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Interview: David Gerrold on “Night Train to Paris”

- Tell us a bit about “Night Train to Paris.”

Whenever I travel, I take a laptop so I can keep up with important email. But I’ve also found that when I travel, I also get energized with story ideas, so I open the laptop and start typing.

About ten years ago, I drove back roads from Los Angeles to Canada to visit Spider and Jeanne Robinson. The result was “The Strange Disappearance Of David Gerrold” (also published in F&SF). The story was inspired by a sign I saw on a private hunting reserve, and I started wondering what they were hunting. While staying with Spider and Jeanne, I wrote the story, finishing it in three or four days.

“Night Train To Paris”was the same kind of lucky accident. I was in Italy for a Star Trek convention. Italy is a country that has so much great art and architecture and history that you could spend a lifetime there and still not see it all. The best you can ever do is take a lick of icing off the side of this deliciously beautiful cake. After the convention, I planned to stay in Europe for another three weeks, just soaking up as much as I could.

One of the things I love about Europe is the convenience of the train systems. I love trains and Europe has some of the best train rides in the world. But this time, I miscalculated. As described in the story, there’s no convenient train from Milan to anywhere in the south of France. I could only catch the night train to Paris if I wanted to go on. So the descriptions of the Milan train station (and the beggars) are taken from what I experienced.

- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

There have been some great horror stories set on trains. It’s a kind of ‘locked room’ on wheels, this great dark tube rattling through the night, with unknown mysteries inside and out. What’s really lurking in the darkness?

I don’t remember the exact moment when I started thinking that there might be something stalking the train, but I remember that I started the story in my hotel room in Paris.
I was exhausted from the long train ride without proper sleep, so I slept half the morning after arriving, woke up bleary-eyed, went out for some food and cold medicine, walked around a dark moody part of Paris I’d never seen before, came back to my hotel eventually, and not yet tired enough to sleep, sat down and started writing. I had a vaguely-formed idea of the train ride, a character named Claudio, and the mystery of people disappearing from the train. And I had a sense of a scary ending.

I worked on the story a little bit every day, but I didn’t finish it until I got to England. When I got to the very last paragraph, the very last line—I typed a very different punch line than the one I had been imagining. In fact, I don’t even remember the original intention anymore.

- “Night Train to Paris” seems to have an autobiographical feel to it.  Is writing yourself into your work something you do often?

A lot of my writing is autobiographical. “The Martian Child” in particular is 95% based on actual events. “The Kennedy Enterprise” is a satirical narrative of my life set in an alternate time line. “The Strange Disappearance…” (mentioned above) happened because of a sign I saw on a California backwoods road. “Chester” and “A Shaggy Dog Story” were both about dogs who’ve shared my life. I can point to a lot of other moments in various stories that came out of various moments in my life.
When I started writing professionally and began meeting other science fiction writers, I was delighted at the smorgasbord of ideas that writers talk about —but disappointed that these same people didn’t also have the time machines and starships and robots that they wrote about so believably. That’s how much I wanted to believe that all these marvelous worlds were real and that the authors were really just reporters. Because that’s the kind of writer I want to be.
When I write a story, I want to climb into it, wrap it all around myself, live inside it so completely that when I’m writing, I’m reporting what it feels like from the inside. The way the train clatters and rocks, the flickering of light and shadow on the windows, the smell of diesel and old sweat, the bottle of cheap wine. When I write like that, the story feels real to me.  It feels alive. And ultimately, I think that’s the real job of the storyteller—to create these vivid little moments that come alive for the reader as a way of illuminating another small piece of the universe.

- Is horror a genre that you write in regularly?

I’ve only written two stories that I consider horror. One is “Chester”, the other is “Night Train To Paris.” Both published in F&SF. “Chester” is a very deceptive story. The last line is a joke — only until you start thinking about the implications. Not what the little girl says, but why she says it.
To me, a horror story is about something unknown and possibly unknowable. Because as soon as you know it and understand it, it’s not horrific anymore. I’ve written some monster stories, like the books in the The War Against The Chtorr series, but as horrific as some of the events in those books might be, I don’t see that as horror—suspense, yes. But not horror. To me, horror has a supernatural element. Other writers may feel differently, but that’s how I distinguish it.

I don’t think in “horror”terms, so if and when I write a horror story, it’s a happy accident. Because I really do appreciate that cold chill that creeps up the spine when confronted with the inexplicable. I got it with the last line of “Night Train to Paris.” I still get it when I think about Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” —when Eleanor Vance asks, “Whose hand was I holding?”  <shudder!>

- What are you working on now?

I just completed a one-act play, which at the moment is called “Uncle Daddy Isn’t Invited” — but it might be called something else when it finally gets on stage. It’s not science fiction or fantasy, and it’s not horror, although there are some horrific revelations in it. It’s about two men trying to plan their wedding and discovering that there’s still a lot they don’t know about each other.

At the request of Marty Krofft, I’ve also written the first hundred pages of a novel that takes us back to the LAND OF THE LOST, the classic television series. This time around, Will and Holly’s younger brother, the one who was too little to go on the original expedition, is all grown up, he’s a real scientist now and he’s equipped an expedition to go looking for his lost family. We want to use it to springboard a reboot of the LAND OF THE LOST. There are parts of the story that I never got to tell way back when….

I’m rereading the first four books in The War Against The Chtorr series, updating the technology and fixing things that are now known to be obsolete. And I’m fighting my way through the last 30,000 words of book five, A Method For Madness.
After that, I have a couple of novellas that deserve to be expanded into novels, and another autobiographical work, called *Footnote.  So my writing schedule for the rest of the year is pretty full up.

But sometimes I interrupt myself for a really good short story idea.

- Anything else you’d like to add?

Writing is a paradoxical exercise. You’re alone in a room, talking to yourself, typing the stuff that you think is worthwhile. You’re alone, but with the intention of communicating to others—others who are removed in time and space and who may or may not ever receive that communication. It’s an act of hope, it’s an act of defiance against the obstinacy of the universe, it’s like waving a small flag that says “here I am” before the avalanche of time wipes everything away.

I can’t speak for other writers, I don’t know what goes on inside their heads, but for me, the whole thing boils down to an act of love for other human beings. I think that a lot of us start out simply wanting to understand ourselves, but I think the very best writers, the truly great writers, end up wanting to understand everyone and everything around them and then the writing becomes an attempt to explore and understand the essential foundations of the human experience as a way of becoming more human.

And science fiction—to me, that’s evidence of an even more inspiring need to become more than human, the next step toward true sentience. Sometimes we see glimmers of that condition, just enough to make us hunger and reach and sometimes for a moment to get a slippery grasp on a small piece of it. That’s the real human adventure.

“Night Train to Paris” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue of F&SF.

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