The Cemetery Dance Interview: Feeding the Ending with Aaron Dries

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Aaron Dries
Aaron Dries

Aaron Dries is an Australian powerhouse of an author and filmmaker. His debut novel, House of Sighs, was first published with the title Disunity for Leisure Books/Rue Morgue/Chizine Publications’ FRESH BLOOD Contest and had been influenced by a local murder that took place in Aaron’s teen years.

Aaron has been compared to the late great Jack Ketchum and, considering the intricate beauty laced throughout the grotesque underbelly of the human condition explored in both men’s work, this is not an unfair comparison.

Other titles from Aaron Dries include The Fallen Boys, No Place For Sinners and Where the Dead Go To Die (with Mark Allan Gunnels) among others.

In this conversation, we discuss the correlation of Aaron’s writing and his background as a youth addictions counselor, his newest coming-of-age novella, Dirty Heads, his upcoming collection of short stories, Cut To Care, and a whole lot more to convince you that Aaron Dries is here to influence your nightmares long into the night. Sit back and enjoy as we peel back the layers of humanity at it’s most horrific and redeeming levels.

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: Aaron, not only are you a very easy-going guy, very easily likable, but you also have an interesting background. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re your day job is in Youth Addiction Counselling, and you’ve also worked in long-term care. You’ve actually got a story set there, I believe. 

I currently work in a LTC. Sorry, Long-Term Care Center for those that are wondering what the acronym is all about. So, your background obviously jumped out at me, and I really enjoyed the fact that you got this psychology background. 

cover of Fallen BoysThe first book I read of yours was The Fallen Boys, which was absolutely brilliant. The way you dove into the psychology of this lonely, broken child who by all accounts came from a pretty mundane family and of course, the tragedy that happens — without giving anything way — is that those closest to him, particularly his parents, his dad, get absolutely drawn into this wall of darkness with this poor boy. It was brilliant the way you outlined all of that. It got me thinking, as a youth addiction counselor, how much did your background play into these horrific roles that you enjoy playing in and creating for us? 

AARON DRIES: Well, yes, the current day job, and it fluctuates between certain different disciplines, is in youth work, I’m currently working specifically in homelessness, in the homelessness sector. I have in the past worked in age-care specific services, advocacy, and mental health generally for people who struggled to get government-funded supports. I currently work in homelessness, and I guess you know what this is like working with people; it can take… People often will, you’ll say what it is that you do, and they’ll go, “Gosh, that must be rewarding.” And you know what? Look, yeah, it is, but what I really want you to say is, “Gosh, that must be really hard,” because that’s the truth of it. There’s not a day where I sit there and I put my feet up and go, “I’ve done a rewarding day’s work.” I put my feet up, and I go, “I ache everywhere, and I’m so emotionally drained, and I’m just churning with these emotions that I need to process in some sort of healthy way.” And I will literally lift up my laptop, and my self care regime is to just sweat all the toxins of the day literally onto the page.

But it’s not just about putting the bad stuff down. I’m not being overly dramatic, but by day I see the best and the worst in people, and that universe is incredibly chaotic and it’s often merciless. Writing for me is taking all of my complicated feelings about everything that I do between the hours of nine to five and trying to put it into something that I can rationalize and make sense of. And to try to make it beautiful and into some degree have some continuity. Although my stuff is really, really bleak, I think it’s bleak with a silver lining, that there’s little glimmers of hope there. 

cover of Cut to CareI think it’s becoming intrinsically tied to my day job. It really, really is. My recent one, Dirty Heads, definitely tapped into that. I’ve got a collection of short stories coming out next year, which is called Cut to Care, which is a collection of short stories that is all built around the cost of caring, about caring about something too much, about somebody caring about you too much, about not caring enough. They’re all psychological horror stories built around that theme, and they are essentially cries from the front line. They’re the stories of nurses and emergency workers and social workers and the people that they work with. That to me has been a massive purge over the last two years during COVID when the commitment that it took to write a novel just wasn’t something that I could master really, because the world went into Hell in a hand basket to some degree. I’m extraordinarily grateful that I’ve managed to remain employed through that time, but I’ve never been busier. 

For me, I needed to get those toxins out and then piece the universe back together in a healthy way.  I needed to be able to do it in a manner that worked for me in terms of my time frame, which is why short fiction became my go-to over the last year and a half, and I’m really happy with this short story collection. It’s coming out next year, but it’s exactly what you’re talking about. You’re right. It definitely plays in, and always has, and for as long as I continue to work in this industry, which I always will because I love it as much as it doesn’t love you back, it’ll continue to be so.  It’s really part of my self care routine. 

That’s commendable because it’s like digging ditches all day and then you come home and start pumping the iron and lifting weights. I imagine there’s a bit of a transitional period to push through and maybe psyche yourself up for the writing. As you’re writing the words that is your self care and you’re no doubt utilizing some of the wicked traumas that you’re hearing about day in and day out because these are the people that you’re helping, do you find that you’ve gotten some unexpected insights maybe into your own psyche as you steer from the day work to the writing work? Perhaps even some insight into the psyche of some of the people that you’re helping out, or maybe had some Ah ha! moments like “Hey, I have a better idea of how to direct this person or how to direct myself through self care,” or other such therapeutic brain blasts?

That’s a really interesting question. I think the things that I’ve learned through working in this particular industry is that I, like anyone else, love to think that I have the resiliency to never be affected by it except I do have that vulnerability. I think that if I didn’t and wasn’t at risk of it, I wouldn’t be well-suited to it. That’s what empathy is. One of the great boundaries that you need to learn to adapt your thinking is to be able to empathize with people but not to sympathize, because that leads to a slippery slope to really doing yourself in because you start to see yourself continuously in those that you are helping. What I do is I cut that off, and that’s where the writing aspect comes in. That’s where I get to sympathize with people.

The thing I’ve learned is I am susceptible to vicarious trauma, that it is something that’s not just this theoretical thing they warn you about. It is something that absolutely does happen, and if you don’t address it, it is like acid chewing through your day and your body and your home life. That’s something I’ve absolutely learned. I’ve definitely looked and worked with people who I can see myself in, and that is often quite rattling. People who you realize if I had made one or two decisions different in my life, then I could be the one in need of desperate assistance. 

Yeah, me too.

But also there are moments where you do see people where, and I’m just very grateful for the privileges that have been awarded to me which include, for example, not inheriting an addiction in vitro. You know what I mean? Or, not having acquired brain injuries or addictions that were formed or trauma that was inherited before I was even born or in my early development. I have really strong boundaries, but humanity does slip through. I think it is that vulnerability that makes you well-suited to the role. I guess those are the things I’ve seen and learned about myself. I do need to allow myself to feel sad about things sometimes, or to be excited about what I learned from people out on the field. 

There will be people who I meet who have insights about the universe that I’ve never thought of before, and it comes from hitting rock bottom in certain circumstances in ways that I haven’t fortunately had to in my life. Whilst I’ve never taken someone’s story, I’ve certainly tapped into the way it’s made me feel when it comes to my fiction. I genuinely have, and often that comes around to having to look for hope in the utter darkness of despair, and it’s there somewhere. You may only see the shape of hope, but it might be somebody in the corner waiting for you. That’s where the horror element kind of kicks in to some degree, too.

Absolutely. I think that’s where I guess the what if is. It’s like, “Well, what if I get out of here alive but then what if I don’t?” It’s a very precarious balance.

That’s why endings are very important to me.

A hundred percent.

Because with my works … Yes, I’ll leave it at that.  

I noticed with at least the three books that I’ve read of yours so far, the endings are very much a part of the story. Whether it’s intentional or not, everything seems to lead up to that ending and everything feeds that ending. In a sense, the ending also tends to feed the story that came before it. You can usually tell when a writer didn’t know how to end the story. I’s like “Well, my story’s finished, so … and then world blew up.” Or the story’s finale simply strolls off into the sunset until it fades away without much of an impact. Your stories don’t do that, especially with The Fallen Boys. That ending. Holy crap. Now, I’m not just saying this because you’re here, I’ve actually got a couple of women in the laundry room where I work at hooked on your stuff, and they all felt the same way I did after reading The Fallen Boys. Like, man, that ending in particular just absolutely sticks with you. 

Well, thank you for saying that.

I have a couple of young children so everything is exemplified as well, and wow I sure felt the trauma.

I really, really appreciate you saying that. Also, you know what you were saying before about the things that you learned from the people that you meet and work with, well, I feel as though, from what you said just then, I literally feel as though I just learned something about myself and my writing process that I’ve never really been conscious of until you said it just then, which is that everything feeds towards the ending, and once you get to the ending, you realize that everything is fed towards the beginning. I’ve never really realized that. That’s actually very, very true. I may not know the moment that I start off a book exactly how I want it to end, but I know exactly before I start writing how I want the reader to feel by the ending. For me, emotional continuity in that respect is extraordinarily important to me. They say you’ve only got one opportunity to make a first impression. You’ve only got one opportunity to end a book right, and for me, it’s not a game. 

I’m not in the game to mess that up because I know what it feels like to be a reader. I write because I read, and I know that there is sometimes where I’ll close something and I’m like, “I wish that had hit another button.” And that may not detract from the overall experience, but to me it’s something that is massively important. So, thank you for saying those kind words. I really, genuinely feel as though I hadn’t realized that’s what I do because there’s not anything that I’ve ever written in which I don’t feel as though the ending has been reverse-engineered from the first line. Yeah, thank you. That’s actually really, really great of you to say. It also helps because I’m currently working on projects at the moment, and I’m like, “Wow. That’s what I’m doing already. I get it.” But, thank you. That’s awesome. 

cover of Dirty HeadsI’m glad I could bring that insight. To move on and talk about Dirty Heads which I’ve been really excited to talk to you about as well. The way it was written was just incredible. It’s very abstract. There’s a lot of things that you left up for interpretations that could be certainly construed in various ways. 

Quite frankly the structure of the story should’ve been awkward, but it wasn’t. You essentially started out with what felt to me like a street journal, where the main character, Heath Spooner, you’re right in his head. He’s talking about things as they’re happening, running from this unseen entity that’s right on his heels like hellhounds, and you’re not really sure what the connection is there, but he’s got some kind of intimate knowledge of this thing. You don’t know why or how it generated. And then when he gets to the destination he’s going to at that particular moment in the opening of the book, it’s almost very cinematic where all of a sudden it’s like this camera which pans out to provide more of an overhead view of his life. The majority of the book is told through a flashback, which for me personally doesn’t usually work but it works so well in this because you’re still getting into his head, but not now you’re also getting into the heads of the people that are in his circle, between his friends, his bullies, his family, the people that he kind of bumps around with in his life. 

And then, to get to my point, once you arrive at the conclusion, you can certainly say it’s ambiguous because it leaves much open for interpretation where you ponder over the true monsters of the book.  Is the monster a part of this kid? Is it a separate thing? Did he create this monster? Am I the monster? Or is the monster in the rest of us who witnessed all the things that happened? I wanted to loop back round it and read the book again with the new perspective garnered from the finale.  

Was that always your point, to leave things ambiguous enough to create that sort of re-readability?

Yeah, absolutely. And the older I get, the more important to me ambiguity is. It’s not to say I don’t love a conclusive ending as much as anyone else and won’t continue to write endings in which this is a certain feeling that I want you to have. For me, in terms of the thematic kind of architecture of Dirty Heads, it is a book about the anxieties surrounding uncertainty. Because it’s essentially a coming-of-age novel in which we all know what that feels like. Literally every day is diving off the high board into a pool where you cannot see how shallow or deep it’s going to be or what’s in those waters. For me, the thematic kind of pin that I was resting every kind of plot mechanism and in terms of intended effect on the reader was it was all stemming from ambiguity. 

Now, I do want my cake and yet I want to eat it too, because whilst I love ambiguity and I was definitely working with that, I didn’t want a reader to be unsatisfied, and I think that the structure in terms of it starting off in the present and ending in the present but the whole middle chunk being a flashback is that again, it’s that reverse engineering, that it’s kind of a palindrome that the answers are mostly there, and if they’re not there, it’s because… It is that Lovecraftian, the unfathomable. You know what I mean? Which is the joy of writing something that’s slightly got cosmic underpinnings because, essentially, it’s the story. 

But for me, that’s okay in a story like this because, alright, I’ll quote — I’ll paraphrase terribly, Clive Barker. Unless you are directly quoting Clive Barker, you are doing a terrible job of paraphrasing him, because he’s so beautiful and eloquent. Dirty Heads is specifically about a young kid coming to terms with his sexuality. And he probably later in life will identify as being gay. Clive Barker wrote a really terrific book called Sacrament, in which he basically said, “the universe just keeps on trying to fuck up gay people, you know what I mean? They’ll throw a plague at them. They’ll throw prejudice. They’ll throw insecurities. Either the universe will throw everything they can to kill homosexuality, and yet like magic, it keeps coming back and surviving, and there is no reason for it to do so, because everywhere, every day, kids are springing up in defiance of this cosmic fuck you!” 

For me, there is no answer there other than some sort of beautiful mystery that is intrinsically tied to at least my identity as a human being, and I want to play into that ball pit when it comes to Dirty Heads specifically because the whole thing with Dirty Heads is that it’s the story of a kid not coming out to his friends. I love those stories, but I didn’t want to write about that. I wanted to write about a child, and this is exactly how it was for me coming out to myself, which was that I had no idea. Everyone was like, “Ah, we always knew.” I’m like, “You could’ve told me. You could’ve given me a bit of a head’s up.” Because I had no idea until somebody gave me something in reality, which is exactly what’s in the book, and I self-reflected and I went, BOOM! “Oh my gosh!”

Then just like that, it all makes sense, eh? 

And the moment it does make sense, it should be something that’s beautiful ‘cause they say it gets better and it does for most people. But at the time, what happens is your entire universe turns on you and it feels as though some cosmic entity from outer space has just launched a grenade in your life that will absolutely destroy everything that you thought you knew about yourself and the way everyone saw you. That is exactly what Dirty Heads is about. It’s about the way that coming out to yourself for a certain period of your life, until you either come to terms with it or die from it, is a type of murder. It’s a type of illness that cancels away all the things that will either kill you later in life, being prejudices and people who want to do you harm, or things that will mutate into the strongest and most resilient part of your life into the future. Dirty Heads, whilst is a short little novella, encompasses that emotional journey. 

There’s no reason to explain why and where it comes from because Heath Spooner, like myself or Clive Barker, have no idea where it comes from, whether it’s happening every day. That’s why ambiguity was part of the theme. For me, all things serve the theme in regards to every metaphor that you have, every allegory that you make. It all needs to suit and fit and go in the flow of the theme; otherwise, it needs to be cut. In a really roundabout, esoteric way, I think that addresses the question, but at the same time it’s appropriate that my answer should be ambiguous. [laughs]

I think in a lot of ways that’s what I love about the ambiguity of the book Dirty Heads is it really made me think who the monster is and gave cause for self reflection. I really hope, like myself — and I’d never suggest I’m some major scholarly guy where I can provide all kinds of wonderful scholastic-sounding interpretations of every little sentence and stuff. I’m not that guy, but hopefully other folks will reflect on that, too, and ponder like I did who the monster is. Hopefully they come to the conclusion where, and maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know if that was your intention, Aaron, but I came away realizing that the monster is me. and it’s everybody, and how do you change that? I get the sense Heath has to come to grips with that realization and choose to either embrace it or keep on running from it. 

Look, I’ll say this much because I’m cautious of spoilers for people who may be reading this, but I think that it’s esoteric enough as a concept for us to discuss. Those monsters exist within Heath also, and I think that the thing I wanted to do with this particular book is that there is a clear distinction in the book between the monsters that come from just being raised a certain way, but being raised in a loving environment versus real true evil.  I won’t say what that is in the book, but it’s there all the way through. Feedback I’ve gotten from people is that they didn’t see certain revelations coming on that first read but did on a second read. I’m like, “Well, good. That’s exactly how you should feel because that’s not just an evil, it’s a deceit.” 

There was nothing deceitful about Heath being raised in a heteronormative environment. I doubt the fact that he’s in a room that was painted blue and that his sister was in a room that was painted pink, and that he goes to a Catholic school where the issue with homosexuality isn’t that somebody may or may not be gay, but that somebody would call somebody gay because that is the offence. That a bully who is an obvious asshole is in an almost ant-farmish type of way programmed and needs to have that role. All of these things are natural, and so there’s no real villainy there, and yet there is villainy in this book on the corners of every page. When you realize what it is, it makes the monster seem tame. 

These are all some of the parallels that are running at the same time, and I think that’s tapping into what you’re saying. The whole idea of the ending for those who get that far, is that it’s all about anxiety. It’s about somebody who literally lives with the fear of the unknown and who wishes that at some point in the future the rest of the world would know exactly how he felt if only for a day. 

My favorite moments in the book, well, there’s two favorite moments in the book, and it’s to do with the siblings and how they are working through what’s happening to their family, and one of which is basically a conversation where Heath so desperately wants to confide in his younger sister.

I remember that one, walking home from school, yeah.

Walking home from school, and she’s really young and he doesn’t need to say it; she already knows. And then she doesn’t need to say it, but she kinda does say it later on, but she says it in a way that to me is such a child’s way of exhibiting and voicing what he’s worried about, which was “Are boys allowed to have best friends?” And she says it at a moment that shouldn’t be there, like it’s not the time or place but it’s exactly the time and place that a child of that age would ask that because kids ask the most beautiful and weird and confronting things on their own schedules and it doesn’t matter if the world’s about to end. They want to know, and even if they already know the answer to the question, too.

I love that relationship. The power of hindsight, if I’m looking at myself in terms of my own journey, is that it’s really, really easy to look back and to be that angsty teen with my copy of Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation under my belt, and to be giving everyone the finger and to dye my hair black; all this shit that I did and go fuck you, you know what I mean? Really that was just another way of me not addressing the monster, because love is sometimes inconvenient when all you want to do is allow yourself to be indulged in hatred, self-hatred, so that you can get through it and become something else. Love can be inconvenient, especially when it’s the love of a sibling or a parent. I wanted to acknowledge that even when people are going through hell, sometimes if you’re lucky enough there’s love being shown to you that you don’t see until you’re much, much older. I hope that Heath, wherever he is now, remembers those conversations he had with his sister because that shit was real for her. 

That’s beautifully put. I think you might have partially answered my next question. I just have a couple more questions before we wrap it up and let you roll back into bed. [laughs]

I’m having my second wind right now. 

This is awesome. I was worried I was going to turn you into a zombie for a little while here. 

All good. 

Much appreciated of your time. I suppose you’ve commented on this already but if you don’t mind, what would you say tell anybody who’s digesting our conversation right now while trying to come to grips with their own monsters, be it their sexuality, an alternative identity or even on the spectrum struggling to fit in with the rest of society and feeling any aversion from the so called normal will only induce more anxiety and further their fear? 

Again, it’s the Clive Barker thing. Sometimes our monsters are our most beautiful asset. Coming to realize that is very, very, very difficult and often very confronting. My advice to anyone going through that stuff is don’t give up and to always ask for help. And these types of revelations make you feel incredibly alone, and whilst no one who is feeling that alone ever believes this, you are not alone. Being able to connect with others and to not be alone is easier now than it ever has been. Although don’t read The Fallen Boys which kind of taps into that, which is a theme with my work because they all interconnect. Whilst that might sound hopeful in regards to Dirty Heads, it does feed into The Fallen Boys because all of these stories do interconnect in very, very subtle ways not everyone’s picked up on. But yeah, don’t give up. 

It really needs to be those who are supporting people who go through this type of stuff. When you realize you’re something, that person’s whole world changes. It’s like it jolts out from under your feet. I can only speak about my experience but that meant, for me, rethinking my thoughts around children, marriage, schooling, work, relationships, sex, sexuality, news, clothes, everything. Everything had to change, and I got there, but not everyone does. That’s why , for example, LGBTI+ kids kill themselves. That’s why they kill themselves. It’s because the earth doesn’t just shift, it can crack, and you fall. 

I think that the message is to those who love those who are struggling — and it loops it back exactly into what we were talking about earlier in our conversation in regards to the people that we both work with — is be there. Empathize, and connect. Allow that person to emerge from their own because the more you try to yank them out of it, the more they will fall. It’s inelegant and it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to make mistakes when you care for someone. It is a crime to think that caring must be perfection because that is a trap. 

For more about Aaron Dries visit him on the web or follow him on Twitter

Rick Hipson is a Canadian genre journalist living in Kitchener Ontario with his partner in crime, young spawn and two cats who insist they aren’t vying for world domination. For over twenty years Rick has written for a variety of small press publications in print and online which no longer exist through, assumably, no fault of his own. He continues to share his love for dark culture entertainment through his film and book reviews, interviews and articles, which can be found through Rue Morgue Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Hell Notes.

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