KEITH MCCLEARY GREW UP in the small town of Livonia, New York, but eventually settled in San Diego, where I first met him during his MFA program at UCSD. As a writer, his résumé was impressive — he had written several graphic novels, mixed media works, and short stories which had appeared in some cutting-edge publications. By this time, he had already received a BFA in Film from NYU, which were some serious chops in a city that wasn’t Los Angeles. As a friend, I admired his creative spark, his drive to collaborate artistically and blur the lines between forms to create something new. This is part of the reason I asked for his help on a project that would become States of Terror, an illustrated horror anthology book series that we co-edited for four years.
During this time, I also read through what would become his remarkable debut novel, Circus + The Skin, from Kraken Press. A slow-burn horror novel in the vein of Something Wicked This Way Comes and Return to Oz, it follows a decaying traveling circus unexpectedly torn apart by a storm and marooned in a nameless town. The tattooed man of the group, a brooding veteran named Sue, chronicles the strange deaths and bizarre happenings that threaten to keep the group separated forever. With his own past demons returning to needle him, Sue struggles to keep reality and his new life from splitting apart into total calamity.
I was impressed by the confluence of dark nature and redemptive vulnerability that Circus + The Skin spun together so well. I sat down with Keith at his dinner table in City Heights, flanked by his cat Roo, to ask some questions.
MATT E. LEWIS: Initially, the story of Sue, the tattooed man, bears resemblance to Ray Bradbury’s character of The Illustrated Man. You even start the book with his lengthy description of the titular character as an epigraph. However, as the story progresses, the narration becomes much more like hard-boiled noir with some dark Bradbury-esque undertones. How much did his writing influence the story, either in early stages or the final work?
KEITH MCCLEARY: I think that Circus + The Skin is definitely my own response to reading The Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes at a formative age. Bantam put out a set of Bradbury paperback editions in the early ’90s with gorgeous painted covers, and I was probably as obsessed with Jim Burns’s art for The Illustrated Man — which foregrounded the Man’s tattoos and musculature — as I was with the story itself. Both of those Bradbury novels have in common a tattooed man who influences the narrative but is otherwise pretty enigmatic, and I always wanted to know that guy’s story. Developing Sue began as a process of trying to fill in that blank for myself, but as his voice took over the book became more hard-boiled. Bradbury talked about himself as a writer who approached fiction from the perspective of a poet. I would never claim to be a practicing poet, but writing in the voice of someone so unlike myself made me think about language at a granular level in a way that’s somewhat similar to writing poetry.
In genre terms, I think the book borrows equally from noir and horror, which is a reflection of how Sue navigates the world. The book is structured like a detective novel, but it’s filtered through this complicated, broken person who tends to interpret his life in a fairly nightmarish way. Something sinister is happening at the circus, and for Sue that could just as easily be a crime of passion as it could be something malignant and otherworldly.
This is your first novel, but you are no stranger to storytelling. You’ve been writing for the comic book series Curves and Bullets for the last few years, which describes itself as “post-apocalyptic, face-melting, pop art/shlock art biker gang versus road mutants.” How different was it writing for a novel compared to working with an artist to visually flesh out the story?
Well, I’ve probably spent more of my life writing fiction than comics — it’s just that comics ended up being my first published work. I wrote and illustrated my first two graphic novels (and one of them, Top of the Heap, was my first stab at a circus story), but lately I mostly write prose. When I do write comics, there’s no standard format — if I’m working with an artist I don’t really know, I’ll usually write a full script with dialogue, panel descriptions, and page layouts. But if I work with an artist who I’m familiar with, or who prefers to have a lot of control over the page, then it can be best to just write a story synopsis, let them draw it how they want, and fill in dialogue after I get the art. With Rolo Ledesma, who not only draws Curves and Bullets but also has created most of the characters and story situations, I take a very “less is more” approach. I used to give him a script, but now I’ll just send him broad story ideas and let him work out the rest. The important thing is to find a process that’s organic, instead of deciding on story beats that we adhere to really strictly even if it turns out that they don’t work.
The way this parallels my approach to fiction is that I’ve moved further and further away from outlines. Rather than starting with a rigid plan, it’s more about writing a little bit every day until the draft feels “done,” whatever that means and however long that takes. Admittedly, this means that I don’t really “find” the story until I’m revising the second or third draft. But if I’ve laid an organic foundation with the rough draft, then the characters aren’t making choices that feel false, even if the story takes some weird turns.
Basically when I’m writing a comic, I’m playing a game of improv with the artist. When I’m writing prose, I’m attempting to do the same thing with my subconscious, for lack of a better explanation.
While Sue’s narration carries us through the story, in many ways the book is characterized by the various carnies and their individual backgrounds. Are there any you have a particular affinity for?
I suppose I’m happy with the characters who made the final cut despite seeming most unlikely to survive the editing process. The issue with having circus performers as the main characters is that it’s their job to act as almost mythic archetypes, which is in direct opposition to finding out what makes them human and nuanced. Even the idea that they’d have different personas on and offstage is questionable, because for a lot of these people, the line between their personas and their true selves has become blurred. So in the book there are characters like Omar the Strong Man and Serry the Snake Woman — as well as being circus performers, they’re also aligned with noir tropes (the muscle, the femme fatale). But when they’re complicated enough, and fragile enough, to also be people I could imagine knowing, then it’s nice when all those layers can work and make sense.
The setting of a traveling circus is apt since many of the characters, “natural freak” or otherwise, seems to be running away from their pasts. Was this a deliberate choice of vehicle to tell the story, or did the idea of exploring the lives of carnies come first? Piggybacking on that last question: there is a lot of feeling and lingo specific to circus workers within the story — did you research this culture while creating the characters?
I wrote the first third of the book without knowing much about any of the characters, and just added pieces of backstory as needed to get things going. The fact that Sue was running away from his past was mirroring some elements of my own life at the time, as I’d just moved across the country and was essentially starting over. But when I decided I wanted to dig more seriously into the circus as a whole, that meant doing real research on what it meant to be a circus performer — how they would talk, think, et cetera. A lot of what I read painted a picture of two very different performing groups: transients and outcasts on one hand, and multigenerational circus families on the other. Because the story is told through Sue’s eyes, it made sense for me to focus on the outcasts, with just a few glimpses of a “circus establishment” that’s comparatively inaccessible. There was definitely a common theme in my research of stories about performers who joined the circus because a more traditional life just didn’t work for them. That’s something that I wove into the book as respectfully as I could.
When I first read the book, my initial assumption was that the time was 1920s or ’30s, the golden age of circuses in the American heartland. However, you corrected me that it was in fact the early ’80s, with Sue having toured in Vietnam. This makes sense as this troupe feels much more desperate and decayed compared to the stereotypical view Americans might have from things like the movie Freaks or The Circus of Dr. Lao, both of which you reference in chapter quotes. My favorite part is that you avoid the nostalgic trappings of popular references in order to set the place in a time, which I think can be lazy when used too often. Did you intend for the story to feel timeless, or was your vision fixated on this one particular time?
I think the early 20th-century feel of the book is mainly because the story is so entrenched in the circus aesthetic, which is inherently nostalgic. But when I started to realize that Sue was a veteran, and that he had stories from “two wars” as both a very young man and an older one, I knew he’d have spent time in Korea and Vietnam. And because of the time gap between these wars (and the fact that when we meet Sue, he’s seasoned but not decrepit), this meant that there was only a small window when the book could be set. With all that in mind, I locked down June 1983 as my time period about halfway through the rough draft.
I grew up in a very rural town in Western New York, with summers visiting my grandmother in even-more-rural Vermont. Being in those kinds of places in the years before the internet could often feel a little “timeless” — but also somewhat disorienting and isolated. I think that rural life is alternately painted as either a Country Time Lemonade commercial or a Deliverance-level dystopia. In my experience, it’s neither of these — but it can be lonely, and occasionally kind of spooky. That was something I thought I could infuse the book with in an honest way.
Is Sue named after Hanna’s snake? Is that why his love interest is Serry, the “snake woman”?
Like with a lot of elements in the rough draft, I didn’t know Sue’s name for a long time. But I knew that on top of being a horror story and a noir, there was also something about the novel that felt like a Western — not an action-packed shoot-’em-up, but the sort of melancholic meditation on life and the passage of time that you find in Unforgiven or No Country for Old Men. Westerns have been dissecting masculinity and American exceptionalism for decades, and Circus + The Skin very much follows in that tradition. When “Sue” started showing up on the page as the main character’s name, I knew there would be an association with Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue” that would underline the book’s connection to Westerns. I also liked the idea that this prototypical male character would have a “girl’s name,” even though he doesn’t seem to notice that he does.
My wife Hanna picked up on all this at the rough draft stage. She and I talked a lot about the relationship between Sue and Serry, which isn’t the main relationship in the book but is certainly one of the more tragic ones. When Hanna brought home a corn snake as a pet (it looks like a rattlesnake, but cuter), we both decided his name would be Sue as well. I think that his full name is actually “A Snake Named Sue,” but I’m not sure. You’d have to ask him.