an interview with Peter Straub
by David Mathew
Every page has the imprimatur, the stamp; has a seal of approval - a guarantee of literary quality. And every paragraph is solid and stately, for Peter Straub, once described (accurately, by Clive Barker) as a "classicist" builds up architecture. Or more specifically, architecture that lives and breathes; architecture that has learnt how to dance. From the beginning of his career in fiction, which was Marriages in 1973 (though he had published poetry earlier), Straub spoke in a clear, commanding voice; and from his first foray into the horror genre, which was Julia (1975) he displayed a clear understanding of tradition, pace, belief and feeling: important factors if one wishes to be appreciated by one's peers. When I ask the author how he feels he fits in among his contemporaries (and the question is deliberately vague!), Straub replies with the sort of humour that one does not necessarily expect, and with a roster of fellow artists that suggests that Straub is still content to be regarded as a horror writer:
"Well, you call it vague, but I call it obdurate unto total mystery," he says. "I call it caille en sarcophage. How should I know? I've managed to hang around long enough to be given a degree of reflexive, pro forma respect, which is okay, and if I make it through another fifteen to twenty years, I might get a Life Achievement Award, depending on the jury. My contemporaries are Stephen King, Thomas Tessier, Ramsey Campbell, Charles Grant, Dennis Etchison, James Herbert, Jack Ketchum/Dallas Mayr, Anne Rice, Les Daniels, John Saul, Whitley Strieber, Brian Lumley, Graham Masterton, Dean Koontz and few others. Good Michael McDowell used to be a contemporary, but he died this year, and Robert McCammon was a kind of younger contemporary but claims to have resigned. John Coyne, whom I always liked, vanished from our field, I hope into a more fruitful one. Amongst all these people, I fit in as the second-or-third-tallest and the most bald. I write longer sentences than most of the others, maybe because I probably like Henry James more than they do. Almost all of my contemporaries have seen far more horror movies than I have, especially Ramsey Campbell and Les Daniels. After having listed all these names, what most strikes me is that they make up an extremely entertaining group, and I'm grateful to fit in amongst them at all."
We might argue that Straub stopped writing Horror (capital H, marketing pigeonhole) directly after finishing The Talisman, which he co-wrote with Stephen King and was published in 1984; and we might say this because the book that followed was Koko (1988). Despite the fact that it won the World Fantasy Award, Koko contains only minimal nods towards the fantastic, and was not published as a Horror novel either. But nevertheless, this tour de force - this thriller about Vietnam veterans and a serial killer is a horror novel if we use the word to mean the emotion that stows aboard books of any genre, and even aboard mainstream fiction, rather than the definition of "books with blood and guts". Do we see the distinction? Despite the perception of too many people - really, too many - horror does not have to mean fiction about gore or ghosts per se. (Nor does there have to be a shock at the end of the story, or at the end of every chapter.) No more than science fiction is that about spaceships. What Straub has managed to do, as Horror has gone through its cycles of deterioration and analepsis, is remain true to a personal vision; and has had the savvy to work on novels that can be appreciated by people who only read either inside or outside the genres. Because genres slough their skin from time to time: it's only natural. It's a way of warding off the disease of indifference; or to leap the barricades put up by readers - to offer up something new. And genres, above all, should address and provoke the reader's mood, which Straub also achieves. A thriller, for example, that does nothing for the reader's blood has failed, categorically; but Straub has kept his work sharp and engaging by addressing two key themes: the loss of innocence, and the irritability of a past that wants to be spoken about. He agrees with my assessment, although adds: "I might replace 'irritability' with 'implacability'."
Furthermore, and interestingly, it is possible to add that Straub works in multiples of ten, or thereabouts. Although the figures are not spot-on accurate, some interesting patterns have developed, notwithstanding certain overlaps. Just look at the evidence. With his wife he spent a decade in England and Ireland, mainly writing poetry (such as Ishmael (1972), Open Air (also 1972), and the subsequent round-up, Leeson Park and Belsize Square: Poems 1970-1975, which was published later in 1983), but also some early novels. "We went back to an almost unrecognizable America after a decade in Dublin and London for a couple of reasons. Our son, Benjamin, had just turned two, and we would soon have had to place him in a school, probably one of the Comprehensives in our general area of North London. Doing so would have meant his quick assimilation into the world of English - or at least North London - schoolchildren, with the consequent loss of his identity as an American. (Many would find this an excellent reason for staying in good old Crouch End.)
"We could have delayed our return for another two or three years, but for a matter of timing. My first real breakthrough collided with the last months of Callaghan's Labour government, which had every intention of enjoying my success as much as I did. For years, I had uncomplainingly paid my taxes to Inland Revenue with the feeling of fulfilling my share of a decent bargain between private income and social welfare. The bargain no longer seemed so decent when I was faced with the obligation of surrendering something like ninety per cent of the revenue from Ghost Story in taxes. I had no idea if I could ever duplicate the book's success; on the whole, it seemed more than a little unlikely. My accountant entered a string of figures on a strip of adding machine tape about a yard long, ripped it out and showed it to me. 'This is what you're going to owe if you stay,' he said. 'I suggest that you put your house on the market last month and leave England yesterday.' We left a few months later.
"We should have anticipated having to suffer culture shock, but because we were returning to our own country we did not, and it hit us like a tidal wave. Our neighbours in beautiful little Westport, Connecticut, might as well have been Martians. They spoke in flat, uninflected voices about banalities, endlessly. No one had anything like a sense of irony, irony was a foreign language, an unhealthy affection. Sincerity was the real deal - you were supposed to grip the other fellow's hand, look him in the eye and be as sincere as you could damn well pretend to be, because that's how you got him to like you, and being liked was important. In a world where everyone likes everyone else, or puts up a good show of liking everyone else, an immediate, false intimacy prevails. Boundaries dissolve, discretion becomes a form of snobbery. One day while I was regarding the extravagant cornucopia displayed along the meat counter of our local supermarket, Waldbaum's, a woman I had never seen before pushed her cart next to mine and without preamble said, 'I have to tell you, my first three abortions were really awful.' My wife and I adjusted, but it took a couple of years."
Straub's overtly supernatural and/or fantastical fiction was written, also, over a period of approximately ten years, though as I say, the periods were not successive; there were overlaps (and the timescales are flukes anyway, given the publication schedules of most publishing houses, but nevertheless). The supernatural work - including Julia, If You Could See Me Now (1977), Ghost Story (1979), Shadowland (1980), and Floating Dragon (1982) - saw Peter Straub make a big name for himself among the hard-hitters of commercial fiction. But he rarely reads his very early work. "It would be like walking through a house I'd moved out of years before, sort of interesting but not really, like an exercise in premeditated nostalgia. There have been times when I reread - or at least leafed through - something because I'd sent a copy to a friend, and what usually happened was that I noticed dozens and dozens of clumsy phrases I wished I could rewrite." Some writers can remember every first line they have ever penned. Can he? "Oh, certainly. Two of them are 'Call me Ishmael' and 'There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.' Pretty good, huh? I am also very fond of the first line of Floating Dragon: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' Man, that was a really good day - I can still remember the way I felt when I wrote that line..." And asked to sketch out his novels briefly for the benefit of someone who hasn't read any of his work (a bastard of a question, I don't mind admitting), Straub responds in a humorous tone - as of someone engaged in mickey-taking oneupmanship - that one can imagine served him well in our green and pleasant land, where sarcasm and irony are voices we all use well. "I'll pass on the invitation to write novel-haikus," Straub replies, "and just say that anyone wishing to look into my work might well start with Ghost Story and go on to Shadowland and Koko."
It was Koko (1988) which began the third stage (if you like) of Straub's career, after the poetry and the Horror - and this has lasted longer than ten years, admittedly: the more reality-based, horror-flavoured, devilishly intricate thriller. He informs me that "it would be impossible to pick out any single 'favourite'" of his own novels, because: "if I did, the other children would get jealous. However, I think I managed to reach a new level with Koko, and I will always be grateful for the experience." It might be argued that the work leading up to Koko and the work following it are changes of vehicle rather than changes of gear. Straub says: "Something happened with Koko, all right, a kind of expansion and deepening. To me, it feels less like a switch to a new automobile than getting a better performance out of the old engine by cleaning it from top to bottom and replacing everything needed to be replaced."
In an interview a long time ago, Straub said that he had been half-expecting some angry comeback from people who fought in Vietnam when he published Koko. Twelve years after the book's publication, I wondered what the reactions, in fact, had been like. At the time Straub expressed concerns along these lines - that some people might think: Well, who does he think he is, writing about Vietnam when he didn't even fight there. "Yes, exactly. After all, I was trespassing on sacred ground. That I imagined I had some authentic insight into the experience of combat veterans did not mean they would agree with me. In the end, the response turned out to be very gratifying, on the whole. I got a lot of letters from vets, also from the wives of Vietnam vets, thanking me for getting things right, for making it possible for them to talk about the things that had happened to them. I can hardly express what these letters meant to me... On the other hand, Philip Caputo dismissed the book as yet another objectionable portrayal of Vietnam veterans as psychotics and losers. A guy living in a section of some Californian city called "Little Saigon" who had served in Vietnam and wrote action-adventure novels sent me a photograph of himself seated at his desk holding an automatic rifle while a pretty Vietnamese woman draped herself over his shoulders. The photograph was folded within a letter informing me it was pretty clear, on the evidence of Koko, that I preferred little boys to Asian females. The last line of the letter said, "If you weren't there, shut the fuck up." I wrote back that he ought to give up the pose, writing was writing and there were no rules, all you could do was step up to the plate and take your best swing. -Nuts to you, I said to myself as I dropped the letter into the mailbox, and for the next two weeks, every time the doorbell rang I wondered if he and his rifle were paying me a visit."
In some of the novels and novellas since Koko, Peter Straub has begun to create a universe, based on his own characters. Stories are continued, and there are frequent cross-references; the completist has lots to feed on whenever he publishes new material. Here, we'd be referring to Mystery (1990), The Throat (1993), and others. "Of course. Many fiction writers eventually want to feel that their work forms a single, unified entity. Certain particular themes run through it; an individual point of view can be seen emerging, developing, finding different forms of expression. It is tempting to reinforce this sense of commonality by literalizing it through the use of characters who appear in a number of different books. I have done that, though only to a very limited degree. Where I seem to be creating deliberate cross-links between books, in the "Blue Rose" novels and stories, my ultimate intention was quite different from that of emphasizing the "shared world" nature of the novels. Instead, I was interested in what I guess I could call narrative indeterminacy, in questioning the apparent, taken-for-granted authority of any particular representation of the events in question. Stories attributed to me turn out to have been written by a recurring character who is also a novelist; specific events in the earlier life of one character are later claimed by another; I, the author, become a character, a minor one who has collaborated on the earlier novels with my more perceptive fictional alter ego; the common setting, a medium-sized Midwestern city, changes its name as it migrates from Wisconsin to the Caribbean, then to Illinois...
"The actual Blue Rose murders, which lie at the core of the three novels, yield various incorrect solutions which assume the status of truth. One of the victims is actually unconnected to the case. When, in the third book, we do learn the identity of the Blue Rose murderer, the information comes in a muted, nearly off-hand manner, and the man has died long before. Despite all theories to the contrary, he has no relevance to the crimes presently under investigation. Previous depictions of reality expressed in newspaper stories and fictional accounts have been discredited, and the surest, most accurate tool for the apprehension of the ever-shifting, multi-layered enigma called 'truth' seems to be imagination - the creation of more fiction."
Also among the later work is The Hellfire Club (1996), which boasts (if the word does not seem too ironic in context) the despicable creature named Dick Dart. It is considerably to Peter Straub's credit that a new variation on the theme of the psychopathic smartarse can be found: but find one Mr Straub did. Dart is horrendous. "Dick Dart emerged from the ether during a flight from New York with my wife and children to Puerto Rico. I had been working on The Hellfire Club for about a year of ever-increasing despair, unable to find anything like a centre, a mainspring, as the pages piled up. I thought I was all through, finished, and the only reason I was going to Puerto Rico was that we had already booked the holiday and I thought we might as well enjoy ourselves before the arrival of actual ruin. On the flight, Mr. Richard Dart, my favourite lawyer, until then a mere spear-carrier restricted to an appearance in the background of a single scene, leaned forward and whispered into my ear that if I paid attention to him for a couple of minutes he could save my ass, how about it?
"I pulled my notebook out of the carry-on bag and listened to Mr. Dart's ideas. And you know what? Mr. Dart was a really repulsive guy, but he expressed himself in a surprisingly pungent, funny way. I wrote down everything he said. He wanted to take over the novel, naturally, but in the absence of any better ideas, I gave him his head. Every day for the following week, I reported to the hotel pool with my notebook and a supply of pens and took dictation. One thing about Dick Dart, he always had a lot to say."
And then there are the shorter pieces: the award-winning "Mr Clubb and Mr Cuff", at the conclusion of which Straub felt "more satisfied than I should admit. I began more or less blind, knowing only that I wanted to write a revenge story that used "Bartleby" as its foundation. I had just reread the Melville novella and been bowled over by it. The voice appeared the moment I started to write, and the story rolled along under its own steam, getting longer and longer every day. When it was done, everything seemed to fall into place. I thought it was one of the best things I'd ever written, and I still do." And of course, the latest offering, Pork Pie Hat - which, to nail my colours to the mast, as it were, I will here and loudly declare a bloody masterpiece. What I loved about Pork Pie Hat is that it can be read as having a wealth of possible interpretations. It's incredibly dense - but flows beautifully. Did Straub have to structure and re-structure it in order to make all the connections and possibilities work? "No, I just wrote it from beginning to end. The revisions were all stylistic in nature. I'm glad you liked it." It, and others, show signs, perhaps, of the author's fondness for reading mysteries, too. "I do read a lot of mystery novels - those by Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, plus many others. Whenever one or more of my characters get into a car and drive all over town talking to people, I know I'm imitating Ross Macdonald."
Pork Pie Hat is the story of a story, which is also true of The Hellfire Club. A jazz fan asks his hero for an interview, but gets much more than he bargained for. Said hero, the eponymous saxophone player (who is nobody's idea of a hero if we consider him as a person) is knocking at death's door, a prey to drink, depression and malnutrition. I asked Peter Straub how the novella had come about. "The inspiration for Pork Pie Hat came from a long moment in a videotape of 'The Sound of Jazz,' a live television broadcast in 1957 or 1958 that assembled a lot of great jazz musicians in a studio and let them play whatever they felt like for the space of an entire hour. Just before its conclusion, Billie Holiday sat perched on a stool to sing a blues she had written called "Fine and Mellow" at the centre of a circle made up of heroic figures like Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Rex Stewart, and - above all - the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, then only months from the end of his life and in terrible shape. Billie sang a chorus, two musicians played a chorus apiece, Billie sang another chorus, and so on...
"Lester Young wandered into view at the beginning of the second go-round. Someone had to give him a push in the back to get him on his feet and moving toward the microphone. You can see him lick his reed and settle the horn in his mouth. What he plays is one uncomplicated chorus of the blues that moves from phrase to phrase with a kind of otherworldly majesty. Sorrow, heartbreak, and what I can only call wisdom take place through the mechanism of following one note, usually a whole note, with another one, slowly. There he is, this stupendous musician who had once transformed everything about him by the grace of his genius, this present shambles, this human wreckage, hardly able to play at all, delivering a statement that becomes more and more perfect, more and more profound as it advances from step to step. I cried every time I watched it, and I watched it over and over. I played it for my friends and made them watch it. Eventually, I wondered: what could lead a person to a place like that, what brought him there? That was the origin of Pork Pie Hat."
Straub's enthusiasm for jazz is well-known (and I'd love to see his collection); there are references to jazz that run like veins through his body of work - even in The Talisman. (Koko, for example, is the name of a tune by Charlie Parker.) When I ask Straub what his favourite is of someone else's work, he answers: "How about the Paul Desmond solo on 'These Foolish Things' described in Mr. X? Or Richard Strauss's 'Metamorphosen'? But I suppose you mean a favourite book. The only valid way to answer that would be by saying, 'My favourite Irish Murdoch novel is The Nice and the Good, my favourite Tolstoy novel is Anna Karenina, my favourite Dickens novel is Bleak House, my favourite John Ashbery poem is 'The Skaters,' and so on." A different writer altogether, Anthony Burgess, used to say that the future of the novel depended on its fusion with classical music, but died before he could bring anything of the kind off. Would Peter Straub be able to see anything like that as being within the realms of possibility, replacing the word "classical" with "jazz"? "Maybe Burgess was just trying to be outrageous," is the answer, "though of course he was deeply involved with music. But what could he have had in mind? 'Ah, we have just received the manuscript of Mr. Burgess' new novel. Let me give the first chapter to the violin section, so we can hear what it sounds like.' I don't think anything I've ever written could be played on the tenor saxophone, but I have listened to so much jazz that I suppose a little must have rubbed off. I pay attention to cadences and rhythms, to musical effects, but prose-music is very different from actual music. Long ago, some reviewer said that a couple of paragraphs I'd written 'danced', but he did not say that you could dance to them." For what it's worth, I agree: the architecture dances, not the reader.
For the author, next up, as you might have missed if you've been vacationing on another planet, Peter Straub will be working once more with Stephen King - on the sequel to The Talisman - which might just usher in another movement in the former's career direction. As presumptuous as it might be to say so, I think we can reliably assume that a return to a more heavily-handed horror is on the cards. The idea of the sequel "seemed too interesting to pass up," Straub says. "I had noticed that King's concerns and mine were converging in an unexpected way: Bag of Bones made use of Rebecca and Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," both of which had been much on my mind, the former in Mr. X and the latter as the basis for "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff." When he asked about doing a sequel, we compared notes on how we saw the story going and discovered that our ideas matched perfectly. After that, the decision was an easy one. Besides that, I should say that King is a pleasure to work with and very agreeable company, extremely smart and very funny." It was "King (who) initially proposed that we do a sequel, and the first hints of the story were mutually suggested. It will not be called Talisman 2, because it'll be a novel, not a movie. We are working on a kind of Bible for the book right now. Once we start writing, I suppose we will send e-mail attachments back and forth. We're both looking forward to this with a great deal of pleasure."
His opinion of the publishing scene at the moment is "no doubt pretty much that of most other writers - do you have anything to drink, could we maybe go to a movie, is there any aspirin around here? Hey, all of a sudden I have this terrible headache, I think I'd better lie down for a while. We used to enjoy very pleasant weather in this part of the country, but now the only breaks we get from the blizzards are the occasional ice storms. When I tried to take a shower this morning, the pipes were frozen, and when I opened the New York Times, the big headline on the front page of the Business section read, 'AOL/Warner/ Putnam/Nike-Reebok/RJ Reynolds/Citibank/Burger King Publishing Conglomerate Signs Di Caprio-Pitt-Paltrow Trio For 2-Book, $550 Million Advance, Believed Largest Ever.' Twenty-one years ago, in the interim between their acceptance and publication of my book Ghost Story, I went to the then-annual Christmas party held by the then-notable English publishing house of Jonathan Cape. A Cape editor I had not previously met came up to me and said, 'Good for you, young man, you broke through with your fourth novel. That's rather unusual. We never expect that kind of thing to happen until the fifth novel.' Try to imagine someone saying that today."
But Peter Straub (thankfully, from the point of view of his readers) continues to produce excellent work, with the copyright credit going to something called the Seafront Corporation. The structure of which is as follows: "The mighty Seafront Corporation somehow manages to sustain itself through the efforts of a single essential employee, who is proud to call himself its President and CEO. Should that guy ever resign and walk away, I don't know what would happen to the organization. We drudges, the little people, would have to scramble, I can tell you that for sure."
And is it possible to describe an average working day? I ask - too unspecifically. "Yes, of course! An average working day begins at 8 or 9 am, includes an hour for lunch, and ends at 5 or 6 pm. Actual work takes up approximately a third of the day, not counting the lunch hour, and the remaining two-thirds are spent in meetings, gossip, flirtations, and checking out e-mail, favourite news groups and porn sites on the Internet. My working day is nothing like that at all. On non-gym days, I arise at noon; attire myself in one of my legendary Savile Row chalk-stripe suits; go downstairs to feed the cats their Super Vitamin Enhanced Cod & Shrimp Gourmet Feast; enjoy a glass of skim milk and try to figure out if I am supposed to eat breakfast or lunch; pull something nondescript out of the refrigerator and eat it while fending off the cats, who have decided that although yesterday they thought the Cod & Shrimp Gourmet Feast was just the ticket, today they think it's crap, and what I am eating looks much, much tastier; trudge all the way upstairs to my office; turn on all the equipment; sit down at my desk; look at the computer; and bend over, clutching my head in my hands, and groan. The next few hours are spent in the coal mine. I may or may not go back downstairs to eat another nondescript something, depending on hunger. Around six, I report again to the kitchen, not for a meal but a nice big glass filled with ice and a transparent liquid narcotic, which I greedily take back upstairs so that I can get in some more groaning. At 8 or thereabouts, I go down for dinner, and a couple of hours later remount the stairs, pick up my lantern and my pickaxe, and go back into the coalmine until after 3 in the morning, when I climb into bed. On gym days, I don't get to my desk until 4 in the afternoon, and everything except bedtime and the appointment with the liquid narcotic is pushed back a bit."
This interview first appeared in TTA.
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