Special report on “The Three Kings” filed by Bev Vincent
Stephen, Tabitha and Owen King read from their works at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington D.C. on April 4, 2008 as part of the PEN/Faulkner reading series. The event was originally scheduled to be held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, but due to demand it was moved to the larger venue across the street. I heard that over 500 tickets were sold.
Earlier in the day, the three authors met with students from several area high schools at the Library of Congress as part of the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program.
Eager fans started gathering on the church steps early in the afternoon. The sign near the sidewalk announced “GOD RESCUES OUR LIVES FROM DEATH.” The steps grew crowded and the line extended down the sidewalk by the time the Will Call doors opened at 7 pm. Attendees were of all ages. Some were dressed in horror-themed t-shirts and a couple of guys looked like they just got off their motorbikes. People who had never met before but knew each other by screen names from message boards sought each other out. Precious books were tucked under arms or clutched to chests.
The first person I recognized was Norman Prentiss, who’ve I know from NECON and Shocklines. He was there with a friend. Four Cemetery Dance employees showed up shortly thereafter and joined our little group. I had to leave my place in line to pick up my tickets from the Will Call table–if you saw me rejoining my friends, I wasn’t cutting in line. I swear!
When the doors opened at 7:30, we found a pew with enough empty space on the right-hand side of the sanctuary. Three chairs were arranged on the left-hand side of the chancel where the authors would be seated. The first few rows of the sanctuary were blocked off for PEN/Faulkner members and affiliates. Attendees clustered around the center aisle so they could make a fast break for the Folger later to get in the queue for the book signing.
The rules concerning the event were announced frequently, and reiterated from the pulpit before the Kings took the stage. A young woman took photographs of the audience and the event for PEN/Faulkner.
After introductions, Tabitha King was the first to read. Each author was miked but, after a moment’s hesitation, she decided to read from the pulpit. She could barely see over the top (I was reminded of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the White House several years ago), but she got a laugh when she said that her daughter, a minister, would be jealous. Her daughter’s congregation isn’t as large as the one seated before her, and the pulpit isn’t as nice, she said.
She read from a novel in progress called The Potter’s Rib, explaining that a “rib” is a tool potters use. She skipped the prolog, which she said was about the death of a cat. “It’s sad,” she said, her Maine accent making the second word long and flat. A woman goes to visit her ex-husband, who wants to consult with her about some expensive porcelain his new wife purchased. He suspects it might be counterfeit. The main character is non-committal, but the new wife, bearing a box of the pottery in question, appears at her door later that evening when she is getting ready for bed. During the reading, Tabitha stopped from time to time to make editorial comments about the work. In the midst of a passage about the history of porcelain, she said, “Isn’t this riveting? Don’t worry. There’s exciting stuff ahead.”
Owen followed his mother’s lead and stood behind the pulpit, looming over it. The story he selected was called “Nothing is in Bad Taste,” recently published in Subtropics 5. The editor who accepted the piece was in the audience. The story is about catch phrases that become part of a couple’s vocabulary. In this case, the phrase is “I just needed to park the car,” first uttered by a mental patient after he “parked ” on top of a homeless man after circling the hospital parking lot for a day and a half.
The protagonists use this phrase in various situations and gradually pervert it from its original form–it degenerates in parallel with their relationship. She wants her husband to work less and to move out of the city and start a family; he’s happy with the status quo. The story was well received by the audience, although Tabitha put her hands over her ears for a couple of passages that contained words that aren’t normally uttered from a pulpit. Because of the story’s length, Owen abridged on the fly.
Stephen high-fived Owen at the end of the reading. He remained in his chair and used the portable microphone rather than taking the pulpit. He read a passage from Duma Key, the section where Wireman tells Edgar about winning “la loteria”-the tragic story about what befell his daughter and wife.
At the end of the reading, a brief Q&A session was held, though the questions were predictable and mostly focused on Stephen, who tried valiantly to encourage audience members to ask questions of his wife and son. Most questions seemed to presume the answer; for example, Owen was asked if his father ever read him bedtime stories. Owen answered, “Yes.” After a pause he said, “I’ve been asked that question a lot before, and I know what people expect me to say.” There ensued a brief discussion between Stephen and Tabitha about whether they had read certain potentially damaging stories to their son.
The audience was released to join a queue across the street for a reception and book signing. Each author agreed to sign one book per attendee. Colored cards were distributed to prevent people from returning to the end of the line for a second pass. The line wound through the hall in the Folger where the reception was held and into the main library, past medieval manuscripts and tapestries. Quotes from Shakespeare were etched on the walls and mantles. (The library was one of the settings used by author Jennifer Lee Carrell in her novel Interred With Their Bones, which I like to call The Shakespeare Code.)
The three authors were seated side by side at long tables, with PEN/Faulkner staff facilitating by making sure books were opened to the page to be signed. The line moved quickly and smoothly because no inscriptions were allowed and photographs were prohibited, two things that can interrupt the flow at a signing. In little more than an hour, everyone was through the line and grazing on the remains of the fruit and cheese in the reception area.
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.
Editor’s Warning: This special report contains the fates of several characters and several key plot points. Read at your own risk!
Let’s spend a little time behind the scenes of the upcoming film The Mist. Rich Chizmar and I spent a couple of days on the set in late March.
Interior filming took place at Stageworks in Shreveport, Louisiana’s casino district. Grocery store exteriors were shot at Tom’s Market in Vivian, LA and the lake house scenes were filmed at nearby Cross Lake.
Inside the front door, we saw a sign pointing extras toward their staging area. I went upstairs to find the unit publicist, Tracey Zemitis, in the production offices. One wall featured an array of actor headshots with their character names underneath. Tracey gave me a working copy of the script-minus the last handful of pages. Apparently Thomas Jane was the only actor who had the whole thing, to prevent the ending from leaking out before the movie is released.
The publicist took us to the grocery store set on Stage A. The first crewman we encountered was the sound mixer, sitting behind the stage flats in front of a bank of mixing switches. We could see Thomas Jane (David Drayton) on the video monitors. Through the wall we first heard the word that would become a mantra during our visit: Mrs. Carmody shouting “Expiation!”
Once rehearsal was finished, we entered the set. Bags of pet food were stacked in front of the store windows. Through strategic gaps, we caught our first glimpse of the mist. A military jeep and a few cars were vaguely visible in the parking lot, as well as a kart korral like the one Dinky Earnshaw worked at. The mist was a vaguely cloying carbon dioxide-nitrogen mixture delivered on demand through large transparent plastic ducts. Some days the set needed to be cooled to get it to behave properly.
Tracey led us by the cash registers-we had to step carefully around the cables strewn along the floors like tentacles-and past a book rack that featured only King novels. Around the corner at the last aisle, next to the butcher counter, we found Frank Darabont, sitting in front of a pair of monitors that displayed the views from the two cameras. He wore a pale green Hawaiian shirt, tan cargo pants, and a baseball cap.
I was surprised by how far he was from the action. The actors were several aisles away, completely out of sight. To hear their dialog, Darabont and the script supervisor wore headsets while the cameras were rolling. Keeping “video village” around the corner meant it wouldn’t be accidentally captured during a shot. There were no false or missing walls, so the cameramen were free to shoot in any direction. The ceiling had built-in skylights to allow in ambient lighting from the outside world, a trick Darabont used in The Green Mile, which he said was “probably the only death row ever with a skylight.”
A sign painted on the wall at one end of the store said “Serving Castle Rock since 1967.” The “fresh meat” on display was obviously fake, but the groceries in the aisles were real, mostly product placement. An extra brought a box of Arrowhead Mills crackers to Darabont’s attention-Arrowhead was the name of the military project that caused the mist. They joked about product placement but the script supervisor said, “I don’t think we should tie the product into an environmental catastrophe.”
The attention to detail was amazing, down to “bad check” notices pinned to the cash registers. When Darabont asked someone to find dental floss after lunch one day, the assistant returned in seconds. “How did you get that so fast?” Darabont asked. “It was on aisle three,” the assistant answered. Darabont smacked his forehead. “Of course.”
This was the fifth week of shooting, so some of the products were past their expiration dates. Enough mold covered the bread to cure several diseases. There had been some pillaging of chips and snacks, too. Besides the crew looting, the grocery store had been put through the wringer-the aftermath of a simulated earthquake. Groceries lay strewn in the aisles. Tiles and fluorescent light fixtures dangled from the ceiling.
A few months earlier, Darabont spent a week directing an episode of The Shield as training for this fast-paced shoot, where he had only about half as long as he spent filming Shawshank Redemption and a third of The Green Mile shoot. He brought the cinematographer and cameramen from FX with him to The Mist. From directing the TV episode, Darabont learned to use the camera as a participant in the scenes, shooting sequences as long as five minutes in a single take. The experience also taught him to relinquish some of his rigid habits. For most takes, he had two cameras running simultaneously, one of them usually a handheld or Steadicam. Lighting was the most time-consuming part of the setup for each new shot-but even that was achieved more quickly than on a traditional shoot.
To keep on schedule, they filmed up to nine script pages per day, a demanding pace. “I’d love to find a happy medium between a Green Mile schedule and this one,” Darabont told me. Because the film is set mostly inside the grocery store, he was able to film in chronological order, which helped the actors as the story built in intensity. “I’ve got a hell of a cast, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.”
Darabont said he’d get no reprieve after shooting finished because Dimension wants the film out on November 21. “I’ll be spending the summer in the editing room. It’s going to be a really intense year.” He continued, “Anything that’s not on the set is a vacation compared to this. It’s intense here.” He was aware of the toll filming was taking on him, though. “Don’t let me operate heavy machinery,” he said with a laugh.
Between shots, the set was a beehive of activity. Extras filed back to their starting marks for the next take. Crewmen repositioned cables, cameras and lights. “Free dental work, watch your head,” yelled a man carrying a heavy light through the aisles. Carpenters returned sets to original condition. Production assistants dashed back and forth. Completed rolls of film were brought to the script supervisor for documentation and then delivered off-site for processing. Actors came to the director for costume consultations or to check up on their performance and discuss motivation. Darabont consulted with his cinematographer or assistant director about the previous shot or the coverage required for a scene. Thanks to modern technology, he could request immediate playback on his monitors, compare the shots on the two cameras or review earlier takes or scenes.
There was little idle chatter. If the extras-especially a couple of teenagers-got a little rowdy, Darabont or the A.D. hushed them. During rehearsals, Darabont got into the mix to orchestrate the cast’s movements. Some of the mob scenes were especially complicated. When he returned to his monitors, he commented, “Directing is like squeezing an elephant through a keyhole.”
Videographer Constantine Nasr roamed the set capturing material for the documentary features on the DVD. He recorded rehearsals, discussions between the director and crew, and occasionally stopped to interview Darabont about his impressions of the day’s work. So far, Darabont has released two behind-the-scenes webisodes from Constantine’s work—see NewsFromTheDeadZone.com for links.
Darabont was clearly exhausted, working twelve-hour days with only Sundays off most weeks. His editor had spent the previous week on the set, cutting the film with Darabont during lunch breaks. Darabont occasionally escaped to the loading dock for brief glimpses of sunlight during setups. When the cameras were rolling, he smoked cigarillos and focused intently on the video monitors, nodding at things he liked or pointing out glares from lights or an out-of-place actor that required another take.
We weren’t the only visitors on the set. Author David J. Schow (Kill Riff) was hanging out in Shreveport at Darabont’s invitation. Chris Hewitt from the British magazine Empire was another media visitor.
Schow took us on a tour of the set on Stage B-King’s Sundries. Local artists were dressing the inside with gossamer-wrapped corpses. Unlike the grocery store, only a few items here were product placement. The rest came from a defunct pharmacy in East Texas. The property manager rented the entire contents of the store, down to the soda fountain, shelves and décor. Some items on the shelves revealed how long the place had been closed. When was the last time you saw flashcubes or flash bars?
Another set featured David Drayton’s loft, where he painted movie posters for a living. The work on display depicted a gunslinger, a rose and a tower, painted by movie poster artist Drew Struzan. Hmmm. Wonder what movie that was for.
Schow then took us upstairs to the local headquarters of KNB EFX Group, where foam rubber and latex articulated monsters were being created. Gregory Nicotero (the ‘N’ of KNB) gave us the grand tour. The first thing I saw was a life-sized model of Andre Braugher with his back ripped open. Nicotero said they had “ripping flesh and biting people down to a science.”
Everywhere we looked, there were long, articulated tentacles. They looked like octopus tentacles, except the undersides were designed to open up to reveal suckers that had teeth, surrounded by spiny quills. Cables extend from them so they could be made to writhe and curl.
Among their other creations were the flying bug creatures and the pterodactyls that attack the market, some designed by Bernie Wrightson. The fly-creature had six eyes and its back was lined with porcupine quills. It had sixteen legs, eight large outer ones and eight smaller ones tucked up inside. The body was reminiscent of a wasp, the legs of a spider. Fingerlike organs encircled its mouth. The designers wanted to keep human aspects to their “faces” but make them much more skull-like.
The pterodactyl had two sets of wings. It could flap the back ones or tuck them in and glide on the front wings. Nicotero showed us green-screen footage of the articulated bird being set on fire with the mop torch. Strands of human meat hung from its mouth. Six people operated the puppet, which was also hooked to a boom so it could leap or fly up and down. The green-screen shots may be used as is, or may be used as cues for CafeFX to do in CGI. The final product will likely be a blend of live action and CGI.
A loading dock scene featuring the demise of Norm the stock boy was shot early in production so CaféFX could start working on computer effects.
The movie features some interesting deaths, but not gallons of blood like many horror films. There’s a stabbing and a shooting, and a man is set on fire. The warehouse door amputates some limbs, and a number of people are swept away by the monsters in the mist. A few days before we arrived, actress Alexa Davalos was stung by one of the creatures. Her punctured neck swelled up rapidly, oozing pus.
Dead bodies were stacked carelessly on the floor in one corner of the room, along with the charred remains of the pterodactyl. An oven had a sign posted “Special Effects: Not to be used for cooking.” Cardboard boxes on shelves were hand-labeled “pus and bladders” and “spare eyes.”
Back on the set, I watched Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden (Mrs. Carmody) whip her followers into a frenzy time and time again. Darabont encouraged her to ad-lib so long as her rants included required information. After many of her scenes, she was rewarded with a round of applause. At one point she want off on a tangent, which the script supervisor brought to Darabont’s attention. “Gives me more to work with,” he responded.
On the second day, David and his friends decided to escape from the store. Thomas Jane wandered the aisles looking for Private Jessup to find out what he knew about the mist. A puff of cigarette smoke emerged from the aisle between two checkouts, revealing the private’s location. Ollie (Toby Jones) and Amanda (Laurie Holden) were searching other aisles, so coordinating the action to get the actors to arrive at one location at the same time required several takes.
Later, Mrs. Carmody’s followers accused Jessup of being responsible for the mist. Thomas Jane was knocked down by a punch delivered by Darabont regular William Sadler, followed by some delicate knife work. Jessup was then lifted over the shoulders of several extras and carried to the front of the store, where he was to be cast into the parking lot as a sacrifice.
Sadler came back to video village to review the scene. He was pumped up by the scene’s energy. “It’s moments like these when you’re fully engaged. There’s no acting involved. It can’t help but be genuine.” The punch was “the money shot” according to the cast and crew. The cameramen and Jane rushed to the monitors after each take to see how convincing it looked. The intensity was so high on one take that Francis Sternhagen (Misery, The Golden Years), who was sitting next to the director, retreated from the set. “I don’t want to watch any more,” she said.
“We’re fucking going to kick ass on this scene,” Darabont said after a few takes. “I love it when they lift Jessup up.” The shot was filmed from various angles. “Here’s the place where we don’t rush through it,” he said. “Even if we fall a day behind.” After the low-angle shots were complete, the crew moved shelves of groceries out of the way and brought in a boom crane for a camera that tracked the mob’s progress from above.
While they coordinated the actors’ movement through the aisles with the crane camera-which was computerized to “learn” its motions-they used a naked life-sized dummy of Greg Nicotero as a stand-in for Jessup. During one rehearsal, the boom crane collided with a light fixture, so time was spent removing others that might get in the way. When the mob reached the door, the dummy’s arms extend against the doorframe. “Even the dummy doesn’t want to be thrown out into the parking lot,” the script supervisor said. I didn’t get to stay long enough to see the shot with the real actor-choreographing action and cameras was a long and tedious process that took them well into the evening.
During an afternoon break in filming, the publicist took Chris Hewitt and me out to the “circus” where the actors’ trailers were set up so we could get some interviews. First, we encountered Marcia Gay Harden playing in the parking lot with her children. After that, Toby Jones (Ollie Weeks) invited us into his trailer for a chat. Finally, Thomas Jane appeared at his trailer for his daily cigar and invited us in out of the sun.
* * *
Marcia Gay Harden
While they were planning the look for Mrs. Carmody, Harden presented five different looks to the hair and makeup crew. “There was the nun, the preacher’s daughter, Tammy Faye Baker, the town snoop and the hippie. [Darabont] preferred the nun with the thick eyebrows, but we picked the preacher’s daughter. The prop people gave me this scarf and I put it up on my head, and then props put white gloves in my purse so I’m wearing those. She came in lovely and perfect and very buttoned down and it seems like the character [degenerates]. The hair is down and she’s actually a much more sensual person in her power and in her preaching than she was at the beginning.”
About her dialog: “The language is religious, almost poetic, which makes it difficult to seem natural. Very declamatory. Dialog that typically one would turn off to. I wanted you to be able to listen to her and even wonder if she’s not right, because I think it is the end of the world. If someone said there are monsters and scorpions and man-eating bugs and a mist and everybody is fighting and no one is surviving, I would say it’s the end of the world. It’s apocalyptic. I don’t know how the movie ends-it’s not in our scripts . . . I did ask [Frank] if he would not really kill me off so I could come back [for a sequel]. I love working with Frank. He’s given me freedom-it was wonderful. He came up to me at the end [of a take] and said, ‘You’re fearless.’ I hope he meant fearless and not shameless.”
On ad-libbing: “There were moments when I would lose the thread and make up dialog based on what I know. I did buy a book that’s called The Idiot’s Guide to Revelations and I was reading that so that when he would let me go on I would know what to say and there is a lot of dialog about the Seventh Seal and the Whore of Babylon that’s quite interesting.”
On the mob mentality: “The thing that was interesting to me about it was The Lord of the Flies aspect. This is society in an extremely tough situation where it is a world unknown outside your door. Do you hold together? Do you pull apart? What part of people’s personalities pull apart? Where do people crack? It’s like all the stories about post-traumatic stress disorder. In [Mrs. Caromdy’s] case she certainly does crack, but part of what makes her crack is power.”
On her character: “She was written to be sort of a hefty, overweight woman, not an attractive woman in any way, but we felt that you’d walk in the door and you’d go: she’s bad. So you’re setting up a script that is a creature feature-and it does have good and evil, as is necessary in almost any drama-but so obvious. So we’ve given her these moments and episodes: Please God, let me speak through you, let me be your ambassador in prayer, let me be the voice for you. Fill me with the spirit. The personal is always what makes things, your destination or the personal journey, and that’s what we’ve been building. We’re the raw material, and [Darabont] will cook it. I hope some of that stays and doesn’t end up on the editing room floor, but you never know. The more responsibility I have for telling the story, the better. I [usually] don’t mind if they cut scenes I’m in, but there’s other times where I think, ‘Ah, you cut the people story to make it a plot.’”
On her throne: “Frank and I walked through the set and I said, ‘Where is my area?’ He said, ‘You’re probably going to be over here in the produce aisle.’ I said, ‘I want a chair unlike anybody else’s chair.’ And he said ‘We’ve got all these lawn chairs,’ and I was like, ‘anybody can have a lawn chair. I want a throne.’ They found this throne for me and built a little platform and equipped the thing. And I said, ‘I bet I have a shopping cart and scoop things into it, and I was the first one to get a rice bag for my pillow and the first one to get my sleeping bag and I have curtains for my privacy and no one else has curtains.’ So she went from being a fat ugly lady in a yellow pant suit to really being a diva.”
* * *
British actor Toby Jones played Truman Capote in Infamous, so this wasn’t his first time doing an American accent. However, between takes he reverted to his normal speaking voice. “Playing Capote, it was impossible to not stay in his voice the whole time, because it was a totally different mouth shape. I’d take about an hour and a half to get my jaw in the right place to do it at the beginning of the day.” For The Mist, he said he didn’t want to wear the accent too heavily. Too often, he said, actors are overly proud of their accents. Like the best CGI, accents shouldn’t draw attention to themselves.
On how he was cast: I think [Darabont] saw The Painted Veil, and he really liked that. As an English actor you’re not quite sure how it did happen because of what happens in L.A. You actually hear about it quite late on. I was one of the last people to come on board, which created huge problems with the visa.
“I was very aware of Frank, obviously and The Shawshank Redemption. It’s in my top ten. Frank said I’m sending you a script, I hope you enjoy it. I can’t say that Stephen King is someone I’ve read-I am aware of his stuff on film. To me it’s a fantastic character to play. The unlikely hero.
“I’ve never done what you might call a genre picture before. It requires a special thing in a way because you’re operating in the area of action over character. Anything [the audience] learns about character happens because of the way you respond to extraordinary circumstances. The audience is constantly in the present. They’re not too worried about what happened ten, fifteen minutes ago. The momentum of the thing is moving forward, and as an actor you’re concerned with trying to create a certain consistency. You have to show up and do what the action requires you to do.”
On doing a special effects movie: “We are making a special effects movie in six or seven weeks. I was going, ‘This will be interesting to see how this is going to work.’ I’ve been involved in special effects movies before, but they normally luxuriate in months of prep. Here you’re working with puppeteers and CGI people who are able to do their stuff at such speed it doesn’t really ruin the momentum of the take.
“Often as an actor you just get bogged down in-and there must be doing some weird mental name for this-if I’m doing a play and we rehearse a scene, I’ll have done it once and I’ll be able to remember a whole complicated series of physical activity. Here, you’ll be studying ‘If you could just place it there . . . not there.’ [uses a TV remote to demonstrate two positions an inch apart] I’ll begin to get a kind of amnesia as to whether it was there or there. The minutia overwhelms the big picture.”
On his character’s fate: “I just get zapped, I think. He won’t tell me how I’ve died. I think I won’t find out until I’ve seen the picture. But I have an idea that I’ll play it kind of very, very optimistic-the moment where I make a break for the car [beams optimistically and beckons] ‘Come on, come on . . . ‘” [smile transforms into a look of abject horror]
* * *
We spent a surreal forty-five minutes inhaling second-hand smoke as Jane discussed past films (re: Dreamcatcher: “Yeah, some people liked that.”), his graphic novels (a mockup of Bad Planet with a Bernie Wrightson cover is on the rack in the pharmacy when his character grabs comics to take to his son) and future works (re: a sequel to Punisher: “If we can get a fucking director and a script that makes half a fucking sense. The problem is that all the scripts come in like a bad fucking Steven Segal film. I want a fucking dirty, mean, bloody New York story. I want cops and robbers. Good guys and bad guys. I want Serpico. I want fucking Dog Day Afternoon. I want Taxi Driver. I don’t want Under Siege. ”)
On the schedule: “It’s pretty tight, so they’ve been working us really hard. In order to get everything we need, it’s just nonstop. We’ll go a few days over just because the schedule was way too ambitious to get everything we need. But the good news is, we’re not leaving anything behind. Most movies with tight schedules you’re always missing stuff and you don’t have time to do certain shots. Not so here. The way they’ve designed the shoot, we’re never waiting around more than ten minutes for them to flip the lights around.”
On how he became involved in The Mist: “Frank called me and said, ‘I want to send you a script. I’m not going to tell you anything about it. I want you to read it.’ He sent it over and it’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. That happens maybe once or twice in a career. The part is fantastic and it happens to mix the two things I love the most, genre movies-the horror/sci-fi type stuff-with action. I feel like I was invited into something very special. So I really gave it my all. I’ve worked really fucking hard on this film. I had an offer to do another movie in between the one I just finished and I turned it down because I wanted to dedicate the time that I knew I would need to prepare for this one. Most of the time you can walk through a genre film. There’s not a lot of prep that you need. Scream. Look scared. This one really requires some acting.”
On working with Frank Darabont: “He has a great eye. It’s pace and it’s tone. He knows how to set a tone that’s believable. And he has great taste. He has an ear for the truth, he knows what’s real, and he also lets everybody do their job. He hires really good people, he lets them do their job. He doesn’t get in their way. He expects you to bring it, and everyone feels that and they do it. Some directors try to get too controlling and they try to micromanage everything and then everybody starts doubting themselves and the work falls apart. He listens, takes advice from everybody and anybody. He’s got a clear sense of the story that he wants to tell, so you can ask him a question and he’ll have a very clear answer. ‘No, and this is why’-or ‘that’s a good idea, and this is why.’ He knows the story that he wants to tell in each moment of the film. He makes it a joy to work for him. You feel that everybody wants to do their best.”
On the set: “The first week everybody’s getting to know each other. The second week everybody knows each other so they’re joking, and they’re having fun and they’re killing time and one morning [Darabont] came in and he goes ‘Chit chat’s over.’ You respect the guy. When he has something to say, he says it very firmly and that’s the way it’s going to be. He sets that tone on purpose. He focuses everyone, and then everyone sees the work that’s being done and that makes them want to be focused.”
On the story: “Shooting chronologically helps a lot for this movie. It’s a cumulative experience-the disaster that everyone’s going through. Another great thing about this movie is that you could replace the monsters with terrorists or poison gas or a burning building or an earthquake and you’d have very much the same kind of film. That makes it relatable in a human, very real way. I think the best horror movies allow us to believe in the horror. Human beings are reacting in a very truthful manner to the given circumstances. In this case it’s monsters from another dimension.”
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.
Nate Kenyon grew up in a small town in Maine with dark nights and long winters to feed his interest in writing. He earned a BA in English from Trinity College in Hartford, CT in 1993, winning awards in playwriting and fiction. His dark fiction stories have appeared in various magazines and in the horror anthology Terminal Frights. Kenyon has worked at the Brookline Public Library in Brookline, Mass. and the Boston College Law School as their Director of Marketing & Communications. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and International Thriller Writers, and he lives in a recently-restored 1840s Greek Revival home in the Boston area with his wife, Nicole, and their three children.
A: The main character, Billy Smith, is an ex-con struggling with some inner demons-and eventually some pretty nasty outside forces too. Smith is compelled by the voices in his head to kidnap a Miami prostitute named Angel, and he takes her up the coast to a tiny Maine town called White Falls. Turns out Angel is hearing similar voices. The two of them work together to discover who (or what) has brought them to this town-and for what purpose.
Bloodstone reflects my attempt to write a full tilt, over the top, old-fashioned supernatural horror novel. I wanted to mix in a lot of the traditional horror elements: a creepy little backwoods town, hauntings, possession, murder, witchcraft, and yes, even a few of the walking dead–all of the things I love as a reader. But I knew this sort of wide scope wouldn’t work unless I spent a lot of time fleshing out the characters. You had to care about these people, REALLY care about them or the whole thing would dissolve into satire pretty quickly.
All that was well and good, but what sparked the plot was a twist on the initial idea of a man kidnapping a woman for some dark purpose. I liked the immediate drama and tension that scenario brought to the story, but it wasn’t anything new. Then I started wondering what it would take to make that guy the hero of the novel. What would I have to do to turn that cliché on its head, to make readers sympathize with a man they think at first glance is a psychotic killer? It seemed like a real challenge, and I was off and running from there.
Q: For a first novel, it’s getting quite a bit of attention.
A: I feel incredibly blessed that the novel has been received so well. Some of my favorite writers–Douglas Clegg, Brian Keene, Tim Lebbon, Rick Hautala, and Mort Castle–all read early galleys and were very enthusiastic when they didn’t have to be, since they’d never heard of me at the time and I didn’t have a single compromising photo of any of them. I can’t thank them enough for their support. Reviews have been great too. Early orders sent us into a second printing right after the release date, and things are still going strong. As a relative newcomer, it’s a real thrill to know that there are so many readers out there enjoying the book.
Q: Traditional horror or not, Bloodstone deals with some pretty heavy themes, guilt and the search for redemption among them.
A: I wanted to write about the choices people make. I’ve always been fascinated by the human psyche. What makes a person behave the way they do? How much of who we are comes from our genes and how much depends upon our own life experiences? Why is it that two men, faced with the same difficult choice, will react in a completely different way? One of the main characters in Bloodstone, Billy Smith, faces huge obstacles in his life. He’s made some bad decisions and he’s paid a heavy price. It would have been easy for him to give up. But instead he spends the rest of his life trying to redeem himself. Meanwhile another character, Jeb Taylor, cannot overcome his own demons. He’s not strong enough to make the difficult choices that would carry him through.
We all face adversity in our own lives. Striving to become a better person is what makes us human. Why we feel the need to do this is one of life’s great mysteries, as far as I’m concerned. Who are we trying to impress, and why? Is it tied to religion, to some sort of cultural morality, or is it a genetic trait akin to blue eyes or brown hair? I make no claim to figuring any of it out, but these are the questions that drove my decisions about character in the novel.
Q: Speaking of characters, were your choices for surnames–Smith, Taylor, Thomas, Johnson–intentional?
A: Absolutely. I wanted the names to be generic. I wanted names that would convey anonymity. This was important for many of them, but the main character in particular is a man without a past. And if you don’t know where you came from, how do you know where you’re going? That was a powerful idea for me and I wanted to explore it.
Q: Who are your literary influences?
A: Like a lot of horror writers these days, I’d say Stephen King is my biggest influence. I grew up in Maine, not very far from him, and I was reading everything of his I could find by the time I was twelve or thirteen. He really opened my eyes to a different kind of writing; his books were raw and fast and they bit down hard. I loved it. I wanted to do what he did.
A lot of reviewers have mentioned King when writing about Bloodstone. That’s always a big thrill to me. I do think that growing up in a small town in Maine gives people a different perspective. The woods are darker and the wind blows cold and hard in the winter. It can feel very isolated indeed. You might be able to see a neighbor’s house from your kitchen window, but on the other side you know there are deep woods, and if something were to come out of there you’d never see it until it was too late.
Other influences of mine include Peter Straub, William Peter Blatty, William Faulkner, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Harris, and Robert Bloch, to name a few. There are so many of them it would be impossible to list them all.
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: I’ve been reading and writing ever since I was a small boy. I used to read several Hardy Boys mysteries a week (and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on) when I was six or seven years old. A year later I found an old typewriter and churned out “The White Horse.” This was a horrific (not horror, just plain bad) little story that ripped off the Black Stallion right down to the wild horse and the races. I sold copies of it to relatives for a quarter. I still have one buried around here somewhere.
The summer after my freshman year of high school, I made a deal with my aunt (who was raising me at the time) that instead of getting a summer job, I would write a novel. I got about 80 pages in before giving up. It was a Tom Clancy-style spy novel, which was the type of thing I was into reading at the time, although it had a few more bloody scenes than most. I dug that out of my old files a few months back and was surprised to find that it was pretty good. Nowhere near publishable, but not a train wreck, either.
I took writing courses in college, majored in English, and won a couple of awards for a short story and a play. But during that time I thought I had to write “serious” literature, and as a result most of what I did was preachy and really pretty bad. When I graduated I decided that this was the time to take my best shot, and I banged out my first complete novel, a slasher-type horror story about a psychopath loose up in the wilds of Maine. That was more my style! I kept writing after that, although eventually I had to get a day job to pay the bills.
Q: How did you end up landing the contract for Bloodstone?
A: It was sort of nuts how it all happened. I’d published some short fiction in genre magazines and finished four novels during the first couple of years out of college. I got pretty burned out by the business during that time, though–I was fighting hard to break through, but I couldn’t catch a big break. It wasn’t until another five years later, when I’d pretty much stopped submitting and had moved on to another career, that I decided I didn’t want to let my dream die. So I emailed writer/editor Ed Gorman, who I had gotten to know a while back through the small press, and he asked to see a couple of chapters of something. I sent him Bloodstone (the last novel I had completed) and he forwarded it on to friends of his at Five Star. A few months later I had an email in my inbox offering me a contract.
I remember sitting at my desk at work after it came in, trying not to make too much noise and scare my co-workers. Finally I jumped in my car and drove to my wife’s office with a print out of the email in my hand. She asked me what was wrong, and I just handed it to her. We went out for a nice, long lunch to celebrate.
Q: And you’ve taken advantage of the opportunity. The small press hasn’t seen such a marketing blitz in years! What’s been most successful for you?
A: Speak of the devil, I’ve got this t-shirt for you, Chris, and there’s more where that came from…
I was very lucky to be working in communications and marketing as a day job, so I had some skills I could put to use. I formed a marketing plan from day one. I knew when I signed the contract that I was immediately at a disadvantage in several key areas: I’d been out of the business of writing and hadn’t published anything for several years, so most horror fans wouldn’t recognize my name; and Bloodstonewould be coming out in hardcover, so I’d be asking people to pony up a lot of cash for a newcomer. If a reader was trying to decide between a paperback at $7 and my novel off the shelf, and they didn’t know anything about either one, I was in trouble. If nobody read it, how would they know if it was any good? I knew Bloodstone would ultimately sink or swim on its own merits, but I needed to make sure that I gave my book every chance I could give it.
So the first thing I did was send galleys out to well-known writers within the genre, which led to some great early blurbs. I worked very closely with my publisher on cover art and marketing packets for review purposes. Five Star was fantastic about that-there’s something to be said for working with a fairly small house, and the flexibility they can offer. They really listened to all my ideas and were very enthusiastic.
My wife Nicole, who is a web designer, created a great site and a Flash book trailer to launch the book (Nicole’s tremendously talented and I generally owe her big time for putting up with me). These got a lot of hits and were very well received (see natekenyon.com). I also put a few web banners on high traffic sites, and designed print ads to hit the genre magazines just before the book was released. I attended writers’ conferences and visited bookstores and libraries to meet people face to face. And I sent out advance reader copies to about 50 review outlets to complement Thomson Gale’s efforts.
I did a lot of other things too, including contests, newsletters and email marketing, but I think the key was creating enough buzz to get word of mouth going strong enough to spread on its own. I just wanted to get people talking about the book, and let the chips fall from there.
Q: Talk a little about your writing process. Do you write from an outline?
A: I don’t work from an outline, no. My novels never work out exactly as I think they will. I find that a detailed outline dampens my creativity, and if I go too far I just lose the urge to explore the story. I feel as if I’ve told it already. So instead, I simply begin when I get an interesting idea or image in my head, when I’m burning to explore and see where it takes me. This usually leads to a lot of notes, and more than a little mess. I wake up in the middle of the night with a plot point or character attribute that I have to write down; sometimes I write pieces of scenes and dialogue ahead of time that might get dropped in later in the novel.
For Bloodstone, I knew pretty early on that a couple of major events and plot twists were going to happen, so I was writing with them in mind. I guess you could say that the primary ideas in the book were there pretty much after the first couple of chapters, but a lot of character traits, minor events and other more specific plot points changed dramatically.
Then it’s all about the edits–going back through and refining the story, putting in more foreshadowing and streamlining the plot until it all makes sense.
Q: You’ve talked in earlier interviews about the trauma you went through in your childhood. Were your parents early supporters of your work, and how did the tragedies you faced affect what and how you write?
A: My parents taught me early on that reading was the best form of entertainment anyone could find. They read to me every night and filled our shelves with books. Reading was always a reward, rather than a chore. Television was strictly limited, and the only exposure I had to movies was listening to Disney recordings on the record player.
I was eight years old when my father was killed in a car accident, and it changed me forever. I definitely withdrew into books as an escape. My mother had already been diagnosed with cancer at the time, and so we were suddenly struggling with tremendous changes and stress in the household. But she never really let my sister and I see any of the adult problems she had to go through, from chemotherapy to financial problems to loneliness. I admire her tremendously for that. The nature and length of her illness allowed us to prepare for her passing. By the time she died about five years later, I was already writing some pretty dark fiction-mostly short stories about ghosts and monsters-but they continued to get darker and more psychologically complex as I got older.
I’m sure that some of my drive to write horror comes from the need to explore the intense feelings I had as a child, to stare into the eyes of monsters and come out whole after the experience. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I finished the first draft of Bloodstone that I started seeing all the references to cancer and sickness throughout the novel. And of course a pretty horrific car accident plays a major role too.
Q: Can you tell us about your next projects?
A: I’m shopping a new novel around right now that’s a bit more of a mainstream thriller, and I’ve got a few short stories making the rounds as well. I’m also hoping that Bloodstone will find a home with a mass-market publisher, because I’d love to see it in the hands of a wider audience. And of course there’s the obligatory Hollywood angle. An independent producer is showing it to a few studios and investors. I’m not an expert in this area so I’ll leave that to him, and be pleasantly surprised if anything breaks.
Beyond that, I’m working on editing a young adult fantasy novel that I wrote for my daughter a few years back, I’m writing an apocalyptic novella that I’m pretty excited about, and I’m beginning a new novel that’s in the very early stages but is going well so far.
Q: Where would you like to be in ten years?
A: I’d love to be able to look back at a handful of novels published and more on the way, and I’d love to hit the bestseller lists too. I want my books to be read by as many people as possible. Eventually I’d like to write full time, although I know how hard it is to get to that point.
At the same time, I’m not an easygoing bachelor anymore; my family is the single most important thing in my life, so anything I choose to do will be first and foremost what’s best for them. Writing is a solitary process, it requires time and discipline and many sacrifices. If I ever reach a point where I feel like my family is suffering for it, I’ll have to make some changes. But so far, so good!
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: I’d like to thank you for doing this interview, Chris. I’d also like to thank Rich Chizmar, Brian Freeman and everyone at Cemetery Dance for the opportunity. I hope CD readers will check out Bloodstone, and will take the time to let me know what they think of it. So many people have already been in touch and I appreciate each and every one of them. Readers can reach me through natekenyon.com–there are free excerpts on there as well. Thanks for reading!
A mini-interview with Glen Hirshberg, author of The Snowman’s Children, the award-winning The Two Sams, and American Morons (his latest collection; October 2006), asked by American Morons publisher Paul Miller of Earthling Publications.
Paul Miller: Ghosts are a reoccurring theme in your two collections as well as the upcoming novel Sisters of Baikal, but they often go beyond the standard Hollywood-type spectral creatures that float around and go BOO. What are ghosts, to you, and what is your attraction to them?
Glen Hirshberg: There’s no simple answer to this for me. I frankly love the floating/go Boo sort of ghost, but that doesn’t seem to be what I wind up conjuring. The ghosts that exert the most power in people’s lives-at least, the people I know–tend to be of their own making, and consist of equal parts regret and old fears and just plain missing somebody. So the ghosts that tend to intrigue me most as a writer are those that seep out of the seemingly dead spaces in people’s lives and appear jarringly in the flow of everyday occurrence.
PM: How do the stories in American Morons differ from The Two Sams? I.e., where do you think you’ve come as a short story writer in the past few years?
GH: It’s hard, honestly, for me to chart differences or progressions, because I try to treat each short story as its own, unique thing that needs its own tending. But stepping back and considering the two books as distinct sets (which, really, I’m not sure they are), I seeSams playing more overtly with traditional tropes (haunted houses, great evils, devastating loss and its repercussions, etc.). The stories in Morons, while hopefully still adhering to some of the traditions that have given the genre its peculiar sort of life for so long, are probably harder to classify. They’re still people-and-their-ghosts stories, but the ghosts have evolved a long way from their go-boo form, and the intended effects of these pieces are wider ranging. Still hopefully good and scary sometimes, though.
PM: Do you always see yourself as dabbling in the fantastic to some extent, or do you see yourself writing more “mainstream” fiction in the future?
GH: I honestly try not to see myself as doing anything but trying to write decent stories that matter in some way. Certainly, I don’t want to dabble in anything. I take the grand tradition of ghost story writing very seriously-you could make a pretty fair case that there have been more truly great American short stories written with ghostly elements than without them-but I also know that those aren’t the only kinds of stories I write. As noted above…I try to stay true to the piece I’m working on at any given time.
PM: In addition to being a husband, a father, a teacher, and a writer of stories and novels, you’ve also somehow found the time to establish the Rolling Darkness Revue (described on your site as a “traveling fraternity of some of horror fiction’s premier talents”) andSurrounded (a national literary magazine for high school writers). Please explain how each of these came about, where you’d hope to see each in five years’ time, and if you ever have any free time or sleep (kidding on that last bit).
GH: You may kid, but sleep is the big issue. It’s a genuine annoyance.
The Rolling Darkness Revue came about because Dennis Etchison and Ramsey Campbell and Pete Atkins and I wound up having repeated, long conversations in various venues at different times about how much we loved being read to, how much we loved reading aloud, how boring most bookstore events (as in, our own) are even when people are nice enough to show up. Gradually, a concept emerged. Where do I hope to see it in five years? In a bookstore or little theater near you. With you there.
Meanwhile, I’ve spent the last fourteen years teaching high school, and the last ten gradually growing the kind of creative writing program I always wished I’d had at that age, one that taught the basics but also allowed enough freedom for genuine artistic expression, and encouraged kids not just to exploit their talent but to experience the joys of digging into their lives and tearing apart everything they know and creating something brand new and marvelous out of it. During that time, I’ve become increasingly humbled and astonished by what teenagers are capable of when given the opportunity and the outlet. Surrounded has neither language nor content restrictions. Our intention-it’s edited by the students in my program, I simply founded it and serve as its supervising advisor-is to let the kids speak, and find the best work we can, period. We want to shock readers with the quality of the fiction and poetry, not the language and subject matter, but we’re not going to shy away from language or subject matter, either. Believe me, if you order a copy (www.surroundedmag.com), and I very much hope you will, you’ll forget about all the issues swirling around what teens should be allowed to know and think pretty quickly. These are fascinating pieces of writing, unapologetically teenaged, but bursting with talent and heart and imagination and unique perspectives.
As for where I hope it will be five years from now…
I think the answer to that would be: still here. It needs to find an audience. My forward-thinking and generous school can’t bankroll it forever…
PM: I understand you met Courtney Love when you worked as a music journalist. How’d that meeting go?
GH: Uh…can we talk about the time I showed up to interview Neil Gaiman back in his Sandman days without any money, and he bought me soup?
NORMAN PARTRIDGE is no stranger to readers of Cemetery Dance. His first published story (“Save the Last Dance for Me”) appeared inCD #2, and his debut novel (SLIPPIN’ INTO DARKNESS) was the first original novel published by Richard Chizmar’s burgeoning book line. Partridge’s fiction includes tales of horror, suspense, and the fantastic–“sometimes all in one story” says his friend Joe Lansdale. His novels include the Jack Baddalach mysteries SAGUARO RIPTIDE and THE TEN-OUNCE SIESTA, while another novel, THE CROW: WICKED PRAYER, was recently adapted for film. Partridge’s work has been praised by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and his collections and stories have received both the Bram Stoker and IHG awards. A hardboiled Halloween novel, DARK HARVEST, is scheduled for release this Halloween, marking Partridge’s return to the Cemetery Dance book line.
PIC: So much of your fiction deals with western and crime motifs–desert dusty towns, ex-cons and bad boys drifting into deeper troubles with .45s blazing. How was it switching gears and writing a Middle American cornfield setting full of traditional Halloween elements in DARK HARVEST?
PART: Well, I kept the .45s and bad boys, pard. As far as the town goes, I wanted it to reflect my memories of the sixties, what it was like to grow up in a town with a little bit of the varnish rubbed off. Maybe a tougher place, but still a place that had holidays like everywhere else, where once a year you picked out a pumpkin and carved a face on that sucker that’d scare the neighbor’s cat. But the setting also came from fiction. If you’re a writer who loves this kind of stuff, you’ve put a lot of Halloween through your creative filter. And, for me, that’s a particular reality that works just fine when it comes to getting a story down on the page. I was watching a lot of first and second season TWILIGHT ZONE while I wrote DARK HARVEST. Many of those episodes are about perfect little towns with a secret. I even managed to give Rod Serling a cameo along the way. That turned out to be one of my favorite scenes in the book.
PIC: It’s a gutsy move, doing something like that. Do you ever worry about what an editor might say about that kind of playfulness?
PART: Never. As a writer, you’ve got to take the chance. It’s almost an obligation. Besides, it gave me the opportunity to tip my hat to a writer I’ve long admired. I’d like to think it would have given him a good laugh.
PIC: I know you’re a total movie buff with a wellspring of obscure movies to draw from. Hell, you practically grew up at the drive-in. I thought I recognized various film influences in the book. Were you channeling any specific movies or using a particular visual style in the writing?
PART: Lots of crane shots, Tom. Ed Gorman always kids me about my crane shots!
One strong influence was the JD movies of the late fifties and early sixties. DARK HARVEST takes place in 1963, so I knew I needed some REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE vibe–some street action that wasn’t cleaned up for the HAPPY DAYS crowd. But mostly I wanted to channel that classic noir feeling. I wanted shadows, both on the landscape and on the faces of the characters. In the first section, especially, I wanted everything in this little town to have a vague shading of menace. I did not want the reader to be at all comfortable there.
PIC: The reader picks up on all the atmosphere, plus the outrage and fear that’s pushing all the characters along. It’s a rare milieu–some kind of cross between noir and western.
PART: Funny you should mention westerns. I was really struck by the way the climatic gunfight played out in Kevin Costner’s OPEN RANGE. It was brutal and remorseless, yet packed with emotion. Strictly “let’s get it done” kind of business, but with all the chips on the table and every character’s life hanging in the balance. I tried to find something that would work that way while writing DARK HARVEST. When it came to the violence, I wanted a really explosive quality. In fact, what I really wanted to do was slam the reader upside the head with a fistful of manuscript.
PIC: You managed it. The violence is powerful and sometimes extreme, but it’s a natural outgrowth of the plot and fits the story you’re telling.
PART: Yep. Powerful was what I was looking for. When the characters in DARK HARVEST decide to go at it, they just go. Hopefully, those sections jack the book’s engine into a whole different gear.
PIC: I’ve always believed that an author can learn a great deal about storytelling from movies, even bad ones, especially since our audience is being drawn away from the written word for a more immediate buzz from the television or a DVD. Maybe it’s a case of knowing your enemy.
PART: You just hit the nail on the head, Tom. I’ve learned a great deal from film, especially about handling an audience’s anticipation and expectations. Obviously, prose is a different form than film–it takes longer to unwind, takes time for the eye to travel those pages. But the brain can race so far ahead these days, and we’ve all learned to anticipate the horror tropes play book. We pick up those queues pretty quick.
When the reader gets the jump on the writer, it’s the death of the story. I really believe that. Now, I’m not saying that everything should read like a summer blockbuster. I realize there are different kinds of stories, different kinds of styles and tones to tell them. But the same old same old just doesn’t cut it anymore. Prose needs to evolve, the same way film has. These days the audience is savvy. That starting gun goes off, they’re out of the blocks and running right there with you. If you’re a writer, you can’t be lazy about something like that. You are, and your reader will leave you in the dust.
PIC: You set a hell of a pace for yourself in the novel since the story takes place in a single night, more or less in real time. Did you find the full-throttle, pedal-to-the-metal attitude made the tale easier to tell or more difficult?
PART: You know, I’ve always worked that way. People tell me that my novellas read like boiled-down novels, and my short stories read like compact novellas. I avoid the extraneous. I always keep in mind a comment Bruce Lee made about his style of fighting, that he wanted to inflict “a maximum of anguish with a minimum of movement.” Every punch, every kick, every movement had to count. I feel that way about the words I set down on the page.
PIC: You certainly have no slow or fat sections to your work. I think your novel WILDEST DREAMS is one of the purest horror novels to be found out there. Hardly a paragraph goes by without some intense action or evil happenings going on.
PART: It’s got a lot to do with pace and plotting, with that idea that you’re always running a race with your readers. And I never underestimate those readers… they’re pretty damn fast. I expect them to give me a run for my money.
But it also has a lot to do with voice and rhythm. WILDEST DREAMS is the only novel I’ve written in first person, and that was really difficult for me. I was so accustomed to switching viewpoints and getting into each character’s head in third. But I knew WILDEST had to be first person, because I wanted to write a hardboiled horror novel. I wanted that gritty, gone-to-hell kind of voice and the immediacy it provides. I think it’s the thing that really makes WILDEST DREAMS work… especially the operatic bloodbath at the end.
PIC: I love the inherent mystery to DARK HARVEST. The reader is fascinated and intrigued by the starved, wild teens cut loose to run rampant all over town, and is constantly asking what the hell is going on and why this annual tradition was originally started. There’s a quality to it reminiscent to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”
PART: I thought of Jackson’s work more than a few times while working on this one. “The Lottery,” “The Daemon Lover,” “The Tooth” and “The Witch.” What a fine writer. Talk about someone who’s difficult to anticipate. She knew how to pull the carpet right out from under the reader. What’s amazing to me is how she could do it in stories that were so compact.
PIC: Did you feel hampered at all by using classical Halloween elements in the book?
PART: Nope. I looked at that as a challenge. I wanted to use everything–the cornfields, the pumpkins, the kids out on the streets going wild–but I wanted to do it my way. That’s an approach I’ve always taken. Whether I was working on a piece for a theme anthology about werewolves or the Frankenstein monster… even my take on the Crow mythology in WICKED PRAYER. I’ve always tried to write Norm Partridge stories.
PIC: You’ve got a unique voice and style that covers a lot of ground, different genres, and various types of fiction. How has the process of writing changed since your first novel SLIPPIN’ INTO DARKNESS was published?
PART: I had no idea how to write a novel when I wrote SLIPPIN’. Again, I worked with a compact time frame–the entire book takes place over a 24-hour period. That seemed an easier way to go at the time, but what I didn’t realize going in was how much flashback it would require to fill in the backstory. That was a real challenge for me. But mainly, I knew that I was working with three or four alternating viewpoints. I kept telling myself that it was really just like writing three or four different stories, and that’s the attitude that got me through the book. I kind of tricked myself into writing it.
Today I have a problem keeping things short. I really don’t know how I used to write those 3,000 word stories. Everything wants to be a novel. In fact, I originally told Rich Chizmar that I could bring in DARK HARVEST at 10,000 words. Look what happened. When that manuscript finally hit his desk, I’m sure Rich just shook his head and thought, “And this is the same guy who used to bang out short stories for my magazine?”
PIC: We can all point to dozens if not hundreds of influences on our work, but what inspires you on a day to day basis to keep hammering at the keyboard?
PART: That’s a great question, Pic. I probably would have had a really different answer had you asked me ten years ago. These days it comes down to how I feel about the stories themselves, and how I feel about myself as a writer.
Straight up, I’ve always felt that I was a good writer. At the same time, I know I can be better. Some sections of DARK HARVEST were such a joy to write. There’s the Serling bit I already mentioned, a scene with a gang of JD’s armed with pitchforks hunting a walking myth out on a deserted road, a car chase between a bad cop and one of the protagonists. Doing those scenes was as much fun as I’ve ever had writing, and they came pretty easy. But there were tougher sections, too. Ones that really made me push to bring the characters alive, scenes where I had to strain to get this dark little world down on the page. I guess what it really comes down to for me is pushing hard to make my work as good as it can be. Not settling when I know I can do better. Challenging myself. And, ultimately, knowing that when I hit the finish line I’ve done the job to the best of my ability.
PIC: Okay, here’s a bigass question. What excites you most about the publishing field of today?
PART: In the last few years, the small presses have really taken a big step up the evolutionary chain. That’s exciting. Not only CD, but Subterranean, Night Shade, and Earthling. Necessary Evil’s coming on, too. They’re producing a lot of books, and they’re making some interesting inroads while gaining mainstream attention. In particular, I’m delighted to see print runs increasing, and I hope the focus on the limited market will decrease in the next few years. And quality is high–a lot of books from smaller houses are earning starred reviews in PW.
PIC: What’s most annoying?
PART: The blockbuster mentality in New York. And the celebrity writer mentality… which to me are two sides of the same coin. I imagine this is just a reflection of our culture. Increasingly, mainstream publishing is really about personalities. You know, the whole memoir-veiled-as-fiction routine, backed up with an MFA. That’s what publishers are selling: the writer, not the book. Where are the guys who came up telling stories? Where is the next Louis L’Amour, the next Elmore Leonard? Look at horror–the only writers who consistently hit the bestseller lists are the same guys who were doing it twenty years ago.
PIC: It’s disheartening and frustrating enough for a lot of writers to quit along the way. When Britney Spears and HER MOTHER are writing books that top the lists, it’s no wonder so many authors who’ve put in the time and effort to do this thing right decide to drop out of the game.
PART: Yeah, Pic. If I ever end up with a photographer from PEOPLE magazine taking pictures in my kitchen while I’m cooking up a pot of chili, please come out to California and shoot me.
PIC: Only if I’m in the will. Okay, now here’s a line I’m gonna cross. You ready to talk about the film version of your Crow novel WICKED PRAYER yet or are you going to slip a steak knife between my ribs?
PART: Hard to talk about something you’ve never seen, buddy. I don’t even have a copy of the DVD in the house. Didn’t ask for one.
PIC: Christ! I don’t blame you for not wanting to see that piece of shit, but really, man, how in the hell do you manage to resist? You’ve got incredible, inhuman willpower. Even though it’s destined to blister your skin and burn your eyes from the sockets, I can’t believe you haven’t cracked and put that sucker in and just thoroughly depressed the crap out of yourself. Think of what a great Saturday afternoon you could have with a few buddies, a couple of cases of beer, and a hefty prescription of Zoloft on hand.
PART: It’s funny, Tom. I remember seeing an interview with Robert Mitchum. One of those retrospectives, a couple years before Mitchum died. The interviewer talked about some of the movies Mitchum made in the sixties, stuff that wasn’t exactly top-drawer. ANZIO, or something like that. He asked Mitchum what he thought of it, and Mitchum replied that he’d never even seen it. Well, the guy just couldn’t believe that. “What do you mean you didn’t see it? You were the star!” I think he even started to stutter. Finally Mitchum cut in, completely deadpan, and I’ll never forget what he said: “Man, they paid me to act in it, not to watch it.”
When it came to WICKED PRAYER, I figured I’d take Robert Mitchum’s advice. I wrote a young Clint Eastwood and they cast Edward Furlong. I didn’t have to spill the entrails of a goat to figure out there wouldn’t be a whole lot of my book up there on the screen.
PIC: Yeah, but you know Eddie Furlong is a tough mother, he actually spits at one of the bad guys in it. Okay, all right, we won’t go there anymore. Next question. What do you do with your free time, assuming you have any?
PART: I’m pretty booked. I work full-time, and I write. That takes a chunk. But when I’ve got time, I’m pretty easy. I like to hang out with my wife. Tia says it doesn’t take much to make me happy, and she’s right. A trip to the bookstore, a cheeseburger and some quarters for the jukebox, listening to Tia play the guitar… any of that will put me in a good mood.
PIC: What’s next for you?
PART: It’s simple, Pic. All I want to do is keep on typing “The End.” That’ll pretty much work for me.
When old rock stars go back out on the road, the result is often a bittersweet celebration and betrayal of all they stood for in youth: wiser, surer, but somehow tame. They temper our relief at seeing them still aboveground with a sense that they’ve somehow sold us out by not remaining rebellious and nasty in our memories.
And when they were young, few rebelled more nastily than the splatterpunks, who seized the horror ghetto like the radical Indians occupying Alcatraz, and turned tired turf into a thriving red light district with their stadium-rocking, blue-collar grand guignol.
But when the movement moved on, many critics disputed whether they’d left anything behind but bloodstains, ringing ears, and bills for wrecked hotel rooms.
Enter smiling iconoclast John Skipp, with both a hug and a fistful of fuck-you for each of these maudlin misconceptions. A decade in the dark has only taught Skipp new chops. His youthful glee at shredding expectations makes young, fresh horror fans clutch their pearls and pacemakers, while his themes and people (it sells them short to call them characters–Charley Weber from his last short novel, CONSCIENCE, is out there,somewhere) bear out the lasting legacy of splatterpunk best by burning it down… and building a strip club.
Because horror is where you find it, Skipp has gone where many have before, but he’s scoped what all the others missed and brought back a big, bad yarn in a mean little book that shows he’s wiser, surer and wilder than ever before.
Skipp graciously agreed to meet me at Freaky Kiki’s Topless Cockpit, and explain his behavior.
CG: In his SPLATTERPUNK anthology, Paul Sammon called Skipp & Spector the “moral center of the splatterpunks”, and your books were among the very few where I genuinely rooted for good to triumph.
JS: Thanks! I always thought that if the good guys were any fucking good, you wouldn’t want them to get their asses kicked.
CG: And now, we find you in a strip club, cavorting with and glorifying sleaze! How came you to this sorry state?
JS: Oh, Cody. You know I’m not glorifying sleaze. I’m just sitting in a room with it, and trying to describe it accurately.
CG: Oh, bullshit. I just saw you cavorting!
JS: Well…I mean, just because I’m at a titty bar doesn’t mean I can’t have a good time! (laughs)
But actually, I’m not a huge fan of strip clubs. I think they tend to be pretty desperate places, once you scratch beneath the loud and wiggly surface.
I mean, what’s the point of being in a room with naked women who you’re not allowed to touch? I would rather have naked women that Iam allowed to touch – who, in fact, want me to do so – or just forego the naked women altogether, for a minute. You know? It’s like going to a restaurant and ordering mouth-watering food that you’re not allowed to eat. That’s just CRAZY shit!
But when I lived in Hollywood, during the “lost” years, the closest bar within walking distance was Jumbo’s Clown Room. It’s this nasty little dive where Courtney Love used to dance, back in the day. In other words: a very classy joint.
So if I needed a break in the writing, around midnight or so, I might stumble down there for fifteen minutes, half an hour. There was no cover, so I could walk in, catch a beer and a show, maybe talk with some people, and then head back to work.
And one thing I’ll say for titty bars: they are very cinematic. I’d always find myself sitting where I’d want to put the camera, if I were shooting this. Getting the best angles on the stage, the bar, the crowd.
So, eventually, I started thinking about a film I could shoot there. And that’s where the story came from.
The fact is that places like Jumbo’s exist, and flourish. I’m not sure I think they fulfill an actual need, per se; but they certainly whip up an itch, and then offer to scratch it for you.
I also think that they’re fascinating Petri dishes, in which nightly experiments on the dynamics of sex, money, and power are conducted, all over the world. The customers are there for one set of reasons. The workers are there for another. (Like, for example, cash.)
But there’s an awful lot going on there, underneath, and I wanted to explore it. Get to the heart of it.
Which, of course, turned it into a horror story.
CG: Which begs the question: how has the moral center of your work evolved, as a solo act? Moreover, how does your model of right and wrong clash with the classic moralistic model (within the genre and without) that wants to punish sexuality?
JS: Well, for starters, I don’t want to punish sexuality. I never signed on for that job, and there are too many people employed there already. If we, as a species, weren’t so fucked up about sex, we’d either
a) no longer need strip clubs, or
b) make them more like places of worship. With strippers as high priestesses. Which would be fine by me.
That kind of outsider’s moral stance is intrinsic to me, and hasn’t changed a bit, from the earlier work. I just know more now, cuz I’ve lived longer. I’m a lot less judgemental, and much better acquainted with the minutiae of different ways of living, and struggling.
So my empathy, as always, is with all the people in the story, whether I’d want to hang out with ’em or not. I just think I understand people a little bit better.
The other biggest difference, obviously, is that it’s no longer Skipp & Spector. Just Skipp. But, honestly, I never felt morally compromised by our fictive collaboration. Whether we agreed or not, I always got to say what I wanted to say.
And I always root for the underdog. Simple as that.
Did that answer the question?
CG: Your work has often been characterized as cinematic (often so much so that a film adaptation would be redundant), and The Long Last Call originated as a screenplay. How did this (and your own recent dabbling in filmmaking) direct the shape and substance of the story, and what did you bring in, to make it more?
JS: Like I said: I had the visual, emotional, and spiritual components first. Then I got to the story. There were a couple of years spent simmering it, on one of my brain’s many back burners, before I got around to writing the script.
Every once in a while, I’d write one of the songs that the strippers would dance to, or write notes about the characters. And at one point, I brought in a brilliant friend – who was an actual house mom (a.k.a. hoochie wrangler, or strip club den mother) – to write the screenplay with me.
She and I had two projects together. When we parted ways, she took the one she originated, and I took The Long Last Call. But we both gave each other lots to chew on, in the process. (In fact, the whole centerpiece scene – with Mom, the Dark Stranger, and the briefcase full of money – was her suggestion. And it’s one of the best things in the story.)
When I finally wrote the script – and set out to get it made, as writer/director/producer – Stuart Gordon (RE-ANIMATOR, KING OF THE ANTS) optioned it almost immediately. He didn’t think I was quite ready to direct, but he made me co-producer on the project, and considered it my farm team training.
He was also dissatisfied with my ending, and pushed me to make Hank a more vital part of it. Which I did, on my own, and to my own satisfaction.
A couple of years passed, and the movie still wasn’t made. So I took it back from Stuart – who I still love and admire, completely – and considered my next move.
Somewhere in there, I had written CONSCIENCE, and gotten my fiction-writing itch back. I wanted to write another book, quickly.
So I gave myself two months to write it. It wound up taking two and a half.
CG: Explain the difference between the script and the novel.
JS: Basically, a screenplay’s job is to tell you only what you can see and hear. It’s the blueprint, to be filled in by performances, music, lighting, set design, wardrobe, makeup, special effects, camerawork, editing, and all of the other jobs that make film such a collaborative act.
But when you’re writing a novel, you have to perform all those functions yourself. You have to deliver the performances, capture the mood, nail the action, and somehow sweep people up into the story. It’s one-stop shopping, with total focus.
So I took the script, broke it down into chapters, and then proceeded to fill in the blanks. Using fictive techniques to get inside the heads of the people, and make you feel like you were there. Or at least watching the movie, instead of just hearing about it.
I also had the very keen sense that I might never get to make this movie. But if I told the story, well enough, as a book, then that would barely matter.
And – on the plus side – it was the best argument I could make for ACTUALLY MAKING THE FUCKING MOVIE.
Which, incidentally, I now feel readier than ever to direct.
CG:The Long Last Call also bucks hoary conventional wisdom that horror novels should be big, bloated epics, and follows the CONSCIENCE model of a tight, tense story one actually could finish in a sitting.
What went into this tactical shift, and what have you learned from it, and (perhaps more importantly) what should other writers take from it?
JS: I think it’s time for publishers to realize that people really like short books. They want to read cool shit, but they can’t always find the time for one gigantisauric novel after another.
I’m serious about this. If people could read a great book in roughly the time it takes to watch a shitty film, they just might opt for the book.
This doesn’t change the playing field for people who really love spending a week or a month submerging themselves in epic fiction. Those people will still be there. And those books will be there, for them.
But for the rest of us – and that includes me – there will be books that can be devoured, as you said, in a single sitting.
I wish there were more of those books.
So, in that sense, I’m just doing my part for literature. (laughs) And I hope to God that literature appreciates it!
CG: In the current culture war, the unbridled depravity in The Long Last Call would surely cause a huge dustup and issue of fatwahs if it fell into the wrong hands, but you use the strip club setting for far more dangerous ends than merely depicting the mysterious mating rites of homo sapiens.
Are you trying to piss people off? What’s your game, anyway?
JS: Honest to God? I’m amazed by how LITTLE my books have managed to stir up shit, in the cultural brainscape.
When Skipp & Spector wrote THE SCREAM, THE CLEANUP, and THE BRIDGE, it was our hope that avalanches of cultural debate would erupt.
But it didn’t happen. Life went on, as before. And those books sold hundreds of thousands – sometimes millions – of copies. And STILL nothing happened!
So I don’t anticipate a fatwah. And, frankly? I would HATE a fucking fatwah!
But I do hope that people read it, and dig it, and appreciate all the things that it’s saying.
If a good time is had, and thoughts are provoked, and people BUY the thing, then my job is done.
Past that: it was really fun to do. And that, in itself, counts for one whole hell of a lot. I hope that focused funliness and honest intent results in a book that people might actually want to read.
At this point, that is all that I ask.
CG: Your observations about how the objectification of gender cuts both ways, and celebrates sex while pointing out how EVIL – far from wanting to punish us for our fleshly vices – wants and needs us to feed on each other, are a bit more subversive than just showing us boobies.
But what does it tell us about ourselves, as men and women?
JS: Wow. If I talk about it too much more, then what’s the point of writing the goddam book?
Bottom line: out in the hetero-sphere, men and women need each other – and hurt each other – in astonishing ways. That’s just the way it is.
If we understood each other better, and treated each other better, there would be no need for horror stories at all.
Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.
The one thing I’ll say is: this is not just a book for boys to leer at, with adolescently-arrested brain-boners. I’m all about fair play, and trying to see our predicaments from every angle.
So both male and female readers are most welcome to suck on this particular loaded barrel. (laughs) And, hopefully, get something out of it.
CG: Your irrepressible exuberance would seem a great case study for horror as therapy. Is it the act of creating itself, or do you still find writing (and reading) challenging horror makes it easier to face the day?
JS: Irrepressible exuberance is its own reward. Which is to say: being excited about being alive. When you imbue your work with that, you pass it along to others. Which is, to my mind, a very good thing.
All serious artists want to communicate the essence of life, and its meaning, through their work. As a serious artist, working through popular forms, I always hope to communicate deep and meaningful things.
But I also want it to be fun. Because we all NEED fun. And we need the truth to be simpatico with our fun glands. We need to erase the gulf between the meaningful and the enjoyable, whenever possible.
Most of us have gotten very good at being scared, and angry. Big whoop-dee-doo. How hard is that?
But figuring out how to be happy – in spite of all the horror and heartbreak that life routinely presents – is another story entirely.
Throughout my life – and, certainly, throughout my writing career – I have always tried to bridge the gap between our light and dark selves. Our happy and unhappy selves. Our vision of how life should be. And how it often, ultimately, winds up.
Bottom line: my horror wouldn’t kick half as hard, or matter half as much, if it wasn’t grounded in beauty, laughs, and love.
I guess that’s kind of therapeutic, huh? (laughs) Hey! I should get paid for this shit!
Brett Alexander Savory is the Bram Stoker Award-winning Editor-in-Chief of ChiZine: Treatments of Light and Shade in Words, is a Developmental Editor at Scholastic Canada, has had over 40 stories published, written two novels-In and Down and The Distance Travelled-and writes for Rue Morgue Magazine.
He co-edited an anthology with M. W. Anderson called The Last Pentacle of the Sun: Writings in Support of the West Memphis Three, which was released last year through Arsenal Pulp Press. His latest release is a novella called My Eyes Are Nailed, But Still I See, co-written with David Niall Wilson.
In March 2006, Necro Publications will release signed limited edition hardcover and trade paperback editions of Brett’s dark, comic novel The Distance Travelled.
When he’s not writing, reading, or editing, he plays drums for the southern-tinged hard rock band The Diablo Red, whose debut album, Rojos, was released in late 2005. Recently, Cemetery Dance author and reviewer David Niall Wilson had a chance to chat with Brett about The Distance Traveled, and his writing in general.
DNW: Your novel The Distance Travelled blends surreal, literate fiction with some odd elements . . . tossed pigs, for instance. Can you tell us where the inspiration for this particular novel came from, and what inspired the imagery you chose?
BS: I’m not sure where my fascination with pigs comes from. I suppose it cemented itself in my brain, though, after you and I wrote “That’s SOME Pig!” back in 1998. After that, pigs just seemed to keep popping up in my fiction. They even make a minor appearance in the literary novel I just sold, In and Down.
As for the inspiration for Distance: The obvious answer is that it came from the novelette of the same name, which was published in 2001 by Prime Books. As to where that came from? Your guess is as good as mine. I have a pretty crappy memory, so trying to remember where story ideas come from is usually an exercise in futility. This weird shit just pops into my head and I write it down.
The imagery itself, however, I can be a bit more specific about. I think the whole idea of Hell is pretty ridiculous, so I knew I wanted to create a Hell that was sort of absurd, and yet quite practical in the way it operates. Nothing too mysterious-torture sessions are scheduled, Hell hires people to carry them out, there’s a governing body that oversees things, etc. It’s an exceedingly poorly run version of our world, but a whole lot hotter.
DNW: When choosing a locale for this piece, why did you choose Hell? In other words, do the standard old Christian symbols have deep meaning for you, or could this have as easily been set on the banks of the Styx with three headed pig dogs guarding the way?
BS: Hey, there’s an idea for the sequel! Thanks! 😉
Seriously, though, no, the old Christian symbols don’t hold any meaning for me. I’m agnostic, so religion of all stripes is hard to swallow. Considering how close all religions are in their basic tenets, I think they all might just be manifestations of people’s general loneliness in the universe. A creation to comfort ourselves, bring meaning to our existences. Regarding Christianity, specifically, if there is a God (since I’m agnostic, I don’t rule out the possibility) and he ever did speak to humans regarding his will, his words have been fucked with so often throughout history by people inserting their own desires and biases into them that God only knows-quite literally-what his true intentions might have been.
DNW: Your web site, group, and phenomenon “The Chiaroscuro—Those Who Walk Alone,” has developed into quite the success story. Can you explain how it came to be, and how you brought it from its humble beginnings to one of the highest paying on-line fiction markets, and the only one (to my knowledge) with support from a NYC publisher?
BS: Oh, boy, that’d be a long story! I’ll try to break it down into bite-size chunks, though.
In 1997, a guy named Vanace Fidler and I were discussing online how there was a dearth of good horror sites on the ‘net, so we decided to start one up. I wound up doing all the actual work of building the site, etc., so within a year or so, Vanace kind of drifted out of the picture and I kept going with it. We started out by just having a few short story contests, but then in July of 1999, I launched the first issue of the fiction and poetry arm of the site, ChiZine: Treatments of Light and Shade in Words. We paid 1/2 cent per word and I sold banner ads to small presses and individual authors to cover the costs. We raised it up to 1 cent per word the following year, and then I approached Don D’Auria at Leisure Books about sponsoring us. Within a month or two, Leisure agreed and we were able to raise our rates to 3 cents per word, making us a professional market (back in 2001, anyway)—and I was free to stop hassling people to buy banner ads (a job which I absolutely loathed). That same year, we won the Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement in editing.
Skip ahead a couple of years and—due to increased traffic and a growing reputation for publishing quality material—we got the nod from Leisure to increase our rates to 5 cents per word, again matching the current pro-market level. We were nominated again for a 2004 Stoker, received a big jump in traffic, and raised our rates to 7 cents per word, which is where we are today.
DNW: Everyone asks this, but it’s relevant. Who are the major influences on your writing? Broadening this further from the usual what writers influenced you, I’d add other media into the mix, music, movie, television, anything you think was formative.
BOOKS: Stephen King, Clive Barker, Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Chuck Palahniuk, Mark Z. Danielewski, Craig Davidson, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman, Philip Nutman, China Miéville, Iain Banks, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Brian Lumley, and some chimp named David Niall Wilson. 😉
MUSIC: Thievery Corporation, Slipknot, Slayer, Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, My Dying Bride, Bjork, Harry Connick Jr., Henry Rollins, The Misfits, Bad Religion, Type O Negative, Lamb of God, Meshuggah, etc. (I sometimes name stories after cool bands or song titles.)
MOVIES:Halloween, Fight Club, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, anything by David Lynch, The Fog (the original), The Evil Dead films, Romero’s Dead films, Fulci’s Zombi, Top Secret, Kairo (creepiest fucking film ever), Cemetery Man, Battle Royale, Pulp Fiction, Dead Alive, Reservoir Dogs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original), etc.
DNW: I know you work as an editor, and have been responsible for kid’s books involving underwear…how has your education and working in the field influenced your fiction?
BS: Not much, I don’t think. If anything, it makes me want to write the opposite of what I work on all day. ‘Cause there’s not much bloodshed, creepy moments, or absurd hilarity in Scholastic titles!
DNW:The Distance Travelled started life as a novelette, if memory serves. What was the journey from beginning to Necro?
BS: I originally placed the novelette with Steve Savile’s Imaginary Worlds Press. When Sean Wallace took over Steve’s operations and renamed the press Prime, I left the book there and Sean put it out in 2001. I then expanded the story to novel length, shopped it around to various houses until it finally found a home in 2005 with Dave Barnett at Necro Publications.
DNW: Any tips picked up along the way—lessons learned?
BS: Know your market! If a house hasn’t published any horror-comedies in the past, odds are they’re not going to start with yours.
DNW: Did you prefer it at the shorter length, or did it find its own as a novel?
I really prefer it at novel length. I added several more characters to the mix and that’s what really brought the environment and the story to life, in my mind.
DNW: Your wife is a talented poet and author in her own right. How do the two of you cope with / share / involve yourselves in one another’s creative careers? Do you play off of one another creatively, or is it hard—success at different times, and different levels?
BS: We don’t write the same kind of stuff at all, so it’s kept quite separate: she mostly writes poetry; I write prose (haven’t written a poem since 1998). So there’s no competition, which I think is a good thing. We like each other’s work and are very supportive of what the other is doing, so overall it’s a healthy balance, I think. When something great happens with respect to one of our careers, the other is hooting and hollering about it as much as the one whose career got the boost.
DNW: I know you play in a band, along with the day job and the writing. What sort of influences do you tend toward musically, and how does your musical career parallel your writing career—or does it?
BS: See above for musical influences. As for how the two careers parallel each other, there’s the aforementioned naming of stories after cool song titles, but other than that it’s pretty separate. I don’t write any of the lyrics for Diablo Red, so my presence isn’t felt there at all. I’m strictly the drummer.
DNW: You chose an El Camino for your unlikely heroes to travel about in, what’s up with that? Is this a dream car of yours, or is it symbolic in some way?
BS: Not a dream car, no, but certainly the type of car in which I saw my weird and disheveled gang of characters. I’m not sure where I got the idea to use the Camino, except that it’s a tough car, you know? It’s seen as a badass set of wheels. Sure, I could’ve gone with a Mustang or something like that, but the Camino has that big open bed in back, so Tom China, the 11-foot HellRat in the story had a way of getting around with the rest of the characters. *laughs*
DNW: Your earlier writing tended to be much darker, more violent and shocking. Have you shifted mental gears, and will the shifting continue? Where do you see your writing now, and then, again in five years? In other words, do you have a plan?
BS: Yeah, I’ve certainly eased off on the blood and guts-though Distance was written before I started easing away from it, so there’s plenty of carnage in this book. I think what happened is that I sort of exhausted all of my really brutal ideas early on, then subtler ideas started coming to me, instead. Still dark—I can’t seem to get away from that aspect, and I don’t think I really want to-but not necessarily violent. I started writing more surreal pieces. Definitely more Lynchian in nature.
Of course, I can’t know where my writing will be in five years, but I suspect I’ll keep treading this slipstream line I’m on right now. Maybe when I’ve exhausted all of those ideas, I’ll have to move to mainstream literary novels. And then right into Harlequin-style romances! Heh. Okay, if I ever do that, you all have permission to shoot me in the face. Seriously.
As for a plan? Hell, no. I have a vague idea of what direction I want my career to go, so I publish with houses that I hope will help me down that path, but I have no Grand Scheme.
DNW: Finally, in order to sum this up, and to give you a chance to say all the things you wanted to say had I not led you about with oddball questions…here’s a convoluted, catch-all question. Are there any things you’d like readers to know about The Distance Travelled that weren’t carried here?
BS: It’s funny! It’s carnage-filled! It’s introspective! It’s adventurous! It’s heart-warming! And Christopher Moore says this about it!:
“A completely unique take on life in hell. Snappy dialog and a bizarre backdrop set this adventure tale apart from the pack.” — Christopher Moore
Are you saying Christopher Moore’s wrong? Are you?? I should think not. Go thee forth and purchase:
BS: After Distance, there’s the trade paperback release of my and David Niall Wilson’s My Eyes Are Nailed, But Still I See in December 2006 from Delirium Books. Then in 2007, my deeply weird literary novel In and Down will be released (can’t give details on the publisher until contracts are signed). Also in 2007, Delirium will publish my first short story collection, The Time Between Lights.
As for projects I’m currently working on, there’s my third novel, Running Beneath the Skin, a comic-book adaptation of The Distance Travelled with artist Homeros Gilani, and a dark YA novel called The Soul Projectionists.
Interview with Elizabeth Monteleone about the Borderlands Boot Camp
CD: What inspired you to start the Borderlands Boot Camp?
EM: One day whilst Tom and I were reading the slush pile, I made the coment that so many of these writers could benefit from going to “something like a writers boot camp.” An intense weekend to get the kinks out–because so many of them are so close to being good writers, they just need to work out the kinks. Some people write good dialogue but stink at plot and vice versa etc.
He looked at me and said why don’t you do it?
CD: How do you decide which instructors to invite?
EM: I’m very fortunate to know many successful writers. I’ll send an e-mail and voila! I’ve got my instructors. I have people like the GREAT Richard Chizmar–he’ll be coming back soon–I have Elizabeth Massie, Jack Ketchum, Doug Clegg, David Morrell and of course the two writers that are not allowed to get burned out–Tom Monteleone and F. Paul Wilson. Being an instructor is a lot of work. They make notes on every story, and end up line-editing them as well.
CD: You have a very limited number of slots for participants. How do you determine whether an applicant is appropriate for the Boot Camp?
EM: This is a tough one because I’ve had some participants who have been published and have started to make a name for themselves. We accept these published “grunts” because I understand what it’s like to work in a room by yourself with no feedback. I watch my husband do it every day. In addition, I read for F. Paul Wilson and Tom Monteleone. If these guys need readers…the newer writers certainly do. Plus, the published grunts have more experience and really add to the critique sessions. The rest? Well that’s a little more intangible. Their stories have to make me react in some positive way. Basically, I accept applicants whom I think can be put on the right track with valid input and honest criticism. I don’t believe you can teach talent…but if you have it, this boot camp can develop it and make it grow.
CD: What kind of feedback have you received from participants?
EM: At the end of every boot camp I give the grunts an evaluation sheet. I want it to be anonymous because I want them to be completely honest. I don’t want anyone to worry about telling me the truth and fearing retribution and never being included in a Borderlands Book. (If you write a good story, we’ll buy it trust me–we buy stories from people we don’t like–more often than you’d imagine!)
We’ve now planned three and they’ve all been SPECTACULAR! Not one complaint about the program. Think about it….it’s very intense setting: small groups interacting with really experienced writers. They not only talk the talk, they walk the walk!
CD: Who are the instructors for the next Boot Camp?
EM: F. Paul Wilson, Doug Clegg, Tom Tessier, Steve Spruill, Thomas F. Monteleone, Doug Winter
CD: When is the next Boot Camp?
EM: August 5-7 at Towson State University in Towson, Maryland.
Each instructor will get his own classroom.
And although the experience gained at the Boot Camp is priceless . . . . we had to put a price on it: $500
The University has also made their “apartment” housing available. For an additional $50 per night, grunts get private accommodations and all meals. Much, much better deal than staying at a hotel, don’t you think?
CD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
EM: Did I mention that the Winter Session is split into two tracks: Novel and Short Fiction? Well, it is–with 20 grunts in each group. The Summer Session is for 36 grunts–all Short Fiction.
Interview Between Geoff Cooper and Brian Keene (2005)
To the casual observer, Geoff Cooper and Brian Keene’s relationship is an odd one. Cooper was best man in Keene’s wedding, and Keene is godfather to Cooper’s child. They’ve collaborated together a number of times, on everything from short stories to Jobs In Hell. Yet despite this, the two seem more like best adversaries than best friends. They constantly bicker and argue, and seem to know exactly which buttons to push on the other.
Many, including the staff here at Cemetery Dance, are surprised that they haven’t killed each other yet.
Brian Keene: Coop, are you as sick as I am of people thinking we’re joined at the hip?
Geoff Cooper: Hells yes.
Keene: Then why are we doing this?
Coop: Because Rich still has those photos.
Keene: @$#&ing blackmailer…
Coop: No kidding. I KNEW we should have been more careful with the whole hooker/trout thing….
Keene: That thing with the hooker was your idea, @$#&head.
Coop: Once again, I get blamed for something you did. Anyway, let’s get these @$#&ing questions done before he comes up with some more photos.
Keene: Good idea.
Coop: Of course it is. I thought of it.
Keene: How do you feel your writing has changed since the days of 4X4 and BUM PISS & OTHER CITY SCENTS?
Coop: It’s become readable. How is this novella different from your previous works? Will it alienate fans of THE RISING, TERMINAL, and CITY OF THE DEAD?
Keene: It’s different in that we have two and a half months to write the @$#&ing thing. But no, I don’t think it will alienate my readers. They’ve seen me collaborate with you before, and they’ve liked the results. How about fans of your Brackard’s Point mythos? Do you think they’ll mind me playing in their sandbox?
Coop: I doubt those who are familiar with Brackard’s Point will mind at all. It’s a new Brackard’s Point story—and those don’t come around too often. Besides, I’m right here. I won’t permit you to screw it up. I’ve seen message board threads about how one of us is going to wind up killing the other before this is all over, and I admit, there’s a few valid arguments in there: we’re both egomaniacs, for one—though in completely different ways—and neither of us are exactly known for passivity or softening things up in order to spare someone else’s feelings. Okay, the last may apply to me more than you.
Keene: Oh kettle, thou art black.
Coop: Whatever. What’s your take on such speculations?
Keene: My take? Our significant others are best friends. We live minutes from each other. We seem to spend a lot of time together. If we haven’t killed each other yet—be it at the bookstore or the shooting range or on a double date to the movies, then I don’t reckon we’ll kill each other while in the process of writing a story. Will we fight and argue? Sure. But we fight and argue all the time, anyway. We’ll probably fight and argue before the end of this interview. Case in point—you are wrong about 28 DAYS LATER.
Coop: Oh, come ON! 28 DAYS LATER was a piece of crap. I’ve seen the DEAD movies, read THE STAND and BLOOD CRAZY, so I’ve already read—or saw—all the movie’s good parts. Why, then, did I need to see this idiocy? Oh, that’s right—because you thought it would be, and I quote, “something cool to do with the girls.” I STILL want that hour and a half of my life back, pal.
Keene: I’m serious. Quit @$#&ing around. I think the truth is that both of us are happier when we’re writing, even when we’re forced to give up some of our creative control to a collaborator. I guess the speculations out there are based more on a public persona than who we really are behind the keyboard. We’re not exactly angry young men anymore.
Coop: No, not exactly. You’re middle-aged. I’m still angry.
Keene: You total monkey@$#&er. You’re middle-aged, too, @$#&hole. And you’re so not angry—these days you whine, rather than rage.
Coop: Newsflash @$#&head: you’re four years older than me, Mr. Grey-And-Balding Hypochondriac. I’ve still got a few years before I pass into that pasture, and when I DO, I’ll still have more hair on my head than you.
Keene: Certainly more hair on your ass.
Coop: Even if it does go grey overnight, I won’t be dying it. The only reason you don’t dye your beard anymore is because Matt Warner busted you at one of your readings, and that was only last year.
Keene: It was two years ago!
Coop: Mike, Mikey, and I hid your beard dye right before your wedding, and we knew about it from the 2001 WHC in Sea-Tac, because we saw it there. You had to get all prettied up for your adoring fans. Now I may be creeping up on middle age, but remember: you’re always going to be older than me, so get over yourself.
Brian: I may be older, but I’m also cuter. Ask your girlfriend.
Coop: Cuter? Not for nothing, but you’ve got a BROW RIDGE, you mother@$#&ing Neanderthal. And this bit about me whining? Oh, please. Ain’t THAT the pot calling the kettle black. You’ve got more whines than the Bible’s got psalms. Let’s go over a few of them, shall we? You: “Oh, I’ve got cancer of the lip. Cancer of the colon, cancer of the eyelid, cancer of the nostril… I’m constipated, I’m codependent, I’m manic-depressive… I’m going into therapy, I’m going on a pill, I’m going insane… I hear voices, I see dead people, my cat is telling me what to do, I think my dog hates me, I think my dog is listening to the cat, I think the cat sees dead people…” And these were only from the last three days! I might be a neurotic freakshow, but WHINE? Get out of my sight with THAT kind of noise.
Brian: At least I’ve got something to @$#&ing whine about, @$#&head. “Oh woe is me. I am Coop. My existence is my own bane, and the world is black because of it. Look how angry and moody I am! Look at me, @$#& it! Everyone hates me and that pisses me off, because nobody hates me more than myself.” Ya know, Coop, it’s always surprised me that you listen to metal, because you’re a @$#&ing poster-child for every black-wearing, Morrissey-listening, poetry-scrawling-in-little-notebook, suicidal mother@$#&er out there.
Coop: You’re putting words in my mouth.
Keene: So? You put words in my mouth, too, @$#head.
Coop: I’ve never used the word “bane” unless referring to LORD FOUL’S. What I HAVE said is “Everything sucks all the time.” So if you’re going to attempt to quote me, get it correct. Furthermore, I don’t think everyone hates me.
Keene: Yes you do.
Coop: Some do, sure, but I’m okay with that because last I checked I wasn’t out to win a popularity contest. I’m fairly certain the Morrissey you referred to is some band, but I can’t recall ever hearing anything by them. You, however, seem to be familiar enough with them to try and use it as a rip on me, so your entire argument becomes suspect. So @$#& you.
Keene: Now who’s whining? I swear to God—you’ve got more whine than Jesus Christ himself. “Waaa, I don’t have time to write. Waaa, I don’t get any sleep.” You can’t write? Too bad. Turn off the fucking History Channel and turn on your computer. What? Oh, that’s right—you’ve got a permanent game of Civilization III running on your computer. Can’t sleep? Boo-mother@$#&ing-hoo. Try drinking decaf, mother@$#&er. Newsflash, Cooper–you are NOT Foamy the @$#&ing squirrel, no matter how much you wish it were otherwise.
Coop: Okay, bud… YOU have your demon-spawn godchild running around like a Rhesus on acid all day long and tell me how you’re doing after two weeks—let alone two years—with regards to sleep and productivity.
Keene: Next time, wear a rubber.
Coop: And I haven’t played CIV III in months. You @$#&ing drama queen.
Keene: DRAMA QUEEN? @$#& you. Watch yourself, buddy, or I’ll tell everybody that you secretly own every Stryper album ever made.
Coop: Ha! You think they’ll believe that? Especially after you publicly admitted to your appreciation for Winger, Kix, and Journey?
Keene: I’m not the one with the Xanadu Official Motion Picture Soundtrack in his basement.
Coop: And you ever tell ANYBODY about that, I’ll tell them about the one place on your body where you still HAVE hair.
Keene: Okay, truce. Now, let’s get back to this interview.
Coop: Yes. Have some.
Keene: Okay. Let’s pretend—pretend, mind you—that there’s somebody out there, a loyal Cemetery Dance customer perhaps, who has not yet had the pleasure of reading our work. What reason can you give them to order this still untitled and unfinished novella? Why should they give it a try, especially after your abhorrent behavior in this interview?
Coop: I’d say there are a few good reasons to order this. The strict limitation of the hardcovers, for one. Only enough are being printed to cover the pre-orders, so it’s not like there’s going to be many on the aftermarket. To get a hardcover of our last collaborative effort, “Wild Kingdom,” (from 4X4) a reader might spend upwards of $500 on eBay. (Yes, that’s five hundred dollars. No, I am not kidding.). It’s a safe assumption that the aftermarket price of this novella will be far above what CD is asking for it—and you get a boatload of coupons also. Financially, it’s a no-brainer.
Keene: I agree. But what about the story itself?
Coop: It’s solid. While it is true that I’m biased in saying so—obviously—and it is still incomplete, I can tell you it’s got that which CD customers have come to expect over the years: dark crime-ish elements coupled with the supernatural, and the supernatural elements that ARE involved are not stock-horror items. No zombies, no werewolves, vampires, haunted houses, any of that. Your average small-press reader likes a new method, provided that method WORKS, and I’m certain that which we’re going to do in here will work. I’m putting my name on the thing, so it’d better. I know there are a LOT of CD customers that wouldn’t know us if we bit them on the nose, but I don’t think they’re going to be disappointed, is what I’m saying. Our regular readers will need less convincing, but they won’t be let down, either.
Keene: I hope they don’t shy away simply because it’s a collaboration. I’ve collaborated with you, Mike, Mikey, Tim Lebbon, and others, and you’ve collaborated with most of the same. I’ve always felt that, in the case of you and I, we force each other to do our best work, simply because of the antagonistic nature of the collaboration itself.
Coop: Some collaborations have a noticeable split where one author breaks and the other takes over. Many readers find this annoying. As with “Wild Kingdom,” this new one will have no such split. How it works with us is like this: Brian writes a scene. I re-write it, give it a nudge in the direction it’s supposed to go (and if there’s any question about this, we discuss it), then turn him loose again. With me doing all the re-writes, there’s no jarring break as in other collaborations, so it’s easier on the reader. We both wind up having our say, and though we may come close to blows during the process, the end result is worth the price of admission. At least, I think so.
Keene: I do, too. And all joking around and arguing aside, at the end of the day, we both give our best as a result, because we respect the reader—and we respect each other. Wouldn’t you agree?
Coop: Yeah, I respect you. Now go to the store and get me a pack of smokes, @$#&head.
Keene: @$#& you. Want to go to the range and shoot things?
Coop: @$#& it. Why not? We can work on the novella later.