An interview with David Nickle by Derek Newman-Stille
I was pleased that David Nickle was willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada and particularly that he shows such a strong interest in the ability of Speculative Fiction to open social questions, challenge taken-for-granted notions, and encourage readers to think for themselves.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
David Nickle: Well let’s see. I’m the son of a landscape painter and a highschool teacher, have grown up in central Ontario and near Toronto, and I make my living as a political reporter in Toronto. It’s fair to say that some of this influences my fiction, although I would only get myself into trouble trying to explain precisely how.
Spec Can: How much do you feel your Canadian identity influences your writing?
David Nickle: It doesn’t, a great deal. I’m not a big reader of Canadian literature, at least as its defined under the CanLit Protocol. I certainly pay attention to my environment—a lot of my fiction, particularly my contemporary horror fiction, hinges on a sense of place—but really, the canon that I’ve followed has been the usual mix of British and let’s say North American influences in the general sweep of fantastic fiction. So the H.P. Lovecraft-Richard Matheson-Robert Bloch-Stephen King lineage is something that shows up in my work. I also have paid heed to mainstream writers like John Irving and George Orwell and Timothy Findlay.
Really, my Canadian identity has for many years as a writer, contributed rightly or wrongly to my sense of being an outlier. Coming of age as a writer, I was constantly faced with the notion that as a Canadian speculative fiction writer, my fiction either ought to deal with humanity cast against a hostile environment—Susanna Moody in Space as it were—or preach non-violent, anti-individualist solutions to problems that an American writer might just shoot full of holes with a space blaster. Canadian specfic writers of a certain age either embraced or bore the weight of that particular critical conceit.
In general, though, I don’t think that I’ve been particularly preoccupied with those themes. I like to think that my writing, like my identity, is fundamentally my own.
Spec Can: What do you see as distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction?
David Nickle: That’s a big question, in that I think that Canadian speculative fiction has come over the decades to occupy a vast range of subject matter and theme. To that end, I think that it might be too big a question.
What really makes Canadian speculative fiction distinct, I think, is that its writers are all covered by universal health care such that they can practise their craft and their art without fear of an unexpected blood clot or cancer diagnosis bankrupting their families. And so there are a lot of us at work here, many of us able to do that work full time, because of that.
Spec Can: What are some of the questions that you hope your work will evoke in the minds of readers?
David Nickle: I’d like readers to question themselves, I guess, and the reality that they believe they inhabit. One of my cherished memories from childhood came at around five years old, when I recall considering the fact of my existence. I had, as all little kids do, experienced myself as being at the center of the universe: without me, there was nothing. But I remember slowly working it through, using all the existentialist tools that my Montessori education had provided me: that in fact, I was finite. I had been conceived in 1963, and born in early ’64. Prior to that, although the world had chugged along, I had had nothing to do with it. When I died, as I understood that people did, it would chug along further, once again, without me. As I considered this, I didn’t cry, or become angry, or turn to religion. I just became very quiet, and thoughtful, with the realization that there was more to things than I would ever, fully, be able to know. And if there was a real centre of the universe, it sure as shit wasn’t me.
That’s what I want to evoke in my work—the quiet and terrifying wonder of the unknowable void.
If I can evoke that in a five-year-old, all the better.
Spec Can: Your work deals with a lot of diverse bodies. Can you tell us a bit about your interest in the body and in diversity?
David Nickle: Hmm. There are a number of ways to parse that question. In terms of ethnic/gender diversity, I like to think that my work is as diverse as the best of them, but it’s not a conscious choice. I’ve grown up and lived for the most part in and around Toronto—and the city contains a pantheon to diversity. You can’t take two steps in this town without encountering people from all parts of the world and from across the gender/sexuality map. Toward that end, you’ve got a choice: either engage, or hunker down in your own ethnic/sexual/gender enclave. I’ve never been for the latter.
So far as the body goes, now: I’m going to parse the question such that we’re talking about some of the body horror that I’ve dealt with in some of my fiction (my first solo novel Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism comes to mind as particularly squicky in that regard). I like body horror as a writer (less so as a reader) because it is a pretty literal and direct route to getting under a reader’s skin. From the time we hit puberty, the spectacle of our changing bodies is a constant preoccupation, and I think a universal. So when we talk about change, and that mysterious and unknowable void I was talking about earlier, depicting a gestating parasite or an eyelid that opens unexpectedly in a lover’s forearm… well, it’s an attention-getter.
Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “realist” fiction can’t?
David Nickle: There’s a troubling premise embedded in that question for a writer like myself—which is to say, one who tries to write contemporary horror fiction: namely, that speculative fiction and realistic fiction exist in separate silos.
For my purposes, they don’t. I can’t write about the incursion of the strange and supernatural into a world, without that world functioning for the most part according to realistic rules. So realism is an invaluable tool for me, and I wouldn’t be able to get to the speculative elements in my fiction without it.
That said, I think that the injection of the speculative into the firmament of the real enables us to transcend the moment-to-moment realities of life on Earth. I like to think of most of my speculative elements as the metaphor in a story made real. But it also allows the reader to feel a moment of scary transcendence that while possible in realistic fiction, is much more difficult to attain.
Spec Can: You collaborated with Karl Schroeder in writing The Claus Effect. What is it like to collaborate with another author? What were some of the benefits and drawbacks?
David Nickle: I’ve collaborated twice with Karl, and once with Edo Van Belkom (on our Stoker-winning short story Rat Food). Each project was a little different. Karl and I wrote two Santa Claus stories together—The Toy Mill, which won us an Aurora Award, and The Claus Effect. Edo and I did one nasty little short story that got a fair bit of attention back in the day and, I like to think, created the genre of epicurean rodent stories that culminated in Ratatouille.
In all three cases, the biggest benefit was that it was just a lot of fun. We riffed off each other, and tried to find middle ground between our individual styles, and so in an effortless and enjoyable way, stretched as writers.
The drawback is, I guess, the drawback of any attempt at sharing in a project: the end result isn’t your own, entirely, and you have to recognize the fact that at least half of the good bits, you had nothing to do with.
And really, egos aside, that’s not much of a drawback at all.
Spec Can: In The Claus Effect, you tackle the issue of over-consumption around the holidays. What inspired you to write about the figure of Santa Claus and, in particular, the concept of greed surrounding the holidays?
David Nickle: That theme—over-consumption around the holidays—wasn’t, weirdly, what got us into the character. It was really the image of Santa Claus, as this great figure of corruption hiding behind a red suit and a funny beard; the notion of malevolence hiding, not very well, in the most benevolent of places. We also both really enjoyed the idea of taking hold of this treacly and corrupt Victorian notion and, well, turning up the volume.
Spec Can: What mythologies or ideas of the mythic influence your writing?
David Nickle: I’m influenced by a lot of things: the Bible, Greek and Norse and Central American mythology. The Cthulhu Mythos.
Probably the mythology that most influences me, though, is the collection of ideas, conceits and dreams that come together in the 1970s New Age movement. There are some who might scoff at the idea of New Age crystals and Transcendendal meditation and astral projection and aura-reading as a mythology—both people who think it’s hokum, and people who’ve built their lives around it. So be it. Having grown up with that as a big part of my household, I find that when I’m looking at supernatural/paranormal explanations and premises, I go there first. At least for now.
Spec Can: What role does the figure of the outsider play in your work? Why do outsider figures work so well in speculative fiction?
David Nickle: I’ll deal with the second part first. I think outsiders are useful in spec fic for entirely technical reasons: they provide a viewpoint that allows readers to enter a strange and complicated world, and learn about it from the ground up. Outsiders can function variously as students, as critics, and as disruptive elements. They make the story go around.
In my own work? I’m not consciously aware of the outsider as a particular trope in my stories, other than for the aforementioned reasons.
Spec Can: Many of your stories deal with the idea of love turned monstrous or distorted (i.e. The Sloan Men, The Inevitability of Earth). What can horror fiction tell us about ideas of love?
David Nickle: Well first off, I don’t want to be down on love. It is the sweetest thing, and getting it right is akin to getting your life right.
When it’s going right. I think that because of the potential payoff—a life of happiness and fulfillment—we sometimes dive at things that look a lot like love but are really nothing more than traps. That is where horror fiction comes in—because horror fiction is, on its most basic level, all about the trap.
Spec Can: Your short story Janie and the Wind deals with issues of domestic abuse. What can Speculative Fiction do to call attention to issues of domestic abuse?
David Nickle: I think that speculative fiction can do a lot to illuminate domestic abuse issues—although I’m not sure that I really did, in Janie in the Wind. In that story, the truly abusive relationships come about when the Wendigo enters a fellow. And that is a bullshit excuse that has been around for far too long: that the “devil made me do it” or some variation.
I think speculative fiction does what any good fiction does when dealing with hard, real issues like domestic abuse: it establishes a sense of empathy and understanding that journalism or other methods of inquiry cannot.
Spec Can: Your work has a dream-like quality. How do dreams influence your work?
David Nickle: Dreams themselves don’t influence my work very much; I’m not the kind of writer who wakes up from a fitful night and writes down the odd dream I had, as source material for a story. But I think that all fiction, all stories, follow a dream-logic. Because fundamentally, they’re waking dreams, and just as sleeping dreams are a kind of cognitive narrative that we impose on thoughts and memories, so are the waking dreams that are fiction.
Spec Can: Are there any other thoughts or idea that you would be interested in sharing with readers?
David Nickle: Oh, ask a writer with a book coming out for parting thoughts, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to sit through a plug for the next book.
In this case, my next book is coming out this spring/summer from ChiZine Publications. It’s called The ‘Geisters, and in brief, it looks at some of the socio-sexual implications of active poltergeists in an age of internet kink, while doing its best to scare the nose off readers. It’s also another Fenlan story (Fenlan being my little south-western Ontario answer to Stephen King’s Castlerock and H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham). Like many of the stories I’ve set there, it’s all about love gone monstrously wrong.
I want to thank David Nickle for this fantastic interview and his incredible insights and keen observations about horror, love, the figure of the outsider, coming of age as a writer in Canada, and Canadian Spec Fic in general. I am excited about reading his new book The ‘Geisters when it comes out this summer. You can explore more about David Nickle by visiting his website at http://davidnickle.blogspot.ca/ .