The Spooky Six with Willow Croft and David Lee Summers
For this edition of The Spooky Six, I headed off with my thermos of piping-hot tea to watch the stars with author, publisher, and astronomer, David Lee Summers!
David Lee Summers (he/him) became serious about writing in 1983 when Ray Bradbury took him aside at the end of a high school assembly and said “submit your story to a magazine now!” As it turns out, the story Ray Bradbury referred to wasn’t ready for publication, but David persisted and published several stories and even his first novel with small presses in the coming decade. While all of this was going on, David went to New Mexico Tech, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and began a career in astronomy. In 1990, he married Kumie Wise. David has worked at several observatories, including the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island, the Very Large Array Radio Telescope in New Mexico, and Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. In 1995, He moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico and became the primary technician for New Mexico State University’s 1-meter telescope on Apache Point.
When David’s story “The Slayers” was published in Realms of Fantasy Magazine in 2001, Ray Bradbury wrote to say how proud he was that David persisted in his craft. That same year, David left astronomy to pursue writing and editing full time while also being a stay-at-home dad for his daughters. Although he wasn’t seeking additional employment, Kitt Peak National Observatory’s management contacted him in 2008 and asked if he’d be interested in returning to his old job. He’s been working at the observatory ever since.
David has published a dozen novels, two novellas, and over 90 short stories. His longer works include The Astronomer’s Crypt, a horror story set at an astronomical observatory in New Mexico, Breaking the Code about a skinwalker preventing marines from recruiting Navajo code talkers at the beginning of World War II, and The Brazen Shark, which was voted Best Steampunk Novel of 2016 in the Preditors and Editors Reader’s Poll. His short fiction has appeared in such anthologies and magazines as Straight Outta Tombstone, Cemetery Dance, and Gaslight and Grimm. David edited the magazine Tales of the Talisman for ten years and has edited three science fiction anthologies. He co-edited the anthology A Kepler’s Dozen with the project scientist for NASA’s Kepler Mission, Dr. Steve Howell. Each story in the anthology is set at a real exoplanet discovered by the mission. In 2022, Analog Magazine cited A Kepler’s Dozen as one of the only pieces of science fiction that demonstrated an understanding of real-world planetary discovery.
David’s website, which includes retail links to all his fiction, is: http://www.davidleesummers.com
David maintains a blog at: https://davidleesummers.wordpress.com
Many of David’s books are currently published via Hadrosaur Productions: https://www.hadrosaur.com
David’s Amazon profile: https://www.amazon.com/David-Lee-Summers/e/B003LLIC3C
David’s Goodreads profile: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/885915.David_Lee_Summers
David is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/davidleesummers
He occasionally tweets at: https://www.twitter.com/davidleesummers
Willow Croft: “Hey, look at that derelict Victorian mansion…let’s go explore it!” What’s the most unusual setting you’ve read about in a horror/thriller book, or included in your own creative works?
David Lee Summers: I think the most unusual setting I’ve read about in a horror novel is the derelict spaceship in Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires. Effectively, it’s like a gothic cathedral in space. The sheer scale makes it seem almost more a thing of wonder than of terror and given the hole in its side, it seems like it should be dead, at least until our heroes find the sealed compartments inside, which seem very pristine and contain surprisingly human figures who seem perfectly harmless.
The most unusual setting I’ve used in my own work is an astronomical observatory like the one where I work, which I did in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. It’s a huge, multi-story building with old laboratories, dorm rooms, recreation rooms, storage rooms and so forth … and it’s basically empty. On a quiet night, you hear nothing but the wind blowing through the ventilation system. It’s dark, because we can’t have lights on around the telescope. Because of that, you may find yourself walking along a darkened corridor with just a flashlight and you’ll swear someone is right behind you. It doesn’t help that someone tragically died on the site back in the 1980s. It’s not the kind of place you expect to be the setting of a horror novel, but it wasn’t hard for me to set many scary scenes in a fictionalized version of the place where I work.
Willow Croft: “It was a dark and stormy night…” What are your go-to comfort foods, drinks, or other ways to wind down after a long day (or night) of writing?
David Lee Summers: As I come to the end of a long writing session, I like to pour either a glass of red wine or prepare a glass of absinthe and let any final words flow onto the page. Once that’s finished, I might savor a little chocolate. Because my writing sessions often finish in the afternoon, I usually go do some work around the house to wind down, then make a home-cooked meal for me and my wife. Then in the evening, we’ll often settle down to watch a movie or a few episodes of a TV series we’re following. Often what we watch will be tonally similar to what I’m writing, which puts me in a good frame of mind to start all over again the next day.
Willow Croft: “Did you hear that noise?” Everyone, even us horror writers, have our night terrors. What is it that frightens you the most?
David Lee Summers: It feels a little cliché to say it, but the dreams that will literally make me wake up in a cold sweat or with my heart racing in terror are the ones where one or both of my kids are in serious trouble and I’m powerless to help them. I think it’s a testament to how careful and capable my kids are that I don’t have these types of dreams often. Also, while I don’t remember most of my dreams clearly, I do remember the terror and the heart-wrenching pain of these dreams in particular. Of course, I use that when I write my horror. I think some of the scariest stuff I’ve written has involved someone being powerless to keep something terrible from happening to another character they’re close to in some way.
Willow Croft: “I’m sure it was nothing. But I’ll just go outside and check, anyway. Alone. With no weapons.” Have you ever gotten writers’ block? If so, how do you combat it? Do you have certain rituals or practices that help get you into the writing (or creating) mindset?
David Lee Summers: A good friend once described a truly bad case of writer’s block where she had no interest in writing and words just would not flow. I’m fortunate never to have experienced anything that bad. My problem is that my brain will get into a mode where it will tell itself something like “writing is hard, you should do something else instead.” The best way for me to combat that is to take a walk, clear my head, and focus on the scene I want to write while not looking at the computer. I start visualizing what happens without having the pressure of the keyboard or screen in front of me and just experience the fun of daydreaming about the story. By the time I’m finished with my walk, I usually have pictured enough of the story to be able to sit down and write a large chunk of it. Once that’s done, it’s much easier to finish a scene or reach a word-count goal, because I’ve already made good progress on the scene.
Willow Croft: “Don’t go into the basement!” Are you an impulsive pantser or a plotter with outlines galore? What other writing/industry advice would you share with your fellow writers & creators?
David Lee Summers: I’m a big-time plotter. Even when I write a short story, I often write a one or two-page synopsis before I begin. My novels often start with several pages of “plot points.” Each plot point is basically a scene where something happens that moves the plot forward. Now, here’s the real fun part. Even though I plot stories carefully, I find my characters often come to life enough that they will steer my story away from my carefully plotted outline. I don’t sweat that. I finish the scene, then go back to my outline and either add new plot points to get my story back on course, or completely revise the outline.
Of course, you need to decide for yourself whether being a plotter or a pantser is more effective for you. In that same spirit, I’ll add a little nuance to another piece of familiar advice. Write what you’re so passionate about you’ll do everything it takes to make it as good as you can possibly make it. The first part of this is a reminder not to let industry trends drive what you write. It can take years for a book or a story to get published. What’s hot today may be very different from what’s hot in five years. Also, if you’re really good at a subject and you’ve found an audience, it’ll sell whether it’s “hot” or not. The second part of this advice is a reminder that when you do sell something, there’s a very good chance an editor is going to completely savage it. They’re not doing it to hurt you. They’re doing it to make the writing the best it can possibly be and make sure you’re communicating everything you should be. You shouldn’t be passionate in the sense that the editor’s advice is going to hurt your ego. You should be passionate in the sense that you pay attention to what worked and didn’t work for the editor and work with them to make it the best version of your story you can achieve.
Willow Croft: “Ring ring!” It’s the middle of the night and the phone mysteriously rings. Which notable writer, or person from history, would be on the other end of the line?
David Lee Summers: True to the spirit of this question, the person on the other end of the line would have to be Edgar Allan Poe. The scary part isn’t that he’s a horror writer. The scary part is that Poe was an outspoken editor and critic and he’s likely to tell me exactly what he thinks about my writing. I’m sure he’d tear apart my poems and short stories and tell me what worked and didn’t work, which would be both exhilarating and terrifying. It also might be frustrating because it’s hard to say that Poe’s writing would sell in today’s market. If I survived the initial barrage of criticism, and he didn’t tell me to give up writing altogether, he’d probably tell me I need to write more so I could get better … and then the phone would go dead, the lightning would crack and a raven would appear above my doorway and say, “Nevermore.”
(Disclaimer: Please note that the interview responses are the opinion(s) of the interviewee and may not be directly representative of The Horror Tree, its staff, and/or its guest contributors.)
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“Bringer of Nightmares and Storms.” Horror writer Willow Croft is usually lurking deep in the shadows of her writer cave, surrounded by formerly feral (but still fierce!) cats for company. Visit her here: http://willowcroft.blog, or check out her other services here: https://kirsten-lee-barger.mailchimpsites.com/.