Matt Ruff has been writing fiction and winning awards since the release of Fool on the Hill in 1988. His latest, Lovecraft Country, won us over with its mix of well-versed horror and social commentary. Chris, Chia and George talk to Matt about his books, his process and what comes next.
Which books and authors can we read over and over? Who has influenced us in our own writing? Join us for a freeform discussion of the books, films, shows and comics that have helped us get from there to here.
Surprise! It’s our 100th episode! Yes, we know, it may not look like it due to our confusing numbering scheme, which ends now! Celebrate with us as we discuss relationships in fiction, primarily platonic and unlikely friendships that have inspired us in reading and writing. Champagne in the lobby.
Last week I was in the air, and as is often my way while flying, I read a lot of books. One of the books, L. D. Colter‘s A Borrowed Hell, was pretty good. Published by Shirtsleeve Press, A Borrowed Hell dives right into the world of Jungian archetypes while taking a cue from Dante’s Inferno.
You have to like your fantasy on the literary side if you’re going to take a journey with July Davish as he literally confronts his worst fears and inner demons. As a reader, I identify strongly with July and his trials, his emotionally absent father, troubled sister, and addicted mother. He’s the kid who’s going to save them all, and therein lies his problem.
While his life is falling apart, July sees himself as a stable center at its core, just as a man having a run of bad luck. But when his life is threatened in a car accident, July finds himself occasionally transported to a purgatory where he must be confronted by the issues of his life and work through them, promising no pat endings or easy answers. While he’s awake, he’s lucky enough to meet a partner worthy of his journey.
There are only two parts of the story where I am pulled out. There’s an intimation on July’s part that people who use Xanax are addicts, which is solid characterization, but is not true. (Sensitive Xanax user here!) Valerian, the aforementioned partner, is pretty special, but in a story this literary, their meeting is a pretty pat love at first site kind of thing.
Still. I love the characters. I like July, Valerian, and Bill. I like all the variations of Pat, the archetypes. The medical details are strong, the emotional journey is good, and Colter builds emotional tension throughout. Don’t overlook this book. It’s a hidden gem.
Last year at Convergence, I heard Unreliable Alumni Paul Cornell read from an upcoming novel, Chalk. At the time, Cornell expressed he had been working on the book for a number of years. What Cornell read captivated and terrified me. Chalk more than delivered on the promise of the reading.
Chalk takes place in 1980’s England in Wiltshire. Cornell and I are similar in age. I went to school in Scotland in 1978, the child of a local girl from Dunoon and a Yank sailor. In many ways, it was easy for me to feel the atmosphere Cornell was writing about, being in a similar place at a similar age. And another dimension disturbed me deeply–while my brief time at Dunoon Grammar School was pleasant, most of my school experience in Iowa was harsh and hard. Chalk sounded depths in me as it married and blended so many of my own experiences, not in specifics, but in emotions. I am certain I am not the only reader who has thought so.
The challenge Cornell has taken on is to tell the story with brutal honesty. This isn’t a story about a strange victim concocting revenge, or a heroic boy overcoming the odds of difficulty. This is the story about someone maimed in body and spirit stumbling to find their way through trauma. The boundaries of what is real and what isn’t melt and twist. Even the narrator, especially the narrator of the story, doesn’t know. For such a speculative piece, this grounding in psychological reality makes the work a masterpiece.
Some are saying Chalk is literary more than speculative. It is definitely both, a cross genre work that satisfies this English professor on many levels, and the troubled child I was on many more. The truth of the story, the reflection of the uneasy adolescence, and unflinching portrayal of the past make this book a must read, if a difficult one.