Sunday, September 28, 2014

Interview: Award winning artist and author Alan M. Clark

One of the people I miss after moving away fro Oregon is Alan Clark. I always enjoyed talking to him at Lovecraft film fest and Bizarro con. Last spring in one of my last Eugene hang outs Alan hosting myself and few friends at his house. We spent hours looking at paintings and talking horror with someone I consider a master of the dark arts. I was a super magical experience.

So after reading Alan's most recent novel Say Anything But Your Prayers I wanted to explore the book further and Alan agreed to this interview.

David Agranoff: How did you get into dark fiction and how far back does this love go?

Alan M. Clark: My father, a neurologist, liked dark, creepy things, and we had that in common as well as a love for art of all sorts, so he was a big influence on me. The house I grew up in had a lot of medical books, remnants of my grandfather’s medical research (he was head of the anatomy department at Vanderbilt University), a lot of human bones, Indian relics, two attics and a large, damp basement full of stuff from earlier generations. Skeletons (perhaps dead from the siege known as the Battle of Nashville) were exposed in their shallow graves across the street from my home when the creek eroded away the soil that covered them. Of course I liked horror films. We had The Big Show in the afternoon on the black and white Zenith when I got home from school. With literature, I had a slower start. I didn’t read well as a child. I found it difficult. I’m still a slow reader. My father, a life-long voracious reader, was disappointed that I didn’t read much for fun. Finally, in my early teens I got better at reading and discovered Lovecraft’s work, which about that time, 1970, were being published and distributed in paperbacks. Well, that spilled out into reading all kinds of horror, science fiction, fantasy. I tended to always seek darker stuff, whatever the genre.

DA: So I just finished reading Say anything but Your Prayers. It is the second in a series. On the surface it seems like they are books about Jack the Ripper, but they are not about Jack. They are about the Ripper's victims can you give us the idea behind the entire series?

AMC: The Jack the Ripper Victims Series is about the lives of the canonical victims of the murderer—those Scotland Yard have canonized as definite victims of the same killer. There are five of them. I’ve written novels about three of them so far. Two have been released by Lazy Fascist Press, OF THIMBLE AND THREAT and SAY ANYTHING BUT YOUR PRAYERS. Hopefully, A BRUTAL CHILL IN AUGUST will come out next year. Back in the early ‘90s, I was studying up on the Whitechapel Murderer while trying to write a short story for a Ripper anthology when I discovered transcripts of the inquests of the victims and the police reports that spoke of the crime scenes, the mutilations, and the possessions found on the dead. The more I looked at what we knew about the women, the lives they led within the extreme environment of Victorian London of the time, the more interested I became in what existence was like for them emotionally and the less interested I became in who the killer was. The more I find out about London of the period, the more fantastical the place becomes in my imagination. As a real world environment in which to stage drama, especially dark fiction, it is almost beyond belief. The rapid growth of British society during the industrial revolution, the disease, the poverty, the crime, the the hazards of unfettered industry, the abusive employment practices, the amount of labor required by most just to live a meager existence, and the endurance of countless simple human beings—these are great elements for story-telling. Researching the lives of the victims is like exploration to me. I’m endlessly fascinated and frequently surprised by what I find.

DA: What is it about the victims that inspired you to think about them?

AMC: They are ordinary women of their time who in their middle-age years became single and found themselves fending for themselves within an environment in which they were considered to have little worth. Their lives didn’t start out that way, but they seemed to have outlived their welcome in their world. The novels are the stories of how they started out in life and how they struggled to remain standing as their fortunes shifted suddenly beneath their feet. The drama involved is the stuff of life. It reveals human beings for what they are, creatures simultaneously indefatigable of spirit, generosity and worthy aspirations, and dishonorable, petty and small-minded.

DA: What about the victim of Thimble and Threat and Say anything that made them different for you?

AMC: They certainly led different lives. Stride was from Sweden and spent half of her life there. She grew up on a farm and then became a prostitute in Gothenburg. We know she was given to lying. When she got to England, she had some success in life with her husband in running a coffee shop, but they lost everything and both spent time in the workhouse. After he died, she was a sometime prostitute and beggar.

Eddowes liked to sing and was a friendly woman, but had a temper. She and her husband wrote gallows ballads that they printed up and sold at public executions. She had children and tried to make a good home, but eventually broke up with her husband. Poverty and alcoholism won out and she ended on the streets.

They’re just ordinary people of their time, but they have the same emotions that we do, so we can relate to them if their characters are developed. The trick is to get at that emotion in the story and show how that drove their choices—often choices born of desperation that had something to do with what happened to them.

DA: Do you see the first completed novels as compliments to each other or totally separate?

AMC: The novels are connected—I won’t say how—but they’re also able to stand on their own. To read more than one of them is to understand the environment better, but the lives of the victims were largely different except for the ends.

DA: The title Say Anything but Your Prayers is a line of dialogue in the book but what is the story of this phrase and/or title?

AMC: As you say, it is a line of dialogue from the novel. The police had from a witness an account of seeing Stride with a man shortly before her death. The witness heard the man say to her “You would say anything but your prayers. “ Her response was to laugh. It fit nicely with the theme of her difficulty with the truth.

DA: Tells us about the research process?

AMC: There are a lot of books about Jack the Ripper. There are online resources, like the Casebook: Jack the Ripper Forum. Much of what you find there is speculation, but often well-informed speculation. There are countless Google books of the time period available. Also, because the British people were so upset about the poverty and the fast pace of change during the period, the Government had to look like they were doing something about it. They commissioned countess reports on everything: such as the cost of living, the average cost of goods, wages for all types of work, employment, treatment of laborers, nutrition, how people ate, how they cooked, clothing, housing, rents, building practices, manufacturing practices, the impoverished, types of the poor, how they scavenged, types of beggars, health issues, etc. Lots of busy work, and much of it is available for research.

DA: What do you think of the revelation of The Ripper's identity? Do you buy it? And will that information affect future books in the series?

AMC: The idea that Aaron Kosminski was the Ripper isn’t new. It’s reasonable. If you look at his history, you’ll find ample cause for alarm in what must have been his emotional development. Until a peer reviewed journal of the science used in these recent “discoveries” is published, we won’t know the truth. If we gain this information only from a book someone is trying to sell us and articles about the book, then why should we believe? For the stories I’m telling, I don’t think it matters who the killer was.

DA: I know most horror folks think of you as painter and cover artist, but as a fan of your writing what is next?

AMC: Cameron Pierce, Kirsten Alene Pierce, and I are talking about writing a group of novellas set within the Pain Doctors Facility. It’s an environment that I’ve helped develop with several other writers, and has been the focus of numerous creepy medical paintings I’ve done over the years. Previous projects involving that environment are the books, THE PAIN DOCTORS OF SUTURE SELF GENERAL and PAIN AND OTHER PETTY PLOTS TO KEEP YOU IN STITCHES. They’re sort of The Adams Family meet ER. Thanks for the interview.

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