Today in the MADHOUSE, I'm interviewing Danger Slater about his book, Puppet Skin. I remember first hearing about this book from John Skipp on the Three Guys with Beards podcast, a weekly show were Christopher Golden, Jonathan Maberry, and James A. Moore 'get together to discuss popular culture, books, movies, and whatever else crosses their minds.' The idea behind it--middle school children earning their marionette strings at graduation and being turned into puppets--was fascinating to me, and the uncanny grounding that it had immediately caught my interest. It's been on my TBR pile for some time now, and boy am I glad I finally got to it! I'm very much looking forward to checking out more of Slater's work, and I urge you all to do the same.
With puppet feed and nightmares,
Stephanie M. Wytovich
Tell us about your book. What gave you the idea to create this world, and in your opinion, what does it represent?
I have no idea where this or any other idea comes from. You know how it is. Or maybe you don’t. I don’t know. But for me, random shit passes through my head all day like white noise on the radio, provoked by all manner of catalysts. So it’s not just snippets of stories, nascent and half-formed, but it’ll be like ANYTHING at ANYTIME. I look at my cat and think: Catto Blatto Farty Fatto. It’s nonsense, so most of it floats on by. No worries. But every once and a while I’ll fixate on something. And, even rarer than that, it’s starts getting bigger and bigger. Snowballing. And then, all of a sudden, oh look, this idea is the size of a book now!
That said, Puppet Skin is about a world where all human children are turned into wooden marionettes on the day they graduate middle school, converted into wood in a violent and disgusting process that involves attaching strings that hang down from the sky and fill the person up with ‘puppetfeed.’ It’s a book about growing up, and all the terror that brings!
Can you talk a little about Hannah’s character? I really loved the dichotomy that you let her have because while she’s rebellious, she’s also obedient, and I’m curious how you found the balance with her as she fights the concept of getting her strings.
I didn’t think finding a balance was all that hard. You can be rebellious and obedient, in turn. As Walt Whitman wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” No opinion, no experience, nothing is absolute, and no singular decision can encompass the entirety of ‘you.’ This is especially true as a teenager -as Hannah is in the book- when you’re really in the process of exploring all these avenues within yourself. People think school is all about learning how to do math and reading The Scarlet Letter and shit (and it is a little bit about that stuff, sure) but it’s also where you learn if you want to be a part of the system, or be outside it, and where disillusionment and liberation come at you in a steady stream. You gotta ask yourself: does “growing up” mean acquiescing to someone else’s version of adulthood? Is this inevitable? For some of us, and I include myself in this lot, growing up is an unending process. Perhaps it’s my providence as a writer -or at least, a task I’ve opted to take on- trying to understand why, even when the answer is and will remain ineffable. So yeah, I just tried to imbue Hannah with all of that. Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy.
What was your favorite part of the story to create and explore? Did you find any of it cathartic to write about, and if so, in what way?
I put a lot of myself into my characters. Part of the joy of writing this book was figuring out where the pieces of Hannah (a teen girl) and me (an adult man) intersect. My thought was, if I could hone in on that, on the similarities between her and I, then her struggle should be relatable to just about everyone. I remember asking a fellow writer, Jessica McHugh (who writes a YA book series, among other things) about writing a teen girl character. I’m like, “What do teen girls talk/care about?” and she was just like “I dunno dude, same shit as everyone else.” Haha. That advice was very helpful to me, because it was so obvious! Hannah’s struggle is the same as my struggle is the same as yours, though the circumstances may vary, the emotional core or want/need/fear/success a universally human experience.
Personally, puppets (mannequins, dolls, you name it) really freak me out. I thought one of the scarier parts of the book were Hannah’s interactions with her parents because her Mom came off as very flat (which, duh? She’s a puppet), but her dad was almost non-existent, literally there to go through the motion and only come alive when spoken to. It was almost like a case of the body snatchers for me, and I found it very impressive the way you pulled that off but still managed to create this parental relationship with Hannah and her parents throughout. Having said that, what part in the story was the most difficult to write and how did you power through it?
Most difficult….hmmmmm….I guess, the most difficult thing is trying to answer this question. Haha. I don’t know. It’s all difficult. And at the same time, it’s not. Out of everything I’ve ever written, this came out the easiest. This might be because it was the most personal. And if you’ve read the book, you know it kinda wallows in this gray area between hope and despair, so trying to keep in that headspace for the eight months or so it took to write the book, was not necessarily a pleasurable experience, but it was a cathartic one, so I guess it’s a wash.
I thought the infection scenes were some of the more powerful parts of the book, and they really stood out to me as this mishmash of body horror meets creature feature fiction. As such, I’m kind of curious…why puppets? What fascinates or repulses you about them, and do you have a favorite story or movie that you found particularly influential for this book?
I mean, why not puppets? It’s perfect for the metaphor and they’re creepy as fuck. The book couldn’t have worked any other way.
I’m a big fan of body-horror in general, and the more visceral the better. Stuff like Cronenberg’s The Fly or Carpenter’s The Thing, stuff where you can’t trust your own body, or the bodies of people around you. But I also like campy stuff too, with a bit of humor, like the stuff you find Troma putting out. And if we’re talking movies, there is, of course, people like Charlie Kaufman and the films he wrote that, while not horror, really cut to the core of what being human means, which in itself can be quite horrifying. Sometimes the scariest stuff isn’t the monster that lurks in the dark, it’s knowing you’re all alone, and there’s no such thing as monsters. I guess the idea is, hopefully, taking all these disparate elements and figuring out what to use and where and when to see if I can’t build something exciting and original on the shoulders of the greats.
How would you describe your writing style to those who are new to your work?
I write like a trash can full of fireworks going pop-pop-pop-pop.
What is next in store for your readers? Have you considered writing a sequel to Puppet Skin?
A sequel? Hell no! Everything that this story needed to say has already been said, and unless someone hands me a big wad of cash, I’m personally not interested in revisiting it. That said: SOMEONE HAND ME A BIG WAD OF CASH PLEASE.
Up next, though (Nov. 2017, Fungasm Press) I have a book called He Digs A Hole, a domestic body-horror story dealing with marriage about a man who wakes up one night and decides to cut off his hands and replaces them with gardening trowels and begin digging an impossibly deep hole in his own backyard, much to the chagrin of his wife and neighbors. And that’s just the first chapter.
Who are some of your influences in the genre? Do you have any writing rituals that you tend to follow either before/during/or after you write?
I like to write first thing when I wake up while listening to music, really loud. I have a playlist I’ve been building for years. It’s got almost 900 carefully curated songs, things that mostly either give me an emotional reaction (I love female vocalists like Amanda Palmer and Regina Spektor) or like, really loud abrasive punk stuff that gets me all jacked-up. But I’ll mix it up with movie soundtracks, EDM, folk, hip-hop, and whatever the fuck else that happens to speak to my soul. I’ll find my fingers typing to the rhythm of the music sometimes. It’s preeeeeetttty cool.
What books are sitting in your TBR pile?
I just started reading The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. She’s just the goddamn best. I didn’t discover her until recently (I mean, I knew who she was, but I had never read her until recently). I haven’t checked out that Handmaiden’s Tale TV show they based off her book yet, but far as I can tell from the commercials, it looks pretty neat. After that I was thinking of rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which I haven’t read in probably 15 years, but remember really enjoying. The last two books I finished were The Big Meat, by Carlton Mellick III and The Warblers by Amber Fallon. Both excellent.
If you could give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?
If you ever win $20,000 on a scratch-off lottery ticket, you should throw a party so massive that you spend the whole thing in one night. Then, the next morning, when you wake up all red-eyed and hungover, if you’re really serious about this thing, start writing a book.