Kool Kat of the Week: Director Philip Gelatt Gets Lost in the Weird Woods and Scores a Cosmic Horror Hit with THEY REMAIN at the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: Mar 7th, 2018 By:

Director/Screenwriter Philip Gelatt.

Indie horror movies typically don’t get theatrical runs, but THEY REMAIN (2018), opening at the Plaza Theatre on Friday March 9 at 9:30 p.m., is that rarer bird in that it’s arriving with some serious critical buzz from media outlets as The Daily Beast and The New York Times. It’s based on the novella –30– by Laird Barron, an author at the head of the pack of a mounting Weird literary movement that’s been steadily creeping onto the little and big screens from TRUE DETECTIVE to ANNIHILATION (2018, in theaters now), adapted from the best-selling novel by Jeff VanderMeer. And even its leads, really its two characters, are risk-taking—a black man (William Jackson Harper of  THE GOOD PLACE TV series) and a woman (Rebecca Henderson, APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR [2014] ).

The plot is simple and increasingly unsettling. Keith and Jessica, who once were romantically involved,  are assigned to investigate some strange animal behavior on land which once was the stomping ground of a Manson-style family cult. Isolated together in a compound reminiscent of PHASE IV (1974)—yes, there’s some eerie insect action, too—their sanity seems to be increasingly on edge. A festival circuit hit, THEY REMAIN premiered at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon last October to a packed house and thunderous applause.

We caught up with THEY REMAIN Director/Screenwriter Philip Gelatt, no stranger to intelligent Sci-Fi Weird with the film EUROPA REPORT (2013) also under his belt, to find out more.

ATLRetro: What’s the secret origin story behind THEY REMAIN? Why did you want to adapt -30- and how did the project get off the ground?

Philip Gelatt: The secret origin story is basically that at the time I optioned the story, I was coming off the back of a string of failed screenplays. Things I’d written for producers who then just abandoned the projects and generally treated both the material and my work on it with a kind of Hollywood-ish disrespect. So I was feeling a bit pissed off, I guess. Both at screenwriting as a pursuit and craft, and at the industry as a whole.

So I went looking for something that I could do that would let me break all of my most hated rules of screenwriting. I also wanted something that fit my intrinsic tastes, which are a bit esoteric and cantankerous. -30- fit that bill perfectly. It’s a Weird story and a weird story. It’s elliptical and ambiguous and difficult, in the best way. I read the story a few times, just to be sure that I really wanted to try to tackle it. Then I sent it over to the producers who had worked with me on my first feature,THE BLEEDING HOUSE (2011). They read it and immediately saw the potential in it. And things just moved from there.

William Jackson Harper in THEY REMAIN (2018).

What were your greatest challenges in getting THEY REMAIN to the screen? Fundraising is always difficult for filmmakers, but was it harder raising funding for a Weird horror film?

We had myriad challenges, as almost all films of any level do. And yeah, fundraising was one of them. We sent the script out to various financiers, almost all of them passed. The typical story, y’know. In that process, we got responses that asked for the script to be changed in order to fit a more standard horror film. But to do that would have been to remove the very things that make it special and those notes didn’t come with a guarantee of financing. I was lucky in that the lead producers on the film had a bit of money; we were hoping we could get the budget up higher by bringing outside financiers on, but, in the end, we weren’t able to and we had to shoot with what we knew we had.

Can you talk a little about casting the film and working with William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson? 

Absolutely. I don’t like the auditioning process. I find it awkward and un-useful. It feels like you’re bringing actors in and putting them in front of a firing squad and I hate that.  So, instead, I had prospective actors read the script and then I brought them in to have a conversation about the material and the characters. Ultimately, what I was looking for was people that had strongly engaged with the script, people who had ideas about the story, and people with whom I thought I could collaborate closely.

Filmmaking, despite what auteur theory might lead a person to think, really is all about choosing the right collaborators. Especially on this budget level. You need people you get along with and people who will challenge you and people who are dedicated to the film. Auditioning won’t let you see if an actor can be those things.

We cast both Will and Rebecca through that process. I then made the rather bold—and potentially stupid—decision to not really rehearse prior to shooting. My thinking was basically that by dropping the actors in on day one and just going, it would put them in the same mindset as the characters. Rehearsals would have given them a chance to grow comfortable with the material and each other… I figured better to try to keep it a little more raw than that.

I can’t say enough great things about both them. They handled every weird twist of that script with absolute professionalism.

Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) leans over Keith (William Jackson Harper) in THEY REMAIN (2018)

The film’s visuals are key to building the mounting set of dread, so it works upon the audience as much as the characters. Can you talk a little about the look you wanted to achieve, connecting ambiance and lighting with mood, and cinematographer Sean Kirby, who has a strong background in documentary filmmaking?

 This is, above everything else, a film about a certain mood and tone. The idea was to place the audience in the same position as the characters, so that as the film progressed they were grappling with the same frustrations and the same growing sense of dread.

There was a running visual idea that shots should always be slightly off. Sean called it “leaving room for the other in the frame.” Often that meant framing such that the human character is minimized or off center or, occasionally, almost completely hidden.

One of my favorite moments in the film comes fairly early, it is a shot with tree in focus in the middle of frame and, in the near distance behind it, out of focus, Keith is sitting and watching. It’s a rather long shot. We never rack-focus to Keith or highlight that he’s there. But he is. That to me is the essence of the film: you’re being asked to look closer.

Sound also is integral to the effect. What instructions did you give composer Tom Keohane and how did you both collaborate?

Tom and I worked pretty closely throughout the whole process of the film beginning in pre-production. I had him read the script and the story and compose music just based on those. This was before we’d shot anything. I wanted his initial musical response to the story. And some of that music lasted all the way to the final cut. It certainly helped inform the way editing process.

In terms of the actual scoring process once the film was shot, we had pretty long conversations about what might or might not work. For a time, we were trying a sound that was almost like Vangelis’s work on Blade Runner (1982). Very science-fiction and very big.

We pursued that awhile but ended up finding that it was misleading… it made the film feel too much like it was going to end up having robots or spaceships or something. And of course, it doesn’t have those things. So we pulled back and started investigating sonic textures for interior spaces and exterior spaces, and musical themes for each of the characters in the film. So much of the film is off-screen; we thought it was important to have certain musical cues as to what unseen element might be at play in any given moment. I’m very happy with how it turned out. For those interested, Tom will be putting the soundtrack up on Bandcamp.

The domed compound in THEY REMAIN (2018).

Film and the written word are different media with different demands and strengths. The original story was set in a California desert, but you’ve re-set it to the woods—both of which can be very isolating locales. Some readers may wonder about the reason why you made this shift?  

 The basic reason we shifted it is a very boring one: budget. We knew pretty early that we weren’t going to be able to mount a production in the high desert. And we also knew that we had access to a sizable piece of land in upstate New York.

At first, I was a bit disappointed that we needed to make that change. I certainly started out picturing the story in the desert. But once I’d spent some time on the land where we were going to shoot, I got used to the idea and even started seeing some of the advantages in it in terms of color. A lot more hues and tones in the forest than the desert. And Sean and I did our damnedest to make that forest feel as strange and isolating as we possibly could.

Horror film is known for its jump-cuts and sudden scares, but THEY REMAIN’s horror is embedded in subtle unsettling moments. Do you have a favorite—or one that has been particularly gratifying to see the audience response to, without giving away too many spoilers?

 Oh I’m pretty proud of a lot of moments in the film. I’ll list a few.

There are two times in the film that Keith wakes up and finds Jessica standing next to his bed. The first time it happens is one of my favorite moments in the film. Her performance there gives me chills.

Speaking of Jessica, the careful viewer will notice that she looks directly into the camera a few times over the course of the film. It’s quick but I think, even if you don’t pick up on it consciously, you do register that something strange has just happened.

Then there are a few sound details that I love. Early in the film, there’s a moment where we cut to black. And then the sound of two knocks brings us out of the black and into a new scene. That knocking sound is, of course, the sound of knocking on the hatch, something that becomes significant later in the film.

Interwoven, ominous details like that are the thing I most wanted to play with in constructing this film.

Maybe we’re a little partial because we know artist Jeanne D’Angelo’s work, but that’s also one hell of a movie poster—leaves surrounding a voyeuristic eye. Did you make suggestions to Jeanne, or how did that evolve?

 I love Jeanne’s work so much. Like with Tom, I actually approached Jeanne before we shot the film and hired her to do a piece of concept art that featured the skull and the horn and the forest.

So when the film was completed, she seemed like the obvious person to approach about doing a poster. I don’t remember making initial suggestions to her; instead she started doing sketches with her ideas for how it might look. And eventually we settled on the leaves and the eye and subtle details.

That poster feels so much like the film to me. She did an amazing job.

How do you feel about a theatrical release? Was it always a goal, or did you think this was just going to be festival circuit to DVD/streaming—the usual fate of many indie horror films?

 It was always the goal. Sean shot the film to be seen big. And I wanted to make a movie that would benefit from the theater-going experience where viewers aren’t so tempted to check their phones or computers or get distracted. It’s a film in which you’re supposed to get lost… much easier to do that in a theater. I’m so grateful that we’re getting even a limited theatrical release.

The genuinely Weird movie is a rarity. What are a few Weird films that inspired you or are personal favorites and why?

 I have a tendency to detect The Weird in the nooks and crannies of films that might not be commonly seen that way. So, for example, I believe THE SHINING (1980) to be a Weird film. Yes, it’s a haunted house film, but the ways in which the details of the story don’t add up, the way in which it frustrates interpretation, the psychology of it… those things feel deeply Weird to me.

I think Polanski’s film THE TENANT (1976) is a Weird film in the way it plays with identity and indulges in a very unsettling sense of the surreal. There’s no cosmicism in it but Polanski does kind of construct a twisted pantheon of god-like humans who destroy his character’s life. And then there’s the matter of the hieroglyphics on the bathroom wall…

Oh and here’s another outside-the-box pick: Peter Greenaway’s THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT (1982). It’s a movie I adore… and on its face it is basically a period piece murder mystery. But there is also this living statue that haunts the edges of the frames, never really acknowledged by any of the characters.

Is there any question no one has asked you yet about THEY REMAIN that you’re surprised by or would particularly love to answer? And what is the answer?

 Hmmm… to their credit, people have avoided asking me questions like “what does the film mean?” Or “what’s real in the film?” Of course, I think it’d be really boring of me to answer those questions. Engaging with those things is part of the fun of the film. Which is my roundabout way of saying: this is the type of film that should leave you a little perplexed. My hope is that it will spark debate about just what has happened and just what it might all mean.

What’s next for you as a filmmaker?

In terms of what I’m going to direct next, I have two projects that I’m developing currently. But I’m not sure when—or even if—either one of them will come to fruition. I have been doing a good deal of screenwriting for other directors recently. Mostly science-fiction material. Nothing I’m allowed to say much about but keep your eyes peeled.

I’ve also been working on a hand-animated, rotoscoped, psychedelic, sword and sorcery fantasy film. It’s titled THE SPINE OF NIGHT. I co-directed that with the lead animator on the project, Morgan King.

We shot the live action bits of it years ago and since then a team of animators has been working hard on it. It should, finally, be completed sometime late this year. That’s one for fans of FIRE & ICE (1983), HEAVY METAL (both the magazine and the film) and old school Conan. It is a really distinctive and amazing project and I can’t wait for it to get out there.

All photos courtesy of Philip Gelatt and used with permission.

 

 

 

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Kool Kat of the Week: Atlanta Author Michael Wehunt Dishes on the Grotesquery That is Humanness and Ventures Out into The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, Saturday March 25

Posted on: Mar 21st, 2017 By:

by Melanie Crew
Managing Editor

Catch up with our Kool Kat of the Week, Michael Wehunt, and a plethora of other Weird and speculative fiction writers at the inaugural The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, crash-landing at Decatur CoWorks on Saturday, March 25, and proudly sponsored by ATLRetro. And eat, drink and exchange oddities with the writers during The Outer Dark Symposium Pre-Party at My Parents’ Basement, Friday, March 24, 8-11 pm, where you also can gather ‘round for readings by Michael Wehunt, our own publisher and bloggeress in charge Anya Martin (“The Un-Bride or No Gods & Marxists,” Eternal Frankenstein) and Selena Chambers (World Fantasy Award nominee for “The Neurastheniac,” Cassilda’s Song).

The Outer Dark Symposium is brought to you by The Outer Dark podcast and its host This Is Horror! and features eight hours of panels, readings and signings centered around Weird and speculative fiction. Admission will be limited to 50 attendees, but all programming will be featured on The Outer Dark. Other confirmed guests include Daniel Braum (Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales), Gerald Coleman (When Night Falls: Book One of The Three Gifts), Milton Davis (From Here to Timbuktu), Kristi DeMeester (read her ATLRetro feature here where she discusses her upcoming novel Beneath), John C. Foster (Mister White), Craig L. Gidney (Sea, Swallow Me and Other Stories), Orrin Grey (Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts), Valjeanne Jeffers (Immortal), Nicole Givens Kurtz (The Cybil Lewis Series), Edward Austin Hall (co-editor of Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond), Scott Nicolay (World Fantasy Award winner for “Do You Like To Look At Monsters?”), Kool Kat Balogun Ojetade (The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman: Freedonia), Eric Schaller (Meet Me in the Middle of the Air), Grafton Tanner (Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts), and Damien Angelica Walters (Sing Me Your Scars).

Wehunt, a transplant from North Georgia (just a stone’s throw from the Appalachians), has set up roots in the lovely urban weirdness that is Atlanta. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, The Dark, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu: New Lovecraftian Fiction, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction, among others. His debut fiction collection, Greener Pastures, was published in 2016, and he’s currently working on his first novel, which is sure to please the maniacal masses. ATLRetro caught up with Wehunt for a quick rundown on what inspires him to put pen to paper, his admiration for the truly bizarre and why you should always follow your dreams, no matter how weird.

(l-r) Gerald Coleman, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Anya Martin, Michael Wehunt

ATLRETRO: It’s the usual state of things for a writer, or any artist to be honest, to be pigeonholed into clear-cut tried-and-true genres. Your work has been described as horror, weird horror, sci-fi, all wrapped up in a bizarre Southern Gothic blanket filled with the strange and bizarre. What are the pros and cons of being classified in such a way? And do you feel it’s better to not quite fit in any specific genre?

Michael Wehunt: I definitely prefer not fitting into any one tidy box. It really depends on an author’s ultimate goal, however. Sometimes the best way to make a name for oneself and become commercially successful—often a pipe dream, but what else are dreams for?— is to willingly climb into that single genre box. Your brand, so to speak, can be conveniently labeled. In my opinion, the label on the box is for the readers, not the author. But mixing genres is wonderful, too, and can have its own rewards. I likely won’t ever be a chameleon type of writer, using a wholly different form each time out. Instead, I’m more focused on that section of the Venn diagram where all these different areas overlap and exploring what’s there. The convergence could be subtle here or it could be stark there. Ultimately, these elements all serve the same purpose.

We see that you’ve had a long (and hopefully torrid!) love affair with Flannery O’Connor, the mother of grotesque discomfort. What is it about her tales and her writing that inspires you the most?

Flannery O’Connor was my third literary love. I discovered Stephen King when I was 8 years old, then Poe shortly after. It wasn’t until early in high school that I was introduced to O’Connor—and later still to Southern Gothic in general— and all these years later I’ve yet to read an author who could find that seam between ugliness and transcendence so perfectly. There are other authors who write beautifully in a Southern voice—Carson McCullers!— but none like she did. She mined the deep-running spiritual power of the South and smelted it with the grotesquery of petty humanness, and horror, black humor, and great beauty emerged in her work. Much later—only a handful of years ago, in fact—I would immerse myself in weird fiction and discover another love of my life. Robert Aickman and Algernon Blackwood, alongside contemporary authors such as Lynda E. Rucker and Laird Barron, showed me that O’Connor had been frequently writing a sort of weird fiction, though she was never credited with such. The only difference was that the spirituality in her work was the sort that America embraces, and it was all the more powerful to show what was under its rock while still remaining devout. The same cosmic strangeness is often right there in her books—why would we think our minds can fathom God with a capital G, after all—and this only deepened my love for her…and, yes, made it more torrid.

Stereotypically, the south, or “southerners” to be exact, is known the world over for its ability to bury deep dark secrets while flaunting its ignorance with a discomforting ease. How important would you say is the written word when it comes to exposing societal atrocities and do you think it is a writer’s duty to bring about change through their published works?

The South has a large closet filled with skeletons, to be sure, and the metaphor is uglier than it would be in most other cases. Not only have slavery and the foul mistreatment of Native Americans been largely papered over in our history books—not ignored, of course, but spruced up to look less unattractive—but poverty and the machine that perpetuates poverty bring out the worst in people sometimes, and a fierce sense of piety and Southern pride can sweep these things under the rug with a defiant pride. The word “demure” comes to mind. That rug has been peeled back even more in recent years. Not just in the rural South but in other analogous areas of the country. And things are squirming in the light. Fiction can be escapism, pure and simple. It can be socio-political in a direct way or in an indirect way. It can focus on philosophy and ideas. It can examine what it means to be human, with all a human’s transcendence and trappings. It can be one of these things or it can be all of these things at the same time. The best of it makes you think about the world without really letting you know it’s doing so, and in that way, change can come simply by engaging the reader with the self and then with the world around them. I know that much of my worldview (and self-view) came from reading dark fiction, and it’s no coincidence that compassion and kindness are the things I seek out in a political candidate or organization or friend.

Your debut collection, GREENER PASTURES, was published in 2016. Can you tell our readers a little about the collection and what inspired you to put together these particular tales in one grouping?

Greener Pastures contains 11 of my favorite short stories as of late 2015; those I felt worked the best together to carry a general theme while also providing just enough variety in subject matter and tone. When they were all together, I realized how prominently trees figure into my work, something I’d never truly noticed before. They’re everywhere, either in the foreground or background, but this was mostly accidental. Less accidental was the theme of loss. There are a lot of stories here that deal with various shades and types of loss, and how people cope with it. Write what you fear, they say, and that’s exactly what I fear. But I wanted a variety of moods and voices to bear these losses and keep things interesting for the reader. And, of course, a variety of darkness, including some good old-fashioned terror. In the end, I would say most of these stories speak from and of the human heart. There’s nothing suppler and earthier than humanity. I plan to dig in that dirt as long as people will let me. I’ll do my best to scare and unsettle them while I’m at it.

We’re also excited to see that your story, “October Film Haunt: Under the House” is featured in THE YEAR’S BEST DARK FANTASY & HORROR 2017 collection. Can you tell us a little about what inspired you to write this story and what it means to you to be a part of this collection?

Thank you! This will be my second time in Paula Guran’s yearly best-of-the-dark-stuff anthology, and I feel very grateful and fortunate for that. “October Film Haunt: Under the House” is an interesting and special story for me. It has two origins: The first is that I wanted to write a love letter of sorts to horror and weird fiction fandom. Four guys from different walks of life who met at a fan convention and found a common passion for horror films take a road trip once a year to the setting of a famous scary movie, documenting their findings and sensations. Since I’m a sucker for the found-footage genre of horror (à la THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), I wanted to try my hand at translating this medium into the written word, only switching into video camera mode when the story earned it. But I also wrote it specifically as a reaction to the majority of my work dealing with, as alluded to above, emotion, grief, and the joys and pains of being a regular person. I wanted no complex back-story, no real character development…just pure, unadulterated terror and craziness. It was a lot of fun to write, and I think it really did turn out to be a love letter.

You’ve made it very clear that “flesh and blood” characters are of utmost importance in your writing. What do you mean when say you write these types of characters and why are they important to you and your writing?

It’s crucial to have relatable characters that the reader—and the author—can easily imagine off the page. Even in the story I just discussed, “October Film Haunt,” in which I consciously stayed away from the importance of character arcs, the reader still has to care about the characters, what they do, and what they gain or lose. Antagonists, antiheroes and even the henchmen who die in the second scene should feel like real people…except, since this is horror we’re talking about, when they’re not actually people at all. When a story focuses on character and seeks a “depth,” that flesh and blood is all the more important. There’s no point in hanging curtains if there’s no window.

Short fiction and short fiction collections seem to be taking the stage and leading the charge, especially within the realm of Weird fiction. What do you think is it about the short story or novella that draws the Weird writing crowd?

Since Weird fiction relies primarily on the unknown intruding upon the known world—to simplify things—it can be difficult to sustain that sense of uncanny dread across the length of, say, a 90,000-word novel. Ambiguity is often the bread and butter of the Weird; that sense of awe and uncertainty is important to carry the fiction’s effect beyond reading. This isn’t to say there are no Weird fiction novels. It’s just that the ratio is skewed more toward its effectiveness as a short form. Horror typically works better than Weird fiction in novel form because its monsters are most often explained. There’s a clear path and intent: figure out the monster so that you can survive it. In Weird fiction, the “monster” is sometimes so inscrutable and vast (the universe itself or something so alien that the human mind can’t truly process it) that over the course of a novel, it becomes difficult to get away with that inscrutability. I also feel that short fiction is making a comeback in its own right, which is a wonderful thing. The novel is important, but there’s absolutely no reason for it to claim such a vast majority of the reading public. Short fiction can paint moods and tones and use forms and structures the novel simply cannot.

Speaking of the Weird writing crowd, you are scheduled to be a guest at the inaugural The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird this weekend (March 25). Anything special planned for this event?

My plans are essentially the same as with any other convention: go and have fun. We’re having a dinner with readings the night before the Symposium. It’s at 8:00 p.m. at My Parents’ Basement in Decatur, and though there is limited seating, it’s open to the public. And we are looking for weird and creepy things to do on Sunday, too, before everyone ships out. The best part of any convention is meeting and hanging out with people I usually only know on social media. They’re like family.

Any interesting stories on how you discovered Weird fiction and what specifically drew you to this particular group of writers?

It’s interesting to me—and a little embarrassing—how late I came to Weird fiction. I read horror as a kid but for some reason never explored it much beyond Stephen King. I have no idea how different I would have turned out if I’d stuck with it beyond my teenage years. But the darkness never left. I found it in other things. And when I finally, too many years later, decided I couldn’t put off trying to write fiction anymore, I reread some Stephen King stories and bought a copy of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Volume Three just based on Amazon browsing. The latter book was a revelation to me. I discovered Laird Barron, John Langan, Tanith Lee, Stephen Graham Jones…it was a door opening, and soon I was an addict. These people thought about fiction the way I did, and I had no idea! I wrote my first story soon thereafter, and ever since I’ve been trying to pretend I knew about this stuff all along, even after admitting in interviews that I didn’t.

Do you have any advice for those writers just starting out?

There’s a post on my blog called “On Turning Five.” I wrote it last year to share my thoughts about what I felt was the first chapter in my career. It goes into more detail than I can here, but I shared six bullet points that I think are important for a beginning writer: talent (you gotta have some of that); time (use what you have and don’t worry if others have more of it); wisdom (rely on your own, seek others’); kindness (support other authors, pay it forward); persistence (keep doing it, keep fueling the fire of your passion to write in any way you can think of); and resiliency (there will be a lot of rejection—it’s as important a part of the reality as success is).

Can you fill us in on what you’re currently working on? And where can our readers get their hands on your published works?

I’m currently in the middle of my first novel. There’s some weird fiction, some horror, some literary sensibilities, and some ore from other mines. I have that Venn diagram taped over my desk with a thumbtack pressed into the center. As for my published works, my novella, “The Tired Sounds, A Wake,” has sold out forever, sadly, as it was a limited-edition pressing, though it will live again down the road in my next collection. Greener Pastures is available through Apex Book Company or Amazon and other online retailers. My blog has links to all my stories that aren’t in the collection as well.

Can you give us five things you’re into at the moment that we should be reading, watching or listening to right now—past or present, well-known or obscure?

Reading: Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending. I’m reading it for the third time right now. It’s a very short literary novel that takes an uncomfortable look at memory and its reliability, both intentional and unintentional. Beautiful and unsettling. There’s a film version coming out soon, so now would be a good time to discover the book. Watching: I’m terribly behind on films. These days my partner and I are watching The Golden Girls in its entirety, and I’ve been having fun reliving my childhood—it was the last show my grandmother and I watched regularly together— and coming up with fake occult theories about Sophia and the girls. Listening: Mica Levi’s film scores. I listen to a lot of ambient, drone, and classical, and Levi’s work for recent films is wonderful to write to. UNDER THE SKIN and JACKIE are both great and very different from each other.

And last, but not least, care to share anything weird and bizarre we don’t know about you already?

This isn’t particularly weird, but I used to have a fairly profound fear of public speaking. For some reason, back in 2010 I got it into my head that I wanted to try amateur standup comedy, which is pretty much the opposite of what I do now. I did it three open-mic performances. It was utterly terrifying but fun—I can clearly remember the swelling panic in my chest—and I’m convinced it was the first step toward writing fiction, which was my other big fear. And while I still have that old fear of public performance in me, it did wonders for it, and it made me an advocate for those scared to put themselves out there: Just do it. Follow your dreams no matter what shape they ultimately take. You’ll be glad you did.

ATLRetro is proud to be a sponsor of The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird on Saturday March 25.  Attending memberships to the symposium are $25 and limited to 50. A few are still available at press-time. Contact atlretro@gmail.com. There’s also a pre-party with author readings on Friday March 24 at My Parents’ Basement in Avondale Estates from 8-11 pm.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Chesya Burke Investigates the Harlem Renaissance in THE STRANGE CRIMES OF LITTLE AFRICA

Posted on: Jan 29th, 2016 By:

chesya1Atlanta author Chesya Burke finds a mystery in 1920s Harlem in THE STRANGE CRIMES OF LITTLE AFRICA, her debut novel  from Rothco Press which has its launch party Friday Jan. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Charis Books and More in Little Five Points. The innovative and much anticipated story features as its protagonist feisty would-be detective Jaz Idewell, daughter of the first African-American officer in the New York Police Department, and as her best friend a young Zora Neale Hurston.

Chesya has been turning heads with her short fiction, unabashedly bringing an African-American  woman’s perspective to horror and spec-lit. Her first story collection, LET’S PLAY WHITE, came out from Apex Publications in 2011, and other recent publications include “In the Quad of Project 327,” in CASSILDA’S SONG, an all-women authors’ collection of stories inspired by Robert W. ChambersTHE KING IN YELLOW which featured in HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE.

ATLRetro was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at STRANGE CRIMES and enjoyed it so much we couldn’t help but make her Kool Kat of the Week.  We caught up with her recently to find out more about the book, the festivities at Charis and what’s next for this innovative author.

strangecrimescoverATLRetro: What’s the “secret origin story” behind how you came to write THE STRANGE CRIMES OF LITTLE AFRICA?

Chesya Burke: STRANGE CRIMES isn’t much of a secret. A fellow writer and I thought that a black woman detective novel would be fun to write, Harlem would be a great setting and now there’s my Little Africa. Which I hope captures just a little of the real Little Africa.

How much of an impact has Zora Neale Hurston’s writing had on you personally, and did you feel at all intimidated bringing such a literary icon onto the page?

I love ZNH! Just love her. I love everything about her. Researching her, reading her biography, her own story, written by her, true and false—she was known to…subvert the truth when she saw fit—was fascinating. I’m a huge fan and I enjoy her work. I’m not sure how much influence she has on me, probably quite a bit, but less than some authors such as Octavia Butler. I think what I take most from Hurston is dialogue. She really got to the essence of rural black dialect.  I hope I can be half as good as she one day! 

I was nervous to write about Hurston. I have this idea of the woman that she was in my head, but it’s not real. I had to realize that I could never get the real Zora on the page, only a bit of the mystery of her as I could imagine.

Zora is not the only real-life character from the Harlem Renaissance. Briefly, can you tell us about a few of the others, such as the enigmatic Madam St. Clair, who also appears in your story “I Make People Do Bad Things”?

There are so many. I researched a lot for the book. Stephanie St. Clair, Bumpy Johnson, Anderson Charles and several others. Even her father, Rueben Idawell was based on the first black traffic cop in NYC.

chesya3What did you do to research the book, and what was the most challenging piece of information to find/fact-check?

I’ve been to New York a bunch, and I went to Harlem specifically to do research. I spent hours and hours in the museum, walking the streets and just trying as hard as I could to get a feel for it. But, of course, I hadn’t been to 1920s Harlem, so I looked at old articles and pictures and newspaper clippings from the time. That’s where I got the name, “Little Africa.” I hadn’t [known] it was called that until I read it in a newspaper from the time.   

Jaz, the protagonist, is the daughter of the first African-American officer in the NYPD. Are there any lessons that you hope readers will bring to the present from your depiction of race and justice/injustice in the Harlem Renaissance?

Racial injustice and police brutality have only changed in measures since the era of the novel. We don’t have to read historical novels to see this. Anyone reading STRANGE CRIMES will see parallels. And that is unfortunate.   

Your acclaimed short story collection LET’S PLAY WHITE is horror/spec-lit. Especially over the past decade more African-American horror writers have risen to prominence from Tananarive Due to Victor LaValle, and some would say that Toni Morrison’s BELOVED is one of the best horror novels of all time. Are you encouraged by more diversity in the genre community or do you still see significant challenges/barriers for writers of color?

Of course. I hope that in the future we will see even more.

You just completed a master’s thesis at Agnes Scott College about Storm of Marvel Comics’ X-MEN and started a doctoral program at the University of Florida-Gainesville. Is it challenging to be both a graduate student and an author?

Oh. My. God. Yes. It’s most difficult because it seems that I’m being pulled in so many directions and both careers are doing relatively well. But it’s the problem to have, so I’m not complaining. Love every minute of it!

letsplaywhiteYou still consider Atlanta home, though. Is that why you wanted your official book launch here at Charis? Can you tell readers a little about the festivities on Friday night?

Yes. Atlanta is home. Always will be. The book launch is on Friday and I will be reading from STRANGE CRIMES. Charis is also home and is the perfect place for the release party of my first book. I’m also reading at Agnes Scott College on Wednesday evening!

What’s next in fiction for you? The end of STRANGE CRIMES seemed to hint that you might have a sequel in mind?

Yes. I’m working on the next book in the series. At least, I should be. I’m working on a few short stories and comic stuff. Most of it, I can’t talk about unfortunately. 

Any other current or “lost/forgotten” writers you’d like to recommend to ATLRetro readers?

Octavia Butler, who is not lost, but everyone should know about. Maurice Broaddus. Jennifer Brissett. Victor LaValle. Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Kiese Laymon. Shane McKenzie. Laird Barron. I know I’m missing lots of people. 

Chesya talks more about THE STRANGE CRIMES OF LITTLE AFRICA and other works in this recent interview on THE OUTER DARK podcast on Atlanta-based Project iRadio.

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