Sunday, May 31, 2020

Laird Barron

Laird Barron, an expat Alaskan, is the author of several books, including The Imago Sequence and Other Stories; Swift to Chase; and Blood Standard. Currently, Barron lives in the Rondout Valley of New York State and is at work on tales about the evil that men do.

His new novel is Worse Angels.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

So much depends upon the title; it’s a load-bearing structure. I’ve always thought so, probably because I concentrated upon poetry early in my development as a writer.

I provided the publisher with a list of alternatives to the working title; I won’t tell you what it was because writers are magpies. Worse Angels is the one the Putnam team chose. It does the job—protagonist Isaiah Coleridge has a dark past as an enforcer for the Chicago Outfit. Now he’s out and carving his own destiny. A man of contradictions, in no small part due to the fact various powers vie to influence, if not outright control him. He’s constantly pulled in one direction or another. Seeking a more righteous path, he endeavors to heed his better angels. In this instance, looking into the suspicious death of a young security officer at a stalled supercollider site. The problem is, as sinister forces impede the investigation, his darker angels have their own ideas about the manner and methods with which he should conduct himself. After all, what are our worse angels but demons?

What's in a name?

I collect names. I snatch them from movie credits and album jackets, and the masts of magazines. They go into a little folder on my computer alongside a collection of titles neck-high to a giraffe. I try to deploy them in unexpected and/or subtle ways. Sometimes it’s just a matter of enjoying the sound one makes rolling off the tongue; on other occasions, the name might imply a deeper meaning or be intended to excite a particular response in the reader. Occasionally, I lend a striking name to a relatively minor character. Why? Because I’m belligerent.

Worse Angels is chapter three in the saga of Isaiah Coleridge, which means I’ve had well over a quarter million words to develop a narrative worthy of the name. The initial process cost me a few sleepless nights and plenty of second-guessing. I wanted a strong, potent name; it also needed to derive believably from what his parents might’ve chosen. Isaiah is ancient and evocative of religious imagery. He’s not a prophet, yet occasionally experiences visions and dreams that flirt with precognition. The Coleridge surname is suggestive of the earth and also bursting from the earth due to tectonic pressure. The name is inextricably bound to the legendary poet and his Rime of the Ancient Mariner—a poem illustrative of evils both mundane and supernatural, and of curses, and comeuppance. Precisely the ingredients I wished to add to the mix of noir and mystery.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

He’d be taken aback that his future self isn’t writing epic fantasy or baroque space opera. That kid loved crime and thrillers. He devoured westerns and pulp adventure fiction. Teenage Laird would marvel at old man Laird’s restraint in regard to vocabulary and outré elements. But he’d understand, on some level, what a long, tortuous, often thankless, path he was rooted to. He’d look back at the three novels and the hundreds of thousands of words he’d already crammed into a mountain of college-ruled notebooks, and spit a curse. How am I supposed to get there? Are my fingers going to fall off? Then he’d keep moving. All I can say is, I’m sorry, kid.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

One thing I’ve learned after twenty years, if you’re doing it correctly it’s all of a piece and that includes the degree of difficulty. It’s almost always the same process for me—a big, convoluted Gordian knot that I chop away at until it becomes manageable or I give up.

The beginning and the end of Worse Angels came to me in dreams and at moments of sinking into sleep. The opening was a bit more fully formed. I clearly saw Coleridge and his pal Lionel in the woods with the moon shining bright as a crimson glitter ball and them digging a hole while Johnny Cash sang on the radio of Lionel’s Monte Carlo. Burying something or somebody. I was fortunate that the ending suggested itself before I got there. It coalesced as a logical conclusion to the chain of events, not only in this novel, but the two previous.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Coleridge and I share a few superficial characteristics because I thought it would make him easier to manage at the outset. The less heavy lifting required of my imagination, the better. So, we’re from Alaska, we enjoy boxing and the classics, and we moved to the Mid-Hudson and live near the Catskills. We share an affinity for dogs. I’ve never worked for the Chicago Outfit. I’d make a lousy private eye; the minute people started shooting at me to warn me off a case, I’d probably take the hint.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

As it happens, the majority of my inspiration, the grist for the mill, derives from music, art, and non-fiction. I write to music—in 2020 I’m still listening to 1980s pop rock, such as Blue Oyster Cult, The Police, Men at Work, and so on. I also love contemporary, trippy stuff like Lustmord, Blind Lake, and Vitskär Süden.

Watching artists paint or sculpt provides a cross-disciplinary sustenance. Same idea with listening to musicians and producers describe how they craft albums. It’s not always directly applicable to my own method of building a novel or a collection, and yet there’s always something to be gleaned.
Visit Laird Barron's website.

--Marshal Zeringue