This Friday, Terror House Press will release its 41st book: NUTCRANKR by Dan Baltic, a novel exploring social atomization, fringe ideology, sexual dysfunction, and other topics. Best known for co-hosting the arts and culture podcast New Write alongside Matthew Pegas (author of Dragon Day, published by Terror House last year), NUTCRANKR is Dan’s first book. Andy Nowicki describes NUTCRANKR as “an unflinching presentation of a deeply deluded, yet pitiable narcissist, and a devastating critique of the ‘deradicalization’ racket.” I recently sat down for an interview with Dan to discuss his book, his experience in the entertainment industry, being Extremely Online, and other topics.
Matt Forney: You’ve been a presence in our corner of the Internet for some time, mainly known for the podcast you co-host with Matthew Pegas, New Write. What inspired you to write NUTCRANKR?
Dan Baltic: NUTCRANKR actually started before New Write. When the lockdown hit back in spring of 2020, my industry was significantly affected. As a result, I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands. There’s only so much drinking you can do locked down in your New York City one-bedroom apartment, so I decided to use that time to write a novel.
That said, I didn’t so much choose NUTCRANKR as NUTCRANKR chose me. My writing practice is to write freely until I find a voice I like. So, in this case, I wrote and wrote until I found the voice of Spencer Grunhauer, the protagonist of NUTCRANKR. And as I explored Spencer’s voice, he came into sharper focus and his story began to take shape.
Of course, this is a novel that deals with masculinity, reactionary politics, social atomization, the dysfunctional dating landscape, and other related topics. But I didn’t set out to write about these things; I set out to write about what interests me. To the extent NUTCRANKR says anything about these topics, it’s because that’s where my thoughts wandered after I made Spencer’s acquaintance.
MF: Both you and Matt have backgrounds in the entertainment industry and your thoughts—and complaints—about the state of the art and literary worlds have been a recurring topic on New Write. How did your observations on the entertainment industry inform the writing process for NUTCRANKR, if at all?
DB: This may surprise you, but I was actually holding back to some extent writing NUTCRANKR. It’s a wild, offensive, horny tale, but it could have been far worse (or better, depending on one’s point of view). I originally wrote NUTCRANKR with the goal of securing an agent and a mainstream publisher in mind. And in fact, I shopped NUTCRANKR around a bit in the publishing industry. Needless to say, Simon and Schuster was not ready for the NUT. But this was for the best, as NUTCRANKR found its forever home in Terror House Press. Whereas a mainstream publisher would have extensively censored NUTCRANKR before it ever saw the light of day, Terror House Press did not censor a single word. Moreover, Terror House Press has the best readers; readers hungry for raw stories that tell them difficult but often hilarious truths. These are the people I want reading NUTCRANKR. I think there’s something for everyone in my novel, but I wrote it for people like the readers of Terror House and the fans of New Write. I wrote it for our guys.
MF: NUTCRANKR has been compared to the work of John Kennedy Toole, and your work also exhibits influences from Michel Houellebecq and other authors. What other writers and thinkers have had the biggest influence on your work and ideas?
DB: I owe a lot of my style to Sam Lipsyte. Sam’s written some of the funniest novels out there and employs a dramatic irony in his writing similar to that in NUTCRANKR. It’s a technique where the protagonist is behaving outrageously, but only the author and reader are aware of it. This creates an intimacy that’s perfect for drawing laughs out of the reader and drawing him deeper into the story.
I’m also a fan of Tom Wolfe and drew upon the social and political satire of novels like The Bonfire of the Vanities when writing NUTCRANKR. Going back a little further in time, I consider Kingsley Amis an influence. He, too, employed a cracking dramatic irony in Lucky Jim, a satire of campus life that inspired some of the college chapters in NUTCRANKR.
To expand the field a bit further, I also count among my influences David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Junot Diaz, and our mutual friends Delicious Tacos and Caleb Caudell. Tacos writes with lyrical abandon about the hard realities of dating life (and life in general) as a man. Caleb’s The Neighbor is one of the best novels I read last year. And his essays about life as a blue-collar man in middle America are some of the most poignant commentaries on life in the twenty-first century out there.
As grandiose as this sounds, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Miguel de Cervantes as an influence. Spencer Grunhauer is very much a quixotic figure, quite literally spending a good portion of NUTCRANKR’s approximately 65,000 words tilting at windmills. While we all owe a debt to the father of the modern novel, perhaps Spencer owes more than most.
MF: A running theme in NUTCRANKR is the contradiction between the protagonist’s disgust with the degeneracy of modern society and his own personal degeneracy. Spencer Grunhauer rails against the destruction of traditional values while looking for casual sex on fetish sites, obsessively watching porn (the book’s title comes from one of his favorite porn sites), and trying to convince a married woman to abandon her husband, among other things. These behaviors are obvious in the real world—just look at some of the people around us—and this theme has been explored in other books, such as Tito Perdue’s The Node and the works of Terror House’s own Andy Nowicki. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
DB: One of the central conceits of NUTCRANKR is that Spencer is trying to seduce a progressive woman, Crystal Clancy, in order to indoctrinate her in the ways of patriarchy. Spencer convinces himself that his relationship with Crystal is part of some grand project to restore the “historic West,” but, in truth, he’s just horny and lonely.
Not that Spencer’s wrong to feel this way. Sex and companionship are among the most important parts of life. You can’t have happy and healthy families without first having happy and healthy couples. But due to a number of factors with which the readers are probably familiar, the dating landscape is a bit messed up these days. So, you have people taking their pleasures wherever they can and looking for connection in all the wrong places. Spencer is one such person.
MF: Building on this theme, an unstated but present element in NUTCRANKR is the tension between the online and real worlds and how being Extremely Online alters one’s behavior and personality. Spencer constantly attempts to live out his “reactionary” beliefs in his personal life to disastrous results, and he usually rationalizes his poor or degenerate choices by justifying them as advancing “the Project” somehow. The surface-level reading is to dismiss this kind of behavior as hypocrisy, but I think there’s something else going on here relating to how the Internet has affected how people act, a theme that has been explored in other recent works such as Mencius Moldbugman’s Unsqualified Preservations (published by Terror House this past summer). What are your observations on being Extremely Online and the behavioral contradictions and dysfunctions that emerge in those who live their lives through the screen?
DB: In some respects, NUTCRANKR is a story about what happens when you spend too much time on the Internet.
Don’t get me wrong; the Internet can be a great tool, connecting you to like-minded people and helping you learn more about the world. In fact, I’ve made some great IRL friends on the Internet, including my co-host on New Write and fellow Terror House Press author, Matt Pegas. That said, it’s all too easy to withdraw from the real world and start living your life online, especially in this age of social atomization.
But real world connections are crucial. You need to drink with friends, see your family, even make small talk with co-workers. This is how you stay grounded. Because you will realize that people are complicated, that the political and social questions of our time have a human face. Not everything is ironic. Not everything is fake. And the stronger your real life connections are, the stronger your writing will become. Because you won’t just be drawing from books and theory, but from the best teacher of all: experience.
MF: One of the more skillful devices you employ in NUTCRANKR is inserting the reader into Spencer’s perspective so thoroughly that the abnormal and bizarre things he thinks and does seem normal, at least at first. This is something that many authors who write about mentally ill/fringe characters struggle to do; your work has parallels to Clancy Martin’s Bad Sex or Peter D. Bellone’s Id Idiot in how well you pull this off. What suggestions, if any, do you have for writers who want to write more convincingly from the perspective of characters like Spencer Grunhauer?
DB: To be honest, you either have it or you don’t.
You have to write until you find a voice that you can channel and inhabit. If that voice is the voice of a deranged person, then congratulations: you can write a novel from the perspective of a deranged person. But there’s no way to teach someone to write in any particular voice. In fact, if you’re consciously trying to emulate a certain voice, you’ll almost certainly fail to do so. You’ll sound like a writer trying to sound like someone else, instead of the person himself.
Given this is the case, my advice is to write unselfconsciously. Relax your muscles. Tell yourself that your writing doesn’t have to be good. Tell yourself that you need never have to share it. No one falls in love while he’s trying to fall in love. No one writes his masterpiece while he’s trying to write his masterpiece.
MF: While NUTCRANKR is your first novel, you’ve been immersed in the arts world for quite some time. What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring writers looking to improve their craft and/or get noticed?
DB: There’s no better time to be a writer with talent and ambition. Because today there’s no barrier to entry.
That said, talent and ambition alone are not enough. In the words of Delicious Tacos, if you want to become famous as a writer, the trick is to get famous for something else first. This is to say: you have to build a readership before you release your first novel. For example, I’ve been cohosting New Write for over a year and Tweeting all day every day. As a result, I now have an audience. But not just any audience; I have the audience I want. And when you have the audience you want, you have everything you need. Because a writer without readers is like a lover without a woman. Your skills don’t matter unless you have someone with whom to share them.
From a craft perspective, my advice is simple and by no means unique: you must write every day. Failing that, you must write as much as you can. Your writing ability is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. And when you have a strong writing style, you’ll have the confidence to take the risks you’ll need to take to see the story through to the end.
MF: Finally, do you have any future books or other projects on the horizon?
DB: I’m almost done with a short story about a TikTok dominatrix. She’s one of those cringey lib TikTok women, but she’s hot in a PAWGish way and right-wing men pay her to threaten to doxx them. I’m planning to submit this one to Terror House, so you’ll see it soon.
On New Write, we have a bunch of great guests lined up through the end of the year, including Raw Egg Nationalist, Bennett’s Phylactery, Max Thrax, Kevin Kautzman and many more.
MF: Thank you for your time.
NUTCRANKR will be released on Friday, November 11 via Terror House Press. If you want to learn more about the book, you can read excerpts at Terror House Magazine here. Additionally, Dan will be reading an excerpt from the book at Terror House’s event in New York City this Saturday; you can learn more here.