Hell is Other People
Kaaron Warren interviewed by Alan Kelly.
In Kaaron Warren’s debut Slights, she has accomplished the rarest of things. A superb balance between visceral horror and bleak comedy, it channels a cynical and deliberately cruel philosophy and effortlessly brings weighty metaphysical and spiritual ponderings to the grotesque buffet that is this story. The book introduced me to one of the finest literary creations I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting: Stevie ‘Stephanie’ Searles, a character composed of internalised spite, anger and fury following the car-crash which led to her mother’s brutal death and gave her a fleeting glimpse of ‘The Other Side’. There is no light, there is no tunnel. It is a room, one full of people you have in tiny ways caused harm and now these distorted creatures wish to hurt you. The novel reads like a diary and follows Stevie from birthday to birthday. Things take a sinister turn as Stevie’s obsession with the room grows, leading her to bring people close to death, only to revive them at the last second. Reading Slights was like coming across that lost, perverse classic your parents tried keeping away from you. Scarier than Hitchcock, Peckinpah, early Stephen King, Barker et al, and with the sort of dark un-PC humour the Coen Brother’s and John Waters would probably kill for, Kaaron Warren is a powerful, take-no-prisoners author with an uncanny talent, a deliciously depraved flair for black comedy and a twisted nerve.
3:AM: Your novel Slights reads like personal, though slightly distorted, vignettes from the point of view of a seriously damaged – albeit always enthralling and wickedly funny – young woman. How long did it take to develop a character as layered and malevolent as Stevie Searle’s?
Kaaron Warren: I wrote the first draft of Slights in an intense three month period, then worked on it, draft by draft, for three years. The character of Stevie developed in the writing. I knew what kind of person she was, but the details of her life came out as I told the story. It began as a short story, but I had far too much to say about her for that to work.
Once I allowed myself the freedom of letting her be awful, she became very real. I knew I wanted her to be vulnerable at the same time, and I wanted to build a sense of loneliness about her.
3:AM: Slights just won a Canberra Critics award for fiction (which is non-genre), and to me is one of the finest novels I have read in years. It’s not an easy book to pin-down and that is what I loved about it. If you had to let it fall into a category, what genre would it be and why?
KW: Thank you! That’s a remarkable thing for an author to hear. I think the unrelenting nature of Slights puts it in the horror novel category. Much as I think that there are ‘non-genre’ readers who would like to read it, I also think that people need to be warned as to content. I wouldn’t like it to be marketed as a ‘dysfunctional family story that will warm your heart’, for example.
That said, there are writers like Jodi Picoult, Lionel Shriver, Hilary Mantel and Alice Sebold who are writing very dark novels, tackling hard topics and not holding back. So I do think there is room in the wider market for Slights and the other stories I write.
3:AM: The premise: that there is a room where we will visit once we die wherein every individual we’ve wounded in what might seem an inconsequential way is terrifying, that there is a pettiness to this Hell which reflects Stevie’s personality. Am I on the right track?
KW: That’s pretty insightful. She can be petty, in that she’s very unconcerned with the small niceties at the same time. One of the things I tried to explore was the fact that Stevie commits many terrible acts, things that move way beyond slights, and does so without guilt. At the same time she can remember the people she has slighted and sometimes feel some small regret. I was thinking about the way we focus on the small things in life, and let the big things slip.
It’s partly a instruction not to allow yourself to care about these small things in life. If some stressed woman pushes in front of you at the supermarket with her two items…so what? Unless it really matters, let it go. She probably needs that two minutes more than you do.
3:AM: You have a natural flair for the blackest, bleakest and most barbaric comedy. Stevie is one of the funniest “villains” in literature and so quotable (well, if you want your nose broken, I hasten to add). The book is also one of pitch black and unrelentingly visceral terror. Did you enjoy the freedom of writing a character as punishing and wounding as Stevie? I imagine it must’ve been quite cathartic?
KW: Very glad you found Stevie funny. This is one of the things that makes me happiest about the way the book has been received. I cracked myself up writing about her, when she was funny. The fake diary, and her interactions with her sister-in-law in particular were a lot of fun. Feeding her vegetarian nieces meat pies. In most of my stories there is a hint of humour. I think horror and humour are a natural match. I often talk about this scenario I’ve seen many times: a person will run across the road, thinking they’re safe but realising halfway across they’ve taken a risk. They’ll run faster, laughing. Always laughing. They don’t think it’s funny. It’s fear.
Again, you’re insightful in seeing that there was freedom in building a character like Stevie, who says exactly what she thinks, who can be deliberately cruel but also intentionally funny, is a lot of fun to play with. I especially loved the character of Maria, playing with that interaction.
3:AM: Slights is a meditation on family, trauma, secrets and alienation. What first provoked (I know, interesting choice of word) you to write this novel?
KW: It began with the idea that we all create our own hells. I went from there to wondering about the different hells people might create. I’m not sure how I struck on the idea of a hell full of the slighted. Probably when I sat next to someone smelly on the bus and got annoyed about it.
I wanted to think of an afterlife that didn’t begin with a shining light, or with dead relatives waiting to welcome you. The hell I imagined was a place full of people who mean nothing. As Stevie says, “They are nobody to me; and yet they wish me ill.”
3:AM: You’ve spoken of your obsession with the body in horror and Slights does have its share of body horror. For you, what links our bodies to horror?
KW: It’s the visceral connection we have to our bodies, and the startling physical reaction we have when talking about bodily functions. I like drawing the reader in so they can relate to the characters and to the story at a physical level. Even small things work, like a character cupping their hand to their mouth to check for bad breath.
I’m obsessed with body image and the way it makes people behave. The extremes people will go to for what they think of as perfection, and the bigotry against those considered different. We can all relate to blood and disease, death, pain. Beginnings and endings, surprise births and terrible deaths.
KW: Walking the Tree is set on the island of Botanica, which is almost completely filled by an ancient, massive tree. Communities live around the tree, each independent and having small contact with their neighbours. When the young women reach maturity, they become teachers, circumnavigating the Tree with young charges, having sex with the men of the varied communities, seeking a place to stop where they feel they will be happy.
I explored how circumstances affect how a community grows, and how the tree would affect all their lives and beliefs. I wrote the story twice; you can read it through the eyes of the teacher, Lilah, or through the eyes of one of the students, Morace.
Mistification is the story of Marvo, a magician, who grew up hidden in a secret room of a large mansion. He emerges at 12, with only his grandmother’s words, and the images from a silent TV as lessons. Everything he learns from then comes to him in the form of stories.
My first contact with Angry Robot came through another Australian writer who recommended me to them when they were first looking for authors. Fortunately, they liked the proposals for all three books and then the books themselves.
3:AM: You’re also a master/mistress of the short-form with two collections: The Grinding House and Dead Sea Fruit. While you’re working on a commission like a novel, do you write shorts in-between? What I mean is, how volatile are you with your subject(s), can you devote a chunk of time to one project and later put it on the back-burner and work on another? I’m always curious about this…
KW: I always have a few things going at the same time. When I wrote Slights, I also wrote a short story called ‘The Speaker of Heaven’, about a woman who sees the different heavens of the terminally ill. Very much a balancing story to Slights. While working on Walking the Tree, I wrote four or five of my ‘Fiji Stories’. I was so inspired while living there, but a lot of what I was seeing and thinking couldn’t make it into the novel.
I’m often asked for stories now, and I hate to say no to most opportunities, so at the moment, as well as finishing novel number four, I’m writing two short shorts and three longer stories. I always have lots of ideas and images running around, don’t want them all in the same place. So I will work on different things each day.
3:AM: If Slights was optioned for the screen who would be your ideal director? And what actress could you see fill Stevie’s shoes?
KW: Now wouldn’t that be nice! I’ve always thought either Claudia Karvan or Radha Mitchell, two brilliant Australian actresses, would be perfect for Stevie. Darren Aronofsky for director, with music by Clint Mansell.
When we launched Slights in Fiji, the Australian High Commissioner made a playlist of songs he thought suited the book – ‘Stephanie Says’ Velvet Underground, ‘Devil in Disguise’ Elvis Presley, ‘Devil in Her Heart’ The Beatles, ‘Double Life’ The Cars, ‘Bones’ The Killers, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ David Bowie, ‘Crippled Inside’ John Lennon, ‘Psycho Killer’ Talking Heads, ‘Into the Night’ Julee Cruise, ‘Twilight’ Antony and the Johnsons, ‘Blackbird’ Sarah McLachlan, ‘Bird on a Wire’ Leonard Cohen, ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ The Beatles, ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ Bob Dylan, ‘I Float Alone’ Julee Cruise, ‘Breathe Me’ Sia. I’d love to have these songs as the soundtrack.
3:AM: One final question, do you believe Stevie’s room might be waiting for us all?
KW: God, I hope not. That’d be really irritating, don’t you think? All those slighted people with nothing better to do.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 18th, 2011.