Writing with a deeply personal air that takes the form of dark motivation and tragic consequence, Tom Piccirilli makes certain that all his work is heavy with the themes and conflicts that turn the common and familiar into the bizarre and macabre. Author of eleven acclaimed and popular novels, including A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN, A LOWER DEEP, HEXES, THE DECEASED, GRAVE MEN, and the Bram Stoker Award-winning THE NIGHT CLASS, Piccirilli's highly charged fiction carries with it a lyrical quality that often presents nightmares with a poetic edge. In his body of work you'll often find protagonists twisted by a tragic past, the ominous influence of families, and an often distorted sense of reality.
A Stoker Award-winning poet (A STUDENT OF HELL and THIS CAPE IS RED BECAUSE I'VE BEEN BLEEDING) as well as a powerful storyteller, Piccirilli's interest in the dark heart of humanity has carried him across the realm of genres, from the noir mysteries of SHARDS, THE DEAD PAST and SORROW'S CROWN, to the highly untypical and dark excesses of his westerns GRAVE MEN and COFFIN BLUES. His dark fantasy, mystery, and erotica are all tinged with incredible, often visceral self-effacing, black comedy.
Q: What led you to the decision to write professionally, and dark fiction specifically?
I've always had a need to fantasize and I'm not sure where that comes from. I started writing "seriously" back in high school, spending a lot of time during study halls scrawling torturous stories in a marble notebook. All the heroes were Christ figures, thanks to my Catholic upbringing. I was a hypersensitive kid and everything seemed to hit me exceptionally hard, especially all the turmoil of those intense and confused feelings of a teenager. The distress and chaos just soaked into those pages, and hopefully it helped to bleed off some of the anguish from those turbulent times. Whatever I couldn't quite get control of in my head and my heart I tried to work out through fiction. I suppose I was just destined to write tales with a darker edge.
Q: Why do you feel compelled to write in different genres?
When I first started writing I was enthralled by the surrealists a la Burroughs, Barth, Vonnegut, Robbins, and Barthelme. My efforts in that realm allowed me to free up my imagination, but they also worked against gaining control of my own narrative voice. I would just sort of hurl thoughts and feelings on the page and try to puzzle piece them together in some weird fashion. It was all fire without direction.
But reading certain authors naturally leads to discovering others, and anybody who reads as much as I did as a kid learns to love most genres, styles, and voices. They each have something unique to offer.
Q: And everything has an acerbic sense of irony and humor to it. What do you feel is the role of dark humor in writing horror and suspense?
There is no single precise role that dark humor does, should, or can play in the arena of dark fiction. The only rule, so far as I see it, is that it should work to whatever end you need it to enhance the story. I like adding a little irony and sarcasm to my fiction because it lends a bit of extra personality. Having characters rushing around screaming, "Look at all these horrible things I'm going through!" doesn't always make for interesting reading. I prefer mixing in humor as a way to underscore darker elements. It usually adds another sense of conflict to the subject matter, and does it by contrast in a way to make the reader smile in the midst of turmoil. And that, to my way of thinking, is a lot more authentic. When life gets rough you usually shake your head, say, "I can't believe this crap," let out a chuckle and then resume your purpose.
Q: How do you feel that you've developed as an author over the years?
My earlier horror novels tended to concentrate more on an outside evil force rather than on any inner turmoil. The protagonists from my recent novels are outsiders in a comparatively normal world, and the dangers come from common and well-lit corners. I'm also having more fun with my latest efforts-as dark and deranged as they can be, there's also more humor to be found in them. Maybe that's just an advantage of sliding into middle age, I don't know, but I'm a hell of lot less serious about life than I used to be.
Q: Your novel THE NIGHT CLASS won the Bram Stoker Award in the Best Novel Category this year.
Actually, the category is for "Superior Achievement." There is no award for "best" which only makes sense. There's so much terrific fiction out there, it's an honor just to be nominated.
Q: The novel is a nice blending of elements: part ghost story, part mystery, part suspense, and with an overall touch of the macabre.
THE NIGHT CLASS is essentially about a college student who learns in one bad night that his "book smart" education isn't going to help him much in the face of some trauma and terrible threats headed straight for him. I suppose it's my way of looking back on my life on campus and learning in retrospect what had gone right and where I'd gone wrong. Once we get to a certain age, I suppose we all tend do that. I just happened to turn my nostalgia and sentimentality into a horror story.
Q: The entire novel is set in a period of less than 24 hours. That gives it a tremendous breakneck pace in one regard, and yet it's a slow unveiling of events in another.
My protagonist Cal's conflict is all internalized. He's surrounded by troubles and fears for his sanity and he's haunted by weird images and visions. The tale called for less emphasis on underscoring relationship as it does for creating a bizarre mood and a sense of universal menace. In that case, the atmosphere was the real story. Making it take place in one day forces it to be a distillation of events, plot, characterization. Everything is compressed, which is how most of my time at college felt anyway.
Q: You're always quite conscious to acknowledge other authors who've influenced you either indirectly or directly. I've noted that you always pay proper respect.
I was fortunate enough to have two: Jack Cady and Ed Gorman, two of the nicest, most knowledgeable and terrific authors in the field. Both of them gave me plenty of sound advice and each showed me a monk's amount of patience when answering my silly questions. I owe them both more than I can ever repay. And there have been so many others along the way from the likes of Bill Pronzini, T.M. Wright, Dick Laymon, Graham Masterton, Jack Ketchum, and the list goes on. I owe them all.
Q: Tell us about a typical day in the writing life of Tom Piccirilli.
I don't keep to any kind of a strict schedule. I've mentioned in other interviews that, in order to avoid mental burn-out, I prefer doing relatively short stints at the computer, putting in maybe thirty minutes to an hour at a time. Then I take a break and read or watch a movie. It helps me to keep the mind-set but I don't feel crushed by the pressure of working. After a while I'll write a little more, then take the dogs for a walk. Get back and write a little more. In this fashion, I can basically work all day long but not grow weary with the process. I do work on more than one project at a time but eventually a single story or novel has to take precedence and then I work gun ho on that until I'm finished.
Q: Your favorite horror films?
The list is forever changing, as it should be. Some recent favorites include SESSION 9, VERSUS, BATTLE ROYALE, THE RING, PHONE, AUDITION, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, WENDIGO, and DONNIE DARKO. Classics include THE HAUNTING, THE INNOCENTS, THE CHANGELING, and THE NINTH CONFIGURATION.
Q: Are you annoyed by publishers and booksellers need to put labels on fiction and force works into a specific genre?
I have no trouble with being called a horror writer. Or a western writer. Or a poet. When Barnes & Noble started pulling their Horror shelves and stuffing horror novels into their General Fiction sections, all they did was make it more time-consuming for fans to find the books they wanted. Now instead of running over to one section of the store and finding horror titles, you have to walk up and down dozens of rows of thousands of books. That might not be such a bad thing, but it certainly does make it harder for a horror reader to quickly nab a novel. The only reason anybody really gives a damn about labels is because publishers were scared there for a while to put "horror" on the spines of books, for fear that they wouldn't sell when the market started to dry up.
Q: Your protagonists and secondary characters are always heavily flawed but they also ascend to courage, mercy, and general goodness in the midst of their trials.
I write about how difficult life is on many levels: emotionally, spiritually, even physically when the frustrations, confusion, and travails come at you full force. Despite the horrific moments in my fiction, there's also a large amount of room for forgiveness, mercy and redemption. Maybe, to some extent, I'm trying to give hope to folks who might feel like they've come to the end of their rope.
Q: Following that thread, in all your fiction you present characters with tragic histories and troubled pasts.
Regret, sorrow, and the search for redemption and happiness works on a much deeper, long-term emotional level than physical fears, I believe. Having to deal with that kind of a haunting is much more interesting to me-the idea that one small mistake can cost you for the rest of your life. Even in some insignificant way. Sometimes, an initial small problem can cause you a hellish amount of pain somewhere else down the line.
Q: The flip side to your protagonists is that they are often violent, selfish, bitter, and self-destructive. Do you feel that this makes them more realistic?
Absolutely. We all have a hidden side-and in some folks it's not so hidden-that has a propensity towards violence or self-pity. The noble is always married to the ignoble. Whether it's from stress or dismay or frustration, we all need to lash out at occasion. Sometimes it's only with words, sometimes physically. I think emotions are often transformed into some kind of a physical response-the greater the tension, the more forceful the reaction.
Q: A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN is receiving terrific reviews from the likes of Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Locus, etc., and most reviewers are quick to point out that one of your central concerns in the book is the idea that life, and love, is full of contradictions and always in conflict.
Well, contradiction and conflict is the basis for just about all good drama. A protagonist must have a obstacle of some sort that he tries to get past, whether he's successful or not. I like the idea that my narrator Thomas was bound in any number of ways-to his bizarre brothers, his town, his family history, his wife, and his own best friend. Each of Thomas' relationships is based on dissension and defiance of a kind. His "wife" is a woman who never speaks a word in the novel, and yet in many ways she's the chorus. She and Thomas were "married" in a silly ceremony when they were children, but as is constantly pointed out to him, before the eyes of God the ceremony was valid. It's that sort of mythic quality that I wanted to instill in all his various situations-what he thinks about the world is only one facet of his existence. He's also bound by superstition, other people's beliefs, and what God above thinks, all of which has a great influence on his life.
Q: You put emphasis on the beauty found in the grotesque. Do you feel that way yourself, in your own life? Do you seek out the bizarre in an effort to find the charm in what others might call ugly or offensive?
The emotional world is built upon incongruities and chaos, I feel. We all know that ex-lovers wind up becoming the people we hate most in the world, at least for a time. We all understand that love and hate are entwined, that passion and rancor are two sides of the same coin. What you once thought was beautiful eventually becomes boring and ugly, and perhaps the opposite is true as well. That sense of change and confusion and quandary and mystification is what I find intriguing about the human heart.
Q: You deal in the gray areas between shadow and light, good and evil, humor and horror. Do you make a conscious effort to upset most notions of the clearly defined lines between these opposing concepts?
Ambiguity is more interesting and more realistic, I feel, than clearly drawn lines between the heroic and the malicious. My brand of horror fiction puts an emphasis on unsettling and displacing the reader rather than actually "terrifying" them. Horrifying someone can be relatively easy in some respects-you can write about babies being dropped in boiling water or give graphic details of evisceration or castration or rape or some other ugly event taken to the nth degree. But without some emotional context, without really caring for the characters, then those are just exercises in sadism.
But that concept of universal menace I mentioned before is my way of disturbing, agitating, and confounding my readers. Reaching into their bellies. The gray area of our personas and our sense of morality is where the disquieting really happens.
Q: Your detailed, highly sensual settings often become characters in their own right. The college campus of THE NIGHT CLASS. The lush and humid swamp town of Kingdom Come in A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. You're a former New Yorker now transposed to Colorado. How did you wind up writing a Southern Gothic?
The backwoods, isolated setting of CHOIR played a great contrapuntal to my narrator's worldly, modern voice. He was a part of the swamp town but not of it, as were all of his friends and neighbors. He understood their superstitions and magic but didn't believe in it any more than he believed in the local reverend's Christianity. And yet he was influenced, almost controlled, by both belief systems since he was a child. The town of Kingdom Come could be almost anything I wanted it to be at any time because it was so sequestered from the rest of the world-the townsfolk could be wise and belligerent, faithful and faithless, accepting and full of denial. There was a complete strata, an entire spectrum of potential for me to choose from - evil escaped convicts on the loose, witch-women, crazed lynch mobs, carnival sideshows, freaks, folks speaking in tongues. I couldn't get away with all of that if I had set the novel in Manhattan. The landscape offered almost any fantastical aspect I needed to use for the good of the story, and it could play realistically because the place was so remote.
Q: Maybe we should take the time to describe the basic plot of A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN.
That's pretty tough since the novel is so utterly weird. Let's see…Jonah, Cole, and Sebastian are three brothers conjoined at the frontal lobe: though they have their own identities they psychically communicate with one another. They share one massive brain and have only "one voice." Each mouth can only speak certain feelings and words. So although Sebastian is full of hate, his mouth is used when reciting love poems. Their caretaker brother, Thomas, narrates the story.
Their mother mysteriously vanished years before and their father committed suicide by throwing himself into the family mill. The backwoods swamp town of Kingdom Come relies on the mill as their mainstay of employment and production. The wealthy Thomas, although a pariah, is also exalted and feared among the people. Due to their isolation, the townsfolk still lead a backwards way of life. Some are highly superstitious, a situation made worse by a number of women living on the edge of the swamp called the granny witches, who believe in potions, spells, and curses.
Thomas' best friend, Drabs Bibbler, is a reverend who suffers from the power of tongues whenever he is in Thomas' presence. As children, Drabs presided over the marriage of Thomas and Maggie, and though Maggie and Thomas have never so much as kissed, all three understand that the marriage was true under the eyes of God. Drabs, who loves Maggie, has been in emotional agony for years because of this. Maggie is like some ethereal spirit who haunts the woods.
Drabs wanders the town naked in his madness and sorrow and is occasionally beat-up and tarred for his transgressions. He tries desperately to warn Thomas of an impending doom. Each time they get close enough to speak though, Drabs is overcome by the Holy Spirit and cannot clearly state what is going to happen. All Thomas learns is that "the carnival is coming."
Things just go from strange to downright freakyass from there.
Q: How much research did you do to get the Southern elements correct?
I only did a brief amount of research where the conjoined brothers are concerned. I am not much of a researcher because the facts of the matters I write about are usually part of the fantasy elements as well. This isn't hard science fiction here, this is phantasm. I'm not even sure if there is such a thing as Siamese triplets, but I played around on the Internet enough to get what I needed for the story and at least make it sound credible. SF author Michael Bishop, who lives in Georgia, pointed out that there is no swamp where I suggested there was one. What the hell do I care? I made it up and had to put it somewhere.
Emotional turmoil is always the impetus that gets the action of my work to move forward. I'm not much of a plotter a la Agatha Christie. I hate the easy out of some crime novels, like the killer leaves a button behind and all the hero has to do is match the button to a coat and voila, the brilliant murderer who's escaped Interpol is caught. Too many authors rely on forced facts like that, things that don't occur naturally in the unfolding of the story. When I work in fantasy I use the facts only when they allow for even more fantastical things to occur.
Q: What else do you have coming up?
My second western COFFIN BLUES will be out next year. I have a small collection of dark crime tales due out from Borderlands Press entitled A LITTLE BLACK BOOK OF NOIR STORIES. A limited edition novella entitled FUCKIN' LIE DOWN ALREADY should hit in August. Plenty of short fiction will be seeing print in such anthologies as Borderlands 5, Shivers 2, A Walk on the Darkside, Dueling Minds, The Damned, and Texas Rangers. I also edited an anthology of poetry entitled THE DEVIL'S WINE, featuring poems by Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ray Bradbury, Graham Masterton, Edward lee, Jack Ketchum, and a host of other terrific poets will be out around Halloween.