So yeah, we interviewed Malfi. Why not? We like the guy and he has a lot of interesting things to say! So read on and then go buy the book at Amazon if you like.
What started you writing, way back when in the dark ages?
I started writing when I was around nine years old. Somehow I got my hands on an old Olympia manual typewriter, grabbed a ream of typing paper, and actually typed up short stories every day after school. I would draw covers for them and staple the pages together like a book. Then I’d force my friends and family to read them. I wrote maybe twenty or thirty of those stories, most of them plagiarized from the Stephen King books I was reading at the time. Like the one about the writer who goes crazy in an old hotel…yeah, that was original.
I still have all those old stories, along with about a half-dozen novel manuscripts, tucked away in a trunk in my basement.
You have written some very well received horror stories, both long and
short, but with NATURE OF MONSTERS you’ve chosen to move away from
At first, I don’t think my transition from traditional horror fiction, or genre fiction for that matter, to more “mainstream” fiction was intentional. I have always been a fan of horror literature—to include horror movies, the schlockier the better—and still am. However, something happened during the writing of my gothic horror novel The Fall of Never that, ironically, turned my writing slightly away from horror as opposed to drawing me nearer to it: I fell in love with the characters. Although it wasn’t published until late 2004, The Fall of Never was written in 2001. Halfway through the book, I became so involved with the characters that I was almost disappointed that I had to keep them relegated to the elements of the genre—that there needed to be a “monster” to propel the story, in other words. I continuously looked at the text and wondered what these characters would be like in their everyday lives if the whole horror element hadn’t come into play. I found that fascinated me more than the plot. And while I’m happy with Fall, and it has gotten some very good reviews, I think it is also a flawed work because it doesn’t stay completely true to the genre. I allowed the subplots to vie for dominance while some secondary characters, according to some critics, did not fit snugly into the roles previously outlined by the genre. In hindsight, what I realized is I was beginning to feel restricted by the formula of genre fiction. I have heard other authors say this about their own work—that they’ve got a great, Pulitzer Prize-winning story in their head but can’t write it because, unless it has vampires or zombies in it, their publisher will just turn the manuscript into confetti. I was turned off by that sort of restriction. Unfortunately, I am an idealist when it comes to writing. I still consider writing an art form. The publishing industry has lost touch with the artistic side and is driven by a desire to catalogue everything into a niche, a genre, a sub-genre, a sub-sub-genre. How far into the basement are we willing to go?
When I began writing The Nature of Monsters, my goal was to simply let the characters tell the story. That is also why I chose Robert Crofton as the protagonist: his innocence and indecisiveness provided the perfect tools through which the other characters in the novel were free to exercise their own behaviors without being influenced by the protagonist, so we see them as they are when they are alone, not trying to impress others or act differently depending on the scenario. Robert Crofton is the human embodiment of the “fly on the wall.”
Does this indicate a possibly permanent shift away from the horror genre for you, or are you still open to writing those great horror yarns as well?
I can’t say I’m totally done with horror. I doubt I’ll ever write a “monster” book, although I suppose The Fall of Never can be considered one, and I’ve lost some interest in writing stories solely driven by speculative elements, but I am still a “dark” writer at heart. Even The Nature of Monsters has a darkness to it—a sense of discomfort, uneasiness, eeriness. Most of my recent short stories contain this element as well. My short story “The Glad Street Angel,” which was published in an issue of Bare Bone, depicts a teenage boy coping with the death of his younger sister. And my story “All the Pretty Girls” is really a serial killer story at heart, although I feel it is a unique take on the genre.
What was it about NATURE OF MONSTERS that begged to be written?
The characters were too strong. They wanted to come out. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the story after I’d been kicking around the idea in my head for a while and he not only liked the idea but liked what I liked about it—the interaction of the characters, the way they are in control of their own destinies, and how they drive the plot instead of having the plot puppet them around. This is what I wanted to accomplish. After The Fall of Never, I knew I wanted to write something more tangible (which, at the time, equated to something more “serious”) and I thought Monsters would be the perfect vehicle to carry me from one style of writing to another.
The characters in NATURE OF MONSTERS are well drawn and fleshed out.
Are any of them based on people you know?
As any writer will probably admit, if they’re in a mood to be honest, there are bits and pieces of all my characters that relate to aspects or idiosyncrasies associated with real people I know. Some events, too, although altered to suit the story. Writers are first and foremost self-trained observers; you cannot help taking things in and storing them in the file cabinet in the back of your head for later use. We’re all thieves that way, too. I’ve written numerous scenes where a friend will read it and say, “Hey, you didn’t make that up, that actually happened to us!” And my response is always, “Of course it did. That’s why it’s there.” Because where else will it go unless you exorcise it on paper?
But as for specific characters being modeled after specific people, that’s not the case. A number of people who read the rough draft of the novel immediately assumed they were Sweeny—and they assumed this in a boastful manner, as if being Nigel Sweeny was something to be proud of. Also, it is a misconception that an author’s protagonist is typically modeled after the author himself. That is rarely the case with me and certainly is not the case with Robert Crofton and this novel (although he does fancy himself a writer and uses the same old Olympia typewriter I used when I was a kid). A protagonist may have similar traits and beliefs but, if the author wants to stay true to the character, he will use the character less as a mouthpiece for his own devices and more in the fashion best suited to the story.
Since the new novel shows a love and respect, as well as an intimate understanding of classic literature, who are some of your favorite authors?
The events of Monsters are viewed through the eyes of its protagonist, Robert Crofton, who is a tender, ambiguous, socially inept guy in his mid-twenties who, after a childhood of living on a farm in Kentucky raised by his mother, decides he’s going to move to Baltimore to write the great American novel. It is an idealized concept viewed through idealized eyes. He carries with him an assortment of tattered paperbacks and, given the solitude of his youth, it can be assumed he did much reading growing up. Therefore, I wanted to tell the story in a fashion befitting of how this character might view the world: all the people he interacts with are caricatures of themselves, and the city itself has an almost glossy appearance to it. Reading the text, it’s nearly impossible to discern what decade the story takes place, which adds to the overall theme of ambiguity, which is also the hallmark of Robert’s character.
I used this opportunity to stylize my prose as a hybrid of parody and homage to the classic “ex-patriot” literature of the so-called Lost Generation. Some of my favorite authors are Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and the rest—and I really wanted that to come through in this book. Some say it’s like a modernized version of The Great Gatsby, but I don’t know if that’s accurate, because it is also a strong parody of Gatsby which, in a way, makes it a polar opposite.
I’m also a huge fan of Peter Straub, Philip Roth, Herman Wouk, Brian Keene, Glen Hirshberg, Greg F. Gifune, Thomas Pynchon, Gunter Grass, James A. Moore, John Edward Lawson, Darren Speegle, Adrienne Jones, Michael Hemmingson—my taste runs the gamut.
You have another book in the process of winding its way towards the public, VIA DOLOROSA. What can you tell us about it?
Providing for no further publishing glitches, Via Dolorosa will be out in hardcover in January. It’s about an American solider returned from Iraq, now on his honeymoon dealing with both the events of the war as well as the turmoil that has surfaced between him and his wife while on their honeymoon. The entire book takes place on Hilton Head Island, which is where I came up with the concept, and I am utterly proud of the book and can’t wait for its release. More times than not, I will reread something I’ve written and think, man, does this suck. But with Via, each time I go through the text, I am impressed with it and content to see that it still holds up. If I’m ever remembered for a book after I’m dead, it will be Via Dolorosa.
What is your writing process?
I’ve got a collection of writing shirts—old, raggedy button-down things—I wear when working on a book, usually accompanied by several pots of coffee, black with no sugar. I don’t outline, take notes, any of that. Usually, I’ll keep a story simmering in my head until it starts to boil, then I just start typing. Each book has its own way of coming to fruition. With The Nature of Monsters, I took about a year hiatus after writing the first few chapters before returning to the story, simply because I didn’t feel I’d let it boil enough. But I wrote it chronologically in the span of maybe three months—that’s my typical time for writing a novel, three months—and wound up trimming about 100 manuscript pages from the final draft before feeling it was finished. But not all novels are written that way. With Via Dolorosa, I found myself jotting down segments, or chapters, out of order, and the book initially came together in a hodgepodge. That’s also a good tactic for negotiating around writer’s block—to skip the section that’s giving you trouble and write, say, the middle of the book.
I find outlines to be too restrictive. The extent of my notes are usually phrases or character names or a quick scene I want to remember scribbled in a black and white, string-bound notebook.
Do you enjoy music when you write and if so what kinds?
Depending on what I’m writing, I sometimes find it difficult to listen to music while I work. I think this is because I’m very involved in music, I love it, and I can easily lose myself in it, to the detriment of my writing. However, if I’m going to listen to something while writing, it’s going to be jazz—Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, you know the drill. Eric Alexander’s outstanding Nightlife in Tokyo hasn’t left my CD player in several weeks.