Interview: Paul Tremblay, author of Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye

I’m thrilled to have Paul Tremblay on the blog today! Paul is a two time Bram Stoker Award nominee, and his brand new book, Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, just hit the shelves. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, so please give him a warm welcome! Also, be sure to check out the book trailer below the post!

Paul, you have an amazing list of publishing and editing accomplishments behind you, including two Bram Stoker Award noms AND you have a master’s degree in Mathematics! Whew! Did you always want to be a writer? Will you tell us a bit about your journey?
Thank you! And no, I didn’t always want to be a writer. While I had an inkling I might like teaching, I spent most of my youth not knowing what I wanted to do or be. I was good at math, so I just kept taking math classes in college and then in graduate school.

But Second semester of my senior year in college I took Lit 101 to fulfill part of my humanities double major alongside the math. I ended up loving the class. I remember writing a paper about the threat of violence in “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?,“ by Joyce Carol Oates and TC Boyle’s “Greasy Lake,” that I was inordinately proud of, especially considering I was a know-nothing math major. In grad school I read all the Oates, Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Clive Barker I could get my hands on. So while spending two years earning my masters in mathematics, I also fell in love with reading.

I didn’t think about trying to write my own stories until after I got my first high school math-teaching gig. My first story attempt was terrible (and is safely hidden in the trunk): Death confronting a serial killer who had messed up the grand plan. But I enjoyed the process and kept at it off and on for a few years until I made my first story sale in 2000. With the small sale I was hooked and threw myself into writing whole-hog. Or whole-donkey.

Your brand new novel, Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, just came out. Can you give us your elevator pitch for it?
Oh, man, I hope it’s a long elevator ride.
*Tremblay slaps the emergency stop button so we’re all stuck between floors on the elevator. It’s good place to be for our collective frame of mind going forward*

Okay, okay, picture this (Tremblay makes a movie screen with his hands): Animal Farm meets Giliam’s Brazil meets Chuck Palahniuk!
What? Not enough pizzazz?
How about Meet the Feebles meets Citizen Kane! (nah, too obscure, and while there’s a kernel of truth to that pitch, it’s not one-hundred percent accurate. I love that pairing though. I’d be willing to bet no one has elevator-pitched with those two films)

Or: (Tremblay now speaking very fast) SaDE’s narrator is a nameless drone stuck at the mega-conglomerate Farm for the next six years of his life when he finds out that his mother, whom he left back in technocratic and corrupt City, might be homeless and soon to be deported below City to eke out her remaining existence in the Pier. (Pause for breath) The narrator decides to do something about it and hilarious, poignant, and emotionally devastating dystopian political satire ensues with people in chicken and duck suits, a mayor who write letters about outlaw campaigns and magic refrigerators, and a priest with ESP who swears like the proverbial sailor (although there are no sailors in this book).

What did you enjoy the most about writing Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye?
Generally, I enjoy the challenge of creating characters first and foremost. But with this book, more than any other I’ve written, I think I had the most fun with world building and the setting of the various insane scenarios.

That said, it wasn’t an easy book for me to write. It started as me taking the snippet of a Neutral Milk Hotel song title and trying to come up with a short story. This was sometime in 2005, I think. The short story became the opening of a novel. I worked on the book off-and-on for a little over a year and completed an early draft that I tinkered with and re-wrote, again, off-and-on, for a few more years.

On one hand, it was nice to have so much time to work on the novel. It’s a luxury that most writers don’t have as most 21st Century novelists are expected by the publishing world to pump out a new book every year or so. On the other hand, I worked on this so much it got to a point by the end of the process where I think I lost almost all objectivity concerning the book’s merits or demerits. Heh.
But don’t worry! I promise the book is aces. Plus donkeys.

What are some of your biggest literary influences?
I hope it’s not too obnoxious to say that I have ginormous (little known fact: that’s a secret number we mathematicians keep to ourselves) amount of influences. I try to steal from everyone. As a frustrated musician myself, music has been a very important in my development as a writer. Most of my books have titles that refer to songs, and more than a handful of my short stories have been directly influenced by music.

As far as other writers go, I already mentioned Joyce Carol Oates, and without her work, I’m not sure I would’ve tried my hand at writing. Other favorites (ie. writers who I will/do re-read and who never fail to make me want to steal from them want to write better) include in no particular order early-Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, Clive Barker, Aimee Bender, George Orwell, Shirley Jackson, Mark Danielewski, Will Christopher Baer, Stewart O’Nan, Peter Straub, Poppy Z. Brite, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, Raymond Chandler, Chuck Palahniuk and Joe Lansdale.

I could go on if you’d like. There are so many writers doing interesting, daring, important, work right now, which is somewhat ironic given how messed up publishing is.

In your own reading, do you prefer books that have a “message”, something fantastical that you can get lost in, or both?
I think as long as a book plays fair by the set of rules it sets itself, I can enjoy the novel, and the novel almost by default will have a message or something to say whether it be personal or social.

However, I tend to be a style monkey, and love me an innovative or interesting style/narrative. Novels that do not show empathy (not sympathy, empathy; there’s a huge difference) toward all of its characters I tend to toss into the will-not-finish pile. It’s a big pile.

What makes you want to toss a book aside in frustration?
I sort of gave a preview in the previous answer, but to build on sympathy vs. empathy. I really don’t care if I sympathize with the characters. (another parenthetical aside: I want to eat the spleen of readers who complain of a book, “I didn’t think the main character was sympathetic.” Grrr. What they really mean to say is that the character wasn’t enough like them so they couldn’t feign interest in someone else for 300 pages…anyway, I angrily digress) I don’t care if they’re like me. In fact, I’d prefer if they weren’t like me. I just want to understand why they say they say, why they make the decisions they do. The characters who do unseemly things but for whom we feel empathy are always the most realistic and interesting.

All of which is to say, yeah, lame-ass characters make me throw books at walls.

If you could read one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Let’s call it a three-way tie. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I’d be a happy donkey reading and re-reading those three books in a constant rotation.

When you manage to carve out some free time, how do you like to spend it?
Beet farming.

No, seriously, I hate beets. Icky. Not as icky or hate-worthy as pickles. Though pickled beets are probably the second most hate-worthy food imaginable.

Besides reading, teaching, hanging with the family, I enjoy sports. Something simple like playing catch with a baseball is something I’d love to do everyday. My son is at the age now, though, where I have to beg him to play catch with me now. Sniff, sniff…

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects or events?
As far as upcoming projects go, I’m excited that a YA novel co-written with Stephen Graham Jones was recently accepted by CZP. Also, I have a short story in the upcoming FUNGI anthology (edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Orrin Grey).

As far as events go, I’ll be doing donkey readings/signings in September:
-12th, Providence, RI, the Brown Bookstore, 5:30 pm
-19th, New York City, NY, KGB Fantastic fiction series, 7:00pm (will be reading alongside Alma Katsu)
-29th, Worcester, MA, Annie’s Book Stop, 2-5pm
*Thanks for the interview, and I hope everyone reads the donkey and reviews online even if they don’t find the main character sympathetic!

Keep up with Paul: Website | Twitter | Blog
Purchase Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound

About Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye:
Join Farm today! It’s only six years of your life! Farm is the mega-conglomerate food supplier for City, populated with rabidly bureaucratic superiors, antagonistic and sexually deviant tour guides dressed in chicken and duck suits, and farm animals illegally engineered for silence. City is sprawling, technocratic, and rests hundreds of feet above the coastline on the creaking shoulders of a giant wooden pier. When the narrator’s single mother, whom he left behind in City, falls out of contact, he fears the worst: his mother is homeless and subsequently to be deported under City to the Pier. On his desperate search to find his mother, he encounters ecoterrorists wearing plush animal suits, an election that hangs in the balance as the City’s all-powerful Mayor is infatuated with magic refrigerators and outlaw campaigns, and a wise-cracking, over-sexed priest who may or may not have ESP, but who is most certainly his deadbeat dad. Whether rebelling against the regimented and ridiculous nature of Farm life, exploring the all-too-familiar and consumer-obsessed world of City, experiencing the all-too-real suffering of the homeless in Pier, or confronting the secrets of his own childhood, Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye’s narrator is a hilarious, neurotic, and rage-filled Quixote searching for his mother, his own dignity, and the meaning of humanity.

About the author:
Paul Tremblay is the author of the novels The Little Sleep, No Sleep Till Wonderland, and Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye along with the short story collection In the Mean Time. His essays and short fiction have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Five Chapters.com, and Year’s Best American Fantasy 3. He’s co-edited four anthologies, the most recent being Creatures: Thirty Years of Monster Stories (with John Langan). He is also the president of the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards (www.shirleyjacksonawards.org). Paul is tall, likes walks on the beach (though isn’t a big fan of sand), and reportedly has no uvula.

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