Hey friends! Hello and welcome to a very cool second interview that Andrew so kindly agreed to do!
Before we start, big thanks to all of those who’ve followed along so far! This has been a very cool project this year and with only one more week to go, I’m sad that we’ll come to the end!
Alright! So, without further wait, when I proposed doing a second Pyper-May-Nia! I asked Andrew if he’d be up to doing a new interview, but also a second “interview.” I have the second interview in quotes, simply because it’s not a traditional type of interview. This one is made up of two questions each about every one of Andrew’s books!
Andrew Pyper’s debut collection ‘Kiss Me’ was released in October 1996.
Steve: When you look back on those stories now, do they feel foreign to you as the writer you are now versus then? The emotions and nostalgia within them must return immediately and transport you to a different time.
Andrew: Probably every book you write (and probably every book you read) acts as a time machine. They mark a personal time and place in a way unlike other experiences – at once intimate and solitary, swimming in the subconscious, surprising to yourself. Because it’s a collection of short stories, Kiss Me transports me to a broader period of times (the years over which the stories were written) and individual moods (unlike a novel, which usually marks one major life change or state of being). They are the stories of my teens and 20’s. As I think the cover copy put it, they are stories of “firsts”: first kiss, first heartbreak, setting childhood behind. They are also my first real attempts at writing fiction worthy of publication, so they’re marked by a searching for who I was as a writer. What was my “voice”? I think you see even back then an inclination toward the dark revelation, the Gothic, the sinister possibilities that follows the ends of the narratives. Signs of things to come.
Steve: Do you have a personal favourite story from that collection?
Andrew: I don’t know if it’s my favourite, but I used to love to choose “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now” when I was invited to give public readings from the book. It has some funny parts (always good for reading to an audience) and very specific settings that would have resonated with the people I was reading for (Queen West in Toronto in the late 80s – a very different place than it is today). And it has an unexpectedly hopeful ending. Come to think of it, it would be fun to read that story to an audience again to see if it still has emotional/humourous traction (like a Buster Keaton movie is always funny) or whether it’s a product of its time (like a sitcom).
Andrew’s debut novel, ‘Lost Girls’ was released in 1999.
Steve: This was your debut novel and it was a hauntingly beautiful piece. Was it based on a specific story you’d heard before or read about?
Andrew: Lost Girls was a combo platter of a number of my concerns at the time – concerns that largely remain with me, though they’ve mutated over the years. What do we see on that plate? The way the past reaches into the present in forms more frightening the deeper its been buried. Small town weirdness. An investigation that isn’t really about what it starts off being about. Ghosts. Water. A crime. So the inspirations for that book are numerous, and while I didn’t know it at the time, they formed an adaptable template for what would roll out to be my life’s work.
Steve: What happened in this story was awful, but how the town reacted was very typical of a small town. I remember being just devastated when I was done reading this. Was this a hard book to write emotionally?
Andrew: It was like finding myself. Which, yes, can be an emotional test for sure. But it was also an exciting, revelatory process – all these dreams and obsessions and fears erupting on the page, each of them declaring “That’s you!” in one way or another. I don’t think I realized going in to writing Lost Girls how personally involving the process would be.
The Trade Mission
The Trade Mission was released in 2002.
Steve: Set in the deep Amazon, this was a fantastic tale of survival in a truly inhospitable place. I saw photos of you scouting the area for research. Did actually going there make the book darker or give you a better appreciation of how hard survival would be? When you went to scout, did you have any uncomfortable or uneasy events occur?
Andrew: My research trip to Brazil for The Trade Mission was mostly to get a feel of the physicality of the rain forest. How to write about its particular humidity, its smells, the look of the Manaus riverfront? A sensory expedition. And while that was enormously useful, I think what I got from that trip that was really helpful was the feeling I had of just being a tourist. Being a bit lost all the time, not understanding the language, noting how the food was different, trying to read the signals of people I had contact with. The strangeness of being the foreign visitor. That became the foundation of the novel’s theme in a way I hadn’t anticipated before I went to Brazil. And the condition of feeling alien against the novel’s premise of a pair of tech bros who think they’ve found a “universal” morality app – this became the ironic touchstone for the project.
(Photo One: Andrew preparing to take a dip into the River Negro
Photo Two: A secret grave along the river bank.
Photos used with permission by Andrew Pyper)
Steve: While it was originally released as The Trade Mission, it was also released as Dark Descent. Was there a specific reason for that?
Andrew: The US hardcover edition was titled The Trade Mission, but its sales left something to be desired, particularly coming after the success of Lost Girls. So they re-titled it for the mass market paperback edition. Sales-wise, I don’t think it made any difference.
The Wildfire Season
The Wildfire Season was released in 2005.
Steve: As someone who has lived under evacuation order from a serious forest fire, you absolutely nailed the tension and unpredictability of fire and the damage it does in the outdoors. The fire itself was its own, well developed character. Was that the most challenging aspect when writing this book?
Andrew: First of all, thank you. The Wildfire Season is the most deeply researched of my books, in the sense that I did the most work preparing to write it. Fires, bears, living in a small community in the Yukon. It was all new to me. But the hard part came later, when I had to decide how to move between the different narrative strands of the story and how much weight and time to give to each of them. I sometimes think of a novel as a console of dials, each one controlling the volume of a particular voice. How loud should each one be? Turn them all too low and you can’t hear anything. Turn them all to 10 and it’s just noise. So you toggle between them, turning and lowering and – this is the crucial bit – using some more than others. The Wildfire Season required many decisions of this kind, and they’re decisions that invite second guessing. But I think once I had Miles and Rachel in my head, they became the heart of the book, the thrumming beat that goes through the whole thing even though they only share a few of its pages.
(Welcome to Ross River sign, picture used with permission by Andrew Pyper)
Steve: What drew you to Ross River? Oddly enough, a former co-worker of mine grew up near Ross River. When I mentioned the book he said, “yeah, there’s only two things there – fire fighters and beer drinkers and that’s usually one and the same.”
Andrew: Well, sounds like I picked the right place then! At the time, I chose Ross River because it was the right dot on the map: small, overlooked, isolated, the literal end of the road. When I traveled there to research the place and its physical surroundings it confirmed my expectations. I got into a bar fight my first night there (a longer story for a different time!) and saw a number of people caught in some form of in-between space. The old ways vs. the new ways. Town vs. the bush. Pride vs. sadness. Addiction vs. clean. You’d drive into Ross River and think “Nothing happens here,” but you’d be wrong. There were a lot of decisions having to be made internally by everyone who lived there. And it was that tension – Should I stay or should I go? – that is the central question for all the characters in the novel.
(Andrew scouting the Fox Fire location. Photo used with permission by Andrew Pyper)
The Killing Circle
The Killing Circle was released in 2008.
Steve: Your Instagram handle is apyper29. Patrick uses Brain Dead 29 in the book. Coincidental numbering or is 29 a meaningful number to you?
Andrew: Yup. It’s my birth date.
Steve: The book reads with very lush descriptions of walking around Toronto. How much did the day-to-day mundane moments of life inspire you to write this book?
Andrew: It’s a very location-specific book, and the location was my immediate neighbourhood at the time. I made a deliberate decision to try and weave a Gothic monster story into an urban, contemporary space that you wouldn’t normally associate with the supernatural or horrific. So while the one half of the novel is “real,” the other half is literally about the imaginative: a circle of writers making stuff up. I was attracted to the idea of having a character – and a reader – start out feeling secure about where the boundary between those two worlds existed, and then erasing the boundary as the story went along.
The Guardians was released in 2011
Steve: The Guardians was a thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age story. I can’t stop thinking about it and digesting what I read and it’s set itself nicely on my mental shelf of favorite book I’ve ever read. Just left me stunned. I felt it was elevated even further by the main character having a neurological disorder. Had you been wanting to write a coming-of-age story before this? Do you have a personal favorite coming-of-age book?
Andrew: Thanks again – that’s very kind of you to say! I don’t think I was looking to write my version of the coming-of-age novel, but that’s what The Guardians turned out to be. I set out initially to write my take on a haunted house story. To make it my own, of course, required characters and a setting and narrative premise specific to my inclinations, something that had meaning for me, which started me down the path toward what is probably my most autobiographical novel. The more personal I made it the more it made sense as a story (which is not always the case). As for the second part of your question: The Catcher in the Rye hit me right in the sweet spot when I first read it.
Steve: As you say in the book, every small town has a haunted house. Growing up, did you have a haunted house that you remember, or the house that the kids stayed away from in the neighborhood?
Andrew: There were a few “creepy houses” in Stratford, but I don’t recall any of them being designated as “the haunted house” in quite the decisive way as the house in The Guardians. I assembled a lot of the stories I heard from my father (who was a doctor, and knew a lot of the violent/scary/weird scuttlebutt from the hospital) and combined them with horror fiction tropes and imagined a town where every other house was a haunted house. I saw my town as more dangerous and secretive than it probably was in reality, but after a while, seeing things through the imagination becomes more real than not.
The Demonologist was released in 2012
Steve: ‘The Demonologist’ seems to be many people’s first Pyper book, and it was also my first. Did you know you’d written something special when you were finished?
Andrew: I’ve grown to be wary of those feelings about a book once it’s finished. One’s sense of a novel’s accomplishment – and one’s own confidence – ebbs and flows in such dramatic ways that such assessments are rendered of little use, if not outright hazardous. But yes, I felt I’d struck a mythic vein with The Demonologist, something I felt very close to. It’s a story that took root in my life during the writing in a way that was different from the others. Without going into details I’ll say that while it was an exciting book to write, it frightened me a little too, like I’d invited a guest into my home that I had to keep a close eye on.
Steve: When you wrote ‘The Demonologist’ did you have an actor in mind for Professor Ullman? If it was made today, is there an actor you see and think ‘that’s Ullman!’
Andrew: The Demonologist has been in development for a movie for a long time now, and over that time various names have been tossed out to play David. One that I put forward at one point was Denzel Washington – he has such an amazing way of conveying grief and conviction through his eyes and his body alone. But right now? There’s a few ways you could go on the casting, really. I just think it would be important to find someone who can convey that interior darkness that David carries.
The Damned was released in 2015
Steve: This was such a great read. I remember zipping through this when I bought it. I really felt like the house Danny’s sister perished in could’ve been any house on any street. Did you base the house on a real, specific place?
Andrew: The location of that house and its exterior details are specific to a house that I chose when I was researching the book in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit. But its interior was made up from rooms I’d encountered in my past: the main floor was from my grade nine girlfriend’s house, the upstairs bathroom (where the afterlife scene with Danny’s mom takes place) was from my own house growing up. You pull in whatever fits, whatever feels real to you as you go into a scene.
Steve: Twins have always spoken of this very unique, almost telepathic connection between them. Were there any sets of twins that really stood out to you?
Andrew: I needed the twins of The Damned to be linked but very different. That relationship was modeled, loosely, on fraternal twins I know who – at least back then – fought all the time but would stick up for each other with equal ferocity. That dynamic of simultaneously being at war with each other and for each other was what I wanted to capture.
The Only Child
The Only Child was released in 2017
Steve: You know how much I love the opening line of this book. It ties into the amazing ending and the pure carnage that gets unleashed. Did you have the three books/stories this was based on as the inspiration for this story originally or did it evolve into that?
Andrew: The inspiration came from an observation I made (and possibly made by others several times before, but was just new to me) that the English language, modern tradition of the “monster” were all versions of one of three conceptual sources: the parasite (vampire), the undead (zombie), the diseased psyche (serial killer). And where did these concepts come from? Notably three novels published within the nineteenth century: Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde. From there, I speculated about how there might be a single being that inspired all three of these stories – the monster that inspired all monsters. This was the concept that pulled me in.
Steve: Did you do any specific location scouting for this book? Your descriptions – specifically when our antagonist describes the meetings with Mary Shelley – were so vivid, when I Google mapped it, it was so accurate! (Yes, yes, I Google mapped it.)
Andrew: Ha! Yes, I traveled to most of the locations in the novel, though I also did a bit of Google mapping myself too. I spent some time in Hungary imagining where my characters would have contact with each other, where they came from. Along the way I was nearly attacked by a guard dog on the grounds of a shuttered asylum – a real experience that made its way into a scene in the book.
The Homecoming was released in 2019
Steve: The father/head of the family that owns the house/acreage is very mysterious. He himself was a character that was minimally featured but when he did show up, added significantly to the story. Was that character based on anyone from history?
Andrew: The Homecoming was a response to the question – put to myself by myself – of how I would approach a “classic” murder mystery. My version ends up breaking a lot of the rules and expectations of the form, as I bring in elements of other genres, other worlds. Without giving too much away, the matter of identity plays a central role in the story, and how we understand ourselves, our families, where we come from. So the father figure of the novel is at once the dominant figure of the novel, and in another sense is a total absence. He’s not based on anyone in particular. In my mind he is the “absent father,” a role that plays a part, I suspect, in many of our lives.
Steve: The book is such a perfectly crafted thriller set in the Pacific Northwest. I’m going to assume you’ve seen the memes about ‘staying in a mansion for $1 million with no phones etc.’ Did that at all inspire the initial making of ‘The Homecoming’?
Andrew: While I was familiar with the trope of “staying in a haunted house overnight to win a fortune” – a set-up that’s been around since Haunting of Hill House and probably well before that too – I wasn’t really aware of all the different versions of the challenge online until after the book was finished. “No phones” is of course now a fantasy world that is harder and harder to convincingly build, as they seem to have been fused to our bodies. As an aside, I’m working on a project where I proposed that a character forget her phone at one point and even though she did so in a moment of emotional turmoil and distraction, the people I’m working on the project with refused to accept that anyone would ever forget their phone no matter what. So…yet another challenge for us novelists!
The Residence will be released September 1st, 2020!
Steve: The story of Pierce, his wife Jane and the ghost is incredibly fascinating. While researching it, did you find many White House haunting stories?
Andrew: I certainly did. The White House has a rich history of association with the paranormal and the occult that I was only superficially aware of when I stumbled on the story of the Pierces. It really is this mythical hub of strangeness that lies at the very centre of the capital, the country.
Steve: This question is from our friend Sam Brunke-Kervin: With ‘The Residence’ being based around true events, what other “true” ghost story would you love the chance to turn into a novel?
Andrew: The true horror story behind the Amityville hoax. That would be complicated and fun.
How amazing was that?!
Thank you so much, Andrew, for responding with thoughtful, insightful and candid replies. I’m blown away.