Sharpening Those Long Teeth of the Night:
Tony Jones interviews genre-bending short story specialist Alexander Zelenyj
I always enjoy my occasional guest contributions to Ink Heist and in my latest, I’m delighted to welcome short story specialist Alexander Zelenyj to the site. I first came across this very distinctive Canadian author back in 2016 when I reviewed his striking and highly original short story collection Blacker Against the Deep Dark for the Ginger Nuts of Horror website. Some of these stories lingered long after completing the book and when asked to review the recently published These Long Teeth of the Night – which is a ‘best of’ collection covering the period 1999-2019 – I jumped at the chance of reconnecting with Zelenyj. Once again I was impressed by the strangeness of the 28 stories and the ease in which the author blended genres and weaved tales which were both incredible to classify and impossible to forget. Many of which are worthy of multiple readings. Alexander spends some time discussing this unique collection in our following interview.
This all-encompassing discussion is partially a byproduct of our personal correspondences which covers all aspects of Alex’s work, his inspirations, writing processes and the importance of the short story as an art form. Short story specialists, and Alex has written hundreds, rarely get the attention novelists command and we were delighted to dig deep into what makes this type of writer tick. The sheer volume of projects he balances, including multiple stories at different stages of competition, are continually juggled as inspiration takes his writing into fascinating new directions. Once you have read the piece thoroughly, I am sure you will agree that Alex truly lives his life through writing!
If you intend to broaden your literary horizons Alexander Zelenyj should be high up your list of priorities and our interview is the perfect place to get a feel of him and his highly distinctive voice.
INK HEIST: Welcome to the site Alex! It’s great to have you with us. For anyone who has not read your fiction, sum up what you do in a couple of sentences?
ALEXANDER: I write cross-genre fiction that embraces science fiction, horror, dark fantasy, and other genres. My stories range in extremes, from tackling very dark subject matter to much more hopeful stories. We live in a world of beauties and horrors, after all, and my writing reflects that.
INK HEIST: Your work has been described as ‘slipstream’, a style of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction. Would you say this is a fair sum-up of your style? Or do you not like this type of classification?
ALEXANDER: It’s funny, because I rarely think about genres at all while writing. Even when I’m conscious of it, I rarely actively write in any one genre. It’s usually a case of the story dictating its own form and style. More than anything, I usually have an idea in mind in terms of theme, though even that will sometimes introduce itself into whatever it is I’m working on. I love feeling immersed in what I’m writing, and so I often start out with a specific atmosphere that I want to convey, and more often than not things coalesce from that into something more concrete. And yes, the term “slipstream” has often been applied to my work, which to me is another way of saying that it’s cross-genre, which it usually is, so either term feels more or less appropriate. My stories do have an introspective quality that I think the term slipstream encompasses. I think the cross-genre nature of my writing stems from the fact that I read across a variety of genres, so it’s natural that I’d touch on all those genres in my own stuff.
INK HEIST: You have published a huge number of stories over the last 20+ years, could you (roughly) break down the staggering number for us?
ALEXANDER: My three full-length story collections total a little over 100 stories, and then there’s another couple of dozen stories taken from my various chapbooks. Then there’s another few dozen stories that have only ever appeared in magazines and anthologies, and never been collected in any of my books. I also have a huge amount of unpublished stuff, as most writers do, I would imagine. Just tons of stuff, not all of it finished, certainly not all of it very good. Some of it is deservedly stashed away, likely never to be seen by anyone but myself. I’ve got a couple of other books as well, including an essay and poetry collection, and a novella. I’ve got some short stories forthcoming in a couple of different publications, as well, new stuff that will appear in my next book.
INK HEIST: How did you go about selecting the 28 stories featured in your most recent collection ‘These Long Teeth of the Night’ which cover the period 1999-2019?
ALEXANDER: It was quite a long process. The table of contents was constantly evolving over a period of a couple of years while I worked on sequencing the stories and polishing them to my satisfaction. I wanted the book to be representative of my work in terms of genre and style, and also with gentler stories tempering some of the very dark material. So, it’s an eclectic batch of stories, though I also wanted to be sure that they fit together into a cohesive whole in terms of themes and ideas. And I wanted to include some new material, as well as work that for a variety of reasons never found its way into any of my books but that was published in magazines and chapbooks. I had a huge amount of work to choose from, but at some point, the table of contents that had coalesced announced itself as the definitive one—and then I knew I had the right stories together in one place.
INK HEIST: Do you think short story specialists such as yourself often fly under the literary (or horror) radar and do not attract the attention or kudos as those who write novellas/novels? I appreciate you have written some longer work, but have you ever thought that to truly get your name better known it would be via a novel?
ALEXANDER: Short stories do seem less popular today than they once were, at least when compared to the mass appeal of the novel. But there are a lot of story writers out there, and it’s certainly a form that isn’t going anywhere. I grew up reading short story masters like Machen and Bradbury, Howard and Poe and others, so to some degree my love of the form likely had its beginnings there. I have a few different novels in progress, one of which I’m close to finishing, so we’ll see whether they attract some more attention when they’re published.
INK HEIST: We’ve already established you are an incredibly prolific short story writer. Once you’ve completed a story, what process do you follow in getting the story published? Does writing for your own ‘next’ collection take priority? Do you ever write commissions or answer calls for anthologies?
ALEXANDER: I don’t really follow any set process once I’ve finished a story, just like I don’t follow a certain process in the writing of the stories themselves. I used to be more consistent in submitting my work to different places but in the last few years I do tend to focus more on the next collection. Or at least that idea is percolating at the back of my mind. That said, I’ve had some fiction published recently in various places, including a translation of my novelette, Journey to the End of a Burning Girl, in the Romanian magazine, Helion, and I’ve got both fiction and poetry forthcoming in a few other publications. I find that that side of the process—of getting my stuff out, much like duties to social media—pulls me out of the mode I like and need to be in for writing effectively.
In terms of processes, they’re different worlds entirely, and I find it mentally jarring having to constantly move back and forth between them. But the reward of seeing your work in print, especially alongside great writers in magazines and anthologies, never gets old. So yes, I do sometimes answer calls for anthologies and magazines, and yes, I have been fortunate enough to have been invited to submit for certain publications, which is always a huge honour because it shows that the editors enjoy and believe in your work, enough so that they feel confident in asking you to be a part of their project. One of my biggest honours as a writer was being invited to submit an essay to an anthology called Back to Frank Black: A Return to Chris Carter’s Millennium, a book of essays about the great TV series Millennium that Fourth Horseman Press published. That series means a lot to me for many reasons, and to have my work appear in a book dedicated to it was very special. And again, it’s so rewarding to receive an invite like this because the faith the editors have in you is based on your previous work that they’ve published or read elsewhere.
INK HEIST: You’ve written a number of collections. Have you considered bringing together groups of your stories which are most strongly linked by genre? Nobody would strictly classify you as a ‘horror’ author but I bet there are enough horror (or science fiction) stories threaded throughout your collections to be collated together and targeted at more traditional genre fans.
ALEXANDER: The idea has crossed my mind, and it would be a lot of fun compiling collections in this way. And no doubt easier to market, as well. We’ll see what the future brings.
INK HEIST: You mentioned in one of our previous conversations “I always think of making mix tapes whenever I’m compiling stories for a book, picking all the “A-sides” and putting the “B-sides” away for possible later revision.” This is a cool way of looking at it (as I loved mix tapes). Are there often gaps of many years when you return to stories for revision? Has any of your best or favourite work come this way would you say?
ALEXANDER: Yes, very often there are long gaps between my starting a story and finishing it. Sometimes that’s due to the fact I get easily bored, and easily excited about the next story, and the next one after that. Sometimes the gaps are so long that, when I revisit an older story, there’s little in it that I find interesting, and I feel that in some ways I’ve moved on or moved away from whatever type of story it was; though if it has the kernel of an idea I find worth pursuing, then I’ll run with it and see what happens. And yes, there are some stories that came about in this way, ones that took a long time to finish, and that feel pretty special to me, though the opposite is also the case, where some stories that seemingly wrote themselves in a brief burst of inspiration turned out pretty good.
INK HEIST: Do you read much horror fiction and how widely to you go beyond the genre? Recommend us something amazing you read recently.
ALEXANDER: I do read a lot of horror fiction, though I read a lot of everything. Some of my favourite books, while not widely classified as horror, to me are among the darkest and most frightening work out there. Something like Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter is, to me, the perfect example of that—a southern Gothic work that is completely terrifying, and beautifully written, but that might not fall within the everyday parameters of the genre. One of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read is by Raymond Carver, who would be classified as so-called literary fiction. But then I grew up reading a lot of great classic horror fiction, like Poe and Machen and Blackwood and Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard, whose sword and sorcery stories always held a really powerful sense of the horrific. REH came before all the others for me, and without his stories I’m not sure my passion for books and writing would have taken the course that it did. Later on, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood were a big discovery. King’s IT stood out as, and remains, a fine example of how great a horror novel can be.
More recently I became obsessed with Jim Thompson and read almost a dozen or so of his novels in a row (and I don’t normally tend to read multiple books by the same author consecutively, unless it’s a series). He’s hands down my favourite noir/crime fiction writer, though I’m no expert in the genre. Among my favourite JT novels would be The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me, and Savage Night. Very dark stuff. I read a lot of science fiction, and recently have been revisiting Gene Wolfe, whose Book of the New Sun remains more mind-blowing than everything else under our sun.
I tend to do a lot of digging and find myself exploring a lot of older writers though I read new stuff, as well. There’s no end to the great books out there—I’ll stop now or else rave on without end.
INK HEIST: You seem to have quite a low profile on social media, being ‘loud’ or heavy on self-promotion seems critical to success in horror these days, is there any reason why you are so low key?
ALEXANDER: I like the fact that social media allows you to share news of your work with the world, which also means it’s a nice way to show your appreciation for the people putting your work out there into the greater world to begin with. You want those people to sell copies of the books and magazines they publish, and social media helps do that to some degree. What I dislike about social media is that by its very nature it’s the ultimate forum for the narcissistic. And the pontificating can be pretty excessive. And then you have all the people arguing and antagonizing each other over any triviality. Getting involved in that is just a waste of time. I’d rather spend that time writing, or reading a book, or walking my dog. Though like I said, as a promotional tool, I can see the benefits, and do make efforts to tell the virtual world about any projects I’ve got on the go.
INK HEIST: You’ve written for a wonderful and impressive range of independent literary presses but seem to prefer Eibonvale Press and Fourth Horseman Press, who have released a lot of your work. What’s so special about these two presses?
ALEXANDER: Both Eibonvale and Fourth Horseman publish great books, so on one hand it’s always an honour to have my work appear alongside the many fantastic authors that comprise their respective catalogues. But really, it’s the people behind the presses that is the single most important factor in all of this. They all have certain things in common. They’re all book-people. They love books. They love stories and they love words, and they’re fans of books. They’re writers as well as editors and publishers. They read voraciously and they publish books that they want to exist on their own bookshelves, and that they want to be on other people’s bookshelves. They do what they do for all the right reasons, and each book project is a labour of love, and their passion for what they do is clear at every step of the process.
So, while I always enjoy working with and learning from new people, it’s also incredibly fulfilling to have my books published by people I admire in so many ways: as writers themselves, as editors with their countless insights, and as genuine book lovers with a visionary approach to publishing unique works that lie outside the box.
INK HEIST: The best-known horror anthologies on the market seem to feature the same authors every year in what seems to be a closed shop with the occasional new name thrown in. Do you agree with this statement? Do you ever submit stories to such anthologies?
ALEXANDER: I’ve had some stories published alongside some authors whose work I admire and they were bigger names, and that’s always nice, though I haven’t submitted to a lot of anthologies recently. You’re right, though, about a lot of anthologies featuring many of the same authors—you can basically predict the majority of some anthologies’ tables of contents. I’m not sure what to say about that. On one hand, it’s certain publishers trying to sell books and using safe names with a certain value attached to them, which makes good business sense. On the flip side, like every other field in the world, the publishing world likely suffers from its share of nepotism. It is what it is. But the small press world is a rich world, abundant with talent, and book lovers are always seeking out fresh voices outside of the mainstream, and that’s a great thing. So it’s all good.
INK HEIST: Could you walk us through your educational background and literary path towards having your debut collection published in the late nineties? Do you have a stack of unpublished stories hidden in your sock drawer at home? (I’m guessing the answer is a big yes!)
ALEXANDER: Well, my debut collection, Experiments at 3 Billion A.M., didn’t actually appear until 2009—between 1999 and its publication I’d had a lot of short stories published in different magazines and anthologies. My first proper book was published in 2005—this was my short novel, Black Sunshine, a post-apocalyptic work published by Fourth Horseman Press. I might have gotten more stuff published early on if I hadn’t been busy with school and other things, so while I was still writing all the time, I wasn’t actively trying to place my work anywhere. I also played in a couple of bands, and that took up a lot of time, though I always found time for writing fiction. Writing was always the most important thing to me.
I graduated from the University of Windsor with a double major in English Literature/Creative Writing and Psychology, and a few years later got a second degree in Education, though I never did end up teaching. I also graduated from the Humber creative writing program out of Toronto a few years back. Again, the one constant during all this time was my writing: I was constantly working on something, mainly short stories, though I’ve had maybe a half dozen novels-in-progress that I’ve been plugging away at as well. I’ve received grant funding toward a couple of these, so those are getting finished—I tend to follow the muse, as it were, so that when inspiration leads me toward completing a new collection of stories, that’s where I go. Though I do push myself to finish every project I’ve got on the go, and that certainly includes various novel manuscripts. In fact, the main project now is the much-expanded version of the Burning Girl novelette that was published in my new book. It’s a mix of near-future science fiction, noir, horror, and something else that’s harder to pin down.
And as for unpublished stories: there are so many. I long ago lost track of how many, even in general numbers. Every once in a while, maybe once a year, I’ll go through old files just to see what’s there, and I find countless stories and story fragments, many of which I’d completely forgotten about.
INK HEIST: For readers particularly interested in longer fiction, what have you published?
ALEXANDER: I’ve had a couple of novelettes and novellas published, most of which can be found in my collections. Each of my collections has one or two longer-form works in it. For example, there’s the title novelette from my second collection, Songs for the Lost. And there’s also the good news that plans are in the works for Fourth Horseman Press to publish an expanded edition of my novella, Black Sunshine, the version of the book I’d originally envisioned but probably didn’t have enough in the toolbox to pull off properly back in the day.
INK HEIST: What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
ALEXANDER: Ray Bradbury: “Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.” This quote resonates with me because I’ve always found that my best work comes when I’m fully immersed in the writing—when I’m in deep in what feels like a fugue state, during which the world outside of the story vanishes and there is nothing at all except for the words. And afterwards, looking back at it, there’s often no memory of anything, just the knowledge that I was in the middle of the story, watching it unfold around me. Nothing feels more natural, and immersive, and exciting.
INK HEIST: What aspects of writing do you find the most difficult? In one of your introductions, you said some stories flow very easily, whilst others are much harder work.
ALEXANDER: It’s hard to say with any definitiveness—some stories come easier than others, and some are troublesome little bastards. Usually, the latter just means that I need to let those ideas gestate a little longer, and then without actively thinking about them I suddenly know exactly what that particular story needs.
In a more tangible way, I can point to a specific source of difficulty when it comes to writing. I suffered a childhood injury, sort of a freak accident, that left me with a pinched nerve in my lower neck. As the years went on, the injury became exacerbated by my constantly sitting hunched at my computer working on writing. It got to the point a few years back that I needed nerve pain medication to manage the pain. I’ve tried massage therapy, and do physio every day, and even with all that the pain is sometimes still pretty debilitating. There are good days and there are bad days and there are horrible days. So if there’s one great difficulty, it’s focusing past the distraction of the more or less ever-present discomfort and getting done what needs to get done.
INK HEIST: Do you often work on several short stories simultaneously?
ALEXANDER: Yes, very often. Especially once I’ve assembled a core batch of stories that comprise a collection or chapbook, at which point I’m editing and polishing and rewriting and taking some stories out and putting new pieces in. But even when there’s no pressing need to collect a group of stories, yeah, I usually have multiple stories on the go at any given time. I find that I get easily bored, and it helps keep my interest when I can bounce back and forth between multiple manuscripts. It renews my enthusiasm and excitement for each story. I write best when I’m excited about whatever it is I’m working on. I need to care about what I’m writing, and to have some personal investment in it, otherwise it feels stale and meaningless.
INK HEIST: What sort of stuff did you read as a teenager and which authors have had the greatest influence on you, horror or otherwise? Do you have any ‘gateway’ novels which flicked the switch for you?
ALEXANDER: I discovered Ray Bradbury in high school, and that was a huge revelation. I actually ‘borrowed’ a beat-up paperback copy of his The Martian Chronicles from a high school classroom…and that copy, along with many other editions of the book, is sitting on my bookshelf to this day. I was really drawn to the romantic quality in his writing, and the way his work touched on human nature really spoke to me. From there I went everywhere: Harlan Ellison was a big discovery; Gene Wolfe; Arthur Machen; Barker, as I mentioned earlier; Samuel R. Delany; and J.G. Ballard. One really big discovery was Darcey Steinke. Her first three novels, and Jesus Saves in particular, really spoke to me, because it dealt in a very open and explicit and uncompromising way with very dark and traumatic subject matter, which was something that I’d had some experience with and was writing about in my own fiction; stuff that felt almost too personal to share with the world, so when I read her work, it felt incredibly affirming and made me realize even more fully that this type of stuff should be talked about in fiction, because fiction should be an accurate reflection of the world we live in, and the world we live in can be a brutal place. So on one hand I had Bradbury, with all of his hopefulness and wonder, and on the other I had Steinke showing me glimpses of the darkness underneath the veneer of the everyday. I was very fortunate to have had such a rich literary landscape throughout those years.
INK HEIST: Which author, alive or dead, would you most like to walk past sitting on a bus reading one of your collections?
ALEXANDER: Robert E. Howard, by Crom! [EDITOR: Alex had to explain this literary joke!]
INK HEIST: Could you tell us a bit about your next ‘work in progress’? I think I read you were already working on your next collection and an interconnected set of novellas. Please tell us more!
ALEXANDER: The novellas are a trilogy with the overarching title of The Long Dirty Night Trilogy, though each book has its own title—Long Dirty Night of the Entombed; Long Dirty Night of the Lonely; and Long Dirty Night of the F*ckers. It’s going to be published as a single-volume omnibus edition, as well as in individual volumes sometime down the road. The omnibus edition is going to be a very limited release, of only 52 hardcover copies. The publisher is Somniatis Press, a new UK publisher who refer to themselves as “the home for dangerous books”. The Long Dirty Night books are my version of grindhouse fiction—extreme in every sense of the word. Extreme horror, extreme sleaze, extremely dark humour in extremely poor taste, but with a very serious underlying message about personal freedom in an oppressive world. Nick Cato (author of Suburban Grindhouse: From Staten Island to Times Square and All the Sleaze Between) wrote a fantastic introduction to the books. It’s hands down the most out-there, trashy, lunatic thing I’ve written, and I couldn’t be happier to have it out in the world. The initial print-run will be very small, as I said, but the second individual-edition format will be on its way shortly after the first.
And yes, I do also have a brand-new full-length collection of short stories due from Eibonvale Press. It’s entitled Oppenheimer’s Doors and will be comprised of around 20 to 25 stories, some of which have been previously published in magazines, anthologies, and chapbooks. I think it’s probably the darkest collection of mine yet. I’m at the stage now where I’m finding myself writing more and more new content that is finding its way into the book, sometimes in favour of older stories. My collections usually change a lot right up until the moment they go to press, which probably drives my editors nuts—their patience with me is very much appreciated!
Lastly, I have a short collection of poems due from Eibonvale Press this winter. Entitled A Murder of Moon Moths, it’s basically a series of poems written in tribute to those authors that have made a lasting impact on me, who have inspired me in a really important way. For the most part, I don’t state explicitly who the writers in question are, though sometimes it’s pretty evident, if you’re familiar with their work. The poems aren’t necessarily about any given author, per se, but rather some personal experience of mine that is inextricably tied to their work. This was one of those projects that came as a complete surprise to me and felt like it wrote itself—I’d been in the middle of edits on a different manuscript when something came to me, and I followed that idea through, and that led to the next idea, and on and on until I found myself with this completed collection of poems.
I’m also several drafts into the Burning Girl novel manuscript, and that’s coming along nicely. And as I mentioned previously, somewhere on the horizon there will be an expanded full-length novel edition of my first published book, Black Sunshine, from Fourth Horseman Press.
Lots of new projects in the works, and never enough hours in the day. But that’s okay—I’ll catch up on my sleep when I’m dead.
INK HEIST: Alexander Zelenyj it has been an absolute delight featuring you on the site and we thank you for your thorough and thoughtful answers to the art behind your writing. Good luck with your multiple ongoing projects which we hope bring you much success.
– Tony Jones
You can find out more about Alexander from his website: https://www.alexanderzelenyj.com/
Alexander’s books are widely available from mainstream retailers and his most recent collection These Long Teeth of the Night can also be purchased directly from his publisher Fourth Horseman Press