Nathan Ballingrud a Horror Author Interview

How Nathan Ballingrud came to have a Strange new life

Mars, to me, was a wildly romantic place. It was a countryside of the imagination.”

Today we have an exclusive Interview with Shirley Jackson Award-winning author Nathan Ballingrud conducted by horror writer and journalist Michael Botur

The year is 1931 in the mining town of New Galveston. Anabelle Crisp, our hero, helps her father operate a diner where they serve ‘Good Southern cooking.’ One night at closing time, a gang of varmints come into the diner. It’s not long until Anabelle’s father is attacked, after which the Sheriff responds and a posse, of sorts, sets out for justice.

The book has Indians, desert, baseball and pie… except there are a few subtle differences from your typical Wild West.

This Wild West is all craters, dust and sub-zero temperatures, while mining a mineral rock called The Strange is causing supernatural consequences.

We’re on Mars. It’s still 1931, but this 1931 is… strange

Ballingrud’s new book The Strange (Gallery / Saga Press) is described as “The Martian Chronicles meets True Grit” as well as “A love letter to Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert.”

Although he has had his work adapted for miniseries and a feature film, Ballingrud works a day job at not one but TWO bookstores in humble Asheville, a city in the Appalachian-end of North Carolina, and leaves evenings for the unpaid jobs of reading and being a father.

Ballingrud’s upcoming book is the novella Crypt of the Moon Spider coming out with publisher Tor in 2024.

Ballingrud spoke to Gingernuts of Horror about where he’s up to with his career.

A photograph of the horror author Nathan Ballingrud

GOH: For anyone who hasn’t heard of you and your work, how would you describe yourself, your flavour, your brand? How would you describe what you “stand for?” And are you comparable to other horror writers?

NB: That’s complicated, because my three books are very different from one another.… Clive Barker once described himself as a writer of dark fantastica, and that’s how I think of myself too. Not necessarily horror, but that’s a large component of it. My [writing] all seems to be infused with a night-time energy.

You’ve won or been nominated for Shirley Jackson Awards, the Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award. 

What do these awards mean, to you; what do they do for you and your writing? Would you still write even if nobody adapted your work, and you received no awards?

Absolutely I would still write. That’s what I was doing before all that stuff happened.

I’ve only gotten two awards. And that was a long time ago. I haven’t won anything for a number of years, and that’s fine. Awards are nice, and they give you a little rush when you get one, but ultimately they’re just fashion. They don’t affect the writing at all. The adaptations were exciting, and I hope there are more. But I would still write without all of that. If no one wanted to publish it, I’d probably publish myself. There are so many avenues now to get work out there.

I like making beautiful things. I’m trying to make strange dark beautiful stories and I would do it even if nobody else cared.

The Strange: What did it take to make the book?

This is my first novel. I had never written at that length before so it took learning how to do that and cultivating the confidence [to write a full novel].

With all things that lean into the imaginative… it took me convincing myself that it was something worth doing. I had to fully buy into this fantastical logic that I’m asking the reader to buy into. It takes the reader a while to shore up the imagination to commit.

I started this, then sold Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell, then had The Butcher’s Table novella written, then came back to The Strange. It took some time.  

Can you compress/condense where the inspiration for The Strange came from?

It’s not cut and dried. It’s all a cauldron. Obvious influences include Martian stories – Edgar Rice Burroughs, Westerns, for sure – True Grit is the obvious one; Ray Bradbury, Paulette Jiles, Larry McMurtry. I have a deep fondness for these latter day westerns which de-mythologise the Western genre.

Most important has been the romantic idea I’ve always had of what Mars is. I remember sitting in the backyard when I was a child. It was a Fourth of July cookout, twilight. I could smell burgers cooking on the grill. It was deep blue before full night. The moon had become incandescent. I saw a pink star and knew it was Mars. Everything seemed so far away and yet utterly accessible.

Mars, to me, was a wildly romantic place. …it was a countryside of the imagination. Just the word Mars conjures up those feelings. Just the romantic notion of what Mars is. 

In The Strange, it’s an imaginary Americana that I’m drawing on. A lot of inspiration came from art, from pictures, such as the covers of old Weird Tales, Startling Stories, that kind of thing. 

What struck me about Ray Bradbury stories was his melding of Americana and the landscape. That’s not strictly what this book is, but it’s a cousin. So this book is depression-era America. It’s bringing the dustbowl aesthetic to Mars.

If I had picked up The Strange and picked up North American Lake Monsters, I might not know I was reading the same author. Your thoughts?

NALM was ten years ago and the stories were written years before that… in many ways I am a different writer [now]. 

I find as a writer I get restless and don’t want to repeat myself

But I think NALM and The Strange are both about the same things: moral grey areas; the difficulty of distinguishing right from wrong. The motivator for stories in NALM was to approach characters who it’s easy to vilify and remember that these are human beings. Asking what happens in a person’s life to bring them to a point of view that might seem dangerous or antisocial… that’s one of my great obsessions.

Did you have to ask your daughter some naïve questions to be able to write the female teen voice of Anabelle Crisp, as opposed to the voice of a grown male?

I’m sure I did. I know I asked my daughter some questions about various things […] Anabelle had such a strong enough voice in my imagination, it was pronounced, it was specific, so I didn’t interrogate it. It felt many times like I just took dictation. It’s often labour-intensive, but writing her in first person POV was easier than I’m accustomed to.

You’re in the horror genre. But now, with this book, you’re also in the sci-fi genre. In your life, have you dabbled in other genre? Have you had to collect a paycheque writing anything you didn’t want to write?

No – mostly by choice.

Fiction-wise I’ve accepted themed anthology invitations. But if the theme didn’t grab me I would not accept the invitation.

In my late 20s early 30s I did some small journalism pieces in New Orleans. but I didn’t take to it. That was a kind of writing that I didn’t have the patience or the fortitude to do. That was the closest I went into collecting a paycheque for something I didn’t want to write. Otherwise I’ve just followed my gut instinct.

When people come up to you and gush or rave about your writing, is it predominantly about the same stuff? Do they identify you with the handsome face of the man who played the main character in Wounds, Armie Hammer?

You know, I never get asked about that! The stories I get asked about most often are The Butcher’s Table, The Atlas of Hell and Sunbleached.

Which story collection did better, Wounds or NALM?

I suppose in the objective sense, Wounds sold better, because it had the movie publicity, and it was published by a major press. But North American Lake Monsters had a very long tail and continues to sell well. It hasn’t tapered off, in fact it’s picking up a little bit.

They’re not shooting the lights out, but they’re selling steadily.

‘The Butcher’s Table’ is the story I hear about all the time.

Working at the bookstores: Tell me about that life, that world

One bookstore I work at is a new one called Malaprops. My role is in Receiving. Not very interesting, it’s me sitting over the computer punching in numbers for hours a day.

The other one is the sister store Downtown Books and News, used books. It’s interesting, all of our inventory mostly comes from people trading in their books. There are similarities to that and tending bar. In both cases it allows you a front row seat on some more eccentric personalities of the neighbourhood. They’ll come in, hang around, have conversations, read for a while, so you get to know the character of your neighbourhood that way. Also, what customers bring in is interesting. In a used bookstore there’s a wider diversity of material. So I find interesting books and interesting personalities that way.

Considering you’ve had work adapted by Hulu (Monsterland) and Hulu and Netflix (Wounds), is there pressure to move to Hollywood?

No, I don’t think so. I was out in Hollywood briefly for Monsterland and had a great time but I don’t see myself living there. I like rural areas with woodland around me.

What were your paid roles on the screen adaptations?

–   Wounds – They paid me to use The Visible Filth (story). They had me out to the set, and to the Sundance premiere. The writer/director kept me in the loop. But I was largely a spectator.

–   Monsterland: my paid role was consulting producer. During the initial two weeks I was in the writers’ room. We figured out which stories we wanted to tell. …It was a really ego-less environment, which was a relief. And they asked for my comments on the scripts.

 You told the interviewers on the ‘This Is Horror’ podcast that early in your career you took a gap from writing around eight years. Explain.

Around 1995 I wrote a story called “She Found Heaven” and sold it to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Visiting a friend, he had the latest copy. The cover of the mag showed a dragon being interviewed on a movie marquee – like the dragon was a celebrity.

I then read Hemingway’s story ‘A Day’s Wait’ about a boy who is sick, has his temperature taken, and mistakes Celsius for Fahrenheit…He thinks he’s going to die because of the high number. He spends the day thinking about it. Finally he asks his dad ‘When am I going to die?’

The kid is shaken by his own mortality… I read this Hemingway story and it felt like someone had hit me with a hammer. [In response to the dragon magazine] I decided “I don’t want to be a writer who writes forgettable stories.” I wanted to be a writer who writes stories which have emotional impact and weight.

But I thought, “I don’t know how to do that yet.” I knew I needed to live for a while before I could do that. I didn’t intentionally [take a respite and] go to work but I moved to New Orleans and just stopped writing. I decided I would have some life experiences, go and be alive for a while. I worked as a cook, on offshore oil rigs and barges, as a bartender. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I felt there I had things to say, so I wrote again. ‘You Go Where It Takes You’ was the first story I wrote then, a story in North American Lake Monsters– and at that point I felt  it was at least possible to be the writer I aspired to be. Later, I got over my fear and went back to the emotional middle ground where I could enjoy the tools of fantasy – and that’s how the stories in Wounds came about. I realised I could have some emotional depth and include pirates and mad scientists, too. So it took me a while to navigate that path.

Follow Nathan Ballingrud online –

The Strange Kindle Edition by Nathan Ballingrud

the strange Nathan Ballingrud.jpg

Ray Bradbury meets The Martian in this chilling page-turning tale of Mars’ first colony, fallen to madness after all contact with Earth ceased, perfect for fans of Jeff VanderMeer.

Anabelle Crisp is fourteen when the Silence arrives, severing all communication between Earth and her new home on Mars. One evening, while she and her father are closing their diner in the colony of New Galveston, they are robbed at gunpoint.

Among the stolen items is a recording of her absent mother’s voice. Driven by righteous fury and desperation to lift her father’s broken spirits, Anabelle sets out to confront the thieves and bring back the sole vestige of her mother. Accompanied by her loyal robot, an outcast pilot and a hardened outlaw, Anabelle must travel through derelict mining towns where a mineral called the Strange has transformed its residents in bizarre ways, across the Martian desert and to the shadowy Peabody Crater where she will discover than New Galveston, once a safe haven, is nothing more than a guttering candle in a dark world.

Follow horror writer and journalist Michael Botur,

Michael Botur

Was the first NZ winner of the Australasian Horror Writers Association Robert N Stephenson Short Story & Flash Fiction Competition. Botur is crowdfunding for his second horror collection and would really appreciate your donations

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1 Response

  1. 05/06/2023

    […] The Ginger Nuts of Horror sit down with author Nathan Ballingrud to talk about his new novel The Str… […]

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