Steve Rasnic Tem’s new book, BLOOD KIN, drops on Tuesday, and Steve answered a few of my questions about it, and more!
Steve, congrats on the release of BLOOD KIN! You have a large body of work under your belt and have even been described as “a school of writing unto himself”, but have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little more about yourself and your background?
I can’t remember ever not wanting to be a writer. In first grade I wrote these little “This Is Your Life” booklets about my classmates, the details of which were pretty much completely fabricated, since I knew practically nothing about my subjects, nor did I think I needed to. From time to time I wanted to be other things in addition to a writer, because I couldn’t imagine that writing would take up a full day. For a short time as a kid I wanted to be an actor, but I was painfully shy so that wasn’t going to work. And for a long time I wanted to be some kind of scientist, and started college as a Chemistry major, but the math did me in, and I switched to English. You might even say I became a writer because I was bad at math. But I still enjoy reading in the sciences.
I also greatly enjoyed drawing and painting—I still do, although I’m happy just to be an enthusiastic amateur in the graphic arts.
I grew up in southwest Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, basically in the same area as the setting for Blood Kin. I love that region, and still have family there. I studied English and Education at VPI—took almost every literature course available, and specialized for a while in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. I went west to study Creative Writing, at the Graduate program at Colorado State. I met my wife Melanie in Colorado—we have four kids and four grandkids.
Storytelling is my obsession. Besides the novels, I’ve published over 400 short stories.
BLOOD KIN is described as Southern Gothic, which is a genre I love. What inspired you to write BLOOD KIN?
Blood Kin is the novel I always knew I would write—I’ve been gathering notes for it since high school, over 45 years. In fact, some of the descriptive passages in the book were first written while I was in high school. The research was mostly first-hand, based on stories my mother and father and aunts and uncles told me about growing up there in the thirties—along the way my dad wrote me letters and made tapes about his experiences. And when I was a kid there were still remnants of that old life still around in the Appalachians. My dad ran an old-fashioned country store for a time, similar to the one described in the book, and I worked there a few summers. My mother used to teach in a one room school, as did a couple of my aunts, and a man my dad used for odd jobs was a snake-handling preacher (although this was not discussed because it was illegal in Virginia). I also attended some Pentecostal and snake-handling services while in college (watching cautiously from the back of the church I assure you)—specifically as research for this book I knew I would someday write. Not nearly as dramatic as the services described in Blood Kin, of course, but the basic details are similar.
And the kudzu, believe me, it was everywhere when I was growing up. It was what the highway department used to control the eroding hillsides. Driving through those mountains was like driving through green, shape-shifting clouds at times.
It was a colorful environment, steeped in unique characters and history, and the Rasnics, well, they were natural storytellers, most of them. When you’re a writer and you grow up in that kind of environment you know that someday you’ll be writing about it at length. But which story are you going to tell as a container for all these pieces? There are so many to choose from.
I believe that poverty and isolation bring out both the best and the worst in people. And the varieties of religion which develop in such an environment—both the loving and the apocryphal—reflect that. There are a lot of negative clichés about mountain folk, about their ignorance, their roughness, their eccentricity. And there is a truth behind many of those clichés. On the other hand, I have encountered some of the smartest and the kindest people I’ve ever met in that region. For me it’s a natural setting for a conflict between good and evil, and a dark fantasy evolving out of both strong belief and desperation.
BLOOD KIN is told from the viewpoints of both Michael Gibson and his grandmother, Sadie. What made you decide to tell the story from multiple perspectives?
Over the years I realized there were actually two tales in this material which interested me—the thirties story about an impoverished but busy town (the contradictory result that comes from having a coal mining economy), told from the point of view of one of its more vulnerable citizens, and the more contemporary story about a small southern town rapidly fading into obscurity, told from the point of view of someone who is more or less the last of his kind. It’s a theme that greatly concerns me, the gradual disappearance of small town life. So the dual viewpoint fell out of the material naturally—it’s two overlapping stories.
The novel also alternates between the 30s and present day. What kind of research did you do for the book, and what was one of the most interesting things that you discovered?
I’ve probably covered the research pretty well earlier, but I would just add that in addition to family accounts over the years I’ve read numerous histories of the region, studies of the geology, the flora, and the fauna, as well as the fiction of Jesse Stuart and John Fox Jr. I also read some of the old books I thought my character Sadie would have read in school.
One of the more interesting historical aspects touched on in the book is the story of the Melungeons, the mixed race group the Gibson family belongs to. Legend has it that when the first Scotch-Irish settlers pushed their way into the mountains of Tennessee they encountered this group speaking Elizabethan English who apparently had no idea of their own origins. As you might expect, all manner of explanations have been offered over the years—that they were what was left of the Lost Colony, to the more prosaic explanations involving marriages between runaway slaves, Indians, and Portuguese sailors. We will probably never know definitively. My own grandmother may have been Melungeon, given her features and coloration and where she was born, but she never spoke of it. The racial issue was a sensitive one—Melungeons weren’t even allowed to vote in some states as they were considered non-white.
What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m a mixture. My short stories often evolve from images, notes, and random ideas which eventually reach a critical mass before the final structure reveals itself so that I can edit it into shape. My novels are much more structured in terms of process, and Blood Kin is the most structured yet. Over the years I had simply gathered too much material—at some point I had to decide both what would fit and where it would fit. So I wrote a synopsis to get a feel for the story flow and general structure, and then I wrote a long, detailed chapter-by-chapter outline to guide me through the writing process.
But I still allowed myself to be surprised, to let the characters tell me things that had happened to them that I’d never imagined before. So some new characters magically appeared during the white heat of composition who hadn’t been planned, and in some places I was completely amazed by the direction things took.
You’ve undoubtedly influenced many writers with your work, but what are a few authors that have particularly influenced you?
The list is endless, but here are a few which spring to mind, especially in relation to this book: William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Robinson Jeffers, and Ramsey Campbell.
Read any good books lately? What are you reading now?
Lynda Rucker’s first collection The Moon Will Look Strange is fabulous—I was honored to write the introduction for it. The past year was a great one for collections in general– North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron, The Ape’s Wife and Other Stories by Caitlín R. Kiernan, just to name a few. And Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook is the best book on writing I’ve read in some time.
I’m re-reading The Catcher in the Rye. In undergrad school I was an enormous Salinger fan, and the recent documentary has rekindled my interest. I’m also slowly making my way through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and what a masterful book it is.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring writers?
The best advice I could give to any writer is to read widely and deeply with an aim of creating a repertoire of story strategies. I think every writer, whether you’re writing short stories or novels, needs a wide range of story structures and approaches for beginnings, middles, and endings in your tool kit. This means reading and analyzing a great deal of fiction, and not just genre fiction. You should read popular and literary fiction of all kinds, both the classics and new work, and make some exploratory journeys into the world of university and small press magazines as well. Look at experimental fiction, look at types of fiction you’d normally never consider reading. The goal here isn’t to change your reading likes and dislikes, but to broaden your ideas about the options you have for grabbing a reader’s attention, building a narrative, and ending it in a satisfying way. You’re likely to discover that there are dozens of techniques you’ve never thought to apply to the fiction you most enjoy writing.
When you’re not working on your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
I spend time with the family, draw and paint, and especially watch films. I watch tons of movies—I’m pretty much obsessed with film.
What’s next for you?
My new “ghostly” collection, Here with the Shadows, is about to come out from Swan River Press. These are stories greatly informed by my love of the traditional British ghost story. Later this year there’ll be a novella from PS Publishing, In the Lovecraft Museum, and next year Centipede Press will be bringing out a giant 225,000 word collection of some of my uncollected horror stories—Out of the Dark: A Storybook of Horrors.
As for what I’m writing currently, I’m finishing up a YA novel, and I plan a final attempt at finishing a science fiction horror novel, Ubo, about the human struggle with violence, which I’ve been chipping away at for decades.
About BLOOD KIN:
Steve Rasnic Tem’s new novel Blood Kin is set in the southern Appalachians of the U.S., alternating between the 1930s and the present day. It’s a dark Southern Gothic vision of ghosts, witchcraft, secret powers, snake-handling, Kudzu, Melungeons, and the Great Depression.
Blood Kin is told from the dual points of view of Michael Gibson and of his grandmother Sadie. Michael has returned to the quiet Appalachian home of his forebears following a suicide attempt and now takes care of his grandmother— old and sickly but with an important story to tell about growing up poor and Melungeon (a mixed race group of mysterious origin) while bedeviled by a snake-handling uncle and empathic powers she but barely understands.
In a field not far from the Gibson family home lies an iron-bound crate within a small shack buried four feet deep under Kudzu vine. Michael somehow understands that hidden inside that crate is potentially his own death, his grandmother’s death, and perhaps the deaths of everyone in the valley if he does not come to understand her story well enough.