I’m very pleased to have author David Nickle on board for an interview. His book Monstrous Affections is one that caught my eye and I simply had to ask the publisher for a review copy. I’m so looking forward to getting to it but in the mean time I thank David for letting me pick his brain a little. You can find David on his site and at ChiZine
Please tell us about yourself –
I’m an author and journalist living and working in Toronto, Canada. Most of what I do in life revolves around the latter: I write about municipal politics for a chain of community newspapers covering neighbourhoods in Toronto. To say it’s interesting work would be an understatement. The city is big, diverse, complex, and embroiled in the same long, left-versus-right, urban-versus-suburban, religious-versus-secular civil culture war as everyone else on the planet seems to be fighting. I keep meaning to write a novel about it, but the events I cover for the newspapers continually trump and confound my puny imagination.
So my puny imagination goes to work writing stories and novels that bend towards the macabre. I publish mostly with ChiZine Publications these days, and am getting ready to launch my third book with them, Rasputin’s Bastards.
What is your work space and routine like? –
I just moved into an apartment in a space that was the hayloft of an old stable in east-end Toronto, along with science fiction author Madeline Ashby. For all the rustic romanticism of that description, the apartment is quite modern and the workspace is pretty standard-issue home office. I’ve got a smallish desk in the western half of a converted second bedroom. The window looks out on a quiet street through maple trees. The wall has a blow-up of the book cover of Monstrous Affections glaring down at me to keep me honest, and framed illustrations my father Lawrence Nickle made for the collectable hardcover of Eutopia, to remind me of where I come from. The chair is big and comfortable.
As to routine? It’s catch as catch can for writing fiction. Vacations are for writing, weekends are for writing, sometimes early mornings are for writing. There’s never enough time, though; I feel perpetually behind.
Some favorite authors and books? –
Let’s see. In no particular order: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville; The Magicians and The Magician King, by Lev Grossman; The Shining, Salem’s Lot, The Stand, Misery, Skeleton Crew, Different Seasons and a bunch of others by Stephen King; Towing Jehovah by James Morrow; Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson; stories by Joe R. Lansdale, Stephen Millhauser, Peter Straub and H.P. Lovecraft.
Friends and contemporaries whose work I am following closely include, of course, Madeline Ashby (her first novel, vN, is coming out from Angry Robot this summer), Peter Watts, Caitlin Sweet, Karl Schroeder, Laird Barron, Claude Lalumière, Gemma Files, Michael Rowe, and Rio Youers, whose new novel Westlake Soul I have only heard in public readings, but is utterly mesmerizing. Hopefully by the time this goes up, I’ll have a copy and be mostly through it.
Your book Eutopia is nominated for an Aurora Award, congratulations. How did you hear about the nomination and what’s it like to know your work is so highly regarded in particular with it being your second nomination?
I heard about the Aurora nomination by phone call on my mobile, while at work. The Aurora liaison had to try twice to get ahold of me; the first time, I was in the middle of a news conference being held by the Toronto Cyclists Union, who were launching a legal challenge to prevent the city from removing bike lanes on Jarvis Street, a downtown thoroughfare that the left on council favour for bicycles and cars, and the right (the faction currently holding tenuously to power) favour for cars.
I sent the call to voice mail, but they opted to call me again a little later, when the dust had settled. I was delighted to find out that the book had been nominated. Even more delighted a little later, to see how well ChiZine books were represented on that slate. CZP novels by Caitlin Sweet, Michael Rowe and Derryl Murphy are also up for the novel prize – which due to the nature of vote splitting in genre awards, means that the other two novels on the list, by Ryan Oakley and Rob Sawyer, stand excellent chances of winning.
But never mind that. It is an honour to be nominated; that’s not just a cliche. Eutopia was also nominated for a Compton Crook Award for first novel, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t win that (the committee hasn’t announced a winner as I write this). I heard about that just a day after the Aurora nominations were announced, while attending Ad Astra in Toronto. Both combined to give me a real boost. We toil for a long time on these books that show up in print, and through most of the process, we have no idea whether they’re working well enough to reach and affect readers. Nice reviews, conversations with readers, and of course award nominations, are all data points that are deeply reassuring. It’s nice to win those awards – over the years, I’ve taken home both an Aurora and a Bram Stoker, and more recently a Black Quill Award for Monstrous Affections. What’s really nice, though, is knowing that I managed to reach some readers. Otherwise, it’s just whispering in the dark.
ChiZine I must admit is a new publisher to me they look fantastic though, so what is ChiZine like to work with?
They’re a powerhouse. Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi built the publishing house up from literally nothing, taking their ChiZine website into the tumultuous world of book publishing when most publishers were planning their exit strategies. They’re a work-hard, play-hard publisher. Sandra has been my editor for three books now, and unless she’s sick of it will be the editor for the fourth one, due in November. It really does feel like working with family; the two of them run a brood of brilliant interns and volunteers from their house in north-western Toronto, and both of them have been friends of mine for literally decades.
How did signing with them come about?
It came early in the game, and was a real leap of faith on everyone’s part. They’d asked me to show them a couple of things, and finally settled on a story collection. At the time, I have to admit that I was skeptical at the likelihood that the CZP brand would go very far. It was the mid-‘oughts, and there was a recession on, and everybody was predicting the death of publishing. But I had these stories, and really wanted to see them collected in something folks could own, and there was this glimmer of hope that my friends Brett and Sandra might just pull something spectacular together.
And so we signed a deal to do a story collection, initially to be called Pants Are For Company and Other Stories. As it turned out, that title was a testament to the indisputable truth that one should never come up with a story collection title over a table full of empty beer-pint glasses. Because in addition to me not yet having written a story called Pants Are For Company, it was, well, not a very good title for a collection of macabre tales. So we settled on Monstrous Affections.
Who did the fantastic covers for your books?
Erik Mohr is the genius behind all of CZP’s covers. He’s a brilliant graphic artist working in Toronto, and the CZP covers are a labour of love for him. The Monstrous Affections cover is actually the single thing to which I attribute my success with CZP. Erik not only perfectly captured the face of one of the creatures in the book, but also created this Uncanny-Valley horror show that draws the eye like a chipped tooth draws the tongue. There are stories about the things that cover gets up to in the wild. A friend of Brett’s was actually asked by security at LAX to put the book away because they were getting multiple complaints from other travellers. At a Barnes and Noble in New York City, there are reports of customers holding copies of the book in front of their faces to play a terrifying bookstore version of Marco Polo (who says brick-and-mortar bookstores are dead?). And it’s actually become the branding icon for CZP. So whenever CZP does an event and puts up posters advertising it – there it is.
The other covers are spectacular too. Eutopia is a subtler chill. And Rasputin’s Bastards cover eschews chill for simple, exquisite beauty. It takes my breath away, and it’s all Erik Mohr’s doing.
Have you always been writing or is this a new endeavour? –
I started writing before I could write, dictating Captain Scarlet fanfic to my mom, who would write them down in little stapled-together books. I published my first story in my mid-20s, and it had nothing to do with Captain Scarlet. And I’ve been writing and publishing ever since.
Monstrous Affections, Eutopia, Rasputin’s Bastards, can you tell us about your books please? –
Monstrous Affections is all about the short story. There are 13 stories in Monstrous Affections, three of them original to the collection. The first story, “The Sloan Men,” is also the oldest, and the inspiration for Erik Mohr’s cover. It was adapted for television in the old Showtime series The Hunger. Margot Kidder starred. The newest story, “The Webley,” closes the collection. It is a nostalgic mainstream story about life, love and firearms in 1930s Ontario, in my fictional town of Fenlan, where The Sloan Men also takes place. The stories in between are all about, in one way or another, affections that might sometimes become a little monstrous. I set up a web page on my site, “The Devil’s Exercise Yard” (http://sites.google.com/site/davidnickle/) , filled with free samples and even video interviews with my father and late uncle, telling me stories that informed the events in The Webley. Here’s the straight-to-the-page link: http://sites.google.com/site/davidnickle/monstrousaffections
Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism is my first solo novel. When people ask me what it’s about, the quick answer is “The early American eugenics movement, early-20th century industrial utopian communities, and a terrible monster.” In terms of genre, Eutopia’s a lot of things. It’s been described as a historical novel, a horror novel and a science fiction novel. It deals with some hard things – notably, the deeply-embedded racism inherent in America of the early 1900s, and the notion of human perfectibility through eugenics at a time when the pseudoscience hadn’t yet been so horribly disproven by the Nazi experiment 30 years later. It is not for the squeamish. The book has been fairly well-received: Paul Goat Allen, who reviews genre books over at Barnes and Noble’s website, picked Eutopia as his top horror read for 2011. The National Post paid it the supreme compliment of saying Eutopia establishes me “as a worthy heir to the mantle of Stephen King.” And who knows? It might just take home an Aurora Award. For those who are interested, I’ve got a page with more freebies, including a spooky book trailer and a couple of the Lawrence Nickle illustrations, over at The Devil’s Exercise Yard: http://sites.google.com/site/davidnickle/eutopia-2
Rasputin’s Bastards: This one’s the new one, and will come available in June of 2012. I call it my Russian Novel. Sandra, who had to edit the doorstopper, calls it “Fat Bastard.” For good reason: when it comes out, it will be the biggest book that ChiZine has yet published, clocking in at about 185,000 words. It’s a novel of the Cold War, as fought by Russian psychic spies and their human sleeper agent puppets. Most of it takes place in the late 1990s, when the survivors have gone rogue and are coming to terms at once with their abilities, their prospects and their long-festering wounds. So it’s at once a spy novel, with betrayals and assassinations and reversals – and a bit of a Russian novel too, filled with soul-searching and existential spiritual crises and answers to the question of whether all happy families really are alike. There are also giant squid. But the less said about them, the better…
CZP has gone a bit nuts with the promotion of this one, but in a good way. There’s a website – WhatIsCity512.com, which takes you right to Rasputinsbastards.com – which is filled with dossiers and a book trailer and old news clippings. And to intrigue y’all, there’s even a teaser trailer for the website. Looks something like this:
What about other books not with ChiZine? –
A long time ago, sf author Karl Schroeder and I published a short novel called The Claus Effect. It was based on our Aurora-Award-winning short story “The Toy Mill,” which is all about an evil Santa Claus. It is probably the spiritual precursor to Rasputin’s Bastards. It’s hard to find these days, but available from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy. Once again, there’s a web page filled with free stuff over at The Devil’s Exercise Yard.
Which of your books would you recommend a new reader of yours start with and why that one?
Well in June, Rasputin’s Bastards will definitely be the easiest to get hold of. But it really depends on the predilections of each reader. Those who fancy short fiction and don’t mind a little horror could certainly start with Monstrous Affections. Those who prefer novels and don’t mind quite a bit of horror mixed in with history should maybe give Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism a shot. And for those who aren’t too sure about this horror business but don’t mind psychic spycraft, cursing, strange mind-sex and giant squid, might want to check out Rasputin’s Bastards.
What do you wish you had known when first getting started trying to get published that you know now?
You know, this is a harder question than you’d think.
Getting published, and getting books published, was a long game where in general I don’t think I took too many mis-steps. I was surrounded by other professional writers who were generally very supportive and free with good advice; I belonged to (and still belong to) an excellent writer’s workshop, the Cecil Street Irregulars, who helped me hone my craft. I knew enough to be cordial and professional when approaching editors and agents.
I think the one bit of knowledge that would have been a comfort, would have been his: that eventually, if I wrote to the best of my ability, behaved civilly and professionally in both life and the business, my stuff would get in front of readers. But then again, I always went on faith that that would happen. Would I have been better off with foreknowledge, or would that have just dulled whatever edge I had?