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:
The blog https://ielester.blogspot.co.uk/
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/
Patrick’s Website – www.megaflowgraphics.com
Josh’s Website: www.jishirofinney.com
Selene – First, tell us a bit about yourself.
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:
Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter: (Kindle, Print, Kindle): https://amzn.to/2LbVQ8U
The Haunting of Dr. Bowen: (Kindle, Print, Kindle Unlimited): http://getBook.at/HauntingofDrBowen
Selene – First, tell us a bit about yourself, and what current projects you have on the go.
Claire – Hello! I’m a music/arts journalist and speculative fiction author. I have a bachelor of Government and International Relations from Griffith University, and I’m currently working on my postgrad certificate in Writing, Editing, and Publishing at The University of Queensland. This might seem like blasphemy, but I enjoyed my politics degree a whole lot more than writing and editing!
I’ve been nominated four times for the Aurealis Convenor’s Award for Excellence in non-fiction, but have never won. One day! However, my very juvenile poem ‘Rainbows,’ written when I was 12, was commended in the 2002 Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Competition. So that’s cool!
I have Epilepsy and schizoid personality disorder, which has a significant impact on my life, and why I mostly write body horror. I don’t always feel like a real person, at least, not how a person should be. I find it very hard to communicate with people, and I’m quite reclusive. But I don’t always think of it as a bad thing, as it’s very inspirational for my writing!
I’m currently writing a novella tentatively titled ‘The Eagle and The Witch’ which explores the idea of being able to change your anatomy and, also, your sense of self. My anthology ‘Misanthropy’ will soon be released by Digitalian Publishing, so that’s exciting!
I also watch a lot of children’s television. My daughter, who is five, has opened my eyes to the brilliance of Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom. I’ve always wanted to write for a children’s TV show. I’m jealous someone thought of the show before me! Nanny Plum has got to be one of the best characters ever written!
Selene – How did you start writing?
Claire – I started writing at a young age, around eight or nine. I used to write stories for my younger sister, and then I wrote two Harry Potter ‘books’ because I couldn’t wait for The Order of The Phoenix to come out. Haha. My first major publication was ‘Madeline,’ included within Midnight Echo 12. However, I had a few short stories published beforehand, most of which flew under the radar, as they weren’t particularly good. Well, not in a professional sense! I was diagnosed with Epilepsy when I was around 12 or 13, which made me feel quite isolated from the world. I also have schizoid personality disorder. While I had a few friends in high school, I didn’t really socialise with them all that much as I’d often felt disconnected from them, so I’d spend hours alone writing stories. Most of them were about pirate adventures, although my first ‘novel’ was about a psychotic megalomaniac who had mutilated his hand. I’m a bit of a weirdo, obviously!
Selene – I’ve managed to read the first few chapters of Only The Dead, and some of your non-fiction work online. Tell us about your first novel.
Claire – ‘Only The Dead,’ I suppose, is a twisted love story of obsession and the horrors of human nature. Set in Australia and Vietnam during 1966 and 1967, the book is about two women, Lydia and Cassie, outsiders both, who develop a co-dependent relationship. Essentially, it is about the very real demons that come back with men and women from the war, and how they interact with those they left behind. I wanted to write about surgical nurses since most books about war are generally from the perspective of men. Two of my favourite tv shows, ‘Band Of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’ really get to the core of what it means to suffer so much mental and physical trauma, and how it changes your perception of yourself and the world around you. In a way ‘Only the Dead’ is not about war at all, but the struggles within ourselves and our identities and how we connect with others. Why are we instantly drawn to some people? Why do we instantly abhor others? Who we are on the inside is not always the person we are on the outside. We all have wars within each other, and sometimes those wars rage so hard, and so long we lose a part of ourselves, what makes us human.
Selene – One thing I was surprised to learn from Only The Dead was that Australia was involved in the Vietnam War. Of course, I’m a lazy researcher (and Canadian, and we weren’t involved), so most of what little I know about Vietnam comes from Hollywood. Let’s talk about the role of research in your writing. What’s involved, how important are the details, and what kind of tools do you use?
Claire – My research for the book included going to Vietnam as part of a study tour with Griffith, where I visited a lot of war memorials, including The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Ming city. It’s incredibly harrowing and very anti-American. There are lots of pictures of deceased victims, including body parts of children. I also went into the tunnels of Củ Chi (a little scary, since I have claustrophobia), but it was a great way to immerse myself in just one aspect of the war. Of course, my understanding of the war is minute compared to those involved in the conflict, but I do have a good knowledge of conflict and war in general. I also watched a lot of documentaries, read books, journal articles, watched films (biased, but enjoyable nonetheless), and more importantly learned about the role of nurses. I also watched videos of amputations of other surgical procedures, which I feel was a necessary part of understanding how to write an amputation scene. I think really immersing yourself in your writing is incredibly important because it allows you to understand your own ideas more clearly, and what drives you to write the story in the first place.
Selene – Just by looking over your bibliography and website, I see two pretty different themes running through your work. Not to be reductive, but one is body horror, and the other is politics. First, what about body horror inspires you as a writer?
Claire – I like to write about what makes us human in the philosophical and political sense, the function of a human being, hedonism, decadence, and the idea of conflict – seeing the world through Epicurean-coloured glasses or Mill-coloured gladded, either Epicuras’ individual salvation or Mill’s aggregated good of all. How should humans define pleasure and happiness? Is a body horror a reflection not only the mutation of anatomy but how we view ourselves as biological, visceral creatures? ‘The Witch and the Eagle’ explores the idea of being able to change your anatomy and, also, your sense of self. Does becoming part animal means you lose your humanity? And what does it truly mean to be human? In a political sense, it’s all about how people fit into society, especially if they are a minority different in a certain way. This is where my Epilepsy comes in. I often feel I’m an anomaly, a mutation of anatomy, especially when I sustain particularly nasty injuries from seizures. I don’t always feel like a wholly functional human being. ‘Madeline’ was my first foray into body horror, and I wrote it after a particularly nasty seizure. The story is about puberty, and in a way, about my puberty and adolescence.
I also write ghost stories, but I think of them as a deviation from my usual writing. My mum is a firm believer in spirits and hauntings. While I’m not entirely convinced, my paranormal stories sometimes feel like a breath of fresh air, as I don’t feel as emotionally attached to them as my body horror stories, and they’re fun to write.
Selene – And now we come to politics! They say that you should never talk about religion or politics, particularly if you want to keep your friends, and we live in a very complicated time, politically. Why do you write about politics, or work political ideas into your writing?
Claire – Ya, politics! (Does anyone sane say that? Haha) I have a Bachelor of Government and International Relations, I’ve studied at Hanoi University in Vietnam, and once represented Russia in a mock UNSC resolution regarding humanitarian corridors in Syria. Russia won. I’m very competitive! 😉 I mentioned Epicuras and Mill, and how people fit into society, and I suppose, on a deeper level, I’m interested in humans and our relationships to each other. I like to study why we categorise people, what makes us different, and what makes us similar. Why are people racist? Why are people segregated?
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes developed a theory of violence and the state and concluded that before the sovereign state people lived in a state of nature, a war of all against all. The modern sovereign state begun after people made a social contract with each other – because the state became sovereign, no one was above the law, and no one could change the state’s use of violence. We, as humans, give up our right to violence to the state so that the state can use violence against us as a means of preserving life. Cities are a haven for disorder, as we all weren’t meant to live so close to each other.
I work these ideas into my writing through stories of how people interact with one another, how they view their relationship to the world, which is particularly evident in my short story ‘The Eagle,’ the basis of my novella. Even though the Treaty of Westphalia was supposed to end all religious wars, we still categorise people. And as much as I disagree with it, it definitely helps with my writing!
Selene – Only The Dead was set during the Vietnam War era, and the protests of the time provide a backdrop to the story. Robert Reich noted that in our current political climate, he’s seeing protests and political involvement that we haven’t seen since those days. There are definite parallels between that time and today, so why did you choose to write about the Vietnam era?
Claire – I started researching the Vietnam War (or, ‘Cuộc chiến tranh Mỹ’, the American War, as the Vietnamese call it) after learning about the conflict at Griffith University. I was particularly drawn to this war because I’m interested in the dynamics of power and the P5, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The Cold War set a lot of wheels in motion, and neither the Soviet Union nor the United States could risk an all-out war against each other because of the threat of nuclear war. So essentially, the Vietnam War was a Cold War-era proxy war which pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its chief ally, the United States. There are a lot of dramatised versions of the war, some which are quite good, but they often don’t explain the reasons behind the war, which I think confuses a lot of people and alters their perception of the events. Also, not a lot of people know about the role of the UNSC.
I think the parallels between the 1960’s and today stem from the idea of the Cold War, and the fear of the ‘other.’ Russia was seen as a rogue state, especially during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it’s now once again viewed in the Cold War light. I suppose our current political climate mirrors many aspects of the Cold War and the idea that we cannot know what rogue states are planning. This generates political uprisings all over the world, especially in light of the continuing so-called ‘War on Terror,’ and the alliances between the P5 states. I don’t want to go too much into my own political views, but I think the Vietnam War was a turning point, and a precursor to the world we live in today. It’s much more important than people think.
Selene – Your bio mentions a lot of books in your house. What do you like to read? What are you reading at the moment?
Claire – I have just over 400 books, a mini-library in my bedroom. I read a lot of everything. On my shelves are authors such as Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Sonya Hartnett, Isobelle Carmody, Jostein Gaarder, Stephen King, John Marsden, HP Lovecraft, Ursula Le Guinn, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, DBC Pierre…I have so much variety I often joke I should make library cards for people who might want to read them. I like stories about people. My favourite book is Black Foxes by Sonya Hartnett, withal-time favourite quote: “Bored, bored, bored……I am so utterly bored that my life could come to an end right here and I would fail to notice any difference.” Tyrone Sully is basically me!
At the moment I’m reading ‘The Book of Lost Things’ by John Connolly. I have ‘Eucalyptus Goth’ by Brian Craddock and ‘The Girl Who Took an Eye For An Eye’ by David Lagercrantz on my bedside table as my to-read list. The original Stieg Larsson Millennium series is amazing!
Selene – Who or what are your biggest influences, as a writer, and where do you get your ideas?
Claire – Tough question! While my health issues are a definite influence, Franz Kafka is one of my biggest influences as a writer, especially regarding body horror. Franz Kafka, like me, had schizoid personality disorder, so I feel a sort of kinship with me. Reading his novella, ‘The Metamorphosis,’ motivated to write body horror. Even though I had always been fascinated by body horror, I didn’t start writing it myself until after reading his book.
Clive Barker and Sonya Hartnett are also my biggest influences. While Clive Barker is an obvious reflection of my interest in body horror, Sonya Hartnett writes about dysfunctional people, and how they do or don’t fit into society, which I mentioned is mostly what I write about. Her work is absolutely brilliant.
I suppose I get my ideas from my struggles with epilepsy, but also by observing the world around me. I like to observe people, take notes about what interests me about them, and how they interact with others.
Selene – I enjoyed the article in The Australia Times, about Vietnam. Do you get to travel often? How does travelling shape your writing?
Claire – I don’t travel all the time (although I’d like to!). The only other place I’ve been to outside Australia is New Caledonia and Vietnam, although I stopped off at Taiwan for a connecting flight. Does that count? Haha. I suppose money is the issue with regards to travelling. I’d like to travel around Australia with my daughter one day, and also travel by myself when she’s older. But I do travel interstate quite often for speculative fiction conventions and to see one of my friends. I’ve almost got capital city bingo, with Perth and Darwin left to cross off the list!
I have a world map in my office which I look at every day. I used to be a board member of Uganda For Her, so I’d take conference calls from Uganda. I left the organisation before I was able to travel to Uganda, but I’d like to go one day.
I think travel is so essential when writing. It’s undoubtedly influenced by the idea of the world and other cultures, and I think it’s so important for people to leave their country, for so often because become unintentionally closed-minded regarding the rest of the world. I’d like to travel through Europe, Russia, Iceland, and South America. I like to write about nature, which I’ve used quite heavily in ‘The Eagle and The Witch.’ But I think South America is on the top of my list. I want to traverse through the Amazon rainforest. I feel peace within nature, as though time has stopped, and everything doesn’t matter, if only for a moment.
Selene – And, further to the question of travel, let’s talk about the importance of place and setting to your writing. Where is your work set, and what are your favourite places to write about?
Claire – For me, there is no story without place and setting. At least, no major piece of work, like a novella or novel. The most important part, for me, is grounding the reader in an imagined world. Even if the world already exists, it will always be changed by your own perception of it within your writing. As I mentioned, ‘Only The Dead’ is set in Australia and Vietnam, though my science-fiction story ‘Andromeda’ is set on Mars, my novella ‘Of Man And Woman’ set in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, my short ‘The Beach’ is set on a deserted island, my soon to be published short thriller story ‘Deep Sea Fishing’ is set on a fishing trawler. I tend to isolate my characters, and make their world smaller than ours, to create a sense of claustrophobia and fear. I think it’s vital to set the scene first, to establish the setting first, so the reader can jump right into the story and feel connected to the world straight away.
Selene – Your bio also mentions that you’re a parent. How do you balance your work and other responsibilities?
Claire – As a music and arts journalist, I interview a lot of people via video conferences or over the phone, and most people I interview live overseas. I review shows, so spend time at theatres and festivals, which helps with my isolation. Festivals are also good because I can take my daughter with her. Isobelle (named after Isobelle Carmody) spends half the week with me and half the week with her father, so I do have time to work on things, which means I devote all my time to her when I can. I organise my work schedule around her, as she comes first. Although, I have had to conduct a few phone interviews while she’s in the house, and it’s tough to slip away without her shouting ‘mum! Who’s on the phone?? I want to talk to them!! Let me say hello!’ It often makes the interview more interesting, as I talk to a lot of musicians, and then the topic changes from their new album to their child’s favourite TV show. I spent six years at university studying two bachelor degrees, which was hard because I had just started my course when she was born. As she grew older, it was challenging to work around her, but I’m glad I have my family to help. Not being allowed to drive is also hard, so we take buses and trains everywhere, which my daughter considers an adventure, although I consider a nightmare!
Selene – You’re involved with Women In Horror, which happens every February. I always kick myself for asking this, because I don’t ask this question of male writers (!) but how important is a showcase such as WIH?
Claire – Traditionally women are victims in horror films, by crazed killers, haunted houses, or monsters. They’re often cast in stereotypic damsel-in-distress roles or are a mother to a possessed child. But I do think there are several films where women take the lead and are just as strong and dangerous as their male counterparts. A lot of Clive Barker novels have strong female characters, and ‘Hellraiser,’ the adaptation of his novella ‘The Hellbound Heart,’ features Julia, who is perhaps just as monstrous as the Cenobites. I hate the idea of the ‘final girl,’ where one woman manages to survive a terrible ordeal out of sheer luck. But with ‘The Hellbound Heart,’ Kirsty Cotton is a ‘final girl’ who manages to send the Cenobites back to their alternate dimension. I think because woman are physically weaker than men there’s this idea that they’re somehow mentally weaker, but I don’t think that’s the case. For me, everyone is the same when faced with unspeakable horrors, regardless of your gender. So any film or novel that includes strong female characters is so important not just for the horror industry, but also for society.
Selene – Who are your favourite women authors (horror or otherwise), and why do you think women in horror don’t get more recognition?
Claire – Anne Rice and Clive Barker are my top two favourite authors, but I love Anne Rice because The Vampire Chronicles were so important to me when I read them. At the time I was in an abusive relationship, and the only kind thing my boyfriend ever did for me was buy me Anne Rice books. Her books are eccentric, with no Anne Rice fan the same. “Good horror fiction as I see it is always about us, about the human condition,” – Anne Rice, February 2017. And that’s precisely why I love The Vampire Chronicles, and adore The Mayfair Witches books. They’re about people, their relationship to one another, how they interact within society. It’s such a big part of my own life, and indeed her books amazingly impacted my life. I found solace in her characters, even at the darkest of times, and it helped me crawl out of a relationship which almost swallowed me whole.
We were talking about female horror writers at Conflux this year, and I mentioned we need female horror writers because ‘strong female characters’ are still a topic of discussion. Where are the ‘strong male characters’ panels at conventions? Women still face discrimination, surprisingly with book covers. Kim Wilkins, who taught one of my courses at UQ, mentioned books of hers with helpless-looking women on her covers even though her female characters were heroines. It’s utterly ridiculous. Perhaps it’s because of the hunter/gatherer idea, that women aren’t built for quests, and should leave all the sword-fighting to the men. I don’t know. We talk about these things in my house a lot, and we all seem to agree and disagree on points. But I respect women who aren’t necessarily maternal. I’m not, and I have a kid. I didn’t even want children, and she was a happy surprise! But I’m glad I have my daughter, for children make you see the world in an entirely different light, especially as a woman.
Selene – If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
Claire – Golly gosh, I can’t imagine not being a writer (double negative! Haha). Umm….if I didn’t have epilepsy I’d likely be in the army or air force, as I wanted to be a pilot, and I think having epilepsy really strengthened my idea of myself as a writer. I’d love to be a surgeon or work in medicine in some field. Probably neuroscience, which is hilariously ironic. I also wanted to be a mechanic, which is also ironic. I think I just like how things are put together, and how to pull them apart. Especially bodies. I’d also probably be a nomad and live overseas somewhere. But alas, I’ve not yet been elected queen of the world. One day.
Selene – What advice would you give someone who wants to write, especially horror?
Claire – Lean on your own experiences. Use your own life for inspiration. We often don’t think of ourselves as incredibly interesting creatures, but we are. Humans are the most interesting creatures of all. Horror is not all about slasher films and buckets full of blood (although I LOVE buckets full of blood), but our innate desires, our fears, the limitations of our human bodies. Look to yourself for inspiration. Look to those around you, even if you only see them on the bus once a week and don’t know their names. Fear and love are polar opposites, but find a way to tie them together unusually or disturbingly. Then you’ll find the horror within.
Selene – What’s next for you, and do you have anything else you’d like to talk about?
Claire – Let’s talk about sex, baby! I’m looking forward to the publication of ‘Misanthropy,’ and also my short story ‘The Eagle,’ the June 2018 feature story for Disturbed Digest By Alban Lake publishing. I’ve never had a feature story before (although I write cover stories for work), so I’m super keen for the issue to come out. I’m also hoping I’ll finish my novella, but considering how long it took for me to write ‘Only the Dead,’ one can never know! I’ve only written 19,000 words out of my planned 25,000-40,000, so who knows? The story is taking itself in a different direction than I planned, so there’s no telling what I’ll end up with. Hopefully, it’s readable! I’m also hoping to get a full-time job. Employers seem to ignore applicants who aren’t allowed to get a licence, so I’m planning on stealing a monster truck and bulldozing companies who won’t hire me even though I’m overqualified. So, depending on what happens, I might be in jail! Now that’s true women in horror!
Selene – thank you so much for your time, Claire!
If you would like to find out more about Claire and her work, you can find her via the below links: