CREATOR OF HEROES

The following is an interview with New York Times bestselling author David Morrell, master of the high-action thriller, creator of Rambo, author of such fine novels as First Blood, The Protector, and Murder As a Fine Art. He writes nonfiction, and for comics, and is a mentor to emerging writers and has a passion for protecting wildlife. And his latest collection, Before I Wake, is available June 30th from Subterranean. He’s all over the place, but at this moment he’s at Written Backwards to share a few things. Enjoy!

the_chosen

The interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

My first exposure to your work was in the form of a Halloween costume. This was either 1983 or 1984, which means I was either four or five years old when I first met a character by the name of “Rambo” (only knew him by that name) because my older siblings talked about him often. You published the novel First Blood in 1972, and ten years later, in the fall of 1982, the movie debuted (directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Sylvester Stallone, who also contributed to the screenplay). Back then, movies stayed in theatres much longer, for years even, and First Blood was a huge success, grossing an unheard-of $125.2 million, which, way back when, was a lot of money.

Here’s where the costume comes in. My oldest sister came out of her room the following year (or the next) with fake blood dripping down her face and neck, her long hair tied back with a red ribbon around her forehead, and I believe she wore a tank top and a long black survival knife belted to her waist, the kind with a compass on the hilt (back then, you could wear such weapons in public). “I’m Rambo,” she had said, for Halloween, introducing him to me, and she explained the blood was there because Rambo had apparently jumped off a cliff and into some trees, scraping his face and neck. Let me repeat that I was either four or five years old, so I wasn’t allowed to watch such violent movies. This Rambo guy sounded kinda cool, I thought. And my sister, she’s kinda cool.

first_blood

Fast-forward another ten years, and I’m considered old enough to watch the Rambo movie (or perhaps not), and it quickly becomes a favorite. I watch First Blood a couple dozen times, and my older brother and I often play “Rambo” in the backyard, throwing knives at trees, making bows and arrows from fallen branches, scavenging to make forts in trees, crawling on the dirt, always running from something (like in the film). John Rambo becomes part of my childhood, and for the course of about twenty years, I don’t know there’s a book about this Rambo hero of ours.

Fast-forward another ten years, and I start writing fiction, poetry, anything I can think of. I don’t want to be a writer (and hate reading in general, at this time), but for some reason I have to write, like it’s some kind of disease. Sometime around then, I discover there’s a novel version of First Blood (why’d he call it that?), by some guy named David Morrell. And then I find his other books, such as The Brotherhood of the Rose, The Fraternity of the Stone, The Protector, The Naked Edge. I become a constant reader.

brotherhood

Fast-forward another ten years, and I’m still writing, but seriously. I’m at some kind of boot camp hosted by Borderlands Press, with the likes of Thomas F. Monteleone, Douglas E. Winter, and F. Paul Wilson, and this David Morrell fellow I’ve come to know through his words and through his characters. The creator of Rambo! I’m thinking. The guy who created one of my (and my siblings’) childhood heroes! It’s thirty-something years later, and wouldn’t you know it, the idea behind First Blood is still relevant. My oldest brother, he’s been in the military all this time. He’s my own Rambo. He’s fought in the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and countless others, and he’s there during the fall of Saddam Hussein, helps take over the Baghdad Airport and later shows me a picture of him and a few others underneath a sign proclaiming that such a thing would never happen. And each time he returns from war, like many others, he’s perhaps looked down upon.

Fast-forward to the present, and I’m interviewing the creator of Rambo, and so many other incredible characters. And I’m falling in love with new series altogether, such as the Thomas De Quincy series, which starts with Murder As a Fine Art.

murder.jpg

The questions:

Michael Bailey: I promise this will be the only Rambo-related question, but his story is important to me and to so many others, so I must ask: Why do you feel the story of John Rambo is forever-relevant?

David Morrell: It depends on which Rambo we’re talking about. The character in my novel First Blood is furious about what happened to him in Vietnam, whereas the character in the film is a sympathetic victim while the character in the second and third films is jingoistic. Sly told me that in retrospect he wasn’t happy with the treatment of violence in Rambo II and III, which is why he saw the fourth film [Rambo] as his version of a Sam Peckinpah movie. The character was more like the one in my novel. “Wars. Old men start them, young men fight them, and everybody loses,” Rambo says at one point in the fourth film (the director’s-cut DVD amplifies the theatrical version). If we look for a common denominator, I suppose it comes back to the military virtues of courage, honor, loyalty, and sacrifice, which are virtues that everyone, not only those in the military, should emulate. I mention those virtues in my Captain America; The Chosen six-part comic-book series.

sly

David Morrell with Sylvester Stallone

MB: Movies based on comic book characters are perhaps the most costly but also the most profitable of all movies, with Avengers: Endgame recently grossing over $1.2 billion worldwide over a single weekend, and movies like Black Panther and Captain Marvel and many others making over $1 billion worldwide before their short runs (compared to the long-ago). Movies are only in theatres now for months, yet raking in insane amounts of money. Why are comic book characters such a big part of our lives?

DM: It’s about promotion as much as the characters. After the collapse of the DVD market, Hollywood producers looked elsewhere for revenue. They found it in China and India, where the theatrical-distribution systems were starting to make Hollywood films available in a big way. Comic-book heroes (and characters from films such as Star Wars) are so universally familiar that Oriental audiences recognized them, despite the differences in cultures. In marketing language, these films are “pre-sold.” As the revenue from Oriental audiences increased, studios made more films to satisfy that market. Meanwhile, to use the United States as an example, the binge-watching of television series is so popular that only films with a visceral magnitude motivate families to leave the house as a group. A family of four spends more than a hundred dollars to go to a movie (a low estimate). The impressive CGI effects and the wall-rumbling sound of superhero films aren’t anything they can get at home. The spectacle is the attraction. Marketers have brilliantly convinced families that these are experiences they ought to share, even though the action scenes can be prolonged and repetitive to the point that they’re numbing. That isn’t to say I’m negative about superhero films. I loved the origin films for Wonder Woman and Black Panther, which emphasized characterization as much as spectacle.

MB: Why are we, as people, so in need of superheroes?

DM: It depends on how we define a superhero. Remember that in the 1930s Hitler used elements from Germanic mythology to promote his agenda. For a superhero to appeal to me, that character needs to personify fairness, selflessness, the belief in equality, the protection of the weak, etc. Fortunately those values are what traditional comic books and Hollywood superhero movies represent. In our crisis-ridden culture, we need as many representatives of those values as we can get. I’m reminded that the mass shooter at the film theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012 opened fire at an audience watching The Dark Knight Returns. He could have been a villain in the movie. When I wrote my Captain America: The Chosen comic-book series, my theme was that each of us has within us the capacity to be a superhero. In my Spider-Man: Frost two-parter, my theme was the selfless meaning of Spider-Man / Peter Parker’s mantra: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

capain_america

MB: It’s not as well-known as some of your other projects, but you have dipped into Marvel comics, writing such series as Captain America: The Chosen (one of my favorite short-run comics of all time, the story you created as relevant as (or perhaps mirroring) that of John Rambo’s, once again making me think of my brother in the military), as well as a two-parter of The Amazing Spider-Man (#700.1 & 700.2), and an issue of Savage Wolverine (#23). The question: How much easier, or more difficult, is comic-writing vs. prose-writing?

spider-man

DM: I think of comics as stop-action stories comparable to storyboards for films. The dynamism comes from the jump between panels. One contrast between prose fiction and comics is that in fiction I can use all five senses to try to achieve a feeling of three dimensions whereas in a comic book I’m working in an emphatically visual medium, with limited sound effects that are printed on the page and require the reader to imagine them. Some readers might be surprised that a comic-book writer chooses the number of images per page (a single image or two or four or even eight images on a page) and describes what happens in each of those images. A 22-page comic book might have a script that’s as long as the comic itself. Moreover, what characters say or think needs to be kept to a minimum in favor of letting the images tell the story. I think of each page as a paragraph and try to use the bottom panel on a page to catapult the reader to the top of the next one. Similarly, when a reader turns a page in a physical comic book, I try to have a “reveal” on the page that’s uncovered. My essay about writing Spider-Man: Frost, can be found on the Writing page of my website, www.davidmorrell.net. The essay includes script pages and matching illustrations from artist Klaus Janson and colorist Steve Buccellatto.

MB: If you were given the opportunity, which comic series would you write next?

DM: Probably Batman, because of the psychological implication of caves and bats. He’s a DC character, of course, but I think my contract with Marvel has expired.

wolverine

MB: Okay, no more comic-related questions. You are well-known to up-and-coming writers (100% of those I encounter, at least) as a person always willing to offer advice and support, always going above and beyond, such as with your involvement in the Borderlands Press boot camps. Why is it important to help those new to the business?

DM: A couple of reasons. One is that the writing world is contracting. It’s increasingly difficult for beginning writers to get established. I recall the writers who gave me generous advice at the start: William Tenn, Stirling Silliphant, Donald E. Westlake, Brian Garfield, and Lawrence Block, to name some. I also recall how grateful I was. They told me to pay it forward, so that’s what I do. The second reason is that I‘m by nature a teacher. I love sharing information and explaining, which might be another example of paying it forward.

MB: You are also often involved with wildlife rescue, and have a few stories you’ve shared in the past with the wildlife where you live. What first sparked this need to help other animals and why is so important we do so?

DM: I’ve always felt close to animals and nature. One of my most transformative experiences involved living in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming for 33 days as a member of a Wilderness Expedition course through the National Outdoor Leadership School. That was research for my novel, Testament. I’ve always had my home in small communities with easy access to the countryside. I’m a gardener, especially when it comes to vegetables (and in New Mexico, that’s a task). I see my world as if it’s a Van Gogh painting with the universe’s spirit swirling through everything. The wildlife rescues started four years ago. I live in Santa Fe, near the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. One day I stepped outside and found a mother bobcat with two kittens. She stared into my eyes as powerfully as I’ve ever been looked at. But she wasn’t threatening me. Young and weak, she was pleading for help. I don’t feed wildlife. But I did let her use a copse of trees near my house as a den. I never bothered her. She and the kittens were there every day. Then one night, I heard three shots and knew in my heart that a neighbor had killed her. She never came back. I learned about the New Mexico Wildlife Shelter, who sent someone to teach me how to capture the kittens. I took them to the shelter, learned about its worthy mission, and have supported it since then. Last summer, the director brought a sharp-shinned hawk in a cage. The hawk had been injured but was now healed. I kept the hawk for a day as it became used to the sound and look of my wooded neighborhood. Then I released it. The hawk came back many times after that. On one occasion, it perched on a rain barrel and looked through our kitchen window. For me, that’s like going to church.

MB: As a creator of heroes, what single piece of advice would you share?

DM: If you mean advice about writing, my mantras are, “Be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of another writer.” And “Don’t chase the market. You’ll always see its backside.” But the larger issue is the responsibility that comes with writing in genres that attract more readers than other types of writing. My work emphasizes action and suspense, but underneath there are embedded themes, and they go back to what I mentioned that I felt were the qualities of a superhero: fairness, selflessness, the belief in equality, the protection of the weak, etc. It’s no accident that I wrote three novels and three short stories about protective agents and that one of them is called The Protector.

* For additional writing advice, check out The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons About Writing and Publishing, and also his Writing page at www.davidmorrell.net.

A BOUQUET OF FLOWERS

If you were fortunate enough to attend the Horror Writers Association’s StokerCon (May 9th through 12th), your goodie-bag included the latest StokerCon Anthology. The book, edited by the wonderful Linda D. Addison, includes over 350 pages of fiction, nonfiction, artwork, poetry, et cetera.

I put together the anthology last year, and can attest that to accomplish such a feat is hell, although a beautiful kind of hell. Linda wanted to keep up the tradition I started last year of making the “souvenir book” more of an anthology … and now she hates me for it (but also loves me for it just the same).

For those who didn’t attend the conference, I am posting what I offered for the book. “A Bouquet of Flowers” is a 2,000-word essay on anthologies (one of my passions), which focuses on what one can expect when submitting their work to such things. Enjoy!


“A Bouquet of Flowers” by Michael Bailey

You’ve written a flash piece, a short story, a novelette, perhaps ventured into novella-length territory; maybe your manuscript took a day, a week, a month, maybe longer to compose. Hopefully you’ve stashed it away somewhere to marinate, passed it on to beta-readers, re-written sections, thrown away the first page [or first few because most stories often don’t know where to start], or you have at least gone through a few drafts before calling it done. Is it ready? Probably not. Try again. Is it ready now, this masterpiece? Good. Let’s call it done and sell the thing.

“But where?” you might ask, always on the search for decent per-word pay rates. An anthology is a good place to start, if any are seeking submissions. Wherever you plan to place it, however, keep in mind that there are certain rules to follow if you ever want your work to appear in print. For the sake of simplification, let’s focus on the anthology.

The anthologists, they are [not] gods; they are [not] gatekeepers.

Before going further, the difference between collections and anthologies must be defined, as well the origination of the word ‘anthology.’ There is often confusion between the two. Collections contain multiple works by a single writer—bound red roses, for example, all from the same source. Anthologies contain single works [of all types] by multiple writers—bound flowers of various color from a multitude of sources. It’s that simple.

An anthology is defined as “a published collection of poems or other pieces of writing.” The word ‘anthology’ is derived from the Greek Anthos [meaning flower] and –logia [meaning collection], or anthologia, a word denoting a collection of the “flowers” of verse. So, an anthology is therefore defined as a “small choice poems or epigrams, by various authors.” A bouquet of the written word, in other words.

And the anthologists, the modern bouquet-makers, they are people, and they are on your side whether you believe it or not. They can become friends—people you want on your side [if treated properly], as much as they can become enemies—people you will never side with [if treated poorly]. They are creators [gods], like you, albeit with much wider scopes in that they are responsible for creating larger stories out of many smaller stories. Anthologists are readers, first and foremost. Most read more unpublished work than published, and very few are writers themselves. Anthologists are editors, some recommending minor adjustments while others requiring more extensive editing, depending on the want of the piece, and its current condition. And they are compilers [gatekeepers], in that by creating anthologies they must first filter through hundreds if not thousands of stories before making final selections on a select few.

Why would anthologists [or their publishers, or anyone, for that matter] ever want to spend money on what you’ve created? Are you worth it? How beautiful is your flower?

Some math: An anthology receives a thousand short stories, with only twenty to be included. This means you have a 2% chance of making the cull if what you’ve created is good enough [it better be], and adhere to guidelines. Factor in that most pro-rate anthologies are often half-filled with stories from invited writers, and your chance of inclusion drops to 1%. Factor in that sometimes anthologists first fill 75% of a book before ever offering a “call for submissions,” and that number drops to roughly half of a percent. Your odds, they are small.

This thing you’ve created. What is it? It’s flash if under a thousand words, a short story if between that and seventy-five hundred, novelette if between that and seventeen thousand five hundred or so, and novella if between that and forty to forty-five thousand, which gets you into short novel territory. Novellas, they mostly have their own market now, albeit small, and the market for short novels is almost nonexistent. If what you’ve written—your darling, perfect manuscript—has dipped into novel­-length, then anthologists no longer concern you. In fact, if your story is anywhere over five thousand words, it’s going to be a tough sell to an editor for an anthology unless longer works are specifically sought.

Is your manuscript close to short story length? Six thousand is close, right? Seven thousand? Eight? Guidelines in short fiction markets most likely call for five thousand words or fewer, but editors don’t mind a little padding, right? Yes. Yes, they mind. Guidelines are established for a reason, and unless unrealistic [most likely non-professional, a la “calls for submission”], if you don’t adhere to a few simple rules [word count caps, content, formatting, et cetera], your story will go unread, in most cases, attachment unopened. Your story will be trash. Like fancy fonts? Like single-spacing? Like overwriting [not necessarily word-count but by what you might consider purple prose]? Like foregoing the marinating / self-editing / beta-reading stage[s]? Like bending guidelines? If so, you will soon become familiar with the term “instant rejection.” If an anthologist is specifically seeking short fiction in the five thousand range, and your story is a thousand to three higher than that, or longer, either start cutting, start cutting deep, or don’t send your story at all. If it’s close, get out the red pen; start highlighting, pounding Delete and / or Backspace until your fingers blister; most stories in the six and seven and eight thousand range work better as five, anyway. Cut until it hurts, and then cut more. Bleed your pages until all that’s left is what’s absolutely necessary. And never pad your story for the sake of word count.

Some math: The average anthology runs 100,000 words, give or take. Twenty short stories, each five thousand words, adds up to 100,000 words. And some invited writers [more often than not]—with more selling-factor behind their names—tend to run long and sometimes get to run long. If the anthologist doesn’t cap payment on a specific word count [the “name” writers thus having more opportunity for income, or even offered higher per-word rates because of sell-ability], this in turn eats into the overall budget of the project. For the sake of word counts, this means there is indeed a reason for that hard guideline of five thousand words for the uninvited. It also means your odds of making it into the book increases if your word count decreases. Why? Editors often seek shorter fiction to make up for “name” writers taking their privileged space. The point? Stick to five thousand words as your own personal goal to benefit most from professional payment, but consider submitting shorter works to increase your chance of publication.

A simple rule to follow: Until you learn the art of self-editing, you will never sell a story to a pro-rate market. Master self-editing, and you will soon find yourself only selling to pro-rate markets. Another simple rule: Unless you are specifically writing for markets seeking novelette- or novella-length works, don’t ever send a story of such length to a short fiction market.

It all comes down to money.

Some math: The average anthology runs 100,000 words, give or take. A pro-rate anthology offers six cents per word [or should, at a minimum]. This means the budget for the work to be included [the words only, the meat] is typically $6,000, give or take, not to mention editor payment, artwork, cover design, publishing costs, marketing, and all those other essentials required to sell the book. This means the average anthology budget could start anywhere between $8,000 to $10,000, often higher, which in turn means eventually selling enough copies to recoup that cost. The book, if it is to be “professional,” therefore, must include only the best, which is why the hard work of the anthologist often goes unnoticed.

Is your story “the best” [not just in your mind]? Is your story original? Is your story good enough to survive the great culling of the anthologist? It better be the best fucking thing ever written. In a great bouquet [think the anthologies of Ellen Datlow, Stephen Jones, John Joseph Adams, Paula Guran, Thomas F. Monteleone, and many others], which brilliant burst of life is yours on display, or is your contribution lost in a bland display no one will ever remember?

But your story, it’s done, you’ve cut your darlings, you’ve bled the page, so to speak, and you’ve cut every word not absolutely necessary like the Jack Ketchums of the world. Now what? What’s your story worth [to you, to the anthologist]? What should you [expect to] be paid? The answer should always be “professional rate,” but that is not always the case in today’s market, although it should at least be your first choice when deciding where to submit.

Aim high, always. Start at the top, pay-wise. Avoid anything other than “professional” if you can. Six cents per word or bust! For science fiction and fantasy, this can be as high as eight to ten cents per word, sometimes twelve, so, if it fits, why not start there? Avoid “token” rate. Avoid “exposure.” Avoid “contributor copy only.” Avoid “royalty only.” Avoid “flat fee.”

Why are you writing? For fun? For exposure? For charity? What is your self-worth as an “author,” as a writer?

Let’s say your story is the best damn thing ever written. Let’s say an anthologist likes your stuff. Let’s say he or she has offered to buy your story, or your non-fiction article, or whatever, perhaps after a few minor tweaks, perhaps after some light editing, perhaps after some heavy editing. Good. Let’s say that whatever it is works for the intended project, and an anthologist has offered you a contract. Good. Do you sign it? Your first instinct is to scroll through, looking for payment information, your mind saying YES! LET’S SIGN THIS THING! and your heart racing, and you’re all smiles because, out of the small percentage of those not culled, you and your work have managed to squeeze in amidst names you [hopefully] recognize and names you [hopefully] don’t.

But the contract … what should you expect? Your goal, as a writer, is not to get screwed, always. It’s your work, after all, your name attached to the story, or whatever it may be. Despite the other names in the anthology, your name is now most important. What are you willing to sign away? Instead of relying on your first instincts of signing your name and dating the contract and announcing your fame to the world, there are important things to consider. Just as you are required to self-edit your work, you should be willing [as is your right] to edit contract details if they are seemingly unprofessional. Yes, you can do that.

Look specifically at the terms. Are you willing to part with your baby for a year, two years, three years, or [never] indefinitely? Are you willing to part with audio rights? Are you willing to part with media rights? Why would a publisher even need those? Are there plans for such things? Ask. If not, why are they there? And why should a publisher have the right to keep your work in print for the proposed terms? How long will the book be in print? Does the contract allow for inclusion in “best of” anthologies or a perhaps a personal collection? If not, it should. Does the contract allow for split royalty if the book “makes it big” and starts raking in the cash? If not, only the publisher benefits. Read the contractual terms carefully. Red-line what you don’t like. Add what’s not there. If you are a professional writer, and you are working with a professional anthologist, this shouldn’t be a problem.

This thing you’ve written, this flower, whatever it may be, if it’s good enough, and you’re good enough, the “anthologists,” the bouquet-makers, they will always be on your side, and soon you will find yourself not seeking “calls for submission,” but waiting for invites into future bouquets.

A VISIT FROM THE TOOTH FAIRY

The following is an interview with Zoje Stage, author of Baby TeethWhile this was put together prior to StokerCon (a conference run by the Horror Writers Association), I had the opportunity of meeting Zoje at the event. So, without further ado …

baby_teeth_1.jpg

The Interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

Baby Teeth seemed to have hit the ground running. The cover for the hardback is simple: blank white-ish background, shattered red lollipop, and those two words, which somewhat suggest that yes, this particular book is going to bite. I remember seeing the book for the first time displayed in a local bookstore in Santa Rosa, California, or maybe Petaluma, and it was like one of those presidential portraits that sort of keep staring at you as you pass, not wanting you to pass. The cover as striking as the title. And I remember thinking, Who is Zoje Stage? I didn’t buy the book, then. And I didn’t buy it the next two or three times it wanted me to buy it.

Some backstory: My wife and I have a yearly tradition of getting each other two books for Christmas, ones we’d not typically buy for ourselves; that way, each year, we are each introduced to two new writers minimum. The books I chose for her were, of course, Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage, and Cherry by Nico Walker (which he apparently wrote while in prison … or is still in prison, I don’t know). Both books were debut novels by writers I had never heard of before, and both had dust jackets that were a mix of white and red. They captured my attention in their first few pages (along with the back cover copy). The problem, however (at the time) was that I bought the books for her, as gifts, and the rule we have is that we can’t read them until the other finishes. She’s a slow reader, so this had me a bit worried because the two books (yours in particular) kept haunting, kept calling. Luckily, she breezed through it in a matter of days.

Suddenly I’m reading the book, and doing the same, alternating between chapters from the point of view of little, troubled Hanna, and her mother. Every time I’d finish a chapter, my wife would ask, “Where are you at?” and I’d tell her, and she’d follow it with a smile and say, “Oh, just you wait” and so I’d keep reading. I haven’t read Cherry yet, because she hasn’t yet read it, but I was lucky enough to have read Baby Teeth. It’s a real page-turner. This book is going to do well, I told myself, and This Zoje Stage is going to do well, and before I know it the Bram Stoker Award nominations are announced and Baby Teeth is on the list for Superior Achievement in a First Novel.

By the time this interview goes live, we will have already met in Grand Rapids, Michigan for StokerCon, hosted by the Horror Writers Association, and perhaps by then you will have taken home one of those heavy haunted house statues. But for now, we are complete strangers, and so I have a few questions as if we haven’t yet already met (like some kind of strange time-travel). That said …

The questions:

Michael Bailey: What made you want to write Baby Teeth, and why do you feel it’s connecting with readers?

Zoje Stage: I’ve long been fascinated by “bad seed” stories. I hate to say it, but sometimes children seem like otherworldly creatures to me, and it can be pretty freaky when you get a bad vibe from a kid in real life (which has happened). While “evil children” is a trope I’ve enjoyed especially in films, I hadn’t found a book that really delved as deep as I wanted to go, and you know what they say: write the book you want to read. I was particularly interested in exploring the dichotomies of such a child, as I do believe that a tiny percentage of the population may be truly psychopathic, but more often children—as highly sensitive beings—are influenced by the world around them. And I also wanted to see a realistic possibility for how a family would ultimately deal with a disturbed child, and there are parents who really have to confront this.

Part of why I think the book is connecting with readers is the dual-sympathy and dual-revulsion they experience with both Hanna and Suzette. Society puts an incredible amount of pressure on mothers, and that aspect is something a lot of people can relate to. And simultaneously, it’s very compelling to explore the inner workings of a child—especially one who is smart but off-kilter. Apparently even parents of the most wonderful children have glimpsed bits of Hanna-like behavior in their little progeny, and I think this has only increased the relatability of the story, as it makes people really ponder nature vs. nurture.

MB: This is your debut novel, but have you written others that are not-yet-published? If so, what can you tell us about those other manuscripts, and if not, how were you able to land this one so gracefully with St. Martin’s Press?

ZS: Baby Teeth was the sixth novel I’d written, and the fifth I’d queried. The first four were Young Adult, with the connective element of being fairly dark, but the genres were all over the place (sci-fi, fantasy, contemporary, and something too weird to classify but inspired by Shirley Jackson). Then I made a startling realization that maybe I wasn’t the best person to be writing YA (for a number of reasons). While Baby Teeth is technically the second of the adult novels I’ve written, I recently did a complete overhaul of that first adult novel—and maybe it will become my third published book? I do not, otherwise, plan to revisit my earliest novels, and have written a few new things since Baby Teeth.

MB: A Bram Stoker Award is for horror. Do you consider Baby Teeth horror? How fine is the line between that genre and thriller, which book publishers seem to be using for dark fiction. That said, how fine is the line between horror and any other genre? Alma Katsu’s The Hunger comes to mind, which is historical fiction, yet recently won an award for westerns and is up for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel.

ZS: The first inkling I had that my book might be considered “horror” was in Aug. 2018—one month after publication—when it showed up on a Bustle list called “15 Horror Books to Pick up If You’ve Already Read Everything by Stephen King” (The Hunger was also on that list). Prior to that it had never occurred to me that my name would ever be mentioned in proximity to Stephen King! But more lists came out, and Baby Teeth ended up on Bloody Disgusting’s “10 Best Books of 2018 for the Horror Fan” and finished in the Goodreads Choice Awards for Horror in the #2 slot, right behind Stephen King. Suffice it to say, I’ve been thinking about the “horror” designation a lot over the last year.

I submitted Baby Teeth to my agent as a suspense novel, and so far as I know my publisher marketed it as psychological suspense. But since then I’ve heard it referred to as a thriller, domestic suspense, psychological thriller, and horror. I’ve been told by many, many readers—a large portion of them via social media—that Baby Teeth was the “creepiest” thing they’ve ever read. I’ve had readers report that the book gave them nightmares, or that they couldn’t read it at night, or while their young children were in the house … And that’s when I came to understand that Baby Teeth is a horror novel because it scares readers. It’s that simple. From the publishing world’s perspective each genre may mean a very specific thing, but from a reader’s perspective a “horror” novel is one that scares them—and I really can’t argue with that reasoning.

MB: The bio on your website states that “Zoje Stage is a former filmmaker with a penchant for the dark and suspenseful.” What can you share about your film-making experience, and why the move to fiction writing?

ZS: My storytelling goal with film was actually quite similar to what it is with novels: to create realistic stories with well-developed characters who were in odd situations. Film had been my passion for decades, but ultimately it was not a truly viable way for me to be my “best” creative self. It took me a long time to realize that, as it was a dream I wanted very badly, but I had to concede, as time went on, that I was not making the kind of progress I wanted to make, and my health and finances were becoming bigger and bigger obstacles. It’s also possible that I was intimidated by the prospect of writing novels, and it wasn’t until I was able to see the correlations between directing a film and writing a book that I felt ready give it a try.

As a DIY indie filmmaker (forever dreaming of a budget that never materialized), I basically wore all the hats: writing, directing, producing, shooting, acting, editing, etc. Early in the process, I realized that a novelist also wears many hats. The writer of a novel “directs” the reader’s attention toward what she wants them to see and know. She develops and performs all of the roles. In addition to being the production designer, the novelist stages all the scenes, and sets the mood. Each chapter of a book is like a sequence in a film, written, directed, and edited … But the big game changer? I didn’t need to secure locations or props, or upgrade or rent equipment, or beg friends for help in front of or behind the camera. I didn’t need more money to write a book, and I could realistically aspire—with sufficient practice—to “wear all the hats” with some degree of competence.

I found there were things I could do with novels I couldn’t do with film—like exploring thoughts and language—but my background in film and theatre proved to be extremely transferable. And somehow, in spite of living in a society that prefers “watching” over “reading,” from my perspective there are more opportunities for a book than a film, and room for more kinds of stories. One of the unexpected thrills of being published is the “presence” of my book in the world, and the chance for readers to keep discovering it. The publishing industry may not be perfect, but it’s a world away from the film industry and I’ll never go back.

MB: Do you also write short fiction, or do you tend to stick to longer works (asking for a friend)?

ZS: I have a weird relationship with short fiction (similar to my weird relationship with short films). With both, I’ve had the sense that I need a longer format to produce better work. There was a time when I wrote a ton of speculative short fiction and tried—and failed—to get it published. I haven’t written short fiction in years, although I do have a writing “to do” list that includes a couple short story ideas. Will I ever write them?

MB: To see if we can predict the future, what are your goals for attending StokerCon? Who are you most excited to meet? Do you have any predictions for the other award categories? For the last five years, during the award ceremony, I have circled who I think will win prior to everything starting, and then underline those that actually win; I think last year was my best, something like 90% correct.

ZS: I’ve never been to any sort of writing convention so I’m excited to see what it’s all about and hang out with so many writers. It’s a little funny that I have to travel to Michigan to meet “local” author J.D. Barker—especially since he invited me to participate in a local panel discussion taking place a week after StokerCon—but I’m definitely looking forward to meeting him. As a debut author I still feel very new to publishing (am I even qualified to be on a panel? LOL), so I’m hoping to glean info from more experienced authors. I’m also looking forward to meeting some folks whom I currently only know in an online capacity.

As far as predictions … There are only a few categories I’ll even wade into, as I am way behind on reading all the nominees. Needless to say, the nominees represent a standard of excellence and they are all worthy of winning. But here are a few guesses:

Superior Achievement in a Novel: Paul Tremblay, The Cabin at the End of the World

Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection: Gabino Iglesias, Coyote Songs

Superior Achievement in a Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, Bird Box

MB: After all the baby teeth have fallen out, what’s next?

ZS: I have multiple things in the works, though the only one with a definite home at the moment is my next novel, Wonderland: On the cusp of winter, a hardcore artsy New York City family moves to a place not quite on the map in the Adirondacks, and begins to experience bizarre and extreme weather. Being so out of their element, they aren’t sure at first if it’s just the influence of global warming, or some sort of haunting, or the decline of their sanity … But the situation becomes life threatening.

I also hope to find good publishing homes for My UnderSlumberBumbleBeast—the children’s book within Baby Teeth—and a short novel I refer to as a Wary Tale, which is a Fairy Tale for adults. And I have two other novels in various stages of completion.

MAD for CHIRAL MAD

To celebrate all things Chiral Mad (including exciting news that cannot yet be shared), each of the four volumes in the series are on sale April 29th through May 4th. eBook titles range from $0.99 / £0.99 to $1.99 / £1.99 in both the US and UK. In other words, you can get all four volumes of Chiral Mad (digitally) for about the price of a fancy coffee. Click on any of the images for direct eBook links.

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CHIRAL MAD 4, an anthology of collaborations, is also available in hardback for $34.95 and trade paperback for $19.95. 4 short stories, 4 novelettes, 4 novellas, and 4 graphic adaptations make up this mammoth book of wonders, but here’s the catch: every single part of this anthology is a collaboration, including a co-introduction by Gary A. Braunbeck & Janet Harriett. Bram Stoker Award winners Michael Bailey and Lucy A. Snyder even collaborated on the co-editing to bring you an incredibly diverse and entirely collaborative dark fiction experience. eBook sale links: US / UK.

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CHIRAL MAD 3, an anthology of psychological horror, is also available in trade paperback for $17.95. Nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology, the third act contains 45 illustrations throughout by Glenn Chadbourne, over 20 stories by the likes of Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell, Mort Castle, Josh Malerman, and Richard Chizmar, 20 intertwined poems by the likes of Elizabeth Massie, Marge Simon, Bruce Boston, and Stephanie M. Wytovich, as well as an introduction on the state of horror by Chuck Palahaniuk. eBook sale links: US / UK.

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CHIRAL MAD 2, the sophomore set, is also available in trade paperback for $16.95. This anthology of psychological horror containing twenty-eight short stories by established authors and newcomers from around the world. Featuring the imaginations of David Morrell, James Chambers, Usman T. Malik, Emily B. Cataneo, John Skipp, Gary McMahon, and many others. The book also features the Bram Stoker Award-winning novelette “The Great Pity” by Gary A. Braunbeck. eBook sale links: US / UK.

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CHIRAL MAD, the book that started it all, is also available in trade paperback for $16.95, and contains twenty-eight short stories by established authors and newcomers from around the world. Featuring the imaginations of Gord Rollo, Monica J. O’Rourke, Patrick Lacey, Meghan Arcuri, Christian A. Larsen, Jeff Strand, John Palisano, Jack Ketchum (his first of four appearances in the series), and many others, along with an introduction on asymmetry by Thomas F. Monteleone. eBook sale links: US / UK.

Sale ends May 4th.

OVERSIGHT: SIGNED / LIMITED

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1̶0̶  8 copies remain of Unnerving’s signed / limited hardback release of Oversight by Michael Bailey, featuring the novelettes “Darkroom” and “SAD Face.” Only 60 of these books were ever printed, and Written Backwards happens to have the last of them. Pretty little collectibles. If you want a one, click any of the images …

Once these are gone, they are gone. There will not be another printing.

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Each of the two stories are still available as individual eBooks, if you’re the eReader type. You can get them on Kindle from Unnerving here: Darkroom, and here: SAD Face.

“Darkroom” – After living most of her life blindfolded-for fear of what she might see-Grace shifts though time in a series of strange experiments involving old-fashioned black-and-white photography in order to create a flipbook of her father aging in reverse. Near completion of her project, and no longer able to go through with it on her own, she brings along her likewise blindfolded and temporarily deafened sister-for fear of what they might also hear in their travels-and together they take snapshots, wandering their childhood home, hand-in-hand, albeit with added disabilities to protect them from that which doesn’t hide so well in the past. The undeveloped, they soon discover, what they’d forgotten of their troubled youth, is perhaps more frightening than what they later develop in the darkroom. 

“SAD Face” – Yuliya dons a prosthetic face designed to help her cope with Social Anxiety Disorder, the essential oil infused mask not only disguising her expression, but the wet city stench as it soothes. Time, it can only stop when someone takes a photo, and that’s what they did, whoever made it-took her picture and made her a mask to hide behind whenever social phobia bullied her. A dead-face: expressionless, eyes only visible through open sockets, mouth slightly parted; the way she imagined she’d look the day she died. And now, whenever someone sees her-stares at her-wearing her Yuliya mask, they are looking at her past. Yet behind her SAD face, she sometimes finds confidence, until she takes it off and attempts to uncover the woman hiding beneath.

Individual eBook links:

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SHORT FICTION SALE

Now through April 21st, Written Backwards is hosting a short fiction sale. 6 books, 600,000 words, all for under 6 bucks. In other words, 6 books for under a buck (each) in both the US and UK. Time to fill up your Kindles!

All titles are also available for free through Kindle Unlimited, or are free if you’ve already purchased the paperback through Amazon. Simply click the book covers below for direct links in the US, or follow the links after each title if you’re in the UK.

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Winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology. Features illustrations throughout by gak, an introduction / novelette by Norman Partridge (nominated for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction), an afterword by Mary SanGiovanni, as well as photography and the interconnecting tale “The Librarian” by the editor. Also available in the UK for only £0.99.

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Bram Stoker Award-winning editor Michael Bailey brings you a genre-bending anthology of dark science fiction and poetry, with fiction illustrated throughout by world-renowned artist L.A. Spooner, poetry and spot illustrations by Orion Zangara, cover artwork by George C. Cotronis, and an introduction on humanness by New York Times bestselling author F. Paul Wilson. Also includes the Bram Stoker Award-nominated novelette “The Jupiter Drop” by Josh Malerman. Also available in the UK for only £0.99.

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A literary blend of science fiction and horror, and the winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award. Includes short stories, novelettes, and poetry from established authors and newcomers from around the world, such as the Bram Stoker Award-winning stories “The Vaporization Enthalphy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” by Usman T. Malik, and “Ruminations” by Rena Mason. Also available in the UK for only £0.99.

Note that due to contractual obligations, the eBook edition does not include Stephen King’s short story “The Jaunt,” which is included in the trade paperback edition.

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Twenty-five, or maybe twenty-six or -seven or perhaps twenty-eight (let’s say it’s twenty-eight) individual works by Erik T. Johnson, some previously-published, some appearing  for the first time, stories like “The Leaf” and “Krug’s Pen,” “The Depopulation Syndrome,” “The Invention of the Mask” (which you can find on the front cover), “The Depopulation Syndrome” and the novella Scissors Seldom Come. Trespass. Read the horror, the wonder, the mindscrewing. Also available in the UK for only £0.99.

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Fourteen stories from the intersection of pain and anxiety, rage and fear by Paul Michael Anderson, illustrated throughout by Pat R. Steiner. Triumph and tragedy, terror and transformation. Includes an introduction by Damien Angelica Walters and and afterword by Bracken MacLeod. Also available in the UK for only £0.99.

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From the mind of award-winning author and editor Michael Bailey comes Inkblots and Blood Spots, a painfully beautiful collection of short stories and poetry that reaches deep into the imagination, breaking hearts and boundaries along the way. Includes the novelette “Dandelion Clocks,” illustrations and cover artwork by Daniele Serra, and an introduction by Douglas E. Winter. Also available in the UK for only £0.99.

PSYCHOTROPIC DRAGON, AND OTHER THINGS …

I will be incredibly busy over the next few months (already have been), so I thought I’d post about my current projects. In other words, you won’t hear from me in a long while (perhaps months, maybe not until summer). I have a lot of stuff on my plate, in various stages of development, so what follows is a summarized run-down.

Why am I so busy? I have been taking on editing and book design projects for clients, proofreading, editing and copyediting for Independent Legions Publishing, and have recently taken on a part-time role as Developmental Editor for New Degree Press to help new writers bring their books to life (and you can add “ghostwriting” to my resume ). Meanwhile, I am trying to finish a science fiction thriller called Seen in Distant Stars, and writing fiction and nonfiction to perhaps make a few sales and help pay the bills.

So here goes …



PSYCHOTROPIC DRAGON

This is a composite novel that’s been “in the works” since 2009 (yes, ten years!). Many have been waiting patiently for this book, and hopefully the wait won’t be much longer because I consider the manuscript done. Word-count is a little under 90,000.

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Why “composite” and why the long wait? Well, it’s part short novel, part novella, part novelette, includes a few children’s fables throughout, and four illustrators have been involved with its development over the last ten years (48 illustrations total!). I should also mention  John Skipp played an early part in this thing coming together, as well as my three amigos: Thomas F. Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson, and Douglas E. Winter.

So, where does it stand, then, this beautiful whatever-it-is?

My agent is busy shopping this monster. With a little luck and patience, perhaps it will sell (which could mean a while longer before it finds print). We have high hopes, though, so we’re aiming high. It’s worth the wait (I promise), and while the book works on its own, Psychotropic Dragon has many tie-ins to my other works, most notably the two previous composite novels, Palindrome Hannah and Phoenix RoseOther tie-ins include the novelette Our Children, Our Teachers, the children’s book Ensoand various work from Inkblots and Blood Spots.

The cover image above is from an “Advance Reader Copy” I created to make it easier for pre-readers to grasp the overall concept, and to perhaps gain a few more blurbs for promotion. This image has kept the project going, always on my mind.

One of my first pre-readers (and originally a collaborator, believe it or not) was Dallas Mayr, aka Jack Ketchum; while he couldn’t contribute to the fiction, when all was said and done, he offered a generous cover blurb instead. He loved this thing almost as much as I do: “Addictive, scary, and at times, mind-blowing.” Can’t ask for much better than that, right? Other collaborators have been in talks, but eventually I decided to finish this thing on my own, at least in terms of the text.

The illustrators? Ty Scheuerman worked on early concepts, Daniele Serra on illustrations for the novelette and spot-pieces throughout, Glenn Chadborne on the novella, and L.A. Spooner on the short novel and fables. Insane, right? Whether or not the illustrations (48!) will make it into the final product is yet to be determined, but here are a few teasers (section titles and visuals). Let’s just say this book is wild! No matter what, Psychotropic Dragon will someday have a “special edition,” which will include everything.

ORIGINAL CONCEPTS (Ty Scheuerman):

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SOMNAMBULISM / I SUMMON LAMBS (novelette / Daniele Serra):

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A ROSE / AROSE (novella / Glen Chadbourne):

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DRAKEIN (short novel / L.A. Spooner):

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As for the fables, they are titled ECLOSE, SCARLET HOURGLASS, ACHERONTIA ATROPOS, and APODEMUS. And a few of the other chapters connecting all this insanity: THE BEGINNING OF THE END, DEATH’S-HEAD, LIFE-MAGICENSŌand THE END OF THE BEGINNING. Like I mentioned before, this book is something wild!

Soon (haven’t I said that before?) …



SEVEN MINUTES

This book, which was recently trimmed from 100,000 words to 80,000 words, is the strongest thing I’ve ever written, and happens to be nonfiction. I’ll be reading a seven-minute chapter (called “Seven Minutes”) at StokerCon in May. Advance Reader / Burn After Reading copies are currently making the rounds while my agent shops this one around the nonfiction market (although nonfiction is something new for both of us).

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I wrote the manuscript in 23 days (most pages on an old Royal typewriter, about 75,000 words). 23 days happens to be how long the Tubbs fire burned (the setting for this book), and how long my cat Bram went missing (the end of the fire and the day he was found, one in the same), and so I made that my goal: to finish an entire book in under a month! The third draft was completed on day 23, the first anniversary of the day the Tubbs fire was finally extinguished, the day Bram was found.

The book is about the fire that took our home and many others (somewhere around 5,600 from the Tubbs fire alone), changing our lives (and many others’) forever. The book is structured like a therapy session. It contains poetry and lots of hard truths, with the narrative bouncing from first-person to first-person collective to second-person.

This one is close to the heart.


THE IMPOSSIBLE WEIGHT OF LIFE

This would be fiction collection number three (roughly 90,000 words, so lengthier than my previous collections), and will feature short fiction, long fiction, and a few poems (one quite long). Three of the stories have been nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards*, and most of the others have found their way into anthologies over the last few years. Most are autobiographical, in one way or another, and most were written during my recovery from Loss of Bilateral Labyrinthine Function.

My agent is shopping this one around as well (yes, I have her very busy), but here’s a teaser of its tentative contents:

“Time is a Face on the Water”*
“Speaking Cursive”
“The Long White Line”
“Möbius”
“Cartwheels” (poem)
“Hourglass”
“Ghosts of Calistoga”
“Darkroom” (novelette)
“Fade to Black”
“The Fire” (poem)
“The Other Side of Semicolons”
“SAD Face” (novelette)
“Essential Oils”
“Gave”
“A Murmuration of Souls”
“Fragments of Br_an”
“I Will Be the Reflection Until the End”*
“Shades of Red” (poem)
“Our Children, Our Teachers”* (novelette)


PRISMS:

This is an anthology I co-edited with Darren Speegle, to be release soon through PS Publishing. Expect more information on release dates and pre-ordering and whatnot as soon as its available. We’re hoping for a 2019 release date, if all the stars align. This is not the cover, but a mock-up I created during early development:

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And here is the official Table of Contents (and word counts). Yes, this book will be something incredible:

“We Come in Threes” – B.E. Scully (4,200)
“The Girl with Black Fingers” – Roberta Lannes (4,400)
“The Shimmering Wall” – Brian Evenson (4,300)
“The Birth of Venus” – Ian Watson (7,400)
“Fifty Super-Sad Mad Dog Sui-Homicidal Self-Sibs, All in a Leaky Tin Can Head” – Paul Di Filippo (3,500)
“Encore for an Empty Sky” – Lynda Rucker (6,700)
“Saudade” – Richard Thomas (3,900)
“There Is Nothing Lost” – Erinn L Kemper (5,200)
“The Motel Business” – Michael Marshall Smith (4,900)
“The Gearbox” – Paul Meloy (6,100)
“District to Cervix: The Time Before We Were Born” – Tlotlo Tsamaase (8,500)
“Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” – Chaz Brenchley (5,400)
“Daylight Robbery” – Anna Taborska (5,400)
“The Secrets of My Prison House” – J. Lincoln Fenn (4,600)
“A Luta Continua” – Nadia Bulkin (7,200)
“I Shall but Love Thee Better” – Scott Edelman (10,500)


MISCREATIONS: GODS, MONSTROSITIES & OTHER HORRORS:

This is an anthology I am currently co-editing with the always wonderful Doug Murano, to be released through Written Backwards. Expect this one in early 2020. Here is a glimpse of what we’re thinking for the cover. Follow along here!

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As always, expect an incredible anthology! The first two story acceptances:

“Brains” – Ramsey Campbell
“Resurrection Points” – Usman T. Malik


Things I’ve written lately:

“A Bouquet of Flowers” (2,000 words, nonfiction)
“Oll Korrect” (3,500 words, fiction)
“Emergence of the Colorless – Exordium to Conclusio” (6,200 words, fiction)
“L’appel du Vide” (in progress, fiction)

Things I’ve read lately (and enjoyed), and things I am currently reading (and enjoying):

There There by Tommy Orange
Baby Teeth
 by Zoje Stage
Inspection by Josh Malerman
The Hunger by Alma Katsu

That’s about it for now …