Interview with Nate Kenyon

Nate Kenyon grew up in a small town in Maine with dark nights and long winters to feed his interest in writing. He earned a BA in English from Trinity College in Hartford, CT in 1993, winning awards in playwriting and fiction. His dark fiction stories have appeared in various magazines and in the horror anthology Terminal Frights. Kenyon has worked at the Brookline Public Library in Brookline, Mass. and the Boston College Law School as their Director of Marketing & Communications. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and International Thriller Writers, and he lives in a recently-restored 1840s Greek Revival home in the Boston area with his wife, Nicole, and their three children.

BloodstoneQ:Tell us a little bit about Bloodstone.

A: The main character, Billy Smith, is an ex-con struggling with some inner demons-and eventually some pretty nasty outside forces too. Smith is compelled by the voices in his head to kidnap a Miami prostitute named Angel, and he takes her up the coast to a tiny Maine town called White Falls. Turns out Angel is hearing similar voices. The two of them work together to discover who (or what) has brought them to this town-and for what purpose.

Bloodstone reflects my attempt to write a full tilt, over the top, old-fashioned supernatural horror novel. I wanted to mix in a lot of the traditional horror elements: a creepy little backwoods town, hauntings, possession, murder, witchcraft, and yes, even a few of the walking dead–all of the things I love as a reader. But I knew this sort of wide scope wouldn’t work unless I spent a lot of time fleshing out the characters. You had to care about these people, REALLY care about them or the whole thing would dissolve into satire pretty quickly.

All that was well and good, but what sparked the plot was a twist on the initial idea of a man kidnapping a woman for some dark purpose. I liked the immediate drama and tension that scenario brought to the story, but it wasn’t anything new. Then I started wondering what it would take to make that guy the hero of the novel. What would I have to do to turn that cliché on its head, to make readers sympathize with a man they think at first glance is a psychotic killer? It seemed like a real challenge, and I was off and running from there.

Q: For a first novel, it’s getting quite a bit of attention.

A: I feel incredibly blessed that the novel has been received so well. Some of my favorite writers–Douglas Clegg, Brian Keene, Tim Lebbon, Rick Hautala, and Mort Castle–all read early galleys and were very enthusiastic when they didn’t have to be, since they’d never heard of me at the time and I didn’t have a single compromising photo of any of them. I can’t thank them enough for their support. Reviews have been great too. Early orders sent us into a second printing right after the release date, and things are still going strong. As a relative newcomer, it’s a real thrill to know that there are so many readers out there enjoying the book.

Q: Traditional horror or not, Bloodstone deals with some pretty heavy themes, guilt and the search for redemption among them.

A: I wanted to write about the choices people make. I’ve always been fascinated by the human psyche. What makes a person behave the way they do? How much of who we are comes from our genes and how much depends upon our own life experiences? Why is it that two men, faced with the same difficult choice, will react in a completely different way? One of the main characters in Bloodstone, Billy Smith, faces huge obstacles in his life. He’s made some bad decisions and he’s paid a heavy price. It would have been easy for him to give up. But instead he spends the rest of his life trying to redeem himself. Meanwhile another character, Jeb Taylor, cannot overcome his own demons. He’s not strong enough to make the difficult choices that would carry him through.

We all face adversity in our own lives. Striving to become a better person is what makes us human. Why we feel the need to do this is one of life’s great mysteries, as far as I’m concerned. Who are we trying to impress, and why? Is it tied to religion, to some sort of cultural morality, or is it a genetic trait akin to blue eyes or brown hair? I make no claim to figuring any of it out, but these are the questions that drove my decisions about character in the novel.

Q: Speaking of characters, were your choices for surnames–Smith, Taylor, Thomas, Johnson–intentional?

A: Absolutely. I wanted the names to be generic. I wanted names that would convey anonymity. This was important for many of them, but the main character in particular is a man without a past. And if you don’t know where you came from, how do you know where you’re going? That was a powerful idea for me and I wanted to explore it.

Q: Who are your literary influences?

A: Like a lot of horror writers these days, I’d say Stephen King is my biggest influence. I grew up in Maine, not very far from him, and I was reading everything of his I could find by the time I was twelve or thirteen. He really opened my eyes to a different kind of writing; his books were raw and fast and they bit down hard. I loved it. I wanted to do what he did.

A lot of reviewers have mentioned King when writing about Bloodstone. That’s always a big thrill to me. I do think that growing up in a small town in Maine gives people a different perspective. The woods are darker and the wind blows cold and hard in the winter. It can feel very isolated indeed. You might be able to see a neighbor’s house from your kitchen window, but on the other side you know there are deep woods, and if something were to come out of there you’d never see it until it was too late.

Other influences of mine include Peter Straub, William Peter Blatty, William Faulkner, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Harris, and Robert Bloch, to name a few. There are so many of them it would be impossible to list them all.

Q: How long have you been writing?

A: I’ve been reading and writing ever since I was a small boy. I used to read several Hardy Boys mysteries a week (and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on) when I was six or seven years old. A year later I found an old typewriter and churned out “The White Horse.” This was a horrific (not horror, just plain bad) little story that ripped off the Black Stallion right down to the wild horse and the races. I sold copies of it to relatives for a quarter. I still have one buried around here somewhere.

The summer after my freshman year of high school, I made a deal with my aunt (who was raising me at the time) that instead of getting a summer job, I would write a novel. I got about 80 pages in before giving up. It was a Tom Clancy-style spy novel, which was the type of thing I was into reading at the time, although it had a few more bloody scenes than most. I dug that out of my old files a few months back and was surprised to find that it was pretty good. Nowhere near publishable, but not a train wreck, either.

I took writing courses in college, majored in English, and won a couple of awards for a short story and a play. But during that time I thought I had to write “serious” literature, and as a result most of what I did was preachy and really pretty bad. When I graduated I decided that this was the time to take my best shot, and I banged out my first complete novel, a slasher-type horror story about a psychopath loose up in the wilds of Maine. That was more my style! I kept writing after that, although eventually I had to get a day job to pay the bills.

Q: How did you end up landing the contract for Bloodstone?

A: It was sort of nuts how it all happened. I’d published some short fiction in genre magazines and finished four novels during the first couple of years out of college. I got pretty burned out by the business during that time, though–I was fighting hard to break through, but I couldn’t catch a big break. It wasn’t until another five years later, when I’d pretty much stopped submitting and had moved on to another career, that I decided I didn’t want to let my dream die. So I emailed writer/editor Ed Gorman, who I had gotten to know a while back through the small press, and he asked to see a couple of chapters of something. I sent him Bloodstone (the last novel I had completed) and he forwarded it on to friends of his at Five Star. A few months later I had an email in my inbox offering me a contract.

I remember sitting at my desk at work after it came in, trying not to make too much noise and scare my co-workers. Finally I jumped in my car and drove to my wife’s office with a print out of the email in my hand. She asked me what was wrong, and I just handed it to her. We went out for a nice, long lunch to celebrate.

Q: And you’ve taken advantage of the opportunity. The small press hasn’t seen such a marketing blitz in years! What’s been most successful for you?

A: Speak of the devil, I’ve got this t-shirt for you, Chris, and there’s more where that came from…

I was very lucky to be working in communications and marketing as a day job, so I had some skills I could put to use. I formed a marketing plan from day one. I knew when I signed the contract that I was immediately at a disadvantage in several key areas: I’d been out of the business of writing and hadn’t published anything for several years, so most horror fans wouldn’t recognize my name; and Bloodstonewould be coming out in hardcover, so I’d be asking people to pony up a lot of cash for a newcomer. If a reader was trying to decide between a paperback at $7 and my novel off the shelf, and they didn’t know anything about either one, I was in trouble. If nobody read it, how would they know if it was any good? I knew Bloodstone would ultimately sink or swim on its own merits, but I needed to make sure that I gave my book every chance I could give it.

So the first thing I did was send galleys out to well-known writers within the genre, which led to some great early blurbs. I worked very closely with my publisher on cover art and marketing packets for review purposes. Five Star was fantastic about that-there’s something to be said for working with a fairly small house, and the flexibility they can offer. They really listened to all my ideas and were very enthusiastic.

My wife Nicole, who is a web designer, created a great site and a Flash book trailer to launch the book (Nicole’s tremendously talented and I generally owe her big time for putting up with me). These got a lot of hits and were very well received (see I also put a few web banners on high traffic sites, and designed print ads to hit the genre magazines just before the book was released. I attended writers’ conferences and visited bookstores and libraries to meet people face to face. And I sent out advance reader copies to about 50 review outlets to complement Thomson Gale’s efforts.

I did a lot of other things too, including contests, newsletters and email marketing, but I think the key was creating enough buzz to get word of mouth going strong enough to spread on its own. I just wanted to get people talking about the book, and let the chips fall from there.

Q: Talk a little about your writing process. Do you write from an outline?

A: I don’t work from an outline, no. My novels never work out exactly as I think they will. I find that a detailed outline dampens my creativity, and if I go too far I just lose the urge to explore the story. I feel as if I’ve told it already. So instead, I simply begin when I get an interesting idea or image in my head, when I’m burning to explore and see where it takes me. This usually leads to a lot of notes, and more than a little mess. I wake up in the middle of the night with a plot point or character attribute that I have to write down; sometimes I write pieces of scenes and dialogue ahead of time that might get dropped in later in the novel.

For Bloodstone, I knew pretty early on that a couple of major events and plot twists were going to happen, so I was writing with them in mind. I guess you could say that the primary ideas in the book were there pretty much after the first couple of chapters, but a lot of character traits, minor events and other more specific plot points changed dramatically.

Then it’s all about the edits–going back through and refining the story, putting in more foreshadowing and streamlining the plot until it all makes sense.

Q: You’ve talked in earlier interviews about the trauma you went through in your childhood. Were your parents early supporters of your work, and how did the tragedies you faced affect what and how you write?

A: My parents taught me early on that reading was the best form of entertainment anyone could find. They read to me every night and filled our shelves with books. Reading was always a reward, rather than a chore. Television was strictly limited, and the only exposure I had to movies was listening to Disney recordings on the record player.

I was eight years old when my father was killed in a car accident, and it changed me forever. I definitely withdrew into books as an escape. My mother had already been diagnosed with cancer at the time, and so we were suddenly struggling with tremendous changes and stress in the household. But she never really let my sister and I see any of the adult problems she had to go through, from chemotherapy to financial problems to loneliness. I admire her tremendously for that. The nature and length of her illness allowed us to prepare for her passing. By the time she died about five years later, I was already writing some pretty dark fiction-mostly short stories about ghosts and monsters-but they continued to get darker and more psychologically complex as I got older.

I’m sure that some of my drive to write horror comes from the need to explore the intense feelings I had as a child, to stare into the eyes of monsters and come out whole after the experience. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I finished the first draft of Bloodstone that I started seeing all the references to cancer and sickness throughout the novel. And of course a pretty horrific car accident plays a major role too.

Q: Can you tell us about your next projects?

A: I’m shopping a new novel around right now that’s a bit more of a mainstream thriller, and I’ve got a few short stories making the rounds as well. I’m also hoping that Bloodstone will find a home with a mass-market publisher, because I’d love to see it in the hands of a wider audience. And of course there’s the obligatory Hollywood angle. An independent producer is showing it to a few studios and investors. I’m not an expert in this area so I’ll leave that to him, and be pleasantly surprised if anything breaks.

Beyond that, I’m working on editing a young adult fantasy novel that I wrote for my daughter a few years back, I’m writing an apocalyptic novella that I’m pretty excited about, and I’m beginning a new novel that’s in the very early stages but is going well so far.

Q: Where would you like to be in ten years?

A: I’d love to be able to look back at a handful of novels published and more on the way, and I’d love to hit the bestseller lists too. I want my books to be read by as many people as possible. Eventually I’d like to write full time, although I know how hard it is to get to that point.

At the same time, I’m not an easygoing bachelor anymore; my family is the single most important thing in my life, so anything I choose to do will be first and foremost what’s best for them. Writing is a solitary process, it requires time and discipline and many sacrifices. If I ever reach a point where I feel like my family is suffering for it, I’ll have to make some changes. But so far, so good!

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: I’d like to thank you for doing this interview, Chris. I’d also like to thank Rich Chizmar, Brian Freeman and everyone at Cemetery Dance for the opportunity. I hope CD readers will check out Bloodstone, and will take the time to let me know what they think of it. So many people have already been in touch and I appreciate each and every one of them. Readers can reach me through–there are free excerpts on there as well. Thanks for reading!

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