Long time Cemetery Dance contributor Michael Marano took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to discuss ChiZine’s Signed Limited Edition Trade Paperback of his acclaimed collection, Stories from the Plague Years, which will be published in December. (The preordering deadline is November 1st, so time is running out!)
BJF: Can you tell us a little bit about how you assembled Stories from the Plague Years? Was there a method to your madness when it came to organizing the table of contents?
MM: I assembled the collection in the way I did when I stacked my shorter works together and realized, within the larger theme of the Plague Years that holds the book together (the Plagues being the mental, spiritual, and physical sicknesses killed a lot of my friends in the 1980s and early 1990s, like drugs, urban blight, despair, AIDS), there were sub-themes. The section titled “Days of Rage” refers to an anger that comes out of hopelessness that feels like it can’t end. “Prayers for Dead Cities” is about the unreal sickness that messes up your mind when you live in an urban reality that is broken, like what I choked on when I was an apartment building manager in a crack neighborhood in Oakland where the cops wouldn’t come when you called. “Two for Marian” is made of two stories I wrote in order to grieve for a friend whom I loved very dearly, Marian Anderson of the band The Insaints. Her death kicked me apart, inside. And “Winter Tales” are both stories set in the season of winter, but that also refers to a kind of inner winter. The stories treat of suicide in one form or another, except the final story, “Shibboleth.” I wanted to end the collection with a story about a guy who didn’t listen to the temptation to die, but who fought harder than he ever had before to survive.
BJF: What is the oldest story in this collection? The newest?
MM: I really have no idea which is the oldest and which is the newest! I work in a way that is kind of erratic. I get an idea, then I’ll sketch it out, and might even start writing it. Then I put it away if something with a more pressing deadline comes up. Or, I’ll start writing, put it away when I realize I need to do research to make it plausible. Then, while I’m researching that story, I might crank out a story that comes out with no need for research. Chronologically, there’s so much overlap with the composition of these stories, there’s no way to line ’em up in order of their creation.
BJF: What was the most difficult story to write?
MM: Emotionally, “…And the Damage Done” and “Exit Wound”, the two I wrote for Marian as an act of mourning, were the hardest. In terms of stress and chaos, “Winter Requiem” was, because I was living in poverty and I was surrounded by mental and physical illness and a number of people close to me were dying. In terms of research and technique “Shibboleth” was the hardest, to the point that I was talking to an atmospheric chemist at Harvard about what exactly the disaster that “Shibboleth” describes would do to the sky at different latitudes of the planet.
BJF: Were any of them easy to write?
MM: Nope! I don’t want to perpetuate the bullshit myth of the tortured artist, but writing fiction is very difficult for me. I’m just wired that way. Joseph Conrad hated to write, too. That gives me some comfort I guess, because I love that guy. And Thomas Harris, who is a hero of mine, according to Stephen King, finds “the very act of writing… a kind of torment.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Writing fiction for me is like trying to shit a sea urchin.
BJF: Can you share a little bit about the two original novellas? Their inspiration and why you included them?
MM: “Displacement” is something I originally wrote back in 1992, believe it or not. I sent it out, and got rejections and good feedback from a bunch of editors, like from my fellow brother in the Cemetery Dance Sicilian Front, Tom Monteleone and Kris Rusch at F&SF. I wrote it as an attempt to create a really compelling horror story in prose that was structured like a One Act Play, with a lot of it just two guys in a room talking. My inspiration for that was William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III, which has completely terrifying scenes with George C. Scott and Brad Dourif just talking. And then SE7EN came out, and since the novella shares a lot of the same ideas, I thought I’d never sell it. Then I noticed the extent to which SE7EN and other “diabolical killers with poetic inspiration” stories had eaten their way into popular culture, and I decided to tweak “Displacement” so it existed in a world in which SE7EN and other “diabolical killers with poetic inspiration” stories existed.
“Shibboleth” is actually a chapter from a sprawling science fiction novel I’ve never been able to sell. Editors have liked it, but saw no commercial potential for it. It’s a very dystopian work that addresses how a lot of post-apocalyptic books make the apocalypse look like fun. And also how a lot of inferior cyberpunk books make poverty look fun. There was a point in my life when I was so broke and hungry, I really think I had the beginnings of scurvy. Being hungry with bleeding gums, kicking through rubble past boarded up, burnt out buildings isn’t fun. Trust me. I wanted to write about how the “shell shock” of living through an apocalypse and the resulting physical effects of that would affect how people lived and thought and how’d they love each other if all their families had died. My template for that was Europe during the Black Death.
BJF: Stories from the Plague Years was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten Horror Books of the Year. Were you expecting the acclaim the book received?
MM: No! Didn’t see that coming, especially after the murderous drubbing the book took from Publishers Weekly, who raked me over the coals for the book’s epigraph, for God’s sake. I still chuckle over that. I was really moved the Booklist honor, because as a horror writer, any day you’re sharing space on a list that includes Stephen King is a good day. What was also extremely gratifying was “Displacement” being nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. Being in the same company as Deborah Biancotti, Reggie Oliver, Tim Waggoner, Lucius Shepard and Liz Hand was humbling.
BJF: Would Stories from the Plague Years be a good place for a new reader to experience your work for the first time?
MM: Sure! I like to think that since there’s nine stories, it’s really nine good places to start reading my work. I try to make all my stuff pretty different. If not in terms of theme, then approach and plot. I kinda wanna be a Whitman’s Sampler of a writer, only without the really icky weird fillings that taste like furniture wax.