If I have to tell you who Richard Chizmar is, it’s possible you fell down a worm hole to arrive in this place of unknown origin and are now understandably questioning every major life choice you made that brought you screaming to a halt to this exact moment in time and space.
Of course, not only is Rich the founder and editor extraordinaire of Cemetery Dance (yup, this place) but he’s also the publisher of several books via the CD banner. Oh, and he also happens to be a best-selling author himself. Recently, Chasing the Boogeyman, a metafictional masterpiece of a thriller, has been and continues to be extremely well praised by readers and critics alike. On the heels of that success, Rich also saw the light of publication for the third and final instalment of the Gwendy trilogy with Gwendy’s Final Task, which he co-wrote with his pal and yours, Stephen King.
For this conversation, Rich and I sat down to discuss all things Gwendy and The Boogeyman plus some most exciting movie news. Rich also shares the experience of collaborating with The King, his chaotic life as a writer, editor and family man with a few twists and turns along the way that’s bound to be met with anticipation whether you arrived here by wormhole or of your own free will.
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: Rich, let me start by saying I’m not sure I know of an author that’s as busy of a marketing machine as you’ve been. It’s incredibly, really.
RICHARD CHIZMAR: It’s interesting because it all started when I signed the deal for Chasing the Boogeyman. I’d had other publishing deals with other publishers — Subterranean Press and Gauntlet and Simon & Schuster to a smaller scale — but that was the first big contract I signed, and I immediately felt responsible. It was an interesting dynamic switch for me because usually I’m the publisher, almost five hundred books compared to how many I’ve sold under my own name. But this time I felt like, okay, they have a lot of faith in me, they paid me a really fair amount of money, and they’re going to do a lot of marketing. For the first time, to that scale, I felt responsible, like I need to bust my butt and make sure they get a bang for their buck and that they’re happy with it. That’s when it started and I’ve had fun doing it. I’ve always made the comparison to selling books to selling cups of lemonade on the corner when I was a kid. That’s how I feel. There’s no nook and cranny that’s too small to cover. Just go out there and try to reward your publisher for putting all that trust in me.
And you even went ahead and did a standalone chapbook, The Man Behind the Mask, which I thought was a really cool bonus that people got just for saying, “Hey, Rich, can I have one?” Done. And then you sent it out. It doesn’t get more of a simple connection to you then that. Where did that idea come from?
That was actually an existing short story that was in a previous collection. It tied in really naturally. There’s a couple like that you can look back on and see The Boogeyman seed had been planted in me. I just thought it would be a perfect thing to match up with the book and, again, give some kind of bonus. I enjoy doing that. It’s fun and I know people appreciate it so, yeah, we’ll keeping doing that. It’s worked so far.
A hundred percent. Even when you took over The Button Box from Stephen King that said, “Here you go. Incomplete. Run with it. See what you can do.” You ran with it, and I know you were very nervous as well as about doing that tie-in and taking things back to the town of Derry. Was that always the plan or is that another situation where you’re like, “Let’s see what I can do with this one,” and then just buckled up and you went for it?
The interesting thing is Steve and I never really had a plan with this. It really was just the case of two writers joining together to have some fun and see where Gwendy took us. I know I’ve seen a lot of reader comments that say, “Oh, of course. Right from the very first book, Button Box, we knew this would connect to The Dark Tower.” Sometimes the readers know more than the creators. Stephen and I never really discussed that. When it came time to start the third book — and I’ve said it before — initially this was his idea, of Gwendy getting rid of the box the way she does. But a lot of the other stuff grew organically from the story. I was the one who took us to Derry, like you said, and introduced a lot of connections to past storylines in the Stephen King universe. By the time the third book came Steve knew this was plugging into that Dark Tower universe, but pretty much everything does whether it’s on the forefront of the story or not. Eventually there’s a connection or two. The interesting thing for me with Final Task is that I feel like it presents a lot of these connections and a lot of these Easter eggs, but I also feel like it leaves a lot of ‘em unanswered. That’s exciting to me because then maybe Steve and I will come back later and think, “Hey, let’s answer some of those questions and go back.” Who knows?
You’re very intuitive because that was going to be my next. Whether you take the Highlander route and make all the key characters in Gwendy’s Final Task immortal to continue on for as long as you need them to, the tie-in with The Dark Tower mythos alone could expand this thing indefinitely.
Or Gwendy could pop up in other stories that are all Steve. There were a lot of different thoughts that came to me as we were writing it. It’s interesting ‘cause like I said, we never really planned ahead. The second book happened because I woke up one morning with the idea and said, “Hey Steve, I think I know what Gwendy’s been doing.” There was no, “Hey, let’s write it” or “Hey, I want to write it.” It was just, “This is what I dreamt last night.” That’s what gave us a second book, and for the third one — Steve talks about this in the couple of the interviews we’ve done for the book — it was one of those rare times where the entire idea came to him in a flash. And when I say the entire idea, I’m really just talking about the idea of the space station and how it is there. The rest of it we made up as we went. I’d hand over a chunk of pages, and I didn’t give him any clue where I thought it was going next, and he would do the same thing back to me. We just happened to have… Somebody said, “the Dynamic Duo” and I laughed when they said that. I’m like, in the case of this book, it really felt that way because there were no speed bumps. It was just a lot fun, and we probably could’ve kept writing and done something twice this length and fleshed it out more, but the length felt right. But then I’m like, well, there’s a lot of years in between book two and three. We could always go back.
Who knows? We’ll just see if Steve wakes up one day with an idea or maybe I do, and we’ll revisit.
I can totally see you guys working out very, very well as that ultimate Dynamic Duo as you both get back to the roots. That’s a story that sells itself. Or possibly even a short story collection about the other characters who’ve had the box over the years and what they’re doing and how it changed their lives.
Yeah, there’s a lot left there. There really is. Like I said, we’ve never discussed any of that stuff. We’ll just let it settle out there in the universe, and if it comes back to us that’s a good thing. I would love to do that again. It’s good stuff happening.
And I understand some really good stuff is also happening with Gallery Books. They really stepped up to the plate with a six figure deal for you that’s bound to get your readers excited about a sequel to The Boogeyman, plus another suspense novel. I think that kind of puts you up in that top echelon so that anything you and Steve might do later on, I guess he’s going to be the one collaborating with you.
No, it’ll still me going along for the ride no matter what. But yeah, I’m really happy that Simon & Schuster and Gallery and my editor, Ed Schlesinger, that we were able to do this. My agent, Kristen, is awesome and she knew I was happy. I had the idea for the sequel, but no intentions of that when I finished the book. Reader responses to certain things made me think “Huh!”, and still I wasn’t ready to bite the bullet. But one day I was out mowing the lawn and riding around and it came to me, the idea for a complete first chapter with a real kick in the face at the end that would really tie into the first one in a smart, creepy way. And I was like, “You know what? I think I wanna go back there and do that.” I promised Ed and Kristen both, “Look, you guys let me do this one, and I’ll never write about myself as a character again.”
Because that sets such an interesting thing. I was like, yeah, I really want to write this one, and I know the downfalls of sequels not being as good as the first one, and I know all the marketing challenges it’ll present. I said, “But I’ll work hard to make it work.” They were very receptive, and we were able to make it work. I got the next year of my life planned out for me.
Nice, and I guess that also answers that question, the million-dollar question that’s worth about two cents for everybody’s who’s always asking: Where do writer’s get their ideas from? Clearly, for you it’s the front yard.
Yeah. I was trying not to ride into the pond, you know, like usual.
It came to me with an overall theme hovering above that, but the first chapter was so vivid and those last few lines to it were such a punch in the gut, that I thought, “Ah!” Anyone who read and liked the first one is going to be onboard by the time they get to the end of the first chapter, so I think I’ve gotta try to figure out the rest.
What you do with the interview with the serial killer in the first one, in The Boogeyman, was so poignant and so realistic and unsettling that I could’ve swore that you had spoken with a real life serial killer. When I had asked you about that before you hinted ever so subtly that you might want to explore that a little further in some future works. Is that interview the catalyst to the sequel?
There’s a little bit of that there. I actually have some extensive notes for a completely different book that involves talking to incarcerated serial killers, and crossing some lines like Silence of the Lambs, where you have someone who is behind bars who has done all these awful things, and you’re in a position where you’re a little dependent on that person. I’ve always been intrigued by that idea. That’ll come into play some in the sequel. I think a lot of it is about the kind of fascination that we have with evil, and people who do these things. It’s a very real thing and from the groupies to the people who actually get married to these people, and it’s even there in pop culture. I make my living being surrounded by these dark things and the vast majority of it is just make-believe stuff, but then there are these human monsters that exist who really do these things. Where’s that line that you don’t want to cross? That’s always been the interesting thing to me.
Me as well. That’s why I’ve always been drawn to horror. I think it’s the best genre because it really does explore those dark facets of the human condition. I think that in order to fully understand and appreciate the great things that people are capable of it’s important to understand the not-so-great things that people do. I think a lot of the times the line you mention is often pretty blurry, sometimes even invisible where you’re not sure at what point you actually cross over that line, especially when you have someone who’s at a crossroads and they make a choice one way or the other.
Yeah, because it’s a really thin line that exists between natural curiosity and fascination. Then you have obsession. And when it comes to that in society, like we both said, the lines are really blurry. Once you cross certain lines, it’s tough to go back. It even applies to True Crime. Some people read it just ‘cause there’s a genuine curiosity in human nature and how investigations are handled and all that. And then I think you have a certain percentage of people who are reading that stuff and getting off on the violence and just the tragedy. I’m the most optimistic guy out there, but I’ll be the first to say it’s a dark world with a lot of those blurry lines. What’s also fascinated me about the human monsters is they’re us. They live next door to us, They’re in line with us at the grocery story. To me that’s the most frightening thing. No matter how much material I’ve read or watched or even written about, that’s still the most difficult thing for me to grasp is that they’re right there next to us. They’re just wearing masks and that to me is terrifying.
Absolutely. Same for me as well. It’s a terrifying prospect that somebody could be packing your grocery bags one day at the store and then filling body bags the next day or something. I love that about The Boogeyman how you never really know who he is. You don’t know if he’s a close friend, maybe even a family member, someone you went to school with, somebody that you just finished sweating up a storm playing basketball with out on the courts with or —
It could’ve been me. I could’ve been the ultimate unreliable narrator.
Now that you’ve got that huge deal from Gallery, does that change things? Does it buy you more time? Does it grant additional resources for, I don’t know, maybe visiting penitentiaries and talking to some bad people?
If I feel like I need to do that, it’s certainly does. Otherwise, it’s really doesn’t change anything for me. With Boogeyman, I wrote the manuscript first and I got a really great deal on that, which I was so grateful for and surprised by. Then I dove into other stuff right away, trying to catch up. But yeah, it doesn’t really change anything because it’s still the same work and routine for me. I’d be writing the books even if I didn’t have the contract, let’s just put it that way. We’d just be selling them after the fact, so it’s a little bit different in that regard. Someone asked me if I feel more pressure. No, because they’re good people to work with and if something came up and I needed an extra month or whatever, well, I’m more likely the one who will turn in a month early just because once I’m into a story, it tends to come pretty quickly.
Writing the Gwendy books with Steve has definitely taught me how to work under pressure. There’s no pressure from Steve, but, I’ve told this story a million times. The amazing, never-even-dared-to-dream-it kind of moment comes when it’s like, “Hey, I’m collaborating with Stephen King.” And then very shortly after that comes the “Holy crap, I’m collaborating with Stephen King. How am I going to do this?” After being able to do it a few times, it gives you confidence. Someone asked me that from Simon & Schuster in a YouTube thing about what I learned and what I gained. That was one of the things I said. I said, well, no matter how much writing you’ve done in the past, you can’t help but gain some confidence from the experience, because I’ll never have a bigger one. Steven Spielberg could throw a thousand-page book on the desk in front of me tomorrow and say, “I want to pay you a bunch of money and put your name up on the screen to adapt this, and you only have sixty days.” And it wouldn’t even measure up to the challenge that was in front of me with King because he’s my literary hero and he’s responsible for me doing what I’m doing for a living for the last thirty-five years. So yeah, you get confidence from that.
I can only imagine. That’s maybe what’s helping Steve continue to be so prolific and banging the books out like he was in his thirties again. I’m sure he learned from you was he’s still got the chops to run with the young kids in the genre, too.
He just loves to write. He’s an inspiration because he’s in seventies, and he wakes up every day and writes. He enjoys doing it. It obviously has nothing to do with the money or the fame or the acclaim. This is what he was meant to do. He’s continuing to do it with great enthusiasm and great humor. I’m inspired by that every day.
Well, I imagine it’s inspiring for you, too, because you’re also living it as well and likely seeing a lot of what you do reflected in what Steve has done before I’m sure with everything you’ve done with Cemetery Dance, your own writing itself, you wouldn’t be successful if this wasn’t something that’s made its way into pretty much everything you do. I’m sure as you’re watching tv, you’re signing book plates. I’m sure as you’re out watching a ball game or watching your own boys playing sports there’s something’s working in the back your mind as well, the next great idea. It’s probably just who you are.
Yeah. Absolutely. And fortunately, I knew that from a really early age that this was what I was supposed to do, and that you have those moments along the way where you know that idea is very much reinforced. I tell people all the time about those first ten years working creating Cemetery Dance were rough years. We made no money, but I was loving what I was doing. I was working crazy long hours, crazy financial risk, to keep going with very little reward, and no guarantee that it would pay off, but I loved what I was doing. I believed in it, so I just kept plugging forward, and fortunately, a lot of things fell in place to help us be successful. There’s those moments along the way where you know that okay, I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing, so just keep doing my thing and it’ll work out.
As far as other things working out as well, I wonder if I could put you on the spot here for a little bit, if you don’t mind? Regarding the movie stuff, you had talked about that a bit with Gwendy, that there’s a production company that’s in the works. They’re putting some crew together, and I know there’s a star to play Gwendy who’s been selected. And understandably you couldn’t really say much more than that. Has anything else developed that you can talk about?
I can’t really say anything other than just, and there’s actually not a star in place.
Oh, my mistake.
That’s fine. There’s definitely a good production. I should have news soon. I got an email from Steve’s film agent last week with an update about that, and yeah, it’ll happen. “The Boogeyman” from Steve is in production right now, an old short story, and so many other things, and they’re like, “Gwendy seems perfect.” I think Gwendy is perfect, especially for this time in the world and these times here in this country. It’s such a female-centric story that, again, I think it could be very powerful. I’ve always looked at it and thought when its time is right, it’ll explode out there, and hopefully that’s soon. It was a really positive update that we got lost week, and we could see things in the press certainly by summer about it, but who knows? That’s one of those ones where I’m just laying back and waiting. I have a lot of belief that it should happen and that it will.
Perfect. Well, that’s good enough for me. Another guy out there who’s making the waves in the Gwendy-verse is Brian Keene. I understand that he’s working on some stuff as well. Is there anything you can share about that and when we might be able to see something?
There’s a whole team in place with Brian doing the writing part of it. I’ve seen big chunks of the script which is wonderful. We have an artist, a main artist, who is wonderful, and again she sent an update probably as recently as two weeks ago. That’s something that’s going to gain momentum in the next few months, then hopefully again by summer. I think it could be an interesting summer for Gwendy. I’ll let Brian say more about it when we’re all ready, but I think it’s a natural for that kind of a graphic adaptation. The neat thing is now there’s three books. Now’s there’s a complete arc, but with plenty of holes to fill in with other people’s imaginations. That’s something that’s being discussed movie-wise, too, should the first book be a limited series. Who knows? There’s a lot on the table and it’s exciting to just sit back and watch it.
Very much. I can totally see that working. In fact, I can almost see that almost being a necessity to have if you’re going cinematic with Gwendy, to have it as a series because there’s so many great side trips that you can take that might come as a bit of an interruption or intrusion in a movie, whereas in a series you can do a standalone episode which ties in, but not directly, and then continue on with the main plot in the next episode without the diversion feeling disjointed. I think that would work really well.
Especially with the first book where we show such a range of her age. The second book takes place in a matter of a couple months. The third book takes place in a matter of a a few weeks. With the first one we see her from what? Age twelve, I think, up until she graduates from college. To me that would present some challenges as far as a single feature, but we have good people attached so I have faith in whatever they do. Ideally, I would love to see a limited series with future seasons until we get to the end of Gwendy’s Final Task. With such a good team, they could really fill in those gaps between book two and three.
A hundred percent. Rich, as we wrap things up what are your final thoughts as far as the things you’re most excited about, things you’re going to be doing next that you most look forward to?
Just a sense of gratitude. That’s where I am, and that’s what I wake up every day with. I know how fortunate I am to have been to be able to do this job for thirty-five years. Writing has always been my first love. For a number of years, I had to put it in the back seat because of publishing and the amount of time it would take and responsibilities and all that. I’ve got a great crew of people working with Cemetery Dance full time and part time, so I’m able to step back some. For the last, I don’t know what it is now, the last six, seven years, I’ve been able to really focus on writing. I’m just grateful that I’ve had these opportunities and that I’m able to dive in and commit to ‘em. I feel like a very fortunate guy.
Absolutely, and we’re fortunate as well. I didn’t think it was any sort of coincidence that all of a sudden, the last few years, you just started banging out books. You know, as if it’s like, “Hey, let’s just write a bunch of books, and bring some people on board here with me.” It’s great that that’s come together, and I can certainly vouch for the amazing team that you do have over at CD as well. Any time I’ve needed to reach anybody, anytime I’ve ever had any questions, concerns, anything I needed support with or help or otherwise, you’ve always had a great team of people there and they’ve all been fantastic to deal with.
Yeah, they work hard. I don’t make their job easier, especially when I am writing, but they do a good job and continue to get better. Good things ahead.
Well, we look forward to the good things ahead. Thank you, Rich, for all the time, which clearly is in scarce supply for you, so thank you very much for sharing a little bit of it with us today.
Thanks for asking me. I appreciate it.
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.