Peter Straub is the bestselling author of many books, including Ghost Story, The Hellfire Club, and In the Night Room. Born in Wisconsin, Straub currently lives in New York with his family on the Upper West Side. His latest novel, A Dark Matter, was released in February, 2010.
This interview was conducted in March, 2010.
Alex: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Peter: I think I loved the whole idea once I realized that books did not write themselves, at age 9 or 10, say. When I was a senior in high school, I knew that I was going to be a writer, but that I had to time it right because once I started I’d never be able to do anything else.
Alex: Who were your influences?
Peter: Way back when I started, my influences were mainly poets, Ashbery, Stevens, Geoffrey Hill, Frank O’Hara. John Updike would have been in the mix, though, also Virginia Woolf, John O’Hara, and Saul Bellow.
Alex: Do you remember what was the first thing you published?
Peter: The first thing I published was a short poem, in The World #14. It was produced by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s in the Bowery.
Alex: What was you first novel and how did it get published?
My first novel was called Marriages. I wrote it one summer in Dublin, when I was supposed to be writhing a Ph.D. dissertation. I mailed it to the publisher Andre Deutsch in London, and they accepted it.
Alex: Do you have a specific process when writing a novel?
Nothing specific enough to talk about. It’s just the usual mess, notebooks, notes, useless outlines, false starts, little flares of ideas springing up.
Alex: Where did the idea for A Dark Matter come from?
Peter: When I was in college during the early sixties in Madison, Wisconsin, now and then some wandering guru would pop up, camp out in student apartments, and lay out what he saw was the truth, the real deal. They talked and talked, and in the meantime they ate your food, borrowed your clothes, and had sex with your girlfriend. I thought it would be interesting to write about one of these guys, and have him lead some kind of ceremony that would go disastrously wrong.
Alex: Did it require any sort of research?
Peter: Only in memory.
Alex: Where did the characters come from?
Peter: I made them up, each and every one.
Alex: Is it any easier to have a writer as a main character?
Peter: At least I understand what a writer does. So maybe it is easier than doing a lot of research into plumbing or electrical engineering, but at least to me, it also opens up a big imaginative space other professions do not have.
Alex: Were you pulling from your own childhood at all when writing this novel?
Peter: No, not this time. I did draw on my life in Madison during the years 1963-1965.
Alex: What made you decide to tell this particular story as an event that happened in the past, to be revealed by the characters?
Peter: Who knows? This was the way the story presented itself.
Alex: Was this novel written chronologically, from start to finish, or was it written in separate parts and brought together?
Peter: It was written pretty much as is, chronologically, but a great deal of editing removed nearly half of the book. The novel emerged from the butcher shop much improved, spryer, leaner, more focused.
Alex: How did you become friends with Stephen King?
Peter: Back in 1976-79, when both of us were just beginning, we liked each other’s work a lot. He wrote blurbs for two of my books, and I wrote to thank him. Then the Kings moved to England, and we met and got along very well. That was the start of things, the sense of shared concerns, of a kind of brotherhood.
Alex: How did you end up writing a book together?
Peter: One weekend when we all lived in England, the Kings came to visit us in our house in Crouch End, London. Steve and I stayed up late, drinking beer and talking. Very late at night, Steve asked me if I thought it might be fun to collaborate on a book sometime. I said yes, I did think it would be fun to do that.
Alex: What was the process for this?
Peter: Intense individual thinking and note-taking, exchanged letters, several meeting to discuss the plot, then a long outline. After that we got together and began writing the book side-by-side.
Alex: Do you plan on collaborating together in the future?
Peter: I believe we will do a third book together. It seems right.
Alex: Do you have a set writing schedule you keep to each day?
Peter: In a way. I try to do a little in the morning, then a bit more in the afternoon and early evening. I work about five or six hours a day.
Alex: What do you use to write on?
Peter: This is a weird question. What do I use to write on? Do you mean, what do I write on? Generally, I write on an iMac, though often I write in big bound notebooks with either pencils or fountain pens.
Alex: Do you see yourself ever writing in a different genre, something you haven’t written in before?
Peter: No, I can’t forsee that, since according to me, everything I write is in the genre defined by my name. Everything I write is Straubian before it is anything else.
Alex: Have any of your books been optioned or turned into movies?
Peter: Two of my books have been filmed, and quite a lot of them are under option. This means nothing.
Alex: What are you working on next and when will it be published?
Peter: I cannot say.
Alex: Do you have any advice for writers looking to get published?
Peter: This question is really too broadly put to be answered. If you are speaking of young writers, my advice is to get the best agent they can, because it’s getting colder and colder out here.
Alex: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Peter: I love the work of the late Donald Harington, and I urge everyone reading this to go out and get a copy of Some Other Place. The Right Place. Immediately.
Alex: What do you like to read?
Peter: Novels, mainly, and books about the lives of authors. These are inevitably tragic and heartbreaking. Malcolm Lowry used to disinfect his shoes by pouring cognac into them and leaving it there overnight. Later on, he was probably killed by his wife. A common thread links these two things.
Alex: Do you have any hobbies?
Peter: Not really. Writing takes up a lot of time, and it eats away at your life.
Alex: Do you feel there’s any sort of message you’re trying to get across to your readers in your books?
Peter: That is best left to those who want to think about messages.
Alex: What is your favorite part – from the original idea to doing a book tour – of the writing process?
Peter: My favorite part? Probably being in the middle of a long book, unsure of what I am supposed to do next and feeling my way along.
Alex: If you hadn’t chosen writing for your career, what do you think you would’ve done?
Peter: Yikes! Ugh. Become a life-long English teacher at a private school? That’s probably it, but it isn’t very pretty.
Alex: Is there anything you’ve written or anything you’ve done in your writing career that you regret, or wish you had done?
Peter: My first two novels are pretty bad. I wish I had known enough to make them better fiction.
Alex: What do you feel is your best work?
Peter: My own faves are The Dark Matter and the Blue Rose books: Koko, Mystery and The Throat. Two days ago, I saw that some blogger, a great literary expert, called those books “crapola.” Well, I don’t know for sure, but I have the feeling that people will still be reading those books long after that blogger has been entirely forgotten.