Max Booth III is the editor-in-chief of Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, the managing editor of Dark Moon Digest, and the host of two podcasts: Ghoulish and Castle Rock Radio. He’s the author of We Need to Do Something, Touch the Night, Carnivorous Lunar Activities, and several other novels. Bylines include LitReactor, CrimeReads, the San Antonio Current, Fangoria, and Film 14. Follow him on Twitter (GiveMeYourTeeth) or visit him at TalesFromTheBooth.com. He lives in Texas.
(Interview conducted by Tyler Jones)
CEMETERY DANCE: Over the years you’ve been very vocal about your hatred for the hotel job you worked for a long time. What were your writing habits while working those night shifts, and how have they changed now that you’re free of the soul-sucking job?
MAX BOOTH III: My writing habits changed throughout my eight years employed at the hotel. I always worked the night shift, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., but the hotel itself seemed to change over time. In the first couple years, the hotel was only busy maybe three or four months out of the year, leaving the remaining months mostly dead and easy to get other work done, such as writing/editing/publishing stuff. However, as our city continued to grow, the busier my hotel seemed to get throughout the entire year, meaning any time I used to take advantage of writing got slimmer and slimmer. The year before I quit, the situation became even more annoying, as management finally installed cameras on the property — which was only a problem due to a strong case of micromanaging plaguing my general manager and assistant manager. Now they could spy on my every activity through the security apps on their phones, and call the front desk to ask why I was doing something non-hotel related.
Free time to write was the biggest reason I stayed with the hotel for as long as I did, but eventually that free time expired, and I found myself constantly depressed by every other part of the job: the ungrateful managers, the cruel guests, the brain problems that arise from working the night shift for an extended amount of time… But back in September, I quit that job, and now I write full-time.
My writing habits have definitely changed. I now try to wake up early and write non-stop from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., have lunch with my family, then move on to other work, which might consist of freelance editing, freelance non-fiction writing, or — most importantly — the immense work that goes into maintaining a small press (Lori Michelle and I have operated Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing since 2012). Now that I no longer work a night shift, I am finding my ability to concentrate on things has already started healing itself. Back when I was employed at the hotel, my memory had degraded at an alarming pace. My brain felt like Jell-O every single day. But now? Things are different. On New Year’s Eve, I finished a crime novel I’d been attempting to write for the past three or four years. It’s truly amazing how much more productive a person can be when they aren’t miserable and exhausted every goddamn day.
When you get an idea, do you know right away if it’s a short story, a novella, or a novel? Has one ever accidentally turned into the other?
My instincts always lean toward novel territory, as novels are my writing preference. I don’t write a lot of short stories on spec anymore, usually only when someone invites me (speaking of, if you’re an editor looking to fill an anthology, hit me up!). I don’t think I have enough experience with novellas yet to gauge my process on them. I think I’ve written a total of three novellas in my life. Two were short stories that just kind of got away from me, and the last novella I wrote — We Need to Do Something — was originally written as a screenplay, then I tried to turn it into a novel, except there wasn’t enough content for a novel, and if I tried adding anything further I feared it would lose its magic.
I think many of the questions I’d want to ask about the We Need to Do Something film have already been answered in that great article you wrote for Film 14 . When I read Touch the Night and We Need to Do Something, I got the sense that there were social concerns you were addressing on the page: police brutality, family violence and alcoholism. Are these things extensions of the stories themselves, or are you aware of chasing down specific issues and exhausting them on the page?
I think it’s probably different with each book. With Touch the Night, I knew early on that I wanted to create an outlet to release my constant rage and frustration with police. But with We Need to Do Something, I didn’t go into it thinking about exploring any specific issues. I had the idea of a family trapped in a bathroom, and I just wanted to see how they’d react to such a situation. It felt only natural to make them all hate each other. Dysfunctional families tend to be a recurring theme in my fiction, maybe. But show me a functional family.
All families are dysfunctional in their own ways, aren’t they? Maybe the Leave It to Beaver family never existed. You also seem fond of putting people in confined spaces (Carnivorous Lunar Activities and We Need to Do Something).
A lot of your work is dialogue heavy, and it carries a certain energy with it that reminds me of Joe Lansdale. His characters always seem to talking, even while they’re running for their lives of investigating murders. Since writing dialogue is a skill you’ve got in spades, did that make transitioning to writing a screenplay easier?
I think it was only a matter of time before I turned to screenplays, considering how much I prefer dialogue over literally anything else when it comes to writing. Nothing puts me more in the zone than a long conversational interaction between two characters. But, with that said, the transition hasn’t been a walk in the park. I think any prose writer turning to screenwriting is probably going to face the same issues I’ve come across, which is overwriting. With a novel, you can really live in each scene, take your time painting a picture for the reader. But when it comes to screenwriting, the bare essentials is really all you want to strive for. Big paragraphs of details aren’t going to get you anywhere, and it’s probably a surefire way to convince a potential producer to stop reading.
So you’ve written novels, novellas, short stories, screenplays, and wrote/directed a short film with Andrew Hilbert. Are there are any other mediums you want to explore?
I would love to write a comic book. Ditto for a serialized audio drama. If theater comes back, I have considered looking into writing plays, as well. It would be pretty rad to be a showrunner on my own TV show, too.
If you were to run a TV show, what would it be about?
It would probably be a version of my hotel novel, The Nightly Disease. I’ve long considered the premise perfect for an ongoing TV show. I’m also currently pitching an animated comedy series that I developed with Andrew Hilbert. Hopefully something cool comes of that, because I’m incredibly excited about the project.
Can you walk us through what it looks like for you to go from idea to completed novel?
It definitely varies. My brain operates in a similar fashion as a pinball machine. I am constantly battling to concentrate on one single work, rather than taking frequent breaks to work on multiple books at once. Since quitting the hotel job, I am noticing a stronger ability to focus on one writing assignment at a time, although it’s a skill I will need to continue sharpening. I am what is commonly described as a “concept writer.” Meaning some writers will begin with a character, and then build a plot around them. I have discovered I am the opposite, maybe.
The books that get me really excited to write always begin with a “What if?” question.
What if, during this tornado warning, something happened that prevented us from leaving our bathroom? (We Need to Do Something)
What if the cops who just arrested you didn’t take you to the police station, but somewhere far scarier? (Touch the Night)
What if your favorite porn actress disappeared from the Internet, and nobody noticed but you? (Casanova Curbstomp; the book I finished writing only a couple weeks ago).
I then take that “What if?” and sorta meditate on its possibilities for several days or weeks. Usually the brainstorming here is not even a conscious effort. The ideas that are too good to ignore…they’re not going to let me forget them. If I can’t stop thinking about a certain concept, then there’s a good chance it’s going to also hook a reader. At the very least, there’s a good chance I won’t get bored while writing it. Usually, with a novel, there comes a point around the 30,000 word mark where I lose all interest in continuing the work, as other book ideas have since started taking over my attention span. I would like the rest of my answer here to say that I’m strong enough to brush those new ideas aside, that I’m able to continue focusing on the book I’m already halfway finished writing, but I’d just be lying, because what happens is this: I say, “Okay, let’s just see where this other book idea leads me real quick…” Then I get 30,000 words into it, and think, “Wait what about that other book I was writing before I started this one?” Then I’ll return to the previous book, finish it, then — hopefully — go back to the second book idea and knock that one out, too.
This has somehow become my method. I do not recommend it. But again, how much of this method was brought on from working the night shift for eight years? It’s too early to tell, I think, how different my writing structure is going to become now that I’m doing this full-time. What I hope to accomplish is the willpower to focus on one novel at a time. I have a great fear in losing a story’s momentum and feeling by bouncing between multiple stories at once. I think it’s better to absorb yourself in one thing, otherwise it’s possible you won’t take full advantage of the world you’ve created. But then again — sometimes taking a break and working on something else is exactly the trick that’s needed to fix something you didn’t even know was broken. You might hit the PAUSE button on a book, go finish another book, then when you return to the first book realize, “Oh shit! I was writing this thing from the wrong POV!”
So, after you’ve finished that first draft, what next? What does the editing process look like?
So, I usually let the manuscript sit for a couple days, maybe a week or two at most, then go back and reread it. I usually have a separate Google doc open that I’ll use to make a bullet point list of story-related issues that need to be fixed. Once I finish my first re-read, I make story corrections as necessary, then send it off to several trusted beta readers. People whose opinions I truly respect. Then I consider their notes. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I do not. Usually they’ll point out very obvious issues that I simply could not see due to being too close to the project. I’ll also say that I do a lot of self-editing while writing the first draft. I am constantly scrolling back to previous scenes, reworking them to make them tighter and more exciting. So, there usually isn’t a TON of necessary rewriting once I finish the first draft.
Dialogue is probably the one thing I’m most precious about when it comes to writing and editing. I often find myself reciting conversations out loud, making sure the rhythm is perfect — or as perfect as it’s going to get, at least, haha. Come to think about it, a lot of my writing process is pacing around my bedroom/office, reading dialogue out loud and trying to figure out ways to make it sound cooler. I don’t really prescribe to the idea that dialogue needs to sound realistic. It just needs to be entertaining.
Your work is genuinely funny, while also being intense and disturbing. Humor in horror, if not done right, can be just awful. And on the other end of that we have writers who write books that are just relentlessly dark with a hardly a light moment. It’s obviously a balance, but is it a balance you are aware of striking? You mentioned the dialogue and wanting it to sound cool (which I love by the way, it’s a very musical way of thinking about it) and it’s clear that there are times when you want it to be really funny (looking at you Carnivorous Lunar Activities) but then you effortlessly slide right back into the horrific. Does this come natural, or is it a conscious to make sure humor doesn’t overwhelm the horror, or vice versa?
This is something I’ve thought about for a long time, and — fair warning — it’s a topic I’m preparing to write an entire essay on, so my answer here is probably not going to be as detailed as you’d like…but I view horror and comedy as a very difficult balancing act, that when done correctly…holy shit, does it pay off. When it comes to writing, I feel that rhythm is extremely important. When it comes to dialogue, yes, and also when it comes to tone. Comedy works best in horror when it comes at a very unexpected time: following something truly horrific. And the same goes for horror. The best way to hit somebody with a punch of terror is by swooping in when they least expect it to arrive: while they’re laughing. I think maintaining a single tone (only nonstop horror) can sometimes be a real bummer, and writers owe it to readers to offer a variety of emotions.
I love that thought process…what a writer owes a reader. That’s kind of an unspoken contract, isn’t it? And we feel cheated as readers when we sense a writer doing what they want for the sake “Art” or “vision” without any regard for the audience. Seems like an audience will follow any vision so long as we feel confident the writer is taking us somewhere, not just wandering through the dark.
I certainly believe it’s okay to write your first draft with only yourself in mind, if that’s what works for you (the general “you”), but I do think it’s important to keep an audience in mind when going back over the manuscript during edits. I don’t think you have to spoon-feed them anything, screw that. Confusion is acceptable, and sometimes encouraged — but boredom? Avoid it at all costs.
Well said. In fact, there’s nothing quite like confusion when you feel confident in the writer. Boredom seems like it’s very much a matter of personal taste, so do you gauge that by your own interest in what you’re writing? Do you assume that if you find the story interesting, an audience will as well?
I think a lot of my “is this interesting enough?” comes before starting the first draft — with my obsessing over the concept first. But as I go through the finished first draft (or, if I’m re-reading the previous day’s work), I’m pretty brutal in whether or not what I’m reading is exciting. I don’t view most writing as “precious.” Instead I approach it with more of a blue collar mindset. I’m able to look at something I wrote and say, “Oh, no, this is unstable and if I don’t do something about it, it’s going to collapse.” Writing is not just “start on page one and then make it to the end.” Nothing about this is linear, you know? Writing is rewriting. Writing is deleting. Writing is rearranging. Writing is going outside for a walk and shouting profanities at the sun.
So, in all your thinking about the concept, are you outlining at all? Or do you just let things come together and work out the details on the page?
I don’t outline every chapter, but I certainly outline a little bit. Which hasn’t always been the case, but in the last year or two I’ve found it to be quite beneficial. My main two methods of outlining are bullet points and index cards. With bullet points, I like to write each important “beat” of the book that I want to hit. Things I can’t forget. I’ll also sometimes do a separate bullet point list after I finish writing for the day, listing the things I want to cover the next day, so I don’t have to waste it trying to remember where I was going. Index cards, on the other hand, get a bit complex with me. I will create different stacks/categories. For example, one stack might be titled CHARACTERS, and then each index card beneath it will be dedicated to one character in the book. Who they are. What they want. What’s stopping them. Any quirks or physical traits that I want to remain consistent on.
Right now I have two very different, very intense books I’m in the middle of writing, and both of them absolutely require dozens if not hundreds of index cards all over my office/bedroom (boffice?). One book is kind of alternate history, but also uses lots of real, established details and dates from the 1950s, which has required me to do more research than I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve been collecting the important information on index cards in one stack (okay, it’s many stacks), and in a separate category of index cards, I’ve been trying to make sense of the timelines. It’s told in three POVs, and their timelines need to always make sense compared to what the other characters are doing, so sometimes I’ll lay out each timeline index card along my bed, making three separate trains, and kind of just stare at them for a while scratching my chin until my wife asks me if I ever plan on letting her go to bed.
This other book I’m doing, it’s pure body horror. (David) Cronenberg tuned to 11. But I’m trying to somewhat base the body horror aspect on real, documented science, so I have various stacks of cards labeled SYMPTOMS.
Oh, and on both of those books I just mentioned? Each contain a stack of cards labeled THEORIES, because both books contain a central mystery, so I use the cards in this stack to develop every theory the characters could possibly come up with during the length of their narrative. Most of those theories are of course incorrect and, most of the time, completely batshit, but they don’t know that, do they?
I think I’ve said this somewhere before but my favorite thing to write is just a bunch of people sitting around, theorizing. I’m not very interested in actual answers. But I love exploring how people try to find them.
I want to circle back around to your “concept” writing — starting with an idea first and building around it. When you set out to write horror, does fear factor into this concept at all, or is it merely a by-product of the initial concept? Meaning, do you set out to write something that will scare people and think of scenes that will accomplish that, or is the concept itself freaky and then whatever scares there are come naturally as you’re writing?
I seldom approach a book or story with the genre in mind first. The genre develops as the writing progresses. For example, I had no idea We Need to Do Something would be a horror story when I first started writing it. I just knew it would be an intense family drama about people trapped in a bathroom (the original seed for this really being a challenge I gave myself: could I write an entire book set in a bathroom?). Then…horror stuff just kinda farted itself onto the page, regardless of my intentions, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the way it turned out.
Of course, that isn’t always true for my process. With Touch the Night, I specifically set out to write something scary as fuck. I’d published other horror books before, but they were all pretty light on horror and heavy with comedy. Touch the Night has some funny moments, sure, but my main goal, from page one onward, was to unsettle readers. So maybe I don’t know what the hell my process is. Maybe a process should always change with every book. If you approach every book the same way, that’s how your writing grows stale. Think of all the big hitters who came onto the scene with mind-blowing debut novels. Then, decades later, they’re putting out the same goddamn book, slightly rewritten, only they’ve lost everything that once made them unique.
Has writing a screenplay, and then watching that get turned into a film, changed your approach at all? I’ve talked to writers who shifted into graphic novels, and took lessons from that format back into prose writing. Has anything changed for you with the first-hand awareness of how story translates to screen?
I don’t think it’s changed much. Screenwriting is definitely a whole different kind of craft than prose. Writing a couple screenplays hasn’t made much difference with how I tackle books or short stories. Maybe it’s helped that my prose writing has always come off with a cinematic feel to it. Books and movies are two different things entirely. Books are internal, and movies are external. It’s important to keep that in mind while writing either.
What’s one book you feel is either underrated or criminally under the radar?
She Said Destroy by Nadia Bulkin is one of the best story collections I’ve ever read. Go get it!
Do you have any books that you return to and reread more than once?
I’ve read John Dies at the End by David Wong a bunch of times. That’s the only one I’ve really revisited. There are other books I’d like to reread, of course, but it’s hard to justify when there are thousands of other books I haven’t read yet that I want to get to before I die.
How many times have you seen Zodiac?
That’s an impossible question to answer. This month alone I’ve watched it three times.
Has there ever been a time when you’ve been surprised by something your subconscious mind was working through that came out unexpectedly on the page?
I wish I had a good answer for this question, but nothing is coming to mind. I usually figure out a story’s “theme” pretty quickly, if they even have a theme. Some of them have certain goals, for sure. The Nightly Disease’s goal was to demonstrate that nobody knows what they’re doing at any moment of the day (and also, treat customer service workers with respect!). Touch the Night was written as a way to channel my rage against authority. I don’t think I’ve had a moment where I’ve finished a book, then realized, “Oh, shit, so THAT’S what has been bothering me lately.”
With Expect Radioactivity it seems that you’re doing a fair amount of research. Is this something that’s new for you?
Yeah, I’ve never done this much research on anything before, and — honestly — it’s a load of fun. I admit I’ve gotten a bit nuts with it. I’ve been reading every local newspaper issue from the year my book takes place. I’ve been buying the TV Guides and obsessing over what was playing on TV. I’m reading biographies from people who were alive then. I tried teaching myself nuclear science then realized how much math was involved and quickly gave up. If I wanted to do math, I’d just go hang out at Paul Tremblay’s house, which I can’t do, because he won’t give me his address — no matter how many times I ask.
His loss. Can you tell us what that book is about?
At this point I’m still in the early stages of writing it. The first draft is currently at 21,000 words, and I’m still in the opening scenes. I took a break to finish a couple smaller projects — Casanova Curbstomp, which I finished, and a body horror thing called Maggots Screaming! (yes, with an exclamation mark) — so I hope to return to Expect Radioactivity sometime in March, at the latest. It’s a huge time commitment, from the research to the outlining to the writing. If the country gets a little less dangerous later this spring/summer, I’d love to spend a weekend exploring Los Alamos, which is where Expect Radioactivity takes place, in the early 1950s, in the aftermath of World War II. For those unaware, Los Alamos is where we developed the atomic bomb. I don’t want to say anything else about it except that it’s going to be annoyingly long. One of those books that you could kill a man with if you swung it hard enough.
What is the correlation between art (books, films, music) that you’re interested in, and what you create? What draws you to certain work that you then assimilate into your own work?
I like the unusual. I like art that feels two feet away from reality. Far enough to get a glimpse of the Weird, but still close enough to step back in. I read books and watch movies and sometimes they ask interesting questions and my brain starts freaking out in the best way possible. Sometimes a book or movie or album will make me feel a certain way, and I start thinking, “How can I also create this emotion?” I watch a movie (or read a play) like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I start getting obsessed with the idea of exploring similar themes. Can I write about a couple who hates each other, but can also make the other person laugh in the middle of an argument? Can I tell a complete story in a single setting? Can a reader survive on only reading about unlikable characters? How do you make unlikable characters interesting enough that the reader doesn’t abandon the story?
That sounds a lot like how some bands approach songwriting. They set artificial boundaries and then try to create within them. Like, “Can we write a song in the key of B without ever using B?” Do you ever set constraints for yourself?
Totally. The big one that comes to mind is We Need to Do Something. I approached it with the challenge: Can I write an entire story set only in a bathroom?
You and I share a love for the Mission: Impossible franchise. Can you rank them in order from best to worst?
Ah-ha! A trick question! Because none of them are bad, and every one of them is a ton of fun. But if I had to rank them, it’d go something like…
2. M:I 1
3. Rogue Nation
4. Ghost Protocol
5. M:I 2
6. M:I 3
A lot of people hate #2, the John Woo movie, but, my dude, that movie features two guys JOUSTING on MOTORCYCLES. C’mon. Perfect movie.
That was a trick question, but you passed with flying colors! Agreed, M:I 2 is underrated. In addition to the motorcycle jousting you have rock climbing with intense staring, an abundance of slow motion, and doves. Lots and lots of doves. Plus, that was the installment that introduced the voice changing strip on the throat.
I’ve always wanted one of those.
Whose voice would it be?
My own. What if I put it on my dog? Would he suddenly start speaking English? I hope they explore this in the new installment.
In addition to the Lost Contact anthology coming out this year, you’ve also announced a new anthology of stories that will be told from the perspective of inmates on death row. What inspired this concept?
I’ve long held a strong loathing for capital punishment. No government should have the right to murder its citizens. It doesn’t matter the crime. Innocent or guilty. Execution is cartoonishly cruel and it enrages me whenever I think about it — which is often! So that’s why I’m putting together the book. And the title — The Mercy Seat — probably came first, wanting to do an anthology tribute about Nick Cave, then deciding it would mean more to me to expand on the idea, make it about death row in general, instead of just Nick Cave tribute stories.
It’s especially poignant now, considering we have organizations like the Innocence Project, and we know how often justice is not served. It’s horrifying to imagine how many innocent people have wasted their lives away for a crime they did not commit, or even worse, were executed for it. Am I right in remembering that for the anthology you didn’t care whether the stories are told by an innocent or guilty inmate?
You are correct. I’m hoping to receive a nice balance of both POVs. I think that’s important.
Tyler Jones is the author of Critereum, The Dark Side of the Room, and Almost Ruth. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies including Burnt Tongues (edited by Chuck Palahniuk), 101 Proof Horror, Campfire Macabre, and Paranormal Contact, and in Dark Moon Digest, Coffin Bell, Cemetery Dance, LitReactor, and The NoSleep Podcast. He lives in Portland, Oregon.