Selene – Welcome to The Horror Tree, and thanks for interviewing with us! First, please tell us a bit about yourself.
Marcus – I’m thirty-three, I live in Tacoma Washington, outside of Seattle, in the historic Stadium District. The neighborhood is one of the places I spent a big chunk of my life growing up. It is filled with historic mansions and beautiful Victorians right on the water, and the high school was made famous as the school in Ten Things I Hate About You. I’ve been a professional author since I was 21. I was signed with my first literary agency when I was 19. I love to cook, and if I hadn’t been destined for writing, I would have been a chef. That was my plan until I was eleven, then my passion switched. I had always written creatively, but it didn’t call to me as my vocation until then, but once it happened, there was nothing left for me. I’m the author of seven novels, I’ve written for various publications throughout the years, and I’m constantly amazed that my husband is so supportive. It’s not easy being with an author, especially if you are not one, and when he and I got together, my career was already long ago established, so the fact that he was supportive and didn’t treat it like a hobby (which a lot of people who are not authors or artists themselves can do) was pretty mind-blowing.
Selene – How long have you been writing, and what draws you to horror?
Marcus – since I accidently answered the first part of the question in the first one, I will answer the second. Haha. Horror is everything to me. I have been a horror fanatic since I was about three years old. That was the first time I ever saw Halloween, and I just fell in love with Michael Myers, Laurie Strode-the whole package. There’s a pic of me my mom has when I’m like four pretending to be Freddy Kruger in one of her Fedoras. I was really lucky in a lot of ways, my mom was 18 when she had me, her younger sister was 14, and her older brother was like 21 or 22 and my cousins were teens. It was the eighties and they were the typical eighties slasher demographic. We all hung out together as a family, listening to Guns n Roses, Motley Crue, Metallica, etc. And often watching horror. Many in my family read Anne Rice (my patron saint of authors as I see her) and just living for it. Horror has literally been apart of my life from day one. I love everything about horror. It can go where other genres can’t go. Fear, rage, sex, joy, sorrow, loss, hope, resilience, survival, it’s all in there! I started out in Bellingham Washington (where most of my books are set) and all of the houses, the ghost stories, the history, it’s all real and a part of my history. In my Blackmoore novels, the main character Trevor Blackmoore, his great-aunt Mabel aka Queen Mab as the family calls her, lives in my great-aunt Alice’s house. There is a lot of Alice in Queen Mab, and that house is full of ghosts. In Bellingham, much like Salem or New Orleans, the spirit world is right next to you. Almost every house, every street corner and building has a ghost story or twenty! The things that go bump in the night have always been a part of my life-my identity. Horror is where I find my home. If done right, horror can reach inside of you and take you to the shadow side of yourself and really make you feel a range of emotions.
Selene – What books and authors do you like to read, and what do you consider your writing influences?
Marcus – Well, Anne Rice first and foremost. Charles Dickens, Gore Vidal, Jim Grimsley, Edmund White, Poppy Z. Brite (who has transitioned and is living happily with his partner and sadly, due to the trauma of Katrina, no longer writes.) And Tori Amos. The things that influence my writing are actually musicians and songs more than anything else. Anne Rice helped me develop and find my writing voice in those early tween years, and her son Christopher Rice actually taught me that it was okay to write about gay characters and the gay experience. Before A Density of Souls came out when I was sixteen, I wasn’t writing about gay people at all. I wasn’t bold enough to do so in my writing. I was out by then and was very proud and bullied a lot for it, but in my writing, up until that book, I was so scared to explore the queer aesthetic on the page. I will forever be indebted to Chris for that. I’ve told him more than once. Haha.
Selene – In addition to your own work, you host Brews & Books, and Queerly Spoken. Tell me about these events.
Marcus – Well, my friends own a Brewery in Seattle called Ravenna Brewing Co. And their beers are incredible btw, if you are ever in Seattle you have to check them out. When my novel-the second Blackmoore book-Symphony for the Devil came out, I wanted to do something different from the regular bookstore signings, so we decided to have it at the brewery, and the concept came about, what if we had authors come, drink delicious beer, be relaxed, and have a discussion about their books, career, and writing? So that’s what we did. Starting with me. Haha! It had a really great turn out and my editor asked me questions and I got to drink beer and sit. That was the nicest part. Most of the time you’re standing forever. From that point on, I hosted, and feature other authors.
Queerly Spoken is a storytelling series like Mortified or The Vagina Monologues, where the only requirement is that storytellers tell a story about when they were young and queer. It’s an attempt to preserve our legacy of LGBT storytelling. In the seventies through the early two-thousands, LGBT literature and storytellers and publishing was just exploding, and we have a legacy of just celebrating who we are and our history, our experiences, and our culture-our various aesthetics-LGBTQ visibility, culture, activism, outness, owes so much to the queer writers and story tellers. They taught us who we are, what it means to be us, and most importantly, that what we feel is normal and that WE ARE NOT ALONE. That last one is THE MOST important. It’s why, despite the stigma and the challenges that come along with it, I write with gay main characters. We are here, we exist, and some kid feeling scared and alone reads one of my books…. They will feel less alone too. They need to know that they can be heroes just like straight people. They can save the day.
With Queerly Spoken, just like in my own work, it’s about continuing to share our stories, to keep that message alive. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Don’t give up. There is nothing wrong with you. Selene – How would you say a “live” story setting differs from reading and writing on the page? Do you get a good audience response?
Marcus – I do. I love the readings, I love connecting in that way. I know a lot of my colleagues who loath it, but I love it. As long as you enjoy yourself they will enjoy themselves.
Selene – Your website mentions a Virtual Book tour. What is that? How did it go for you? Are you planning more?
Marcus – the tour happened this past summer, and I did one again for Halloween. The first one was for Rise of the Nephilim, which is the first part of a two-part Blackmoore Prequel which follows Trevor’s mother, Kathryn Blackmoore back in LA in 1987 when she is in her mid-twenties, and it gives insight into her motives in the actual main books, why she kept her son in the dark about who he is and the truth about their family. They are two novellas though, along with part two, Fall of the Nephilim, that are geared towards women, very much erotic paranormal romance/horror. I didn’t feel these smaller books merited a real physical tour, so I did a virtual book tour, which is a thing where you do different interviews, guest blogs, giveaways, etc. On various book sites. It was booked through Bewitching Book Tours.
My next novel, Instructions In Flesh, which comes out in October, will be a hybrid, both physical and virtual book tours. It’ll be a very busy couple of months in the fall.
Selene – Your main body of stories so far, if you’ll permit me that generalization, is the Blackmoore Legacy series. Tell us a bit about the Blackmoores.
Marcus – The Blackmoores are a family of witches who live in the historic and cloistered old moneyed neighborhood of South Hill in Bellingham Washington. The family comes originally from Ireland, where centuries and centuries ago, they betrayed a very ancient and bloodthirsty god who is bent on regaining strength and power and wiping out the family and take over the world. Some witches are on his side, others are not.
Two Blackmoores, Sarafeene and Malachey (who were cousins and married) came to New Orleans in 1788, as poor, indentured servants, though they were lucky enough, being married to be able to live on their own and not in the home of employment, in the Irish Channel. They found their spiritual traditions mixed well with the voodoo of the slaves they worked with and incorporated that into theirs. It was the only way they were able to find a sense of community in a strange new world full of hardship and struggle and abuse.
They were cursed by a woman who was devoted to the Dark God of the Wood, that through copulation they would kill. So, it was that anyone who had sex with a Blackmoore (unprotected) would die seven to twelve years later of a sudden tumor which would cause an aneurysm. Every choice a Blackmoore has made to have a child meant willingly killing someone. Their granddaughter Katy Blackmoore ran from the family to Spain, and when she returned, she had married an aristocrat and gave her family an EXTREMELY large fortune to stay away from her, thinking if she didn’t use her witchcraft and had nothing to do with her family, the Legacy, as they call the curse, would not touch her. She was wrong obviously. So, Trevor is the chosen one, he breaks the curse, but in doing so, the Dark God begins to gain strength and his devotees and other nefarious things begin to come for Trevor and his family.
The books are very much steeped in history, lore, witch traditions, paganism, myth, but it all takes a back seat to the characters real human struggles. They are very gothic and very much set in the real world. No wands, flying broomsticks, or things you’d find in Harry Potter. Though some call Trevor the gay adult Harry Potter, all the spells, the rituals, the deities, all come from history and tradition.
Selene – How does writing a series differ from writing a stand-alone novel? What about a character or setting inspires you to revisit, through sequels and prequels?
Marcus – well, I never intended on a series. Blackmoore originally wasn’t going to be about witches. It was simply a novel about Trevor Blackmoore who has a very powerful spirit named Jonathan Marker who becomes dangerous and vengeful, all wrapped up within the story of these four kids, three of whom used to be best friends with Trevor, but then once they are in middle school and it is obvious that Trevor is gay, they abandon him and become his tormentors, then in high school they concoct this Dangerous Liaisons (or for those reading and not familiar, you’ll know it by it’s more recent interpretation: Cruel Intentions) plot to humiliate him. All of those elements are in Blackmoore, but it became so much more. I didn’t plan it. Trevor showed it to me. My characters-the Boys as I call them-are very real to me and dictate everything, and from the get-go Trevor was saying “There is more to it than this. So much more. I’m going to show you the depth of the forest, I’m going to take you into the dark night and the witches sabbat. I’m going to show you how deep these roots go. Just trust me and tell my story.”
I know, it sounds weird. But, that’s how it was. And the thing is, Trevor had always been there. He’s always been with me. I look back on moments in my life as a kid, and I can see that his shadow was there in the background, just waiting for the right moment to come forward in all his form. It just took till I was twenty.
Selene – Let’s talk about setting. The Blackmoore saga is set in Washington state, where you live. But the setting in the book has a very old world Gothic feel (so much so, I thought you were a Brit, for some reason!). Other than the “write what you know” advice, how would you say you approach creating a setting for the story?
Marcus – well, that’s Fairhaven/South Hill in Bellingham. You’ve read them, so you know the history. That’s where it all began. The old Victorian mansions were built by the founding families, Fairhaven was the original shipping port. I grew up in this world where history is simply alive. The ghosts walk with you. You feel the past everywhere you go. Ghosts standing behind maples and oaks and you feel them staring at you.
I grew up in those houses. My aunt’s home was filled with antiques from the 1800’s-1940’s. Old tins, paintings, teddy bears, the portrait of Queen Victoria in black hanging above the fireplace mantel in the dining room. Everything described in the books is all real in that regard of setting.
How could I not write about this? If you live in a place like New Orleans Garden District, or Savannah around Forsythe Park, or Salem, or if you know of them and their strangeness, you’ll understand what I mean. Bellingham was crying out to be written about in this way.
Selene – The first book, Blackmoore, features legacy witches and a ghost. Do you believe in the paranormal, and have you had any ghostly experiences?
Marcus – well, I’ve established this! Haha! But yes, I do. Very much so and I have no shame in that. I absolutely do. I’m a pagan author. So, the witch/pagan/voodoo, etc. Is deeply revered and greatly respected in my work when it comes to the Blackmoore books. And I research like crazy on everything. The spirit world is very much a part of my world.
Myself and my family have had many encounters with ghosts. I myself have. Had a ghost attached to my dining table my roommates and I named Pearl. She just felt like an old lady who was very stern. She would get very active if her dining table got dirty. She’d begin throwing things and stealing things. Once you cleaned her table though… it all came back or stopped.
My favorite though, isn’t mine it’s my aunt Alice. She told me about how for years after her mother in-law died, she would get up early in the morning, like three am, and she would sit on the sofa and talk with her mother in-law! She would come down the stairs, and there she was, sitting on the sofa. It just kept happening, and always the same time. So, she just started talking to her after she would fade away, my aunt would just sit down and start talking to her. Eventually it stopped.
I always get a kick out of that one.
Selene – Your work is classified as “erotica.” As a writer, I’m usually not so great at writing sex scenes. How do/did you get past any reticence, and what are some tips and techniques for writing erotica?
Marcus – I wouldn’t say my books are erotica, with the exception of Rise of the Nephilim and Fall of the Nephilim, which are erotic paranormal romance. Every sex scene has a purpose. Blackmoore for example, has three and each one reveals something about the inner workings of a character, or something profoundly intense and defining for the characters involved. Symphony for the Devil has four, and other books I’ve written have one or two. And that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned about writing sex scenes; it has to move the story or the characters forward. It has to define a tone of the book. Even if it’s a hookup, it has to define the characters and expose them to the reader.
I got my start writing erotica for various anthologies for Alyson Books, who were at one time, the Knopf/Random House of LGBT publishing houses. Sadly, as with most queer publishing houses that were offering the big advances, they no longer exist.
But, the power of erotica, and its difference from pornography, is that it is sex for the sake of the story, not story for the sake of the sex. Meaning the sex contributes something to the story that surrounds it, not just making up some type of story just to get to the sex.
If the sex scene isn’t needed, then leave it out. Fade to black. But, if you feel that it is needed. It’s that kind of chapter or that kind of story, then just write what you feel. Don’t be afraid of the words. Write with the intensity. It will translate to the reader and make them feel it too. You better be turned on as well when you’re writing it! If you are not in heat while writing it, then it is not right. It is not organic. It probably isn’t needed. You’ll know when it is. Your characters will tell you. Trust them. Always trust them.
Selene – Do you feel that there’s a difference between LGBTQ literature and other types of writing? (I think we’ve come a long way to mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ culture, but there’s still a long way to go!). Is there a difference in how you approach your gay and straight characters?
Marcus – There is absolutely no difference between the gay and straight characters. I love them as much as I love my gay characters. The thing is, my books are not gay books. Sure, the main character is, and usually the love interest, but the novels are never about being gay. Now, some of my books are. My novel In God’s Eyes is about coming out and religious conversion therapy, but my other works simply have a gay main character, and obviously the queer experience is in there because that is the lens that the character(s) is coming from, but the books are not about that.
That’s a really important point to make, and part of the stigma and uphill battle that my books are often faced with. This stigma from the majority that these are “gay books” so there is nothing to relate to, and so often, they are passed by without readers giving them a chance. I, like most queer people grew up in a predominantly heterosexual world. My novels reflect that. Aside from the main character and the love interest-if there is one-are the only ones in the books, all of the other characters are straight, and they are just as detailed and complex and given just as much attention as the main character.
Queer people spend our entire lives reading books, watching movies, t.v. shows, listening to songs, etc. That are about straight people, and we still find something to love and connect to, but that’s because we’ve had to, from day one, since the beginning, and if we have no problem doing it, then a straight reader should have no issue reading a novel where the only difference is that the main character is lgbtq, there is something for everyone. But, it’s this mindset from the majority that has made it such a struggle for queer authors to get their voices out there. Especially with the big houses, many of them put it all in a “genre” and one that the masses aren’t buying. What’s more, the books they do take on, are usually specific narratives, coming out, AIDS, drug addiction, etc. But books like mine, books not actually about those things, books that are about whatever else, only with a queer main character, forget it. The struggle is real on that front. It frustrates me. We should be past that. But honestly, our representation is very limited in the media. Until you can go to your suburban megaplex in whatever town and city and see at least one movie at all times on the marquee that has the lead character being a queer person, regardless what the movie plot is about, then we are not there yet. We are far from it. A few television shows and a couple indie movies every couple of years is not good.
Selene – What advice would you give a new writer?
Marcus – Write the book you want to read. Plain and simple. That’s how my books have always come about. I looked at the horror scene and said “where am I in all of this? Where’s my reflection? Why can’t we be the heroes? Why can’t we face the hounds of hell and the forces of darkness and save the world? Why can’t we be Buffy, or the Charmed Ones, or Harry Potter, etc?”
We need to be able to see ourselves as heroes. We need to see ourselves as the ones with the power. It honestly is an issue of life and death for so many to have this message, to know that they are strong, and they can save their own worlds. They are not helpless. They are not less than.
Selene – You’ve got plenty on your plate, with Brews & Books, Queerly Spoken, several novels in print, and other writing. As you can probably tell by how long it took me to get these questions to you, my own motivation is quite low this time of year. How do you get and stay motivated?
Marcus – honestly, it’s the only thing I have. Writing saves you. It saved my life. These stories I have to tell, the Boys won’t leave me alone. It takes a long time before I start writing, though a novel will formulate years and years before it happens. The research process takes months. For the next Blackmoore novel, The Beckoning One, I have 53 books for research to read and compile my notes from before I can sit down and start writing it. I love the research process, and yet, it still takes time to get there. Days where I’m putting it off-procrastinating-but eventually, they begin to invade my dreams, then eventually the Boys won’t let me sleep, until I get back to work, even if it’s just researching. The point for them is that I’m working on it in some way.
Never give up on yourself and your work. Treat it always like a job. You have to commit yourself, even if for just an hour. A page a day is a book a year. Never forget that.
Selene – What have you got planned for 2018? Is there anything else you’d like to talk about here? Thank you again for taking the time to answer some questions for us!
Marcus- In October, my vampire novel, Instructions In Flesh comes out. I’m really excited about it. Think L.J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries meets Anne Rice’s The Queen of the Damned and Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls with a coming-of-age twist. It’s not puppy dog vampires. It’s bloody and arresting. Originally it was published under the title Bloodlines back in 2012, but unfortunately the publisher was not a good fit, and wanted the novel to be a gay Twilight, which it is far from it, so it was never properly promoted and went out of print, and the publisher in question no longer exists, so the rights reverted back to me. Thank God, so it has been given the breath of life, and is coming back exactly as originally intended.
I’m also in the midst of a retelling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (The Dangerous Liaisons) titled Those People: A Study of Revenge, Deceit, and Affluenza. Which, like the 18th century original, will be an epistolary novel (a journal or series of letters) only in this it is through emails and DM’s.
Later this month I will be returning to San Francisco (where I once lived) for a research trip for The Beckoning One and Those People. Those People is set in S.F. and parts of the third Blackmoore novel takes place there. So, I’m really excited about that. I feel 2018 will be even better than 2017 career-wise. I can’t wait.
You can find out more about Marcus at the below links:
Selene – Thanks for joining us here at The Horror Tree! First off, tell us a bit about yourself, as your bio information is a little thin out there on social media.
Ellis – Thanks for having me here, I’m very excited about the questions which await me.
Okay, I’m just a sixteen-year-old trying to turn my passion into a job – that’s been one of my main goals since I started writing. I live in Leicestershire, England with my parents and three siblings. – and dog. I’m a college student currently studying Level 2 IT. I’m a huge fan of rock and metal, horror movies and books, and photography is another hobby of mine.
Selene – You’re one of our younger author friends. How long have you been writing, and how did you start?
Ellis – I’ve been writing since I was ten or eleven when a teacher recommended Cirque Du Freak by Darren Shan to me. Ever since then, I have been a huge fan of Darren Shan, and have been writing my own stuff. He’s definitely been a huge inspiration to my writing. I started writing original fiction, then I began to write fanfiction (a terrible Star Wars fanfiction), and then went back to original fiction. When I was fourteen, I was in a Business Studies lesson at school, and the teacher was talking about how you can do anything with the internet nowadays, using the example of publishing books. I went to him after the lesson and asked him about publishing, and he said I can self-publish through Amazon. So, I went home that day, looked into it, and within a year, I published my first book.
Selene – What draws you to the horror genre?
Ellis – If you’re wondering what draws me to the horror genre when reading or watching, it’s the terrifying experience I’m after – mainly because I love to get scared. But if you’re wondering what draws me to horror when writing a manuscript, I want to create a dark tale for everyone to read, but still keeping it realistic. In my work, I usually include realistic problems like alcoholism, or suicide, or abusive relationships to keep it realistic and dark, and it sets the tone for the book almost instantly. But, I still want to add in the supernatural side of things – like ghosts. That’s my goal, to make terrifying books, and maybe even make horror movies in the future. Filmography is something which I’m looking into at the moment.
Selene – I picked up Prodosia, and I thought it was an interesting if unusual premise. Since vampires are supposed to already be dead (or undead), the idea of what happens to them when they die is an interesting thing to contemplate. What inspired Prodosia?
Ellis – Ah, thanks so much! Indeed, it is a very strange but interesting idea to contemplate, and one that I’d love to delve deeper into more. The inspiration for Prodosia came to me once I played the video-game ‘Murdered: Soul Suspect’ and listened to the song ‘Chalk Outline’ by Three Days Grace. To be honest, I have no idea what inspired the vampire aspect of the story – I did use to have a fascination with vampires, so that’s probably where it came from. Also, speaking of Prodosia, me and Hiyaryu – the editor of Prodosia – are contemplating a possible sequel or prequel. Now, I’m not confirming that there will be one because it’s also quite possible that there won’t be.
Selene – More on the cheery subject of death, do you believe in ghosts yourself, and have you ever seen one?
Ellis – It is a fascinating concept to think about what comes after death, because I believe in reincarnation, but I also believe in ghosts. I think when you die, you get the chance of either passing on to be a ghost, or you can be reincarnated. And no, I haven’t seen any ghosts, but I believe there was one in the house I used to live in – there was usually tapping on the radiator at night.
Selene – What are some other influences on your writing?
Ellis – As I’ve already mentioned, Darren Shan is a huge influence on my writing. But in recent years, I’ve been trying to follow in the footsteps of the master of horror, James Wan (Director of Insidious, SAW, and The Conjuring.) I really look up to him as a director, and I thoroughly enjoy his work. I aim to make my writing as scary as his movies, which is going to be a huge challenge. My third inspiration would be Stephan Collishaw (author of The Last Girl, Amber, and The Song of The Stork) because he’s a great author. He’s also my English teacher, and I used to stay behind after school to get creative writing lessons from him, which was always a big help.
Selene – Your Amazon author page mentions music, particularly heavy music, is an influence on your writing, and some of your stories were inspired by songs. Tell us about that. What are some of your favourite bands?
Ellis – Yes, Prodosia was inspired by ‘Chalk Outline’ by Three Days Grace, and a certain chapter in TY was inspired by the music video for ‘So Cold’ by Breaking Benjamin. I have a lot of favourite bands, and off the top of my head, I can list a few. Breaking Benjamin, KoRn, Linkin Park, Nirvana, Three Days Grace, Rage Against The Machine, and even Sum 41. And one of my favourite musicians is Joseph Bishara (he isn’t in a band, but he’s amazing!) He composed the score for Insidious with shrieking violins that are absolutely terrifying, and I even wrote Ty along to that same score.
Selene – When I was in high school, way back in the 80s and 90s (before the tectonic plates shifted, you know!) heavy metal and horror went together like the sun and the sky! I’m pleased to see that metal’s influence hasn’t gone away. What metal-inspired horror books or movies would you recommend to our readers?
Ellis – Hmm, I don’t know any metal-inspired movies or books.
Selene – I notice on your Facebook profile that you’re interested in photography. What kind of subjects do you like to work with, and do you find that photography influences your writing?
Ellis – Animals, definitely animals! I love animals, but the probably with taking photos of them is the fact that they are hard to keep still. I also love taking photos of nature. I don’t think it really influences what I write about, but I make my own book covers – taking the photos for my book covers too. That was even me on the cover for Prodosia, portraying the character of Adam.
Selene – How do you develop your characters? Are they based on any real people you know?
Ellis – I tend to add bits of myself into characters, whether that be looks or traits. In my newest novel TY, the character Ty hates getting his hair cut, and so do I. I’m trying to grow my hair and usually the hairdressers cut off too much when I go to get it cut, so I added that trait to Ty.
Selene – So far, you’ve self-published your work on Amazon. What made you decide to go that route, instead of approaching a traditional publisher? How has the experience of self-publishing been for you?
Ellis – When I was looking into self-publishing, I found out that you have more freedom with that route. For example, with self-publishing, you can choose your cover. But with a traditional publisher, they pick the cover for the book for what looks eye-catching to provoke people to pick it up off the shelf. The self-publishing experience has been great, although I like publishing with KDP, they also have their downsides. But they always listen to the community and the problems we point out and try to make their platform better.
Selene – As a newer writer, if there’s one thing you could change about horror literature, or accomplish with your writing, what would it be?
Ellis – One thing I could change about horror literature……. I absolutely don’t know. I guess the one thing I could change about horror literature is to make it scarier. Because you can have a horror book – or movie – but that doesn’t necessarily make it scary. I want to make horror literature terrifying.
Selene – Is there any advice you’d give to someone your age (or any age, but especially from a youth perspective), who are just starting out in writing? What have you learned from your journey so far?
Ellis – Carry on writing, and don’t give up. I know, that sounds very cliché. But, you need to carry on writing. Can’t be bothered to write today? Write anyway! Don’t shy away from writing, or you’ll never get your book done. Also, write what you want to read! And, reading always helps with writing, because as you are reading you can pick out techniques which your favourite writers use, and try to use the same techniques in your own writing.
Selene – Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your writing, or any upcoming work? Thank you again for chatting today!
Ellis – I have ideas for loads of books running around in my head, but I’m only comfortable with saying a few of them. There will be two sequels to Ty, called Ty: Chapter 2 and Ty: The Final Chapter releasing this year and next year. In the coming years, I will also be releasing my first coming-of-age book called I Owe You My Life. I’m not going to give too much away for this book, but the boy is bitten by a dog when he is young, leaving him with a fear of dogs. When he’s older, he tries to end his life, but a dog saves him. Thank you, it’s been a pleasure!
If you would like to find out more about Ellis and his work, you can find him via the below links:
Selene -Thank you for taking the time out for our interview. First, tell us a bit about yourself.
I.E. Lester – I am a science fiction and horror nut. That’s probably the best place to start. I’ve been an avid reader for more than forty years, since a washed out family holiday in England (is there any other kind) when I sheltered from one of the many storms in a shop that sold books. On a whim and purely because I liked the cover I bought a collection of Isaac Asimov short stories. I spent the rest of the holiday reading the book and, as the rain gave me plenty of time to do so, had finished before we returned home. I bought my second soon afterwards and it started a lifelong obsession.
Outside of my addiction to books I work in IT, in database development, a field which is every bit as boring as you imagine it to be; probably more so. I’m also a music fanatic, although have finally reconciled myself with the world being a happier place if I never again try to force tunes out of a guitar.
One quick fact; I’m tall. I mean it; there are shorter trees. And I probably should mention a fondness for semi-colons; and Oxford commas.
Selene – When, why, and how did you start writing?
I.E. Lester – I resisted this for years. My wife and many of my friends kept suggesting I should write; usually because I have a habit of breaking down bad movies and come up with (in my opinion) better plots. I gave it a shot when I turned forty. It seemed cheaper and safer than having my midlife crisis lead to buying a sports car; more comfortable too – I did mention being tall, I don’t fit in sports cars.
I wrote maybe 50 or 60 non-fiction articles, hundreds of book and film reviews and a couple of dozen short stories which I managed to sell to various magazines both in the UK and US as well as for a variety of websites. And then I stopped. My hiatus lasted about five or six years while I ran my own pop culture memorabilia and collectables business and when I sold up and thought of giving writing another go the only ideas I was getting were novel length. So, since then, I’ve been writing novels.
Selene – You have a brand new novel out (October 31, 2017), The Stairs Lead Down. What’s it about, and how has it been received so far? How do you pronounce “Ashby de la Zouch,” anyway? (In my head it rhymes with “couch” and I know that’s wrong!)
I.E. Lester – The Stairs Lead Down is a ghost story in which the two lead characters, fraternal twins Noah and Lizzie, who due to the unusual circumstance of their births, one shortly before midnight on October 31st and one just after midnight on November 1st, have the power to cross from the real world into the ghost realms. And it’s a power that others want to take from them.
I’ve had some good feedback from a few people. So far no one has been negative towards it. The publisher seems happy with it and has ordered a sequel so it’s been a good experience thus far.
Okay, the pronunciation; hmm. I tried to think of a common word to say it rhymes with… Only I have to admit I couldn’t come up with one; other than in French which is probably not a great surprise as that part of the name is from Norman French. Ashby was an Anglo-Saxon village that was given to the La Zouche family after the Norman Conquest, resulting in the de la Zouch addition to the name. The Zouch part rhymes with Amuse-bouche. If you’re not a French speaker try saying Zoo – sh.
Selene – From what I’ve gathered, you write more sci-fi and fantasy, where world-building is crucial to the story. Yet The Stairs Lead Down is what I’d consider a “contemporary” setting, with modern gadgets mentioned in the story. How do you approach world-building with a “realistic” setting, as opposed to a “fantastic” one?
I.E. Lester – Realistic settings are in some ways harder than fantastic settings. It might seem a little counter-intuitive to say that as the real world allows for a lot of the reader filling in the blanks meaning you can lessen the need for texture to the backdrop but the problem is you get something wrong and it’s so obvious. You have to be accurate if you’re talking about a road someone can walk down or you get the dates wrong. Technology and popular culture move so quickly it’s far too easy to get things slightly out of sync and, trust me, people will notice. Try setting a story in 2005 and have one of the characters use an iPhone. Unless you have a solid reason (e.g. time travel) it will annoy some people.
In a fantasy world as long as you are consistent to the rules of your world you can do what you like. And even here there’s a lot you can take for granted as any person who reads a story set on a space station on the border between two warring empires, or in a Viking style village being harassed by a dragon, will have a pretty good idea what to expect there. As long as you don’t suddenly break these rules it can be easier.
And then there’s then fun part; well, fun if you’re like me. I enjoy finding out new bits of information. I always have. So if my fantasy story requires a journey of some hundreds of miles and I have roughly fifth century tech, how long would it take if I have
a cart pulled by donkeys – what are the roads like condition-wise
a ship – the two places are handily both on the coast
a boat, canoe or raft – a river runs between them
just the two feet on the ends of my legs – how far can people walk day after day, especially if they are carrying heavy packs?
The only thing you have to be careful of in these cases is not putting too much of the research into the story. I’m writing a short passage with the intention of getting my characters from A to B, not a Haynes Manual on how to maintain a four wheeled cart.
Selene – More on the “realistic” setting, you live in Ashby yourself, if I’m reading correctly. How true is the old chestnut “Write what you know”?
I.E. Lester – The advantage I have with setting this story in Ashby is if I want to see how two locations join or whether you can see a particular building or road junction if you’re standing at point X I can walk there and look. It makes things a lot simpler. And then there’s the fact that the feel of the place has had years to seep into my bones. I might not be an Ashby native but I have lived here for fourteen years and explored much of the town and its immediate surroundings.
Ashby has a long and fascinating history and much of it is there is you just look beyond the shiny shop fronts advertising the various franchises that fill the modern high street. Many of the buildings date back to Tudor times and if you know where to look you can see the evidence. One of the thoughts that led to The Stairs Lead Down was sitting in a pub and wondering about all the people who had walked through the entrance doors in the more than four hundred years the pub has existed.
Selene – Your characters are 13 years old. I’ve only read the three-chapter sample so far, and they seem like typical teenagers. Let’s talk about how you develop characters in your work.
I.E. Lester – One of the problems I find with characters in some novels, films and TV shows is they are over-emphasised in certain ways. How many characters can you think of that are hyper-geniuses or have super-human strength or some other unrealistic characteristic? I try to make my characters more normal even if, like the two lead characters in The Stairs Lead Down, they have supernatural abilities. If I am putting my characters into peril I want them to take the reader with them. There has to be a feeling they could lose. I don’t find a great deal of suspense in a superhero movie or comic (much as I love both).
Add to this characters need to be more than just their role in a story; lead characters anyway. I will concede supporting characters don’t need to be as fully fleshed out. It would be bad if you had to wade through eight pages of backstory about the man who served the food in a restaurant the lead characters happened to go to. I wouldn’t want to keep reading a book that did that. But the lead characters need to have more to them. They need hobbies and interests that are not connected to the plot. They have to have flaws. They have to have virtues; preferably more of these than the flaws, I do want the reader to like these people. They have to be some you could imagine working with, sitting next to on a train, talking to at a party, or living next door to.
So I think of all the people I’ve known in the fifty years I’ve lived on this planet and what made them whole and then I pick bits of all these people and build up my own montages of their quirks and idiosyncrasies. And then I hand the draft over to one or two people I trust and ask them to read it and comment on the characters – do they work, yes/no?
Selene – Would you consider The Stairs Lead Down a YA novel? How does writing YA differ from writing for adults?
I.E. Lester – I think it is a novel suitable for young adults and upwards. When the idea coalesced (or congealed, maybe that’s a more suitable word) around having two teenagers as the main character it seemed reasonable to try to write it from that perspective. And YA, the best YA in my opinion anyway, shouldn’t be that different from fiction aimed purely at an adult readership. I wouldn’t write explicit sex scenes into a YA story but I wouldn’t write these into any of my fiction without a specific reason crucial to the plot as I generally find these get in the way of the story. If I wanted to have sex scenes I’d buy pornography not a fantasy or horror novel.
I also might not be quite as violent on the page as in my other fiction but I wouldn’t remove it altogether. A horror novel needs to have scares and threat to make it a horror novel. Also the language in terms of cursing might be toned down but it shouldn’t be in terms of vocabulary otherwise. Writing young adult fiction but trying to exclude all the long words to me is patronising.
Selene – The Stairs Lead Down is a ghost story. What are some of your favourite ghost stories?
I.E. Lester – When I read this question one film jumped out at me immediately – Beetlejuice. I love that movie. Two more that came to mind were Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, and the play based on it, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – both wonderful stories. Then I had to think a little harder and although I could recall a few dozen ghost tales, in print and on screen, I found it difficult to think of any that I’d call favourites; odd given that I’ve written ghost stories.
Selene – Where do you get your ideas?
I.E. Lester – Everywhere and anywhere is the simplistic answer. I’m a bit of a polymath. I like reading and researching all manner of topics. I can be reading a book on Swedish Kings (yes I have one) and something just intrigues me and it gets filed away somewhere. Later a totally different topic might interest me, say particle physics, and for some reason my brain will put two things together and invent a third thing that bears no relation to the first two. So I write it down in a notebook; I keep notebooks everywhere I go.
Or I can watch a bad movie and start thinking how that plot could have been better; or how those characters could have been better constructed. And I write it all down. After a while several of these ideas seem to fit together and a plot begins to appear that makes sense of it all. So I start building a framework and when it seems self-consistent and interesting to me I might start writing it. Or I might not. Something else even more shiny may have distracted me by then.
Selene – I noticed, from your blog, that you participated in NaNoWriMo this year. How did that go? Why do you think some writers enjoy the challenge, and others think it’s a waste of time?
I.E. Lester – I tried using the NaNoWriMo target during November to increase the pace of my writing which has been slower than I would like of late although I will admit I didn’t formally register in the end. I wanted it for me and not to compete against anyone or try to achieve some kind of electronic button badge. I’m not denigrating anyone who did. I think it’s a good idea to set such targets. It’s just I didn’t want the only goal to be hitting the fifty thousand mark.
I did register a couple of years back and do it officially and worked hard for a month resulting in forty eight thousand words. I fell two thousand short. I was happy with that. Helped me get the draft of that novel finished. That book was called No Man’s Land. It was one of my weirder projects; a kind of mashup of different genres. I describe it as a bawdy science fiction noir space opera detective story. As yet it’s unpublished and if I’m honest I’ve not submitted anywhere in two years so unless I get a little more pro-active with it, it’s likely to stay that way.
This year my attempt didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. It was doomed from the outset really as I had a fair bit of publicity to do for The Stairs Lead Down, which had only been released for one day when NaNoWriMo started. I just checked the writing diary (yes I’m sad enough to maintain one) and the whole month saw a meagre 14,151 of fiction written; a pitiful showing really.
Selene – What does a typical “writing day” look like for you? How do you get motivated to write, when there’s so much distraction?
I.E. Lester – There is no such thing as a typical day. For one thing having the time to write is not guaranteed on any given day. I have to pay the mortgage so I have a full time job alongside writing. I’m also married (25 years too – now that’s scary) and I want to stay that way so spending all my non-day job time on the keyboard writing is not going to happen. I try to write when my wife is out playing gigs or rehearsing (she’s a professional saxophonist).
Motivation is hard. There are days when you just do not feel like writing – there are for me anyway. These are usually the times I look hard at the story I’m writing and ask do I actually want to be writing this? At least at this moment. Trying to force it doesn’t work. The writing has to be something I need to do. The characters have to draw me back to the computer, especially after a day at work. This has resulted in about three dozen partly written novels clogging up my hard drive – mostly at the fifteen to twenty thousand words level, although one did stall at fifty-five thousand words. These may get revisited at some point. Then again they may not. I should probably point out that I have managed to finish writing eleven novels. I don’t abandon everything.
As for distraction, there is only one way – music. I write with music playing and with the office door closed and the blind down. I can see nothing of the outside world. I can hear nothing except the music playing. That way I can concentrate on what I’m doing. And then for me, it’s about short bursts. I like writing in short scenes, usually around the five hundred word mark, although some can be a lot longer depending on the action. That way if I have a few minutes I can at least add a scene to the story. If I was waiting until I had enough time to write an entire chapter I might never start.
Selene – What advice would you give a new writer?
I.E. Lester – The main piece of advice is keep writing until you write those two words “The End”. There is no way you can sell a novel unless you finish writing it. Then find people you trust to be honest and get them to read it – and then listen to what they say. You might not agree with it. You don’t need to do anything about it if you don’t but you need to get another opinion; preferably many other opinions. And you need to not have thin skin when you do listen. All that matter is making your fiction as good as it can be. If all you want is someone to pat you on the back and tell you you’ve done really well then you shouldn’t be writing.
Also, you should read more and more widely than you might otherwise. I don’t think you can ever have read enough if you want to be an author. You can try reading these how to write a novel books but I think you get far more by just reading lots of novels and figuring out what you like in them.
And one last piece of advice – write the book you want to read. Never try to write a story because you think it suits a particular moment. Hunting the zeitgeist will only lead to bad books. If you don’t love the book you’re writing who can anyone reading it love it? You cannot write a book that isn’t part of you. I have ideas for two conspiracy theory type thrillers. I think they could make good books. I just don’t think I could write them. I tried but they quickly joined the ranks of the stalled books I mentioned before.
Selene – All writers are, of course, readers. Who are some of your favourite authors, and why?
I.E. Lester – Isaac Asimov for hard sf ideas and easy to read prose.
Zoran Živković for fabulously surreal stories of a European flavour
Magnus Mills for fabulously surreal stories of a uniquely British flavour
Julian May for exquisite world building – read the Saga of the Exiles / Intervention / Galactic Milieu Trilogy linked series
Stephen King for wonderful characters
Robert Charles Wilson for imaginative stories
Selene – While we’re on the subject of upcoming projects, there’s a sequel in the works for The Stairs Lead Down. Do you find the writing is at all different, and how might it be the same? What’s in store for the sequel?
I.E. Lester – The sequel picks up the action a few months after the end of book one and finds the characters trying to deal with the ongoing fallout from book one when a new much more coordinated attack against them happens. The bug bads are going to treat Noah and Lizzie a lot more seriously after the events in book one.
Writing a sequel is odd. In some ways it’s easier as you don’t have to invent the characters; they already exist. But they now have baggage. Even if you survive a horror story it’s going to have an effect on you. This is probably the hardest thing to write and in the draft I’m working on I know it’s not right yet. I need to beef up the emotional load the twins have – they are teenagers after all. They shouldn’t just be able to shrug this off. And it’s not just about the two of them. Other people are involved and they will pay the price for aiding Noah and Lizzie. How would teenagers cope with seeing other people suffer for them?
I’m also trying to write this as a kind of warning against complacency. Just because you succeed at something on the first attempt doesn’t mean it will be as easy to do it again. So I’m increasing the peril and hopefully bringing the characters to the point of how do they get out of that. And then seeing what they would sacrifice to win.
Selene – If you weren’t writing, what do you think would you be doing?
I.E. Lester – Reading.
Selene – What’s next for you, and is there anything else you’d like to talk about here? Thanks for taking some time to answer my questions!
I.E. Lester – Right at this second I have no idea what’s next. In some ways, it might be a choice made for me. I have a publisher currently reviewing a rewrite I did of a fantasy novel. If they like the changes enough I might have to immediately start book two of that series. That would keep me busy for a while as the whole story is plotted over five novels. Of course, I have to sell the book one first so I’m not going to get ahead of myself.
Other than that I have a comedic story about quasi-religious cults I’d like to tell. I just have to work the plot so it doesn’t sound too much like the wonderful Pratchett/Gaiman book Good Omens. If I’m not careful it could stray too close. Just have to keep pushing it towards Tom Sharpe territory and I’ll be safe I think. I’ve written the first three chapters of this to see if I liked the feel and I do want to get back to it.
Thanks for the opportunity to be part of the Horror Tree community.
If you would like to find out more about I.E. Lester, check out the following links:
Selene – First, tell us a bit about yourselves, and your background in writing and art. The bio info on your websites is a little thin.
Josh – Josh Finney is an author of sci-fi, horror, and neo-noir. He is 5’6”, weighs 155 lbs on a full bladder, and has black hair that is slowly going silver. If someone was to play Josh in a movie about his life, it would be a young Brad Dourif, best known as being the voice of Chucky—although Ishi is more akin to Brad’s portrayal of the twisted mentat Piter De Vries in the film Dune.
If Josh were a beverage, he’d be a cup of scalding coffee. If Josh were a celestial body he’d be a planetoid in the Oort Belt. Josh’s best friend is a rodent. He gets his best ideas while in a half-awake state. He eats raw oatmeal. Every day. He listens to music that could be mistaken for a factory collapsing. He’s seen ghosts, spontaneous human combustion, and a UFO in broad daylight. One of those prior statements is not true. If you were to break Josh down into his key chemical components he’d be at least 3% coffee. The rest would be piss and vinegar. His atomic number is 60: Neodymium.
When Josh throws parties he serves heavy water and yellow cake.
Josh is an unlucky son of a bitch. He’s been in two serious car collisions and been shot in the back. Josh is a lucky son of a bitch. He’s walked away without a scratch from two serious car collisions and survived an almost-fatal gunshot wound.
Josh Finney is soon to ditch that by-line for J. Ishiro Finney. This is because when people hear the name Josh Finney they remember it as “Jack Finney,” famed author of the sci-fi classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is a problem. Works written under the “Josh Finney” name include: Casefile: Arkham, Titanium Rain, Utopiates, and World War Kaiju.
Patrick – I have been at this art thing for over 15 years, with experience in games, multimedia, art direction and comics. I’ve done a lot of tabletop game and CCG work, so many people know my art without having any idea who I am, including popular games like Arkham Horror, Call of Cthulhu, World of Warcraft’s Hearthstone, Dungeons & Dragons, Legend of the Five Rings, Numenera, World of Darkness, and nearly 100 cards for the Game of Thrones CCG.
I was also on contract with Marvel’s marketing division for a while, creating concept art, point of sale advertising, and dozens of pictures for the Marvel Style Guide.
In comics I’ve done a lot less work but have had the opportunity to do a lot of different things. I generally only do one or two projects a year in this field. Most recently I provided interior art and covers for Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space: The Lost Adventures from American Gothic Press. My graphic novels include Casefile: Arkham Vol. 1, World War Kaiju, Nain Rouge: The Red Tide, and Starkweather: Immortal.
And of course the upcoming Casefile: Arkham volume, which we just happen to be here to talk about!
Selene –What about the horror genre appeals to you?
Josh – First, bear in mind I don’t see CASEFILE: Arkham as a horror story. It’s a detective noir at heart. It just happens to be in a horrific world where monsters, god, and black magick exists. One aspect I loved about the first book, Nightmare on the Canvas, is it doesn’t need the monster to remain functional. It’s just a story element. This is less so in the second book, but it too is still a noir at heart.
But what about horror appeals to me? I’m drawn to the genre for reasons different than most. People often explain their love of horror having to do with the thrill ride of being scared or even personally identifying with the monster. There’s also those sadist-voyeurs who enjoy seeing death and suffering at 24 frames a second. For me, though, I consume horror in the same way I do war stories. It’s a crucible. It’s delving into the furthest extremes of the human experience and seeing how we all respond. Who breaks? Who sacrifices themselves? Who survives and why?
I’m a bit of a latecomer with horror, mostly having ignored the genre until the mid-2000s. A decade prior I’d been the victim of a random act of gun violence, one which started with a 9mm bullet finding its way into my stomach and ending with me near death on an operating table. My body survived. But when all the buried emotional damage of the attack finally found me, I found the horror genre.
Submerging myself in all forms of horror. I literally watched and/or read everything I could, from the most gut wrenching of slasher flicks, to the more terrifying of cerebral horror. Stories of people struggling (and sometimes fighting) their way through these extreme situations resonated. Good horror explores questions like: How do we face death? How do we face loss? When the world goes to hell, does our humanity survive?
Patrick – I like the same things about the Horror and Detective Noir genres: the fact that if you test yourself by looking into the darkness of those stories without blinking, you’ll come away having learned a lot about who you are. Those bad things that you were afraid to admit about yourself, and those good things that you didn’t know were there. They are genres of self-discovery. And both very thrilling because of it.
Making art for a dark world like Casefile is difficult but rewarding. It’s not just gross-out horror, it’s slow tension, creeping unease, a dark buildup of dread and worry. If I can get the art to take the viewers to a place where they feel honestly uncomfortable, then I’ve definitely succeeded. That’s hard work but it’s a challenge I like.
Selene – How did you come to collaborate?
Josh – Both Patrick and I had books published by Archaia Press back in the 2000s. So we ended up tabling together at a lot of conventions. Then one night after a show in San Francisco we went out on a bar hopping shit show of a bender. Somehow we ended up at Coit Tower, blitzed on peyote, acid, and good Irish rye. That’s when the spirit of Jack Kirby materialized, taking the form of the great Red Celestial. And he said, “I come bearing tidings of horrid shit to come. Comics are getting to be real crap. You know it, I know it, even the Big Two knows it. And it only gets worse! I foresee a bleak time soon when Squirl Girl will become a plague upon the 616 Universe! A Scrappy-Doo sized turd in the punch bowl! And she shall smear a rainbow colored skid mark of pseudo-intellectual neo-Marxist claptrap and bad art across the pages of once great titles. You two, you kids, you gotta do something about this horseshit. So, make good books. Be the one, shining light of hope in this bleak shit show to come.”
After that, what choice did we have? So Patrick and I started creating comics together.
Patrick – We’ve since stopped taking Peyote, however.
Selene – You have two books out now, Casefile: ARKHAM Her Blood Runs Cold, and Casefile: ARKHAM Nightmare on the Canvas. What are they about, and what kind of reception have they had?
Josh – So far? Excellent.
Patrick – As for the “about”: they are based on our mutual love of the worlds of both Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft, and to that end we’ve created the character of Hank Flynn, P.I., working cases in Lovecraft’s fictional city of Arkham, Mass., in the bleak post-WWII era. Each story has elements of existing Lovecraft lore woven into Noir-style crime stories.
It’s a genre combination that we both love, but there’s very little of it. We’ve wanted to see more of it for years, so we just had to make it ourselves! And it seems like a lot of people are enjoying what we’ve done with it so far.
Selene – Why Mythos? I know that seems like a loaded question, but there seems to be a large body of work related to Lovecraft, and some rather strange politics around the man and his work. What about the Mythos appeals to you?
Josh – Is it really a loaded question though? It’s only been in the last five year or so that suddenly the gatekeepers of pop-culture have demanded we flog ourselves for enjoying dead authors who were less than perfect people. Ask yourself, who is worse: Lovecraft who was a mentally-ill shut in who expressed racist views, or Marion Zimmer Bradley who was a known child molester? Lovecraft said bad things, but never hurt anybody. Marion Zimmer Bradley said all the right things, but also committed horrible crimes of sexual abuse against her own children? Does either lessen the worth of the books these authors wrote? And if we’re so concerned with the wrongs of dead authors, why hasn’t the SFWA or World Fantasy Awards gone on a crusade against the works of Bradley?
So why Lovecraft’s Mythos? Because it’s brilliant stuff.
(Note from Selene: MZB’s face wasn’t on the award, and she hasn’t escaped criticism, either).
Patrick – As an artist, two of my favorite writers to visualize are Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock, for the same reasons. That is that while they lushly describe what characters do in REACTION to the strange and otherworldly things they see, and there are a few fleeting physical descriptions, much of the actual visuals are left to the reader’s imagination. And that means for artists that with only a few important visual touchstones, WE can visually interpret things as we like, more often than not.
So for instance, in our upcoming volume we were able to interpret two pillars of the Mythos, Shub-Niggorath and Dagon, in new and different ways all on our own. I got to do a lot of that with the dozens of cards I did for the “Call of Cthulhu” CCG as well; it’s always a great feeling to get the chance to interpret the unimaginable.
Selene – I watched Josh’s video on how to write for sequential art and horror comics, and I enjoyed the peek at the process and have a few questions. First, can you give us a definition of what sequential art is, and how writing for a comic differs from simply writing a short story or a novel?
Patrick – Sequential art (graphic novels, comic books, comic strips) is a narrative medium that uses still visuals combined with words to create a unique combination of pictures and prose in sequence to tell a story. Technically, comics can be done without the “prose” part, telling a story with only the pictures, but usually words are employed to contribute to the richness of the storytelling.
Some people look at comics and think that they are very much like a movie storyboard, and that the writing process must be like writing a screenplay. And there is certainly some overlap. But writing for sequential storytelling has a lot of challenges and advantages that make it quite different. For instance, the comics writer has to deal with the flow of panels on the page, and the physical act of getting to the end of a page and turning it.
There are also important considerations about just how much can happen in a panel: how much physical room is there for the words, how many individual actions should there be, how much it focuses on one or more characters — all things to think about as the page is composed.
And then there’s the problem (and opportunity!) of pacing. Larger panels tend to be read more quickly, while smaller panels tend to slow down time. But paradoxically, a very large panel, most or all of a page, stops the narrative dead in its tracks for a moment. You can’t do this time dilation as effectively in movie because the timeline of film is always moving forward, even with slow-motion. In prose, you have the problem that your reader reads at pretty much a fixed speed, and the only way to slow them down is to write more words. In comics, if you do your job right as a writer or artist, time goes faster or slower without the reader even being aware of your manipulation. It’s subtle and exciting, but not always easy to pull off.
Selene – While I was reading Casefile: Arkham, Her Blood Runs Cold, I really enjoyed the artwork, but as a reader, I found that the buildup to each plot point felt different than in a novel or even in a film. How do you build suspense in the graphic form?
Josh – For comics, visual suspense is dependent on two things: 1) Effective use of panel layout and page turning. 2) The skill of the artist. Everything else comes down to the writer’s ability to create characters you care about and placing them in threatening situations. And those threats don’t have to be to a character’s physical well-being. There are threats to sanity. Threats to reputation. Threats to one’s ability to live with themselves. And most importantly, threats to loved ones. It’s the threat and the uncertainty of its outcome that creates the suspense.
Patrick – From a visual standpoint, Josh really hits it on the head with his #1. Control the pace and what you reveal with good panel layout and planning what’s on the page you’re about to turn to. Get the reader to be excited about turning each page and then reward them with a payoff when they get there.
I also like to make panels that are packed with information wherever possible — this slows down the reader and (if I’ve done my job right) makes them almost subconsciously search for important details, so they won’t look ahead too quickly. And extra panels showing some weird random stuff (overlapping time or non-sequitur storytelling beats) will slow them down even more. This tends to heighten the sense of dread that we’re trying to build.
Selene – In the video, Josh mentioned how important it is to have a rapport between the writer and the artist in a graphic novel. Can you describe your collaborative process?
Patrick – There are probably nearly as many ways to collaborate in comics as there are artist/writer teams, so ours is unique to our own skills. We’ve tried a lot of different methods and not every page is the same! But over time, this is the one we’ve sort of landed on. In many ways, our collaboration can be compared to filmmaking in that Josh is the writer/producer, and I’m the director/cinematographer, SFX crew, and all the actors.
Each page can be thought of as an individual small project with its own narrative and visual challenges. To begin, Josh will put together a rough script, using dialogue that isn’t entirely finished, but gives me a good idea of each character’s motivations and emotions. Then, because he has done the visual end of comics himself quite a bit, he lays out the panels on the page, often with reference from photos or simple drawings of where he wants the characters placed. He puts in the dialogue in the form of word balloons on the page as well, so I know roughly how much room they’ll take up and what sort of compositional flow he’s looking for.
From there I have the freedom to pretty much do what I want with the page. Josh knows that I understand the story dynamics he’s after, and I can either use his layout exactly or completely change it, depending on what I think will be needed for the visuals. As long as I leave enough room for the word balloons and try to tell the same story, we’re good to go!
Another thing Josh trusts me with is the “acting”. He uses minimal descriptions of how or how much the characters are emoting in each panel, and lets me direct my cast of “actors” any way I like, based on the dialogue and situation.
Next, the page goes back to Josh, who will put in the final dialogue and also let me know if he needs any changes to the art. He often changes a scene’s script at this point based on something I may have done with the characters that he wasn’t expecting, making for a fun and almost improvisational feel to the collaboration.
Selene – Josh also pointed out that if you want a lucrative career, writing and art for comics isn’t it. If you weren’t doing this, what else might you be doing?
Josh – To paraphrase the great Doctor Jordan Peterson, “Creative people…if they’re not creative they’re miserable. They have to do it.” Little more than a decade ago I was working a great job, making very good money as an art director. During my lunch I was writing. When I got home I was writing. When I had spare moments I was writing. I wasn’t sleeping. I was depressed. I was getting in trouble at work. I was also suicidal. Then I was fired when I told a supervisor to “Go fuck yourselves!”
So in short. Either I do this. Or I swallow a bullet.
Patrick – I too was working as an Art Director, making good money with decent hours. And then I said to myself “why should I have it so easy? I am making far too much money!” And a comics artist was born!
Selene – What do you consider some of your influences, on art, and on your writing?
Josh – Well with CASEFILE: Arkham I was specifically mimicking the style of the golden-age of noir. The writings of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. Classic films such as Out of the Past, Detour, Gilda, Sunset Bvld, Where the Sidewalk Ends, as well as lesser know gems like Cry Danger and Too Late For Tears. The approach to CASEFILE: Arkham was to write it as a straight 40s-era noir story that just so happened to be taking place in Lovecraft’s Mythos.
As for personal influences, I can say it all comes down to two names: John Carpenter and Mamoru Oshii. The rugged individualism of Carpenter’s film career has been a massive influence on my own. From Carpenter’s I’ve come to learn three maxims which I live by:
No project is just a project. Always treat your current endeavor as if it’s the most important thing you’ll ever create.
Maintain control. Never let someone else hijack your vision—especially the “money people”—at the end of the day it is YOUR name that will appear on this project, not theirs.
Don’t take any shit.
Meanwhile, the influence of Mamoru Oshii is a bit harder to explain. While primarily known as an “anime director,” Oshii is a master at constructing deeply moving tales that are philosophical, rife with symbolism, and full of larger ideas, yet remain fundamentally sci-fi action films. There’s also a real beauty to the visual, the pacing, and more cerebral elements. The stories Oshii tells are the bar which I aim for in my own work.
Patrick – The most realistic answer for art influences is “everything I see.” Every artist I look at influences me in some way, even if on a subconscious level. That inability to just enjoy art without examining it on a structural level is the curse of most artists, I’ve discovered!
Maybe a more interesting answer is that yes, I have a number of formative influences, really cool artists I’ve studied on purpose for their craft and vision and quirks. In illustration I’d list N.C. Wyeth, Frazetta, Steranko, Basil Gogos, Dave McKean, the Hildebrandts, and Norman Saunders, among many others.
In the comics field, most of the artistic influences are also storytelling influences too. You can’t have one without the other, I think, or else it’s not a good comic. There I list Alex Raymond, Al Williamson, Steranko (again – his comics work is so different from his illustration), Jack Kirby, Barry Windsor-Smith, Steve Rude, and P. Craig Russell.
Oh and probably a million more! But if anyone reading this wants to check out any or all of the creators I’ve listed, I can guarantee you will not be disappointed.
Selene – A generic question, but I’m always curious: where do you get your story ideas?
Josh – That is the elusive question, isn’t it? Where do the ideas come from. Much of what I put to the page comes from that half-awake state that comes in the morning right before slipping completely out of a dream. Other times, it may be a persistent image that keeps popping up in my head that I need to put form to. Or I’ll have a moment when a number of seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts collide in my thoughts and begin to take shape into a story. For CASEFILE: Arkham, though, the process was more deliberate.
A few years ago, Patrick and I had just finished World War Kaiju, and a lot of fans had been asking if we’d do something Lovecraft related. This was because of Patrick’s extensive past of illustrating games for Fantasy Flight. At first, Patrick and I discussed possibly doing a straight adaptation of a Lovecraft story, but couldn’t really get excited at the idea of doing so. Then somewhere along the line we started discussing the overlap of noir and Lovecraft mythos and how nobody had done it in a way to our satisfaction. Somewhere out of all that talk CASEFILE: Arkham took shape.
Patrick – You forgot to mention the Peyote.
Selene – Let’s talk about the noir influence on Casefile: Arkham. Both novels have a 1940s setting, and a feel that’s a throwback to the stories of the day. Why did you choose this particular approach, and why does noir lend itself so well to the story you’re telling?
Josh – Once we knew our next project was going to be a noir, for me setting it in the 1940s was a must. The 40s were the zenith of noir’s golden-age. Most visuals we associate with the genre trace back to the films the era. I have a real love for the aesthetics, style, the lingo, and the “visial/verbal rhythm” of how those stories were told.
Patrick – Visually, I just love the look of the 1930’s and 40’s — the cars, clothes, buildings, it’s all a wonder to me. And the Film Noir style that started to take shape in the ’40’s is an important touchstone for me too.
Also, this series gave me a chance to really delve into the styles of my favorite comic strip artists Alex Raymond and Al Williamson (from their “Rip Kirby” and “Secret Agent Corrigan” strips, respectively) and see what made their photorealistic/Noir styles work. Raymond’s work was especially a perfect inspiration since his “Rip Kirby” detective adventure strip started in the same era our stories are set, and employed beautiful Noir techniques which was eager to study and incorporate into our aesthetic for Casefile.
Selene – What advice would you give to someone who wants to write, especially to write for graphic novels and comics?
Josh – Ignore the garbage that is being peddled as “graphic novels” today by mainstream comics, unless you want a guide for “what not to do” when creating. Read the classics, manga, read British and French graphics novels and really pull apart what it is that makes these stories tick. How the writer and artist speed up and slow down scenes. How layouts are just as important as the art and dialog. How emotions are portrayed. What makes an action scene “move” off the page. Read old 2000 AD comics, read Frank Miller’s Dare Devil, study the art of Mobius and Tsutomu Nihei.
And buy CASEFILE: Arkham. Okay, okay… I’m shilling, now.
Patrick – Take peyote, obviously.
Selene – What’s next for you, and do you have anything else you’d like to talk about? Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!
Josh – Naturally, I want to do more CASEFILE: Arkham stories. I’ve grown to really love these characters and the world they inhabit. None of their stories are even close to a conclusion. I know ultimately Flynn’s arc must culminate in a showdown in Innsmouth, and Glynda’s past with the Goddess cult is a plot thread that we’ve just begun to explore. And at some point the Witchhouse, Randolph Carter, and Nytharlahotep will all have to find their way into our vision of a film noir Arkham. And I know Patrick has a special love for Lovecraft’s Colour Out Of Space. There’s also the possibility of novelizations of the CASEFILE: Arkham stories for all the little details and scenes I couldn’t fit in a 142 page graphic novel.
In the meantime, I’m looking to finish a handful of short stories, a prose novella and a full novel in 2018. All will be firmly rooted in cyberpunk and science fiction.
Patrick – Yes, we’re hoping the newest Casefile is a big hit, so we can do another one soon. We’ve got a lot of ideas and would both love to visit the world of Hank Flynn’s Arkham again. As for me, you can find me at www.megaflowgraphics.com, where you can see a lot of my art on comics, game illustrations and more, and buy stuff too! You can learn about upcoming work on my Facebook page “Patrick McEvoy Art”: www.facebook.com/PatrickMcEvoyArt/
Christine – I’m a news junkie (no surprise there.) I like to craft, mostly working on dollhouses and miniatures, hence I’m a packrat, too. I write every day, a habit you can’t help getting when you work in newspapers. I love animals, have a dog and even raised dwarf seahorses at one time.
Selene – When did you start writing, and why?
Christine – I can’t remember not writing. Ha! I knew I wanted to be a writer in high school and decided journalism was the best way to do it. It’s prophetic, I think, as my favorite baby picture has me with a newspaper and they put a pencil behind my ear. I still write for newspapers as well as write fiction.
Selene – I read a bit of Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter, and found it an interesting historical take on both zombies and the Borden story. Why Lizzie, as an historical figure?
Christine – Lizzie Borden has always been fascinating. You can’t help but wonder what kind of person she was. If she was the killer, then she was one of the most devious killers in history. Once I read the actual autopsy reports and viewed the photos, I just knew that my fictional take with zombies and horror provided a perfect solution to what was already a ghastly crime.
Selene – Do you think Lizzie did it? More broadly, you seem to work well within not just horror, but crime and mystery fiction. I think there are close ties between these genres. How do you handle this genre-blending?
Christine – I’ve switched back and forth on Lizzie’s guilt, though if she did do it she was more devious than anyone knew and also lucky given some of the mistakes and sloppiness in the investigation. Crimes often are horrific and many killers in real life are monsters, so it really doesn’t seem much of a stretch to include other kinds of fictional monsters, does it? There’s almost a kinship between fictional and real-life monsters. I’m a longtime fan and reader of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, too, so I guess I can’t help blending them.
Selene – Many of your stories are of the “zombie” genre. Some might argue (I’m not one of them) that zombies are overdone, and we live in a zombie-saturated culture. More so a few years ago than now, because publishing trends change, of course. Why do you write about zombies, and why are they still appealing?
Christine – I know new zombie books keep appearing, but I think the genre is still popular since it’s an evil that you can kind of explain and fight compared to the real life evils that are harder to vanquish. The real fascination for me, and for other readers and writers I’m sure, is the characters in the fight. We want to root for them and see them win.
Selene – Do you consider zombies a metaphor or analogy for something else? I’m looking at your book Girl Z: My Life as a Teenage Zombie, about a teenager half-changed into a zombie.
Christine – With Girl Z, zombies truly can come to mean the horrors and angst of adolescence. With Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter, I think it’s giving a reason for horrors that can’t be fully understood. The Borden murders were ghastly and truly shocking for the time (and still are). And it was even more mind-boggling (and unacceptable to many), that a woman of Lizzie’s social standing could have committed such a heinous crime. Using zombies kind of answers that “how could she?” question, though many think it trivializes the crime, which was never my intention. It gives an answer, I think, to the unanswerable.
Selene – Of course, this is The Horror Tree, so why are you drawn to the horror genre?
Christine – I’ve always enjoyed getting scared, be it sitting in the front seat of the roller coaster, visiting haunted houses, or watching a creepy movie. I like reading books that make me wonder and want to see what’s next, no matter how awful it is!
Selene – Who or what do you consider some of your influences?
Christine – Like many writers and readers, I’ve long been a Stephen King fan. I also enjoy Richard Matheson, Jonathan Maberry and Dean Koontz. But I like to read in many genres, from historical to women’s fiction.
Selene – I read your LinkedIn profile and a few of the articles on your website. You write non-fiction as well as horror and other types of fiction. Does journalism have an influence on your fiction writing?
Christine – Journalism and nonfiction writing can be good training to write fiction, though the two are vastly different. I didn’t fall into fiction writing as easily, but I enjoy the creativity it allows me. I always say writing fiction lets me make up stuff when I can’t otherwise!
Selene – What does it mean when you say you’re a “chameleon” as a writer? I thought that was an interesting way to describe your work.
Christine – Some writers stick to one genre, but I seem to go wherever the ideas lead. I must say, though, that I really am enjoying writing about zombies and Lizzie Borden.
Selene – In yet another writerly iteration for you, Girl Z is a young adult story. How is writing YA horror different than writing horror for a mature audience?
Christine – It depends on the age frame, I think. Girl Z is a lot less gory than Lizzie, though older kids who watch The Walking Dead wouldn’t be bothered by it, I’d imagine. But kids are exposed to a lot more today at at younger age.
Selene – OK, standard question time. Where do you get your ideas?
Christine – Sometimes they just come to you, from who-knows-where. They suddenly appear. Or sometimes I might see or read something that sparks an idea. I’ve even had ideas come to me in dreams—or are those nightmares? Ha!
Selene – Both Lizzie and Girl Z are well-drawn characters. How do you approach character in your work?
Christine – I try to picture the characters in my head, like letting a movie play. And I think you learn different approaches as you develop as a writer and as the stories unfold. You never stop learning.
Selene – A story like Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter or The Haunting of Dr. Bowen requires a great deal of historical detail. What role does research play in your writing?
Christine – You can’t really do a story based on a real life person without doing the research. It doesn’t mean you always have to stick to the facts in chronological order or as reported, though. And since I’m not writing a fictional biography, I have some leeway to shift some events around or add other things to fit the story I’m trying to tell. But I still strive to stick to the framework and facts of the history I find. It just may be presented differently in parts.
With Dr. Bowen, I wondered how he might have been affected by what he saw that day. I wanted to look at the murders and the city’s unique history, but from his viewpoint. The hard part is you often end up getting lost in the reading and researching. It can be time consuming, but it’s interesting! Not surprisingly, I love reading old newspapers.
Selene – You seem to have many writing projects on the go, along with photography and crafts and so on. How do you achieve a balance with so much going on?
Christine – I think you have to make time for different things to challenge yourself and so you don’t get stagnant. It makes life interesting! The really hard part is pushing away from the computer. You can easily sit there all day if you’re not careful!
Selene – What advice would you give a writer who’s just starting out?
Christine – Read a variety of authors. Write what interest you. It’s easier, and lots more fun, to write about what you’re interested in. And keep writing, no matter what.
Selene – What’s next for you, and do you have anything else you’d like to talk about here?
Christine – I am working on Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter 2. I’m not quite ready to let go of Lizzie just yet. After that? We’ll see! Thank you for the interview. I enjoyed it!
Selene – Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule for us!
If you would like to read more about Christine and her work, check out the below links: