Nat Baldwin is a busy guy. Earlier this year, his first book was released: The Red Barn, a short collection of unsettling short stories, was published by Calamari Archive. It abounds with sinister locations, evocations of work to ominous ends, and a fantastic and disconcerting sense of place. (He’s used the phrase “ambient horror” to describe the style of the book, which seems spot-on.) He’s also a talented musician and songwriter, with a number of albums on Western Vinyl, as well as being the bassist of Dirty Projectors. I talked with Baldwin about the process of writing this book, his methods for capturing a particular locale, and how his writing processes for prose and music differ.
There are a host of unsettling and vivid images that one encounters over the course of reading The Red Barn. Was there one in particular that started everything off?
The Red Barn. That was the first image. I imagined it in the woods, some patches of dirt surrounding it, nothing else visible in its immediate sphere but dense layers of bark and branches and dark leaves. Although, I suppose I imagined the inside of the barn first. No windows. Cracked slats for floorboards. Brainwashed kids with dead eyes all huddled together, obeying orders from the Father. But I also knew immediately that the story would depend not only on the objects in the barn, but more how those objects are seen, processed and then narrated. I basically wanted to tell the same story through different perspectives in order to see how the narratives blurred and intertwined. To be clear, I’m talking about the title story, “The Red Barn”, which is the first I wrote for the book. I naively thought I could just keep writing numbered fragments and piece together some kind of fractured, not-novel novel. But I wasn’t ready for that yet. I had only been writing fiction for about a year at that point. So I wrote three of these fragments and didn’t know what the hell to do next. I sent them to Joyelle McSweeney and she was very encouraging and inspired me to dig back in. She sent me this work by Sarah Messer that helped in thinking around cyclical retelling of narrative. I got to nine fragments and decided I needed to move on. The themes and aesthetic most definitely stuck, though, guiding the work that came next. “The Red Barn” was the first thing I made that seemed to affirm that I was on the right track, or at least the track that I had been trying and failing, until then, to find.
Each section of your book stands on its own very well, but there’s also a definite arc to the book as a whole. How do you classify The Red Barn?
I say it’s a collection of loosely-connected stories. I started reading Jason Schwartz’s A German Picturesque and loved the way it was presented in three sections. He certainly does things with language in a way that is beyond me by a long shot, but I feel the books are kindred in their brutal depictions of violence. The Red Barn is an insanely short book, but it is also relentlessly intense, so I felt like breaking it up into sections was a productive way to let it breathe, before diving back into the rot. Due to the repetitions throughout the book, grouping the stories together was fairly intuitive. I wanted to make sure certain characters or scenes didn’t repeat too closely together, in order to spread the repetitions out. At the same time, there are also repetitions in the titles that worked as a way to unify each section.
Location and physical spaces are incredibly important to this book. When you’re writing, do you generally have real spaces in mind as a starting point? (I’m thinking of the lake in “The Spaces between Teeth” in particular.)
For the most part, the spaces I have in mind are only made real as they turn into text. I did have a red barn growing up as a kid, though. A basketball hoop attached. I spent more hours shooting hoops in that driveway than probably anywhere else in my life. “The Spaces between Teeth” did not have an exact physical space in mind. I guess I was kind of imagining the marshland that I grew up near, but I think I was only reminded of it as I got deeper into the writing of the story, so the physical image didn’t come first. That story came to life in a Peter Markus workshop where the assignment was to write a story in twelve sections with twelves sentences in each section and twelve words in each sentence. My finished product was not a complete work, but it’s a wonder what can happen once you start crossing things out. Speaking of the number twelve, I’m about to start reading Timothy Pachirat’s book Every Twelve Seconds. He’s a political scientist that worked undercover in an industrial slaughterhouse that kills 2500 cattle every day, one every twelve seconds.
The opening of “The Stalls in the Barn” evokes the narrator’s routines before taking a sinister turn. How do you best structure something so that it gives that sense of task after task after task?
I’m glad that one stuck out. That was one that really piled up the rejections! It ended up being a nice kind of preview to the final story “Let Me See the Colts”. It started from the image of a character that doesn’t think much beyond immediate actions, while alluding to the potential danger of a select few actions in order to build tension, indicating at least a certain level of awareness despite the task-heavy repetitions. On the other hand, I wanted the tension to be just as palpable in the sentences that do not allude to any danger. That’s where the idea of creating this commanding imperative around each action, the fact that this character thinks they “must” do said task. Why “must” they and what will happen if they don’t? I wanted to explore the layers of a character that thinks within a very limited view. As far as structuring the tasks, a lot of that is directed by sound. I always think it goes without saying, but I’m definitely following the sentences from sound to sound, as much as from action to action or task to task. I suppose that’s what all writers are doing that on certain level, but I’m very easily distracted by sound so it often directs the path of the narrative more than anything else.
As someone who’s doing creative work in multiple disciplines, I’m curious: is the process by which you work on a story at all similar to writing a song, or do they differ pretty substantially?
There are similarities for sure. I usually begin a song without any preconceived ideas, which is akin to a blank page (and mind). I just start mumbling melodies in gibberish over improvised chord structures, or perhaps just over one chord. The syllabic-nonsense mumbling is similar to fumbling over the keys to find the right combination of words. I edit stories relentlessly as I go. Sometimes I wish I could just blast out 1000 words in 30 minutes and then go back and cut it up, but that’s just not how I work. I go word by word, sentence by sentence. Of course, I go back at the end and edit, and things may shift drastically in a formal sense, but as far as getting the guts of the story, it’s pretty tedious. Songs are the same way, for the most part, although at this point I’ve been doing it a lot longer so it comes a lot easier. When I get a part of a song down, I always have to keep repeating it in order to get to the next part. I do the same thing with writing stories, constantly reading out loud the previous sections when I’m figuring out where to go next. There’s a similar feeling, too, in both songs and stories, when it’s clear things have finally come together and the pieces are in the right place. It’s a powerful feeling.
The text in the book is interspersed with sinister black-and-white images of farms and distorted bodies. Were those your doing? The publisher’s?
As far as the actual images, I had no hand whatsoever as far as what went where (aside from inspiring them via text), that was all Derek White, the mastermind behind Calamari Archive. When he sent me a draft of the layout, I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect look for the book. Derek truly understands the aesthetic and I feel lucky as hell to have landed with him at Calamari.
Photo credit: Western Vinyl