An Interview with S.P. Miskowski, Part Two

Posted by James Campbell on September 30, 2013 in Blog, Interviews tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Presenting part two of our in-depth interview with S.P. Miskowski, author of Knock Knock and The Skillute Cycle.  If you missed part one, you can catch up here.

*********************************************************

 

 

JC: A lot’s been happening in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) – generally understood as Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, Canada – over the last 25 years or so.  British Columbia has been given the moniker ‘Hollywood North’ because of the amount of American film and TV being produced there.  TV shows like The X-Files and Supernatural, and more recently, the film The Cabin in the Woods featured the region as the ‘archetypal’ rural American backwoods setting.  The Ring, the American remake of the J-Horror classic, and the Twilight franchise are both set in the PNW, as are several recent horror-themed console games, Alan Wake, Deadly Premonition and Silent Hill: Downpour, produced in Finland, Japan and the Czech Republic, respectively.  It seems fair to say then that the region has an increasingly global commercial appeal.  And of course, the last several years have seen a growing number of writers producing superlative supernatural fiction set in the region – writers like yourself, Laird Barron and Livia Llewellyn, to name a few. 

 

Much of the praise surrounding the current wave of small press horror writers tends to centre on connections to the north-eastern, transatlantic ‘Weird’ tradition; references to New England writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and Shirley Jackson abound.  But on first reading Knock Knock I was struck by its ‘Southern Gothic’ flavour – something to do with that combination of the grotesque, that trace of O’Connor, set against a backdrop of rural poverty and the relationships/tensions between the local ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.  Of course, academics love to label: considerable ink is still being spent on proving that Edgar Allan Poe was an ‘American,’ ‘Southern’ or even a ‘Philly’ writer.  How do you think living in Georgia and Washington has influenced your work?  Was there a particular reason why you chose to set the series in the PNW, as opposed to any other region?  The PNW and the South are quite far apart geographically speaking, but are there certain continuities, certain things they have in common that stand out to you, as a writer?  Do you think of yourself as being a regional or national writer?

SPM: Growing up in Georgia, I was aware of history, aware of racism. Although I wasn’t old enough to put it into perspective I knew I was living through sweeping social change. My generation was the first to experience integration. My friends were African-American and my neighborhood in Decatur, just outside of Atlanta, was integrated. The contrast with older generations in my family was stark. I think it caused me to question authority and the so-called wisdom of my elders at an unusually early age. It’s difficult for me to accept anything at face value. I always wonder who’s in charge and what their agenda might be. I also tend to be critical of white assumptions, especially the assumption that racism exists primarily in the South. It exists everywhere in the United States, and it thrives in places where people refuse to acknowledge it. Places like the Pacific Northwest.

Above: A gathering of the Ku Klux Klan – more traditionally associated with the Deep South – in Downtown Seattle, Washington, 1923.  For more information see the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project.

  

Maybe because my parents came from poor but ambitious families, as a child I noticed the fine distinctions between classes. Racism is fueled by the insecurity of people who can’t quite get what they want out of life.

The South has an oral storytelling tradition and the people I knew there loved to talk. The front porch was a place where people gathered and shared stories while preparing food, while smoking, while drinking. Talking was an art; making people laugh was an art. I began to write short stories when I was about eight years old, and it seemed like a natural extension of this social activity. It never occurred to me to hide my stories. I read them aloud to my parents, who got a kick out of them, even the ones in which children did horrific things to their loved ones. Fiction wasn’t a threat; it was healthy entertainment.

In the Pacific Northwest most people are more reticent. If someone asks a question, and you reply at length, the other person is apt to go silent instead of carrying on with the conversation the way a Southerner would. You can live in the Northwest for years and barely know your neighbors. People are curious about others but unwilling to talk about themselves. Of course these are huge generalizations.

I set Knock Knock in the southwestern part of Washington State because I knew the area and had conflicted feelings about it. My husband’s family lives there. I was spending a long, sleepless night at his grandmother’s house when I had the idea for Knock Knock. The physical details of the place were all around me. They reminded me of visits to the country when I was a kid. The woods had that same lonely, eerie feeling. I wondered how women lived in these places. I considered myself to be an entrenched urban dweller, but I knew many rural families when I was a child. So the story was a combination of intimate knowledge and wild speculation.

The continuities between the South and the area where the novel is set perhaps have to do with small town life. People in cities make bizarre assumptions about anyone who chooses to stay in a town like (the fictional) Skillute. There’s a snide condemnation in their tone when they refer to the residents of small towns. I wanted to both exploit and explore that. I wanted to sidestep the obvious and consider how women like Ethel, Marietta, and Beverly developed as women in such a place.

One thing rural dwellers have in common across the country is irritation at being told who they are. Stubbornness emerges when someone who doesn’t know you makes an assumption about how you live and how you vote. I know people who are routinely dismissed as “rednecks,” who exaggerate their stated views purely to get even with liberals who write them off. I wanted to get past all of the animosity and assumptions.

The South influenced me but I don’t think of myself as a regional writer. If I had to choose between identifying as a Southern writer or a Northwest writer, however, I’d say I’m Southern. I do think of myself as an American writer. My concerns, my themes, have to do with specifically American social and historical contradictions. But I’m not on a campaign. I’m not trying to prove anything. My aim is to look closely and relentlessly at who we are and how we live. I’m aware of being American, although my writing is about human nature, self-delusion, and deep-rooted desires that are universal.

JC: While Knock Knock introduces readers to Skillute, Delphine Dodd extends its roots further back into the regional and national past.  Of course, one of America’s most enduring national myths is that it has no history.  In fact its history, or histories, are always in the process of being written and rewritten.  Certain histories have, historically, been marginalized.  In horror fiction the ‘ancient Indian burial ground’ is a typical cliché whose popular sobriquet serves to efface its subject.  But in Delphine Dodd you offer a brilliant alternative to this via your detailed historical account of the real-life ‘rock of the dead’ Mont des Morts, better known as ‘Mount Coffin.’  With your fictionalized account of the notorious Washington sanatorium Wilderness Heights, nicknamed at the height of the scandal ‘Starvation Heights,’ you also offer insight into the lives of the women who lived in this region during the early twentieth-century. 

 

Traditionally these histories have been marginalized by the nation’s patriarchal histories/mythologies: the Puritans, the cowboys, the self-made businessmen.  This development is reflected in Delphine Dodd with the coming of the ‘Bostons,’ and in how the area came to be reshaped by, as one of your characters puts it, ‘big men’ and their ‘big business.’  Can you elaborate further on the historical research you conducted when preparing the novella, and what you learned about the region’s development?

SPM: Thanks for the kind words about Delphine Dodd. I hope I’ve avoided the cliché of the burial ground excuse for supernatural occurrences. It worked in Poltergeist and Pet Sematary, more subtly in The Shining. It’s been used a lot, since then. I actually felt I was going out of my way to avoid it in Knock Knock. The challenge was to invent a plausible local legend that didn’t rely explicitly on what I’m now beginning to enjoy calling ‘the burial ground excuse.’

Delphine Dodd required more historical research. My husband knew southwestern Washington State well because he grew up there. We’ve spent time there with his family. But I did a lot of reading to lay the groundwork for the book. Everything I read brought me back to one location, Mount Coffin. Burial grounds.

Above: ‘Mt. Coffin on the Columbia River near Longview, Washington,’ from Oregon State University Libraries’ Gerald W. Williams Collection.  The photograph was taken in 1900, when the days of ‘the Rock of the Dead’ were shortly numbered.

  

The twin desires of many American immigrants, and we are a nation of immigrants, has been to start fresh while retaining our original culture, from another part of the world. Neither desire, to begin again or to honor our original homeland, allows for the legitimacy of cultures that existed here for thousands of years before we arrived. The first Europeans to navigate what we call the Columbia River were uncertain of the intentions of the natives they met. So there was often a respectful distance based on fear. After the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition in the early 19th century, Europeans began to explore the area with the intention of settling there. Their illnesses decimated the native families that had no immunity. With their numbers greatly reduced, the remaining natives were in no position to bargain, or to protect their homes.

Before this rupture, Chinook jargon-speaking people lived near the river for thousands of years. For perhaps hundreds of years, families in the region placed their dead loved ones inside sealed canoes and placed them on and around a basalt rock formation on the north shore of the lower Columbia River. Over the course of a century, the rock was destroyed by industry, blasted into smaller rocks by a sand and gravel company and used to construct roads and foundations in the area. I was struck by the idea of this geological oddity serving as a spiritual place, and then as the building material for new towns like Longview, Washington.

Above: ‘Coffin Rock’ by Paul Kane, based on sketches the artist made in 1847.  ‘We encamped for the night near Coffin Rock, much against the inclination of my men, whose superstition would have led them to avoid such a place.  This rock gets its name from its being the place in which the Indians deposit their dead’ (Kane, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America, Courier Dover Publications, 1925, 137).

 

I didn’t want the destruction of Mount Coffin and native people like the Cowlitz to serve some cheap fictional purpose. I wasn’t interested in the land as a place haunted by vengeful spirits. I was drawn to the significance of Mount Coffin, as it was perceived for hundreds of years before its disruption, as a spiritual place. Delphine comes from a tradition of faith in a spirit world which can be visited, and from which certain people can return. Her home is situated at spiritual crossroads between living and dead beings, honored by her grandmother’s rituals. It’s a peaceful connection to the real history of the land. The disruptive change that unsettles these spirits is not the destruction of the rock, but a collective loss of memory. Mount Coffin is itself a ghost, an absence.

There are big landmarks in the area but the construction I found interesting was Longview. The town didn’t develop naturally. It was planned as carefully as a single structure might be, after its founders conquered a few engineering challenges. Longview was assembled to be a model city. The founders had financial investments in the area and a town made sense, so they created one. Modest in style but ostentatious in its intent.

Left to right: Two vintage advertisements for Longview, Washington.  The first, taken from a 1926 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, promises ‘An Entire City Developed by the same Principles which Govern the Planning and Building of a Modern Factory.’  The second, from 1924, proclaims it ‘THE CITY PRACTICAL THAT VISION BUILT,’ ‘[l]ocated in the heart of the Pacific Northwest with its abundant undeveloped resources, in one of the most rapidly growing sections of that great empire’.

 

JC: I’d like to ask you a question about your latest book, Astoria – but here we have to tread carefully so as not to give away (too m)any spoilers!  Astoria focuses on the character of Ethel, picking up after she leaves Skillute in Knock Knock following a life-changing event.  Without giving too much away, can you talk a little about the character’s state of mind at the beginning, and during the course of Astoria, and the transformation she undergoes?

 

SPM: Ethel Sanders is a major character from Knock Knock. In the novel she faces a personal catastrophe and decides to make a drastic change to her life. Afterward the novel continues, following another set of characters.

Astoria picks up where we left off with Ethel. Actually, we back up just a bit, and for the first time you see what Ethel was doing in Skillute while her friends Beverly and Marietta were carrying out their nefarious plan.

The first draft of Astoria began exactly where we last saw Ethel in Knock Knock. We just hit the road with Ethel at the wheel. My editor suggested backing up enough to give readers unfamiliar with the novel more insight into Ethel’s life in Skillute. (A reader can enjoy any one of these books without having to read the others, but anyone who follows the entire cycle will find overlapping action from different points of view and recurring images that fit together in an interesting way. To make sure Astoria worked as a stand-alone, I needed to offer a glimpse into the nightmare Ethel is trying to escape.)

I’m not going to say how much of Astoria is psychological or supernatural. It’s more fun and interesting for the reader to figure it out. I will say that Ethel is at the breaking point when her new journey begins. She’s attempting what many of us consider at moments of crisis. She’s casting off her identity for a shot at freedom. This part of the story brought to mind some famous female characters ditching their old lives, from Marion Crane in Psycho to Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House. The escape is exhilarating, but we don’t know where our heroine will end up.

Long Beach, Washington is featured in Knock Knock as one of Ethel’s favorite childhood places. This is her destination. Then, for reasons I won’t give away, she decides on Astoria, Oregon as a hiding place. I’ve wanted to create a scene like the one on the Astoria-Megler Bridge ever since I read Dostoevsky’s The Double. This book gave me the chance to delve into the idea of the double and what it might mean to a woman whose identity is far from stable.

 

JC: In addition to works by Dostoevsky, O’Connor and Jackson, was there anything else in particular that inspired you when it came to writing the books in The Skillute Cycle?  I ask this, partly because you have in the past mentioned the influence of a particular Thai film that inspired a portion of Knock Knock.  Having an interest in Asian cinema I would love to know the title of that film!  Is Asian horror cinema a field you find particularly interesting, disturbing and/or compelling? And are there any other particular horror writers, either in the mainstream and/or small presses, whose work you especially enjoy and would like to recommend to our readers?

SPM: When I first began to write Knock Knock, I lived in Seattle. My friend Scott McGough, a fantasy writer and film buff, had recommended the work of Takashi Miike, Kim Jee-Woon, and Park Chan-wook. My husband and I rented from Scarecrow Video, which had a great collection of Asian horror. We bought an international DVD player because some of the titles weren’t yet available in North American format.

After watching Audition, I was soon hooked on both psychological and supernatural foreign films. I wasn’t bothering with American horror by this time. Alien and Jaws had long ago lost their allure in endless franchises, and most American horror was just teen gore. I became a fan of the Korean films A Tale of Two Sisters, Acacia, Memories of Murder, and Tell Me Something. I watched quite a few Thai ghost stories; of these, I’d especially recommend The Unseeable, directed by Wisit Sasanatieng.

Japanese horror really struck a chord, and led me to the fiction of Koji Suzuki. I’d go so far as to say that the films Ringu and Ju-on changed my life as a storyteller. They scared the hell out of me, something that hadn’t happened in years. It was refreshing.

The kind of horror I became interested in required the viewer to share an intimacy and familiarity with the subject. Hitchcock liked to introduce something inexplicable or vaguely disturbing amid the mundane details of every day life. If you believe where you are, if you recognize it and feel in control of it, estrangement occurs naturally when a weird element is added. This is a truth Hollywood producers specializing in ‘high concept’ may have forgotten. If you start out crazy, there’s no suspense and you have nowhere to go. If you start with three little girls, who are restless during a grade-school hygiene film, and you imagine how they might respond to another girl’s description of her mother’s pregnancy, you have a real world in which a creepy legend might wreak havoc.

Around this time, I was trying to talk with my friends about the films I liked, and they were letting me know horror wasn’t their thing. So I started a blog, Shock Room, where I could share the films with a mainstream audience and where I could explore the genre. The blog gradually expanded to include novels, anthologies, and story collections, but its mission is the same. I’m not a critic; I’m an enthusiast. I try to share the work I find most provocative and exciting, and the emphasis is on story structure.

My first impulse with Knock Knock had been to introduce a city dweller, Lydia, among the unfriendly residents of a small town, an idea later reinforced by the Thai film Nang Nak (directed by Nonzee Nimibutr from a screenplay by Wisit Sasanatieng). But as my novel grew I realized I wanted to know the small town residents just as well as the city dweller. Nang Nak, one of many adaptations of a famous ghost tale, receded as an influence, although I used a few of its minor elements, e.g., looking through a window to see the true nature of another being.

 
The section of Knock Knock about Lydia and her husband is still informed by the popular Thai legend of a pregnant bride left among hostile villagers when her husband goes to war. But my story took on a life of its own once I knew who Lydia was and why she came to Skillute. Her journey is subsequent to the story of the three little girls who share an oath in the woods, and it’s woven into a larger, more complex history.

While sampling Pseudopod a few years ago, I heard a story by Simon Strantzas and it blew me away. Around the same time, I started collecting anthologies. I was amazed. Glen Hirshberg, Reggie Oliver, Lynda E. Rucker, Steve Duffy, and Nicholas Royle demonstrated without doubt that horror fiction had become much broader and deeper since the last time I’d spent money on it. I added to my to-read literary list a lot of classic and modern horror. So I was educating myself while attempting to revise a novel rooted in the genre.

The writers I’ve mentioned are ones I recommend, along with John Langan and Laird Barron. I’m also interested in the writing of Anna Taborska, Rosalie Parker, and Barbara Roden. I advise readers to sample anthologies and follow the trail wherever it leads. There’s something for everyone in horror fiction today, and these writers are at the top of their game. I’d recommend them to anyone who likes fiction, not just genre fiction.

JC: While your next Skillute novella looks set to conclude the current cycle, do you think you might return to the town and its inhabitants at some point?  Or do you have other plans and projects on the horizon?

SPM: The final book of the cycle is In the Light, which is about Henry and Alicia Colquitt and the girl, Ruthie, who appears in the epilogue to Knock Knock. This one takes place in 2013, so we’ll see what’s happened since the events of Knock Knock and Astoria. If another Skillute story occurs to me, at some point, I could return to the setting. It’s certainly alive in my imagination. At the moment I don’t have plans to carry on with Skillute after In the Light is published in early 2014.

There are three book-size ideas in my head. One is about a murderous woman and her family. Another is about a strange girl raised by parents who can’t stand one another. And the one I’ll most likely begin writing as soon as The Skillute Cycle ends is a tale of ambition, greed, and murder set in a rapidly changing city. That’s about all I can reveal right now. This fall I’m co-editing an anthology and revising a few short stories. If any of them are any good, I’ll submit them to magazines in the coming months. Keeping my fingers crossed.

JC: S.P. – thank you for your time!

*********************************************************

Shortly after concluding this interview S.P. contributed a funny and insightful essay, ‘In Search of Horrible Women,’ to Nightmare Magazine.  You can read the essay by clicking here.  If you enjoyed this interview be sure to check out as well the excellent interview conducted by Peter Tennant in Black Static #33 (Mar-Apr 2013).  The Knock Knock, Delphine Dodd and Astoria e-books are currently a steal on Amazon for a mere total of $9.22 / £6.11 at time of writing, and if you enjoy them as much as I do you’ll soon be wanting to pick these up in paperback.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/nqynxtz