Hard boiled noir author Trent Zelazny has chosen the New Mexican desertscape as the ideal setting for most if not all his dark, gritty, postmodern tellings (available online or from your favorite local bookstores). In Zelazny’s To Sleep Gently, Santa Fe is the setting for a daring hotel robbery by a hardened gang of former associates reunited by a shared hope for normalcy—with differing ideas on how to achieve that. Both his A Crack in Melancholy Time and Fractal Despondency are also set in Santa Fe, the first a hair-trigger leap into one man’s last chance at redemption, the second concerning a beautiful devil disguised as an angel, waiting in the town of Holy Faith like a Widow at the center of a web to revive or kill her lovers. His debut novel Destination Unknown, concerning the para-comfortable repercussions of its protagonists’ discovery of a mysterious briefcase full of money, is also set there, as in the more recent, Butterfly Potion, gripping emotional noir told with a hearty love of language (what poet Ed Sanders called “good mouth sound”) and a boozy hospitality found in the works of Fante, Bukowski and others, quickly supplanted as the high water mark of paranormal found object-ry by his latest, Too Late to Call Texas (“If only he hadn't found the hat. Or the dead guy. Or the steamer trunk. Or the rag doll. If only he hadn't found any of these things, everything might have been okay. But he had found them. All of them.”), and, for all I know, there may be more.
I visited friends in Santa Fe last year, reading Juan Ramon Jimenez’s Platero and I and a couple of other books during my stay, and there was some talk between the two of us before I left Denver of getting together there when I arrived, but it never came to pass. Given our mutual friend, and shared status as upstart amateur experts, it stands to reason I would have helped him to a promotional blitzkrieg via my own meager resources (this column and Doggerel, the webzine) long since, at least published an interview somewhere, but poor Trent had a devil’s time getting me to buckle down and get that done. Now I have. Without further ado, here follow six questions and answers with Nightmare Award winning author Trent Zelazny.
1/ My own late father was a poet and playwright. Despite gaping stylistic differences, we were able to relate as fellow writers; I remember once I asked him if he thought a writer was “always working” (you know that quote), and he said he thought so. Your late father Roger Zelazny was a renowned science fiction author while you are a writer of novels about crime, horror and psychological dire straits. What moment comes to mind as a significator of a writerly bond between you two?
The moment that smacks home for me, which I talked a little about in my introduction to the A Night in the Lonesome October tribute issue of Lovecraft Ezine, was a moment either in Eighth or Ninth Grade—I think it was Eighth Grade. I was a terrible student in school. There were issues at home and in those days—and I’m only talking about twenty years ago—there wasn’t the same level of consciousness with teachers wondering about a student’s home life. Maybe it hasn’t changed and they just talk about it more, I don’t know. I was an avid reader as a kid—in spite of what some teachers and fellow students may have perceived—especially as a very young kid, and I was the kid who enjoyed The Cat From Outer Space just as much as Dawn of the Dead when it came to movies. When I was six or seven I wrote my first short story. A horror story called “Ax Killer”, which was basically bits and pieces from horror films I’d seen, lacking plot, character, all that stuff; but hell, I was seven, and when I finished that story I was proud of myself. I wrote it at my grandmother’s. Feeling like James Cagney at the end of White Heat, “Top of the world!” I took the few pages to my grandmother. She made fun of it, belittled it, belittled me. It really was like the end of White Heat, in a sense, with me in tears, ripping up the pages, and throwing them in an explosion of paper shreds. So I kind of stopped writing at that point and did terribly in school, mostly D’s and F’s. Was the work too hard? No, not at all. I just didn’t care.
So where was I? Oh, yeah, Eighth Grade. English. One day the teacher, instead of whatever lesson plan she had for the day, or maybe because she didn’t have one at all, she said for the first half of class everybody was to write a creative short story, and the second half everyone would read their stories. I honestly don’t know why, but I decided to write a story that day. I don’t remember the title of that one, but it was goofy and random, full of obscure jokes and non sequiturs. I was too shy but the teacher read it out loud to the class and the class really liked it.
My dad picked my sister and me up from school that day and in the van (yes, we had a van, and we called it The Van) we talked about pointless things, like teenagers and parents often do. Then I mentioned I got an A in English that day. For a story I wrote. I remember him smiling as he drove. We weren’t too far from home, maybe five minutes or so, when my father asked me if I had the story with me. When I said I did, he pulled over to the side of the street and I realized we weren’t waiting until we got home for him to read it. He sat behind the wheel, engine running, my little sister bored and frustrated in the back, and read it from beginning to end, laughing at—what I hope were—the appropriate moments. When he finished he passed it back and said, “I love it!”
A couple years later, not too long before he moved out, he had me join him in his office, and we had a talk about creative arts in general, and writing in particular. I wasn’t old enough to fully grasp it all, but a lot of it stuck with me, especially when he said, “Keep at it. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong. If you know what you want to do and you keep at it, you’ll make it.” He gave me some additional writing advice, some of which I’ve taken, some not. Then he turned me on to The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester.
2/ A frequent motif in your books is the potentially fatal aftermath of secreting found money, good luck turned bad in an external, literal sense. Did you ever find an unclaimed sum, and if so, what did you do?
I’ve never found a huge wad of cash. A buck here, a buck there, but nothing like Brian and Kate find in Destination Unknown, or even what Nick finds in Found Money. It’s a theme with me in my stories. Not just money, but people finding things. Carson Halliday finds a bunch of things in Too Late to Call Texas, the first one being a cowboy hat filled with blood and skull shrapnel and a hole punched through it. In the one I’m finishing up now, Dreams Die First, the main character is led to the body of a raped and murdered woman, found by the local drunk. In To Sleep Gently, two people keep finding and losing each other. I’m always curious, be it in fiction or in real life, when things like this happen, is it meant to be? Destiny or something? Or is it just a random happening, or a random series of events? Some people will claim they have the answer to that, but I’m not one of those people.
3/ Your work has been described as “the best of the new breed of writing” and you’ve been called “someone to admire” by Edge of Dark Water author Joe R. Lansdale. Which particular authors and works of literature have has the most effect upon your development of a personal style?
Lansdale his own self is a big one. A lot of the old pulp writers from the forties and fifties and even a bit earlier. Guys like Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis, well, they’re probably the top two, especially Goodis. He’s been a sort of cult writer for years but I’m thrilled to see he’s finally been kind of given the respect and admiration he deserved. Given he died in 1967, it’s a shame that he didn’t get to see his work become considered something, for want of a better word, “literary”. I was also inspired by some of the existentialist writers, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Sartre. These are some of the things I can see as obviously shaping my style, but there were and are other things. Anything can be an inspiration, really. I guess it depends on whether we acknowledge it as such or not.
4/ New Mexico is full of ghost stories, for example the one about La Llorona, or “weeping woman” walking up and down the banks of the Rio Grande each night, mourning and seeking her poor, drowned children, and there are reports from pre-colonial time to the present of UFO’s in the area. What’s your relationship to the spiritual personality of New Mexico, what effects has it had on your thinking and your writing?
I’m sure it’s in me. I was born and raised in New Mexico. I do much less spiritual searching than I used to, though I’ve noticed over the last couple of years it’s been coming back a bit. The problem with spirituality in New Mexico, or rather I should be more specific and say Santa Fe, is the number of nut jobs and charlatans who, mostly, come from other places. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people try to use Shamanism in order to get into someone’s pants. Or there was a woman I had coffee with not too long ago who used the Toltec teachings of Don Miguel Ruiz for manipulation, and to get out of taking any responsibility for anything she said or did. Living in Santa Fe, you’ll either find and embrace a culture you believe yourself to be connected to, though is often all a sham, or you’ll grow a bit bitter and put off by all of it because you’ll see how much of it is bullshit. So I’m clear on this matter: Spirituality isn’t bullshit. Santa Fe makes spirituality bullshit.
If UFOs existed and aliens were scoping us out, I think we’d have proof by now. Maybe they’re out there somewhere, but it seems unlikely they give a damn about our planet.
La Llorona is the most interesting to me, and also the most believable, or real. I’m not spiritless, just embittered. I’ve had encounters that, to me, can’t be explained by anything other than possible supernatural forces. What happens when we die? Philosophers have questioned and explored that one since the beginning of time. A lot of people claim to know the answer. I’m not one of those people.
5/ Has anyone ever approached you with an offer to turn one of your novels into a film, and have you ever considered adapting one yourself or writing a screenplay?
Yes, and yes. I’ve done television and a bit of feature writing in Hollywood, all of it going nowhere and the enjoyment level, not always but a lot of the time, I’d compare to being castrated with dental floss. One of my novels was optioned and then the option ran out and they didn’t pick it up again but apparently there’s new interest in it. Another one I’ve just been talking about with someone in terms of a low budget flick and it sounds great, one of the biggest reasons being the gentleman wanting to do it truly likes the story. In my spare time, of which I have very little, I’m adapting one of my books into a feature film script. I’ve done this kind of thing before so it isn’t really new territory, nor is it a high priority for me right now, but I am enjoying it.
6/ What's the next step in your career as a creative agent?
Finishing up Dreams Die First, which overall I’m very happy with. Then right on to the next book, which I have vaguely sketched out but will be a bit of a departure, I think, but just a bit. One of my oldest friends came to me recently with an idea for a podcast show, inspired by the old-time radio shows like Dimension X and Suspense and stuff like that, wondering if I’d write some episodes for that, to which my answer was “Hell yeah!” I wrote two short plays last year and hopefully will get the chance to write a full-length play this year. I’ve had one brewing in my mind for quite a while and would really like to get it on paper, or screen, or whatever it is we jot our stories down on now. Also have toyed with the idea of a graphic novel, but that’s way, way back in my mind. I worked as a writer for a comic book company about five years ago and got [ill-used] with a red-hot poker, so I’m not in any rush to try getting back into that business.
Otherwise, keep on truckin’, write some more short stories, maybe have another collection together before too long, and see where each day takes me.