Ruschelle: Thank you for sitting down to share a little about yourself with us.
Debra: I’m thrilled to get the chance to interview with you. We all love The Horror Tree!
Ruschelle: You’re written a few books on the paranormal, two of them being memoirs. Tell us a little about the events in your life that motivated you to pen your stories.
Debra: I think the thing that affected me most, was spending three years in a haunted house. I was a fairly normal kid until we moved in. Whatever it was, the invisible thing living there with us seemed to focus on me in particular and unleashed a lot of poltergeist-style terror. This was the beginning, for me, of realizing there might be things out there we weren’t being told about by the grown-ups! Since that early age of fourteen, I’ve dealt with many similar experiences, and tried to help others who didn’t know where to turn. (I even worked a bit for California Psychics-and yes, they actually make you go through testing with two different managers before you’re hired) Eventually, this evolved into deeper understanding of hauntings, people involved with them, and learning the parameters of psychic abilities. Somehow, from all this, I also developed an understanding of the psychology of people in general, their motivations, both good and bad, and their triumphs and tragedies.
Ruschelle: You refer to yourself as a ‘reluctant psychic.’ Your books, A Haunted Life: The True Ghost Story of a Reluctant Psychic and The Dead are Watching: Ghost Stories from a Reluctant Psychic- splash your feelings out on their covers. Why reluctant?
Debra: Some of the female line of my family had psychic abilities. They were also very religious, so “psychic” wasn’t in their vocabulary. We heard the word demon bandied about enough that it terrified me to admit to having abilities, let alone using them! My mother’s family is also descended from Alice Nutter, one of the Lancashire Witches, who was executed by King James I in August of 1612. I don’t believe she actually was a witch of course, but then again, it has made me wonder if she had these same psychic abilities. Back then it was enough to get you executed.
Ruschelle: Have you embraced your psychic insight, your ‘gift’?
Debra: I have, and I haven’t. Yes, they can be a good thing and can help others. But over the years, I’ve come to believe they can attract negative energy, sometimes in the extreme. I think everyone has them to some extent, but some people shut them off young—especially if your family of origin is not accepting of it. I’ve also found the so-called right brained types have more experiences. This may be due to the creative person’s greater ability to adopt a childlike openness and viewpoint, which I believe is necessary in order to write, paint, play music, or act, well.
Ruschelle: Have you met others like you and have you thought of working with them to write another book on the subject of the supernatural?
Debra: It’s funny, but people seem ashamed to talk about this for the most part. They’re afraid of being called delusional or whatever. Once my books came out and I was doing a lot of appearances and events, I heard story after story from folks who had seen spirits, or had a deceased parent come back to them after death, or they lived in a haunted house. Once you break the ice discussing this stuff rationally, you would be surprised at the huge number of people who’ve had these experiences. I recently did a regional book on hauntings, mostly a labor of love for my area history and legends. I love the subject, the research, and would always be willing to write more nonfiction paranormal books. I’ve also done some smaller articles for charity and so forth. I am a big believer in giving back whenever possible.
Ruschelle: You have written fiction as well. What did you find easier to pen, fiction or your own experiences?
Debra: I love writing fiction too. Somehow, letting my imagination run wild and creating unlimited story ideas is so freeing. I love to write what scares me. So, monsters, both human and cryptid, Post Apoc and SHTF, ghosts, demons, and almost anything that would pit people against something scary, is fair game for me. Writing nonfiction is easier in some ways, since it’s merely retelling what happened. So, I think that making it up out of whole cloth, so to speak, is more exciting!
Ruschelle: Have any of your real-life experiences with the supernatural oozed into your fiction?
Debra: Yes, since feeling that heightened terror at a young age, I think I’ve been affected in many ways, and I can’t help but pass it on in my writing. That sense of possibility, of the existence of unseen things in the dark, or in the light, is always with me. We read horror to get that thrill. When we put the scary book down, doesn’t it make us want the lights on a little longer? That’s what I mean by affecting me. I want others to suffer with me. Ha ha, just kidding, sort of… I just finished edits on a book that will be coming out with Digital Fiction Publishing in the next couple months, titled “The Evil in the Tower”. It’s got a lot of personal experiences within it. Obsession, possession, and evil from the past get triggered by circumstances that mirror the original traumatic event which caused the haunting. It flips back and forth in time, to the California Gold Rush days, retelling the story.
Ruschelle: Red Death and its sequel Red Death Survivors take place in a post-apocalyptic world. What inspired you to create a world filled with different ’ghosts’?
Debra: Oh man, I’ve always been two things–a bit of an armchair prepper, of the what–if mentality, and a total germaphobe. So, combine those two things and add an Ebola Zaire pandemic, and you’ve got “Red Death: A Post Apocalyptic Thriller”, released by Severed Press. I loved the research that went into that stuff. How many microns of virus can live on the seat of an airplane, for how long, that sort of thing. The premise of those books, is what would a couple of normal people do if most of the world died? How would you avoid the virus? What would you eat? Can you hunt? Trap? How would you gather water and the firewood needed to boil it? What about the gangs of starving madmen you see chasing down the neighborhood cats to cook and eat them? I did learn you can eat any variety of Hosta—those green and white striped plants you see in everyone’s yard. I actually went out back, dug up daylily roots and roasted them in olive oil and salt. Yummy. Yes, I’m one of “those” writers…experience it all, live it, soak it in, whenever possible-except the chasing cats to eat part.
Ruschelle: Here’s a fun question. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken or the Ghost and Mrs. Muir? The young’uns might have to Google this. LOL
Debra: Oh yeah, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken! I was flipping through channels not long ago and saw that one. I watched the ending, and it sure brought back good memories.
Ruschelle: Some of us have a book inside us we’d love to write or think we should write but it just eludes us. Mine is romance. I think I can write it but…blood and guts end up happening. Carnage is always a mood killer. LOL Is there a genre you’d LOVE to write to but aren’t sure if you can or should?
Debra: Wow. Now that sounds familiar! I started trying to write a cozy mystery, and blood and guts and possessions started happening to me too. So I went with it, and that’s the book I mentioned above, The Evil in the Tower. I’d love to write some YA or midgrade. There are parameters I’d have to research, or maybe one of my writer friends could give me guidelines on rough patches. I’d still like to try the cozy mystery though, if I can tame the monsters inside. LOL
Ruschelle: Are you lucky enough to craft your books quickly from beginning to end or are you a writer that let’s things stew, steep and bubble before it sees the light of the moon?
Debra: You know, I think I am sort of a hodgepodge type, using whatever comes to mind. I usually start with an idea, as most of us do, then I start a file on my desktop, adding scene ideas, or whatever as I go. Then at some point, when it looks as though there’s enough of an idea there to make an entire book, I will start it. When I first began all this, I found a book on a screenwriting style of novel writing, called “Story Engineering”, by Larry Brooks. It was very helpful, and I always see my scenes in my head first, so it made sense. I do think I did it all a bit backwards though-most of my friends started writing short stories first, then moved on to full length works. I’ve written eight books, and just recently started on short stories. I’m really enjoying writing them too. There are so many great anthologies coming out this year alone-The Twisted Book of Shadows, Lost Highways, New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Monsters of Any Kind, Haunted are These Houses—wow. I can’t wait to read them all.
Ruschelle: Writing music is a different art form from writing books. Lyrically, one can be more cryptic and sentence structure isn’t always followed which can be very liberating. How do you tackle writing each art form?
Debra: Songwriting really helped me lay the foundation for writing novels I think. The Nashville songwriter mantra is “Paint a picture with words”, because you only have three or four minutes to tell the story in a song. So you end up trying to be more descriptive, choosing words carefully to convey exactly what you want. No extraneous words, because every single one counts. I find in songwriting, I look at it as, every line counts, whereas in novels, it can be looked at more as every paragraph. Some may quibble with me on that one, but the songwriting rules are so exacting sometimes, you can’t deviate. In novel writing, it feels freer, like you can mess around a bit without getting into too much trouble.
Ruschelle: Since you are an author and therefore a wordsmith, when you concentrate on songwriting do you write the lyrics first or is it the music that spurs the lyrics?
Debra: For me, they’ve always come at the same time. It might be just a single line, which comes to me along with a melody. Then I work on the melody most, adding the lyrics as I go along, changing them as needed. I’ve also found a little trick, for the songwriters out there: always write the melody in your head first. If you sit down to a guitar or piano, your melody will be limited to the chord structures you know, and sometimes we get into a rut with those. Go for the soaring new melody, then try to find the chords that fit with it afterwards.
Ruschelle: One of your songs was featured in the movie Killer Joe with Matthew McConaughey. Could you tell us what the process of submitting music is compared to submitting a story or book to be published?
Debra: I’ve had several music publishers over the years, and signed many single-song contracts. (as opposed to being what’s known as a staff songwriter) The Nashville publishers bleed over into the Los Angeles music scene these days, whereas not so long ago, they were more separate. I’ve signed several songs with a publisher who had many #1 hits in his catalogue, both country and pop. He teamed up with an LA music publisher (Pen Music Group), who specialize in TV, and Film, doing everything from commercials to movie soundtracks. I have about twenty songs signed at the moment being pitched for various things. The way it works is, I record something I like or think is right for a certain star, or for TV or whatever, then I send it via MP3 to him. If he likes it, he signs it, and starts pitching it. (I have my own recording studio in my basement, so that makes it nice) So in a way, the book publisher pitching is similar. I think I had the edge on what to expect when I started writing for print publishers. I’m a little new to print publishing, my first book having come out in 2013, but as far as rejection goes, it comes with the territory in both music and print publishing!
Ruschelle: You’re a blues gal with a sultry, rich voice. I love it. Other than your voice being perfectly suited for the genre, why else did you choose to write and perform the blues comparatively to other genres?
Debra: Thank you. Honestly, I love singing all kinds of styles. In live performance, I sing everything from Adele to Joplin, Stevie Nicks, to Carrie Underwood. People comment on the bluesy voice, and I like singing (and writing) blues, but it apparently comes natural, and it chose me, rather than the other way around.
Ruschelle: Could a concept blues album based on the supernatural be on the horizon? New things could happen at the Crossroads. LOL
Debra: Ha, ha. Never say never! I am always up for a challenge. Now you’ve got the wheels a turning.
Ruschelle: You set up a scholarship fund in memory of your son. That’s a beautiful yet meaningful gesture to those you are able to assist. Could you tell us a little about the scholarship?
Debra: Yes, I am excited about the scholarship. My son James was killed by a drunk driver in 2009. He was an only child, so it’s a devastating thing, all around. Rather than wallow in the grief-which believe me, is easy to do- I wanted to try and somehow turn a negative into something positive. So, eight years ago, we started an annual aggressive roller blading contest and music festival. All proceeds went into an account to fund this music/arts scholarship. The contest itself grew huge, and many people helped donate their time to achieve the final result. In May, 2018, this year, the first scholarship was given out. Long after we are gone, it will continue to help a young person going into the arts, music, or writing. It’s self-sustaining now, so all the work was worth it. My son James (a pro roller blading musician) would be happy.
Ruschelle: You just had a story in Killing It Softly 2. Congratulations! What can you share with us on your future offerings? Books, music?
Debra: I’m busy pitching short stories at the moment, and three are shortlisted with publishers, so wish me luck! I expect my book “The Evil in the Tower” with Digital Fiction to be out very soon. I also signed a two book paranormal suspense series with them, which will follow late this year or early next. I continue to perform locally, at my favorite gigs, and my publisher also continues to pitch songs. You just never know what will happen, and that’s the beauty of both songwriting and print writing. If you do it for the love of it, anything else that happens is a bonus!
Thank you so much for sharing a little of your life with us. We look forward to hearing your music and reading your tales!
If you want to find out more about Debra and her work you can find her via the below links.
Goodreads: https: //www.goodreads.com/author/show/6981130.Debra_Robinson
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Debra-Robinson/e/B00BMHA032/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
Scott – Your online bio mentions that you’ve lived in South Africa, the USA, Japan, and now Australia. With that in mind, I’ve got to ask: Which place did you like best and why?
Jason – I’ve lived most of my life in Australia, and I guess I like it best here. My immediate family is based here now and I just like the low-key culture to which we aspire. Australians are casual, vulgar, and will ruthlessly mock anyone who we think is putting on airs.
I also love Japan. When we got married, my wife and I did consider living over there for a time, but it didn’t work out with the global economy the way it was.
Scott – Aspiringly low-key. I like that. How would you say that your past travels have had an influence on your literary work?
Jason – Hugely. I didn’t really consider myself an Australian until I had lived in the US for a few years. When Americans asked me where I was from, I’d say ‘Australia’, just to make it simple, and eventually, I realized it was true. In Australia, when people ask, I have to say South Africa . . . but I haven’t lived there since I was 10 and I don’t feel like a South African any more.
Travel’s not just about seeing the sights or getting away from the things you take for granted. I love being in transit, at least on the outbound side of things. As stressful as airports can be, it’s great to just be able to put aside your everyday concerns and just concentrate on getting to where you are going. I really do feel a weight coming off my shoulders when I finally sit down in a departure lounge and know there’s nothing I have to do but wait for my flight to be called. And then, once you arrive….
Being an outsider in a strange place is frightening and alienating and wonderful. It’s addictive.
I like to set stories in places I have visited. Sometimes I will visit places if I want to write about them. I am just now finishing up a new novel about a hitman whose employers send him to on missions to places that don’t exist — but who is really only in the game for the travel opportunities.
Scott – Having travelled quite a bit as well, I know what you mean about simplifying things to make it easier for everyone. However, when it comes to writing, it seems like you’ve got your fingers in a little bit of everything! I’ve talked to writers with English degrees and writers who came to the craft after years on the theatrical stage. How did you end up writing novels and teaching workshops?
Jason – Writing is something I’ve always done for pleasure; ever since I first learned how to make the alphabet. It’s something I always wanted to do. I did do a one-year graduate diploma in creative writing and I took classes at the local writing centre, and that lead directly to my first publications. That I think was fifty percent due to the skills I learned in class and fifty percent due to me feeling like I was not only qualified but obliged to spend more time writing and to start submitting stories to publications. In particular, the workshops I did with Jack Dann taught me not just craft of writing, but how to go about actually selling stories.
Writing grew out of that. I found that I wanted to tell longer stories or to write more stories about the same characters, and it was just a matter of trying until I found out how to do it. My first (awful, unpublishable) novel was basically an exercise in seeing if I could write a complete story about a group of characters (government agents and roaming psychopaths) in a situation (a serial killer—with mind powers!) that would go to novel length.
(Told you it was terrible.)
I never planned on teaching workshops. The first one I did was at the request of the Australian Society of Authors—they cancelled it at the last minute, and I admit I was relieved. But then the Australian Comic Arts Festival asked me to do one, and I figured I’d give it a shot. I was surprised that it went off well and, when Comics Mastermind approached me about working with them, I figured I could do it regularly.
Scott – You know, you say that’s a terrible plot for a novel, but I’ve seen what’s on television…. Speaking of serial killers, though, you prefer to explore the darker elements of speculative fiction. It seems like you prefer fairy tales to Lovecraftian horror or weird fiction. What’s so interesting to you about that niche?
Jason – I think there are a couple of things at play here. First is my desire to tell stories that are a bit different. Good triumphs over evil, the hero finds eternal love (or perhaps some momentary sexual gratification), there’s a big parade where someone important hands out medals? You’re not going to see that from me unless I am taking the piss. The darker spaces—horror, noir, weird fiction—give you license to do stories that don’t have happy endings.
Secondly, I’ve always more interested in the bad guys than the goodies. They take initiative, and they come up with clever plans and awesome machines. I’d much rather watch them do their thing than follow the steroid-jacked hero blunder around ruining all that work. I like to write villains, monsters, thieves, rock stars. If I’m having a good day you might get an anti-hero. I don’t need to make the characters sympathetic. Long as they’re interesting enough to keep you reading, I feel like I’ve done my job.
Scott – I read one of your short essays that you find Ged, the main character in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to be quite relatable. That was back in 2013. Do you still feel the comparison is apt and, if so, where are you in your journey to ultimate power?
Jason – A Wizard of Earthsea has been my favourite book since I was nine years old. It’s a book for children, but I’ve read it many times and I always learn something new. And I guess what I like about Ged is that, for all his amazing deeds, the biggest problem he has to deal with is a personal one. He has to come to terms with his own weakness in order to overcome it.
I am a long way from ultimate power! Like every author, I want to publish more books, and I want to see them in more bookstores and on more shelves and to hear more people talking about them. My writing career is almost old enough to drive a car and it has yet to bring me fame or fortune, but every year I feel like my position improves and that’s really all you can plan for, I think. Maybe I’ll stumble into a lucky break, but if not, I’ll just keep grinding away at it.
Scott – Who knows. Maybe ultimate power is right around the corner! Your latest creation, Faerie Apocalypse, is a tale about mortals crossing into the realm of the Fae. What kind of research did you have to do for this piece?
Jason – I went to fairyland with a camera and a notepad. The camera didn’t work.
My research for this was reading a lot of other books in which the characters go adventuring in fairy land, or some facsimile thereof. I learned to read on this material (Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books), so I think I know my way around the genre pretty well by now.
Faerie Apocalypse is about how stories grow across genres and media and culture, from the writers to readers (writers are also readers) and how this process makes them real in a way that is remarkable for a pack of lies. I also did a small amount of research into UK geography—I travelled there a couple of times! — which Alan Baxter then kindly corrected for me.
Scott – Learning to read while learning about fairies sounds like a good way to gain ingrained knowledge. That’s surprisingly common in speculative fiction authors. I see that you’re in the graphic art space as well. The Sixsmiths is a graphic novel about Satanists who’ve fallen prey to the global recession. How did you get into graphic novels, and what does the creative partnership between yourself and J. Marc Schmidt look like?
Jason – I got into comics as a reader pretty late—I think I was seventeen or eighteen. At that point, I already knew that I wanted to be a writer. I also wanted to be an artist, although not to the same degree. Comics at that time were full of fresh (to me) new voices and stories for a while there I found I was enjoying them better than I was prose fiction.
I first encountered J. Marc while messing around on some comics web forums in the early 2000s. J. Marc wanted to draw something short and I had a script I’d been messing with and the next thing you know, the pages arrived in my mailbox. I was living in the US then, and Marc was in Germany. I didn’t even know his real name until the pages arrived. And those pages were amazing! I’d never really thought about writing for another artist before that but I was immediately hooked.
- Marc was my primary collaborator from 2003 until 2010. Usually, we worked in a pretty traditional way—I’d write a full script and he’d take it away and draw it. Then I would letter (and sometimes colour) the work and prep it for print. Sometimes, we worked Marvel Method. Occasionally he’d just send me pages and ask me to write dialogue for them. Still others, he’d write dialogue as well, and I’d just edit it and drop it into lettering. J. Marc sold a couple of solo graphic novels before I had any real published comics work and is more than capable of writing his own material, so I very was lucky to have the chance to work with him.
Scott – It sounds like lurking around forums and searching for the secret to life might just pay off for all of us, one day. Speaking of, I always ask: What kind of advice would you give to writers looking to get their work out there?
Jason – Just to stick with it. Occasionally, someone gets lucky and gets huge immediately but for most writers – myself certainly included – it takes a long time to get good enough and a long time to find recognition, much less success. If you’re not prepared to go the distance you’re probably wasting your time.
There are a lot of shortcuts you can take. Anybody with a word-processor and an internet connection can publish a book these days but, regardless of whether you are a traditionally published author or an indie, or something in between, you still have to do the work. Learn the craft, write the book, edit and polish it. Learn to talk about it in a professional way.
Also, while it’s important to pay attention to the market, it’s just as important to have some fun. You’re not going to stumble into the next monster hit by doing what everyone else does. Don’t be afraid to go your own way.
Scott – Good advice. From amateur author to present, what did your writing journey look like?
Jason – It feels like my whole career has been on the repêchage if I can use a sporting analogy. I tend to flub the opening rounds of the competition and then have to fight my way back into contention the hard way. I’m the John McClane of Australian genre fiction.
I started out a prose writer and then made a shift into being primarily focused on comics. Then it swung back to being about fifty-fifty and now I’m writing mostly prose again. This is based on personal circumstances as much as on opportunity—I have a young child and that has eaten up the time I have for the kind of project management overheads needed to make comics. With prose, I can usually just sit down and write.
Scott – Suddenly, writing sounds like more of a “yippee-ki-yay” situation. Do you have a daily process to keep you motivated when you sit down to write?
Jason – I’ve never had a daily process. Right now, I’m so time poor that any free moment I get for writing is a precious commodity — no additional motivation required.
When I was younger and had actual free time, my trick was to have two big projects going at once. I would switch between them whenever I felt myself flagging. That kept me fresh and I think made me at least fifty percent more productive than I would have been otherwise.
Nowadays I have less time, and I have ten projects competing for attention and wearing me out. I’m currently trying to streamline all of my processes in the hope that one day I’ll be able to sleep again.
Scott – I’m imagining you as one of those plate spinners that I’d see in a circus. You seem to collaborate with other authors and artists frequently. You recently worked with Greg Vondruska to put together a collection of stories. You were interviewed in the Beyond the Words podcast. How do you find those opportunities?
Jason – Greg is an old friend and that collaboration happened because we were working on the same project with a big group of others — completing the autobiographical graphic novel written by the sadly missed Ed Siemienkowicz, a mutual friend. That went really well, and Greg and I are now working up something bigger together. It’s a crime-noir comic called Quick. But originally, that just came out of community networking. I met some local comic creators when I was living in the States and Greg was a friend of theirs (and so was Ed).
Holly from Beyond the Words approached me to be on the podcast — I guess she read about Faerie Apocalypse somewhere or heard about it from a friend. Once you’ve been around for a while, people start to know who you are. I got some coverage in The Guardian when a reporter saw me speaking at a convention. So really, just get out into the real world, not just the virtual, and make yourself known.
Scott – So not just the internet forums, then! In closing, what’s one excerpt from your work that you feel most defines you as an author?
Here’s a bit from Faerie Apocalypse. While this book is quite stylistically distinct from most of my prose fiction, which is pretty lean, I think this little sequence gives a good look at the kinds of characters that I like to write. Here we meet the Queen of the Ore-lands, who is one of my favourite characters in the book. A monstrous character who fills out her role as the story requires–but you can see the straining to contain her. She is, I think one of the few characters in the book who is genuinely worthy of sympathy.
The Queen of the Ore-lands was tall and slender and pale. Her raiment was cast from a dozen different metals, secured to her flesh with chains and welds and rivets. The skin of her cheeks had been peeled-back and secured with wire stitches, revealing too many rows of silver teeth.
The Queen shook out her iron-grey hair and rose from her throne. When she grinned, he could see her teeth from three orifices. “Mortal man, you have been granted audience.” Her voice was like a hammer on an anvil.
The mortal put down his rucksack and bent to one knee. “Majesty.”
The Queen’s gauntleted hands clattered as she brought them together. “My time is valuable,” she said. “What do you seek?”
“Majesty, I seek the most beautiful thing in the world,” he said, keeping his gaze fixed on his bootlaces.
The Queen raised one ring-pierced, chain-threaded brow. “Indeed?”
“In what form, pray tell, do you expect to find this… object?”
“She is a Queen of the Faerie.”
The Queen’s smile did not waver. “Well? Have you found her?”
“The intricacy and skill of the work that has been wrought upon your Majesty is a marvel—”
“Answer the question,” said the Queen, through her hideous grin. “Am I the most beautiful thing in the world?”
He looked right into her ball-bearing eyes and said: “I find your Majesty to be profoundly ugly.”
The Queen threw her head back and laughed; so long and so loud that the walls of the throne room resonated in sympathy. Her minions smirked amongst themselves.
When she had recovered herself, the Queen of the Ore-lands brushed the hair from her eyes with a movement that was fetching in its economy. She licked her lips and shook her head and said: “I like you, mortal. Ask of me a boon, and I will grant it.”
Scott – Where can people go to follow you and find out more about your work?
Jason – I am very easy to find on the internet:
Please don’t come follow me to my actual house or work; the police are already suspicious of me.
Selene – Welcome to The Horror Tree, and thanks for agreeing to an interview! First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Brent – Thanks for having me! Let’s see, what about me is interesting enough to discuss in this interview… Well, I like campfires. To me, there isn’t much better than a cold beer next to a cracklin’ fire. I live in the country in northern Wisconsin, and tonight the bullfrogs down in the pond are ribbiting back and forth to each other like crazy. The moon is bright, the stars are out, and if I didn’t have to work tomorrow I’d be out back throwing another log on the fire. My wife and I have a son who is now 6. He and I study Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at Groundwork Grappling in Rhinelander, WI. We like hunting for treasure (geocaches), and we’re building a pirate ship in the backyard. And I have a dog in my shirt at this very moment.
Selene – How long have you been writing, and what about the horror genre interests you?
Brent – I wrote my whole life, just nothing big. Anything I wrote on my own was usually no longer than a page up until I took Creative Writing in college. One of the big reasons for that was I wanted to be able to hand somebody something and watch their reaction as they read it. I was always a bit of a prankster. Jumping out of the shadows, leaving little wooden Blair Witch guys in your pillowcase, tricking people into eating human flesh, stuff like that. It was always fun to get people, and horror was the best way to do that. But then it got deeper. I started to realize there were bigger reasons to write horror and dark fantasy stories. You can actually help people deal with real-life horrors. You can give people hope. Like, if Nancy can beat Freddie, maybe Clyde can get through tomorrow. And the horror community is amazing. They’re people who have been into the darkness, and they don’t want anyone to be left there.
Selene – Is all your work published with Omnium Gatherum? What’s it like working with them? I’m curious because I’ve seen their calls for submissions periodically.
Brent – I have a few short stories published in other places, but most of my stuff is published with Omnium Gatherum. All of my novels are published with Omnium Gatherum. I met Kate Jonez, the Chief Editor, back in like 2009 or 2010. Kate liked my story about this guy named Chuggie, and she helped me workshop the manuscript into an actual book. She’s one of the hardest working people I know, and my experience with OG has been overwhelmingly positive over the years. OG authors support each other a ton. I highly recommend submitting to Omnium Gatherum if you have something that meets their call.
Selene – On your website, you describe your work as “Dark Fantasy, Horror, and Whimsy.” The stories of yours that I read (“JP,” “A Friend in Paga,” and the first 40 pages of Cruce Roosters) definitely have a thread of humour and weirdness running through them. I’ve never been all that good at writing “funny,” so how do you do it?
Brent – I don’t know how good I am at it either, but I’ll tell you my approach. When it’s time for something funny to go in the story, I write something that makes me laugh. I laugh at some pretty stupid stuff. They don’t all land, and sometimes the joke is a stretch. I don’t try to make all of my readers laugh. I try to make myself laugh and a couple of close friends. Keep Away From Psycho Joe was basically written for an audience of two.
Selene – Let’s talk about your artwork, which can be found on your website. It’s also pretty weird and disturbing. What inspires you visually, and how does the visual nature of art inspire your writing (if it does)?
Brent – I get inspired by folks like Beksinski and Giger and Wayne Barlowe and Chet Zar, among a long list of others. My art is a LONG way off from those guys, but that’s the kind of way-out stuff I’m drawn to. I love things that are strange and bewildering. The kinds of things where you stare and wonder what other bizarre marvels exist in that world. What is the history there? What is the mythology? How late for work am I willing to be today, in order to ponder this further?
Selene – Obligatory question: Where do you get your ideas?
Brent – Well, the world is full of strange things and terrifying history. Everywhere you look there’s something dark and twisted that we just accept as normal. Eavesdropping on people when you’re out and about is helpful, as long as you don’t, you know, be all creepy about it. Driving through the countryside with the radio off and the windows down has been good for idea birthing, too.
Selene – Cruce Roosters was just released a few months ago. For our readers, what is it about?
Brent – Cruce Roosters is a future-sports/dystopian horror novella. The land is governed by a man called Prophit King, and the national pastime is a sport called Cruce. It’s a violent team sport that involves getting “bombs” into the opposing team’s roost. Roosts are protected by crucibles built by each team. The players are called Roosters. Some attack the opposing roost, some defend their own. The story follows a young Crucecaster named Molly Most who catches the eye of Prophit King. He isn’t the sort of person who you can say no to, so Molly is in a tight spot. Horrific things happen, and then I don’t know, probably rainbows and friendship? I’m not positive how it ends, but people seem to like it. It’s also full of fake ads that I made.
Selene – Cruce Roosters has a pretty motley cast of characters, but the strongest is the story’s heroine, Molly. How do you develop your characters, and what goes into creating an interesting protagonist?
Brent – I think what helps me is to think about a specific person playing the character. Chuggie, for example, is inspired by Tom Waits. Developing Molly happened more in the second draft. First draft, she was just a name that stuff happened to. My editor Kate asked me, “What does Molly want more than anything?” I pondered a few days and realized that what Molly wants most is to be the #1 Crucecaster in the nation. Once I understood what she wanted, her personality became clear. Her reactions and dialog came much more easily then. Molly kind of became a mash-up of Erin Andrews, Olivia Munn, and Mila Kunis.
Selene – Do you find it difficult to write female characters? How does it differ from a male protagonist, if at all?
Brent – I definitely have to think a little harder when I’m writing female characters. Writing dudes, I don’t have to dig very deep for reactions and dialog and stuff. It’s nice to have a female editor who can say, “Uh, no, she wouldn’t do that. Throw this whole manuscript away and start over. Again.”
Selene – You also have a series of books about a character called Chuggie, which I haven’t started yet. The quality of your work that struck me, and I’ve mentioned it a couple of times, is “weird.” Not that it’s a bad thing, but I guess this is a question about “world building.” What disturbs you, and how do you use it to creep out your readers? (Again, that’s a compliment!)
Brent – I used to get sleep paralysis, starting at about age 15. I didn’t know what it was back then. I thought I might be going crazy, so I didn’t really tell anybody about it until college. It happened a lot, though, and I decided to deal with it by writing them down. I kept a little journal that would have a little write-up and a little sketch of each episode. The little ventriloquist dummy standing in the doorway, the giant dog that came into my room, lots of others. So those things used to disturb me, but then I wrote them down. Now they work for me, like little, abstract monster-slaves.
From a world-building standpoint, it’s a question of, in what world are these things possible? More questions follow: What forces allow – or cause – these things to exist? Who opposes those forces, and how? Keep writing and answering those questions, and soon you’ve got a world that’s nice and juicy… Juiceworld! Ah, Juiceworld, where the rain makes you sticky and the Shlooblian Juicefolk will kill you dead if they catch you drinking from the holy fountain of Juicikalis!
Selene – Do you find you like revisiting characters and plots for a series? How does it differ from writing a “standalone” story?
Brent – I do like revisiting. Keep Away From Psycho Joe and Cruce Roosters were both intended to be standalones. Psycho Joe ended with a bit of a cliffhanger, but I was happy to leave it there. When people ask you what happens next, though, it’s hard not to think about what happens next. Hm? You wanna know what happens to Ruby and Justine? Alright, have a seat by the fire and I’ll tell you. What happens after Cruce Roosters? I don’t know. Well, I know a couple things. Okay, have a seat by the fire and I’ll tell you that, too. What happens in Chuggie #4? Put some coffee on and wheel the big chalkboard out here.
Selene – Another obligatory author question. What authors or books have influenced your writing, and what do you like to read?
Brent – Stephen King’s Dark Tower series was a huge influence. Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Douglas Adams, Wayne Barlowe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Piers Anthony, to name a few. I get into comics sometimes, too. Most recently I read Irredeemable, and it blew me away. I’m re-reading Requiem: Vampire Knight now, because that series is so juicy they ought to change the name to Juiceworld!
Selene – OK, I have to ask. What’s the deal with JP? I read the story and it creeped me out, then I saw the real JP on your YouTube video, and I can’t imagine how something so harmless can inspire something so creepy!
Brent – For folks who don’t know me, JP is my little dog buddy. He’s a Chinese Crested, and he lives to snuggle. One time my wife was in the next room, and I go, “Hey, can you call JP in there and take a look at this thing on his head?” So she calls him in thinking he’s got a lump or something, and what does she discover? JP’s wearing a little cowboy hat. Adorable! He and I are quite fond of each other. The short story was for an Omnium Gatherum anthology called Little Visible Delight. The theme was obsession. In the story, I’m obsessed with JP’s well-being, to an unhealthy degree. What happens when your little angel dog starts to get old? Well, you do what has to be done. The story came from my real fears. I’m glad people seem to like it.
Selene – Your writing work is fairly prolific, yet you have a lot on your plate. How do you balance writing with “real life” obligations?
Brent – No idea. I don’t know how prolific I am, and right now the writing is kind of taking a back seat to real life. When things settle down and it’s time to get serious, I’ll go to bed early and get up at 4 or 5am. I prefer to stay up late, but my best writing these days comes in the early morning when it’s dark and quiet and the coffee flows like wine. A hard ride down the ol’ bike trail does wonders for boosting the creativity, too.
Selene – What advice would you give a writer who’s just starting out?
Brent – Get a tiny notebook. Put it in your pocket and take it with you everywhere. Also a pen and some fingernail clippers (unrelated, just handy). Fill the tiny notebook with notes and sketches and outlines for your story. Later, you might take a highlighter and use it to write the number of the chapter each note would go into. Then you might type those notes into those chapters and find you’re halfway to a manuscript.
Selene – Thanks again for joining us here. Do you have anything else you’d like to talk about, and what’s in store for the near future for you?
Brent – Thanks for having me! I have a handful of projects in the works, all ripping along a glacial speed. I thought I’d leave you with a passage I think about all the time. It’s from “The Ladder of St. Augustine” by Longfellow:
“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.”
Thanks so much for your time, Brent! If you would like to find out more about Brent and his work, you can find him via the following links:
BMK on Instagram
BMK on Facebook
BMK on Twitter
Alyson – Hi T.J. Welcome to the Horror Tree.
I read on your blog https://tjtranchell.wordpress.com/about/ that you’d had a variety of jobs – one of which sounded great preparation (in a way) for your horror writing – being a haunted house monster- can you tell us something about your early years? And that eclectic mix of jobs?
T.J. – I was born on Halloween, so this is something that has always been a part of me. I had been involved in theatre during my early teens and when I was 15, I saw an ad asking for actors for a haunted forest. I couldn’t resist. I was picked and worked almost every night of the month. I took my birthday off and did a small haunt at my high school with friends. All of this was in Utah, which might not seem like a place someone like me would spawn from, but that’s my home.
Years later, I worked another haunt in Las Vegas and had a blast. That time I didn’t take my birthday off and it turned out to be one of the best nights of my twenties.
When it comes to jobs, well, I’ve done more than my share of seasonal work and jobs that I didn’t like. I’m a person who will let something I don’t like go and try something else if I’m not happy.
I’ve also moved around a lot. In fact, my family just moved again at the end of May. I got my own office out of it this time.
Alyson – Which books and authors influenced you? As a child? As an adult? Have you always been a fan of horror?
T.J. – As a young kid, I was into mysteries. Sherlock Holmes and all of the juvenile knock-offs. My Utah upbringing introduced me to The Great Brain, which was a series set in rural Utah in the last years of the 19th century. They’re like Encyclopaedia Brown but with Mormon and non-Mormon kids at an interesting time in the state’s history.
Later, I found Poe and was hooked. The imagery and suspense was a major step up from what I had been reading. And then, when I was 11, I found Stephen King. Misery was a big film that year and I watched it with a friend. The next day I went to the library and checked it out. The librarians didn’t even blink. The book scared the crap out of me, even though I didn’t understand all the words. When I think about it, that book should have turned me off from being a writer. Instead, it set me on my path. The other kids my age were reading R.L. Stine. I like Stine, but trying to read him after King just didn’t work.
Other authors I’d cite as influential include Hunter S. Thompson (one of those jobs I’ve had was as a journalist), Jack Kerouac, Chuck Palahniuk, Tom Piccirilli, and Rod Serling.
Alyson – I notice that in a recent tweet you posted covers of Shirley Jackson’s novels- one of my personal horror writing heroines- do you feel her work has influenced your writing?
T.J. – I wish I could say I remember the first time I read “The Lottery” but the truth is that I probably read about it before actually reading the story itself. Jackson is a writer who always finds me when I need her. When I read a less successful haunted house book, The Haunting of Hill House is right there. When I found my first beaten-up copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I was busy falling in love with Goth and theatre girls. The Blackwood sisters were women I would have fallen hard for, because of their quirks not in spite of them.
I think we are in danger of losing how important Jackson’s contribution to horror specifically and American literature in general is. With the newer push in literary horror, I think she’s ripe for a resurgence. If anyone needs somebody to teach a class on Jackson, hit me up.
Alyson – Which book(s) do you wish you had written? Any era.
T.J. – A Choir of Ill Children by Tom Piccirilli. When I had decided writing was the best and only thing for me, I had just discovered Pic. When I was in college (I started late, so I was in my mid-twenties), I emailed him about a project and he messaged me back. That was the first time I felt like I was taken seriously as a writer by a professional.
That book is always at the top of my list I recommend to other people. It’s like Faulkner, not just because it is set in the south, but also because it gets into what family means to people who have become isolated from other communities. It is also wildly different from anything I had read before. King is like a gateway drug to horror, like pot. Pic was like coke: I read that book so many times, the pages of my first copy fell apart.
I can also guarantee that if there is another book with Siamese triplets connected at the forehead, it isn’t as good.
Alyson – How helpful has it been to have gained your Masters? For your personal development as a writer and/or improving your writing and/ or raising your literary status as it were?
T.J. – Having a Master’s degree opened doors that wouldn’t have opened otherwise, but it is also just one piece of the puzzle that I am. The biggest thing about it for me is that I can use it to subvert statistics. I dropped out of high school, earned a GED, got an associate’s from a community college, failed out at university, finished my bachelor’s and master’s in my thirties, and am now getting an MFA from the university I failed out of a decade ago.
The other key part has been that higher education has given me a community to turn to. Many of my first readers are from my graduate program at Central Washington University. The program I am in now is a literary fiction-focused program, so I have to push my boundaries and challenge myself to write the stories I have to tell and prove to the people in charge that my stories are just as good as someone else’s story that doesn’t have a ghost or a monster in it.
I was more concerned about my literary status when I was younger, but now with writers such as Benjamin Percy, Paul Tremblay, Victor LaValle, and Carmen Maria Machado showing that horror IS literary, I’m not as worried about it. I’ll have a bunch of letters after my name that hopefully get me some teaching gigs—I love teaching—but otherwise, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and try to get better at it.
Alyson – Your first novel ‘Cry Down Dark’ was published in 2016 by Blysster Press- http://blysster.com/store/ who you are now ‘author development coordinator’ for- which sounds really interesting and creative – can you tell us more about your involvement with Blysster Press and their origins?
T.J. – I met Charity Becker, the publisher/editor-in-chief, at Crypticon Seattle. I gave her the manuscript for the novel and she told me it wasn’t ready. She was right, but what she didn’t do was tell me no. She told me to work on it. I spent another year on it after having written the opening sections in 2006. I did the work and sent it back. The day Charity notified me that Blysster would publish the book, my grandma died. Grandma never would have read the book, but I know she was waiting for me to get to that point. It was the last good news she heard.
I’ve been able to develop a great professional relationship with Charity. We’re on the same wavelength when it comes to the state of modern publishing. What she has that I don’t, is a more experienced grasp of technology and business. What I brought to the table is being a cheerleader for other authors. We have relationships with a variety of writers through a contest we run and the annual Crypticon. What I do is offer encouragement when things are tough—especially to début authors who get frustrated with the formatting and revision processes—and serve as a guide for marketing, promotions, and questions. I’m the guy people come to when they think a question might sound stupid to the publisher. That doesn’t happen because Charity is an amazing human, but no one wants to look dumb when talking to their publisher.
Blysster started in 2010 and has been growing ever since. We had two début authors with us at Crypticon this year. Maria Giakoumatos and William H. Nelson. Their books are wildly different, but they are both part of the family now.
Alyson – Talk us through a typical writing day- where do you write? Pen or pc? Coffee or tea?
T.J. – I’ve spent the last couple years trying to write from a couch in a small apartment. That hasn’t been the best. Now I have a dedicated office and the output has already ramped up.
I might be one of the few writer/journalists in the world that doesn’t drink coffee. I just never got a taste for it. I prefer Mountain Dew, but since I’m a Type II diabetic, I drink Diet Mountain Dew. I also obsessively chow sunflower seeds when I write. You could tell how long I’ve been writing by the pile of empty shells. It’s kind of gross, I know, but that’s the truth.
I write now on a PC laptop, but I take lots of notes in notebooks. I love notebooks. Make them special and about a writer I like and I’m hooked. I have one that the lines in the notebook are the text of Dracula. I haven’t written anything in it yet, but I will.
I need background noise, too. Sometimes movies, but usually music. Movie scores are the best. You can feel the beats of a story but not be distracted by lyrics. There is a flow to a score that facilitates the process, too.
I also tend to write better early in the morning or late at night. I feel more engaged at those times.
Alyson – Modern horror films or those from the Golden age of Hollywood- do you have a favourite? B&W or colour? (I have a sneaky preference for B&W).
T.J. – I could talk for days about movies. When I was a kid, my grandpa was the manager of a single screen theater. My mom and some of my aunts worked concessions while my uncles took turns running the projector. Movies, even more than books, are where I became obsessed with storytelling. What you get from movies is an immediate emotional reaction. I’ve been chasing that my whole life. It’s one of the reasons I loved the haunted house work so much.
I love a wide range of movies and there are good things from the entire history of film. I wouldn’t say that I have a preference for an era, but I would say that horror from the mid to late 1990s is not as good as what came before. Thankfully, that time had plenty of other great non-horror films. Many of them were movies that hinted at horror or had horror backgrounds. “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” are the two best examples. Back-to-back, 1993 and 1994 were two of the best years in movies. Any year that one man is responsible for movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” should be seen as important. Speilberg pretty much ruled my childhood, too.
Having said that, “Poltergeist” is a Tobe Hooper movie and I will fight people about it, even if I’m wrong.
Alyson – Recently films like ‘A Quiet Place’, the upcoming ‘Hereditary’ and last year’s ‘It Comes at Night’ and especially ‘Get Out’ have redefined what audiences can expect from a horror film with new approaches and strong subversive stories, do you think we are in a bright new dawn (as has been suggested) of horror cinema?
T.J. – The thing that has changed is that people who haven’t always and only made horror films are taking them on. They have to because the world is a scary place and that’s our cultural filter. People dealt with the Great Depression by going to Universal monster movies. The other change, which is more a cycle than a real change, is that more people who aren’t horror fans are going to these movies. They go because they like what the directors, writers, and stars have done before and this is something new to them. It’s new to see a horror film by an African-American writer-director get a major release. Jordan Peele had a fan base for previous work, so people were curious. And he delivered.
“A Quiet Place” had some of the same thing going for it. Here are people with a fan base doing horror and audiences are curious about it. Krasinski brought the goods and I ‘d love to see Emily Blunt get some awards.
I think, in the past when people not known for horror have tried it, it felt more like they were doing it at the end of their primes and just because someone offered them the right amount of money. These newer films are love letters to filmmaking and are using the horror genre to tell stories that are important to society at this time in a way that people can engage with but not be beaten over the head about.
Horror has always been subversive. It’s when it becomes too commercial that the quality goes down. Formulaic movies drive the non-fans away. Too many fans, even when they complain about it, just want to see Jason and Freddy killing nobodies. When filmmakers take risks beyond that, that’s when more people start paying attention.
Alyson – I notice you were a guest on this podcast dedicated to the late, great Maestro of horror Vincent Price, http://thom-carnell.squarespace.com/bonus-material-podcast/2018/2/20/episode-163-vincent-price-w-tj-tranchell- whose films I grew up watching myself on BBC TV late-night showings. Is Price a particular favourite of yours?
T.J. – Price is one of my all-time favorites. I discovered him through the show ‘Mystery’ on PBS here in America and the Disney film “The Great Mouse Detective.” I have recordings of him reading Poe that I can listen to for hours. Price is a hero of mine, as is Thom Carnell, one of the co-hosts of The Bonus Material Podcast. When I was discovering my way, I was reading his magazine “Carpe Noctem.” Just when I was ready to send in my work, the magazine’s run ended. Then in 2011, I met Thom at ZomBcon in Seattle and nerded out hardcore. We’ve been friends ever since.
He’s a great writer, too. He recently released his second short story collection titled “A String of Pearls.”
Alyson – How much research do you have to do for your writing? Where do your ideas come from? And why have you chosen to write horror?
T.J. – Horror chose me, I believe. It is a place that I can talk about things we don’t talk about in polite society and treat them seriously. The ideas, really, come from that. ‘Cry Down Dark’ is about grief and loss. It’s my grief response to losing a friend from my late teens and early twenties to a brain tumor. Many of my stories start from things that have happened and me wondering what would have happened if one or two things had been just a bit different.
My work in progress has been the most research-intense thing I’ve done. The biggest problem was that for most of the first year of working on it, the pieces of research I needed didn’t exist. I’m writing about exorcism in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and I couldn’t find any historical accounts. Then in December 2017, a professor named Stephen Taysom published an article which was exactly what I needed. I have no shame and emailed him right away. He’s been quite helpful.
I’ve also been able to do research into the histories of the church, my family, and the town I grew up in, which is the setting of the novel, although in a fictional form. Readers of ‘Cry Down Dark’ will recognize Blackhawk, Utah, as the town that book’s hero was from.
Alyson – Writing can be a solitary business, how do you connect with other writers? Are you in a writing group yourself?
T.J. – I connect with a whole world of writers via social media. Again, I am shameless and if I find someone I admire on Facebook, I will message them. If I’m lucky, they’ll message back. I’d tell you who some of the more famous ones are, but I think it would be more fun for readers to discover them on their own and see if they get a message back.
Right now, my writing community is my MFA program. Workshops are part of the program and getting feedback from people with similar goals is amazing. I also have friends I’ve made that I email back and forth with. I made new friends after attending the Borderlands Press Writers Boot camp in 2017. Those are people I know I could go to with a story and get quality feedback with no fluff. And they’d expect the same from me.
Alyson – What advice would you give aspiring (horror) writers? Those who read/use the Horror Tree as a resource?
T.J. – Don’t stop. If this is your dream, don’t quit. If someone tells you that you aren’t good enough, get better. Take a class, join a workshop group. Reach out to people like me. I want you to succeed just as much as I want my own success. This is how it works. If you succeed, you get to do an interview like this and name drop the people who helped you get there. One way I help you succeed is by putting your name in front of as many people as I can. We aren’t competing with each other. We’re all here to help.
Alyson – What is your latest fiction release? Where is it available to buy online?
T.J. – My latest is called ‘Asleep in the Nightmare Room’ and can be found on Amazon or through any bookstore. Personally signed copies can be ordered directly from my publisher at www.blysster.com.
It is a book of short stories, some poems, a long essay on Stephen King, a series of columns on horror movies, and one experimental piece about living in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Alyson – Where can writers/readers find you or follow you online?
T.J. – I’m pretty easy to track down. On the web, I am at www.tjranchell.com, on Twitter I’m @TJ_Tranchell, and on Facebook at @TJTranchell. Amazon: amazon.com/author/tjtranchell
I do have a rule about Twitter. If you identify yourself as a writer and you follow me, I will follow in return and spread the word about your work.
Ruschelle: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us at the Horror Tree!
Marc: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Ruschelle: Your debut collection, Stories of High Strangeness, has been published by publishing newcomer Copypasta. Many stories we pen evolve from shreds of experiences, albeit fictionalized…well we hope. Where did you gain your inspiration for this collection?
Marc: My inspiration came from just wanting to tell good stories with unusual twists and turns. That is the overriding theme. When you read this collection, you won’t see any overriding theme. It’s not just one thing but ‘rather, a whole bunch of things. It’s, quite simply, a collection of stories. My approach to writing fiction is very organic. I come up with an idea, it rattles around in my head for a while and, if it continues to strike some kind of weird chord with me, I write it.
Ruschelle: You mentioned your early writing repertoire included selling rock musician interviews to magazines and underground newspapers. What was it like interviewing artists on the cutting edge of music in the 1960’s?
Marc: It was a gas! Interviewing an extremely loaded Ozzy Osbourne in his hotel room at 10 in the morning. Flying on The Who’s private touring plane to catch the band in Texas. Sneaking backstage at a concert at my college and walking right up to Cheech & Chong and asking for an interview for the college paper and getting nearly 45 minutes with them. It was still very new and exciting for the musicians and the journalists. I wrote for publications like The Los Angeles Free Press, Zoo World, Phonograph Record Magazine and Rock Around the World. The writers weren’t making a lot of money but, like I said, it was a gas!
Ruschelle: Your experiences sound awesome. You’re a music buff. What gets your creative blood pumping while writing? Does the type of music you listen to influence your writing style?
Marc: I’m probably the world’s oldest metal head. Put on Black Sabbath, Dio, Cirith Ungol. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, If it’s loud, dark and nasty I’m there. I’m also into 60’s psychedelia. If you’re old enough to remember bands like The Electric Prunes, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Standells, Love and just about any band out of San Francisco and Los Angeles, you know what I mean. I like movie soundtracks when they go to the dark, progressive side. I like The Exorcist and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly a lot. All that being said, when I write I write in silence. But more often than not the vibe from the music definitely winds up in a lot of my stories.
Ruschelle: Writing fiction is definitely a different monster than writing from a journalistic standpoint. Was there anything you learned or new skills you honed while conquering the fictional beast?
Marc: When you’re dealing with journalism or biographies, there’s an end game, a deadline that is always in your head. When you write fiction, the story is done when it’s done and not before. When I started to write short stories, the main thing I had to learn was get the story to the point where it works for me and then send it out into the world. I’m not a writer who talks about what he’s working on or even shows it to people when it’s done. My criterion has always been when somebody accepts it and publishes it, then the rest of the world can have it.
Ruschelle: If you could actually meet and hang out with the physical embodiment of any one of the characters you created, which one would it be? It’s the dude with the insatiable libido isn’t it? I bet he’d be fun at parties. LOL
Marc: There’s a lot of extreme, dangerous characters in my stories that if I saw them at a party or walking down the street, I would probably run the other way. Without giving too much away, the people in the stories Dose, What’s In A Name and Remember 85 are not the people one would want to spend too much time with. On the other hand, there are characters in the stories The Out Door, This Will Buy Us A Year and The Delicate Hours that I could probably be around for a while. Once you read those stories you’ll get an idea of where my head is at.
Ruschelle: Do you have another book of horror/fantasy/ Sci-Fi in the works?
Marc: I’ve got a few things that I’m playing around with that tend to lean towards horror and fantasy but are not quite ready to go out for consideration. Two chapbooks of poetry, Shakeout on Sex Street and Existential Jibber Jabbar, a full book of poetry, Melancholy Baby and a chapbook of short fiction called Out Of My Mind. I’ll know when it’s time to take a chance with them.
Ruschelle: Was there a defining moment in your life where you knew you wanted to write for a living?
Marc: Probably when I was 13. I was writing short stories, poetry and television scripts by that time. I didn’t know how good I was at that time but I knew I liked the idea of using my imagination to make magic. I also liked the way my byline looked on things. It would be seven years before I had anything published. But I knew the writing life was for me.
Ruschelle: Is there a topic you feel is too taboo to write about?
Marc: I will not do anything bad to children or animals. Otherwise it’s open season.
Ruschelle: As fiction writers and writers of the horror genre, we often write what we fear ourselves. What fears have ignited your writing?
Marc: The six o’clock news has always been a good jumping off point for me. The way humanity behaves on a daily basis has brought up more than one idea and a shudder on occasion. But finally, the fear that drives me is to wake up one day and have my imagination stripped from me. Fear of not having an idea is what, creatively, keeps me one step ahead of the Devil.
Ruschelle: You’ve written over 60 unofficial biographies of celebrities. That’s quite a few lives to get to know. Which artist started it all?
Marc: Way back in the day, I approached a UK publisher of rock music biographies called Omnibus Press about doing one of their rock books. I received a polite letter back informing me that they normally only use UK authors. But the very last line of the letter said that they were in fact contemplating doing a book on The Eagles and would I be interested? I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
Ruschelle: The Eagles = ROCK ICONS! Was there anything you researched for your biographies that surprised a seasoned journalist like you?
Marc: When you’re dealing with Hollywood types nothing really surprises you after a certain point. My only advice to would be stars would be to save your money and don’t believe it will last forever. Because it rarely does. And that goes for authors too.
Ruschelle: Do you feel any ‘real life’ events from your autobiographies may sneak into your next bit of fiction? The names and specifics to be changed to protect the innocent of course.
Marc: If they have, it’s been on a subliminal level. But Icons have made occasional appearances. I used a real NFL team as a cornerstone to a short story entitled Cut Down Daze that was published a while back and I channeled a number of music personalities by name for a horror poem that will be coming out later this year called Night Rider.
Ruschelle: If you could co-write a book with any author who would it be? And let’s make it an attainable goal and let’s keep it in the realm of the living. Seances and invoking the dead never ends well.
Marc: That’s a tough one because all my influences have long since gone to the great beyond. I’m old school. I firmly believe in one writer/one vision. If I could resurrect the dead we might be here all night. Charles Bukowski, Rod Serling, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury any and all of the Beats. Those are my literary gods.
Ruschelle: And literary gods they are. We all learn with age and experience. Well we’re supposed to anyway. In regards to writing and the writing experience, what do you wish you knew then that you know now?
Marc: That’s a toughie because we never really stop learning. As it pertains to the business…To be smarter about things like contracts, money, people. I learned that if you’re serious about writing for a living, you stop writing for no pay and exposure early on. I’ve worked for next to nothing but I stopped working for nothing eons ago. I wish I had been a bit braver in the early days, more willing to take chances. As I’ve gotten older I’ve adopted a say yes to just about any offer and let the chips fall where they may. I know I learned quite a bit about the writing business the day an editor pulled a gun on me when I was trying to collect the $20 he owed me. And that was how to duck.
Ruschelle: Learning to duck is never a bad lesson, LOL. What do you find more challenging, fiction or journalism?
Marc: Both forms have their moments. Journalism can be like a good detective story, tracking down the facts and the people who can shed light on the person you’re writing about. Fiction forces you to stretch your imagination and conceive of ideas, notions and characters and yet have it all make some kind of sense or logic at the end. When I’m writing fiction, my head is in one space. When it’s journalism, it’s in another.
Ruschelle: Rejection is definitely a pill we hate to open our mouths to swallow. Being a seasoned writer do those rejections get any easier? What do you suggest for authors starting out when they receive the dreaded- ‘It’s not you it’s us’ email?
Marc: First realize that rejection is a part of the process. I had a couple of short story submissions kicked back in the last week. You get the twinges the first couple of times but, if you’re intent on a long-term career, you immediately forget about it and send the story someplace else. If you’ve given your best effort, the chances are good your work will find a home.
Ruschelle: Exactly. Eventually writer’s stories find the home they’re meant to have. You’re a New York Times bestselling author. Kudos! Many authors aspire to have those little words swirl around their bios. So, tell us what has that prestigious phrase done for your career?
Marc: My ego was on fire for a few days. It is an emotional and psychological lift like you would not believe. I spent a month picking up The New York Times every Sunday just so I could chart the progress of my book. But eventually reality brings you back to earth. You’ve got deadlines to make, bills to pay, lawns to mow and a dog to walk. But making The New York Times bestseller list is definitely a memory that stays with you forever.
Ruschelle: Since you’re lucky enough to write for a living, you probably have some sort of schedule or ritual. What’s your typical work day like?
Marc: There really is no typical work day for me. It depends on whether I’m on deadline with a biography or at a more leisurely pace with a short story or a poem. But more often then not, I’m up fairly early in the morning, work for 3-4 hours, take a walk for about an hour, then back to work for another 4-5 hours. A good day for me is 1000 words on whatever I’m working on. I once had to write a 50,000 word manuscript in three weeks. Needless to say, I was pulling 15 hour days on that one.
Ruschelle: Is there any one piece of advice you’d like to impart to struggling writers out there who are attempting to embark on writing as a career?
Marc: Write every day. When you’re not writing, read anything you can lay your hands on. It’s cool to go to parties and tell people you’re a writer. But if you’re not serious about it, you’re doomed to fail. Go with your gut at all times. Treat writing as both a creative art and a business but be able to separate the two. You don’t want to be thinking about the business when you’re knee deep in the creative process. And vice versa. Writing for a living is a dream come true. But you’d better take it seriously and be prepared to walk the walk.
Ruschelle: What can your new found fans look forward to from you in the future?
Marc: The future is now. You can get Stories Of High Strangeness (Copypasta Publishing) on Amazon, Smashwords, Roku, Kobo and Barnes & Noble.com. My latest celebrity biography Renaissance Man: The Lin Manuel Miranda Story (Riverdale Avenue Books) is available through Amazon, Smashwords and a bunch of the usual book selling sites. I have poems in upcoming issues of Disturbed Digest and Night To Day. Then there’s something that I’m currently working on that I’m not at liberty to talk about. Yet.
Ruschelle: Thank you so much for your time and wisdom.
Marc: This was fun. Let’s do it again some time.
Marc Shapiro can be reached through Copypasta Publishing at [email protected]
Scott – In ten seconds, what do we need to know about you?
KT – I’m a Canadian sci-fi / horror writer living in the lower mainland area of British Columbia. I enjoy organizing and hosting events for writers, including a monthly workshop at a local theatre, and I’m attempting to organize a Metro Vancouver chapter of the Horror Writers Association. However, horror writers are not common in my part of the world. Either that, or they are good at hiding from me.
Scott – Well, part of horror (and writing) is lurking, right? They could be around there somewhere. From reading your bio, I understand that you grew up reading speculative fiction. Who were your major sources of inspiration?
KT – Growing up, I spent a lot of time in libraries. Fortunately for me, the science fiction and fantasy sections were well-stocked. When I was quite young, my mom took my sister and me to the library every two weeks.
I read everywhere, including while I walked to school, and I sat at the back of class and hid novels in open textbooks. The books that have stayed with me are Stephen King’s The Stand and Salem’s Lot; Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jamaica Inn; John Bruner’s The Sheep Look Up; Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land; Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series; William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist; Walter Miller’s A Canticle of Leibowitz; Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series; and Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf.
I credit my mom with my love of reading.
Scott – Quite a list! But you also wear a nonfiction hat from time to time by penning essays and editorials, right? How did you get started in that?
KT – I started writing nonfiction articles and editorials as a teenager. I worked on the school newspaper and yearbook. My first published piece was a letter to the editor of The Globe and Mail newspaper in which I expressed an opinion about the province of Quebec and my hope for a united Canada.
I currently write a monthly op/ed column for a local newspaper called Citizen’s Ink. Previously, I wrote a bi-weekly column about public education for five years.
Scott – I read some of that column. You have a passion for literacy, and public education policy and reform. Can you give us the short version?
KT – Writers and their readers are among the most literate members of society.
Because we tend to surround ourselves with those who share our interests, it is not always obvious to us that a large number of adults have minimal reading and writing skills and are unable to read for pleasure. This makes me very sad. A majority of adults never read another novel after they leave high school, and many have trouble reading and comprehending simple instructions, such as prescriptions.
Our prisons are filled with illiterate, functionally illiterate and low literacy individuals. Social status and job prospects are tied to literacy levels and close to 40 percent of North American adults suffer because of low literacy. At the same time, education research has shown that more than 90 percent of children reach full literacy with the right supports and teaching methods, so where is the disconnect? It’s not an easy answer. I’ve been advocating for reform since the early ‘90s and by-and-large, our public schools have only changed by minute degrees.
The political inertia and institutional complexity is incredibly frustrating. We can and should have a public education system that prepares students for the challenges of the 21st century. Full literacy is a minimum. Writers have a stake in this, for obvious reasons. If we each devoted even a little time and resources to this issue, I believe we could affect significant change.
Scott – Given all of that, how did you end up writing speculative fiction?
KT – I love the what-if aspects of science fiction.
I’ve always enjoyed extrapolating change, particularly the unintended effect of legislation, scientific advancements, and inventions. The constant is human nature—that doesn’t change, but it’s endlessly fascinating.
I’m also drawn to the what-ifs of history and enjoy writing alternate history.
Scott – Yes, human nature does tend to get in the way, sometimes. What are some of the common, recurring themes in your novels and short stories?
KT – Isolation, family relationships (particularly between women), unintended consequences, tribalism, man’s-inhumanity-to-man, and environmental challenges. I often write about older protagonists, and I like twisting current issues into myth and fairy tale retellings.
Scott – Those are some heady topics. It seems like it would be difficult to wrap your head around them. What do you feel are the most difficult aspects of writing?
KT – For me, it’s writing an initial draft.
All of the possibilities can feel overwhelming at times. I tend to write from character with only a rough idea of the plot. I admire writers who can write a detailed outline and then follow that script, but it hasn’t worked for me. I discover the story in the first draft, so my process is likely much longer than it needs to be.
Scott – You know, that’s pretty common with the writers I talk to. You’ve got some who can just engineer their plot and their characters, but many stumble through their first draft purposefully and learn the broad strokes of the story as they go. If that’s the most difficult aspect for you, what’s your favourite and least favourite part of the writing process?
KT – Writing an initial draft is my least favourite part of the process. I don’t even call it a first draft until the second stage. It’s more of a discovery process. I love researching so usually I have to force myself to stop that part and get down to putting actual words on a page.
Once I know my characters and have a rough idea of plot, I’m much happier and the process becomes enjoyable. (The first part is satisfying but not particularly fun.) I also write my first drafts in longhand and I find that helps, but it’s never easy.
Once I have an initial handwritten draft, I then type it into my computer. I revise as I transcribe, and I consider that draft my first draft. I love editing and revising. It’s a nurturing, sculpting process and the only part that frustrates me at times is how long it takes.
Scott – Wow. A handwritten drafter? I haven’t seen that as part of the process in a long time! That just goes to show that there’s more than one way to write. What advice would you give someone just started out?
KT – Keep at it.
It’s incredibly frustrating to have characters and a story in your head when it just doesn’t translate to the page. Writing fiction is an art, but it’s also largely a craft with a skill set that must be learned and practiced. Work hard and be patient and open to feedback.
Don’t let your ego get in the way, and you will improve over time.
Scott – One interesting thing to note: You primarily write short fiction. Why did you choose to go this route, rather than novel writing?
KT – About six or seven years ago, when I first turned from writing nonfiction to writing fiction, I spent a year writing and revising a novel. It taught me a fair bit, including how much I still had to learn. Taking classes and workshops introduced me to short story writing.
Short stories provide an opportunity to try different genres and styles without committing to tens of thousands of words and at least a year of my time for each effort. I also started reading short fiction, and I now love the form.
Scott – That’s a different take than many writers I hear from, where the novel is the goal. What advice would you give for someone looking to break into the short story market?
KT – First, always make time to improve your craft.
There are many excellent resources available: podcasts, online articles, array of writing books, and some excellent workshops and programs available both on-line and in-person. For the latter, I recommend LitReactor.com, Richard Thomas’s workshops and Carina Bissett’s classes at The Storied Imaginarium.
Try something like the Ray Bradbury Challenge: for one year, write a short story every week and read a short story every day. It was a great experience. I didn’t quite manage to keep up, but I ended the year with more than forty new short stories.
Submit! A lot! Aim for one hundred rejections a year. Resist the urge to submit early drafts and only submit your polished pieces.
Scott – Great advice and resources! I think the rejection grind is what steamrolls newer authors, but even seasoned veterans get rejected before getting a piece through. On that note: What’s next for you on the writing career path?
KT – I’m primarily a short fiction writer, but I’d like to complete something longer, if only to challenge myself. Writing a novella seems like a logical next step, so this summer I’m focusing on writing and revising a novella to the submission stage.
Scott – What’s one excerpt from your work that you feel most defines you as an author?
KT – I like to write a bit of a satirical edge and the older characters in my stories are almost always doing something interesting. I think “Grandma Heloise”, published at Daily Science Fiction, is a good example of this.
Here’s the first paragraph:
“Grandma’s glow-in-the-dark geraniums were harmless and kind of cute. However, the family nominated me to speak to her after she cloned her dead cat, Gerald, three times. Grandma raised me after my parents were killed in a car crash, and I’d always been her favorite grandchild.”
Scott – Where can people go to follow you and find out more about your work?
KT – My website, http://northernlightsgothic.com, includes a publication list and many stories are available to read for free. I also have a blog, which I need to pay more attention to.
I’m also on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/northernlightsgothic/ and Twitter @KT_Wagner
Thanks for the opportunity to share a bit about myself and my writing.