In between winning awards and teaching college courses, John Langan is a professional horror author. Langan has written various short stories, fiction collections, and novels, and his latest work is the Bram Stoker Award winning book, The Fisherman. Wanting to learn more about his career and The Fisherman, Langan allowed me to interview him for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some of your favorite stories? Are there any that you still enjoy re-experiencing?
John Langan: A lot of my childhood reading consisted of comic books, particularly Marv Wolfman and Len Wein’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four and Roy Thomas’s run on Conan the Barbarian when I was younger, and then Wolfman’s run on Teen Titans and Night Force when I was a little older. Every now and again, I run across a reprint volume of one of them, and it’s always a pleasure to revisit those stories. I also read a lot of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and some of his horror stories, as well as Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Howard’s stories hold up reasonably well, especially things like “Pigeons from Hell” and “The Horror from the Mound,” but Leiber’s work actually improves with each re-reading.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to become a professional writer? Was there a story, an author, or an instructor that you feel inspired you the most to pursue this path?
Langan: Reading Stephen King’s Christine my freshman year of high school electrified me; more than anything I had read before or after, this was the book that set me on the path to being a writer. Its effect was solidified by two of Peter Straub’s novels, Ghost Story and Shadowland, and a collection of stories by T.E.D. Klein, Dark Gods.
Yanes: You earned an MFA. How do you think going through an MFA program helped you become a better writer? Do you feel most writers should consider getting an MFA?
Langan: I’m afraid I don’t have an MFA; my graduate work has been in literature. That said, there are times I’ve wondered if I wouldn’t have been better off going for an MFA, as it would have allowed me to apply for a tenure-track university position in creative writing. I think the decision to pursue an MFA has more to do with whether the prospective student wants to pursue an academic career, in which case, I’d highly recommend it. If you’re not planning on going into academia, then you have to ask yourself to what extent you think the degree is going to help you as a writer.
Yanes: You teach creative writing at the college level. How do you feel being a creative writing teacher helps you as an author? On this note, what are some common mistakes you think new writers frequently make?
Langan: Teaching creative writing at the college level helps me constantly to (re)evaluate my ideas about writing, which is never a bad thing. Often, in the course of discussing something, I’ll realize that there’s more to it than I’d thought; sometimes, this leads to inspiration for fresh work, which is an unexpected benefit.
As for common mistakes: most of them boil down to not writing. No matter if it’s conversation with your peers, time on social media, whatever, if you’re not sitting down in front of the legal pad or computer screen, you aren’t writing. A writer who isn’t writing is not a writer.
Yanes: Your latest novel is The Fisherman. What was the inspiration for this story?
Langan: The Fisherman began as my response to Melville’s Moby Dick. I wasn’t interested in writing about whaling, which I find abhorrent, so I decided to swap freshwater fishing in for it. In the process, I discovered that my Ishmael figure was a widower, led to fishing after his wife’s early death by what he thought might be her spirit. His taking up with a co-worker, also bereaved, brought in my Ahab, while their visit to an obscure fishing spot took me into local history, specifically, the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir at the beginning of the twentieth century, which brought me to ever-more fantastic and sinister territory.
Yanes: A review of The Fisherman from the New York Times mentions that this novel took about a dozen years to write. What are some of the ways your vision for this story evolved over the years? Were there any changes you made that took you by surprise?
Langan: Somewhat to my surprise, the novel stayed largely as I had imagined it at the outset. The only place it developed substantially was in its center section, set during the building of the Reservoir. I had envisioned that part of the book as being about thirty or forty pages; as it turned out, it took up about half of the novel. I wouldn’t say the central section took me by surprise, but I had at first thought it would be more restrained than it turned out to be. In part, this was because I took to heart advice the great Jeffrey Ford had given to my friend, Laird Barron, on the writing of his first novel. “You’re going to feel the urge to play it safe,” Ford had said. “Fight that urge. Go nuts.” I did my best to follow Ford’s words.
Yanes: The descriptions of fishing as well as the rivers and streams in The Fisherman are fantastic. Were there any waterways that you used to create settings and scenes in the novel?
Langan: The Mid-Hudson Valley, where I live, is crisscrossed by rivers and streams, from the mighty Hudson, to the Walkill, the Rondout, and the Esopus, to the smaller Black Creek, Svarte Kill, and Saw Kill. The Svartkill, my fictitious river, is and isn’t the Walkill. The Reservoir is itself.
Yanes: Given how much time you spent developing these characters, would you like to revisit some of them in another story, or adapt them to another medium?
Langan: At least one of the characters from the central section plays a small but crucial part in a novella called “The Tunnel,” which takes place at roughly the same time as the construction of the Reservoir, and which I hope to have done within the next year.
Yanes: When people finish reading The Fisherman, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Langan: I hope they’ve been moved and entertained. I hope I’ve repaid the time and interest they’ve spent on my book.
Yanes: Finally, what are some projects you are working on that people can look forward to?
Langan: I’ll have a new collection of stories, Sefira and Other Betrayals, out from Hippocampus Press in the late summer/early fall. Diversion Books will be reprinting my first novel, House of Windows, in mid-July. I’ll have a new novella in Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton’s Haunted Nights, which should be out in time for Halloween.