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[Interview] with Nicholas Belardes 

by Betty Jo Tilley


If you’re hearing about Nicholas Belardes for the first time right here in the safe pages of Kelp, once you’ve read his debut novel, The Deading, you’ll thank us.  Or not. 


Be forewarned:  This eco-horror story strikes close to home; it’s set in a small California coastal town.  Moving from familiar to frightening as fast as a bird can bat its eye, Belardes populates his world with characters -- human and animal -- you’ll grow to care about and be anxious for.  The ones whose safety you fear for most might end up being the scariest of all.  


Belardes is a real-life birdwatcher with a wide writer’s wingspan.  This new work blends speculative fiction, horror, fantasy and sci-fi with commentary on the climate and cultures we are at odds with.  It’s a story of friendship and family, love and brotherhood, and alienation and belonging, with character matches that are both quirky and endearing. And if you haven’t yet developed a concern for our environment, expect to discover harrowing reasons why you should. 

 

Belardes weaves a net that’s bound to ensnare.  If bad-to-the-bone bacteria doesn’t creep you out, you’ll at least find yourself thinking about what birds know that we don’t.  With riveting suspense, The Deading redefines what “moving at a snail’s pace” means...  in a lastingly cringey way. 


If The Deading’s not enough for you, Belardes has already sold his next book, Ten Sleep, to be released by Erewhon in 2025.  


Betty-Jo Tilley corresponded for Kelp over email with the author, and quickly discovered Nick Belardes is dead set on getting us all wondering what our world is coming to.


[KELP JOURNAL]:  You’ve referred to you and your father as “rasquache,” and this word comes up in The Deading.  Aside from sounding super badass, what is “rasquachismo?”  


[NICK BELARDES]: I used “rasquache” purposefully in The Deading, having seen that many kids like Blas (the protagonist), can’t afford the tools that privilege can easily provide. I couldn’t afford all the tools of birdwatching either. I made do, just like Blas. To steal words from a Mexican American educator I know, Rasquachismo means… a do-it-yourself mentality that takes the best of what’s at hand and makes use of it…   providing creative solutions to difficult problems having limited resources… This is what Blas does in The Deading to make himself semi-accepted by the white birding community. He knows that otherwise, the gatekeepers will completely shun him. 


[KJ]: In your book’s acknowledgments, you have a pretty crazy recollection of your dad introducing you to horror movies… like, when you were five, and seven years old!  When did you write your first scary story?  And how did you come to believe you could make a living doing this? 


[NB]:  My first scary story was probably related to some childhood nightmare that I drew pictures about when I was four or five. I think for kids, drawing is storytelling. It’s the best we can do, those little deformed figures mean something in relation to whatever has traumatized our young selves.


I’ve worked as a TV news managing editor (and a) script writer for cheesy local TV shows . . . So, I have made a living through creativity and words. I think the scarier “belief” dream is writing fiction as a viable source of income. I do know that I’m more realistic than most writers about what kind of income writing fiction can bring in, that most novels, especially debuts, aren’t going to make ya millions.


[KJ]: As a working writer, what got you to the point of applying to an MFA program?  


[NB]: What appealed to me (was) professorial eyes on what I felt were sellable manuscript ideas, and I wanted the freedom to generate new ideas. But there’s much more to it, like having come from a dual-ethnic family of non-scholars… to appease my own educational desire to have that degree and teach… but (I) had to justify the cost/time.


[KJ]: With UCR professors like Stephen Graham Jones and Tod Goldberg, we guess you’d say you got a lot out of grad school?  


[NB]: Yes, but that’s because I put in my energy, like poured my soul, exhaustively, with a tight, professional writing regimen. I had a big plan going in, achieved most of my goals, and didn’t waste time. I needed that jumpstart, or a sort of rebranding of the self, a spark, and it worked.


[KJ]: Aside from your grad school mentors, which writers have been your biggest literary influences?[NB]: I can’t ever get Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet out of my head. What else do you need to study the craft of writing? My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child


[KJ]: You landed a literary agent even before your MFA graduation, which seems like a meteoric rise.  How did this epic accomplishment happen? 


[NB]: There was nothing meteoric, and I don’t think I’ve risen anywhere, though if I have, it’s as Zombie Nick, hungrier than ever to consume brains through reading and unlocking more craft. So, if you think so, that’s kind of fun!


 I developed portions of around five manuscripts, three of which I worked on at UCR, and was starting to get close…  but while in the program, I unwittingly changed gears to eco-horror, and as a result, The Deading and Ten Sleep sold. But don’t be surprised if I sell Chicano literary fiction too. 


[KJ]: You’re a prolific writer and an avid birdwatcher.  Are there enough hours in the day for both? 


[NB]: Deadlines dictate how much time I spend writing. I typically get up between four and six in the morning, write for a few hours, go hit a trail, stuff my face with food, then maybe write more. Lately, I try to also write at night: two different manuscripts. … Downtime is for all my TV shows and sports. Lots of sports. Chances are I’ll have a game on low volume while I write anyway.



[KJ]:  We’re curious to know more about your birding obsession.  


[NB]: I think anything you want to be really good at you have to obsess over. Don’t you? How many half-assed writers could be really solid scribblers if they spent more time at their craft, at, heck, reading, and, I hate to say it, revision. You gotta put in… like, obsessive amounts of time. So, when it comes to birding… it’s not a “hobby.” I loathe that word. 


Hobby is… an activity done during leisure time, for fun. While birding can be fun, I make it into a kind of work, like writing, and I sacrifice time during the mornings to do it. I pour myself into it, and in return, feel I have a deep enough knowledge to write about birds, though let’s face it, my knowledge is still rudimentary. I’m no ornithologist.


[KJ]: What is it about birds that goes so well with horror?


[NB]: Birds exist in a world that we’re no longer a part of: the world of survival of the fittest. We can go to the store and buy some frozen ravioli and new clothes, hopefully without getting killed and eaten. A bird’s existence is predicated on survival, on escape, speed, aerobatics, stealth. You could get poisoned, shot, eaten, impaled on barbed wire… The danger can be constant, and is fear-based, and since horror is the literature of fear, why not? 


[KJ]: How is a horror writer-birder different from other birders?  


[NB]: I’m gathering the kind of intel they aren’t gathering. Or maybe many of them are just living in the moment. I’m psychoanalyzing the birds and the birders. I’m a brown birder in a mostly white birding community with a completely different mindset and… goals. And I anthropomorphize birds, which many birders/ornithologists likely hate with a passion. In the craft of writing animals, we have to try to see through animal eyes. At the same time, it’s a writer’s ability to see humanness in animals that will make readers connect to them. What else can we see besides hunger and fear in animals? Is there sentience? Is there love? I see all of it.


[KJ]: The award-winning novelist Daniel Mason, commented in his “The North Woods,” author notes on our dramatically diminishing bird populations.  And there are birds dying by the droves in your book.  What are your biggest concerns about our planet, and our birds, and what do you hope to bring to light? 


[NB]: Until mankind really starts viewing nature as more important than itself… we’re in jeopardy of losing all of it. The wilderness, the creatures, the oceans, everything is at a tipping point or has tipped. An endemic bird species in Hawaii, the “akikiki,” dwindled in a few years from hundreds in the wild, to around one. One bird! And I haven’t checked the reports. That one may be dead too. 


… this is happening all over the world, and here in California… the stories are numerous. By writing about nature and birds, I can discuss the topic, passionately. And if one person reads this and decides to keep their cat inside instead of thinking their pet is cute for bringing them dead birds, which could be an endangered bird, then that is a kind of victory, yeah? Maybe someone who reads this will realize the wetland or forest in their area shouldn’t be torn down to put up a strip mall. Maybe people will start putting out food for migratory birds, or not trim their trees during nesting season in the spring. 


People have no idea the habitat loss. There are areas in the U.S. where thousands of birds smash into windows... preventable deaths. We are at a critical juncture …you’re not going to like it if all you hear in the morning are passing cars and air blowers, or not watching your plants grow because of having lost our crucial pollinators. 


[KJ]: The cover of The Deading warns, “If you want to stay in Baywood, you’ll have to die,” so we expected to be frightened.  Thanks for not disappointing!   But we didn’t anticipate being so moved by the characters’ romantic longing.  Would you characterize yourself as more a scientific thinker, or a romantic?  And when it comes to our environment, are you an optimist or pessimist? 


[NB]: Bettina Gilois, writer of McFarland, USA, who isn’t with us anymore, once told me that Shakespeare has to be in every movie script. I took that a step further as in every story I create. So, tragic love, unlikely romance, betrayal, etc. … I think Shakespearean themes make my work stronger, more accessible. …Do I consider myself more romantic or scientific? No idea! 


However, regarding optimism versus pessimism, I’m slightly optimistic in that if/when humans kill themselves off… a few bird species will take over the planet, and then some sentient power in the far future will call our remaining birds, dinos. And hopefully the two will have a more balanced future from there. Too dark?


[KJ]: The oyster farmer in your book, Bernhard, is a bad guy.  Or is he a victim?  Is there something about oyster farming we should know?


[NB]: Where I live in San Luis Obispo County, I see oyster farming as a danger to Morro Bay, as a stealer of crucial nutrients in a fragile ecosystem. All that corporate desire to expand their bay operations is just capitalism-based, greed and more greed, consumption fueling consumption, no matter what is at stake for the future, for fish and plants and all saltwater-based organisms there.  This all fits together in a villainous tale called America, because it is happening all over our country, this take and take attitude…


… and were the ocean to take revenge on this behavior, like for dropping endless barrels of DDT and other poisons off California’s Pacific coast . . . well, you read The Deading. The revenge in that story had to start somewhere, why not organically, and in a bay where humans continue to take take take? But is Bernhard a victim? A bad guy? Yes, no, maybe. It’s complicated. Readers will have to decide. 


[KJ]: We heard (dare we say a little birdie told us?) you write in several genres.  What else are you working on?  And for all the new fans of The Deading, can you share what we have to look forward to (or dread!) from Nicholas Belardes?


[NB]: Ten Sleep (is) another eco-horror, but set in Wyoming, and promises more monsters, and a lot of little animal tales, as well as a big ol’ cattle drive. My Chicano literature, American Fade, will hopefully get picked up. While awaiting editorial notes, I’m cranking out chapters for a horror slasher set in Pismo Beach and California’s southern Central Valley. Also, revising a 600-page fantasy novel. Stirring plots in my witchy-warlock stew . . .


[KJ]:  Any essential advice for beginning birdwatchers?  


[NB]: There will be a short beginning bird guide in the hard cover edition of The Deading! And a map! And study guide! And suggested readings! And cool end pages with bird illustrations, including one based on a super rare find in October 2021 of a Golden-winged Warbler that visited Meadow Park, San Luis Obispo for four days. It was around the 68th record of the species in California. Still my best find ever! Woot!


[KJ]:  There is a description in The Deading of a “pink cathedral of blooms,” and Blas says that birdwatching is the closest he gets to a spiritual experience.  What’s your take on nature and the divine?  And does this tie into conservation? 


[NB]: The Deading toys with the divine, with fate, with time, doesn’t it? Aren’t time and its mysteries just part of why we have a divine? This need to explain time, to create ritual from it, to bottle the supernatural. Because . . . time is such a vast thing? Almost an entity in and of itself, if you really think about it. With that longing to understand time come earth’s mysterious past and creation. And with that come more questions. 

Are we just part of a big mess of lifeforms trying to control… a planet that will always be out of our ability to control? Why don’t we just help the planet? Maybe capitalism needs the divine in order to justify its fake ownership of nature? Man over beasts, and all that? All the oysters in the bay, and all that. Maybe the divine is only really found, or really a thing, when we have sudden epiphanies about nature. 


Maybe that’s all divine is, and we have to work hard to keep getting that feeling… so, we must save every endemic bird, and whale, and tree that we can, and realize that nature had never been a gift to man, or a playground meant for man, or something to always steal from, or to just watch die, one bird at a time, until there is nothing left. 


. . . and to the divine, or divine-inspired man, that is okay. But he is no different than those seeking ritual in The Deading. And isn’t that the real danger? 



Nicholas Belardes is a newly discovered novelist represented by the Jud Laghi Agency.  His first two novels, The Deading (release date July 23, 2024) and Ten Sleep (coming 2025) have been acquired by Diana Pho, Executive Editor, Erewhon Books. He is a June 2023 graduate of UC Riverside’s Low Residency MFA Program, Palm Desert, where he received the Founder’s Award given to the most promising student each year.  A self-described “old dual ethnic dude, a Chicano dude,” Belardes grew up in California. He lives and birdwatches along the Central Coast with his partner, Jane, to whom he has dedicated The Deading.  He writes both fiction and nonfiction about birds and the natural world, the American West, and the Chicano experience.  He also lectures and teaches writing at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, in the Ethnic Studies Department.      


Betty-Jo Tilley grew up on bucolic beaches and quiet foothills of Southern California, long before the frightening fantasy world of Nicholas Belardes disrupted her peaceful coexistence with nature trails and the ocean.  She likes to think her Depression Era mother, Juanita, embodied rasquachisma.  A 5th generation Californian, she is a Los Angeles-based writer, and a 37-year-veteran real estate agent.  She wonders where the time goes, and about our climate, our culture, and all things fictional and dark.  She and Nick studied nonfiction with David Ulin.  She majored in fiction with Alex Espinoza and Jill Essbaum, and is currently writing a book that is both fictional and dark; a marital noir.  

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