Interview with Norman Partridge

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.

Dark HarvestPART: 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?

Slippin Into DarknessPART: 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!

John Skipp: Looking For Trouble?

by Cody Goodfellow

When old rock stars go back out on the road, the result is often a bittersweet celebration and betrayal of all they stood for in youth: wiser, surer, but somehow tame. They temper our relief at seeing them still aboveground with a sense that they’ve somehow sold us out by not remaining rebellious and nasty in our memories.

And when they were young, few rebelled more nastily than the splatterpunks, who seized the horror ghetto like the radical Indians occupying Alcatraz, and turned tired turf into a thriving red light district with their stadium-rocking, blue-collar grand guignol.

But when the movement moved on, many critics disputed whether they’d left anything behind but bloodstains, ringing ears, and bills for wrecked hotel rooms.

Enter smiling iconoclast John Skipp, with both a hug and a fistful of fuck-you for each of these maudlin misconceptions. A decade in the dark has only taught Skipp new chops. His youthful glee at shredding expectations makes young, fresh horror fans clutch their pearls and pacemakers, while his themes and people (it sells them short to call them characters–Charley Weber from his last short novel, CONSCIENCE, is out there,somewhere) bear out the lasting legacy of splatterpunk best by burning it down… and building a strip club.

Because horror is where you find it, Skipp has gone where many have before, but he’s scoped what all the others missed and brought back a big, bad yarn in a mean little book that shows he’s wiser, surer and wilder than ever before.

Skipp graciously agreed to meet me at Freaky Kiki’s Topless Cockpit, and explain his behavior.

CG: In his SPLATTERPUNK anthology, Paul Sammon called Skipp & Spector the “moral center of the splatterpunks”, and your books were among the very few where I genuinely rooted for good to triumph.

JS: Thanks! I always thought that if the good guys were any fucking good, you wouldn’t want them to get their asses kicked.

CG: And now, we find you in a strip club, cavorting with and glorifying sleaze! How came you to this sorry state?

JS: Oh, Cody. You know I’m not glorifying sleaze. I’m just sitting in a room with it, and trying to describe it accurately.

CG: Oh, bullshit. I just saw you cavorting!

JS: Well…I mean, just because I’m at a titty bar doesn’t mean I can’t have a good time! (laughs)

But actually, I’m not a huge fan of strip clubs. I think they tend to be pretty desperate places, once you scratch beneath the loud and wiggly surface.

I mean, what’s the point of being in a room with naked women who you’re not allowed to touch? I would rather have naked women that Iam allowed to touch – who, in fact, want me to do so – or just forego the naked women altogether, for a minute. You know? It’s like going to a restaurant and ordering mouth-watering food that you’re not allowed to eat. That’s just CRAZY shit!

But when I lived in Hollywood, during the “lost” years, the closest bar within walking distance was Jumbo’s Clown Room. It’s this nasty little dive where Courtney Love used to dance, back in the day. In other words: a very classy joint.

So if I needed a break in the writing, around midnight or so, I might stumble down there for fifteen minutes, half an hour. There was no cover, so I could walk in, catch a beer and a show, maybe talk with some people, and then head back to work.

And one thing I’ll say for titty bars: they are very cinematic. I’d always find myself sitting where I’d want to put the camera, if I were shooting this. Getting the best angles on the stage, the bar, the crowd.

So, eventually, I started thinking about a film I could shoot there. And that’s where the story came from.

The fact is that places like Jumbo’s exist, and flourish. I’m not sure I think they fulfill an actual need, per se; but they certainly whip up an itch, and then offer to scratch it for you.

I also think that they’re fascinating Petri dishes, in which nightly experiments on the dynamics of sex, money, and power are conducted, all over the world. The customers are there for one set of reasons. The workers are there for another. (Like, for example, cash.)

But there’s an awful lot going on there, underneath, and I wanted to explore it. Get to the heart of it.

Which, of course, turned it into a horror story.

CG: Which begs the question: how has the moral center of your work evolved, as a solo act? Moreover, how does your model of right and wrong clash with the classic moralistic model (within the genre and without) that wants to punish sexuality?

JS: Well, for starters, I don’t want to punish sexuality. I never signed on for that job, and there are too many people employed there already. If we, as a species, weren’t so fucked up about sex, we’d either

a) no longer need strip clubs, or

b) make them more like places of worship. With strippers as high priestesses. Which would be fine by me.

That kind of outsider’s moral stance is intrinsic to me, and hasn’t changed a bit, from the earlier work. I just know more now, cuz I’ve lived longer. I’m a lot less judgemental, and much better acquainted with the minutiae of different ways of living, and struggling.

So my empathy, as always, is with all the people in the story, whether I’d want to hang out with ’em or not. I just think I understand people a little bit better.

The other biggest difference, obviously, is that it’s no longer Skipp & Spector. Just Skipp. But, honestly, I never felt morally compromised by our fictive collaboration. Whether we agreed or not, I always got to say what I wanted to say.

And I always root for the underdog. Simple as that.

Did that answer the question?

CG: Your work has often been characterized as cinematic (often so much so that a film adaptation would be redundant), and The Long Last Call originated as a screenplay. How did this (and your own recent dabbling in filmmaking) direct the shape and substance of the story, and what did you bring in, to make it more?

JS: Like I said: I had the visual, emotional, and spiritual components first. Then I got to the story. There were a couple of years spent simmering it, on one of my brain’s many back burners, before I got around to writing the script.

Every once in a while, I’d write one of the songs that the strippers would dance to, or write notes about the characters. And at one point, I brought in a brilliant friend – who was an actual house mom (a.k.a. hoochie wrangler, or strip club den mother) – to write the screenplay with me.

She and I had two projects together. When we parted ways, she took the one she originated, and I took The Long Last Call. But we both gave each other lots to chew on, in the process. (In fact, the whole centerpiece scene – with Mom, the Dark Stranger, and the briefcase full of money – was her suggestion. And it’s one of the best things in the story.)

When I finally wrote the script – and set out to get it made, as writer/director/producer – Stuart Gordon (RE-ANIMATOR, KING OF THE ANTS) optioned it almost immediately. He didn’t think I was quite ready to direct, but he made me co-producer on the project, and considered it my farm team training.

He was also dissatisfied with my ending, and pushed me to make Hank a more vital part of it. Which I did, on my own, and to my own satisfaction.

A couple of years passed, and the movie still wasn’t made. So I took it back from Stuart – who I still love and admire, completely – and considered my next move.

Somewhere in there, I had written CONSCIENCE, and gotten my fiction-writing itch back. I wanted to write another book, quickly.

And there was The Long Last Call.

So I gave myself two months to write it. It wound up taking two and a half.

CG: Explain the difference between the script and the novel.

JS: Basically, a screenplay’s job is to tell you only what you can see and hear. It’s the blueprint, to be filled in by performances, music, lighting, set design, wardrobe, makeup, special effects, camerawork, editing, and all of the other jobs that make film such a collaborative act.

But when you’re writing a novel, you have to perform all those functions yourself. You have to deliver the performances, capture the mood, nail the action, and somehow sweep people up into the story. It’s one-stop shopping, with total focus.

So I took the script, broke it down into chapters, and then proceeded to fill in the blanks. Using fictive techniques to get inside the heads of the people, and make you feel like you were there. Or at least watching the movie, instead of just hearing about it.

I also had the very keen sense that I might never get to make this movie. But if I told the story, well enough, as a book, then that would barely matter.

And – on the plus side – it was the best argument I could make for ACTUALLY MAKING THE FUCKING MOVIE.

Which, incidentally, I now feel readier than ever to direct.

CG: The Long Last Call also bucks hoary conventional wisdom that horror novels should be big, bloated epics, and follows the CONSCIENCE model of a tight, tense story one actually could finish in a sitting.

What went into this tactical shift, and what have you learned from it, and (perhaps more importantly) what should other writers take from it?

JS: I think it’s time for publishers to realize that people really like short books. They want to read cool shit, but they can’t always find the time for one gigantisauric novel after another.

I’m serious about this. If people could read a great book in roughly the time it takes to watch a shitty film, they just might opt for the book.

This doesn’t change the playing field for people who really love spending a week or a month submerging themselves in epic fiction. Those people will still be there. And those books will be there, for them.

But for the rest of us – and that includes me – there will be books that can be devoured, as you said, in a single sitting.

I wish there were more of those books.

So, in that sense, I’m just doing my part for literature. (laughs) And I hope to God that literature appreciates it!

CG: In the current culture war, the unbridled depravity in The Long Last Call would surely cause a huge dustup and issue of fatwahs if it fell into the wrong hands, but you use the strip club setting for far more dangerous ends than merely depicting the mysterious mating rites of homo sapiens.

Are you trying to piss people off? What’s your game, anyway?

JS: Honest to God? I’m amazed by how LITTLE my books have managed to stir up shit, in the cultural brainscape.

When Skipp & Spector wrote THE SCREAM, THE CLEANUP, and THE BRIDGE, it was our hope that avalanches of cultural debate would erupt.

But it didn’t happen. Life went on, as before. And those books sold hundreds of thousands – sometimes millions – of copies. And STILL nothing happened!

So I don’t anticipate a fatwah. And, frankly? I would HATE a fucking fatwah!

But I do hope that people read it, and dig it, and appreciate all the things that it’s saying.

If a good time is had, and thoughts are provoked, and people BUY the thing, then my job is done.

Past that: it was really fun to do. And that, in itself, counts for one whole hell of a lot. I hope that focused funliness and honest intent results in a book that people might actually want to read.

At this point, that is all that I ask.

CG: Your observations about how the objectification of gender cuts both ways, and celebrates sex while pointing out how EVIL – far from wanting to punish us for our fleshly vices – wants and needs us to feed on each other, are a bit more subversive than just showing us boobies.

But what does it tell us about ourselves, as men and women?

JS: Wow. If I talk about it too much more, then what’s the point of writing the goddam book?

Bottom line: out in the hetero-sphere, men and women need each other – and hurt each other – in astonishing ways. That’s just the way it is.

If we understood each other better, and treated each other better, there would be no need for horror stories at all.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.

The one thing I’ll say is: this is not just a book for boys to leer at, with adolescently-arrested brain-boners. I’m all about fair play, and trying to see our predicaments from every angle.

So both male and female readers are most welcome to suck on this particular loaded barrel. (laughs) And, hopefully, get something out of it.

CG: Your irrepressible exuberance would seem a great case study for horror as therapy. Is it the act of creating itself, or do you still find writing (and reading) challenging horror makes it easier to face the day?

JS: Irrepressible exuberance is its own reward. Which is to say: being excited about being alive. When you imbue your work with that, you pass it along to others. Which is, to my mind, a very good thing.

All serious artists want to communicate the essence of life, and its meaning, through their work. As a serious artist, working through popular forms, I always hope to communicate deep and meaningful things.

But I also want it to be fun. Because we all NEED fun. And we need the truth to be simpatico with our fun glands. We need to erase the gulf between the meaningful and the enjoyable, whenever possible.

Most of us have gotten very good at being scared, and angry. Big whoop-dee-doo. How hard is that?

But figuring out how to be happy – in spite of all the horror and heartbreak that life routinely presents – is another story entirely.

Throughout my life – and, certainly, throughout my writing career – I have always tried to bridge the gap between our light and dark selves. Our happy and unhappy selves. Our vision of how life should be. And how it often, ultimately, winds up.

Bottom line: my horror wouldn’t kick half as hard, or matter half as much, if it wasn’t grounded in beauty, laughs, and love.

I guess that’s kind of therapeutic, huh? (laughs) Hey! I should get paid for this shit!

CG: If The Long Last Call gets made into a movie, what then?

JS: If I direct it, and it’s good, then maybe I have a new career.

If somebody else makes it…well, ANOTHER HORROR MOVIE GOT MADE! And I stand to pick up a couple bucks. Unless, of course, I get totally screwed.

At the very least, there will be at least one horror movie, set in a strip club, that features no vampires, whatsoever!

And that, I think, is an accomplishment in itself.

Interview with Brett Alexander Savory by David Niall Wilson

Brett Alexander Savory is the Bram Stoker Award-winning Editor-in-Chief of ChiZine: Treatments of Light and Shade in Words, is a Developmental Editor at Scholastic Canada, has had over 40 stories published, written two novels-In and Down and The Distance Travelled-and writes for Rue Morgue Magazine.

He co-edited an anthology with M. W. Anderson called The Last Pentacle of the Sun: Writings in Support of the West Memphis Three, which was released last year through Arsenal Pulp Press. His latest release is a novella called My Eyes Are Nailed, But Still I See, co-written with David Niall Wilson.

In March 2006, Necro Publications will release signed limited edition hardcover and trade paperback editions of Brett’s dark, comic novel The Distance Travelled.

When he’s not writing, reading, or editing, he plays drums for the southern-tinged hard rock band The Diablo Red, whose debut album, Rojos, was released in late 2005. Recently, Cemetery Dance author and reviewer David Niall Wilson had a chance to chat with Brett about The Distance Traveled, and his writing in general.

DNW: Your novel The Distance Travelled blends surreal, literate fiction with some odd elements . . . tossed pigs, for instance. Can you tell us where the inspiration for this particular novel came from, and what inspired the imagery you chose?

BS: I’m not sure where my fascination with pigs comes from. I suppose it cemented itself in my brain, though, after you and I wrote “That’s SOME Pig!” back in 1998. After that, pigs just seemed to keep popping up in my fiction. They even make a minor appearance in the literary novel I just sold, In and Down.

As for the inspiration for Distance: The obvious answer is that it came from the novelette of the same name, which was published in 2001 by Prime Books. As to where that came from? Your guess is as good as mine. I have a pretty crappy memory, so trying to remember where story ideas come from is usually an exercise in futility. This weird shit just pops into my head and I write it down.

The imagery itself, however, I can be a bit more specific about. I think the whole idea of Hell is pretty ridiculous, so I knew I wanted to create a Hell that was sort of absurd, and yet quite practical in the way it operates. Nothing too mysterious-torture sessions are scheduled, Hell hires people to carry them out, there’s a governing body that oversees things, etc. It’s an exceedingly poorly run version of our world, but a whole lot hotter.

DNW: When choosing a locale for this piece, why did you choose Hell? In other words, do the standard old Christian symbols have deep meaning for you, or could this have as easily been set on the banks of the Styx with three headed pig dogs guarding the way?

BS: Hey, there’s an idea for the sequel! Thanks! 😉

Seriously, though, no, the old Christian symbols don’t hold any meaning for me. I’m agnostic, so religion of all stripes is hard to swallow. Considering how close all religions are in their basic tenets, I think they all might just be manifestations of people’s general loneliness in the universe. A creation to comfort ourselves, bring meaning to our existences. Regarding Christianity, specifically, if there is a God (since I’m agnostic, I don’t rule out the possibility) and he ever did speak to humans regarding his will, his words have been fucked with so often throughout history by people inserting their own desires and biases into them that God only knows-quite literally-what his true intentions might have been.

DNW: Your web site, group, and phenomenon “The Chiaroscuro—Those Who Walk Alone,” has developed into quite the success story. Can you explain how it came to be, and how you brought it from its humble beginnings to one of the highest paying on-line fiction markets, and the only one (to my knowledge) with support from a NYC publisher?

BS: Oh, boy, that’d be a long story! I’ll try to break it down into bite-size chunks, though.

In 1997, a guy named Vanace Fidler and I were discussing online how there was a dearth of good horror sites on the ‘net, so we decided to start one up. I wound up doing all the actual work of building the site, etc., so within a year or so, Vanace kind of drifted out of the picture and I kept going with it. We started out by just having a few short story contests, but then in July of 1999, I launched the first issue of the fiction and poetry arm of the site, ChiZine: Treatments of Light and Shade in Words. We paid 1/2 cent per word and I sold banner ads to small presses and individual authors to cover the costs. We raised it up to 1 cent per word the following year, and then I approached Don D’Auria at Leisure Books about sponsoring us. Within a month or two, Leisure agreed and we were able to raise our rates to 3 cents per word, making us a professional market (back in 2001, anyway)—and I was free to stop hassling people to buy banner ads (a job which I absolutely loathed). That same year, we won the Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement in editing.

Skip ahead a couple of years and—due to increased traffic and a growing reputation for publishing quality material—we got the nod from Leisure to increase our rates to 5 cents per word, again matching the current pro-market level. We were nominated again for a 2004 Stoker, received a big jump in traffic, and raised our rates to 7 cents per word, which is where we are today.

DNW: Everyone asks this, but it’s relevant. Who are the major influences on your writing? Broadening this further from the usual what writers influenced you, I’d add other media into the mix, music, movie, television, anything you think was formative.


BOOKS: Stephen King, Clive Barker, Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Chuck Palahniuk, Mark Z. Danielewski, Craig Davidson, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman, Philip Nutman, China Miéville, Iain Banks, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Brian Lumley, and some chimp named David Niall Wilson. 😉

MUSIC: Thievery Corporation, Slipknot, Slayer, Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, My Dying Bride, Bjork, Harry Connick Jr., Henry Rollins, The Misfits, Bad Religion, Type O Negative, Lamb of God, Meshuggah, etc. (I sometimes name stories after cool bands or song titles.)

MOVIES: Halloween, Fight Club, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, anything by David Lynch, The Fog (the original), The Evil Dead films, Romero’s Dead films, Fulci’s Zombi, Top Secret, Kairo (creepiest fucking film ever), Cemetery Man, Battle Royale, Pulp Fiction, Dead Alive, Reservoir Dogs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original), etc.

DNW: I know you work as an editor, and have been responsible for kid’s books involving underwear…how has your education and working in the field influenced your fiction?

BS: Not much, I don’t think. If anything, it makes me want to write the opposite of what I work on all day. ‘Cause there’s not much bloodshed, creepy moments, or absurd hilarity in Scholastic titles!

DNW: The Distance Travelled started life as a novelette, if memory serves. What was the journey from beginning to Necro?

BS: I originally placed the novelette with Steve Savile’s Imaginary Worlds Press. When Sean Wallace took over Steve’s operations and renamed the press Prime, I left the book there and Sean put it out in 2001. I then expanded the story to novel length, shopped it around to various houses until it finally found a home in 2005 with Dave Barnett at Necro Publications.

DNW: Any tips picked up along the way—lessons learned?

BS: Know your market! If a house hasn’t published any horror-comedies in the past, odds are they’re not going to start with yours.

DNW: Did you prefer it at the shorter length, or did it find its own as a novel?

I really prefer it at novel length. I added several more characters to the mix and that’s what really brought the environment and the story to life, in my mind.

DNW: Your wife is a talented poet and author in her own right. How do the two of you cope with / share / involve yourselves in one another’s creative careers? Do you play off of one another creatively, or is it hard—success at different times, and different levels?

BS: We don’t write the same kind of stuff at all, so it’s kept quite separate: she mostly writes poetry; I write prose (haven’t written a poem since 1998). So there’s no competition, which I think is a good thing. We like each other’s work and are very supportive of what the other is doing, so overall it’s a healthy balance, I think. When something great happens with respect to one of our careers, the other is hooting and hollering about it as much as the one whose career got the boost.

DNW: I know you play in a band, along with the day job and the writing. What sort of influences do you tend toward musically, and how does your musical career parallel your writing career—or does it?

BS: See above for musical influences. As for how the two careers parallel each other, there’s the aforementioned naming of stories after cool song titles, but other than that it’s pretty separate. I don’t write any of the lyrics for Diablo Red, so my presence isn’t felt there at all. I’m strictly the drummer.

DNW: You chose an El Camino for your unlikely heroes to travel about in, what’s up with that? Is this a dream car of yours, or is it symbolic in some way?

BS: Not a dream car, no, but certainly the type of car in which I saw my weird and disheveled gang of characters. I’m not sure where I got the idea to use the Camino, except that it’s a tough car, you know? It’s seen as a badass set of wheels. Sure, I could’ve gone with a Mustang or something like that, but the Camino has that big open bed in back, so Tom China, the 11-foot HellRat in the story had a way of getting around with the rest of the characters. *laughs*

DNW: Your earlier writing tended to be much darker, more violent and shocking. Have you shifted mental gears, and will the shifting continue? Where do you see your writing now, and then, again in five years? In other words, do you have a plan?

BS: Yeah, I’ve certainly eased off on the blood and guts-though Distance was written before I started easing away from it, so there’s plenty of carnage in this book. I think what happened is that I sort of exhausted all of my really brutal ideas early on, then subtler ideas started coming to me, instead. Still dark—I can’t seem to get away from that aspect, and I don’t think I really want to-but not necessarily violent. I started writing more surreal pieces. Definitely more Lynchian in nature.

Of course, I can’t know where my writing will be in five years, but I suspect I’ll keep treading this slipstream line I’m on right now. Maybe when I’ve exhausted all of those ideas, I’ll have to move to mainstream literary novels. And then right into Harlequin-style romances! Heh. Okay, if I ever do that, you all have permission to shoot me in the face. Seriously.

As for a plan? Hell, no. I have a vague idea of what direction I want my career to go, so I publish with houses that I hope will help me down that path, but I have no Grand Scheme.

DNW: Finally, in order to sum this up, and to give you a chance to say all the things you wanted to say had I not led you about with oddball questions…here’s a convoluted, catch-all question. Are there any things you’d like readers to know about The Distance Travelled that weren’t carried here?

BS: It’s funny! It’s carnage-filled! It’s introspective! It’s adventurous! It’s heart-warming! And Christopher Moore says this about it!:

“A completely unique take on life in hell. Snappy dialog and a bizarre backdrop set this adventure tale apart from the pack.” — Christopher Moore

Are you saying Christopher Moore’s wrong? Are you?? I should think not. Go thee forth and purchase:

From the publisher:

From Shocklines (hardcover):

From Shocklines (trade paperback):

DNW: What’s next for you? Upcoming projects?

BS: After Distance, there’s the trade paperback release of my and David Niall Wilson’s My Eyes Are Nailed, But Still I See in December 2006 from Delirium Books. Then in 2007, my deeply weird literary novel In and Down will be released (can’t give details on the publisher until contracts are signed). Also in 2007, Delirium will publish my first short story collection, The Time Between Lights.

As for projects I’m currently working on, there’s my third novel, Running Beneath the Skin, a comic-book adaptation of The Distance Travelled with artist Homeros Gilani, and a dark YA novel called The Soul Projectionists.

Interview with Elizabeth Monteleone about the Borderlands Boot Camp

Interview with Elizabeth Monteleone about the Borderlands Boot Camp

Borderlands Boot CampCD: What inspired you to start the Borderlands Boot Camp?

EM: One day whilst Tom and I were reading the slush pile, I made the coment that so many of these writers could benefit from going to “something like a writers boot camp.” An intense weekend to get the kinks out–because so many of them are so close to being good writers, they just need to work out the kinks. Some people write good dialogue but stink at plot and vice versa etc.

He looked at me and said why don’t you do it?

CD: How do you decide which instructors to invite?

EM: I’m very fortunate to know many successful writers. I’ll send an e-mail and voila! I’ve got my instructors. I have people like the GREAT Richard Chizmar–he’ll be coming back soon–I have Elizabeth Massie, Jack Ketchum, Doug Clegg, David Morrell and of course the two writers that are not allowed to get burned out–Tom Monteleone and F. Paul Wilson. Being an instructor is a lot of work. They make notes on every story, and end up line-editing them as well.

CD: You have a very limited number of slots for participants. How do you determine whether an applicant is appropriate for the Boot Camp?

EM: This is a tough one because I’ve had some participants who have been published and have started to make a name for themselves. We accept these published “grunts” because I understand what it’s like to work in a room by yourself with no feedback. I watch my husband do it every day. In addition, I read for F. Paul Wilson and Tom Monteleone. If these guys need readers…the newer writers certainly do. Plus, the published grunts have more experience and really add to the critique sessions. The rest? Well that’s a little more intangible. Their stories have to make me react in some positive way. Basically, I accept applicants whom I think can be put on the right track with valid input and honest criticism. I don’t believe you can teach talent…but if you have it, this boot camp can develop it and make it grow.

CD: What kind of feedback have you received from participants?

EM: At the end of every boot camp I give the grunts an evaluation sheet. I want it to be anonymous because I want them to be completely honest. I don’t want anyone to worry about telling me the truth and fearing retribution and never being included in a Borderlands Book. (If you write a good story, we’ll buy it trust me–we buy stories from people we don’t like–more often than you’d imagine!)

We’ve now planned three and they’ve all been SPECTACULAR! Not one complaint about the program. Think about it….it’s very intense setting: small groups interacting with really experienced writers. They not only talk the talk, they walk the walk!

CD: Who are the instructors for the next Boot Camp?

EM: F. Paul Wilson, Doug Clegg, Tom Tessier, Steve Spruill, Thomas F. Monteleone, Doug Winter

CD: When is the next Boot Camp?

EM: August 5-7 at Towson State University in Towson, Maryland.

Each instructor will get his own classroom.

And although the experience gained at the Boot Camp is priceless . . . . we had to put a price on it: $500

The University has also made their “apartment” housing available. For an additional $50 per night, grunts get private accommodations and all meals. Much, much better deal than staying at a hotel, don’t you think?

CD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

EM: Did I mention that the Winter Session is split into two tracks: Novel and Short Fiction? Well, it is–with 20 grunts in each group. The Summer Session is for 36 grunts–all Short Fiction.

Interview Between Geoff Cooper and Brian Keene (2005)

Interview Between Geoff Cooper and Brian Keene (2005)

To the casual observer, Geoff Cooper and Brian Keene’s relationship is an odd one. Cooper was best man in Keene’s wedding, and Keene is godfather to Cooper’s child. They’ve collaborated together a number of times, on everything from short stories to Jobs In Hell. Yet despite this, the two seem more like best adversaries than best friends. They constantly bicker and argue, and seem to know exactly which buttons to push on the other.

Many, including the staff here at Cemetery Dance, are surprised that they haven’t killed each other yet.

Case in point: We asked them to talk to each other about their upcoming collaborative novella, and this is what happened…

Brian Keene: Coop, are you as sick as I am of people thinking we’re joined at the hip?

Geoff Cooper: Hells yes.

Keene: Then why are we doing this?

Coop: Because Rich still has those photos.

Keene: @$#&ing blackmailer…

Coop: No kidding. I KNEW we should have been more careful with the whole hooker/trout thing….

Keene: That thing with the hooker was your idea, @$#&head.

Coop: Once again, I get blamed for something you did. Anyway, let’s get these @$#&ing questions done before he comes up with some more photos.

Keene: Good idea.

Coop: Of course it is. I thought of it.

Keene: How do you feel your writing has changed since the days of 4X4 and BUM PISS & OTHER CITY SCENTS?

Coop: It’s become readable. How is this novella different from your previous works? Will it alienate fans of THE RISING, TERMINAL, and CITY OF THE DEAD?

Keene: It’s different in that we have two and a half months to write the @$#&ing thing. But no, I don’t think it will alienate my readers. They’ve seen me collaborate with you before, and they’ve liked the results. How about fans of your Brackard’s Point mythos? Do you think they’ll mind me playing in their sandbox?

Coop: I doubt those who are familiar with Brackard’s Point will mind at all. It’s a new Brackard’s Point story—and those don’t come around too often. Besides, I’m right here. I won’t permit you to screw it up. I’ve seen message board threads about how one of us is going to wind up killing the other before this is all over, and I admit, there’s a few valid arguments in there: we’re both egomaniacs, for one—though in completely different ways—and neither of us are exactly known for passivity or softening things up in order to spare someone else’s feelings. Okay, the last may apply to me more than you.

Keene: Oh kettle, thou art black.

Coop: Whatever. What’s your take on such speculations?

Keene: My take? Our significant others are best friends. We live minutes from each other. We seem to spend a lot of time together. If we haven’t killed each other yet—be it at the bookstore or the shooting range or on a double date to the movies, then I don’t reckon we’ll kill each other while in the process of writing a story. Will we fight and argue? Sure. But we fight and argue all the time, anyway. We’ll probably fight and argue before the end of this interview. Case in point—you are wrong about 28 DAYS LATER.

Coop: Oh, come ON! 28 DAYS LATER was a piece of crap. I’ve seen the DEAD movies, read THE STAND and BLOOD CRAZY, so I’ve already read—or saw—all the movie’s good parts. Why, then, did I need to see this idiocy? Oh, that’s right—because you thought it would be, and I quote, “something cool to do with the girls.” I STILL want that hour and a half of my life back, pal.

Keene: I’m serious. Quit @$#&ing around. I think the truth is that both of us are happier when we’re writing, even when we’re forced to give up some of our creative control to a collaborator. I guess the speculations out there are based more on a public persona than who we really are behind the keyboard. We’re not exactly angry young men anymore.

Coop: No, not exactly. You’re middle-aged. I’m still angry.

Keene: You total monkey@$#&er. You’re middle-aged, too, @$#&hole. And you’re so not angry—these days you whine, rather than rage.

Coop: Newsflash @$#&head: you’re four years older than me, Mr. Grey-And-Balding Hypochondriac. I’ve still got a few years before I pass into that pasture, and when I DO, I’ll still have more hair on my head than you.

Keene: Certainly more hair on your ass.

Coop: Even if it does go grey overnight, I won’t be dying it. The only reason you don’t dye your beard anymore is because Matt Warner busted you at one of your readings, and that was only last year.

Keene: It was two years ago!

Coop: Mike, Mikey, and I hid your beard dye right before your wedding, and we knew about it from the 2001 WHC in Sea-Tac, because we saw it there. You had to get all prettied up for your adoring fans. Now I may be creeping up on middle age, but remember: you’re always going to be older than me, so get over yourself.

Brian: I may be older, but I’m also cuter. Ask your girlfriend.

Coop: Cuter? Not for nothing, but you’ve got a BROW RIDGE, you mother@$#&ing Neanderthal. And this bit about me whining? Oh, please. Ain’t THAT the pot calling the kettle black. You’ve got more whines than the Bible’s got psalms. Let’s go over a few of them, shall we? You: “Oh, I’ve got cancer of the lip. Cancer of the colon, cancer of the eyelid, cancer of the nostril… I’m constipated, I’m codependent, I’m manic-depressive… I’m going into therapy, I’m going on a pill, I’m going insane… I hear voices, I see dead people, my cat is telling me what to do, I think my dog hates me, I think my dog is listening to the cat, I think the cat sees dead people…” And these were only from the last three days! I might be a neurotic freakshow, but WHINE? Get out of my sight with THAT kind of noise.

Brian: At least I’ve got something to @$#&ing whine about, @$#&head. “Oh woe is me. I am Coop. My existence is my own bane, and the world is black because of it. Look how angry and moody I am! Look at me, @$#& it! Everyone hates me and that pisses me off, because nobody hates me more than myself.” Ya know, Coop, it’s always surprised me that you listen to metal, because you’re a @$#&ing poster-child for every black-wearing, Morrissey-listening, poetry-scrawling-in-little-notebook, suicidal mother@$#&er out there.

Coop: You’re putting words in my mouth.

Keene: So? You put words in my mouth, too, @$#head.

Coop: I’ve never used the word “bane” unless referring to LORD FOUL’S. What I HAVE said is “Everything sucks all the time.” So if you’re going to attempt to quote me, get it correct. Furthermore, I don’t think everyone hates me.

Keene: Yes you do.

Coop: Some do, sure, but I’m okay with that because last I checked I wasn’t out to win a popularity contest. I’m fairly certain the Morrissey you referred to is some band, but I can’t recall ever hearing anything by them. You, however, seem to be familiar enough with them to try and use it as a rip on me, so your entire argument becomes suspect. So @$#& you.

Keene: Now who’s whining? I swear to God—you’ve got more whine than Jesus Christ himself. “Waaa, I don’t have time to write. Waaa, I don’t get any sleep.” You can’t write? Too bad. Turn off the fucking History Channel and turn on your computer. What? Oh, that’s right—you’ve got a permanent game of Civilization III running on your computer. Can’t sleep? Boo-mother@$#&ing-hoo. Try drinking decaf, mother@$#&er. Newsflash, Cooper–you are NOT Foamy the @$#&ing squirrel, no matter how much you wish it were otherwise.

Coop: Okay, bud… YOU have your demon-spawn godchild running around like a Rhesus on acid all day long and tell me how you’re doing after two weeks—let alone two years—with regards to sleep and productivity.

Keene: Next time, wear a rubber.

Coop: And I haven’t played CIV III in months. You @$#&ing drama queen.

Keene: DRAMA QUEEN? @$#& you. Watch yourself, buddy, or I’ll tell everybody that you secretly own every Stryper album ever made.

Coop: Ha! You think they’ll believe that? Especially after you publicly admitted to your appreciation for Winger, Kix, and Journey?

Keene: I’m not the one with the Xanadu Official Motion Picture Soundtrack in his basement.

Coop: And you ever tell ANYBODY about that, I’ll tell them about the one place on your body where you still HAVE hair.

Keene: Okay, truce. Now, let’s get back to this interview.

Coop: Yes. Have some.

Keene: Okay. Let’s pretend—pretend, mind you—that there’s somebody out there, a loyal Cemetery Dance customer perhaps, who has not yet had the pleasure of reading our work. What reason can you give them to order this still untitled and unfinished novella? Why should they give it a try, especially after your abhorrent behavior in this interview?

Coop: I’d say there are a few good reasons to order this. The strict limitation of the hardcovers, for one. Only enough are being printed to cover the pre-orders, so it’s not like there’s going to be many on the aftermarket. To get a hardcover of our last collaborative effort, “Wild Kingdom,” (from 4X4) a reader might spend upwards of $500 on eBay. (Yes, that’s five hundred dollars. No, I am not kidding.). It’s a safe assumption that the aftermarket price of this novella will be far above what CD is asking for it—and you get a boatload of coupons also. Financially, it’s a no-brainer.

Keene: I agree. But what about the story itself?

Coop: It’s solid. While it is true that I’m biased in saying so—obviously—and it is still incomplete, I can tell you it’s got that which CD customers have come to expect over the years: dark crime-ish elements coupled with the supernatural, and the supernatural elements that ARE involved are not stock-horror items. No zombies, no werewolves, vampires, haunted houses, any of that. Your average small-press reader likes a new method, provided that method WORKS, and I’m certain that which we’re going to do in here will work. I’m putting my name on the thing, so it’d better. I know there are a LOT of CD customers that wouldn’t know us if we bit them on the nose, but I don’t think they’re going to be disappointed, is what I’m saying. Our regular readers will need less convincing, but they won’t be let down, either.

Keene: I hope they don’t shy away simply because it’s a collaboration. I’ve collaborated with you, Mike, Mikey, Tim Lebbon, and others, and you’ve collaborated with most of the same. I’ve always felt that, in the case of you and I, we force each other to do our best work, simply because of the antagonistic nature of the collaboration itself.

Coop: Some collaborations have a noticeable split where one author breaks and the other takes over. Many readers find this annoying. As with “Wild Kingdom,” this new one will have no such split. How it works with us is like this: Brian writes a scene. I re-write it, give it a nudge in the direction it’s supposed to go (and if there’s any question about this, we discuss it), then turn him loose again. With me doing all the re-writes, there’s no jarring break as in other collaborations, so it’s easier on the reader. We both wind up having our say, and though we may come close to blows during the process, the end result is worth the price of admission. At least, I think so.

Keene: I do, too. And all joking around and arguing aside, at the end of the day, we both give our best as a result, because we respect the reader—and we respect each other. Wouldn’t you agree?

Coop: Yeah, I respect you. Now go to the store and get me a pack of smokes, @$#&head.

Keene: @$#& you. Want to go to the range and shoot things?

Coop: @$#& it. Why not? We can work on the novella later.