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Wisconsin Book Festival 2006: Peter Straub speaks

Perhaps best known as a best-selling and critically acclaimed master of the horror genre, Peter Straub is the author of 17 novels, three volumes of short fiction and two poetry collections. He is the recipient of several Bram Stoker Awards, most recently for his novel Lost Boy, Lost Girl, which also won a 2003 International Horror Guild Award -- and which reintroduces the novelist Timothy Underhill as Straub's protagonist.

Straub's work has been translated into more than 20 languages. The rigors of his intellect, his explorations in metafiction and his use of shifting perspectives challenge his readers to remain attentive to every phrase and plot twist. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Straub attended UW-Madison in the 1960s and took his M.A. at Columbia. He now lives in New York, and earlier this year appeared in a guest role on the soap opera One Life to Live. At the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival, Straub will be a panelist for "The Evolution of Horror and Fantasy: Genre Fiction and 'The New Wave Fabulists,'" scheduled for 4 pm Sunday, Oct. 22, at the Orpheum Theater.

The Daily Page: What will your appearance at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival entail?
Straub: I'll be on a panel with Neil Gaiman and Gary K. Wolfe... We'll be discussing what is going on these days in fantasy and horror, which is not dissimilar to recent developments in the mystery genre -- a kind of appropriation of the mainstream.

Your first horror novel was published in 1976. What accounts for all the creepy thoughts you've written in the ensuing 30 years?
Daily life and the legacy of childhood. An active imagination and the desire to tell a certain kind of emotional truth. I'm not saying this is the case, but what seems creepy to you might look like reality to me.

What is your earliest memory of fear, horror, terror or fright?
Like all children, I was sometimes afraid to be alone in the dark and was frightened by nightmares, but my first actual memory involves seeing a naked man burning on a grate suspended over flames. I was two or three, and it was a sudden vision inspired by something I overheard my father saying to the telephone.

What was the scariest thing about growing up in Milwaukee in the 1940s and '50s?
Then, it was the side effects of Milwaukee's being basically a blue-collar city -- drunks falling down in public, fights spilling out of bars, loudness and aggression accepted as the hallmarks of masculinity. Now, what I find frightening about the Milwaukee of 60 and 50 years back is the astounding level of denial in place at every level of society.

Did you experience night terrors in your youth? What was the most frequent content of these episodes -- and do you still have nightmares?
I had nightmares, as I implied earlier, and the earliest ones I remember were curiously abstract: as if an abstract expressionist painting had come to life, bulging out and swelling here and there, a process drenched in menace.

You studied English literature at UW-Madison in the early 1960s. How did this ground you as an author -- and was there anything scary about UW-Madison back then?
My time in Madison helped me to learn how books worked, how to see what was happening within fictional narratives. And I was invited to study Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot, Harte Crane, who brought me into a new relationship with language. The only scary thing about Madison then was the sour, contentious atmosphere of the build-up to our wider involvement with Vietnam, a matter that loomed over everything else precisely to the extent that one allowed it to.

Halloween celebrations in downtown Madison have gotten out of hand in recent years. How did you celebrate Halloween during your years at UW-Madison?
I don't believe we celebrated Halloween at all. We barely noticed it. It was seen as a children's holiday.

Is it true that during your time at UW-Madison, you once lived within a block of Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs and Ben Sidran? If so, do you keep in touch with them today?
I lived right across from Miller and Ben Sidran on Henry Street, and I spent a lot of time hanging out with them, listening to music and gabbing about our friends, books, parties, politics, and girls. Scaggs was often around, but he lived elsewhere. I'm still very good friends with Ben Sidran. Miller used to turn up in my life now and then, always enjoyably, but being a rock star takes up a lot of time.

What portion of your mind is filled with scary thoughts, and what other sorts of ideas reside in the remainder of your consciousness?
"Scary thoughts," or at least brisk but largely disregarded undercurrents of fear run along happily most of the time through most portions of my brain, I regret to say. The remainder of these portions are filled with the usual mental furniture, except that I undoubtedly spend more time thinking about Paul Desmond (a deceased but great alto player) and worrying about narrative strategy than most people do.

How do you feed your imagination?
Ahem. This is a matter connected to a great deal of hard, unrelenting work. Nonstop reading helps, too.

In terms of gratification, how does a Bram Stoker Award compare to an International Horror Guild Award or a World Fantasy Award -- and how do these awards compare to your appearance early this year on an episode of the soap "One Life to Live," or to having your books translated into other languages?
The awards you mention are just about level on the gratification scale, with the Bram Stoker and World Fantasy awards enjoying a slight lead. My scenes on the charming OLTL involve a different kind of pleasure, one closer to the sandbox than to the desk and the computer.

How might you appraise the extent to which Tim Underhill serves as a proxy for you? And how does your reliance on him as a protagonist serve the narrative -- or the writing thereof?
Being a sort of superior version of me, Tim Underhill is a useful element in the overall narrative â," he's braver, sadder, more screwed-up but more self-aware, yet I know him pretty well, even in those areas where we are unalike. He's a comfort to me. His presence in a scene means that what we could call consensus reality will be fragile throughout.

The prolific extent of your oeuvre suggests great discipline. When, where and how do you prefer to write?
This changes all the time, but since I stopped working mainly at night, I tend to do a bit in the morning, then a longer bit after three in the afternoon. Usually, it works out to four or five hours a day.

What do you consider the best single phrase you've ever written -- the one that gave you the most satisfaction to write -- and how did it serve the story, novel or poem?
In The Throat, Underhill says he believes that "the bottom of the world is the center of the world," a phrase that condenses a very long novel into eleven words.

How does writing poems influence your prose style?
I'm pretty sure that the years I spent obsessed with poetry and writing poems helped me to become more attentive to the weight, color, and velocity of individual words, and with the cadences and rhythms of my sentences.

Are there other writers -- besides Stephen King -- with whom you aspire to collaborate?
The only other writer with whom I would consider collaborating would be Neil Gaiman, but I do not aspire to collaborate with anyone, no.

What frightens you in daily life?
Daily life itself is pretty damn scary.

What was the last book you read that you would recommend to a close friend, and why would you recommend it?
I've recently discovered the marvelous English writer Hilary Mantel, and I have recommended her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, and her latest novel, Beyond Black, to many of my friends. They are wonderfully written, disenchanted, clear-eyed love letters to fatality.

Why do you live where you live?
The Upper West Side of Manhattan is like a big living room with a huge park just outside the front door. Interesting people abound, you can walk to restaurants, bookstores, concerts, and the nicest jazz club in New York. It's a great place to live.

Do you have any tattoos?
Of course I have tattoos.

On my back -- the whole of my back -- is a tattoo of a mountain pass at night, with a thick yellow lightning bolt sizzling down past a huge white dog. On my right forearm is a saber elaborately inscribed with the slogan HONI SOIT QUI MAL E PENSE ["Shame upon him who thinks evil of it" -- the motto for the Order of the Garter]. My right bicep is covered with a black heart, a dripping syringe and the legend ART PEPPER DIED FOR YOUR SINS, JACK. Across my chest is a vividly colored portrait of Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer arm-wrestling on a poker table in a children's cemetery at midnight on Halloween.

I'm still working on my legs, so I can't describe the effect, but let me tell you, the next time I go out in shorts, a living fable will walk the streets.

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