By Sean Tuohy
All writers want to set a tone and want to set themselves apart from the crowd.
Few do it well. Some barely pull it off. Others fail completely.
Author S. Craig Zahler succeeds spectacularly and puts miles between himself and other writers with his grim tone and no-holds-barred approach to writing. Zahler hit the scene hard with his debut novel A Congregation of Jackals, which was twice-nominated for awards and highly praised. His screenplay “The Brigands of Rattleborge” was ranked number one on the highly regarded The Black List.
With stories raging from western, crime, and sci-fi, Zahler proves that hard work and believing in your story is what makes a great writer. Zalher spoke with Writer's Bone about his daily writing process, gave us a glimpse of what’s to come, and allowed us a chance to see inside the mind of a true writer.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you were a writer? Was it something you knew from birth or did you discover it later in life?
S. Craig Zahler: I have always been creatively inclined, but as a kid, I thought of myself as visual artist (comic book artist was a goal for me, as were animator and director), though yes, I did write some weird fiction even then.
When I went to Tisch/NYU in the early 1990s, in addition to not coming into contact with women, I studied animation, film, film history, music, directing, and cinematography rather than writing, though there were some perfunctory courses that showed me formulas I then quickly (and thankfully) forgot.
I think one of the major reasons that I enjoy writing so much and have had some success in this field is because it does not require me to be collaborative and it allows me to make things up as I go rather than plan everything and try to convince people of my instincts. Additionally, getting better at writing requires effort, discipline, imagination, a critical mind, and a strong fondness for fiction rather than money, fancy equipment, and financiers.
ST: Recently on Writer's Bone a contributor expressed some self-doubt about identifying as a writer, despite a lifetime of writing. Have you experienced doubt as a writer? Have you always felt comfortable calling yourself a writer or was it something you grew into with each milestone of success as a writer?
SCZ: Anybody who writes is a writer, but for me, the term in the traditional sense has a professional connotation that is connected to generating revenue from writing—having people pay to read my work. Prior to making a living as a novelist and screenwriter, I wrote a lot of music criticism (for Metal Maniacs and some ‘zines), and although I was paid for a lot of this, I did not classify myself as a writer since my vocations at the time were as a cook, and to a lesser degree, a cinematographer. I’d say, “I write for a metal magazine,” but not, “I’m a writer,” even though I had written a massive, still unpublished two book fantasy series called Slaves of Uzrehan’be (which was me splitting the difference between Clark Ashton Smith weirdness and George RR Martin gray morality), and some plays (two of which I directed), and six screenplays, and a ton of music criticism. But this writing felt like I was trying to crack “being a writer” rather the actually “being a writer.”
When I got a three-picture deal with Warner Brothers and writing became my full time job, I felt comfortable saying, “I’m a writer.” This felt far more accurate on the day that I sold my novel, A Congregation of Jackals to Don D’Auria at Dorchester.
As far as doubt, I have always believed in my abilities, but less so the industries of publishing and filmmaking to which I sell (or attempt to sell) my material.
ST: A Congregation of Jackals was a somber and thrilling debut novel; how long did you work on the project?
SCZ: Thanks for the kind word regarding the book. I wrote A Congregation of Jackals in three and half months, including all of the revisions other than the tiny ones that I did with the publisher that took only a few days.
ST: What is your writing process like?
SCZ: My process is to have a general direction for the story—doors to which I am guiding the main characters. Then, I get in the mind of the protagonist and proceed toward those doors.
While I do this, I try to surprise myself every single day. An important thing for me is to limit the amount of words that I am allowed to type in a day to about 1,100 so that I never chase myself into a corner or plot on autopilot. If it’s all flowing too quickly, too naturally, I feel it’s too easy and has probably been done before and will not contain enough distinct invention. I’m usually surprised by which characters live and which die in my fiction.
ST: Do you have any special rituals that you have to perform before or after a new project?
SCZ: Certainly. I write seven days a week until the story is done. I do this lying down on my stomach in bed, like I’m sliding into home plate.
I write my allotment of words for the day, revise this chunk twice, and then leave it alone for the most part until I finish the whole piece (which I write in order from beginning to end, making occasional adjustments).
Usually, after two or three hours of work, I reward myself with my “morning” coffee, which is at about 5 or 6 p.m., since I usually wake up around 2:30 p.m. Then, after I have finished my writing (and completed my daily workout), I put on my “saving music,” which is a song selected as the daily reward for completing the day’s work. I tend to keep one song per project, so each book or script has its own theme. “Blood Red Skies” by Judas Priest was the song I listened to every day while writing A Congregation of Jackals. Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” is what I am listening today when I finish working on my new book. Usually it’s soul music or heavy metal, which are my two favorite kinds of music, followed closely by progressive rock. The Persuaders, Nate Dogg, Ritual, Altars of Oblivion, Tavares, Ennio Morricone have all provided me with saving music.
ST: What project are you the most proud of?
SCZ: This is a tough question, since I am very critical, and although I am proud of all of my books and albums—they survived my personal process of brutal nitpicking so I can now stand behind them—of my 48 completed pieces (six novels, 37 scripts, and five albums) different pieces have different elements of which I am most proud.
I think my horror western Wraiths of the Broken Land is my most vividly written and intense piece, though it is way too dark for many readers and so comes with that caveat. My science fiction book Corpus Chrome, Inc. is my most imaginative and emotional book experience. It plays to emotional aspects that are very meaningful to me specifically, and is less gratifying in normal narrative ways than most of my tough guy material (i.e. the crime and western stuff).
In terms of my music, I’m very proud of my recent “Realmbuilder” album, “Blue Flame Cavalry,” which made some important year-end best of lists for the first time. (This is doomy epic metal, influenced by stuff like Manilla Road, Thin Lizzy, Manowar, Reverend Bizarre, Summoning, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cirith Ungol).
As for unpublished works, there is a novella/script called Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child as Told in Twenty-Seven Chapters that is very, very dear to me and gets the strongest emotional reaction of all my unpublished work.
ST: You combine grim noir and the west in your works very well; where did this fascination come from and what, if any, core similarities do you believe these two genres share?
SCZ: I think classical crime and traditional westerns are historically very different, since the earlier are generally urban experiences, often heavy on colorful language and plotting, and the latter are more adventurous and expansive types of tales in which a group of people are dealing with civilization in the wild. Though yes, there are many exceptions to these distinctions.
Some of my favorite film noirs ever like “Gun Crazy” (directed by the master, Joseph H. Lewis), “Nightfall” (directed by the amazing Jacques Tourneur, based on a David Goodis book) do both things, but something like “The Big Combo” (also directed by the master, JH Lewis) or “The Sweet Smell of Success” (probably my favorite script ever) lack the adventure component.
With the exceptions of my comedy material, I try to make everything that I write vivid and atmospheric, whether it is a crime, science fiction, horror, or western piece. I did not set out to write a “noir western” with A Congregation of Jackals, but a western in which the feelings of dread and unease and remorse were there throughout. For a lot of people, this heaviness translates to “noir,” especially since I did not make A Congregation of Jackals a vicious horror western the way I did with Wraiths of the Broken Land.
My upcoming book Mean Business on North Ganson Street is noir/crime, though it certainly has some of what I like about classical westerns is in there too, especially the idea of a man defining himself and imposing his morals upon others in a wild terrain.
ST: Do you have any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
SCZ: My science fiction novel Corpus Chrome, Inc. was recently released by Raw Dog Screaming Press. It is very weird science fiction that is more character focused than is typical for the genre. At the risk of seeming like a self-aggrandizing jackass, I’d recommend it to fans of authors like Ted Chiang, M. John Harrison, Phillip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe, and Ursula K. Le Guin. There is no specific work by any of these genre luminaries that mine actually resembles, but like a lot of these authors’ books, Corpus Chrome, Inc. explores sociological themes, identity, the arts, and the limitations of the human body and mind…and is not at all traditional sci-fi.
I’d also like to mention Mean Business on North Ganson Street, which will be coming out from Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press in September. It offers the smoothest and most enjoyable reading experience of all of my books, and it definitely contains all my sharpest dialogue to date.
In film, I hope to get my movie “Bone Tomahawk” off the ground, but this is a slow process with dozens of variables that I can’t control. It is heartening that two years later, Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Jennifer Carpenter, and Peter Sarsaard are all still on board!
And I am currently in a creative back and forth process with Park Chan-wook, who intends to direct my western script, “The Brigands of Rattleborge,” which is shaping up to finally get made by him and the producers of “Zodiac” and “Wolf of Wall Street,” which are certainly amongst the very best pictures to get through the Hollywood system in recent years.
ST: What advice would you provide to up and coming writers?
SCZ: Finish your work and show it to people. Sitting on an unfinished book or script is as bad as not writing it at all—actually worse, since you’ve spent time doing stuff for no reason unless you consider yourself the only important audience or do it for therapeutic reasons.
Be critical of your own work, but don’t strive for perfection, since it’s unattainable. I limit the amount of time I allow myself to revise my books and scripts or else I would tweak them forever (and consequently, write a fraction as much material). Set limits and deadlines and stick to them. Sometimes it helps to tell other people what your deadlines are so that you can’t alter them.
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
SCZ: A lot of my favorite authors started in or mainly wrote for the pulps: David Goodis, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Norvell W. Page, Donald Wandrei, Max Brand, Robert E. Howard, Elmore Leonard, Isaac Asimov, Phillip K. Dick, and Arthur C. Clarke.