As I mentioned last week, I’m a big supporter of horror author Joseph Williams. So much so that I invited him to participate in this week’s Friday Five to help him promote his debut full-length novel, The Hunt.
Also, since I’m working on making this a regular thing on the blog, feel free to submit some “5 Questions With…” logos. I’d love to see what you come up with!
You’re known mainly for your short story collections. What made you want to switch it up and go with a long-form novel?
It was the next step towards where I want to be. I actually started out writing novels before I got into short stories, and those early manuscripts suffered for it. Short stories are a great way to learn writing. You have to be economical and get rid of all the bullshit you want to use, like absurdly unnecessary adverbs (which are still hard as hell to cut out), rants, and overly (or underly) detailed descriptions. You have to learn how to develop your plot and characters simultaneously in a much more confined space. You also don’t invest nearly as much time or energy in writing them, so it’s not as devastating if they turn out to be awful or no one will publish them. A couple years ago, I got frustrated with spending months writing bad novels and turned to shorts to learn the art of storytelling. I got to a point where I vowed not to write another novel until I had written at least fifty new short stories, and my work improved immensely in that time.
Publishing short stories is a great way to get your foot in the door in the greater publishing world. It beefs up your cover letter so publishers will look closer at your work. You get more of a lifeline, more room to take chances and make mistakes, and I really needed that. Even publishing with some smaller ezines got my novella Number Six in a real horror anthology. That first acceptance was very exciting. Unless you come out and blow people’s minds with the best debut novel in the history of the world or something with bare-chested werewolves, agents and publishers (in my experience) won’t give your work a second look without some writing credits. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with two outstanding publishers in Post Mortem Press and Severed Press, so I’ve felt comfortable with each of my three books. They represent exactly what I wanted them to be. If I had spent months trying to find publishers for my early novels, it would have distracted me from progressing as a writer and I probably would have wound up publishing them with a less than reputable press, which may have helped but more likely would have made my work stagnant. I wouldn’t have thought I was capable of moving on up.
For my novel debut, I wanted to make sure I took my time and went through many drafts before putting it out into the world. I didn’t want to do a straight-up horror or sci-fi or fantasy novel the first time around, either. The Hunt is about addiction and hard choices more than anything else. I think as people read it, they’ll see that the emphasis is on the relationships much more than the setting. I also didn’t want to throw in guts and gore or really anything genre-related unless it served a purpose on a deeper level. Whether or not I did what I set out to do is up to the reader to decide, but I’m very happy with how the book turned out and am glad I waited through the other ten-or-so unpublished novels before coming to this one, although there were close calls in the past. There’s one cool young adult novel I wrote that I still really dig, but it involved a kid’s Starting Lineup figurine of Nicklas Lidstrom. I had a publisher for the book and everything, but Mr. Lidstrom’s agent wouldn’t allow it to go forward. I’m happy with the way it worked out in the end, though. I’m really proud of The Hunt.
Did you approach The Hunt different than your short stories?
In some ways, although it felt like I was writing a short story collection when I did all of the flashbacks for Doreen. The Hunt was actually my Master’s thesis project in Creative Writing, so the approach was already different than anything I’ve done before and it helped the book. I had a few months where The Hunt was all I worked on and I had an amazing editor/poet/musician (Dr. Caroline Maun) to critique it. After the first draft that I went through with Dr. Maun, I went back and added seven chapters that were all flashbacks (I also took one chapter out completely along with paragraphs upon paragraphs of unnecessary introspection), and those were the ones that made me feel like I was doing a collection of literary fiction short stories rather than a dark fantasy/horror novel. It really energized my later drafts and helped me view the whole book in a different perspective. Dr. Maun really encouraged me to continually dig deeper into the motivations of Doreen, Katy, and Mr. Woods. It was cool being able to build character histories like that. I’ve never been able to do it to that degree in my short stories.
Even adding those chapters to the book was a lot different than my last short story project though. The Tea Leaf Green book, Swinging from Stars. In a lot of ways, that was the most challenging writing project I’ve ever undertaken and it had the most unique approach I’ve ever used. There’s a very fine line in that series of books (Blues Traveler and Grateful Dead forthcoming) between respecting the lyrics/general mood of the song and putting my own spin on the stories so they’re worth reading, both for people who already know the words and for people who’ve never heard the band’s music in their life. I had to completely immerse myself in Tea Leaf Green when I wrote Swinging from Stars. I’d make playlists of all of my favorite live renditions of each song and listen to them on repeat the entire time I was writing and editing. You really have to commit to something like that and accept that not all of it is going to work out. I had to leave three stories on the cutting room floor. There were songs I thought would be easy to adapt based on the lyrics and those were usually the ones I had to give up on. That whole experience helped me in editing The Hunt. I learned to let go of stuff that was pure shit even though I really wanted to include it in the book for whatever reason.
Beyond that, the new novel I’m working on for Severed Press was started as two successive short stories which morphed into a longer project, so I’ve been approaching each chapter as its own entity. I really like working that way. I think writing short stories has changed my approach to writing novels and vice versa.
What is it about the horror genre that is so appealing to you?
I’m just drawn to more realistic human experiences. I don’t mean all of the monsters and blood and guts, although those do symbolize very real things in our lives. I think that the horror genre, when done well, offers a unique arena for exploring what makes people who they are. I think the way that people react in horrific situations—whether it’s an ugly divorce, an addiction, or the sadistic mutant living in the closet—truly defines their character, and it also helps me sort of exorcise and control my own fears. Writing these stories gives me a peculiar agency in situations where I would be powerless in real life. It’s a coping mechanism, to a degree.
Not to stay on Tea Leaf Green for too long, but I interviewed their singer/songwriter/pianist Trevor Garrod for Real Detroit Weekly back before I’d even pitched the project to the band, and I asked him a very similar question. His response pretty much sums it up for me:
“I’ve always loved that kind of music. You know, the Bob Dylan sort of folk tradition. The Jack Kerouac ‘rambling man’ sort of image. It’s always been terribly romantic to me. Anything about the dark places you go in life. I’ve always found it so much more compelling than writing songs about…what else is there to write about? Cars? Girls? Parties? I mean, I wish I could write about stuff like that, but it always seems so shallow.”
Preach on, Trevor. Preach on.
The dark places we go in life are much more compelling to me than the bright ones. Romance stories and cake walks aren’t what make a man or woman weak or strong, at least not in my life. That’s what Doreen’s journey in The Hunt is all about. There’s a reason fertilizer (shit) makes things grow. How boring would a book or movie about a perfect marriage with perfect children in a perfect house be? Give me a crisis of faith or a mountain of adversity over that garbage any day…
…and add a demon, zombie, or serial killer, too. Preferably all three. Thanks.
What’s the best book someone has recommended to you lately?
Hmm. That’s tough. Ever since Borders closed down and I don’t get to converse about books in person as much as I used to, I actually haven’t gotten many recommendations that didn’t come from the author or publisher. The last one I remember from those days that’s really stuck with me was from my friend Trevor Snyder, who told me about Richard Laymon. I’d heard of him before but never really had an interest in checking him out until Trevor recommended a book to me. I also used to get great recommendations from customers when we’d talk books, but now I mostly buy my books online (I know, right?) since Barnes & Noble doesn’t even have a horror section for me to browse. An awesome non-horror recommendation I got in the Borders days was Glen Cook’s Black Company series, but I can’t remember who told me about it (sorry).
I tend to find things on my own these days and it’s pretty exciting in its own way. I’ve gotten over some of my silly embarrassment over reading and watching ‘nerdy’ sci-fi stuff and that has provided me with some good reads like the Hand of Thrawn books by Timothy Zahn. My wife teases me relentlessly whenever I watch Battlestar Galactica or Firefly or Star Trek, but whatever, she watches Dance Moms (sorry honey). I’ve gotten really into Philip K. Dick and Chuck Palahniuk lately, too, because I’m ahead of the game like that. One of my creative writing professors just passed away (Christopher Towne Leland, to whom The Hunt is dedicated) and I’ve been poking around in his short stories and novels. He was an amazing writer who published with Scribners and Houghton Mifflin. Toni Morrison even edited one of his books. Check him out if you get the chance.
Do you have any recommendations for me? I’d trust this blog with my life. (Editor’s Note: If it’s Chuck Palahniuk you’re after, you can’t go wrong with Invisible Monsters. This is by far one of his best books and a fun re-read…especially these days when his work has been hit or miss)
Any last words?
Grasshopper. Long-johns. Shears. Butt.
…I think that’s all of them.