an interview with Thomas Ligotti
by Thomas Wagner (TW), March and May 2003
for The Art of GrimScribe

Part 1, March 2003:

TW: Some things in your life have changed since our last interview. You've quit your job at Gale Group after two decades and you moved from Detroit to Florida. We guess you are not too fond of drastic changes in your private life, so these must have been quite big steps... How do you feel when looking back to these changes? Did things change to the better for you?

TL: Human life moves in only one direction-toward disease, damage, and death. The best you can hope for is to remain stagnant or, in certain cases, return to a previous condition when things weren't as bad as they've become for you. For instance, I now work on a freelance basis for my former employer, except the sort of work that I do outside of the company is the work I used to do twenty years ago as an employee of the company. For me, this is a "change" for the better. Broadly speaking, you can argue that there's such a thing as "social progress" because, for example, people are no longer literally enslaved to other people. But slavery was an innovation, a progressive solution to labor shortage I don't think that things ever change for the better in the way that many people believe they do. They only assume different masks of the worst. One can only hope that these masks hold tight as long as possible before revealing what is beneath them.

TW: Speaking of changes: Your latest book "My Work Is Not Yet Done" was a great surprise for many of your readers. Especially the title story: It is a very bitter, grim novella, unmistakably Thomas Ligotti and yet not typically you. In this story, you describe - in a very convincing and almost painfully realistic way - the everyday life in a huge company: conspiracies, disgusting little schemes, the everyday horror the main character Frank Dominio falls victim to. This story seems like an attack against our lauded civilization, where money takes the place of a new Moloch: "The Great Black Swine Which Wallows in a Great River of Blackness". ... Which were your motives to write this story? One can easily feel the authenticity in it.

TL: My motives for writing this story were very much those for writing all of my stories: hatred of the system as considered in its broadest possible sense. In this case, the system of a corporate environment served as a microcosm for the greater system of existence, which explicitly emerges as the ultimate object of abhorrence.

TW: However, we've detected a priceless black humour in "My Work Is Not Yet Done" (as well as in many other of your stories). We guess you're not a "happy" person; we suppose this kind of homo sapiens which thoroughly enjoys existence in a world like ours is as fishy to you as to us ... But what about Thomas Ligotti's sense of humour in real life? Do you face everyday's madness with a grin? S.T. Joshi called you in his review on the book "an authentic heir of Ambrose Bierce". Regarding the black humour there are indeed similarities...

TL: To my mind, a well-developed sense of humor is the surest indication of a person's humanity, no matter how black and bitter that humor may be. If you think of the real bastards in world history as well as those with whom you are personally acquainted, they are people who invariably have no sense of humor. And they will often regard your sense of humor as "inappropriate." Humor is the mark of their enemy.

TW: You did compare the novel MWINYD to the comic strip figure Dilbert as sharing common sources of inspiration. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, himself worked for years in - what he calls - "a number of humiliating and low paying jobs" in various positions for various companies. So Dilbert seems to be autobiographical. What about Frank Dominio and Thomas Ligotti?

TL: The stories in My Work Is Not Yet Done were most definitely autobiographical in origin, as my stories tend to be. However, aside from attributing some of my own attitudes to the narrators of the title work of the book and the short story "I Have a Special Plan for This World," there are no direct links between the characters and events depicted in these works and those of my own life.

TW: The terms Reorganization and Computer seem to have a quite traumatic meaning for you...

TL: I think that they have a traumatic meaning for many people, especially the computer, which has taken its place beside nuclear energy as the ultimate symbol of what a society needs to "flourish" at this stage of human history. Such dependence always is frightening. For a company, reorganization is traditionally associated with an attempt to fix something, often quite blindly, for specific reasons: profits are down, costs are up, bankruptcy is threatening, competition is getting tough. In the 1990s, reorganization was reconceived by management theorists as an intrinsic good-something like the idea of ongoing revolution in Soviet Russia. No doubt there are great benefits for both a company and its employees in working as efficiently and intelligently as possible. But there are no abstract formulas for doing this, whatever a management handbook may claim. Usually what happens is this: some CEO comes along who is smart or lucky or both, and this person "turns around" a company, at least for a time. This may involve reorganizational measures as a strategy of top-down leadership. I could on about this subject, but I think I've already inflicted enough boredom on you.

TW: Apart from Dilbert: There are also strong kafkaesque elements and even echoes of George Orwell's "1984", e.g. the total control, the manipulation, the whole sick corporate system as the symbol of a paranoid totalitarian state...

TL: That's somewhat reductionist, but one would have to be contemptibly naive to deny that the corporation and the state are now inextricably allied. In English, people often say the word "company" when they mean to say "country." What more needs to be said?

TW: Frank Dominio supplies himself with weapons and makes plans to run amok. The typical image of the "American Nightmare"? From the European point of view, one is constantly irritated by reports of crazed gunmen, pupils running amok at High Schools, gang wars with heavy weapons, etc. The important role that fire arms obviously play in large parts of the US society seems hard to imagine for us. The same goes for the influence that organisations like the NRA have on US politics.

TL: One of my favorite movies is Once Upon a Time in America, which was made by the great Italian director Sergio Leone. The story focuses on a group of gangsters who at one point become involved in the rise of the labor movement in 1930s America. To justify the role of criminals in advancing the cause of the working man, one of the gangsters says something to the effect that "This country is still growing. There are certain types of diseases that are better to get when you're young." The leader of a labor union replies: "You guys aren't the measles. You're the plague." Europe has already had its plagues and seems to have learned from them after a few thousand years. The United States has yet to pass through this phase of development.

TW: Having a length of circa 42,000 words, "My Work Is Not Yet Done" is as far your longest story. This is an amazing fact, regarding your not being interested in novels. ... How much time did you need to write this novella? Are there any chances that we'll be able to enjoy more novellas of this length?

TL: I wrote and revised My Work Is Not Yet Done in about three months. My original plan was to write a book approximately twice as long but I realized that the story would work better at its present length. I have no idea whether I'll ever write any other long stories of this kind. I rather doubt it.

TW: "My Work Is Not Yet Done" differs not only in length, but also stylistically from your former work. The narrative style appears to be straighter, less abstract and metaphorical and at the same time more naturalistic (if we can use such term in this context). And the protagonist Frank Dominio really comes alive for the reader and becomes some kind of role model.

TL: I'm glad to hear you describe him as a "role model" because I very much wanted Frank Dominio to be a character with whom the reader would identify. I'm not at all sure that I succeeded in accomplishing this aim, since a number of people have conveyed to me that they view the protagonist of My Work Is Not Yet Done as nothing more than a dangerous maniac. Regarding the more straightforward style of the story, this is simply how one needs to write when a narrative extends beyond a certain length. Otherwise the reader becomes overwhelmed by a kind of verbal claustrophobia.

TW: Let's take a look at the other two stories: In our last interview you told us that the apocalyptic scenario of "The Nightmare Network" was heavily influenced by W.S. Burroughs. What about the background of "I Have a Special Plan for This World"? "Murder City" seems to be "Motor City" Detroit... Is this some kind of bizarre homage to your former home town?

TL: Yes. I had Detroit in mind as the background of both "I Have a Special Plan" and "My Work Is Not Yet Done" as well as such older stories of mine as "The Chymist" and "The Cocoons."

TW: In which chronological order did you write the stories for this book?

TL: "The Nightmare Network" was written around 1994, "I Have a Special Plan" around 1998, and My Work Is Not Yet Done in 2000.

TW: As far as we know, MWINYD got some very good reviews (e.g. in Publishers Weekly). But what about the readers' reactions? Do you think you attracted a wider readership with this book? Or are there old fans who are disappointed, because MWINYD didn't meet up with their expectations? It's easy to imagine that some of your aficionados might miss the certain touch of black romanticism in it.

TL: I think that you're right. Readers who liked my short stories found My Work Is Not Yet Done too "normal" for them, while readers who were unfamiliar with my short stories found this short novel too "weird," at least by the standards of most horror fiction. So it seems that I managed to please very few readers with that work.

TW: By the way: There is a fourth corporate horror story, "Our Temporary Supervisor", which was published in Weird Tales. Why has this story not been included in the book MWINYD?

TL: "Our Temporary Supervisor" was written after the book was put together, as was a fifth corporate horror story, "My Case for Retributive Action."

TW: One could interpretate MWINYD as a harsh critic on the modern American, or let's say, western society: Human greed is the root of evil. The greed for more and more money and power, alongside with stupidity, corrupts our whole world and leads to unavoidable catastrophes (e.g. in "The Nightmare Network"). But, nonetheless, MWINYD is not some kind of political statement, because you don't show any solution or way out of the dilemma. You view at the world seems to be 100% pessimistic....

TL: My view is exactly that. While My Work Is Not Yet Done uses the corporate system as a starting point, this is only so that the story can go on to depict the all-encompassing system of human existence-in fact, all organic existence-as something fundamentally and inescapably evil. This view is essentially that of Buddhism, except Buddhism offers salvation in the form of an ultimate escape from existence through attaining enlightment and nirvana. For me, the only escape is death. The terms "wabi" and "sabi" that turn up in My Work Is Not Yet Done are aesthetic categories originally associated with Buddhism as practiced in Japan. These terms signify and celebrate qualities in art and life that are the polar opposite of those of the modern computerized world. In the story, wabi describes an old ashtray-a humble, out-of-style, well-used, and often overlooked object whose "beauty" stands in contrast to that of, for instance, a brand-new car. The narrator of My Work Is Not Yet Done finds the quality of "sabi" in ruined buildings, which to him convey the enchantment of loneliness, desolation, and impermanence. Of course, Frank finally abandons the sense of quietude and resignation offered by wabi-sabi when he goes into murderous action and pursues an aesthetic of the grotesque.

TW: In our last interview you mentioned "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" as your favourite story. What about the stories in MWINYD, especially the title story which must really have a personal meaning for you?

TL: Thematically, the title story of My Work Is Not Yet Done and "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" are identical. Both of them emerge from the feeling of a dark, hideous power the underlies the nature and guides the workings of all organisms. In that sense, they both have a personal meaning for me, as do all my stories. But I think I understand what you mean: the fact that the stories in My Work Is Not Yet Done were written in reaction to my own experience, as opposed to having their origins almost entirely in my imagination, does make them somewhat tainted and, in a way, less artistic.

TW: Imagine that a big production company would agree to make a movie out of MWINYD. And imagine the impossability that you could choose the actors for the leading parts. Whom would you choose for these roles (non-actors are allowed!)?

TL: Well, I would be forced to pick a younger actor for the part of Frank Dominio. And while there are a lot of terrific young actors, none of them are among my all-time favorites. I guess the closest I could come to an actor who is among my favorites and could possibly play Frank Dominio would be Kevin Spacey. More practically, I think Edward Norton would be an easy choice to make, the part since he has already distinguished himself as being able to play outsider-type characters in such movies as Fight Club. And I think Christopher Walken, perhaps my favorite actor of all time, would be a suitable candidate for playing the villain, Richard.

This interview has been continued in May 2003. Go to Part 2

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