Next up in the Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Laird Barron to discuss to discuss his Isaiah Coleridge series, which comprises Blood Standard, Black Mountain and Worse Angels.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Blood Standard recently. Isaiah Coleridge is an unusual protagonist – familiar, yet enigmatic. How easy was it for you to shape his character in a way that felt satisfying?
Tom, thank you. I’ve written and published well over a million words. A large chunk of that features various permutations of the archetypal action (anti) hero protagonist—be it two-fisted detectives, gladiators, old school loggers, Pinkertons, arm breakers, and so forth.
Coleridge is a synthesis of my many attempts to depict that type of character. Defaulting to a hardboiled protagonist made writing my first crime novel more comfortable. Satisfaction derived from developing Coleridge and the supporting cast over three novels. Recurring characters present narrative opportunities; especially at novel scale. There are more chances to deviate from the tradition, to contribute one’s own unique take on the subject matter.
In this opening book Isaiah is wrestling with his dark past, and he goes on to have further misadventures in the sequels, Black Mountain and Worse Angels. Was his entire narrative arc mapped out in advance, or did it evolve as you worked?
It began with a sketchy notion of where I wanted to go and the whole thing took off like a boulder rolling downhill. Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald are foremost among numerous inspirations for Coleridge. Spenser and Magee stories tend to be episodic. Spenser didn’t change much over many years and multiple novels.
I wanted to operate in a kind of twilight realm between doggedly episodic narrative and a heroic saga with an overarching theme and defined endgame. Coleridge hasn’t necessarily grown across three novels so much as I’ve discovered more and more of his true nature.
As a reader, which personality traits do you enjoy most when investing time in a series character? And which traits aggravate you?
Humor and agency are important. Big fan of gallows humor, sardonic wit. The Spenser series had those elements. The television series Justified did as well. I prefer characters who make decisions and reckon with the fallout. Less a fan of purely episodic, consequence-free adventures.
I understand that you grew up in Alaska. How did that environment shape you as a person – and a writer?
Environment/culture shapes everybody. What food is put into your mouth; what facts are put into your head; familial warmth or the lack. Geography imprints upon the mind as well. Extreme geography and extreme environments might well scarify an impressionable mind. I feel Alaska, and particularly some of my negative experiences there, dug channels in my mind that tend to direct my creative impulses into certain patterns. Sometimes that has worked to my advantage. Other times not so much.
You are best known for your work within the horror genre. Have the Coleridge books helped you to tap into a new audience? And have the horror enthusiasts come along for the ride?
My readership has expanded overall, although my horror audience was initially divided about the shift. Some readers are omnivorous, others stick with a certain genre. As has been the case since The Imago Sequence in 2007, my titles are long of tail and keep selling over time. More people find Coleridge each year and he features in a significant portion of upcoming material.
You have built up an impressive back catalogue over the years. Which book would you suggest a would-be reader pick up first?
If you prefer short fiction, I’d recommend Occultation and Other Stories. That collection covers a spectrum of styles, approaches, and narrators. There’s a good mix of cosmic horror, occult horror, and weirdness. If you like novels, try Blood Standard. It’s straight up crime/noir that cracks the door to ever greater darkness.
Genre aside, what are the common threads that link your books?
Bad things happening to bad people. Bad things happening to good people. Bad things happening to regular, everyday people. The destination is the same for everyone. How people face their struggles is what interests me most.
We were tarpaper shack poor for a while. Reading and writing were my escape. I was drawn to gothic horror, noir, crime, and westerns. Happy endings are placeholders—even westerns tended to be “happily ever after…for now.”
That grimness pervades my own work. I don’t fight it; I roll with it.
Can you name the book – or books – that made you want to become a writer?
There isn’t a source I can point to as the inciting event.
I wanted to be a writer before I learned to read. I drew pictures and scribbled nonsense symbols to simulate an attendant story. Many authors guided my progress into my teens—Louis L’Amour, Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Service, Andre Norton, Madeleine L’Engele, and Robert E. Howard were major influences. Service’s The Spell of the Yukon; L’ Amour’s Sacketts saga; and Howard’s Conan stories were all formative.
These days, I look to writers such as Beau Johnson, Hilary Davidson, J Todd Scott, and Thomas Pluck (to rattle off a handful) to energize my own work.
What was the last truly great book that you read?
Collection: Convulsive, by Joe Koch (coming in spring 2022). Surreal, beautifully written, and timely.
Novel: The Fisherman, by John Langan. Cosmic horror informed by the classic and contemporary masters of the art.
Graphic Novel: The Double Walker, by Noah Bailey, Michael Conrad, and Taylor Esposito. Ancient legends impinge upon a hapless modern-day couple. Full of dread and exquisitely illustrated.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans? And are there any more Isaiah Coleridge books in the pipeline?
A couple of horror/dark fantasy collections are in the works. I’m writing a dark novel featuring dark ages versions of Coleridge and Robard. In coming years, they’ll show up (and their various alter egos) in a few short stories and novellas as well.
Laird Barron spent his early years in Alaska. He is the author of several books, including The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, Swift to Chase, and Blood Standard. His work has also appeared in many magazines and anthologies. Barron currently resides in the Rondout Valley writing stories about the evil that men do.