Today we’re featuring an interview with Lane Kareska, author of the novella North Dark, released via Sirens Call Publications. To whet your appetite for the dystopian journey that is North Dark, let’s take a moment and consider its synopsis…
Set in a lonesome and barbarous failed state, North Dark is the story of a lone man traveling by dogsled across a frozen wasteland in pursuit of the fugitive who destroyed his family.
Haunted by predators both physical and spectral, the musher’s journey takes him across a deadened tundra, tortured cities and the remains of civilizations long-lapsed into madness. All the while, his enemy slides in and out of striking distance, always one step ahead, always one act of violence away.
Welcome Lane, why don’t you take a few moments to introduce yourself to the readers of The Sirens Song.
Dog person. 90’s alternative rock. Heineken. Comic book conventions.
I was born in Texas and grew up in the Chicago suburbs. My fiction tends to focus on place: Midwestern American cities, European landscapes, frontier towns, places I know or places I’ve worked hard to learn about from a distance. While writing, I spend way too much time trying to nail the precise look of a certain hotel lobby in Galway, Ireland or the geography of a street corner in Murphysboro, Illinois, or whatever. North Dark is a deliberate reaction against that desire to be perfectly accurate. It’s my first effort writing about an entirely fictional place. Does North Dark occur in the near future? An alternate reality? I don’t know. It takes place “somewhere else” – an arctic landscape in the grips of a new Iron Age. I tried to embrace the mystery while, simultaneously, asking a lot of questions of this world. Many of the answers – happily – turned out to be pretty savage.
What made you decide to become a writer?
I remember driving around my neighborhood, a day or two after I got my driver’s license at 16, and all of a sudden just deciding I was going to be a writer. That would be what I’d spend my life doing. It really was that simple and clear. I’d always been very drawn to story – my earliest memories are of being read to as a child; I wrote stories, comic books and novels throughout grade school. Figuring out what I ultimately wanted to do has just never been a problem. It’s kind of always been really obvious to me that I should try to contribute in this way. Some people talk about writing (and all art) like it’s something that you do when you’re young and then you give it up as you mature. I just loathe that idea; it’s such a failure of personality.
What is North Dark about?
North Dark is a dark, arctic adventure. It sluices through horror, post-apocalyptic thriller, and fantasy. But arctic adventure is probably the most succinct way of putting it. I’d love to think of it as The Road written by Jack London.
It’s about a man who has spent his whole life living with his family and clan in a windswept, northern village. One day, a passing fugitive upsets all of that, violently. North Dark is the story of this man’s single-minded quest for revenge. It takes him through new and rough terrain, a world stricken by plague, prisons, and madness. But ultimately, he gets the confrontation he’s pursuing.
What is the one thing you’d like readers to know about North Dark before they read it?
It’s short. It can be read in one uneasy night. Or one fucked up day at the beach.
What is your writing process? Do you consider yourself to be a planner or a pantser?
I wish I could say that I just flat-out wing it. But no, I actually outline pretty thoroughly. Gratefully, only about 30% of what I plan makes it to the final draft. The rest is a surprise to me.
If you could cast North Dark, who would you choose to play your main characters of Two Crows and Thrall?
Well, the main character starts out a pretty complete, red-blooded individual, but towards the end he basically looks like Jack Skellington, so an actor with physical range.
Thrall also undergoes serious changes. He would need to be played by someone who could portray determined and secretive, with a predator animal’s physicality and the eyes of Superman. So, whoever that is.
How would you like readers to see Two Crows? Thrall?
They’re very much the hero and the villain. But doesn’t everyone see themselves as the hero?
What is the hardest challenge that you have faced as a writer?
Learning how to write. I’ve spent the last 13+ years working on the exact same goal. Nothing else. It’s not easy. I subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. That’s probably how long it takes to master or, at least, become functionally competent in any field. 10,000 hours tends to shake out to about 10 years. That’s at least how long one should probably plan to invest in an art form like this. It’s not like “I have a great idea for a book” and then you take up your laptop, longboard over to Starbucks, and – boom – you did it. Or at least, that’s not how it’s been for me. It is a long haul. It requires diligence, patience and intense study. So it’s like stalking.
In your opinion, what sets North Dark apart from other books of the same genre?
To prepare for this I read a lot of fantasy: Ursula K. LeGuin, Tolkien, Herbert, George R.R. Martin, and others. I think what I tried to recreate from those books was a sense of a living, pre-existing world where the rules are perfectly clear and the setting utterly vivid.
What distinguishes North Dark, I believe, is the nature of the hero’s quest. The protagonist is not seeking to become some people’s messiah. Quite the opposite. He’s pursuing a singular, entirely selfish goal. Consequences, and everyone else, be damned.
Are you reading anything right now, or have you read anything recently that is worth mentioning?
I’m researching the next thing right now, so I’m reading a lot of nonfiction: American history, biographies, books about technology 200 years ago. The idea is: What if Lewis and Clark’s adventure was not the first of its kind? What if there had been an overland expedition to the Pacific previous to theirs? What happened to that crew? And what were they really after?
Who are some of your favorite authors? Favorite novels?
My writing hero is a genius named Charles McCarry. He’s a literary and espionage novelist whose most notable work came out in the seventies and eighties. Google him. His work makes most everything else read like an utter waste of time.
Also, I’m completely obsessed with Cormac McCarthy, Hemingway, Ursula K. LeGuin, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Karen Russell, Denis Johnson. I also read a lot of comic books; my favorite writers of the moment are Grant Morrison, Tony S. Daniel, Mark Waid, and Kyle Higgins. I run an X-Men blog on my website. There we review X-Men books (starting at the beginning in 1963) issue by issue. If you want to see how drastically an art form can change in a lifetime, read an issue of X-Men today and one of Kirby’s books from the 60’s. It’s a blast. Those books (then and now) simply hum with life.
How do you define success as a writer? Have you been successful?
I like the way Stephen King frames it (and I’m paraphrasing here): If you wrote something, someone paid you for it, and you paid the light bill with that money, then you’re successful. So by that measure, sure, I’m successful. One 40 watt light bulb from Wal-Mart successful, but whatever, I do what I love and I don’t have to fake it in meetings.
Do you have words of wisdom about writing that you want to pass on to novelists and writers out there who are starting out?
Consider an MFA. I went to Southern Illinois University Carbondale for mine and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. You get paid to write, to think, to study, and if you’re really lucky, travel. All I want to do – all I’ve ever wanted to do – is read, write and travel. An MFA enabled me to do each of those for three very pleasant and instructive years. It’s far and away the best writing decision I’ve ever made.
What should readers walk away from your books knowing? How should they feel?
I am very curious about that myself. Anyone who wants to read it and tell me what they think can get ahold of me at Lane.Kareska@gmail.com. I’ll respond. Or reach out to me on twitter (@LaneKareska) and let’s grab a beer. Not kidding.
The message I found at the end of North Dark was deeply surprising. Not at all what I expected. The book was written in a dark place, during a Chicago winter, when I didn’t really want to be there, while my dog was slowly dying of kidney disease. So the book wasn’t written in the sunniest of circumstances. Most of the book is a dark, cold pursuit. And that’s how writing it felt. I won’t spoil the surprises (there are a few) but I think in the end, the darkness, the isolation, the violence, all reveal something unexpected about the characters, the nature of the chase, and the world in which this all occurs. It certainly surprised me.
Thank you Lane for taking the time to answer our questions. For those readers interested in reading North Dark, let’s give you the details for the book should you be interested in purchasing a copy…
And now for an excerpt from North Dark…
Treesplitter sees that his sons neither hear nor understand him, so he waves his whipping torch and they all spread out to search the ice caves. His sons are capable, not useless. His gloved hand clenches the stalk of the torch as he enters the ribbed blue socket of a nameless tunnel he played in many times as a child and teenager. The windhowl shuts off as he passes into the low slung shaft. The light of his torch flaps on the icerimed ceiling and walls. Once he is far enough within to no longer feel the sharp scrape of wind on his face, he throws back his foxfur hood, searches the ground for footprints in the frost, and sees none. That does not mean he is in no danger. That does not mean the fugitive is not just ahead of him, hiding in the dark, blade drawn. Treesplitter grips his sharpest knife and advances quietly.
He has been through this before. Men, desperate men, come through his village several times a year. Some criminals, others victims, but the hard and fast local law is to turn all away. There is no room. No space for unknowns. Once, years ago, on a similar adventure, he had been forced to kill two men in a cave like this. He never did learn from what they were running, but they had carried short, nicked knives and wild looks in their eyes and that was enough.
The grim weight of resolve settles over him. There is a good chance he will murder soon.
Murder. Best not to call it that. Protection. Protection of his family, those he loves, those he fathers, the woman he husbands. He touches the ice wall with his fingers. This is the spot where he first made love to Prairie thirty years ago. Neither of them has been with another since.
He looks down at the icy ground and gives a small laugh for the young and hotheaded boy he once was. It is unthinkable how much time has changed him. Tamed him even.
He moves down the tunnel until he reaches the first hard bend. He bites his knife and transfers the torch to his left hand. He reaches for the leather sack looped through his belt, sets it on the ground, opens the mouth and lets loose the three gray ridge mice within. The rasping animals, each as long as river trout, circle him. He waves them forward with his torch and they run into the darkness of the tunnel ahead. He stands there listening for long seconds. He scrapes the flat of his knife against his beard. Fugitives. Ruffians. He has better things to do, village work to complete, tasks to administer, supper to eat. The temperature drops a few degrees and he reminds himself that he had better keep his mind on the job at hand. Tougher men than he have been lost to simple scoundrels before.
The high whine of the ridge mice ahead. A long, panicked squeal. One of the cries cuts off and, a moment later, two of the mice race past his feet, darting away. He holds the torch forward, illuminating another few yards of blue cave and the twisted, enraged face of the snowbear lumbering toward him on enormous paws. The creature’s small eyes flash and its fur glows blue in the strange halflight of the tunnel.
Treesplitter’s eyes widen in alarm and he throws the torch at the beast. The bear ignores the fire bouncing from his chest and charges the man before him. Treesplitter lowers himself, crouches and springs at the animal—there is no point in running, his mind tells him that immediately. He has to close the distance, get within the beast’s range, strike swiftly, and pray to Jesus for the best. His mind fills with the sight of his wife’s soft body in the warm water of a bath at home as he forces the length of his knifeblade past the matted fur, into the liquid fat and tough, dull warmth of the creature before him. He draws another knife with his free hand and sets about stabbing the bear as it bowls him over. He presses his body against the animal as he strikes again and again. He smells its salty odor; tastes its moist, ragged fur. The bear tries to slash at him but the closer Treesplitter presses himself against it, the less damage its long arms can do…