Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today: Rick Claypool is the author of Tentacle Head (Bear Creek Press, 2022), The Mold Farmer (Six Gallery Press, 2020), Leech Girl Lives (Spaceboy Books, 2017), and short stories that can be found here and there online. He lives in Rhode Island.
Thanks so much, Rick, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
Rick Claypool: My first book was LEECH GIRL LIVES, a weird dystopian super hero creature feature of a novel about lost love, art, and how the ultra-rich will do pretty much anything to avoid being held responsible for causing unspeakable suffering and destroying the world. One of the publishers I sent to replied that it was “too mad,” in the British sense. Spaceboy Books took a chance on it as one of their first releases back in 2017. Nick Mamatas paid me one of the highest complements I ever received in his blurb describing the book as “if China Mieville wrote Saturday morning cartoons.” That’s going on my gravestone.
JSC: What do you do if you get a brilliant idea at a bad time?
RC: I used to do a lot of writing while driving 80 miles an hour on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It’s not something I recommend anyone do. But I used to routinely have to make these four-hour drives for work and I’d spend a lot of that time thinking through how to get my characters to the next point in a story or thinking about parts of the story that seemed kind of blah to me and how to make them more interesting. I would leave an open notebook with a pen on the passenger seat and write down ideas and decisions in big sloppy letters that took up half the page while driving. I don’t do that anymore.
JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
RC: I’m both. For novels and longer pieces of writing I always sketch out a plot, but I always keep it very loose in a way so if the sentence-by-sentence writing pulls me in an unexpected direction I don’t have to resist following those those new threads. Short stories I mostly pants, though I do still make a point of figuring out how I want them to end before I really begin.
JSC: Where do you like to write?
RC: Team kitchen table 100%.
JSC: Who did your cover, and what was the design process like?
RC: Sarah Allen Reed did the cover and illustrations for TENTACLE HEAD. She’s the best illustrator ever. I absolutely love her designs. The process was simple. I shared a bunch of reference images with her and we discussed a few scenes where we thought adding the visual element would be most effective. Then she got to work. The most challenging part was deciding which image should be the cover. I think we got it right. Everyone who needs an illustrator should check out Sarah’s stuff and hire her like right now: www.sarahallenreed.com
JSC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
RC: I oscillated back and forth between wanting to be a paleontologist and wanting to be a cartoonist. My interest in biology and art sort of mutated with the rest of me when I was a teenager so for a while I was planning to become a mortician. That all got derailed when I got into authors like Franz Kafka and Poppy Z. Brite and before I fully understood what was happening, I’d become an English major.
JSC: What are some day jobs that you have held? If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.
RC: Most of my stories deal with working class struggles in one way or another, and my novella THE MOLD FARMER in particular is about having the shittiest job imaginable in the post-apocalypse. Jobs that inform my experience include being: a cashier at Burger King, a discount retail worker, an in-home caretaker for mentally disabled people, a data entry clerk at a small bank, a first-person history interpreter performing the role of a deckhand on a mule-driven canal boat, an AmeriCorps worker with Just Harvest helping people access food stamps and other government benefits, and my current job: researching corporate crime for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.
JSC: We know what you like to write, but what do you like to read in your free time, and why?
RC: I read pretty widely but I concentrate my attention on weird stuff I guess. I have a particular affection for minimalist prose since that’s how I think and write. I’m really excited by the stuff small press writers like Zac Smith, Mike Kleine, and Oliver Zarandi are up to. And there’s so much interesting writing happening in the speculative/sci-fi/horror space too. I’m reading Flowers for the Sea by Zin Rocklyn right now and the prose is somehow both pointed and languid it’s like a living thing, it’s hard to describe. Joe Koch’s novella The Wingspan of Severed Hands hit me like that too – just dreamlike and disorienting and such an interesting experience, like the reading itself is a performance and not simply the telling of a story. I could go on and on.
JSC: How does the world end?
RC: It’s ending right now. So it ends just like this.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming next? Tell us about it!
RC: So my new book TENTACLE HEAD is actually a spin-off of a bigger project I’ve been working on since before the pandemic, a novel I’m tentatively calling SKULL SLIME TENTACLE WITCH WAR. It’s a mutant found family / adventure story, a little bit like The Hobbit meets Aqua Teen Hunger Force. A lot of it is about conflicting destructive impulses in reaction to horrible circumstances, self-destruction vs. outwardly directed destructiveness. One of the characters is an anthropomorphic slime mold, which is fun. There’s an excerpt titled Skullface over at Heavy Feather Review. I’m hoping to finish the book this year and start shopping it around to presses and maybe try again to find an agent. If you’re an agent and you’re reading this right now and you’re looking to make a cartoony book about gross sad mutants the Next Big Thing, hit me up!
And now for Rick’s latest book: Tentacle Head:
A genre-defying journey through grief, madness and slime.
“Like The Little Prince reimagined by David Cronenberg, Tentacle Head is a weird and wild beast. It’s full of goo and gore, but beneath the ooze beats a great big human heart.” – Lincoln Michel, author of The Body Scout
“Equal parts grotesque and poignant, TENTACLE HEAD is a twisted story of family and friendship in a fungus-strewn nightmare world.” – Erica L. Satifka, author of How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters
‘A child’s imagination can be far more cruel and gloom-ridden than most would like to admit. In his nightmarish children’s book for adults, Claypool spins juvenile phantasmagoria into a parable with no moral; a striking and wholly unique tale of apocalypse and survivor’s guilt.” – B.R. Yeager, author of Negative Space
Myco’s head is cone-shaped and covered in holes and folds like the cap of some kinds of mushrooms. Her eyes peer out from holes all around her head. She knows what’s going on all around her at all times. She knows there’s nothing she can do about most of it. The dying. The fighting.
Myco sits in the dust watching the children play. One with a head like a purple wad of chewed gum and one that looks like a pile of overripe green grapes take turns using a bone to scribble insults on the ground. One like a pale sponge with globs of red jelly for eyes giggles and chases one like a ball of yellow fluff. Off to the side, one that appears to be made out of wood and has rows of twitching spider legs for teeth stands by itself, observing.
Soon the children are bored. Green grapes suggests they go play by the overflowing dumpsters. Playing by the overflowing dumpsters is fun because Myco tells them not to. When she catches them her many eyes scowl as she scolds them and points accusingly at the turds and less identifiable categories of effluent curdling in oily pools among the trash.
Purple gum and pale sponge agree immediately. Overflowing dumpster playtime it is.
But yellow fluff whines and hesitates. It doesn’t want to get in trouble. It doesn’t want to get dirty. It had only just managed to cut away the last clumps of mold that had started growing in its fluff. It’s sure the mold came from playing in the trash.
The others taunt fluff by quacking at it. They say it is afraid because it is a duck. “I am not a duck!” fluff insists and goes along with the others to play near the trash to prove it.
Woody spider teeth stands by itself, observing.
They find a soiled old blanket covering some trash and they take it. What they find under the blanket isn’t trash. It’s a body. It’s kind of all shrivelled and kind of all bloated. They find the body very interesting.
They get sticks and stand in a circle around the body, then take turns daring each other to poke it to prove it’s dead.
Before long they’re all laughing and whapping the body together, making a sick rhythm with their gleeful beating. They continue this game until pale sponge stops and yawns and says it’s tired.
The others agree they’re also tired.
They drag the body away from the trash. They take the blanket they found with the body and spread it on the ground. They prop up the body up so it sits upright on the blanket.
They have a pretend picnic with it.
A child-thing sits on each side of the body to take its arms and flop them around as they take turns doing deep voices to talk like grownups talk. The other children pretend to offer the body food. The children doing the imitation grownup voices refuse the food politely, as if the body has some other reason besides being dead for not eating. “No thank you, I’m allergic to cake,” the children make it say in their silly deep mock grownup voices.
The children pretending to offer it food pretend to find the body’s cake refusal is so offensive they smear the pretend cake in its face.
From where she sits Myco can see them manipulating the corpse like a giant disfigured doll. She resists the urge to tell them not to.
Over the next few days she sees the children proceed from smearing imaginary things in the body’s face to smearing a number real things in its face. Mud. Spit. Maggoty fruit. Possibly turds.
She keeps resisting the urge to tell them not to.
She tells herself she should let them be cruel.
They are monsters among monsters.
They live in a cage.
They see death every day.
Better they be cruel to someone dead than someone living.
Better they be cruel to someone who feels nothing instead of each other.