Interview: Poppy Z. Brite

Tell us a bit about your story, "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves." What’s it about?

I don’t know that I’d say it has much of a plot. I’m not as anti-plot as, say, Lovecraft, but it has always been a secondary consideration for me. "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" is more picaresque than plot-driven; it basically consists of a guy walking around and looking at things. What makes the story interesting (I hope) is that the sights he sees are extremely unusual and vivid.

What’s was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

My biggest influence was Dan Simmons’ wonderful novel SONG OF KALI. I approached Calcutta and the goddess Kali from a very different point of view, but my story would never have been written without Dan’s novel. I even worried that he might find it offensively derivative, but fortunately, he is a generous soul and said he liked the story very much.

Tell us about the protagonist of the story.

He’s kind of a nonentity, a camera’s-eye narrator. I don’t think a stronger personality would have worked within the context of this story. He tends to fade into the background, and he doesn’t act; he is acted upon.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Well, it’s always hard to write about a place you’re unfamiliar with, and I haven’t been to Calcutta. But my images of it from SONG OF KALI and other reading were so intense that this didn’t present as much of a problem as it normally would. Once I had started the story (as best I can recall; remember that I wrote it nearly twenty years ago!) it went very smoothly, one of those wonderful works that seem to have a mind of their own.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

It was personal to me at the time in that I was deeply interested in the Goddess Kali and longed to visit India. I still haven’t made it there. Maybe I will and maybe I won’t, but my wanderlust seems to be on vacation for the time being.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I read everything I could find about Calcutta — everything from Dan’s novel to Geoffrey Moorhouse’s nonfiction book about the city to old issues of National Geographic. Really, though, the images and geography seemed to fall into place with relative ease. This seldom happens unless I’m writing about my home city of New Orleans, and I don’t know why it did in this case.

Any new work of ours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add?

My most recent publication is the short story collection ANTEDILUVIAN TALES, from Subterranean Press. I have no idea what will be next; I’m in a period of flux and feel that I need to find the next thing. I’d like to revisit the Liquor world of my last several works (novels, novellas and short stories set in the New Orleans restaurant world).