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Caitlin R. Kiernan and The Red Tree: An Interview with a Dark Fantasy Icon

Caitlin R. Kiernan has become an icon in the field of dark fantasy, although "dark fantasy" may be a little to limiting for an author whose fiction has been influenced by everyone from Poe to Faulkner. Slowly, patiently, she's built a body of work that has received praise from the likes of Poppy Z. Brite, Peter Straub, and Neil Gaiman. Her unabashedly adult, lush prose recalls some unholy mix of H.P. Lovecraft and Angela Carter. Her unrelenting focus on re-vitalizing American Gothic fiction with her portraits of flawed, often haunted human beings has made her one of my favorite reads.

Now she has a new novel out, The Red Tree, that's as ambitious and atmospheric as anything she's ever written. With layered stories-within-stories and the use of a writer as a narrator, the novel may be complex, but its emotional resonance is simple and pure. The best review I've seen so far, on OF Blog of  the Fallen, aptly compared it to Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves and Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss. Like those novels, The Red Tree is both personal, eerie, and structurally interesting. (The cover, clearly influenced by the rise of urban fantasy, promises something much more traditional, but don't be fooled.)

I recently interviewed Kiernan by email, about The Red Tree and a variety of other subjects...

   The_Red_Tree Could you give us some context on The Red Tree. How does it fit into your overall body of work? Does it feature some of the same characters?

Caitlin R. Kiernan: I like to think of all of my novels as stand-alone books. That is, though characters do recur, and stories from earlier books may spawn stories in later books, each one can be read as a stand-alone story. In that respect, I haven’t done anything like a series. Low Red Moon works quite well without having first read Threshold. The same is true for Daughter of Hounds. You don’t need to first read Threshold and Low Red Moon, despite recurring characters. But that said, no, The Red Tree doesn’t pick up any of the earlier characters. There is a gentle nod, here and there, to the earlier books, but that’s about it. I wanted The Red Tree to function as a sort of new beginning for me as a novelist, a place where I begin to remake myself. I'm about sixty pages into the novel and enjoying it quite a bit--it's very suspenseful, but also intelligent and textured. I like the layering in of the frame and the footnotes. In terms of setting a mood and an atmosphere, does that tend to be set in the rough draft, or is it something you work on in later drafts?

Kiernan: Almost without exception, I never write more than a single draft of anything. Novels, short stories, vignettes. Almost everything that you see printed in The Red Tree was put there in that initial draft. It’s just the way I’ve always written. It seems bizarre, I think, to a lot of writers, but I can’t think in drafts. I have to get it all in the first time, which is likely why I write so awfully slow. I finished the first draft of The Red Tree, sent it to my editor, and she made some suggestions, which primarily involved adding additional text. I made most of those additions, a few thousand additional words, and that’s what was published. A proofread, copyedited, very slightly expanded “first draft.” So mood, which is so important to weird fiction, that’s something I have to get right off, if I’m going to get it right. Same with characterization and so forth. What were the challenges and pleasures in writing The Red Tree?

Kiernan: Well, it was good to finally sit down and write a novel-length work of fiction as a first-person narration. Though it only made sense for me if I did that as a journal. But I think what I enjoyed the most was writing the book within a book, the manuscript that Sarah Crowe discovers in the basement of the old house, and which sort of plants the seed for everything else that comes later. Those portions of the novel, wherein Sarah is transcribing portions of Charles Harvey’s unfinished manuscript, they were the hardest to write, but also the most satisfying to write. Having all of New England folklore to work with, and trying to approach it as an anthropologist and folklorist would--and that’s what Harvey was, not a parapsychologist, I still don’t know how parapsychologist wound up on the flap copy--I loved that challenge. Also, for me, The Red Tree is a puzzle, or a series of interlocking puzzles, with no single solution. Maybe with no solution at all, but still built just exactly so. Creating that immense puzzle box in my head, that was about as close as to “fun” as writing ever gets for me. Your short stories tend, to this reader at least, to be more lush in style and approach. There's an element of poetry to the stories that the novels retain only in part, while giving us compensatory pleasures. How do you view novels versus short stories? Do you think you change your style between the two forms?

Kiernan:  I think I do now. With Silk and Threshold, and the stories in Tales of Pain and Wonder, I was still struggling to do everything exactly the same way, in the same voice. I think it took me a while to begin to understand what short stories actually are, and how they differ from novels. These days, I see the novels and the short stories--and vignettes and novellas--as very different things. In a sense, I allow myself to write much, much denser prose, and prose that is more stylistically complex, than I do in novels. I’m not entirely sure when I began to approach them differently. Certainly by the time I started writing Daughter of Hounds. I’ve found I’m much happier with my novels when I approach them with this less baroque voice. I suppose I now reserve the heavier, more ornate prose for short stories, primarily, though I see so many popular writers today whose work is so entirely devoid of voice, of style, I expect a lot of people would read The Red Tree and scream “Prolix!” How would you describe your own work, in terms of the tradition it comes out of? There's a kind of Southern Gothic feel, but I also sense a lot of potential influence from the Decadents and, of course, H.P. Lovecraft.

Kiernan:  I’ve learned that I’m genuinely not very good at answering this sort of question. There are just too many influences. Yes, the Decadent movement, obviously I owe a lot to authors like Baudelaire and de Maupassant, but I also owe a great deal to earlier authors, such as Poe. And then there are the Modernists, especially Joyce, Faulkner, and Eliot. And Faulkner bleeds over into the influence that the Southern Gothic has had on me, and we get to Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams and many others. Then there are the weird writers, Lovecraft, Machen, Blackwood…I think they’re who people recognize the most, when talking about the tradition I’m writing in, but they’re no more my literary predecessors than any of the rest. And where do I put Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Shirley Jackson, John Steinbeck, and Angela Carter, all of whom were enormously important formative influences on my own writing? See, I’m lousy at answering this question. And I’ve hardly even touched on poetry--not really--and so many poets have had such a great impact on what I’m trying to do, especially, again, the Modernists, but also the Romantics, and many 20th-Century poets, such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. I get lost in this question. In terms of your fiction, is there a question or issue you've been wrestling with of late, and why?

Kiernan: I can think of a few issues, yes. One that’s very obvious, I think, one that readers who have followed me since the beginning can probably see, is eroticism. How to write about sex without writing pornography. Not that I’m opposed to pornography, per se. It’s just not what I’m trying to write. The Red Tree is the first time I’ve actually allowed myself, in a novel, to open up and fully explore the eroticism of my characters. And, these days, a lot of my short fiction is erotic. Also, I think I’m trying to look at myself as a writer. How I feel about being a writer, and how I’ve gotten to where I am. There’s a lot of thinly veiled autobiography in The Red Tree. Well, there’s always been autobiography in my novels, but the veil is exceptionally thin in The Red Tree. Also, moving away from writing younger characters, as I’ve mostly done in the past. In The Red Tree, my protagonist, if you can call Sarah that, is forty-four, because I wanted to write a novel about someone my own age. Sometimes, the Cult of Youth wears thin. Your career started back with one of the first modern boom periods for horror and dark fantasy. From your perspective, now in mid-career, how have things changed over the years? And what benefits does having perspective give you?

Kiernan: Another question I’m not very good with. I never saw myself as a horror writer. I still don’t. I’m a bit more comfortable with the dark-fantasy label. But, as for the question, I don’t know. I think I’ve learned to see trends and fads in publishing, and know better than to latch onto them. Better I stay the course and keep doing what I set out to do, what I feel I’m supposed to be doing, than try to land a bestseller--or just a better seller--by chasing whatever the industry is most psyched about promoting at the moment. How have things changed? I’m not certain I know. I keep to myself. I read far more non-fiction than fiction, and a lot of the fiction I do read was published in the first half of the 20th Century, and in the 19th, and 18th, not in the last few decades. I mean, I could point to obvious things, like the advent of internet publishing, which I’m beginning to see as a blessing and not a curse, the Google Books rights grab aside. I will always prefer actual books, but I do see the value of e-books, and I think electronic publishing may be especially beneficial to short fiction. You moved to Rhode Island from Atlanta relatively recently. Does Rhode Island give off a different kind of vibe? And how has that affected your inspiration and creativity?

Kiernan: In a lot of ways, Rhode Island is like an entirely different planet, when compared with Atlanta, or Athens, or Birmingham. Totally different vibe, yes. And yes, it has had a great impact on inspiration and creativity. I think I was becoming bogged down in the south. I’d written almost everything I had to say about the South. I was aware of that back in 2003, when I was working on Murder of Angels, and keenly aware of it in 2004 and 2005 when I set Daughter of Hounds primarily in Rhode Island. Here, there is almost a sort of information overload, so many new things to see and experience, and the people are so very different. It sends me spiraling off into entirely different territory, and I need that.


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The interview whetted my desire to get a copy of the book.

I just love complex novels, of stories within stories.

I read The Red Tree in one sitting because I was simultaneously enthralled and too petrified to look away. Kiernan's story reached out from those pages and grabbed me by the throat, and I followed anxiously behind her protagonist Sarah Crowe as she unearthed fragments of revelation about the Red Oak looming in her backyard. It's just plain good narrative and good writing, and it's also the creepiest thing I've read all year.

This is not your average horror novel. If you like your monsters cliché and your plot points obvious, please look elsewhere. This is a canvas of subtle images, in which the really, really terrible things are only intimated. Which, of course, is the reason it's so scary. Kiernan's nightmares are all the more effective because they never resolve into one solid entity you can categorize long enough to lock in the closet or sweep under the bed. Instead, the vague feeling of dread creeping down your spine is intensified by a host of doubts. It's a rare author who can get both her characters and her readers to doubt what their eyes have seen (or read), but Kiernan manages it with seeming effortlessness. There was no reason to be afraid by page 50. Not knowing, as we do almost immediately, that Sarah Crowe's account is being published posthumously by a (fictitious) editor. Not by the conventions of horror novels that either plod tediously toward some obvious shocker or trot out the gore as early as possible. But I was. And it was a sublime fear, the sort of fear that leaves you with traces of awe instead of just the desire to barricade yourself in. I wanted to watch her world crumble.

This is also not your average Gothic novel. If you prefer archaisms stolen from Dracula and characters stolen from bad Anne Rice fanfic, you won't like the frank elegance of Kiernan's prose. Her characters are real people (well...for some definition of "people"--I'm not giving anything away) who smoke and swear and deal badly with fear. And along with that, the dreams she describes are real dreams. You will actually feel like you are dreaming--the same surreal logic and warped symbolism permeate the novel. It's a rare thing, to stand inside other people's dreams, and rarer still to survive their nightmares. I would unequivocally recommend doing both through The Red Tree--and unequivocally recommend doing so with the lights on.

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