Apr/May 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Nick Mamatas

Interview by Matthew Cheney

Nick Mamatas is a versatile writer. He is a novelist, short story writer, and essayist. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, the Mississippi Review, and numerous anthologies. He is the author of three novels. His novella Northern Gothic (2001) was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, and his first novel, Move Under Ground (Night Shade Books, 2004/Prime Books, 2006), described as a hybrid of the beat style of Kerouac and the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft, was nominated for a Stoker and an International Horror Guild award.

Soft Skull Press recently published Under My Roof (February 28, 2007), a short novel told from the point of view of a young telepath who lives on Long Island. His father has declared his independence from the United States and planted a nuclear device in a garden gnome on the front lawn.

Nick was born on Long Island, New York. He lives in Boston.

From Under My Roof:

...I guess that's why it was such a big deal that Dad built a nuke too. After my kidnapping, the news sort of petered out, even though Weinbergia is still ringed by foreign troops, and even though the garden gnome is still ticking out on the lawn. Weinbergia is just fodder for various Internet nerds and political science and law school students writing their papers. At least the weather has turned now, so there's no need for Dad to mow the lawn. Portuguese UN peacekeepers did the raking, which was over pretty quickly because the gas attack defoliated both the trees in my yard. My mother became the new celebrity, what with the TV appearances and "the book" about her brave struggle to reclaim me. Geri was so na´ve; she actually wrote the first ten pages herself and gave them to an agent. The first page is hanging on a bulletin board at the publishing house, because the first paragraph reads like this:

I knew that I had to rescue my loving pure little innocent son from the dastardly clutches of my diabolical husband because I love my little Herbert so very much and nobody else could love him like I did. My husband who is mentally ill and now I realize has been for years ever since that time during Christmas shopping three years ago when he tore open a twelve-pack of toilet paper at the Wal-Mart and grabbed three rolls and flung them over the shelves into the next aisle while he hysterically screamed madly "Hey-o! Heads up!" When he began to secretly skulk around in the shadows in broad daylight I knew I had a battle for my life and the life of my loving son in my hands and that I would do anything to protect my innocent child from the world, which is full of unknown dangers.

The rest they shredded, thank God. Geri spent a lot of the time she was actually home talking to and emailing the ghostwriter. She ate most of her suppers out as well, but was always happy to bring home "doggie bags"—Gee, thanks Mom! Love, The Dog—from Wolfgang Puck's place or wherever she'd been treated that night.

I had little else to do with my days but allow my mind to drift, all the way back to Weinbergia. Weinbergia, where Rich was leading a daring commando mission over the wire and into enemy territory, namely, the Qool Mart about half a mile into American territory.


MC     Why did you decide to tell the story of Under My Roof from (for most of it, anyway) Herbert's point of view? What was the attraction or benefit for you of telling the story through the eyes of a 12-year-old?

NM     The idea of a Long Island man starting his own country had been with me for a while, but it never really clicked, until I found the right voice. Herbie was handy because for all his genius, he is generally apolitical, and thus wouldn't sit around spouting ideology as adults tend to when they wish to justify their actions. Also, my girlfriend at the time, Mandy Himel, disliked my previous book, Move Under Ground, and said "You should write something for kids." So I did.

MC     So this is a book for kids?

NM     I conceived of the book as something 12-year-olds would want to read, but that adults would also get a kick out of, like Harry Potter. Under My Roof is being triply-marketed as it crosses genres in a number of ways. This has led to some odd results. If you walk into a Borders or B&N, you'll find it in the science fiction section. In major independent bookstores like St. Mark's in NYC or the Harvard Book Store here in Cambridge, it will be in fiction/lit. In many libraries, it's shelved under YA.

MC     What was it about Move Under Ground that your girlfriend didn't like?

NM     She hated pastiches, and Lovecraft, and I think the Beats as well. Everything Move Under Ground was.

MC     In Under My Roof, did the idea of Herbie addressing the audience via his telepathy occur to you at the same time as you found his voice?

NM     Yes, the voice was always a telepathic voice. Partially, it's a convenience—first-person omniscience allows for all sorts of fun, plus I liked the idea of a kid describing to the general public the basics of nuclear fission, and rather than having it be a notional public within the book, better I thought that it be a notional child addressing the actual public of the mass of readers.

MC     Under My Roof took you three years to write. Did your conception of it change during that time?

NM     Yes, though I really only took about three months to write the book; those three months were spread out over three years. The parallelism between that first childhood realization that one's parents aren't perfect and that one's nation-state isn't either emerged during that time. Once I realized that Geri, Herb's mother, would be back and want to reclaim her child, we'd have to have that conflict and that epiphany that leads to maturity.

MC     What is it about nuclear weaponry that appeals to Daniel, do you think? So many contemporary stories of apocalypse involve biological weapons or environmental catastrophes that the threat of nuclear destruction feels almost like a hearkening back to the Cold War. Would anthrax in the garden gnome have had the same effect?

NM     Pfft! The fault isn't in the atom, it's in the popular imagination. Anthrax is the WMD of wusses and wimps. People who work around livestock can contract it and keep on working. You can be vaccinated against weaponized anthrax. The Sverdlovsk disaster in 1979, when a Soviet plant accidentally released weaponized anthrax into the air, barely killed 100 people. The book would have been three pages long had there been only an anthrax deterrent. Same thing with chemical weapons. Just wait for the wind to change if one goes off, then march in. The only real city-destroyers remain nukes.

MC     What led you to abandon Herbie's voice in the last sections of Under My Roof in favor of multiple perspectives?

NM     I didn't! A production error makes it seem so. We do go to multiple perspectives, of course, because I wanted to show how Herbie changed people other than through his own eyes. But Herbie is in there at the end. The problem is that the production editor forgot a line break, so his final speech melds into his father's to such an extent that it just reads as though Daniel, and not Herbie, is suddenly obsessed with post-American convenience stores and heading up north to overthrow Canada. The next print run should solve that problem. In the interim though, I suppose the error provides plenty of fodder for academics looking for an easy scholarly paper to write about me and how form can foul up function.

MC     After Daniel declares Weinbergia's independence, other sorts of people and groups begin to separate themselves from the U.S., with various consequences. This allows you some fun satire, but the satire is also disturbing, because the idea feels somehow bizarrely plausible. How did you choose what sorts of people would follow Daniel's example?

NM     James P. Cannon once said that marginal movements attract marginal people. It's worth noting that he said this while leading a marginal movement, the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. Trotskyism was never en vogue here; comrades would go out to sell The Militant or spread leaflets and if the cops didn't beat them up, the Communist Party members would take a break from selling their own papers and beat them up, under orders from Stalin. Party life was a tough life, and very often when the going gets tough, the tough get weird. Having traveled in the far left, and in SF fandom, and online toward the beginning on the Internet's popularity, it wasn't too hard at all to imagine whom would salute if the freak flag was raised high. I've met a lot of goddamn kooks.

MC     Does your writing of fiction with political content mean that you want to use storytelling as a way to change the world?

NM     No. Storytelling doesn't change the world. I write fiction with political content because politics interests me, and because I see politics, especially class politics, manifesting in all sorts of everyday interactions. If I thought that rivalry between and within the sexes was the fundament of society, I'd probably be writing chick-lit. Intertribal aggressions, it would be technothrillers. Technology itself, I'd like be interested in hard SF. That's just the way it goes.

Really, even if storytelling was a powerful social agent, my personal attempts to change the world by releasing short novels via independent presses would be futile. Politically, I'd know that the Big Five publishers wouldn't be interested in selling the rabble enough rope with which to hang the CEOs and their boards. Of course, as long as political narratives are useless, I guess I still have a shot at the big time! If only I didn't also find the insistence on subplots to be ridiculous.

MC     Why do you hate subplots? They worked for Shakespeare and Dickens, so why not Mamatas?

NM     Well, Shakespeare didn't have to worry about demographics, if only because the pseudo-science of demographics was yet to be born. Dickens wrote in serial and was paid on the installment plan, and I do think some of his works suffer from an overabundance of subplot because of that mode. But the subplot today, in contemporary commercial novels, has a lot more to do with the price of paper and the cost breaks at certain tonnages, plus shipping costs per case and the number of units that can fit in an airport bookstore spinner rack. It's not even an attempt to pander to this or that demographic with a love story or with a talking animal, it's just the production process of commodities warping the texts.

MC     Are there short, subplotless novels you have particularly enjoyed reading?

NM     Oh sure! Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust by Nathanial West. Dark Property by Brian Evenson. Florida and Kathy Goes to Haiti by Kathy Acker. Dreams from Bunker Hill by John Fante. Darkside by Dennis Etchison.

MC     How has the Internet affected your approach to writing and publishing?

NM     Had the Internet never gotten big, I wouldn't be writing today. It was the electronic lily pad from which I leaped into both non-fiction and fiction. I became interested in writing years after finding the Net—I've been online since 1989—so it was there for me as a resource and as a marketplace when I decided to give writing a shot. So there was hardly ever any writing without the Internet for me. It informed the subjects about which I've written, the venues in which I've published, the speed at which I've gotten paid, how I've promoted my work... everything.

MC     What were you doing online in 1989?

NM     I was talking to people on the earliest TinyMUDs. I still know many of them today. Hell, I'm still stuck with the online screen name I had when I was 17!

MC     Do you plan to keep writing for horror markets? What keeps you interested in that field?

NM     I sure do. I have a short story forthcoming in Shivers V, a Cemetery Dance anthology due out late this year, and one forthcoming in the next issue of Brutarian Quarterly, the only magazine about rockabilly, B-movies, and horror fiction published by an attorney, in the world. That'll be out this month, March. I really enjoy the concept of horror as it more directly engages the reader emotionally than the rest of the fantastic—that is to say is that its purpose and whether it succeeds or fails is based on reader affect. I also like writing about social trespasses and the implications of such trespasses on what my mother still hilariously calls "the Establishment." (As in, "Nick, you have to be more Establishment if you want to get anywhere. Then you can do whatever you want.") Having said that, most horror is awful and some of it appeals to a downright fascist aesthetic, but we all read for the gems, not for the shit, I'm sure.

MC     What keeps you writing? What gives you hope?

NM     Writing just beats working. Hope is another question entirely. And the hope is this—life has gotten better for some segment of the population after the last few hundred years, and those for whom it has not gotten better keep fighting. The hope is that they win.


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