An Interview with Claude Lalumière, Part One
Claude Lalumière‘s involvement with fantastika has taken many forms. He’s been a retailer, an editor of anthologies, and a critic. But lately he’s become best known for his fiction. Claude’s writing is most often a surreal and precise blending of fantasy, horror, science fiction, superhero adventure, and any other genre that seems handy and to the point. His first collection, Objects of Worship, was published by ChiZine Publications two years ago; now a new set of linked short stories, The Door to Lost Pages, is about to hit shelves.
I’ve known Claude for a long time, and was happy to take the opportunity of the publication of his new book to have an e-mail conversation with him about his writing, his past, and many other things. In this first part, he discusses his language, his time as a bookseller, his two books, and his ongoing web series Lost Myths, among many other things.
An Interview with Claude Lalumière, Part One
Conducted and Transcribed by Matthew David Surridge
I thought I’d start with a fairly wide-ranging question: Could you describe your background with writing, fantasy, and the English language? That is, could you describe the process by which you as a francophone not only came to write, but came to write primarily in English? And what is it about fantasy (or horror) fiction that drew you as a reader and a writer?
I grew up in a unilingual francophone family, in a household with neither books nor readers. My first exposure to storytelling was television, and very early on I was drawn to English. My parents say that, even as a very young child, left in front of the television set I used to often switch the channel to the English-language stations. By the time I was three, I had internalized English and, much to my unilingual family’s shock and surprise, could speak it fairly fluently. When I began to be taught reading and writing in French in kindergarten, I immediately taught myself to read and write in English, with the help of Sesame Street, because already I loved that language much more than my native French.
After television, I was drawn to comics, first in French, as those were easier to find where I lived — then, as I became able to roam around more independently the summer I was eight years old, in English. As soon as I discovered American comics, they became a full-blown obsession, a love affair I have only once abandoned (in my late teens / early twenties). It remains the art form I am the most profoundly attracted to — as a member of the audience, rather than as creator. Comics feel like part of who I am.
In grade 4, I made friends with a Lithuanian kid whose primary North American language was English (although we met in French school). It’s when I visited his house that I discovered books. Everyone in his family, him included, read books for pleasure. In English. The house was filled with books. And this friend introduced me to the English bookstores in the Montreal downtown core, and in no time I began reading an average of five paperbacks a week. The genres I was most drawn to were: heroic series fiction (my favourites: Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, and the Shadow); mythology (primarily Penguins and Pelicans — to this day, the spines of classic Penguin and Pelican titles evoke “books” more than anything else to me); and SF/fantasy — having no clue or guidance, I started at the beginning of the alphabet of the SF/fantasy shelves; early favourites were thus Poul Anderson (I eventually got fed up with all that preachy Libertarian capitalism), Piers Anthony (the early stuff of his I still remember with some fondness, and the last thing of his I enjoyed as a boy was the Tarot trilogy, but he lost me with Xanth, Apprentice Adept, etc.), and Marion Zimmer Bradley, but her later works moved in directions that made me lose interest. I also read philosophy, history, fringe conspiracy theories, and other types of fiction. Later, in my mid-teens, I made an effort to begin reading in French a little more, but even though I found a few things I loved, reading in French was not as attractive to me as reading in English. My imagination is in synch not with French but with English; French always feels more like work somehow, while English is sustenance.
I always felt the urge to create, although I grew up in a sociocultural environment that was extremely hostile to that possibility, and, in my youth, I never received training or encouragement, nor was I put in a context where that desire could be nurtured or honed. Even reading was extremely suspect and ridiculed, especially reading in English, and as a kid I never met anyone else, aside from that one Lithuanian boy, who read either books or comics.
Also, I was the type of child, much to my mother’s exasperation, who questioned everything. Everything. I was never able to accept any sort of handed-down knowledge or mores uncritically, even as a preschooler. The utopian impulse was always very strong in me, even when I was very young. It’s very hard for me to accept the world as it is. I feel extremely alienated by many aspects of human culture.
So that mix of feeling alienated from everything around me (even from the language of my native culture) and of my strong utopian urge naturally made the various genres of the fantastic immediately attractive to me. In a work of SF or fantasy, nothing can be taken for granted. And, that, to me, is intimately familiar: it’s analogous to my reaction toward the “real world.”
As for horror, for a long time, I believed I hated it, although I kept peeking at it. The TV commercials for the film version of Carrie felt very disgusting and hostile to me as a little kid and turned me off the genre, a disgust that was only accentuated with the later advent of slasher films. Neither King nor de Palma have ever become creators whose work has spoken to me in any way, nor have I ever developed a taste for slasher horror, but I eventually found some horror fiction more in synch with my imagination. And now some people consider some of what I do horror as well.
My first stab at being a creative individual occurred in French, when I was about twenty: I made two super-8 films (one of which stayed on the festival circuit for a few years), wrote and performed poetry (some of which got published), and wrote some humour (most of which got published) and some truly wretched fiction. At age twenty-one, all that had dried up, and, for numerous reasons, I fell into the darkest depression of my life. Two years later, I opened my first bookshop, Nebula (an English store), and slowly put my life back in order.
The better I felt about myself, the more the urge to write kept bubbling up, but managing what eventually turned into a two-outlet bookshop business did not lend itself to nurturing the creative side of my personality. In 1998, I sold my business. By that time, there was no doubt that English was the language of my imagination and my dreams. I dream almost exclusively in English, by the way.
I certainly wanted to ask you about Nebula, whose closure is still mourned by us sf, fantasy, horror, mystery, and alt-comics readers in and around Montreal. It seems particularly relevant given that your new book is about a fantastical bookshop. Could you describe how you came to open Nebula, and how you decided what went on the shelves?
I’d just spent a few years in Québec City, first to go to school, then because of a girl, and then working at a comics shop that also stocked some genre books. I learned some of the basics of the bookselling business there, but I was unhappy in Québec City and really needed to get back to Montreal. So at age twenty-three I moved back to Montreal, my hometown. There, with help from two other people, open my first bookshop, Nebula. Basically, I wanted it to be a store where you could find (1) the most comprehensive selection of SF and fantasy possible, (2) titles no other local stores stocked, (3) so-called “alternative” comics, (4) an eclectic mix of related, unusual, or unexpected titles — which all taken together would create a sort of sense-of-wonder experience for potential patrons.
What did the experience of running Nebula teach you about sf? I’m wondering not only about what it might have introduced you to as a reader and writer, but also what you learned about the field, the publishing industry, and readers?
I have a knack for learning by osmosis. Back then, my mind was organized like an interactive encyclopedia, and I did indeed learn quite a lot from my customers, and I always tried to spread all that knowledge around. In those pre-internet days, information about the field, its history, its classics, its award winners, its exciting new authors and titles, etc. was actually quite hard to come by, at least here in the province of Québec. I tried to create an environment where that knowledge could be shared.
One of my biggest surprises when it came to other readers: that there was very little overlap between the comics audience and SF/fantasy readers. I also had a substantial film-buff audience, many of which came only for the film books and magazines and nothing else. I’d always had a foot in all those worlds and did not see them as segregated as I came to discover they were.
What’s it like to be a bookseller? For most of us, a bookstore’s a great place to go to, and to wander around in. What’s the perspective of the man behind the counter? What’s it like having all those books all around you, and knowing that if all goes well, they’re actually going to be heading out the door sooner or later?
The problem with being a bookseller is that the more successful you become the more you have to deal with the business side of things. Payroll. Taxes. Accounts. And all that stuff. And I hate business. It was really killing me. I loved the books, and I especially loved that so many people felt so attached to the store, but increasingly it was about the business and not the books. Which was not how I wanted my life to go.
But, yes, I did get a big charge out of those days when the store achieved really, really great sales, because I loved the idea that my shop could be such a vital part of my city’s cultural life.
And of course it remains quite flattering that, even today, thirteen years after I left retail behind, people still come to me and tell me stories about what the store meant to them. Sometimes, some of them almost beg for me to open a new store. But I’ve done my time. I’m proud of those years, but I could never go back. My life is entirely elsewhere now.
Which leads us back to your writing. Your first collection, Objects of Worship, came out 2 years ago from ChiZine publications. Could you talk a bit about that experience, and what the collection has done for you in terms of how it affected your profile as a writer?
It changed my life. I’ve travelled, and continue to travel, much more and much farther than I ever thought I would as a result of the book’s publication. Also, before CZP accepted the book, I was on the verge of giving up as a writer. I was not reaching readers in a substantial way. Even though individual stories tended to get very positive reviews in the short-fiction press, it never felt like an accumulation, but just chalk marks in the rain, as the saying goes. It felt increasingly pointless, ephemeral, inconsequential. But then the book came out, and the reaction was, to me, phenomenal. A flood of reviews — from both professionals and fans — by people who were clearly affected by my work, who connected with the work. Add to that a steady stream of invitations to reading series, conferences, book fairs… Two years later, and there are still new reviews coming out, and the tone of the reviews seems to be increasing in appreciation. Plus, I’ve received private messages from readers who really, really dug the book. Feeling that people get pleasure from something I’ve created is a great charge; it gives me more impetus to keep on writing. Writing doesn’t mean anything unless someone’s reading it. And the publication of Objects of Worship has made me feel that the work is being read, so that it’s worth it to continue.
Some writers talk about how they have this burning, nagging need to write, to tell stories — I can’t say that I have that. I have a compelling, if somewhat diffuse, need to be creative, to be doing something meaningful. Writing just happens to be how my skill set and my love of the English language combine to best allow me to satisfy that otherwise unfocused impulse. And the reaction to the publication of Objects of Worship helped me stay on that path, to keep exploring deeper and deeper.
What it was like working with ChiZine? What have you learned from the publication process?
Well, I’ve been active in the book business, in a variety of capacities, since the mid-1980s, so I wouldn’t say having a book out from CZP was a learning process in that regard.
Working with CZP is awesome, though. All the people there are driven by a burning passion and a dedication to professionalism. I continue to be awed by the level of what they accomplish with virtually no resources, and above all by the relentless determination of everyone involved to do the best job they possibly can for every book they release. They unwaveringly stand behind what they publish. They make sure your book will not and does not get ignored. They’re top-notch in every way, both as people and as publishers.
The stories in the book range tonally, but share a sensibility and I think a general similarity of narrative approach, in that they often show the matter of a story from an unexpected angle. If you agree with that, I was wondering if you viewed that as typical of your fiction as a whole, or do you see it as representing your approach at a certain time?
I think that “unexpected angle” is a reflection of my own reaction to the world around me. I find human culture to be extremely disturbing and alienating. I’m not in synch with the world as it is. That feeds into how I conceive my stories. My normal is not the consensus normal. That said, it would be disingenuous to suggest that it’s entirely accidental or unintentional that my stories are, as you put it, “from an unexpected angle.” I think it’s true that, partly, I can’t help it: it’s who I am. But it’s also an intentional narrative strategy, motivated by specific esthetic, artistic, and political impulses.
You’ve been working for some time now on an online venture called Lost Myths, in collaboration with artist Rupert Bottenberg and various other talented individuals. Every week, you present the story of a new mythic creature. I think of the pieces as being similar to webcomics, given the strong illustrative element, but they’re not always comics, and there are also often other media involved, notably music. You present some of these pieces in a live show, too. What prompted you to begin this project, and how is it working out creatively?
Lost Myths began as a writing project. Given the theme and title of my first collection, it’s no surprise that I’m obsessed with myth, and have been since early childhood. At first, the project was a way for me to play with the tropes of myth in a series of very short texts. I was extremely busy with contract work at the time, and I was going through some very rough changes in my life that were not conducive to maintaining the head space that allows for writing elaborate, character-based fiction. But I wanted to stay creative nevertheless, and this project, because individual pieces were so short, allowed that. The project also enabled me to explore the core of the notion of “story” by stripping away the conventions and tropes of modern fiction.
I wanted to place the series as a regular feature in a magazine or on a website, but although individual pieces sold no-one was interested in it as a feature. Nevertheless, I started to give thematic readings of the Lost Myths stories, and audiences seemed to love them. I got very enthusiastic reactions from the public. So I kept at it.
And then I saw an exhibit of my friend Rupert Bottenberg’s artwork, and I immediately recognized that he was exploring with visual art the same notions that I was exploring with my Lost Myths texts. That led to me eventually sending him some stories at his request, and he had the same reaction to the Lost Myths texts that I had had to his artwork. In no time, and quite organically, we had a collaborative project, posting a new Lost Myth every Thursday on our website.
Creatively, it’s the most satisfying experience of my life. Rupert and I have incredible creative synergy, and it just keeps growing and deepening. In addition, Rupert has a lot of connections in the music world, which meant that we could add an aural component to the project, even though neither of us is a musician. So I’ve also had the pleasure of collaborating with musicians because of Lost Myths, and there’s more of that coming in the future. I’m very excited about that.
The Lost Myths live show grew out of my love of live performance and public readings. But the addition of artwork and music makes the performance transcend a mere reading and become a show. Performing Lost Myths is my favourite aspect of my creative life.
What plans do you have for it in future?
We’re hoping to develop the live show further, bringing on board collaborators in other fields, including, as I’ve already mentioned, more music. One step at a time, though. We both hope to be able to keep the Lost Myths project alive for a long time.
Also, of course: books. Already, we have story postcards and chapbooks. But in the not-too-distant future there should be full-blown Lost Myths books as well.
Does the idea of collaboration have importance to you? Generally, how has the experience been?
I’ve tried collaborating with other writers, and I can’t do it. Writing is too hermetic a process for me. Collaborating is inconceivable. But collaborating with someone from another discipline … that’s a whole other animal. Collaborating with Rupert has been immensely enriching. And the little I’ve done with musicians has also been stimulating. I’m eager to do more of that.
Your new book is a set of linked short stories, united by a mysterious, fantastic bookstore. I suppose the obvious question must be asked: how does this relate to your experience as a storeowner?
Actually, very little, I think. As far as I can tell, with two exceptions (one character is partially based on a certain aspect of someone I knew at the bookshop; a brief detail in chapter 1 is based on something a customer once said), nothing in the stories reflects anything substantial from my Nebula Bookshop experience. Obviously, the concept of bookshop is a powerful one for me. I remember the thrill of discovering the downtown bookshops when I was ten years old. That left a huge impact on my imagination. That experience is the common ancestor both to my life as a bookseller and to writing The Door to Lost Pages.
What attracts you to the form of linked stories?
Well, as someone whose craft is short fiction, I’m able with the mosaic of linked stories to present to readers and publishers a unified book, which seems to be easier to market.
Artistically, it allows me to play with contradictory points of view. In real life, no two people remember or relate events in exactly the same way. I keep that in mind when writing linked stories. I intentionally let in some irreconcilable contradictions. That dissonance can be a stimulating effect for a reader — I know, I love to experience that as a reader myself, and I assume my own readers will share that predilection.
I’m currently working on a second mosaic of linked stories, focusing on the imaginary European city-state Venera. So far, two stories in the sequence have been published, and I’m working on a bunch of others simultaneously. It’s slow going, though. It’s proving to be a tough nut to crack, but I’m getting there.
I know that you worked on the Lost Pages material for some time. Could you discuss that process? And why do you think the story kept pulling you back?
Chapter 1 of The Door to Lost Pages, “Bestial Acts,” is a milestone story for me. It’s only after I finished that story that I came to realize that everything I’d written before was only juvenilia — clever exercises that were attempting fiction without really achieving it. I was still several revisions and a few years away from seeing it published, but I knew that I was finally onto something. Very soon after finishing the first draft of “Bestial Acts,” I wrote the stories that would end up forming chapters 2 and 3 of the book. The floodgates had burst: I was finally writing fiction. Those stories were still in rough shape, though, and they would need to go through many revisions before they could be published. Finally, in 2002, David Pringle of Interzone picked up “Bestial Acts” — which appropriately became my first published story — and suddenly I started selling my fiction regularly.
The Lost Pages stories were a bit problematic in my catalog: together, they overwhelmed any collection, but they fell short of novel length. Together, they form a novella. Fortunately, CZP has a novella series, and the book could fit into that.
Since it was the story that finally kicked open the doors of fiction for me as a writer, I always wanted to be able to tell the entire Lost Pages saga as one sustained narrative, instead of as scattered stories strewn across time and space (as thematically appropriate as that might be). Also, because they were early stories, I knew they still needed some tweaking. Their existence kept nagging at me. I could only silence their voices if I got to write the definitive version of the whole tale and see it published as such. Only then would I be able, so to speak, to close the book on The Door to Lost Pages.
Next week: Part 2 of the interview!
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His blog is Hochelaga Depicta.
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