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Interview: Kurt Fawver on “Special Collections”

Kurt FawverTell us a bit about “Special Collections.”

“Special Collections” is, at its heart, a story about stories–the stories we tell to each other to make sense of the insanity of our world, the stories we tell to make sense of ourselves and our behavior, and the stories we tell over campfires in the darkest hours of the night.

More specifically, though, it’s a tale that focuses on a particular group of work-study students who have become obsessed with a particular room at the university library where they’re employed. It explores some of the strange events these students (as a cross-generational collective) have experienced in the many decades they’ve worked at the library and it reveals some of the history that went into the making of their haunted little corner of the universe. It also delves into the psychology of their group–showing the reader how they’ve reacted to the events and how they’ve attempted to understand the mystery with which they’re confronted.

 

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

I teach a lot of night classes at a local university and so I walk by the school’s library under a blanket of darkness several times per week. As I pass by, I always wonder what must be happening on the upper floors of the library after hours. It’s a fairly large, four story building with plenty of strange, locked rooms and miles of generally uninhabited stacks. There are innumerable horrors and wonders that could be lurking in there (not even counting the horrors and wonders stealing about between the covers of all the books). It fascinates me how places that are bustling during the day–like the library or the university’s academic buildings or a shopping mall or a hospital–are often the locales that take on the most peaked sense of creepiness when they’re vacant. I wanted to expand on that idea and the notion that a library, which is a natural location of accretion, might be founded atop many rich layers of weird history.

In the past two or three years, I’ve also discovered the work of Steven Millhauser, which has been a revelation. The way he manipulates first person plural narration is remarkable. Through it, he manages to create something akin to parables: universal stories that locate themselves in anywheres and everywheres, that are primarily concerned with conveying fundamental truths of broadly defined “human nature,” that speak of a “we” as close to collective humanity as anything I’ve ever read. And they do all this without ever dipping into a didactic tone, which is so often the case with stories that try to expound on “basic truth.” It was partially my goal to try to construct a story that might incorporate a similar narrative reach.

I’m also extremely partial to the work of Thomas Ligotti and his view of work as conspiracy. I think a bit of that notion seeped into the work-study experience for the students in the story, as well.

So, couple my curiosity about the nocturnal life of the university library with the narrative reach of Millhauser and add a dash of Ligotti’s sensibility, and you have “Special Collections.”

 

You were able to imbue a great sense of history and lore into this story: could you discuss your process and any ways that it was different or more difficult from writing, say, a Cthulhu story or a vampire story, where a lot of background and assumptions are already baked in?

For “Special Collections” the writing process was actually far easier than for a Cthulhu story or vampire story or any other kind of tale with an established mythos. In those stories, you’re constrained by the existing tropes and taxonomic boundaries of the particular “type” of character you’re writing about. You can either write to those tropes and boundaries and create pastiche (or parody) or you can write against them and expand the definition of the monstrous figure in tangential or subversive ways. In either scenario, though, you’re forced to deal with and acknowledge the figure’s history–either by incorporation or through subversion. You can never fully escape the discursive nets that literary icons like Cthulhu or vampires drag in their wakes. After all, how does one write a vampire tale without including a figure that drains SOMETHING from SOMEONE? Or craft a Cthulhu story that doesn’t imply a tenuous (or outright inconsequential) place for humanity in the greater cosmic scheme? The baked in-ness of the established figures simply don’t allow for the full flight of creative freedom.

And that’s exactly why, for me, it’s much easier to write a story like “Special Collections.” I don’t have to reckon with any particular background or assumptions and so I can explore themes and ideas beyond the scope of vampirism or Cthulhu-osity. I can let the story travel down any strange back roads that it chooses, without having to worry about whether my readers will follow due to their expectations or preconceptions about what this “kind” of story “should” be like. When I wrote “Special Collections,” I only considered whether an incident made sense within the peculiar logic of the library I’d created, not whether it fit a larger mythos. Ultimately, I think that’s both freeing for me and more interesting for readers, who won’t know quite what to expect from the eponymous special collections room.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m fairly scattershot when it comes to my projects. Right now I’m hammering away on a weird apocalyptic novella that might eventually grow to novel length, finishing up a story in a similar vein to “Special Collections” that deals with unexplained masses falling from the sky, and trying to piece together a folk horror tale that plays on ideas of ruined utopias. I can never seem to concentrate on just one piece of writing at a time, possibly to my detriment. I’ll blame that on watching too much television as a kid, I guess.

 

novella by Kurt FawverAnything else you’d like to add?

It’s an honor and a privilege to have a story included in F&SF. I hope that readers enjoy the weird horror I’ve wrought!

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Special Collections” appears in the November/December 2016 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1611.htm

You can subscribe to F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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