When we contact people out of the blue for interviews you never know their response: “yes, I’d love to answer a few questions” verses “yeah, maybe” and then we never hear from ‘em again. Not so with Nate. Nate Pedersen is a Community Librarian with the Deschutes Public Library in Bend, Oregon. Besides being on the board of directors for the Deschutes County Historical Society and Museum he also works as a freelance journalist, with publications in a variety of newspapers and magazines. It was in some of his writings we found online that he indicated he held a special place for the books by John Bellairs and we asked him about that, about Oregon, and more.
We found you through posts at Fine Books and Collections ("Monster Books" and "New Offerings for Gorey Collectors") and see from your biography that it sounds as if you do quite a bit of free-lance writing such as this. Tell us a bit how you got your start and what topics you like writing about?
I started freelancing as a journalist back in 2008 when I was between jobs. I kept it up after I was employed full-time again -- I’ve gotten into a nice spot where I do regular freelance work for a couple of publications (Fine Books and Collections and The Bend Bulletin). It saves you the rather colossal amount of time that goes into generating story ideas and sending out cold queries to various magazines. So I can manage it easily on the side from my regular career as a librarian, and it’s a fun way to research and write about things that interest me.
Your biography says you’re the author the Bright Young Things series of articles at the Fine Book blog, profiling young antiquarian booksellers. What sparked this series of posts?
Well, I guess I used to be one of their number when I was working for a rare book dealer in North Carolina back in 2007. Through that job, I met and befriended some other young booksellers and was always impressed with their drive, curiosity, intellect, and ambition. It’s an esoteric field with very few job openings each year so the people that get the jobs either have to be really good, or really lucky. Those traits make for an interesting lot of people, well worth profiling.
Tell us about The Starry Wisdom Library anthology you're editing.
Yeah, that one is really all about H. P. Lovecraft but I’m sure there’s some cross-over there between Lovecraft and Bellairs fans. The whole idea behind the anthology is that it’s a “long lost rare book auction catalogue” from the late 19th century detailing all of these fantastic, horrific books in the possession of a Providence Rhode Island cult called the Church of Starry Wisdom. Lovecraft wrote about that cult – and their notorious collection of rare books – in his story “The Haunter in the Dark.” Each contributor to the anthology (and we got a great list of contributors) wrote about the supposed history of one of these dreaded tomes.
What stories/books scared you growing up?
My dad used to read poetry to me when I was a kid and I always loved “The Raven,” which I would make him repeat to me every night. I was way too young to understand a lot of the language – or implications – in that poem, but the building since of dread was palpable even to an eight year old kid. I loved it that budding sense of horror.
Do any stories scare you now that you're older?
Old school horror really works for me – something about the antiquated language that helps build the sense of atmosphere necessary for a good horror story. Edgar Allan Poe was a genius and his best stuff still scares me. (I’ve never read a more convincing portrayal of madness and paranoia than “The Tell Tale Heart”). Lovecraft is terrifying sometimes, same with Robert E. Howard. Maupassant’s “The Horla” is wickedly scary still and “The Turn of the Screw” is utterly haunting. The common thread here is an expert use of language.
Tell us how you were introduced to the work of John Bellairs?
A friend in the 3rd grade gave me a library copy of The Curse of the Blue Figurine and I was entranced with the Edward Gorey cover and quickly hooked from the first page. And it just took off from there.
What's your favorite book? Character?
My favorite book is The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, which has a scene in it (the same one depicted on the cover) that still haunts me. It really worked for an effective build of dread and terror. As an only child who had a lot of adult friends, I always related to both Johnny Dixon and Anthony Monday. Dixon was closer to me in temperament, but Monday lived in a small town in Minnesota (just like I did) and was friends with a local librarian (just like I was).
How responsive have you been to Brad Strickland's contributions to the series?
Honestly, it was always about Bellairs for me. I never read the Strickland books; I bought them while Edward Gorey was still doing the covers because I adore the Gorey covers, but I just never felt compelled to read them. I’ve never been much of a fan of another author finishing someone else’s lifework. I’m okay with unfinished stories in general.
Which book do you feel is John’s best? Worst?
I think The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull is Bellairs’ best book – and the one that scared me the most when I was a kid. My dark horse favorite is The Mansion in the Mist which is such a strange, surreal book. There are such interesting elements in there with the creepy house, and the cult, and the multiple dimensions. I find it tantalizing to think that this was Bellairs’s last book – he was taking his stories in new, fascinating directions before he died. I was never a big fan of The Trolley to Yesterday because I don’t think it worked as a story to transplant Dixon and co. to medieval Constantinople. It’s an example of where an author’s personal interests (i.e. medieval Constantinople) come to dominate a story and negatively impacts their sense of narrative judgment. Time travel is always hard to pull off as well. Plus the appeal of the Bellairs books to me was more about how ancient evil, ancient secrets, come down through the ages and into the modern era.
You wrote "As a confirmed lover of pulp covers, I enjoyed browsing through the lurid illustrations and sensational titles." John's titles for his novels have a certain cadence and pattern. Which title of John's (or Brad's) would you guess is the best at catching attention and/or evoking a scene?
Well, they all have great titles, in my opinion. But I quite like The Dark Secret of Weatherend for its perfect evocation of vintage Gothic novels. Who wouldn’t want to read that book? What IS the secret of Weatherend?
Knowing John’s love of history and trivia, what’s a place or thing or bit of history from Bend, Oregon that you think John would have gotten a kick out of?
I’m on the Board of Directors for the Des Chutes Historical Museum which occupies an old elementary school house built early in the 20th century. It’s famously haunted by a friendly poltergeist named George. George was one of the carpenters who worked on the school during its construction. He fell to his death through a hole on the third floor while working one day in 1913. He’s remained in residence ever since as a well-meaning ghost - even helping employees find things they’ve lost. I think Bellairs would find that interesting.
In this fast paced, high-tech world of ours, do you still think John’s work has a valid place?
Absolutely, but he’s a tougher sell than he used to be. His writing style is antiquated now (funny how fast that can change) – and I don’t think he could get away with the deus-ex-machina conclusions he occasionally threw in. But his appeal is similar to the appeal of cozy mysteries – we all know it’s going to end well, but we enjoy soaking up the journey along the way. And it’s for that journey – that sense of atmosphere and creepy thrills – that Bellairs will be remembered for.
In your role as librarian what other authors have you come across that remind you of Bellairs?
There aren’t any that are that well-versed in occult history, to be honest. I very much look at Bellairs as an author of children’s occult mysteries, a sub-sub-genre with a population of one: Bellairs himself. I’d love for there to be a Bellairs heir.
What other author/book(s) would you recommend to a Bellairs fan?
For active writers, I’d say Neil Gaiman, particularly The Graveyard Book. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy. Also my wife’s book, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. (My wife is the YA novelist April Genevieve Tucholke). For past authors, I’d say H. P. Lovecraft, (Lovecraft protagonists are sometimes like older versions of Johnny Dixon), Arthur Machen, and M. R. James.
What do you like to do when you’re not reading or writing? Any other hobbies?
I’m a passionate trail runner and I like being outdoors. My wife and I, accompanied by our dogs, often go on hikes on the many trails around Bend, Oregon. I am also a movie buff and a foodie.
How do you prefer to read: turning the pages of a physical book or running your fingers across the screen of an e-reader?
I love physical books but don’t mind reading on an eReader either – I have an iPad and enjoy reading on there while I’m traveling. But if I really love a book, I have to buy a physical copy too – it’s not enough to just have a digital edition.
Compleat this sentence: you know you’ve read too much John Bellairs when –
...your local librarian notices and firmly suggests you read something else for a change.