Conversations with the Bookless: Nathan Ballingrud

In support of the short story, and specifically those talented writers who are currently “bookless,” which is to say those writers who are at that stage of their career where a collection or novel is a year or more away, I’m doing a new feature called Conversations with the Bookless, of which this is the second installment. The first, with Rachel Swirsky, can be read here. The fact is, if you don’t have a book out, it’s harder to get attention and it’s harder for reader attention to crystalize around you. I hope these interviews introduce readers to some of the great talent that, in the coming years, will be amazingly and bountifully bookful.

Nathan Ballingrud is one of my favorite short fiction writers. Since the 1990s, when he published work in, among others, Ann’s The Silver Web and F&SF, he has demonstrated a unique and penetrating point of view. Although he writes stories that are horrific, he’s not really a horror writer. Although he writes stories that could be considered penetrating character studies, he’s not really part of the literary mainstream. He has an obsession, at times, with angels.

Most recently, he has been championed by Ellen Datlow, who has published his work in Sci Fiction and in various anthologies. Ballingrud also had a lovely Borgesian piece in The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. Every story Ballingrud writes is unfailingly intelligent, strange, and unclassifiable.

Where are you, right now, as you’re writing these answers?
I’m at home, in my bedroom, which doubles as my work space. My laptop is opened on a cluttered desk: there are drawings by my daughter stacked on one side, stacks of books on both sides (Baltimore by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, the American Library edition of Poe’s stories and poems, The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, and The Solitudes by John Crowley). Behind the laptop are some collected editions of comic books: Invincible by Robert Kirkman, two Hellboys, and the first volume of Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers. Also a bottle of Highland Black Mocha Stout.

What do you like most about short fiction?
Its seriousness of intent–even when humorous. In short fiction the energy is focused and precise; everything works in service to the theme. It’s distilled fiction. I view a short story as a promise from the writer: I’m going to try to move you, and I’m going to do it quickly. That’s hard to do, and it’s so exciting when it works. Some of my favorite short story writers are Richard Ford, Maureen F. McHugh, Mark Helprin, Annie Proulx, Lucius Shepard, and Dale Bailey (a friend, I confess, but I don’t list him out of a sense of duty: many of his short stories are heartbreakingly beautiful). And I still think Ernest Hemingway is the best short story writer of the last hundred years.

What do you most value in the fiction you love?
Emotional integrity, and emotional fearlessness. I love fiction that hones in on aspects of ourselves that are too embarrassing or too painful for polite conversation. It’s difficult to be truly honest, even–or maybe especially–for a writer, but I think that’s where fiction’s real power lies. Specifically in fantasy fiction, I like to see real world issues addressed. It’s too easy for fantasy writers to get so caught up in the make-believe that they forget that the best fiction is still about the human heart. I like to read–and to write–stories that deal frankly with race, with depression, with people living near or below the poverty line. I’m sick of reading about academics and gifted people, frankly. Lucius Shepard and Rick Bowes are both good examples of writers who still like to get their hands dirty. There are others, of course, but they’re the ones who spring immediately to mind. This is starting to sound more like a screed, so I’ll stop.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in the last week?
While helping my daughter to research a school project, I learned that by certain estimations the largest living organism on the planet is a mushroom: specifically the Armillaria ostoyae, or the honey mushroom. It spreads underground in a huge network of rhizomorphs. A specimen was discovered in Oregon which covers 2,200 acres, and is probably 2,400 years old or more. Sweet Jesus!

Where can we read your fiction online right now, and where is work forthcoming? (online or off)
Online, you can still read “You Go Where It Takes You” from SCIFICTION. That’s a story that’s done well by me, marking my first appearance in Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, and I’m still fond of it. Forthcoming are two stories: “The Monsters of Heaven,” coming in Ellen Datlow’s Inferno this December, is about the difficulties a married couple have after the disappearance of their son; and “North American Lake Monsters,” appearing in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy next June (also edited by Datlow), is about a man who’s been in prison for the last six years trying to reintegrate with his family after being released. Plus, there’s a lake monster. The first one is a horror story, the second one is not. I have more in various stages of production right now.

Why do you write?
You know, I still don’t know. Back in 1994 I sold my first short story (“She Found Heaven” to F&SF), and stopped writing almost immediately afterwards, for almost ten years. During that time I barely missed it. I remember feeling that I’d written a frivolous story, and believing that I was only capable of writing frivolous stories. I didn’t want to have that kind of a career. I’d lived an insulated life up until that point and felt I had nothing of value to contribute. In the years between that time and my next sale (in 2003, I think), I spent some time in New Orleans and New York and rectified that problem in a variety of ways. And it wasn’t a conscious decision to start writing again; in fact when I started I was quite afraid of it, knowing how long I’d let the gears rust. There were a few ugly, initial efforts, but I felt so much more confident in what I was doing because I felt I was writing about things that were important – to me, anyway. And then I wrote “You Go Where It Takes You,” and everything started to click. I still have a long way to go, God knows, but at least I’m on the road now. So, to cut to the chase, I don’t write because I have to: I’ve already proven to myself that I don’t, and that I can be happy without it. I write because it feels so damn good, and because–forgive the hubris–I feel like I’m writing stories that are different from what’s out there, and that are, in some sense, valuable. Don’t I sound like a schmuck?

How do you plan to rectify your booklessness?
You know, this is actually a point of mild embarrassment for me. It seems like everybody has one! Once I finish the small handful of stories I’m working on now I think I’ll have enough for a collection. I don’t know the first thing about how to approach anybody about it, so I’ll have to figure that part out first. I also have two ideas for novellas, which I know some independent publishers handle. I plan to spend a lot of next year on my first novel (I figure my short stories will take me up to the end of this year). Believe me, I’d dearly love to have a book! It seems as lofty and unattainable a goal to me now as selling my first short story did back in the day. But if I had to bet on what’ll come first, it’d be on the short story collection.

3 comments on “Conversations with the Bookless: Nathan Ballingrud

  1. Steve Berman says:

    Nathan leaves out that he is insightful not only about the writing process but also about the author process–what drives authors to write (and not write), about their doubts and mores and more doubts and doubtful mores. A terrific fellow.

  2. Michael Bishop says:

    I’m a Ballingrud partisan and hope to see that first collection immediately after it’s ready to go to press. Thanks for this interview, Jeff.

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