David Nickle is the author of Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, which I read and reviewed a few weeks ago. He kindly agreed to answer my questions and I hope you enjoy his responses as much as I did.
It’s early here as I write this, so it’s hard to say. But this afternoon, we’re doing a bookstore event here in Toronto. Really, if one person not related to me or the other authors shows up, it will have been a fantastic day, thank you.
If I’m going to meet someone in a public place who doesn’t know me, I tell them to look for the hairiest person in the room and that usually works like a charm.
You know, I don’t want to scare readers — I want to worry them, give them the creeps, help them explore the sense that the world might not be as easily comprehensible as would allow them to continue feeling safe. Actual fear and terror is something that we ought to keep separate from the kind of fear we experience in fiction, because the real thing — wondering if you’re going to live or die because there’s a real fellow with a knife outside — that’s awful.
So the question becomes: what made me want to do all that, rather than frightening innocent readers with an actual knife? From an early age, I really wanted to show people the strange places that lived in my imagination: my own twisted Middle Earth. And very quickly, I realized showing wasn’t enough. Readers had to *feel* those places.
And lovely, comfortable sensual details, such as Tolkien created in the Shire and Rivendell sequences of The Lord of the Rings, only carry the reader so far. At some point, the deeper and more immediate implications of the place have to emerge — the Balrog, Gollum’s awful descent… Shelob. There’s nothing like being chased about a cavern by a giant hobbit-eating spider to anchor you in unreality.
What scares you?
I’m terrified of helplessness. On the subject of hobbit-eating spiders: One of the great all-time moments in horror films for me comes at the end of the 1958 version of The Fly, when Vincent Price discovers the other half of David Eddison (the scientist whose botched teleportation experiment mingles his form with that of a house-fly) trapped in a spider web in the garden outside his home. Those tiny screams of “help me” did what the rest of the movie, with its wobbly, lurching man-fly could not, and creeped me out in a very profound way. Because ultimately, I realized, there was no way out for poor Eddison.
You’re right – Eutopia’s my first solo novel, but I’ve co-authored in the past, and there is a novel, The Claus Effect, that I co-wrote with Karl Schroeder in the mid-1990s.
The Claus Effect was a collaboration based on a still-earlier collaboration. In 1993, Karl and I wrote a story called The Toy Mill, about an evil, industrialized Santa Claus and the little girl who first believes in him and then must destroy him. The Toy Mill won an Aurora Award (Canada’s oldest speculative fiction award). I also collaborated on the short story “Rat Food,” with Edo Van Belkom. It won a Bram Stoker award.
I’d put both of these experiences near the top of my list of writing experiences if for no other reason than because they turned out some really strong fiction that won prizes. It was also interesting externalizing the storytelling process, though; both justifying and displaying storytelling choices to a collaborator, and marvelling at that collaborator’s own imaginings.
It’s also faster. Edo and I wrote Rat Food over two work nights while we were working in the same newsroom. Karl and I wrote most of The Claus Effect over a single, caffeine-fuelled long weekend.
With all that said, ultimately I do prefer writing alone. It’s not as much fun, and a lot scarier. But it is my own story, and I think it’s able to deepen a little bit because of that.
I was actually researching a possible prequel to an as-yet unpublished novel, that dealt with the Soviet and American remote viewing program, when I stumbled onto War Against the Weak, an excellent non-fiction history of the American eugenics movement by Edwin Black. The horrific folly of that movement struck me as a really powerful moment in American history – when men and women who were genuinely intent on improving the lot of humanity fell down so badly, tangled in their own ignorance and racism. The eugenicists were not self-consciously evil — yet the evil that they gave birth to grew into the definitive evil — Nazism and the death camps — of the 20th century.
The book got me thinking about the moment when good intentions move into zealotry. And how belief in those intentions can blind us to the reality around us, and the true implications of our actions. So I thought about writing a short story about the movement, after having finished the psychic spy novel and it occurred to me that there was just too much to say about the movement for a short story. I suspect, having finished Eutopia, that there is too much to say about it for a single novel.
You’ve chosen the less common spelling of eutopia for the title. Can you explain the reasoning behind this?
Funny — when I selected the title (it was actually suggested to me by another writer, Michael Skeet, in place of my working title, Mister Juke) I wasn’t even sure that Eutopia was a word. I just liked the idea of hibridizing eugenics and utopia into a one-word title that epitomized two of the major themes of the novel. When I realized that eutopia is the original form of the word — and refers specifically to “utopian” societies in the real world — it made even more sense, in that the town of Eliada is very much an attempt to realize utopian ideals in an imperfect world.
I did have input. ChiZine Publications, my publisher, is blessed to have a boy genius art director in the person of Erik Mohr. He designed the covers for both Eutopia, and my previous story collection Monstrous Affections. He’s done fantastic work on both. In the case of Monstrous Affections, he put together the image of the strange, distorted “Sloan man” at my suggestion. It’s since become the branding icon for the press. I had less input into the cover of Eutopia — just suggesting a couple of minor tweaks to the manipulations he’d done on the vintage photograph. But it was really fine from the get-go. Both covers have been real attention-grabbers. One goodreads reviewer commented that she put Eutopia back on the shelf before going to bed because she didn’t want those raised, black eyes next to her as she slept. Brett Savory, CZP’s co-publisher, tells a story of a friend of his who was reading Monstrous Affections at LAX, until he was asked by security to please put the book away. They had apparently received multiple complaints that it was frightening air travellers.
What would be your utopia?
Well it wouldn’t be Eliada. Although a society where health care is covered by your taxes, education is considered as a right, and every citizen’s basic shelter and nutritional needs are taken care of is a very good start. But ultimately, a society is only as good as the people who inhabit it.
Which is, I guess, why so many eugenicists considered themselves progressives. And finally, why I’ll take the health care, education and shelter and nutrition, and leave any ideas of utopia for others to contemplate.
Well let’s see. Books with my name on the cover would include Monstrous Affections and The Claus Effect. Both of them you can order through Amazon, and Monstrous Affections, like Eutopia, has pretty good bookstore distribution through Diamond Distributing.
I’ve also got a rack of short stories, and I’ve put a number of them online using the Creative Commons License method of rights management. They’re at my website, The Devil’s Exercise Yard, filed under Free Lies.
Right now I’m working on The ‘Geisters, a novel about poltergeists, the men who love them, and the modern marriage.
I’m a journalist. I cover Toronto City Hall politics for the Toronto Community News chain of newspapers. I like to joke that at night, I write stories about depravity, hypocrisy and monsters. And during the day, I do pretty much the same thing…
Cold Skin, by Albert Sanchez Pinol. It’s also a historical horror novel, re-examining the Lovecraftian Deep One myth of depraved fish men, from the point of view of two men stuck on a rocky island near the antarctic in the early 20th century. For those who thought that Eutopia was about as bleak and horrific as one can go, I point to Cold Skin.
Read. Find the stories that you like to read, learn how they work, and then set to write your own stories, not quite like those ones. Then keep writing. Finish the work. Join a writer’s workshop if you can, to find out how to do it better. And always, always submit your stories for publication.
That’s really it. If you keep doing this, and keep striving to improve and get the story on paper as close to the germ of the idea that inspired you to write it — you’ll do all right.
A grab bag. I was really struck by Amanda Palmer’s commencement address about the Fraud Police, which led me to this lovely video:
…which put me to mind of Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues:
…that I only heard about a week ago, but served, for me, as a perfect thematic theme-song for Jason Thistledown, who is one of the two protagonists of Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, for which we produced a trailer some time ago, that remains online and I really ought to share during this interview:
Such is how we writers spend our workdays…