Last week, after meeting on Twitter (the social equivalent of a mega mall), I sat down with Danger Slater to talk about his new novel, I Will Rot Without You.
In a nutshell, I Will Rot Without You is like a disturbing dream that stays with you for days after you’ve woken up. Except that you enjoyed it, and kinda wish it hadn’t ended.
The story follows Ernie Cotard, a man who has started falling apart since Gretchen left him. His apartment is infested with cockroaches and his bathroom is under siege by mould that spreads like brushfires in the wind. There’s no help or sympathy from his landlord. The only person who offers any kind of solace in this time of unease is his charming neighbor, Dee, who is attached to the most dangerous parts of her psychopathically jealous boyfriend. This warped and lovelorn quadrangle, stuck in the eye of a catastrophic storm, sets the stage for righteous tale of personal salvation.
The story rams itself into your face from the opening line: “Cockroaches fill up my life like raindrops in a reservoir.” From there, the plot goes 200 miles an hour, in punchy bursts through Ernie’s chaos, which is hilarious in places, devastating in others, and populated by a cast of insanely imaginative characters, doing unimaginable things.
No matter how uncomfortable and cruel the situations get, his use of language is naturally artful and poetic. He conjures sadness, humor and hope from the most hellish recesses of the human experience, and gives these elements a mosh-pit to thrash the shit out of each other in.
“I’m really in love with the sound of words, how they fit together, and the poetry of language. Their beat. In a lot of ways, just trying to get that right allows the story to push itself forward,“ he said during our chat over a few cold ones.
Published by Fungasm Press, a personal baby to Bizarro legend, John Skipp, who gives an eloquent intro the story. “I WILL ROT WITHOUT YOU is like Cronenberg’s THE FLY if it had been directed by Frank Zappa (with Bruce Bickford, the stop-motion Claymation genius behind much of Frank’s most mind-blowing footage).”
Anyways, it’s difficult to offer a decent representation of the book (which I’d rate about 27 out of 10), so I thought I’d ask him directly to talk more about it. The following notes are clipping from a long conversation over a few beers here in Portland…
How much of the writing process is pure enjoyment versus self-analysis?
There’s definitely enjoyment. When you’re working on something and a bit hung up or where you’ve written a chapter and it’s rough, and you go through it over and over again, trying to get the right combination of words, sounds and ideas together. When you finally have that breakthrough and then it’s done, it’s this cathartic moment. It’s almost transcendent.
There is also some self-analysis. You read the book… the main character is not that far off someone who sounds like me. Not that Ernie is me, but you try to find ways to connect. He is experiencing serious heartbreak, which is pretty universal for everybody. In order to connect with that character, I had to go into my own life and my experiences. There was a lot of looking at things backwards – like, how you’d react in these horrible situations.
Cross (the leader roach) and roaches play such a fun role. How did Cross evolve in your mind while writing this?
The roaches act as a main character in a way. It’s like a hive-mind, led by Cross, the leader roach. But they serve a purpose. Ernie is alone for most of the book, so Cross is almost someone for him to have a conversation with. And even though Cross is smarter than the others, they’re all still these disgusting creatures – I didn’t want them to talk or there to be any talking roaches.
The original idea for this book started years ago, as a short story about a guy in an apartment infested with roaches, who accidentally resurrects one back to life, and now he’s dealing with zombie roaches. These roaches aren’t zombies, it didn’t go that way. But that was my original idea and it never really came together. Something wasn’t connecting for me. It took me sitting on it for years and years, until there was a moment where I saw the other half of this story. That’s what gave Ernie a reason to resurrect a roach – instead of just telling a fun zombie story. It all happens organically.
The idea of the mould came from the last crappy apartment I had. The sink was broken and no matter how many times I cleaned, it’d be back like 3 days later.
How much outlining do you do?
My outlines for a story are really basic, normally just half a page or so, and the rest has to fill itself in.
I’m really in love with the sound of words, how they fit together, and the poetry of language. The beat and such. In a lot of ways, just trying to get that right allows the story to push itself forward.
When I write, I think of it as a movie in my head that I’m trying to describe as best as I can. I’m making a novelization of a movie that doesn’t exist. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, even since I was a teenager. I was a bad student in high-school and didn’t go to college, but I knew this is what I wanted to do. I studied vocabulary, just because I wanted to know words and what they meant. I read a lot of books and highlighted words I wanted to know, and then look them up later and try to use them as much as possible later.
Whenever I was by myself, in traffic or a doctor’s office, and I would just describe my surroundings in my head. Like these light fixtures or the tiles, and just practice that all the time. I was just using life to practice writing.
There are some heavy and memorable scenes through the book (including the most harrowing climax to any sex scene I’ve ever read). Which did you have the most fun with?
The two scenes where he talks to his landlord were just funny. Those were moments where I was trying to inject actual comedy into the book. They weren’t moving the plot forward, other than to show that nobody is coming to help him and nobody gives a shit. Ernie was essentially just asking basic questions, like ‘can you send an exterminator’, and his landlord wasn’t only not answering, he was just saying weird shit. That’s kind of like an extension of the book itself, how Ernie is just really alone.
Who were your influences growing up?
I didn’t find Bizarro until much later, but growing up I read R.L. Stine’s books. Around third grade my mom got tired of buying me books all the time, because I would read them so fast, so she started handing me whatever she was reading when she was done. So I had Stephen King’s It, or Jurassic Park, these 600 page books that would take me a minute.
When I was in first grade I wanted to write comic books. In middle school, I got more into movies and wanted to write scripts. By the time I got to high-school, I got more into books and wanted to be a writer. I got really into Vonnegut – he is probably my biggest influence, even though I don’t write like Vonnegut at all. I could read Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse 5 outside of school, and it didn’t have to be like The Scarlet Letter – it could fun and thought-provoking at the same time. Then I got really into that whole era of writers, Joseph Heller and Tom Robbins. And then I started dipping back into Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.
I’m trying to tell the story of a guy who is trying to move on with his life. And there’s not much in the book that isn’t a metaphor for something else. His body is literally falling apart, because he’s mentally falling apart without this person in his life. And the book is about putting yourself, in a way, back together, or getting ready to put yourself back together.
When did you get into Bizarro and start getting published?
I was reading a lot of Chuck Palahniuk at the time and was looking for something more. Somehow, I heard about Carlton Mellic’s book, The Baby Jesus Buttplug. I went down to my local Barnes & Noble looking for a copy and couldn’t find it anywhere. I eventually found it on Amazon and was like, ‘God, this is great!’ From there I found out about other Bizarro writers and just read everything. At the time I was young, like 22.
I found a local company, Jersey Devil Press. They were a local company magazine and they ran my first short story. They were the first people to publish me. They were from New jersey and I’m from New Jersey, so I sent the guy a message, saying ‘hey, I saw you published a book. You looking for anything else?’ And I ended up sending him ‘Love Me’ and he was like, this is
great. From there, people kind of pushed in that direction.
Fast-forward to now, and I have been so lucky to meet a lot of the writers whose work I admire and means so much to me. It still seems surreal.
3 Things that Disgust You
Bugs – I’m creeped out by bugs.
I don’t like things getting on my hands. There’s something about body horror in general to me, as an entry point into horror, that gets to me. No matter where you go in life, you’re still trapped in your body and there’s no escaping this thing that is eventually going to fail. You’re just stuck being you. Like at Steven Hawking – no matter how fucking smart he is, he’s stuck in a body that won’t do anything! And that’s kind of what horror is to me.
Being alone terrifies me. I think that’s why I write about lonely characters. I don’t mean physically alone (I lived by myself for two years). I mean feeling like nobody understand you, and having nothing to relate to anyone.
Who did the artwork?
Oh my god, it’s so good. Her name is Katie McCann and I found her on instagram. Someone turned me onto her work – she does these amazing collages. Before John Skipp had even gotten back to me about publishing it, I reached out to her and she got on board. And John loved her art, too.