THE HUNGER

The latest Written Backwards interview is with Alma Katsu, award-winning author of The Hunger, a reimagining of the Donner Party, which Stephen King called “Deeply, deeply disturbing, hard to put down, not recommended reading after dark.” She is also the author of a trilogy of books including The Taker, The Reckoning, and The Descent, and her forthcoming novel The Deep is now available for pre-order.

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So, the interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

Last November, my extended family and I decided to spend Thanksgiving in Truckee, California. We all needed a getaway to somewhere remote, somewhere in the mountains. We needed fresh air, and trees, and less noise. So, we thought, why not spend the holiday at Donner Pass, site of the ill-fated Donner Party? For Thanksgiving! Why not check out Donner Memorial State Park while we’re there?

As California natives, we had all been to Truckee before, many times, mostly traveling through to get to other places, or visiting the lake, but none of us had ever been to the museum or monument (it’s kind of strange knowing that so long ago the mountains were impenetrable in the winters, and now the pass is a freeway thoroughfare). And so we rented a house close by and stayed for a long weekend.

We toured the museum, and craned our necks looking up at the 22-foot-tall pedestal, upon which stands the pioneer monument (the 22 feet representing the level of snowfall in the winter of 1846-47). And we read the inscription: VIRILE TO RISK AND FIND; KINDLY WITHAL AND A READY HELP. FACING THE BRUNT OF FATE; INDOMITABLE—UNAFRAID. Our kids were into it as well (although they were constantly wondering why we’d take them to such a place for Thanksgiving, of all things); they had learned of the Donner Party in school. “They ate each other, right?” Public education in California … that’s what you get.

When you say “Donner Party,” people usually grimace and talk people-food, about cannibalism. But what we soon discovered during our visit was that not much is known of the actual “eating each other” part of their story (although that’s all I was ever taught in school, and all they apparently still teach in school, according to the kids). The only mention of cannibalism at the museum, in fact, is a single placard on one of the displays (you really have to look for it), which mentions that there’s not much evidence of the Donner Party resorting to cannibalism. To be honest, it was kind of a letdown.

While there, we purchased a game in the gift shop called Donner Dinner Party. The point of the game: to either secretly turn to cannibalism (as if by disease) and turn others, or to survive being eaten (which is much more difficult, as it turns out, and not as fun as the desire to turn other players). As it turns out, it snowed while we were there. Some of the smaller streams were frozen over, but we were lucky enough not to resort to eating one another, other than in-game.

Soon after this little getaway, I discovered (by way of the Horror Writers Association) a recommended book called The Hunger by Alma Katsu, a western of sorts, a historical novel. And that was that. Out of all the books I read that year, The Hunger quickly became a favorite.

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Michel Bailey: As part of your research, you visited Donner State Memorial Park. What can you tell us about that visit, and what were some of the highlights?

Alma Katsu: I definitely recommend it if you’re ever out that way. Knowing, intimately, what happened on the sites certainly made it very meaningful to me—it felt like some sanctified space. It’s odd to think that it’s a recreational park, and that you can camp, swim, and hike close to the actual place where so many people suffered and died. The lake was very dark when I was there, the surface like black glass, and inspired the scene where they’re slaughtering the remaining cattle at the water’s edge, right before all hell breaks loose.

Folks also shouldn’t miss Alder Creek, where the Donner families were trapped away from the rest of the wagon party. It’s is a few miles down the road, quieter and less visited. The tree which the families camped beneath was hit by lightning and all that remains of it is a charred stump. It’s beautiful in an eerie, lonely way.

MB: Besides Donner Pass, where else did you find your information on the expedition?

AK: So much research went into this book. I refer to it as a complex historical research project because (1) it was a well-known event tied to a specific timeline, (2) it followed a specific physical path, and (3) had a large cast of characters, over 100. In other words, it was grounded in time and space, and is a fairly famous event so you can’t take too many liberties with it. I’m a researcher by profession, so I streamlined the work as much as possible (so as not to get pulled into a spiral of never-ending research) and relied on a lot of spot research to fill in the gaps. I got so many questions about the research process while I was touring that I developed a workshop for writers on efficient historical research.

The interesting thing about this particular event is that while there is a fair amount of professional documentation, there’s nearly as much from amateur genealogists and family histories. While it was great getting these special insights, there were problems, too: discrepancies between accounts, slight variations in the facts, and no way to settle these types of differences. In the end, you just have to decide what you want to use: is it fiction, after all.

MB: In terms of the Donner Party, most of what is known / taught are their struggles in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which is a very small part of the overall story. What I admire most about the novel is that you focus on (for the better part of half its length or longer) the many struggles they experience much earlier in their tale, from Springfield, Illinois onward. What made you want to focus on that part of their story?

AK: We all think we know the story of the Donner Party, but what most of us know is the end: the mountain pass, the terrible snowfall, starvation, the choice they’re left with. But there’s so, so much more to the story, and you get a sense of that once you start learning the history. The journey started 1,400 miles and many months earlier, when a group of strangers happened to descend on the jumping off point—Independence, in what was then the territory of Missouri—setting the stage for the gruesome story that was to come. And it was gruesome and strange from the outset. People died, people disappeared. It was like they were cursed from the very beginning.

It’s an interesting point in American history, too: the country was half wilderness. What made people want to walk away from everyone they knew and everything that was familiar to head into the complete unknown? What were they looking for and why did they think they’d find it on the other side of the continent? We can barely imagine today, with modern communications and cars and other creature comforts, how difficult the journey to California and Oregon was. It was more than an adventure: it was literally life-and-death.

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MB: In John Langan’s review of The Hunger for Locus, he states, “It’s a testament to Katsu’s skill as a writer that she creates characters so compelling that we can’t help hoping they will escape the fate we knew was hurtling toward them the moment we opened the book.” I must admit: I never once worried about already knowing the fate of the Donners and their other party members, as I’d heard prior to reading that the book was a bit supernatural. Why did you decide to go the supernatural route?

AK: The story of the Donner Party, as incredible as it is, seemed to be a story that begged for a supernatural twist. It was gruesome and strange from the outset. They got off to a late start, but then seemed to ignore the danger of lagging behind even though they knew the danger. People died, people disappeared.

I’ve always loved the presence of the supernatural in a story. Fiction is about making us realize the truth about life, our lives. To break through the veil of the everyday that, in some ways, dulls us and lulls us into complacency. By introducing an element of the supernatural, we get the reader’s attention: something extraordinary is going on! Listen up! Plus, we all want to believe that there’s more to life than what we know, that there’s something important and wondrous waiting for us just beyond what our eyes and fingertips tell us, if we’re patient enough.

MB: The characters in the book are a blend of fiction and nonfiction. Did you have any trepidation (or challenges) writing fiction about real historical individuals?

AK: Absolutely! I had to change some aspects of the characters—for one thing, how can you really know what a person is like if you’ve never met them. Especially individuals who were not especially famous. Diaries and newspaper accounts and all the usual source material can be biased. But more importantly, I was writing fiction, not a biography. I needed characters who were going to fill certain roles in the story, so they weren’t necessarily going to be the exact same people who’d lived through the ordeal.

Also, I was a little worried that a descendant of the Donner Party would object, but then I found out that it’s almost impossible to be sued for libeling a deceased person. That made me a little less worried. There’s the ethical concern, but as I said I knew I wasn’t writing a biography. In the end, blending the real and the fictional in the characters’ lives has been fun for me, and for readers (I think). I get lots of emails from readers who say The Hunger inspired them to learn more about the real life wagon party.

MB: What can you tell us about the characters you created?

AK: The Hunger has about a half-dozen POV characters, and a good many more minor characters out of a wagon party of about 100. After just a little research, the contenders for the POV roles were pretty obvious because they had distinguished themselves during the journey—heroically for the most part, but not all of them. You have Tamsen Donner, wife of George Donner, the ostensible leader of the wagon party. Tamsen was a woman of intelligence and aspirations. Yet she died on the mountaintop, staying behind with George at the end even though she was healthy and could’ve made it down with one of the rescue parties. Why did she sacrifice herself rather than leave with her daughters? There’s Charles Stanton, one of the bachelors on the trek, who rode ahead to get food the first time the party ran low, and returned to such dire circumstances even though there was no reason besides decency. And James Reed, the man who actually led the wagon party for a good length of time, inexplicably killed one of the drovers in a fit of rage and was expelled from the wagon party with nothing, a sure death sentence. You read about these people and it makes you wonder, how did they end up here? What secrets might they be hiding? What choices or mistakes in their lives brought them to this desperate place?

The same is true of the villains. Lewis Keseberg, the member of the Donner Party most associated with cannibalism—incredibly disagreeable by all accounts—you have to wonder what was it about him that made it possible to surrender to cannibalism so readily? And then two men who were indirectly responsible: Lansford Hastings, a charlatan who sent the Donners down the untried trail, and Jim Bridger, who had fallen on hard times and was trying to make Hasting’s new trail to California a success.

But those are just some of them. The Hunger is a character-driven book, and there are many more to choose from. It was a pleasure getting to build and bring each one to life.

MB: The Hunger is a historical western, it’s horror, it’s thriller, and many other things. In fact, it won the 2019 Western Heritage Award for Best Novel, and was nominated for both the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel of 2018, and the Bram Stoker Award (from the Horror Writers Association) for Superior Achievement in a Novel. That said: What are your thoughts on cross-genre fiction?

AK: I love cross-genre fiction and I think readers do, too. It seems like the big blockbusters that take the industry by storm every couple of years tend to be cross-genre. Maybe the unexpectedness of the story helps with the word-of-mouth. The downside is that cross-genre is hard to market. It’s hard for audiences to find it because the mechanisms for discovery—newsletters from publishers and book stores, recommendation engines online—tend to be siloed. I’ve been very lucky in that horror people who loved the book overlooked the historical aspect, and vice versa.

MB: I had the pleasure of briefly meeting you at StokerCon, and during one of the panels you mentioned a future project involving the Titanic. Will this also be a mix of different genres? What can you tell us about this project without giving away too much?

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AK: The next book, The Deep, is a ghost story that’s mostly set on the Titanic and its sister ship, Britannic, which also sank. It’s historical and has horror elements—ghosts but also a little selkie lore—but it’s also a bit more romantic than The Hunger. I worry that it might have too many genres in it but it holds together. I think it works, but I guess we’ll see.

MB: For this book, where have you gone (or where are you planning to go) for research?

AK: I wasn’t as energetic with this book. I’d hoped to go to Belfast to visit the Titanic shipyard, or at the very least get to one of the Titanic museums stateside, but ran out of time. I did visit a stunning Smithsonian exhibition, but most of my research has been done by book and internet. Because so many people are completely gaga for the Titanic story, there are many great online resources. Finding source material was not a problem. I was spoiled for choice.

MB: One final question, since these interviews are designed to help creatives in general: In terms of research, what advice would you offer those new to historical fiction?

AK: The number one problem I’m asked about has to do with over-researching. Research paralysis. As I mentioned, I got so many questions while on tour about the research I did for The Hunger that I ended up putting together a workshop on being a more efficient researcher. It’s less about specific resources and more about borrowing techniques from the world of professional researchers. You can find the highlights in this article I did for Writer Unboxed.


Find more on Alma Katsu and her work at almakatsubooks.com

MISCREATIONS: OPEN CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

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OPEN CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS:

What happens when we make monsters? What happens when we confront the monsters inside ourselves? These are the grotesque things that should never have been. These are the beasts that stalk our twisted pasts. These are the ghosts of our own making that haunt our regrets. They’re the blood on our hands. They’re the obsessions in our heads. They’re the vengeance in our hearts. These are Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors.

Bram Stoker Award-winning editors Doug Murano and Michael Bailey welcome you to submit your best work for consideration in this anthology, which will launch in early 2020. We’ve already announced four of our contributors—Ramsey Campbell, Usman T. Malik, Michael Wehunt & Josh Malerman—and will be making more announcements in the coming weeks!

Pay: 5c / word U.S.
Length: 2,000 – 5,000 words. FIRM.
Reprints? No thanks.
Anything you should avoid? Graphic, gratuitous depictions of child abuse, sexual abuse and animal abuse are generally unwelcome.

Where to send: miscreationsbook@gmail.com

Deadline: Aug. 31st, 2019

Good luck!

Follow news and announcements on Facebook!

WRITE-A-THON

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June 23rd thru August 3rd, I am participating in The Clarion Foundation’s Write-a-Thon to help raise funds, with a goal of writing 40,000 words in that short span of time. I am looking for volunteers to back me, whether that’s by a flat donation or on a per-word basis (note that $0.01 per word would be $450 if I make my goal).

A dollar, two, twenty, or, if you’re willing, a per-word rate. It all adds up!

What will I be writing? My goal is to finish Seen In Distant Stars, a dark and dystopian science fiction thriller. I have about 40,000 words to go on this novel, so the Write-a-Thon will push me to finish, and also help raise money for a good cause while doing so.

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Kim Stanley Robinson and many others are participating, and if you’re a writer, I highly encourage you to participate as well. Maybe we can even team-up! Many of my mentors have gone through Clarion to improve their craft, and many recent writing peers.

Simply click “Support Writers,” then my name, Michael Bailey (<= or this direct link, to make things even easier), and then the “Donate” button.

BEGINNING TO END

Not long ago, Crystal Lake Publishing printed a slightly older version of the following article / interview, “Ah-ha: Beginning to End” or “Chuck Palahniuk and Michael Bailey Discuss the Spark of Creativity” in It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life, a recent recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Nonfiction.

Chuck Palahaniuk is a novelist and freelance journalist whose work can only be described as transgressional fiction. He has written such novels as Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, and that’s all before 2002! He has written eighteen or so other books since then, such as his most recent novel Adjustment Day, a few coloring books, Bait and Legacy, and the graphic adaptations of Fight Club 2 (with Cameron Stewart) and Fight Club 3 (in the works). Adapted films of his work include Fight Club, Choke, Romance (based on his short story), and the forthcoming Lullaby and Rant.

With permission from both Chuck Palahniuk and Crystal Lake Publishing, “Beginning to End” is now free to share with the rest of the world, so enjoy!


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One lives in the Pacific Northwest and nearly lost his home in a wildfire the summer of 2017, while the other used to live in what is now a scorched part of Sonoma County from a wildfire the autumn of that same year. One’s surname is often mispronounced [ paula-nick, for those stumbling over it ], while the other’s surname is often mistaken as having Irish heritage [ Bailey, in this case, is English) ]. Both have been threatened by fire, both have problematic last names, and both have been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award on various occasions, and in a mix of categories.

Whether or not one believes in coincidence, these two magicians of creativity have been brought together, one thing leading to another thing leading to another, to discuss the spark of creativity from beginning to end. Something short and sweet.

Imagine these two strange fellows sitting behind laptops or notepads, conversing from places not-so-far-apart—perhaps one sips coffee, while the other sips tea (or maybe water or nothing at all)—to reveal some of their dark magic:


Michael Bailey: The first volume of Where Nightmares Come From focused on the art of storytelling in the horror genre, while this latest edition explores how storytellers transform ideas into finished product. Most writer interviews start with the obvious question: “Where do you get your ideas?” But let’s not go there. Story origin has been done to death. Instead, how about: What’s the first thing you do after your mind sparks original concepts? In other words, what’s the very first thing you do after that original ah-ha! moment?

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Chuck Palahniuk: Once an idea occurs I repeat it to other people to see how readily they engage with it. And to see if they can offer examples of it from their own lives. And to test whether others have seen the idea depicted elsewhere in the popular culture. If they engage, if they expand upon the idea, and if they offer no recent examples of it in fiction or movies, then I proceed.

MB: What’s your first-draft poison: dictation, pen and paper, pounding tired keys on an old typewriter, fancy computer / laptop, tapping tablets, cocktail napkin notes, or a combination of sorts? How do you release your words? And once released, do they live primarily on virtual paper, physical paper, or both?

CP: I make all my notes on paper. Only after I’ve collected several pages of notes do I keyboard the notes into a word processing file and begin organizing them by cut and paste. The next step is to look for plot holes and create the bridging scenes or moments to resolve those.

MB: I used to have an uncontrollable need to transcribe the noise from my head directly onto the page. Early drafts were perfect, of course (in my undeveloped head), ready to sell without revision. I think most writers go through something similar at the beginning, before learning the stuff not to do. Early in my endeavors I met Thomas F. Monteleone and F. Paul Wilson, and they fortunately set me right. They explained that writing / storytelling is a disease (if one must do it) … and like all diseases, one can’t go untreated for long, lest they shrivel up and die. They took me under their wings and showed me the ropes, for many years. And they introduced me to Douglas E. Winter, who (also over the course of many years) taught me the art of self-editing (much more difficult than editing the work of others). He slashed and sliced that evil red pen of his until my manuscripts bled, severed them in half, typically. “Start here,” he’d say, “on page 13.” My writing has evolved, sure, and my writing has gotten slower because I can’t help but edit along the way. With all that pre-loading, I guess my next question is this: How ugly (or pretty) is a Palahniuk first-draft?

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CP: What you’d call my first draft is actually my third or fourth draft. In a story, each of the three or five acts gets its own draft, and each must work well before I tackle the climax of the story. That way my eventual finished first draft isn’t too shabby.

MB: And a follow-up: How has your first-draft evolved during your writing career? Do you binge and purge? Do you edit-on-the-go?

CP: My process has stayed essentially the same since 1992. I takes long-hand notes. Then, transcribe the notes into a computer file. Then, print the draft and carry it with me on paper so I can read and revise it anywhere in the world. Then use those edits to revise the computer file, print it and repeat the process.

MB: Some writers set daily or weekly goals, whether it’s word count or page count. Some try for 5,000 words a day, some 1,000. Some try for 5 pages a day, some 10. Some try to at least write something each day. And there are some oddballs, like me, who go for months without writing a single word, sometimes as long as a year (although I’m always doing something creative), when suddenly the mind takes a laxative and dumps out 10,000- to 30,000-word chunks. What are your writing goals and / or habits?

CP: As a physically active person I hate to sit and keyboard. Notebook in hand, I’ll go for weeks just jotting down details that might apply to a story. This used to be called “brain mapping” in the science of the 1990’s. It takes a stretch of rainy weather before I’ll settle down and begin to type. Often the typing takes place aboard an airplane or in a hotel room or some other stifling place where I have no other options. As for goals, each January 1st I decide what I will accomplish for the year.

MB: What’s the most you’ve ever written at one time (not necessarily in a single sitting, but what you’d consider all-at-once)? And how long have you gone without writing?

CP: My greatest single sitting output was the eleven-page story “Guts.” To be frank, that many keystrokes makes my elbows and wrists ache like you wouldn’t believe. Years at the Freightliner Truck Plant have left me with carpal tunnel syndrome, and any kind of marathon typing now requires a Vicodin. Blame it on the drugs, but that short story just poured out.

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[ read Chuck’s short story “Guts” in Haunted ]

MB: Writer’s block: real news or fake news?

CP: Writer’s block: Not my problem. As with any living thing, there are dormant and active phases. When I’m not actively writing I still watch and listen, always trying to identify new patterns and ideas.

MB: ‘Character’ is arguably the most important part of a story. Some say ‘plot’ or ‘conflict’ or ‘the message’ is most important, but they are wrong, no? Your fiction always breathes with the lives of diverse, colorful, incredibly memorable characters. Where do your characters come from? I realize that’s sort of like asking the “Where do you get your ideas?” question, but since ‘character’ plays such an important part of the story, it seems to be an important question.

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[ his most recent novel, Adjustment Day is now available ]

CP: My characters are always based on actual people. Their most memorable lines of dialog have already been said by real people. Even their dogs are real. Although I’m trained as a journalist I find that there’s more fun (and money) in passing off reality as fantasy.

MB: So you’ve spawned an idea, and created characters, and they converse through dialogue and navigate plots and traverse conflict, and the manuscript has maybe gone through a few drafts (or not) and all that other magic that happens during storytelling, and suddenly you find yourself with a completed manuscript—short story, novelette, novella, novel, comic / graphic adaptation … doesn’t matter. This interview started with an ah-ha! moment—the original spark of creativity—but there’s another ah-ha! moment to consider: the moment one realizes a story is complete. What next? Do you send it to beta-readers, let it marinate in a drawer somewhere, send it off to an editor?

CP: To date I’ve done my beta testing while I write. By testing each scene on my peers or fellow writers in a weekly group. This creates an informal collaboration and allows contributions from possibly hundreds of people. David Sedaris advised me to always test new material by reading it aloud on tours; that works well also. Nothing goes off to New York until it’s made people laugh or cringe everywhere else in the country—or the world.

MB: We recently discussed the fires in California and in the Pacific Northwest, as well as some of our losses and scares. I was lucky and for some reason already had my laptop in the car before fleeing from one of these fires (and I habitually upload files to off-site storage), but the threat of losing creativity begs the question: What if it all burned down? Where do you keep your creations, in case a fire someday threatens (or accomplishes) turning them to ash?

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CP: If you’re talking about past notes, drafts, books, I don’t keep them. I burn everything once the final book has been typeset [ something both writers now have in common after the fires ]. Regarding on-going work, I back-up to flash drives and keep them separate from each other—in my car, with friends—and I always have a printed hard copy of the work in progress.

MB: And since this interview / discussion is for It’s Alive [ a follow-up to Where Nightmares Come From ], what is your nightmare, the thing that scares you most?

CP: Plenty of things scare me. These include driving over extremely high bridges or being buried alive. But nothing scares me the most.

MB: Over the last few years I have collaborated with writers for fiction and have sought out collaborative works for anthologies I’ve edited. My next anthology is composed entirely of collaborations, even [ Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations ]. Collaborations are perhaps my new ah-ha! in this business, something of which I want to see more. I love the concept of multiple minds working together to create entirely new voices and visions. But I have yet to collaborate on 1) interview questions, and 2) with Chuck Palahniuk. So, how about we spin things around? My freelance work is roughly 33% writer, 33% editor, 33% book designer, and now 1% interviewer. What question, in the broad scope of ‘from concept to finished product,’ would you like me to answer?

CP: My question to you is: Do you think piracy has damaged the viability of writing professionally? And if so, how do you bring yourself back to the task despite that threat?

MB: There’s potential in book piracy eventually hurting the industry, but we’re not there, at least not yet [ maybe we are now, I don’t know ]; we may never get there. I would argue that eBooks, in terms of sales, have caught up to printed books, perhaps even surpassed sales in some cases, but I would also argue that most eBooks go unread. It’s easy to purchase digital books—a single-click sometimes. They are priced to move copies. It’s easy to fill virtual shelves with digital books because they are not really there and don’t take up physical space. They are simply strings of binary designed to mimic books, which is neat. But this also makes them easier to steal, sure, like music was easier to steal once it turned digital. How many digital books are read from start to finish? I’d guess 5-10%, if I’m being generous. A printed book, however, for now, is there, is something real, and harder not to read—if it’s pretty enough and smells like a book and you can hold it in your hands—and likewise harder to steal.

Here’s my confession, which might help explain what I’m trying to say. Before the fire (which took just about everything but our lives), I used to have a nice collection of Palahniuk on my shelves. I also used to have a Kindle with about a hundred titles, including your Kindle short story “Phoenix,” released in 2013, which I bought for $1.99 (a steal!). I have read every book of yours (that I used to own), from start to finish … except for one—the title of which I now find ironic because it’s the only book that still ‘exists’ somewhere in those 0’s and 1’s, and I could still read it on my laptop if I choose to. My physical books are gone, sure, but I’ll get new ones going forward, and I’ll probably read those before ever browsing my digital shelves.

My point: book piracy has potential to hurt the industry monetarily, sure (as piracy did the music industry at first), but we’ll always have books (like we’ll always have music). Piracy will never hurt the creative process. Books will survive as they always have. I would argue that those doing the stealing aren’t doing enough damage at this point, but someday (who knows?) they might, and the industry will adapt accordingly. Book pirates are most likely never going to read the books they steal, anyway, and neither are those taking them from wherever they take them, so who gives a shit? We’ll adapt. We’ll evolve. Musicians are still making music. Writers will continue to write, if they must, because writing’s a disease, right? All creators will continue to create as they always have.

No matter the threat, professional writers should continue to write professionally. Books will always have a place in our world, however they—and we—evolve. All we can do as writers is to keep writing. All we can do as editors is to keep editing. All we can do as book designers is to keep designing beautiful books. And readers: must keep reading (purchased books only, please). It doesn’t matter what tools we use to create, and it doesn’t matter what tools we use to immerse ourselves in those creations. We simply need to keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing.


Imagine the coffee and tea cups empty, or perhaps untouched this entire time and now lukewarm and undrinkable. Perhaps Chuck leans back in his chair, and Michael does the same. One stretches, while the other cracks his knuckles and winces. One looks to the blank wall and sets up the next scene, while the other looks off into the distance and listens for the voices. Both move on to the next project, for there are always next projects. There are stories that need to be written. There are deadlines that need to be met. There are books of various kinds in development.

 

TRESPASS!

Now through the end of June 10th, 2019, trespass the fiction of Erik T. Johnson for free, and anywhere in the world! His debut fiction collection, Yes Trespassing, a tome of over 120,000+ words, is available on Kindle for absolutely nothing. If you’ve ever thought of trespassing, now is the time.

Country-specific links: US, UK, Canada, Australia, Italy Germany, France, SpainJapan, India, Mexico, or search Yes Trespassing on any other Amazon site. The book is also available in a glorious trade paperback from Written Backwards.

And yes, that is a picture of little Erik on the front cover, and an entire short story.

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“Electric.” – Josh Malerman, author of Bird Box

“Absolute greatness. A magnum opus of almost staggering proportions … reminiscent of the works of Vandermeer, Burroughs, and Bradbury, but fully unique.” – This is Horror

“The stories read with an acidic note something akin to Chuck Palahniuk mixed with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” – Unnerving Magazine

“Brilliance unfettered and unscarred by convention … Weird fiction at its gonzo best.” – Ginger Nuts of Horror

“A trippy mescaline-binge of truly superb fiction. Extraordinary.” – Patrick Freivald, author of Jade Sky

“No one writes a line like Erik T. Johnson.” – John F.D. Taff, author of The End in All Beginnings.

A LITTLE OF EVERYTHING

The latest Written Backwards interview is with John Langan. author of such novels as House of Windows and The Fisherman, as well as numerous fiction collections, including Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy EncountersThe Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographiesand his latest Sefira & Other Betrayals. His work can be found in magazines and anthologies all over the world. We discuss a little of everything …

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Michael Bailey: When overhearing people discussing the fiction of John Langan (because I often find myself doing most of the listening and not much of the talking while in crowds), I often hear things like “literary” and “quiet horror.” What do you consider quiet horror, and likewise what do you consider literary?

John Langan: “Quiet horror” is a term I associate with the years surrounding the Splatterpunk movement, when it was thrown up as a more restrained alternative to the work of Skipp & Spector, Schow, etc. At the time, quiet horror was connected to writers such as Charles Grant and Steve Rasnic Tem. If I’m not mistaken, Doug Winter wrote a review essay arguing (compellingly, to my mind) that the apparent differences between the groups were vastly outweighed by their similarities. In the years since then, the term quiet horror has been employed in a less-systematic way in an attempt to identify works of horror in which the emphasis is on atmosphere and subtlety of effect rather than more dramatic narrative moves. Although I haven’t made a systematic study of it, I have the sense that it’s applied to those writers we associate with the classic tradition of the ghost story, with M.R. James or Susan Hill. The problem is, if you read James’s fiction, then you’ll find that there’s a lot of delightfully over-the-top stuff going on. (I also suspect that this more recent use of quiet horror is an attempt to draw a line between it and more cinematically inflected fiction, i.e. zombie narratives.)

As for the word “literary,” it’s one of those that tends to cause all manner of uproar, isn’t it? As I see it, the most important thing to remember about “literary” is that it’s an adjective, not a noun. In other words, it describes a certain set of characteristics that can be applied to any kind of fiction. What those characteristics are may be subject to debate, although I’m reasonably sure they would include attention to character and style. I think it was Nabokov who said that the literary is that which we are always rereading, and I like that definition very much.

MB: In the acknowledgments for your debut novel, House of Windows, you wrote, “This book had a hard time finding a home: the genre people weren’t happy with all the literary stuff; the literary people weren’t happy with all the genre stuff.” Who is your intended audience?

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JL: It used to be that I read everything I wrote to my wife. So while I wrote whatever I did because I wanted to read it, myself, she was my first audience. Then, after our son was born, it became harder to maintain this practice. I still have her in mind as my ideal reader, but these days, I’m also thinking about friends such as Laird Barron, Stephen Graham Jones, and Paul Tremblay. Anytime I write something that these guys like, I know I’ve made contact with the ball.

MB: Who do you write for? Who should anyone write for?

JL: At the risk of being redundant, I write for myself, my wife, my friends, and then anyone who’s willing to pick up the story or book and give it a chance. I’m not sure that there’s a universal answer for the second question—although it would seem to me difficult not to be writing for yourself—but I think you should write for whoever helps you to write. If writing for yourself alone is enough to make that happen, then that’s great. If writing for someone else helps, then that’s fine, too.

MB: Having read The Fisherman, which won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel a few years ago, I would have to say that I would consider it a multitude of things (horror being one of them), but not necessarily any one thing over the other. It’s horror, sure, but it could be considered cosmic horror, or Lovecraftian, or “quiet,” the way Victor LaValle’s wonderful novella The Ballad of Black Tom is a little of each of those things. What do you consider The Fisherman?

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JL: I’m happy to call it a horror novel, but that’s because I subscribe to a big-tent view of horror, in which all manner of narratives can be gathered under its folds. I tend to think that fiction in general is a fundamentally hybrid or mixed art (an idea indebted in no small part to the ideas of the literary critic M.M. Bakhtin), so it seems to me entirely appropriate that all manner of genres and sub-genres should be part of a novel.

MB: Is there a need for genre and sub-genre? I recently read a post by a prolific writer in which he stated (not verbatim) that he doesn’t write horror, or science fiction, or any one thing; he simply writes what he wants to write, and lets other people determine what they want to call it. Do you agree?

JL: From a critical perspective, I don’t see anything wrong with having categories that allow you to point out similarities between different works of literature. From a reader’s perspective, I don’t see anything wrong with having categories that allow you to find books that are similar to those you’ve enjoyed already. And from a writer’s perspective, I don’t see anything wrong with having a tradition to engage with in my work. So I guess as long as the genre category functions in an expansive way, in a way that brings more to the critic / reader / writer, I’m quite happy with it.

MB: I once overheard an editor say that she wished you wrote more often. Your first novel was published in 2009, and your second in 2016. But between that seven-year span you also published two fiction collections: Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008) and The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013), and co-edited an anthology with Paul Tremblay called Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters. That’s four books in seven years (five if you count the anthology, which I do, because I know how much work goes into them), which I would say is a good pace. Do you wish you wrote faster, or published more often?

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JL: Over the past several years, I’ve published a reasonable number of stories—as well as, very recently, a third collection of stories. My problem is, in part, that many of those stories have appeared in smaller press publications, which someone who’s read, say, The Fisherman may not necessarily have heard of. But I have enough material for at least another three collections after Sefira, and I’m hoping to do something about that sooner rather than later.

I do, however, wish I were one of those writers who can toss off a novella in a week. In part, my daily process means that I don’t work particularly quickly: I do a lot of revising as I’m writing. I’ve also learned that some works require more time than others to complete, and may need to be put aside for a while. (This was the case with both The Fisherman and Sefira, the title piece in my new collection, both of which took me years to finish.) And while I’ve enjoyed a great deal of success with my writing, it hasn’t been enough to support me and my family, which means I need to work a day job, which cuts into my writing time. In addition, I’ve been reviewing horror and dark fantasy for Locus magazine, which also requires a certain amount of time that would otherwise go to fiction writing.

Moving ahead, I’d like to devote a bit more time to writing longer works, especially novels.

MB: What are your writing and / or publishing habits? Do you write when you want to write? Do you set goals?

JL: I try to write every day, with a goal of completing a page a day. When I’m not working a day job, it’s easier to maintain that schedule. In terms of publishing habits, I’ve tried to say yes to every invitation to contribute to an anthology I’ve received. (Which I suppose has cut into my novel writing.) I have immediate goals, usually to have something done on or not too far past the deadline. My long-term goals are a bit more nebulous: I would very much like to complete one hundred stories and ten novels—arbitrary numbers, I know, but ones that help me have some sense of how I’m doing, overall. I think I’m up to around sixty stories, with several more underway; while I have plans for another six novels if I can ever find the time to write them.

MB: You have been a finalist for the International Horror Guild Award, a Bram Stoker Award nominee for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection for Mr. Gaunt, and won for your novel The Fisherman, as well as serve on the Board of Directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards. What do awards mean to you, and what do you believe they should mean to other writers?

JL: The recognition an award nomination brings is a fine thing, while an award can certainly make your day. In my case, the Bram Stoker was the award I had first wanted to win, back when I was a teenager and it was created, so while I could not have complained had any of the other writers I was on the ballot with won it, there was a special delight in hearing my name read out on that night.

At their best, awards can shine light on deserving work, leading readers to writers they might not otherwise have encountered. That said, in any award process, there’s always going to be work that is overlooked, that may not come to light until years later. And even if you win an award, you still have sit down to write the next day. So awards should be enjoyed, but not used as the final measure of success—which is, after all, having readers for your work.

KING OF ILLUSTRATIONS

The latest Written Backwards interview is with Glenn Chadbourne, an artist from Maine. He is perhaps best known for his work in both the horror and fantasy genres, and his knack for artwork inspired by the works of Stephen King and other greats. He creates covers, illustrates books and stories for magazines, among other things.

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The interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

When someone sees a Glenn Chadbourne illustration, they are drawn to the fine lines, the incredible amount of captured detail, the depth, the light you create in the dark; they instantly know that what they are experiencing is a work by Glenn Chadbourne. You’ve made a name for yourself, and your work is highly recognizable. You have created seemingly countless illustrations, most inked in black-and-white, but others painted in full color, and for the likes of Stephen King, Rick Hautala, Joe Lansdale, Douglas Clegg, and many others. But you also create beautiful book covers, among other things.

I can’t remember how long ago I met you, but you were an artist Guest of Honor at an event, perhaps a World Horror Convention, and you had what seemed like a hundred pieces on display. Now, I’d met your work long before meeting the actual you (perhaps Cemetery Dance magazine a few decades prior), and I was drawn to your displayed art at that convention as easily as I was drawn to your illustrations I’d first admired so long ago. I bought a piece from you, a Stephen King thing with Pennywise and a couple dozen of his other minions, and shook your hand, said to myself, “Someday I’m going to work with that guy.”

Fast forward closer to the present, and I find myself commissioning your work for Chiral Mad 3 (45 illustrations total), and later working with you on the special edition of Josh Malerman’s Birdbox, and again with illustrations for my own Psychotropic Dragon (see first image above), and then yet again with Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations, in which you beautifully adapted Jack Ketchum’s story “Firedance” (26 pages). So, I guess you could say I was right all those years ago. I ended up worked with that guy (you), and hope to again sometime soon.

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Now that all the mushy stuff is out of the way, a few questions (some of which may lead to further mushy things):

Michael Bailey: How many illustrations have you created in your lifetime (rough estimate)? It must be an insane amount. And a follow-up: How often do you find yourself creating art, or how many hours in a day, on average, do you typically spend doing so?

Glenn Chadbourne: Good lordy, I wouldn’t / couldn’t begin to give a body count on how many illustrations I’ve spun up over the years … I’d have to stick with “countless” because I’ve had, and continue to have something on the drawing board daily. Multiply that over the course of thirty years and a good catch-all number might be a “shitload!”

MB: Do you have any favorite pieces (or projects) you’ve worked on?

GC: As for favorites, certainly the King projects, for the obvious reasons, but also, aside from his popularity, his work speaks to me on a personal level. He lives here in Maine and I live here in Maine, and there’s a familiar atmosphere of surroundings, of personalities in his characters that hits a local comfy zone. I know places and events he writes about firsthand, as opposed to someone’s story taking place in Transylvania. Of course, Steve has turned Maine into the Transylvania of America! And, of course, being lucky enough to have illustrated some of his work has helped showcase my work to a wide audience. Also, his work has a visual texture that screams DRAW ME.

MB: Your adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s “Firedance” was your first time working on something of his. What was it like working on that project after knowing him for so many years? I had originally hoped for ten pages for Chiral Mad 4, but you must have had fun, since you eventually turned in twenty-six …

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GC: I thought the absolute world of Dallas Mayr (Jack). I met him at a yearly convention I go to in Rhode Island (NECON) long before I made my bones in this racket, and he was so gracious and kind, offering advice, and just being an all-around sweet soul and buckets of fun to hang out with. I had been reading his stuff for years, so when the chance came to illustrate “Firedance,” I was thrilled. It’s a very different kind of Ketchum story; so fun and whimsical and, of course, it too takes place in Maine. He loved what I did with it art-wise, and I felt so happy he got to enjoy the final product before his death. I miss Dallas, and I raise a glass in memory while writing this. He was truly one of the good guys.

MB: With your artwork for King’s “The Last Rung on the Ladder” in Chiral Mad 3, you created more than one illustration (five, in fact). What’s your draw to King’s fiction? And a follow-up: Out of the estimated total illustrations you think you’ve created in your lifetime (from the first question), what percentage of those are King-related?

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GC: “The Last Rung on the Ladder” is such a cool nostalgic story, and once again so visual. You can smell the hay in the barn and see the afternoon dust motes fluttering between rays of sun through the cracks in the siding—and you can feel the tension like a coiled spring ready to snap. When rereading it (I’d read the story countless times over the years), I just saw so many things to draw fly through my head that I put them down on paper. As for how many King related drawings I’ve done … I have to figure in both volumes of the Secretary of Dreams, The Dark Man (90 odd pages for that) and numerous individual gigs, chiefly for Cemetery Dance special editions Full Dark No Stars, and the bells and whistles volumes of the Doubleday years books, where I did frontis art and separate portfolio paintings. All that would carry a page count in the hundreds. Also, I did the art for the beautiful Carrie limited edition for PS Publishing, and their edition of The Colorado Kid. So again, all told: works leaning well into the hundreds. I feel like the luckiest fatboy on the planet to have been given the chance to fly with it all.

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MB: Who have you always wanted to adapt, and are there any emerging writers on your radar?

GC: I’ve always wanted to do a sprawling series of Lovecraft paintings, and I may do that on my own time and dime at some point. As for newbie writers … There are so many talented writers out there with strong scary voices that deserve a platform. I’d be up for illustrating whatever might be asked of me.

MB: Besides paintings and illustrations, do you dip into any other mediums?

GC: Every so often a short story idea of my own knocks me in the noggin, so from time to time I write a little fiction. The ideas just roll through my thoughts and I stop whatever I’m doing and roll with it. I’m not about to quit my day job, but I enjoy writing.

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MB: Did you always know you were gifted as an artist? Did you one day discover or unlock that talent? And a follow-up: When did you first start dabbling?

GC: I was an only-child with no other nearby kids to play with, and so from a very young age I began to draw. Forrest Gump ran, I drew. It came naturally and evolved over time. At first, I drew little boy stuff, G.I. Joe scenes, the usual. Then around nine or ten there was a mom and pop store that sold comics and the Warren magazines of the day, and after a steady diet of that stuff, I was hooked on the spooky. This was also near the tail end of the 60s and I got hold of all the great old underground comics of the day. That’s where I first ran into R Crumb comics, and he was a god to me. He’s where my love of uber detail came from. Long story short though, I’ve just always done what I do. I have no choice; it’s simply in me.

MB: Is there any advice you would like to share with those exploring creative outlets?

GC: My advice would be simple: follow your dreams. If it’s to be “your thing,” your voice, listen to it. It will yell and there’ll be no choice. And remember to enjoy it along the way. There may be rejection slips that mound to the ceiling. Fuck ’em. The greatest creative minds in history could paper their walls with them. Keep at it, never relent, and follow your dreams.

Peace ’n love,

Glenn Chadbourne.

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