PART 2

WORK NOT DONE?
an interview with Thomas Ligotti
by Thomas Wagner (TW), March and May 2003
for The Art of GrimScribe


Part 2, May 2003:

TW: About two months have passed since the first part of this interview, much more time than scheduled... What about time in Thomas Ligottiís life? Does it crawl or fly?

TL: Boredom is not one of my afflictions, so the weeks and months and years are moving pretty fast for me.

TW: Letís talk about the Subterranen Press publication Sideshow and Other Stories, which I enjoyed very much. The conception and the length (or better shortness) of the stories remind me of some of your former works like the "Notebook of the Night" section in Noctuary, and the idea of "a sideshow world, where everythingĎs ultimately peculiar and ultimately ridiculous" represents a basic theme in all of your stories. When did you write Sideshow and what were the motives?

TL: I wrote Sideshow, and Other Stories about ten years ago. The section of the story called "The Malignant Matrix" was based on a dream. That was where the story started. Then I decided to write several similar pieces and connect them into a miniature horror story collection, which is a story structure I had been thinking about using for a long time. The words "peculiar and ridiculous" as a characterization of all existence are taken directly from the notebooks of Paul Valéry. Valéry was a real thinker and the more you think about the world, the more peculiar and ridiculous it seems. Thought is very destructive of everything that gives us a sense of stability and meaning in our lives. I simply extrapolated on this idea.

TW: Reading Sideshow, I felt echoes of Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz... Especially "The Astronomic Blur" reminds me of the latter one. But, on the other hand, one can also feel the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft in some of the stories. Is Sideshow a little homage to some some of your literary idols? I remember you once called yourself a "fanatical student of literary styles"...

TL: I can understand how "The Astronomic Blur" would recall Schulz to a reader, since it combines the cosmic with the local. But the idea of the "little store" is also one that has haunted my imagination for many years. Such places used to be common in the older neighborhoods of Detroit, which is geographically close to where I grew up, and the sight of them always stirred in me a sense of mystery.

TW: The foreword begins with the words "At the time I met the man who authored the stories that follow, I had reached a crisis point in my own work as a writer of fiction". Did you yourself experience such a crisis point before writing Sideshow? And if so, how did you handle this?

TL: Iíve had doubts about the value of writing fiction practically from time I started doing it. But other impulsesóthe pleasure of using my imagination, the craving for attention, my aspirations to be like my idols Lovecraft and Poeókept these doubts in the background for a long time. With Sideshow I simply decided to use these personal doubts as the subject matter for a story. This is a typical tactic for a writer to use in order keep on doing what, for no good reason, heís been doing for so long.

TW: In "The Abyss of Organic Forms" the narratorís half-brother loves to visit the local race course. I found this interesting, because I read in an older interview with you that you yourself used to attend horse races with your brother. Is "The Abyss..." some kind of dedication to your brother or to your own past?

TL: Yes, it is. My brother and I still attend the local race course on occasion. Since both of us now live in Florida, weíre more likely to bet on jai-alai than on horses.

TW: One of my favourites in Sideshow is "The Phenomenal Frenzy". Itís amazing, but you need only two pages to evolve an eerie atmosphere of absolute weirdness. I guess the short (and shortest) story is still your favourite literary world ...

TL: Indeed it is.

TW: "The Phenomenal Frenzy" ends in a disillusioned way that Iíd like to call typical ligotti-esque: "But this same place, a true resting place in which I should have been able to live out the rest of my life in some kind of peace, was now only one more thing that I had to fear." Thatís something I found in nearly all of your stories: Even the apparently good things turn out to be just another charade, a facade in a sideshow world and they mutate into something weird or evil. Compared with this, the end of the afterword sounds unfamiliarly positive: "I ... had triumphed over my literary crisis and wanted nothing more than to get back to my desk, my brain practically vibrating with an unwonted energy in spite of passing another night without sleep."

TL: To my mind, the narratorís eagerness to continue writing is actually quite monstrous. At the same time, it is, as you say, very positive. In my observation, the most monstrous and vile people are those who are filled with energy and confidence. The more energy and confidence they have, the more monstrous they are. These people make life miserable for those of us who have doubts about everything we do and above all about existence itself.

TW: Sideshow and My Work Is Not Yet Done have been published by Small Press publishers. Is Thomas Ligotti going "back to the roots"? Apart from the fact that you donít reach a mass market with your works: What are your reasons to be published by Small Press publishers?

TL: It was very fortunate for me as a writer to have been published by larger publishing houses in both the United States and abroad. Without this development, my stories would be known to only a few readers of small-press horror fiction. And, of course, every writer wants as many people as possible to read his work. However, after a time it became apparent that my fiction had reached its optimum audience . . . and that this audience was not very large. So there was no point in continuing to publish with larger presses, especially since I could retain greater control over my work with small presses, which in addition created higher quality books.

TW: Speaking of the Small Press: Durtro Press in London will publish Crampton in June, an unreleased script for the THE X-FILES, written by yourself and Brandon Trenz. Can you tell us something about the genesis of Crampton ? Were commercial considerations the main motive or did you find something in THE X-FILES that inspires you?

TL: First, the screenplay that Durtro will be publishing began as an episode of the X-Files but was subsequently rewritten as a feature-length script by myself and Brandon Trenz. This script is no longer part of the X-Files world except for the fact that the two main characters are still FBI agents. As for the genesis of the X-Files script, this came about because Brandon Trenz, who was a colleague of mine at my old job, had an idea for the opening to an X-Files episode that he related to me and a few other people who regularly gathered together to talk about movies, music, books, television shows, and whatever. I thought that Brandon had the beginnings of a good idea for an X-Files episode and encouraged him to develop the idea into a script. By that time, around 1996 or so, I was no longer a regular viewer of the X-Files and couldnít have cared less about writing for that or any other television show. At the same time, I wasnít writing much in the way of horror fiction and thought that perhaps I would stop writing altogether. This situation left me in the position of having nothing to do for the rest of my lifeóin other words, I had no significant distractions that stood between me and the fact of my death. For this reasonóthat is, in order to have something to do that would take my mind away from contemplating my deathóI became involved with Brandon in developing the idea of this X-Files script. Neither of us had any idea that we had no chance of getting the producers of the show to read this script. We had no conception at all of how things worked in Hollywood. Nevertheless, we pressed on until the script was finished. Then we found out that the only thing that we could do with the script was to submit it to contests that offered the promise of promoting your work if you won. Well, we didnít win these contests, but Crampton was among the top finishers, both as a television script and as a feature-length screenplay. Over the years a series of developments have taken place that hold some promise that we may be able to get people in Hollywood to read our stuff, which now includes not only Crampton but another screenplay by the name of Michigan Basement.

TW: The book will be accompanied by a 6-track CD that features your own music, according to DurtroĎs promo text you will even sing on some of these songs. I know that music has part of your life for a long time now, but nonetheless thatís a big surprise! Can you tell us something about it? How did it feel to create your own Soundtrack for your own work?

TL: For one thing, I do not sing on any of these tracks. These are spoken-word pieces backed by music that I recorded on my home 8-track recorder using my guitars and a synthesizer. The whole production is therefore quite lo-fi, even crude. The six pieces were inspired by the themes of Crampton and the title of the CD is The Unholy City. It was a lot of work for me to put this CD together because I have no talent for the process of recording. Nevertheless, producing a CD that contained both words and music that I had written is something that Iíve wanted to do for a long time. I wish I had more time and energy to pursue similar projects, but I donít.

TW: Another forthcoming Durtro release will be a book called Teatro Grotesco . Are these the stories from the "Teatro Grotesco" section in The Nightmare Factory or is it new material?

TL: This forthcoming collection will indeed incude the stories from the "Teatro Grottesco" section of The Nightmare Factory, since none of these stories has yet to appear in hardcover. It will also include about 7 other stories and novellas that Iíve published since The Nightmare Factory, excluding the stories in My Work Is Not Yet Done . I donít know when it will it be ready for publication.

TW: And now the inevitable question: What about Thomas Ligottiís future projects ...?

TL: Durtro has a cycle of poems that I wrote within the past few years. The title of the collection of 14 pieces is Things They Will Never Tell You. Two new stories will appear in Weird Tales. Also, Brandon and I are now in the process of signing with a talent agency that handles screenwriters and have begun work adapting my short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done as a movie, although no one has requested that we do any such thing. Aside from that, I donít really have any plans for future projects. Then again, I never really did.

TW: Recently Iíve read an old interview with you in the magazine Tekeli-li. I found it very interesting that you mentioned the unknown German author of the book The Nightwatches as some kind of reinforcement for your own work. Is it by chance the book Nachtwachen, that was published under the nom de plume Bonaventura at the beginning of 19th century? This is one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Romantic period and hardly known even in Germany ...

TL: The Nightwatches is indeed a forgotten masterpiece. Any book that is so explicitly at odds with the social and religious culture of the world is doomed to be forgotten. A modern-day counterpart to this book is the work of the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard. But Bernhard was always raging against the nazi mentality that he saw as still holding sway within Austria, so his work has been embraced somewhat, at least in Europe. His work is still too grim for consumption by English-speaking countries. English and American readers will only tolerate books that ultimately uphold the status quo and offer people reasons why their miserable lives are worth living.

TW: Literature is a very important part of your life and there are several writers that you adore or that even inspired you. But frankly: What about modern horror literature? Are there living horror writers whose works you enjoy or who do deeply impress you?

TL: For all practical purposes, Iíve read all the books that I ever want to read. And that includes horror fiction. I donít follow the horror scene the way I did in the 1970s and 1980s. Even then, there were very few writers whose works I fanatically sought out, but those were enough to make me feel that writing horror fiction was a worthwhile pursuit. My favorites were the obvious greats: Ramsey Campbell, T.E.D Klein, Dennis Etchison, Joseph Payne Brennan for his poetry, and a few others. In recent years, a number of horror writers have been brought to my attention who would have given me the same sense that writing horror fiction wasnít a total waste of time if I had read them during my fanatical years and who I feel are carrying the torch for what I consider true horror fiction in the great tradition of Poe, Lovecraft, Machen, and James. These writers include Matt Cardin, Quentin Crisp, Monika Angerhuber, Mark Samuels, and a host of British ghost story writers.

TW: What do you think about the future development of horror literature? I donít know exactly the situation in the US, but in Germany (as well as the rest of Europe) many of the younger horror writers orientate towards American bestselling writers like King and Koontz. The results are rather boring, because you hardly find a writer with an original voice ...

TL: Except as a form of popular entertainment, I donít think that horror fiction ever had a future. In my view, it has been only pure accident that joined the tastes and temperament of someone like Poe or Lovecraft to a talent sufficient to express these tastes and this temperament, which, as Lovecraft pointed out many times, are the province of very few individuals. Letís say it once and for all: Poe and Lovecraftónot to mention a Bruno Schulz or a Frank Kafkaówere what the world at large would consider extremely disturbed individuals. And most people who are that disturbed are not able to create works of fiction. These and other names I could mention are people who are just on the cusp of total psychological derangement. Sometimes they cross over and fall into the province of "outsider artists." Thatís where the future development of horror fiction liesóin the next person who is almost too emotionally and psychologically damaged to live in the world but not too damaged to produce fiction. Itís a delicate balance . . . and the determining factors are not predominantly literary.

TW: Some short questions in conclusion. What is...

...art?

TL: Distraction, escape, a way to transform the intolerable into the enjoyable, a booby prize that we give ourselves for continuing to exist.

TW: ...the best reason to laugh?

TL: Because youíre high.

TW: ...the worst book you ever read?

TL: Iíve never read a book I didnít like. I can tell on the first page, usually in the first sentence, if Iím going to like a book, a story, a collection of essays or poetry. If I know I wonít like it, I donít read it.

TW: ...the difference between cats and people?

TL: Itís always a sad occasion when a cat dies.

TW: ...a good day?

TL: A day without pain or the prospect of pain, which is to say, none.

TW: ...darkness?

TL: The bottom line.

TW: Last not least, thank you very much for doing this interview with me!

TL: Youíre most welcome.

 

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