An Interview with Richard Chizmar: Looking Forward to A Long December
Richard Chizmar is perhaps best known as the founder of Cemetery Dance magazine and Cemetery Dance Publications. He is also an accomplished writer, with fiction appearing in dozens of publications, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories. HIs fiction has netted him several prestigious awards, including two World Fantasy Awards, four International Horror Guild Awards, and the Horror Writers Association’s Board of Trustees Award.
Recently, Chizmar announced that Subterranean Press will be publishing A Long December, a massive collection of thirty-five stories spanning his career. The book comes twenty years after Chizmar’s first collection, Midnight Promises, itself a finalist for a World Fantasy Award. Advance buzz on A Long December has been strong, with novelist Scott Smith (The Ruins, A Simple Plan) saying, “…Chizmar does a tremendous job of peeling back his world’s shiny layers, revealing the rot that lies underneath. His stories feel like so many teeth: short and sharp and ready to draw blood.”
Read on for insight from the author about this upcoming collection, including what was behind his decision to publish it through a press other than his own. Continue Reading
An Interview with Mark Miller: Bringing Joe Lansdale’s “Steam Man” to Comics
Giant robots, albino apes and invading Martians? It’s a tale tailor-made for comics. Mark Miller worked with the Joe Lansdale, author of the short story in question, to adapt The Steam Man for Dark Horse Comics. Recently, Miller was kind enough to answer a few questions about the process for Cemetery Dance Online. Continue Reading
An Interview with John Skipp & Andrew Kasch: Telling ‘Tales of Halloween’
One Halloween night. Ten interlocking tales. That’s the premise of Tales of Halloween, the new anthology film scheduled for limited theater and nationwide video on demand release on October 16. The movie boasts an impressive lineup of creative talent, including directors Lucky McKee (May, Red) and Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers), and the writer/director combo John Skipp and Andrew Kasch.
Skipp and Kasch were kind enough to take time away from their hectic pre-release schedule to talk about their segment of the film, how it all came together, and what it was like to film a Halloween movie in the middle of the Christmas season.Continue Reading
An Interview with Chris Morey: Staring into the ABYSS
Dark Regions Press has been a staple of the dark fiction publishing scene for 30 years, releasing works from authors such as Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale, Rick Hautala, Tim Waggoner, and many more. Owner/publisher Chris Morey takes great pains to lead his team in not only finding great stories, but in presenting those stories in impeccably designed editions. His latest project is I AM THE ABYSS, an anthology featuring ten novellas focused on the afterlife. Recently, Morey took a few moments away from preparing for the launch of the book’s Kickstarter campaign to talk to Cemetery Dance Online. Continue Reading
An Interview with Del Howison:
Revisiting Clive Barker’s Nightbreed with Midian Unmade
Del Howison is the co-founder and owner of Dark Delicacies, an independent horror bookstore in Burbank, California. Howison has co-edited several collections, including Midian Unmade, his recent collaboration with Joseph Nassise. Recently, he took a few moments to discuss this latest project with Cemetery Dance Online. Continue Reading
Aaron Duran is the driving force behind GeekInTheCity.com, where he produces audio dramas, hosts podcasts, and writes about all thinks geek culture. He also writes comics, and recently published his first young adult novel, Welcome to Grizzlydale. Recently, Duran took a few moments between projects to talk with Cemetery Dance Online. Continue Reading
Josh Malerman is the author of Bird Box, a standout, Stoker Award-nominated horror debut. He is also the lead singer and songwriter for the band The High Strung. Bird Box continues to receive acclaim and win new fans more than a year after its initial release, and we’re pleased that the author was able to take some time away from preparing his follow-up novel to talk with Cemetery Dance Online.Continue Reading
When Cemetery Dance sold subscriptions to their 2008 Book Club, it is understandable purchasers were looking for books by the genre’s heavy hitters—Edward Lee, Ray Bradbury, Simon Clark, and so on. We got those, but the real gem of the club turned out to be an ARC of Invisible Fences, the first stand-alone book by Norman Prentiss. Those fortunate enough to read it were entranced by a beautifully written story of loss and regret, of how the mistakes we make linger on with us, and how we lie to ourselves to deal with them. The buzz for Invisible Fences has grown to intense levels, and in Spring of 2010, the novella will be published by CD, so that everyone can share in it.
Maryland native Norman Prentiss teaches high school English in Baltimore, and is an associate editor for Cemetery Dance magazine. His short fiction has appeared in Volumes IV and V of the Shivers anthology series, Postscripts, Tales From the Gorezone, Damned Nation, and online at The Horror Drive-In. He is also a published poet and literary critic.
CD: Norman, tell us a little about the background and inspiration for Invisible Fences. Are there autobiographical elements there?
NP: I was actually planning to write a short story when I started Invisible Fences, but the initial metaphor expanded when I started to write about it. I considered those cautionary talesthat parents concoct to warn (i.e., scare) their children to stay close to home. My father always had a fun, gruesome sense of humor, so he embellished his stories more than most dads. One time we visited his workplace and he showed us a rusted door that led to a below-ground storage area. He told me and my brother that there was a monster down there: “If you touch the metal, you can feel his breathing.” My older brother touched the door, but I wouldn’t—because I believed him, of course. So, I thought about a character who believed these kinds of cautionary tales as a kid—and still believed them as an adult. Not literally, of course, but the message of those tales, which is basically: Something bad will happen to you. And the novella just grew from there. I wanted the book to have an autobiographical “feel,” if that makes sense—but I learned from my dad, and from my favorite horror writers, and put in a lot of embellishments.
CD: Your work has been compared favorably to the “quiet horror” of the late Charles L. Grant. In a time when written horror often attempts to outdo itself in explicit violence and mayhem, do you think books like this operate at a disadvantage in the marketplace and with readers?
NP: For me, there’s always room for different effects and styles. I like violence and mayhem as much as any horror fan. But I also enjoy a steady, atmospheric build-up, if it suits the story. I think the main issue is expectations: if it says “Horror” on the spine, what do readers expect?
CD: You are also an accomplished poet. How does working with poetry influence your prose style?
NP: Probably more at the level of structure, rather than at the stylistic level. There’s a kind of subtle impact a poem often has on the reader at the end—maybe a lingering image, or an unresolved ambiguity—and I sometimes strive for that same effect at the end of a story, or at the ends of sections in a longer work.
CD: You’ve mentioned elsewhere your fondness for the work of Thomas Hardy. Who are the authors (or others) who have been the biggest influence on your work, and why?
NP: I have a lot of trouble tracing my own influences. I know which authors I like, but I don’t always know which ones I “borrow” from. With my short fiction, especially, I guess I’d cite M. R. James. I’d also cite Arch Oboler and Wyllis Cooper for their radio scripts for Lights Out and Quiet, Please. For longer works, I’d say Douglas Clegg and T. M. Wright. But really, what got me back into writing fiction, and horror fiction especially, was a free hardback of Laymon’s The Travelling Vampire Show that wasincluded in the “goodie bag” at the first Horrorfind Convention in Maryland (2001, I think?). The pace of that novel, and the almost stream-of-consciousness writing style—it was one of those things that just hit me the right way. I’d been away from contemporary horror for quite a while—in academia, then in poetry—and suddenly I wanted to read and write fiction again. Then I got to hear so many great writers read at conventions, and worked with many of them as part of the Borderlands Fiction Bootcamp—Tom Monteleone, David Morrell, F. Paul Wilson, Jack Ketchum, Thomas Tessier. They’ve literally been my teachers, and I continue to learn from reading them.
CD: The obligatory desert island question: What five books do you want with you when you’re shipwrecked and why those five?
NP: My two favorite genre novels are Douglas Clegg’s Neverland, and Cold House by T. M. Wright (once it’s published from CD, I would take Bone Soup, since that includes Cold House, and lots of great short fiction as well). I’d also take A Pleasing Terror, Ash-Tree Press’s M.R. James omnibus. For my other two, I’m gonna cheat with big anthologies, so I can get the most authors: The Best of Cemetery Dance, and David Hartwell’s The Dark Descent.
CD:Invisible Fences will soon be out, and once it is read by the general public, Norman Prentiss will be a household name. So what lies ahead? Will we see a long-form novel from you in the near future?
NP: Well, I might be a household name in my own household for a day or so. That’s kind of like claiming best-seller status if you have good sales for one week in a local bookstore (where you know the owner and bought most of the copies yourself). I do hope there’s more on the way, however. I’ve finished a mini-collection called Four Legs in the Morning, and am currently drafting the violence and mayhem conclusion of a new novel.
CD: As the warden says before he pulls the switch: Any last words?
NP: Just want to encourage people to keep supporting the genre: buy whatever you can afford, from mass-market paperbacks to limited editions (and especially short story collections, since there aren’t enough of those being published lately). I also want to encourage people to purchase the other novellas that are coming out from CD the same time as Invisible Fences: Tim Curran’s The Corpse King and Greg F. Gifune’s Catching Hell. I’ve read those books pre-publication, and like them both a lot!
More information about Invisible Fences and Norman Prentiss can be found on-line at www.normanprentiss.com, and Invisible Fences is available for pre-order at www.cemeterydance.com. Order it now, or you could miss what may be the best book of 2010.
Joe Howe was born, raised and lives in Alabama and has been a horror fan since he read his first book—Dracula. When not wasting your tax money as a government employee, he reviews good books and (mostly) bad movies on his website http://deadinthesouth.blogspot.com/ as his web alter ego Kent Allard. He previously worked as a history professor and a lawyer, and has already heard your lawyer joke.
‘Writing, Gunpowder, Dinosaurs and Nematodes’
Stephen Studach discusses the ‘FILARIA’ experience
With its author BRENT HAYWARD.
Born in England and raised in Canada Brent Hayward states that he was always into S.F. and writing, as well as the boyish pursuits of model planes, dinosaurs and gunpowder. He cites the simultaneous discoveries of Samuel R.Delany and Punk Rock at seventeen as a major turning point in his life. His first published novel Filaria has been chosen as the flagship work for the fledgling book makers ChiZine Publications. He has a wife and two children. Trained as an aerospace draftsman, he manages a small drafting office for a Canadian company. Stephen Studach asked some questions in Australia and Brent Hayward answered them from his home which is presently in Rzeszow, Poland.
SS: Firstly, can you give us some details about Brent Hayward; who he is, why he is, maybe some signposts on the path that has led you to this point in your journey?
BH: He is a guy who likes details. He can get lost in them, in fact. He’s also a guy who doesn’t really like to talk about himself in the third person, so he will now switch… I always need to have a project on the go, and the act of writing is meticulous, which appeals to me and scratches an itch. Though I’m generally happy, I write darker stuff and maybe I channel my inner darkness that way. I was never very social, or at least not very good at being social, so I’ve always been an avid reader. And I’ve always wanted to create something that could touch others the way that influential works have touched me. I think that’s why we create in the first place, us writers. Us humans. That, and an attempt to remain relatively sane. People tell me my stuff is weird, too. I don’t know. I write stories that I would like to read. I guess I like weird stuff.
SS: Your novel seems to be constantly pressing against the soft walls of genre as well as trying to get its grubby-nailed fingers into the cracks of style, and to heck with the spidery, wormy things that live in those stylistic crannies. Now I know you don’t particularly want to label your work. I tend to agree; naming candidates for genres and sticking pre-set tags on books seems an instinctive, lazy act, the human mind’s need for marked definition. So, please describe your novel Filaria. What were your primary intentions with the story itself?
BH: When I began Filaria, I had been reading novels by the Oulipo group: Perec, Mathews, Roubaud, Roussel. These folks made up a series of rules and then wrote accordingly, as a challenge to each other. Like not being able to use the letter ‘e’ in a novel. I didn’t want to go that far, but I did establish a few guidelines up front. For instance, I didn’t want any of the main characters to ever meet, yet each one had to encounter a secondary character, from one of the other character’s lives, and that person would then divulge something that would, hopefully, change the reader’s perception of each main character. If that makes any sense. I also wanted each scene – there are sixteen, four for each character, in cycles of four – to open in a different location, after some time has passed, in media res. And the closing scene would be in the same location as the opening scene, but with a different character, seeing it through a different set of eyes. Things like that. I really don’t want to make the novel sound non-organically stilted or mathematical, though, because I don’t think it comes across like that. But there were these guidelines.
As for the style, I’m also hyper conscious of the words, the patterns words make. I guess most writers would say that. But for me, it’s interesting sentences that do it, ones that want to be read aloud, ones that surprise and make people smile.
To sum the book up, Filaria is a story of four people. In a way, they each get what they want. I don’t know if the book is science fiction, because I don’t really know what that term means any more, but a lot of people will say that the book is, and I don’t have a problem with that. I think of it as a dream. Books should be either good or bad, that’s it. Filaria, I hope, will fall into the former group.
SS: I guess the cinematic equivalent of the ‘Workshop of Potential Literature’ would be the Dogma 95 manifesto.
You certainly are a meticulous writer. I feel it has shaped the particular ‘dream’ in question into interesting forms.
Yes, some of the things you’ve spoken about – the cycles of four, the non-linearity, the middle placing for opening scenes, are fairly obvious (the rule of quattro is there to be seen in the contents page of course), other aspects not immediately so.
You also have a neat trick of countering a reader’s set on a character, which is also a form of the non-linear I suppose, as is the way you guide us through the story. We’ll be comfortably in our seat of established character or setting, then we will be tipped out of it by new information. The formed mind set is rattled, but it is a pleasant rattling, an enjoyable jarring. It made me smile each time it happened.
As I started to read Filaria the term ‘Gothic Science Fiction’ occurred to me. It called to mind the Gormenghast novels. Yet, as I journeyed further through the book (and ‘journey’, I feel, is a fitting description of the Filaria experience) its kinship with the fantastical, with fables and fairy tales also became apparent. It made me think, as I read it, that a Great and Terrible Oz was lurking in there somewhere.
BH: Yes, Dogma 95 would be a similar ideal, for film. It makes the project more interesting to create. Though I think a lot of the ‘rules’, for lack of a better term, should be invisible in the end, so the creation itself doesn’t become a gimmick. But hopefully it can add a layer of depth, if the reader or viewer is prepared to investigate.
Most of my writing is non-linear. Often I do hold back details, so that when they are finally placed they have the power to surprise, a few pages in, when conceptions have been made and are forced to change. I think that’s good for a reader, to re-think, to re-evaluate. Actually, I think that it’s good for anyone, in any situation. Rattles them up a bit, makes gears turn. For me, interactions in life unfold that way; we’re never given everything we need to know up front. We never really see the whole picture and we often have to retrace our steps.
I really appreciate the Gormenghast reference. Those books blew me away. And the reference to fables and fairy tales. I have certainly read countless children’s books, out loud, over the past few years–when they’re good they’re really good. I’ve also watched the Wizard of Oz many times. And the Telletubbies, for that matter. Maybe these latter influences are steeping into my brain a lot more than I think.
SS: How long did it take you to write Filaria?
BH: To get the third draft done took about four years. I’m not very prolific but I am tenacious; I worked on the book every day, at work, on my lunch hour, writing for about twenty minutes each day. I had two little kids at home and writing there was out of the question for me. I tinkered with the third draft for another six months or so, but the book was pretty much where I wanted it to be after four years.
SS: How do you go about the ‘nuts and bolts’ side of the creative process: from first draft on?
BH: My writing process is not the most efficient. I know there are authors who lay out an entire novel, scene by scene, until the whole thing is planned out, and then they begin, following that plan until the book is finished. I never see the whole forest when I start, just part of one tiny shrub. A leaf, even. I go over and over the first scene, expanding it, until the next scene comes to me. Then I sit back and try to see how the scenes relate, how I can better tie them together. Sometimes I have to scrap scenes, characters, whole chapters. So the first draft, if it can be called that, looks nothing like the final product.
SS: That certainly sounds ‘organic’ to me. Maybe ‘Organic S.F. Fantasy’ could be another Dymo label print-out here.
Though you’ve been writing for some time, and your style seems fully birthed as it were, in regards to published work you’re a new writer, the author of the first book from the tyro publishing arm of ChiZine Publications (all power to them!). Accordingly I imagine that you and your novel will be under some scrutiny. How did you get to that point, what was the path that took you there like?
BH: I’m an overnight sensation! Really, I have been writing since I was a kid, and I’m well into middle age now. There’s a lot of trunk stories out there, and a couple of full length novel manuscripts. One’s even in long hand, in pencil. A war story. Lots of gore. I think I was twelve. I started writing seriously and submitting stories for publication about fifteen years ago. There’s a small number of published stories out there also, but as I age, my limited interest in anything mainstream or conventional dwindles even further, and what I’m interested in writing – and reading – becomes more and more obscure. But there are plenty of great writers out there who publish great books, and who write what they really want to write, so I’m always encouraged. And it’s all thanks to small presses like ChiZine Publications. It’s the same as music: indie labels and small presses support new styles, fresh meat. They’re the ones taking chances, changing the landscape, while the mainstream waits until it’s safe to step out.
As far as the scrutiny, it won’t be the first time, but never for anything this size. It’s always fascinating for me. Any form of reaction is better than none, or a lukewarm one.
SS: It’s evident that your characters are important to you. I think that the characterization is one of the novel’s strongest traits. Could you address the art of character creation?
BH: I’m flattered that you’d like me to address this art but I don’t know if I can. I used to write down a brief history of each character, so that I knew what they were doing before the book or story started, but now I find it easier to imagine the folks in my work as developed entities. They change somewhat as I write, but basically I know who the characters are, how they will react, what they’ll say. There’s a few tricks, too, like having a certain character use an expression throughout, or giving him/her a consistent hang up or concern. I have a fear, as most writers probably do, that all their characters will transparently seem like themselves, doing what they would do, saying what they would say. We try hard, when we write stories, to hide ourselves as much as possible, though we’re certainly in there, puppeteering from backstage.
SS: Music seems an integral part of your existence. Sing to us of the music that moves you, that inspires and stirs you, and why.
BH: I’m singing, right now, The Kinks. ‘House In The Country’. Music has always been huge in my life, ever since I first heard Iggy Pop on the radio, when I was sixteen and living in a white, middle class suburb of Montreal, surrounded, it seemed to me at the time, by hockey players. Books and music are neck and neck obsessions, but since I suck at making music, it’s writing that always wins the race. I would like to have been a rock star. Still, I can always listen to other people’s music. It was all art school punk in the late seventies, British stuff mostly, but things got quieter and more American as I got older. Lots of roots music. Country and blues. Always rock and roll. Lyrics are key. There are several bands out there now that have been coined with the label lit-rock, or something like that, and I quite like a few of them. Bands like Okkervil River. Elliott Smith. Neutral Milk Hotel. Quiet music by angry people, or at least by people who want to say something other than hackneyed tropes.
SS: We each carry, inside, the particular art of others which has enchanted and inspired us. Can you cite some of the works which have remained with you?
BH: I’m always worried, after I put down a really great book, that I’ll never pick up another one quite as good again. But they still trickle in, these gems, every once in a while. They all leave something behind. I read a lot of books, so there’s a ton of these fragments being carried around inside me. We already mentioned The Gormenghast Trilogy. The slow pace and detail of those books were almost excruciating! Pretty much all of Samuel Delany’s books. ‘Dhalgren’ in particular. I would go as far as to say that book changed my chemistry. William Gaddis was another writer whose work stands head and shoulders above everything else out there. Harry Mathews and George Perec, from Oulipo. Philip Dick, Raymond Chandler, Gene Wolfe, Thomas McGuane, John Barth. All these writers have made me stop and read sentences out loud. Stylists, chance takers. Lately, I’ve read great books by Michael Ohle and Brian Evenson. These guys write some really twisted stuff. Precise and controlled and twisted. There are so many good authors out there, but they’re vastly outnumbered by the mediocre. I understand not everybody wants to be challenged – a lot of people want to escape into a nicer, safer world. Not me.
SS: The main players in the novel certainly seem to be living in a world of consequences. The story at times is like a biblical parable unraveling, with the Engineer as the Divinity. There is of course a sort of flawed belief, a broken faith in a personal religion in the book, with many examples of deified machines. It could also be construed as an allegory of our own contemporary situation in the world with war and the abuse and breakdown of the environment.
BH: The four characters in Filaria get what they want, whether they see it that way or not. We have to be careful what we wish for. Not in a lightning-may-strike kind of way, just in a happiness sort of way. But I am very interested in faith and in the various fat books that the faiths use. I wanted Filaria to have its own system of faith, and I wanted this system to be based on rumour, old texts, stories passed down from one unreliable narrator to another. I wanted the system to be leaky and make as little sense as ours. No one ever gets it right or sees it the same way as anyone else. And there’s war, often because of this disparity, and a breakdown in the environment. There’s protest, terrorism, and there’s people just trying to get on with things throughout it all.
SS: From the filaments and patterns in a moth’s wing, to squirming filarial masses, to a transparent leaf… Have you long been interested in worlds within worlds?
BH: Yes. For a long, long time. Lots of days digging around in various disciplines, studying coloured plates, drawing, researching and dissecting and watching, with no real end product in mind. Captivated by the complexity of it all. In some ways, now that I’m all grown up, I don’t see the worlds within worlds so clearly any more. But I know they’re there. I saw them once. I try to bring them back when I write.
SS: You’ve stated that your work is dark, but there is also a counter balance of light there, a goodly amount of hope and humanity. Do you envisage ever moving into darker speculative fictions; what the categorical label-stickers would brand as Horror or Horror Fantasy?
BH: I’ve accepted the ‘dark’ label because I hear it so often, but there’s supposed to be a good deal of humour in what I write. I’d like to think there are a few chuckles in Filaria. I’m glad you saw hope and humanity. I’d like to think there’s as much hope and humanity inside the book as there is outside of it… Which, granted, doesn’t seem like much at times. But it is there, I believe, and it always will be. Certainly I would write darker stories in the future – I have in the past. I don’t know if Horror purists would ever grace me with the label ‘Horror’, though. Creepy might be as close as I get. Disturbing, if I’m lucky. I have been told there’s a lot of bodily secretions in my stories; perhaps I’ll have to crank up the blood ratio.
SS: Unless it’s a dark secret that you don’t want to share, tell me a little bit about that pencil-written war story in your drawer (or trunk). Heck, even if it is a dark secret – c’mon, share.
BH: It was a detailed description of a bombing raid, Germans bombing some town, and each explosion was catalogued, arranged chronologically as the planes moved overhead. I remember one scene where some poor guy’s head departs his body. My friend’s mother read this page and said she didn’t want her son playing with me any more… If only she knew how twisted that kid was already. I was the least of his problems.
SS: If each of us is connected to, gifted, or haunted by a personal muse… what would yours look like, be it she, he or it?
BH: Sadly, I think my muse would be some practical-looking thing. Not very glamorous or mysterious. Certainly not a beautiful woman in a diaphanous robe, whispering ideas in my ear.
SS: There is an apocalyptic fire, a devastating metaphysical deluge coming which will destroy all works of fiction and film. Each creator will be able to save, as well as their own works, six books and six films. Which will you load into your bunker?
BH: I’m going to pick six books that I haven’t read yet but that are next on my list – it seems silly to save six books in my bunker that I’ve already read. If these books turn out to be bad, I’ll just toss them into the rapidly approaching apocalyptic fire. They are: Evan Dara’s ‘The Lost Scrapbook’; Ian Macleod’s ‘The Light Ages’; R.M. Berry’s ‘Leonardo’s Horse’; Laird Hunt’s ‘The Exquisite’; Patrick White’s ‘Voss’; and Henry James’ ‘The Bostonians’. The films would be ‘Delicatessen’; ‘Pulp Fiction’; ‘Leolo’; ‘Raising Arizona’; ‘Freaks’; and maybe a Swedish Art Film, if you know what I’m saying. (I’m assuming that there are no other people.) What about recordings? I’ve often imagined being asked the desert island question and I don’t want to miss this chance, even though it’s not an island but a big-ass fire. So I’m going to tell you six records as well: Love’s first album, ‘Love’; Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Our Mother The Mountain’; Elliott Smith’s ‘New Moon’; The Kink’s ‘Face To Face’; The Soft Boy’s ‘Underwater Moonlight’; Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’; Okkervil River’s ‘Down The River Of Golden Dreams’. Is that seven?
SS: It is, but we’ll allow that, you might be in that bunker a long while. Sorry, I should have given you your choice of six companions as well. Make it a good Swedish Art Film. If Ray Bradbury comes knocking, insisting that you have to memorise the books, I guess you can ignore him. Glad to see you include an Australian author in there.
What, if anything, can you tell us about the speculative writing scene in Poland?
BH: I haven’t made any connections with other writers here yet but I have seen the speculative fiction publications in stores, some with translations of folks I know, and lots of stories from Polish writers that I don’t know, so I’m guessing the scene here is vital. And Poland produced Stanislaw Lem, of course, so it has to be pretty good.
SS:Filaria is slated to be filmed. You are (astoundingly) asked to nominate a director and lead players. And hey, they’ll even let you on the set when they film.
BH: Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (of Delicatessen/City Of Lost Children ‘fame’). Phister: maybe the pigeon-chested kid from ‘Gummo’? Deidre: a young Winona Ryder, before she tangled with the law. Because I’m going to be on the set, after all, and she might need some coaching. Mereziah: Charlton Heston, rest his NRA lovin’ bones. Tran so: he’s my action hero, so maybe Jackie Chan?
SS: Hmm, I was thinking of some of the Japanese directors. It would also make a strong anime.
Can you define influences upon your work, aside from other authors, and upon Filaria in particular? Also, what was the tipping point that initiated the concept for your novel?
BH: Rain. Urban centres. Mortality. The tipping point was when I had written about 250 pages and I saw the concept crawl out of the stack of papers. As I’ve said, my method is not very efficient. But I did see, at least, what I wanted Filaria to be, and the second draft captured that. Then I gave this draft to a friend, another writer, Bob Boyczuk, whose collection of short stories has just been picked up as ChiZine Publication’s second book, and he gave me his harsh critique, and here we are.
SS: In reference to the mating of the title with the novel. I’m thinking of the people in the Filaria world as infections in the Elephantiasis of the construct itself. Or are they merely the occupants of a decaying organism, an ill support system? I’m thinking of parasitism and symbiosis, of writhing nematodes inhabiting, struggling, breeding, learning, dying – both, all, infected? A god, with worms? An infestation that might still have members that could aspire to ‘ascend’?
BH: Yes. Humanity as parasite and the world, in the novel, at least, as an infection. A cyst filled with bacteria. Plus, of course, there’s Tran so’s eye parasite (which, though referred to by the dark god as a ‘Filarial worm’, he contracted from nasty water, not by mosquito. I know, I know, the biology isn’t quite there, but Filaria also sounded like a city, or a place, so the word seemed appropriate to me).
SS: Many writers can pinpoint that moment when the ‘spark’ flared up and they knew that they wanted to write. Can you?
BH: I knew I wanted to write shortly after I learned to read. Now I’m trying to learn how.
SS: What are your three favourite dinosaurs?
BH: This is a bit of a trick question. My son is into dinosaurs now and I see that they have new names, new colour schemes, new ways of standing. In a generation or two, references to all of the dinosaurs we knew as kids will be gone, replaced by all these new ones. There’s some kind of conspiracy going on and I don’t like it. So, from the old school: 3) Triceratops 2) Anklyosaurus 1) Euryops.
SS: A conspiracy? There’s a short story, or at least a poem, in there. Yes, scientific discovery, the emphasis on the ornithological rather than the herpetological connection (which seems embodied in the Archaeopteryx), plus Crichton and Spielberg, have overrun we boyhood experts. But oh, what glorious beasts they were from our youth. The Ankly was a wonderfully armoured, stout creature. My Bradbury era selection would have to include the Plesiosaurus, a colony of which, as a boy I liked to believe, inhabited Loch Ness, living in a system of underwater caves.
What are your ambitions in regards to the way ahead for your writing?
BH: I just started another long piece and it’s taking off, starting to occupy my thoughts, which is a good sign. My ambition is for this ms to grow to the point where I see what it will become, to like it, and to be able to finish it. I want to have a first draft in hand when my gig in Poland is up.
SS: You mention gunpowder in your bio. When I was a kid I blew up heaps of stuff. What about you? (Names may be changed to protect the guilty.)
BH: Me too. Tons of stuff. We used to make our own gunpowder. Mostly it just fizzled. We also used to cut the heads off matches and pack stuff full of them. We made rockets and tried to blow up everything that wasn’t tied down. Once I shoved a sparkler inside a plastic hand grenade filled with gunpowder, after the fuse had gone out. There was an explosion, and my face, which was about six inches away from the grenade, became covered in unburnt gunpowder. I ran to the bathroom to wash it off, expecting to be horribly disfigured… I wasn’t, at least not more than usual. So I went back outside and blew more stuff up. I was getting gunpowder out of my nostrils and my ears for days after that. Don’t try this at home kids.
SS: If you and I were ten years old and best friends on a weekend, which of these options for amusement that I offered would you vote for?
1: Go swimming at the local, completely unpolluted, river; walk the rail line over it, jump off the bridge, hit the Tarzan rope, ogle girls.
2: Go target shootin’ with my pop’s .22 and maybe blow something up.
3: Go explore the storm water drain system under the town. I’m sure one drain goes under the cemetery. (I’ve got matches and a candle, and a crappy little electric torch.)
4: Get into that big abandoned old house and take a look.
BH: In order: 2, 4, 3. Certainly not number 1: I can’t swim and I never liked to take obvious chances with my life (though I’ve done numerous dumb things, in retrospect, where I could have died or been hurt). Also, I wasn’t really into ogling until a few years later, maybe around fourteen or so. I was a little slow in that department.
SS: As far as danger is concerned, you’d be safe with me, I’ve lost hardly any friends on my adventures. Actually, at ten, if we couldn’t do all that in one weekend, and maybe sneak into the drive-in movies, there’d be something wrong. Let’s do it all.
Well, Brent, thank you for your time, energy and consideration. And for the intriguing work of fiction that is Filaria. The labelers are waiting, that’s them up ahead with the smoking, glowing branding irons, but I feel that your novel will obtain from many readers those smiles you’re after.
Chasing The Dark: A Conversation With Joe Schreiber
by Christopher Shearer
Joe Schreiber is the kind of writer other writers envy. His two horror novels, Chasing the Dead and Eat the Dark, are tightly-packed, economical powerhouses that hold the reader in a death-grip from start to finish, forcing you down and screaming Read Me! without mercy. In just under two years, Joe has established himself as one of horror’s premiere up-and-comers. He is a rare talent standing at the brink of a long and prosperous career.
Before we begin, let me tell you a little about Joe. He is friendly, the kind of guy you’d like to have a drink with, the kind of guy you’d want to sit down to watch football with-even though I’m from Ohio and he’s from Michigan. When not writing, Joe splits his time between fatherhood, to which he is unusually devoted, and his day job as an MRI tech at Hershey Medical Center in Chocolate Town USA. He is the kind of person others secretly envy and outwardly gravitate toward.
As for his fiction, Joe Schreiber writes short novels. Novels with a message. Powerful novels. Novels that don’t pull their punches. Joe’s prose is tight and taut: sharp as a razor fresh from the package. He blends thrillers and the supernatural with uncanny ease-think Ira Levin, had he been weaned on King, Straub, Schow, and Skipp. Schreiber’s fiction has been praise by some of the biggest names in the biz: Golden, Partridge, Piccirilli, and Lansdale among them. He doesn’t waste a word. He jumps right in, as we’re about to do.
… in a coffee shop outside of Hershey Park. James Taylor and Allison Kraus crooning pre-Thanksgiving Christmas carols on the radio,
Christopher Shearer: Your latest novel, Eat the Dark, takes place in a hospital and features an exploding MRI tube. How much of it is inspired by your job at Hershey Medical Center, and what parts, if any, are factual?
Joe Schreiber: A lot of it is inspired by midnight shifts I’ve worked at Hershey Medical Center. I work evenings usually, but I also pick up a fair amount of midnight shifts so a lot of it was conceived as sort of a response to the long hours I spend as pretty much the only inhabitant on the ground floor of the hospital. The radiology department is pretty much all by itself down there, so there’s really not a lot going on at two in the morning
It’s never happened to me, but one of the other technologists was working third shift one night and one of the psych patients just sort of wandered down from upstairs and meandered around the ground floor, kind of happening into the room. She called security, and the guy was basically escorted back upstairs. When I heard that I thought, that would be really unsettling. A lot of the time the techs will lock themselves in, so that whole vulnerability of the late night hospital experience pretty much came from my experiences or experiences people have told me about in MRI. And as for the exploding scanner, that’s actually accurate. People have read that and asked if that could that really happen; is there really a big red button that says THIS IS A QUENCH BUTTON DON’T PUSH, and it’s true. So all that stuff is true, the MRI technology is true because I knew that I’d be called out by my coworkers if I made stuff up, so that all actually is pretty accurate.
CS: The parental bond seems to be a recurring theme in your work. How important has becoming a father been in your life? To your writing?
JS: Well…incredibly important. Most obviously in the sense of immediacy and intensity that came along with being a parent that I didn’t feel in my writing before. When I first became a parent or found out I was becoming a parent, my feeling was just total panic as far as how I was going to support a family. Everything after that sort of all added up to providing for my family, and writing sort of had to take a back seat. But it turns out that you can’t really push an obsession into the backseat; it just becomes a more compressed, intense thing, so Chasing the Dead and Eat the Dark are both intense and quick books that were written, particularly Chasing the Dead, under some pretty intense personal circumstances on my part. When I wrote it I was going to school, going back to school. I was 35 years old in a classroom with a bunch of 18 year olds trying to learn a trade, and when I wasn’t in school I was working at the hospital or I was home with my kids, so writing pretty much had to be something that happened quickly and intensely. And the horror aspect, probably a lot of that came out of having something that needed to be protected, and there is definitely that element in the work: the importance of being a parent and protecting your offspring. But also, on the flip side, the recognition of all the horrible things that could possibly happen. Even if you were to do your best, and I think my books address this to some extent, even on the absolute best day of your life, something terrible and unexpected can come out of nowhere, and just by opening that door I think the idea of the supernatural becomes a possibility. At least it does in my imagination.
CS: Could you give us an idea of what your childhood was like?
JS: I was the oldest of three kids. My dad, who just retired, was a surgeon for almost forty years, and so growing up in Michigan, we would hear stories about the operating room at the dinner table pretty regularly. There really wasn’t a taboo subject as far as the human condition, physically, was concerned, so I was exposed to stories of blood and gore along with my meals since I was a little kid. I was always into stories and comic books and writing and drawing. There was always that aspect in my life. I was probably the last generation of kid to go out and buy an 8mm camera because this was before video; I would buy these little three-minutes spools of Kodak film and shoot movies with my friends, and that was an extension of that same storytelling and creative urge. Otherwise my childhood was pretty normal: no immediate trauma, no scars, as far as I know, that I can point out. It was a pretty normal childhood actually.
CS: The biographical blurb in Chasing the Dead says that, before the birth of your children, you moved around a great deal, rarely living in one place more than a year. Why?
JS: Well a lot of that was born out of my father’s restlessness. I have no problem blaming him for that. I was born in Michigan, and when I was six months old we moved to Alaska. My dad was a doctor for the public health service, and early on we moved around a lot. We spent time in a little fishing village in Alaska, then Wyoming, a few more places, and then California, before returning to Michigan. All of this before I was ten years old. So those formative years were spent in moving vans and a lot of different houses. That restlessness sort of stayed with me. After college, I never lived anywhere for more than a year, until I met my wife. There’s just an innate sort of restlessness that comes with being in your twenties, at least my twenties. The idea of having my belongings in the trunk of my Toyota, you know. I had some milk cases full of books and my clothes and my computer and that was it, and I was happy. I was glad to have that time to do that, because now that I’ve settled down, obviously that chapter’s closed.
In my writing I think there’s definitely a sense of forward momentum. I mean Chasing the Dead is basically like a road novel from hell. It takes place almost literally on the road to hell, and it’s almost completely told in motion; and that’s deliberate. It reflects a sense of narrative forwardness that I’ve always enjoyed in movies and books. I really like the idea of A to B to C, as far as a destination is concerned and the narrative taking place in motion. That can be an almost surreal experience in itself, in the placelessness of not knowing where you are because you’re constantly moving forward. I’ve always wanted to do a book set in an airport because it has that sort of geographical null-set: you don’t know where you are exactly, and it doesn’t really exist because you’re in a state of permanent motion. Eat the Dark takes place in one place, one setting, but again, you’ve got that sense of forward moving immediacy. There are no flashbacks. It just sort of goes, like an arrow pointing forward. I think that reflects that same sort of restlessness.
CS: Fame & success rarely happen overnight (you seem to be well on the way to both), so what are some of the other professions you have held over the years? How have they influenced your writing?
JS: Well my very first job out of college was as a professional dog walker. I was given a box of house keys to go walk people’s dogs for this house sitting service, and the best thing about it was that I could go and just sit down with my legal pad and write for twenty minutes while the dog did its business. I’ve done a bunch of weird jobs. I’ve spent basically half my life working in book stores, which is only weird if you actually do it. It seems really mundane until you’re in there and then it seems really strange. I was a script reader for Dick Clark Productions out in Burbank for awhile; I read a bunch of really, really awful, unproducable screenplays for them. I’ve been an emergency room volunteer. I’ve sold sporting goods. I worked as a law clerk one summer in Washington, DC I sort of just found jobs, jobs that I sort of stumbled across, because I was just wandering around looking for work. I was a ghost-writer. I ghost-wrote parts of Jessie “The Body” Ventura’s book, I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed, when William Morrow needed it done in about forty-eight hours back in the late nineties. I was a script doctor for a bunch of projects that almostsaw the light of day. I actually wrote a rap opera version of Dante’s Inferno one weekend because someone paid me to do it, so I’ve done some really horrible things for money in the past.
CS: What are your reading tastes? Who are your favorite authors both in and outside the genre? Favorite books?
JS: That’s a really good question about inside and outside the genre, because right now the horror genre is what I’m reading for whatever reason, and it hasn’t always been the case. I like to think my tastes are pretty Catholic as far as the different things I tend to pick up. Right now my favorite short story writer is this guy, Norman Partridge, who’s written some excellent books; Dark Harvest is great, and I’m reading some of his collections right now: Mr. Fox and The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists. Just great short stories that are all over the map, sort of plugging Universal Studios monsters into this hot-rod version of the fifties, and all with a sort of black sense of modern, almost nihilism sometimes, but he’s also got a sense of humor. He’s great. A guy named Charlie Huston is a crime writer that I like quite a bit. I finished his new book, The Shotgun Rule, not too long ago, and I thought that was excellent. Again, a sort of bleak, yet modern, almost neo-noir type of thing. And then there’re people whom I’ve always loved. Guys like Peter Abrahams and Elmore Leonard and Jim Harrison, who’s a Michigan writer, not a crime writer, but just a great writer. Cormac McCarthy, Elwood Reid, just a bunch of guys who are either crime writers or have a particular worldview. I tend to gravitate toward writers who approach their work with a strong sense of point of view, really, more than subject matter.
Within the genre of horror, J.F. Gonzalez. Survivor just blew my mind. I read it almost exactly one year ago. I remember sitting on my couch after Thanksgiving reading this horrible snuff movie novel and feeling like I was going to go to hell for it but unable to put it down. Other horror writers who I like…obviously there’re the classics, like Stephen King and Peter Straub. Peter Straub was a big enough influence that I had to go back and learn how to not write like him after I’d read him enough. Clive Barker’s stuff I like quite a bit, the early stuff, and then there’s stuff from the seventies by guys like Jim Herbert. His giant rat novels are just tons of fun, but I’m always the guy who will pick up a first novel if it looks intriguing. They, for some reason, tend to be the ballsiest moves people make as writers. Or the horrible mass market paperbacks you find at yard sales from the seventies, a lot of the time those turn out to be great too.
CS: What do your family and friends think of your writing?
JS: My wife is used to it; although, she did say that at some point she expects me to just snap and hunt her down with an axe. I’m not sure if she was kidding or not. My kids love what I do because I tell them scary stories, and I can’t remember now if I was the one who initiated it or if they asked me to tell them a story; but their appetite for it is insatiable now, and they’re pretty harsh critics. They’ve listened to enough of my stories now that they’ll tell me if it’s good or not, but they love it to the point where they’re almost hyperaware of what I do. My daughter came up to me the other day and said, “Daddy I’m sorry you had to work on the book for so long before you got it published.” And I think: you’re four years old. How do you even know that?
My coworkers at the Medical Center just think it’s kind of funny. They don’t understand why a writer needs another job. They think it’s strange that I also have to work forty hours a week. God, I wish their worldview was a little bit more on target.
Then there’s my mother who’s still waiting for me to write a nice mainstream novel, which I actually tried once, and it was horrible. I tried because I want to be a good son, and I want to make her happy; but when you feel the urge to vomit as you’re writing a scene, you just have to say, no, that’s not for me.
CS: Back in 1994 you released a non-horror novel. What drew you to dark fiction?
JS: Well I think it was just embracing this thing that I’d always loved. I think I shied away from that with Next of Kin back in 94. It was a suspense book that almost had a supernatural element. If you look at it, there’s a character in there who talks about how at one point she had a set of wings and her abusive father held her down and cut them off, and then you realize that it’s a sort of psychotic episode related to her sexual abuse history, which is very horrible, too. But, as I look at it now, the writer, the horror writer in me, wanted to write something fantastic, but I reined it back in. There was a mania back at that time where everyone was writing about people with a sexual abuse history. Stephen King wrote Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne, and both of those had that element of child sexual abuse in them. I’d read those, and I’d decided that if I was going to write a serious novel it had to have a character with some sort of sexual abuse history, but looking back, I almost feel like that may have been the wrong move to make, partly because it was going in with a trend, but also because the book may have been more interesting with a fantastic element included in it.
The first stories I ever wrote-when I was really learning to enjoy writing-were all like EC Comics driven horror stories. They were just balls out, completely unembarrassed horror stories. The first story I wrote was about this abusive, grotesquely obese food critic, who entered a restaurant with his wife and berated her throughout dinner, humiliating her. He ordered this huge plate of fish eggs, and they hatched inside his belly, splitting it open. All these fish came pouring out, and that was my idea of a great story. It had everything. It had cruelty, and it had redemption, and it had these fish coming out of this guy’s belly, so I was all set. It’s always been my immediate tendency to write that sort of stuff. I don’t know if it was a movement so much as a return to what I initially loved.
CS: Do your own fears find their way into your work?
JS: As a parent-and this may be the obvious answer-I spend a lot of time worrying about my kids, and terrible things haven’t happened to my kids, thank God, but, at the same time, it’s always in the corner of your mind, this sense that everything is going smoothly, everything is going well, and then something happens that just changes your life around. As an MRI tech, everyday this week I’ve done MRIs of these four and five year olds with enormous tumors inside their bones and brains. You’re exposed to this, and you can’t help but think about what you’d do if that was your kid. And there’s no rhyme or reason to it. The universe takes what it wants to take, and once you realize that, it’s really hard not to write horror. But, you know, your editor won’t let you write something that doesn’t have some sort of logic within the narrative, but the world doesn’t have to conform to that. You could have a great life and then something absolutely awful could happen without an explanation. So a lot of my fears center around my kids and my family, and that does find its way into my work.
CS: Have you ever scared yourself with your writing?
JS: No, not with anything I’ve written, but I scare myself a lot with the question: when am I going to have time to write again? It’s an interesting idea because, as a writer, there’s this constant sense of anxiety which is different than that all-out, balls-out fear that you go for when you’re writing horror a lot of the time. There’s just sort of this anxiety about the openness of the story you’re working on. I’m working on a book right now called The Black Wing, which is about, among other things, this story that has carried through the generations of a cursed family. Once you start it you feel compelled to finish it, and in finishing it you lose your mind. That allegorically addresses a lot of the anxieties I have as a writer, in that I’m working on this thing, this thing that’s completely within my imagination, and yet it’s an obsession, and it draws me away from the “real things” around me. So it’s an unsettling topic to write about, but it’s very real in my life. I think it’s possible that I could scare myself pretty badly if I tried to write three a.m. in the hospital, and maybe that’s why I choose not to do it.
CS: Could you describe a typical workday for Joe Schreiber?
JS: I don’t think that even exists for me right now, but my wife is really cool about knowing there’s a period of time, midmorning, two or three hours before lunch when it’s work time for me. Usually, I’ll get up with my kids and spend an hour with them, just playing with them, getting breakfast for them, drinking coffee, walking the dog, that sort of thing, and then, hopefully something happens where the kids and my wife are able to not need me for a couple of hours, and I’ll write. In the last house-we just moved this last week-I’d haul the laptop onto the back porch and work as hard and as smart and as focused as I could for those couple of hours, and then it’d be a mad scramble to get ready for work. If something’s going really well or I’m in the home stretch of it, I’ll sometimes work on it when I get back at night. I’ve gotten up at four or five in the morning to work on things too, but I think I’m better with the other template. That’s as close to a routine workday as I get.
CS: When you sit down to start a novel, do you begin with a character in mind? A situation?
JS: It really depends. You know, I just read this interview with Elmore Leonard the other week, and he said the best time to start a book is when you’re not planning to start a book, because you spend forever trying to build up that momentum to start, and thinking you should start here or here or here, and he says, no. When the idea hits you that’s when you should start writing, and that’s eerily accurate for me. I’ve started some of the things I’ve liked the most almost incidentally. Chasing the Dead was certainly that way. When I wrote it, I knew there was going to be a phone call and that something had happened to the main character’s daughter, and I knew that the voice on the other end was going to make her exhume a corpse. That’s all I had when I started that story, which wasn’t a lot, but it turned out to be more than enough. I think if the elements match up right, that’s a good thing, but I certainly can’t prescribe that idea to everybody. Different writers work with all different types of technique. I’m not an outliner by nature. That to me just kind of paralyzes the process. I’m at my best, I think, when I’m simultaneously living and dying with the characters, and a lot of the time I’ll stop myself from planning ahead. I’d rather rewrite it and make it better than come up with this hard and fast skeleton and try to hang meat off of it.
CS: Your two horror novels, Eat the Dark and Chasing the Dead, move at a very lifelike pace. Every minute the reader is reading equates to a minute in the book’s timeline. Is this intentional, and how does it help or hurt the story?
JS: I love real time, and I maybe love it too much. The Black Wing was initially written at maybe more of a breakneck pace than it needed, and I think the problem is that it can be a crutch for an insecure writer, who’s concerned that they’re going to lose the reader, and I’m definitely one of those writers. I’m always paranoid that the reader’s going to find something more interesting than my book and be distracted from it, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I mean MTV has reduced our attention spans to thirty seconds or less. But I think there has to be some element of trust between the writer and the reader. I shouldn’t always have to grab the reader by the throat to pull him forward, but those books-Chasing the Dead, Eat the Dark, and The Black Wing -were all written with that exact fear in mind.
What it says to me when I start to read a real time novel is that the writer’s going to do whatever it takes to entertain the reader from start to finish. Story first. It’s like this manifesto that’s unwritten within the real time timeframe. So I do, I love it, and I think it’s great, and used properly, it’s the perfect tool for a lot of stories. Having said that, I think the next thing I do is not going to be in real time because it can also be limiting.
CS: In your fiction, the characters’ inner turmoil, be it indecision, marriage woes, regret, seems to both feed off of and enhance the outside threat in the story. How important is it for you to create reader empathy for the plight of your characters?
JS: I think it’s vital, and I think ideally that grows organically out of the story. One of the things I like about Norman Partridge is that he writes about these crazy things. I mean he writes about a sheriff who has a werewolf locked up in his jail cell or something, but he doesn’t start with a werewolf. He starts with this guy who’s got a crush on a waitress, and by the time you get to the werewolf, you totally buy it because the human relationship is so familiar to you. And I think, especially if you’re dealing in the realm of the supernatural, it is so key to win the reader’s interest first with a human element that they can identify with and that’s familiar to them. Eat the Dark was reviewed really, really well by Romantic Times, which surprised me. I had this Romantic Times reviewer call me up one morning to say that she’d just read my book, and that she never reads horror but the characters I was talking about and their relationship was interesting enough to her that she really enjoyed the story. And I was thrilled because she had just read a book about a serial killer in a hospital. That human element is really your entranceway into the supernatural. Good horror, obviously, works on a human level. Otherwise every book would be likeHostel 2. And I don’t mean to slam Hostel 2, but torture porn at its worst is just a fuck in a butcher shop. Horror at its worst is the same sort of thing. You have to have that human element, and I think that’s why Stephen King has enjoyed such phenomenal success for thirty years. He writes characters that people settle into almost immediately. Compare it to your favorite metaphor: going to McDonald’s or putting on a comfortable pair of shoes or whatever: you know exactly where you are as soon as you open a Stephen King book, and he his so good at that. He’s just a natural, and I think that’s a perfect testimonial to the importance of it.
CS: How attached, personally, do you become to your characters?
JS: Really attached. It’s funny because I was on this panel at the San Diego Comicon this summer with F. Paul Wilson, David Morrell, Max Collins, and Richard Morgan called “Kill your Darlings” that was all about killing your characters. They all had really interesting things to say about what it’s like to have to kill or not kill your characters, and I’ve really struggled with that. My tendency’s to write darker and then shade lighter. I mean, I’ll kill somebody off and then realize afterwards that I made a wrong step. As a writer, I’ll tend to go too far first, and then in the revision process, I’ll sort of allow that person to earn their way back to life. One of the main characters in Eat the Dark died in the first draft, and once I killed her off I realized that she had died because she didn’t have a redeemable trait to save her life. So I went back and looked at her character, and I found these survival instincts that didn’t exist the first time around. And she lived at the end of the second version, which, for me, is the definitive story.
I always become attached to the characters as they become real to me. The character of Sue Young in Chasing the Dead was real to me from the beginning, and I was really, really worried that something bad was going to happen to her As a writer, I have to care about the people I write about, and it does get very difficult to see them come to a dark end; but at the same time if the story takes them there you just have to watch it play out.
CS: What do you feel are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?
JS: One of my strengths-and maybe it’s a weakness too-has always been my enthusiasm about the work. I sometimes have to resist the urge to write things prematurely. If I have something I’m excited about it’s like “I have to start writing this,” and it works well when you’re just starting out and what you need to do is write, write, write to find your voice and practice with the words. But there comes a point when you need to step back and become a little more reflective. To me writing has always been pleasure. It’s never felt like work. Even the rap opera of Dante’s Inferno. It’s just the best thing in the world for me to do; it’s my favorite thing.
Sometimes I try to work faster than I should, and I shoot myself in the foot. Because of the cutbacks in mainstream publishing, the editors that remain inherit these enormous amounts of work, and they can’t give you the time they were able to even ten years ago. So the writer has to be more focused coming out of the gate than was needed ten or twenty years ago, making planning and patience on the writer’s part that much more important. I’m very fortunate because I have a great editor at Dell Ray/Ballantine who’s very hands-on, but even he doesn’t have the time to give the story as much as he’d like to. So I think one of my weaknesses is not taking the time, being too enthusiastic about getting a story underway when I really should have spent a little more time thinking about it.
I know I write characters that people tend to enjoy, and I don’t hesitate to put them in the worst imaginable scenarios; I think those are some strengths to what I write.
CS: I’ve noticed on your blog that you’ve begun to post short stories. Do the readers possibly have a collection to look forward to?
JS: I would love to do a short story collection. One of the cool things about horror is that it seems to really encourage that. There are so many great short story collections being published. It seems like every year you see great anthologies of horror stories, and I would love to do something like that. The short story form is something that I continue to explore and enjoy; my tendency naturally is to go for the novel, write longer, but the month of October was particularly good for me short story wise. I think I wrote four or five, and the blog was a perfect place to put them up, because you get that satisfaction of being able to communicate with your audience directly, and it looked like a lot of people who were reading them did it while they should have been working. It delights me that I could help somebody waste corporate time, and that somewhere there’s a multinational corporation paying somebody to sit and read my stories.
CS: What’s next for Joe Schreiber?
JS:The Black Wing, hopefully. I’m waiting for notes from my editor. I’m really anxious to finish this novel. I think it’s great, and I think it’s going to be a step up as far as the sort of things people enjoy about my work. It’s going to be new enough that people will really enjoy it. I also just finished a Jaws-like, non-supernatural novel about a dysfunctional family on a pontoon boat called Stillwater, and it’s the other thing that’s out there right now. Also, I’ve started working on a couple of new things: both a supernatural and non-supernatural project. I’m going to end up having this sort of dual writing career, going back and forth between the paranormal and the more mainstream thrillers that I enjoyed when I was growing up.
We decided to do something a little different in the Free Reads section this month. Below you’ll find Keith Minnion of White Noise Press interviewing Don Koish of Necessary Evil Press… and on the flip side, if you click here, you’ll find Don Koish interviewing Keith Minnion!
WNP: I’ll start with the question everybody starts with. How and why did you get involved in publishing?
NEP: Thanks Keith. There as no specific purpose or reason that I got into publishing. It was more of a natural progression. I went from a reader of horror since I was a young teen to a collector. From there I started proofing/copyediting for a couple of publishers. Paul Miller of Earthling Publications convinced me to try publishing something myself and here we are today. Believe me, that’s the short answer, but just as interesting as my long winded response I’ve given before. I’m saving you from it Keith, I promise.
WNP: How did you choose the name for your press?
NEP: A few years back when I lived in California, I had the idea that I wanted to start the press finally, but coming up with a name was tough. I went through a bunch of horrible cliché ridden ideas. One of the better ones (at least I thought at the time) was something like Morbid Books or Miserable Books. LOL I swear. I even bounced the idea off a few friends in the biz and would you believe it? The response was an overwhelmingly god that’s horrible. LOL So I went back to the drawing board and came up with nothing. I decided to forget about it for a few days and then of course that’s when it happened. See how long I take to get to the point? I wasn’t kidding Keith. Anyway, my friend Curtis was visiting from Oregon and we were watching a Roswell special on the Sci-Fi Channel. They were showing some black and white footage of B-52’s landing on a runway near the Air Force base there. On one of the planes, they had the painting on the nose. For the life of me now I can’t remember the picture, but around it were the words Necessary Evil. My buddy looked at me and we just knew we had it. Then it was a matter of going with press or publications or books. So many to choose from. I kind of just settled on press and there we go. I laugh cause that’s a long story for the name especially when a lot of people already refer to use as simply NEP.
WNP: Who else in the specialty press do you especially admire?
NEP: That’s a tough question. I had help from a number of different publishers in the specialty press when I started out. I was very lucky believe me. To learn so many different things before having to publish a single book. I owe so many people thanks that it’s impossible to list them here. I know I’d forget someone. Instead I’ll name some of the specialty publishers I started buying years ago. If it wasn’t for them I’d never be doing this today. Publishers like Dark Harvest and Cemetery Dance for instance. Or Subterranean Press, even Borderlands Press. But hell I’ll never forget my first signed limited I ever bought. It was VOICES FROM THE NIGHT by John Maclay and Associates. Now there’s a specialty publisher. I’ll never forget that book. Beautiful gold slipcase. No dustjacket, instead a deep leather type covering with small metal plate for the book title. Packed with great stories. Talk about a specialty press to admire. I’d die if they started publishing books again. I’d pay anything for that.
WNP: I notice that the very capable Caniglia handles nearly all of the illustration work. What brought you and him together?
NEP: A little bit of luck and knowing some people. LOL Basically Tim Lebbon wanted him to do the art for our first project ever, DEAD MAN’S HAND, and they were friends so Caniglia agreed. Things just kind of fell in place after that to be honest. We enjoyed working together and I paid on time which never hurts. He’s been doing more art shows of late which is great for him. Unfortunately that means not as many projects together, but you’ll still see one from time to time. Instead we’ve started to get some big names and up and coming artists together for NEP projects. Some exciting times ahead, just wait and see.
WNP: And your continuing association with Tim Lebbon? I hear rumors of a third Assassin book on the horizon.
NEP: Yes it’s true. Tim Lebbon was able to get Chris Golden to bribe us. So we’re doing a third book and more after this one. LOL We’re announcing it soon. It’s titled A WHISPER OF SOUTHERN LIGHTS. Caniglia has already completed the cover and a bunch of interiors. That’s all I can say for now as I nervously wait for the signature sheets to arrive back to me from England while I do this interview. It’s killing me!
WNP: I understand you have a secret weapon in your editorial arsenal. What is your wife Deb’s involvement?
NEP: Everyone needs a secret weapon, right? Though now that you’ve let the cat out of the bag I’ll have to keep a close eye on fellow publishers at conventions.
Debbie is involved in a lot of aspects of the company. Not only is she one of the very first readers for me, she also decides and chooses all the color and embossings for NEP books. From the color of the endpapers, to the foil stamping and boards. She sits down after Dave Barnett finishes the layout and starts matching up different patterns and colors. So yeah I’d definitely say she’s our secret weapon. I don’t know what I’d do without her. And she’s also the one who packs up most of the books and ships them off. The TLC everyone has come to expect from NEP.
WNP: Is Necessary Evil Press your full time career, or do you have a day job as well? If so, how do you juggle the two?
NEP: Two years this January I’ll have been a full-time publisher. So yes I’ve joined the world of not knowing how much money you’ll have month to month. A nice binge and purge of worry and making beautiful books. Hehehe. Before that I worked a full-time job then came home and worked on NEP. It almost killed me. People will finally start seeing the pay off on going full-time. You can’t simply say I’m going to publish 10 books a year and it happens. It takes a long time to find the right stories and projects. I don’t want to just publish quantity. I want to publish quality as well.
WNP: You obviously publish writers you admire. Do you consider sales potential as well?
NEP: It’s a give and take to be honest. Unfortunately sales potential has to figure into most projects. If it doesn’t, I won’t be publishing many more if that makes sense at all. Print runs are a game within themselves. You just never know sometimes on how a book will sell. Fortunately we’ve been very lucky so far and sold out most everything we’ve published.
WNP: Is there something or someone you want to publish you haven’t seen yet?
NEP: Ahh yes the question. I’ve been asked this before and the two living authors for me are Stephen King and Bentley Little. A tall order to say the least. We’ve been trying since almost Day 1 to get both of them and unfortunately nothing to report so far. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying though. I’d also love to publish a reprint of something Richard Laymon wrote. Say a first time in hardcover project. Anyone out there that can help me make that happen? Drop me a line please. I’m a huge Laymon fan and collector.
WNP: As you know, the recent demise of the Shocklines online store has sent ripples of concern throughout the specialty press. How is Necessary Evil Press handling it? Are you seeing more direct sales? Are you approaching or have other new online stores approached you?
NEP: We definitely expect to see more direct orders. Which in case some didn’t know are the one thing that keeps a specialty press in business. Without direct orders I can say for a fact NEP wouldn’t be in business. I see this as a great opportunity for us and also for some independent stores out there. The genre should be just fine in the end. We’ve already seen some effects of the closure, but the genre will be stronger from it. And NEP will be stronger. We didn’t have 90% of our books or whathaveyou going through Shocklines.
We haven’t had any new stores approach us, but other stores are stepping up and increasing orders. It’s going to be a challenging and exciting time for everyone coming up. I’m looking forward to the next couple of years.
WNP: I want to talk a bit about the lettered editions. These are freaking works of sculptural art. Who designs them? Who produces them?
NEP: Thanks Keith. Dave Stucky in California designs and produces them in his spare time actually. Though he would deny me any credit, from time to time I help out on the design and ideas behind our lettereds, but he takes all the credit. Love ya Dave! Obviously he’s a great guy and I’m proud to consider him one of my best friends. I can’t imagine NEP lettereds being made anywhere else. Not only are they made out of metal, but the design feature I always push to people and am most proud of is the fact that they are usually designed after the story. From items, themes, etc. Our lettereds reflect the book that’s inside. Not many people are able to say that about their lettered editions. And it’s one of the reasons why our lettereds take time to be produced.
WNP: James Newman’s “The Wicked” was in publishing limbo after Wild Roses Productions folded. How did you acquire it? I have to say, working with you on the illustration end was a pure joy. Any other illustrators who have the chance to do a project with Necessary Evil Press are in for a treat.
NEP: Thanks Keith. The bribe check is in the mail for such kind words. Seriously though it was a project that had a history of not being published. Legally I won’t get into all the details, but we were blessed to be able to finally bring this to print. I know James Newman was happy with the outcome and so was I. And to be able to have a great cover still available from you was just icing on the cake.
However, the book is cursed so anyone that is having bad luck in their life and have a copy of THE WICKED be sure to backtrack and check that it didn’t start when the book arrives. That’s all I can say for fear of extra copies attacking me from my office right now. You’ve all been warned.
WNP: F. Paul Wilson’s novella was not part of your novella series, but was instead offered as a standalone. Why was that?
NEP: The most popular question for us this year. I never realized the impact it would have on things to be honest with you. We received over thirty emails with just this question. Basically it came down to this. Our novella series to date has featured material that was entirely original where Paul’s novella was half reprint and half new pretty much. So I didn’t know what to do. I finally decided to not include it in our novella series and instead print it as a standalone. It allowed us to print a few more copies for the Wilson fans and at the same time allow us to perhaps publish more novellas out of series at the project arises. But I assure everyone, that this wasn’t part of the novella series and I simply decided not to put a number on the spine. That was a rumor circulating and the reason for a lot of the emails. Novella number five will be coming next year if all goes well.
WNP: You offer novels, novellas and novelettes. I’m noticing some other specialty presses are branching out with paperback and hardcover chapbook lines. Any interest in that with Necessary Evil Press?
NEP: I’ve been interested in paperback line since I started. It’s all a matter of having a lot of things line up. The right story that you can sell in mass quantity and the distribution and means to get the book out there. I don’t think I’m in the right position for this yet, but more power to the people taking a shot at it. Hopefully they’ll let me ask questions in a couple of years if we do indeed venture down that path. I think it’s a great thing for the specialty press and it’s authors. More readers is never a bad thing.
WNP: What’s up next for Necessary Evil Press? Come on, spill it!
NEP: Haha. Not sure on the timing of when this interview will appear, but at the moment we have another surprise novelette at the printer, another one under contract and a few novels coming out within a year. Plus a few more surprises here and there. 2008 will be our biggest year yet.
It’s been a pleasure Keith. Thanks for the great questions my friend.
We decided to do something a little different in the Free Reads section this month. Below you’ll find Don Koish of Necessary Evil Press interviewing Keith Minnion of White Noise Press… and on the flip side, if you click here, you’ll find Keith Minnion interviewing Don Koish!
NEP: I’ll copy you here Keith and ask the normal “how did you get here” question to start this off. But I’ll revise it just a bit since you are involved in so many different aspects of the genre today. How did you start doing artwork for the horror genre?
WNP: Two people: Darrell Schweitzer and Richard Chizmar. I was in the Philadelphia SF Writer’s Workshop from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s that also had Darrell Schweitzer as a member, and at one point in 1991 he suggested I send some cutsheet samples to this guy in Maryland who was putting out a horror magazine. Darrell gave me Rich’s address, and I put some samples together and sent them off. Rich called me soon after that, and sent me three stories to do for Cemetery Dance, one of which was “The Washingtonians” by Bentley Little. During that same period I was over at the Weird Tales offices – essentially the rear second floor of George Scither’s house in West Philadelphia – hawking my portfolio, and Darrell and George handed me a Ligotti story – “The Cocoons” – to try on spec.
NEP: How long would you say it took to get your art into something that was published? What was it? The piece and publication?
WNP: I was selling paintings pretty regularly throughout college, mostly Wyeth-like watercolor landscapes. My very first published illustration, though, was a little pen and ink drawing for my second published short story called “On The Midwatch” for Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, back in 1979. George Scithers, the editor at Asimov’s, bought it. I was on leave from the Navy, dragging my portfolio around to publishers in NYC. Both George at Asimov’s and Stanley Schmidt at Analog had offices on the same floor. I think George was just being kind in accepting that drawing, because it wasn’t very good. As for how long it took to get published? I put together my first serious portfolio in 1979, mostly doing work when off-duty in my shipboard compartment, and that leave visit to NYC the same year was my first attempt to sell myself, so it was pretty quick. This was pre-Internet, pre-digital, pre-electronic ANYthing, remember, so going out on face interviews with a black leather zippered portfolio of original work and cutsheet sample packages that you left with art editors on a pile with a hundred other cutsheet packages was really the only way to go. Marriage and kids took up all of my time for the rest of the 1980s, though, and except for some sporadic SF assignments I didn’t get back into illustration till the early 1990s, and then it was mostly all horror illustration work for markets like Cemetery Dance, Deathrealm and Weird Tales.
NEP: Can you tell us a little bit about how you work as an artist? From the start to finish on the process of doing a cover piece?
WNP: When I read a manuscript I scribble illustration ideas on the backs of the pages and dog-ear them. After I’m done reading I edit the ideas down to those I think I can actually execute, and in the case of novels, those that are evenly spaced out in the manuscript to help with the overall finished book presentation. Then I either get friends or family to pose, or I go into my big morgue of clip art I get from old magazines for material, and block out the compositions in pencil on tracing paper. When I get that right, I transfer the drawing to the actual drawing paper or illustration board by tracing it over graphite paper. In the case of cover paintings I go over the pencil transfer with a technical ink pen. This locks the composition down in a very linear way, which I prefer. I usually work in acrylic polymer for covers, a water-based paint, because it’s fast. I also tend to follow classical egg-tempera-type painting techniques by building up shapes and textures in thin, semi-opaque layers of paint. I also like to splatter paint a lot for texture purposes, so if you would look at one of my things in an early stage you might wonder: What the hell is THAT? The final step is when I scan the painting to a digital file and give it a once-over in Photoshop, cleaning up the image, getting rid of any imperfections from the scan. The whole process often takes several weeks. I get the most satisfaction out of doing interior illustrations, though, and I can usually knock two or three of those out in a weekend. I have a day job and really long commutes, so weekends are the only time I can really work.
NEP: Do you have a website that features your artwork by chance? Is there any way for people to buy prints or even originals of your work?
WNP: Sure. I keep a virtual portfolio site at: http://www.keithminnion.com. Most of that stuff is available for sale. I just have it all stored in drawers, actually. There are prints for sale at the White Noise Press site at: http://www.whitenoisepress.com.
NEP: This isn’t the most original question, but I always love to hear the answer especially with artists. So I’ll ask it since I get to decide the questions for once. Who are some of the artists you admire? Today? Growing up?
WNP: Love this question! In junior high and high school I studied Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Hopper quite a lot. I used to do oil painting almost exclusively back then, and I admired the way Van Gogh applied a single thick and gooey layer of paint, highly saturated colors laid side by side, to do his paintings. He just blurped them out, often in a single sitting. With Hopper it was all about color and composition. I loved the empty spaces in his stuff, the volumes. Unbelievable stuff. In college the Minimalist, Conceptual and Post Conceptual movements were popular. Most of it was pure bullshit, but some of it was, as my professor Jan Groover liked to say, “A true Mind-Fuck.” We used to go down to the Soho galleries in NYC all the time and crash openings for the free wine and to actually meet some of these people. I really admired the Minimalists Robert Mangold, Bryce Marden, Robert Motherwell and Robert Ryman, and Frank Stella too, before he got into his high-relief and 3-D wall pieces. On the flip side of all that, I took a water-media class with Rudolph Zallinger, the famous dinosaur painter (The Golden Book of Dinosaurs, those incredible murals at the Peabody in New Haven) and he taught me how to paint in egg tempera – I’m talking the classic Cennino Cennini 15th century techniques, grinding pigments, cooking rabbitskin glue, marble-dust gesso, all of that. From there it was a quick jump to contemporary egg tempera painters like Robert Vickery and Andrew Wyeth – who I am fanatical about; a winter doesn’t go by when I’m not down in Chadds Ford walking those same roads and fields or gawking at stuff in the Brandywine Museum – and his father N.C. Wyeth, more juicy paint, wonderful color and composition and powerful execution. From him it was an easy jump to the Symbolists and Decadents: Maxfield Parrish, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, John William Waterhouse, that whole crowd. I was also fascinated by the work of the contemporary British illustrator Roger Dean, who did those great YES album covers, so I studied him a lot. As for genre illustrators, I admire the ink work of Joseph Clement Cole. I also really like the work Alex McVey and Steve Gilberts are doing.
NEP: You’ve been involved in the genre for a number of years now so I’m curious to ask if you see the genre going in any type of direction. You have some that say we’re all doomed, but others say that we’ve never been healthy. Any thoughts on this?
WNP: Well, I only stumbled into the horror genre fifteen years ago, so I am hardly an expert. Before that, my only exposure had been some Shirley Jackson, some Lovecraft, and Chiller Theater the Twilight Zone on TV! Whenever I am in with a group of horror professionals and fans – like at the recent Necon 27 – I feel like the dumb kid in the back of the class. What I’ve seen from my limited perspective are just popularity waves: everybody doing vampires, then everybody doing zombies, then everybody doing zombie-vampires, etc. But that’s just the foam at the top of the beer. There’s still everything underneath, the vast body of work that everyone else is doing, and that stuff seems to be getting published with the same regularity as always, and a lot of it is really good. Beth Massie’s recent “Homeplace” is a great example, a really fine haunted house story. I would much rather curl up with that than the next ‘rip your face off and shit down your windpipe’ thing. Shock for shock’s sake doesn’t much interest me. Bores me, actually. Horror’s not going anyplace that any of the other genres aren’t also going, anyway. I think everybody just has to keep their fingers crossed that paper publishing in general remains strong, so the markets continue, across the board.
NEP: I’ve been a big fan of your art for years Keith. And I was lucky enough to get my hands on your first project as a publisher as well. It’s heavily illustrated by you and a true piece of art in itself with the envelope and endpapers. Tell everyone a little more about how you got into the publishing side of things.
WNP: At that same Philadelphia SF Writer’s Workshop back in the 1980s I met Jason Van Hollander, someone I greatly respect as both an illustrator and a writer. We became really good friends. One Saturday he brought a story to the workshop called “The Hell Book” and it just floored me, absolutely floored me. I remember saying to Darrell Schweitzer that he should buy it for Weird Tales, and, as it turned out, that’s what he did. Someday, I told Jason, I want to re-publish this in a low-run chapbook. Just an idea. Ten years later an old guy at work was retiring and he offered to give me this old Swingline saddle stitcher he was otherwise going to throw out. It was a heavy-duty manual stapler that let you staple-bind things like … chapbooks. Hmmm. I had already just purchased a high-end “giglee” ink-jet printer to do art prints, so I decided, with Jason’s permission and just for fun, to put the three together: story, stapler and printer, and see if anyone was interested. Digital graphic design using Adobe programs like In-Design, Pagemaker and Illustrator has always been a lot of fun for me, so I gave it a shot.
NEP: You’ve done all the art for White Noise Press so far. Is this something that you’ll continue to do?
WNP: Yep. I am about as cheap an illustrator as I can find, and I don’t get into any pissing matches or ego bumping with myself either. Also, the illustrations tend to evolve with the layout process, so employing myself solves that problem.
NEP: Above I was commenting on how much I loved White Noise Press chapbooks. There isn’t anything quite like your chapbooks and I have every single one of them. Can you tell us a little more about them?
WNP: They are truly hand-crafted. I don’t employ any other person or company to publish them. I copyedit the manuscripts, I design the books, I lay them out, I illustrate them, I print them, fold them, bind them, package them, all by myself. I go exploring on the Internet to find new papers for the text and covers, and I really enjoy making font family decisions and that second color choice for each chap project. I was inspired a lot by Roy Squires, the New Jersey publisher. He did a limited edition chapbook of Fritz Leiber’s “Demons of the Upper Air” that I bought when I was a teenager, and I always have that in the back of my mind as a benchmark of truly great published art object, something beyond just a stapled chapbook. Roy put all his chaps in printed slip envelopes too, which is something I decided to do also.
NEP: How do you decide on the projects you publish?
WNP: So far I have been asking writers I admire to contribute stories. I just cold-call them, what the hell, right? Some of them have actually said yes, which I still think is amazing. I wait for the story to arrive before I even think about how it will look as a finished product. The only editorial rule I have ever mentioned to anyone was: no splatter/gore/shock stuff, please. I much prefer quiet supernatural or psychological horror, and so far I have been very lucky.
NEP: You’ve already had some great success in the publishing field. Where do you see the press going from here? Do you ever see yourself going into publishing full-time?
WNP: I have chapbook commitments through 2008, so people will see three chapbooks a year coming out of White Noise Press this year and next. In 2009 I plan on retiring from my day job and going back to school to get a Master of Fine Arts degree in Drawing so I can teach at the college level in my “golden” years. I hope to continue White Noise Press projects through that period, if I can. This uncertainty factor is why I have fended off all customer requests for “lifetime” subscriptions. When I get enough chaps done to warrant it, though, I definitely plan on approaching all the authors to do a trade paperback anthology, reprinting all the White Noise Press stories, with all new illustrations, and maybe a new long piece of novelette or novella length from a new author included to sweeten the pot. “White Noise Stories.” That should be interesting.
NEP: Are there any writers you really want to work with given the chance? As an artist? As a publisher?
WNP: Argh! Anyone I DON’T mention might get offended! As an illustrator, my greatest recent thrills were illustrating some of Gene Wolf’s stories. My God, what a great writer he is. I also really like it when I get sent a story to illustrate and the name doesn’t ring a bell for me, and I only find out later that the writer was a Name and the story was Important. That happened when I got “The Box” to do for Cemetery Dance a few years ago (remember: dumb kid in the back of the class). Jack who?? Bram Stoker what??
NEP: Can you talk about what you’ll have coming out in the next six months to a year?
WNP: Sure! I am a big supporter of letting the cat out of the bag. I am currently putting together Elizabeth Massie’s very dark and complex story “Brazen Bull.” Think classic Shirley Jackson, but with Beth’s special talents mixed in. We got to go over some of the design ideas at Necon 27, and I am very excited about putting this one out as the Autumn 2007 offering. The three slots for 2008 are also filled. Kealan Patrick Burke will be contributing a story for the Spring chap; I get to illustrate another Orangefield story from Al Sarrantonio for the Summer chap, and Brian Keene just returned the contracts for a story that will appear in the Autumn slot. All new fiction. Can’t wait.
NEP: Interviewers have used this before as the last question and I always found it quite fitting and interesting. So I’m going to copy it here. Any last words? Things you would like to mention. Some great gossip to help make this the best interview ever? Now’s your chance.
WNP: I guess we’ll let Rich and Brian edit or not edit this, but they recently hired me to do the layout and design duties for their chapbook line. We are hoping to get on a regular schedule of putting out six or so CD Publications chaps every year. They also just hired me to a regular gig of providing frontispiece paintings for some of the lettered edition hardcovers that will be coming out from CD. I’m looking forward to doing some Wyethy watercolors for that.
NEP: Thanks Keith. It was fun doing these interviews and great meeting you at NECON this year.
WNP: Hey, everything at Necon STAYS at Necon! (Unless you want Matt Bechtel on your ass, and who wants that?).
Brian Hodge: It’s a 578-page crime novel that features what is probably the biggest, most over-the-top cast of characters that have ever moved in with me. It revolves around a struggling actor named Jamey Sheppard who, on his way from Los Angeles to Flagstaff, AZ, for his wedding, is briefly mistaken for the real-life fugitive he’s just played on a crime reenactment show. This sets off multiple chains of events that careen all over the southwest.
Tom Piccirilli: Why are the dogs mad? Why don’t you feed them?
BH: Because, after another couple days, I plan to turn the hungry buggers loose on smart-ass wise guys.
Paul Legerski: The history of the publication of Mad Dogs would be a nice place to begin, no?
BH: Okay, be sure to get those pliers right under the edge of that scab, and rip slowly.
To tell the whole thing would take a chapbook, but the Cliff’s Notes version…? It was the kind of drawn-out sequence of events and circumstances that eventually start you wondering if the whole thing has been cursed.
Mad Dogs was William Morrow & Company’s option book after Wild Horses, but by the time I finished it and we sent it in, there was a totally new infrastructure in place. Morrow had been bought by Rupert Murdoch, and his people conducted a series of firings that cleaned out everybody I’d worked with, and most everybody else I hadn’t. In the editorial department, there was one single survivor. So the editor who really got what I was doing, and fought to win the bidding war for Wild Horses, was gone, and the new personnel just weren’t interested.
Then, to our horrified surprise, my agent couldn’t place it with any of the other houses in New York. For each of the objections it met, you could immediately come up with an example to rebut it, but those wouldn’t apply to me. Because with Wild Horses, I was just getting started in hardcover, in a different genre, with virtually no track record. It was like the six paperback novels before that didn’t count.
Many thought it was too complex. Another problem explained to me was that, in this stratum at least, publishing is increasingly run by female editors buying mainly for female readers, and so they’re looking foremost for central female characters. By those terms, Wild Horses was fine. But Mad Dogs, despite several vital female characters, is still centered on two guys.
Another shock to the system: The type of novel it is … that was an even bigger problem. The New York houses, I was told, had begun to develop an aversion to whacked-out crime novels, in large part because they’re marketing headaches. And mine are even weirder than usual because the mood swings are so extreme. The mordant humor is similar, but the thing that you tend not to see in Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen is the depth of emotion that I’m going after, as well. Plus, in an otherwise good Publishers Weekly review of Wild Horses, they groused that the writing was too lyrical for the story. So, stir all that together … how do you market it? As a gritty crime thriller? A fizzy caper? A literary novel? It’s easier just to say no than try. As a result, this is the second and last of this particular type of novel that I’m likely to do.
A further mishap: One small press publisher I’d already worked with was going to do it, never sounded anything other than eager to do it, told me more than once how much they loved it, and we were working on editorial tweaks … but I could never get them to produce a contract. They dragged things out for almost an entire year before I finally withdrew it. Although that definitely worked out for the better—I’m very happy that it’s ended up with CD.
There’s more, but you get the idea. Besides, any aspiring writers who might be reading this are probably ready to hang themselves, so let’s stop now for humanitarian reasons.
Brian Keene:Mad Dogs and Wild Horses both signaled a shift in style and theme for you. You could see hints of this in earlier works likeThe Darker Saints, but it came to the front with these two later novels. Did you find this “voice” to your liking? And how did long-time readers react to it?
BH: I’ve never thought of it as a shift so much as an expansion. I’ve always admired writers who can roam between various kinds of work and do them all well. Joe Lansdale definitely comes to mind. Like you noted, The Darker Saints, and Nightlife before it, were part crime novels. So it seemed natural to try novels that were nothing but. But I never felt that I was abandoning anything. The Hellboy novel, On Earth As It Is In Hell, and World of Hurt… I think I was able to approach these with a new drawer in the toolbox that I might not have otherwise developed.
And I’m not aware of catching any flak for having branched out. Readers and reviewers who knew me for the Dell/Abyss novels, and the couple before those … from them I heard nothing but enthusiasm for Wild Horses. And if they liked that, then they should feel right at home in Mad Dogs. I don’t know of that many readers who are so dogmatic about horror that that’s all they read.
PL:Mad Dogs kicks off with a mistaken identity scene that escalates into a war for Jamey’s survival. Did every step after this scene that escalates the threat(s) to Jamey’s survival come in the order that is the final version … or did you have all of the scenarios in mind and just put them down in your favored way?
BH: It more or less unfolded for me as it happened. I’d had the basic premise in mind for a long time before I started the novel—a struggling actor is mistaken for the real-life fugitive he’s just portrayed on an America’s Most Wanted-type TV show—but that was pretty much it. Then along came a few more characters and a loose concept of the main story arc, but I had no clue where it would all lead.
PL: There is not one “good guy” in Mad Dogs. By that I mean no one is immune to making a few (or in some instances many) mistakes or wrong decisions. In some instances, no one to cheer on. To me that is the brilliance of your characters … all are at least a shade of gray morally … like all of us I might add. Do you feel that is a reason why some editors would not buy the book?
BH: If that was a factor, along with what I already described, nobody said so. I suspect I would’ve heard about it if it were.
Still, I believe Jamey’s a good guy, definitely. Samantha’s very good-hearted, almost to a fault. And although Duncan and Dawn are much more compromised, they’re decent enough at heart. But none of them are perfect. How interesting are perfect people? Give me the impulsive and the screw-ups, any day. Even Cro-Mag, for me, is hard not to pull for, because of his boundless affection for all things four-legged, and his unique form of brain damage—based in reality, by the way, someone I was aware of by two degrees of separation. But Jamey’s the main through-line, and I think most people will be in his corner. He’s not immune to acting on impulse and emotion, but he’s just trying to get through a roller coaster ride he never wanted to be on
PL: The pacing is very step-by-step … by that I mean it is very ordered and not all over the place. It grows from one set of circumstances, then turns into another level of seriousness. Was this an outlined book? If not, what did you want the pacing to be? Did you have a beginning, middle and end?
BH: To me, it’s more like a candelabrum. It starts from a singular event that sets into motion a series of repercussions that branch out in parallel. But then, most of what happens has everything to do with the central characters’ family histories, so it reaches backward, too. Actually, I think it is all over the place … it just doesn’t necessarily feel that way because of how hard I worked to keep the structure and storylines balanced, and how every turn of events emerges out of what everybody’s done a day or two or three earlier. There’s no way I could’ve outlined all that. I’m a terrible outliner. Most of the time, I try to let the characters lead the way. I was just as curious as they were to see how they would get through these situations.
PL: Jamey has had to deal with a physical deformity. To me, it was to show the readers that he overcame much in his youth and foreshadowed how he would deal with later more extreme external abuses. Is this what you were going for?
BH: I don’t know if I put that much thought into it, really. It just arose naturally in the planning stages, as part of his baggage. What probably sheds more light on it is an observation that Robert Bloch made, and while he was talking about writers, I don’t see why it couldn’t apply more broadly. Bloch said something like most writers are broken in some way, and writing is their way of fixing it. OK, so now take this boy who had a very visible physical defect that took years to correct, and who ate a lot of shit because of it. It seems very likely that he would’ve spent a lot of time growing up pretending to be other people, in other bodies. And so he just never stopped.
PL: For me, the flashback scene at the Utah diner when Jamey is with his family as a young boy was very moving and almost poetic and explains so much that is going on inside Jamey. Was this scene from a personal moment of yours or totally fictional, and what did you want to accomplish with that scene?
BH: You’ve already half-answered the latter part of your question. I wanted to show that moment when the magic of movies really opened up to Jamey, in a real-world way that made him think it was within his reach. It was also a handy way to show how far back the tension with his sister goes. Plus the locale sets up something for much later, which I can’t get into for spoiler reasons, but I love it when a thing like that naturally doubles back on itself.
And that scene is almost 100% rooted in experience, although not from childhood. It was about a decade ago, when Doli and I and Beth Massie and a couple other friends were zigzagging along on a cross-country trip and were passing through Utah. Exact same sequence of events: We drove back in along a few miles of dirt road to see some ancient petroglyphs at the edge of the Ute Indian Reservation, then backtracked through this little desert town. Stopped at a diner where a dog and a gray wolf really were hanging around outside. So I’m writing from hands-on experience when Jamey’s petting them and is amazed at how different their coats feel. Then, inside, we learned that a scene from Thelma & Louise had been filmed there. It’s the place where Thelma stops at night to call her husband. It was just a very, very cool afternoon stop, this little gem of an experience that fit perfectly into the novel.
A few years later I was road-tripping through again, by myself, and stopped, but found the diner vacant and locked up, windows coated in dust. That left me sad for miles.
PL: My favorite character scene is when Jamey and his fiancée take a walk after some disturbing news makes its way to Jamey. The conflict he feels toward his fiancée is so real … from an honest hating of her to a somber understanding of the circumstance. Was that an easy scene to write and did that feeling of hate have to be rethought or reedited by you as too harsh for the “common” reader?
BH: It wasn’t hard to write at all, because I knew the characters so well by then. It was more like taking dictation.
But hate is too strong a word, I think. On one level Jamey is angry with Samantha, because she’s done something for pure and selfless reasons, and he recognizes that. It’s just backfired in the worst way possible. But what he’s feeling and trying to tamp down isn’t what really matters here. Counterbalancing that—outweighing it, even—is what else he’s feeling and tells her aloud. It’s probably the most tender, heartfelt expression of one person’s love for another that I’ve ever written. And one reason it was so heartfelt is that I could’ve been saying that in real life and, almost word-for-word, it would’ve fit.
PL: This novel is very hard on the people of Hollywood … nobody with any redeeming values to speak of. Was this from first-hand experience with the entertainment industry? Also, do you think the negative portrayal of the many characters from La-La Land will make this a harder sale to movie or TV producers?
BH: Hey, I thought Petra, the makeup artist, was pretty cool, at least! And the reporter from Variety. Really, to me, it’s more satire than venom. Most of it’s played for laughs. The producer, Mickey Coffman, is loosely based on Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer’s deceased partner, only Mickey’s not particularly self-destructive. And, amazingly enough, going by a biography I read, still not as horrible as Simpson could actually be.
Honestly, I can’t claim that much experience with people who work in film, but some of the ones I have dealt with have turned into good friends, and most of the others were at least pleasant at the time. Yes, some are prone to losing interest and flitting off elsewhere, or it’s obvious they can’t do what they’ve said they can, and either way that’s the last you hear of them. But I’ve only encountered one genuine viper, and had to hire a lawyer to finish contending with her.
I have no clue if anyone would take it personally, in a generic sense. But Hollywood is occasionally very hard on itself. Think of movies likeSwimming With Sharks, or Robert Altman’s The Player. Really, the bottom line is the bottom line: If it were to get to somebody who thinks he or she could make money off it, then not much else would matter.
There’s a great line from film agent John Lesher, originally in a New York Times article. I quoted it in “The Passion of the Beast,” my story for Midnight Premiere, the movie-related anthology that Tom Piccirilli edited for CD: “People here will work with the Antichrist if he’ll put butts in seats.”
Tom Piccirilli fits my definition of a writer’s writer. He’s prolific. His work is solid as it is distinctive. He’s a writer who loves genre fiction, and he’s a writer who has something to say about love and loss and strength and weakness, i.e. the human condition. On that score, he’s incredibly perceptive.
And one other thing about Mr. Piccirilli: he doesn’t disappoint.
It was my pleasure to talk to Tom for this special CD interview, which focuses on a couple of new books with MIDNIGHT in the title: Tom’s new Cemetery Dance anthology, MIDNIGHT PREMIERE, and his new novel from Bantam, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD.
Before we jump in, a little about the man himself. Pic lives in Colorado where, besides writing, he spends an inordinate amount of time watching trash cult and reading Gold Medal classic noir and hardboiled novels. He likes his dogs and he likes his friends—Tom’s definitely my go-to guy whenever I need another writer’s email address; this guy knows everyone. He’s also a fan of Asian cinema, especially horror movies, pinky violence, and samurai flicks. Gotta be Tom’s the undisputed master of the quick Netflix turnaround—Pic often sits down with a movie as soon as it arrives and gets it back into the postman’s hand before he leaves the neighborhood. Maybe if Tom’d train the guy better, the postman would always ring twice, and save Tom a trip tracking him down. Hey, I really think it could happen. In Tom Piccirilli’s noirish little corner of the world, anyway.
For those of you who want the straight-ahead stats: Mr. Piccirilli is the author of seventeen novels including THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, THE DEAD LETTERS, HEADSTONE CITY, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. He’s a four-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award and a final nominee for the World Fantasy Award. To learn more about Pic, check out his official website, Epitaphs, at: www.tompiccirilli.com.
PART: One of the things that really surprised me about MIDNIGHT PREMIERE was the gutsy intro, in which you talk about your family and the death of your father. For me, that went a long way toward explaining the place movies occupy in your life and your work. Movies were an escape from some pretty rough realities—lots of people would say that—but it seems they became more than that for young Tom Piccirilli. Reading your fiction, I have a sense that they were parables, or even playbooks, and that the people you found on the screen cut pretty close to the bone for you. Is that a fair assessment?
PIC: I think that imaginative, sensitive children, especially those who might have some kind of trauma in their early lives—the loss of a parent through death or divorce, say—often have a great need to fantasize. Books and films take on a greater importance to them than a lot of people might think. I tend to think that a lot of my concept of “father” or “manhood” was filled by characters I read about or saw up on the screen. Kids who aren’t being taught about life by their parents are being taught about life by someone or something else. They need to fill the hole.
So I believe that the…the map of the world I learned about early on, the blueprints of life, came from film and literature, and so much of the way that I relate to the world is through what I learned from those forms. And it only makes sense that it would show up in my own writing and would be inherent in the writing and movies that I love.
PART: So, in terms of the way you see the world, what filmmakers or actors cut the deepest, and why?
PIC: That’s a rough question, man. There have been so many over the years who fulfilled some need or interest in me at that particular time. At the moment I’m getting back heavily into film noir—there’s such a slick style to the writing, the acting, the look, and the directing. You watch something like I WAKE UP SCREAMING and Jesus Christ, you’ve got everything right there on the screen. You’ve got Victor Mature and Betty Grable, you’ve got smoke and shadow, you’ve got laughter and suspense and madness and love. And again, to get back to what we were talking about, film noir is from the 40s and 50s, my parents generation, so seeing those beautiful women and handsome men, playing characters who’ve survived the depression and come back from WWII…well, those are my parents up there in some kind of metaphorical sense. As I slide into middle-age, I’m becoming them.
PART: Ditto. I especially loved the way you worked with the whole noir milieu into your newest novel, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD. Your main character runs the Robert Mitchum playbook pretty hard. Anybody cooler in your book, or is Mitchum the guy?
PIC: Mitchum was always the coolest but there was always so much bubbling beneath the hard, hip exterior. If you watch the guy closely you always see a little grin on his lips, even when he’s playing evil or slick, as if he wants the audience to know that it’s all a game. One of the reasons I love HIS KIND OF WOMAN so much is because it actually gives Mitchum a chance to be a noir-hero but also play off some sizzlingly comedic dialogue. You could sense he was having a lot of fun and wanted everyone to get in on the joke. Even when he’s being tortured!
PART: You obviously learned to get your fingers on the pulse of the people made of celluloid and ink at a young age. Did that influence your own approach to creating characters?
PIC: Only so far as I’m a big believer in backstory. Characters who have weighty histories are more intriguing to me. They’re scarred from their battles, they’ve had as many losses as wins, and though that’s colored their outlook on life, they do their best to keep their chins up. It allows me to weave in humor, chills, or emotion when there needs to be some. Those are the characters I like to see on film and read about. They’re caught up in the story, in the novel, in the film, but their actions and their beliefs are larger than what you see on the page or on the screen. They are influenced by the things that have come before, whether we’re privy to that or not. I think it makes for more human, realistic, and relatable characters. Even if the events surrounding them are over-the-top.
PART: Let me take that a little further. In your fiction, I’ve always been struck by your mastery of character. Cookiecutter men and women, these ain’t. The hardcase on his last legs in FUCKIN’ LIE DOWN ALREADY is a favorite of mine…that story’s brutal, and heartfelt at the same time. Flynn in THE MIDNIGHT ROAD is another great character. You spend a lot of time with these guys. How do you get their blood pumping on the page, and how hard is it to say goodbye to them once you type “The End”?
PIC: I’m not sure I ever completely say goodbye to them because they’re all alternate versions of one another. For me, it isn’t important to start with a character’s strength, but to start with his weakness. What is it that makes this person flawed?…what makes him incomplete? What drives his nightmares? And the answer doesn’t have to be some kind of big, major, intense revelation. It can be some small hurdle that for some reason, the character simply can’t leap over. I think that’s more honest. I think that’s more universal. We all have some small quirk that really lashes the shit out of us all of our lives. Whether it’s physical or emotional or spiritual. Some little fucked-up problem or pain or heartache that has taken a sizeable chunk out of each of us over the course of our lives. If I can translate anything like that to the page, I think it gets the heart beating and the blood pumping on the page. Once you know how important the weakness is, you can show how difficult it is to find the strength within oneself to overcome it.
PART: Tell us a little about THE MIDNIGHT ROAD.
PIC: It’s something of a departure for me: an offbeat mystery/noir/suspense fusion about a Child Protective Services investigator who stumbles into a strange situation at a wealthy family’s home while checking on a lead. Flynn winds up in a car chase and dies in a frozen harbor, but he’s revived a half hour later by paramedics. For the rest of the novel he’s not only hunted by a mysterious killer who seems to blame Flynn for something he’s unaware of, but Flynn has to deal with the ghost of a dead dog that talks to him in his own voice and may be either his own brain damage or the angel of death. As mentioned, there’s a lot of backstory and history to the character. I finally gave a protagonist the same love of film noir that I have, so there’s lots of references to the classics.
PART: MIDNIGHT PREMIERE is another project we can chalk up to your love of film. How’d that one come about?
PIC: I’d just attended Horrorfind and ChillerCon—which are conventions featuring lots of well-known and lesser-known character actors, writers, scream queens, and make-up wizards. I was intrigued by how many folks loved writing and reading horror stories about horror movies, using elements dealing with Hollywood, the drive-in, and the movie-making and movie-going experience in some way. I thought it would make for a fun anthology a la SILVER SCREAM edited by David Schow, and your very own IT CAME FROM THE DRIVE-IN, Norm.
So I asked some directors (including Mick Garris and Patrick Lussier), actors (including William Smith, Richard Grove, Kyra Schon, and Linnea Quigley), and authors (including Jack Ketchum, Gary Braunbeck, John Shirley, Tom Monteleone, Ed Gorman, and Brian Hodge) if they wanted to be involved. The interest was overwhelming, and the stories were wonderfully eclectic. There’s truly gut-wrenching poignant tales in the anthology, and others that are just completely outrageous, funny, bizarre, and freaky. When you’re reading a book with a story in it called “Baby Boss and the Underground Hamsters: A Feature-Length Cartoon,” you know you’re reading something fun and funky. That’s Al Sarrantonio’s contribution by the way.
Needless to say, I didn’t just want dark and disturbing horror tales, but also outrageous tales that show the full range of how horror fans feel about grade-B and cult film.
PART: The book definitely pulls that load of freight. I really enjoyed your own Southern gothic story, “Shadder,” by the way. But I’ve got to ask you, Tom—what was it like to work with the film folks? Have any fanboy moments you want to share with us?
PIC: I was a total fanboy from start to finish. Meeting Kyra Schon, the little zombie girl from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was incredible, especially considering the impact that film had on me, and then to work with her (she co-wrote a humorous zombie tale with Mark McLaughlin) was a blast. Patrick Lussier, the director of DRACULA 2000 and WHITE NOISE: THE LIGHT, and I have become good friends since I put the book together. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know him and becoming buddies with him. Getting a chance to hear a lot of his behind-the-scenes stories from the film sets he works on totally geeks me out. Mick Garris was also awesome to work with—very friendly and approachable, a real gentleman all around. But I’ve got to say my biggest fanboy moment was getting a signed photo from William Smith, who I think is probably the greatest all-time character actor villain in the annals of B-movie history. I mean, we’re talking Falconetti here! He’s just the most amazing personal history. Not only has he done hundreds of films, but he’s been a bodybuilder, a rancher, a soldier. Dude, this is Angel from RUN, ANGEL, RUN, the first movie that started the whole motorcycle film craze of the 60s. I had to trim his bio down to two pages because in total it would’ve taken up too big a chunk of the antho.
PART: Too bad you couldn’t recruit Warren Oates to write a story about snake-handlers. That would have been something, but I think you would have needed a shovel.
PIC: If I could’ve tapped the other side for an actor to kick in a story, I would’ve liked to have seen something by Robert Ryan. He was noir through and through, man, and I bet he’d have had some tall tales to tell from hell!
PART: Well, we’ll save digging up Warren for the inevitable movie version of A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN, then. Gotta be a role for him in that one somewhere. But let’s get back to business on this side of the pearly gates—what’s a prolific cat such as yourself got coming up next?
PIC: I just finished two novels back to back. A Hellboy novel entitled EMERALD HELL, where HB heads down to the swampy South to battle an evil mystical preacher, and a straight crime novel THE COLD SPOT, about a young thief who marries a cop, goes straight, and years later when she’s murdered by a crew of robbers enlists the help of his violent criminal grandfather to go after them. Starting the sequel in a couple of days. Also, some short stories will be showing up in ELLERY QUEEN, YEAR’S FINEST MYSTERY STORIES, and an anthology called FIVE STROKES TO MIDNIGHT, featuring work by Chris Golden, Gary Braunbeck, and Deb LeBlanc.
PART: Best of luck with all of ’em, Tom. I’ll be looking forward to reading them, and thanks for the interview.
PIC: Thank you, Norm. Always a pleasure shooting the shinola with you, buddy!
This is an excerpt from the excellent interview that appears on feoamante.com. There’s a link below to read the rest! We thank Monica and Feoamante.com for allowing us to reprint this portion here:
MO: Sort of like Weed Species, which isn’t out yet. Based on actual events.
JK:Weed Species is a small novella. It’s been illustrated by Alan M. Clark. He’s done the cover, and Glenn Chadbourne is doing the interiors. They’re quite nice. Almost allegory, because people aren’t going to know what the hell this thing is until they open the book.
MO: I was really quite surprised by it when I read it.
JK: It’s the most vicious thing I think I’ve ever done.
MO: It is brutal.
JK: And I think the reason it is so hard is, in this case I almost don’t give you any sympathy for the characters. They’re weeds. You need to pluck them. (laughs)
MO: When you and I discussed this story, you seemed almost put off by your use of graphic language in this story.
JK: It seemed to bother me? No, I wanted to bother you.
MO: Well it did. But I got the impression you were also put off by it.
JK: Well yes, of course I’m put off by it. Again, if I don’t make myself feel something, I’m not going to make you feel something. So in this case, I wanted to make you feel repulsed. So I had to repulse myself. So I used those kinds of words, and I used that kind of dialogue, where for example at one point he’s telling this rape victim to talk back to him like he’s Daddy, like he’s the best fuck she’s ever had and all that shit. They do that. Most of this dialog was taken straight out of transcripts. And that’s what they say. And yes, it turns me very, very off, so to turn you off, I used it.