Interview: David Nickle, author of Rasputin’s Bastards

I’m thrilled to have David Nickle on the blog today! David’s brand new book, Rasputin’s Bastards (my review), is officially out tomorrow, and he was kind enough to answer a couple of my questions, including what really scares him (plus a horrifying personal experience), how he celebrated winning the Bram Stoker Award, and much more!

Please welcome David to the blog!

David, you’ve published numerous short stories as well as two novels, and your third novel, Rasputin’s Bastards is out in the U.S. tomorrow! Will you tell us a little about your road to publication? With your journalism experience, one would assume that can sometimes lead to fiction writing. Was it a natural transition for you? Were you writing at an early age?
It was a pretty long road to publication, because I was indeed writing from an early age: really, from before I could write. I started out writing Captain Scarlet fan fiction in the late 60s, or rather, dictating them to my mother, who would write them down in little stapled-together books that I would later illustrate. Those stories, alas, never made it past the slush pile. But I kept at it, learned to write and then type, and then be a reporter—and in the course of that, really learned how to write.

For me, a big part of learning how to write fiction came through learning how to critique it. Before I started publishing, I joined a Toronto-area science fiction writers’ workshop, the Cecil Street Irregulars. We’d meet once a week, initially in the Cecil Street Community Centre in Toronto’s Chinatown, and read and critique one another’s work. The method is a good one, and this particular workshop is gold. It was founded by sf writer/editor Judith Merril, and attracted some pretty fine writers. They taught me how to write, and as the meetings haven’t stopped in nearly 25 years, they still do.

Will you tell us a bit about Rasputin’s Bastards?
Rasputin’s Bastards is a bit of a departure for me, in that it’s not, particularly, a horror story. It’s novel about psychic espionage—or perhaps better, it’s a novel that jumps off from the idea that psychic espionage (remote viewing, astral projection, mind control) might’ve actually worked. It tells the story of a disparate group of Russian psychic spies in the late 1990s (nicknamed Rasputin’s Bastards by those in the know), some few years after the Cold War has ended, trying to make a place for themselves in the world—often quite aggressively. It’s a big book, with a great many characters, and in the tradition of both Russian novels and spy stories, it is a tale of shifting loyalties, intricate conspiracies and existential conundrums. It is also filled to busting with giant squid.

Which character did you enjoy writing the most?
I enjoyed writing all of them for various reasons: Alexei Kilodovich, the ex-KGB-agent who opens the novel faking amnesia after being hauled onto a boat full of criminals; Stephen Haber, a young gay man who escaped with his life from his midwestern home, when his sleeper-agent parents were “retired” at the end of the Cold War; Amar Shadak, a Turkish arms dealer with an anger management problem; Mrs. Kontos-Wu, a stone cold killer with a fatal weakness for the Becky Barker series of girl detective novels…

I’ve got a real soft spot for Fyodor Kolyokov. He’s an aging former psychic spymaster, or “dream walker,” and when we meet him, he is operating a mafiya-like empire out of a hotel room in Manhattan, where he has installed his personal Soviet-built sensory-isolation tank. Kolyokov wants to make right the many horrible things he has done in service of the KGB. It is his greatest hope to reunite his kin and build a proper family around himself. Of course, it’s not that simple; the Bastards have some ideas of their own. And Kolyokov has an additional problem in the person of an old lover, come to take what she sees as her due.

So yes, I probably most enjoyed writing about old Fyodor. So of course, I made sure he had the worst time of it.

Along with Edo Van Belkom, you won the Bram Stoker Award for your short story “Rat Food.” How did you celebrate when you got the news?
Well we got the news at the HWA banquet where the awards were being given out. It was in Manhattan, in a swanky hotel, and we celebrated in a rooftop party that was straight out of a Sex in the City episode—except with a bunch of horror writers. It was actually my first visit to New York City, so I spent a lot of time during that visit just taking in the sights and revelling in Manhattan.The hotel I stayed in (not the one with the banquet) was my model for the Emissary Hotel where Fyodor Kolyokov lives in Rasputin’s Bastards.

Most of your work has been characterized as horror. What do you consider truly scary?
It’s never one thing. I’m definitely susceptible to the tricks of the genre; I jump at the “jump scare” in a haunted house movie; I cringe at well-wrought body horror; I hide in the closet at tax time.

Ultimately, nothing scares me more than real jeopardy. A few years ago, I and my partner at the time survived a burglary. A young man with a knife had forced his way in through the back door of the house, helped himself to some valuables – including a 10 inch kitchen knife – and made his way upstairs to the second bedroom at about five a.m. I woke up, confronted him, and was ordered to my knees.

I stepped back into the bedroom, did so, and when he turned away, I closed the door and held it shut. The dude was stupid, and deranged. He was stupid, in that he didn’t think to take a phone off the hook downstairs so we couldn’t call the police. He proved he was deranged by driving the knife through the door.

We called the police, and they came, and after a house-to-house search, they caught the guy without injury to anyone. Everything was fine in the end.

But man. That was truly scary.

What are some of your biggest literary influences (horror or otherwise)?
In terms of horror, writers like Stephen King, Richard Matheson, H.P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub, Joe R. Lansdale – particularly Lansdale – are serious influences. As a novelist, it’s a more disparate group. I’d cite Neal Stephenson, Ian Fleming, Mervyn Peak, John Irving, Stephen Millhauser, Lucius Sheppard, Timothy Findley. There are more – there are always more – but those are the ones who come to mind.

If you could read one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Hmm. I’ve got so many books that I haven’t read for the first time yet that I’m reluctant to give up any ground by going back and doing it again. I’m going to say maybe Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peak. For the joy of discovering his over-the-top prose style all over again.

What makes you want to stop reading a book?
A loss of tension. When characters are spending their time foot-shuffling, waiting for the next thing to happen, it’s really hard to stay engaged. I expect a writer to keep me going with suspense, jeopardy and just unanswered questions.

I think a writer also has to work very hard to keep me going if they’re retreading standard tropes: vampires, zombies, creepy old houses with terrible secrets… if it’s clear the writer isn’t doing something new with that stuff, I’ll find another writer that will.

And I can’t go very long reading clumsy prose. I’d rather I didn’t have this particular tic, because there are many good books – particularly in genre fiction – where the prose is not, shall we say, the primary draw – but it’s a writerly thing. If the prose doesn’t at least hum along efficiently, I’ll get off the ride.

When you’re not juggling writing and work, how do you like to spend your free time?
Well let’s see. I bike and run (although not enough these days) and have developed a serious affection for Skyrim (which I probably indulge in far too much these days).

If someone were to visit you in Toronto for the very first time, where would you take them?
There are a few places. I would probably start at Toronto City Hall – if only because photographs of the iconic building were used in various Star Trek episodes back in the 60s when it looked futuristic, and I run with a crowd that’s impressed by that sort of thing. Also, I’ve been covering the place as a journalist for more than a decade, and there are stories…

After that, we’d probably stop by the World’s Biggest Bookstore (at one time, it was), the venerable Bakka-Phoenix science fiction bookstore, Toronto Public Libary’s world-famous collection of speculative literature, The Merril Collection, and then, someplace to eat.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects or events (or anything at all!)?
Well let’s see. Next up is another novel, called The ‘Geisters. It is about poltergeists, the modern marriage, and very bad men. It’s in progress. I’ve got a story coming out in Chilling Tales 2, Michael Kelly’s Canadian horror anthology. And my story from the first Chilling Tales, Looker, is out in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 4.
Keep up with David: Website | Twitter | Goodreads

About Rasputin’s Bastards | Purchase
They were the beautiful dreamers. From a hidden city deep in the Ural mountains, they walked the world as the coldest of Cold Warriors, under the command of the Kremlin and under the power of their own expansive minds. They slipped into the minds of Russia’s enemies with diabolical ease, and drove their human puppets to murder – and worse. They moved as Gods. And as Gods, they might have remade the world. But like the mad holy man Rasputin, who destroyed Russia through his own powerful influence, in the end, the psychic spies for the Motherland were only in it for themselves. It is the 1990s. The Cold War is long finished. From a suite in an unseen hotel in the heart of Manhattan, an old warrior named Kolyokov sets out with an open heart, to gather together the youngest members of his immense, and immensely talented, family. They are more beautiful – and more terrible – than any who came before them. They are Rasputin’s bastards. And they will remake the world!

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