Chasing The Dark: A Conversation With Joe Schreiber
by Christopher Shearer
Joe Schreiber is the kind of writer other writers envy. His two horror novels, Chasing the Dead and Eat the Dark, are tightly-packed, economical powerhouses that hold the reader in a death-grip from start to finish, forcing you down and screaming Read Me! without mercy. In just under two years, Joe has established himself as one of horror’s premiere up-and-comers. He is a rare talent standing at the brink of a long and prosperous career.
Before we begin, let me tell you a little about Joe. He is friendly, the kind of guy you’d like to have a drink with, the kind of guy you’d want to sit down to watch football with-even though I’m from Ohio and he’s from Michigan. When not writing, Joe splits his time between fatherhood, to which he is unusually devoted, and his day job as an MRI tech at Hershey Medical Center in Chocolate Town USA. He is the kind of person others secretly envy and outwardly gravitate toward.
As for his fiction, Joe Schreiber writes short novels. Novels with a message. Powerful novels. Novels that don’t pull their punches. Joe’s prose is tight and taut: sharp as a razor fresh from the package. He blends thrillers and the supernatural with uncanny ease-think Ira Levin, had he been weaned on King, Straub, Schow, and Skipp. Schreiber’s fiction has been praise by some of the biggest names in the biz: Golden, Partridge, Piccirilli, and Lansdale among them. He doesn’t waste a word. He jumps right in, as we’re about to do.
… in a coffee shop outside of Hershey Park. James Taylor and Allison Kraus crooning pre-Thanksgiving Christmas carols on the radio,
Christopher Shearer: Your latest novel, Eat the Dark, takes place in a hospital and features an exploding MRI tube. How much of it is inspired by your job at Hershey Medical Center, and what parts, if any, are factual?
Joe Schreiber: A lot of it is inspired by midnight shifts I’ve worked at Hershey Medical Center. I work evenings usually, but I also pick up a fair amount of midnight shifts so a lot of it was conceived as sort of a response to the long hours I spend as pretty much the only inhabitant on the ground floor of the hospital. The radiology department is pretty much all by itself down there, so there’s really not a lot going on at two in the morning
It’s never happened to me, but one of the other technologists was working third shift one night and one of the psych patients just sort of wandered down from upstairs and meandered around the ground floor, kind of happening into the room. She called security, and the guy was basically escorted back upstairs. When I heard that I thought, that would be really unsettling. A lot of the time the techs will lock themselves in, so that whole vulnerability of the late night hospital experience pretty much came from my experiences or experiences people have told me about in MRI. And as for the exploding scanner, that’s actually accurate. People have read that and asked if that could that really happen; is there really a big red button that says THIS IS A QUENCH BUTTON DON’T PUSH, and it’s true. So all that stuff is true, the MRI technology is true because I knew that I’d be called out by my coworkers if I made stuff up, so that all actually is pretty accurate.
CS: The parental bond seems to be a recurring theme in your work. How important has becoming a father been in your life? To your writing?
JS: Well…incredibly important. Most obviously in the sense of immediacy and intensity that came along with being a parent that I didn’t feel in my writing before. When I first became a parent or found out I was becoming a parent, my feeling was just total panic as far as how I was going to support a family. Everything after that sort of all added up to providing for my family, and writing sort of had to take a back seat. But it turns out that you can’t really push an obsession into the backseat; it just becomes a more compressed, intense thing, so Chasing the Dead and Eat the Dark are both intense and quick books that were written, particularly Chasing the Dead, under some pretty intense personal circumstances on my part. When I wrote it I was going to school, going back to school. I was 35 years old in a classroom with a bunch of 18 year olds trying to learn a trade, and when I wasn’t in school I was working at the hospital or I was home with my kids, so writing pretty much had to be something that happened quickly and intensely. And the horror aspect, probably a lot of that came out of having something that needed to be protected, and there is definitely that element in the work: the importance of being a parent and protecting your offspring. But also, on the flip side, the recognition of all the horrible things that could possibly happen. Even if you were to do your best, and I think my books address this to some extent, even on the absolute best day of your life, something terrible and unexpected can come out of nowhere, and just by opening that door I think the idea of the supernatural becomes a possibility. At least it does in my imagination.
CS: Could you give us an idea of what your childhood was like?
JS: I was the oldest of three kids. My dad, who just retired, was a surgeon for almost forty years, and so growing up in Michigan, we would hear stories about the operating room at the dinner table pretty regularly. There really wasn’t a taboo subject as far as the human condition, physically, was concerned, so I was exposed to stories of blood and gore along with my meals since I was a little kid. I was always into stories and comic books and writing and drawing. There was always that aspect in my life. I was probably the last generation of kid to go out and buy an 8mm camera because this was before video; I would buy these little three-minutes spools of Kodak film and shoot movies with my friends, and that was an extension of that same storytelling and creative urge. Otherwise my childhood was pretty normal: no immediate trauma, no scars, as far as I know, that I can point out. It was a pretty normal childhood actually.
CS: The biographical blurb in Chasing the Dead says that, before the birth of your children, you moved around a great deal, rarely living in one place more than a year. Why?
JS: Well a lot of that was born out of my father’s restlessness. I have no problem blaming him for that. I was born in Michigan, and when I was six months old we moved to Alaska. My dad was a doctor for the public health service, and early on we moved around a lot. We spent time in a little fishing village in Alaska, then Wyoming, a few more places, and then California, before returning to Michigan. All of this before I was ten years old. So those formative years were spent in moving vans and a lot of different houses. That restlessness sort of stayed with me. After college, I never lived anywhere for more than a year, until I met my wife. There’s just an innate sort of restlessness that comes with being in your twenties, at least my twenties. The idea of having my belongings in the trunk of my Toyota, you know. I had some milk cases full of books and my clothes and my computer and that was it, and I was happy. I was glad to have that time to do that, because now that I’ve settled down, obviously that chapter’s closed.
In my writing I think there’s definitely a sense of forward momentum. I mean Chasing the Dead is basically like a road novel from hell. It takes place almost literally on the road to hell, and it’s almost completely told in motion; and that’s deliberate. It reflects a sense of narrative forwardness that I’ve always enjoyed in movies and books. I really like the idea of A to B to C, as far as a destination is concerned and the narrative taking place in motion. That can be an almost surreal experience in itself, in the placelessness of not knowing where you are because you’re constantly moving forward. I’ve always wanted to do a book set in an airport because it has that sort of geographical null-set: you don’t know where you are exactly, and it doesn’t really exist because you’re in a state of permanent motion. Eat the Dark takes place in one place, one setting, but again, you’ve got that sense of forward moving immediacy. There are no flashbacks. It just sort of goes, like an arrow pointing forward. I think that reflects that same sort of restlessness.
CS: Fame & success rarely happen overnight (you seem to be well on the way to both), so what are some of the other professions you have held over the years? How have they influenced your writing?
JS: Well my very first job out of college was as a professional dog walker. I was given a box of house keys to go walk people’s dogs for this house sitting service, and the best thing about it was that I could go and just sit down with my legal pad and write for twenty minutes while the dog did its business. I’ve done a bunch of weird jobs. I’ve spent basically half my life working in book stores, which is only weird if you actually do it. It seems really mundane until you’re in there and then it seems really strange. I was a script reader for Dick Clark Productions out in Burbank for awhile; I read a bunch of really, really awful, unproducable screenplays for them. I’ve been an emergency room volunteer. I’ve sold sporting goods. I worked as a law clerk one summer in Washington, DC I sort of just found jobs, jobs that I sort of stumbled across, because I was just wandering around looking for work. I was a ghost-writer. I ghost-wrote parts of Jessie “The Body” Ventura’s book, I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed, when William Morrow needed it done in about forty-eight hours back in the late nineties. I was a script doctor for a bunch of projects that almostsaw the light of day. I actually wrote a rap opera version of Dante’s Inferno one weekend because someone paid me to do it, so I’ve done some really horrible things for money in the past.
CS: What are your reading tastes? Who are your favorite authors both in and outside the genre? Favorite books?
JS: That’s a really good question about inside and outside the genre, because right now the horror genre is what I’m reading for whatever reason, and it hasn’t always been the case. I like to think my tastes are pretty Catholic as far as the different things I tend to pick up. Right now my favorite short story writer is this guy, Norman Partridge, who’s written some excellent books; Dark Harvest is great, and I’m reading some of his collections right now: Mr. Fox and The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists. Just great short stories that are all over the map, sort of plugging Universal Studios monsters into this hot-rod version of the fifties, and all with a sort of black sense of modern, almost nihilism sometimes, but he’s also got a sense of humor. He’s great. A guy named Charlie Huston is a crime writer that I like quite a bit. I finished his new book, The Shotgun Rule, not too long ago, and I thought that was excellent. Again, a sort of bleak, yet modern, almost neo-noir type of thing. And then there’re people whom I’ve always loved. Guys like Peter Abrahams and Elmore Leonard and Jim Harrison, who’s a Michigan writer, not a crime writer, but just a great writer. Cormac McCarthy, Elwood Reid, just a bunch of guys who are either crime writers or have a particular worldview. I tend to gravitate toward writers who approach their work with a strong sense of point of view, really, more than subject matter.
Within the genre of horror, J.F. Gonzalez. Survivor just blew my mind. I read it almost exactly one year ago. I remember sitting on my couch after Thanksgiving reading this horrible snuff movie novel and feeling like I was going to go to hell for it but unable to put it down. Other horror writers who I like…obviously there’re the classics, like Stephen King and Peter Straub. Peter Straub was a big enough influence that I had to go back and learn how to not write like him after I’d read him enough. Clive Barker’s stuff I like quite a bit, the early stuff, and then there’s stuff from the seventies by guys like Jim Herbert. His giant rat novels are just tons of fun, but I’m always the guy who will pick up a first novel if it looks intriguing. They, for some reason, tend to be the ballsiest moves people make as writers. Or the horrible mass market paperbacks you find at yard sales from the seventies, a lot of the time those turn out to be great too.
CS: What do your family and friends think of your writing?
JS: My wife is used to it; although, she did say that at some point she expects me to just snap and hunt her down with an axe. I’m not sure if she was kidding or not. My kids love what I do because I tell them scary stories, and I can’t remember now if I was the one who initiated it or if they asked me to tell them a story; but their appetite for it is insatiable now, and they’re pretty harsh critics. They’ve listened to enough of my stories now that they’ll tell me if it’s good or not, but they love it to the point where they’re almost hyperaware of what I do. My daughter came up to me the other day and said, “Daddy I’m sorry you had to work on the book for so long before you got it published.” And I think: you’re four years old. How do you even know that?
My coworkers at the Medical Center just think it’s kind of funny. They don’t understand why a writer needs another job. They think it’s strange that I also have to work forty hours a week. God, I wish their worldview was a little bit more on target.
Then there’s my mother who’s still waiting for me to write a nice mainstream novel, which I actually tried once, and it was horrible. I tried because I want to be a good son, and I want to make her happy; but when you feel the urge to vomit as you’re writing a scene, you just have to say, no, that’s not for me.
CS: Back in 1994 you released a non-horror novel. What drew you to dark fiction?
JS: Well I think it was just embracing this thing that I’d always loved. I think I shied away from that with Next of Kin back in 94. It was a suspense book that almost had a supernatural element. If you look at it, there’s a character in there who talks about how at one point she had a set of wings and her abusive father held her down and cut them off, and then you realize that it’s a sort of psychotic episode related to her sexual abuse history, which is very horrible, too. But, as I look at it now, the writer, the horror writer in me, wanted to write something fantastic, but I reined it back in. There was a mania back at that time where everyone was writing about people with a sexual abuse history. Stephen King wrote Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne, and both of those had that element of child sexual abuse in them. I’d read those, and I’d decided that if I was going to write a serious novel it had to have a character with some sort of sexual abuse history, but looking back, I almost feel like that may have been the wrong move to make, partly because it was going in with a trend, but also because the book may have been more interesting with a fantastic element included in it.
The first stories I ever wrote-when I was really learning to enjoy writing-were all like EC Comics driven horror stories. They were just balls out, completely unembarrassed horror stories. The first story I wrote was about this abusive, grotesquely obese food critic, who entered a restaurant with his wife and berated her throughout dinner, humiliating her. He ordered this huge plate of fish eggs, and they hatched inside his belly, splitting it open. All these fish came pouring out, and that was my idea of a great story. It had everything. It had cruelty, and it had redemption, and it had these fish coming out of this guy’s belly, so I was all set. It’s always been my immediate tendency to write that sort of stuff. I don’t know if it was a movement so much as a return to what I initially loved.
CS: Do your own fears find their way into your work?
JS: As a parent-and this may be the obvious answer-I spend a lot of time worrying about my kids, and terrible things haven’t happened to my kids, thank God, but, at the same time, it’s always in the corner of your mind, this sense that everything is going smoothly, everything is going well, and then something happens that just changes your life around. As an MRI tech, everyday this week I’ve done MRIs of these four and five year olds with enormous tumors inside their bones and brains. You’re exposed to this, and you can’t help but think about what you’d do if that was your kid. And there’s no rhyme or reason to it. The universe takes what it wants to take, and once you realize that, it’s really hard not to write horror. But, you know, your editor won’t let you write something that doesn’t have some sort of logic within the narrative, but the world doesn’t have to conform to that. You could have a great life and then something absolutely awful could happen without an explanation. So a lot of my fears center around my kids and my family, and that does find its way into my work.
CS: Have you ever scared yourself with your writing?
JS: No, not with anything I’ve written, but I scare myself a lot with the question: when am I going to have time to write again? It’s an interesting idea because, as a writer, there’s this constant sense of anxiety which is different than that all-out, balls-out fear that you go for when you’re writing horror a lot of the time. There’s just sort of this anxiety about the openness of the story you’re working on. I’m working on a book right now called The Black Wing, which is about, among other things, this story that has carried through the generations of a cursed family. Once you start it you feel compelled to finish it, and in finishing it you lose your mind. That allegorically addresses a lot of the anxieties I have as a writer, in that I’m working on this thing, this thing that’s completely within my imagination, and yet it’s an obsession, and it draws me away from the “real things” around me. So it’s an unsettling topic to write about, but it’s very real in my life. I think it’s possible that I could scare myself pretty badly if I tried to write three a.m. in the hospital, and maybe that’s why I choose not to do it.
CS: Could you describe a typical workday for Joe Schreiber?
JS: I don’t think that even exists for me right now, but my wife is really cool about knowing there’s a period of time, midmorning, two or three hours before lunch when it’s work time for me. Usually, I’ll get up with my kids and spend an hour with them, just playing with them, getting breakfast for them, drinking coffee, walking the dog, that sort of thing, and then, hopefully something happens where the kids and my wife are able to not need me for a couple of hours, and I’ll write. In the last house-we just moved this last week-I’d haul the laptop onto the back porch and work as hard and as smart and as focused as I could for those couple of hours, and then it’d be a mad scramble to get ready for work. If something’s going really well or I’m in the home stretch of it, I’ll sometimes work on it when I get back at night. I’ve gotten up at four or five in the morning to work on things too, but I think I’m better with the other template. That’s as close to a routine workday as I get.
CS: When you sit down to start a novel, do you begin with a character in mind? A situation?
JS: It really depends. You know, I just read this interview with Elmore Leonard the other week, and he said the best time to start a book is when you’re not planning to start a book, because you spend forever trying to build up that momentum to start, and thinking you should start here or here or here, and he says, no. When the idea hits you that’s when you should start writing, and that’s eerily accurate for me. I’ve started some of the things I’ve liked the most almost incidentally. Chasing the Dead was certainly that way. When I wrote it, I knew there was going to be a phone call and that something had happened to the main character’s daughter, and I knew that the voice on the other end was going to make her exhume a corpse. That’s all I had when I started that story, which wasn’t a lot, but it turned out to be more than enough. I think if the elements match up right, that’s a good thing, but I certainly can’t prescribe that idea to everybody. Different writers work with all different types of technique. I’m not an outliner by nature. That to me just kind of paralyzes the process. I’m at my best, I think, when I’m simultaneously living and dying with the characters, and a lot of the time I’ll stop myself from planning ahead. I’d rather rewrite it and make it better than come up with this hard and fast skeleton and try to hang meat off of it.
CS: Your two horror novels, Eat the Dark and Chasing the Dead, move at a very lifelike pace. Every minute the reader is reading equates to a minute in the book’s timeline. Is this intentional, and how does it help or hurt the story?
JS: I love real time, and I maybe love it too much. The Black Wing was initially written at maybe more of a breakneck pace than it needed, and I think the problem is that it can be a crutch for an insecure writer, who’s concerned that they’re going to lose the reader, and I’m definitely one of those writers. I’m always paranoid that the reader’s going to find something more interesting than my book and be distracted from it, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I mean MTV has reduced our attention spans to thirty seconds or less. But I think there has to be some element of trust between the writer and the reader. I shouldn’t always have to grab the reader by the throat to pull him forward, but those books-Chasing the Dead, Eat the Dark, and The Black Wing -were all written with that exact fear in mind.
What it says to me when I start to read a real time novel is that the writer’s going to do whatever it takes to entertain the reader from start to finish. Story first. It’s like this manifesto that’s unwritten within the real time timeframe. So I do, I love it, and I think it’s great, and used properly, it’s the perfect tool for a lot of stories. Having said that, I think the next thing I do is not going to be in real time because it can also be limiting.
CS: In your fiction, the characters’ inner turmoil, be it indecision, marriage woes, regret, seems to both feed off of and enhance the outside threat in the story. How important is it for you to create reader empathy for the plight of your characters?
JS: I think it’s vital, and I think ideally that grows organically out of the story. One of the things I like about Norman Partridge is that he writes about these crazy things. I mean he writes about a sheriff who has a werewolf locked up in his jail cell or something, but he doesn’t start with a werewolf. He starts with this guy who’s got a crush on a waitress, and by the time you get to the werewolf, you totally buy it because the human relationship is so familiar to you. And I think, especially if you’re dealing in the realm of the supernatural, it is so key to win the reader’s interest first with a human element that they can identify with and that’s familiar to them. Eat the Dark was reviewed really, really well by Romantic Times, which surprised me. I had this Romantic Times reviewer call me up one morning to say that she’d just read my book, and that she never reads horror but the characters I was talking about and their relationship was interesting enough to her that she really enjoyed the story. And I was thrilled because she had just read a book about a serial killer in a hospital. That human element is really your entranceway into the supernatural. Good horror, obviously, works on a human level. Otherwise every book would be likeHostel 2. And I don’t mean to slam Hostel 2, but torture porn at its worst is just a fuck in a butcher shop. Horror at its worst is the same sort of thing. You have to have that human element, and I think that’s why Stephen King has enjoyed such phenomenal success for thirty years. He writes characters that people settle into almost immediately. Compare it to your favorite metaphor: going to McDonald’s or putting on a comfortable pair of shoes or whatever: you know exactly where you are as soon as you open a Stephen King book, and he his so good at that. He’s just a natural, and I think that’s a perfect testimonial to the importance of it.
CS: How attached, personally, do you become to your characters?
JS: Really attached. It’s funny because I was on this panel at the San Diego Comicon this summer with F. Paul Wilson, David Morrell, Max Collins, and Richard Morgan called “Kill your Darlings” that was all about killing your characters. They all had really interesting things to say about what it’s like to have to kill or not kill your characters, and I’ve really struggled with that. My tendency’s to write darker and then shade lighter. I mean, I’ll kill somebody off and then realize afterwards that I made a wrong step. As a writer, I’ll tend to go too far first, and then in the revision process, I’ll sort of allow that person to earn their way back to life. One of the main characters in Eat the Dark died in the first draft, and once I killed her off I realized that she had died because she didn’t have a redeemable trait to save her life. So I went back and looked at her character, and I found these survival instincts that didn’t exist the first time around. And she lived at the end of the second version, which, for me, is the definitive story.
I always become attached to the characters as they become real to me. The character of Sue Young in Chasing the Dead was real to me from the beginning, and I was really, really worried that something bad was going to happen to her As a writer, I have to care about the people I write about, and it does get very difficult to see them come to a dark end; but at the same time if the story takes them there you just have to watch it play out.
CS: What do you feel are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?
JS: One of my strengths-and maybe it’s a weakness too-has always been my enthusiasm about the work. I sometimes have to resist the urge to write things prematurely. If I have something I’m excited about it’s like “I have to start writing this,” and it works well when you’re just starting out and what you need to do is write, write, write to find your voice and practice with the words. But there comes a point when you need to step back and become a little more reflective. To me writing has always been pleasure. It’s never felt like work. Even the rap opera of Dante’s Inferno. It’s just the best thing in the world for me to do; it’s my favorite thing.
Sometimes I try to work faster than I should, and I shoot myself in the foot. Because of the cutbacks in mainstream publishing, the editors that remain inherit these enormous amounts of work, and they can’t give you the time they were able to even ten years ago. So the writer has to be more focused coming out of the gate than was needed ten or twenty years ago, making planning and patience on the writer’s part that much more important. I’m very fortunate because I have a great editor at Dell Ray/Ballantine who’s very hands-on, but even he doesn’t have the time to give the story as much as he’d like to. So I think one of my weaknesses is not taking the time, being too enthusiastic about getting a story underway when I really should have spent a little more time thinking about it.
I know I write characters that people tend to enjoy, and I don’t hesitate to put them in the worst imaginable scenarios; I think those are some strengths to what I write.
CS: I’ve noticed on your blog that you’ve begun to post short stories. Do the readers possibly have a collection to look forward to?
JS: I would love to do a short story collection. One of the cool things about horror is that it seems to really encourage that. There are so many great short story collections being published. It seems like every year you see great anthologies of horror stories, and I would love to do something like that. The short story form is something that I continue to explore and enjoy; my tendency naturally is to go for the novel, write longer, but the month of October was particularly good for me short story wise. I think I wrote four or five, and the blog was a perfect place to put them up, because you get that satisfaction of being able to communicate with your audience directly, and it looked like a lot of people who were reading them did it while they should have been working. It delights me that I could help somebody waste corporate time, and that somewhere there’s a multinational corporation paying somebody to sit and read my stories.
CS: What’s next for Joe Schreiber?
JS: The Black Wing, hopefully. I’m waiting for notes from my editor. I’m really anxious to finish this novel. I think it’s great, and I think it’s going to be a step up as far as the sort of things people enjoy about my work. It’s going to be new enough that people will really enjoy it. I also just finished a Jaws-like, non-supernatural novel about a dysfunctional family on a pontoon boat called Stillwater, and it’s the other thing that’s out there right now. Also, I’ve started working on a couple of new things: both a supernatural and non-supernatural project. I’m going to end up having this sort of dual writing career, going back and forth between the paranormal and the more mainstream thrillers that I enjoyed when I was growing up.