10 Questions With 'Love is the Law' Author Nick Mamatas
Like Dawn Seigler, the first-person protagonist of Love is the Law, Nick Mamatas is a fucking genius. He’s also had just about every gig you can imagine in the writing/publishing world. When he’s not writing novels, short stories, how-to books on writing or insulting people, he edits the Haikasoru line of translated Japanese science fiction novels for VIZ Media. Once upon a time he might’ve written your term paper if you were too lazy or not bright enough to write it yourself.
Love is the Law is his sixth novel, and his first novel-length foray into crime/noir, but not his first foray into Marxist/Trotskyist politics and the occultism of Alistair Crowley. Nick was a Trotskyist, and while I’m not exactly sure if he was ever an occultist, we are all comrades in his Imaginary Party. It’s 1989 and Dawn Seigler is a Long Island punk, adrift in a suburban wasteland. She shares an apartment with her senile grandmother while her father lives in a crackhouse on the other side of town. Bernstein, her mentor in both politics and occultism, is found with a bullet in his beautiful brain, and Dawn is prepared to exact revenge, not j______ (or justice, though now I feel dirty for saying it). Dawn is uncompromising, intelligent, tough, and doomed. Like any great and authentic work of noir, Love is the Law is not about sentimental notions of redemption, and nothing good will come from Dawn’s descent into the deepest, darkest rabbit hole. But she will find the truth.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
I have no idea, and of course it’s gone. If I had it, I would know what it was. I presume I was a child, and that it was bad, and that it was probably influenced by whatever television shows I enjoyed at the time. Everyone has the same experience, as we’re made to write little stories in school.
A lot of writers have integrated their first writing into an origin story, but for me there’s a pretty clean break between my childhood and my adulthood. I spent years trying to do other things—I was a gaffer for independent film and video productions for years—before turning back to writing.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
My first piece, in 1989, was to a local political fanzine that paid in a subscription. I remember keeping the acceptance letter in my wallet for a while. I used it as an amulet—thinking of it and chanting, “I’m a writer” “I’m a writer,” in the dentist’s chair—but that was it. And after that I didn’t write much for years.
My first piece of paid writing was to the magazine Artpapers in 1994. I was in graduate school the first time around, and I got $100. I ran right to the bank and deposited it. Grad school days, especially in Manhattan, are traditionally very tight, so there was no frivolity. I did buy some extra copies of the magazine when it came out, and sent them to friends.
My first piece of paid fiction was to the now defunct magazine Talebones in 2001. By this point, I’d been writing and selling journalism for a few years, and was making between fifty cents and a buck a word at venues like Silicon Alley Reporter and the Village Voice. I ran around my house screaming when I got my acceptance via email, and my roommate at the time became very excited for me too... until I told him that the story I sold was worth all of eighteen dollars, or literally one one hundredth of what I usually made. He didn’t get it.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
I do a lot of mental pre-composition. I start with any random scrap—a notion, a sentence, a title, and work on it for a while until a scene comes to mind. Then I flip through various points of view until I find a good first sentence. I turn on MS Word, set up a manuscript template, and then type in that first sentence. If it’s still good when on the screen, I continue.
I write a lot when I write—an 8,000-word novelette may take all night, a 2500-word short story a few hours—but most short pieces are written in a sitting. Sometimes a few if I have a lot of other work. For novels, it’s the same, except every chapter is a short story, basically. My novels tend to be short: my longest was my first, unpublished, practice novel, which was 80,000 words, which is what I was told was a minimum length for a novel. Love is the Law is 55,000 words, which felt right to me, as I was reading a lot of Goodis and Cain when preparing for it. My other forthcoming novel, The Last Weekend, is a comparative epic at 70,000 words. That’s my longest published piece.
I do a rolling rewrite, deleting sentences and paragraphs I don’t like the second I’m done composing them. I don’t revise much except to add in the occasionally explanation for events I’d thought were obvious. I don’t do multiple drafts. Of course, I write short enough to keep a whole book in my head for the most part.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Committing myself too closely to the genre community, specifically the science fiction/fantasy/horror communities. As primarily a short story writer, it made sense in that short fiction still pays fairly well; in crime/mystery there are a lot of “for exposure” markets, and an increasing number of literary journals actually expect the authors to pay for the privilege of emailing a short story submission. (The unbelievable argument is that as email saves stamp and stationery money, the journals deserve to receive the three bucks per submission that otherwise would have went to envelopes and the Postal Service.)
However, I cut myself off some other opportunities by being too closely associated with genre. I’d published some fiction in slick magazines, done some essays with the Voice and other significant literary venues, but then got too heavily involved in all the dust-ups and arguments that plague the science fiction and horror scenes. Some of those arguments were actually productive—I saved a few people from submitting to PublishAmerica, at least—but now I have to fight against typecasting when bringing my work before publishers, or when teaching graduate students. “But aren’t you a ‘sci-fi guy’...?” is usually the first question.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
None. If writing is cathartic to the author, it’s a failure of catharsis for the reader as far as I am concerned. I don’t believe authors generally really experience catharsis either, since most of them repeat the same themes and motifs time and again. If catharsis is a purging or cleansing, most writers would either be one-book wonders or tackle wider themes than they do.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
I don’t really care much about other people’s characters, really. Perhaps a meal with Salinger’s Glass family, but even then I think I’d prefer to be a fly on the wall in that room than seated at the table with Franny and Zooey.
But really, Franny Glass. There, I admit it!
Where do you buy your books?
I have several great independent bookstores in walking distance from my home in Berkeley, California. I buy a lot of books at Moe’s Books, and Mrs. Dalloway’s, which are a couple of blocks from my home, and some at Pegasus, a fifteen-minute walk away. I also shop at Dark Carnival—a science fiction specialty store in Berkeley—and at Borderlands Books in San Francisco and Other Change of Hobbit in El Cerrito. All three carry a smattering of crime and mystery as well as SF.
I made a decision a couple of years ago not to patronize Amazon.com as long as there are alternatives. I buy books online at powells.com and via St. Mark’s Bookshop in Manhattan. St. Mark’s was a life-changing bookstore for me as a young writer in New York, so I am happy to send them money from across the continent. I also like to buy directly from publishers if they have an online store that isn’t just an Amazon affiliate in disguise.
I occasionally read eBooks on my phone, but haven’t managed to read a lot of fiction that way at all.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
I usually make a brief blog post about them, as negative reviews of my work often involve the reviewer actually being a little upset. My bad reviews aren’t so much, “This was dumb!” as they are “Who does this guy think he is, trying this shit?!” My novel Sensation was denounced in Publishers Weekly as “instantly obsolete.” So I linked to it on my blog, and a link to my book, and wrote “Better buy your copy today!” The PW editor for that section used that as an example of a good response to a negative review at a romance writers conference a week later.
Honestly, the bad reviews I get often inspire members of my potential audience to pick up the book. I’ve certainly bought books based on negative reviews. A reviewer always reviews his or her own tastes, after all.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Anything about building a “brand” can go fuck itself. Some guy, just the other day, put up some blog post about how writers must be apolitical on Facebook because otherwise they run the risk of alienating “half” their audience—the poor thing apparently thinks that one half of the reading audience are members of the Democratic Party, and the other half members of the Republican Party, and that they buy the same exact books in equal numbers. (This guy, who publishes primarily with micropresses I’ve never heard of, also seems to think he has an audience. But that’s another issue.)
Writers should not aspire to be brands. But even if one does wish to build a brand, one shouldn’t be apolitical. Obviously, some brands are heavily politicized—I’ve published with anarchist presses, the protagonist of Love is the Law is a Trotskyist of sorts, and my fascination with and experience in the revolutionary leftist milieu appears in almost everything I’ve written. How could I be apolitical? Are the novels someone writes for Glenn Beck apolitical? Of course not.
WILDCARD: Love is the Law is your second novel set on Long Island, with Under My Roof and its homemade lawn-gnome nuclear weapon being the first. I had the opportunity to publish two of your short stories: “Summon Bind Banish,” and “A Stain on the Stone.” Both stories feature occultism, and the later is set in the suburbs of Long Island and details the real-life murder of Gary Lauwers by self-proclaimed Satanist, and poor speller, Ricky Kasso (the murder gets a mention in Love is the Law as well). How much did these previous works inform or inspire Love is the Law? What I’m really trying to get you to talk about is why you returned to Long Island, 80’s metalheads versus the punks, and occultism. And, hey, I wouldn’t dream of besmirching your punk cred, but do you secretly listen to Ozzy Osborne’s “Mr. Crowley” on repeat?
Both those stories were, in a way, test runs for Love is the Law. I do write about New York, and specifically Long Island’s North Shore, a lot. Of course, many writers pick a place to write about. Famously James Joyce and Dublin, in genre fiction Dennis Etchison and Los Angeles. And what’s written on Lovecraft’s tombstone? Oh yeah, “I Am Providence.” I’ve written other stories that take place on Long Island as well—“North Shore Friday”, which appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and “Skatouioannis”, which appeared in a magazine called Lenox Avenue and then was audio-published on PodCastle. Both those deal with the Greek ethnic enclave on Long Island in which I grew up.
I suppose one reason why I began my move from science fiction and horror into crime fiction was my desire to write more about real, if extreme, experiences. In SF, there are still plenty of readers who find it absolutely confusing and frustrating if a character is, for example, gay, or black. It either has to be the “point” of the story—“Oh woe is me, I’m gay and people don’t like me!”—or it’s considered a “distraction” or some sort of politically correct pose. Even leaving aside the political dimension of this sort of complaint, it boils down to a demand that characters and situations be utterly generic and devoid of details that are not central to the plot. That is, there are many SF/horror readers–not all, or most, but enough (and loud)—that explicitly agitate for bad storytelling. So I wanted to write stories I could write without later reading comments like, “Why are there so many Greek people in this story?” or “How am I supposed to care about someone who doesn’t act like a hero?”
I keep heading back to New York in my stories because I was there for a long time, and it was all very confusing. There was a secret history in every home, and strange motivations in every head. Long Island especially works that way—you have a lot of small towns, suburban and rural, right up against a giant city. There’s a huge ethnic mix, but everyone sees the ‘burbs as a place of bland sameness and ticky-tacky building construction, and the residents often try to ape the stereotype rather than be their own interesting, confusing, mixed selves. Which is itself interesting and confusing of course.
The Cold War was especially interesting because Long Island was a hub of defense contracting for many years. The “peace dividend” hit the place like a bomb. A lot of kids who went off to Boston for fancy private colleges found themselves back on the Island, going to SUNY instead, because their folks weren’t rich anymore. They were still angry Republicans furious at the “tax and spend” policies that were basically handing them a college education for less than three thousand bucks a year though. Ironies abounded.
I did listen to Ozzy. Really, the metalheads, the few punks, and the listeners to 80s-style new Wave, Manchester sound, and proto-alternative music as broadcast by the legendary WLIR were a united front of sorts against the hegemony of pop and club music, which were huge at the time. WLIR’s slogan was “Dare to Be Different.” It’s always suspicious when a corporation recommends such a thing, and Love is the Law, if it’s about anything, is about that suspicion, and the difficulty of difference.
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