In the late ’60s Eric Clapton fell hard for his friend George’s wife, Pattie…and his way of dealing with this unrequited love was to write the now classic album Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. Not every musician is so lucky. Take the one in J. Ashley Smith’s new musical ghost story, Ariadne, I Love You (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Smith discusses what inspired and influenced this spooky story.
To start, what is Ariadne, I Love You about, and when and where does it take place?
At its heart, Ariadne, I Love You is a story about music, the unreturned love that inspired it, and the dangers of inspiration to both artist and muse. It’s set across a few different places and times: contemporary urban Australia, a train carriage in the Australian bush, and London in the early 2000s. Jude has built his entire career on his love of Coreen, the girlfriend of an ex-bandmate. He rose to stardom on the back of the music he wrote in her (unspoken) name, but now everything’s crashed and burned and he’s a washed-up middle-aged once-was, living with his mum. A comeback tour presents an opportunity to reconnect with Coreen, now married. But when he arrives in Sydney to surprise her, Jude finds she’s dead. In his self-destructive spiral of longing and denial, he learns first-hand the cause of Coreen’s death. And the madness that preceded it.
Where did you get the idea for Ariadne, I Love You, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this story?
Like many of my stories, the idea for Ariadne came from a collision of separate sparks that had been floating independent of one another, some for many years. The title comes from a “madness letter” that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote to Cosima Wagner, wife of composer Richard, whom Nietzsche adored. I read about this maybe twenty years ago in a book called The Story Of Philosophy, which is a brief history of philosophical ideas, expressed through summarized biographies of the philosophers. Something about the phrase and the idea of sending something so intimate and incendiary to your best friend’s wife caught hold in my imagination. I remember starting a story with that name (also with a protagonist called Jude) around the time I first read that. It was a very different story — incredibly bleak and depressing — and it didn’t go anywhere beyond the first few pages.
Years later, I moved to Australia and my wife and I lived for a while in a train carriage in the mountains on the south coast of New South Wales. At the time, she travelled a lot for work, and went away for a week to a conference in Japan, leaving me alone at the train — well stocked, but stranded. It’s a pretty isolated spot, with the nearest neighbor more than half a mile away. I was still pretty fresh off the boat, freaked out by the wildness of wild Australia. It took me several days of being alone there to relax into it, to be able to sit out at night with a fire instead of hiding in the train with a Coleman lamp roaring. One night, I was sat out, looking down into the darkness of the gully, when I saw a light moving in the forest below. It looked like a flashlight moving among the trees. The next morning, I went down into the gully to investigate, but there was no sign that anyone had been there. That floating light went completely unexplained.
I don’t remember how or when these two elements combined, but when I put them together the rest of the story just fell out in a tumble.
And is there a reason you made Jude an alt country musician as opposed to someone who plays metal or jazz or pop? Or, for that matter, Eric Clapton?
The band I was in at university signed a record deal a year or two after I graduated, and I spent most of my twenties pursuing that elusive dream in one band or another. Around the turn of the millennium, there was a rising trend of British indie bands getting into alt country, either being influenced by it or out-and-out rebranding themselves in that mold. The choice for Jude to pursue that was more a product of the time he came out of than anything (though I may also have been having a bit of a The Byrds renaissance at the time I wrote it).
It sounds like Ariadne, I Love You is a ghost story, albeit one that isn’t trying to scare people. Is that how you’d describe it?
I tend not to think about a story from the perspective of this or that genre. I’ll write my way out from inside it, feeling my way in the directions it prompts me to follow, directions typically determined by the characters as they come to life. For me, the measure of success is whether or not I realized the story’s original or emerging intent.
Is it a ghost story? I don’t know. There’s something supernatural going on, and it has something to do with the dead Coreen, but what Jude encounters at the train is not her ghost but something far worse. The fact of that entity and its unusual hunger is (for me, at least) frightening enough, but the choices that Jude makes as a result of his encounter with it are worse still.
Prior to writing Ariadne, I Love You, you wrote another ghost-adjacent story called The Attic Tragedy [which you can read more about here]. Does the ghost in Ariadne behave the same as the one in Attic?
The Attic Tragedy is another “Is it or isn’t it?” type of story, built on the kind of ambiguity I personally love and which is a staple of a particular kind of strange tale. It certainly features ghosts, and those ghosts are very real to at least some of the characters — at some points in the story they even drive the plot. But at the same time, they’re very much in the background, bound up in the character of Sylvie, rather than the focus of the story itself.
In that respect, the supernatural elements in Ariadne are similar. They emerge from the background, rather than jumping out from in front of the reader. But beyond that there is no similarity. The memories that haunt all the objects in Sylvie’s father’s antique shop are definitely ghosts of a kind. In Ariadne, a mystery lies at its center, one that is both macabre and not of this world, but it’s not a ghost. It’s something far more terrible.
I didn’t make a conscious decision for the supernatural elements to be one way or another, in either story. In the one, the idea of ghosts in objects was already there, fully formed at the story’s heart. In the other, the supernatural elements emerged through a process of exploration — emerged, but never fully into the light.
Speaking of The Attic Tragedy, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Ariadne, I Love You but not on Attic? Or, for that matter, anything else you’ve written?
I rarely make the conscious decision to write something in the style of this or that author — although sometimes a story won’t unlock itself until I stumble upon someone else’s work that makes sense of it. Any influences tend to come through more at the unconscious level.
I must have read Ian Banks’ The Crow Road shortly before I wrote the first draft of Ariadne, I Love You. I wasn’t aware of it as an influence, but one of my earliest beta readers of the story mentioned that it reminded them of Banks and I realized, “Oh yep, I was probably channeling that pretty hard at the time.”
How about non-literary influences; was Ariadne, I Love You influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I was aware as I was writing it that I was playing with the old “cabin in the woods” horror trope, but wasn’t consciously or deliberately influenced by any particular movies or shows.
And to turn things around, do you think Ariadne, I Love You could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think it would make a fantastic movie. Some of my favorite movies are based on novellas — it’s a perfect length for the format.
If someone wanted to make Ariadne, I Love You into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Jude and Coreen and why them?
Man, that is a hard question. I have such a clear picture in my head of Jude and Coreen, like friends I know well but haven’t seen in a while. It’s hard to imagine anyone else stepping into their shoes. (There’s a reason good casting directors get the big bucks!)
And in the same vein, what alt country band or artist would you want them to hire to write new music for Jude?
This one I can answer in a snap. I’d want them to drag The Broken Family Band, from my home town of Cambridge UK, out of retirement and back into the studio.
Finally, if someone enjoys Ariadne, I Love You, what ghost story of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that?
I’d direct them to Robert Hood’s extraordinary collection Peripheral Visions, an enormous tome packed with enviably brilliant ghost stories of all shapes and sizes. Rob is a master of supernatural horror and a national treasure.