Mixing genres in fiction is not for the faint of heart. It’s like attempting to mix colors that can go well together one moment only to see them unbalance everything around them the next. The best examples of cross-genre work in fiction showcase a kind of playfulness in the narrative where ideas bounce back and forth freely to produce big new things that aren’t too commonly found in their respective places.
Nathan Ballingrud’s latest book, his debut novel, The Strange, is a magnificent example of getting that mix just right. Its blend of Bradbury-esque science fiction with horror and westerns that generates a sense of story that ponders the necessity of wonder, the prospect of the supernatural in space, and the ever-changing nature of vengeance.
The story follows a fourteen-year-old girl called Annabelle, the daughter of a man that owns the only diner in New Galveston, a settlement built on the planet Mars in the early 1930’s. One night, a gang led by one Silas Mundt holds up the establishment and steals her mother’s voice. Annabelle sets off to retrieve the voice and to get the justice she’s owed, not unlike Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’s 1968 novel True Grit.
The story puts Annabelle in a Mars that embraces the weird, complete with ghosts and strange elements that harbor their own horrors. Ballingrud is led by a desire to spur a classic sense of sci-fi wonder in the reader that is especially rewarding to fans of The Twilight Zone, early 20th century Americana, and Dust Bowl history.
The Beat sat down with Ballingrud (whose short horror story collection North American Lake Monsters stands as one of the best of its kind) to discuss the lessons of writing a full-length prose novel, what experiencing the uncanny is like for the ones at the margins, and whether we’ll be surprised or not if we discover ghosts on Mars.
RICARDO SERRANO: The Strange certainly lives up to the name. In fact, it feels like a celebration of the weird. The narrative indulges in it to the point of producing imagery and characters that feel new despite the influences behind them. Did you approach this book with that focus on the weird in mind?
NATHAN BALLINGRUD: I think it came organically through the process. I didn’t intend for it to become quite that weird, to be honest. I think that, just because I am who I am, it went that way. It’s my haunted heart. Tends to go in that direction.
The book really started out being a kind of homage to so many different types of fiction I loved growing up, fiction that turned me to other stories, in a way. I wanted the sense of wonder I got from the books I read as a teenager to bleed into The Strange. At the very least, I wanted to express my love for that older material I used to read.
I remember lying on the grass when I was twelve or thirteen. My dad was grilling something and I was watching the sky just as the twilight started to wash over. As it started to get a deeper blue and the stars started coming out, there was a pink star among them and I knew that it was Mars. I felt this profound sense of romance, in the old style of the word. I started thinking that there’s this wild, imaginative place up there and that things can happen in it.
The Mars that I was seeing wasn’t the real Mars. For me, it was an open countryside, a dream of imagination. That was the feeling that I wanted to tap into for this story.
SERRANO: Your previous work has largely focused on short fiction. I found it interesting, thinking about this, that each character in The Strange was rich enough to be the center of their own short stories. What carried over from your previous work to your first novel in this regard?
BALLINGRUD: That’s an interesting question. I think what probably carried over was the sense of focus on character. When you’re doing a short story, you tend to focus on one or two characters, minutely. I wanted that in The Strange, that same degree of focus.
I wanted every character to feel three-dimensional, like they had their own life even after the story moved on from them. They weren’t there to be set dressing. They were real people. A lot of my favorite writers are able to do that, populate their secondary or tertiary characters with a real personhood. It was important to me that these characters had that same feeling. I think that’s a skill that I probably developed and honed over time writing short stories.
SERRANO: One of the things I immensely enjoyed about your collection North American Lake Monsters was that the stories’ starting points usually felt like the endings of more traditional horror tales. There was an interest in finding out what happened after big events. There’s some of it in The Strange as well. Is this something that drives your storytelling interests, the aftermath of something being the story?
BALLINGRUD: That’s interesting, because I didn’t see them that way. Now, though, I like thinking of them that way. I hadn’t thought of it like that. When I was writing the stories in North American Lake Monsters, I was thinking about the source of the character.
The best way to illustrate this is with a short story I wrote called “You Go Where It Takes You,” in which a woman encounters a guy who can change skins in some violent fashion to become different people. This guy is being pursued by some other entity that he’s frightened of because he stole these skins from it. In a traditional story, that’s the character, the guy with the skins. You build the story around his experience regarding who’s pursuing him and how it’ll play out. But that’s not what interests me entirely.
I was fascinated by the people that he brushed up against, the people who don’t experience the supernatural or the numinous in a very direct way. They jostle them as they pass by. What does it do to their lives, to be touched by this miracle for good or ill? That’s how I settle on a character. I want to explore what the presence of this strange man does to her experience.
In The Strange, something traumatic or catastrophic happened on earth, and the people who are left behind on Mars don’t know what it is. They don’t know how to cope with it. They don’t know why they’re isolated on Mars. Annabelle, the protagonist, is in the middle of all these big things that are happening and that are totally out of her control. She’s a young person that takes the role she’s been given by force and does what she can to further her mission without thinking she has to change the entire world to succeed.
So, to answer your question in my long, roundabout way, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea we’re just these little people being jostled by the doings of governments and other forces that are way beyond our control. We feel like we’re small people being shaken on the ground as these giants are trumping by, dictating great events in our lives over which we have no power. We, on the other hand, are just trying to get by. Those are the characters I care about the most, the ones on the ground.
SERRANO: The decision to set a story on Mars in the 1930’s took me completely by surprise when I first heard about it. Usually, alternate history stories go for a World War II setting where the Nazis won and then we get a terrifying future we have to struggle against, you know? The move to the 30’s feels very intentional, as if there was something there you really wanted to explore. What was the idea behind the decision?
BALLINGRUD: That time period appealed to me because I was reading a book called The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, which is about the Dust Bowl experience in the 1930’s America. I think that was one of the early catalyzing thoughts, just thinking about the Dust Bowl and the great big sand storms. The way my mind works, when I think of big dust storms, I think of Mars.
I had read Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles many years ago, and I absolutely loved it. It influenced my idea of Mars. So, when I think of Mars, I think of the 30’s. There’s a diner in one of his stories, you know. It’s an image that is always in my brain, this beautiful and wonderful and strange collision of ideas that resulted in a story about an American diner in Mars. I borrowed from it a lot because it’s such a potent image. The 30’s kind of built out of that.
SERRANO: What can we expect next? Working on your second novel already or going back to short fiction?
BALLINGRUD: Next year, I have a novella coming out. It’s pretty short, only about 20,000 words. It’s called “Crypt of the Moon Spider.” It’s somewhat similar to The Strange, actually. It takes place on the moon in the 1920’s. I call it lunar Gothic. It’s about somebody who is committed to a madhouse on the moon. There’s a secret society of scholars and a giant moon spider.
SERRANO: Sounds like a recipe for success in my book. Can’t wait to read it!
BALLINGRUD: Thank you!
The Strange is available in hardcover and as an eBook now.