Deadline: October 31st, 2019
Payment: 6 cents per word
Deadline: October 31st, 2019
Selene – Welcome to The Horror Tree, and thanks for agreeing to an interview. Tell us a bit about yourself, namely what is New Wave (horror)? I’m familiar with “new wave” in other contexts (New Wave music of the 80s, French New Wave film, New Wave Of British Heavy Metal…), but not pertaining to horror.
Misha – I think that the spirit of New Wave is to embrace new techniques in order to go back to one’s roots, which sounds paradoxical, I know. But in the examples you cite—music and film—the idea was to recapture the power of earlier works using modern technology. While the instruments of New Wave music—synthesizers and drum machines—were cutting edge at the time the rhythms and to a certain extent the lyrics were very much roots Rock’n’Roll, 4/4 time with a back beat. New Wave film used modern photographic techniques in order to reach back to the early days of cinema when filmmakers were making it up as they went along.
New Wave Horror is the same principle. I work to recapture the existential horror of the Weird Tales era—not the purple prose or the dated slang of that era, but the feel of a world that has gone off the rails. The core conceit of a universe that is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.
Selene – In addition to horror, you have published many short stories in speculative and science fiction anthologies. What genre do you like best, and why?
Misha – I never know what genre I’m working in until the story is finished, and sometimes not even then. I see genres as toolboxes, with different tropes and themes. I’ll use whatever techniques I need to tell the story I want to tell. A little Mystery, a little Romance, some SF and Fantasy. If I had to pick one I’d say I have the most fun working in E C Comics Horror (is that a genre?) I like stories with poetic justice and a healthy dose of irony, that don’t explain or excuse the fantastic elements, just use them to set up the gotcha! at the end.
Selene – What are some of your influences, and what do you like to read?
Misha – Tim Powers is my idol. I’m also a huge fan of Samuel Delany, Philip Dick, George Alec Effinger, and Fredrick Brown. Right now I am listening to (I tend to do my pleasure reading by audiobook) a wonderful little novel by Drew Magary called The Hike. It’s a magical realism quest kind of thing, kind of like of The Phantom Tollbooth for middle-aged men.
Selene – In your blog post “The Dead Men’s Shoes Society,” you describe a pattern in storytelling wherein one man (emphasis on man) writes or films or creates something, then it becomes popular, then others follow in his shoes. Do you really believe there’s nothing new to be done creatively? Particularly since all the “innovators” you mention are white men of a certain class?
Misha – No, I didn’t mean to say at all that there was nothing new to do creatively, and the examples I gave were just those that came to mind. My point is that artist don’t have to imitate other artists. They can, and it’s certainly easier than blazing one’s own trail, but anyone can invent their own genre. I wish more people would.
Selene – You describe your Book Of Lost Doors series as “loosely based on Burroughs’ Nova Express books.” I’m not familiar with Burroughs books, but how do they relate?
Misha – In terms of cosmology. The basic conceit of William Burroughs’ work is that humanity has been influenced by alien intelligences—his famous line about language being a virus from outer space, for example. I wanted to take that idea and run with it, to see if I could translate it into concrete, practical terms. The Lizard People of Omega IV have just started beaming messages into your head—what do you ask them for? The other major influence from Burroughs is the idea that the Outsiders are essentially flimflam artists, they are running an intergalactic scam. They lie, cheat, and steal, and are never what they claim to be.
Selene – I read the first novel in the series, Catskinner’s Book. You’ve created a unique world and situation; how do you go about world-building?
Misha – I tend to take ideas that I like from as many different sources as I can and then toss them all in a blender and see what comes out. In The Book Of Lost Doors I did set out to create a new mythology—I didn’t want to use vampires or werewolves or faeries. The important thing for me is to present them as matter of fact as possible. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “good idea” in fiction—there are just dumb ideas done well.
Selene – Let’s talk about characters. Jim is sort of an anti-hero, a bit of a twist on a superhero (or super villain, if you look at him that way). How did you come up with the character, and what’s it like writing someone with such complex problems?
Misha – James and Catskinner are based on myself, actually. I have Disassociative Identity Disorder, and I wanted to try to capture the feeling of having an alternate personality take control. I tarted it up some, with the superspeed and all, but I pretty much wrote their interactions from my own life experience.
Selene – You’ve also created some memorable antagonists and foils for Jim. How do you build a believable antagonist?
Misha – A believable antagonist is a character that would be the protagonist except her or his goals are in opposition to the protagonist character. That is to say, what makes a villain isn’t who the character is, but what the character wants.
Selene – On another of your blog posts, you mentioned unlikeable characters, namely the protagonists from Camus’ The Stranger and Fowles’ The Collector, and you cautioned against a predictable character arc for them. Characters in horror can often fall to this kind of simplistic arc. What are some important characteristics for drawing sympathy (or at least empathy) for a character that’s not immediately likeable?
Misha – I don’t know if I can answer that. I try to make everyone in my stories likeable—even those characters who really need to be put down for the good of humanity. I see a character’s first appearance in a story as a date or a job interview—put your best foot forward. And, I think that meeting someone you want to like and then finding out later that she eats live kittens has a lot more emotional impact.
Selene – The plot of Catskinner’s Book is full of twists and turns and the occasional deus ex machina. It also ends abruptly, just as the characters are about to confront another turn. How do you build suspense and avoid predictability?
Misha – I don’t really plot stories out in advance, so the events are frequently as much a surprise for me as they are for my readers. Mostly I try to figure out what would make sense to happen next, given who the character are and what the situation is. I think it comes across as unpredictable because readers are used to stories following a particular pattern which frequently wouldn’t make sense in the real world.
Selene – On your blog, you keep a sort of running tally of words written, stories published or submitted, and other writing accomplishments. Do you find this quantification helps your productivity?
Misha – Yes. Accountability is very important to me. It’s much harder for me to make excuses not to be productive when I know that other people are following my progress.
Selene – Speaking of productivity, how do you balance your writing with other aspects of your time, and balance one writing project against another?
Misha – I don’t really have any other aspects of my time. I get up, write for an hour, go to my day job, come home and write until I go to sleep. That’s my life. I have no social life at all. As far as balancing projects, I tend to work on one until I am done (or decide it needs to be shelved.) I am terrible at multitasking.
Selene – What advice would you give a writer just starting out?
Misha – Try as many different types of projects as you can. Set out to try to work in different forms and different genres. What you think you want to write may not be what you are really good at. Also, write sonnets. If you write a sonnet a day for thirty days your prose will improve markedly. I guarantee it.
Selene – In addition to novels, you also work in shorter stories and poetry. While each length of work has its challenges, what’s your favourite?
Misha – Short fiction. My sweet spot is around 10,000 words, give or take. Long enough to fully flesh out a story, but not so long that I (or my readers) get bored with it.
Selene – This is going to be a personal question, and I’ll accept if you’re not comfortable answering it. You mentioned working with mental illness. Many of our literary heroes have struggled with mental illness, and we live in a time where as a society we’re finally starting to overcome the stigma and be able to talk openly. How do you find your personal obstacles inform your writing?
Misha – I don’t romanticize insanity. Being crazy hurts. There’s more to that than meets the eye. I write characters who are happy and productive in direct proportion to the extent to which their comprehension of reality conforms to the real world—whatever “real” means in the context of the story. If I have a mission in my fiction (which I kind of hope I don’t) it is to put a stake through the heart of Elwood P Dowd.
Selene – A fun question, after a heavier question. If you were to have creative control over a movie of one of your stories, which one would you see made into a film, and who would be the star?
Misha – I think I’d go with “Black Dog” from Duel Visions, and I’d like to get David Morse to play the lead.
Selene – What projects do you have upcoming?
Misha – Right now I am focusing on Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts, which is a short story collection coming out from Lagrange Books. The stories are all set in Dracoheim, which is a Fantasy world loosely based on 1960s Los Angeles, with magic and demons added. My main character is Erik Rugar, who is an agent of the department that regulates magic use. Think The Untouchables, only with unlawful spellcasters instead of bootleggers. I also have stories coming out in Storyhack, DimensionBucket, and Switchblade magazines, as well as three different anthologies.
Selene – Thank you again for agreeing to an interview. Do you have anything else you’d like to talk about?
Misha – I believe that art is a vital part of the human condition. It’s not something that some people do and those people are “artists”. Everybody needs to do it—your soul will shrivel up and die if you don’t create something. It doesn’t have to be something that anyone else will ever care about or even see. You need to do it for you. Finger paint, knit, sing in the shower, do something. It’s what we’re made for.
Selene – Welcome to The Horror Tree, and thank you for agreeing to “chat” with us today! First, tell us a bit about yourself.
A.G. – I’m always excited to chat with fellow horror fans. I guess I’ve always been a horror geek at heart. I love all things Halloween inspired and writing scary stories just comes naturally to me. Other than loving creepy things, I also have two tiny humans who keep me very busy and I also teach! I have written a four-book series called The Zombie Girl Saga and have written several short stories which I’m equally proud of. When I’m not writing, teaching or spending time with my family, you can always find me reading something, doodling or painting. Let’s see, what else can I share…I’m Canadian, I’m a bit of a goofball, I’m slightly obsessed with nail polish, all things Marvel Comics and Tim Burton too!
Selene – How long have you been writing, and why do you prefer (according to your bio) to write horror?
A.G. – I’ve been writing professionally for six years now, but writing has been part of my DNA from the start. I love crafting worlds and characters, I have pages and pages of short stories from my younger days and they weren’t great but they were fun. We all start somewhere right? I love horror because I’m the Halloween loving kid that never grew out of that phase. If you make me choose between watching Evil Dead for the 700th time or The Notebook, I’m going to pick Evil Dead every single time. I love the thrill of horror and sometimes the absolute absurdity of it. Life is all together too serious, so I welcome the absurd, the over-the-top, the thrill of the scare, I don’t really feel that with any other genre. Horror is my happy place as odd as that may sound.
Selene – What do you like to read, and who are some of your favourite authors?
A.G. – I like to read everything, I’m a bonafide bookworm. If someone recommends a book to me, I am always game to take a look. I don’t turn books away! That being said, I certainly have my favourites. I’m currently in love with V.E.Schwab, Paul Tremblay and Grady Hendrix. Some forever favourites are Anne Rice, Edgar Allan Poe and R.L.Stine, I feel these three have really influenced who I am as an author, it’s an odd mash-up, but if it’s your cup of tea, then we’re already best friends! Ha!
Selene – You work in almost every type of writing: novels, short stories, poetry, YA, and you even dabble in visual arts. What form of creative expression do you like best—I know it’s hard to choose, but say you had to give up all but one, which would it be?
A.G. – Oh wow! That’s a really hard question! I have a giant book filled with quickly written poems and a sketch book just as large with doodles, I think self expression is so important, even if it’s just for your eyes only. I would really hate to give up any, but gun to my head, I think I would need to keep short stories in my life, I love the quick build of suspense and either ending it with something completely shocking or leaving you wondering for ages. There’s a bit of magic in the art of the tease and short stories are just that.
Selene – Your website, poeticzombie.com, is full of zombies, and you mention that you love zombies. The (Trope? Genre? Archetype?) of “Zombie” has been popular for decades, and a few years ago there was a boom with The Walking Dead and other movies and TV shows. Why do you love zombies so much, and why do you think they have such mass appeal?
A.G. – I get asked this a lot, “why zombies?” I know they’re not everybody’s cup of tea but they’re just so versatile. You have endless amounts of creativity with them. There’s the mindless flesh eaters, the infected, the cursed, the impossibly fast and strong, the immune, or my personal favourite the ones you sympathize with. I love that you can’t quite hate zombies, they used to be people, people that were loved, had families, had lives. People yell at their screens telling protagonists to “kill the zombies” but if that zombie was once your mom, or your brother, or your best friend, could you do it? That complexity speaks levels about being human, we can know the right answer but also disagree with it. Zombies will forever teach us about ourselves and what it really means to be human.
Selene – You also write about vampires, in your story “Aqua Vita,” from Another Beautiful Nightmare. How do you keep such well-traveled, well-known characters as zombies and vampires fresh?
A.G. – First of all, thank you! But if I’m being completely honest, a lot of it just comes from dreams or I guess most would call them nightmares. A lot of my dreams have monsters in them, but I think they simply represent deep seated fears. Writing these stories is therapeutic, I like to believe the dreams have meaning and maybe the stories seem fresh because there’s something “true” about them, or at least in my world.
Selene – Let’s talk about your series, Zombie Girl. What’s it about, how has it been received, and do you intend to write any more sequels? What can we expect?
A.G. – Zombie Girl was my first step into professional writing, it was my baby and I will always treasure it. The four-book saga was a labor of love and most readers I’ve interacted with have told me that it was hard to put down and that they found parts of it so very relatable. I wanted to create a zombie story like no other and I feel as though I really achieved that. The story follows Eve, a teen from a small town looking to escape and find a little adventure, she definitely gets more than she bargained for, and, as her character develops, we find out just how strong she truly is. I’m a big fan of comic books and I’ve always wanted to design a hero. Eve is a hero, a perfectly flawed one. I loved creating her, but her story is now complete. I’m happy with the ending and don’t want to spoil it. I’m currently working on a new series that will centre around the haunting of a small town, I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s quirky and weirdly wonderful and it’s really hard to leave that world behind when I stop writing.
Selene – Fun question. Who would your dream cast be, in a film version of Zombie Girl?
A.G. – I always cast my characters before I start writing, it’s a really fun part of the writing process and I always look forward to it. My dream team for Zombie Girl would be Sophia Bush as Eve, Jennifer Lawrence as Alex and Brandon Routh as Cam. I chose them all for very geeky reasons and I’m not the least bit ashamed! Heheheh.
Selene – I was amused to find your story, “Aqua Vita”, from Another Beautiful Nightmare, was set in Ottawa. As a Canadian, I like to set my stories in Canada (and not just because I’m lazy). How do you choose your settings?
A.G. – I am a very proud Canadian and I love to use places in Canada in my stories. It’s not just a write what you know, it’s more of a write what you love and I love where I live! I’ve noticed many films have been filmed in or around Toronto, but no one ever calls it Toronto! I say, why not? Anything that can happen in New York could also happen in Toronto, so I say we start putting Canada on the international map, make it part of the dialogue, it’s time!
Selene – Do you prefer to write about places you’ve been and lived/travelled, or do you like to personally research your locations? (And hooray for Google Earth—a homebody writer’s best friend!)
A.G. – I usually write about places I’ve been, it’s my way of travelling back to them. I always secretly hope that when I write about a location someone might be reading that part of one of my stories in that exact same spot!
Selene – My sister and I have an ongoing argument about (ABOOT) Canadian settings. She thinks that Canada is boring, and no one gives a crap about The Great White North, except as a joke. I think it’s the opposite. How do you make Canada—which can be boring—scary?
A.G.- I think boring just means unexplored potential, I’m currently digging into Canadian legends for my current WIP and there are some really freaky ones that have left me sleepless! The ghosts this country has, my goodness!
Selene – And one more question about being a Canadian writer. Every article I read about Canadian literature seems to be about how much Canadian literature really sucks and is really problematic. Yet all the actual writing I read by Canadians, whether it’s poetry or prose or non-fiction or what have you…is wonderful, especially by Canadian horror authors like Tony Burgess and Gemma Files. What do you think is wrong with Canadian stories and CanLit, or have you noticed this dissonance?
A.G. – I love Gemma Files and Margaret Atwood and Nancy Kilpatrick, I feel that Canadian authors have a lot to offer and yet I agree that they often get overlooked. I wonder if Canada is dismissed because people just don’t know enough about us. As you said earlier, Canada is usually the punch-line, something about polar bears and ice castles and whatever else people have dreamed up. Somehow it stuck, so maybe I just better work with it and create a horror story about zombie polar bears that attack during massive snow storms? Could be fun at least.
Selene – Your story “Poveglia: The Island of the Dead” from Beautiful Nightmares: Women of Horror Anthology features a pretty horrific view of an afterlife. Where do you get your ideas? The reason I ask is the horror of Poveglia isn’t that she’s a bad person being punished, but that two of Anna’s three crimes seem to be childish rudeness and terrible choices and selfishness, rather than outright malicious intent. Part of Anna’s lesson seems to be to remember there are consequences and a duty to act–if this is what sends us to hell, we’re all in trouble!
A.G – It came from a dream and little bit from an Italian legend and a little bit from Dante. I do think we create our own hell by not being able to forgive ourselves. Poveglia is terrifying in that Anna doesn’t really deserve any of it, I agree. The horror genre certainly plays that angle quite often. I do think that sort of fear is healthy, we should be afraid of becoming bad people, we should be afraid of losing our humanity, we should always work towards kindness.
Selene – Your poem “Queen of Corpses” from the Damsels Of Distress anthology is a reworking of Shakespeare’s play King Lear, with a focus on Cordelia. What inspired this poem, and why do you think authors like to rework old properties (Shakespeare, myths, fairy tales, etc.)? And speaking of Cordelia, as a Canadian did the Tragically Hip song have even a tiny bit to do with it?
A.G. – Ha! Who doesn’t love a good reworking of a classic, and who doesn’t love The Hip? I wasn’t thinking of the song at the time, but I will be now! I have always loved Shakespeare, he just does tragedy so well. Cordelia has stayed with me for ages, she’s one of those characters that haunt you because she was so pure of heart and it didn’t really do her any favours. I guess the injustice had me reeling and this poem was going to come about one way or another. I really just wanted her to have her revenge.
Selene – In addition to the writing and other creative projects you juggle, you’re a “mombie.” What do you do to focus your priorities and keep on track, so you can get work done?
A.G. – It’s hard, I’m sure any mombie in my position would say the same thing. Finding balance is difficult, I don’t always find it, in fact most of the week is dedicated to being the mombie of the house, but I wouldn’t trade a second of it. There will come a day where the kiddos won’t need me as much, so I’m just absorbing every adorable moment that I can! I try to set aside a couple of days a week to write something, even if it’s just a little bit. My poetry writing is still a daily thing, it’s something that’s mine, and it’s soothing.
Selene – Thanks again for agreeing to an interview. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about here?
A.G. – My absolute pleasure! Thanks for having me and for all the awesome questions! It’s been fun! I guess I would just like to end with, keep reading kids! Grow your world with words, every book can teach you something! *The More You Know Rainbow appears*
Selene – Welcome to The Horror Tree, and thanks for taking the time to answer some questions! First, tell us a bit about yourself.
Rob – Well, I’m a father, writer, editor, and small town postal carrier—in that order. I grew up (and still live) in Salem, Massachusetts, where, back in 1972, my mom taught her imaginative, energetic, three-year-old son to read in order to give him something to do. I’ve loved stories ever since.
Selene – How long have you been writing, and what about horror draws you?
Rob – I’ve only been writing for about ten years—and I say only because unlike a lot of people I know who’ve been doing this their whole lives, that means I started at forty. As for why horror? I’m not sure. It might be that we write what we know, and deep down I’m just a fearful person. I tend to read eclectically, with fantasy, sci-fi, police/legal thrillers, mysteries and more in both my read and TBR piles, and not everything I’ve written falls into the horror category. For instance, I’m cowriting a YA supernatural adventure series with Stacey Longo at the moment. We’re editing the second book now, while agent-shopping the first—if any agents out there are reading this, I’m right here! The ideas that pop into my head, however, do tend toward the creepy, and so far that’s what I’ve found works easiest for me. I have plans for other genre work in the future, but right now horror just feels like home.
Selene – You have a long publishing history; where would you recommend a new reader start to explore your work?
Rob – Echoes of Darkness. Like I said, I started this later in life, and I was essentially learning to write through short stories. That some of them were being published was incredibly encouraging, but I’ve grown a lot as a writer since then, and looking back at some of them now is . . . well, cringe inducing springs to mind. In 2016, Books & Boos Press allowed me to gather some of those early works together, update them in a way that reflected my greater experience behind the keyboard, and add in a few brand new, not-to-be-found-anywhere-else tales to create a collection I could be—and still am—proud of. Thirteen stories, ranging in length from a thousand to fifteen thousand words? Yeah, it makes for a pretty good exploration.
Selene – Let’s talk about your novella, Friends in High Places. It’s partially set in a carnival. I’ve written a few carnival stories, and your story “The Biggest Little Show on Earth” from Carnival of Nightmares is, while a very different story, also set in one. After decades of carnivals losing popularity (due to people being more ethical, both about the treatment of animals, and of people with disabilities who are no longer considered “freaks” and put on display)…Why do you think carnivals lend themselves so well to horror?
Rob – One of the main ingredients in many horror stories, in my opinion, is isolation. The haunted castle on the moors, the cabin in the woods, the small town you happen upon while driving, all of these popular settings for scary stories (and more, so many more) have in common that they’re in the middle of nowhere, and when trouble strikes there’s no one to call for help. Even stories that take place in the city often have a sense of isolation about them: We can’t go to anyone for help because they’ll think we’re crazy/ they might be in on it/ we’ve done something wrong ourselves, and we’ll be in the soup!
Carnivals, circuses, and other traveling shows essentially are those small towns in the middle of nowhere. They just happen to be mobile. The carnys, or circus folk, or whomever, are like the odd small-town citizens, but worse because they’ve chosen to be together. They’re more like a family than a population, especially looking at them from the outside, and they’re a family that lives by different rules than the rest of us: rootless, essentially modern-day gypsies in the eyes of John and Joan Q. Public. And we, the public, choose to visit this family, often with the intent of letting them frighten us just a little. The roller coaster, swing ride, and Ferris wheel shooting us into the sky. Getting lost in the hall of mirrors. Taking a ride or a stroll through the haunted house.
Is it any wonder that, even without the sideshow and its so-called freaks, in this little town that seems so distant from the city it’s currently plunked down right next to, we’re a little more susceptible to a prod in the nerves? Is it so odd that, surrounded by this family of frighteners we don’t really know or understand, we don’t find it that much of a stretch to think they might be a little more different than they seem on the surface? And if those differences turn out to be darker than we ever dreamed when paying our money and pushing through the turnstile, well really, in the middle of this brightly colored little town in the middle of nowhere, who can we turn to?
Selene – Let’s talk about specific fears. Specifically (!) I, like poor Tagalong Tommy, am TERRIFIED of the Ferris wheel. His ordeal is probably my worst nightmare. What scares you, and how do you tap into that current of fear for a story?
Rob – I too am terrified of Ferris wheels. And roller coasters. And—but the list goes on. I have, however, gone on the damned things, most recently while trying with all my heart not to look like a big pussy in front of my (then) young son. To be honest, I failed. But I did force myself onto a Ferris wheel a couple of times, and what I can remember from the last trip onto the big rig is pretty well reflected in Tommy making himself take a seat. We only see Tommy in that scene, we’re not in his head, but I tried fairly hard to make his actions fit my memory.
Having that memory, I’ll likely tap into it more than just this time. If I have a character who’s afraid of something—and it can be anything—I’ll try to remember what it was like as an acrophobe to be seventy or eighty feet up in the sky, nothing holding me up there but a horribly flimsy-feeling gondola supported by a machine I couldn’t even see most of the time. What passed through my mind? Did I have a physical reaction? Yes, you bet your ass, so what was it? How did I feel? The character likely feels the same way, or at least close to it, and so I’ll write them that way. Or, sort of conversely, I’ll write a scene with those feelings in mind, trying to impart them to my reader. It keeps me from adopting an I’m just writing this scene attitude, and gives me an I need to get their hearts beating faster, and maybe make them feel a little loose around the bowels goal.
Selene – The characters in Friends in High Places are a pretty relatable bunch of kids. They feel like real kids, even if they are sometimes bratty and unlikeable. How do you create believable characters?
Rob – I read them all aloud. I read every word of Friends in High Places aloud during the revision process, multiple times. For certain passages—anything with dialogue—it was very multiple. If characters or their dialogue start feeling fake to me, then they’ll feel twice as fake to readers, and I need to fix that. If they start sounding the same, I need to fix that. If they sound boring, I need to fix that. I’ve heard it said that we should all write the stories we want to read. Well, I like good characters, so I try hard to let mine be that way and write a story I enjoy. If other people like it too, it’s a win-win!
Selene – I also found the plot quite suspenseful, with unexpected twists and turns. And very sad, given the boys’ fates. How do you create suspense in your plots and avoid predictability?
Rob – It’s hard to be predictable when even you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
That’s a kind of smart-ass way of saying I’m a pantser, or discovery writer if you’re feeling fancy. I’ve tried mapping things out—being a plotter, or outliner—but I never stick to the plan very well. For most of my writing, Friends in High Places included, I have a beginning and I have a destination, but how I get from one to the other is pretty much up in the air when I sit down to start. As I learn more about the characters—and they’re quite important to me, as I said above—I gain a better understanding of how they’d react in certain situations, and then their reactions start guiding the story.
Sometimes they’d do something that gets me closer to that destination, but sometimes not, and I’m not going to make them act out of character just to further the plot. That just doesn’t work for me. So instead, I have to work the plot in this new direction and try to bend it—believably—back toward my goal. Sometimes that means involving other characters that would move toward my goal. Sometimes that means creating new circumstances to herd my characters in the right direction. And sometimes that means moving the goal a little. Would you believe the original idea for Friends in High Places didn’t even involve either the Ferris wheel it started at or the building where it ended?
So when that happens, when a character, acting like that character does, makes me say “Well, I didn’t see that coming” as I’m writing it, I feel pretty confident it may take the reader by surprise as well.
Selene – What’s it like working with Bloodshot Books? Pete does quite a lot for the horror community, so it would be nice to give BB a plug here.
Rob – Have you seen the cover on High Places? That’s Pete’s fault. I had another cover artist in mind, one I’d worked with before and been quite happy with, but he suggested Lynne Hansen. I mentioned my guy again, and he pushed for Lynne. I caved.
And then I wound up with this gorgeous cover Lynne decided to release as a numbered print.
On Friends in High Places release weekend, I wound up at an event at the Haverhill Public Library, with me selling my book at one end of the room while at the other Lynne was selling her numbered prints of the cover. It was a lot of fun, sending people back and forth between the tables, and I kind of felt like a star, and the whole thing happened because Pete Kahle at Bloodshot Books decided to give me a new cover artist.
Selene – You have some upcoming author events in May and June. What have you got planned?
Rob – May 5—so I it this might have already happened by the time people are reading this—I’ll be in Salem, Massachusetts at the Old Town Hall, taking part in Cinco de Mayhem, a dark art market being run by Freaks Antiques and Uniques, an oddities shop right there in Salem. Like they say on their website, “If you are looking for oddities, curiosities, bones, skulls, jewelry, dark art, horror, macabre, occult, or just plain old creepy out of the ordinary items you have come to the right place!” I’ll be one of just two authors at the event (the other being Scott Goudsward, event coordinator for the New England Horror Writers) throwing books at passersby. Possibly literally. We’ll at least be throwing candy at each other, because that’s how we roll.
Saturday, June 29, I’ll be at the New England Authors Expo, sitting in at the Books & Boos Press table at Northern Essex Community College–Haverhill Campus―at the Moore Atrium in the Hartleb Technology Center in Haverhill MA. I’ll be selling books and representing S&L Editing, of which I am half, so I’ll be wearing at least two hats that day. The event is free and open to the public, so if you’ll be in town you can wander in at will to see and chat with authors, editors, publishers, and whatnot.
See? I’m old. I even use words like whatnot.
Selene – What do you think of social media’s role in writing? Why did you give up on writing a blog?
Rob – Social media can be a great tool for marketing, spreading the word about what you have going on and coming out. I’ve seen people use Facebook and Twitter very effectively for this. Blogging, too. But it’s not a method that works for everyone, and I include myself in that not category. I am awkward and terrible at self-promotion, which is something I keep vowing to buckle down and get better at . . . but I’m pretty uncomfortable saying Hey, look at me! I’m being great over here!
I’ve had a couple of blogs. The first, While You’re Making Other Plans, went on for years. It was basically a response to the people around me asking the first real question you asked back at the start of this interview: why horror? They, however, seemed to be asking out of concern. I was basically a happy guy, wasn’t I? And I’d always read everything, not just horror, so where did this focus on such dark topics come from? So I started writing WYMOP as a way to show people I could write happier stuff—what folks like my grandparents might think of as more normal—and offer a look into my everyday life, which is pretty different in tone from the fiction I pour out onto the page. A large part of the source material for that blog were things I did with my son, who, though I no longer live with him and his mom, is a tremendo-gantic part of my life. Of course, he grew up and became a teenager, and we naturally began doing fewer and fewer things together. So then all I had to write about was me.
My other blog, Writer in Progress, was intended to be a journal of sorts, very Rob-centric, covering my development as a writer and how I was going about it. So again, all I had to write about was me.
Have I mentioned how uncomfortable I am pointing the finger at myself and making myself the center of attention? This is okay, this interview, because you’re asking me questions and I’m answering them. Coming up with stuff to tell people about myself, essentially saying Here, I know you were wondering this about me, is different, and for me very difficult. I was spending an inordinate amount of time working on those blogs once they were about nothing but me, and I agonized over every sentence, constantly asking myself who really cares about this? Eventually, I was spending so much time working on them—and accomplishing very little—that it was seriously cutting into my time for writing fiction, and to be honest, I’m much more comfortable writing about people other than myself, even ones that come from inside my head.
All that being said, I’ve been thinking recently about starting up Writer in Progress again. Maybe. We’ll see.
Selene – Going from current technology into past technology… Friends in High Places is set in the 1970s (I think. Although it’s not stated outright, Tommy’s mom drives a brand-new 1974 Buick). I’ve been seeing more horror set in the Seventies and Eighties, or pre-cell phones and Internet, and I wonder how much of it is nostalgia and how much is a desire to avoid modern technology in horror plots. What do you think of setting horror in the past?
Rob – Every story has a place and time where it fits in. It just depends on the story. I’ve read period horror set back in colonial times (and earlier), modern stories, and futuristic sci-fi or post-apocalyptic horror, and it all worked because the story fit the setting. The setting for this particular novella was one part influence (I’d recently read Laymon’s The Traveling Vampire Show, a coming-of-age novel set in 1963), one part nostalgia (I wasn’t alive in 1963, but I do remember the later 70s), and one part setup. Lots of things I write are connected, often in ways only I know about as the connections aren’t germane to the stories themselves. In my mind, this story has a connection to another story I’m working on that happens much later in my own particular timeline. The public may never even see that other story, but a much younger version of one of its characters does appear in Friends in High Places. They’re only in High Places for my own enjoyment, but they did have a bit to do with just when the novella was set.
Selene – In the Afterword to Friends In High Places, you mention the requisite “Where do you get your ideas” question. I won’t ask that, since you answered it well in the piece, but what would you say is the strangest or most unusual source of a story you wrote?
Rob – A Long John Silver’s radio commercial. *mic drop*
Selene – Since all writers are also readers, what authors would you say have influenced your work?
Rob – All of them, in one way or another. The most influence, I suppose, comes from writers I’ve gone back to again and again. It’s become a rather hackneyed claim, but Stephen King is a big one. Several of his books are kind of go-to reads when nothing else around me looks appealing. I’ve also read a lot of Scott Sigler, Jeff Strand, Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, and Dean Koontz. But I mentioned earlier that my reading taste is kind of eclectic, so I’d have to include (in no particular order) John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany is my all-time favorite novel), Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, Patricia Cornwell, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Piers Anthony, John Sandford, Tony Hillerman, Robert Heinlein, Tracey Hickman and Margaret Weis, Joe R. Lansdale, and Janet Evanovich may write rom-coms that are the furthest thing from horror there is, but damn me if she doesn’t write characters that shine and stick in the memory. And this is all just off the top of my head. There have been times when I believe a particular influence was fairly obvious—I’ve already mentioned how The Traveling Vampire Show impacted Friends in High Places, and I have one that I actually think of as my Joe Lansdale story—but they’re all in there. All these and more.
Selene – You belong to a collaborative group of writers, called The Storyside. Coincidentally, some of my online writing friends have recently been discussing the merits of belonging to a writing group. What do you think the pros and cons of writing groups are?
Rob – It depends on what kind of a group you belong to, and what you’re looking for. I’ve been in a few writing groups so far, and they ranged in focus—and I don’t mean to be derogatory, this is just how I think of them—from rah-rah to this is a business.
To cover just the two extremes, in the rah-rah group, everyone was expected to read aloud at the meetings, but no one was looking for any real feedback or criticism; the gatherings were, essentially, something to spur you on to write every week. There were people of various levels of skill and talent (the two are not the same), some of them quite good, but the focus was more on fun than improvement, and a couple of members actually looked down on me for pursuing publication. Everyone else was quite happy there, and were all getting what they wanted at the time: encouragement. And that was fine. I was using the group as a practice ground for reading in front of an audience, but I was looking for something, if not more, then at least else.
Then I discovered The Storyside, were the focus is much more this is a business. The business, I’m happy to say, is in helping its members put out the highest quality fiction they can, in whatever genre they write. There’s a lot more critique and feedback, with the common goal of publication. That’s what I was looking for, but there’s more. It’s a small group, but with our combined social media we can reach a much wider audience when trying to get any kind of message out, and that definitely helps the business aspect of it.
In the end, pros-and-cons-wise, any writing group is going to be what its members make of it. The key is to try to find like-minded people with goals at least similar to yours. If you’re looking for support, try to find that kind of group. If you’re looking for constructive criticism, those groups are out there too. Ditto if you’re looking for a little business help.
And by the way, writing groups can grow and change just as the writers in them can. In The Storyside, we defined some goals and work collectively toward them. I took a course in editing, and the other (much more professional) editor in the group took me under her wing and helped me get much better at that, benefiting me and the group as a whole. A couple of members have gained a great deal of experience in book layout and what goes into self publishing (I plan to delve into this myself sometime soon). One of us is going to school for marketing and analysis, and his experience is helping everyone involved. As strong as The Storyside was when I joined it, its members have looked for the pros they want to get out of working collectively and actively moved in that direction.
Selene – In addition to writing, you work as a mail carrier, and you have an editing service. How do you balance work, family and other commitments, and still have time to write?
Rob – When I’m feeling good, I tend to sleep about four hours a night. Maybe five. I’ve had some health issues recently that, though thankfully minor, have been wearing me down and pushing that number up, and sometimes keeping me from doing anything other than the day job. Hopefully, after a few doctor visits, I’ll be up to snuff again and rolling along. I kind of can’t wait. But whether I’m feeling terrific or not, I try to set aside some writing time every day. I have to punch in at the post office at eight o’clock, but if I get in there by six o’clock, that gives me two hours where I can work mostly uninterrupted. Especially if I’m wearing my headphones. In a perfect world, when I’m feeling good, I try to write in the morning, then edit (or whatever else needs doing, and that might even be more writing) at night. When S&L Editing has a client, thus a deadline, sometimes those time slots will reverse, and I’ll maybe get to my own writing in the evening—or maybe not.
But in that list you gave of what I do, the only inflexible is the day job. My whole family has always been supportive of my need to write, even though some of them don’t necessarily read what I’m putting out. Like I said, I’m a father first, and that does take precedence; but as long as everything that needs to get done does get done I don’t get a lot of pushback when I want to put something off for a bit to work on something else that’s important to me. To be honest, I think I’m hardest on myself when things aren’t getting done. And the L in S&L Editing is Stacey Longo, my editing partner and best writing friend. She’s both a much better editor than me and someone who occasionally makes me a little jealous as a writer, and we both understand this odd balancing act of a life we’ve chosen. We take each editing job as it comes, working as a team and shifting the heavy lifting back and forth depending on who has more time at that moment, and this seems to work for us. It does for me. I’m not sure what would happen if I had to do it alone.
So yes, I’m pretty busy. All the time. But I’ve somehow managed to become surrounded by a pretty good support system where if things start to fall down it’s because I’m the weak link, and I’m doing my best to be the strongest link I can. Some people might point to me and say I’ve been lucky. I might point back at them and say, “You’re right.”
Selene – What advice would you give a new writer who’s starting out?
Rob – Learn to type. Oh, I can hunt-and-peck about ten times faster than I could ten years ago, but it’s still hunting-and-pecking. I think I’d get a lot more done if I was able to focus more on what I was trying to say and less on how I was getting it in though the keyboard.
But that’s just me bitching. Real advice? Always strive to be better. Writing is the kind of thing where you never have to stop trying new things, so never stop trying. Never stop learning. Read and pay attention to what other writers—writers you admire—do. Listen to what people who read your work have to say, both the good and the bad (though listening to the bad sucks, believe me I know), and use what they say as a tool to shape what you do. If you have something edited (And everyone should at some point, no matter who you are. The books Stacey and I write together are sent out for editing and we’re both editors!), don’t just take your manuscript back and say Well, that’s all right then and consider it done. Look at what the editor pointed out, just as you would feedback from beta readers or a critique group. This is someone who’s been training themselves to be a very careful reader. See if they’ve helped identify any of your weaknesses—and then step on that weakness’s neck and crush it under your heel.
And never stop asking questions. It’s a use for social media I forgot to mention earlier, but when you’re just starting out, Facebook can be a fantastic learning tool. Who am I kidding? Ten years later and I’m still using it that way. Whatever you write, whatever genre you like, there’s at least one Facebook page dedicated to it, and there are writers of that genre gathered there. I belong to several, some horror related, some more general. If you have any questions—for instance, I mentioned beta readers a minute ago, but what the hell are they?—you can ask the writing community on Facebook.
Now some newer writers may be saying Dude, I’m so new I don’t even know what to ask about! That’s okay. Don’t panic. We’ve all been there. Again, I direct you to Facebook. If there’s one thing writers like to talk about, it’s writing. You don’t even have to take part in the discussion if you don’t want to. Just watch. Lurk. You might see terms float through the conversation like content edit, or an advance paying out, or even a whole thread about Ingram vs. KDP on customer service, or maybe something else that makes you scratch your head and say “Huh?” Well, now you have something to ask about.
Selene – Thank you again for taking the time for an interview today. Do you have anything else you’d like to mention here?
Rob – Seriously? This thing’s like nine pages long now—if you’ve gotten this far and been imagining me saying all this stuff the whole time, then you’re probably sick of the sound of my voice!
Okay, real quick: if you’re a fan of the carnival theme, Limitless Publishing’s releasing the third book in their Creepiest Show on Earth anthology series in May. Available for preorder on the 4th and releasing on the 14th, it’s called Carnival of Strange Things, and somewhere in that little collection of oddities you’ll find my rather long short story, “The Fate Machine.” Check it out—it’s a fun series.
If newer writers out there have any questions about what to look for in an editor or what to watch out for in a publisher, feel free to go to the S&L Editing website, click on over to the Contact Us page and . . . well, contact us. Whether you’re using S&L or not, Stacey and I don’t mind answering questions to help you make more informed decisions. We don’t know everything—hell, sometimes I sit around just reveling in all I don’t know—but what we do know, we don’t mind sharing.
Selene, thank you for asking me these questions and allowing me to talk your virtual ear off. I appreciate all the time you’ve given me.
Oh! One last thing: if there are any agents out there who might be interested in a funny YA paranormal adventure book starring two teen girls, one of whom happens to be a little living impaired, I may have something for you. Have your people call my people . . . by which I mean me.
Selene – Welcome to The Horror Tree, and thank you for agreeing to an interview. First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
May – My name is May J. Panayi and I’m 56. I have been a writer since I was a kid. Okay not anything earth shattering; just a poem in the local paper at age five, then a newsletter to the neighbourhood age ten. I hobby wrote poems and short stories throughout my teens and early twenties, then various magazine submissions, and a lot of activity in the underground fanzine scene of the eighties; contributing to others as well as producing my own. I started writing books around 2000, and currently have fourteen titles published. I moved onto just writing fiction novels with the occasional short story collection. I became a full-time self-employed writer in 2014. It’s been an interesting journey so far and one I hope will long continue. I write across a variety of genres; my friends call me the eclectic indie. My Sun series, in which there are two novels so far, a third coming this year to complete the trilogy, is my most popular style. It is travel romance/mystery; bit hard to categorise. My horror is next most popular though a bit graphic for some. I also have written a collection of dark horror short stories. My website details my books, as well as trailers, interviews and more.
Selene – You write in just about every genre, from romance to non-fiction (including travel, pets, and cooking), to horror and fantasy. What’s your favourite genre to write, and why?
May – I enjoy realism, and things that are going on now, or nearly now. I enjoyed writing Escape to Europe, about a world that in many ways seems to be running parallel to our own. When I have finished the Sun series, I have a drama romance that grapples with the problems of Dementia. I am looking forward to that.
Selene – More specifically, what about writing horror draws you?
May – I like to explore the darkest parts of the human psyche, that is what really fascinates me most. In Tales from The Library of a Twisted Mind, my collection of horror shorts, I tend to get into those issues pretty quickly. Malbed Mews is a slow build into the madness of others when in a crazy situation. For horror, I am inspired by Stephen King, Dean Koontz and James Herbert, and have spent many happy hours curled up with their works. Like Herbert, I did not ignore sex when it came to Malbed Mews; it is firmly tied in to the darker side of the human psyche in many ways, and I feel, has as much of a place in horror as the violence, shock and gore.
Selene – You mostly self-publish, but have published with some magazines and more “traditional” places. What do you like about each means of publishing?
May – Well I like the flexibility of self publishing, but the money is better with ‘traditional’ publishing. I do not miss the rejection slips from legacy publishing houses. I do like the Indie community. Sadly, the market is becoming rather saturated and it is getting harder to get noticed in the Indie world. Promotion is a bit of a pain, I am a writer and have had to learn promotion techniques from scratch. I do not love the piracy which is rife. Overall, I cannot complain.
Selene – Speaking of self-publishing, most of your titles are available on Kindle Unlimited. I have a KU membership and love it! I think it’s a good way for independent authors to reach readers, too. What do you think of the platform?
May – I like the idea of KU, but Amazon have significantly reduced the amount per page read, paid to authors, so it is a very low paying return at this point. I have considered leaving that part of the self publishing platform, but hesistate to do so, because so many readers love it. Personally, as a reader, I do not use it; I prefer to buy paperbacks, or buy Kindles to fill up my reader and get back to when I am travelling.
Selene – Your true “horror” novel is Malbed Mews. Let’s talk about that one. In particular, it has a huge cast of characters. How do you develop your characters?
May – I started off with a floor plan of the flats and wrote the occupants names and who they were in their own apartments. That helped me keep track until I got to know them better. The characters kind of grew on their own as I wrote them. Some I knew before I started; bad neighbours I have endured in real life, in the past. That was cathartic! Others just grew as I wrote. Guy and Vicky, in particular, developed alongside the storyline. Vicky especially, did not go where I originally intended.
Selene – Your book Escape to Europe examines the lives of people dealing with the realities of the refugee crisis in Europe, along with Brexit and other current hot-button political topics. Not to get into too much of a political debate, but what do you think of politics in stories? Do they belong, or is it better to fictionalize ideas so the story will remain more “timeless?”
May – I think there has always been a place for politics in fiction. From George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, to J.G. Ballard’s High Rise and many of his other works, I think the politics of our current culture help make a good What If? setting for culturally based fiction and horror. When I first wrote Escape to Europe it was 2016, and I published it under the title The Difficult Journey. It was rebranded as Escape to Europe in 2018. I made the media sections lean to the right, in a sort of Devils Advocate fashion, as I feel our media lean towards a more politically correct left. I wanted to explore the notion of society taking a darker turn, after the fashion of J.G. Ballard. I have been accused by some readers of having those opinions myself, but I tried to make the book sit on the fence politically. At the end of the day, it is about people; their hopes and dreams, hate and love, naivety and realism. My favourite characters by the way, were Amena and Adnan; with their courage and spirit, they were the ones I was rooting for as I wrote it. I mean, I knew how it was going to turn out, and I knew there were some sad and dark scenes coming, not just for them; but I always liked and felt for them as characters.
Selene – I wrote a story about a school shooting, which was published a day after (yet another) school shooting in the US. Similarly, your Escape to Europe character John Whitehead shoots a number of victims in a mosque, much like the Christchurch shooter earlier this year. How do you feel, when life imitates art (so to speak)? Or is it a matter of art simply reflecting the horrific realities of other mosque shootings like the one in 2017 in Quebec City?
May – When I first wrote Escape to Europe, no one was shooting up mosques, but there were terror attacks and bombings of both sides (for want of a better term). It felt prophetic when these things started happening in real life. It makes me sad. It is not a world I want to see in reality; I would prefer it remaining in the confines of horror fiction. Ballard wrote High Rise about how disconnected High Rise living would make us as a society, and how we would degenerate into a wilder, more animalistic species because of it. Luckily, he was wrong and that did not happen. I hoped I would be wrong too, but some of it is happening. Thankfully not all of it.
Selene – On to a lighter topic (sorry!). You’re also a photographer, and shoot many of the photos on your book covers. What are some of your favourite photographic subjects?
May – I love photographing architecture and graveyards. My partner is all about the wildlife photography and filming, but I prefer things that keep still, while I decide on a context to best frame their beauty. I like landscapes too.
Selene – Speaking of photography, you also keep a travel blog. I enjoyed reading about so many beautiful, exotic places (that I’ll likely never get to see in person!). What is the most interesting place you’ve been, and how do your travels inspire your writing?
May – I wrote a non fiction book, Travel the World in Words, and the Sun series was inspired by the settings I travelled to in Greece and Cyprus. Some of my travels popped up in Escape to Europe. They say write about what you know; so whenever I travel, I am adding to my reference section for future writing. The book I referred to that incorporates the Dementia topic, is actually set on the Isle of Wight. I cannot pick one most interesting or favourite place I have been. Las Vegas was the craziest and most colourful. The Gambia was the most exotic. The Cypriot mountain villages have some of the most interesting culture, not to mention some of the best views, but I really like Spain too, especially the Canaries. Madeira was fascinating.
Selene – You’ve just started a web magazine for book reviews, called Best Books and More. Tell us about that.
May – The magazine and its associated Facebook group by the same name, has both authors and readers subscribed to it, in probably equal numbers. The idea is to present books to readers so they can make some new choices about what to read next. Often scrolling through a site, reading the occasional blurb is just not enough. Hearing about what other people have been reading and enjoying, is a better way to find that next great read.
Selene – You occasionally interview authors, as well. What question would you ask, if you were interviewing yourself, that interviewers don’t ask you?
May – What is your biggest handicap as a writer, other than writers block? I suffer from a collection of health complaints in the real world, and often, overcoming these to sit at my computer and write, can be a real problem. Sometimes they are a brick wall between me and my writing. A wall which sometimes I can push past and other times I cannot. You mentioned my travel blog (thank you for reading by the way), but I also have another blog called Diary of A Writer. Sometimes I might interview other authors on there, but more often than not, I get into the dark and gritty realism of my life as a writer with health issues. Sometimes I depress myself, other times I feel almost normal- whatever that is!
Selene – Also on the topic of author interviewers, what authors are your favourites to read, and which author (whether they’re still with us or not) would you most love to interview?
May – I would have loved to interview Terry Pratchett before he got ill, maybe even after. I recently discovered Jodi Picoult, and her writing is so good it almost makes me want to give up in despair. I mentioned other favourite authors earlier on. My favourite horror Indie authors are Michael Kelly, whose book Waters of Life is amazing, and Iain Rob Wright whose book The Housemates was something else. That is just skimming the surface though. I could talk about books all day.
Selene – How do you deal with criticism and bad reviews?
May – These days I just ignore them. When I wrote Malbed Mews, the death of a troll scene was especially cathartic- not that I had one particular troll in mind, but generally speaking. Of course, I still read my reviews, but I do not really care much about bad reviews anymore. I try and look for constructive criticism, but let us face it, most of the one-star comments are just trolls who usually could not even spell constructive criticism. Most cannot even capitalise I, when talking about themselves, so not a lot of hope for input there.
Selene – What advice would you give an author who is just starting out?
May – Try and aim for 80,000 words as a minimum for your book, and 120,000 as a maximum. In the old days of sending your manuscript round to a publisher, they would not consider a book unless it fit into those confines. 40,000 words qualified as a novella. 120k was the absolute limit for a new author, though obviously established authors like Stephen King could get away with more. Honestly, I think it demeans all serious authors when someone publishes a “book” that is a mere 20 to 40 pages long. That is not even the length of a standard dissertation. It gives indies a bad name collectively, when people do this. That and bad editing, that is my other bugbear. On a more positive note; stick at it. Indie authors are the freshest reading out there right now, and I would say go for it.
Selene – Thank you again for agreeing to be interviewed. What’s next for you, and do you have anything else you want to talk about here?
May – What is next? I am currently working on In Search of Small Treasures, the final in the Sun trilogy, and then moving on to Paradise in the Pumpkin Patch, which is a romance but deals with Dementia too. I would like to rewrite Malbed Mews as a screenplay and send it around. I have another idea for a novella collection Four Adults Only, which is a collection of four novellas all of which have a different kind of adult theme; sex, drugs, violent uprising and the occult. I only hesitate because they appeal to very different audiences, so I am still cogitating on that one. Thanks for interviewing me, great set of questions; really thought-provoking.
For more about May, visit her website: