Author J.S. Breukelaar’s newest collection Collision: Stories brings together a dozen wonderfully strange, genre-crossing tales. Hot on the heels our Hellnotes review (here), we are fortunate enough to have J.S. here with us as part of ongoing blog tour! Please enjoy the discussion below and enter Meerkat Press’s giveaway for your chance to win a copy of Collision.
Hellnotes: First off, congratulations on your new collection Collision! Before I start asking you all sorts of byzantine and picayune questions, could you start by telling us a little about yourself and what kind of stories readers will find in Collision?
J.S. Breukelaar: Thank you! I’m a US expat writer living with my family in my adopted Australia where I also teach. Prior to Collision I’ve had two novels published, American Monster and Aletheia, which was nominated for an Aurealis Award. Also, the stories in Collision are collected from stories published over the last eight years, since 2011, and include some new works, including a novella. The themes in the collection are loosely arranged around the idea of colliding—worlds, genres, genders, desires, styles, ways of being human, and not. So sf intruding into horror like in “The Box” which is also about death intruding into love and vice versa. Or “Rogues Bay 3013” a horror-sf story that looks at what happens when the monster tries to create its own human. Kind of. Or the title story which is a post-2016 election world in collision with other bubbles in a terminal multiverse. Or the horror of not being able to get back to your kids skewered around an Orpheus-in-the-Underworld — “Raining Street.”
HN: It feels somewhat obligatory to ask you if you have a favorite story in the collection, but we won’t go down that route. Instead, could you tell us if there is a particular story in the collection that you found easier to write than the others? What about one that was more “difficult,” whatever the nature of the challenge?
JSB: That is easy to answer. The title story, “Collision,” was the hardest for me to write because of the physics in collision with the way I was still reeling from the 2016 elections. I wanted to set the latter as a collision of multiverses but the emotional baggage kept on threatening to drown everything. The story became easier to write once I let that happen. When I allowed the flesh and blood to turn on the conceptual stuff, chew it up and spit it out. Maybe walk all over it for good measure. That’s when it became a story. The easiest was “Union Falls,” which was one of the first stories I ever wrote and it came out of that raw urgent place where everything is possible. And “Ava Rune,” which surprised me, because it was one of the most recent stories I wrote set in my adopted country and up until then I felt that I wouldn’t be able to inhabit the vibe. But as I wrote I realized that my protagonists could be in but not of this place, not exactly displaced but instead, unplaced, like me. That grounded Ava’s predicament in an authenticity that I didn’t think I’d be able to mine. When another friend of mine, the great expat writer, Seb Doubinsky, responded at a visceral level to that story, I knew I had something.
HN: Having read the stories in Collision, what I am most struck by in each one is the kernel of the emotional experience in each one. In some authors’ work, it seems like the stories are organized around a character, an event, an image, or an argument, but in yours I find that the lingering resonances come from the strangeness that works towards an emotional effect. That, though, is just my own attempt to process them in hindsight. When you’re developing a story, is there a particular grain of sand you build that pearl around? Or does the process just happen?
JSB: Just happens if I let it. Solitude, concentration, need. I have a process, of course, but those come first. A character in a tight spot. Press play. My job is to tell that slant.
HN: The first time that I encountered your work was in the online workshop “Writing the Weird” at Litreactor. There is a movement towards reinvestigating and reinstating the Weird in literature but everyone seems to have their own idea of what is “Weird.” In my mind (and only mine), the sine qua non of the Weird is an intrusion into the everyday world by a system or organization that has its own rules and guidelines but whose entirety is incomprehensible to our limited perceptions. Could you tell us what “Weird” means to you and what it is about this which attracts you? What does working in this milieu offer you that strict realism or more typical genre work doesn’t?
JSB: Wow. I love that definition and I can’t think of a better one just now. Or maybe ever. To me the weird is an intrusion of one world into another, like Pynchon says, and that is also a portal, an exit sign to some half-dark place lit by trashcan fires and green rays. Kelly Link’s story, “The Hortlak,” is a perfect example of that. A convenience store at the crossroads of life and death, traversed by animal rescue volunteers and Zombies who crawl out of the void to buy napkins and dental floss. I mean weird fiction looks at the impossibility of processing in indifferent universe without either taking the Cormac McCarthy route which is to risk our very souls to the ravening wolves of bad intent, or the Kelly Link route which is the idea of quantum indifference—one that becomes anthropomorphized the moment we begin to observe or even think about it. That gives it teeth and a dread will, and that, to borrow from the title of her amazing collection, is the way we get in trouble. I mean weird fiction is Helen Marshall weird or Michael Wehunt weird or Karen Joy Fowler weird and on and on. As Stephen Graham Jones says it’s also Cheever weird and Shakespeare weird and always has been. That’s what it offers me. Artistic freedom. But I’d take that even if it wasn’t offered.
For a long time I didn’t know what my work was. I was always “too literary” to “be genre” and vice versa. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. “Ava Rune” pretty much stays within the bounds of Gothic—pretty much—while, with a story like “Rogues Bay 3013” I know it’s going to head off in weird, mashed-up directions. Ditto the novella at the end, Like Ripples on a Blank Shore. I begin with a regular Joe finding out his brother was always a sister; tie that into a Zombie infestation, and a broken bride, and boom! Before I know it some robotics jerk pops up mansplaining about the Uncanny Valley, and I’m in Weirdland. But I know where I am now, and I didn’t before, when I first started in this business.
HN: One of my own recent interests in the Weird has been its potential for transcendent or even ecstatic revelation as opposed to cosmic nihilism. In some of your stories, explicitly in “Rogues Bay 3013” and more subtly in “War Wounds” and “Union Falls,” I can see these kinds of threads. I wonder what you think of this potential — the “awe” of the awesome, if you will. Is this a quality that you intentionally set out to explore? Is it something that you see in the Weird?
JSB: Yes, definitely. I mean not intentionally but when you think about it, cosmic nihilism is its own religion, right, and offers its own transcendences. So for authors as for anyone, it’s just a matter of choosing your reverences, or in many cases, your irreverences. I was writing these answers pretty much at the same time as I was participating in a podcast interview with the people at The Outer Dark, and Scott said that some of my stories make him feel sticky, like needing to take a shower—which he assured me was a good thing! I guess like how getting caught in the rain makes you feel almost like that. Like you’re already wet but not wet enough. And I think that’s what I’m attracted to in irreverencies like weird fiction, Edge Fiction as Seb Doubinsky calls it. The idea that seepage-wise, you can keep pulling your toe back, but never far enough, because maybe you don’t want to. Maybe there’s a part of you that wants, needs, something about the awe to stick.
HN: One thing I loved about your collection was how the voices in each one are different, although some of them seem to share the same sensibility. Sometimes, in less assured prose by other authors, the narrative voice comes across as a merely functional choice and they miss the opportunity to approach the narrator (even if it’s third-person) as a separate character with its own voice and own worldview. I don’t feel that in your stories, but I was wondering if that’s a conscious element of your writing? Do you create a “narrator” for each story before you begin, or is it something that develops as you write? Do you ever consciously adopt narrative voices that are closer or further away from what you consider your “own” voice?
JSB: Wow. Yeah, thanks. The narrator is always unreliable, in my experience. An invested, afflicted, subjective g/host, who haunts the narrative because of some kind of unfinished business of their (my) own. It’s not a conscious choice for me because no matter how much of me there is in one or more of my characters, there’s always that excess (seepage?) or abject part of the author that haunts the narrative in the form of the g/hostly “teller” who is almost but not quite the creator. It’s like Thomas Pynchon says, “At the heart of the story, most crucial and worrisome, is the defective way in which my narrator, almost but not quite me, deals with the subject of death.”
That narrator, I think it comes out of the voice the story needs in collision with the story I want to tell, to answer your second question. I always thought voice was something you had to control and it made me anxious. Discovering through practice, and through reading and watching noir, for example, made me realize that it was exactly the opposite. The story needs one voice, and your characters have another, and that collision creates its own kind of whodunnit.
HN: I’ve stayed away from it for this long, but our readers who are also authors would come after me if I didn’t ask you: What’s your best piece of writing advice? Also, since I didn’t want to ask that previous one but had to, what’s the worst piece of writing advice that you’ve ever been given?
JSB: For my money, one of the most important things to get your head around is structure. Once you have that in mind, you can better bend it out of shape around a clear character arc. A great example of this in a story—which you’d be familiar with, Gordon—is Stephen Graham Jones’ “Little Lambs.” Here you have a literal structure, an abandoned, relocated prison, which is constantly shifting, evading definition, even location—but the arc of the central character, learning to let go of his daughter, to trust his story to the Structure, is at the heart of it and makes it unforgettable. In a novel, John Langan’s The Fisherman comes to mind. Abmyssal as hell, but the bereft characters’ emotional arcs are the rickety bridge from one side to the other. Wondering if the emotional bridge is going to hold, and what if it doesn’t, gives the story its real tension. In my story “Raining Street,” what Rebel wants (maybe) is to bring her wife back from the underworld. But what she needs is to protect her kids—her and Jules’s kids. In fiction as in life, when wants collide with needs it’s a reckoning, and it might be too late. She’s in a waking nightmare—which is maximally weird and shifting and uncertain—but her real fear (in the third act) is that she might never get back to her kids. What then? The impact is hopefully more than it might have been if I hadn’t tried to make that emotional arc as clear as I could.
It’s like that piece of advice we get about not showing the whole monster all at once, holding off until the end and maybe not even then. That’s not sleight of hand. That’s POV. That’s character. True terror never reveals itself to us from all of its angles.
The only bad advice I’ve ever had is from that old trickster, Self-Doubt. Lalalalalala.
HN: Finally, what’s coming up on your horizon? While we’re certainly interested in any upcoming releases and ongoing projects, let’s also hear about something less concrete. Are there any new ideas or interests that are only just starting to coalesce but that you’re excited to explore?
JSB: I’m busy finishing a novel set in the same universe as “Rogues Bay 3013.” A story about twins who are not what they seem. This is a fairly new area I’m working in and I’m elbows deep in fleshing out this not-quite future-world which is a collision of western mythologies with not-quite Antipodean geographies skewered around a monstrous patriarchal will! Aren’t you glad you asked? Once that’s done I’ve got some stories I need to finish. Lots of coalescence in the cauldron.
J.S. Breukelaar is the author of Collision: Stories, the Aurealis-nominated novel Aletheia, and American Monster, a Wonderland Award finalist. She has published stories, poems, and essays in publications such as Gamut, Black Static, Unnerving, Lightspeed, Lamplight, and elsewhere. She is a columnist and regular instructor at LitReactor.com. California-born and New York raised, she currently lives in Sydney, Australia with her family. You can find her at www.thelivingsuitcase.com and twitter.com/jsbreukelaar.
The sky bulged above the diner at the edge of town. Cassi let the heavy curtains drop back over the window. She had tried to nap but now sat up with her legs over the edge of the bed. It was the middle of the day, and formless shadows made the walls of the room recede into nothing. She once again peeked through the windows at the ominous sky. The collision was coming sooner than she thought, than any of them thought. Her computer screen pulsed at the desk, encrypted messages waterfalling down the screen. She reached for her phone to check an incoming text message—surely her colleagues in the scientific community were as alarmed by the herniated sky as she was.
But the message was only from her brother, Issac.
That was it. Her phone splished again and she opened a garbled audio message of him crying out, “But why?” Cassi held the phone at arm’s length. The question sounded as loud as if her brother were in the next room. But that was impossible. Issac had left for school hours ago. She checked her watch. The lunchtime bell had just rung. In the background of the message, more faintly, Cassi could hear a jumble of quaint words that she had almost forgotten: “fairy,” “fruit,” and “fag.”
Cassi stared at the phone as if it were a foreign object, something from the future that was already past. The words were from another time that would, Cassi had once promised Issac, never hurt him again.
They were their father’s words.
Even though she could see that he was typing again, she texted back, Where are you? and the answer came before she finished: In the first-floor bathroom.
He was eight years younger than her, a junior at Fairstate High. Cassi taught physics at the same school, except on Mondays, her day off, when she tried to catch up on her own research. Today though, she had spent most of the time in the dark staring through the curtains at the terrible sky.
Another audio message came in from her brother, and more garbled yelling. If she didn’t know that he was in the bathroom (he liked to use the unisex facility on the first floor) she would think that he was watching a movie with his arty friends. Mostly pale and fragile creatures, unlike tall, ruddy Issac, they wore Stranger Things T-shirts and huddled in one of the small screening rooms at lunchtime, eating leftovers from home and discussing The Fall of the House of Usher and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But how could Issac be watching movies in the unisex facility on the first floor? And anyway, these weren’t movie screams.
They were real.
She pulled her sneakers on, the tattoo on the back of her ankle faded to a vascular blue. Then she was outside in the high, bright white of noon, pedaling toward the school, desperate to get there before that bubble burst in the sky. Their neighborhood diner, where Issac sometimes hung out, loomed ahead at the junction. But just before she could turn off toward the town, the sidewalk split open, and Cassi went flying into space. Everything went dark and the bike felt pulled out from under her by a hidden hand. Then she was lying on the ground blinking through her tears at the bulging sky.
“Issac?” she screamed toward wherever her phone had landed.
“Who?” A waitress from the diner stood over Cassi with hands on her hips, splaying emerald-green fingernails that glittered in the sun.
Cassi heard the waitress’s words echo off the sidewalk, multiply into a chorus of croaks, and circle back to ask her again: Yes, tell us who.
The whirr of spinning bicycle wheels broke through the echo, and Cassi side-eyed the huge gash in the asphalt—would she have seen it in time? She felt foolish now. Her knee stung and her shoulder throbbed where it had hit the pavement. The waitress wore a name tag that said Alphonso Jaya, the name of Issac’s friend who worked at the diner.
“You’re not Alphonso,” Cassi said to cover up her embarrassment. She tried to push herself to a sitting position. The crack in the sidewalk heaved beneath her like she was something indigestible—the pale ground pushing her back to where she came from, to where she should be. “My brother’s in trouble over at the school.”
“Alphonso?” the waitress said.
Cassi was Issac’s legal guardian, had been for five years, since she turned twenty-one and moved them back to town from their cousins’ farm. Their cousins were significantly removed in geography and blood lines, and much older than the siblings—more like an aging aunt and uncle. They were too old to raise a couple of kids—runaways that family gossip told them they should have seen coming—but as Cousin Emily primly said, you never see the obvious until it’s right in front of you, and sometimes not even then. Anyway, they had done their best. They took Issac and Cassi to church every Sunday, allowed them to bathe on Saturday afternoons once their chores were done, and never laid a hand on them. They never used the names Cassi had run away from (“fairy,” “fruit,” “fag”) and eventually Issac, and the world, moved on.
But Cassi never forgot. She still heard those names in her dreams, remembered how they scared her, even more than the man—their father—who used them. The names had a life of their own, she knew, and like all evil things, would find what they were looking for.