Interview: Ride or Die with James Newman

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James Newman

James Newman is that rare breed of storyteller where reading him is akin to being transported to the other side of his kitchen table as he recounts his latest experience. You can just about feel a cool breeze blowing in from an open window to carry his voice far beyond the written pages they were intended for. His natural, intimate writing style easily pulls in all who read him so that they’re not just enjoying his tales, but made to feel a part of them. 

From his critically acclaimed debut novel, Midnight Rain, to several novels and novellas since including Ugly As Sin, Animosity, and Night of the Loving Dead, to the film adaptation based on his novella The Special (co-written with Mark Streensland), Newman continues to prove why he’s worth keeping a sharp eye on. 

It also doesn’t hurt that he’s probably the nicest dude in the business, which boded well for this interviewer as nailing down a bit of time with the writer, father, and all-around rock n’ roller took a minimal level of sacrifice to pull off (the details of which I am legally obligated not to discuss). In all seriousness, it’s time to clear the table, grab a seat, and discuss Newman’s latest book, Ride Or Die, in which we chat about what happens when scare tactics involving a cheating father and his mistress turn into a nightmare situation where survival trumps getting even.  

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: James, I loved how you fit so many genre tropes into the telling of this one. It was a revenge piece, a coming-of-age story, it was a gut-wrenching monster next door fright tale with heart, and so much more. How do you personally sum up Ride Or Die when a stranger on the elevator asks you about it?

cover of Ride or Die by James NewmanJAMES NEWMAN: Thanks so much, man!  This one was so much fun to write. Ride Or Die is the story of fifteen-year-old Amelia Fletcher, a good girl who decides to turn naughty for just one night after she discovers that her father has been cheating on her mother.  But what starts as nothing more than a bit of teenage mischief — broken windows, sugar in a gas tank, spray-painted insults to scare Dad’s “other woman” away — soon turns into a night of terror when Amelia and her friends learn that this was no ordinary affair. 

Were there any real-life references that spurred the content of this particular tale in any way?

Not at all.  It’s from the POV of three teenage girls!  I certainly can’t relate.  But I mean that in more ways than one.  My father was loyal to my mother and vice versa.  There’s nothing autobiographical about this one for sure.  I was responsible for my share of teenage shenanigans back in the day.  For me it was nothing more than stupid fun, though, and I can’t recall ever doing anything that resulted in serious property damage).  Unlike my protagonists in Ride or Die, I’ve never had any reason to intimidate someone or get revenge on them.  I’m not a vengeful person.  In fact, I always try to avoid conflict if at all possible.  Hell, I’m the type of guy who will go out to a restaurant and if they screw up my order I’ll eat whatever the waiter brings me.  I won’t even mention it, usually.  As long as we’re not talking about a maggot wiggling through my enchilada (I actually know someone who lived through such a traumatizing experience — pretty sure I would never leave the house again).

Jeez, how did I get on that?

At what point did you decide to put together your Spotify soundtrack? Is this what you had blasting while writing?

This one was actually created long after the novella was finished, just for fun and to put out there for readers to enjoy as part of the promotion for the book’s release.  When I’m writing I usually prefer music without vocals.  More often than not, I find rock n’ roll distracting when I’m creating my first draft (if for no other reason than I want to stop and sing along, maybe rip into a masterful air-guitar solo that puts all others to shame).  I mostly listen to John Carpenter soundtracks, creepy ambient music by Lustmord, stuff like that.  At least until it’s time to start editing.

As an author whose work appears as short stories, novels and novellas, do you usually know how long a piece will need to be to tell the story in mind before you sit down to write it?

I usually have a pretty good idea whether a project will be a novel or a novella.  I’m right more than I’m not.  Sometimes, though, especially because I trim mercilessly during the editing phase — “kill your darlings” and all — what I thought will be a short novel will end up being a novella.  Whatever works best for the story.  I’m all about proper pacing and momentum and getting rid of anything that doesn’t help keep the narrative rockin’ and rollin’.  

When it comes to marketing, do you find much of a difference as far as your approach to marketing a novella verses a full-fledged novel, or the returns you might expect from each? 

No, I handle them both the same way.  I think there used to be a difference, once upon a time, but that was more in regards to finding a publisher than promotion once the book is finished.  These days, publishers don’t tend to shy away from novella-length as much as they once did — especially small-press publishers.  Probably because readers adore them!  Good thing, because novellas are my favorite to write.  Not that I don’t love investing my time and energy into a big fat novel, but overall I’m most comfortable in that 20,000-30,000 range.  I’m sure that’s obvious based on the last few books I’ve published.  With the exception of only The Wicked, I’m pretty sure, all of my novels fall on the shorter side of the standard word-count for that format. 

As a devoted family man and a dude who also holds down a day job to help keep the lights on and the ink flowing, do you have any specific routines or schedule for getting the words out in between everything else that requires your attention?

Do it when you can, wherever you can!  Even if it means grabbing half an hour of “creative time” on the laptop while your wife is watching Real Housewives.  I only use that example because it’s happening as I type this. 

If I were to sneak into your office space — theoretically speaking, of course — would I be likely to find any outlines, story notes, various projects in progress, or do you tend to stick with writing one story at a time as the ideas for one strikes, and then on to the next one and so on? Maybe a combination of the two?

I’ve always got notes lying around, one-sentence ideas for something to come back to later or stories I’ve started but then put on the backburner because another project hooked my interest more. I actually started a sequel to Ugly as Sin not long after that one was released but now here we are years later and I’ve never gone back to it!  I would still love to do it, though. 

When I was younger I used to attempt several things at once, but then it seemed like I never finished anything!  For the most part, I only work on one project at a time, with the exception of a quick short story or two if I’m invited to submit to an anthology or there’s an enticing open call.  As long as I know right away what I want to do with that quick little “side project,” and it doesn’t take too much time away from a larger novella- or novel-length project that I’ve prioritized over everything else.

What’s on the Newman radar now as far as any works in progress or what’s next to be published from you?

Nothing super-exciting to report at the moment.  I’m about to jump into what I expect to be another novella, followed by a novel collaboration after that.  I do have a short story coming up soon (“Fear of Fallen Leaves”) in the next Silver Shamrock anthology, Midnight From Beyond the Stars.

I understand you also have a film based on your short story called “The Special” that has been garnering plenty of positive buzz. What can you tell us about that, and about any other scripts or film projects you might be looking forward to seeing get produced?

cover of The Special by James Newman and Mark SteenslandI became friends with Mark Steensland, my co-writer of The Special . . . wow, it must have been at least ten years ago now.  We’ve since become collaborators, first with In the Scrape and then The Special.  We were contacted a couple years ago by B. Harrison Smith, director of Club Dread and Death House.  He was interested in buying our screenplay adaptation of our novella, and he totally got what we set out to do with The Special.  The rest, as they say, is history!  Mark and I are so pleased with the movie and couldn’t be happier about the way it has been received by horror fans. 

As far as other film projects on the way?  There’s nothing I can legally report right now, because you know how these things go.  That said, I suppose I could tease you a little … 

It’s very possible that Mark and I might have some killer news sooner than you know. 

Perhaps the most important question of all, with vaccinations on the rise and (hopefully) this damn pandemic becoming less controlling of all our lives, what concerts or other social events are you most looking forward to in the next year or so?

I’m jonesing for live music so bad I can’t stand it.  Got a few really cool things coming up in the next few months.  I recently purchased tickets to see my favorite living bluesman, Buddy Guy, at the end of October.  I’ve seen Mr. Guy in concert once before and it’s hard to believe he’s rapidly approaching 90 years old — dude puts on a show like he’s the biggest rock star in the world, playing guitar behind his back and with his teeth like Hendrix.  Amazing.

I also discovered just a few days ago that my wife bought us tickets to see Judas Priest two days after my birthday.  That’s gonna be a blast, obviously.  Glenda’s the best.

Thanks so much as always, James. I always love chatting with you and learning about what’s going on in your world, pal. Any parting words of wisdom, encouragement or other such golden nuggets bursting to be imparted to all us fans of yours?

At the risk of sounding like I only speak in clichés:  Be good to each other.  Love thy neighbor.  Stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves.  We’re all in this together.

Other than that, please pick up a copy of my new novella, Ride or Die, ‘cause I think you’re gonna dig it.  Same for that neighbor I mentioned –buy one for him too!

Make sure he’s into this kind of stuff first, though.  Just to be safe.  After all, as  you know, Rick, I’ve written before about how that can turn out.

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.

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