NOT-SO-SILENT

A few years ago, Tim Lebbon took the plunge into writing full-time, although he’s been writing for as long as he can remember. He has authored more than forty books of horror and dark fantasy, such as Coldbrook, White, and the Relics trilogy (see book cover images and direct links below), as well as tie-in novels for popular franchises: Star Wars, Firefly, Alien, Predator. In other words, he’s a busy guy.

Recently The Silence debuted on Netflix, an adaptation of his novel of the same name (watch the trailer here!). And even more recently, as part of the Written Backwards interview series, Michael Bailey had the opportunity of asking him a few questions, turning him not-so-silent.

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The interview [ after a brief lead-in ]:

Technology is forever-changing, constantly providing us new ways of reading, of writing, as well as enjoying all other types of creative content. We live in a digital world where books and film and other such things are easily available at our fingertips, near-instantly brought into our homes by a few taps of a remote or a keyboard, to our phones, to various reading devices, to our computer screens, and to our televisions. In terms of the written word, we have tipped over the 50% mark of reading digitally vs. reading on paper. In terms of visual media, we are watching more film in-house vs. in-theatre (despite blockbusters consistently shattering records at the box office). Netflix and Hulu have paved the way for streaming content, with Disney and other giants beginning to mark their claims (or at least trying).

In the last few years, Netflix has put a lot of resources into their own original content, with highly successful series like House of Cards, Stranger Things, Ozark, and the Marvel superhero shows such as Daredevil, Luke Cage, and The Punisher (all of which have since been cancelled because of Disney’s involvement with Marvel and future-streaming, aka Disney+), along with spending an insane amount of money to continue streaming already successful television series and network shows.

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While the giant that is Netflix typically refuses to announce viewership, they have recently hinted at such large numbers with movies they’ve launched (both on their platform and in limited theatre release), such as with the adaptation of Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box, which is now  one of the most successful launches in movie history. In it’s first few days, over 45 million Netflix accounts streamed the movie. Put that into movie ticket perspective (somewhere around $8 per ticket, on average), and you’re looking at a $360 million weekend debut. And that doesn’t take into account that most of these viewings were shared, with entire families watching the movie with a single virtual ticket. Netflix announced that over 80 million accounts had streamed the movie in the first few weeks of release, so suddenly that $360 million number turns into $640 million (although that’s not how it works in the mysterious world of movie-streaming). In terms of movie releases, this insane viewership is something incredible.

That said, Netflix recently released an adaptation of your wonderful novel The Silence, so I have a few questions.

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Michael Bailey: I think every writer has a certain bucket list item: To have one of their works adapted to the screen. Bucket list item obtained? How does it feel seeing your characters brought to life off the page?

Tim Lebbon: The Silence has been a fantastic experience from beginning to end. And yes, bucket list item achieved. From the moment it was picked up by the producers, to the moment my wife and I attended a screening at Netflix back in early April, it’s been such an exciting, and sometimes surreal experience. Everyone involved—producers, film makers, film company, and Netflix themselves—have been wonderful to deal with, and lots of those people are now my friends. The cast for the film was terrific, too. I think I’ve had a pretty dreamy movie experience, especially having heard from other writers about their own experiences. And I even got to play a corpse in my own film! There’s other screen stuff happening now, some of which is largely influenced by The Silence being a success for Netflix. And a ten day visit to LA meeting producers and studios has made me really want to spread my wings a little, and I’m now working on an original TV series idea of my own, as well as other stuff.

MB: I happened to be visiting Los Angeles at the time of Malerman’s screening of Bird Box, and we were able to hang out for a while, discussing what it would be like to actually watch the film at the Netflix studio (he was seeing it the following day, so I never got to ask him in person what it was like until later). The famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre screened the movie, and he had a chance to mingle with Sandra Bullock and some of the other actors. With all that pre-loading, I guess my question is the same as what I wanted to ask Josh. What was your LA / Netflix experience like with The Silence?

TL: The Silence wasn’t given quite the massive push, because Bird Box had a limited theatre release, but Netflix still put on a great show for us. It was a busy day—I’d had two meetings that day, and my wife had taken herself off to Rodeo Drive for a look around. She ended up almost getting lost (phone running out, no data, long story), and consequently we were maybe twenty minutes late getting to Netflix. I hate being late for anything, but for the screening of my own movie …? But the minute we walked through the doors, any shred of tension left us both. The entire wall of the Netflix lobby—and it’s big—was a spread of The Silence. We were given a glass of wine and a beer, I introduced Tracey to the splendid director John Leonetti, and to Robert Kulzer from Constantin, and the screenwriters, and the ASL tutor who’d been on set was there, and it was just such a wonderful evening. The screening was terrific, and afterwards, after everyone had dashed off, Tracey and I found a local bar and had a celebratory drink. An experience, and an evening, that I’ll never forget. As for LA … what a crazy city! I loved it. Tracey went home early (we’d planned it that way) and even left on my own I filled the time with meetings, seeing friends, and making new ones. It was a trip I’ll never forget. And I hope I’ll be back pretty soon!

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MB: You have a cameo, albeit brief. I happened to catch it, and blurted out, “That’s Tim!” For those who may have missed it, where in the movie can they find you? And what was it like being on-set for some of the filming?

TL: I spent two days on set on Toronto, and was made to feel really welcome. A great time! That first day, I asked John [Leonetti] if he needed another corpse, and he was instantly taken with the idea. Long story short (which sort of ties in with four hours for prep for one second of screen time!), I ended up as a corpse in the drugstore scene. I guess it’s about an hour into the film. Stanley Tucci had to step over me to get some drugs, and afterwards I asked him if he thought I had a future in Hollywood. He said, “You nailed it!” Don’t think I got a credit, though, Hmph.

MB: We won’t discuss the movie A Quiet Place, as everyone already knows your novel The Silence came out long before that movie was conceived (and entirely different), but are there any other senses you’d like to see adapted to the screen, or in books, or do you have any favorite books / movies that have something to do with senses?

TL: Even before I met Josh Malerman I was a huge fan of his novel, and I love the film of Bird Box too. Another highlight of going to LA was meeting up with Josh and Allison a couple of times, having a few drinks, and making some lifelong friends. So yeah, Bird Box was a favourite before, and even more so after meeting Malerman. I really like the movie Don’t Breathe, and Lights Out is great too (not so much a sense movie, but it sort of feels like one).

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MB: If you could pick one sense to live without for the rest of your life, which would that be, and could you do it? And likewise, any particular superpower wishes?

TL: Eek. These questions are always tough. I’m sure you probably mean either sight or sound, but my first reaction is to live without the sense of smell! But of the two main ones, I guess I’d rather live without sound than sight. Although music makes the world go around, so I dunno …

Superpower: being able to eat cake without putting on weight.

MB: You are first and foremost a writer. I’ve had the pleasure of publishing a novelette co-written by you and Christopher Golden in the anthology The Library of the Dead, and later your story “Strings” in the anthology Adam’s Ladder, which I co-edited with Darren Speegle. Let’s just say that I love your writing, and I love collaborations in general, as they sometimes create a seemingly impossible third creator. How do you feel about collaborating with other creatives, and are there any other creatives you’d like to collaborate with on future projects?

TL: Thank you! I love collaborating, and Golden and I have been doing it for so long––we’re currently on novel #9––that I can’t imagine not working on something with him. We do go a few months at a time when we’re not actively working on a project or two, but usually we have something ticking over. Part of the appeal is as you mentioned, the third voice, and the fact that we write something that neither of us would have written on our own (or at least, not in the same way). And part of the appeal is suddenly having something ready for submission while we’re also working on our own projects! Chris is a great friend, and working with him means that writing is never a lonely business. We catch up pretty much every week anyway, but when we’re writing together on something it’s usually every couple of days.

I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with lots of friends––Stephen Volk, Gavin Williams, Des Lewis, Brett Savory, Katherine Roberts, Michael Marshall Smith, Mark Morris … I’m sure there’ll be more in the future. I’m writing more screenplays now, and hopefully there’ll be a chance to collaborate on one or two soon.

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MB: What do you envision happening with books and film in the near future, let’s say over the next ten or so years?

TL: Print books will remain. Always have, always will. Movies and TV seem to be converging, but cinema will always persist. Stories are the most important part of our lives. They’ll always be there in some form.

MB: What advice would you like to offer all who are first entering the wonderful world of creativity, whether it be writing, film, art, or any other creative medium?

TL: There’s a fine balance between art and commerce, especially if you’re creating something for a living. But to whatever extent you have to worry about earning money, the heart of what you do should always be about what you love. I’ve written lots of tie-in projects, but storytelling is always at its core. Working on tie-in projects buys time for me to develop my own projects, too. So basically … write what you love. Write what you’d want to read. Follow your heart.

MB: Do you have any other items you’d like to toss in the bucket (list)?

TL: A TV series would be nice! Things are happening on that front, I should be able to announce something soon.

MB: Using a single word, what do you fear most?

TL: Loss.


Read more about Tim Lebbon on his website: timlebbon.net.

WIRED TO THE HEART

The latest Written Backwards interview is with Tlotolo Tsamaase, a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and articles on architecture. Her work has appeared in literary magazines all over the world, and her latest, a novelette called “District to Cervix: The Time Before We Were Born,” will appear in the forthcoming anthology Prisms, co-edited by Darren Speegle and Michael Bailey, to be published by PS Publishing.

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The interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

Our paths crossed years ago (2015, believe it or not) when I was reading submissions as Managing Editor for a certain small press. Out of all the submissions received, yours kind of punched me in the face. Hard. I can still feel it. I was instantly drawn to your prose, and the world you created. The story is one of incredible value. In fact, I was this close (I’m holding my fingers together until they’re almost touching) to having you sign with that particular publisher. My only hesitation was that I was constantly thinking, “This is not small press. This is something more.” But of course, I also wanted your novel to help launch the new science fiction line that publisher was trying to get off the ground (it never took off, and we have since parted ways). I even had a few artists work on cover options. Long story short (and I won’t go into the details of that particular project), as with most small presses, there was a long wait from the powers-that-be to make decisions, and after some time you pulled the novel and let me know you were going try it with an agent. To which I enthusiastically yelled, “Yes!” (scaring my cats) and “This needs to happen!” (or something like that).

What I’ve learned about you since then as that not only do you write fiction, but you also write poetry, as well as nonfiction articles on architecture. Your story “Virtual Snapshots” appeared in Terraform and was shortlisted for a Nommo Award, and you have short fiction published in The Fog Horn (“The Palapye White Birch” and “Eco-Humans”), as well as Apex magazine (“Murders Fell from our Wombs”). Your poetry has been featured in Elsewhere Lit (“Home?” and “Fetal Sundays”) and Strange Horizons (“Constellations of You” and “I Will Be Your Grave,” which was nominated for the Rhysling Award).

I mention all these titles specifically (and with links) because they too tell a story. They provide hints as to what your writing is like, and perhaps what it’s about. Your titles are as intriguing as that of your novel, which I hope to someday see in bookstores.

Now, I probably butcher your name every time I say it aloud, although for some reason typing it is not a problem at all (I don’t think I’ve ever mistyped it). I usually pronounce it, “Lot-lo Sa-mace” with both t’s either silent, or slightly emphasized with the tongue.

So, the questions:

Michael Bailey: How do you pronounce your name (and I apologize if I’ve said it wrong these last 4+ years)?

Tlotlo Tsamaase: Oh, the t’s are definitely not silent. Here’s how you pronounce my name Tloo-Tlo and my surname Tsa-mah-ah-seh. Using phonetic sound symbols, a friend advised that the first name is /tlōtʊ:/ Hopefully that was close to helpful!

MB: Later this year, a short novelette of yours will appear in the anthology Prisms, which I co-edited with Darren Speegle for PS Publishing, and I’m proud to say (not only from my mouth but have heard it from Darren as well), that it’s one of the most intriguing stories either of us has ever commissioned. Like your other published works, it too has an interesting title: “District to Cervix: The Time Before We Were Born.” What can you tell us about that story?

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[ mock cover created in early development ]

TT: Thank you so much! The story is told from the male protagonist’s POV who, through guilt, reveals a secret to his close friend about how he betrayed his friend the time before they were born to explain. This line explains the gist of the story: “And who are we? Sexless souls warring to be born through the granddaughter—the way we want. My application to be born was approved several days ago … You choose who you’re born from, how, in what sex and all that shit.” The granddaughter of a household is pregnant with two children, and there’s a congregation of women in the kgotla deciding on the gender of these children and basically the roles they will serve in the eco-city they live in. Ultimately the decision lies with the sexless souls who, existing in a different realm, must fight and / or kill for the gender, ethnicity they want, as well as which family to be born in. The stakes: you could die and never be born.

MB: You have fiction published in magazines and anthologies around the world, which means you have a passion for short fiction (along with a passion for poetry). What first drew you to reading and writing short fiction?

TT: From a young age, I read children’s books and whatever novels we had in the house, which were adult titles like Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, etc. I loved creating with my hands, building tiny houses, or writing out stories for my friends and I to act out. In primary school, my Standard 6 teacher found creative ways to get us into reading more, so I’d go through a million books in a week. Eventually, I wrote long romantic stories that were darker than romantic but remained as unfinished stories. It was also during my university years when I chanced upon Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. From the first page, I felt so transported; his writing was intermixed with voice and longing. And Helen Oyeyemi’s prose was chilling but had some dark aesthetic to it. It entranced me so deeply I wanted to learn how to do that, so I began reading as a writer and reading short fiction. Then a writer friend advised that I start out with short stories, which is good practice for writing. That’s when I also began experimenting in poetry.

MB: What brought you to poetry?

TT: Rumi! There is so much magic and beauty from Rumi’s poetry. Reading poetry, I found, comes with so many interpretations and by drawing so many meanings from the metaphors you’re able to relate and play around with words. I love Stone Bird Press’ Spelling the Hours; you just melt with the words. I attend local slam poetry sessions, and these artists are so talented; listening to a poet recite in Shona or Setswana and mix that with English makes their voice and language achingly beautiful. Going through these works teaches you what you can do with your writing.

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MB: What can you tell us about your nonfiction?

TT: I studied architecture at the University of Botswana, which is very intense and literally exercised my creative muscle. With that background, I wrote architectural articles for a local newspaper, Boidus. This included reviewing local designs and writing about built environment news. I would also write articles about people who had a creative background and were making a living out of their passion. It was a very enjoyable experience!

MB: Most of your short fiction (which sometimes dips into long fiction range), from what I have read, have a science fiction bent, but with so many truths hidden within. Is science fiction your passion, or do you find yourself writing other genres, or perhaps crossing multiple genres?

TT: Science fiction is my passion, and sometimes it tends to dive into dystopia. I have found myself writing in other genres like magical realism, which is quite an exciting genre to discover. Once before I dipped into fantasy, but by far my favorite genres to write in are science fiction and magical realism.

MB: You refer to yourself as a Motswana writer (Motswana being the singular form of “Batswana,” or also a person from the Tswana ethnic group in southern Africa). What can you tell us about your heritage? What is it like to write (or to be a writer) in Batswana?

TT: Writing from Botswana can be quite difficult in terms of character portrayal and showing various cultures as it’s writing from a non-western perspective, so it does feel difficult to fit in, especially if you’re writing from different genres or stories that don’t bow down to stereotypical representation. In some instances, the writing can feel like a process of erasure instead of creating a place of belonging. As much as that is a disadvantage, our backgrounds and culture are holy to us, allowing us to pour our experiences, background or culture into our work. Before you had to find a community online in order to interact with writers because locally there weren’t any authors to talk to or connect with. But the local writing community is growing: we currently have a book festival that invites authors; and just recently I was judging a local writing competition whereby we also get to mentor some of the writers. So we’re getting more and more people keen on writing, that’s really another way of preserving culture and showing the world our different voices.

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[ Tlotlo’s story “Who Will Clean Our Spirits When We’re Gone?” appears in the July 2019 issue of The Dark magazine ]

MB: The interviews I conduct are intended for all types of creatives (those writing fiction / nonfiction / poetry, those making music, designing books, painting, crafting; in other words, anything wherein the person involved is creating somethings from once-nothings). What would you like to share with those just dipping their toes into the ocean of creativity?

TT: It requires passion and discipline. I say this because I’ve had some writers who come to me with an interest to write or to learn how to write, but they don’t want to put in the work. They want shortcuts and mostly want their writing to be an instant money-making machine. Sometimes you have to do a lot of research, or you have to go through a draft a million times until you become sick of it.  When I started out, my writing was terrible. I spent years in novels’ pages, sleeping in their prose, pulling it apart until it bled into me, and I was saturated with a slight understanding of how to have a voice, which I returned with to my writing, and I failed and failed and keep failing by collecting rejection letters; instead of giving up, I used these rejection letters that came with constructive criticism as teachers. Working on your art can feel like war sometimes. But if you’re passionate about it, you will do anything to birth it into something. Having mentors is also good. I was in Justina Ireland’s Writing in the Margins mentorship program as well as Kate Brauning’s Breakthrough Writer’s Boot Camp, and both mentorships were very invaluable in learning about the industry and refining your work.

MB: What are you trying to tell the world with your own creations?

TT: My concepts tend to be sci-fi what-if questions that explore a limitless world and its impact on its characters. It looks at societal issues, deals with love and belonging. Lately my writing looks toward racism, internalized racism, as well as oppression of women and abuse of children, all with a sci-fi bent as is seen in “Murders Fell from Our Wombs.” But most importantly my writing tries to show multi-faceted characters with an African background appearing in genres they hardly feature in as main characters, like science fiction, fantasy and magical realism. There is freedom and sometimes happy endings that I hope readers will enjoy.

MB: If we were to look into the future, what would we expect from Tlotlo Tsamaase?

TT: Well, I would hope for my writing to be so successful that I can make a living from it. It would be wonderful if my writing could reach masses and inspire people as other works have inspired me.


Learn more about Tlotlo Tsmaase on her website, www.tlotlotsamaase.com, or follow along on Facebook or Twitter,


If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy some of the others. Previous interviews in this series include:

“The Hunger” with Alma Katsu
“Beginning to End” with Chuck Palahniuk
“A Little of Everything” with John Langan
“King of Illustrations” with Glenn Chadbourne
“Creator of Heroes” with David Morrell
“A Visit from the Tooth Fairy” with Zoje Stage

And coming soon:

“Not-So-Silent” with Tim Lebbon
“The Time It Takes” with Lisa Morton
“Poetry in Motion” with Marge Simon
“Spinning Yarn” with Josh Malerman
“What the Eyes Tell Us” with Daniele Serra
“Word Therapy” with Ramsey Campbell

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: GODS, MONSTROSITIES & OTHER HORRORS

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Update (09/01/19): The submission window for this anthology is now closed. Look on this page each Monday for latest announcements!

We received close to 900 submissions during our open call (which ended midnight on 08/31/19). Co-editors Doug Murano and Michael Bailey are currently reading these millions upon millions of words, so we appreciate your patience as we fill this anthology. We will be announcing acceptances every Monday on this website, as well as on social media.

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. This page will be periodically updated with accepted contributions.

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.

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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.