Interview: Paul Tremblay on Craft, King, and Building His Cabin

Author Paul Tremblay
Author Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay’s path to becoming the bestselling author he is today was quite different from that traveled by most other writers. “I would say it was atypical,” he observes. While Tremblay remembers Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” as being something that resonated with him in elementary school, he didn’t find much enjoyment in reading as a child. He certainly had no aspirations of becoming a writer. What he really wanted was to be a professional basketball player.

“I was a good student and I read all the books that were assigned to me, but in my free time I shot a lot of free throws in the backyard,” Tremblay explains. “I still thought I could become Larry Bird, which never really worked out.”

Just after high school, Tremblay found himself homebound for several months after having been hospitalized for scoliosis (curvature of the spine). This was when he first attempted to read a Stephen King novel. Tremblay had seen some of the film adaptations and had heard a lot about King and his writing, but this was his first time picking up one of the books. The book he selected was It, which his parents owned. “I read the first chapter and I wound up throwing the book across the room because I was so terrified by Georgie getting pulled into the sewer by Pennywise,” he explains. “There was no way I was going to be stuck in the house all summer, just scared out of my mind.” So he stopped reading the book and moved on.

Tremblay attended Providence College. During summers he worked at a factory job back home in Massachusetts. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1993 and then a master’s degree in Mathematics at the University of Vermont. While still in college, at the age of 21, Tremblay was reintroduced to King’s work when his girlfriend — now his wife — gave him a copy of The Stand as a gift.

“I read the entire thing,” he says. “I was just entranced by it, and I completed adored it.” It was with the discovery of this novel that Tremblay first fell in love with literature. He then consumed “just about everything Stephen King had published up to that point.” From there he moved on to the works of Peter Straub and then to others, continually finding new and different authors to read.

Around this same time, Tremblay began experimenting with his own short story writing, ultimately having his work appear in a number of publications, including Mindkites, Twilight Showcase, and Fables. In 2004, he published his first collection, Compositions for the Young and Old, which he named after a Bob Mould song. Five years later he published his first novel, The Little Sleep, with Henry Holt and Company. He has since published a handful of collections and novels, deftly maneuvering back and forth between smaller companies like Chi-Zine Publications and larger publishing houses like William Morrow and Company.

Tremblay’s career really began to take off when Stephen King posted about his 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts on Twitter, remarking, “It scared the hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” Shortly after that, Tremblay received the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel. He has since released two more novels to great acclaim: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and his latest and possibly greatest, The Cabin at the End of the World.

Stephen King has called The Cabin at the End of the World “a tremendous book,” going on to say it’s “thought-provoking and terrifying, with tension that winds up like a chain. The Cabin at the End of the World is Tremblay’s personal best. It’s that good.” The novel was recently awarded the 2018 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel.

Tremblay sat down with Cemetery Dance to discuss the new book, his writing career, and how he approaches the craft.

(Interview conducted by Andrew J. Rausch)

CEMETERY DANCE: What do you remember about your earliest attempts at short story writing?

PAUL TREMBLAY: I remember my first story quite vividly. Before this I had never even tried to write stories. I was about 24. So after those two years in Vermont, and all this reading, I had this weird itch to try writing a story. The very first story I wrote was about Death Personified showing up at a serial killer’s apartment, because death is upset with the serial killer who killed somebody he wasn’t supposed to kill. It’s not a very good story, but it’s fun. I wrote it on an old Brother word processor, the kind of thing that had a screen the size of three Xboxes put together. I remember I wrote about eight pages, and I had never written anything that long, and then I lost everything! I forgot to back it up. It was my mistake, and I remember thinking at the time, “Is this a sign to quit, or should I start from the beginning and keep going?” I ultimately decided to write the story. I guess it was a sort of a fortuitous thing that I learned.

What was the first short story you ever sold?

The first short story I sold was called “King Bee,” and it was for Delirium Books. It was a small press Shane Staley operated back in the late ’90s and early 2000s. “King Bee” was a story about a guy who wears bees as a gimmick, and in the short story, it goes horribly wrong for one reason or another. It was all super exciting. It was in a book with Jeffrey Thomas, who was one of the first writers to take interest and be really supportive of me. This was my first story in an actual book… I remember taking it to school and showing it around.

I know you’re a well-read man and, like most writers, your influences are varied. But are there any writers whose work and influence you can clearly see in your own writing?

Aside from Stephen King, who has been an influence in all the horror I’ve written, I think reading Kurt Vonnegut was a huge influence for me. A lot of my earlier novels had a touch of humor to them, which I lay at Vonnegut’s feet. I wrote a novel called Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye. It was published by Chi-Zine Publications, an independent publisher. That was my own science fiction ode to Vonnegut. I used to reread Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions back-to-back. Every day after school got out, back when I was teaching, there was a like a ten-year stretch where I’d ceremoniously reread those two books. He was one of those writers that whenever I read his work, it got me more and more excited and made me want to create something.

You mentioned having worked with smaller presses. Now that you’re dealing with larger publishing houses, what have you found to be the primary differences between the two?

Maybe it’s not so obvious, but the amount of people working to help get your book out there is pretty staggering. There’s an editor, sometimes your editor has an assistant, and then there are copy editors, the marketing and public relations people… it’s a really big production. When everyone works in concert, it’s really cool. Then there are the cover designers, and all that stuff, too. I feel like I’ve been lucky to have had the relationship I’ve had with my editor at William Morrow. I think she gives me a lot of artistic leeway that maybe some authors might not get. I certainly didn’t get that with my first go-round with a big publisher, Henry Holt. They were a lot more exact about what they wanted from me, so to speak. I’m very fortunate to be in a great situation now with an amazing editor.

A scene stood out to me in The Cabin at the End of the World, where all hell sort of breaks loose and things get very violent — much more violent than anything you’ve written before. Did your editor balk at that, or was that something she was okay with from the beginning?

She definitely didn’t balk at it when I turned in the book to her. She had read the summary and had heard me talk about the book. She was super complimentary; “I knew you could pull it off, but I can’t believe you did!” That was her initial reaction, which was very gratifying. I think she knew that the book would either do really well or sink because of the violence or what-not…

It’s been three books now, and I’ve never had a conversation where she said, “Hey, this is too violent, or this is too disturbing. You have to take it out.” I’d like to say part of that is that I treat most, if not all, of my characters with empathy that makes even the violent scenes read like you’re approaching the violence with a bit of respect. Sort of an odd phrase to say, I guess. When I say “treat the violence with respect,” I mean that it respects the experience of the victim, the witnesses, and maybe even the perpetrator. The idea of why it happened, the transgression. It’s going to change everybody and their lives. The violence in The Cabin at the End of the World is a lot more personal.

In some of your works, it’s not always clear who the bad guys and good guys are. You really excel in showing empathy for your characters, despite some of them being quite ugly.

There are certainly many different ways to write a horror story, but I’ve found a comfort level in treating all the characters with empathy, and there’s one or two here and there that are obviously bad or evil. I thought that some of the invaders [in The Cabin at the End of the World], that their experience was a horror. Without getting into spoilers, the idea that some of them are there because they don’t have a choice, they have to do something…to me, imagining that, having to do something really terrible and you’re going to do it because you think you have no choice — that’s a horrifying concept worth exploring.

The invaders want this family to do something — to make a sort of sacrifice to their god. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the biblical story of Abraham. Was that parallel intentional, or did that just work out that way?

Maybe a bit of both. It’s certainly calling upon some of the Judeo-Christian stories and myths. The Old Testament stuff. In the first book, I never really said it by name, and that was important to me. I wanted to leave it fuzzy, almost like we’re sort of calling and recalling these stories and myths that become a part of Western civilization.

The scenario felt like a bit of a metaphor. Was that intentional? Were those characters meant to represent anyone in particular?

Yeah. When I wrote this book — the very beginning of it — it was early summer, late spring of 2016, during our Presidential primary season, and then I really got going on the book post-election. I certainly hope it’s not too didactic, but I do want the book, aside from being a horror/suspense story, to be an allegory for our socio-political anxieties. I think that people can read the book and think of it as a criticism of what’s going on with Trump supporters. At the same time, I tried to create three of the four invaders to be people on the other side of the political spectrum; people who would consider themselves left-wing liberals who say the right things, but when push comes to shove, they don’t back up what they believe with action. I was definitely trying to get at something. Using the trope of a home invasion story and referring to biblical stories, I wanted to reflect what was going on in our politics.

A while back, someone posted on your Facebook page that they weren’t going to purchase your book because Stephen King had endorsed it, and they didn’t agree with his politics. Then the person went on to insult you for seemingly no reason. That was a strange incident.

This book, who knows what’s going to happen over its life, but in the first couple weeks it was, it sold more than my other two books. Both of those haven’t really had a long life, but they got discovered as they went. This book has certainly been my most successful book. This is the first time I’ve had a book come out and people get it right off the bat. Because of the King tweet and the quote on the cover of the book, my publisher made a bunch of ads on Facebook through my author page. So a lot of people who aren’t my Facebook friend would see the ad through my author page. For the first time, I got these comments that you alluded to: “King is a hateful libtard, I’ll never read him again!” [Laughs.] It was a little weird, not having it sent directly to me, but to see it now because it’s put on my Facebook page. The King tweet, the insults. It’s funny because to me it’s a little bit disconcerting, to say the least.

Stephen King famously praised A Head Full of Ghosts on Twitter. One time I asked you about that experience, and you said, “Oh, you mean August 19, 2015?” I love that you actually committed that date to memory. What do you remember most about that day?

I remember quite a bit of what led up to the tweet. I was home, just a few weeks prior to school starting up again. I’m as bad as the high school kids are; those last two weeks of August are like a down, dark time for me. I’m bummed out because school is starting soon. It was really hot out, and I was moving furniture around. We got a new dining room table. It’s funny, because I remember what the house looked like. The lights weren’t on, because it was hot out and we were moving furniture, but my phone started buzzing because friends had seen the tweet before I did. I looked at my phone and I got emotional. I stopped moving furniture and sat watching people react to the tweet for a few hours after that.

What was your reaction to that, on a personal level? Having been a fan of King’s work, it must have been surreal.

In some ways it still is. Stephen King is why I became a reader, let alone a writer. He’s such a large, cultural icon. It still blows me away that he’s read my books, and not just that he’s read my books, but that he likes them. Every once in a while, I’m like, “Oh wow, Stephen King likes my stuff!” It’s pretty cool. That night was easily in the top five of my professional highlights.

As far as writing goes, what does your daily routine look like, and how long has it been that way?

It’s hard to remember when I first started, but it’s remained this way for ten or more years. When I’m going well on a project, whether it be a short story or a novel, I try to aim for 500 words a day. And hopefully that takes me an hour, hour and a half, two hours. That’s usually all I can steal, depending on the time of year. During the busiest times of the year, maybe I only get in an hour. But in the summer and spring, when school isn’t busy for me, I can get a bit more time going. I just go by those 500 word increments. I give myself permission to miss the goal every once in a while, or even once a week. Life gets in the way sometimes. As a math teacher, I just think of it as an accumulating sum. Just adding up manual pieces.

You’d be surprised how much that adds up after a year. Even if you miss the 500 words every day… I mean, if I got the 500 words every day, that’s 180,000 words. All I really need is 80-90,000. That’s really how I approach it.

I can zone in and focus without having to make a big production out of it. As long as I have earphones and instrumental music, I can pretty much write anywhere. I wrote a big chunk of my novel Disappearance at Devil’s Rock in the basement of Babson’s Hall gymnasium, because my son was there five Saturdays in a row for two hours doing baseball. If I’m going to be there for two hours, I might as well take advantage of it. While he was doing his baseball thing, I was sitting in a not-too-comfortable chair with my laptop out, writing.

You’ve also written a lot of short fiction. Do you prefer short fiction or long-form novels?

That’s a hard question. Short stories are really where I got started. I will admit that I find writing short stories a bit harder now than when I first started. Maybe some of that was being a junior writer and thinking, “Oh, writing short stories is easier.” Some of that was there. Now that I’ve been in novel mode for quite a few years, I’ve found it harder to shift gears because the short stories are different from novels. I do enjoy the opportunity to write them when the time presents itself.

My next book is going to be a short story collection (Growing Things and Other Stories), which I’m very excited about.

You’ve found success writing in multiple genres. I’m assuming publishers and agents have tried to convince you to stick to a single genre for branding purposes. Is there a plan to write in a single genre in the future, or will you continue to write whatever and wherever your heart leads you?

My agent has been extremely supportive about letting me do whatever I want to do, which is great. I know that’s not always the case. They’ve been my agent since 2006, which is unusual. My first majorly published books, The Little Sleep and No Sleep till Wonderland, were with Henry Holt. They definitely wanted me to write a certain type of thing for them. They saw me as a crime writer. I think they were envisioning a series with those books. My situation with them at the time wasn’t very good. In their defense, they were going through a lot of upheaval. They had just hired a new publisher, my acquiring editor left, so that’s always a rough thing for anybody to go through.

With William Morrow, I’m supposed to write things that are horror or dark, but my editor’s definition of what’s horror and dark is pretty broad, as is mine. I’m pretty open to mixing genres and doing different things. I think for the foreseeable future, I won’t say I’m forced to write horror stories, but I definitely think the novels will be dark. Someday I would still like to write something cooler, like a Kurt Vonnegut novel or something that’s humorous, and find a way to mix the two.

Most of your work is written in present tense. A lot of writers have a hard time with that. Was that something you consciously trained yourself to do, or is that just what comes out when you sit down to write?

I think at first I trained and mimicked other writers. I can’t remember if Vonnegut did it, but another writer who wasn’t necessarily a horror writer, Chuck Palahniuk, wrote a lot of stuff in present tense. I think there were a lot of books I was reading in the early 2000s like that. There was a writer named Will Christopher Baer, who wrote a trilogy in the present tense. I was drawn to that style. I felt like it had this immediacy that I really enjoyed. I tend to gravitate towards using it. At this point, I only tend to use things if I think it serves the story. I have to believe there’s a reason why I put it in present tense. I have to admit, it’s also grammatically easier to keep track of when I flashback. If the story is in present tense, then the flashback is in past tense! [Laughs.] I’ll admit to making my life easier there, but the main thing is that I enjoy that immediacy of present tense.

Families in crisis are a recurring theme in your work. What is it about that dynamic that appeals to you?

My first son was born in 2000, and that dovetailed with when I first became serious about writing, where I had ambitions of it being more than a hobby. My daughter was born four years later. I think the anxieties of early parenthood were present in some of those first formative stories that I wrote. Actually, it was five or six years into the career where a friend of mine said, “Do you realize you write about kids with parents a lot?” I was like, “Oh!” It had to be pointed out to me. I had no idea. I’ve obviously been long aware of it now, especially during the novels.

I think it’s great fodder for any writer, and particularly horror writers. Being a kid and dealing with your parents from that point of view is a universal experience we all have. As a parent, there’s so much you can do with the anxieties of being parents. I’m fascinated with both dynamics there. I still teach high school math. I’ve been doing it for over 20 years now. I’ve never really left the kids’ schedule, so I still feel like a kid a lot. When June comes around, I’m happy it’s calm. When September rolls around, I’m really bummed out. I’m around here all day. My own kids are in school. Some of it is just a nice lesson.

It’s also cool to hear all the slang of the kids I teach and how it changes every three to four years. I think a lot of that fits into my writing. It keeps me young and I think it helps me do a better job with portraying kids and teens. I will say I’m now fully aware of, particularly with these last three novels, how they fit together thematically: family crisis with a supernatural element to each of them. I really do want to try to do something that’s different for the next novel. Just what that different will mean, we’ll have to wait and see.

In your work, the religious folks are frequently the bad guys. I was wondering, did you intend that to be a statement on religious people or on religion itself? I ask because your work could also be interpreted as being a statement on zealots who choose to interpret their religion in ways that ultimately hurt or endanger people.

I think it’s more the latter. I don’t think all religious people are dangerous, but the idea, as we talked about earlier, the fear of having no choice, intrigues me. Giving yourself over to someone else or a higher power that’s going to make all the decisions for you. The idea of living with something that lessens your personal responsibility. I can see how that can be intoxicating. “I can do this thing because it’s not my fault.” That part of religion is what scares me. It’s more the zealots who use it that way. But you’re breaking down the social compact, because you have to live as though you have responsibility not only to yourself but other people.
The reason why I made the priest and the dad in A Head Full of Ghosts make things worse was because I wanted to react to the tropes of the typical Hollywood possession story. In so many of those movies, it’s a reactionary tale. The priest comes in and saves the day and then everyone’s happy. My stories reflect more of a reality. When priests were doing attempted exorcisms, you know, in the 1800s and early 1900s, they were hired and abusing poor women who were having some sort of mental breakdown. For that novel, that was a reaction to it.

Regarding the tropes in A Head Full of Ghosts, you addressed pretty much every trope within the possession subgenre. It was almost as if you were going through a checklist, checking them off as you went. You found new ways to deal with those tropes. How fun was it, from a writing standpoint, to play with reader expectations and with the tropes themselves?

The act of writing always feels like hard work, and hard work is sort of what I’m addicted to. That said, during that book, I did have a lot of fun writing those blog posts. Early on in the process, I decided I couldn’t avoid the Blatty-sized elephant in the room. Whenever you do a possession story, you’re going to face that. Realizing that sort of freed me up to make nods and use the movie The Exorcist against the reader, in terms of expectations. But that opens up and allows me to compare it to any and all possession movies or any and all horror movies I want. That part was fun. In some ways, I felt like A Head Full of Ghosts was my graduate thesis on horror.

You mentioned the blog posts in A Head Full of Ghosts. Is that something you started with in the very beginning, or was that something that developed in the process of writing the novel?

I just write summaries of books. I keep a little notebook. It wasn’t the first thing I came up with, but once I knew I was going to have the reality TV show, I would say, yeah, it was kind of there from the beginning. When I wrote the opening chapter, I knew there was going to be a blog in there. The only big change was in my first draft of the novel, there were only two blog posts; one big one in the middle, and one towards the end. Really the only big editorial change I had with my editor, and she’s obviously great, was that I should add a blog post for each of the three parts of the book. It was so smart and so obvious, but I never saw it. Basically, I took that big first blog post that I stuck in the middle and made it into two. The short answer to your question is yeah, once I knew there was a reality TV show, I knew there was going to be a blog to point out the similarities with movies

This is a cliché question, but it seems fitting: what scares Paul Tremblay?

Real Life scares the hell out of me. I hear people being jaded and saying horror movies don’t scare them, and I can sort of see that. But at the same time, I’m still moved and scared by movies. Hereditary was quite affecting, especially the last half hour. It’s slightly different. With movies, there’s a real feel to it. With a book, at least for me, when I read something really disturbing, it gets under your skin. It doesn’t get me as I’m reading it, but it gets me when I go to bed. Or at night, I’ll start thinking about what I read and it creeps in and gets you. That’s the effect or power of a book for me. Book-wise, I will give you one that really unnerved me. It was Nathan Ballingrud’s The Visible Filth, which was a novella. I don’t want to describe it too much, but at the end there’s something that really gave me the creeps.
I think the last short story I read that, in the moment I was scared and didn’t have that delayed effect, was Laird Barron’s “The Broadsword.” There’s a wonderful scene where a character is in the kitchen and there are voices coming through the vents, and how he sets it up is just really brilliant and terrifying.

In terms of your career, what achievements are left that you’d like to accomplish?

I try not to think too big picture because I start getting too anxious. Keep writing good books. Obviously, see something of mine make it to the screen. That would be something that would slip into that “top five career moments” I mentioned earlier. My personal agenda is not only my stories, but I’d like to see people writing horror and it be taken more seriously by academics and mainstream literary critics. I think it’s getting better than it used to be, but horror is still the lowest genre on the ladder for critical respect. It would be nice to win a big literary award that isn’t necessarily just for genre stories — although I’d like to win it for a story that uses genre.

Andrew J. Rausch is a freelance film journalist, author, and celebrity interviewer. He has published more than twenty books on the subject of popular culture, and is the author of several novels. His most recent books are the novel Bloody Sheets and the anthology A Time for Violence, which features stories by Joe R. Lansdale, Richard Chizmar, Richard Christian Matheson, and more.

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