BLACK MOON just came out this month, and will easily be on my Best of list for the year, so I was thrilled when its author, Kenneth Calhoun, agreed to answer a few of my questions! Please welcome him to the blog!
So, I’m writing these questions right after finishing BLACK MOON, and I’m still in a bit of a daze. It’s a stunning book, very dark at times. What inspired you to write it?
I started by writing a short story about a couple dealing with an insomnia epidemic. This story, which was called “Placebo,” became the first chapter of Black Moon. At the time, my partner was dealing with insomnia and it affected our relationship. But I also saw how it could make for a rich story, especially if aspects were exaggerated to apocalyptic proportions. One interesting tension to explore was how guilty I felt about my unwavering ability to sleep at night (and take long, showy naps during the day), and how she couldn’t help display some quiet flashes of resentment. What if that resentment snowballed into something violent? That was something to work with.
There’s a story on your website about you discovering the power of wordsmithing at a very young age, but you had many different jobs before publishing BLACK MOON. Will you tell us more about that “in between” stage and when you started to write BLACK MOON?
I have been writing stories for a long time, and started publishing with some regularity about ten years ago. But I was also working full time, so writing was something I did in the small gaps between work and family commitments. I have basically switched careers—not just jobs—every four years for the last 16 years. I worked in the hospitality industry designing trivia games for an early interactive television network; the music industry, as a member of a pop singer’s creative team; in marketing, as a creative director for a digital agency; and eventually migrated to academia as a professor of new media and, more recently, fiction. My writing had bogged down a bit about three jobs back, so I sought out a writing group in Chapel Hill, which is brilliantly run by the novelist Laurel Goldman. That got me going again.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
As I said earlier, I lived with a woman who struggled with insomnia for many years. That offered some opportunities for firsthand observation. Then I mostly used resources available on the Internet. I read a number of articles about insomnia, and watched a couple documentaries. I also talked to a few brain specialists and read quite a bit about how brain implants work (and watched a cool video of an actual implant surgery). I didn’t want to get too bogged down in the facts, though. That can be inhibiting. For example, I just dreamed up that the sleepless would speak in garbled sentences. Research suggests that those with Fatal Familiar Insomnia—a rare disease—lose their ability to speak entirely. For the last six months of their dreamless lives, they are mute.
For me, BLACK MOON was a love story with an apocalyptic backdrop. Why do you think apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories and novels have such wide appeal?
I’m not really sure why others find these stories so compelling. I have always been drawn to them, possibly because I grew up at the end of the Cold War and a dramatic and fiery transformation of life as we know always seemed to be looming. I have a perverse nostalgia for the possibility for nuclear holocaust. It seemed to me that movies like The Planet of the Apes and Omega Man were on constant TV rotation, and books like THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN were things I remember reading at a very young age (probably too young). I have wondered if our fascination with apocalypse has something to do with a certain kind of weird arrogance. After all, in these stories, we always cast ourselves as the last generation of humans on the planet. How lucky we are to bear witness to the long foretold end. And how special we must be that no one will come after us. In these stories, we own the end.
I love the cover for BLACK MOON and feel like it gives a bit of a clue to the novel’s darkness, but also maybe a nod to Matt’s career and also your design background? Either way, it’s very striking. Do you think it accurately conveys the spirit of the book?
The cover is fantastic. I say this as both a grateful author and a design professor. The designer, Milan Bozic, totally nailed it, as far as I’m concerned. It’s pure design—all typography with only one image: an eye. I think it’s striking and will stand out on the shelf. The mood is both menacing and beautiful, which suits the book perfectly. The words of the title are a bit broken up; the letterforms are jagged. I’m pleased that the publisher was willing to go with a title treatment that challenges the eye and insists on your attention—you can’t read it at a glance, but your eye will want to linger. Interestingly, I saw the UK version of the cover first. It’s entirely different (features a large owl eye), but I was really taken by it. I thought it should be the US cover, too. But my US editor assured me that they were cooking up something equally awesome. He was right.
BLACK MOON goes to some pretty dark places. Did you have to decompress after writing some of those passages?
I am aware that the book is “dark” but I feel pretty removed from that aspect of it at this point. People have said the book is “bleak” and “weird” and I really don’t know what to say to that. I didn’t steer toward either of those descriptors. It’s just how things tend to develop, particularly during an insomnia epidemic, at least as I imagine it. I think some readers find it unbearably dismal when characters die or simply disappear or the storyline zigs when it should zag. But, of course, that’s the idea behind staging those kinds of plot disruptions—to put readers close to a sense of loss and disorientation.
Speaking of dark places and terrifying things… What’s something that truly terrifies you?
When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, I had three recurring fears: home invasion (by a serial killer or escaped prisoners), armed gunman in a fast food restaurant, sharks. The region excelled at all three of these scenarios. I eventually got past these fears, mostly by avoiding Southern California. These days, what terrifies me most is the willful, even spiteful, dismissal of science and reason by a large percentage of the population.
What are a few of your biggest literary influences?
I like a wide mix of writing these days, but I guess the influences that carry the most weight are Julio Cortazar, Kafka, Hemingway, J. G. Ballard, Cormac McCarthy, Donald Barthleme, Graham Greene, Ray Bradbury, Bruno Schulz, and the Brothers Grimm. That’s pretty last-century and male and mostly Anglo and (with the exception of McCarthy) dead, but that’s the unfortunate truth. I read those writers in my formative years. Since then, of course, I have read more diversely, but those early influences stick.
What are you currently reading?
I’m not reading anything currently because I’m working on a new novel. I try not to get to involved in another writer’s voice when writing. It can cause problems. However, I recently read a novel called WE, which was written by Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921. It’s the granddaddy of all dystopian novels, including 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD. I also recently enjoyed collections by Lysley Tenorio and Laura van den Berg. I have a pile of books I can’t wait to devour. It includes Morrissey’s autobiography, James Scott’s THE KEPT and Aimee Bender’s latest, THE COLOR MASTER. A while ago I started Christine Schutt’s FLORIDA, having found it on a friend’s nightstand, and I’m determined to finish it soon.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
That would probably be CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, especially if I could experience it the same way. I read it in St. Petersburg during the first of many visits to that strange, scary and yet whimsical, city. The dark mood of the book was echoed and amplified by the crumbling stairwells, black canals, rainstorms and axe-wielding intellectuals. It was one of the most immersive reading experiences I’ve ever had. It was something like a possession.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
I can waste time like nobody’s business, mostly just burning through hours of nonsense online. I tend to visit four or five sites over and over; namely, boingboing.com, digg.com, fark.com, Facebook and Twitter. You can get in a loop, looking through everything, and by the time you’ve consumed it all, there’s new content on each site. So it’s endless and if you do manage to lap the content you can always watch Bigfoot sighting videos until it catches up. But you asked how do I “like” so spend my free time. Trolling the Internet isn’t really something I like. It’s just something I need. I like doing other creative things. I’m currently trying to shoot and edit short films, for example. And I also dabble in music, though at one time it was my life.
What’s next for you?
I have a couple short stories coming out this spring—one in Tin House and one in Post Road. There are many other short stories waiting to be written. On a larger scale, I have two or three new novel projects I’m really into. The more developed book is about a punk band in the 1980’s who find an apparent feral child at the bottom of a drained swimming pool. The book, which I started over a decade ago, is really about how Southern California transformed from an agricultural economy to a sprawling bedroom community. It’s inspired by Mike Davis’s book called CITY OF QUARTZ, which is an amazing work of non-fiction that explains how the L.A. suburbs were configured by greed and racism. Did I mention there’s a feral child?
About BLACK MOON:
Insomnia has claimed everyone Biggs knows. Even his beloved wife, Carolyn, has succumbed to the telltale red-rimmed eyes, slurred speech and cloudy mind before disappearing into the quickly collapsing world. Yet Biggs can still sleep, and dream, so he sets out to find her.
He ventures out into a world ransacked by mass confusion and desperation, where he meets others struggling against the tide of sleeplessness. Chase and his buddy Jordan are devising a scheme to live off their drug-store lootings; Lila is a high school student wandering the streets in an owl mask, no longer safe with her insomniac parents; Felicia abandons the sanctuary of a sleep research center to try to protect her family and perhaps reunite with Chase, an ex-boyfriend. All around, sleep has become an infinitely precious commodity. Money can’t buy it, no drug can touch it, and there are those who would kill to have it. However, Biggs persists in his quest for Carolyn, finding a resolve and inner strength that he never knew he had.
Kenneth Calhoun has written a brilliantly realized and utterly riveting depiction of a world gripped by madness, one that is vivid, strange, and profoundly moving.
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