Interview with Norman Partridge by Tom Piccirilli
NORMAN PARTRIDGE is no stranger to readers of Cemetery Dance. His first published story (“Save the Last Dance for Me”) appeared inCD #2, and his debut novel (SLIPPIN’ INTO DARKNESS) was the first original novel published by Richard Chizmar’s burgeoning book line. Partridge’s fiction includes tales of horror, suspense, and the fantastic–“sometimes all in one story” says his friend Joe Lansdale. His novels include the Jack Baddalach mysteries SAGUARO RIPTIDE and THE TEN-OUNCE SIESTA, while another novel, THE CROW: WICKED PRAYER, was recently adapted for film. Partridge’s work has been praised by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and his collections and stories have received both the Bram Stoker and IHG awards. A hardboiled Halloween novel, DARK HARVEST, is scheduled for release this Halloween, marking Partridge’s return to the Cemetery Dance book line.
PIC: So much of your fiction deals with western and crime motifs–desert dusty towns, ex-cons and bad boys drifting into deeper troubles with .45s blazing. How was it switching gears and writing a Middle American cornfield setting full of traditional Halloween elements in DARK HARVEST?
PART: Well, I kept the .45s and bad boys, pard. As far as the town goes, I wanted it to reflect my memories of the sixties, what it was like to grow up in a town with a little bit of the varnish rubbed off. Maybe a tougher place, but still a place that had holidays like everywhere else, where once a year you picked out a pumpkin and carved a face on that sucker that’d scare the neighbor’s cat. But the setting also came from fiction. If you’re a writer who loves this kind of stuff, you’ve put a lot of Halloween through your creative filter. And, for me, that’s a particular reality that works just fine when it comes to getting a story down on the page. I was watching a lot of first and second season TWILIGHT ZONE while I wrote DARK HARVEST. Many of those episodes are about perfect little towns with a secret. I even managed to give Rod Serling a cameo along the way. That turned out to be one of my favorite scenes in the book.
PIC: It’s a gutsy move, doing something like that. Do you ever worry about what an editor might say about that kind of playfulness?
PART: Never. As a writer, you’ve got to take the chance. It’s almost an obligation. Besides, it gave me the opportunity to tip my hat to a writer I’ve long admired. I’d like to think it would have given him a good laugh.
PIC: I know you’re a total movie buff with a wellspring of obscure movies to draw from. Hell, you practically grew up at the drive-in. I thought I recognized various film influences in the book. Were you channeling any specific movies or using a particular visual style in the writing?
PART: Lots of crane shots, Tom. Ed Gorman always kids me about my crane shots!
One strong influence was the JD movies of the late fifties and early sixties. DARK HARVEST takes place in 1963, so I knew I needed some REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE vibe–some street action that wasn’t cleaned up for the HAPPY DAYS crowd. But mostly I wanted to channel that classic noir feeling. I wanted shadows, both on the landscape and on the faces of the characters. In the first section, especially, I wanted everything in this little town to have a vague shading of menace. I did not want the reader to be at all comfortable there.
PIC: The reader picks up on all the atmosphere, plus the outrage and fear that’s pushing all the characters along. It’s a rare milieu–some kind of cross between noir and western.
PART: Funny you should mention westerns. I was really struck by the way the climatic gunfight played out in Kevin Costner’s OPEN RANGE. It was brutal and remorseless, yet packed with emotion. Strictly “let’s get it done” kind of business, but with all the chips on the table and every character’s life hanging in the balance. I tried to find something that would work that way while writing DARK HARVEST. When it came to the violence, I wanted a really explosive quality. In fact, what I really wanted to do was slam the reader upside the head with a fistful of manuscript.
PIC: You managed it. The violence is powerful and sometimes extreme, but it’s a natural outgrowth of the plot and fits the story you’re telling.
PART: Yep. Powerful was what I was looking for. When the characters in DARK HARVEST decide to go at it, they just go. Hopefully, those sections jack the book’s engine into a whole different gear.
PIC: I’ve always believed that an author can learn a great deal about storytelling from movies, even bad ones, especially since our audience is being drawn away from the written word for a more immediate buzz from the television or a DVD. Maybe it’s a case of knowing your enemy.
PART: You just hit the nail on the head, Tom. I’ve learned a great deal from film, especially about handling an audience’s anticipation and expectations. Obviously, prose is a different form than film–it takes longer to unwind, takes time for the eye to travel those pages. But the brain can race so far ahead these days, and we’ve all learned to anticipate the horror tropes play book. We pick up those queues pretty quick.
When the reader gets the jump on the writer, it’s the death of the story. I really believe that. Now, I’m not saying that everything should read like a summer blockbuster. I realize there are different kinds of stories, different kinds of styles and tones to tell them. But the same old same old just doesn’t cut it anymore. Prose needs to evolve, the same way film has. These days the audience is savvy. That starting gun goes off, they’re out of the blocks and running right there with you. If you’re a writer, you can’t be lazy about something like that. You are, and your reader will leave you in the dust.
PIC: You set a hell of a pace for yourself in the novel since the story takes place in a single night, more or less in real time. Did you find the full-throttle, pedal-to-the-metal attitude made the tale easier to tell or more difficult?
PART: You know, I’ve always worked that way. People tell me that my novellas read like boiled-down novels, and my short stories read like compact novellas. I avoid the extraneous. I always keep in mind a comment Bruce Lee made about his style of fighting, that he wanted to inflict “a maximum of anguish with a minimum of movement.” Every punch, every kick, every movement had to count. I feel that way about the words I set down on the page.
PIC: You certainly have no slow or fat sections to your work. I think your novel WILDEST DREAMS is one of the purest horror novels to be found out there. Hardly a paragraph goes by without some intense action or evil happenings going on.
PART: It’s got a lot to do with pace and plotting, with that idea that you’re always running a race with your readers. And I never underestimate those readers… they’re pretty damn fast. I expect them to give me a run for my money.
But it also has a lot to do with voice and rhythm. WILDEST DREAMS is the only novel I’ve written in first person, and that was really difficult for me. I was so accustomed to switching viewpoints and getting into each character’s head in third. But I knew WILDEST had to be first person, because I wanted to write a hardboiled horror novel. I wanted that gritty, gone-to-hell kind of voice and the immediacy it provides. I think it’s the thing that really makes WILDEST DREAMS work… especially the operatic bloodbath at the end.
PIC: I love the inherent mystery to DARK HARVEST. The reader is fascinated and intrigued by the starved, wild teens cut loose to run rampant all over town, and is constantly asking what the hell is going on and why this annual tradition was originally started. There’s a quality to it reminiscent to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”
PART: I thought of Jackson’s work more than a few times while working on this one. “The Lottery,” “The Daemon Lover,” “The Tooth” and “The Witch.” What a fine writer. Talk about someone who’s difficult to anticipate. She knew how to pull the carpet right out from under the reader. What’s amazing to me is how she could do it in stories that were so compact.
PIC: Did you feel hampered at all by using classical Halloween elements in the book?
PART: Nope. I looked at that as a challenge. I wanted to use everything–the cornfields, the pumpkins, the kids out on the streets going wild–but I wanted to do it my way. That’s an approach I’ve always taken. Whether I was working on a piece for a theme anthology about werewolves or the Frankenstein monster… even my take on the Crow mythology in WICKED PRAYER. I’ve always tried to write Norm Partridge stories.
PIC: You’ve got a unique voice and style that covers a lot of ground, different genres, and various types of fiction. How has the process of writing changed since your first novel SLIPPIN’ INTO DARKNESS was published?
PART: I had no idea how to write a novel when I wrote SLIPPIN’. Again, I worked with a compact time frame–the entire book takes place over a 24-hour period. That seemed an easier way to go at the time, but what I didn’t realize going in was how much flashback it would require to fill in the backstory. That was a real challenge for me. But mainly, I knew that I was working with three or four alternating viewpoints. I kept telling myself that it was really just like writing three or four different stories, and that’s the attitude that got me through the book. I kind of tricked myself into writing it.
Today I have a problem keeping things short. I really don’t know how I used to write those 3,000 word stories. Everything wants to be a novel. In fact, I originally told Rich Chizmar that I could bring in DARK HARVEST at 10,000 words. Look what happened. When that manuscript finally hit his desk, I’m sure Rich just shook his head and thought, “And this is the same guy who used to bang out short stories for my magazine?”
PIC: We can all point to dozens if not hundreds of influences on our work, but what inspires you on a day to day basis to keep hammering at the keyboard?
PART: That’s a great question, Pic. I probably would have had a really different answer had you asked me ten years ago. These days it comes down to how I feel about the stories themselves, and how I feel about myself as a writer.
Straight up, I’ve always felt that I was a good writer. At the same time, I know I can be better. Some sections of DARK HARVEST were such a joy to write. There’s the Serling bit I already mentioned, a scene with a gang of JD’s armed with pitchforks hunting a walking myth out on a deserted road, a car chase between a bad cop and one of the protagonists. Doing those scenes was as much fun as I’ve ever had writing, and they came pretty easy. But there were tougher sections, too. Ones that really made me push to bring the characters alive, scenes where I had to strain to get this dark little world down on the page. I guess what it really comes down to for me is pushing hard to make my work as good as it can be. Not settling when I know I can do better. Challenging myself. And, ultimately, knowing that when I hit the finish line I’ve done the job to the best of my ability.
PIC: Okay, here’s a bigass question. What excites you most about the publishing field of today?
PART: In the last few years, the small presses have really taken a big step up the evolutionary chain. That’s exciting. Not only CD, but Subterranean, Night Shade, and Earthling. Necessary Evil’s coming on, too. They’re producing a lot of books, and they’re making some interesting inroads while gaining mainstream attention. In particular, I’m delighted to see print runs increasing, and I hope the focus on the limited market will decrease in the next few years. And quality is high–a lot of books from smaller houses are earning starred reviews in PW.
PIC: What’s most annoying?
PART: The blockbuster mentality in New York. And the celebrity writer mentality… which to me are two sides of the same coin. I imagine this is just a reflection of our culture. Increasingly, mainstream publishing is really about personalities. You know, the whole memoir-veiled-as-fiction routine, backed up with an MFA. That’s what publishers are selling: the writer, not the book. Where are the guys who came up telling stories? Where is the next Louis L’Amour, the next Elmore Leonard? Look at horror–the only writers who consistently hit the bestseller lists are the same guys who were doing it twenty years ago.
PIC: It’s disheartening and frustrating enough for a lot of writers to quit along the way. When Britney Spears and HER MOTHER are writing books that top the lists, it’s no wonder so many authors who’ve put in the time and effort to do this thing right decide to drop out of the game.
PART: Yeah, Pic. If I ever end up with a photographer from PEOPLE magazine taking pictures in my kitchen while I’m cooking up a pot of chili, please come out to California and shoot me.
PIC: Only if I’m in the will. Okay, now here’s a line I’m gonna cross. You ready to talk about the film version of your Crow novel WICKED PRAYER yet or are you going to slip a steak knife between my ribs?
PART: Hard to talk about something you’ve never seen, buddy. I don’t even have a copy of the DVD in the house. Didn’t ask for one.
PIC: Christ! I don’t blame you for not wanting to see that piece of shit, but really, man, how in the hell do you manage to resist? You’ve got incredible, inhuman willpower. Even though it’s destined to blister your skin and burn your eyes from the sockets, I can’t believe you haven’t cracked and put that sucker in and just thoroughly depressed the crap out of yourself. Think of what a great Saturday afternoon you could have with a few buddies, a couple of cases of beer, and a hefty prescription of Zoloft on hand.
PART: It’s funny, Tom. I remember seeing an interview with Robert Mitchum. One of those retrospectives, a couple years before Mitchum died. The interviewer talked about some of the movies Mitchum made in the sixties, stuff that wasn’t exactly top-drawer. ANZIO, or something like that. He asked Mitchum what he thought of it, and Mitchum replied that he’d never even seen it. Well, the guy just couldn’t believe that. “What do you mean you didn’t see it? You were the star!” I think he even started to stutter. Finally Mitchum cut in, completely deadpan, and I’ll never forget what he said: “Man, they paid me to act in it, not to watch it.”
When it came to WICKED PRAYER, I figured I’d take Robert Mitchum’s advice. I wrote a young Clint Eastwood and they cast Edward Furlong. I didn’t have to spill the entrails of a goat to figure out there wouldn’t be a whole lot of my book up there on the screen.
PIC: Yeah, but you know Eddie Furlong is a tough mother, he actually spits at one of the bad guys in it. Okay, all right, we won’t go there anymore. Next question. What do you do with your free time, assuming you have any?
PART: I’m pretty booked. I work full-time, and I write. That takes a chunk. But when I’ve got time, I’m pretty easy. I like to hang out with my wife. Tia says it doesn’t take much to make me happy, and she’s right. A trip to the bookstore, a cheeseburger and some quarters for the jukebox, listening to Tia play the guitar… any of that will put me in a good mood.
PIC: What’s next for you?
PART: It’s simple, Pic. All I want to do is keep on typing “The End.” That’ll pretty much work for me.
PIC: Thanks greatly for your time, buddy!