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The Phantasm Japan Q/A with Gary A. Braunbeck

by nickmamatas

Phantasm Japan’s “Shikata Ga Nai: The Bag Lady’s Tale”, by Gary A. Braunbeck, is a classic ghost story in a way. As fantasist Robert Aickman once noted, a ghost story doesn’t need a ghost. The ghosts here are the ghosts of the past, as Braunbeck tells the story of an old woman telling the story of a most peculiar set of events inside one of the US internment camps for Japanese and Japanese-Americans set up during the Second World War. Nick Mamatas talks to Gary about it, and a few other things:

If I recall correctly, your father fought in the Second World War? Was he in the Pacific at all? What inspired this story?

My father fought in both Africa and Germany during the war. It was near the Germany/Austria border where he was severely injured when most of his unit was wiped out by a crash in the mountains of Eberstadt. After an 18-month recovery period (which he spent in a full body cast) he served out the rest of his time (about four months, as I recall) at a desk job, filing paperwork in Minidoka, Idaho at the Japanese internment camp located there. This story was inspired, in part, by conversations he had with various “detainees” at the camp, particularly a tailor.

Unusually for horror writers, your work often engages in sentiment/senitmentality. How did that become one of your major themes?

Before answering that, I have to tell you I have a problem with the word “sentimental,” and here’s why: for me, it trivializes what I try to achieve with my work, which — though it will never be seen as important literature — I work very hard to imbue with emotional authenticity, and in the eyes of a lot of speculative fiction readers (and more than a few writers) this means I’m pretentious and depressing. Douglas Winter’s oft-quoted line about horror being “…an emotion” has been brandished too many times as a shield by lazy writers and lazier, impatient readers who want their dark fiction to deal only with that single emotion: horror can encompass fear and revulsion, yes, of course, that’s fine and dandy, but if your work wants to explore any emotions beyond that, you’re labeled pretentious.

A writer I know once paid me a backhanded compliment by saying that I “… do maudlin well.” Maudlin? Seriously? Nicholas-fucking-Sparks and Robert James Waller do maudlin; Danielle Steele is sentimental; a distressing amount of Spielberg’s work succumbs to both (witness the badly thought-out final reel of Saving Private Ryan). It’s work that sometimes flirts with an honest emotion but backs off before things get too complicated, before grey areas are entered and people may have to actually God forbid think about something deeper than wether or not the heroine will still love the hero when the deep dark secret from his past is revealed, or vice-versa. It’s paint by numbers storytelling, dealing with nothing more than instantly-recognizable emotional situations and complications, and the result is shallow phoniness that relies solely on heavy-handed manipulation to trick readers into thinking that they’re reading something with depth. Oscar Wilde said, “A sentimentalist is one who wishes the luxury of exploiting an emotion without having to go through the bother of experiencing it first-hand.” This drives me clown-shit crazy most of the time. I will not apologize for attempting to dive head-first into the core of a messy and unpleasant emotion in order to take it apart piece by ugly piece and reassemble it in a manner that, if I’ve done my job as a storyteller right, will present it in a new — if sometimes dim — light.

I don’t find, for instance, Kurosawa’s Ikiru to be at all sentimental; there is, for me, a palpable, almost overpowering sense of deep regret that runs throughout that film, underscored with a bitter sadness that makes the final minutes of the story utterly and unapologetically heartbreaking. The emotion is raw and honest and often unpleasant, even ugly, and that’s why that film achieves and maintains the resonance it still has after over half a century. The emotions it deals with are universal (pardon that word), and if a viewer is willing to let him- or herself experience these feelings along with the character, and in the end perhaps carry their resonance into their own lives in some small way, then how can such an experience be trivialized or dismissed as a “sentimental” one?

Rant finished. Here is your answer: Exploring and grappling with human emotions became one of my major themes because if a piece of fiction doesn’t have an honest, authentic emotional core, then any impact the storyteller hopes the work will have is lost and the work will be forgotten within minutes of the last line being read.

What research did you do for this story about internment camps, Japanese folklore, etc?

I’ve been a reader of Japanese folklore for several years — I have volumes of fables and fairy tales — and have read about the internment camps since I was a teenager. The idea that the United States imprisoned its own citizens simply because of those citizens’ genetic background was, is, and will always be reprehensible. That so many great Japanese composers, artists, writers, and scholars survived is arguably miraculous.

Why short stories at all, or publishing at all, when novels are where the money is and you can public on Kindle so easily?

I like the challenge of short stories, of creating a microcosm of character, place, time, and situation that can encompass all aspects of human experience in a tight, focused experience. I’ve never made much money with any of my writing — especially the novels — and I don’t expect that I ever will. I long ago gave up on the idea that my work was going to be widely embraced by a large readership, and the older I get, the more okay I try to be with that knowledge. I simply love writing stories. It’s arguably the only thing I’m truly good at.

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3 Responses to “The Phantasm Japan Q/A with Gary A. Braunbeck”

  1. Bruce Arthurs says:

    The word I would use for Braunbeck’s stories is “empathic”, rather than sentimental or maudlin. He shows a deep understanding of character and emotion. A primary reason why I tend to like Braunbeck’s stories better than those by a lot of horror writers.

    I first came across his fiction when we both had a story in the same anthology. I consider that a win-win: got published myself, and discovered a really good writer at the same time.

  2. Gardner Goldsmith says:

    Great interview. I’m a devoted fan of Gary’s work, and I’m getting the sense that more people are starting to discover his fine work!

    He’s one of a handful of writers who teach me something about human thought and emotion while they teach me about writing. I admire writers who, through movement of the plot, presentation of dilemmas, and exploration of memories, conflict and decision, present something new even while they touch something resonant within me.

    Terrific writer, and a very nice guy. Salutations from New England, Gary! Hope to see you again sometime soon.

  3. Gary A. Braunbeck says:

    My thanks to Bruce and Gardner for the kind words, and to Nick for publishing the story and asking such excellent questions.


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