Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sarah Langan

Nicholas Kaufmann interviewed Sarah Langan for Fear Zone.

Their opening exchange:

Both your novels deal a lot with the economic issues of living in a small, Northeastern town. In The Keeper, Bedford is in an economic depression because the old paper mill, which was the main employer in town, closed. In The Missing, Corpus Christi's comfortable economic bubble is on the verge of bursting. What attracts you as a writer to these kinds of settings? They're definitely different from a lot of what we see in modern horror novels, where economic issues are rarely mentioned, let alone allowed to play a role.

I've always liked epic novels drawn on wide canvases. The models for those kinds of books, for me at least, were written by Brits. Dickens, Waugh, Maugham, Austin, Forster, etc. These guys lived in time when you could wind-up in debtor's prison, and so their characters were threatened by that possibility just as much as the authors. Maybe they were incensed by the society in which they lived, because they'd been brutalized by it. Dickens worked ten hour days in a boot factory by the age of twelve. Maugham and Forster were gay, and in their early twenties witnessed the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde for sodomy. Austin never married, and as a consequence was never safe from the specter of poverty. Waugh, well, I think he was just mean and self-righteous. But I still love him. Anyway, they wrote big stories because they wanted to change the world, or at least show its inequities, so that others might become incensed, too.

The modern American inheritors of that tradition include Richard Russo, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, and Dorothy Allison. But even while the gap between the middle class and the rich widens into a chasm, the epic has gone out of style. It's been replaced by more nuanced, intimate stories, and that's a real shame.

The reasons are myriad: Epics are harder to write. They take more time, and involve researching not just a culture, but several characters' perspectives. Also, their size daunts readers, who might not have the time or back muscles to lug a 1,000-page opus. More insidiously, I think our culture has gotten more narcissistic. It's more fun to write about hot chicks in New York drinking cosmos, because they enrich our fantasy lives. I don't contest the skill of these novels, but put in a different context: What if Forster had written a tell-all memoir about growing up gay at Cambridge, instead of that haunting cave scene in A Passage to India? What if Austin's heroines had spent the length of their novels learning to dress better and lose weight? Sure, it would be inspiring to every body out there who needs to shed a few, and make their man treat them right, but it also would have been a grave loss. A corruption of the reader and author both. Because there's a whole big world out there, once you get your head out of your navel.

Epics can change your life. They can keep you up reading long past midnight. They can bring you to tears and laughter, both. They invite you to sit down a long while, and they tell you every detail, so that when the payoff comes, it really pays off. We felt sorry for the criminals in Capote's In Cold Blood, and as a consequence questioned the death penalty, even for cold-blooded murderers. We changed an industry because of Sinclair. Dickens advocated social reform. Austin let us know that perhaps old maids chose poverty over a marriage without love. That kind of bravery deserves compassion, not pity. Tom Wolfe made us laugh, and then weep, at the glittering, hollow world of Sherman McCoy.

Anyway, I think what drives me to write about class issues is that they're present. Money makes the world go 'round. I'm at a loss as to why more authors don't spin their tales around class issues. More and more, they're relegated to science fiction and satire, meanwhile consumerism replaces churches, and a third of our population has no health care. So, I guess my long-winded answer is, class issues are inextricably linked to an honest reflection of any world I might create. They're life, warts and all.
Read the full Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: The Keeper.

My Book, The Movie: The Missing.

--Marshal Zeringue