Paul G. Tremblay's first collection, Compositions for the Young and Old, was published by Prime in March 2004. He also has sold stories to Razor Magazine, Brainbox II, Punktown: Third Eye, and The Book of Final Flesh. He won the 2002 Chiaroscuro/Leisure short story contest and soon after was offered an editing job at Chizine.
Compositions for the Young and Old has garnered much praise from the likes of Stewart O'Nan, David Niall Wilson, and Brian A. Hopkins. Don't let the distinguished horror lineup fool you: even though Paul G. Tremblay started out as a horror writer, the collection itself has much to offer anyone who enjoys horror, dark fantasy, literary fiction, and—yes—sci-fi. The stories are arranged in order of the chronological progression of a human life. Be it a zombie horror tale set in Mississippi at the turn of 20th century, a story of broken men in a broken city that rests upon an ancient redwood pier, or a perfect gothic piece, the focus on the universality of human experience holds this collection together. It is varied, and yet it is cohesive; it is a bit like Frankenstein's monster—sometimes scary, often breathtaking, and always alive.
I interviewed Mr. Tremblay over email this Halloween season.
E. Sedia: How long have you been writing? What compelled you to write in the first place?
Paul G. Tremblay: I've been serious about writing since 2000. The first short story I ever wrote almost didn't happen in 1996. I grew up a big King and Barker fan, and after reading a book on serial killers (oh God, this sounds so cliché and terrible!), I had an idea about a serial killer being stopped by Death because the quotas were off and other unoriginal and goofy things. So I gave it a shot. The first attempt was lost on a fried Brother word processor. I'd written 8 pages (more than I'd ever written, at least in fiction) and then I'd lost it to the ether. It may sound corny, but when it happened, I really did sense a watershed moment. Do I quit and forget about the writing thing, or start over? I started over, wrote that horrible, terrible story (the only serial killer story I ever wrote) to the end. Then I wrote on and off for five years, never too serious because I was also messing around with music and songwriting. But when I made my first fiction sale in early 2000, I got serious.
ES: You are a math teacher. Why did you choose math as a profession?
PGT: Math was always my best subject growing up. I just kind of stuck with it. I never really knew what I wanted to do with a career, but I had a hunch teaching might be fun, which it has been. And honestly, I kind of fell into it. Getting into graduate school was pure luck. I applied only to Boston University and the University of Vermont. I never heard back from BU (they used my application fee for drinking money, I suppose) and I screwed up the UVM application. The August after graduation, I had no job and no leads. I got a call from the Dean of the Math Department at UVM. He said he found my application under his desk and asked if I'd like to still be considered for admittance. I said sure. He called back the next day and said I was in. I told him I wasn't sure if I could swing any more loans. He called back the next day and offered me a Teaching Fellowship: tuition waived and I was paid a stipend to teach one class per semester for two years. So three weeks later I was in Vermont. . . . Anyway, I do find numbers and logic fascinating (yeah, I know . . . geek) and while I don't think I've done it yet, I'd love to write a math-based story.
ES: If you could make your living by writing and quit your day job, would you? Why or why not?
PGT: I'd do it in a heartbeat. But writing is the only thing for which I'd leave teaching. Writing and being able to be home more with my family . . . heck yeah, I'd quit the day job.
ES: Do you remember your very first fiction sale? What was it like?
PGT: I sold "King Bee" to Delirium Books's hardcover anthology The Dead Inn. I was very excited and it was enough of a hook to keep me writing. "King Bee" was in my original Compositions submission, but I eventually pulled it. It's a good story, but the style felt too old, too not-me, so I replaced it with "Walls," which I think was the right choice.
ES: What recent work of yours gave you the greatest high?
PGT: Finishing my dark humor/social satire novel Phobia. I can honestly say I love this novel and that it says what I want it to say. Now I just got to get someone to buy it!
ES: You write quite a bit about kids—even in the later part of the book you have children present, as observers, or as memories of the narrators. What is it about children that makes them such compelling protagonists?
PGT: Being a high school teacher and a parent keeps me connected to the child and adolescent experience. And honestly, I still think of myself as a kid sometimes, or at least, I'll find myself picturing how I'd react to a certain adult situation through the eyes of a younger me. How children attempt to deal with everyday comedies and tragedies, and mortality, is universal and ultimately such a large part of what it means to be human.
ES: With a notable exception in "So Many Things Left Out," your female characters are wives and mothers, or frustrated with not being mothers ("Reaching," "Annabel Leigh"). Was it intentional, and if yes, why?
PGT: To be honest, I hadn't even noticed. Heh. So I guess I'd have to check the unintentional box! However, most of the stories in Compositions were written soon after the birth of my first child. Parenting was (and still is) a new and scary concept, something which I consciously and unconsciously explored in my writing, and still do. While being a parent has been the most fulfilling experience of my life, it comes with a price. Besides the onslaught of worries and fears that can be paralyzing, more personally there is a struggle with identity, or the fear of loss or usurpsion of identity, if that makes sense. There's a constant struggle with how to behave, who to be. Are you now and forever always "Mommy" or "Daddy?" Can you ever become the perfect parent? In such a struggle for identity (or in the case of the frustrated parents you mentioned, the struggle to achieve some unattainable identity) it becomes easy to imagine a character's tough decisions being made and their motives and consequences.
ES: You're a parent, yet you said that you often feel like a child. Do you find that these identities conflict? If so, how?
PGT: Yes. Mainly, my childlike desires to be carefree and even taken care of clash with the adult responsibilities of having to be a constant caregiver. A combo of both is ideal, of course, but it's a fuzzy line to walk at best.
ES: So do you perceive children as being more attuned to nature and adults more artificial?
PGT: At first glance, yes. Most of us have experienced the young child who tells the painful truth, incapable of the white lie that comes so easy to us adults. But I don't necessarily equate nature with innocence. Nature is still a badass and children tend to be deaf and blind to the myriad of natural dangers around them and their own mortality.
ES: In Compositions, two linked stories, "City Pier" and "Dole as Ribbit," are the only clearly science-fictional offerings. How did you come to write these?
PGT: "City Pier" grew out of an image I had of a technologically advanced city existing above a megalithic wooden pier. Originally, the contrast of the ancient (wood and ocean) and the futuristic appealed to me. I decided to not worry about specific genres so I could mix and match depending upon the needs of the particular story. Setting it in an out-of-time and out-of-place future allowed me to take advantage of sci-fi or technological trappings, though my goal is to keep the futuristic side of City Pier in the background of any stories set there. Yes, I want to take the reader to a new place, but I also want it to be recognizable, a reflection of our own time, to take this fantastical setting and apply it to any number of scenarios. The two tales you mentioned are two of the newer ones in the collection and I've since gone back for more stories in City Pier (one due to appear in the November issue of Lenox Avenue) and I am currently working on a novel in that setting.
ES: I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the primordial and natural (wood and ocean) with the artificial and transient (the city). This theme cuts very deeply to one of the oldest human conflicts, since we try to be a part of a natural as well as a man-made world. How do you resolve this conflict for yourself? How much do your protagonists mirror your views in this case?
PGT: I don't think I can resolve the conflict. There are many days when I wish my life wasn't so noisy and dependant upon gadgets that honk or bleep, but I'm not so naive to think that I'd be better off in "simpler" times and I'm not quite ready for the Ted Kaczynski shack in the woods . . . yet. While the juxtaposition of nature versus man-made makes for compelling conflict, I'm drawn to their parallels as well. Humanity's technological advances, especially in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, almost seem like another natural force. Most of us don't understand how the new inventions and innovations work, most of which are thrust upon us whether we like it or not. So we have to adapt to the continually changing technological environment, or be left behind. Just so maddeningly Darwinist. We're still the cave-dwellers, but with reality TV.
There are pieces of me in most of my protagonists, and how they attempt to deal with the circumstances (usually circumstances beyond their control) or situations into which they've been thrust. If I had to pick one, I'd say the priest in "Dole as Ribbit" mirrors my views quite closely. He's one of my favorite characters, someone I think about often, and someone with whom I hope to visit again.
ES: What did Mark Twain ever do to you? I mean, why did you turn him into a zombie?
PGT: Ha! Mark Twain? He owes me money!
I sat down to write a story for James Lowder's Final Flesh zombie anthology. But I didn't want to do your generic direct-to-video zombie story. While brainstorming a different story idea, the famous Twain quote (or misquote, since he didn't exactly say it), "The reports of my demise were greatly exaggerated," popped into my head. Then, while searching the internet for Twain goodies, I stumbled upon a book review of Jap Herron in a 1917 issue of The New York Times. Two women claimed that Twain sent the book to them via a Ouija board (he died in 1910) and they managed to get it published under his name! So I took that review and ran with my pal, zombie-Twain, in "So Many Things Left Out." I'm by no means a Twain scholar, but I had fun tweaking the Huck and Tom in the church rafters and grave site scenes, along with using actual quotes from Mark Twain's work and letters, and the original Jap Herron Times review.
ES: The expression "sense of wonder" has become somewhat of a cliché in genre literature. But what does this phrase mean to you? Is it something you are aware of in your work?
PGT: Recently, I've become more focused on characterization coming first. Obviously, you can't ignore setting, especially in speculative literature, but I'm of the opinion that if you build real, flesh-and-blood characters, the fantastical setting then becomes that much more effective. For me, "sense of wonder" means you as the reader can really believe you or someone you know could exist in that fantastical setting. And it just falls apart if you can't believe in the characters.
ES: Some of your recent work was published in The Last Pentacle of the Sun. How did you come to be involved in this project?
PGT: I was fortunate enough to become involved through an invitation from Brett Savory, the president and editor-in-chief of Chizine, not to mention a damn fine writer in his own right. I'd known about the case since the documentary Paradise Lost and the updates at www.wm3.org. Like most familiar with the case, I share the outrage at the injustice, the prejudice, the ignorance, and given the details of their conviction (part of the prosecution's criminal profile of the defendants included their reading of dark fiction), donating a story to help raise awareness and defense funds felt appropriate, if not the least I could do.
ES: Any closing comments?
PGT: I don't think I have any closing comments. You asked some good, hard questions that made me think. Damn you for making me think!