James Newman is the author of a diverse array of horror and suspense tales told with a Southern twang and a hint of pitch-black humor. Newman’s publications include Midnight Rain, The Wicked, Animosity, Ugly as Sin, Odd Man Out, Scapegoat (co-written with Adam Howe), Dog Days O’ Summer (co-written Mark Allan Gunnells) and In the Scrape (co-written with Mark Steensland) along with a feature film adaptation of The Special (based on Newman’s novella co-written with Mark Steensland). His newest release is a lean mean novella called Ride Or Die, available now through Silver Shamrock Publishing.
Here, we cover a plethora of in-depth topics like how the man finds time to write, his process when collaborating with other authors, writing convincing dialogue, his lifelong heroes, and a whole lot more. Enjoy!
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: In recollecting your work so far, how many books do you have on the shelves right now? I think you’ve got to have close to twenty-five, thirty titles between your solo stuff, your co-written stuff, novellas, and novels.
JAMES NEWMAN: Yeah, that’s probably about right. Four full length novels. More novellas that I can count off the top of my head. Collaborations and so on. Yeah, thirty, forty; not sure.
Of course, you’ve got umpteen amounts of short stories out there as well in various collections, and your own collections. Where do you find the time, because that’s one thing that I know personally I always struggle with — just trying to find the time to sit down and write. I’m not nearly, as far as the fiction stuff obviously, not even nearly as prolific as you are.
I would probably consider myself to be very un-prolific compared to some, but I definitely don’t write every day, which is a shame because a lot of my favorite authors and influences like Joe Lansdale, recommend write every day. That’s how you get it done. Sit your butt in the chair and do it. Everyone has their own process, and that doesn’t really work for me. To answer your question, I just do it whenever I can steal the time.
It sort of ebbs and flows. There are times when I’m really neck deep in a project where I do write every day. Then there may be several weeks where I’m just doing research and notes, and I’m not actually writing. Or the day job has got me covered up, and the last thing I want to do sit down in front of a computer after doing it all day. Just doing the time whenever I can, that’s the best answer to that question.
With the newest one, Ride or Die, this isn’t your typical YA novel. My mindset is still very much in a YA, very innocent, where things are sort of nice and naïve, and all of a sudden these kids come across this horrible thing that they never really imagined was waiting for them at this house, just simply because they wanted to get some revenge on the one girl’s father’s mistress that she finds out about. That’s not much of a spoiler. You find that out fairly quickly. Of course, how that all entails is really is the book. Can you talk a little bit about that? How’d you get those attitudes down and the YA angst? Obviously, you’re a dad of teens as well who clearly pays attention to your kids and probably their friends as well, but how did you get all that down so believable?
This one was a little bit tougher because one thing I definitely can’t relate to is a teenage girl. I’ve got nieces that I’m pretty close to, but I’ve got two boys, so I’ve never really lived with a teenage girl. I actually had to put this one out there. I don’t do this a lot. You usually don’t want people to see what you’re working on until your finished with. But I had the first ten or twelve pages, and I actually shared it with a few female friends and relatives just to ask them, “Hey, am I getting this right? Is this totally unbelievable? Is the voice obviously a guy trying to write girls, and it’s failing miserably? Be honest with me.”
What’s cool is they pretty much 99% came back with, “You got it. Keep going.” There were a couple of instances where they would say, “Well, I’ve never said that to a friend of mine, but maybe a younger girl would in modern times.” Then a younger girl, for example my niece, would be like, “Yeah, I’ve said that to my friends.” You have to weigh the opinions. It was cool to get that input, but it’s very interesting to hear you say that about how it was YA then quickly became not, because that’s what I was going for.
As with any story you try to establish the characters first, create realism, whether you are going for humor or drama, you want real characters. Then when you throw in the horror stuff, the audience is already with you. They’re buying that this is real no matter how over the top it is. Without giving too much away, because one of the things we did in the back cover copy is stay away from exactly what the villain is — the evil, the conflict.
I wanted to mention to you and to those who have read it, you might find it interesting that the villain in the story — villains — were very much influenced by someone from your neck of the woods. I’m not sure if you are familiar with who I’m talking about.
From St. Catharines?
They’re mentioned at one point in the book, yeah.
You know I just got a shiver there actually.
Very loosely based on them. The co-worker that I mentioned to you earlier before we were recording, when we were just chatting, was from a block away from where they lived.
I actually named the street that that bad guy lives on after her.
What about some of the first horror books you can remember, the horror movies and books that you can remember, coming across and loving that stayed with you today that might have even influenced some of your fun factor for a lot of stuff you write?
You got some great questions.
Your welcome for putting you on the spot.
The very first adult horror novel that I ever read was The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons. I’ve read that several times since. It’s a favorite. The very first Stephen King book I read was Salem’s Lot. What really made me who I am today as far as when I was very young were the Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark books. I loved the stories, but just as much I loved Stephen Gammell’s artwork. I don’t know if you’re familiar, Rick, but the illustrations in those books are pure nightmare fuel.
Yeah, I find out after the movie came out and looked it up. They’re great.
He had a very weird stringy style. Everything is very sinewy, and it’s just so creepy. No one’s ever done anything like that since. Those are some influences as far as fiction. Movies — I’ve told this story so many times, but I love to tell it, so people are just going to have to hear it one more time.
When I was all of four years old, my dad took me to see The Incredible Melting Man at the theater. I don’t know why because that movie is filled with sex and violence. Ever since then I was hooked. A year or two later — I was five I guess — my parents took my sister and I to see the original Halloween in theater. I remember being scared and begging to go home, peaking over the back seat, and then my mom would turn to my dad and say, “This was a bad idea. We need to leave.” Then I’d be like, “No, no no. I wanna see more.”
Even at that age I knew I was simultaneously repulsed and obsessed over this stuff. I remember Dark Night of the Scarecrow on tv when I was ten or so. Those movies that you remember that made you who you are.
A hundred percent.
The Exorcist, an edited for tv version, when I was ten or eleven, that somehow scared me more in the scenes when she was in the hospital getting poked and prodded with needles, more so than the head spinning and the vomiting. It’s odd but I can remember being more horrified by those scenes than the supernatural stuff.
Sure. Do you find that there are some scenes that you’ve read, and certainly with Ride or Die and other stuff like it, that you’ve had to check your own moral compass about? Or do you find that when you’re writing scenes that are of particular horrific nature, certainly involving kids and such, that it’s business as usual, where you’re like, “All right, I am just going to get through the scene. No big deal. I’m still the same guy. Do it for the story. Okay, done that scene; move on to the next one?” Or do you need to go hug your kids after? Do you need a hug from your wife after and being told that everything’s going to be alright again? How do you find your processes through those particularly gruesome scenes?
I do tend to hug my kids after. I read somewhere that Stephen King said he would write about bad things happening to kids, because if you imagine the worst, it wouldn’t happen to your kids. I can totally relate to that. I feel that it makes sense as a parent.
Probably the only thing I’ve ever written that I hesitated with and had a difficult time with was Odd Man Out. That might have been more the tone of the whole thing than anything specific that happens to the main character. I found myself about halfway through that book knowing what was coming and just questioning myself a lot, where I normally don’t question myself on content — more on do I have what it takes to pull this off.
As far as the tone went with Odd Man Out, I kept wondering is this just too bleak? There is absolutely nothing uplifting about this. It’s depressing. It’s horrible the things that people will do to each other. You mentioned Jack Ketchum. I see Odd Man Out as my Girl Next Door in a way. It’s just so bleak and uncompromising, and you know it won’t end well. It really got to me as I was writing that. Am I doing what I should be doing here? This is nothing but a book about suffering. Then I realized good horror can be about something else. It can make people think, “Hey, maybe we should treat each other a little better. So, I’ve got to power on and do this.”
Awesome. That’s one book that I have not read of yours. I need to pick that one up because that’s a shorter one as well, I believe. That’s a novella, about 150 pages or so?
It’s probably about the same length as Ride or Die; maybe a little longer.
One of the things that I love about horror that you really touched on there James is that you can really learn a lot from it because you’re given the safety net. You’re given this world that you can really explore these horrible things to wonder How do I feel about that? or How would I react about that? Or God forbid I see somebody else going through this: How will that affect them? How will that affect me from looking on it from the outside? Do you find truth for some of those type of scenes that you do, especially as you’re able to look back and it’s a completed product, and maybe you’re starting to get some of that feedback from early readers, from people that have read these books, that have stuck with you or that maybe tried your book out for the first — maybe it’s their first foray into horror or into your body of work? Is there anything you’ve maybe learned about yourself or about maybe change your perspective on life that was unexpected because you pushed through those horrific scenes and went to that uncomfortable part of the ocean, if you will?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I do think that reader reaction has surprised me, especially on Odd Man Out. I didn’t necessarily think it would be pretentious or presumptuous at best to think, “I’m writing something that has social value, here. This is going to change people’s lives.” That’s not what I set out to do. I just set out to write a story, where the basic theme was maybe we should stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves and just be descent people in the guise of a horror story, and struggled with it a few times because it is just so bleak.
Then to hear the reader reaction that “This story changed my life. This story should be assigned to high schoolers as mandatory reading material.” There is no better compliment than that for a writer. That’s amazing. It’s nice to know that maybe subconsciously you’ve done something that matters. I don’t know if I’m really answering the question, but that’s what I’ve got. It’s a good feeling to know that you didn’t set out with some pretentious goal, but you did achieve a goal in the way that readers reacted to your story. It means a lot.
I really appreciate that response. It actually does answer the question as well. Again, a lot of things tie into our old friend, Dallas Mayr a.k.a. Jack Ketchum, because I do remember one particular thing. I covered his Girl Next Door certainly with the film adaptation coming out, and I’ll never forget one of the things that he always said when what people’s various reactions to that. He said, “Well, a lot of people would walk out of the theaters, and they were pissed off, and they were angry, and they’re like, ‘How could you?’” His impression of that was, “Well, if the book pissed you off, and it angered you, good. That was the point. You should be angry at that. You shouldn’t stand for that sort of treatment, whether it’s on the page, in real life, on the screen, what have you. That should piss you off. Now we’ll talk about it and have those discussions and talk about why you’re pissed off about it.” Maybe you got the same impressions.
I can definitely relate. A bad review’s one thing. We all got them, but there were a couple I got for Odd Man Out that said, “We get it. This is nothing but homophobia, just people calling each other racial slurs and picking on the gay guy. Could you beat your reader over the head with it?” Okay, maybe I did, but it got a reaction out of you that people still act like that. I remember reading another review where, again it’s the reader’s opinion. They have a right to review negatively, just like the readers that love your work. But one reviewer said something to the effect of, “Women are objectified in this story, even by the people who are supposed to be good guys.” You know what, that’s life. People do that. Sometimes people who are not necessarily even bad people do that, but maybe we should look inside ourselves and see why do we do that. To write about characters who are flawed or are flat out bad to me is just writing realism.
Absolutely. It’s very interesting. We could go on certainly for quite some time talking about all the different examples and all the different movements when it comes to racism, sexuality, all the different events that we have to try to have those, as far as I’m concerned, those stains on our society that are still so prevalent. You’re worried about having all these ideals stuffed down your throat as far as, “Well, yeah I get it. I get it. You know let’s stop talking about it.” Well, there’s a lot of people who are still living it that feel like they’re having to beat everybody else over the head to try to get their own lives to feel like those privileged people that just don’t understand it.
There was a guy after Midnight Rain had come out. I was getting ready to publish my second book. This is a guy I worked with, and he made the comment — I’ll never forget this, Rick. It really got to me, and I wished I’d handled it differently. He said, “Well, I’m looking forward to your next book, but I hope that it’s less racist than the last one.”
Oh, my goodness.
I wished that I had allowed that to open up a dialogue between us instead of just shrugging it off, because I’m not sure if he meant, “Your book was racist because the villain was racist,” which in my opinion when people take that opinion of writers who are writing bad characters must feel the same way as they’re bad guys. To me that’s just stupid, and there’s not too much that you can say to someone who feels that way, because it was obviously the bad guy. C’mon.
Then if he meant it the other way, which was, as you said a minute ago, “You’re beating me over the head with this. The racism, I don’t want to hear it.” Well, maybe I should have taken that as an opportunity to talk with the guy. Why does it bother you to hear about these things? Would you rather just ignore them because you think these things don’t exist? Or you’re okay with these things? Because a lot of people will just say they’re being beaten over the head with these things just think, “Quit you’re complaining. Quit rocking the boat.” Maybe we should rock the boat because why are you okay with that.
Years later, I wished I had handled that whole conversation differently and not just shrugged it off and asked him, “Tell me what you mean–“
I understand that. That’s such a shock.
“I’d like to know more about what you mean by that.”
It’s one of those things because it probably angered you, because you are such an advocate for equality and exploring those aspects of our society and humanity in a lot of your work. It’s clearly very important to you that I imagine – and you being the humble, nice guy that you are – maybe it’s just as well that you checked yourself. This person is probably go on living the way they are, but I understand where you’re coming from with wishing you had that conversation with him. I’m sure it was such a shock to you, your initial thing was WTF! and how do I collect my thoughts without coming across like what I really want to say to this person, because you’re angry. Maybe if you said what was automatically on your mind, he might have said, “Yeah, see. I knew he was just an angry person. He writes angry characters.” Who knows, right?
On the same topic, I have had marginalized readers who have read my stuff like Midnight Rain, like Odd Man Out, and there’s a little bit of it in Ride or Die, who — those books are, I don’t want to say packed with a racial or homophobic slurs. Midnight Rain probably was. Odd Man was, and Ride or Die there was a slur used once, because there’s a gay character in the story. I’ve had marginalized readers read those stories and tell me there wasn’t a damned thing wrong with that story, because people use those words. As hurtful as they are, you’ve got to have realism in your stories and not tiptoe around it. The last thing they took away from that story was that James is a racist homophobe.
It couldn’t be further from the truth. At least you’re getting people talking about it. You would hope that they would just take the moment to, maybe when they’re alone or something with their own thoughts so they can go back and maybe explore why they feel the way they do about some of those topics.
Regarding the limited time that you do for writing, are you — a lot of people use the word pantser, where you just go for it. Are you more of a spontaneous writer? Or do you find that you have to outline things because you’ve got such a limited scatter time to get the writing in?
Probably somewhere in the middle. I hate the term pantser too, by the way.
It’s weird. Yeah, somewhere in the middle. I don’t write a hard set in-stone outline. I’ll have a very loose list of scenes that I think need to happen in this order. In a way, I guess it’s sort of an outline, but it’s so loose and fluid that things can be flip-flopped around, and it’s a little bit more simultaneous. I have to have some kind of road map, because I’m terrified at the thought of writing 300 pages, and then finding that I painted myself into a corner. So, yeah, just a loose list of scenes. A very loose outline, I guess.
Like signposts where you want to get here, but how you get there is up in the air.
Not to make it seem like that book is a What Have You Done For Me Lately? here James, but what is it that you’re working on right now? Do you have any current works in progress? Do you have anything mapped out that you’re hoping to do next?
Right now I’m working on a couple of different short stories. Not really neck-deep in any major projects, except I am working on another collaboration. It’s like, I don’t want to say hush-hush but in a way it is. Without his permission, I don’t want to give it away. Working on a pretty big collaborative novel with one of my influences, a guy I grew up reading, so that’s a pretty big deal too me. We’ll have more news on that soon.
Is it anybody that you might have mentioned already during this interview, if you’re able to say that?
Very possible. Okay, I can see the twinkle in your eyes. Very cool. Looking forward to that. This will be the–
It wouldn’t take too much to figure it out.
Yeah, hundred percent. I appreciate that. This will be your biggest collaborative project, right? Most of your collaborations have been novellas, I think.
Yeah, without a doubt, it’s going to be a novel.
I’m sure your collaborative efforts [from] before, they’ll probably help you to map out an idea of how to approach this. If it’s going to be back and forth. You do the approach to that, or do you find that it’s always different for everybody that you collaborate with?
Yeah, it’s pretty much the same. We usually just choose certain scenes we want to write, send it over to the other guy, and he adds his two cents to it to make the styles truly gel together. This is just more of the same. This guy primarily writes supernatural horror. I’ve done some crime and thrillers stuff, so this is kind of a melding of our fortés as well as styles.
Very cool. It’s going to be a very cool blending of various subgenres. That could only mean good things. I’m looking forward to that. I guess you probably don’t have any plans on when you’re hoping to get that done by. I don’t know if maybe you’re writing partner has deadlines that he has to get this done at a certain time, or perhaps yourself?
No, we’re doing a no pressure, work on it when we can kind of thing. With that said, we had already knocked out probably as much as 20% of it the first couple of months we started working on it. Now things have slowed down with my day job schedule, and he has a bunch of other deadlines. We’re just taking it as we have time to work on it, but we already have a big chunk of it done.
Going back to the pantser/plotting question, it’s all plotted out. It’s going to go really smoothly. I can’t imagine that readers wouldn’t see it within a year, but I hate to make any promises.
Do you have a publisher selected for that?
We do. We do. I probably shouldn’t really say yet, but we have someone whose waiting on it with bated breath.
Like the rest of us will be, and any of your fans that have read your work listening to this, I have no doubt that they’ll be doing the exact same thing as well.
I appreciate that.
I’m just going to wipe the drool off me here. One final question. I’m just going to wrap things up, James. Again, thanks for all of your time here. I already touched on this a little bit already, but where’s the best way to get more Newman? Is there a one-stop shop to kind of find out your progress, find out what you’re doing day to day life, make sure that you’re keeping safe and happy and writing on?
Probably Facebook. I spend too much time on Facebook.
Don’t we all.
Twitter, but I used that less than Facebook. I had a website, but I so rarely updated it that I let the JamesNewman.com domain expire. I would say that the best answer to that is Facebook. I’m always on Facebook. If people want to reach out to me, they’ll usually get an answer within minutes, as you know.
Yeah, you’re fantastic getting back. I love that. I should probably point out, if you don’t mind me saying this, that if anybody does a Google search for you, because I know you can read a list of your books on Goodreads, things like that. It’s very important if you’re putting in James Newman into the search field, put “James Newman author,” because they might start to think that you moonlight as an athlete. There’s some football guy out there named James Newman as well. I’ve come across a mathematician guy, too. I know you’re a pretty smart guy but that’s not you.
And I have never entered my singing talents in a Eurovision contest. There’s that guy, too.
Was there anything else you wanted to add to our discussion at all before we wrap things up for the day?
No, just thanks for having me. It was fun. I hope people check out Ride or Die and everything else for that matter.
Rick Hipson is a Canadian genre journalist living in Kitchener Ontario with his partner in crime, young spawn and two cats who insist they aren’t vying for world domination. For over twenty years Rick has written for a variety of small press publications in print and online which no longer exist through, assumably, no fault of his own. He continues to share his love for dark culture entertainment through his film and book reviews, interviews and articles, which can be found through Rue Morgue Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Hell Notes.