Greetings from the Ether,
To finalize our review series of S.P. Miskowski’s work, we’d like to present to you our interview with the innovative dark fiction author. If you haven’t yet, check out our reviews of her novel I Wish I Was Like You and her recent collection Strange is the Night. We can’t express how exciting it is to share this with you, and we hope you find it as fascinating as we did. Miskowski is a one-of-a-kind voice, and we were honored to have the opportunity to pick her brain a bit in hopes to uncover how she so masterfully creates her narratives.
Alas! Without further ado, let’s dive in.
CP: You are quite possibly one of the bravest authors we’ve ever encountered. Many of your stylistic choices are unorthodox, to say the least, and I feel a lot of authors would be weary of tackling the approaches you’ve masterfully executed. Can you tell us a little about how I Wish I Was Like You came to fruition? What the process was of choosing such interesting narrative devices? Any struggles you may have faced?
SP: Thanks very much. First of all, the novel, the idea to create it, was prompted by the lament of middle-aged friends in Seattle. Having lived in the city for 20 years I had my own critical observations because so much changed so drastically during those years. From 1988 to 2008 Seattle morphed from a place where artists and musicians could rent rehearsal space for a couple of bucks an hour and live in a rambling “penthouse” apartment downtown for $350 a month, to a tech- and real estate-obsessed megalopolis where the homeless are legion because they’ve been priced out of affordable housing. There are now an astonishing number of properties surrounded by security fences. A lot of beautiful, perfectly good residential and retail structures were simply obliterated along with a sense of charity and an appreciation for artists and what they contribute to the city.
These are changes that occur in most urban areas over time. In Seattle they happened insanely fast, in part because of the sudden wealth acquired by early tech investors who wanted to shape the city to their purposes. Seattle has long been a place where hoaxes and boondoggles abound, where engineers and planners went cheap on resources and ended up causing a lot of damage, or stalled out altogether. It’s also a place where ordinary people with good ideas think they will easily succeed and then discover a kind of undertow, an unspoken resistance. The avarice is hidden behind a tight, little grin. A lot of people mistake that grin for a welcome. It’s really an expression that says, “Keep talking, little person with a dream. You’re doomed.”
Here’s an example. Years ago a friend of mine put his heart and soul into creating a thriving arts center between the downtown area and Capitol Hill. It supported projects by artists in all disciplines and brought in plenty of ticket buyers and patrons. At the height of the center’s success the board of directors fired my friend (who was largely responsible for assembling the board). It seems at least one board member was keenly interested in re-developing the neighborhood. Today the site of the former arts center is devoted to parking for surrounding offices.
Real estate development has forced many middle-income families and artists out of the city forever. This is the kind of social and cultural loss—without any remorse—for which Seattle has become known. And all of this occurred in less than one generation. My friends mourn the places where they spent their youth creating wild and sometimes beautiful work. Their grief inspired I Wish I Was Like You, a novel about temporality, youth, mortality and the social distortions caused by rapid change. I’ve tried to capture a sense of dislocation, of unspeakable and irreparable loss occurring in the blink of an eye.
When I realized what the novel was about I decided it needed a structure to demonstrate or imply a larger frame and a sense of the passage of time beyond the period covered by the main storyline. I also wanted Greta’s afterlife influence on isolated individuals to be more intense and more intimate than those chapters in which we see her mundane life experiences. I chose to alternate between the two, using different prose styles and tenses for different sections.
To make all of this work, the reader has to be aware of Greta’s death, her murder, as a starting point. For the afterlife intimacy and the way she preys upon the living to be effective, she has to die at the beginning of the book. Greta sees life in retrospect and death in the present tense. Everything else proceeds from these narrative choices.
CP: While writing Greta’s character, what intrigued you the most about her development? Did she evolve as you wrote?
SP: There was a point at which I made a conscious choice to let her be as unlovable (and as funny and cruel) as she wanted to be. One of the things I find irritating and implausible is a contrived redemption. Even rotten characters prove their worth by doing something noble and good. In the U.S., especially, we seem to be obsessed with this idea. It runs through our novels, TV series, and films. The creep isn’t bad. He’s just a curmudgeon who has to find love. In the final scene his efforts inspire people to leap to their feet and applaud. As though all of American life takes place inside a high school assembly hall.
Quite a bit of Greta’s nature grew from my desire to find a voice equivalent to that of the world-weary detective of crime fiction. She is investigating her own murder but the book is filled with her social observations, and the observations of her one-time writing teacher, Lee Todd Butcher. I didn’t want Greta to simply parrot Lee Todd. I wanted her to have her own voice. I found her voice in a sort of downbeat, mild depression, the rhythm of an angry teenager who knows the truth about life, or believes she does. Her truth is that of a teenager—bold, unforgiving, and glittering with intelligence. It’s tough to take but it’s also hard to refute.
CP: The story of I Wish I Was Like You is nihilistic at times, hopeful in others, and a very heart wrenching tale overall. How did you go about channeling such a vibrant array of emotions and sentiments, and what, to you, is the true theme of the novel?
SP: The nihilism came from Greta’s despair and her dawning awareness that she might not be an artist at all. She’s young, so she has trouble putting this into perspective. Her disappointment turns to envy and spite. If the book has heart wrenching aspects I think this is a cumulative effect of the character’s struggle to be recognized. The irony of her existence is that she wants to be seen when she’s alive but she has more control, more influence, once she’s dead.
Hope is the monster, isn’t it? Hope keeps us going, moving forward. It can also keep us stuck in one situation for far too long, waiting for something to shift the balance and make things okay. Yet hope is what we must offer young people, no matter how cynical we may be, because without hope they don’t stand a chance.
I think the book is about randomness, the ways in which we are touched, for better or worse, by people and experiences largely beyond our control. But it’s also about how we make ourselves sick with longing and envy, by wanting and working for the wrong things. Many people have everything they need to be contented and to lead fulfilling and creative lives but they’re so trapped in the expectations of their culture that they feel like failures. If they don’t do what society says, and advertising says, they feel like they are nothing. And it isn’t true.
CP: Looking back at the accolades and praise you’ve received for I Wish I Was Like You, what has been your proudest moment since its release? Why?
SP: My proudest moment would be the publication itself. I didn’t know if anyone would want to read this novel. The narrator is unlikable. The themes are dark. The story is creepy and often sad. I took a chance submitting the book to JournalStone and I was amazed, really just floored, when they accepted it. I thought, “Well, bless them, this one’s going to be a loss leader at best.” I thought they would have to give it away as a bonus for buying other books.
But then something happened. First there were some negative reader reviews, some WTF reviews online. Then came the reviews by people who loved the book, and they kept coming. I realized this was one of those novels people would love and recommend to their friends, or would hate with all their might. And I think that’s great. Reading is an intimate and passionate experience. People should care about the books they read, and have strong reactions. It proves they’re taking books seriously.
CP: It’s interesting to hear the initial reactions to your novel, and also the development of it. I’ve frequented Seattle quite a bit in my life, since most of my family lives in that area, so I can wholeheartedly vouch for everything you said. Segueing to your collection, Strange is the Night, I’d like to talk about setting for this as well. A lot of your stories take place in Puget Sound or the Northwest in general, which isn’t uncommon for writers, like say Stephen King who consistently writes about Maine or Anne Rice with New Orleans. Do you find this location to be fertile for storytelling?
SP: I think any landscape and any community can be the setting for horror fiction. You have to look closely at the contradictions. Ground the story in a place you know and understand from experience. I’ve chosen the Pacific Northwest for many of my stories. But I’ve also written stories set in the South and the Southwest. Every location has its own weird elements.
CP: Strange is the Night encompasses a plethora of different genres and themes. A lot of collections tend to home in on one specific or underlying motif. What did you have in mind when the idea of this collection was conceived?
SP: Ten of the thirteen stories in the collection were previously published in magazines or anthologies. They were selected from about twenty stories published in the past few years. The challenge was to find recurring themes and motifs tying everything together.
My editor, Jess Landry, was the driving force in deciding the number of stories, how many would be original to the book, and the order in which they would appear. I trust her judgment and her taste.
I purposely left out the more rustic pieces with a rural setting. This collection is mostly urban or suburban in setting. Another common characteristic is that something is going on beneath the surface, like a steady hum, before the main character’s life is interrupted by an element she can no longer dismiss as simply odd or unusual. Something bizarre breaks the surface of ordinary life but the rumblings are there all along if you listen and pay attention.
CP: An interesting question that I like to ask authors, do you enjoy short fiction or long fiction more? Why?
SP: As a student and as a young writer I was devoted to the short story form. I read more story collections than novels, and I wrote stories without any real expectation of writing novels. Now I find a lot of the ideas that occur to me naturally seem to open out and gain complexity without much effort. As always, I fill notebooks with these ideas and with ways to structure them in fictional form. I read more novels than I used to, as well. Lately a lot of my ideas seem to fall naturally into the novella category. I may be writing more novellas over the next couple of years. I like the form very much. You can go for greater depth and layering with a novella but the intensity of the story is similar to that of a short story.
CP: There are many different types of authors, and I’ve found in horror that you have writers who focus on events or happenings, and then the voices that like to concentrate on characters. Your fiction takes its characters to a whole other level, at times completely immersing the reader in a fictional life that might as well be real. In your writing process, what do you find to be the most important factor in grinding out a story? What do you think is most vital in storytelling?
SP: Empathy can hook readers immediately and take them on a strange journey with characters they might never meet in real life. I pay a lot of attention to the point of view, finding the right way to tell a story because that’s the way in, for the reader. The differences between third person omniscient and third person limited and first person are vast. The author’s choice will bring the reader along or leave him stranded. But empathy will only carry you so far. The over-all structure is crucial. Know the shape and design of your story. Stand back and consider it in architectural terms, as much as you sketch in the fine details.
CP: What do our readers have to look forward to in the near future of S.P. Miskowski? Any projects looming on the horizon?
SP: Two more books, a novella and a novel, are underway for JournalStone/Trepidatio. One is set in the world of my first novel, Knock Knock, in the fictional town of Skillute, Washington. This one is a psychological horror featuring new characters. The other book is about a harrowing road trip, another psychological horror. I’m also quite happy to say my story from the 2017 anthology Looming Low edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan will appear this year in The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten edited by Ellen Datlow. The story is called “Alligator Point.”
CP: We always like to end our interviews with a question for the readers who are writers themselves. If you had one tidbit of advice that you found crucial and most important, what would it be? Why?
SP: Take your work seriously. Take yourself less seriously. Or, as María Irene Fornés used to say in her writing workshop, “Don’t worry about whether or not what you’re writing is a masterpiece. It isn’t. Do your job the way actors do their job. An actor doesn’t decide, in the wings, to not go onstage one night because he doesn’t feel like it. He goes out there and does his job. Just do it.”
S.P. Miskowski is a three-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, a 2017 Bram Stoker Award nominee, and the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. Her stories have been published in Supernatural Tales, Black Static, Identity Theory, Strange Aeons, and Eyedolon Magazine as well as in the anthologies Haunted Nights, The Madness of Dr. Caligari, October Dreams 2, Autumn Cthulhu, Darker Companions: Celebrating 50 Years of Ramsey Campbell, Tales from a Talking Board, and Looming Low. Her books are available from Omnium Gatherum Media and JournalStone/Trepidatio.