An Interview with Michael Rowe

Michael Rowe's "Wild Fell" was nominated for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award.

Michael Rowe’s “Wild Fell” was nominated for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award.

Michael Rowe is an award-winning Toronto journalist, essayist, and novelist. He was the first-tier Canadian correspondent for Fangoria for seventeen years. In addition, Rowe created and edited the Queer Fear series, which changed the landscape of horror fiction. The stories (predominantly written by het writers, ironically) spotlighted queer protagonists. Some big names in the horror field took note, notably Clive Barker, who hailed Rowe in 2002 as having “changed forever the shape of horror fiction.” Rowe published his first novel, Enter, Night, with ChiZine Publications in 2011, garnering critical praise and a Sunburst Award nomination. Rowe called Enter, Night his unabashed 1970s vampire novel. He published his second novel, Wild Fell, in 2013, also with ChiZine, to further acclaim. Wild Fell was a finalist for this year’s Shirley Jackson Award as part of a lineup which included Joyce Carol Oates and Andrew Pyper. Contributing Editor James K. Moran, who once interviewed Rowe for Daily Xtra, chatted with him by email earlier this summer. Moran describes Rowe as a “gentleman of the highest order” who “wields a darkly wicked sense of humour and a rapier wit.”

JKM: Have you seen the video for Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” which features the lyrics “enter, night”? If not, here it is for your perusal. You might like it since you entitled your first novel Enter, Night.

MR: I hadn’t! But let’s be very clear: the lyrics are for “Enter Night,” not “Enter, Night.” I claim authorial ownership of the title based on that all-important comma!

JKM: Please tell me how Wild Fell came about.

enter_coverMR: I was actually in discussions with ChiZine about my second novel before Enter, Night came out. I’d had the idea of this ghost story for a number of years, though it went through all sorts of variations in my mind, and in my notes, since the early 1990s. At one point, the working title was Darkling I Listen from the poem “Ode to a Nightingale” by Keats. I was entranced by the line, “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time/I have been half in love with easeful Death,” since the theme of being in love with death, or at least having a relationship with Death (certainly in a metaphorical sense through the protagonist’s relationship with the haunting) is very much a theme in the novel. It was in gestation for so long that my best friend Ron Oliver, who is a film director and notorious wag and wit, started to refer to it as Darkwing Duck. After Enter, Night was out and doing well, ChiZine asked me what I wanted to do next, and I told them about the book that eventually became Wild Fell. We signed it, and it was a go. In preparation, I read a great deal of classic gothic fiction and re-read the stalwarts of the ghost story field, everyone from M.R. James right through to Susan Hill. I also visited the ruins of the Corran, the nineteenth-century estate of Alexander McNeil, outside of Wiarton, Ontario, and incorporated elements of the ruins into the novel. I started writing the book in earnest in the fall of 2012, and it came out in time for Christmas of 2013.

JKM: Let’s talk about your time writing for Fangoria. How many years did you write for them? Please refresh my memory. Was it sixteen or seventeen years?

MR: I added them up once, and I think it came to seventeen years. To be specific, seventeen years of the most fun any adult should ever be allowed to have while being paid for it. I visited film sets on two continents, met some of the most fascinating people working in horror cinema, made a few lifelong friends — not the least of whom was Tony Timpone, my editor there. I love that man, plain and simple. It couldn’t be any other way: it was a relationship that was formed when I was still young enough not to fully appreciate what a great privilege I’d been given by being allowed to write for a legendary horror film magazine, especially in the days before obligatory press junkets, or DVD extras. What they now tell the DVD extra producers, they used to tell the horror press. God knows, we didn’t write for Fangoria for the money, we wrote for them because we loved horror cinema. I had an auspicious start, too. My first set visit was Ron Oliver’s Prom Night III: The Last Kiss. So my tenure at Fangoria started in close friendship, and it ended in close friendship seventeen years later.

JKM: Now, I have to ask you about where all these books are coming from. Did you think of them while you were writing for Fangoria? Was it a Kilgore Trout sort of thing where you had them saved up for years, or when you finally sat down to write full time, did they only emerge then?

MR: Frankly, I’d have to say no. I can honestly say that I never approached any of my work at Fangoria in any way but as a journalist, and I was never inspired by any of the films I covered when it came to writing my own fiction later. I had thought about becoming a novelist in the same way people think of going around the world. It wasn’t a “bucket list” thing, exactly, but I was an extremely happy and fulfilled nonfiction writer. What I prided myself on was getting my subjects to open up to me, then treating them fairly in print later. Quite apart from Fangoria, I wrote for a wide variety of publications, and covered some very heavy and socially historical topics over the course of my career as a journalist. When I was on a film set, however, the deal was always the same — get the interview, no matter what. And I loved being on film sets. They felt like home after a very short time. But I don’t believe there was any link between my work for Fangoria and my fiction later. I’ve always been a reader of horror fiction, going back to my childhood. It was my first and most enduring literary love, and those books would have come out sooner or later, whatever else I’d done up ‘til that point.

JKM: Speaking of your journalism, is there a relationship between that and your fiction writing? (Full disclosure: as a journalist and author myself, I am interested in this relationship.)

MR: If there is any connection between my journalism and my fiction, it’s this: nonfiction writers, particularly journalists, have very few of the pretensions and illusions about “the muse” and “being a writer” that seem to be the stock-in-trade of neophyte fiction writers, a trait that some of them, sadly, never seem to outgrow. When it came to writing a novel, while I had some doubts about whether or not I’d have what it took to write one, the actual process of pitching to an editor, and the fundamentals of the publishing process, held no terror for me. One of my dearest friends is David Nickle, a fellow ChiZine author and, in my opinion, one of the finest literary horror writers in the field today. Dave and I have been friends for more than twenty years, and he’s a political journalist as well as a fiction writer. We seem to speak the same language around a lot of things pertaining to the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. Another very good friend of mine is Craig Davidson, who was up for the Giller Prize this year for his novel Cataract City, and who also writes magnificent horror fiction. When I met Craig, though he was already beginning to receive the acclaim he deserved as one of the most significant young Canadian writers of his generation, he was also an editor at a fitness magazine. I have to say, also, that the years of listening to other people talk to me in interviews gave me a very trained ear for dialogue, for cadences of speech, and for speech patterns derived from class backgrounds, educational backgrounds, regional backgrounds, and age backgrounds. Also, as a journalist, you learn to observe all the time. Writers do that in general anyway, but journalists really observe. That part of your brain never seems to switch off. I thank God every day for that particular collateral education. It’s been invaluable. At the risk of generalizing, there’s something grounding about being restrained by the facts of a nonfiction story. That said, it was very liberating, however, to give up that restraint when I began writing novels. The downside of not being restrained by facts is that you are now responsible for creating an entire world of your own “facts.”

JKM: Now about Wild Fell. First, congratulations on making a beautiful book. I particularly admire how you link a nine-year-old kid being haunted in the suburbs to a remote estate in northern Ontario. Well done. The cover design is also rather stunning.

MR: Thank you. The cover design is all the brilliant Erik Mohr. As for the novel, I suppose I know a thing or two about being a haunted nine-year-old in the suburbs, so I had something to draw on there. I’m glad it resonated.

JKM: But I must add: Michael Rowe, you SOB! The ending of Wild Fell was a soul kicker. I was reminded of Angel Heart starring Mickey Rourke. I was also led to believe, from two scenes — one involving a lightning bolt, the other with the protagonist exploring an old house in a classic gothic style — that Wild Fell would be a lesser book. But it wasn’t. The ending was completely unexpected.

MR: Well, Angel Heart is one of my favourite films, so I’m doubly flattered. I hadn’t thought of Angel Heart at the time that I was writing Wild Fell, but I can certainly see why Wild Fell might call it to mind. The ending of Angel Heart is very nihilistic, as is the ending of Wild Fell. My take on the world is not one that predisposes me to value happy endings for their own sake, generally.

JKM: I also like the chilling ambiguity of the villain’s statements. The reader never knows whether to believe her or not.

MR: One of the dyed-in-the-wool truisms about demons is that they lie, on principle. One of the truisms about the mad — especially those driven mad by their own pain — is that they can’t distinguish the truth from fantasy. And one of the truisms about the dead, at least in my personal mythology, is that they have access to information and perspectives not available to the living. To wit, something that might seem “true” to a living person is, to a ghost, only partly true — some part of a larger truth. Or just a lie employed by a sadistic spirit, to torment the living. How’s that for an answer?

JKM: That will do just fine, Mr. Rowe. A fine answer. Now, let me dispense with the flattery and proceed with the tough questions. Why did you write a ghost story this time out?

9781771481601_Outside_Front_CoverMR: Honestly, it was less that I set out to write a ghost story, as it was that this ghost story had been gestating for decades. I wanted to write another story about families, and the devastating things families can do to one another behind closed doors — the crushing of both spirit and body, in some cases. I also wanted to write another book about northern Ontario, and the remoteness of it. The island that inspired Blackmore Island is off a point of land at the summer cottage owned by my friends Katherine and Chuck, the parents of my godchildren, Michael and Kate. I spent years gazing out at it across the water and wondering what lay behind the trees. One Thanksgiving, my godson Michael climbed up on my lap and asked me to tell him a ghost story. He wanted an original story, too. I made one up on the spot about the island across the water. I was surprised how quickly certain elements came together, and he pronounced the final story “pretty good.” I had some of those impressions in mind when I sat down to write Wild Fell. A few of the other elements came from those old notes for the earlier version of it, but the rest came from my own perspectives as a middle-aged observer of life and death, and an imaginer of what might come later. But when I’m in northern Canadian cottage country, I’m always inspired by its remoteness, and its darkness, especially when the sun goes down and there’s no light from anything but the moon and the stars, or lights from cottage windows.

JKM: Your narrator grew up in Buena Vista. As for the Buena Vista locale, I will have to quote Christopher Reeve from Superman: The Movie. That is, did you really think you could hide it from me by encasing it in lead? Translation: Did you really think you could hide Alta Vista from me by fictionalizing it as ‘Buena Vista’? It’s a nice local touch, at that.

MR: As an Ottawa boy, I’m over the moon that you figured it out. You’re the first person, other than my oldest friend, Chris, with whom I’ve been a friend since 1969 when we met in a swimming class at the old YMCA in Ottawa. Chris recognized the Alta Vista locale immediately. I didn’t even try to disguise it. No one else has. So, you’ve made my night.

JKM: This suburban setting I find interesting, as I also write about horror in the suburbs. Why are you interested in using the suburbs as a setting?

MR: In the case of this novel, I wanted to write about my own childhood in Ottawa in the 1970s, or at least certain aspects of it. The greenbelt on the other side of Kilborn Avenue in Ottawa was one of my favourite places in the world. I did a lot of playing there, a lot of reading, and a lot of dreaming. The house in the book is a pretty near facsimile of our house, the one we lived in when we weren’t abroad on my father’s foreign diplomatic posts. I’d have to say, my own personal 1970s in Ottawa were pretty halcyon. It was probably the purest and most magical period of my childhood. And I did have an imaginary playmate named Mirror Pal who lived in my mirror. The results weren’t quite as devastating for me in the long run as they were for Jamie, however. With regard to Alta Vista specifically, it’s a bit like the house, Wild Fell, itself. Alta Vista doesn’t seem to age. We moved there in 1969, after we got back from my father’s diplomatic posting in Havana. At that time, it was a classic mid-century Canadian suburb, as you know. I left Ottawa when I was nineteen, and lived in a lot of other places. I came back to Ottawa for the first time in a couple of decades, a few years ago. It was December, and as I arrived, the city was hit by one of those magnificent, graceful, soft snowstorms that only Ottawans really understand. I took a walk through the old neighbourhood that night. The Christmas lights were lit everywhere, and the blowing snow blurred the contours of the landscape. It could have been 1968, or 1978, or any other decade. The houses were all still the same, the streets just as quiet. That walk was the closest I’ve ever come to time travel. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of Wild Fell until just now, but yeah — it’s ageless. I half-expected to meet my own ghost, a teenage version of myself, walking towards me through the curtains of snow.

JKM: Wild Fell is another novel of small-town horror. There are parts of the story set in the big city, but in a classic gothic motif, the story shifts to a more remote area. (Please note that this is not a complaint, as Canadian small-town horror is fertile ground.) What compels you to write about small towns, particularly northern Ontario ones?

MR: Well, I’m a fifth-generation Ontarian, and my Rowe family’s nineteenth-century roots in this country are rural. My paternal grandmother’s Osborne and Quinn roots go back even farther, into the eighteenth century. I mostly grew up in cities — Beirut, Havana, Ottawa, and Geneva — but even when we lived in Geneva, we lived outside it in a small town called Céligny. I went to boarding school in rural Manitoba, and my husband and I lived in the small town of Milton, Ontario for six years, from the late 80s to the mid-90s. I think the answer to your question, however, had its genesis in the visits we made back to Canada when we were abroad. Some members of my family had summer properties on Balsam Lake and, as a child, I was absolutely fascinated by the notion that some people lived in cottage country year round, and that there were actual towns around these cottages and lakes. Some years ago, on a trip up north, we stopped at a Tim Horton’s on the highway, and I was struck by the fact that there was no visible town anywhere. And yet, the young people working there had to come from somewhere. This led to the realization that city dwellers tend to think of these towns as landmarks on the way to somewhere else, usually their own summer cottage destination. But in reality, entire universes occur in these places, and they contain all of the elements of the human story — great loves, great joys, tragedies, and, occasionally, horrors. In most cases, they’re elements that people who live in cities never hear about. People live and die there, and take those universes to the grave with them with few people ever knowing. One of the themes of the novel is the self-containment of those universes, both literally and metaphorically.

JKM: Wild Fell is certainly leaner than Enter, Night. The intro, in particular, is far more economical. While I found Enter, Night thoroughly satisfying, I did hear from one reader who had trouble getting through the opening intro because they wanted to get to the main story. In Wild Fell, you land the reader in the story much sooner. Why a leaner novel this time out?

MR: The smaller cast of characters in Wild Fell was a part of it, as was the fact that we see the world exclusively from Jamie’s point of view. Part of what added heft to Enter, Night was the fact that all of the characters in that novel had autonomous lives, backstories, and points of view.

JKM: The shift to a first-person narrative voice is also a big change. Why did you decide on first-person narrative voice? Please tell me about it.

The simple answer is, I doubt many people want to read 125,000 words of first-person prose. The prospect of writing 152,000 words of first-person prose fills me with horror. I can’t imagine that much “I” and “me” and “we” and “us.” I had a touch of mental lockjaw after finishing Wild Fell. The slightly more complex answer is that the story is all seen from Jamie’s perspective, with the exception of the prologue, and the main thrust of the story happens in the space of a few days. That leads to a certain economy of words. Given how internal and paranoid so much of the story is — a conscious nod to classic ghost stories, most of which are in the first person — it seemed more natural. An earlier version of the story had a much more detailed portrait of Jamie’s best friend Hank, and was unambiguous about the fact that Hank was a female-to-male transsexual on the road to a transition, but I very reluctantly had to take that subplot out, mostly out of respect for the fact that an MTF trans* character written in 2014 deserves a much more layered, complex rendering in a novel than what I was going to be able to give Hank, as seen through Jamie’s eyes.

JKM: That said, I loved the Hank character. He and the hero, Jamie aka Jameson Browning, agree that Hank is more boy than Jameson is and he is more of a girl than Hank. Their enduring friendship has a striking balance to it. Do you have any favourite scenes in Wild Fell? Please share them.

MR: I have three. The first is the night Amanda makes her final, terrifying appearance to Jamie in his bedroom when he’s nine. The scene where Jamie discovers the Blackmore family portraits in the basement of Wild Fell is another. The third is the ending, which was a thrill to write. There’s another, but I can’t relate it here without delivering a major plot spoiler, so I won’t.

JKM: Jameson Browning is also so mournful, from his experience being bullied to how he relates to his ailing father. Where did you find Peter Browning, his father?

Michael Rowe and his father.

Michael Rowe and his father

MR: Peter Browning’s character is partially modelled on my own father, as I experienced him during my childhood. My father was the pinnacle of my world when I was a child. There seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do, and nowhere that he hadn’t been, and nothing he didn’t know. He was gregarious and charming. People loved listening to him and being around him. Of course, when you get older you see your parents as complex human beings instead of idols or caricatures, either for good or for bad. Through Peter Browning, I wanted to write about what I remembered as my father’s enormous kindness and gentleness towards me when I was small. For instance, his teaching me how to ride a bike, and the way he took me down to the Rideau River to look for my escaped pet turtle when I was nine, knowing full well that we’d never find it, but wanting me to be left with a happy image of the turtle being back with its family, not, as was more likely, dead. Anyone who’s read Wild Fell will know what I’m talking about. So, the short answer is, the best part of Peter Browning comes from my father. The rest is fiction. It was a very odd experience to lift very poignant and personal memories of my father and graft them onto an entirely fictional character that must, in reality, go off and do what fictional characters do, and live his own life as his own person, so to speak. The person in Wild Fell is, ultimately, Peter Browning, not my dad. My father never had Alzheimer’s. He never divorced my mother, who, incidentally, was not the model for Jamie’s mother. I have reason to believe that some of my relatives who’d read Wild Fell may have been under the impression that they’d been reading about my family. They hadn’t, really. It’s fiction. But if they recognized Alta Vista, or saw the best aspects of my father in Peter Browning, then they’ve seen what I meant them to see. As for the rest, I can only conclude that if it seemed real to them, I must have done something right as a novelist.

JKM: Now let’s discuss your themes. There’s the bullied boy in your novella contribution of Triptych of Terror. Then there’s Finn, the loner in Enter, Night. Then there’s the closeted Jeremy Parr in Enter, Night, whose own mother tries to cure him of being queer through electroshock therapy or gay aversion therapy. All this to say that I’m picking up on a theme of bullying and isolation in your work. Where is this coming from?

queer-fear-jacketMR: Well, I was bullied a lot as a kid, to be frank. It was no fun to grow up as a sensitive, artistic, effete boy in the 1970s and 1980s, even in a fairly privileged upper-middle-class environment with a number of evolved adults in my social orbit. Some of the memories I have from my mid-childhood can still make me break out in a cold sweat. Boys can be unspeakably cruel to those who don’t fit into the accepted paradigm of conventionally masculine behaviour and presentation. Then, when I was fifteen, I went off to an Anglican boarding school out west that was predicated on the concept of Victorian “muscular Christianity,” and heavy on C.S. Lewis and sturdy, rugged naturalism. The school was geared towards challenging boys physically, mentally, and spiritually as a way to bring them to manhood, and was touted as “the toughest boys school in North America” by the popular press at the time, replete with 900-mile canoe trips and 50-mile snowshoe races. It was the most purely masculine environment I’d ever encountered, and it wasn’t a place where someone like me was going to just fade into the woodwork. The bullying, especially in my first year, marked me permanently and indelibly, and it shaped who I later became as a man, in good ways and in bad ways. Aside from giving me an awareness of utter vulnerability, which has been very useful to me as a novelist, it also gave me a certain zeal in my years as a journalist, especially when it came to giving a voice to the voiceless, or speaking truth to power, or standing up for the underdog in my social justice journalism. But I really want to address this properly and fairly — a lot of good things happened to me in my childhood as well. I had the benefit of a superb private school education, world travel, exposure to kids from all over the world, and a set of parents who, although they didn’t really understand me a lot of the time, very much allowed me to develop into the person I later became as an adult with a degree of autonomy that was unusual in that era. I made lifelong friends at boarding school, especially in my second, third, and fourth years. With regard to the characters in my books who’ve experienced it, the bullying in his life destroyed Mikey, in Triptych of Terror. It broke him, and it shattered his moral compass. Jeremy Parr in Enter, Night rose above his history, and was quite heroic in the end. As for Finn in Enter, Night being a loner, I never really thought of Finn as being “lonely.” Finn was very much me at his age — dreamy, romantic, and very prone to seeing beauty in places where other people wouldn’t even think to look. Finn is the character of mine who most resembles me, and is a character I think would probably have grown up to be someone like I am today. I wouldn’t presume to speak for other writers, but I know that in my case the two memories I can most easily access are deep love and deep pain. Everything I write about seems to be encompassed between those two poles — with an ample dollop of humour and joy. I’ve also known an indecent amount of love, which serves to throw everything else in sharp relief and assures a moral compass, which is again very useful for a fiction writer.

JKM: Do you have a question that a journalist has not asked that you yourself would ask if our roles were reversed? If so, what’s the question?

MR: I’d probably ask myself why it took me so fucking long to write a novel!

JKM: And what’s your answer?

MR: The answer is, things happen when they’re ready to happen. My mother, who gave me my first typewriter when I was ten, once told me that I would have something to write about in fiction when I was older. I think she may even have said it wouldn’t be until my forties. At the time, that seemed like another lifetime away, and I was miffed at her for saying that. But you know what? In my case she was right. I’ve been a working, professionally published writer since I was twenty-one. One day, my life experiences and observations finally started to overflow, and I was forty-seven years old and writing Enter, Night, my first novel. I’d had three nonfiction books published by then, as well as the novella, but, paradoxically, I was finally able to tell certain truths in fiction that had been too complicated to try to tell in nonfiction. When I was in my twenties, I promised myself, rather loftily, that I’d have my first novel out before I was fifty, which seemed an eternity away at the time. It seemed a fair deal, and about as unlikely as the princess in the fairy tale guessing Rumplestiltskin’s true name. But she managed it, and so did I.

JKM: I love how you also suffered through the young writer’s dilemma of all-angsted-up-but-with-no-projects-completed-yet-due-to-life-inexperience. I’m sure many struggling writers can sympathize with you. Now as for the present, do you have any other projects on the go? Please tell me about them.

MR: I have a short story collection called The Devil’s Own Time coming out from ChiZine, probably in 2016, and I’m working on my third novel, which is in too early a stage to talk about. I will say, however, that it’ll be a departure from the two previous novels, but not a complete departure from horror. Currently, I’m most excited about the fact that Wild Fell is coming out in French next year from Editions Bragelonne in Paris.

JKM: What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

MR: Two close friends published very hot novels last year — Benjamin Percy came out with Red Moon, a brilliant werewolf novel upon which he brought to bear his full talent as one of America’s finest literary writers, and Christopher Rice brought out The Heavens Rise, his first supernatural novel after a series of well-received, bestselling mystery-thrillers. This year, Craig Davidson’s gorgeous The Troop — knighted by Stephen King, no less — was published under his “Nick Cutter” pseudonym. The Troop is the kind of horror novel that makes me very relieved that the author is a close friend, which relieved me of any real desire to murder him for being so good. And of course, David Nickle is coming out with a new collection this year, Knife Fight and Other Struggles. I can’t wait. It’s probably infra dig to push your friends’ books this hard, but, full stop, I have brilliant friends. Run — do not walk — to check out these four writers, Postscripts to Darkness readers! If you don’t, a terrifying little girl in your mirror, a little girl who isn’t what she appears to be, might visit you, some dark night. I will have sent her to check your stack of bedside reading.

James K. Moran’s stories and poetry have appeared in various Canadian and U.S. publications, including Icarus and Postscripts to Darkness 3. Moran’s debut horror novel, Town & Train, is forthcoming this fall from Lethe Press.

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