Ariadne, I Love You – An Interview with J. Ashley-Smith

Jude is dragged out of Alt-Country obscurity, out of the dismal loop of booze and sadness baths and the boundless, insatiable loneliness, to scrub up and fly to Australia for a last, desperate comeback tour. Hardly worth getting out of bed for—and he wouldn’t, if it weren’t for Coreen.

But Coreen is dead. And, worse than that, she’s married. Jude’s swan-song tour becomes instead a terminal descent, into the sordid past, into the meaning hidden in forgotten songs, into Coreen’s madness diary, there to waken something far worse than her ghost.

Ariadne, I Love You is a haunting tale of speculative fiction, the latest from Meerkat Press that comes out with some wonderful dark fiction books. Combining music and philosophy with poetry and the supernatural, J. Ashley-Smith makes the reader question what is real and not, just like the protagonist. Thanks to the publishing house, I got a chance to interview the author on the international book tour of Ariadne, I Love You.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian writer of dark fiction and other materials. His short stories have twice won national competitions and been shortlisted seven times for Aurealis Awards, winning both Best Horror (Old Growth, 2017) and Best Fantasy (The Further Shore, 2018). His novella, The Attic Tragedy, was released by Meerkat Press in 2020 and has since been shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, an Australian Shadows Award, and a Shirley Jackson Award.

J. lives with his wife and two sons in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires.

You can connect with J. at spooktapes.net, or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

INTERVIEW WITH J. ASHLEY-SMITH

  1. Music, poetry and philosophy share space in the narrative. How did you decide upon these subjects for your story?

The idea for the story grew out of an anecdote I read about Nietzsche years ago, in a book called The Story of Philosophy. The book is a kind of readers digest summary of the lives and main ideas of philosophers from Ancient Greece to the 20th Century. The anecdote was about a note that Nietzsche sent to Wagner’s wife, Cosima, in a bout of madness – “Ariadne,” it read, “I love you.” The idea of sending such an inflammatory missive obsessed me at the time (about twenty years ago, now), and I started a story with that title and premise. But it was rather too bleak and I never finished it.

I’m not sure why I picked this story in particular to explore music and – to some small extent – the music industry. By the time I picked it up again, there was plenty of water under the bridge since I let go of my own (somewhat floundering) music career a decade or so prior, and whatever baggage I carried from that time had filtered through into my imagination. Jude was an insufferably selfish arsehole in the early version of the story, too, so to cast him as an ambitious front-man gone to seed was not so great a leap. The way music intertwined with his relationship to and obsession with Coreen happened organically as I was writing the story.

This is true, too, for the elements of poetry and philosophy, both of which arose organically from the character of Coreen. A young Nietzsche – not mad – dedicated his first book to Wagner, whose combination of music and drama he felt embodied precisely the philosophical ideal expressed in The Birth of Tragedy. He gave a manuscript of the book to Cosima, an expression of a kind of boyish unrequited love. It seemed right that Coreen would be obsessed with that book, and through the book and her obsession, many of the underlying themes of the story emerged.

2. The title borrows from an exchange between philosophers, and the Wahnbriefe are frequently mentioned with regards to different characters. What role, if any, does philosophy play in your life?

I’ve always had a deep fascination for people who commit themselves utterly to a thing – whatever it is – whether they be artists or philosophers, psychologists or alchemists. I’m less interested in the ideas, as ideas, than I am in the people themselves, and how the ideas are an expression of those people. To take an example (not from philosophy), I have adored the books of Philip K. Dick since I was young, and devoured them over and over. Yet, the books themselves didn’t come into precise focus until I read Emmanuel Carrère’s ingenious biography of Dick, I Am Alive And You Are Dead, which explores Dick’s life through the stories, how his preoccupations of a given time found their expression in his fiction. It was that element that drew me to The Story of Philosophy, mentioned above. The ideas are not discrete, disconnected things, but bound to the extraordinary lives and imaginations of their creators.

Something that continues to fascinate me about philosophy is the extent to which ancient ideas still shape the way we think, the way we view the world. We’re still in thrall to Ancient Greek thinkers, still expressing ideas from two or three hundred (or even thousand) years ago, as if they were common sense – as if they were inherent in the structure of thought itself and therefore to be taken for granted. I went through a slightly obsessive phase some years ago, trying to wrap my head around the progression of ideas from the Greeks up to the present time. (In a cheaty way, I have to admit – listening to ‘Great Ideas’ type lecture series, rather than reading the many hundreds of books.) I’ve attempted this a couple of times and each time only made it about as far as the Enlightenment.

Having said all of this, I get very frustrated with philosophy in its purest forms. I feel strongly that the more complex an idea, the more simply one should seek to express it. Perhaps I’m just revealing my own ignorance (or laziness), but I have no patience for erudition for its own sake, all those incomprehensible blocks of words encoding abstract concepts. I’m much more drawn to the philosophers for whom writing is an artform: Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Camus… (which makes it look as though I’m confessing myself to be an Existentialist).

3. Incorporating the Wahnbriefe into a contemporary storyline was quite intriguing. What kind of research was required for the book?

The bare minimum! I hate research and try to do as little as I can get away with to make the story I’m trying to tell come alive. Some writers love research and fall into it for weeks, months, years. I have stories I would love to write, but probably never will because I baulk at the research involved. The thing that excites me is the story itself, and I get irritated with anything that pulls my attention away from it.

Though I’m not a fan of research, I do like to make sure that I’m not just making stuff up. I hate the idea of being wrong, and feel an obligation to my readers not to throw them out of the story for the sake of some sloppy inaccuracy. So I tend to look into things to the depth required to back up whatever claim I’m making in a story. My main point of research for Ariadne, I Love You was Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, which provided a kind of thematic understory rather than factual information, though the introduction gives some useful historical context. There are many wonderful resources online which tell the story of the Wahnbriefe – and even include the letters themselves.

When I do get passionate about research it’s because I’m deep in a story and have questions unresolved. For the story to progress, to unlock itself, I need to learn more about a character, a place, a particular moment in history. When I do get into it, of course, all kinds of great ideas start to emerge…

4. The protagonist serves as an unreliable narrator and an unfavorable character. How did you conceive a protagonist whose actions might not make him likable to the reader?

The fact of Jude as kind of a bastard was built into the story premise from the beginning. In spite of that, I didn’t want him to be unlikable. There’s something about stories in the first person – both as a writer and a reader – that softens us to the narrator, no matter what we might see them doing. Our primary understanding of the narrator comes from what they tell us, their voice. We see the world through their eyes. Our perception of events, of other characters, is filtered through the narrator’s prejudices, their fixations. The one thing that the narrator can’t (always) hide from the reader is what they do. And often they are not even aware that some of the things they are doing are bad or wrong, things they might be judged for.

It’s fun to write a bastard. There’s an inherent thrill of tension built into making characters do the thing that is not okay. I had a great time writing Jude, because he is so unlike me. It was agonising to make him do things – no matter how small – that would make life difficult or unpleasant for those around him. And yet, at the same time, I find myself sympathising with him. I don’t know if it’s possible to convincingly write a character – of any kind – without that sympathy.

Ultimately, I don’t care if a reader likes or dislikes a character. The important thing is that they feel something for them. That, for the time they are reading the story (and ideally long after, too), the characters are alive enough for them to feel strongly about.

5. While thrillers introducing a supernatural element towards the finale are common, Ariadne, I Love You takes the opposite route – the cover and opening chapter tell us to expect something otherworldly, but reroute us to reality. How challenging was it to create such a narrative, questioning what is real and unreal?

I don’t know if I ever really thought about it in those terms, not consciously anyway. Ever since I first started writing in my teens, I’ve been caught between the poles of the realistic and the speculative. When I started writing Ariadne, I Love You, it was to write a sort of ghost story. But as soon as I started putting words to the page, this whole other thing emerged. The same thing happened with The Attic Tragedy, too. I start off with this perfectly good speculative/supernatural idea, then the characters emerge and I become obsessed with them. Then the story becomes about the characters and the supernatural elements get pushed further and further into the background.

I was keen, though, to explore a certain kind of ambiguity in Ariadne, I Love You. I wanted all the supernatural elements to be – to some extent – explainable through natural means. In real life, this is what we do with the supernatural: explain it away. And (to me, at least) there’s something so much more terrifying in that uncertainty than in the presence of some tangible threat; why (again, to me) The Haunting of Hill House is more frightening than, say, Poltergeist.

6. Speaking of the cover, it has bright pops of color with serious undertones. Was it something you came up with with the cover designer?

Isn’t it fantastic! I love the cover – for which, all credit to the mighty Tricia Reeks at Meerkat Press.

Tricia and I worked closely together on both the covers for Ariadne, I Love You and The Attic Tragedy. By ‘working closely together’ what I mean is that I made vague noises, expressing abstract and incomprehensible feelings, and Tricia, by a process of artistic alchemy, turned those leaden grunts into gold.

One element we were very keen to explore with this cover was that Sex Pistols collage vibe. The ransom note style lettering hinting at Jude’s Wahnebriefe, and the punk rock associations alluding to his rock’n’roll background. Also, I found a bona fide wombat skull, which we photographed for the cover. Tricia took those few scraps of ideas and came back with something brilliant, that is at once striking and encodes key threads of the story.

7. Ariadne, I Love You almost reads like a love song or poem, though one knows the terrors between the lines. How did you manage this mix of beauty and brutality? Was it a conscious decision to steer away from conventional horror?

Beauty and brutality – there is something about that particular dichotomy that I find absolutely compelling, absolutely real and I’m naturally very drawn to it as an aesthetic. If I had enough fingers I’d have the letters tattooed on my knuckles.

In terms of how it manifests in the story, though, I’m not sure it’s something I manipulated into being – at least, not consciously. With everything I write, I tend to just lean into the characters, and their obsessions, their desires, their fears all dictate the arc of the story, and its flavour or tone.

As I mentioned above, when I sat down to write Ariadne, I Love You, I thought I was writing a straight cabin-in-the-woods type ghost story, but got sidetracked. I’m not sure I know what ‘conventional’ horror is. And even if I tried to write it, I’d only end up getting distracted by the characters and coming up with something completely different.

8. Ben’s daughter was a peculiar character – she’s in equal parts important and unimportant among all the characters. Is there a story behind that character?

Margot? Isn’t she wonderful! When friends were reading early drafts of this story, it was always Margot they remembered. She is absolutely chilling, and completely alone in a family of otherwise warm extraverts. I think the thing I like best about her is how Ben relates to her – she is clearly disturbed, will likely grow up to be some terrible menace to society, and yet Ben just treats all of these traits as foibles, a sort of benevolent ‘kids will be kids’ attitude that is entirely at odds with the reality. And, in a messed up way, that’s what makes him a good dad.

Is there a story behind Margot? I wish there was. I think, though, that she was one of the aspects of the story that emerged organically – at least, I can’t remember her having any particular inception. I conceived much of the plot of Ariadne, I Love You, lying in bed beside my three-year-old son, who was having trouble sleeping at the time. I remember clearly, lying there in the dark with him wriggling beside me, having an a-ha! moment about Margot’s significance to the story, and how she could tie it all together.

9. The ghost of Coreen hangs around Jude, as it does the reader. What are your favorite ghost stories? Any books or authors you would recommend?

A favourite that springs immediately to mind is Robert Aickman’s Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen, about a man who cultivates a relationship with a disembodied voice on the end of his phone. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a classic, and a masterpiece of ambiguity. Robert Hood’s collection Peripheral Visions is like an encyclopedia, exploring the vast potential range of the ghost story. Kaaron Warren’s The Grief Hole is entirely unique and uniquely terrifying in its portrayal of ghosts, and many of her short stories are similarly brilliant and strange.

10. What are your favorite genres as a reader? Which book(s) currently occupy your shelves?

I read pretty broadly and tend not to be too tied to this or that genre. Before the internet, I used to buy all my books more-or-less at random from thrift stores and second hand bookshops. Some would be things I knew already and was excited to find, many I just stumbled upon, liked the cover or the title. I found many of the books which have become my favourites this way, and that kind of restlessly catholic attitude to reading has become habitual.

Most recently, I read and adored The Bridge by JS Breukelaar, Hitch by Kathryn Hind, and The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison. I finally got round to listening to Crime and Punishment, which completely blew my mind, and am re-reading the Gormenghast trilogy as an audiobook. Right now I’m reading The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You, because I’ve been crook and hunger for entertaining escapism when I’m under the weather.

TITLE: ARIADNE, I LOVE YOU

AUTHOR: J. Ashley-Smith

RELEASE DATE: July 20, 2021

GENRE: Dark Fantasy / Horror

BOOK PAGE: https://meerkatpress.com/books/adriadne/

BUY LINKS: Amazon Barnes & Noble

GIVEAWAY: $50 Book Shopping Spree!

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