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"I was interested in creating a character who becomes a violent racist by being swept up in not just the violence around him, but in being swept up by society and broader circumstance. Too many fictional racists are nothing but that one trait: "I hait niggrah!" because, reason. Racism in the real world is too often reduced to an individual pathology."

Matthew Wascovich interviews Nick Mamatas


Enter the mind of Nick Mamatas, savage, historical, humiliatingly real, and violent. This is life in his new book, Northern Gothic, published by Soft Skull Press. North and south, black and white, gay and straight, and the only thing predictable, the only thing orderly, is an order of chaotic displacement and alienation, running through the streets of Manhattan. Each breath is a punch in the face, a smack to the brain, and all is gray-New York has said, "Hello. Now, go the fuck home." Northern Gothic reads like a multidimensional confession of snapshots from America's often overlooked Civil War Draft Riots, and the present day Chelsea neighborhood. William Patten and Ahmadi Jenkins lives may be 135 years apart, but today is a blurred yesterday, and hands are rope burned and bloodied. Welcome to the City.

3AM: Please tell us about your background, how you came to write, and the development of your novella, Northern Gothic.

NM: My background is not that of the classic literary fiction writer. No MFA, no childhood summers anywhere but my fire escape in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, no crippling addictions, no Upper East Side address. My father is an immigrant from Ikaria, Greece, the single poorest area in Europe. His was the first generation of his family to have a toilet -- he flushed his first at age 14. He got his first phone bill at age 24. My mother was an American, but whose own parents came from the same small island, which not coincidentally, was used by the UK to exile Communists after World War II.

I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, when shootings were common and where now-swank neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Park Slope and DUMBO were all just shorthand for "where to go to get stabbed in the belly for no reason." So, no outside, no Boy Scouts, no sports, etc. So I grew up inside with comic books, cartoons and mass-market paperbacks, mostly science fiction and fantasy. So, you know, brain damage.

Being a bright kid, I liked writing. I actually wanted to be an astronaut, natch, but there wasn't much call for those, so I thought I'd get involved in film, since I really liked movies about space better than space. And I did get involved in the industry -- I shot industrial and educational videos, worked as a gaffer and best boy on two feature films, videotaped operations and depositions, and did pretty much anything else, while studying media at the New School for Social Research. A friend of mine from a socialist group I was then a member of asked me to help him translate a book about an urban uprising in Korea in 1980. It took us four years of disappointment and work to get it to a publisher, but Kwangju Diary (UCLA APM, 1999) did finally come out and was even reviewed in the New York Review of Books by James Fenton.

In 1996 film work dried up and I ran out of money. Rather than temp, I sat in Barnes & Noble's big box store on 23rd Street in Manhattan and read three novels a day -- I found myself back in the science fiction section. After an eviction case, which I actually won because my landlords had locked my window guards, I moved to Long Island, where my folks had relocated, and got a job writing term papers for college kids from an ad to the Village Voice. A few months of commuting from LI to Jersey City was enough for me, so I found a cheap apartment and a crazy 17 year-old girlfriend and moved to NJ to write term papers full time. I also got back into reading science fiction and started my first short stories, while working on Kwangju Diary.

Northern Gothic comes out of that time. I ran across a call for "Civil War ghost stories" for an anthology and wrote a story called "Acts Of Conscription" for it -- a ghost from the Civil War Draft Riots comes back to haunt a modern-day Chelsea resident. I figured most people wouldn't write stories set in the North and I was right. The story was lauded for its style and story, but was rejected for being too violent. It also got a slew of rejections from other magazines and anthologies, but John Pelan's rejection explained, "This isn't a story, it's the first chapter of a kick-ass novel."

At about the same time, Kwangju Diary was released and I parlayed it into jobs at and Soft Skull Press, and started freelancing for webzines. When I finally sold a short story in early 2000, I decided to pitch an expansion of the ghost story to Soft Skull and they took it. And we were off to the races.

The story changed significantly because I was now onto my fourth group of NYC friends. Now called Northern Gothic, the story was a poison pen letter to Manhattan and to all the people I've known who came to the city to make it big, sent the rents skyrocketing and infested the scene, only to run back to Ann Arbor or Columbus or Fresno once mama's money ran out. You know the type. They struggle along in publishing or the music industry for a few years and decorate their apartments with strings of chili pepper lights and mannequin torsos. They own (and sometimes actually wear) feather boas. And nearly all of them gained their romantic notions of Manhattan and life in it from dog-eared high school library books. Northern Gothic was supposed to be an antidote for that, my way of saying, "New York is full. Go home."

3AM: Racism, fear, and alienation are prominent themes in Northern Gothic. What was the motivation behind these themes?

NM: I was interested in creating a character who becomes a violent racist by being swept up in not just the violence around him, but in being swept up by society and broader circumstance. Too many fictional racists are nothing but that one trait: "I hait niggrah!" because, reason. Racism in the real world is too often reduced to an individual pathology. Even when Nazis take to the street and chant "Seig Heil!" the anti-racist protestors (most of them white and middle class) too often respond with the chant of "Seek help!" as if a few hours at a shrink will make everything better. Racism is a social phenomenon, not an individual one, and I wanted to take a character from a state of rarely having had a thought about race to being a racist, and I wanted it to be a character who the reader would, at first, sympathize with.

3AM: How do suggest anti-racist protestors respond?

NM: By, in the days and weeks before the Nazis appear, going to the town the demo will be in, working with unions, progressive churches, community groups, social clubs and other everyday folks and getting so many people to attend the counter demo that any Nazi chant will be drowned out by the sheer numbers of counter protestors -- the locals, not professional Nazi-taunters, should be in the leadership positions and decide chants, tactics, etc. Of course, the more militant the demo, the better. Personally, while I don't want there to be any laws against freedom of expression, I have no problem with large groups of ordinary people using force to drive the Nazis off.

Of course, lots of cops will show up and will invariably attempt to shield the Nazis. There is no particular reason to cooperate with the police in this case, as members of a community can usually take care of themselves and can decide for themselves how to eject the Nazis from their town.

3AM: What are the roles of fear and alienation in Northern Gothic?

NM: Fear is a gimmie. Northern Gothic is a gothic tale, after all! The classic gothic framework is a young, virginal woman in a huge castle that is tainted by some past crime or sin. She gets a prediction of doom, falls for the wrong person and then confronts the taint of the past. In Northern Gothic, I swapped out the woman and put in a naive gay man, swapped out the castle for Manhattan, and the taint of the city is the Civil War Draft Riots. The Riots, in spite of being the deadliest in US history and in spite of setting the tone for city politics (the rise of the Democratic party machine, almost tribal voting patterns, neighborhoods with particular ethnic mixes) is all but unknown by even long-time residents and is entirely unknown to most of the new young kids who come here and drive up the rents.

As far as alienation, well, you have to write what you know!

3AM: What aspects of your characters, William Patten and Ahmadi Jenkins, do you enjoy? or despise? I see a quiet perseverance in both that is admirable.

NM: I definitely like the perseverance they both have. I tend to dislike both of their go-along-to-get-along-anything-to-belong attitudes, which get both of them in trouble. Additionally, both have the power to ignore reality. Wishful thinking is bad news. I do like that both of them don't mind diving in the middle of things though -- it is just a matter of choosing where one stands that is the problem.

3AM: Other than "New York is full. Go home." - What other points are you attempting to make in your novella?

NM: It's always odd to be asked "Well, what did you really mean?" Partially, one doesn't know until the book is done -- I write as much to find out what I am thinking as I do to tell people what I'm thinking. I do want people to look at the draft riots, and to think about history generally. We're all sitting atop a pile of corpses and on the shoulders of giants. You just have to pick which little mound you'll own.

And of course, there is the general question that all dark fantasy asks: "The world is weirder and larger than you think. Can you handle it, tough guy?" With any luck, reading the book will help that answer be a confident yes.

3AM: What kind of response has Northern Gothic received?

NM: The critical response has been impressive. Positive reviews, even from "hard" reviewers like John Grant, the co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, have made me very happy. The book was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for horror/dark fantasy fiction, and not thanks to logrolling or campaigning. Rather, it was chosen by the Special Additions Jury. They read through hundreds and hundreds of books and stories and can name only one entry per category to make the final nominations ballot. This year, I was one of only two things to be added by the jury. It was also recommended for the Spectrum Award for gay-themed speculative fiction (i.e., science fiction, fantasy and horror), which was a nice surprise.

The response from the reading public has been odd. Obviously, a small press book with an unconventional narrative, no hero and no happy ending, and of only novella-length, is going to have problems up against John Grisham in the chain stores. Even with those weaknesses though, the book has been adopted by both genre readers and readers of literary fiction, even if we are only talking of the smartest .001% of these groups. That's fine by me though.

3AM: What is the feeling that you get around NYC-metro these days? With the current administration geared up and gearing up for more action, what is the word on the streets?

NM: Depends on which street. Bloomie won't be as bad as Rudy, not because he's nicer and more of a bridge builder but simply because the austerity regime Giuliani put in place in the early 1990s is virtually complete. There's just not much left to do.

On the streets, the situation is mixed. Anti-gentrification efforts in Brooklyn are being led by indie rock kids from Cleveland who have arbitrarily decided that anyone who showed up in Williamsburg after they did are the gentrifiers. Some squats on the Lower East Side have been sold to their residents, and this is a good thing. It's telling that these aren't the hardcore crusty punk anarchist-vegan squats, the ones that are mostly run by trust fund kids who think showering is a political act. These squats are ones that were taken over by ordinary people who became politicized after they were squeezed out of the normal rental market. Practicality led to radicalism, not principles learned from the liner notes of someone's older brother's punk 45s.

That's going to be the key. Most of the current crop of activists are simply working out their personal issues on the canvas of the city: white people talking about their own 'internalized racism' (where else would it be, in a colostomy bag?) rather than, you know, talking to people of color; middle-class radicals who turn reactionary once some kids smoke a little pot on their precious stone stoops, and nuts who think Osama bin Laden is some sort of Nat Turneresque freedom fighter predominate. It is nearly impossible to even sell a political article about the war or the anti-war movement to the Village Voice these days in such an environment. Politics from below are just not taken seriously.

That said, the average Joes and Janes on the street are learning a lot from the ongoing corporate chaos and from the ridiculous saber-rattling against Iraq.

Bush's political efficacy is slowly but surely starting to evaporate. Whether this means more activism or more apathy depends on a number of things, but mostly on whether the current activist community can pull its collective head from its wide and wondrous middle-class ass and start talking to people other than themselves.

3AM: Across the literary board- name a few writers that you admire? Any young, or emerging writers that you recommend?

NM: I admire tons of writers. Joseph Heller, Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, Howard Waldrop, Philip K. Dick, Steve Aylett, Chuck Palahniuk, Kit Reed, Sean Stewart, Kathe Koja and short story writers Leslie What and Kelly Link spring immediately to mind. I could name writers til the sun burns out though. All of them are, in their own way, fearless. They're not afraid of the implications they present. Nothing is worse for me as a reader than a writer who fakes the funk.

Tons of new writers too: A. D. Nauman's book Scorch should be read by everyone. Ditto Joi Brozek and her first novel Sleeveless. Ann Sterzinger, who mostly appears in zines, is also excellent. Jemiah Jefferson and Zoe Trope are two great writers from the Pacific Northwest -- Jefferson does what is normally called horror, except that it is more like character-drive literary fiction with a supernatural backdrop. Trope's little chapbook is very funny. It's odd that most of my "old" writers are men but all of my "new" writers are women. I should add the poet Daphne Gottlieb to this list. Oh wait, Tim Pratt. There. He's a boy. Good short stories.

3AM: What beats are you listening to, that make Jersey City come alive, and get the Mamatas ass-a-movin'?

NM: Well, I have few CDs. I used to steal a lot of MP3s, but my sound card burnt out. Now, I use digital cable for music: I flip between the Metal, Rap, Alternative Rock, Jazz, Blues, Reggae and New Wave channels. When not there, the TV is usually on MTV2, for whatever is pop these days. And I listen to lots of freeform radio, including Jersey City's own WFMU. The radio is usually on that station, all the way through the very right-wing "JM In The AM", which plays Orthodox Jewish pop in between screeds about how nasty Palestinians are, to Bill Zebub's "Vortex Of Chaos" which plays black and death metal. In between, everything from punk to noise to jazz to rembetika (Greek blues played on the bouzouki) fills the playlist and my day.

Honestly, I just need noise in my life, not music. A screaming kid would so as well for me.

3AM: At the moment, what are you working on? Any final thoughts?

NM: I'm working on a book called Move Under Ground. Jack Kerouac is a character, sort of a Buddhist superhero who tries to save America from the alien gods created by early 20th century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. It will be a fun read, should I manage to find a publisher for it.

As an editor and a writer, and one without a day job, I have some advice for budding scribes:

  1. If you're writing because you want to be famous, you should just get a job with more glamour, like roadside whore.
  2. If you're writing because you want to make lots of money, you should get a job that earns more money, like parking lot attendant.
  3. If you're writing because you feel that the only way you'll find love is to get your name and the nice parts of your personality out into the wide public where someone will come across you and then seek you out, that just doesn't work. Not that I know from trying or anything...
  4. Invest in real estate, especially anything with rental possibilities.

Matthew Wascovich is a co-editor at 3 AM Magazine.

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