A Conversation with Nick Mamatas About Lovecraft's Legacy, Writing Conventions, and His New Novel 'I Am Providence'

Nick Mamatas

There are a lot of ways I Am Providence could fail.

It's a book about writers, for one thing. And it's told from two perspectives: The third-person viewpoint of a sleuthing horror writer, and the first-person perspective of another writer—who just happens to be lying dead on a slab in a morgue.

Plus the whole thing is an exploration of and homage to H.P. Lovecraft, as divisive a figure as you can find in genre fiction. 

And yet, it works.

Nick Mamatas's latest book is dark and funny, a fantastic mix of horror and mystery. It pokes fun at tropes—both meta or otherwise—and successfully skewers some of the more ridiculous aspects of the publishing industry. Especially as they relate to writing conferences, which, as much as I like going to them, can also get real weird real quick. 

Lovecraft was not a great writer and was kind of a dick, but he still casts a big shadow. The characters pontificate on this in the book—but why do you think he has such a big legacy?

Lovecraft was too a great writer. His vision was phenomenal and his literary choices exacting. As I argued in the Los Angeles Review of Books a couple of years ago, Lovecraft is wrongly considered a bad writer because he's actually a difficult writer. He engages in polyphony, using the modes of everything from learned rhetoric to personal letters and newspaper reports to build a case for the verisimilitude of his creations. Lovecraft's bad reputation as a writer comes largely from his epigones, who ape his style without understanding choices, or from people who really haven't read him closely. Complaining about his prose is like complaining that a modern filmmaker made a film in black and white instead of color—it's a choice with a purpose, not an accident or an artifact of incompetence.

Many of the people who've already read the book have contacted me to say, "At first, I was worried you were too mean. But now I think that if anything, you were too kind."

A dick? Yes, of course he was. He was a racist, xenophobe, anti-Semite, and negrophobe. Why this hasn't harmed his reputation overmuch boils down to three reasons: one, lots of people are racist and thus don't care about his racism. Others just ignorantly chalk his attitudes up to the time in which he lived, despite the fact that even for his time Lovecraft was a member of the far right. (He self-identified as an "arch conservative" for much of his life. He did move somewhat to the left during the New Deal, as did almost everyone in the US.) There's also the crucial aesthetic issue that his racism informs the paranoid sensibility of work—you can't just excise it and enjoy the stories in the same way you can, for example, expurgate the racist caricatures in some old cartoons and enjoy the slapstick of the rest of it. So if you like good writing, you have to accept his dickishness along with it, just as one must with Céline or Mishima.

His legacy is based on several factors, the most important of which is that after his death he had some tireless advocates, especially August Derleth. We can tell ourselves all sorts of stories about how his themes—the cosmic horror of the scale and utter amorality of the universe—resonate with the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and they do, but plenty of people with such themes are obscure now. In the same way Philip K. Dick is not just a writer of our era of media-saturation yet radically decentered identities, but someone whose daughter Isa Dick went down to Hollywood to make sure her father's work was adapted, Lovecraft's fiction benefited similarly. He couldn't have been conscious of this, but his decision to allow others to add to his so-called Mythos during his life and beyond undoubtedly helped with this too. Lovecraft is "open source" despite being a modern invention of an individual. Finally, Lovecraft was in the right place at the right time—he was writing just as our modern conceptions of popular fiction genres were emerging. His work utilized science fiction, and fantasy, and horror, and he's central to all three genres in a way. So his influence is tripled, and carried on by writers of all three genres.

Say someone were to make a blind assertion that Lovecraft was a bad writer—where would you suggest they start reading in his backlist to prove them otherwise?

This is about you, isn't it? It is! Anyway, "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Whisperer in Darkness" is where I would begin were I you, Rob Hart.

What do you make of the World Fantasy award trophy dropping Lovecraft's image? Fair game, or much ado about nothing?

I supported the call to change the trophy since Nnedi Okorafor expressed unease with the bust after winning the World Fantasy Award in 2011. I suppose it's just an example of "white privilege" that even though I knew of Lovecraft's racism, it never occurred to me to object to the statue before Okorafor did. And there have been a number of Jewish winners, and it is not as though Lovecraft had much good to say about my people (swarthy Greeks from Asia Minor as opposed to the Classical sorts he loved), but it's still not the same as being black and being "honored" with a bust of someone who hated you. If an award doesn't honor its recipients, it is not a good award. The issue of whether Lovecraft deserves the honor of being the bust is secondary anyway; the award recipient is the proper focus of the award. In 2011 I recommended that the award be changed to a statuette of a chimera, as like a chimera fantasy is a lot of things. A few people took up the idea as well and agitated for it, but I bet the stadia full of people crying out as one, "Oooh, it should be a dragon! Dragons are cool!" will probably win. Then the award statue will simply be an aesthetic outrage, but not a political one as well.

Reading this, you'd almost think writing conferences are full of socially inept weirdos! How many of the quirks and characters were based on real people and interactions?

As it says in the disclaimer, which gets its own page in the front matter: "All characters appearing in this work are fictitious, especially you. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental."

But like any book, the characters are mish-mashes of several people plus pure invention. Anyone looking for real one-to-one correspondence is going to be disappointed, or is going to make a perfect clown of themselves by pointing to a character and saying, "Aha, that character is just like that real person...except for her gender and educational background...or sexuality and attitudes..." So, not. Especially not you.

Are you worried about offending your fellow writers? Because you strike me as the type who worries about what other people think.

You know, when one hits middle-age, one often thinks to write a murder mystery about one's workplace in which the most-hated co-worker is killed and a brave sleuth has to solve the case, just to knock the air out of the whole office. If Lovecraft fandom is one of my workplaces, well I'm already the most hated person, thus the death of the novelist Panossian, who is just like me except for his ethnicity, background, hometown, low level of success, lack of a spouse or child, and personality. I also still have a face. But no, I am not overly worried. This sort of playful book is written and published all the time. Of course, people are offended by them all the time too, but I suspect most complaints will come from people who bought the book in the hope that they'd be namechecked.

In stories like this I feel like there's a tendency to present a cast like this as a bunch of weirdos, but by the end, redeem them in some way. "They dance to the beat of their own drummer and the world is beautiful" type stuff. You avoid this trope. Why?

Let's put it this way: I Am Providence is being published now, in August 2016, but I finished writing it in July 2015. Several people have read the book while it was in production at Skyhorse, and during the last year there have been several controversies and public dramas within the Lovecraftian world. Many of the people who've already read the book have contacted me to say, "At first, I was worried you were too mean. But now I think that if anything, you were too kind."

I saw you make a comment on social media about the difficulty of writing a mystery (everything has to make sense in the end) versus the ease of a horror story (eh, ghosts are weird). Can you expand on this? Did you take this story on as a way to challenge yourself? Did it affect your process at all?

I was talking about a mystery-horror short story I was working on, but, yes, writing this as a mystery was a challenge. My original ending had to be scrapped and thrown out because the original murderer(s) just didn't work. The book ended too soon. I had to a do a lot more backfill than usual to get the new murderer in place, and I had to explain more than I usually like to. It's also challenging when the sleuth is an amateur. I didn't want to bring in an ex-cop or someone who just coincidentally happens to be superintelligent, so my protagonist Colleen Danzig really has to flail around a bit. It's hard not to just coincidentally hand characters too many clues, and in reality almost no amateur solves a complicated murder. I needed just enough sleuthing to keep the narrative driving forward, and enough well-meaning bumbling to keep people interested and sympathetic without turning her into a superhuman. I also split the difference a bit; half the novel is narrated by Panossian, but it is possible to read the book as fully narrated by him, telling his own story in first person and Colleen in third. He makes such a claim in the first chapter. Is it true? Only if you like the book better that way.

Speaking of the narrative, it's an interesting choice, to have a third-person living narrator and first-person dead narrator—the latter being confined to a slab in the morgue. Did you know, going in, that you wanted to split it up that way, or was it something you came across as the story developed?

All my novels have played with point of view on some level, whether first-person plural near-omniscient (Sensation) multiple third-person accounts of the same person in the same universe with a first-person narration entwined (Bullettime) etc. So unusual POV comes naturally to me for whatever reason. From the beginning, I wanted a Sunset Boulevard style thing going, so alternating first-person posthumous and third-person close on Colleen Danzig made sense to me.

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