J.S. Breukelaar is the author of ‘American Monster’ – published in 2014 by Lazy Fascist Press and more recently the supernatural thriller ‘Aletheia’ – published by the excellent Crystal Lake Publishing. Her work has been shortlisted, nominated for numerous awards including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror List. However, fiction is only a small slice of what JS Breukelaar is about. She also writes for a number of online culture and literary journals as well as Lit Reactor.
‘Aletheia’ is her most recent release, a novel of some size, it is billed as a supernatural thriller, one that the Grim Reader will be reading in the coming months. Currently residing in Sydney, Australia, but a short 10-hour drive from myself, I thought I’d sit down for a chat about her travels, the writing and of course, the books.
TGR: It has been a long time since the release of your last novel, ‘American Monster’. Aside from writing ‘Aletheia’, what else have you been up to?
American Monster came out in 2014. 2015 and 16 were largely devoted to writing and editing Aletheia. I’ve also been putting together a collection of short stories for release later this year.
TGR: You were born in Berkeley, Ca, but now reside in Sydney, Australia. According to your bio, you have spent time in New York and New Zealand, too. Do you get itchy feet if you stay in one place for too long or do you simply love to travel?
I like moving around. I come from immigrants, travellers. It’s in my blood. But also, because I’m connected to so many places—and have family and friends all over the world, I get the hankering to see them. Not just my US family, both the biological one, and the community of writers I’ve gotten to know over the years. But the family of writers generally—I went to Tokyo last year and it blew my mind, and I want to go back as soon as possible, really helped me see where Murakami was coming from—I want to follow in the trail of Don Quijote and Donleavy and Dickens, Fuentes and Rushdie. All that.
TGR: Does the travel have a positive impact on your writing? Does a change of scenery present new ideas?
Absolutely. My next plan is to do more travel here in Australia. I’m increasingly inspired by the scenery here, and the futuristic coastal cities, and that’s working its way into my work.
But I don’t always need a change of scenery, of course. My fictional worlds, like others, often hang onto their real-life inspirations only by a bloody fingernail. I think what travel does, at least for me is to defamiliarize the world. I can walk around a familiar setting, like Sydney or San Diego or wherever and be so caught up in the familiar, in recognition, that my powers of perception, of really looking, diminish. Unfamiliar settings recalibrate my powers of deep perception.
TGR: You have a ‘Writing the Weird’ class that you teach online through Lit Reactor. How did this opportunity come about and how would you define weird in fiction?
That came about through the very great writer Patrick Wensink introducing me to the equally awesome writer Rob Hart at AWP 2014. I love teaching that class. I’ve had the privilege of working with some seriously talented writers who’ve broken through since then—LitReactor is a boutique workshopping experience of rigorous instruction and community support—it can be a really transformative experience for everybody. You get to know your students much more personally than many other online workshops that are out there.
As for Weird fiction—to me its fiction that edges both perilously and promisingly close to the dread undecidable. I talked about it with some other writers, over at LitReactor, here, and they put it better than I ever could. I think I only loosely inhabit the mantle of Weird, possibly through my affinity with lovesick characters and bizarre settings at the edge of things. American Monster was weird, not only because it was an unsettling fusion of scifi and horror but also I think because it included characters like a Michael Jackson lookalike and a demon cowboy and because the entire plot turned on the protagonist’s search for the perfect male appendage. Aletheia is weird because of an island that is and isn’t there, and sentient baby dolls, among other things.
So whether Stephen Graham Jones, or Han Kang, or Kelly Link or Laird Barron, weird fiction tends, maybe, to ascribe dread, not to the unknowable itself, but to the possibility of what you become the nearer you approach it. The Weird in fiction is as much an exit strategy as much as warning zone. A place of peril and possibilities. All literature aims for that kind of transformative power. And what’s weird about The Weird, too, is that it’s often about love. So, with horror, of course, fear is the hook, maybe, the difference engine? But in Weird fiction, if you’re going to force me to make a distinction—and I don’t know if that’s possible or productive—there’s a kind of tainted love that drives the tale.
TGR: Weird fiction has thrown up some great names and books in the last few years. I have enjoyed books from Michael Griffin, Ted E. Grau and Michael Wehunt during the past 12 months particularly. Who do you believe are some of the best writers of this type of fiction and do you have any other recommendations?
Aside from the great authors you mention—Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is essential reading, as is, going back, ETA Hoffman, some Poe, Joe R Lansdale, Joyce Carol Oates (stories like “Thanksgiving,” “Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been?”), Lucy A Snyder is my new weird crush, Kelly Link of course, Jeff VanderMeer. Laird Barron and Nathan Ballingrud for Weird Horror. Karan Joy Fowler, Amelia Gray, Livia Llewellyn, Scott Nicolay, Sebastien Doubinsky for his weird dystopian universe.
TGR: Your latest release is ‘Aletheia’. It has found a good home in Crystal Lake Publishing, you must be very happy about that?! You have worked with Joe at Crystal Lake before-your essay is included in ‘Writers on Writing’. What can readers expect from the new book?
Yes. Writers on Writing was a lot of fun to contribute to. It’s a great omnibus of some of the best craft essays around. I’m thrilled to be a part of the Crystal Lake family—Todd Keisling and Kenneth W Cain and Mercedes M Yardley and Dave Jeffrey are all fine writers I’m stoked to meet. I have another book coming out with CLP later in the year.
Aletheia is a ghost story set in a remote lake town. It’s about coming home when you know in your waters that’s a very bad idea. A reviewer recently described it as Sons of Anarchy meets Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and to be honest, I don’t think I can do better than that. Readers can expect a weird noirish build-up, and then a hard left-turn that sends the book in a shocking new direction.
The lead character is Thettie Harpur, who returns with her family to Little Ridge, impelled by their sociopathic leader, Doc, to right wrongs having to do with their kinsman, Frankie, reputedly mixing some new smart-drug out on a mist-shrouded island in the lake. Thettie has to play along while trying to think of a way to get Frankie and her two sons out from under. Her story collides with that of a local artist local licking his wounds after all that’s left from his promising career in neuroscience, is an aging Gila Monster and a missing 7-year old son..
I’d like to think that readers can expect a ghost story, but one that’s weird and messy and complicated. Like life.
TGR: Ben Baldwin is a staple at Crystal Lake Publishing when it comes to their cover art and he has done a great job with yours, too. Did you have any input or was it left up to him?
Ben and I talked a bit. He pretty much nailed it first off and then it was just a matter of some fine tuning. He’s exceptionally intuitive as well as staggeringly talented. I owe Joe a solid for adding Aletheia to Ben’s busy slate.
TGR: ‘Aletheia’ is quite a big book (by today’s standards, it seems). I’m a big fan of anthologies and particularly short story collections. Recently I have rediscovered my love for the novel. Was ‘Aletheia’ intended to be a long novel or did it simply take off as you were writing it?
Absolutely. I never think of length when I write unless I’m writing to a word count, say for an anthology or whatever. So it was just as long as it had to be, at least in the writing of it. I’m reading Joe Hill’s The Fireman right now, which is like, 800 pages, but doesn’t feel like it. Han Kang’s novella, The Vegetarian covers a vast amount of ground in around a hundred pages that proceed with an elegiac grace that belies the short word count.
My next novel is much more stark, but Aletheia was never going to be that. It’s a book about memory and loss and shame – it was never going to be a little book.
TGR: When it comes to the writing, what sort of writer are you? For this novel, in particular, did you meticulously plan it out or was it much more organic than that?
Both. I draft organically, but then scribble out a chapter outline pretty soon. The timeline, character sketches, that kind of thing. That changes as you write, but it’s something to hold onto when you lose the plot. Toward the end, in the final drafts, I stick to a pretty tight plan.
But even then, the process of writing is also a process of thinking. Once those fingers hit the keyboard, for me, at least, anything is possible, and without giving anything away, that’s what happened with Aletheia. I absolutely did not plan the now infamous shock that occurs in the middle of the novel. That came out of the story as it told itself.
TGR: Do you have a regular writing routine or is it as and when you can?
I try to write every day between 7 and 9 a.m, because I have a day job. If I manage to squeeze more in, like on the weekends, or on breaks from teaching, great.
TGR: Who or what has influenced your written work?
Book-wise, that’d be Borges, Bolano, Fuentes, Cervantes, Shirley Jackson, Seb Doubinsky, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Poe, Philip K Dick, Don DeLillo, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, William Gibson, Peter Straub, King, Ray Bradbury… and more recently, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, Angela Slatter, Josh Malerman, Lucy A. Snyder, Laird Barron, Karen Joy Fowler, J David Osborne, Stephen Graham Jones, Han Kang, T. E Grau, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Dennis Lehane, George Saunders … the list goes on and on. Like so many bookish kids who wanted to write, reading became and still is a form of writing – reading is never divorced, entirely, from thinking, “Oh, this is how I’d do this; or what if the wife was a vampire; or what if the brother isn’t really dead; or what if the dog could talk?” Or even just a head-scratching wonder that such a thing can exist as this perfect book you’re holding in your hands. So whatever I read, sure there are the characters and the story that make me forget myself, but not entirely, because the whole time I’m calibrating it in terms of not just how unattainable the standard is for me, but also what I need to do to get in waving distance of it. Waving, not drowning.
Movies – that’d be New Zealand cinema, which is rad. Anyone interested should see a doco called, Cinema of Unease, narrated by Sam Neill, who incidentally was in my favorite film of last year, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Peter Jackson is one of my top five directors, and I often wonder whether his early work is what put the Weird on me. Films like Bad Taste, Braindead, Meet the Feebles, and of course, Heavenly Creatures. We lived in Christchurch for a few years and our house backed onto Ilam Homestead where the more surreal parts of that film were shot, and we’d walk through there every day, through a maze of psychedelic azaleas and giant leering rhododendrons—flowers are weird and scary anyway, but these ones… Ridley Scott, Kathryn Bigelow, Joss Whedon, Brian De Palma, Jonathan Glazer, Kurosawa, Tarantino, Almodovar. I’m sure I’m leaving a ton out. I’m a Netflix junky too, so that’d be everything from The Wire through to American Horror Story, West World, Stranger Things, and Charlie Brooker’s masterpiece Black Mirror, which I watch, and re watch.
Music – this isn’t the place to get into a whole music thing. I have soundtracks in my head to all my novels and all my stories. Punk is the backbeat to my work. I probably wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for Punk. But I’ll often start writing a novel/story just after listening to a random song or album, or even soundtrack that moves me, whether it’s Prince – it’s often Prince—or Radiohead or Solange or Bjork, or Fever Ray or Ennio Morricone. Or Jane’s Addiction or Gospel—you don’t want to get into this with me.
The other great influence on me are my children. My daughter is studying neuroscience and my son is studying to be an artist and they’re my best friends and daily inspiration.
TGR: I’m a firm believer that writers should also still find the time to be readers. What are you reading now and what have you read in the past 12 months that has really impressed you?
I’m reading Joe Hill’s The Fireman, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
I haven’t read nearly as much in the last year as I should. D Foy’s turbulent Patricide. Paul Tremblay’s novels. Lucy A. Snyder’s collection and the Best New Weird anthologies from Undertow Press which never disappoint. I loved Gabino Iglesias’s Zero Saints, and I’ve just finished J David Osborne’s Black Gum, which is a work of great beauty and the realization of a punk-noir vision that many of us can only hope for.
TGR: What is the best writing advice you have ever been given and what writing advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?
- Write every day.
- Reach out and connect urgently and honestly with other writers you trust at conferences, online, at workshops, whatever. You can get naked with other writers without taking your clothes off, without risking your relationship, and without catching anything except for belief in yourself and in the power of storytelling.
TGR: What do you have planned for the remainder of 2017 and beyond?
I’m late with a collection of short stories also for Crystal Lake Publishing. I have a couple of stories dropping in Gamut and an anthology called Welcome to Dystopia later in the year. There is a collaborative thingie in the works with a great author-friend of mine I can’t talk about right now. I’m working on another collection and concentrating on writing the stories for that. And in July I begin a new novel.
TGR: Finally, Australian TV is utter garbage. There are no other words for it. Is there anything worth watching? I very rarely watch it (unless the cricket is on!) and when I do, I shudder in utter disbelief at the programs they try to entertain us with. Am I missing anything?
TGR: JS Breukelaar, I have spelt your surname wrong many times during the writing of this interview. Please accept my apologies if it is misspelt anywhere. It has been a pleasure having you here. Thank you. Where can folk find you on the world-wide web?
Thank you, too, Adrian. Your spellings haven’t come close to some of the beauties out there – Brukekleear is my personal favourite. And Brekelmarr. I owe telemarketers a debt of gratitude—I just sit there and listen to them falling on their swords. “Helloooo. Ms Brekebrek? How are you today?”
Pick up a copy of ‘Aletheia’ from here.
Visit Crystal Lake Publishing here.
Visit Lazy Fascist Press here.