Today I’m talking with author Garrett Cook about his new book Charcoal coming out in October from Clash Books. It’s a book about art, artists, models, morals, and decadence, so of course I was excited to read it when Garrett reached out and it did not disappoint. I’m pleased Garrett was kind enough to chat with me about some thoughts and questions the book raised.
Joe: One aspect of Charcoal I really admired was the way you captured the creative process in Shannon’s mind while she is in the act. We really feel the artist’s sense of immersion as well as her frustration when she’s interrupted and the magic is dispersed. How did you craft these intimate sequences?
Garrett: About sixteen years ago, my then girlfriend and I were in a position where we were stuck living in my parents’ basement in central Pennsylvania. It was a lonely, upsetting town for us. We needed community and we needed a space that was ours.
So, while she did some work decorating some stuff, I was left painting on the walls. I began to create these Keith Haring-like stick figures. They were in these little weird otherworldly tribes with various animals. It was real obtuse, outsider, Henry Darger vibes almost. There were about ten of these stick people in this stick person ecosystem, each in a different color.
The jagged crash she goes through next at the hands of a well-intentioned friend is an experience every artist goes through pretty much. For the most part, nobody’s trying to shit on and destroy your art. It’s just that you’re in there and they’re out here; you know, where it’s shitty. So, that came easier than you’d think.
Joe: Other than the basement mural, are you a visual artist? What interested you in the topic of art?
Garrett: When I was a child, I drew reams upon reams of comics on typing paper. In high school, I took an art class every year, one year I took two. I’m both Dyspraxic and a synesthete so I lack the hands and eyes but still, I love drawing and painting and it’s been too long.
The topic of the book actually came from Christoph Paul at CLASH. He had an idea for a book about haunted charcoals possessed by Babylonian demons but felt he wasn’t the one to write it I said I might have something if I tweak it. I loved the charcoals but hated the Babylonian demons. I wanted to go back to cruel and decadent artists in a Victorian setting whose echoes resound into a modern one. It led me to a lot of themes and vibes that intersected a lot of my interests, like Gothic fiction, expressionist and decadent art and the backdrop of the Whitechapel murders. From there, I also got to explore the price of advancing in the arts and the hostility and commodification that artists face.
Joe: It’s a rich theme. The decadent artist character of Kemp brought to mind Osman Austin Spare. What historical precedents or people did you have in mind while creating him?
Garrett: Kemp is a bit Austin Spare, a bit Walter Sickert and a whole lot of Amicus and Hammer, in particular the Skull or The Creeping Flesh. He could be played by Vincent Price or Cushing or Donald Pleasence really. He’s also got some of my worst qualities and listens a lot to my most terrible self talk. He’s thoroughly Gothic character but you can see some traces of tragic humanity in him. He’s really as pathetic as he is corrupt and it was a good experience exploring all of those different facets of what makes artists give into their worst and most exploitative drives.
Joe: “The Skull” is a favorite and Peter Cushing is great casting as Kemp. You know, studying art history sometimes feels like studying the history of problematic men. Or maybe that’s all of history. There’s so much tension in Charcoal in the way self-expression clashes with ethics, and you don’t shy away from showing problematic men and the systems that enable them, nor do you hide the complicity of your protagonist. You haven’t simplified the situation. What made you want to tackle this issue, or did it arise organically from wanting to write about art?
Garrett: I think it’s one of the things I struggle with. I have had to navigate a lot of things ethically in the arts and seen others who have had to struggle through this. The weight of our actions is always an important concept to look into and it feels so much more relevant nowadays, where we have the power and drive to hold artists accountable for their shit but not necessarily the temperance and perspective to use those tools correctly every time or to see the people we’re decrying as people.
I can’t say in good conscience that I am not an accomplice. I have to own my brick of shit. There’s no two ways around that. From there, it’s a matter of figuring out how I can be a better traitor than I am an accomplice. And that has its own complications. The strength and privilege to help emanates often from the same structures and systems that marginalize or dehumanize others. I don’t think I reach one conclusion or the other but I can’t help but see the pain and how much it drives people nowadays.
Joe: On this topic, I was aware while reading Charcoal of a meta-layer of problematic patriarchy, in that you are (as far as I can tell) a cishet white male writing a Black queer female protagonist. What are your thoughts about this choice? I realize the question has an air of confrontation! But I can’t imagine you weren’t thinking about it at some point in the writing process.
Garrett: The question was going to come up, whether from concern trolls or marginalized people with genuine grievances. I can only hope to answer honestly and graciously. I think there was no other way I could or should tell this story. It would be easy to make this about a person exactly like me but you can see people like me everywhere and I wanted to try to do something different, something that challenged and expanded my work.
I wanted to tell a story about the weight of the world people like myself created. I couldn’t do that through the eyes of a person who had authority and privilege. I needed someone struggling under that and I needed to show empathy for someone who wouldn’t be as visible in genre fiction. We need to be able to see from the right eyes and speak with the right voice even if that could be used against us or hit a wrong note.
As for the queer part, I have a trans partner and a lot of exposure to queerness, in addition to some of my own questions of gender expression, which, while milder than others still exist. In the company of men, I know, if gender is the only thing we have in common, I’m alone, I’m not entirely one of them. I don’t think of myself as particularly feminine but I know that I’m not altogether a man as manhood is typically expressed. I’m something different.
I think you can write about black or queer characters without trying to say too much about what blackness or queerness are. Saying that I could tell black or queer people what they are is against the idea of decolonizing the imagination, which is one of the things we want to do as artists in this climate. Acting out of guilt or shame doesn’t help but it’s compassionate to give back what we can of what was taken, even if we don’t have power over most of it. I know it was a delicate task but this isn’t the time to be cowards. I hope I did well and most of all, that I told a good story that readers will remember.
Joe: Thanks for sharing that. It’s good to get to know you better and I think your personal questioning and empathy enrich the writing. Another challenging theme in Charcoal is repeated sexual abuse. You handle it in a mostly off-screen manner that is respectful to survivors but still impactful. Shannon seems to experience and seek out deliberate disassociation. Was this trauma hard for you to write about?
Garrett: I have known too many survivors and am currently in EMDR therapy for Complex PTSD. This book gutted me. There were days when I could only write a few words, others when this left me empty and reeling. I owe it to CLASH to my readers and to myself to inhabit that hell, to explore trauma as honestly and fiercely as I can because no matter how much progress I make, what happens cannot unhappen.
My mental illness is not the whole of my being but it’s not separate either. I will always be writing from a mentally ill perspective and there’s a long history of it in horror, tracing back even to the anxieties and ecstatic experiences of Dante. And, like Dante, horror writers get to make people feel less alone in hell. It’s a gift and a luxury.
Joe: You handle the real life hell of trauma with great care in your writing, and I think that ability is something that only comes with a certain amount of awareness and healing. Best to you in continuing to cope, heal, and prosper. Let’s get back to the less heavy parts of Charcoal for a moment. It’s so much fun how you weave different levels of reality expertly, going from past to present and from canvas to dream to hallucination and back to real life. It’s very much my jam. Do you enjoy reality-hopping?
Garrett: Thank you. I love hearing that.
Reality hopping is in my Bizarro pedigree but also again, it comes in part from sensory and cognitive dissonance. We think with so many layers of consciousness and inhabit so many different levels of experience and cognition. There’s the emotional reality of a situation, there’s our consciousness and thought processes, there’s the physical reality and there’s the abstract and spiritual. It’s a way of moving through and manipulating layers of meaning.
Everyone loves a good mindfuck. Everyone wants to be taken SOMEWHERE and honestly, if I”m writing something and I’m not going SOMEWHERE, it’s boring as fuck for me to write. So, yeah, I love to focus on the ways we get untethered and the places we end up when those boundaries break.
Joe: Me too. I also love a great complicated, struggling protagonist, and Shannon is one. I was rooting for Shannon to succeed, yet in the context of the world you made, it was hard to know what success would look like. You said to me recently you love a fucked up happy ending. Do you think you achieved that for Shannon?
Garrett: These are all such great questions. I think that success is hard to figure out, particularly when you’re marginalized or mentally ill. Success has often been shaped by institutions that have not acted in our best interest. We think success is building generational wealth and then passing it onto generations or kids or that it’s authority over as many people as you can possibly have authority over. These might not be values everyone has and some people wrestle with what you put in that place instead and how you get whatever that is. I went through about ten endings, some a lot crueler, a couple more unambiguously happy. I believe I reached the right one and I hope it is also sufficiently fucked up in its implications.
Joe: My biggest complaint with Charcoal is that you can’t have four panels in a triptych. Why did you
do that? (Please picture me laughing as I ask this! I have thing for “threes”!)
Garrett: Honestly, I sometimes mix up Tri and Tetra. At the very least, a four panel Triptych is a perversion of trinities so it’s got that going for it.
Joe: Perversion is a good justification, so I’ll begrudgingly allow it, ha ha. It’s been great digging into your work today. Thanks for this. Before we wrap up, what projects are you working on now? Anything exciting we can look for in the near or distant future?
Garrett: I’m working on retooling two books that are pulpier and more commercial but still really rewarding. They get to deal in the kind of action and monster stuff that I loved as a kid. There’s also another book clearing up and that’s a relief. I don’t like when I can’t see the next project. There should be something else soon, whether it be The Screams at the Keyhole or my pulp action monster series. I’m going to keep writing what I want and what matters to me and I hope I’m not alone on that journey.
About Garrett Cook: