A Conversation with JS Breukelaar about Teaching, Weird Fiction, and Her New Novel 'Aletheia'

Class, Genre, JS Breukelaar, teaching, Weird Fiction

I probably shouldn't say this because I run the class program at LitReactor and I shouldn't play favorites, but JS Breukelaar's workshop Writing the Weird (enrolling now!!) is among my favorites—the material is incredibly deep and thoughtful, and Jenny is a great instructor.

And now she has a new book out! Aletheia was described by A Head Full of Ghosts author Paul Tremblay as a "melancholy and affecting mix of literary, noir, and horror by the lake" and "a compelling 21st century ghost story." 

Here's a little more about the book:

The remote lake town of Little Ridge has a memory problem. There is an island out on the lake somewhere, but no one can remember exactly where it is—and what it has to do with the disappearance of the eccentric Frankie Harpur or the seven-year-old son of a local artist, Lee Montour.

When Thettie Harpur brings her family home to find Frankie, she faces opposition from all sides—including from the clan leader himself, the psychotic Doc Murphy.

Lee, her one true ally in grief and love, might not be enough to help take on her worst nightmare. The lake itself.

A tale of that most human of monsters—memory—Aletheia is part ghost story, part love story, a novel about the damage done, and the damage yet to come. About terror itself. Not only for what lies ahead, but also for what we think we have left behind.

Check out the book. Check out the class. But first, check out this interview. 

You teach a class for us called Writing the Weird, which has a focus on weird fiction. For those who are unfamiliar—what is 'weird fiction'?

I think the jury is still out on exactly what that is. I was a panel about Secondary Worlds in Weird Fiction here in Australia, and one of the examples we discussed was Tainaron: Mail from Another City, by Leena Krohn. We were all pretty much in agreement that what’s “weird” about the city of Tainaron is NOT that all of its citizens beside the narrator—the Stranger—are insects. What’s weird is the nature of the Stranger herself. Is she a visitor, and if so, where from? Why she is here, and is she ever going back—is there even a there, to go back to? What’s truly unsettling is how none of this is decided. Like so many other so-called weird masterpieces, you read Tainaron with both a racing pulse and a lump in your throat. There is a sense of impending danger, and of a danger already passed, of losses already accrued. Another example we talked about was Adam Joy Castro’s strange city of Enysbourg. The stranger in the world of the weird, whether it’s Tainaron, or Egnaro or Kafka’s cities is never quite who they say, or think, they are. The danger is always inescapable, its source never quite knowable—the nightmare isn’t a dream, and there’s a part of you that doesn’t want it to be.  

So I think weird fiction turns on this level of anxiety, of undecidability, which can be and often is, terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be. Because this undecidability can often be at the level of genre—is it horror? Is it sci-fi, or fantasy, or the uncanny? My first novel, American Monster, is weird sci-fi, dystopian, but also fantastical. Aletheia is a ghost story, with a strong sci-fi subplot. My short stories tend toward weird horror. The weird can be a source of dread, but also, as in a Kelly Link story, a source of possibility, or in a Jeff Ford story, a glimmer of a vastness beyond the known, and so on.

What attracted you to this kind of fiction? 

I don’t exactly know. Personal history, plus early exposure to Poe, Lansdale, and others. And then when I was learning to write, an instructor gave me the collection, Fantastic Women, from Tin House, and I felt like I’d come home.

What do you think people unfamiliar with weird fiction might be surprised to learn about it? 

All fiction takes what’s weird about having a pulse and shines a klieg light to it. Weird fiction has always been with us.

I think that they’d be surprised to learn that weird fiction looks at how weirdness is not “out there,” not an alternative to reality, but the only reality we have. So weird fiction allows writers to play at their strengths, whether it’s language, or story-telling, or character, or the fantastical, or the horrific. Students often approach me with doubts as to whether their fiction is “weird enough.” But honestly, all fiction takes what’s weird about having a pulse and shines a klieg light to it. Weird fiction has always been with us. What’s Flannery O’Connor or ETA Hoffman or going back further, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, or Beowulf, if not weird? But then again, if you look at Amelia Gray’s fiction or George Saunders’ or Jeffrey Ford’s, they often take the very essence of the ordinary, the most banal aspects of our world—small town life, or board room tensions, or a doctor’s visit, and unravel these situations to expose the heavy weirdness. I think people might be surprised to learn that weird fiction can run the gamut from the bizarre profundity of Jeremy Robert Johnson, through to tentacles galore, through Ligotti’s weirding of masculinity or Jeff VanderMeer’s sentient cities, to Hammett’s nightmarish noir, Murakami’s uncanny anti-heroes, and beyond. When you put yourself as a writer, in the vertiginous position of not being certain as to the source of the horror, or the dread, or the miracle, or the architect of this secondary world—you can find yourself in a very weird space, which might turn out to be less secondary than you think.

What was the nexus point for your latest book Aletheia? Where did it come from? 

Small town life, bad choices, the fear of not being able to protect your children. Aletheia draws from my own experiences to a degree in that it deals with motherhood and being far from home, but also in how it looks at the fall-out from science, and how art can be a path to some kind of hope. Also, horror is my default genre. I’ve loved horror from forever, and it was great to be able to scare the crap out of myself, and hopefully my readers, but to scare them in a way that might not hold the promise of being unscared.  

Aletheia has been described in a lot of ways—a thriller, dark noir, supernatural horror, but with a love story mixed in? How would you categorize in? In a broader sense, do you feel like having to categorize it limits it? 

I don’t think I can categorize it, beyond describing it as a ghost story, which it ultimately is. I don’t think that describing it that way limits it—ghost stories are as old as literature itself, and there are all kinds of ghost stories, so I’m pretty comfortable in that club.

But you’re right. There are elements of noir—there’s a terrible crime at its heart—and the love story is its soul. It's a story that kicks off in classic horror style with a meet cute over a shitload of spilt, bloody hamburger, um, meat, and there is also a Gila Monster with a penchant for pizza. So in that sense, I would agree that it’s pretty uncategorizable.  

How was your experience working with [publisher] Crystal Lake on this?

Incredible. I feel like I’ve just graduated from Flight School. Joe Mynhardt is a workaholic, and he gets it done. I think that Aletheia was a challenge for them at some levels—it’s a big, complicated, uncategorizable book for a young publishing house to produce and market—but they made it happen. Nothing speaks to that more than the cover art which Joe contracted to Ben Baldwin—the fact that Ben does so many Crystal Lake covers says something about the quality writers they attract—and it was an honor working with someone whose ego never got in the way of his vision. Post production, Joe has been a tireless marketing machine, which is a godsend for me, because I have so much to learn about promoting my work, and the more all of us authors know about this, the better.   

What's next? 

I’m days away from handing Crystal Lake a short story collection due for release in October, and my next novel, my first attempt at multiple protagonists, is underway and should be drafted by the end of the year.

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