Author Interview: Tremblay uses empathy to build trust with readers

By G. Robert Frazier

Praised by horrormaster Stephen King, Paul Tremblay’s shocking new novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, is an often graphic account of one family’s ordeal when their vacation is shattered in a cult-like home invasion. We asked Tremblay about the book’s origins, its dark path and his inner fears that helped forge the novel.

Paul Tremblay
Paul Tremblay

How does it feel to receive a compliment from a literary horror master like King?
I was a mathematics major in college and about to go off to a graduate program for two years, and Lisa (my wife) gave me The Stand for my 22nd birthday. It would be a cliché to say that book changed my life, but it did. I haven’t stopped reading King since. I became a reader—never mind a writer—because of Stephen King. That Stephen now reads my books and enjoys them is one of the highlights of my career.

Your previous novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, was a Stoker Award winner for best horror novel in 2015. What is it like to follow up a book that’s been so well received? Did it change your writing process at all?
The response to A Head Full of Ghosts has been amazing and thrilling. I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel a little extra pressure trying to follow it up. Some of that OK, what the heck are you going write now? is natural and healthy. Letting it take over and paralyze the process is not healthy.

Aside from worrying if what I’m working on was as good as AHFoG or not, my writing process hasn’t been changed. Cabin is my seventh novel, and while I still have to push through plenty of doubt and anxiety, I’ve earned a little bit of confidence. I’ve been to the finish line with those other novels, so it’s a bit easier to believe I can get there again with the next one.

A few years ago I was in the midst of gnashing my teeth while working on my novel Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. I sent friend/mentor/genius Stewart O’Nan an email telling him I was worried the book wasn’t as good as the last novel and didn’t know how people would react to it, blah blah blah.

He said, “Eh, not everything you’re going to write is going to be great.” I laughed out loud when I read the email, and it was exactly what I needed to here. I still find his pithy quote oddly comforting, reaffirming and inspiring. Maybe I should put it on a T-shirt.

“Most horror stories feature the reveal of a horrible truth (or potential truth) or some terrible event, ambiguous or not. My favorite stories then focus on the aftermath and on what the characters are going to do next. What decisions are they going to make?”

There are some shocking developments in store for each of the characters in Cabin. Did you ever pause midstream during writing those scenes to ask, “Did I just go too far?”
I never thought or asked that question during the writing of Cabin. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a pause when it comes to the use of violence.

In Cabin the cast is so small and the violence is up close and personal, so my pause was about making sure to take the proper amount of time to figure out how the violence was to be portrayed and how it affected the characters. I did not want those scenes to simply be about titillation or shock, although there’s no denying there are elements of both whenever violence is used in entertainment/art. I hope those scenes are super disturbing in Cabin, and I hope I’m successful in treating the experiences of both the victim and perpetrator(s) of the violent act with authenticity. There are great and terrible consequences to any act of violence, and they reverberate beyond the act itself. The survivors and witnesses are fundamentally changed by what they experienced. There’s no going back for anyone after the horror and transgression of violence.

This story is powerful both emotionally and viscerally. How do you balance the two for the benefit of the reader?
Thank you! I think if you treat all of your characters, even the odious ones, with empathy (not sympathy; there’s a difference), the reader will be willing to follow you into dark places. When you use empathy as a base—the want to understand a character, why she does what she does, says what she says—I think it’s easier to build trust with the reader, particularly in a horror/suspense story. That’s not to say bad things won’t happen or there won’t be surprises, but the reader’s emotional investment is rewarded because that investment was grounded in empathy.

Most horror stories feature the reveal of a horrible truth (or potential truth) or some terrible event, ambiguous or not. My favorite stories then focus on the aftermath and on what the characters are going to do next. What decisions are they going to make? How are they going to live through this? And by proxy, we readers ask, how are we going to live through this?

There are great and terrible consequences to any act of violence, and they reverberate beyond the act itself.”

Where did the genesis for this novel come from? Is there some inner fear that you have that you’ve incorporated here?
I was on a plane scribbling in one of my notebooks, looking for a new novel/story idea, and I looked down to find I’d randomly drawn a cabin. (An artist I am not, by the way.) I looked at the cabin and drew a few stick figures (again, not an artist) outside the cabin, and I got to thinking about the home-invasion subgenre of horror. It’s a subgenre that I really don’t enjoy all that much. There are some books/films that I like (Wait Until Dark, Ils (Them), Hush), but generally, too many of those stories are mean-spirited, cynical and at times sadistic. With all that in mind, I was excited by the challenge of writing a home-invasion story that I would want to read. So why not a home-invasion-maybe-the-apocalypse-is-happening-too story? Very early in the process, the book became an allegory for our current socio-political predicament, which was another hook for me.

Home-invasion stories scare me for sure, but I think one of my biggest metaphysical fears is represented in the novel, but I can’t really talk about it with spoiling the whole thing. Sorry!

Many writers believe they are their own harshest critic. Is that the case with you as well, and if so, what do you do to silence that inner critic?
I’m harsh on myself. But let’s be honest, I’m not as harsh as the online one-star critic who says, “This book is boring and stupid and smells like poo.” The smell part is the most hurtful.

As much as a pain in the butt as he is, I don’t want to totally silence my inner critic. Generally he’s helpful. When the inner critic’s voice gets too loud, I promise him I’ll deal with him and his concerns, but later, and not until after I write my 500 new words for the day.

What are you working on next?
I just finished a draft of my short story collection Growing Things and Other Stories. It’s due to be published summer 2019. The collection features a few stories that have connections to my novels, including one story that features adult Merry from A Head Full of Ghosts after her tell-all book was published. I’m working on a short screenplay for a secret project, and I need to get off my duff and start the next novel. That, and working on helping my kid visit and apply to colleges. Send help.

The above article initially appeared at BookPage.


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