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Exclusive Interview: “The Strange” Author Nathan Ballingrud

 

Given that it takes place in a colony on Mars, and there’s robots, you’d be forgiven if you thought Nathan Ballingrud’s novel The Strange (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) was a science fiction story. But in the following email interview, Ballingrud explains why he thinks it’s more of a dark fantasy.

Nathan Ballingrud The Strange

To begin, what is The Strange about, and when and where is it set?

The Strange is set in and around the American colony of New Galveston on Mars, in 1931. Humans have been on Mars for a few decades at this point, but New Galveston is the anchor point of the first concerted effort to establish a permanent colony. About a year before the story begins, all communication with Earth, including the transportation of people and goods, abruptly and mysteriously stopped. The colonists have come to call this The Silence. So we pick up with a community cut off from home, abandoned and scared. Anabelle Crisp is a fourteen-year-old girl running a diner with her father and a service robot. Her mother was visiting Earth when The Silence happened, so has been missing for a long time. They’re robbed by a bunch of desert cultists one night. Among the things stolen is a recording her mother left her family before she left. Frustrated by the inaction of her community, Anabelle sets off to get it back.

Where did you get the idea for The Strange? What inspired this story?

Ever since I was a kid, I would look at the night sky and feel a powerful sense of romance and wonder. Both Mars and the moon in particular. I’ve always wanted to write a story drawing from that feeling. Many years later, when my daughter was a young teen, a time came when I felt bad that everything I had written to that point was unsuitable for her to read. I never wanted to be a one-note writer anyway, so I started thinking about a story that might be more relevant to her. And doing so, I remembered feeling the romance of the near sky when I was younger. The story of Anabelle and Mars started to form.

As you said, Anabelle lives on Mars in 1931 — and that’s 1931 as in Earth 1931, not Mars nearly two thousand years after they declared their independence or anything. Why did you set it in 1931 as opposed to 1886 or now? Or, for that matter, 2222, nearly two thousand years after Mars declared their independence?

When the idea started to gather steam I was reading Westerns, and I was fascinated by the plight of the American Midwest during the dustbowl era. The way these people were just abandoned in a world that was trying to kill them. Somehow that mixed together with my love of old science fantasy, and the world started to coalesce. Anabelle was baked into it. As soon as I started to write, her voice was there. It was a pleasure to write her; I just had to listen.

The Strange sounds like a sci-fi story, but with a bit of Western flavor. Is that how you’d describe it?

I think that’s a good description, for the most part, though I don’t really think it’s science fiction. It’s a fantasy. There are spaceships and robots, and it’s set on Mars, but there’s not really an ounce of viable science to be found here. The Mars of The Strange is entirely a country of the imagination. The only logic I care about is internal logic: everything had to make sense in the context of the story and the setting, the real world be damned. There are moments of horror in there, too, but they don’t define the story. Me being me, I couldn’t keep a little of that out. So in short, though it’s being called a science fiction novel, I think it’s really a dark fantasy.

The Strange is your first novel, but you’ve written a novella, The Visible Filth, as well as the short stories in your collections North American Lake Monsters and Wounds: Six Stories From The Border Of Hell. With The Strange, did you set out to write a novel, or did you start writing this story and, at some point, realized it was too long to be a short story or even a novella?

I always knew The Strange was going to be a novel. It was the story of a journey and the consequences of that journey, and that needed space to unfold.

Why did you decide you wanted to write a novel?

The biggest reason is that the kinds of ideas I started to get were changing. They wanted more space than a short story will allow. I want to spend more time with characters, really sink into their thoughts, their emotions, how they engage with the world and the people around them. With Anabelle, I wanted to explore how her hunger for justice might lead her to consequences she didn’t anticipate, might complicate her idea of what justice really is.

Living in the world — especially when it’s in dramatic flux, like hers is, and like ours is — is full of moral gray areas, full of complications and contradictions. I wanted the space to let her wrestle with them, let her make some questionable choices and see how she felt about them afterwards. The Strange is, in many ways, about adaptations and consequences.

Given that this story was too big for a novella or short story, I have to ask: Is The Strange such a big story that it’s the start of a saga, or is it a stand-alone novel?

The Strange is written to be a stand-alone book. There are major questions that remain unanswered in the narrative, but that’s by design. One of the things Anabelle has to come to terms with — as we all must — is that sometimes you don’t get answers.

That being said, it’s a whole world. There are several references to places, people, and stories that we never see or engage with, and there are stories to be told around all of them. Some of them I already know. So Mars is ripe for a revisit, should the conditions ever be right.

Are there any writers, or stories, that you think had a big influence on The Strange but not on anything else you’ve written? Because it’s giving me some serious John Carpenter Of Mars vibes.

For sure. The obvious influences on this story are Charles Portis’ True Grit and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Both had very big impacts on my imagination, and The Strange is a love letter to both of them. But there were others, too: Larry McMurtry, Molly Gloss, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Herbert all had an influence on my thinking here. And absolutely Edgar Rice Burroughs. I love the John Carter books.

How about non-literary influences; was The Strange influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because along with John Carpenter, it’s also giving me some Firefly / Serenity vibes.

Now that you mention it, Firefly probably did have an influence on this, though it wasn’t a conscious one. I was a big fan of the show so it’s definitely in the cauldron. I also really enjoy retro-science fiction art, old pulp magazine covers from the 1920s and ’30s with bipedal robots, flying saucers, and ray guns, that kind of thing. The idea of alternate timelines in which all of that stuff was real is so much fun for me. I just decided to indulge myself with this book.

And then, to flip things around, do you think The Strange could work as a movie, show, or game?

For sure. In the very first glimmer of an idea for this, before it became Anabelle’s story, it was going to be a podcast: a series of small reports from Mars, broadcast into the night in hopes someone on Earth might be around to receive it, detailing the life and the people of New Galveston. Sort of a dark Tales From Lake Wobegone. And I still love that idea. If it were going to be a TV show, that’s how I would like it to go: a broader look at all the people of the city, and how they deal with The Silence and with each other. If it were going to be a film, I’d stay focused on Anabelle’s story.

I don’t know about a game. My imagination just doesn’t think about telling a story in interactive terms, so I don’t know how a translation to that medium would be best approached. There are so many brilliant people in that industry, though, I have no doubt it could be done.

If someone wanted to adapt The Strange into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Anabelle and the other main characters?

Only two actors come to mind immediately. I think of Kaitlyn Dever [Booksmart] as Anabelle (though too old for the part, she fits my idea of her almost perfectly) and Margo Martindale [Cocaine Bear] as Sally Milkwood (she’s older than Sally is too, but so what?). Maybe Torg from Santa Claus Conquers The Martians for Watson?

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Strange?

People who are already familiar with my writing might be expecting a horror novel. The Strange isn’t that. But it is, as I say, a dark fantasy, and there are a few scenes in there that will scratch that itch. It’s an adventure story, a coming-of-age story, a story about loss, consequence, and adjusting to life in a world and even a society which you might feel has betrayed you. Another story I kept in mind while writing it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island: I wanted that sense of a young person caught up in a propulsive adventure, in way over her head, having her world redefined every step of the way. I hope I captured some of that fire.

Nathan Ballingrud The Strange

Finally, if someone enjoys The Strange, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?

I would suggest Wounds. Those stories are far darker, but they’re infused with the same love of pulp fiction that this one is. Particularly “The Butcher’s Table,” which has pirates in it. And if they like the retro-sci fi energy of this, I have a novella called Crypt Of The Moon Spider, which takes place on the moon in the 1920s, coming out next year.

 

 

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