Wonderbook Interview with Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti is an iconic American writer of weird short fiction whose oeuvre has been as ground-breaking as, if not always as well-acknowledged as, that of Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and H.P. Lovecraft. His first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986), is an outright classic in the field, with a subsequent compilation from several collections, The Nightmare Factory, cementing Ligotti’s reputation. The influence of workplace experiences infused Ligotti’s fiction with fresh energy, resulting in the masterpiece My Work Here Is Not Yet Done.

For reasons of space, this interview wasn’t excerpted in Wonderbook and is presented here in its entirety. Portions of an unpublished interview with Ligotti by Daniel Ableev are, however, included in Wonderbook.

What role does nightmare or dream play in your work?

I’ve used dreams in my fiction in various ways. In order to keep from writing a long essay on this subject, I’ll provide only a few examples. In some of my stories the protagonist will have a dream that advances the plot, which is the simplest and most often used function of dreams in fiction. In “The Sect of the Idiot,” for instance, a dream turns out to be a vision of something fantastic that turns out to exist in reality. In this case, the dream prepared the revelation of a fantastic metaphysics. The inversion of this method is familiar to readers of ghost stories in which a character meets someone who is later revealed to be dead and therefore could only have been a ghost. In other stories of mine, a dream might explicate a concept, theme, or something that might otherwise come across as too cerebral in the waking section of the narrative. The dream in “The Sect of the Idiot” also serves this function. In “The Bungalow House,” I described a series of what I designated as “dream monologues” that were recorded on tape and intended to be works of art. The first dream monologue was a transcription of an actual dream I had and wrote down soon after I awoke, so it was also initiated my writing of the entire story. A second dream monologue in “The Bungalow House” was only summarized, while a third was simply given a title, because at that point I had established the nature of the dream monologues in their incidents and meaning. For my purposes, to describe each dream monologue in its entirety would have slowed the pace of the story. All of the dream monologues were used to characterize the peculiar nature of the main character’s psychology. Sometimes I’ll characterize the events of a narrative as being dreamlike in some specific way, because over the years I’ve noted qualities that characterize dreams, such as that they have no beginning, an idea that was recently used in the movie Inception to prove to a character that she was functioning in a dream and not in conventional reality. A very short story I wrote called “One May Be Dreaming” is pretty obviously a dream from beginning to end. The whole point of the story was that the protagonist was having a dream at the same time he was dying in real life. Usually, it’s not exposed until the end of the story that the whole thing was a dream. For his story “Where He Was Going,” William Burroughs employs this method, his use of which he credits to Ernest Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro.” “Man from the South” was Jorge Luis Borges’s rendition of this narrative structure. Perhaps I should say that I don’t think that dreams are anything more than rearranged experiences, sensations, and emotions. While they may easily be interpreted as symbolic or premonitory or whatever, I don’t believe that they are anything but intrusions upon what might otherwise be wholly unconscious hours of sleep.

What kinds of anchors does a reader need to enjoy the intended effect of a Kafkaesque or surreal story, in which there is a high rate of strangeness, strange events, or that features atypical causality?

You’re assuming that any anchors are necessary to create a sense of strangeness in fiction. The stories of Bruno Schulz, for instance, are wholly oneiric, which in no way detracts from affecting the reader with the strangeness of their incidents. I think this effect can be explained by the poetic quality of Schulz’s prose. In Lovecraft’s fragment “Nyarlathotep,” one of my favorites among his works, the same quality is evident to the same effect. In fiction that makes some pretense to realism, I’ve found introducing everyday phenomena is sufficient to induce a sense of believability in an otherwise uncanny sequence of events. One instance of this technique I’ve used is to factor into a story the use of money. Money always brings the reader down to earth. So does sex, which Kafka used in The Trial to “anchor” the reader. I’m not sure of what you mean by “atypical causality,” just as I’ve never known what the phrase “dream logic” means.

Leaving aside the question of what readers will accept or not accept, what are your thoughts as a writer on this idea of “the rate of strangeness”? Which is to say, the typical writing advice regarding non-mimetic fiction is that you can only have so many odd elements before the whole narrative becomes unmoored and the reader becomes disinterested. Yet many visionary works do hold the readers’ interest despite violating the spirit of such advice.

Lovecraft articulated what you call “the rate of strangeness” somewhere in his letters or in an essay on weird writing. This argument has a certain logic about it, but as you point out, it’s ultimately fallacious.

To what extent are your stories dark mysteries? Do you ever think of them that way? That they are explorations of the mysterious? And if so, does that affect how you structure them?

Many of my stories have in fact been explorations of something mysterious I’ve sensed behind the show of physical reality. The works of the French Symbolists, by way of Poe, demonstrated the validity of this approach to writing. “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” was my attempt to explore the sensations instilled in me by the season of autumn. But those sensations were subjective, unreal, and only conveyed my own psychological disposition. Consequently, the story was just another fictional display of my grim philosophy of existence. Later in my life, neither autumn nor any other season filled me with a sense of mystery due to anhedonia, which reduces the visible world to its physical appearances and nothing more.

Can you describe your writing process—what’s usually in the rough draft and what’s not?

After destroying dozens of stories because they were just no good, I reached a point where I could write a publishable story without composing a rough draft that required deletions and additions and revisions for style and sense. That didn’t mean the stories were perfect. Far from it. But they were as good as I could make them at the time. And whenever a story was reprinted—from a magazine to an anthology and then to a collection—I made revisions, often quite extensive revisions. There’s always room for improvement in anything one writes. Paul Valéry said he never finished a poem, he just stopped working on it because there was nothing more he could do to make it better. That’s how I approached writing stories. My goal was to have one sentence lead to another with as little room as possible for anything to be inserted between them. In order to accomplish this, of course, I had to think a lot about the sentences I would write in the first place. That meant making a lot of notes, jotting down words and phrases, and reading the sentences I’d already written before I start writing new sentences. In the past three years or so, I had the chance to revise every story in my first three collections. Most of those stories were written over twenty years ago. So naturally I made a lot of revisions. Sometimes I reconceived entire stories, and obviously that necessitated considerable rewriting. One rule I tried to follow was not to kill my babies, that is, felicitous words, phrases, and metaphors. I guess you could say that I’ve never written a rough draft, just rough stories.

How does the inexplicable inform your fiction?

It doesn’t, at least as far as I can tell. I’m not even sure what you mean by “inexplicable.” If there is a question to which human beings haven’t arrived at a persuasive, consensus answer—such as whether or not we have free will or what free will even means as a concept—then I’ll settle the question to my own satisfaction and proceed from there. I don’t feel that human existence has any purpose or meaning. Thus, I write fiction from the perspective of moral and metaphysical nihilist. If I can’t settle a question, or if it doesn’t interest me, then it won’t have a place in my life.

What does the word “ambiguity” mean to you as a fiction writer?

It doesn’t mean anything to me as far as I’m aware. Neither does irony. As a writer, I’ve tried to be as straightforward as possible with respect to how I want a reader to feel and what I want a reader to think after reading one of my stories.

Are there specific writers from whom you’ve stolen techniques? If so, who, and what precisely did you steal?

In many of my early stories I emulated the arch, sardonic first-person voice in which Nabokov wrote. The same voice can be heard in certain stories by Poe, one of them being “The Cask of Amontillado.” I’ve imitated the densely metaphorical style of Bruno Schulz. Nabokov also wrote in a densely metaphorical style, so there is some crossover there. In a series of later stories, I stole the technique of repeating words, phrases, and ideas relevant to the point of a narrative from Thomas Bernhard. This technique struck me as comic, as it did when I first noticed it in Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. These literary thieveries are really just the tip of the iceberg concerning what I’ve taken from other writers. Any time I’ve come across a work of fiction I wish I had written, I’ll do my best to write something as close to it as possible. Fretting about being a stylistic original is a waste of time in my opinion.

What kind of life do your characters have beyond the page? Nabokov used to say something to the effect that the idea of a character coming to life would be as ridiculous as saying a potted plant in the setting had come to life.

I have no idea whether or not other writers actually do what they say they do in their works. Critics often charge that a writer devises his or her methods after the fact. The claims Poe made in his “Philosophy of Composition” regarding how he wrote the “The Raven” is a famous instance of this. As far as my characters and the world in which they move around are concerned, I’ve consistently made an attempt to convey the feeling that nothing exists outside a given story. This is the feeling one has in a dream, and it seemed to me an appropriate way to write my kind of horror story.

How much do your stories change in the telling of them, and do you often wind up someplace very different than you expected?

Borges said that if a story doesn’t turn out better than planned, it probably isn’t a very good story. In my experience, I’ve found this to be true. I’ve never deviate greatly from my original plan for a story, but I have found better ways of arriving at my original destination.

Do you often experiment with where to begin and end scenes for best effect? What have you learned as a result?

To me, that kind of experimentation seems rather cold-blooded. I’ve always had an awareness of craftsmanship in writing a story, but it’s more a matter of feeling my way from one point to another. I think the kind of experimentation to which you’re referring applies more to longer works of fiction than to short stories, breaking up a narrative into chapters and that sort of thing. Raymond Chandler once said something to the effect of if he didn’t know what should happen next in one of his novels, he would fall back on having someone walk into a room holding a gun. The simplest methods are usually the best.

What do you typically have no interest in dramatizing in scenes? (What do you prefer occur off-stage?)

I believe Henry James was the first great advocate of showing stories rather than telling stories. He also aspired to be a dramatist, although without success because his plays were too talky. I don’t enjoy plays as a rule, but I love talky movies, as long as the talkers are engaging. In my horror stories, I usually let a narrator do the talking because I’m more interested in conveying a consciousness of something terrible than in telling a story about something terrible. In my most frightening dreams, I don’t know what it is I fear. That’s the sort of sensation I’ve enjoyed having produced in me by the horror stories of other writers.

On the page, what are the worst ways that a talented writer can self-sabotage or self-betray?

I don’t know what you mean by “on the page,” but I think the worst way a writer can self-betray is by not being true to his or her experience of being alive. It’s my belief, for what it’s worth, that a lot of writers consign to the page what they think will meet with the approval, especially in the moral realm, of what their society has preached to them since they were children, almost all of which is utter bullshit. This is particularly evident in the practice of screenplay writers who write about characters being “redeemed” in some way or other. That is, whereas a character began with a bad attitude about life, he ends as if he had swallowed whole hog a course in positive thinking. Often this is evident even at the level of personal habits. For instance, a character will smoke copiously at the beginning of a movie, and by the end of the movie he quits because smoking is anti-life and being smoke free is pro-life. In the movie Constantine, Keanu Reeves does this, although at least his cigarette smoking turns out to function materially in the film’s plot.

What are your thoughts on something like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey? Is it a neutral thing of use to some and not to others? Is it not useful…? And if you had to map a journey many of your characters take, what would it look like? What elements would it have?

Heroic fiction is a peculiar genre in which I indulged on only one occasion. The story was “Masquerade of a Dead Sword.” Being me, I had the hero triumph over his adversary, which I characterized as something like the life principle, by killing himself in a manner relevant to the story. I believe that the figure of the hero and the outline of his journey belong strictly to mythologies designed to indoctrinate people into a positive vision of life. These journeys are adaptive from an evolutionary perspective. The journeys my characters take are always one of decline and death, which is the journey of average individuals and also, I believe, will be the journey of the human race as a whole.

What’s the worst type of writing advice, about the art of it, that you’ve seen, and why?

I think the worst writing advice, which may no longer be proffered, is “Write what you know.” It’s so often misinterpreted to mean “Write about the world you live in” I’ve never done that, nor have a lot of other writers. Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man is set in a prison. Before writing the novel, Elkin had never visited a prison or researched was it was like to be in prison. After he published the novel, he had the opportunity to teach creative writing to convicts in a prison. So finally he had a chance to see what a real prison what like. His comment: “I like my prison better.”

Why do you write?

Since I was a child, I’ve used my imagination to escape from life. At the same time, my imagination has plagued me with both reality-based anxieties as well as anxieties based entirely in the imagination, such as the fear of Hell I was taught to have by the Catholic Church. Paired with a talent for literary composition, a talent that it took me over ten years to refine, I became a writer of horror stories. To my mind, writing is the most important form of human expression, not only artistic writing but also philosophical writing, critical writing, etc. Art as such, especially programmatic music such as operas, seems trivial to me by comparison, however much pleasure we may get from it. Writing is the most effective way to express and confront the full range of the realities of life. I can honestly say that the primary stature I attach to writing is not self-serving. I’ve been captivated to some degree by all forms of creativity and expression—the visual arts, film, design of any sort, and especially music. In college I veered from literature to music for a few years, which is the main reason it took me six years to get an undergraduate degree in liberal arts. I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember. Since my instrument is the guitar, I know every form and style in its history and have written the classical, acoustic, and electric forms of this instrument. I think because I have had such a love and understanding of music do I realize, to my grief, its limitations. Writing is less limited in the consolations it offers to those who have lost a great deal in their lives. And it continues to console until practically everything in a person’s life has been lost. Words and what they express have the best chance of returning the baneful stare of life.