Writer Laird Barron certainly has a unique collection of experience to draw from. The native Alaskan grew up in frozen, isolated landscapes, leveraging those experiences into becoming a three-time Iditarod dogsled racer, as well as a fisherman on the Bering Sea. Since his professional writing debut in the early 2000s, he has written three novels, several collections of short stories, and dozens of contributions to literary collections, all helping him to build an impressive cult following. A three-time Shirley Jackson Award winning author, his work delves into the dark worlds of weird fiction, cosmic horror, and noir. Join us as Laird and I discuss his art as well one of his favorite things, coffee, of course!
Hi Laird, thank you very much for doing this. Why don’t we start off with you telling me a bit about yourself?
Hi, and thanks for the conversation.
Born and raised in Alaska. Blue collar, extremely rural lifestyle until I moved to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1990s. I’ve written professionally for almost twenty years, full-time the past decade or so. I like dogs and drink scotch.
Laird Barron and Athena, photo courtesy of Jessica M.
You’ve been writing noir fiction and cosmic horror for many years now. What would you consider to be the biggest influences on your work, and how have you seen it evolve over time?
The biblical depiction of God oriented me toward cosmic horror. Lovecraft, Michael Shea, and Karl Edward Wagner bear some responsibility as well. As a kid, I read and loved hardboiled mysteries, westerns, and pulp in general. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E Howard, and Jack Vance are with me still in a ghostly chorus. John D MacDonald and Roger Zelazny lurk as well. In latter years I discovered Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, Angela Carter, and more recently, Kelly Link and Livia Llewellyn. These five taught me much about yoking subtler techniques to the blood and thunder aesthetic that makes my heart sing.
You are originally from Alaska and are currently in upstate New York. How do you feel these cultures and environments has influenced your work?
I’ve lived in Alaska (over two decades), Oregon (1 year), Washington State (a decade and a half), Montana (7 months), and NY State (closing in on 7 years).
Each of these regions has affected me deeply. Particularly Alaska, Washington State and New York. Alaska was a scarifying process. It’s an extreme environment—too much light in the summer, too dark in the winter. Lots of snow, bitter cold, and big snows are the norm. Vast expanses of rough terrain and a vibe that humans aren’t particularly welcome. Glad to have survived the crucible, but completely uninterested in ever returning. Unfortunately, the culture I was steeped in as a youth was borderline separatist with all the attendant baggage. The lunatic fringe wasn’t always the fringe.
Occultation and Other Stories
The Pacific Northwest is lush and vibrant by comparison. At this point, the majority of my stories are set in that region of big mountains and deep, dark forests. I will always be especially fond of Olympia and environs, yet mindful that as beautiful and pristine as the western half of the state may seem, it hides mysteries galore and has seen its share of macabre events.
In some respects, Upstate New York and the Mid-Hudson Valley are similar to Western Washington. More variety of trees, more wildlife, and more population. The markers on historical sites go back to Colonial times and that’s something I never experienced in my previous sojourns.
Your short story “—30—” (chronicling two scientists conducting research on land once occupied by a cult), found in your incredible Shirley Jackson award winning collection Occultation and Other Stories, was recently adapted into the film “They Remain.” What were your thoughts on the film and adaptation?
Philip Gelatt is a hell of a writer and director. It was a stroke of incredibly good fortune that Sean Kirby signed on as the Director of Photography. “—30—” is a waking nightmare and the team did a nice job capturing the mood. I particularly enjoyed the foregrounding of the science-fictional aspects and amplifying the sinister nature of corporations. It’s a story concerned with dread and Phil gets that.
They Remain, poster art by Jeanne D'Angelo
Let’s talk about coffee. How much of a role does it play in your day to day existence?
I started drinking coffee in my late teens when I worked at a salmon processing plant. This was a seasonal job—May to September—and tough. Shifts ran between twelve and sixteen hours a day, seven days a week for the entire season. After a couple of weeks, we were shambling dead. During breaks, I’d pack sugar cubes into a Styrofoam cup and melt it with the rancid commercial blend the company bought wholesale. I’d slam three or four of those for the jolt and trudge back down onto the factory floor for another three hours.
Those horrible days are long gone. I tend to drink coffee (high quality) mostly in the winter and at restaurants.
What are your preferred brewing methods?
I stash beans in the freezer and hand grind them. I aim for a mythical spot way north of coarse, but shy of too fine. Strong is good; bitter is not. Usually machine drip through a filter. But…some of my favorite coffee was brewed with an old-time percolator. That was a common method in rural Alaska during my youth. I might go back.
Are there particular growing regions you are especially fond of?
I love my coffee, but I’m not proficient in selecting it by region.
What kind of an influence do you feel coffee has on your creative process?
The first time I tried decent, properly brewed coffee, I recoiled. Problem was, I’d been conditioned to consume bland, brand name coffee; weak tea, as they say, sufficiently devoid of defining characteristics so as to not offend the average palate. It took a bit of time for me to realize the discomfort I felt was simply my taste buds waking from a coma. I recall similar experiences with art—much of it is streamlined (to smooth the rough edges and marks of character), over-produced, and no more richly defined than a gelatin capsule. Give something a little more complex, a little more bracing, any day.
Thank you so much!
To keep up with Laird Barron follow him on Twitter @LairdBarron