Derek Askey Interviews Peter Stenson
Derek Askey: When we first talked about Fiend <http://www.amazon.com/Fiend-A-Novel-Peter-Stenson/dp/0770436315> , before it even had that title, you said you watched all of Breaking Bad <http://www.amctv.com/shows/breaking-bad> , then all of The Walking Dead <http://www.amctv.com/shows/the-walking-dead> , and then wrote this book in a month. That sounds a little too tidy, even for you. In short, I don’t believe you.
Peter Stenson: Yeah, I suppose that was a tiny bit of bullshit.
So had you been itching to write a book about zombies for a while? I know some of your short fiction <http://petercstenson.com/pubs.html> deals with addiction, meth in particular; were you interested in tackling that as a novel before the work on Fiend had begun? Were the two narratives sort of retrofitted together?
I’d tried to write an addiction narrative for years, but every one I wrote was so emo and self-pitying, I couldn’t stomach them. Or rather, I thought they were genius, but everyone else thought they were awful. I tried about three different novels in this vein—each helpful in figuring out how to actually write a story with a three-hundred page arc—but also all horrible. And then I watched The Walking Dead.
The idea of zombies <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063350/> seemed perfect. Often, I’ll think I’m on a good idea, write it for a hundred pages, and then realize it was really a twenty-page story idea. It’s been my experience that I need another idea, one I’ve mulled over for a separate project, to mesh with my first, which alters my original idea in some small but fundamental way. This has happened in the three novels (that I actually like) that I’ve written. And it happened in Fiend: zombies came in to my self-pitying addiction narrative, and helped with the plot, while also echoing the same things on a metaphorical/thematic level.
One of the things so crushing and hopeless about Fiend is Chase’s relentless pursuit of KK, who, if indeed she does love him back, does so in a horribly broken, misguided way. And Chase’s love for her is no more pure—worse, probably.
It sounds corny, but I believe most every book is a love story <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_XHTzc6lag> , at least the ones I’m interested in. The pursuit of love is pretty much the only thing I think about, how I view the world, the guiding force I believe most actions are derived from.
If there’s anything close to a formula in literary fiction, it’s a character with an all-consuming desire <http://toddmitchellbooks.com/the-one-thing-i-wish-someone-had-told-me-about-creating-characters/> , with obstacles in his/her path to thwart said desire. Love is the most logical choice because it encompasses all other wants. As far as the relationship between Chase and KK, it was the only kind that made sense, given that they’re junkies and the world has ended.
But that’s also kind of bullshit, because really, I love broken people, those unable to accept love or kindness, who hurt others out of fear, whose pasts play out in real time with their presents. Nothing interests me less than happy relationships in fiction.
I know this is a Big Question, but: why are we so obsessed <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apocalyptic_and_post-apocalyptic_fiction> with envisioning humanity’s collapse? What’s in it for us in imagining this stuff?
People smarter than me probably have a whole lot to say about this, but I’ll take a crack. I think this fear/obsession has being going on forever. It probably has to do with an innate understanding of our mortality, and trying to wrestle a little control over this ending by constructing narratives of how and when it will happen (Four Horsemen or zombies, same difference).
I’m sure there’s a direct correlation between apocalypse fiction and the economy <http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/05/u-s-income-inequality-on-rise-for-decades-is-now-highest-since-1928/> /war <http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/richard-cohen-lone-survivor-and-our-quagmire-in-afghanistan/2014/01/27/cbe4fc16-8784-11e3-a5bd-844629433ba3_story.html> /political climate <http://occupywallst.org/> , all those stressors people see on the news, but again, I’m too lazy to investigate that theory further than stating it as fact. As for me, I’m fascinated by the idea of everything being stripped away, a reversion to a simple game of chase. In a lot of ways, this is the quickest and easiest device to examine how people would actually treat one another, which interests me to no end.
There’s a song I love <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ER9Oesk5obk> called “The Dark Don’t Hide It”; its chorus is “At least the dark don’t hide it” (you can see, now, where it gets the title). I thought about this song while reading Fiend: that there’s a terrible honesty behind everything in the book, and that you’re unafraid to pursue that honesty, even when describing sex and really, really, really bad breath.
Do you think people who are turned off by this stuff are being fundamentally dishonest with themselves? Do you think they’re hiding something?
I did. Up until about July 10, a day after Fiend came out.
People were like, What is wrong with you? Honestly, a lot of the internet anger <http://www.amazon.com/review/RXZDB57P11GV8/ref=cm_cr_pr_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0770436315&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=> took me by surprise. Sorry I gave abortions a smell. Sorry my sex scenes are disgusting; these are meth addicts during a zombie apocalypse, which aren’t going to smell or taste all that great. But it made me question, for pretty much the first time, if the way I think is normal.
I believe there is a vast darkness most people refuse to look at. This can relate to sexuality or desire or jealousy or fear or really anything. I don’t believe mine is any different. But it could be like that old adage about the Eskimo boy and his two bears representing good and evil, and his decision about which to feed in order for it to grow. Maybe I foster my proverbial “black bear.” Or maybe I’m acutely aware of every thought that goes through my mind, while others aren’t. Or maybe I actually do think differently than most people.
The other day my father-in-law told me about a friend from work, Stan. Stan seemed like the kind of guy who masturbated during his shift as an air traffic controller, so I asked my father-in-law if that was the case. He told me that wasn’t a normal question. Maybe he was right. I might have been the only person who would’ve thought that. But getting back to your question, yes, I believe if somebody takes offense at something, it’s because this idea/metaphor/thing/person reminds them an aspect of their own character they dislike.
Fiend seems like a genre book that literary folks love—Steve Almond seems especially smitten <http://therumpus.net/2013/06/super-hot-prof-on-student-word-sex-10-peter-stenson/> . Was your MFA <http://qwillery.blogspot.com/2013/06/guest-blog-by-peter-stenson-author-of.html> , which focuses on literary fiction, instructive as you were writing genre?
I honestly don’t read a lot of genre. I read a “non-literary” novel about every fourth book. I find certain aspects of these books appealing, mainly their ability to “transport” me into their setting: to turn my mind off in a good way, to allow me the pleasure of being told a story. I wanted to take that aspect from genre books to Fiend, which at its core is a literary novel about addiction and love and failure and redemption.
Was it a perfect merger? Absolutely not. Many genre aficionados found the internalization and character motivation horribly dull. Many literary types couldn’t get past the fact there were zombies. That’s understandable, perhaps unavoidable. I’m sure plenty of people would argue with me, but I think Vonnegut <http://www.vonnegut.com/> is the only writer to ever merge two genres in a seamless and meaningful way. But that won’t stop me from trying.
Since Fiend, I’ve written two literary novels and one genre. The literary are probably more action-y than is acceptable, and the genre is probably more character-driven than is custom. Oh well. I think those walls are collapsing, and I think this is the result of us with MFAs attempting to write genre.
I’m not sure genre lovers are asking for this merger. There’s something nice about formulas and battles between good and evil. But when those get muddied? The same could be said on the literary side. Sure, bastardized South American magical realism spun from Brooklyn-based writers is an acceptable form of genre, but anything else? Not really. We’ll see where it all heads. I’m just trying to tell stories about real people with plots that aren’t super boring.
Speaking of walls collapsing, what’s your ideal hideout in the event of an actual zombie apocalypse (a normal one in which everyone could potentially survive, not just meth-heads)?
I don’t think I’d survive too long. I’m pretty much a sissy and am opposed to guns. Plus, I was running in the airport the other day to catch a flight and I honest-to-God thought I was having a heart attack. But with a daughter now, I’d give it a try. I’d head to the mountains because everybody’s fat, and even if they’re zombies, they’re not going to be able to climb fourteen thousand feet.
What three albums do you keep with you to soundtrack the end of the world?
I’m not sure if it’s cheating to bring a compilation, but I’d bring The Very Best of the Velvet Underground <http://www.amazon.com/Very-Best-Velvet-Underground/dp/B00008CGTQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1390933758&sr=8-1&keywords=the+very+best+of+the+velvet+underground> because it’s depressing in a beautiful way. I’d bring Cloud Cult’s The Meaning of 8 <http://www.amazon.com/Meaning-8-Cloud-Cult/dp/B000NQR7RK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1390933863&sr=8-1&keywords=the+meaning+of+8> for the exact same reasons. And then maybe I’d bring some emo-pop like the Postal Service <http://www.amazon.com/Give-Up-Deluxe-10th-Anniversary/dp/B00BB5OLLM/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1390933928&sr=1-1&keywords=the+postal+service> because my wife and I fell in love to that album and that would be my happily-ever-after.