The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas
Posted on August 2, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 17 Comments
The irony of Nick Mamatas’ new novel I Am Providence being released during the week in which the World Fantasy Convention got a spate of criticism over some of its program items is so perfect that I wonder if it wasn’t somehow planned. It’s not, I’m sure (probably). But still. Now, how does the latter event fit with the former? Read on below.
A not-so-dirty, not-so-secret but still rarely discussed fact of publishing is this: if you’re even a little well known, one day a publisher may call you and ask you to write a novel. Not just any novel either, but a novel based on idea they already have kicking around. Sometimes you’ll get a new name, a new face, like a secret agent or a witness to a mob murder. Other times, they want you for you.
Jeremy Lassen wanted me for me, for a book he could bring to Skyhorse Publishing in New York. And that book was a parodic novel about E. T., with the kids now in their forties and forever traumatized by their encounter with Keys and the government bureaucracy. I’m the same exact age as Elliott, and when people in publishing think traumatized losers, for some I reason I often come to mind. Then the pesky attorneys got involved and that project was killed.
Later that week, Jeremy called me again and meekly suggested, “Uh…Zombies 11?” He knew that idea—undead Frank Sinatra planning a posthumous heist—was stupid as it was leaving his mouth.
Then, a month later, another contact and another idea.
“Hey Nick, how about something like Bimbos of the Death Sun?”, referring to Sharyn McCrumb’s humorous cozy murder mystery set at a science fiction convention.
“Fuuu—” I began.
“Meets True Detective!” Jeremy finished.
“….uiiine. That sounds fine!” It was 2014. Discerning, intelligent people still liked True Detective.
The project, originally called Madness of the Death Sun, was a perfect fit for me. It’s practically a stage of human psychological development: hit middle age and write a mystery novel about one’s workplace in which the most loathsome employee has been brutally murdered, and all one’s co-workers are suspects. The author makes himself or herself the sleuth! Novelists work alone, but fandom is pretty much a workplace for pros in the field of fantasy and horror. The True Detective angle of course suggested Lovecraft fandom as a niche within a niche, and who is the most hated person in the Lovecraftian world…?
Ah, it’s me. So our poor victim, Panossian, is me. The me that has Armenian parents, not Greek ones. Who grew up in Massachusetts, not New York. Who wrote one failed novel instead of seven semi-successful ones. The me who never got it together, started a family, or found a real job. The me who isn’t so nice and sweet. Panossian is so changed from me that he wasn’t me at all. Hell, I’d slice his face off too.
Now I needed two other main characters—a murderer, and an amateur detective. I was talking to a Lovecraftian friend of mine while working on the book proposal, and asked her if she would like to be “my” killer, or my vengeful friend the sleuth. She said, “Sleuth, of course! I’m all about Law & Order!” (She meant the TV show, not the sociopolitical-legal system.) So she got a few personality changes and action heroine upgrades—kung fu, green hair, the ability to examine a faceless head on a mortuary slab without vomiting onto it—and was cast. When I was done, she wasn’t herself at all either, but someone new: Colleen Danzig.
All the other attendees of the Summer Tentacular…well, they are made up. Like the disclaimer at the front of novel says, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious, especially you. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” No more pesky lawyers for me!
In the year since the book, now called I Am Providence, was completed, we’ve experienced a fair share of controversies in fandom: the successful movement, which I supported, to eliminate the bust of Lovecraft as the World Fantasy Award and the creation of a far-right literary award that adopted its own version of a Lovecraft bust; a keynote speech widely regarded as Islamophobic at a major Lovecraftian convention; and the continuing dismissal of women writers working in the Lovecraftian mode and pointedly negative reviews of a women-only Lovecraft anthology. Then there was that horrible second season of True Detective.
Also over this past year, several authors have read I Am Providence in manuscript form and, to a person, they’ve all said the same thing about my tour of the murderous underbelly of organized fandom:
“Nick, you were too kind.”
I Am Providence: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
Now that concept sounds interesting enough to drag me kicking and screaming, sorry, enthralled and fascinated, to someplace to buy the book. Which is remarkable since I loathe Lovecraft’s works and dislike horror, not least because normal life provides a surfeit thereof so why add to it?
But this sounds like fun, and I’m always in favour of more fun…
Unfortunately, to someone such as myself who is a) not very much a fan of Lovecraft, and b) as a result not in the somewhat narrow cast of HPL fandom, this sounds like a series of in-jokes that will be amusing to fans and leave those not in the know wondering what all the sly winks and nods mean. But then there’s a lot of that in genre works, some of which I’ve enjoyed in the past, so perhaps I shouldn’t kvetch about it.
I started reading this novel a few days ago, and I recognized every single character so far. Sharp, pointed satire and a lot of cringing laughter.
I am a Lovecraft fan and this is already on my Amazon UK list.
I thought I was original, with my ambition to write a murder mystery set in a high-tech startup. Now I wonder why more people haven’t written such mysteries already.
The sight of yet another friggin’ Zombie novel make me roll my eyes, but this Mamatas fellow got me to buy THE LAST WEEKEND. The very word “Lovecraftian” makes me yawn, but I’m feeling tempted by I AM PROVIDENCE. There’s something squamously eldritch going on here, I think.
Good call on the theme of the novel Nick…zombies are so over…particularly since they were dead in the first place! Look forward to reading it.
I’ll be adding this to my must-read list. Not a huge fan of Lovecraft per se, but I like my horror and my whodunnits with a healthy side helping of sly, dark humor. Green hair not necessary but a bonus. Woo! (Between this and Powers’s novella Down and Out in Purgatory, I should be able to stay out of trouble for a bit.)
You had me at Bimboes of the Death Sun… 😆🤓
@Stevie, if you haven’t tried Mamatas before, he’s the most anti-Lovecraft Lovecraftian author I’m aware of — and I mean that in the best sense. Not many people who write in genre these days succeed at both ticking off the genre boxes and ticking off its slavering fans at the same time. (Cf. The Last Weekend.) Prepare to be entertained!
I would never have believed that the world needed a David Foster Wallace/HPL hybrid, but Mamatas proved me wrong (“Hideous Interview with a Brief Man”). Really looking forward to this.
Loved Bimbos of the Death Sun! Currently playing Call of Cthulhu. Sounds like I need to read this.
Maybe I came to it way too late but I gotta say that “Bimbos…” bugged the crap out of me, not for the send-up of cons but for the fat-phobic misogyny and sexism (yeah, it was written by a woman– so???). It dates badly.
That said, Nick’s take on the whole thing? Oh yeah, damn, I am gonna read that. You go, guy!
(aside to John– great way to get me to waste a whole morning with a single phrase– “World Fantasy Convention got a spate of criticism.” Google is NOT my friend.)
pax / Ctein
So you’re saying the idea for Zombies 11 is still available…
While I Am Providence does sound interesting, I could totally go with the E.T. All Grown Up idea. It seems entirely likely. And of course, no one would believe Elliott really had an alien in his closet. (Oh. You mean it took me *that* long to come up with that phrase and then wonder about the Freudian implications? Oh, wow.) So the three kids have trouble finding dates or husbands / wives as well as good jobs, because of (1) traumatic experience involving their alien buddy; and (2) most people won’t believe it if they ever say they had a real alien in the house, especially the closet. On the other hand, some bright, geeky young guys and girls might think that was just the kind of boy or girl for them, maybe. Either as a couple or as a friend. And maybe they’d never tell anyone they had a real alien in their, uh, closet. But likely, there’d be repercussions from the trauma from how Keys and the agents swept in on E.T. and the family. If I’d been Elliott, I think it would’ve freaked me out. (And he did freak out, worrying for E.T., in the movie, so it works within the established story.)
Geez, when was E.T.? 1984, right about then? Anyway, I was at the end of high school or start of college, close enough. I loved that movie. I identified with Elliott. He was geeky, but he was more of a regular kid than I was as a kid. The novelization was fun too.
Hah, I went to see the movie with my parents over the holidays. We all wanted to go. Very conservative religious parents, but they were fine with science fiction. (Except I couldn’t read Stranger in a Strange Land, but could read any other Heinlein by high school.) So, here we are, and we get to the scene where Elliott shouts out the “P” word at the supper table. Oh, man. I sat there thinking, here they are OK with that from him in a movie, though I think they were not thrilled; but if I’d ever tried that, either his age or his big brother’s age or my actual age? Heh, they would not have actually washed my mouth out or tanned my little butt, but oh, by the time they got done with the lecture and the grounding and the privileges, I would have wished they had! And hey, generational difference, I was surprised, slightly shocked, but…y’know, I’d heard worse in the boys’ locker room at just over that age myself. His mom wasn’t overly bothered by it, which was fine, I thought.
I think I’m overanalyzing the “boy has an alien in his closet” line. I never got that impression of subtext from watching the movie. Interesting little observation, but I don’t think it holds up, quite. — I would not, however, be averse, if a later Elliott turned out to be gay / not-so-straight. After all, that was what was metaphorically in my closet. — It’s just that I didn’t feel the movie (or its subtext) ever really got near anything, except Elliott’s losing his temper and cussing at the table. Heh.
And — Alien gets marooned on Earth; Alien gets befriended and loved by a teen and two kids; Alien gets chased by government henchmen; Alien gets helped out by kids; Alien gets back home safe and sound; Alien leaves kids and mom as friends; — You know, it would be really great if that’s the worst an alien got from visiting Earth, and that’s the worst the Earthlings got, including the single mom and three nice kids. It seems a lot better than the “Aliens conquer and/or eat the Earthlings.”
(Not that I can’t enjoy a story like that too. Just that I think it’s not a bad idea if the aliens and/or the humans are not always out to destroy each other, and they manage to get along instead. Possibly, the reality would be between the two extremes.)
I admit, I cracked up by the end of this!
Sounds most intriguing, intriguing indeed…
Rarely have I been so quickly convinced to buy a book.