While a lot of great art has been born of tragedy, just the threat of danger can be a catalyst as well. Take Kathleen Kaufman’s new fantasy novel The Lairdbalor (hardcover, paperback, digital), which was inspired by something that could’ve happened, but thankfully didn’t. Though in the course of the following email interview, she revealed there were other things that inspired her tale as well.
To start, what is The Lairdbalor about?
The Lairdbalor is the story of seven-year-old Jamie, who falls down a very long hill, and finds himself trapped in a nightmare realm. The book is the story of Jamie trying to return to his life, his parents, his reality. The world he is trapped in is inhabited by the nightmares of children, some are deadly, and some are quiet and rather sad. Jamie’s nightmare, The Lairdbalor, is feared by even the most deadly nightmares, and it hunts Jamie as he tries to find his way back home. Jamie ages rapidly the longer he stays trapped, and is forced to come to terms with the nature of his own fears, and the truth behind nightmares.
Where did you get the original idea for The Lairdbalor, and how different is the final version of the book from that initial idea?
The very first twinkle of an idea was inspired by watching my then seven-year-old old son skipping and goofing around as we walked down the hill from The Getty Museum here in Los Angeles. The hill is extremely steep and there are caution signs everywhere warning you to stay on the path, lest you fall down a very long hill, possibly into a nightmare realm. The signs don’t actually warn you about a nightmare realm, but as I watched him skip off the path, the horror writer in me suddenly thought: “what if he fell, and what if we never saw him again?” It was one of those horrifying parent thoughts that will keep you awake at night. I went home and immediately wrote the first chapter.
Other influences came into play over the next few months. My husband and I went to New Orleans that summer. Back on Frenchman Street one night, we found a little art fair, and a man named John Vise who makes little bronze beasties. I saw a horrifying little guy just sitting there on his table; he had spiky, gnashy teeth, the body and flippers of a catfish, a monocle and top hat. I fell in love immediately. I asked John what his name was and he said “The Lairdbalor.” I bought him, took him home, and he became my muse.
The final version of the book is basically intact from what was originally conceived. It went through a helluva lot of editing and I had a very wise team behind me, working to make sure the story was smooth, and the characters well developed. But, the vision was preserved from that first day on the Getty hill.
Writer John Langan [The Fisherman] said The Lairdbalor, “re-imagines the traditions of Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis for the twenty-first century.” Was that your intention?
I’m glad I was sitting down when I first read John Langan’s review. John is easily one of my favorite writers; his Fisherman is a study in literary horror and quiet terror. I was gob smacked and honored to be even at the same table as Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.
Was it my intention? It’s a tough question. It certainly wasn’t what I was thinking about while I was writing, but at the same time all of those authors had a profound impact on me growing up. Especially C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles Of Narnia series and Till We Have Faces were read to the nub in my house.
But I don’t think you can ever go into a writing project trying to write like someone else or trying to re-imagine someone else’s vision. It comes off as a cheap imitation and a poor homage. You can only give voice to the words that already exist in your head and, if you’re lucky, someone you greatly admire will compare you to literary giants. Just try to be sitting down when they do, trust me on that last bit.
So do you think people who are fans of Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis will enjoy The Lairdbalor?
I do think that anyone who enjoys the sort of speculative, fantastical, terrifyingly strange worlds that Carroll, Tolkien, and Lewis created will enjoy The Lairdbalor. For me, the most mesmerizing aspect of those authors is their capacity to not only breathe life into our worst fears, but also to trust children and young readers enough to get it. There are many authors out there who water down horror and dark fantasy for young readers, but really great authors know that kids are much more capable than we sometimes give them credit for. Their fears will blow your hair back; their ability to imagine monsters and digest horror is acute. They don’t need protection from that; rather they need space to express it.
What about dog lovers? Because every time I see The Lairdbalor I think “Labrador,” and that just makes me sad that I can’t have a dog because my apartment building doesn’t allow pets.
Well, like your question about Carroll, Tolkien and Lewis, Labradors were not consciously on my mind during the writing process. To be perfectly honest, Labradors are hardly ever on my mind; I’m more of a Terrier person.
On your website, you said The Lairdbalor is, “about a child, but it’s not meant for children. It’s a story for anyone who lives with anxiety and fear and has ever wondered ‘what if,’ and a darkly imaginative meditation on life, death, fear, and the nature of reality.” As someone who does not live with anxiety or fear — outside the normal day-to-day stuff — what do you think I will get out of reading The Lairdbalor?
The magical thing about anxiety is that everyone has experienced it at one time or another. You are anxious about an exam, or a big job interview, and for many people, when the inciting event is over, the anxiety clears. I have tried to explain my own chronic anxiety to my non-anxious family and friends and it’s difficult. It is impossible to put words to the constant nagging worry that sits at the back of your brain and pit of your stomach. It is impossible to explain why nothing helps to alleviate it, or why a seemingly innocuous event or change of schedule can send me in a tailspin. The reaction that I have received from those who, like me, work with chronic anxiety issues is that I nailed their experiences and thought patterns pretty straight on. For those who are lucky enough to not deal with anxiety, it gives a window into understanding their friends and family members who do live with it. I’ve heard books described as windows and mirrors. For some, The Lairdbalor will act as a mirror of sorts, for others a window into a world they have never been trapped in.
We’ve talked a bit about Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. But are there any other writers or specific stories that you think had a big influence on The Lairdbalor?
Neil Gaiman. Specifically Coraline and Ocean At The End Of The Lane. Gaiman has a way of writing books about children that don’t talk down to them, and give credence to the intelligence of their fears. The Sandman has also been hugely influential to me, the visual impact of his work combined with his words has been the base of a great many nightmares.
Tananarive Due is another. The Good House, Between, and more recently Ghost Summer all combine a really perfect infusion of horror, magical realism, and urban fantasy. Her characters are so real I feel like I know them by the end of the story, they stay with me, and I actually worry about them long after I’ve closed the book.
Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story has been and always will be one of my most treasured books from my childhood. Especially the second half of the book, when Bastian is in the world of the book, trying to find his way home. There are many parallels between that and my The Lairdbalor.
On a more classic note, Gabriel Garcia Marquez introduced me to magical realism and the idea of fantasy in everyday life. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Love In The Time Of Cholera, Leaf Storm – all are like comfort food to me. I go to them when the world is too crazy, too unsettling, and I need to escape into more magical place.
What about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that you feel had a big impact on The Lairdbalor?
As far as movies go, there’s a long list, but I’ll give you my top influencers.
The Cell, which was directed by Tarsem Singh. The visuals are stunning and chilling. The first time I watched it, I had to keep the lights on 24/7.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Undeniably one of the most visually raw horror films out there.
Let The Right One In, which was directed by Tomas Alfredson. Another perfectly executed, perfectly paced film full of completely disturbing visuals.
As for other influences, I was a big fan of the Silent Hill games in the day. And those movies did not disappoint, either; they captured the spirit of mist-covered mountainsides and constant danger.
Your website says you’re a high school English teacher, an adjunct professor of writing and composition at Santa Monica College. How, if at all, do you think your works as a teacher impacted The Lairdbalor?
I spend a great deal of time with teenagers, whether they be high school or college level. The stories they have told me over the years could be their own collection of horror stories. I’ve had students who have been homeless, watched friends and family members killed in front of them, had to flee their home country in fear of their lives, have been abandoned, beaten, lost. The thing that sticks with me over all the years I’ve been teaching in urban schools is that these kids just keep on going. They tell their stories and keep on going to classes, and eating lunch and tying their shoelaces and acting perfectly normal. If they were adults, the sort of trauma some of them have lived through would have them standing in the middle of the street screaming.
I think it’s settled in me that kids are 100% more resilient and courageous then we give them credit for. I don’t sit down with the intent of writing for young adults specifically, but they are almost always my influence.
Your website also says you’re “an avid amateur photographer [who] has published work in The Huffington Post and other publications.” Do you think your photographic sensibilities influenced The Lairdbalor as well?
I am a very amateur photographer. I have had the chance to shoot events here in L.A. and freelance gigs here and there. I think I am always looking at the world around me as though it were being framed by the lens. In my writing, I always have a very clear visual image of whatever scene I am composing; the view through the lens is always there, I can always see how any bit of my stories would be visually presented.
A lot of fantasy books like The Lairdbalor are not stand-alone novels, but are instead parts of a series. Though not all. So, is The Lairdbalor a stand-alone novel, or is it the first in a series?
The Lairdbalor is a stand-alone novel. I do not have any plans for a series in this line. There are a few thoughts of future stand-alone companion books perhaps, stories from the same world as The Lairdbalor, but not necessarily connected.
So has there been any talk of making a movie, show, or game based on The Lairdbalor?
There is ongoing talk, but I cannot say more than that right now. Hopefully soon the metaphorical cat can be let out of the figurative bag.
If The Lairdbalor was to be made into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the lead roles and why them? Or, if you’d prefer it be a game, what kind of game should it be, and why, and who should make it, and why?
As far as movie or TV goes, it would be my greatest desire to see Eddie Redmayne [Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them] somehow involved. Mostly because I love him, and his involvement would mean I could fangirl the heck out of him. If Eddie Redmayne reads this, he’s probably going to put me on some sort of security watch-list, but I assure you Eddie, I’m your biggest fan, and not in that Annie Wilkes, thumbectomy sort of way. More of a hug and a selfie sort of way…
Games? I think it would make an incredible RPG; so much room for exploration in the world created in The Lairdbalor.
Finally, if someone really enjoys The Lairdbalor, and they already have a dog, what would you suggest they read next and why that?
Oh, so many books.
Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due. It’s a collection of stories, some published for the first time, some have appeared here and there before. All incorporate elements of urban fantasy, magical realism, and horror.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle. I love Victor’s work in a general sort of way, but this book was mesmerizing. He captures the sheer terror of parenting with urban magical fantasy. It’s not enough to say love next to this book; I strive to write something this incredible one day.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. I love anything Margaret Atwood. This quiet little book about a theatre producer/director who directs The Tempest in a men’s prison created such a rich world of grief, regret, and fear, and left me feeling utterly uplifted.