Sunday, October 4, 2009

Stabbed In Stanzas: Feature Poet, Michael A. Arnzen

Interview conducted by Karen L. Newman

Michael A. Arnzen is no stranger to horror fans. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award in 1994 for First Novel, Grave Markings; in 2003 for Alternative Forms, The Goreletter; in 2005 for Poetry Collection, Freakaccidents; and in 2007 for Fiction Collection, Proverbs for Monsters. He was a Bram Stoker Award Finalist in 2001 and 2003 for Poetry Collection, Paratabloids and Gorelets: Unpleasant Poems, respectively; in 2004 for Fiction Collection, 100 Jolts; and again in 2004 for Alternative Forms, The Goreletter. He won the International Horror Critics Guild Award for First Novel in 1994 for Grave Markings. He was honored as Best New Writer in 1992 by the Small Press Writers and Artists Organization and Best Fiction Writer in 1995 by the Genre Writers Association. He shares his immense knowledge and talent as a tenured professor at Seton Hill University.

KLN: You’re a rare talent to have mastered fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Which is your favorite form and why? Of all your works, which is your favorite and why?
MAA: Oh, I'd never claim I've "mastered" anything, but you're right that I've been lucky enough to find publishing success in vastly different forms and formats. I think I juggle them all because I really am always, at base, testing the way language delivers meaning, and I'm always trying to think of new ways that the form of a work can change the way the horror is delivered. But if you held a gun to my head and said "pick one or die, Arnzen," then I'd say likely say fiction is my favorite, if only because I often feel like I fall into the world of the story when I'm writing it and the story begins to virtually write itself...poetry and non-fiction are too crafty and/or rational for that sort of "escape" to happen, though it does happen sometimes, just in a different, more intellectual way that I could never explain. In any case, that sort of "escape" -- which may not even be the right term for it -- is exactly the sort of pleasure I'm after when I'm writing. It's a mental zone I like to return to, again and again. And I think it's quite similar to the "zone" readers escape into when they read, as well.

KLN: You were born in Amityville, NY. Did living there contribute to your becoming a horror writer?
MAA: Yes, I was possessed by Jody the Pig, in order to channel the demonic sow's blasphemous malediction into my stories. But that's not all! I have been unable to escape the haunting in my travels across the country, and now that I've settled down I have a bloody toilet overflow problem, a strange red room that I call my basement office, and several flies, well, everywhere, whispering in my ears, telling me what to write....
But in all seriousness, I do think it contributed to my worldview. Not simply in terms of horror, but in terms of learning how popular fiction works in our culture. As a young kid, I saw the Amityville murders covered on the news, long before Jay Anson's The Amityville Horror was published, so at an early age I witnessed the capacity of man to commit heinous acts, and the terrifying unknowability of what your neighbors are really up to. I also saw the entire neighborhood respond with shame and fear and outrage. So the "psychological" element of horror made an impact on me. Then came the book, and I worked at a store that sold a whole wall of paperbacks, and I got to see how popular the "local legend" really was. Everyone was talking about it. I learned just how popular fiction can be (or perhaps I should say "books" because The Amityville Horror claims to be a true story). When I moved to Colorado years later, even after the film came out, I remember being a bit surprised by how much everyone recognized my hometown by reputation. Now -- thanks to a decade of retellings and bad sequels -- it seems everyone knows about it by name alone, and when I say I was born in Amityville everyone rolls their eyes and says "Gee, that figures..."
I could go on and on about this one, but I won't. Anyone really interested in this stuff could read my memoir about Amityville in an old issue of Morbid Curiosity magazine, if they can dig it up.

KLN: I read on your website where you started writing horror stories to entertain soldiers when you served overseas in the army. Tell us about your experiences there. Which countries did you visit while in the army? Have you used any settings from there in your writing?
MAA: I was stationed in Germany, and I have set a few pieces in German locations, but I think it's more accurate to say that I learned more about character than setting from my military experiences. When you're in the service, it seems as though everyone dresses alike, looks alike, and behaves alike. All of this compulsory uniformity leaves very little room for self-expression, so soldiers really take advantage of any chance they are allowed to let their (imaginary) hair down or to express themselves through subversive little ways. Everyone's a character to the extreme. You also really meet a wide range of diverse people and personalities in the melting pot of the military. I think I came to understand both our common humanity and our quirky little differences as human beings, and being in a foreign culture during that period only enhanced that for me. It got me to see what it means to be an American from the outside in, and that taught me a lot. Oh, and I also didn't have any TV at the time, and was frustrated by the lack of English-speaking in the area I was living, so I read books I got from the PX like crazy. All of this contributed to who I am today: a writer and a writing teacher.

KLN: What other jobs did you hold before settling in as professor at Seton Hill? Have you used those experiences in your writing?
MAA: It's all grist for the mill, and I do have a working class background. When I was really young, I worked at a stationary store in the morning, then did a paper route by night. In college, I worked for the college bookstore, in the shipping and delivery room. Little did I know that these little ways of making money were teaching me about the distribution of books and magazines and newspapers at the time. But I've also worked scut jobs, everything from clerk at a convenience store to cook in a fry kitchen to dishwasher at a dive bar, and I would have to say that this work, along with my time in the military, really showed me what it means to be an "alienated worker" while -- again -- getting to know people on a very real level. I have drawn on these work experiences so often in my stories that I'm hard pressed to think of a tale that isn't, in some way, based on them.

KLN: In recent years splatterpunk seems to be on the decline, yet you’re very successful in this genre, particularly your poetry, much of which is short and gory. To what do you attribute this success?
MAA: Oh, I don't know if I'm splatterpunk through and through, but I won't hold back when it comes to moments that demand excess. If anything, I use gore to explore the art of language to describe the unthinkable. I think horror readers turn to books and stories because they are looking for something different and more artful and imaginative than the special effect tricks of the movies and the spectacle of the body; they are looking for surprises and shivers, and that's all I'm after. Even when I'm at my goriest, I'd like to think there's always something else going on in my work, and I'm sometimes injecting gore into formats where it is unexpected, which only makes it all the more disturbing.
Writers are the worst at explaining their own approaches, so I don't want to talk too much about this. There's a special issue of an online journal called Dissections in the UK that focused on analyzing my work, so I'll let those scholars speak on my behalf. Maybe I have a sense of ironic distance that distinguishes my work from the earnest intensity of much splatterpunk. It's never gore for gore's sake in my work. And while I do subscribe to Stephen King's famous advice to horror authors -- about how first you must terrify, then horrify, then -- barring that -- "go for the gross-out" -- I really just go where my intuition is telling me to go. Sometimes I'm being gory in my fiction just to keep the reader off balance, and to get them to expect the unexpected. But beyond that, I think readers expect horror writers to confront truths that most people don't: they expect us not to look away when facing our nightmares and ugliness. When done right, it earns their trust, really. We treat them to what we have seen, but artfully so.

KLN: You have an audio CD out, Audiovile. How did you change your writing, if at all, in making the CD?
MAA: I hope more readers get the chance to hear Audiovile, because anyone who has listened to it has really reacted with far more excitement than I ever expected. They tell me they always play it for friends: "You've gotta listen to THIS!" That makes me really proud, because that's the same reaction I have to CDs I buy that I love: I can't wait to share them (or inflict them?) on someone else.
But back to Audiovile: the project started out as just a way to try to capture what I do at fiction readings in audiobook form. But it grew into a virtual rock album. It was all an experiment for me, as most writing is, and I wanted to have some fun by exploring my repressed musical side (I've been in a few garage bands in my day, but it was the songwriting that always excited me most about that). So once I started creating my own background music and sound effects to the stories I was reading and recording, I realized just how much unexplored territory there was with the medium, especially when it came to the sonic sphere of horror, so I moved the music to the foreground instead. I was discovering all sorts of new things and got really excited -- the thing turned into something much weirder than an audiobook, and absolutely nothing like a radio play. It became something like spoken word poetry set to music, something like a Henry Rollins meets The Doors sort of thing, but it's not quite that, either. As I created the tracks, I found myself reading to the beat and finding the notes inside of the sound of the words to play off -- and all of this has forced me to rethink how my sentences are put together and how the pacing and structure of a story generates mood. I'm much more conscious of the poetry of my prose now. The CD was an experiment that turned out wonderful, if I may toot my own horn. Anyone looking for something really unique ought to give Audiovile a listen and decide for themselves.

KLN: You’ve edited several books, including the Bram-Stoker-Award-winning poetry collection Pitchblende by Bruce Boston. How did you determine which poems to include? What are you looking for when selecting poems? Do you plan on editing any more collections or anthologies in the future?
MAA: Bruce Boston's book really was a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experience, because he trusted me enough to send me ALL his horror poetry to read, and I did a very scholarly study of this master's work, immersing myself in the process. Bruce's writing won that Stoker, not me, but I am very proud to have had a hand in shaping the book. When I edit something like this, I look for common threads, variations on themes, or some kind of structural unity -- the "glue" that holds everything together. This needs to come out of the intertextuality of the work itself, not applied arbitrarily from the outside. It was a tough process, because Bruce Boston's themes are so prolific, and he has a variety of interests and approaches. But in Pitchblende I discovered that one of the poems themselves identified the major recurring themes in his writing that I would use to organize the collection: so there are sections on flesh, blood, and bone.
I did something similar in my early foray into editing, a chapbook of psychological horror poetry called Psychos, back in 1991. That book had different "wards" (parts) separated by different types of psychological issues. I'm currently co-editing a how-to book on writing (with Heidi Ruby Miller) that features writers from a number of different genres. But I'd love to some day edit a horror fiction anthology -- I have an idea for one stemming from my doctoral research, featuring dismembered hand stories, that I'd love to put together for a publisher who saw a market for such a crazy, um, Thing.

KLN: Zombies are a very popular horror topic right now, as well as vampires. What do you anticipate being the next great ‘fad’, as you will, in horror? What advice do you give your students on following these fads?
MAA: I'm a contrarian by nature, so I'm always writing against the fads, even if it means that I don't always hit with success in the market. Although every writer wants as broad an audience as possible, I kind of like the fact that I'm still writing on the margins of things for the small press more often than not; it keeps me real and honest. Horror, when it goes mainstream, really needs to do something subversive to contribute substantially to the genre: when I read a horror novel, if I'm not thinking "Wow, I can't believe this author got away with saying THIS!" then it probably isn't doing its job.
I don't teach my students to be so contrarian, but to be themselves and to be as honest as possible with their audiences. They have to read a lot to get the "deep structure" of a genre. You can't fake it -- well, you can and you might even trick an unsavvy editor -- but genre readers have no patience with false gimmicks, and any writer who works under the assumption that their readers are easily duped is destined to fail. Readers want good stories, period. I try to teach students to respect that, while also really acting on the creative license that their genre gives them.
There are conservative and liberal interpretations of any genre, and I love to read them all. Personally, I like to think that the rise in the popularity of zombies is really just a mass deconstruction of the conceits of character that so much fiction relies upon. Thus, we have YA books about zombie cheerleaders, and romance novels about zombie lovers, and even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. These books are NOT about zombies, per se; they are using zombies to say something about other genres! I don't mind it when a staple of the horror genre is appropriated in this way, but to get any real zombie stories anymore, you pretty much have to go on a hunting expedition for the rare horror novel on the shelves that have them; unfortunately most of these are in the small press and the underground (which is sort of like the "cult video" shelf in the old video stores anymore). The market sees these things as a salable gimmick, but to me zombies are serious business, and really are just one huge, generic manifestation of the undead. I think that if mass market publishers were more serious about supporting the genre, rather than playing into the hands of yesterday's news, they would profit from trends like these on a more regular basis...horror never dies.
What's the next fad? Who knows? I hear werewolves. Who cares? These are all ancient forms. I wouldn't be surprised if Greek mythological monsters come up next. It's frustrating to those of us who are really trying to say and do something new, something that really speaks to the current world. The real question a writer needs to ask, ultimately, is "what books aren't out there on the shelves that I wish there were"? Write them. Write for the reader inside. Don't write for some imaginary market. Write for yourself and celebrate the thing about fiction that people just like you really love and admire. That common bond is what genres are for, not for prepackaging target markets for profiteers.

KLN: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Mike. I appreciate your time. Is there anything additional you’d like to share with our readers?
MAA: Thank YOU, Karen, and whoever else is still reading this at this point.
I always like to invite folks to subscribe to my newsletter or visit my blog at The Goreletter, my newsletter, won a Bram Stoker Award, so I take that as a sign that it's worth it to keep publishing it, but I need subscribers to know I have an audience for it. There are all sorts of little things going on in my writing here and there, but I'll save news of that for The Goreletter. But folks here might like to know that I'm working on a new poetry book that I just contracted, called BLOOD BATH AND BEYOND. Look for it in 2010!

--Karen L. Newman

(The Black Glove thanks Michael A. Arnzen for this time and effort)