TCR Talks with Paul Tremblay, Author of The Pallbearers Club
By Rebecca Lauer
Paul Tremblay has been speaking to so many interviewers lately that when I started our interview, he responded by discussing the wrong book: after I asked my first question, he answered by mentioning the point of view of Wen, the little girl in his novel The Cabin at the End of the World, which was adapted by M. Night Shyamalan into the movie Knock at the Cabin, which premiered earlier this month.
“Oh,” I interrupted him. “I mean for The Pallbearers Club.”
He was happy to change the subject.
In The Pallbearers Club, the book’s fictional author, Art Barbara, first writes about the club he starts in high school to help carry caskets at funerals without enough attendants. One of the volunteers is Mercy, a novice photographer whose edits and reviews can be found in the margins and the ends of chapters. Art doesn’t have many friends to choose from, but that doesn’t stop his suspicion that Mercy might be a vampire.
We spoke to him just before Knock at the Cabin’s launch to discuss building maybe-imaginary monsters, formatting for dual narrators, and the frustration-excitement of having one’s work adapted by a famous horror movie director.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: How did you find the format of this novel?
PAUL TREMBLAY: The format came fairly early on in the process. There was a bit of a logic experiment. What came to me first was the title. I teach at a high school, and a student there started a pallbearers club and made that announcement at the school. The professional adult educator in me was like, “Oh, what a nice community service thing to do,” but the horror writer [in me] knew I had to use this somehow. And because it was a high school student who was—I wouldn’t call them awkward or quiet but who wasn’t a big personality . . . it made me think about myself in high school. Would I have the courage to do something like that? I would not have. That was instantly a nice conflict, to have high school me trying to start this club. I was going to lean into the autofiction or autobiography of it.
From there, I knew he was going to write this memoir, a fake memoir, or a found memoir and the exercise was who found the memoir? Once I figured out it was Mercy who found the memoir and that she wouldn’t be able to resist making comments in the margins, that part of it was [about] trying to follow the logic of what I felt the story might become.
TCR: Was this inspired by other works of memoir or horror and other fiction?
PT: When the idea for The Pallbearers Club hit me, I’d just finished two novels in a row that had thriller elements to it and that was kind of exhausted. I was looking for something else to do. I didn’t want something that took place over a small time period; [I wanted something] that had a chance to be more interior, a bit more expansive.
Before I started writing, I went back and reread a few favorite novels. One was a memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Nick Flynn, which is a great title. It’s a memoir about finding his dad homeless on the streets of Boston. Another book that I hadn’t fully read was Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Another book I reread that I adore is Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! because it’s a first-person narrator who I playfully call an asshole narrator—someone who’s not very competent at what they do in life. They present an empathy test for the reader. Those are some of my favorite books. Those three books got me in the mood to launch into The Pallbearers Club.
TCR: Was the supernatural aspect something you discovered along the way, or was it a tent pole that you were writing towards through the experience?
PT: Most of the vampire things were things that happened in the middle of writing. Subconsciously, I’m thinking, Okay, this is a quasi-vampire novel, or maybe a full vampire novel, depending on your point of view. So it was fun to have those connections that present themselves. A lot of these autobiographical events that I referenced in the book, like especially the physical aspects of Art, is stuff I deal with and have dealt with. It was kind of fun to see how those could line up with him being the victim of an energy- or life-sucking vampire at the same time. So I would like to say it’s a little bit of both, because I know I had this folkloric vampire character. When it came time to write out the story, I was thinking about how the connections were going to be made to his life and the vampire situation.
TCR: How do you go about building a monster that may or may not be real?
PT: That was helped by having two unreliable first-person narrators. They’re both retelling the same story but with different memories. And, you know, obviously in different approaches, because Mercy doesn’t get as much say as Art does in terms of her first-person. It was easier to leave her mysterious, whereas Art is a literal open book, like, he tells you way too much. He’s definitely maudlin and a little bit woe-is-me. I think clearly by the time he’s an adult suffering with anxiety and depression, Mercy’s role to be there was to be able to bring some levity and calm to his own BS. At the same time, that allowed her to be kinky and make suggestions while still claiming to be an arm’s length from what Art is presenting.
TCR: I’ve heard people describe the relationship between Art and Mercy in The Pallbearers Club as toxic. Is that how you thought of them while writing?
PT: I’ve probably been someone to say that phrase myself. I think it’s more of a complicated friendship. Whether or not she’s actually supernaturally feeding off his life, that would be toxic, I suppose.
TCR: Yeah, that really changes things. Have other projects inspired you to keep writing about friendship dynamics?
PT: Art and Mercy have the type of friendship where you’re friends, but maybe you’re not exactly good for each other in some ways but you are in other ways. With Survivor Song, [there’s] what I would call a healthy friendship between these two women who held each other up. When I go back to look at connections between books, it’s usually just to fool me into launching into the next project. I knew this was going to be a more complicated friendship.
TCR: How did you balance how scary it was going to be?
PT: I knew going in it wasn’t going to have the intense scares of The Cabin at the End of the World or Survivor Song. I try not to think about scares too much because it’s so subjective. I don’t have control over what someone finds scary. Same thing with humor, right? But my hope was that there were going to be parts of this book that would invoke that kind of dread that might hit you later, after you’ve finished reading a section or the book itself.
TCR: It’s re-readable in that sense. In preparing for this interview, I read it a couple times, and what he writes about her and what she puts in the margins can get me to cry.
PT: I appreciate that. If you go to Goodreads, it’s in the low threes or whatever.
TCR: Yeah, don’t listen to that.
PT: When I’m feeling low, or when the self-doubt creeps in, I’ll go to Goodreads and look at my favorite authors and notice that Megan Abbott books are in the mid-to-low threes, and Peter Straub and all these people who, to me, are objectively genius writers. I think if I’m going to write to soothe myself . . . if you’re writing challenging stuff, I think you’re not going to get to the high-four average.
It has been strange to have people respond to Art Barbara [with] “I can’t stand him.” It’s hard not to take that personally. Granted, he and I are not [one in the same]. There’s certainly fictional elements to this and that, but it has been interesting because I think Art is someone who’s difficult to take in. When he’s older, a lot of what he does is whine and complain, but living with somebody who had this experience and by the time he’s an adult, he’s suffering from mental health issues . . . it’s hard to deal with people like that because you just want them to be happy, or you just want them to be better, and you don’t know how to fix them. That can be frustrating. I tried to do that with his character in the book and have Mercy there to act as a bit of levity, even though he or she might have been pretty evil in some ways.
TCR: I go around the circle trying to think of who’s right and who’s wrong, but they’re too much like real people to judge them.
PT: Sometimes I think of it in percentages. Art is like 80 percent me, and Mercy is maybe 10 or 20 percent me. Maybe it’s closer, like Art might be 70 and Mercy is 25 to 35. She’s the voice of the doubt in my head when I’m writing, which is partly why she became an editor of the book—to get her in there. Or, I should say, as an entry point into what her personality would be like. If I’m writing comments in the margins, it would be the personality of myself that I don’t let out and certainly the one I hear when I’m writing.
TCR: Sometimes her comments feel like a writing workshop critique gone wrong.
PT: Or if someone were to say it out loud, it would be too harsh.
TCR: As a writer trying to write in interesting ways, how do you know when a creative idea about structure is holding you back from the story? And how do you know when it’s something that needs to be done to advance the structure even if it complicates the work?
PT: I think my guideline is that if I take that idea of the story out at some point, I’ll ask myself if it’s the same story or if it’s been changed. Is it necessary? And I have to be able to justify that to myself. That doesn’t always mean I’m right, but I feel like at least I can justify why Mercy is writing notes in the margins. That goes for anything. Why is it in the present tense? Why is it in the first-person or second-person point of view. When I go through my last edits, I try to ask that question for every part in the book. I don’t want things to be gimmicks. I want it to be part and parcel of the story. This has to be a theme in the story.
A great example of that for me is when I wrote a short story called “Notes from the Dog Walkers,” which is in my collection Growing Things, and the title sort of gives away the narrative conceit. The story is told through notes that dog walkers leave for this writer who has a little dog. The notes start getting longer and longer and more intruding, personal, and unhinged . . . a metaphysical kind of thing. That started when we adopted an older dog in 2016. My kids are older, so no one was going to be home all the time, so we were like, “We should get a dog walker a few days a week.” They left notes, which were hilarious because they were like the notes we would get from daycare, except there would be a check for pee or poop. They were just so funny. Then I was like, “I can write a story through these dog walker notes. What the hell would that be?” It took me two years. I wasn’t constantly thinking about it, but it took me a long time to find a reason or find a story that would make sense to tell through that format. I’m glad I took the time because I’m happy with the story as opposed to if I had jumped in and written this gimmicky thing. If the narrative technique hadn’t matched the story . . . that wouldn’t have been good.
TCR: Maybe this is a magician’s secret, but how did you format Mercy’s comments while you were writing, in bold or just isolated in the document?
PT: I did it as it looks. I use Microsoft Word, and when it was her making a comment, I would make a little text box, which you can insert pretty much anywhere. I wasted enough time with the app for a handwriting font I liked and downloaded because I wanted to feel it.
I wish I was a writer who could skip ahead, or do the first part and go back into the other parts. I have to go in the order that I think it’s going to be in. That’s not to say they don’t get moved around at the end. I would be reading Arts part and then, if I felt a Mercy comment coming, I would stop his part and yeah; I had too much fun setting up the textbox and putting that in.
TCR: How does it feel to see the next life of a project now that Knock at the Cabin is on its way?
PT: It’s been super exciting. It’s strange in different ways, frustrating at times, in terms of dealing with the Hollywood stuff behind the scenes. But overall, it’s thrilling and exciting. I haven’t seen the movie yet. I didn’t get to read the screenplay. I have a sense of what’s going to change and what’s going to be the same. On the one hand, it would be hypocritical if I didn’t see someone else telling you the story or a fraction of the story because, as a writer, I’m so interested in sort of retelling stories that have come before. I’ve done that with A Head Full of Ghosts, which was a retelling of The Exorcist. I love that kind of stuff. At the same time, I’d be lying if I wasn’t egoless about the whole thing. I feel pretty strongly about the book, particularly how it ends compared to how the movie ends. So that’s going to be weird. I mean, the reality is for the vast majority of the people, this story is going to be the movie. That’s a little bit strange. But the punk fan in me also likes that, too.
TCR: I was surprised they were making The Cabin at the End of the World into a movie because it’s going to take a strong audience to see that story unfold.
PT: It seems to be [that] my experience is very anecdotal. I’ve had other books optioned, but none of them have gotten to the point of being filmed, except for Knock at the Cabin. Someone asked me how this one made it, which is sort of what you’re asking, and honestly, I think it comes down to there being one person who felt strongly about his take on the story, and it was up to him if he got it made. That was M. Night. He was someone who had a movie deal in place and could make what he wants. At some point, you need someone like that to get something made because things get paralyzed by producers, studios, all these people with differing opinions. So many projects fall apart because there isn’t enough momentum. It gets diffused throughout. When he took it over, he wrote the screenplay and was like, I’m making this. Everyone else was like, Okay, he’s making this.
Rebecca Lauer is a 2022 graduate from the University of California Riverside Low Residency MFA. She lives in Portland, Oregon, writing scary stories about monsters and supernatural creatures, too, with a short story forthcoming in Scavengers.