I was recently interviewed for Pulp Libri in Italy. I thought the interviewer’s questions were especially intelligent and thoughtful. Since my Italian is very rudimentary, the interview was conducted in English, and, with permission, I present it here in English
[Pulp Libri] How would you present your work to the Italian reader? Tell us something about yourself and your literary career.
[Claude] Even though I’m Canadian, my fiction first appeared in Europe, in the British magazine Interzone in 2002. So, when I first visited Italy (and Europe) in 2006, I’d already been writing and publishing for a few years, but that initial exposure to the Mediterranean supercharged my imagination. I first saw the Mediterranean – the Adriatic, to be precise – when I arrived in Bari. As soon as I got off the train, I could smell the sea. I walked directly to the shore, took off my shoes, and walked into the water. I stood there for a long time, with my feet in the sea, absorbing the sensual reality of the Adriatic. Right there and then, I composed an entire 4000-word story in my head, but I had to wait for the evening, when I boarded the ferry to Greece, to write it all down in my cabin – in one sitting. The story – “The Sea, at Bari” – poured out of me fully formed. Later during the same trip, I visited Venice, and there came to me the first images, scenes, and characters that would eventually grow into my personal favourite among my books, Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment – my most Mediterranean and especially Italian book. I’m overjoyed that the book is now available in Italian, as Sognando Venera (Watson edizioni). Italy has been so generous to my imagination, especially in regards to this book, and it means a lot to me to be able to share the fruits of Italy’s impact on me with Italian readers. And still later during that initial European trip, I again composed an entire story in my head: in Nice, watching the sunset over the Mediterranean. Once night fell, I rushed to my hotel room and wrote it all down: “She Watches Him Swim” – a crime story. Ever since, both Italy and the Mediterranean have been constant sources of inspiration. Without the Mediterranean, I would be a very different writer.
[PL] How and when did you approach literature and why did you choose fantastic fiction as your way of expression?
[CL] As a boy, I was a voracious reader. Also, growing up bilingual, I have always been fascinated with language and with the way language acts as a filter between reality and your experience of it. I realized early on, for example, that my experience of the world was different when my mind was in French mode and when my mind was in English mode. It was only natural, I think, that I eventually gravitated to the art form most intimately linked to language. I’m not sure I actually chose the fantastic. My imagination naturally goes to strange places – it’s who I am – so more often than not my stories end up imbued with the fantastic.
[PL] What is for you “le Fantastique” – as the French would say? Freud would have used the word Unheimlichkeit, Lovecraft would have talked of “The Supernatural Horror”, and Mark Fisher would have defined it “The Weird and the Eerie”. What is the right notion of it for you?
[CL] I think for me at its heart, as the fantastic is expressed in my work, is the notion that reality is fundamentally unknowable, that unavoidably there is always dissonance between the world itself and our experience of it – and that unknowable gap between reality and perception opens the door to the fantastic. And, yes, in that dissonance there can be disquiet and terror, but there can also be a sense of wonder and enchantment and an impetus for curiosity.
[PL] Can you tell us something more about your works that are already available in Italy and the others that the Italian readers will soon know? I know there are more books of yours coming out in Italian. What can you tell us about all that?
[CL] My first story ever translated into Italian was back in 2006: “Secretly Wishing for Rain” as “In segreto desideriamo la pioggia” for Best Erotica 2006: Il meglio della narrativa erotica dell’anno (Mondadori 2006), edited by Berbera & Hyde. That story is a literary erotic noir tale about a secretive writer whose bizarre influence on his close friends persists beyond his death.
Next, “This Is the Ice Age” was translated into Italian as “Questa è l’era glaciale” for Controrealtà released by Mondadori / Urania Millemondi in 2010. But that is not the best Italian version of that story. Under that same title, it was retranslated, with more careful attention to language, in 2018 for my Italian/English bilingual collection from Future Fiction, Altre persone / Other Persons. “This Is the Ice Age” – a near-future adventure about two teenagers trying to survive a surreal ice age – is my most successful story, with more reprints, translations, and adaptations than anything else I’ve written.
Also in that collection are “Maxim Fujiyama and Other Persons” (“Maxim Fujiyama e altre persone”) and “The Ethical Treat of Meat” (“Il trattamento etico della carne”) – the former is also a near-future adventure set after the collapse of civilization, with situations that question accepted notions of personhood; the latter is a far-future tale, in which zombies (although the word is never used; here they are called “people”) breed humans (“fleshies”) for food in factory farms. All three stories explore the related notions of “personhood” and “the other.”
October 2019 saw two new Italian releases for me. First, Watson edizioni published Sognando Venera, the Italian translation of Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment – an ode to the Mediterrannean, largely inspired by Venice. This work is a mosaic told in fifteen episodes that together relate the surreal and often contradictory history of a city and its goddess, both called Venera. Second, the Italian translation of “The Object of Worship” (“L’oggetto di venerazione”) appeared in Hypnos #10. This story is set in a world much like our own, except that there are no men, only women, and every home and business has its own god, physically present in the house or building, requiring worship and also somehow involved in human reproduction.
Coming in the near future will be a collection of my best weird fiction, as selected by Andrea Vaccaro, from Edizioni Hypnos. We’re still working on the final selection of stories. In Italy I’m represented by Luca Pantanetti of Scriptorama, and he’s working very hard on my behalf, so I feel confident that Italian readers will see even more of my work soon.
[PL] “The Object of Worship” and Venera Dreams denote a series of recurring themes: religion, or a somewhat physical presence of the gods in the world that I would call neopagan, sexuality also seen as an act of worship, mentalization of the “Other” or the “Supernatural” that I would call antithetical to the teratological physicality of the Lovecraftian aliens or to the so-called body horror practised by your compatriot David Cronenberg, all this without in any way losing its high degree of uncanny. Do you agree in defining this use of similar themes as very specific and characterizing of your literary Weltanschauung?
[CL] You are absolutely correct in observing that the attitudes toward the body and the other in my work are absolutely antithetical to the examples you cite. There is no body horror in my work and no demonization of the other. Although horrible things may happen to my characters’ bodies and to my characters for being other – because often stories are about things going wrong – there is never the notion that there is something fundamentally wrong about the sensual reality of the body or the vast diversity of how various living beings experience and express their personhood.
Yes, I do strive for the uncanny – although for me the uncanny does not necessarily lead to horror. My characters (like me, I guess) do not fear the world: they are curious about what they do not or cannot understand.
Your characterization of how I present sexuality as a form of worship is interesting. Despite the presence of divine, demonic, and/or supernatural elements in much of my work, I am an absolute atheist. For me, there is only physical world, and nothing else. And sex is the ultimate sensual experience, the greatest expression of how sublime being alive can be. At its best, sex indeed is a form of worship – the worship of the sensual world, the ecstasy of communing with other bodies, other persons. Sex is when we are least alone, when we are most connected to the pleasures our senses can bring, to the pleasures our bodies can give to others, to the joy of being alive – it is when we are most acutely attuned to the physical reality of the other.
[PL] The narrative, philosophical, poetic and perhaps theological relationship between sex and religion present in a large part of your work (at least in the things I read) makes me find some analogies with many poems and songs of Leonard Cohen, who was a Canadian too, from Montreal like you. Is there maybe a particular relationship between a place and a theme?
[CL] Montreal is definitely a city of love, and Montrealers, in general, tend to revel in their appreciation of sex, love, and sensuality.
[PL] In Venera Dreams the explicit references to the narrative cycle of Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard are evident. Was it an important book for you? There seems to be, in both, a series of common references: surrealism, Dalí, cinema, a certain late-romantic symbolist culture. You explicitly recognized it in a final note of the book. Can you comment about it?
[CL] J.G. Ballard is my favourite writer. And, yes, I did name the Veneran drug vermilion after his Vermilion Sands. His influence is all over everything I write, even when it’s not this obvious. In many ways Venera Dreams is a celebration, literary collage, and creative rewriting of everything I love: Ballard (of course!), the Mediterranean, Italy, Venice, Rome, Barcelona, Montreal, Dalí, Antoni Gaudí, Jack Kirby, Philip José Farmer, pulp adventure heroes, The Arabian Nights, Catalonian Modernisme, Ursula Le Guin’s Orsinian Tales, Tanith Lee’s Secret Books of Paradys, Michael Moorcock’s End of Time, John Barth’s Chimera, metafiction, superheroes, mosaic storytelling, surrealism, cinema, comics, Art Nouveau, fictional cities and/or fantastic metropolises, Alexandra Camille Renwick, New Wave SF, literary decadence, mythology, Sherlock Holmes, utopianism, and so much more. I consider Venera Dreams the labyrinthine and surreal map of my imagination. A good way to describe Venera Dreams might be: a collaboration between Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges fuelled by New Wave SF, pulp fiction, and The Arabian Nights.
[PL] The last question concerns future projects. What are you working on at the moment?
[CL] My main form of expression these days is the mosaic: an assemblage of self-contained yet interconnected stories that, together, form a greater whole. I’ve written two such books – The Door to Lost Pages (2011) and Venera Dreams (2017) – and I’m currently working on three more, in three different genres.
Chronicles of the Second Global War is a series of espionage stories set in the present day but in an alternate reality beset by a war that is destabilizing the entire planet. The Problems of Vernon Tevis is a crime/noir series about a world-travelling fixer for an international prostitution ring. The Superstar Dossier is a metafictional mosaic of documents set in a world brimming with superheroes, exploring the superhero genre’s vast history.
All of these are in various stages of development, and episodes from each mosaic have already appeared in magazines and anthologies.