The Horror Tree Presents… An Interview with Don Gillette
Claire – Hi Don! Great to chat with you. Let’s jump right in. What are you currently writing/working on?
Don – Thanks, Claire. Really nice to meet you. And thanks, too, for the opportunity to talk with The Horror Tree. I’m working on a novel, ‘Dark Voices,’ and also serving as editor for ‘The Thirty,’ a group consisting of me and 29 other writers. We’re lashing together an experimental novel, ‘He Has Stayed Too Long,’ with one chapter written by each of us. I honestly thought ‘Dark Voices’ would be out by now, but ‘He Has Stayed Too Long’ is taking quite a bit of time, as you can imagine. Coordinating with 29 other writers isn’t quite as easy as I thought it would be although everybody involved has been fantastic.
Claire – Tell me about your latest release, ‘Fallen Angels.’
Don – The artist Don Gilbert and I have been good friends since we were in our teens. He came by the house one day to drink whiskey and play guitar and as I was flipping through his sketch pad, I was drawn to a series of bizarre-looking drawings. When I asked him what they were, he said, ‘Fallen Angels’ and we took it from there. ‘Fallen Angels’ are the creatures responsible for every aspect of our lives down to the most insignificant events. Lose a button? A Fallen Angel’s responsible. First kiss? A Fallen Angel’s there. Final breath? Yep—a Fallen Angel. The poems I wrote to accompany the illustrations tell the reader a bit about the particular part of life the Fallen Angel on the opposing page controls and also a bit about how that angel feels about his job.
Claire – Your journals ‘The Meeker Collection’ sound interesting. How did/does your newspaper writing affect your fiction?
Don – Oddly enough, most of my newspaper pieces were in the humour vein and most of my fiction is dark horror. While I was working as the editor of ‘The Wilson County Advocate,’ I wrote a column under a pseudonym every week, usually an entire page, and because I was so completely bored with actual news, I would take the facts, bundle them with fiction, insert my alter-ego into the story, toss in a bit of biographical folderol, and just have a good time with it. The fan mail and the death threats began to pour in (some people have NO sense of humour) and soon ‘Jimmy Joe Meeker’ (that was the name I used) was the most popular writer we had. Once you start writing humour, you can’t stop. There’s a comedian inside me and he’s going to come out whether I’m writing a non-fiction piece for a magazine or writing a horror novel. I enjoy that. Everybody needs a laugh now and again, regardless of what you’re reading, and I’ve never been able to write anything without tossing in a bit of humour, however subtle.
Claire –Tell me about your writing process. Where do you write? When do you write? Do you have any writing rituals?
Don – When the muse visits me, I’m like a man possessed. I’ll write 5,000 words in a day, getting up every hour to spend 5 minutes on the recumbent bicycle so I don’t forget how to walk—but the muse doesn’t visit daily. I don’t force anything because I don’t think, for example, that making yourself write 1,000 words a day is going to get you quality results. There are going to be days when you’re not on, days when you’ve got other things on your mind. Yeah, it’s a job, and it’s a difficult job, but you have to enjoy it. Readers are smart folks—they know if you didn’t enjoy what you wrote and forcing yourself to write when you don’t have the spark is not an enjoyable experience for the reader OR the writer. Having said that, though, my works-in-progress are always on my mind and it’s rare a day goes by when I don’t work. I’m up early. I grab a mug of black coffee, plop myself down in my office, fire up the computer, and I’m off to the races. I use a two-monitor set-up which I find really helps when I have to research something, but I’m still torn about that because I’ve caught myself getting distracted. My office is where my guitar collection hangs and it’s much too easy to be able to grab one when I stumble onto another guitar player on YouTube demonstrating a song I always wanted to learn. It’s easy to be lazy.
Claire – Tell me about your novels ‘Pandemonium,’ ‘Phantom Dead Man,’ and ‘Sarcophagus.’ Where did the inspiration come from?
Don – ‘Pandemonium’ was my first novel and the inspiration came from several old buildings in Lebanon, Tennessee. Spooky, creepy old buildings—McClain School and the Lebanon Hotel. Late one night I went into the Lebanon Hotel—just walked right in—and took a tour of the place. After leaving, I drove to the abandoned school building and found it unlocked, so I took a moonlight tour of it, too. I got home at 2 a.m. and immediately began ‘Pandemonium,’ a story about an incubus in a small, Tennessee town. ‘Phantom Dead Man’ was an experiment in stream of consciousness and it arose from having too much on my plate. I was going to graduate school, working on two horror stories with deadlines looming, writing a how-to piece for a craftsman journal, working on a documentary for public television, and outlining a novel. I sat down one day with all these things whirling around in my head and I just started writing whatever popped in there. The book had a wildly opposing reception; readers either liked it or hated it—there was no middle of the road. ‘Sarcophagus’ came about after a trip to New Orleans. I’ve always been fascinated by the above-ground graveyards there and during that visit, I saw several tombs in St. Louis Cemetery #3 with gaping holes in them large enough for a person to squeeze through—and all the holes looked as if they were made by something pushing out, rather than in. ‘Sarcophagus’ was started on a legal pad the moment I got back to my hotel room.
Claire – Where does your inspiration come from? Do you have a writing ritual?
Don – Most of my inspiration comes from things I see; very little of it comes strictly from imagination. When I see something that triggers a “What if…?” I take out my phone and click a picture of it, but I’m also very old school. I carry a small, brown, leather notebook with me all the time and I’ll scribble the beginnings of the story in there. Once I’m back in the office, I open a document, type my notes into the document, write the first line or first few lines of the story, and save it in a working directory for later. That’s how I keep up with ideas these days and it’s much handier than shuffling through stacks of paper.
Claire – You received some great reviews for ‘Fallen Angels,’ most compliments enjoying the mixture of creepy and humorous. Do you often blend writing styles?
Don – Ha! Yes, the ‘Fallen Angels’ are just like us—some of them are funny, some are sarcastic, some are pricks, and some take themselves way too seriously. I do blend writing styles, though, and I do it with a purpose. Too much of anything is too much. In horror, you need a funny character—not laugh out loud funny, but observationally witty and self-deprecating. When you ask readers to suspend disbelief, you’re asking a lot, so having a character or a scene that’s something amusing out of real life helps the unbelievable become believable.
Claire – Tell me about your chapbooks. I see they were penned in the ‘80’s. Has your writing style changed since then?
Don – My style hasn’t changed all that much, but my focus has changed. I’ve moved away from poetry to fiction mainly because it suits me better. Poetry will drive a person nuts. I have two pieces in the newly released ‘Speculations’ edited by my friend Frank Coffman and I bled over those two poems like I’d been beaten with chains. Thirty lines of poetry and I spent weeks on them. I love poetry; it’s the easiest thing to do poorly, the most difficult thing to do well, and not many people seem to know the difference anymore. Hearing “I don’t like poetry” from people who’ve barely read any is painful, so although I continue to do it, I don’t publish much of it, not even in chapbooks. I still contribute to anthologies but chapbooks seem to be becoming a bit passé. I hope that’s not true, but it’s the impression I get lately.
Claire – Tell me about your avant-garde project ‘The Thirty.’ Who did you work with?
Don – I got this wild idea that it would be very cool to read a horror novel where each chapter was written by a different author; where each author could take the story in whatever direction they wanted. After turning the idea over in my head for a few weeks, I approached the writing community on Twitter with the concept and the response was fantastic. Within just a day or two, I had 35 people on board and the mix was as eclectic as you can get. We have well-known horror authors, we have noteworthy book reviewers, we have bloggers, and we have horror aficionados who’ve always wanted to try their hand at writing but never have. Using some very basic calculations for word count, and realizing we’d lose some participants along the way, I decided on 30 chapters, wrote the first one, and sent it out. The next author in line wrote their chapter, sent it back, and it took off from there. We’re on Chapter 18 now and I’ve been pleasantly surprised, especially at the writing from newcomers—people who’ve never written fiction in their lives. It’s been an amazing, exciting experience. If I mention everybody involved we’ll be here all day, but I do want to say that the “name brand authors” on board have all been extremely generous in lending credibility to the project. We have new writers who still cannot believe they’ve got a chapter adjacent to Jonathan Janz or Chris Sorenson or D.W. Gillespie. This speaks volumes to the support and camaraderie present in the horror community.
Claire –Let’s learn more about you. Who is your favourite author and why?
Don – Wow… It’s incredibly difficult to pick just one, but though it may be cliché, I’m going with the master. If it weren’t for Stephen King, I don’t know what we’d all be reading and writing now. Stephen King took a genre that had been marginalized for two centuries and with raw talent, dragged it into the mainstream and kept it there. At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, I think King is the greatest horror writer who’s ever lived. Sure, he misses the mark sometimes—everyone does—but when it comes to the most important thing in fiction, which is story—story—story, he can pull it off 99% of the time.
Claire – Do you get writer’s block? If so, what do you do to overcome it?
Don – I get writer’s block from time to time, but I have the greatest remedy—I grab my Gibson SG, plug it into a Marshall amplifier, and play along with Pete Townshend while The Who blasts “Won’t Get Fooled Again” over the sound system. It works every single time. The neighbours probably don’t care much for it, but most of them have “real” jobs so they aren’t home during the day anyway.
Claire – Writers are weird, right? What’s the strangest/most interesting thing about you?
Don – Most people would never guess, especially from my politics, that I was a United States Army Chief Warrant Officer for 26 years.
Claire – What’s on the horizon for you?
Don – I hope to see ‘Dark Voices’ published by year’s end and also see ‘He Has Stayed Too Long’ wrapped up by then. I’ve got an idea brewing for another book featuring the most terrifying monsters known to humankind: babies.
Claire – And finally, you’re stuck on an island with only one book. What’s the book?
Don – US Army Field Manual 21-76, ‘Survival, Escape, and Evasion’ along with Stephen King’s magnum opus: ‘The Stand.’ Thanks for your questions, Claire—it’s been a genuine pleasure.
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