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Interview: David Erik Nelson on “All Hail the Pizza King and Bless His Reign Eternal”

Author photo of David Erik NelsonF&SF: How do you describe this story to people? We mean, besides just telling them the title and letting that speak for you.

DEN: Oh, man, I’m terrible at synopsizing my stories; that’s the whole reason I formulate titles like this.

That said, when I hear folks talk about this story, they mostly characterize it as something like “a tricky pizza demon story” or “there’s a hellmouth in a pizza oven”—and then quickly add “it sounds ridiculous, but it works!”

That’s nice of them to say, but I don’t think of it that way really. In my head, this is a story about sisters, and about all the crap jobs that fall to women. I saw Joseph Chilton Pearce speak once, back when I was still a teacher, and he said something that’s stuck with me ever since: “Men are powerful, but women are immensely, immensely strong.” So this story is about that, too: About the difference between power and strength. To me at least. Probably I should listen to my readers: It’s a pizza demon story—that sounds ridiculous, but it works!

(As an aside, my current goal is to sell you a story that has a whole other story embedded in the title. I’m getting closer, Charlie. I’m gonna get there, sooner or later.)

F&SF: What made you decide to write this story right now?

DEN: I didn’t. I actually wrote this back in early 2018, completing the draft in just two weeks (which is maybe a record for me). But it didn’t really become the story it is now until late that year. I listened to every word of Christine Blasey Ford’s congressional testimony—which included her detailed account of being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh (who now sit on the US Supreme Court) when they were teens. I was in the kitchen, puttering, and something she said somewhere in the middle of her testimony stopped me dead, because it was a near perfect poem just as she spoke it. A poem like that, one spoken accidentally, hits you like lightning. It stops your heart. I wrote it down right then:

Indelible in the hippocampus
is the laughter,
the laughter,
the uproarious laughter
between the two,
and their having fun
at my expense.

And that’s when I understood what this story was really all about. It was a different story after I heard that poem, and so I rewrote it to be that story. The real monster isn’t the Pizza King and it isn’t Kip—it’s the two boys in that woman’s testimony, who appear in my story only briefly as the boot-grinding, laughing jackals in Lissa’s moment of clarity.

F&SF: What were the challenges of writing this particular story?

DEN: I feel like most of the content of this story is plagiarized from reality: Kip’s crime is basically lifted from the headlines (his real name was Kevin “Kip” Artz, of Jackson MI), the Pizza King is the Nain Rouge (more or less), and many details—names, phrases, cars, clothes, physical descriptions—are what my sister has characterized as “family-lore easter eggs.” The real writing challenge, to me, felt largely schematic: getting all of the details and incidents lined up and compressed properly so that the mechanism driving the story could actually function and folks could follow along. There are a lot of patient, patient people out there (yourself included) who gave me feedback I sorely needed in order to get this hooptie running.

F&SF: This is your fourth story for F&SF (the previous ones are “The Traveling Salesman Solution,” “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House,” and “Whatever Comes After Calcutta”). All of them have disturbing or unsettling elements, even when they’re not straight up horror. What’s the appeal or fascination with that mode of writing for you?

DEN: I’ve always loved horror. When I was small, I was equal parts fascinated and terrified by Schwartz’s original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I read my first Stephen King novel at 11 years old. The first stories I wrote were horror stories, as were the first ones I actually sold. I’ve tried going other directions in my writing, but despite what I thought, I never got far (e.g., I didn’t know “The Traveling Salesman Solution” was a horror story until I saw it pop up on Ellen Datlow’s recommended reading list for one of her Best Horror of the Year anthos). Nonetheless, I couldn’t have said why I was I was so drawn to horror until last year, when I saw Midsommar. This was the last film my wife and I saw in an actual theater. She didn’t much care for it, but I loved it, and in trying to explain to her why, I suddenly realized why I was so tangled up with horror:

Horror is the place where we most honestly explore how it is we respond to trauma. Some folks come through trauma—and are even stronger for it (all those “final girls.”) But many do not. Many are broken by what hits them. Even killed. And most of our art lies about this simple, brutal fact. Drama, romance, SF, comedy—even history!—feed (and feed off of) our optimism bias. “It won’t happen to me! I’ll come out OK! I’m one of the good ones, the strong ones, the Righteous Among the Wicked!”

Horror, in all of its over-the-top ridiculous histrionics, plays it straight in that one regard: It actually looks right into the eyes of the Worst Possible Outcome—the mass graves, the ovens, the lonely ditches, the morgues, the hospital beds, the single table setting, the blood in the gutter. And yet still, even looking in that grim place, it still shows us all the way folks cope and resist and fight, clawing their way back up for another gasp of air. They all find their way to the end, one way or another. I love the final girl, truth told. But I love the schlimazel that gets the axe in the head in the second scene, too.

I didn’t get all that just from watching Midsommar, of course (although it’s all there; that’s a helluva movie, in my humble). But it was in defending Midsommar, and thinking of the horror that had most sung to me over the last several years, that I realized why it was that I kept coming back to that well. Other stories that paved the way for me to see this in myself include the films A Dark Song; As Above, So Below; The Endless; and The Babadook; and Daryl Gregory’s excellent novella “We Are All Completely Fine.”

F&SF: What are you working on now?

DEN: The usual stuff: a music producer with special-needs son blunders into Lake Michigan cult, Jewish girl gone bad is pursued through forest by a church full of tentacles, skinheads demand their magic Torah back—all the old cliches.

You can find David Erik Nelson at these places…

Twitter: @SquiDaveo

“All Hail the Pizza King and Bless His Reign Eternal” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    2 Responses to “Interview: David Erik Nelson on “All Hail the Pizza King and Bless His Reign Eternal””

    1. Behind the Scenes of “The Pizza King” | Snip, Burn, Solder Blog on August 13th, 2020

      […] …and it goes on that way. Read more: Interview: David Erik Nelson on “All Hail the Pizza King and Bless His Reign Eternal” […]

    2. Tachyon tidbits featuring Ellen Klages, Peter Watts, Jaymee Goh, Daryl Gregory and Avram Davidson & Grania Davis - Tachyon Publications on August 25th, 2020

      […] interview at FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION with C. C. Finlay, David Erik Nelson mentions Daryl Gregory’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY […]

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