Thursday, December 15, 2011

about face : chelsea cain : stumptown's serial thriller

Climbing the concrete stairs to “the house that Heartsick bought,” you may step around a child-sized mass lying discarded on the porch. The pale violet coloration may be due to the ever-wintry nights, besides, who knows how long it has been neglected since the rains began.

But, upon closer inspection, it may just be the purple bicycle of a six-year-old girl, the kind that might have a clamorous bell and a white basket affixed to the front. As soon as you notice a pair of training wheels on a nearby patio table, the excited yips of two ankle-snorting Boston terriers greet you through the glass door.

Welcome to the petrifying, SE Portland house of New York Times bestseller and thriller author Chelsea Cain.

Penning gruesome tales of serial killers, Cain has written four bestselling thrillers in her Gretchen Lowell Series, but she points out that she may be the only “serial killer fiction” writer who does so with a pink Disney pop-up palace in the corner of her third-floor, attic office. Publishing almost a book a year since 2007’s debut Heartsick, Cain likes to refer to her genre as “detective fiction,” and with her fifth book now completed, she’s already beginning to nurture the seeds of book six, ready to “watch it grow,” as she puts it. “There’s not a story I want to tell any more than this one,” she swears.

But remember, her four-part series which also includes Sweetheart, Evil At Heart, and The Night Season, is the sadistic saga of a psychopathic, violent, female serial killer (named after her childhood elementary school) and the cops who hunt her—all conceived by a smiling, sociable wife and mother. But it’s possible that these all-too-common designations make Cain even more apt to write murderous thrillers... along with a few other peculiarities.

A childhood adoration of Nancy Drew alone will not craft a serial thriller. More morbid childhood fascinations with forensic pathology and disturbing medical texts help, but so does having a “formative serial killer of your youth” and presiding over the neighborhood pet cemetery. Cain’s thrillers are engulfing page-turners with a cinematic quality, which she calls her “big love letter” to British cop shows. So when she says, “My life is very much defined by movies, and also by TV shows, good and bad,” she means it. She married her local video store clerk and there’s a Gretchen Lowell film in the works. She has the ability to “get away with a lot” while terrorizing her audience just enough to enthrall, crafting thrillers that are guilty pleasures for all parties involved.

A NW native, spending her childhood in Bellingham, WA, Cain first came to Portland under “dark and muddy” circumstances when her mother’s cancer had metastasized. After trying to leave on several occasions, she’s not only found a home in Portland but also the setting for her bestselling thrillers—from the isolated corners of Forest Park to the flooding Willamette River.

“I had to come back enough times that I was choosing it rather than circumstances forcing it on me,” explains Cain.

What about Portland kept bringing you back?

There was something essential about this place. A lot of it is the natural beauty. And there’s something in my books that explores this feeling, in particular to the Pacific Northwest, of the danger and beauty of our surroundings. Many people move to Portland and sacrifice financially, but they live here because they want to be here and be a part of all that this city and the area have to offer. So they go up on the mountain and they’re killed by avalanches or killed by sneaker waves at the coast; they drown in currents, they get lost on timber roads, and I love that. And then new people put on their jackets and go out into the forest the next day. I think that the metaphor of the danger of beauty is very much at work in the serial killer I write about in my series.

Portland plays such an important role your in writing, not only as the place where your stories are set but also with regard to the events that happen in your novels. How much of your writing is based on real life events or actual experiences you’ve had?

A lot of it is based on real life. The whole Vanport backstory is all true in The Night Season, and the present-day flooding is based on the 1996 floods, which I was here for and paralleled my mother’s death—as she was dying the city was flooding. That probably influenced me a lot. But I wrap in a lot of what I love and know about Portland in the books. And in my version of Portland there are a lot of serial killers [laughs], and yet I hope that I still communicate a real love of this city despite that. I love that in my books—all of these people are being murdered right and left, there’s a new serial killer in town every two months menacing Portlanders, but in the book people still feel lucky to live here. I think that speaks to a certain sort of Portland spirit.

The books, because of the Portland setting, do very well in Europe and I will get international journalists who will come over and will want me to take them on a tour of my Portland. Inevitably they'll ask me to take them to Archie's house. Or to Gretchen's house. And I have to explain that they don't have houses because they're not real people. So they'll say, "Take us to a place that Archie would live in."

Where have you taken them for Gretchen's house?

I took them to Vista, the heights where NW 23rd sort of comes up to Park. I think I got out of showing them Archie's house.

Just show them any dingy apartment complex...

Right, exactly [laughs]. This [question] has become so unexpectedly common. Readers will try to find locations from the books, and in The Night Season, there is a house that I describe at 20th and Division. As any Portlander knows, there is no house there. I did that very specifically because it was a house where lots of bad things were going on and I had to give a specific address for the plot to work, but I didn't want some poor schmuck who happened to live there [laughs] to wake up every morning to see people with worn paperbacks standing in his yard.

Have you ever thought about choosing a different location as the setting?

No. I think this is such a great location. It’s a pleasure to live in a city that makes a great setting for these books because if I get stuck I can just walk to a street corner and look around. In the next book, book five, there are some scenes that are set in St. Helens. I’m trying to get out of town a little bit but not too far [laughs].

Do you have a title for the next book?

No. I have some working titles, but not one that’s set.

Will it have the word “heart” in it?

I’m actually trying to decide if I should go back to “heart” or not in the next book. Gretchen Lowell is back, but we moved away from the “heart” thing with the last book.

I saw a blog post you wrote that said, “Don’t put the word ‘heart’ in the title of your book if you want lots of men to buy your book.”

[Laughs] Right. And then there’s that.

There’s an inherent contradiction in Chelsea Cain. How does a polite, buoyant...

[Laughs] Buoyant? Ouch.

No, no, you’re very cheery...

I know, I get this a lot [laughs].

So, how does a friendly, warm mother and wife come to write about a twisted serial killer?

I used to think that this stuff went on in everybody’s head and I was just writing it down, but I think that that’s not right [laughs] based on the small sample size of people I’ve polled. I think I have a pretty violent imagination. It’s why I’m a vegetarian. Even as a little kid I always loved those books that would show pictures of terrible tumors and conjoined twins and things that could go wrong. When I would go out walking I would always keep an eye peeled for a dead body.

Or roadkill?

Yeah! When I found roadkill I would always want to bury it. I had a pet cemetery. I thought all of this stuff was very middle of the road until people started asking me ques- tions... actually I was kind of a macabre little shit [laughs] now that I think about it. But thriller writers are some of the happiest, funniest people I know and I think it’s because: one, we’re very well compensated, and two, we get it all out on the page. There have been times when I’ve been stuck in traffic trying to get over the Interstate Bridge, and the only thing that stops me from going ballistic is knowing that I can murder someone later that day. I can take all that...

In your writing?

No, no. Literally. [Long pause]... in my book! [Laughs] I can take all of that rage and I can find some really creative way to kill somebody.

So, how many of your ideas come from pent up personal rage?

Oh, I get ideas from all over the place—a lot from the Metro section of the Oregonian actually. Just the weird little paragraph stories that you see about the demented way people behave in public toward one another. I think that my mind goes to murder sooner than most people’s. We’ll be talking about something and I’ll immediately think, how can that be used to kill somebody? So, I think I’m in the right profession [laughs].

As you sat down to write the first book, Heartsick, were you planning on writing a thriller? Had you ever written anything that gory before?

No. When I first sat down to write that book I was pregnant with Eliza, so I definitely think hormones were to blame for part of that. I came up with this idea and started writing it, but I actually had a contract to be working on another book, Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, a parody of a Nancy Drew book. I think part of what drove me to write Heartsick was that it was something that I wasn’t supposed to be doing. I wrote the first half of it without even telling my husband I was working on it; it was totally this book on the sly. I kept working on it and after a year of editing, I became a lot more attached to it and started seeing it as a series because I had all these ideas and I didn’t want to ruin that first book by cramming them all in. I took, what I considered at the time, a great personal risk by writing it as if it were going to be a series in the sense that I didn’t answer a lot of the questions. You can say you want to write a series but publishers kind of like to throw one out there and see how it does before they agree to sign a contact for multiple books.

Have you ever regretted writing certain details in a previous book because you want to change something in the current story?

Oh God... constantly! Here’s my advice to anybody out there who’s thinking of writing a commercial thriller series: Don’t ever mention a date. That is my greatest regret in Heartsick. I had all of these dates and once you do that then you are tied to them forever. You’ll notice as the books go on I become more and more oblique about time... “It was about two years ago...” [laughs] from whenever you’re reading this.

You began writing your first novel while pregnant and, amazingly, finished it after giving birth to your daughter.

Yeah, Eliza was a baby in the bassinet asleep by the desk as I was finishing it.

Did being a new mother influence or even change the ending of your first book?

Umm, no. Maybe it should have [laughs]. And she’s—for the record—a very well-adjusted child [laughs].

Because it is a story about teenage girls being brutally raped, mutilated and strangled before being ditched in the Willamette River.

Yeah... I think it will be harder to rape and mutilate teenage girls when Eliza is a teenage girl. Until then, frankly, they’re thrillers; teenagers are fair game. But I think it certainly will be harder. When she’s thirteen I doubt I will be murdering thirteen year olds.

Or maybe you’ll have more material to work with?

Right. I’ll be murdering scads of thirteen year olds! [Laughs] There’s something about pregnancy; my husband and I took these classes at the hospital before Eliza was born and they’d show these childbirth videos over and over again. They’re really graphic bloody, gory videos in which nothing ever went right. There’s that aspect to pregnancy, something kind of essentially violent to it. And there’s something about the way that your body changes that I think definitely changed my relationship to gore.

In what way?

When you’re pregnant and certainly when you have a little baby, your life is all about body fluids. You know, it desensitizes you in a way that’s very natural. You’re just up to your knees in it all the time. In some sense that may have been why I was able to be as graphic as I was in a way that I didn’t really even see. When I sent that book in my agent made some comment about it being “graphic” and I wrote back, “Really? Graphic? Moi?” [Laughs] I wasn’t aware of it because my world was very graphic. The books on pregnancy I was reading were much more graphic than anything I was writing.

Tell me how the Green River Killer inspired your first book.

I was watching this episode of Larry King in the middle of the night and he was doing this show on the Green River Killer. Having grown up in Bellingham, he was sort of the formative serial killer of my youth. [Laughs]

I don’t think I have a formative serial killer of my youth.

I’ve only just now learned that other people don’t have formative serial killers of their youth. I also have a favorite serial killer, John Wayne Gacy. Some people probably haven’t thought about this. I was ten when they found the first bodies, so growing up he was just the thing that went bump in the night. As kids we thought that it was quite possible that each of us might be his next victim. I was very aware of them finding some new victim every couple of years and that there was this task force of people looking for him. That narrative just played out on the periphery of my childhood. They caught him 20 years later, and so I’m watching this and it’s all sort of coming back to me.

On Larry King they had footage of one of the cops talking to Ridgway [the Green River Killer] in an interview room, and I was so struck at just how convivial it all was on the surface, that they seemed like old friends, laughing. On one hand, they were two guys who had known each other for 20 years on different sides of the same case. And on the other hand, there were all these levels of manipulation and this high-stakes agenda, and I loved that from a narrative point of view. I immediately thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if the killer were a woman? Because it adds that sexual complication, and that is where the idea of Archie and Gretchen sprang from. So, I have Larry King to thank [laughs].

Technology is really changing the publishing world right now. Do you know how many of your sales are electronic?

Evil At Heart, which came out two years ago, was 11% ebook sales. A year and a couple months later The Night Season came out—52% ebook sales. [Imagine] that growth in a year, and sales for The Night Season were way up. In my genre, ebooks do very well because people really want to read them right away but they don’t need to keep them.

I have very mixed feelings, like every author. I think ebooks are great—it’s content. We’re not in the business of selling paper, right? We’re selling content. It gets people content and makes it easy for them to read books. I worry a lot about bookstores because bookstores are where record stores were ten years ago. Just like there are still some really cool record stores, there’s still going to be some really cool bookstores but there’s going to be 90% fewer out there. People get to choose now with their wallets which bookstores they want to keep. We’re already making a choice by ordering from Amazon rather than walking six blocks to Powell’s or some other independent bookstore. And that’s fine, but I think people need to be aware that they are making those choices.

Favorite bookstores?

[Laughs] That’s a very political question for me. I grew up in Bellingham, WA so Village Books is not only one of my favorite bookstores, but I literally spent hours there every day. My mom had a garden nursery right next door. When I was a kid, they just let me sit there and read books for hours every day, so I owe them a great debt of gratitude. The smell of downtown Powell’s when I walk in that store—there is no more beautiful elixir to me, all those used books. That is my favorite smell in the world.

What’s your place in the literary world? Do you ever see yourself writing something besides thrillers?

Writing a “real” book? [Laughs] No, I’m very happy here. I don’t have a nagging desire to write something “important” because I wrote that book. I was 23 years old. It was called Dharma Girl. It was a valentine to my parents, and especially my mother. She died two months before it came out, and touring with that little book was a way to keep her alive a little longer. I am lucky to have found a place in the world for that book when I was so young. Now I get to entertain myself. And I get to murder people for money. Why would I ever want to do anything else?

Read this interview in About Face Magazine.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

from dirty mittens to artifice : a band in transformation

OMN has fondly followed Portland's Dirty Mittens over the last few years, whether they've been playing Rigsketball or coveted stages at MFNW (two years in a row) or the Mississippi Street Fair.  We rejoiced when the quintet finally released their debut album, Heart of Town, this past summer after many years in the making and set out in October to tour behind the 12 tracks of indie-pop perfection they had definitively committed to record.

And now, just a handful of weeks later it seems that the band as we know it has conclusively come to an end.  Sad as it may be, the good news is many of the Mittens will be continuing under a new name: Artifice.

Former Mittens Patrick Griffin (bass), Noah Jay-Bonn (keys), Josh Hawley (keys/guitar), Ryan Hanzlik (drums), and Chelsea Morrisey (vox/guitar) "decided to continue working together to explore where this new approach goes," says Morrisey.  But on the surface, the choice seems to leave guitarist and longtime member Ben Hubbird as the odd man out.

Hubbird told OMN:

It's been a long time coming. They're really excited to be moving in a more electronic, sample-driven direction and I'm not really into all that stuff. On our last tour, for example, everyone was programming beats on their laptops in the van, and I was left strumming an acoustic guitar and writing sad bastard songs. There's always a certain melancholy to any ending, and certainly this is no exception. Sharing sweaty rooms, stinky vans, and cramped stages with those folks has been one of the best experiences of my life. But it's definitely time to move on.

I know they're going to sound fantastic, and I'm stoked to be able to go to shows as a fan and dance my ass off and not worry about playing guitar!

So, what will Artifice sound like?  Their Facebook profile doesn't offer much but it does simply proclaim: DARKDANCE.

Another Facebook note from Chelsea Morrisey describes the sound a bit more:

If Dirty Mittens was the Talking Heads meet Booker T and The MGs at Col Summers Park in summer 2002, Artifice is Portishead braving the '79 Berlin winter to meet ESG at a warehouse party DJed by New Order. It is drum heavy, there are electronic and synthesized elements, but this will take nothing away from the energy and spectacle that we will bring with our live show. The show will be a different kind of animal.

Before the above message was published, OMN conducted the following interview with Chelsea Morrisey via email on the break up and plans for the new act.

How would you describe the sound of Artifice? Will it be taking a different direction than the Dirty Mittens?

I imagine that people will be shocked to know that the same group behind the sunny, indie pop of Dirty Mittens are behind Artifice. Artifice is heavy, almost moody, and much less reliant on traditional approaches to band performance and songwriting. Our goal is to create danceable music with a focus on textures and soundscapes rather than a typical four-on-the-floor format. Similar to Dirty Mittens, we will hold our live performance to a very high standard.

Okay, so what happened with Dirty Mittens?  Why are you guys "disbanding"?

I wish I could give you one of those really interesting and dramatic break up stories, but the truth is that we just really felt like we needed to hit reset. We loved Dirty Mittens and we will always have nostalgia for the project, but we have grown up so much as people and more importantly as musicians and songwriters. Over the last year we've incorporated more and more computer-based approaches to songwriting, which have altered our sound in such a way that we really felt like our new material was a different band.

[There are] no personal problems whatsoever. I have viewed the band as family and have actually spent more time with these guys than my biological family in the last five years. I wouldn't take a day of that back.

Read the rest on OMN.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

the business of ‘kool’ : a q/a with serious business

When Serious Business announced that their "long-awaited debut album" would be ready for release on December 8th, plenty of party-going Portlanders likely declared: "It's about damn time!"

Since their inception three years ago, it seems like the team of Jason Mampel and Danny Diana-Peebles has consistently been somewhere in the process of creating an album. After several demos, some scrapped attempts, and countless live shows, the rapping duo of electro-hop nerds have been working in earnest on fresh material, which can finally be heard on their debut Kool, for more than a year.

Known their silly, energetic, and erotic performances, Serious Business finally feels they have a recording that represents their talent while exploring their comical, geeky personalities through the magnifying glass of hip-hop. Co-produced by Karl Kling (RAC) in his NE Portland home studio, Kool, which will be a released as a free digital download on Futro Records, is also chock-full of Futro collabs from artists like Winston Lane, Stacy Peltier (Starlight & Magic), and C Bag (Sistafist).

Listen to three of the new album's tracks below plus the demo classic "Hot Damn":

After ample time honing their live style, the rascally sarcastic rappers always look forward to throwing a good party so let Serious Business host a free show at Holocene on Thursday, December 8th with Atole, VTRN, A Gentleman's Picnic, and DJ Winston Lane in honor of Kool.

This record has been quite a while in the works... how long exactly?

We started writing the album in October of 2010.

What took so long?

Prior to this album, we had written and self-recorded over 15 songs. There were several attempts at recording those songs and turning them into a record, but every attempt failed in some way. It became so frustrating that by the time we stumbled into working with Karl Kling, we wanted to do something fresh to represent our growth as a band. We wanted to focus on our songwriting and production, since we had only focused on live material previously. Our process involved a lot of back and forth between Karl and us. We’d record bits and pieces and then assess what we liked and didn’t like. We didn’t want to rush the writing process even though we knew we’d been around for quite a while without a record. We wanted to make something we were really proud of.

You've stated that Kool is "ultimately about achieving self-acceptance and confidence." What's the significance behind the title?

There is a lot of significance behind the title. Kool with a K is our metaphor for creating your own "cool." We play into a lot of hip-hop stereotypes on this album, but we’re boasting about things like wearing bow ties and playing Sonic the Hedgehog instead of having money and fast cars. Everything we brag about is true. We’re proud of our nerd, eccentric personalities. Hip-hop is filled with arrogance and confidence. It’s about being big and boastful. With Kool, we’re saying, “Hey, we’re the most confident nerds you’ll ever meet.”

Read the rest on OMN.

Friday, December 2, 2011

marrying nature + technology on lost lander’s debut ‘drrt’

“I’m currently sitting in the woods on a very steep cliff… just noticing some hunters that are walking around about 1,000 feet from me,” said Matt Sheehy over the phone on a gray Tuesday afternoon. ”I spend a lot of time in the woods because I’m a forester, and it’s hard for me to put a finger on how exactly me spending this amount of time in nature affects the recording. But what it comes down to is the sense of wonder that I get from looking up at the stars or hanging out at a planetarium or studying trees or looking at the eccentricities of plants–that’s one of my favorite types of feelings. I try as hard as I can to recreate that [feeling] in the work I do in music and art.”

Sheehy’s latest musical endeavor, Lost Lander, reflects his amazement. Crafting an auditory world of wonder, Lost Lander’s delicately elaborate tunes teeter on organic surrealism like the natural marvels that awe and inspire whether it’s the brilliance of aurora borealis, the intricate beauty of ice crystals, the perfect rings of Saturn, or even the glow of a lightning bug.

“It’s that feeling that you get when you discover that there’s a whole other universe that you didn’t even know about and how it makes you feel kinda small,” continues Sheehy. ”Sean Flinn calls it ‘the big small,’ where you realize how big you are and how small you are at the exact same moment. It’s trying to capture that. I try to spend as much time as I can in that headspace.”

And thankfully, now you can too with the release of Lost Lander’s debut album DRRT. The wondrousness that surrounds us all and influences Sheehy now has a somewhat tangible form and a release date: January 24th, 2012.

The album’s title digs even deeper into depths of Sheehy’s artistic process. Stylized as leetspeak-esque spelling of “dirt,” the name is both organic and technological at the same time, a theme relevant to record’s creation. Teamed up with producer Brent Knopf (Ramona Falls, ex-Menomena), the duo recorded separately and together at the Oregon Coast and in the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, amongst other locales, before inviting a bevy of Portland musicians to provide support.

Read the rest on OMN.