Many ghost stories are tales that have been passed down: from older brothers to younger sisters, from fathers to sons…. And many of the Greek tragedies have shared similar trajectories: from storyteller to apprentice, from college professor to student…. Which could bode well for J. Ashley-Smith’s novelette, The Attic Tragedy (paperback, Kindle), since — as he explains in the following email interview about it — it’s a ghost story with tragic Greek roots (among other things).
To start, what is The Attic Tragedy about, and when and where is it set?
The Attic Tragedy is set in contemporary (ish) Australia, in an antique shop in a fictionalized town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. It’s the story of two girls, outcasts, brought together by a violent incident, who forge a friendship in trauma, a painful friendship that doesn’t mean the same thing to both of them.
At its heart it’s a story about the choices we make: either to grow into the person we most deeply are, whether we like it or not; or to flee from that person and become something less-than as a result. It’s also about memory and forgotten things, about the ghosts trapped in old objects, the ghosts trapped in prisons of flesh. It’s about the liberating nature of sadness.
Where did you get the idea for The Attic Tragedy, and how, if at all, did the story change as you wrote it?
The living idea came from the collision of three smaller, static ideas. One was the title, a terrible pun I appropriated from Nietzche’s The Birth Of Tragedy, which I was reading as research for a novella I was then writing called Ariadne, I Love You. Attic there refers to Attica, rather than the room at the top of the house where you keep your junk. The setting was inspired by a friend of mine, whose parents were antique dealers. Their house was always full of weird old things, and their shop was a chaotic treasure trove of this and that; exactly how we imagine, as children at least, that all attics should be. The last piece was a dream I had, about a girl who goes to a ghost counsellor — a sort of exorcist hired to cut the connection to the ghosts she hears.
So the first spark of the story came out of those three elements. But what really brought it to life was the emergence of the character George, who narrates the story. I didn’t have a clear sense of George when I began writing the story; she really grew into herself as I wrote her. Originally, I had intended the story to be about Sylvie — the girl who hears ghosts — but the more I wrote about George, the more it became her story and Sylvie’s intertwined, with George’s arc moving in one direction, and Sylvie’s in the other.
Thanks to George, the story I ended up with was not the one I planned to write. But, from my perspective at least, it’s a much better and more interesting story as a result.
It sounds like The Attic Tragedy is a ghost story. Is that how you’d describe it?
The story I started out writing was certainly a ghost story — at least inasmuch as it revolved around ghosts, that the connection to a world of ghosts (or lack of it) was in many ways at the heart of it. Ghosts still feature strongly, but as the chorus in this particular tragedy, rather than the players. So, I don’t know…is it a ghost story? I’m going to say yes. But only as long as that doesn’t prescribe any particular genre conventions the story is obliged to adhere to.
Almost every reviewer of the book has called it a “coming of age” story, and I suppose that dynamic is at work in it. That element wasn’t something I planned, but rather came about in the process of writing. I personally cringe at the expression “coming of age,” as it seems to imply some final destination that you reach somewhere in your teens. After that, you are “of age” and…well, and then what? As far as I can see, there’s only one final destination, and it’s one we’re none of us in too mad a hurry to reach. The journey between here and there is anything but fixed, and none of us are ever “finished.”
Probably best if we just go with ghost story.
Now, while The Attic Tragedy is your first published book, it’s not the first thing you’ve written. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Attic Tragedy but not on anything else you’ve done?
I knew early on in writing the story that I would have to justify the title by more than a passing reference to Greek tragedy. I’d been inspired to read more tragedies based on that early book of Nietzsche’s I mentioned above — The Birth Of Tragedy — and began a long, deep and complicated love affair with the three tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. That led me to reading The Odyssey and The Iliad, because so much of Greek tragedy is a reworking of stories, themes, characters, or deleted scenes from that mythic prehistory of ancient Greece.
In the end, The Attic Tragedy itself borrows little from those old stories (apart from the chapter headings, which are named for the key elements of a classical tragedy). Rather, the story became infused with the flavor of those tragedies: a bloodiness, a brutality, a kind of anguish that can only be expressed or resolved through pain of one kind or another.
What about movies, TV shows, games, or other non-literary influences; did any of those have a big influence on The Attic Tragedy?
Speaking of influences, ghosts have taken different forms in fiction. In deciding how they’d behave in The Attic Tragedy, did you base them on any specific ghost from fiction?
I didn’t have any particular ghosts in mind when I was writing the story. I knew there were ghosts of a sort, trapped in the objects in Sylvie’s father’s antique shop. I knew Sylvie was connected to them in some unearthly, ethereal way. I knew that George could not perceive them at all and that, to her, the antiques were just things, “with none of that other stuff.”
What the ghosts became and how they began to influence the story evolved as I wrote it, developing with the needs of the story itself.
Now, along with The Attic Tragedy, you have a second book coming out relatively soon, which you mentioned earlier: Ariadne, I Love You. What is that book about?
Ariadne, I Love You is about a washed-up rock star, his muse, and her ghost. When he travels to Australia in search of Coreen, he finds her not only dead but — worse — married. It’s a story about the stains in the present left by the sordid past, the meaning hidden in forgotten songs, the messages in a madness diary, and the thing that may — or may not — be Coreen. It’s set both in contemporary Australia, in the deep bush of New South Wales, and London in the early 2000s.
Given their close release dates, I assume you wrote them relatively close together. How do you think writing Ariadne, I Love You influenced The Attic Tragedy, and vice versa?
They are in many ways very closely linked — it was researching for one that led to the title of the other. They both have tragic protagonists, trapped on the wrong corner of an unresolvable (to them, at least) love triangle. They are both concerned to some extent with the sublimation of pain, and both have a (very) loose connection to Greek tragedy.
Despite all that, though, they were actually written years apart. I wrote the earliest drafts of Ariadne five years ago, whereas I wrote The Attic Tragedy towards the end of 2018. It’s a happy coincidence that Meerkat Press snapped them up at the same time. And the fact that they were both available to submit at that time was related more to their length than their content.
You said earlier that The Attic Tragedy was not consciously influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting The Attic Tragedy into a movie, show, or game?
It’s only been out a few weeks, so give it time. Of course, it would be terribly exciting if someone was interested in making a film of The Attic Tragedy. I didn’t write it with that in mind, though. It’s too short for a TV series. And, frankly, it would make a terrible game.
And if someone did want to make The Attic Tragedy into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Sylvie, George, and the other main characters?
This is a hard question for me to answer, I’m afraid. I just can’t imagine these characters as anyone but themselves.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Attic Tragedy, what ghost story of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for Ariadne, I Love You to come out?
I would suggest they read Peripheral Visions: The Collected Ghost Stories by the unparalleled Australian horror author, Robert Hood. No one has written so widely — and so weirdly — in the terrain of the ghost story. This collection of his supernatural horror tales is essential reading. It’s also enormous. It will easily keep you going into the new year.