Writer's Block: Claude Lalumière

November 8, 2017

The multi-talented, genre-bending Claude Lalumière joins us to talk a little about his projects and a lot about his influences: from comics legend Jack Kirby to Ursula K. Le Guin to Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. He tells us how they inform his latest novel,  Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment and imparts a good deal of writerly advice along the way.

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Claude Lalumière was kind enough to answer our Proust-esque questionnaire, below:


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All Lit Up: Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?

Claude Lalumière: For a brief time during my teenage years, it was decided by the family at large that I should spend time with a specific older cousin from my mother's side, the only other member of the family who was something of a weirdo and whose life had taken him, quite successfully, into media and the arts. One day, we were hanging out in his study and discussing a French-language science-fiction novel I'd recently read (on his recommendation), but I'd been disappointed by it, and as I was rattling on about the book's shortcomings, my cousin said something along the lines of "Definitely, if you feel that you could do better than that writer, you won't get anything worthwhile out of that book."

If I could do better? It had never occurred to me before that moment that, if I wanted, I could write the kind of stories that I would like to see in the world. I didn't start to write quite yet, but a slow-burning fire had been ignited.



Claude's writing advice.


ALU: Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?

CL: It all begins with Jack Kirby. Kirby is the singlemost influential, prolific, and important twentieth-century American cartoonist. If I had to point to one Kirby story in particular as essential in the development of my imagination it would be "Mighty One!" from Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth #29 (May 1975) – which I read the day it came out, at age 9. It's a powerful exploration of how myth evolves over time and cultures, in this case using Superman as a vehicle for myth generation.

In my mid-teens a cousin of mine (the same cousin mentioned in the previous answer) gave me a valuable gift: Jacques Sternberg's Contes glacés (1974). The Belgian surrealist Sternberg is a rare exception to the hegemony of the English language in my literary antecedents. Conte glacés is a collection of microfictions, of surrealist fables that don't obey conventional storytelling dictums. This book had a huge influence on my imagination, especially in the creation of my  Nocturnes and Lost Myths project but also generally in the way I approach narrative. Later, I read some Sternberg novels, and the one that snaked most deeply into my imagination was Agathe et Béatrice, Claire et Dorothée (1979), a surrealistic and pornographic odyssey of unbridled excess.  

Mythology had fascinated me from early childhood, and in my late teens the work of Roger Zelazny, with its explicit use and recontextualizations of classical mythology hit me like one of Zeus's bolts of lightning. No work of his blew my mind more than his utterly bizarre and perhaps ultimately undecipherable Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969), and while not necessarily the most esthetically successful of his novels, nor the one I most enjoyed reading, it's probably the one that most imprinted on my imagination.

Before I continue with prose writers, I should mention two filmmakers I first encountered in the mid to late 1980s, and whose works continue to tendril their way through my imagination. First, Ken Russell, primarily for his two 1988 films, Salome's Last Dance and The Lair of the White Worm. The influence of the dark humour, outrageous sexuality, and unabashed strangeness of these two works lurks below the surface of almost everything I write. And then there's David Lynch. I first saw Blue Velvet the year of its release, in 1986, and I cannot understate the profound impact it had on my imagination. Lynch never underestimates his audience. He never compromises the integrity of his storytelling to appease naysayers. The apotheosis of Lynch's oeuvre is Mulholland Drive (2001), my favourite film of all time (I cry every time I see it) and unquestionably the most exquisitely told story in the history of cinema.   


In the mid-1980s, I started working as the book buyer for an English-language shop in Québec City that dealt in comics, games, and books. In 1989, I moved back to my hometown of Montreal, and opened my own bookshop, Nebula. In some form or other, I was a bookseller from 1986 to 1998. Those were years of intense discovery. I'll do a quick laundry list of the most influential works I read during those years, in no particular order: Garry Kilworth's cross-genre and multiculturally savvy collection The Songbirds of Pain (1984); Ursula K. Le Guin's mosaic about a fictional European country Orsinian Tales (1976); Rachel Pollack's otherworldly novel of ritual strangeness Unquenchable Fire (1988); Geoff Ryman's genderbending mythological novel The Warrior Who Carried Life (1985); John Barth's mosaic about Scheherazade Chimera (1972); Paul Di Filippo's collection of literary-inspired alternate histories Lost Pages (1998); Richard Calder's exquisitely decadent story "Toxine" (1990); Montreal cartoonist Bernie Mireault's relentlessly optimistic and hyper-kinetic The Jam: Super Cool Color-Injected Turbo Adventure from Hell (1988); Jonathan Carroll's beautifully bizarre novel The Land of Laughs (1980); the profoundly idiosyncratic and weird short fiction of R.A. Lafferty (1914-2002); Michael Moorcock's playfully decadent mosaic Legends from the End of Time (1976); Jim Thompson's narrative tour-de-force noir novel The Kill-Off (1957); Tanith Lee's Arabian Nights–tinged mosaics Night's Master (1978), Tamastara, or the Indian Nights (1984), and The Book of the Damned (1988).

I withheld two influences from the above list, as they warrant more discussion. First, there's Jack Zipes's Arabian Nights: The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand and One Nights (1991), retold and condensed into one (substantial) volume from Richard Burton's multi-volume translation. This book began my enduring obsession with both the format and content of The Arabian Nights and with the archetypal storyteller Scheherazade, who is a key character in my  Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment.

And I have to end with my favourite writer, whom I first read during those bookselling years: J.G. Ballard. Ballard composes fiction as a sequence of surrealist tableaus described in prose, which profoundly affected how I conceive of scenes and how I translate the sensual into words. My favourite novel ever is his Crash (1973), and I can think of no better short-fiction bible than his compendium The Complete Short Stories (2001).


ALU: What do you enjoy reading?

CL: These days, I'm mostly filling in gaps of stuff I wish I'd read before but hadn't. I recently sped through the entire James Bond series by Ian Fleming – I especially loved Casino Royale (1953), From Russia, with Love (1957), and the collection For Your Eyes Only (1960). I'm currently about halfway through reading the oeuvre of Patricia Highsmith – she is spectacularly merciless and insightful. Also, I'm hooked on the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr, following the tragic adventures of an ethical (non-Nazi) German police officer during and after the Hitler regime.

I'm an avid comics reader. I follow anything and everything written by Ed Brubaker (his current series is the weird noir Kill or Be Killed, from Image Comics, with his frequent collaborator Sean Phillips). Other current favourites include the superhero series Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston (Dark Horse), the horror series Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook (Dark Horse), the dystopia Lazarus, by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (Image Comics), the surreal comedy of manners Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky (Image Comics), the whimsical vigilante series Bandette, by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover (Monkeybrain), and the superhero series Astro City, by Kurt Busiek et al. (Vertigo).

Short fiction has always been and remains a favourite form. Writers whose stories I try to keep abreast of, because they're so consistently excellent, include Alexandra Renwick, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Rich Larson, A.C. Wise, Ray Vukcevich, Kim Newman, Ernest Hogan, and James Morrow.


ALU: What was your most rewarding moment as a writer?

CL: In July 2008, more than a year before my debut collection, Objects of Worship, appeared (and before I even knew it would ever get published), I was at Readercon in Massachusetts, at a late-night room party, hanging out with my dear friend and fantastically accomplished writer Geoff Ryman. A group gathered at some point, in a tight circle, and began discussing (I forget who brought up the subject) times when they had been sure of something in their writing to which their publishers, editors, and/or writing groups had objected for reasons they themselves found spurious and wrong-headed. Everyone in that circle but me were authors with many books and awards to their credit. A bunch of people told their anecdotes.

Then it was my turn. I felt somewhat out of place among these heavy hitters, but I soldiered on as if I belonged and, conveniently, I'd had a recent experience that fit the brief. So I told about the one time I'd been a guest with a writer's group in Toronto (I lived in Montreal at the time) and all but one member of the group complained about the fact that I wrote around the expected scenes and instead focused on the lead-ins and the aftermaths, and they basically tore the story to shreds, saying nothing in it worked (the one exception thought my narrative technique was a virtuoso performance). I went on to describe my general approach to narrative (without ever naming names or titles, including never mentioning my own name).

Across from me was multiple award-winner Andy Duncan. He looked at me quizzically, and then asked, "Wait a minute ... did you write 'This Is the Ice Age'?" Astonished, I said that, yes, that was one of my stories. He replied "I teach that story at a university seminar" and then went on to praise both my the story and my narrative approach – which he'd recognized from my general description even though I was talking about another story entirely. Basically: never write what readers can imagine for themselves. Write around what they expect and suggest just enough detail to spur their imaginations into filling in the gaps. Given that at the time – prior to my first book publication deal – I felt that no-one was reading or noticing my work, that was a huge boost.



Claude's workspace.


ALU: What are you working on now?

CL: I'm always working on several projects at once. Here are my five open projects.

  • The Superstars Dossier: a book-length superhero prose project, all told in the form of found documents (reports, transcripts, reviews, articles, blogs, FAQs, interviews, etc.), grouped in clusters that focus on specific characters or incidents; On Spec #106 (imminent as of this writing, but it may be out by the time this is published) features an episode of that project called "Nothing Can Stop the Gravytrain!"
  • Avatars of Adventure: a series of thirteen short comics stories, with a variety of cartoonist collaborators, showcasing thirteen archetypes of adventure hero fiction, with each character's name playing with the letter A.
  • The Problems of Vernon Tevis: a series of crime noir stories about a troubleshooter for an international prostitution ring; one episode has been published so far, "You Only Love Once," in Licence Expired: The Unauthorized James Bond, in which my character encounters an unnamed retired British secret service agent.
  • Weird Adventures: this is the working title for my next collection; it's currently fourteen stories strong; I'll probably consider it full once I hit twenty.
  • Chronicles of the Second Global War: an alternate-history espionage serial set in a timeline where the geopolitical map, while peppered with familiar cities, is divided very differently from what we know and where technology has evolved somewhat differently; each episode features different characters and is set in different locations across the globe; the serial kicks off at the onset of the war in "The Patchwork Procedure" ( Beneath Ceaseless Skies #206); another episode, "The Treaty of Empress Park," recently appeared in the anthology 49th Parallels, and more will surface soon, as this is the most active of my open projects.


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ALU 5 cl

Claude's auto-biography:

I was born in Montreal in 1966. Although my mother and father were unilingual francophones and I grew up entirely in an entirely French environment, I – to the surprise of my family – taught myself to understand and speak English by the time I was three (my educational tool was the television, which, I am told, left to myself, I almost always turned to the English stations). My English fluency was frequently trotted out as a party trick at larger family gatherings.

At the age of 8 I started acquiring and reading English-language comics. These comics – mostly in the superhero genre – left a deep imprint on my imagination. At the age of 10, I discovered the English-language bookshops of downtown Montreal and soon thereafter was reading at least five paperbacks a week (and often more). Most of my early book reading consisted of fantasy and science fiction, world mythology, philosophy, detective stories, reprints of adventure hero series from the pulp magazines, adventure novels, superhero fiction, and crackpot conspiracy / New Age / UFO / secret history "nonfiction" – but I never read anything marketed as children's books.

At 23, in 1989, with almost no money, I opened my first bookshop in downtown Montreal: Nebula, an English-language store specializing in so-called "genre" fiction (fantasy, SF, horror, and crime), comics, films books, and weird nonfiction. Running a business took up all of my time, and although I'd occasionally get the urge to write something, I never had enough time to devote to perfecting my craft. Over the next few years, the shop moved twice, tripling in size with each move. During all that, in 1993, I opened a second shop, danger!, in the artsy Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal. That second bookstore had a different focus: alternative culture, including magazines, comics, fiction, political theory, queer and gender studies, underground art, etc. The first few years of the new shop were quite successful, but the incredibly divisive Québec Sovereignty Referendum of 1995 hit the anglo demimonde of the Plateau very hard and business on Boulevard St-Laurent slowed a crawl. In January 1998, I retooled the second shop as Nemo, concentring on fiction only, including children's books, but the rebranding didn't help. In the meantime, the rise of Amazon had taken a huge bite out of the special orders at Nebula – traditionally a significant part of the store's income. Floor sales at Nebula were still rising, but I realized that to revitalize both shops I would need to pour all of my creative energy into them, but I feared that, if I did that, then I would never get a chance to try my hand at writing fiction. So I sold the stores in mid-1998, switched to freelance work, and decided to devote serious time to honing my craft at prose writing.

I toiled for more than three years and then, in 2002, sold my first story – "Bestial Acts" – to David Pringle, the editor of the UK magazine Interzone – since that first story sale, I've published more than 100 stories.

My first book – the collection Objects of Worship – was published by Ontario press CZP in 2009. It launched at the World Science Fiction Convention / Anticipation in Montreal in August – what serendipity that my debut book would be released exactly on time for when the roving WorldCon was held in my own city!

In April 2011, around the same time that my second book, The Door to Lost Pages, was released, my life changed radically. I'd recently emerged from the meltdown of a romantic relationship that had lasted over a decade, and, while at World Horror Convention in Austin, Texas (where my publishers were the Editor Guests of Honour), I ran into the writer Alexandra Camille Renwick. We bonded within seconds of meeting (I'm not exaggerating), and we've been sharing a grand adventure ever since. Over the next several years, we bounced back-and-forth from city to city: Montreal, Portland (Oregon), Austin (Texas), and Vancouver (BC). In July 2016, we finally settled in Ottawa, in a historical stone house with the evocative name of Timberhouse, within easy walking distance of Byward Market and a host of museums.

My third book, Nocturnes and Other Nocturnes, was published in the UK in 2013. It received a Serbian edition in 2016, which came with an invitation to represent Canada that same year at the eleventh edition of Serbia's international short fiction festival Kikinda Short – and that was an adventure worthy of a whole book.

My fourth book, Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment, was released in August 2017 by MiroLand / Guernica Editions and has also been acquired by Alire for a French-language edition. This is the book that means the most to me: since I started writing in 1998, this book is what I've been trying to accomplish with my fiction. It's a culmination of decades of obsessing over the art of fiction writing. It's a surreal map of the deepest and weirdest recesses of my imagination.

My post-Venera Dreams writing is flexing entirely different storytelling muscles. I'm curious where that new journey will take me and my fiction.

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Thanks so much to Claude for so candidly answering our interview questions! you can visit his website here, or on Twitter as @cldllmr. Thanks also to Alex at Guernica for connecting us. Venera Dreams is available now.


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