“The Whole Thing Was Built on Nuance”: Peter Straub on Fiction, Jazz, and the Making of “Interior Darkness”

Straub author photo

One of the most significant moments in my reading life to date came when was in high school and Peter Straub‘s novel The Throat. The metafictional elements found in that novel were my first really immersive experience in that as a storytelling technique, and the effect was groundbreaking, an expansion of what I was aware that fiction was capable of doing. I’ve continued to read Straub’s work over the years, and on the occasion of the publication of Interior Darkness, a selection of short fiction from across his career as a writer, I spoke with him about a host of topics, from his lifelong interest in jazz to his take on the genre-versus-literary debate. An edited version of our conversation follows.

What was your process like as far as reviewing your existing to select work for Interior Darkness?

That was a bit of a task. My original wish was to have a collected stories, and that would have turned out to have been about two volumes, which was absurd, of course. I realized that I did have to make choices for individual stories. I picked my favorites among my own work, and the ones that saw me doing something unusual or something particular to me. I’ve written a number of stories that I think could have been written by no one else. For example, “Little Red’s Tango,” “Lapland,” and “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine.” I very much wanted that to be in there.

I did have a question of balance. I didn’t want too many stories dealing with the same theme. What that came down to in the end was deciding whether or not I wanted to have two rather big stories about child abuse, or two fairly lengthy stories about torture. It didn’t seem to me that I could have both. I felt that I had to make a choice, and so I chose two stories about torture. I like those stories very, very much; they are, in fact, “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff,” which is rooted in Bartleby the Scrivener, and “The Ballard of Ballard and Sandrine.” I figured, people would be able to take the torture, which in any case happens off-screen, as it were, more easily than they could handle two very, very close-up examinations of the sexual abuse of a little boy. I figured that one of those was probably enough for the readers of a single volume of my work.

“The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” has so many fascinating elements: the central relationship, the location, and the way the structure moves through time. Was there any one of those that came first when you conceived of it and were writing it?

The element that really came first, and it occurred to me many years ago, was the idea of two intense, pain-driven lovers on a boat going down the Amazon. I made a note of fewer words than that in my notebook, thinking that one day I might do something with that, and then I forgot about it. Twenty years later, I opened up the notebook again, and there it was. I said, “Well, I’m not going to write it the way I would have then, but I like the idea a lot.” It was deeply enjoyable to write. It’s a love story of the simplest possible kind; it’s simply expressed in this outrageous, extravagant manner that also seems to involve time travel and a destabilized environment and a location that makes subtle changes over and over. The same thing appears to happen over and over and over. I simply like all of that. It helps me say things that I couldn’t say in any other way about the operations of memory and feeling in the passage of emotion between two people. You sometimes feel as though something had happened before. You wonder exactly where you were when another alteration in your basic pattern occurred. Life suddenly seems a little deeper and richer than it had. That’s about all I had in mind.

As the stories in Interior Darkness get more recent, it seems as though the work becomes more experimental. A story like “Lapland, or Film Noir” takes a number of big risks in the storytelling. Did you always have the desire to write in a more experimental vein, or was that something that you came to?

I think that that grew upon me. I began to get tired with, or bored with, conventional narrative reflexes. I wasn’t at all happy to feel at some point, maybe ten years ago, that conventional narrative of a sort that I’d always loved and tried to emulate was, in fact, uncomfortable. It was very much directed from above, that the writer was so much in control that he was manipulating the responses of his readers to inspire the feelings and the level of feeling that he wished to evoke. All of that seemed a little dubious, all of a sudden, to me. It made my job a little more complex, and a little more up for grabs. In novels, I began to take chances of the sort that never would have occurred to me earlier. If you read a novel called lost boy lost girl quite carefully, you’ll observe that very strange things are going on in that novel that can lead to a certain point that’s quite satisfying and beautiful. A closer reading will lead you to another point altogether, far less comfortable, not at all beautiful, and rather stonier. The book after that was called In the Night Room, and I couldn’t face the boredom of writing detailed passages about the childhood of one of the central characters, so it occurred to me to make her an invention of the main character. To make her a fictional character of his, so that there were all sorts of things that I didn’t have to describe, because certain fictional characters only have history and experiences given to them.

It’s also passed over to my shorter fiction. I was never at all interested in writing really conventional short stories of a Twilight Zone kind. The built-in level of boredom was too great for me to overcome, and I wasn’t interested in that sort of thing at all. Now, the last thing I wrote, which is the last piece in Interior Darkness, is half baby talk, which was a way for me to work with a certain enigmatic, dark kind of material in a very, very fresh way.

I was wondering about that story [“The Collected Short Stories of Freddy Prothero”]. How did you channel the perspective of a child who doesn’t have the same command of language that you do?

You know, I don’t know how. There’s no answer to that. I just threw myself into it. One reviewer said that my small boy seemed to remain younger than his ears, even as it goes through time. That may be true, but I can’t say it matters that much, because I like the way he wrote his last piece. I liked the spellings and I like the way it ends. It very much suggested the kind of mystery and bleakness and submerged fear that I was trying to evoke all the way through.

Jazz shows up in a number of these stories–some characters are jazz musicians, others write about it or collect records. How much of an effect on your own writing has jazz had?

Jazz had a huge effect on me personally and on my work. The first jazz record that I ever bought–which, by the way, is called Brubeck Time–was the first studio recording made by the Quartet in 1955 or 1956, something like that. It was made by a group who had yet to become unfashionable. (laughs) That is, at the time, they were still thought of as a jazz band and not some kind of gilded, boring, time management scheme. What really struck me, and what took me a little while to understand, was that what felt to me as an unprecedented, in fact radical, degree of expressivity granted to the jazz soloist. I burrowed deeply into that record, which took me ten listens–I repeated it daily, over and over, because I really wanted to get it. On that record, what the piano player and the alto player were doing was reaching a level of communication that was a step above the level of speech. They were speaking at a higher, more radiant, more perfect level. Also, a level that has a more direct level to our emotions than ordinary speech generally has. It also seems full of subtlety to me, full of nuance. In a way, it was all nuance. The whole thing was built on nuance. The possibility had never occurred to me, and it blew me away.

I became a jazz connoisseur. I’ve never been able to be subtle about my enthusiasm, and I like to communicate it always to the people around me. I began to talk to the people I knew, including my poor parents, endlessly about jazz. The more I listened to it and the more I learned and the farther I went with it, the more I got out of it, and the more rewarding it was. It was a way in to adult life for me. It showed me that there was another way through life than the manner of life demonstrated for me and modeled for me by my parents, by my teachers, and the part of the adult world that I could see. It didn’t have much in common with the values and the ways of being that was implied by the inspired souls of jazz musicians. It helped me very, very greatly. It helped me see that there was another way through life, and that one didn’t have to be completely conventional to survive.

You’ve written introductions for a number of writers’ books, including Brian Evenson’s Last Days, which Coffee House just released a new edition of. How do you feel about your role in terms of getting readers to pay attention to other writers’ work?

That’s a privilege. I’m very happy to do it. The strange mechanism that I just described about jazz is at work in these transactions. That is, I am delighted to be able to communicate to the world at large what I think is most valuable, and the work of these writers can seem under-appreciated to me. Brian Evenson is a spectacular prose writer. Everything about him is original. He is a wonderful mind. He has an astonishingly bleak vision. Have I said he’s hugely smart? Because he is. This, and his originality, and the quality of his talent, make his work irresistible to me. It’s also my sense that I haven’t reached the bottom of it, that there’s a lot more in it. There are a lot more rooms that I haven’t opened in his work. That makes it appealing. I have a sense often, in reading Brian Evenson, that there are still more doors in those stories and in those novels that I haven’t opened. When I do open them, I’ll find more validation of how good he is.

There have been very few cases–there was only one case–where I agreed to write an introduction for a writer I liked and then discovered that I didn’t much like the book. I was in a terrible pickle, and I resolved it by a kind of extravagance. It avoided the whole nature of the quality of the book; it took it as a springboard for its own invention. Ordinarily, I don’t have to labor that hard to find something to say about a book. If I respond very directly and emotionally and intellectually to it, then my job is a matter of tying up and organizing that material in a way that communicates it clearly to my reader. You’re a cheerleader and a tour guide when you take on that role. You want to be as intelligent as you can be so you do justice to the writer that you are trying to praise. I haven’t done a lot of that, but I always found something really valuable in what I had to do. In books like The Stepford Wives, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Dracula, I wrote longish introductions, and I found something that I hadn’t known before in each book. It was a real pleasure when I did that.

A lot of literary commentary that I’m reading nowadays talks about the blurring of lines between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” As someone who has, for a long time, been working on both sides of that divide–are we all catching up to what you were doing decades ago? Is this something that you’ve noticed as well?

I’ve been trying for a longish time to obliterate the lines between genre fiction and literary fiction. My initial way of trying to do that was simply to write the books that I was writing as well as I could, without any trace of writing down or relying on generic formulae. Those were the objections that readers of literary fiction seemed to raise when they dismissed genre fiction. I had read plenty of genre fiction that justifies those complaints. There are plenty of people who really want ice cream sundaes, and they have every right to get them, and there are some writers out there who make perfect ice cream sundaes. They should be celebrated–they earn every penny of their income and they give the readers who seek them out a good time.

It isn’t what I wanted to do. I never wanted to repeat myself. My project was different. My project was far more exploratory. As a result, I’ve been afflicted throughout my writing life with terrible ambivalence with my identity as a writer of genre fiction. I’m always identified in that way, and I know why. I invite that kind of identification, either when I’m trying to prove or demonstrate that any classification like that is riddled with flaws. I did read an interview between two good young writers, one of whom had written a recent novel that deals with a post-apocalyptic world–in other words, I would say, a science fiction novel. Not written in a straightforward science fiction way, but with a science fictional premise. It’s firmly in that field. The writer was desperate not to be classified as a science fiction writer, and the interviewer was equally desperate to avoid that designation.

What made this memorable for me was when the interviewer said to the writer of the novel in question that there was a strong feeling that he had that genre fiction was for stupid people. And I never recovered from this debacle. Because seemed so reflexive, so thoughtless, so crude. I thought, “Have you read Kelly Link? Have you read John Crowley? Have you read the best of Stephen King?” It seems to come from a kind of ignorance, a profound ignorance, both intellectual and moral in its nature. It was such an easy dismissal of all kinds of writers that this particular writer had never read, and probably had never even heard of. That kind of thing rankles with me.

I’ve met a great many people–far more than I ever would have expected–who do me the favor of speaking as though they understand that the boundaries of what is called genre and what is called literary fiction are very, very porous–so porous as, very often, to be nonexistent. No one can tell me that The Long Goodbye is of a different kind of writing than, say, Sister Carrie. They’re both really, really good novels, and what they have in common is stronger and better and more abundant than what separates them. Those examples are somewhat rough and not drawn with a great deal of care, but it does point to exactly what I’ve come to feel at my core–that the whole business is a kind of sham, and it’s rooted in defensiveness on both sides. I’ve seen literary writers shy away in distaste from genre writers, and have known that they weren’t fit to shine their shoes, that what they had going for them was a sort of easy snobbery. I haven’t seen this very often, but I’ve seen that kind of interaction happen twice. Both times, which were at literary festivals, it distressed me, a lot. And by distressed, I mean it irritated me. I thought, “Who do they think they are?” The kind of thing that I’m saying may sound more juvenile than I should be revealing, but it’s a big part of the way that I feel.


Photo: Jennifer Calivas

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.