I discovered Christopher Barzak's work earlier this year when reading the Small Beer press anthology Interfictions. "What Happened to the Lost Families of ___ House" really and truly blew my mind. As I wrote in a post at the time, I was struggling a bit with my writing and Chris pretty much blew me right back into action. Since that first story I have sought out more of his work, most of which can be summarized in a post I wrote that celebrated the release of his first novel, One For Sorrow.
I think what makes Chris' work unique is the poignancy he brings to his stories; his characters have a lot of heart and seem to embrace the worries (and sorrows) of part of the world. They feel much - in both good and sad ways. The happily ever after part of these worlds might not be what a reader hopes for, but it is always what the story demands. Chris's work has a lot of emotional integrity and has never failed to touch me in some way.
I was really pleased that Chris was willing to chat a bit about his novel and some of his stories. I hope that readers who might not be familiar with his work will seek it out - especially those who are looking for something that will appeal to teen audiences. I think high school students will find much in the work of Chris Barzak that appeals to them - that speaks to them - and should know that he is out there, and has so much good writing to offer. Now on to the interview!
I read your post about the inspiration for Sorrow with great interest. I wondered when I was reading it if there had been a news story that had inspired the story but this ended up being far more emotional than I expected. I wondered if you had been inspired by real world events (or places) for any of your other stories (a real haunted house perhaps?). Also, a few reviewers have pointed out that the murder remains unsolved in the novel and see this as a negative (Booklist mentioned this most recently). I never really saw solving Jaime's murder as the point, but did you purposely plan to leave it unsolved from the beginning? Was that partly due to the real murder or as a way to keep the book from becoming more of police procedural?
I do sometimes take inspiration from real world events, places and personal experiences, or observed experiences, for stories. For example, "The Flood", was inspired by the horrible destruction in New Orleans. In my next novel, part of it is told from the perspective of a member of a suicide club in Japan. While I was living there, I came across an article in the newspaper about the rise in suicide club participation, and grew interested in the phenomenon, looking up more information on it. Eventually I used a lot of that for parts of that novel.
As for the couple of reviewers of One for Sorrow who found it a negative thing that the murder remains unsolved, you're right, Jamie's murder isn't necessarily the point of the novel, but the thing that sets some of it--not even all of it--into action. I did purposively leave it unsolved from the beginning, for a couple of reasons. I had read The Lovely Bones, which I enjoyed reading, but felt that the death of the murderer in that book was sort of easy and more a case of wish fulfillment, how conveniently it was done, without anyone actually having to do anything for it to happen, and also I grew up on shows like "Unsolved Mysteries" and even have a good friend whose cousin's murder was featured on that show, and her murder has still never been solved. A lot of people go missing or are murdered every day, and only some of them are found, and only some of their killers are found and brought to justice. What happens when a murder or kidnapping isn't solved, though? The reality is we have to live with it, and carry it around with us. I wanted to write a novel in which that was the case, the thing the reader has to deal with, rather than giving that very satisfying feeling we've grown used to in fiction about murders that we can know everything, can discover everything necessary to bring a perpetrator to light and justice. That's a sort of comfort fantasy of detective fiction, and One for Sorrow isn't a police procedural. Its narrator is a fifteen year old boy who has no clue about a lot of things, as well as a lot of family troubles. He's trying to keep himself together in the midst of a world of chaos, and that's more the point, I think. The real murder that only partly inspired the murder of Jamie Marks (it was mostly a sort of emotional backdrop from my childhood that informed the novel) actually was solved, and rather quickly, due to one of the murderers having tried to claim a reward with information about the murder that no one but, well, someone who had been involved would have known.
One of the characters who really blew my mind in Sorrow was Frances. She was so angry - such a furious (and rightfully so) ghost that I thought she stole every scene she was part of. Where on earth did Frances come from? Was she a difficult character to create and write?
Frances comes from two places. One is from a real ghost story in my hometown. And that's the name the kids used to call her. But the story has changed over years, and the true story of Frances (who, in reality, was a girl named Frances Maria Buel) is a little different from the one I wrote in One for Sorrow. She was a young girl abused in all ways by her step father, Ira West Gardner. In one newspaper account from the time she lived, which was actually in the 1820s and 30s, not the 1900s as I made it, she had to jump from a window of her house to escape his unwanted advances. She had gone to a neighbor's to live after that, but Ira said he wouldn't bother her anymore and begged her to come home, so she did, and he stabbed her in the yard right in front of witnesses in August 1832. It seems that Ira might have been having sex with her, and she told him no more, and so he killed her. I found it the most horrible ghost story I'd ever heard in my life when I was fifteen and a friend told it to me, and drove me past the family cemetery. I couldn't believe there were kids who actually went there and performed the "Fuck You France" ritual, as if it were a game like "Bloody Mary". The headstone is very tall and includes a long poem someone in town wrote for Frances about her death. And over the years since her death, she has inspired much poetry and many stories by townspeople. I have a friend who has written a historical novel entirely from her point of view. In my novel, I wanted to give her a chance to exact some revenge in fiction that she did not have in life, and so she became a sort of Lizzie Borden character.
Sorrow seems like a lot of your short stories in that it has supernatural elements but is also primarily about very common human problems (loneliness, despair, fear, etc.) Why do you write these kinds of stories?
Oh, that's a hard question. I don't always know why I write what I write, but I do know this: I grew up surrounded by stories with supernatural elements in them, and we're saturated with the supernatural from an early age. Even if you grow up in an atheistic household, your world is saturated with God, this being that many people believe in but cannot be seen or heard, except by those who report that they have. And we're surrounded by ghost stories too, even if we don't believe in ghosts. And other sorts of fantasies as well, and superstitions. I have a friend who says she doesn't enjoy reading fiction with supernatural elements in it, but she's also a devout Christian, and reads from the Bible every Sunday, and doesn't have a problem with the supernatural elements in it. The witches and warlocks and Christ rising from the dead. I've never asked her, because I imagine she'd be offended, but I wonder if she doesn't enjoy those parts of the Bible either. I tend to write about common human problems like loneliness and despair and fear because they're real, and at times in my life when I experienced one or all of them I would somehow, miraculously, come across a book that helped me move through them and find hope. So one of the things I hope now is that my stories may do that for someone else someday.
In "Little Miss Apocalypse" you have written one of the most romantic and sad ghost stories I have read in a long time. Relationships seem to be thwarted a lot in your work (Sorrow, "Realer Than You"). You don't seem to be the "happily ever after" kind of guy in that sense (ha). Is this a conscience decision or just where the stories take you?
I think stories are about the human experience of the world, and happily ever after isn't the experience a lot of people have of it. To purposively not write about the darker, sadder aspects of living, as if they were not worthy of being looked at and contemplated, would be to lie about our experience of living. But this is not a conscious decision on my part. I usually just go where a story takes me. Sometimes they take me into dark places, but always lead me out with a little light, something to make the road home a little brighter.
"What We Know About the Lost Families of _______ House" is one of the best haunted house stories I have read in ages (and I love haunted house stories). It has a very unorthodox format - how did you come up with this and did the story come easier or harder because of it?
There were several haunted houses in the little township where I grew up in Ohio that I actually blended together in "What We Know About the Lost Families of -- House". One of the ways I made them all into one house was by placing each of their individual stories into the same house and also by placing them into a historical time line. I started that story when I was twenty-four years old, and finished it when I was twenty-seven. I wrote half of it at twenty-four, and then stopped because at the time it was hard for me to hold it all in my "story space", which is how I think of the imaginative space I write from, a place that has grown over the years. The more I read and write, the bigger it gets, and the more able it is to take on different shapes. At the time I started writing "What We Know" I got only so far before I felt I didn't know how to take it any further. Years later, after writing a lot more stories, after I had finished writing and rewriting One for Sorrow and also the first draft of my second novel, I was able to finish this story. It came very easy to me then. But I think if I'd tried to force myself to finish it at twenty-four, I would have made a huge mess of it. The format of it made it hard to write, definitely, mostly trying to figure out how to make the story feel all of a piece, and as if it moving a reader through all the same story but made up of these various threads from various time periods and various families--it was a lot to keep track of and to keep that feeling of movement for the reader. So it started off hard, but when I came back to it years later it was much easier. I think mainly because my abilities as a writer had gotten better over time.
What can you tell me about the new book? Will it be aimed at adult audiences as well? Have you tried to crossover over to YA audiences? (I think it is happening with Sorrow rather organically - but would you like to direct a book at teens?)
The new book is called The Love We Share Without Knowing. It's set in Japan, and told from multiple perspectives about characters whose lives are connected and part of the same story, though they themselves are unaware of it. Like One for Sorrow, it is a contemporary setting, and draws on both realism and the supernatural for its story. It will be aimed at adult audiences as well, though I must admit, the first and last chapters have or are appearing in YA anthologies. I love teen voices, and don't separate teenage characters from adult characters as some do. It seems to me that many people think that as soon as a teenager appears in the pages of a story, it means it's YA. But for me I just see a teenage character. I know some people, adults, who say they don't really care for stories about teens and kids, and think that's too bad, because they live in a world with teens and kids in it, and I think their stories are just as valid and and important as stories about adult characters. There's just no dividing line for me. Teens and adults live in the same world together, and so I represent their perspectives in the same book often, and specifically I do that in this next book.
I have never purposively tried to cross over into YA audiences, but I think you're right that it is happening with One for Sorrow on its own, and in its own way. Recently, though, I wrote a story for a YA anthology called The Beastly Bride, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, called "Map of Seventeen" and when I finished the story I had all these ideas for what happens to the narrator of that story and other members of her family after her story finishes, and I think I want to eventually write that novel. But I have a third novel to finish before that one--I'm about a third of the way through it--and then I'll have to come back and see if the impulse to write that other novel, which would specifically be YA, I think, is still there for me.
You can read Christoper's short story "The Guardian of the Egg" in last summer's issue of the Journal of Mythic Arts. "What We Know About the Lost Families of ____ House" is in the Interfictions anthology. I reviewed it earlier this year at Bookslut. "Realer Than You" appears in the anthology Coyote Road. "Little Miss Apocalypse" was printed in the August issue of Realms of Fantasy. Chris was also interviewed yesterday at Shaken & Stirred, where he talked a lot more about his next book. (And yes, I can't wait to read it!) The post picture of Frances Buel's memorial is taken from Chris' site.