Giving Birth to the Dark Monster: A Conversation with J. M. McDermott
Never Knew Another, the first novel in J. M. McDermott’s Dogsland Trilogy, opens with a husband and wife placing a head on a rock face high on a hill so that the half-demon blood won’t poison the earth. The novel and its sequel, When We Were Executioners, get progressively and deliciously weirder from there.
Both novels take off with dark exuberance and follow a dream-like logic in such a way that the richly textured prose seems to slip and slither on one level while soaking in slowly on another. The Dogsland novels track the lives of Corporal Jona and the fugitive Senta Rachel Nolander through a world of hatred and violence.
Due to the sale and asset transfer of Night Shade Books, these titles faced an uphill battle before publication. The second book was not included in the company catalog and was ultimately sacrificed to a distribution crossover. With the sale of Night Shade, a new opportunity arose to breathe life into the series. The third part of the trilogy, We Leave Together, published by Word Horde will be available later this year.
As McDermott discusses below, the Dogsland Trilogy is rooted in childhood loss and speaks to the basic human need for empathy and understanding.
McDermott is also the author of such novels as Last Dragon and Nirvana Gates (set in Philip Athans’ Fathomless Abyss universe), as well as the collection Women and Monsters and Disintegration Visions. His first novel was shortlisted for a Crawford Prize, on Locus Magazine’s Recommended Reading List for Debuts, and on Amazon.com’s Year’s Best SF/F of 2008 list. Subsequent work has appeared on numerous year’s best lists, as well.
Below, McDermott and I talk about the joys of writing, his process, and giving birth to the dark monster.
The last time we spoke, you had all the elaborate ways of using technology in your writing process. It’s been a few years, what sort of gadgets are you using these days? Has your process changed much?
These days, I still use Excel a lot. I also use my Gmail account for most of my early writing. I can leave drafts up for a long time, and scribble into them from any device I happen to have handy at the time. I haven’t attempted to write a whole novel this way, just pieces of a novel. It brings me back in time to when I was writing the novels Never Knew Another and When We Were Executioners while temping.
I had a depressing permatemp position that required internet use. I cheated and e-mailed early versions of scenes and sketches to myself while I was supposed to be working. This time, I’m not hiding out on the job, though. I’m keeping everything auto-saved as a “draft” and letting the whole story run long and long and long. When it’s ready, I’ll hit send, to myself, and have a nice, saved version of the story ready to be sent to on-line magazines that require them in the e-mail. I can also cut-and-paste straightaway into Google Drive, with ease.
What do you enjoy about writing fiction?
I don’t know if enjoyment is the right word. Writing is what I do. I communicate better with a keyboard than I do with my own voice. I communicate better when I’m putting on the mask of style and voice than when I speak plain. I guess most writers strive for honesty with what they do, and I get that and do it in my way, but I feel like there’s a depth that happens when what we say is not spoken with sentences, but with programmatic language of fiction that runs in people’s imaginations.
I could just tell you, “Hey, be a good person, and try not to hurt other people, and be a good steward of the planet,” but that’s hardly a message you’ll believe. It’s too intellectual to become part of your identity. Writing Dogsland, though, I can spin the weave of fiction, and you’ll feel the empathy for Rachel, who tries so hard to be good despite her own demonic heritage betraying her every step, and feel the loneliness of Jona as he drifts through the violent streets, and this will mark you and make you see others in a new light, Jona’s and Rachel’s hiding in plain sight not just on the page, but in your city streets, where biology betrays them beneath the facade of a normal life.
Did you have as much fun in Phil Athan’s Fathomless Abyss as it seemed like you did? How was it working in someone else’s world instead of your own?
Oh, that world is a blast! When I was writing Nirvana Gates, I was thinking about the monster from Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun, the Alzabo, and how I could take that idea and do something interesting with it. I came up with Nirvana Gates. You see, to me, when most people say the word “My soul” they are not referring to the part of them that will be immortal after death, but are instead referring to memory and identity. In this case, when memory and identity can be preserved, it would be no great stretch to interpret it as immortality, or even a kind of heaven. But, it is a heaven that only comes when you walk into the mouth to be eaten. Working alongside some of the most imaginative minds in speculative fiction challenges me to really bring my “A” game and get creative. It’s a fun challenge, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the group comes up with, next!
If you had to pick one scene, one moment from your body of work that best captures you as a writer, which scene (or scenes) would it be?
In my forthcoming novel, Maze, slated for release in early 2014 from Apex, I’m actually one of the characters in the novel. The whole novel began as a dream I had, after coming home a little tipsy from my ten year high school reunion. I transcribed the dream as best I could in the daylight. Fort Worth was (and remains) a post-industrial ruin.
A light floated through the air and whispered to me. It said . . . She said, “My name is Jenny. Put me in your lung. Breathe deep.” I did. As a writer, I am that person who will follow the muse, even when it makes demands that seem insane. I will breathe deep, and give birth to the dark monster that will hide in my apartment until it devours whomever I bring home. I will follow down the pipes into the new landscape of the maze, where whatever I encounter on the side of that portal will test me, and—honestly—I will fail. Every book is a failure, to me. Every book never matches the amazing dream I wish it could be. I just try to get better, and get closer next time.
I’ll live my life, just as Joseph in the novel did, lost in the maze, writing and writing.
What’s at the heart of The Dogsland Trilogy? And did that change over the course of over writing of the book?
I think the heart of Dogsland is homosexuality and HIV. We lost one of my uncles back when I was in the 8th grade. At the time, I had never met him. It’s a long story, and full of personal details I try to avoid in the immortal record of the internet, but needless to say it is a thing that marked me. Living as I did in the ultra-religious, ultra-right-wing suburban wasteland between Dallas and Fort Worth, it occurred to me that if I were gay, it would be very hard to go out to the store and buy bread, because I would never know who would be waiting to spew hatred upon me, if they suspected I wasn’t what I appeared.
It’s a horrible way to live. I get to live on the easiest difficulty setting, so to speak, but I have met enough people and loved enough people that I can appreciate how hard it is for others, and how wrong that difficulty is. I’m glad times are changing, but . . . When I was writing this world, I knew that if I wrote gay characters, the people who most needed these stories wouldn’t read them. People who have that twinge of homophobia, whether they admit to it or not, will see a story about a gay person, and just assume it’s not for them. They’re people who need to experience empathy for the hidden.
The power of fantasy gives us a way of speaking that remains locked in step with the rigid, bad, old days, here. I can write about the partially-human children of demons, instead, and make the presumed reality of some sort of evil in the blood a visceral reality, and show you—you who most needs this message and would not listen to it any other way, without even announcing that this is what we’re talking about—and demonstrate how hiding changes people, and how awful and lonely it must have been for so much of human history, to be different inside but to have to put on this other face that is not you . . . People who learn who you are can hurt you, blackmail you, or even love you.
Go ahead and let them be half-demons, with blood that burns the living, and spreads terrible disease. It doesn’t change that we’re talking human being.
It is no mystery, though, that in the case of the Lord of Joni, and his beloved Senta, that this love affair is doomed. The final chapter in the trilogy is slated for release later this year, and I’ve already seen some amazing, amazing art from Julian Alday for the cover!
What are some of the cool things that got left out of the novels—places or ideas or scenes that didn’t make it into the book?
My novel-in-progress is a mosaic text set in the near future, and dealing with issues of aging in a world where technology is tumbling forward. I’m fascinated with mosaic texts, as the article I wrote for the Interstitial Arts Foundation might suggest. This particular novel has already had some fiction sold, but I don’t think it’s out, yet. Asimov’s picked up a large chunk of one character’s story, and some are making the rounds now.
One piece wasn’t working. When I peeled out one piece that was not working as part of the whole, because the characters involved are too distant from the events of the novel, I did what I generally do, but because it was a longer piece, I didn’t just blog about it. I actually put it up on the Kindle store as a cheap sample of my writing. The story is complete, after all. Look for Rocket, on the Kindle store, and see if you don’t see a little bit of the novel I’m working on, about life and death in the near future, and aging, and how hard aging is, even there.
Writing for a living is not really about writing, but about being an amazing editor of your own writing. My first drafts are terrible, barely legible. It takes time to polish them into shape. Doing so means lots of flotsam and jetsam cast aside, that generally ends up washing ashore at my blog as an easy blog-entry for the day. Sometimes the blog feeds the work, and sometimes the work feeds the blog. Frankly, I’d be happy if any of it made enough that I could say, with certainty, that I was fed from it.
Any parting words?
You will spend 1/3 of your life asleep. In that time, it will be just you and your dreams. Art feeds your dreams. Consume art, then. (Reading Clarkesworld is a great start!)