Consider 2013 a good year for Nick Antosca. This year has seen the release of two new books from him: the collection The Girlfriend Game and the short novel The Hangman’s Ritual. The former contains a number of searing works, describing horrors literal and metaphorical, ranging from educational programs that reduce the subject to a subhuman state to the ethical quandaries of reality television to a visit from murderous aliens obsessed with beauty. The Hangman’s Ritual opens in a kind of prison familiar to those whose tastes in literature veer towards the totalitarian; to say anything more about where it goes from there, however, would be to spoil the way in which Antosca ramps up the narrative. This interview is a followup of sorts to a 2012 conversation with Antosca (itself a followup to this 2009 conversation); here’s hoping that Antosca’s short stories, novels, and screenplays will provide grounds for discussion for decades to come.
The Hangman’s Ritual begins in almost allegorical territory, and quickly mutates, defying expectations of where it might be going. How did you go about plotting this book out?
I don’t remember. I think I just wrote out an outline. I think it was a fairly detailed one. But I think the process of doing it was very linear. Most things I’ve written in the past year or two or three are very story driven. In the case of The Hangman’s Ritual though, I was thinking more about psychology. I read some books about solitary confinement, captivity. I learned about how quickly the human mind goes downhill in solitary confinement. It’s really fast. You think,”Oh, I would be fine.” But the almost universal truth is you start losing your shit on some level within a couple weeks.
And the idea of having a secret ritual, that comes from something someone told me political prisoners in a certain movement did. I think it was in Poland. I don’t remember. Someone told me the anecdote at a dinner party, said it was from a New Yorker article. I never tried to find the article. I don’t care if it was real.
How did its relationship with genre conventions differ from something like The Obese, which seems to fall more within the boundaries of a traditional horror narrative?
With Hangman’s Ritual, I didn’t really think about genre conventions. Not that I defied them or anything, I just didn’t think about them. The concept in part comes from the movie Oldboy, of course — I wondered what it would be like to be a guard in that secret prison in the movie. Those guys have to go home from work every day. So again, I was thinking about psychology rather then plot or genre conventions. Although, funnily enough, the book does have sort of a thriller plot. He’s imprisoned then he has to escape! Reversals! Fuck it. It’s also influenced by the young adult novella Singularity by William Sleator, who died relatively recently. I loved that book. There’s a long section where the main character spends a year in solitary confinement.
Some of the stories in The Girlfriend Game are set in a recognizable world; others head into more surreal or paranormal territory. When you begin a story, do you know from the outset what the boundaries of its world will be?
Well, I know what world the story takes place in. Yeah, I guess I know. That’s more important than knowing the ending. I used to start stories without knowing the ending. Now I realize that’s kind of a headache. It’s sort of a romantic notion but it’s actually just creatively very inefficient. Anyway, as for the boundaries, yeah, if it’s the kind of world where a sea monster might show up at the end, you’ll have a sense of that pretty early on.
When we chatted last year, you talked about the ways Los Angeles had gotten inside your head. Do you think you’re any closer to setting a novel there?
Yes, I think I’ll set a novel in Los Angeles. It’s a story-rich place. A lot of LA feels haunted. I don’t know when I will write that novel. All that stuff in good time. I’ve been mostly TV writing in the past few years, but in the last six weeks I wrote a couple new short stories. I’m pleased with them. There are novels circling. Like sharks!
Given that they’ve come out in such close proximity, I’m curious: do you see The Hangman’s Ritual and The Girlfriend Game as relating to one another thematically (moreso than any other two books that you’ve written)?
No, they’re not particularly related. Total coincidence that they are coming out within six months of each other. I had been meaning to do a short story collection with Jackie Corley at Word Riot for a long time, and it just happened to be this year. Some of those stories were written 10 years ago. Others are recent. The Hangman’s Ritual happened because Michael Seidlinger, who had republished Fires and who is awesome, got in touch to see if I had anything new, and I had this novella that I wrote a couple months earlier when I was really depressed. It reflects that, it’s about depression and confinement. It’s about a guy who is a captive.
When you were looking back at stories for The Girlfriend Game, was there the temptation to revise any of them at all?
Yes, but for the most part I didn’t. “Soon You Will Be Gone and Possibly Eaten” is being republished online shortly at The Atticus Review — or already has been by the time this runs I guess — and I did make a few changes to it just the other week, eliminating what I saw as a few amateur prose tics. But mostly I was very happy rereading it. I did not go through all the stories and revise them before the book was published. They’ve all been previously published–although some very obscurely–and I figured I’d let them stand and reflect the guy I was when I wrote them.
One of the most striking stories in the collection, for me, was “Soon You Will Be Gone and Possibly Eaten.” Where did the central idea of this story come from? I feel like both it and The Obese have very different things to say about concepts of beauty, and where they can lead.
I can’t remember actually. I can’t remember writing the story. I must have written it between 2006 and 2009. Rereading it, I was really pleased. I guess the central idea is about being in love with someone you’re sure will eventually leave you.
“The Early Years, Before His Great Adventures” is structured as a kind of prelude to a larger work. How much of that had you figured out before you sat down to write it?
None of it! I wanted to write a story with the giant swans that attack people — swans do sometimes kill little kids — and Boerboels, which are dogs bred for their size and ferocity. And then I liked the idea of writing a fake tall tale, an unusually grisly one. I like stories about dogs.
The last time we spoke, you were writing for Teen Wolf; since then, you’ve written for Last Resort, and are now working on Believe. How has this experience changed your writing? Do you find that you’re more comfortable with certain aspects of your craft now than you were before?
Yeah, I feel more comfortable with storytelling. When you spend eight hours a day, five days a week, for months, in a room with a couple other people just figuring out lots of different stories and structuring them, you become more fluent in that language. I think it can be numbing if you’re writing for a pure procedural, because on a lot of those you’re just breaking the SAME story every week, but I’ve been lucky enough to write — along with my writing partner — on three different shows that are serialized, and you have to keep using the muscles each week. And you come up with A LOT more stories in the room than actually make it to the air.
You write regularly about the books, television, and films that you’ve read and watched over the course of the year. Has there been any single work that’s impressed you the most this year?
Well, I don’t really write about them. It’s bad, when you’re actually working in the entertainment industry, to talk shit about your peers’ work — it’s a very small industry and you may well end up trying to get a job with a producer whose movie or TV show you criticized. It’s not the same as being an author and writing book reviews. So I just make lists of the things I’ve watched and read.
This year? There were two movies, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, that I loved. (Man of Steel and Spring Breakers were runners-up.) On TV, I loved Strike Back season 3 and Orphan Black season 1. And two books really blew me away, James Salter’s All That Is and Tao Lin’s Taipei.
You said “single,” but I answered in pairs.