By Jason Ahlquist
Poppy Z. Brite has always been more than an average horror writer. Her ability to shock us in new and unique ways has only been surpassed by her knack for doing it with characters that have true humanity in the places where the average fright scribe would insert inhumanity.
Her recent work however, has taken on a different kind of story. But the character magic still remains.
I had a chance to talk to her about her career and her new book, The Value of X.
MD: When you sent the manuscript for The Value of X to us, you indicated that it was a bit of a departure for you. It’s true that we all know you as a horror and dark fantasy writer. But as I read, I found myself thinking that perhaps this is more of a refinement of an aspect of your writing that has always been there. Throughout everything that is shocking and horrific in your past work, there has always been a tenderness accumulated in the cracks. Is this work an effort to focus on that side of your work; give it the spotlight; or do you see yourself as trying something entirely different?
PZB: To me, the biggest difference between my older work and this new work is not the subject matter or the tone but the portrayal of New Orleans. The New Orleans of LOST SOULS through THE LAZARUS HEART is a cliche — often an attractive and amusing cliche, but not a true reflection of the city I live in. After being away for 20 years, I returned for good in 1993, and the longer I lived back here, the unhappier I became with the way I’d written about the place. It’s just so much more interesting than most of the spooky/gorgeous/decadent fictional portraits suggest. So that’s the only thing I was consciously striving to do differently.
MD: Okay, here’s the lame question you probably get a lot with this book: Why cooking? Is it a subject close to your heart or did you just get a look into t
he culinary world and think it would be a cool place to set up a series of dramatic situations?
PZB: My husband, Chris, has been in the restaurant business for 25 years. He’s now the head chef at a busy New Orleans restaurant. I’ve worked in restaurant kitchens myself. I’ve always been interested in food — you don’t grow up in New Orleans without developing a healthy interest in food and cooking. Through Chris and our friends in the business, I’ve gotten to know the New Orleans restaurant world about as well as a person can without actually working in it. Even 7 or 8 years ago, I liked the idea of writing a funny, semi-satirical book about that world, but I didn’t know enough then. In the fall of 2000, I realized I did, and I began writing LIQUOR. (Though LIQUOR takes place ten years after TVoX, it was actually written first.)
MD: I notice that The Value of X has very few truly villainous characters. For a story about two gay kids coming of age together, most of the intolerance they encounter is either from bit players or from well-meaning, ill-equipped family and friends. Coming from a writer used to working with violence and horrific imagery, it’s a surprisingly sunny outlook on growing up gay in America. Was this intentional or did it come about organically as you wrote?
PZB: That’s just the world in which these characters live. When I have a really good rapport with a set of characters, it does feel organic, and I don’t even feel as if I’m making the stuff up. That said, I don’t think their story is implausible in New Orleans. Of course there’s bigotry here, but one of the best things about the city is our laissez-faire attitude, our acceptance of eccentricity and difference. It’s the only place where A CONFERACY OF DUNCES’ hero Ignatius Reilly could have survived, and even thrived. It’s not a terribly villainous place, unless you are horrified by political corruption.
MD: I can almost see this book becoming reading assigned by a lot of forward thinking, risk taking high school literature teachers across the country. I remember a few of those teachers in my own high school experience, assigning the books that got a lot of wheels turning in my personality development. For a lot of us, those are the books that really make a difference. In that sense, those high school reading assignments are the most influential books in the world. When you cooked this story up in your head, did you envision this as part of its audience? Did you hope that perhaps there might be a Ricky or Gary out there who gets stuck choosing between “A Separate Peace”, “Giants in the Earth” or “The Value of X” and opts for the one by “the cool horror writer”?
BZB: That would certainly be nice, but it’s not the sort of thing I think about when writing. I can’t think about the reader at all then; it’s just me and my characters getting sweaty in a locked room. Once the work is published, though, those letters that say things like “Your work gave me the courage to come out to my family” are my favorite type of fan mail.
MD: I’ve only been to New Orleans once and ate at the Royal Café before going straight to Biloxi and them Hattiesburg, so forgive my ignorance. Are any of the restaurants in your book based in reality?
PZB: Most of them are composites of several places. Commander’s Palace, where Rickey eats with his father, is a real restaurant. I’ve been eating there since I was about 3, and my husband cooked there for several years under the late Chef Jamie Shannon, to whom TVoX is dedicated.
MD: So the big question a lot of your readers might have is if you are getting out of horror writing or merely expanding your repertoire. Is your latest foray away from the genre shelves part of a grand plan, or are you simply following the call of your muse?=
PZB: I don’t like grand plans or muses. I just do what the characters tell me to do. I don’t see myself getting back into horror any time soon, though. I love the genre, but I no longer see it as a useful construct for writing truthfully about New Orleans — that fictional aspect of the city has just been done to death — and writing truthfully about New Orleans is my primary goal right now.
MD: MarsDust’s format is to exploit the smart and sexy side of genre entertainment. This is a tough format sometimes because there are big parts of our society that see science fiction, horror and fantasy literature as children’s entertainment – or if not that, then the diversion of adults who cannot acclimate to adult life (i.e. losers). Until recent years, this perception has influenced many business decisions regarding investment in genre entertainment. Have you ever encountered a “stigma” behind being involved in horror literature that might have somehow interfered with your career goals?
PZB: I’m sure some critics will sneer at me, a lowly horror writer, for trying to do something else. But fuck ’em. I’ve never relied on good reviews for career advancement, and I don’t intend to start.
MD: Do you have anything in the works outside of the lives of Ricky and Gary?
PZB: Not right now. Almost everything I’ve written for the past couple of years seems to tie in somehow to them and their families, and I’m about to start the next novel, which will take place about a year after LIQUOR.
MD: What about PZB work for the screen? Any interest in seeing more of your stuff on TV or in the movie theater? Heck for that matter, how about Poppy plays for the stage?
PZB: EXQUISITE CORPSE has been optioned by independent producer Max Kruger. I’ve seen a script and thought it was very good. I’ve never been all that eager to have my work adapted, though — the form just doesn’t interest me all that much.
MD: There’s a lot of “regular” stuff to be scared of these days; terrorism, spiraling unemployment, rumors of war, invasion of privacy by our government; America’s pretty stressed out right now. As a result, we’re all a little less interested in scary stories – at least according to what’s showing up at the box office. We’ve instead opted for high fantasy, superheroes, rap-star Rocky tales and romantic comedies. This is of course an understandable reaction, but should we be giving horror a second look? Is there anything we can learn the Boogieman that could help us through all this?
PZB: I’m very reluctant to pontificate on how horror (or any fiction) can “help” us or what we can “learn” from it. Reactions to art are very personal and difficult to predict. Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” practically saved my life in high school, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect someone else to benefit from it. I couldn’t even really explain how or why it meant so much to me then — it just said some things I needed to hear at that time. I think each person needs to find his own teachers and life-savers — you can’t tell someone, “Read this and you’ll learn X, Y, and Z,” at least not with fiction.
MD: Some of the best horror cinema I’ve seen in a long time has come from the independent crowd. Despite all the after-the-fact zeitgeist detractors, The Blair Witch Project was pretty darn successful and scared plenty of folks out of their wits. Wendigo is another example that comes to mind. It might not have been a giant-killer at the box office, but it stands out by being both fascinating and scary. Part of the success story behind these projects and others is their wise exploitation of technology to both create art and bring it to market. But what about horror literature? Alternative press is starting to come of age as well thanks to a variety of empowering technologies entering the marketplace. What companies or horror writers do you see as making waves without the help of the big publishing houses?
PZB: Louis Maistros used XLibris to publish an excellent novel called THE BIG PUNCH. Geoff Cooper and Paul G. Tremblay have done some excellent work in the small/medium press. And I wouldn’t have done so much work with Subterranean Press if I hadn’t been very impressed with them. I don’t read much horror fiction any more, though, so there may be all sorts of exciting things going on that I don’t know about.
Source images for illustrations from Poppy’s official site