hear that, actually, from a lot of other writers, that a lot of [their] best problem solving happens in the shower.

NL: I feel like I need to describe my experience with A Head Full of Ghosts for a second. I think it was the second blog post where I just started getting real strong House of Leaves vibes. In terms of this, at once clinical look at the narrative (in Karen’s blog posts), and there being multiple narratives and timelines happening at the same time, and the fact that the house itself is such a character.

And then, like three pages later, Dr. Navidson shows up. 

Can you talk about what House of Leaves means to you, and maybe to that particular novel?

PT: I love House of Leaves. I’ve actually managed to read it twice, from start to finish, which I think is something to be proud of. I don’t know if that was book zero or story zero of a love for postmodern narrative, technique, or style. But if it wasn’t one of the first ones it really opened my eyes to [postmodernism]. It cemented my love for different modes of narrative. 

In messing with the timelines, you know, all those tricks are fun, but it has to serve the story, and I think with House of Leaves, everything there does serve the story. You literally get lost in this expanding house, this expanding book. That’s a book that I’ve been endlessly fascinated by, I hope to read it for a third time—I actually bought the UK version. 

With A Head Full of Ghosts, in the very early going of the book, once I realized, “Oh, I’m actually going to do this weird possession story,” I knew I wasn’t going to avoid the William Peter Blatty elephant in the room. I was gonna engage with it, and reference it, because how can you not? That freed me to really open [the novel] up to all the horror influences that I could think of, including House of Leaves. The most horrific part of the book is the ambiguity, that we don’t know. That we never know. 

NL: One of the things about House of Leaves is it’s so tricky to talk about. Like, which narrative are we talking about at any one moment?

PT: And the way I read, I’m so bad at remembering plot details and even character names. What I vividly remember is how the book made me feel. So even though I’ve read it twice, it just sits there like this big cloud over my mind. 

A nice cloud, not a bad cloud.

NL: I read it fairly recently—it was my commuter book for a while—and there was a lot of googling to figure out references. I remember coming across people who were saying, “Oh, yeah, the Johnny sections are just too graphic for me. So I’m just skipping those.” And I was like, “Oh, you’re reading a radically different book than me.” These postmodern narratives, which break apart as you’re reading them, allow for totally different paths through them, from reader to reader.

PT: Interesting. I never even considered not reading House of Leaves in the order in which it’s presented. I definitely followed: I got to a point where I would go to the footnote, if it sent me to the appendix I would go there before I went back. That was part of the genius of the book. I had four or five bookmarks going at once, but without me losing the thread. Without the story ever losing the thematic thread.

NL: I was going to ask, “Have you ever tried to do something using footnotes, or something like that, to jump around,” but you totally have in Growing Things.

PT: [In the short story] “A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some are Broken.” What an obnoxious title. [Laughter.] Yeah, and there’s a footnote story in there, too, “Notes for the Barn in the Wild,” that plays in Laird Barron’s fictional universe.

NL: So that being said, what does experimentation mean to you?

PT: It can be story specific, but I would say in general, especially for the short fiction, a lot of times it’s the experimental conceit that will be what excites me, and then I have to find a story that makes it worth using. And that becomes a little bit of a, you know, a writer’s prompt, or a writer’s challenge. 

An example would be the novella or novelette, “Notes from the Dog Walkers.” We adopted our dog Holly in 2015. She was older and the kids were older, we couldn’t be home all day, and we needed to get her a dog walker occasionally. They would leave notes—that’s described in the story. I thought the notes were just hilarious. The way they were written, it was like, daycare notes. Poop and pee checks and stuff like that. I tried leaving fake notes for my family, and they knew right away. 

I was like, I have to do a story using that someday. I wasn’t constantly thinking about it, but I knew I wanted to use the device of the story told through notes from dog walkers. But what was the story? I had no idea. I even, at one point, pitched cowriting it to Brian Evenson

Our lives are fractured narratives, especially twenty-first century lives.

(We ended up doing a book together, Brian and I, for Concord Free Press, a charity press, called Another Way to Fall. We basically reprinted two rare novellas of ours, together in one book.)

But before we decided to do Fall, I tried to explain [“Notes from the Dog Walkers”] to him. He was like, “I think we’ll do something else.” But eventually I found my way into what the story would be. 

Similarly, with the choose your own adventure story, I started with that in mind. I wanted to write a story using the choose your own adventure style. Those fractured narrative techniques, I mean, it feels like now, right? Our lives are fractured narratives, especially twenty-first century lives. You’ll talk to someone one on one, really intensely, and then you’re back in virtual land, and that often feels more real. 

That’s probably the root of it, just how fractured my own head feels most of the time. I definitely am drawn to that, because it feels more real to me in some way. 

Good luck with this transcript, by the way.

NL: I think we should talk about teaching and pedagogy a little bit too. Why do you keep teaching? What’s the draw?

PT: I will say, this year I’m on a sabbatical. June was my twenty-seventh year teaching high school math, so I have this next year off.

So how’s it going? This September has been kind of a weird month. Some of it I can’t really talk about, entwined with Hollywood weirdness. Some things that should be happening, aren’t happening. It’s been oddly stressful. 

Part of me’s like, “Man, I haven’t been teaching for three weeks, and I’m already getting squirrely.” Which honestly is a little bit of a fear of mine. If I’m too much inside my own head, it’s not necessarily going to be healthy. 

My body, my being is just so used to the rhythm. Oh, June: done teaching, three months off. Get back into it September. And I do enjoy teaching. If I wasn’t selling any books, I’d be more than happy to continue teaching for the rest of my professional life. I enjoy working with kids. 

That’s not to say there aren’t days that are hard or days that are bad, of course there are. But in general it’s fun, they keep you young. From a writer’s side of things, it’s a daily lesson in voice. Every two or three years slang changes. It’s fun to see how it changes, and how it can be a combination of US-specific slang, that gets shared a lot more now because of social media, but there’s still also very regional slang, almost to the point where it becomes school-specific. 

If you pay attention as a writer, it’s a cool way to think of dialogue. It’s been a good lesson for me for sure. I mean, just for practical purposes, teaching and getting a few weeks in the spring off, and obviously the summer off, really helps with the writing side of things.

NL: When you think back on twenty-seven years of teaching, is there a particular moment where you think, “That was a good day”?

PT: I don’t know if I’m thinking of specific days, but I can certainly think of specific classes, or specific students. I really enjoy teaching AP calculus BC. I’ve done that for five or six years in a row, and that’s really been one of the more rewarding, enjoyable experiences. These kids are really smart, usually smarter than I am. 

Anyway, it’s just a fun class, it tends to be small. You get a lot done. Because they’re older, we can talk about other stuff, too.

It was funny, in the 2000s, maybe mid-to-late 2000s, there were a couple of grades of kids that were really fun. And I learned how to play—this is gonna sound silly—but the party game Mafia. I was introduced to Mafia at Readercon. Actually, that Readercon is where I met John Langan, I think Laird Barron, Michael Cisco, some of these people have become, obviously great writers, but my dear friends. Kelly Link was running the Mafia game, and [Samuel R.] “Chip” Delaney was playing, Jonathan Lethem was playing.

I brought the game back to my school and had a lot of fun playing Mafia at times with students. 

That’s a totally different power dynamic, compared to when I was playing with a bunch of science fiction horror writers.

I miss that social aspect of [teaching] already.

But at the same time, teaching during the pandemic wore me out for sure. This is good timing to have a year sabbatical. So I didn’t think I was coming home after more bad, tedious days than better days. Almost all of it had to do with the stresses of teaching during a pandemic.

I spent two years teaching in masks, and in person, which was definitely easier from a teaching level, to teach in person. I could see, in real time, the difference in the mental health of teenagers. It was so stark. I would never have thought about teaching remotely before the pandemic. But you could just see how much the lack of their peers being around, just being home on a computer, what that did to their mental health, compared to actually being able to be around other students. 

But there’s also the flip, too, some of the students got so anxious they couldn’t handle being in person, because they were so concerned about everything. 

I felt like I was trying to deal with things that I was never really trained to deal with. Not through the fault of the school, but just through the set of global circumstances we were put through.

NL: So you’ve mentioned John Langan and Laird Barron and Kelly Link, and meeting folks at conventions. How has community been important to your writing life?

PT: Oh, it’s immeasurably important, and it wasn’t necessarily easy to do that social aspect of writing. It seems a little counterintuitive, that we take—writers as a group—these people who, for the most part, probably prefer their alone time and aren’t necessarily the best or happiest when placed in a big social setting. 

In fact, I’ve told this story fairly recently, but I went to World Horror in Chicago in 2002. I went with another writer who was equally unconfident in the social aspect of things. We drove eighteen hours to Chicago, and most of the people there seemed like they knew each other, and they were big personalities. And the funny part is now, all these years later, so many of those people that I was afraid of, I’m friends with now. 

I ended up barely participating in the convention and staying in my room for most of the weekend, because I was so overwhelmed at the prospect. And on the eighteen-hour drive back, I remember being so angry at myself. I made myself a promise, “If I ever go to another convention, I have to force myself to interact and not just do all the driving.” 

A good three or four years passed. I met a lot more people in person, but also virtually. So I was in a better place in 2005 [when I went back to the convention]. When I showed up, even though I went by myself, the first thing I did was actually meet Matt Kressel. He runs the KGB reading series with Ellen Datlow

I met Matt, and he was part of a writer’s group from New York City—they knew me because I was editing for an online horror magazine. So it became easier to put my myself out there a little bit. And then, you know, I played Mafia. I guess I got over my social awkwardness with my innate competitiveness.

I remember being so angry at myself. I made myself a promise, “If I ever go to another convention, I have to force myself to interact and not just do all the driving.” 

I only bring that up because I know it’s not… I don’t want people out there to be like, “Oh, yeah, you just go to a convention and you meet friends.” It can be fun, but it also can be super stressful. I just want to make sure I acknowledge and honor that, having experienced it myself. But I was fortunate enough to meet some great writers who were going through the same things I was going through. We were in the same parts of our careers, and just being able to talk to people like that, and not even necessarily about your stories, but just blowing off steam, sharing frustrations, your dreams, your hopes. I find that stuff to be incredibly valuable.

NL: Survivor Song takes place in the same world as Disappearance at Devil’s Rock—I have to ask this because Disappearance is my favorite—but the question is, how are Elizabeth and Kate [characters from Disappearance] doing after the events in Survivor Song?

PT: I think they’re certainly not happily ever after, but I think they’re doing okay. They’re gonna have their struggles, but I felt good about where they were. Though, obviously, they’ve got trauma to deal with in their lives..

NL: For sure. Okay, another kind of goofy question before the lightning round. So you’ve said that The Pallbearers Club is very personal, including a lot of the medical procedures you’ve gone through in your own life. 

So my question for you is, do you have a uvula?


PT: I do not. Yeah, that was removed in 1998, a month before I got married. Along with my tonsils, to help with sleep apnea. I don’t have full Marfan [Syndrome], but I have some of the connective tissue stuff associated with it. Like, I was born without the normal amount of space behind my palate, in your throat. I had to have my palate stretched before I had braces. And that was really behind the issue of sleep apnea. 

Anyway, their solution was really sort of medieval, I don’t necessarily say that it was wrong, but,  just to literally make my airway wider.

NL: Let’s just cut it out. It’ll be all right.

PT: I was a fairly young teacher at that time. 1998—I was in my mid, pushing the late 20s. And we could get away with this at a small school, jeez, almost 25 years ago. But I took a piece of gum and rolled it up and put it in a little vial with vegetable oil. So now this [vial] is my uvula in formaldehyde.

My school happened to be having this weird raffle. So we raffled off my uvula. I remember some eighth grader at the time won my uvula.

NL: I’m so glad I asked that question.

PT: I’m glad I had a good answer for ya.

NL: Okay, actually one more serious question, which just popped in my head. I really appreciate how detailed and attentive you are to eastern Massachusetts. I’m fairly new to this area and, reading your novels, it’s like, “Oh, I’ve ridden on that train. I’ve driven through there.” 

What is it that keeps you writing about eastern Mass and not about, you know, England? When you went to England, for instance, why was the story that came out not set in England, but set here?

PT: Although the end was set in England, so I did honor it a little bit. 

I end up coming back to my geography over and over again.

Honestly, I don’t say this to be glib, or cheap, but I got my master’s degree in Math, it wasn’t in English or history. I break out in hives at the thought of research. 

Now, obviously, I do it, depending on the book, but I feel a lot of anxiety towards research. In some ways, it just becomes easier for me to continue to mine this area that I know so well. Part of that is because I’ve been here my whole life. I really haven’t left. I’ve moved from place to place, but this is the place I know and, continually, when I try to take these horror tropes and root them in what I think is reality, I feel like the reality that I can speak best to is what’s happening here, or what I’ve experienced in eastern Massachusetts. 

Happily—maybe this wouldn’t be the case if I lived in different parts of the country—but there’s such a long, rich, New England horror-Gothic tradition. How can you not play with that? How can you not either lean into it or try to undercut expectations? So all that is to say, that’s how I end up coming back to my geography over and over again.

NL: You almost couch it as a negative, like, “I’m afraid of research,” but really I think it’s kind of a beautiful thing. There’s something about being in a place and knowing it. You said you were honoring England with the end of Survivor Song. And that’s what it feels like you’re doing in your work for eastern Mass.

PT: Oh, thank you.

NL: Okay, lightning round. I have five questions and you can be as detailed or as one-worded as you want. Favorite cocktail, mocktail, or other beverage?

PT: I’m gonna be lame and say beer. But Belgian wheat beer is my thing. I used to be IPAs, but then I decided that I’m going to like things that actually taste good from now on. Allagash White has been my go to.

NL: Alien or Aliens?

PT: Oh, Alien. One hundred percent. I mean, I like both movies, they’re fun. But AlienAlien’s gonna last forever. It’s going to be a touchstone, studied, referenced forever. Whereas Aliens is sort of a fun, adventurey kind of story.

NL: Everyone I’ve interviewed on this blog so far have been screenwriters, and you’re the first person to say Alien (which I think is the right answer). I even had a horror screenwriter that I interviewed last week, and he said Aliens!

PT: [With true astonishment.] It’s such an objectively wrong answer. 

In the trade paperback for A Head Full of Ghosts, I wrote an essay called “The Politics of Horror,” which I first wrote for Nightmare Magazine. In that essay, I argued that my favorite horror, and the most successful horror, has a progressive story structure. That isn’t necessarily saying it has progressive politics… but it kind of does. 

Basically boiling down to the idea that if you write a horror story, and you restore the status quo by the end of it, that’s a conservative story structure. That’s not going to be as effective as representing real life, the fact that things change, there’s no going back. And I use Alien and Aliens as an example. 

Alien is a terrifying horror movie. There is no restoration of the status quo. And in fact, Ripley ends up as cosmically alone as you could be at the end of that film. Whereas Aliens is all about the restoration of the status quo, the family unit. The last shot of the movie is the family unit happily asleep.

if you write a horror story, and you restore the status quo by the end of it, that’s a conservative story structure. That’s not going to be as effective as representing real life, the fact that things change, there’s no going back.

NL: It’s a nuclear family.

PT: It’s a lot of fun to hear Ripley say, “Get away from her you bitch!” and you cheer, but if you cheer, I think that takes you out from a horror movie, or at least a movie that cleaves to the philosophy of horror. So no, I have big opinions on the difference between those two movies.

NL: Love it. Okay, question three. If someone told you that you had to memorize an entire novel, word for word, what book would you pick? 

PT: Wow, that’s hard. I’m gonna go with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s a little shorter, more manageable. 

I was thinking of a Peter Straub novel, but I don’t think I could possibly memorize one. But just to be able to walk around—I could probably see the opening paragraph of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, talking about her being a werewolf because her finger is longer than the other one. I think that’d be really fun to do at parties. 

Or conventions. I’m not really going to a lot of parties.

NL: Most underrated or sadly forgotten TV show.

PT: Maybe it’s just forgotten because of time, but the only thing that comes to mind is the show Taxi.

Not that I would expect a lot of people to be talking about Taxi. One of my other favorite shows as a kid was M.A.S.H. [Y’all, you shouldn’t need this hyperlink to M.A.S.H. You know what M.A.S.H. is, right?] The reruns would always be on after school. But there’s been a lot more discussion of M.A.S.H. I feel like, so I guess I’ll go with Taxi.

I feel like later I may remember something else.

NL: Okay, last question. Tell us about one thing we haven’t talked about yet today that lives rent free in your brain.

PT: Boy. There are too many things that live rent free my brain. Um. 

Pretend to have that Zoom freeze. 

You know what lives rent free my brain, which is gonna be boring? This is almost a year ago, we agreed to have someone come and put solar panels on our roof. We didn’t buy them, it was through National Grid, we just pay a much lower electric bill. But I found myself thinking about those solar panels quite a bit. Cause you hear about fires and stuff like that. This past weekend, because my daughter is on a soccer team, the boys’ team came and toilet papered the house at like four in the morning on Sunday. Which wasn’t all that enjoyable. 

I was freaking out because I heard them throw some toilet paper up onto the roof. So now I just can’t stop thinking about the toilet paper on the roof that I can’t get to because the roof is too tall. And the solar panels. That’s a long explanation of toilet paper and solar panels, living rent free in my head.

NL: I mean, I think we got the title for the interview right there. [“Toilet Paper and Solar Panels: An Interview with Paul Tremblay.” Can you imagine?] Thank you very much, Paul, this was fun.

PT: Thank you.

One response to “A Life is a Fractured Narrative: An Interview with Paul Tremblay”

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