[Interview] Ronald Malfi: The Macabre, the Monstrous and the Malevolent – a Writer With His Finger Very Firmly On the Horror Genre’s Pulse
By James Keen
Ronald Malfi, the American, Chesapeake Bay based novelist has had a somewhat picaresque journey to his current standing as a shining example of the prolific author whose prodigious output is remarkably immune to the pitfalls of quantity versus quality and its often disappointingly inverse literary results. His work has managed to encompass just about every genre there is. From the science-fiction tone of his Michael Crichton-like first novel ‘The Space Between’, the non-genre literary pieces ‘The Nature Of Monsters’, ‘Via Dolorosa’, through his thrillers ‘The Ascent’ and ‘Passenger’ and now currently content to continue startle and terrify his readership with such works as ‘Floating Staircase’, ‘Snow’ and ‘The Narrows’. This coming June, Malfi’s novel ‘Cradle Lake’ will be issued in paperback and is yet another horror effort. It’s the story of the Hammerstun’s, Alan and Heather who inherit a ranch near a lake with legendary restorative powers. With Malfi writing you just know that you’re in for a wild and creepy ride.
An author with an intriguing upbringing-the eldest of four children, Malfi’s father was a secret service agent involved in infiltrating the Manhattan-based Irish mob known as The Westies in the mid 1970’s (Malfi later turned this colourful aspect of his past into an absorbing thriller, ‘Shamrock Alley’). After graduating with an English degree from Towson University Malfi was involved for a while as lead singer and songwriter for the alt-rock band Nellie Blide, touring local venues along with his brother, Darin on drums. It’s evident from his written output that he’s interested in creativity in various different forms with his protagonists often portrayed as working as mural painters, sculptors and, of course, understandably enough, writers. Having moved around a lot due to the nature of his father’s employment (Malfi’s understanding of his father’s career at that time was that he was an interstate candy salesman) relocating primarily from small town to small town has had the effect of imbuing many of his novels with a notable sense of dislocation and loss. Many of his characters are faced with disorienting circumstances, his protagonists often desperately seeking to rationalize and make sense of themselves and their disturbingly altered surroundings.
Recently Mr Malfi kindly took time out to answer a few questions from Horror Novel Reviews and as would be expected with such an astute writer his answers were by turns thought provoking and rewardingly informative. One gets the sense from this Q & A that the man has no intention of slowing down and as far as this contributor is concerned whether that continues to be through the filter of horror fiction or any other genre, as long as Malfi continues to work as such an engaging storyteller that can only be a good thing for the discerning reader.
HorrorNovelReviews: Why do you write? It appears you’ve been very creative since childhood as I understand you were writing stories from a very young age. With hindsight do you see your initial creative urges as a response to your surroundings back then?
Ronald Malfi: As a kid, I always had a number of creative outlets, and writing just happened to be one of them. From the very beginning, I had found a sense of belonging, of coming home and into my own, whenever I would write. I did it constantly, daily, hourly, starting when I was in…oh, maybe sixth or seventh grade. I’d sit in the back of a classroom and write stories in my notebooks, some of which I passed around to friends, and a number of which had been confiscated by teachers, I’m sure. The discipline was always there—I never had to consciously make myself write—and I guess I considered it just another extension of my being. Why not ask why I breathe, why I eat and sleep and blink my eyes? I was born to write; all these years later, I still belong there.
HNR: You’ve been extraordinarily prolific since publishing your first novel, ‘The Space Between’ – has your diligence towards writing been altered over the last few years? I’ve read that ideally you like to complete at least fifteen pages a day. Has that changed in any way or are you still as dedicated now to that kind of output?
RM: My current contract allows for me to publish one novel a year, which I augment with one or two novellas and some short fiction, too. A few years ago—most notably before my wife and I had our first child—I was still writing about 15 or so pages a day. One novel, Snow, was written in about two weeks. That pace has certainly slowed in recent years, and I am no longer able to write my usual 15 pages a day. Instead, I find that I engage in periodic marathon sessions, similar to how Snow was written, where I write for a few days non-stop and end up with around 150 or so pages. The time-frame it takes to write a single novel—around three months, give or take—hasn’t changed; yet instead of writing a little bit every day, I tend to write quite a lot in spurts.
HNR: In an interview you did with ‘Horror Drive-In.com’ a few years ago you talked about how you feel that there is a recurring theme in your writing, that of characters who are troubled by their lost or confused identity. Is this a theme that still holds great significance for you and if so, why?
RM: To a degree, yes, though not as blatant as it used to be. In general, I am interested in characters who face some inner turmoil— the man versus himself sort of conflict—and it happened that my earlier work focussed on unreliable narrators as they question who they really are…they’re questioning their memories, their beliefs, their notions of what they had perceived the world to be. Those elements are still present in my more recent work, though they are manifested in a broader scope and are not as literal as I have presented them in the past. For example, my novel Passenger is about a man who wakes up with no memory of who he is at all, and he spends the duration of the novel trying to piece it all together. It doesn’t get any more literal than that!
HNR: The author William D. Gagliani in a summation of your novel, ‘The Fall Of Never’ wrote, “…Our minds are sometimes more frightening than the monsters of yore’. It’s a book that deals with the concept of things lost whether it be memories or childhood. Do you find that ‘horror’ fiction as a genre is more expedient for you in terms of being able to explore those ideas than say, the general fiction type?
RM: For me, yes, because I mainly write what is considered “horror” or “dark” fiction. But overall, no, I think those themes can be explored just as well in other types of fiction.
HNR: Your earlier novels have utilized a number of differing genres: science fiction (The Space Between), police procedural (Shamrock Alley), redemptive general fiction (The Ascent) and of course, horror (Snow, The Narrows). Would it be fair to say that your use of genre fiction in particular is an easier way to incorporate metaphors that highlight the everyday anxieties of the modern world?
RM: In my opinion, horror is the genre best suited for manifesting metaphor into reality—as in the reality of the world horror authors create in their fiction, I mean. The Narrows is a good example of this. The book is about this rural Maryland town, Stillwater, that has been slowly dying because jobs have dried up and people have moved away. The creature that comes to that town and begins to feed off its remaining residents is a direct metaphor for this—a town that is slowly bled dry until it dies and crumbles to dust.
HNR: Your novel, ‘Cradle Lake’ is due in paperback this June; Is there something you want to warn your readers about?
RM: Interesting choice of word—“warn.” Cradle Lake is a very dark book, and indeed touches on some of the aspects of identity we’ve previously discussed, most noticeably in the main character, Alan Hammerstun. The book addresses what it means to be a parent, and how far someone will go to create the life they’ve always wanted. But there are no short-cuts in life; we’re dealt our hand and have to play it. My wife was pregnant with our first child while I was writing this novel, and much of my fears and worries have manifested themselves in its pages.
HNR: Of all your novels which are you the most proud of, and why?
RM: Floating Staircase is probably my favourite. It’s the book that took the longest to write, with a very early draft having been written when I was still in college. It’s a quiet novel, about family and regret and redemption, and it’s also the novel I think that best showcases the type of fiction I enjoy writing. When people ask, “What kind of books do you write?” this is the novel I direct them to. It’s also the book that turned out as close as possible to the original concept I had for it, which is rare when you write they way I write. I don’t use outlines or take copious notes. I prefer the stories to grow organically, and often I’m not sure, beyond a rough idea and an overall “feel,” how the book will turn out. With Floating Staircase, it stuck to the overall “feel” I had first envisioned for it. For me, that’s rare.
HNR: ‘The Narrows’ and ‘Snow’ are both terrifying narratives and appear to be attempts on the part of the writer to subvert the hoary old standards of horror fiction. Other than simply avoiding those standards are you motivated by a personal desire to challenge and re-interpret well-worn precepts in the hope of revealing something fresh and relevant?
RM: Very perceptive! You know, I hadn’t intended this with Snow, and it wasn’t until I had already written the book that people started to suggest it was a—shudder!—zombie novel. This was news to me. Of course, I could see why the comparison was made, though I wonder if the book had been published at a time when zombies weren’t the monster du jour if it would have been interpreted in the same way. But with The Narrows, that was my intention—to write a vampire novel that had no vampires in it. Instead, I created a creature that was wholly unique yet also could be construed to have ‘vampiric’ characteristics, particularly in how it feeds and presents itself to those people who see it. I thought that if these creatures had existed for centuries, their existence could have given birth to what we now consider the modern vampire myth. I was very interested in exploring that. I also liked the idea of the symbiotic relationship between the mother-creature and its, I guess, offspring, for lack of a better term, a sort of parasitic union between man and creature and offspring. To me, that was very creepy.
HNR: In a few reviews of your books reviewers have mentioned that your work has echoes of Hemingway, Straub and many others. Is there a particular author(or authors) you can cite that you’ve found influential on the way to discovering your own unique literary ‘voice’?
RM: Oh, well, to be compared to Hemingway and Straub—I mean, you don’t get better than that, do you? Because of what I write, I get the inevitable comparison to Stephen King. Although I love King and grew up reading everything he’d ever published, we have two very different styles. King is more homey, comfortable, like a big, smiling uncle who sits you on his knee as he spins a yarn. My style is more tempered, I think, so in that regard, I think the comparisons to Straub and maybe even Hemingway are understandable. Personally, I just write like me, without awareness of how that compares to other authors. Some people love doing the comparison thing—that hamburger tastes like this hamburger!—but I’ve never really been that type of person. I guess I’ve just always recognized the differences in things as opposed to their similarities.
HNR: Finally, are you still actively engaged as the lead singer for the alt-rock band ‘Nellie Blide’ as yet another outlet for your prodigious creativity? The band, from the snippets I’ve heard (notably ‘Wash The Pot’) sound awesome. When are you going to post something official from the group online?
RM: You know, I’m not. I haven’t played in that band—or any band—in over ten years. I was in a band in high school and then in another one (made up of the same musicians) during my early college years. After college, Nellie Blide was formed and we performed for about a year and a half before disbanding. Some live recordings survive, and we also cut a six-song studio demo which is where “Wash the Pot” comes from, but that was about it. I was the singer, guitarist, and songwriter, and I loved every minute of it. But it’s just so time consuming and involved a lot of travelling around, and I knew that lifestyle wouldn’t work once I got married and had children. Yet my passion had always been with writing stories, and while I certainly miss playing music, I think I made the right decision.
Many thanks to Ronald Malfi for graciously taking the time to respond to our questions -there would have been more, but the guy has novels to write and we didn’t want to get above ourselves – in other words, greedy.
You can take a look at Ronald Malfi’s Amazon page for an assortment of impressive work!
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