The Horror Tree Presents…an Interview with Rus Wornom
A big welcome to Rus Wornom here on a sturdy, splinter-free branch of The Horror Tree! A scrivener of Fantasy & science Fiction, Rus’s works include the 2013 short story ‘In the Mountains of Frozen Fire’, and ‘Puppy Love Land’, a novella which was nominated as Best Novella on the Preliminary Ballot for the Horror Writers of America awards. Most recently, Rus has copyedited books and RPG (role playing games- if you were wondering) for Troll Lord Games. He’s written three TSR books under a pseudonym, two of which made the best seller list at Waldenbooks. Awesome! His most recent work, Ghostflowers, will premier July of this year.
Ruschelle: Rus, let’s dig into the dirt of Ghostflowers. I love the title. Sometimes writers have a tough time christening their book. The title gracing the cover is just as important as its’ content. How did you decide on Ghostflowers?
Rus: I did have a hard time figuring out the final title. For the longest time, I stayed with my original title of “Shadows of the Night.” That was a direct nod to TV’s “Dark Shadows,” which was a thematic and important influence on me starting way back in the day. When the novel’s characters and the story pulled further and further away from any solid resemblance to “Dark Shadows,” I realized the title should change. For some reason, I kept fixating on my main character’s rose garden, and the word ghostflowers popped into my mind. A few weeks or so later, I was reading the biography of the late Michael O’Donghue, a comedian, National Lampoon vet, and one of the stars of SNL during the first few years, and the writer referenced the word ghostflowers. I pay attention when synchronicity happens, so Ghostflowers it was. I didn’t know then how that word would fit in to the denouement of the novel, so that was a fitting revelation when I got to that point.
Ruschelle: On your website, ruswornom.com, you have a page dedicated to Ghostflowers’ soundtrack. You’re engaging the reader to enjoy the earworms from 1971, the year Ghostflowers takes root. What made you want to pair the book with the music? Should we listen to it while reading?
Rus: Please, PLEASE listen, during reading, and before, and after… With Apple Music and Pandora and Sirius XM and Spotify, people forget how important music was back in 1971—especially the importance of what is now called Classic Rock. Rock and roll was the soundtrack of every kid’s, every teenager’s life, especially on the radio, but also on their turntables, their eight-tracks, and those new cassette tapes. I compiled the YouTube playlist specifically for readers to listen to while reading Ghostflowers; and I could have easily doubled or tripled the length because there were so many songs that we heard going to and from school, in the grocery stores, at the beach, everywhere. This list reflects mostly the songs I heard from 1969 to June of 1971—I stopped at June because Ghostflowers takes place during the July 4th weekend of ’71.
The musical tastes of my protagonist, Summer Moore, are also reflected in the list, which are sometimes quite different from mine. Summer liked some songs and performers that I didn’t; for instance, she loved the Stones, and I never really cared for them. The same with the Doors and Janis Joplin—although I do like Joplin now. And Summer is more musically knowledgeable than I. I also include some vintage radio commercials, and a couple of songs that are important thematically to the novel, but were never heard on the radio in 1971—or couldn’t be heard in ’71, such as “Brandy“ (released in 1972), “Strawberry Wine” (1996) and the theme from Dark Shadows (tv themes were rarely played). All this music is included because music was such an integral part of my characters’ lives, and also to my life—even though most rock was only background music to me back then—I collected soundtracks—and the era’s rock and roll simply couldn’t be ignored. And 1971 was a pivotal year in both music and sociopolitics. Again, synchronicity.
Ruschelle: Since music is now on our minds, are you a writer who needs music quietly humming in the background while creating or do you crank it up to 11? Or… is the only sound you need from Simon & Garfunkel, The Sooound… of Silence?
Rus: Stephen King says he writes listening to hard rock. If I remember correctly, Peter Straub listens to classical music. Harlan Ellison listened to jazz. I can’t listen to any music like that. I learned a long time ago that when music I really get into, such as rock or blues or Buffett (I admit, I’m a Parrothead), is playing when I’m writing, I get pulled away by the music, and I concentrate on it rather than my writing. I discovered that my other musical love, instrumental soundtracks, is what I need while I’m writing. The John Barry soundtrack album, Moviola, carried me completely through the writing of The Enigma Club, which my agent is marketing to publishers right now. Ghostflowers was written in large part in complete silence, while I was working at the office (several workplaces, actually), but when at home or writing on the computer, I listened to streaming soundtrack websites. It’s dramatic and moody music, and that’s exactly what I need when I’m writing.
Ruschelle: When you read others’ works does a song playlist form in your mind?
Rus: Only if it’s mentioned in the text, and I know the song. Usually, the book I’m reading is all that I hear in my head. Other than the voices telling me to kill.
Ruschelle: What do you feel drives a story and fuels its progression; the mood, the characters, the plot, the beginning, the ending, the sentence structure etc.
Rus: Good question, because the way I envision the progression of a novel is a lot different than the way most other writers see the structure. A lot of people use the rising action/staircase diagram. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But my diagram takes your list—the mood, the characters, the plot, the sentence structure, every little facet that makes up the individual strands of a novel—more into account, like threads that are woven into an everchanging rope, made up of different colors, which represent all the facets of a novel: this character, that setting, the placement of a book on a table, the time of day, the smell of mown grass, everything. Loose threads work together to create scenes, and become entwined tighter and tighter, until each scene ends in clean knots where everything comes together for the small climax of that portion of the novel. There are still some threads that are loose, and they all lead, or point, toward the center of the spiral that this rope is making—because every strand, every knot, must lead not only to the climax and the denouement, but to the beating heart of the story. And that’s not necessarily the theme (you should NEVER work a theme—let it come out naturally), but the true meaning of what this character’s journey is all about.
Ruschelle: We have all picked up books with fancy covers and tasty blurbs, hoping to find a good read, but after a few pages or chapters you find yourself disappointed. As an author, what do you feel creates a lackluster book?
Rus: Everything in a novel is tied together intrinsically. If one aspect is flawed, the entire novel is flawed. That’s why there’s no such thing as The Perfect Novel. That said, I am annoyed by writers who have no writing style; who have not yet found—or can’t be bothered to develop—their own, singular, narrative voice. Now, I’m a writer who believes that different portions of a novel can and should be told in styles that are slow here, fast there—whatever the story calls for. Dean Koontz talks about this in his out of print book, How to Write Best Selling Fiction, which is just an incredible guide for writers.
But a book’s VOICE is what ultimately carries me along as a reader. King has this voice of a storyteller sitting on a porch swing in the autumn, that says, “Come on down and let me tell you a story.” Bradbury has this voice of a poet, telling stories from the shadows. James Lee Burke has the authorial voice of an artist, painting evocative tapestries with words. If there’s no voice, I rarely finish that novel.
I’ll make a confession. I used to have a guilty pleasure, in terms of books: I LOVED Star Trek novels. But a curious thing happened in the 2000s. The Trek novel line became… homogenized, I’d say, in more ways than one; and, once, where you had a James Blish or a Joe Haldeman or a Vonda McIntyre or a Peter David, telling a fascinating story, giving you their own take on Trek, the majority of Trek novels gradually became a bland, cookie cutter product, where the stories were just story, only story: very little characterization, even less nuance, and no individual, storytelling voices. I gave up on Trek novels while on vacation one summer, when the paperback I was reading pissed me off so much I kicked the damn thing across the hotel room. And I don’t harm books. At all. It’s sacrilegious!
Voice. VOICE. Even if it’s a deliberately unpoetic or minimalistic voice, such as Isaac Asimov’s or Ben Bova’s, hell, they still had individual voices that readers could distinguish from others. And that’s what I absolutely, bottom line, require in fiction—in good fiction. Voice.
Ruschelle: Ghostflowers is about rock n roll and vampires! Should I call them, Glampires? Okay, I won’t. I can hear the sigh in your voice from across the computer. What was it about blood suckers and their legends that inspired you? Did you have any other creature in mind to play the beast? Maybe a pygmy bigfoot who enjoys country music? Apologies if that’s your planned follow up. LOL
Rus: Well, a pygmy bigfoot who enjoys rock and roll would be called…Little Feet. Goodnight and God bless, everybody! Make sure to tip your servers! Sorry, no glampires in Ghostflowers. I think the world has had enough of sparkling, glittering vamps. So, my wife gave me the idea for this novel. We were both surprised by the insane popularity, back in the mid-‘90s, of a particular novel, and one morning she appeared in the bathroom doorway while I was shaving, getting ready to go to work, and she said, “Why don’t you make us a million dollars and write ‘The Vampires of Madison County?’” I just stared at her. Then I told her that was an awful idea. A terrible idea. And by the time I had finished shaving, I knew the plot, I knew the characters’ names, I knew the time period, the setting, I knew how it would end…and I had no choice. So, it had to be vampires from the beginning. I did have fun, though, writing the scenes where my characters shapeshift into their beast-like, id forms, and attack. Bloodshed and carnage! That was fun! Oh, and I also knew, right from the start, that I would challenge myself by never once using the word vampire in the novel. King did that in the first 25% of ‘Salem’s Lot, and I wanted to see if I could sustain that build-up of suspense for an entire novel. I hope I succeeded.
Ruschelle: In this novel we are entwined in the provocative, heady aroma of blood, vampires, and romance. Do you feel romance is natural to all vampires or just the modern-day types? I’m kinda giggling at the thought of hideous, animalistic stregoi trying their hand at romancing humans, or each other. But maybe that’s just me.
Rus: Romance, itself, isn’t built in to the concept of vampires—I think this type of horror-romance is a modern-day concept that originated somewhere between Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Universal’s 1932 film The Mummy—obviously not a vampire film, but it is a story of an undead being in eternal love with a human woman, and is she or isn’t she the reincarnation of his lost love? Romance between monster and victim is a long-evolving literary concept, but there is little reflection of that in vampire folklore. With Ghostflowers, the romantic aspect is admittedly a by-product of Dark Shadows’ impact on me when I was younger (not to mention the reincarnation aspect, of lovers being reborn in an endless cycle). It’s inspired by the idea of a mysterious stranger in the shadows, but I hope I took some old tropes and turned them on their heads.
It’s not romance, but sex that is viscerally natural to vampirism. Vampires live, thrive, and are born via penetration, sucking, and the sloppy swappy of bodily fluids. That ain’t love; that’s dirty deeds, done dirt cheap—at the dark end of the street.
Ruschelle: Writing a novel is never an easy task, from the inception of the idea to its final edit. Novels are a labor of love. What did you find easy while penning Ghostflowers and conversely, what did you find was more of a challenge?
Rus: I’m not sure I can answer your question the way you want me to. I outlined Ghostflowers twice. I always outline my novels with a rough outline to keep me pointed in the direction I need to go. (This didn’t happen with The Enigma Club, though. That damn novel wouldn’t let me outline it past the chapter I was working on. I’d write the outline for Chapter 1, write that chapter, then the book would let me write the outline for Chapter 2. I believe in listening to—and obeying—my subconscious, so I mean it when I say The book wouldn’t let me do something. I digress.) So I outlined Ghostflowers completely shortly after my wife gave me the idea back in the dim days of 1996. I put that away because real life and careers and a steady pay check got in the way of writing for a while. I outlined it again when I started up again in earnest in 2013, and then I dove in.
I never hit writers’ block or anything like that. It was a smooth writing experience, and I felt the flow throughout. By the way, I wrote Ghostflowers completely in longhand, and then typed and revised straight into the computer. The research into the events around summer 1971 was fun and stimulated some of the writing—for instance, when I discovered that Scars of Dracula and Horror of Frankenstein were playing in a double feature at the drive-in in my hometown the weekend of July 4, 1971, I knew exactly what my characters would be doing Friday night. That verisimilitude turned a make-believe scene into a slice of life. There was only one small chapter that gave me a hard time: a flashback involving the main character’s mother. I took that out in one of the later drafts, as it added little to the story, and slowed down the story’s flow. And perhaps that’s why it had been hard to write: I may have known subconsciously that it wasn’t necessary to the story, but I wasn’t listening to the story.
Ruschelle: Many of us grew up reading or playing Dungeons and Dragons and its many worlds! What was the experience like writing for TSR?
Rus: It was like a weird flashback. I had played the original D&D back for a few years in the late ‘70s, but then fell away from it while in college. I had even started a notebook to create my own game. Years later, my wife and I moved to Orlando, and at a SF convention there in 1991, I met up with my friend Brian Thomsen, who had recently become editor of the TSR line. He pulled me aside and told me that one of his writers couldn’t write a book on assignment, as he was newly engaged and had to go through Jewish conversion lessons—and he asked me if I was interested in writing it. I had never heard of the D&D series Brian spoke of—Spelljammer—but, of course, I said yes, twist my arm. So I had thirteen weeks to write the final book in the six-book Spelljammer cycle. Brian and the series editor sent me the first five books and all the background and creature material I’d need, and I jumped in from there. They also supplied a bare bones outline that I absolutely had to follow, but beyond that I could write what I wanted.
So I speed-read the previous novels, and there I was, writing the last book in a series about a giant manta ray in space that had a D&D city-state on its back, populated with all the races and monsters in a typical D&D campaign—and I had no freaking idea what I was doing. A few weeks into it, I just looked at my computer screen and almost chucked it all. I came this close to bailing on the project. Elves and Beholders and Owlbears and Wyverns—it was both overwhelming and just a little ridiculous. I thought I remembered basic D&D from when I played it…but it had obviously changed more than I knew. Then I realized—this was my job; I had to be a professional and get the job done.
So I kept on, and I decided to have fun with it. I wrote three of my friends into the story as minor characters, and decided to channel my fond memories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard while writing the action scenes. John Carter of Mars and Conan the Barbarian. Excellent role models! I channeled Michael Moorcock when I wrote quotes from faux historical tomes at the beginning of every chapter. Then, during the writing, Brian called me and asked me to write two more novels for a new series they were starting, Endless Quest Books, the D&D version of Choose-Your-Own-Adventures. I guess it pays to act like a professional. So, after Spelljammer: The Ultimate Helm, I wrote the first two Endless Quests—all of these novels were published under three separate pseudonyms, by the way—and then I had eight weeks each to write Dungeon of Fear and Castle of the Undead. Dungeon was completely original, and I had to teach myself the formula for writing secret path books; this was pre-Internet, so I couldn’t just copy someone else’s formula. Castle was a little different: Brian sent me an incomplete manuscript that had been written by the late Scott Ciencin, and told me he couldn’t accept it—to this day I don’t know why—but that I could use whatever I wanted in it, or I could start from scratch. So I kept the main characters’ names, but started over to make the rest of the novel all my own.
Ruschelle: Fun question, if you could change the mythos of any creature out there which would it be and what would be the new mythos?
Rus: Actually, I would remove all the input from Hollywood that has poisoned folklore. I’d take silver bullets out of werewolf stories—that’s completely made-up, Hollywood bullshit—and I’d make sure that stakes in vampire movies are made of ash or hawthorn, and are a minimum of three feet long—they’re made that way to pin the undead into the earth permanently, while also killing them through the heart. And that’s just the start. Follow the folklore.
Ruschelle: I read where you pitched a story line for Star Trek: The Next Generation! How cool! What was that experience like for a Science Fiction junkie, like yourself?
Rus: Gene Roddenberry started that program, where writers outside of the writers room could come in and pitch—but you needed an agent in L.A. When I first pitched to Next Generation, I contacted my then-book agent, who put me in touch with a Hollywood agent who handled screenwriters. I had a solid idea for a story based on Southern history and the tale of the original Roanoke colonists, so I wrote a teleplay, and the Hollywood agent submitted it to Trek. So, they liked it enough to bring me in to pitch, but they didn’t buy the script. Oh well. Hey, I pitched to them twice over the phone and twice in person. It felt great just being there!
Ruschelle: Would you mind sharing your Star Trek: Next Gen story line ideas with us? Your newfound fans want to know what goes on in that creative brain of yours.
Rus: Actually, I pitched sixteen stories to Trek, all because they liked my original teleplay, which I now plan on adapting into an original sf novel in a few years. It was interesting, because each time I saw or spoke with a different producer. They each took copious notes on the story ideas I pitched, but I was never able to make a sale. I wanted to do a story about Geordi and his mother in the vein of “Data’s Day,” but the producers didn’t want to revisit that relationship. It is curious that I pitched them an idea for a Halloween Q episode, where the bridge crew eventually devolved into the archetypes of horror literature, and in season 7 there was an episode where the bridge crew devolved into individual, primordial creatures (“Genesis”). It may be a coincidence that the ideas were so similar. Hm.
Ruschelle: Okay, I’m going to be THAT person. Star Trek or Star Wars? Or is there a third lesser-known choice out there that we are all missing…until now. Defend your answer. LOL
Rus: Trek. Always Trek. I’ve been a Trekker since, well, forever. I attended the third ever Star Trek convention at the Hotel Americana in NYC. I have always loved science fiction, and that includes the science aspect of science fiction. As much as I like Star Wars, there’s little or no real science involved in that far, far away galaxy. So I guess I’ll just keep on trekkin’. LLAP, fellow nerds!
Ruschelle: You copyedit stories and RPG for Troll Lord Press, which is extremely important work that needs to be done to a story or RPG before it goes out for public consumption. So, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to writers who are submitting their works for publication and public munching.
Rus: I’ve stopped copyediting RPGs. It was a lark that just happened, and one that I’m grateful for, but the editing took up a lot of time and really wasn’t worth it to me financially. It’s almost embarrassing that I have to say this, but there are writers who submit stories and novels who can’t spell, or who can’t write a complete or coherent sentence. Publishers are hiring freelance editors to work with some of these writers, but I seriously don’t understand writers who don’t get the idea of professionalism; in other words, writing the best you can write, and always striving to be a better writer than you are. I don’t believe that “good enough” is good enough. That’s why writers need to put their egos aside during the editing process and learn from their mistakes, instead of just shrugging off their writing problems with the attitude that someone else will fix the book for them. We already have too many bad writers getting published. We need more good writers who embody Hemingway’s maxim: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”
Ruschelle: What project or projects are you working on that we can look forward to reading, listening, or watching?
Rus: Right now, novels are my primary focus, but… The Enigma Club, a pseudo-literary pulp adventure about the old-time pulp adventures (it’s kind of meta), is currently being marketed to publishers. I’ve also written the first script for an Enigma Club podcast, in the style of 1930s radio shows, and I’d like to get maybe ten more scripts done before I begin recording, I hope later in the year. I’m 25% into a daylight, tropical horror novel, Shades, that takes place one summer in Miami. I’m working on a series of cozy mysteries with a writing partner here in Virginia. After that I want to write a Southern gothic about a modern witch and a haunted farm, and then I’ll write the space opera I originally intended for Trek as a teleplay. I’m staying busy. There isn’t time to waste.
Ruschelle: Thank you so much for hanging out with me here at the Horror Tree! It’s been a pleasure. Would you please tell your newfound fans how they might find you on the www?
Rus: Sure! Please visit me and my blog at ruswornom.com, and I’m on twitter as @RusWornom. By the time this interview posts, I’ll also have an active Facebook page for Ghostflowers, so please come by and see me. Hey, thanks for having me at the Horror Tree! Stay scary!
- About the Author
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Ruschelle Dillon is a freelance writer whose efforts focus on the dark humor and the horror genres. Ms. Dillon’s brand of humor has been incorporated in a wide variety of projects, including the irreverent blog Puppets Don’t Wear Pants and novelette “Bone-sai”, published through Black Bed Sheet Books as well as the live-action video shorts “Don’t Punch the Corpse” and “Mothman”. She also interviews authors for the Horror Tree website.
Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies and online zines such as Strangely Funny III, Story Shack, Siren’s Call, Weird Ales- Another Round and Women in Horror Anthology Vol. 2, Sanitarium Magazine, Dark Voices and Fear and Fables. Her collection of short stories, Arithmophobia published by Mystery and Horror LLC, is available through Amazon & Barnes and Noble. Summer 2020, Black Bed Sheet Publishing will release her dark Novella, The Stain.