Stephen King

Full Throttle: 11 Questions With Author Joe Schwartz

Joe Schwartz

Joe Schwartz

By Daniel Ford

Hunting for authors to interview on Writer’s Bone is an imperfect science. It’s a blend of finding a new name during a stroll through a bookstore, stalking our literary heroes, and discovering up-and-coming personalities on Twitter.

In the case of author Joe Schwartz, it was seeing his recent book cover that featured a flaming guitar and the words, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” After digging into Schwartz’s oeuvre, I didn’t hesitate to email him and ask him about his career, transgressive fiction, and why aspiring writers need to find a great editor to be successful.

Oh, and much like myself, he’s got a healthy respect for the word “fuck.” Consider him a Writer’s Bone favorite from here on out.  

Daniel Ford: First things first: I need you to pair a rock song with a bourbon.

Joe Schwartz: Easy, all rock songs are about drinking and fucking anyway. I’m sober now, but when I wanted to guarantee a blackout drunk, it was always Mudvayne’s “Dig” with Canadian Whiskey, anything from the bottom shelf for under $10 and more than 90-proof.

DF: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

JS: About nine years ago. I wrote a screenplay for a local film maker and they paid me for it. To keep that energy going, I started writing short stories and loved it. The novels came later, which, by comparison, is like trying to prepare yourself for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro by walking in a 5K.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

JS: The first thing I want to find is a good idea. Something I can base a whole story from trying to find an answer to questions I never intended to ask. Here’s the way I feel about outlines: all the surprise is sucked out and the joy of discovery is gone for me personally as the writer. My theory is if I didn’t see it coming, and I wrote it, there’s no way in hell the reader is going to guess ahead and get bored with the story. Outlines are so fucking formulaic. Writing from the hip, walking the tightrope without a net, is far more exciting and dangerous. Fuck wearing a helmet. Turn the throttle on this hog and let’s do 90 down the highway. If I fuck up, I’m a grease spot, but if I make, oh man, that’s going to be one cool story.

DF: Explain to me what “transgressive fiction” means and why that genre appeals to you.

JS: Transgressive fiction for me is a means of storytelling that expressly depends on the character using illegal or illicit means to achieve their goals. Paradoxically, it gives me permission to not have a happy ending, bad guys can win, and good old fashioned comeuppances because someone is a real asshole are rare, and more often than not, are more attributable to an act of God than vengeance. I suppose, though, a lit critic would say my determined use of crude language and graphic violence would be a more appropriate determination of the genre. Either way, I’m writing first to entertain myself and second the reader. If I gasp at what happens while writing it, hopefully someone will damn near shit their pants when they read it.

DF: What inspired your recent novel, Ladies and Gentlemen: Adam Wolf and the Cook Brothers?

JS: I was into music for a long time. It was my dream to be a rock star. Turns out, I suck. Somehow, that fact couldn’t stop me from trying. By the time I was 32 years old, I had been in rock bands for half my life. That said, I witnessed and participated in a ton of weird, stupid, and generally boring shit in the name of making it. Funny thing about being in a band, nobody cares. You show up, do a gig, pack up, put it all back in the garage or basement, and go do it again. Of course, who cares about that? Nobody. What people really want to know is what is it like to be in a band, to stand on a stage and feel that rush of applause, to go across states in a van trying to stay alive, about having casual sex, using drugs, and living to brag about all of it like you’ve done something with your life when the truth is usually just goddamn depressing. Playing music seems to be the thing non-musicians could give two-shits about. If I had a dollar for every time somebody found out I was in a band, and without hesitation asked me about how much pussy I was getting for doing it, I could buy a Ferrari.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the novel? How do you develop your characters in general?

JS: I think Faulkner said he didn’t write as much as follow the people around in his head and describe what they were doing to each other. I usually start writing with a title to the story in mind. That title is my theme. Beyond that, I have a general idea how the story is basically going to go but is malleable as the plot progresses. People constantly show up on the page when I write I had no idea even existed, and yet, they become as real to me as the person sitting next to me in a restaurant. As for real people I actually know showing up in stories, I try like hell to avoid it. I might use someone as a model, smooshing three or four people into one, but it is not often. Personally, I don’t find it hard to make up imaginary people. The weirder, the better.

DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?

JS: Hemingway said every first draft is shit. He is empirically correct. I can’t tell you what an average round of edits is for me. Some stories look good after only two or three, others still look like garbage after a dozen. I find the best way to do this is the way Stephen King recommends. Write it and put it away in a drawer for six months. Take time to fall out of love with it and go write something else. The best way to approach the editing process I have found is when I can’t remember even writing the goddamn thing anymore. Then, it’s all new again, and I have no hesitation in making it better. One last word on editing, it is not something you do alone. A good editor will guide you to the top of the mountain but also get you safely back to base camp. Like my first editor told me when I balked at the changes she was suggesting, “It’s not my name on the cover of the book, it’s yours.”

DF: You also wrote several short story collections, and we’re big fans of the short story here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about that format that draws you to it?

JS: If writing a novel is like being a professional fighter, then writing short stories is like learning to street fight. This is where you learn to bleed, to hit, to bob and weave, but most especially, you learn to win at all costs. I cannot tell you how often I’ve been stuck writing a novel and went back to my short story roots. I believe a good short story should be like a single chapter from a great book. If you can flip the readers expectations upside down, ruin them for satisfaction as to what they thought was coming next, that’s the jackpot. If I’m writing stories less exciting than going to the grocery store and coming back home, than why in the hell should anyone want to read them. Trust me, when I write my pulse is pounding. I want to see what comes next, too. The one thing short stories taught me is to never be predictable. Predictability is literary death. Like James Patterson says, the only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

DF: Speaking of short stories, I noticed that your collection The Veiled Prophet of Saint Lewis is in audio format on your website. What inspired that idea?

JS: I wanted to write short stories and wanted a theme that offered a wink toward my roots without all the sentimental bullshit that goes along with being a melancholy crybaby. The VP fair was something I grew up with. When I was a kid, it was synonymous with the Fourth of July. Fuck if I knew what it was. It just seemed super creepy, this old Merlin looking dude who looked like he belonged on the cover of a Black Sabbath album was somehow a secret benefactor, patriarch, and enchanted guardian for St. Louis. A friend of mine, a local recording engineer, and lover of weird shit in general, offered to do an audio book for me in exchange for a guitar I owned. Turns out its much harder than it looks. Of course, I tried to read the stories in character, not just out loud. So far, no one has come to me and said they liked it, which sucks, but that’s life. You try and see what people find interesting, trying your best not to repeat mistakes. Unless someone offers me a bag of money to do another one, I won’t.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

JS: Get an editor before you do anything casually like self-publish a book or go hunting for an agent. The more professional you can appear, literally on paper, the more seriously your work will be considered.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

JS: I have never voted.

To learn more about Joe Schwartz, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @JoesBlackTShirt.

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Free-Range Characters: 7 Questions With Author Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor

By Sean Tuohy

Justin Taylor’s short story collection Flings was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month in August 2014 and praised by the likes of The Daily Beast, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly.

Taylor talked to me recently about the authors he worshiped growing up, how he allows his characters to roam freely, and his short story collections. 

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Justin Taylor: From when I was very young. I filled notebooks with stories almost as soon as I learned to write. Later, in early high school, I got into writing poetry, though they don’t really teach poetry in my high school so I didn’t have much to go by other than song lyrics, a vague notion of Beat ethos, and at least one volume of Jim Morrison’s verse. Oy. It really wasn’t until college that I discovered craft, line-editing, revision, etc. But putting aside questions of skill, the fundamental ass-in-chair-pen-in-hand urge was always there in me, as close to instinct as such a thing could possibly be.

ST: What authors did you worship growing up?

JT: Stephen King throughout most of adolescence, which I’ve discussed in some detail elsewhere. Some other genre stuff that came through him one way or the other; he recommended it somewhere, or it was next to him on the shelf. Since most YA writing is designed to encourage binge consumption, writers like R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike—both of whom I actually came to after King, probably because my folks thought it was more age-appropriate for a 10-year-old—primed me for series in general, so I remember reading most of the Anne Rice vampire books, and many of Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series—though both of these gradually dissolved into weird housewife pornography.

Or maybe that was always what they were and it just took me a while to catch on. Where I grew up there wasn’t much “literary” reading going on, so it took me until about halfway through high school to start looking beyond the horror shelf at the bookstore, and then what I found—or didn’t find—was as close to pure chance as these things get. I read Darcey Steinke’s Jesus Saves, The Human Stain, and Our Gang by Philip Roth, a book called The Quartzsite Trip by a guy named William Hogan, which I actually found in the high school’s library, and mostly remember for its weird tone and an abortive sex scene. Those books, and a few others like them, must have been my introduction to the idea that a book didn’t need to live or die by its plot—though Darcey’s book at least had a kidnapping in it. I ended up studying with her when I went to grad school. I think I’ve read all her books. Other than that, there was typical druggie high school stuff: the Morrison, which I mentioned, and Robert Hunter’s collected lyrics, Box of Rain. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, which I am 100 percent certain I read on account of Strauss’s tone poem’s having been repurposed by Stanley Kubrick for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which itself I had only come around to because Phish used to cover it, though it turned out later that they were mostly riffing on the Deodato remix from “Being There.” A lot of Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, William Burroughs. I could never deal with Kerouac—he just bored me—but I tried.

Of the books they made us read in school, I remember loving Frankenstein, and Tale of Two Cities. I remember reading and hating Their Eyes Were Watching God, a hatred I now understand as a product of ignorance and fear. All the awful cultural programming of snotty white kids, of middle-class “gifted” students… I complained about that book every minute that we spent on it—have many mortifying memories about mocking the way the characters spoke: black English, hayseed English, whatever sin we were so sure they had committed—but I have never, ever forgotten it. The moment we finished the unit, and I didn’t have anyone to perform my ignorance for anymore, I realized I had actually loved the novel, and more than that, was drawn to it, as one is drawn to a great and mysterious power whose purpose and depth one can sense but not comprehend. It planted itself like a tree in my mind, perhaps like Rilke’s “tall tree in the ear.”

ST: What type of writer are you: outline before you start or just write and see what happens?

JT: I don’t make outlines because I don’t care what happens. I’m interested in language, and in people—who they are and the choices they make, which necessarily at a certain point translates to “the things that they do.” But that’s the least compelling part of it for me. I am an anarchist in my heart, still and always. The characters should go forth and do whatever they want to do, or do nothing. Eventually the author is obliged to impose some kind of structure, even if it’s just a beginning and ending, but within the space of the story the characters are awarded as much freedom as I can possibly grant them. Or rather their freedom is assumed by me to be inherent, and paramount. I honor it as much as I am able given the limits imposed by the form that I am working in and the fact that they are not real.

ST: The characters in Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever pop off the page. How long do you develop a character before putting them on the page?

JT: Thank you. Characters develop by being allowed to roam freely. They do not gestate like babies, but rise like the sun. You hear a sentence or a phrase and wonder who is saying it. To find this out you let him talk some more. You imagine a scene, an event or a landscape, and wonder who is looking at it or standing in its foreground—and go from there. This is less mystical than I am making it sound now. It’s just about—as per my previous answer—being open to surprising yourself, and being willing to write a lot of scratch pages. That’s it.

ST: The paperback edition of “Flings” is coming out at the end of the month. What can readers expect in this new work?

JT: Well the hardback came out last year, so the short answer is a new cover, some nice quotes, and nothing else. Though as NBC used to say during reruns season, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” My hope is that this will be a second chance for me to connect with new readers, maybe court some folks who were on the fence about the hardcover, but will prove more temptable now that the price is down and the reviews are in.

ST: What does the future hold for Justin Taylor?

JT: Death and taxes? A couple bigger magazine pieces (nonfiction) over the course of the fall, and a new issue of The Agriculture Reader, the tiny arts magazine that I co-edit with my buddy, the poet Jeremy Schmall. Not sure what the release date is for it yet, but we’ve got all the material in and it’s going to be crazy-good—lots of work in translation, several short stories by debut authors, and a small book of haikus included as part of the issue.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

JT: I’m listening to Bob Mould’s "Beauty and Ruin" right now. The record store where he shot the video for “I Don’t Know You Anymore” is like twelve blocks from my apartment. My cat is stretched out on the dining room table, on top of my wife’s laptop. I thought she was asleep but I just looked up and she’s staring at me, kind of intently, which makes sense since it’s a little past her dinnertime, so.

To learn more about Justin Taylor, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @my19thcentury.

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A Conversation With Fantasy Author Aya Knight

Aya Knight

Aya Knight

By Sean Tuohy

Author Aya Knight lives in a world of fantasy that she has created and none of us blame her. Knight is the author of the much loved Chronicles of Kales series and is currently working on her next project. Knight took a moment to step out of her fantasy land to speak to Writer’s Bone about the craft of writing.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Aya Knight: I think a part of me has always been into storytelling. Since a young age I would engage in activities that would put my (at times) overactive imagination to use. Dungeons & Dragons was something that I enjoyed since it revolves around stories that push you to use no more than your mind. I also love to read, though I’ll admit, I don’t get to as much as I’d like. As I grew into my 20s, an idea began to brew that I just couldn’t stop thinking about. It was the core concept of my first novel and I knew that I needed to get it onto paper. What started as the desire to write a “cool concept” down, quickly turned into page after page of content. I found myself invested in the world and knew at that point there was no turning back. I was determined to make writing novels my profession. Since then, I’ve never looked back and hope to continue this passion for many years to come.

ST: What authors did you worship growing up?

AK: Stephen King is definitely a top-runner. One of the first books I remember carrying around (and the only book I’ve ever read through twice), was Pet Sematary. I can still remember how gripped I was on every page, how he was able to pull me completely into this alternate reality with no more than words on paper. I also really enjoyed Dean Koontz. I find he has a natural talent to blend genres together. A couple of his books were great thrillers, yet had fantastical elements to them. Lastly, I’d like to credit a more recent author on the timeline. J.K. Rowling. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the Harry Potter series. It was a very well written story and I think a lot of people don’t realize how difficult it is to craft a tale that takes place across seven books, while masterfully wrapping up all loose ends and tying the characters together with closure.

ST: What kind of writer are you: Outline and then writer or just write and see what happens?

AK: Definitely outline! I’ve tried both methods, and found that without outlining, I end up investing a lot more brainpower into developing a plot. It not only ends up taking me longer, but I end up missing elements that could have been avoided if I’d taken the time to block out main events in advance. For me personally, I’ve found outlining to be a great cure for writer’s block.

ST: Did growing up in South Florida have an effect on your writing?

AK: I would say that the location itself had no influence on my writing, but the people I’ve met and experiences encountered (while in South Florida) played a role in my writing.

ST: What advise do you give to other authors?

AK: It may sound cliché, but I always urge anyone who wants to complete a book, to write every single day. Set a realistic goal for yourself, (such as 1,000 words per day) a goal that fits your lifestyle. Don’t try to set your goals too high or you’ll end up disappointing yourself, and possibly un-motivating your drive. Set a goal that is realistic to accomplish—then, if you happen to achieve more, it’s icing on the cake.

ST: Can you tell us about Silver Knight Publishing?

AK: Silver Knight Publishing was an amazing experience and enabled me to learn a great deal about the inner workings of the industry. We represented many wonderful and talented authors. However, the company has since merged and is no longer operational for submissions.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

AK: Hah, all right. I’m a huge fan of amusement parks (I think I get even more excited than my kids)! And, when I say a huge fan, I’m talking the whole nine yards—I’m that person who walks around with Mickey Mouse ears or a Harry Potter wand.

To learn more about Aya Knight, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @AyaKnight.

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Pouring Gasoline On the Fire With Horror Author Joe Hill

Joe Hill

Joe Hill

By Sean Tuohy

Twisted, dark, funny, and filled with a heart (dark heart, maybe), Joe Hill is an author whose stories are filled with characters so full of life that they fill the seats beside you. His stories are injected with so much humor and original prose that you are instantly brought to another world. 

Hill's novels cover the gamut of storytelling: Heart-Shaped Box is about a former rock star who buys the suit that a man died in and is haunted by his ghost; Horns features a young man who wakes up to find out he is growing horns from his head and then develops dark, magical powers; and NOS4A2, in which a young woman uses her powers to fight a supernatural evil.

I was lucky enough to speak to Hill about his writing style, his next book, and what books are currently cluttering his nightstand table.

Sean Tuohy: What authors did you read growing up?

Joe Hill: The first writer I really fell for was Arthur Conan Doyle. I had a deal with my parents: bedtime was at 9:00 p.m., but I could stay up an extra half hour if I was in bed reading a book. I soon discovered a half an hour was exactly enough time to read a Sherlock Holmes story. I read them all, over the course of about three months… The Sign of Four and the other novels usually required a week to finish. It’s possible I owned a Sherlockian Calabash pipe and sometimes wandered the house, gumming it thoughtfully, and looking for things to detect.

I loved Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, which were full of slaughter and betrayal.

I read comics without discrimination or judgment: good comics, bad comics, hilariously bad comics. For a year or two I was very emotionally wrapped up in the soap opera of Chris Claremont’s X-Men. I once stalked Chris Claremont at a Boston SF Convention.

I was (and still am) a big fan of Tabitha and Stephen King. I’ve read both extensively.

ST: Was there one book that you connected with above all others?

JH: I read The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs over and over. It is, in some ways, like the perfect Harry Potter novel; it just happens to have been written about 30 years before J.K. Rowling got started. A lonely orphan discovers he’s related to a wizard and must learn how to cast spells himself, so he can defeat the doomsday plot of a terrible sorcerer who has returned from the dead. Sound familiar? But instead of Hogwarts, the setting is New Zebedee, Conn., and instead of art by Mary GrandPré, the illustrations were provided by Edward Gorey. I’ve reread the book more than once as an adult and it still retains all its old power. I’m persuaded the novel itself is a perfect, compact work of enchantment.

In a lot of ways, Locke & Key, the comic I wrote for six years, wouldn’t exist without The House with a Clock in its Walls.

ST: When did you start to have ideas of becoming a full-time writer?

JH: Both of my parents are novelists. I started goofing off on a typewriter about three minutes after I learned you could string letters together to make words.

In junior high, I discovered role-playing games, and I was a dungeon master for a couple of years (although the game my friends and I loved to play was not Dungeons & Dragons, but Call of Cthulhu). In high school, though, I was a boarding student at a tony Massachusetts academy, and role-playing more or less ended. Make-believe with a group of friends quickly came to seem a little shameful. I started writing every day, stories of fantasy and horror, to fill the hole.

ST: Do you outline your stories or just sit down and begin to write?

JH: Ah…neither really.

I work very slowly. A short story takes one to three months. A novel might take anywhere from a year to five years. Whereas I generate ideas very quickly, I have a couple decent ideas for stories every week.

When I finally start a story, it’s already been living in my imagination for months, or maybe years. I know the first scene. I have some big set pieces in mind. I know things about the key characters. I almost always know the first sentence. Very little of this is written down, although I might have a couple notes scattered across my journals. But no outline, just an unmapped island that I’ve been visiting in my daydreams.

I think outlines are a mistake. Or at least, I know they’re a mistake for me, and I suspect they’re often a mistake for most other writers. It’s more useful to develop a single interesting situation, and a few characters you want to investigate. Develop someone who has regrets, a strong personal code, a few helpless compulsions; develop someone who can’t control or can’t express their anger; someone who has a distinctive, interesting voice; someone driven, either by their demons or their angels. Drop a really engaging character into a gripping situation, and you don’t need to outline. You can just sit back and watch the fireworks. Outlines choke off any chance of discovery, of surprising yourself.

ST: Last year, the movie “Horns,” based on your novel of the same name, was released in theaters.  How did it feel seeing the world and characters that you created on the big screen?

JH: In some ways I like the movie better than the novel. I’m proud of the novel. I worked hard on it, and I think it’s fun to read, that the pages turn quickly, that it explores interesting themes and ideas. But I had a nervous breakdown while I was working on it. I was terrifically depressed. My marriage ended. It was a sad, confused time for me, and my feelings about the book are wrapped up in a lot of personally unhappy memories.

The movie, on the other hand, is a lot of fun. Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple gave it everything they had, and their moments together are beautiful and heart-rending. Alexandre Aja got the book’s atmosphere of lush summery romance, and also its sick sense of humor, and managed to capture both things on the screen. In the end, it didn’t do well in the marketplace, but I think it was always a tough sell. In some ways I’m surprised it got made at all. It’s the least commercial thing I’ve ever written: a weird horror-satire, a surreal, “Twin Peaks”-sy riff on The Metamorphosis.

Late in the game, a PR person came up with the world’s best tagline: Horns: Grow a pair. I wish I had thought of that. If we had slapped that line on the cover of the book, we would’ve sold a billion, billion copies. Sigh.

ST: Do you have any rituals you have to complete before or after writing?

JH: Um, besides routine procrastination? Like lots of modern writers, I’d so much rather screw off on Twitter than actually do my job.

Which doesn’t make a lick of sense. When I sit down to work, and I finally begin to build sentences, it almost always makes me feel good. I like myself best when I’m writing. Or maybe that’s not quite right: maybe I mean I know myself best when I’m writing. Or have a chance to visit with my best, smartest self.

I get up every hour to make a cup of tea. That’s the one ritual. It takes three cups of tea to get through a normal day of work. Then I’ll have a fourth, late in the afternoon, when I sit down to read.

ST: Are you still a reader? If so, what are you reading now?

JH: I’d give up writing for a living before I’d give up reading for pleasure. I think of myself as a father first, a reader second, and a writer only a distant third. I love other people’s sentences much more than my own, and I hope I never get tired of a good story.

I’m usually reading two or three things at once. At the moment I’m working my way through a big heavy collection of short stories by Irwin Shaw, the tenth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log.

That’s a pretty good representative example of what I might be reading in any given month. The short story might be my favorite form; if I have a favorite genre, it’s not horror but historical fiction; and I read a broad range of non-fiction, from history to true crime to pop cultural analysis.

I just finished David Mitchell’s novel, Slade House, which is out this October. It’s his most surprising book yet, and maybe the last book in the world anyone would’ve expected him to write: a red-in-tooth-and-claw supernatural horror thriller. It’s a little like if Wes Craven hired Umberto Eco to reboot “Nightmare on Elm Street:” erudite, witty, as finely wrought as a Fabergé egg, but also unrepentantly terrifying.

ST: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?

JH: Over the years, I’ve had a lot of good advice from some brilliant writers. But I never really learned that much from all the kind, well-meant suggestions and clever tips. They didn’t stick with me. Just about everything I learned about writing a good book I learned from reading lots and lots of good books. I studied the novels I loved. I read them over and over, sometimes with a pen and highlighter, taking notes. Once, I spent a month rewriting the first five chapters of Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce, just to get the feel of his sentences.

ST: What does the future hold for Joe Hill?

JH: I’m the guest editor for the inaugural edition of Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. That’ll be out this October. And I’ve got a new novel, a dark modern fantasy called The Fireman, which will be out in the summer of 2016. It’s about a plague of spontaneous combustion; it’s my version of The Stand, soaked in gasoline and set on fire.

ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?

JH: I have never lost a game of Boggle.

To learn more about Joe Hill, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @joe_hill.

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A Conversation With Brutal Youth Author Anthony Breznican

Anthony Breznican 

Anthony Breznican 

By Author Steph Post

When I first set about reading Anthony Breznican’s debut novel Brutal Youth last fall, I have to admit that I was skeptical. A book about freshmen attending a Catholic high school? Really? I’m a high school teacher. I spend all day with teenagers. Did I really want to read about them as well? The book came so highly recommended, though, that I thought I’d give it a try. What the hell? It had a cool cover, which included a blurb from Stephen King. The title came from an Elvis Costello song. I’d see what it was all about. I cracked it open one night and within two days, stunned, I had turned the last page.

I was consumed. I was floored. This is not just a book about high school. Brutal Youth is a story about growing up, about good and evil, about love and friendship and, oh yeah, badassery. It’s about the bullies and the underdogs and the monsters and the heroes. It’s about right and wrong and the gaping gray space in between, the space that we move within, teenagers and adults alike.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of authors over the past year, but I’m proud to say that Anthony Breznican quickly moved from fellow writer to sage advice giver to good friend. Brutal Youth came out in paperback earlier this month and so if you haven’t read it yet, now is the time. I interviewed Breznican for my personal blog right after I fell in love with his book and I’m thrilled to bring you a second interview for Writer’s Bone to celebrate his success and future.

Steph Post: Brutal Youth landed in the hands of readers almost exactly a year ago and is now available in "bendy form."

Anthony Breznican: I love that. “Bendy form.” I think Caroline Kepnes, the author of You (which is out in paperback soon) coined that one.

SP: As I am very aware, having gone through a debut release myself this past year, having your book arrive on the scene is just the beginning of a whirlwind of emotions.

AB: Yes, and I’m going to turn this interview around for a moment and say everyone should go find your novel A Tree Born Crooked if they want a crime thriller with smarts and nerve. Richard Price better watch his ass, because you are coming for him.

SP: Well, thank you! Is there any one book-related moment from the past year that stands out for you? A moment that you'll never forget, that you may be able to look back on one day and say "damn, that was good..."?

AB: My favorite thing in the world is when somebody reads it and comes back with a reaction that has exclamation points on it. A reader named Marna Moore sent this tweet at me:

I’ve gotten a lot like that from readers, and I just want to hug them.

As far as single moments go, meeting a 12-year-old girl at Comic-Con who went through a lot of the teasing that’s described in Brutal Youth made it my turn on the emotional roller coaster. She also turned to the adults at her school for help and was told “boys will be boys” or some nonsense. I’ve met and heard from many, many people—both kids and teachers—who have witnessed first-hand that this kind of social Darwinism is real.

SP: I can read my share of books in a year but Brutal Youth has stuck with me all this time. I couldn't tell you the character names of half the books I've read in the past, but I don't know that I'll ever be able to forget Peter, Noah, and Lorelei. In so many ways, I felt like I knew these characters, that they could be students walking down the halls of the high school where I work.

AB: That means a lot to me, Steph, because I know you’re a teacher who invests a lot in her students (and having you care about my troublemakers makes me feel like they’d be in good hands in your classroom.)

I tried hard to make sure everyone had a distinct presence. I was recently asked to come up with a list of books these characters would love, and it was a fun exercise because it gave me a chance to revisit these kids and tell five new little micro stories about them. It was like … when you know someone really well, it’s not hard to pick out a birthday present for them. Do you know what I mean? I’m happy when a reader feels they’re distinctive, too.

SP: I've known teachers, too, who could easily be Mr. Zimmers and Ms. Bromines, but thankfully never a Father Mercedes. Have you had any readers tell you the same thing? Have you connected with any readers who felt the pull and the weight of your characters as I did?

AB: That’s funny because Father Mercedes is based on a real priest from my town who was embezzling money. The real guy’s name was Father Benz, so I didn’t even change him that much except to reduce his larceny to about a tenth of what the real guy stole.

I’ve known a lot of Mr. Zimmmers—the teacher who sticks his or her neck out for students in trouble, even if they end up absorbing some of that drama and difficulty as a result. And Ms. Bromine…I love when a reader says, “You know people like this…” She’s the little Napoleon who wields whatever power she has like a weapon.

The one criticism that truly irritates me is when I see a teacher on Goodreads say, “This kind of bullying would never happen. Not at my school.” All I can think is, “Yeah, right. You’d fit in great at the school in the book, where the teachers have convinced themselves of the same thing.” Whenever I see a news article about a kid who was bullied mercilessly I know there are teachers like this in that kid’s orbit.

SP: Which is despicable, but I agree with you, true. This is why we need students like your character Noah Stein, who aren’t afraid to stand up to these types of teachers. And though Noah will always be my hero from in Brutal Youth, the one character who I know I will never be able to forget is Colin Vickler. Perhaps because of the striking opening scene with Vickler standing on the roof of St. Michael's High School, threatening to take his life, or perhaps because of the pathos surrounding him, an outcast boy misunderstood and bullied mercilessly, "Clink" is a character that I found particularly moving. 

AB: I’m glad about that, too! Colin Vickler is introduced mainly as the worst-case scenario for the new kids coming into the school. He flips out in catastrophic fashion and starts pushing stone statues off the roof onto his classmates below. Then he disappears—or, rather, is disappeared by the school. The main question is whether Peter, Noah, or Lorelei will become like him, but I hoped the reader would still wonder and worry about him a little. He has a dangerous meltdown, but I wanted him to be sympathetic when you realize what led to it.

SP: I know you've mentioned before that one of the main characters of the novel, Lorelei, is a favorite. But are there any minor characters who hold a special place for you? Do you ever wish that you could have given these characters a more prominent role in story?

AB: There’s a character named Hector Greenwill, who is overweight, a great guitarist proficient in everything from punk to classical, and also the only black student at this all-white Catholic school. He has a prominent role in the Brutal Youth, but I’m eager to explore him more in the sequel. He’s one of the few main characters who come from a happy home, although it’s got its own challenges, for sure. His mother, whom we don’t meet in Brutal Youth, is really awesome—engaged and smart about when to let her kid fend for himself and when it’s appropriate for Mama Bear to intercede. His father’s more aloof, a tough-guy steelworker who has had to deal with a lot worse discrimination than his kid has faced…yet. Green also has a partially deaf brother, who, like Peter Davidek, is a good kid who is very susceptible to crossing over into a bad place. None of this is in the current book, but it was in my head and I can’t wait to explore his dimensions more in another story. Meanwhile, I hope Green’s arc in Brutal Youth is one people like, too.

SP: I’m pretty sure I just heard the word “sequel” there… but I’ll let that go for the moment. Brutal Youth is most certainly a book to be read and enjoyed by adults, but in the past year it seems that you've made a definite connection with young adult readers.

AB: I was surprised by that. Brutal Youth is set in the early 1990s, and the publisher felt it was too dark and too long ago to connect with YA readers. That has proven to be wildly off-mark. Young readers have written some of the most passionate reviews and been the biggest supporters of it.

SP: And this makes sense, given the high school setting of the novel, but also shows the sophistication of your younger readers.

AB: They are vastly more sophisticated than most grown-ups assume. It’s funny, because Brutal Youth is partly about how adults lose touch with the intensity of that age, and forget how emotional and significant it can be.

SP: I know that genre classification can be tricky, and a pain in the ass most of the time, but would you consider Brutal Youth to be a "young adult" novel or an adult novel accessible to teenagers as well? 

AB: I always just thought of it as a novel, same as I did for The Catcher in the Rye, which was never described as a “YA book” even though it definitely appeals to kids who are Holden Caulfield’s age. But now, I embrace the YA designation. I wrote this book for people who are still growing and changing, regardless of their age. That’s what YA means to me, and it’s a vibrant, lively place on the book world.

SP: With this in mind, who do you think has responded more strongly to Brutal Youth, adults or young adults? Does this have any impact on the novel's perceived genre?

AB: Young readers are definitely more intense about it. I think they are a little more big-hearted and forgiving of the mistakes the characters make, and they understand complexity, the mix of happiness and sadness, in ways they amaze me. Adults tend to want escapism, and they’re the ones who get angry when the bad go unpunished and the good pay a price for doing the right thing. I think that’s funny. Adults want the fantasy. Kids get bittersweet a little better.

SP: So with the school year ending, and teachers slipping into summer mode, I think it's a good time to remember the impact teachers can have on their students. Most of my own high school teachers linger in a faceless cloud, but I still remember by fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Castle, who marked me as a writer from the start and nurtured my creativity. 

AB: The best teachers don’t just teach the kid in front of them. They see the teenager or the adult that kid could become and teach them, too.

SP: In the acknowledgments of Brutal Youth you honor a former teacher of yours, John Carosella. Can you tell me a little more about him? Have there been any other teachers along the way who deserve a shout out for guiding you in the direction of becoming an author?

AB: Mr. C. started at my high school the same year I did, 1990, and he just retired after 25 years. Now he’s going to start his own school for creative arts, which I’m eager to support any way I can. Very early on, he figured out that all my anger and sarcasm and nervous energy could be put to good use in writing. I was a hopeless case in a lot of ways, but he cared about me like I was his own kid.

I was a rotten student. A smartass. Lazy, too. I never did the assigned reading, and when he asked me why, I said I didn’t care about any of these dumb old stories he was teaching. This surprised him because he knew that I liked to read Stephen King, so he said, “What if I teach a Stephen King story?” This caught me off guard, and caught my attention. All I had to do was read a month’s worth of short stories on the class schedule, and then we’d start the next month he would teach a Stephen King story of my choosing. I did it, and eventually the class read “The Reaper’s Image” from King’s short story collection Skeleton Crew. Carosella didn’t have to bribe me again. From that point on, we spoke each other’s language.

He did countless other things to help me too, and he rescued all sorts of other troubled kids who were on the edge. Many teachers are just as happy to let them fall off, but Mr. C…he made sure we never fell too far.

SP: Even though this has been your year to shine, you've been tremendously supportive of other authors. Sometimes the literary community can be a safe harbor for new writers and sometimes it can be a pool of vicious sharks, circling for blood.

AB: That’s true. It’s a lot like starting a new job or starting high school!

SP: Is there anything you've learned this past year that you'd most like to pass on to new authors before they dive into the world of publishing?

AB: If you’re just starting out, it’s okay to wave your own flag. When you get big and famous and rich, then you can be cool and coy and never tweet about your work. But…don’t only tweet about yourself. Use social media to talk about other things, and talk about other authors, too. There’s a Jewish proverb that I think encapsulates everything you need to know about life: “If I don’t stand for myself, who will stand for me? But if I stand only for myself … what am I?” Share the love. You’ll get more in return that way.

SP: I couldn’t agree more! Is there anything you wish that you had known ahead of time to prepare you for the world of a debut author?

AB: As far as the business goes, I learned eventually, but I did it the hard way, and I think that ignorance hurt me at times. Most new writers spend their time devoted to crafting the best story they can, but as you venture forth, be sure to talk to other scribes about the business, too—especially about how to tell a good agent from a bad agent. Agents are your Sherpa through this treacherous landscape, and a lousy one is worse than no guide at all. Be sure you are working with people who believe in you.

SP: And finally, of course, I have to ask what's next. With Brutal Youth just now arriving in paperback and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which you cover and write about for Entertainment Weekly, premiering this winter, you've got another busy year ahead of you. Still, I'm a selfish fan and already impatient to read more of your work. Can you whisper any details?

AB: About “Star Wars?” Hmm…Everything I know for sure, I write about ASAP. So I’m a little short of scoops here. I’ve heard some interesting things about the new actors and what their familial connection to some of the older characters may be. I can’t say anything yet, because I don’t know definitively, but if it pans out, I think people who love “Star Wars” will be very surprised. Sorry to be mysterious. I’m playing it a little safe because there is so much out there about these movies that is dead wrong.

As for fiction, I'm working on a new novel that's in the supernatural suspense/thriller genre. An old house. A troubled family. A secret history. Things that don't wait around for the night to go bumping around. I'm having a lot of fun playing around in this creepy place. No matter what else I'm doing, I want to go spend time in it. I hope readers feel the same when it's finished.

To learn more about Anthony Breznican, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @Breznican. Also check out Writer's Bone's first interview with the author

Steph Post is the author of A Tree Born Crooked , blogger, teacher, music lover, and fervent Writer's Bone supporter! 

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Cover Fire: 11 Questions With Author Anthony Breznican

Anthony Breznican

Anthony Breznican

By Daniel Ford

I included Anthony Breznican’s terrific debut novel Brutal Youth in our January book recommendations, and I still think you should buy it immediately (if nothing else, that cover brings class and style to every bookshelf).   

Breznican kindly agree to an interview and talked to me about his writing process, the state of the magazine business, the origins of Brutal Youth, and his love and admiration for badass writer Stephen King.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Anthony Breznican: When I was 12 years old, I tried to talk every adult I knew into taking me to see a horror movie called "Pet Sematary." My grandmother, who was always encouraging me to read more, said, “You know, that’s based on a book by a guy named Stephen King. How about if I buy you the book?” I was bummed beyond belief. A stupid book? Well …that ratty paperback, which I still have on my desk shelf, was terrifying, shocking, and surprisingly beautiful in its emotion. I was hooked. I wanted to write scary stories like Stephen King, so I set about filling spiral-bound notebooks with ghost stories and monster tales. I loved the power of writing. When you’re a kid, everybody tells you what to do. Your day-to-day life isn’t really your own. But when you write, anything is possible. You just have to make it convincing.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

AB: King, obviously, was a huge influence. I see his fingerprints all over Brutal Youth. I love his twisted sense of humor, as well as the love he has for his characters, even the angry, destructive ones. I was also deeply influenced by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. He is telling a story about man’s inhumanity to man, but he underlined the tragedy with absurdity. With Brutal Youth, I also wanted to tell a war story, three freshmen trying to survive at a perilous and crumbling Catholic high school, but I tried to infuse it with the kind of humor you sometimes find in the midst of deep dark trouble. Michael Chabon was also a writer whose ink I would like to mainline; he’s a fellow Pittsburgh kid who found a way to harness words into stories that simultaneously make you laugh, make you cry, and make you mad.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

AB: I don’t outline. I daydream a lot, get the story in my head, and then I set down to write it. Sometimes I go wandering on the page and get lost, necessitating some rewrite backtracking later; other times I hit upon happy surprises that I wouldn’t have found if I’d stuck to a map.

Music is important. I shift perspectives between a lot of different characters in Brutal Youth, to show the reader what they are thinking and intending, even if the other characters don’t know, so I tend to have a few songs that put me in the mood of those individuals. For the thieving priest, it was Bob Seger’s “Still the Same,” for the main character, a freshman named Peter Davidek, it was Elvis Costello’s mournful “Favourite Hour,” which gives the book it’s title (“Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth…”). For Davidek’s combative, wounded friend Noah Stein, it was Nirvana’s “Even In His Youth.” Music was how I found their moods.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism, and why was it something you pursued when you first started out?

AB: I grew up wanting to write fiction, but I also loved storytelling of all kinds. In college, the school newspaper was a place to get published, and I hoped it would provide some useful discipline. It was exciting to be part of a breaking news operation, and the University of Pittsburgh’s student paper was a daily operation that actually covered some heavy and important topics. I was a news reporter (later editor, because everyone at a school paper gets promoted fast as the leadership changes year to year) but never dabbled much in entertainment coverage. That was also helpful later because I think it made me try to find deeper topics in pop culture reporting. When I started my career with the Associated Press, it was in general news—wildfires, plane crashes, politics, protests, etc .—but I was also working in Los Angeles, which is a company town for the entertainment industry, so I ended up doing a few actor profiles and covering things like the Emmys and Oscars. It was fun, and I think I was drawn to creative people so that became the main event. After all those years telling the stories of other storytellers, Brutal Youth is a chance to tell one of my own.

DF: Related to those questions, how’s the magazine biz?!

AB: It’s in flux. We’re trying to figure out the future, which is hard for the journalism industry because we’re used to reporting what we know for sure, not making predictions. The good news is that more people are reading than ever before. I hope the advertising finds a way to shift to digital and the audience makes the leap to tablets instead of paper. I like the tactile feel of a magazine, but if we didn’t have to print and ship all those pages we could reduce a lot of expense that could be spent on the journalism. I look forward to the day when publishing means pushing a button, not running a press and sending out an army of trucks.

DF: What made you start writing Brutal Youth? Was it an idea you've been thinking about for a long time, or did the story and structure strike you like a bolt of literary lightening?  

AB: It was something I ruminated on for a long time. It’s about good kids trying to stay that way in a corrupt place, and some adults who got lost making the same journey, but I was really inspired by experiences I had as an adult. As a kid, you expect to get pushed around, and you develop your scorn for authority there. Then you grow up and realize that bullying and manipulation never fully go away. It’s a part of human nature. So I thought a high school setting would be a great place to explore the forces that shape and warp us for the rest of our lives. Everyone feels heartbreak, everyone feels betrayed, and everyone also feels tremendous, overwhelming loyalty to the people who stick by the in hard times. So why do some people take their pain and dump it on others while some take their pain and say, “It stops with me?” Those were ideas that got me interested in going back to high school in this novel.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How did your high school experiences shape the events your main characters go through (both painful and funny)?

AB: A lot of the trials and tribulations in the book were taken from real life at my actual Catholic high school in Western Pennsylvania. We had a priest who was later discovered to have stolen nearly $1.5 million from the church, and I couldn’t resist making use of a real-life villain like that. We also had sanctioned hazing, and the bigger kids tormented the younger kids mercilessly. In front of the adults, it tended to take the form of sing-songy fun and games, but on the bus ride home and in the halls when no one was looking it was a terrifying and sometimes ridiculous survival game. Even some of the teachers were afraid of the students, but we all wore blazers and ties or plaid skirts and cardigans, so we looked like little angels. What I wanted Brutal Youth to reflect was the intense friendships I had at that time, foxhole friendships, the kind you share with someone when the whole world is against you. Emotions at that age are turned up to full volume, but I think the love you have for your friends rings the loudest.

DF: When you finished Brutal Youth, did you know you had something good right away, and how did you go about getting it published?

AB: I still don’t know! I don’t think a writer ever does. Whenever people on social media send out a message that they've picked it up, I feel like a stage-parent: “Someone is reading you! Be a good book! Be good!!” I look at it sometimes and feel overwhelming affection and pride, and hope the parts I love mean something to someone else. Other times I look at the book and feel shame and anger, wishing I could write it again. I got it published the usual way with lots of queries, lots of rejections. The only thing I know for sure is that I poured my heart into the story and did the best I could. It makes me happy when other people find it an exciting and worthwhile adventure.

DF: Brutal Youth has gotten some great reviews, including quite the endorsement from Stephen King. Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

AB: Given what I’ve already told you about King and what he means to me as a reader, you can imagine what a happy-dance day it was when he 1.) agreed to let me send him the galley, and 2.) wrote back to say he liked it and would be willing to offer a vouch for the front and back. I’ve never met him, but if I ever do he better watch out because a gigantic bear-hug is coming. Now that I have one book out, the dream of every first-timer is the same: please, let me do this again. Writing a book is like riding a roller coaster, and I’m one of those people who is eager to get back in line.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?

AB: Don’t be afraid of sucking. There will be plenty of time for that fretting later. Get your first draft done, and don’t look back until you type “the end.” Make it as good as you can, of course, and repair and adjust as needed along the way, but don’t despair over it. Once you get a first draft finished, you have something to fix. Until then, you have nothing.

DF: What is one random fact about yourself?

AB: Jesus, this is the hardest question of the bunch. A random fact…? Hm. Okay, I have a silver frog ring that I’ve worn since I was 16 years old. It’s not worth anything, but it’s kind of cool. I change all the time, but it stays mostly the same. I’ve lost it several times—it slipped off my finger once while throwing a snowball and another time playing beach volleyball, and another time when I gave it to a girl I was crazy about—but it always finds its way back to me. It only has three legs because of a casting error, but I like that. I’m not altogether there either.

To learn more about Anthony Breznican, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @Breznican.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Perry Mason Disciple: 10 Questions With Crime Writer J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison

By Sean Tuohy

You know those things that go bump in the night? Most of us tend to hide under the covers. The New York Times best-selling author J.T. Ellison runs toward the sound with a flashlight in one hand and a note pad in the other.

With the help of favorite television lawyer Perry Mason, Ellison took her love for the macabre and mystery a step further and began writing novels about killers, cops, and everything in between. Her next novel, The Lost Key, was written with Catherine Coulter and comes out Sept. 30.

I sat down with Ellison to talk about her career, Perry Mason, and what the future holds.

ST: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

JTE: I read very early, and was advanced for my age. So I was probably 8 years old and was writing some poetry and little short stories. I received my first rejection at 10 years old. My grandmother sent a poem I’d written to True Confessions magazine. Of course they said no…it was about slavery!

ST: You lived in rural Colorado and than moved to Washington D.C. Did this have an affect on your writing later in life?

JTE: I think it did. I was very sheltered in Colorado. We lived on a dirt road 40 minutes from the nearest town. There was a great group of über-smart people around, but it was small, and while my parents were wonderful about exposing me to culture, D.C. was so much more accessible and immediate. Politics permeated every discussion. We could go to the symphony and opera all the time, and did. There were so many different kinds of people, from all over the world. It was incredibly different, and helped round me out.

ST: How long did it take you to complete your first novel?

JTE: About a year. I did six months of research before I started writing. But I had a lot of stops and starts until I settled down to it full-time in 2003.

ST: Can you describe what influence Perry Mason had on your writing?

JTE: I thought Perry Mason was God when I was growing up—not a god, but God himself. No flowing beards and pearly gates. When I said my nightly prayers, it was a sober man in a black suit I was talking to. That may be where my crime fiction fascination came from.

ST: What draws you to crime fiction? Is it the mystery, the characters, the problem solving?

JTE: All of it. I’m fascinated by how awful people can be to one another. How cutthroat and mean and deadly. And how some people will fight to stop those capable of committing such heinous acts. I like white hats and black hats, like examining the why behind the crimes and the effect crime has on normal people.

ST: What is your writing process like?

JTE: I write daily, and shoot for 1,000 words a day. I do business first thing and really settle into my writing day around 10:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. I write until my husband gets home, with an hour break for lunch. I definitely do my best work in the late afternoon. I am not a morning person. There’s a lot of tea being pumped into my system.

ST: Do you have an in-depth research process?

JTE: I used to. I did a lot of hands-on work—ride-alongs, autopsies, and interviewing everyone I could find. Now it’s catch as catch can, skimming the important parts and supplementing on the go as I write. I have a great assistant who can grab details for me, and I read a lot of non-fiction. So much of my work is topical, sometimes too topical. So I can do research by reading the daily news.

ST: What does the future hold for J.T. Ellison?

JTE: More books, and more writing. I have a few more under contract right now, and ideas for more to come. The mass market of When Shadows Fall releases Aug. 26, the mass market of my first collaboration book, The Final Cut, with Catherine Coulter, comes out Sept. 2. The Lost Key, also with Catherine, comes out Sept. 30, and my next Dr. Samantha Owens book is due out in June 2015. No rest for the wicked, eh?

ST: What advice do you give to up and coming writers?

JTE: Read everything you can get your hands on. Read in your genre so you know what’s out there and what the standards are. Read Stephen King’s On Writing and Elizabeth George’s Write Away. Make lists. Journal. Anytime something strikes your fancy, write it down. Work everyday. Guard your writing time, it is your most precious commodity. Don’t give up. Simultaneously submit. Believe in yourself. If you’re hitting roadblocks, read The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. If you have real writer’s block, try The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

JTE: I like golf. I am inches from being a crazy cat lady. And I am a really good shot with a pistol (Did I mention I am not a fan of math?).

To learn more about J.T. Ellison, check out her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @thrillerchick.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Horror Writer Mary SanGiovanni Explains Why Characters Are the Heart and Soul of Any Story

Mary SanGiovanni

Mary SanGiovanni

By Sean Tuohy

I recommend you read this interview with the lights on. Mary SanGiovanni is the author of the Bram Stoker nominated novel The Hollower, its sequels Found You and The TriumvirateThrall, and Chaos, as well as the novellas For EmmyPossessing Amy, and The Fading Place and numerous short stories.

SanGiovanni took a timeout from scaring the bejesus out of readers to answer some of my questions.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you were going to be a writer?

Mary SanGiovanni: I knew probably since before I could actually write. I always told myself stories to amuse myself, and was always fascinated with the fantastic. But it was when I was about 16 and I worked for a bookstore in the local mall that it finally dawned on me that people could actually do that for a living, that people could make careers out of writing stories. I think it was then that I knew I wanted to do that.

ST: Who were some of your earliest influences?

MSG: Stephen King was definitely an early influence. I loved his early stories for the feeling I got reading them, for the creativity, if not the technical sophistication of his later works. I also gravitated pretty quickly to Lovecraft and Poe; to me, they made horror poetic. I loved short story anthologies, too, and used to buy them whenever I could find them; they were a big influence on me before I even really remembered all the authors' names. Anthologies like Charlie Grant's Greystone Bay, Poppy Brite's Love in Vein, Karl Edward Wagner's Horror Story series, and of course, The Dark Descent. Those works and authors led to other works and authors, and it delights me that today, there are so many great works of horror and thrillers to choose from.

ST: The Hollower Trilogy is outstanding. How long did you work on all three books and how did you develop the story?

MSG: Thank you! Well, initially, I had no plans to write sequels for The Hollower. It was my thesis novel for my Masters degree at Seton Hill University, and it took me about two years, give or take, to write. I sold it shortly thereafter to Leisure Books, and I guess it did well enough that they asked me to write a sequel, Found You. With that second book, I wanted to realistically pick up where I thought those characters' lives would have gone. I wanted to make parts of it familiar, as a sequel generally is, and parts of it new and different. I didn't want to rewrite the same book. I had been told once that in order to build on the momentum of your past work and build a writing career, you have to get at least one book out a year. It's been advice I've tried to stick to. Thunderstorm Books actually were the ones who asked me to write the third book, The Triumvirate. Both Found You and The Triumvirate each took me a little under a year to write. Of the three, I think The Triumvirate is my favorite. A trilogy goes by different rules, I think, that a sequel or a series. It's a triptych of ideas where the overarching story runs through all three, but the threat needs to be escalated and the scares need to be different each time than the ones audiences have seen before in relation to that threat. It was a fun book to write. What I liked best about it, though, was that I felt like that book not only ended those characters' stories for me satisfactorily, but bridged those books to my future works.

ST: In your novels you written such wonderful characters that come off the page, most of them are already broken people that must overcome huge odds. How do you write your characters? Are they based on real people?

MSG: Thanks! Characters are important to me. They are the heart and soul of the story, the part the reader cares most about, at least in this genre. I always start a story, whether it's a novel, a short story, or a novella, with an idea about the kind of person I think would make a good hero or villain, the kind of person I think I could say something significant through. The characters nearly always come before anything else. The story develops around those characters. Sometimes it's the monster I come up with first, because the monster is just as important a character to develop. Heroes and monsters, if both well developed, will balance each other, and anything worth saying about the human race comes from the exploration of that balance, and whether circumstances can or should tip the scales in one direction or another. Many of my characters are based on parts of me, and some are based on parts of other people. Really understanding people, their facial expressions and body language, the looks in their eyes, the thoughts and feelings that drive them—it's what makes characters realistic and even better, what makes them sympathetic and identifiable to readers. I like to think, though, that the qualities of both myself and others that I write into characters are blended with enough fictitious qualities that no one can point to a character and say, "Wow, that's so-and-so, through and through."

ST: What draws you toward the horror genre?

MSG: It's my fundamental belief that horror is a genre in which two things happen: 1. The injustices, the tragedies, the terrors of mankind are safely and vicariously explored, processed, and/or held up to scrutiny, so that we as a society can change them, and 2. We can see the amazing strength and resourcefulness that human beings are capable of when under extreme circumstances. Horror is a genre charged with emotion, but also with endless possibilities for the fantastic; I like a genre that allows the reader to put the average ho-hum of life aside, even if the unusual circumstances introduced are terrifying. There's a certain adrenaline rush, a thrill writing/reading about/watching humans relying on instinct in the face of the amazing and unexplainable.

ST: Do you have any upcoming project you would like to talk about?

MSG: I have a short story that is slated to appear in Lamplight Magazine, as well as a couple other short stories I'm contracted for, for various projects. I'm working on a new novel which I hope to have finished mid-2014.

ST: What is your writing process? Is it structured or unstructured?

MSG: It's not as structured as I'd like to be. I think a schedule is important for a writer looking to be prolific and productive, and I'm trying very hard to develop a schedule that allows me to produce more work faster. I teach Monday through Thursday afternoon, and I have a son, a cat, and a big family that need me and a significant other, but I still try to write at least 4-5 nights during the week, and during weekend nights that I'm not spending with family or my partner.

ST: What advice would you give to up and coming writers?

MSG: I'd advise new writers to read a lot; know what's going on in your genre, your sub-genre, and outside of it. Read the old stuff, the classics, as well as the new stuff. Also, write a lot; write what you love, what matters to you—it’ll matter to someone else, too. Learn the business: how to promote without spamming, how different publishing models work and what will work best for you, how to network, and what's going on in your genre and in publishing at large. Make sure you have health insurance and some type of retirement fund. Treat your work like the valuable commodity it is, and others will, too.

ST: What is one random fact about yourself?

MSG: Hmmm. I have some kind of Sensory Processing Disorder (Sensory Modulation, I think) or Tactile Sensory Disorder (I’m not sure which; although I think they’re similar). Basically, it means I have extreme sensitivity, both mental and physical, to certain tactile experiences, primarily the feel of certain textures of fabrics, stiff, new, itchy, rough, or stained/dirty fabrics, seams and tags, etc. Touching the wrong kind of fabric makes my skin crawl. Hell, it makes my skin feel like it's trying to jump off my bones. It's a very weird, unpleasant feeling. I have to bring my own blanket and sometimes, even my own pillow to hotels.

To learn more about Mary SanGiovanni, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @marysangiovanni.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Why Screenwriter and Novelist Derek Haas Loves Making Readers Cheer for a Hit Man

Derek Haas (on left)  (  Photo credit: Elizabeth Morris, p  hotos courtesy of Derek Haas)

Derek Haas (on left)  (Photo credit: Elizabeth Morris, photos courtesy of Derek Haas)

By Sean Tuohy

For the better part of a decade screenwriter/novelist Derek Haas has entertained and thrilled audiences across the globe with his adrenaline-pumping writing skills. Haas helped pen “3:10 To Yuma,” arguably one of the best westerns of the last 10 years, and is the co-creator of NBC’s “Chicago Fire.”

When Haas isn’t lighting up the silver and small screen, he is busy exciting readers with his Assassin Trilogy, which follows international hit man Columbus. His latest novel The Right Hand chronicles C.I.A. Austin Clay’s investigation into a deadly mystery and is one of best spy thrillers of recent memory.

Haas graciously answered some of my questions regarding his life as a writer.

Sean Tuohy:  Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get your start as a professional writer?

Derek Haas: I always wanted to be a writer. I went to school at Baylor University and stayed for graduate school in English Literature.

My now partner Michael Brandt was doing the same thing, only getting his MA in Film. We teamed up soon after college and started writing together.

A screenplay we wrote fell into Brad Pitt’s hands and he wanted to make the movie. He never did end up making it.

However, that got us our start.

ST: Was there a time as a writer that you felt hopeless about the craft?

DH: There have been times when I felt like the machine that is Hollywood would chew us up and not let us get any of our scripts produced, but to be honest, I haven’t had self-doubt about our writing.

Don’t get me wrong, we may not have always turned in the greatest draft, but I have confidence we’re strong writers.

ST: Who were some of your early influences?

DH: My earliest influence was Stephen King. I just think he’s a master storyteller. He knows how to manipulate pace and make his readers keep turning pages. He’s the greatest campfire storyteller of all time. On the movie side of things, I’m a big admirer of Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola.

ST: What made you realize that you were a storyteller?

DH: I think the first time I wrote something that got the reaction I wanted—laughter, emotion, or a lump in the throat. I started writing stories when I was still in elementary school, and it seemed that I could always surprise people with my words. I still try to do that.

ST: Your Assassin Trilogy follows world-traveling hit man Columbus. Where did this character come from?

DH: I’m always attracted to characters that are gray; just when you want to like him, he does something to turn you away from him, and just when you want to condemn him, he brings you back. How could I make readers cheer for a contract killer? It was a great challenge. I do love writing him.

ST: You write about the unseen underworld—assassins, gangsters, and spies. Where does this interest stem from?

DH: Brandt and I spent a little time with FBI agents in Quantico and I remember one of them talking about a hit man—a contract killer—and it piqued my interest. I started to wonder about what twists and turns a life might have taken to put him in that position to where he kills people for a living. I just love crime stories. Elmore Leonard was also a big influence.

ST: All writers have a great work that is unproduced and sadly may never see the light of day. For example, Doug Richardson’s “Hell Bent,” Quentin Tarantino's “40 Lashes Less One,” and Lem Dobbs “Edward Ford.” Do you have a screenplay or novel that has yet to be produced or published?

DH: Michael and I wrote a movie called “MIAMILAND” that we’ve been trying to get produced for a dozen years. We love it. It’s a crime story where two overeducated con men have to go to Miami and separate a mobster from his money. Some day!

ST: What made you realize that you were a storyteller?

DH: While other kids were drawing pictures, I was writing stories. I asked for a typewriter for my 10th birthday. It was innate. I just had to do it. I pinch myself every day that I’ve made a living from doing it.

Derek Haas writing stories in his youth (  Photo credit: Molly McCoy).

Derek Haas writing stories in his youth (Photo credit: Molly McCoy).

ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline your work before hand or just jump in to it?

DH: With screenplays, Brandt and I outline pretty extensively.

It’s the nature of the business. The producers or studio or network want to see what they’re going to get ahead of time. With novels, I just have a vague idea of what I’m going to do. I generally know my beginning, middle, and end in broad strokes. Other than that, I just plow ahead and let the story take me wherever it wants to go. That sounds like hippy-dippy writer-speak, but it’s true. I don’t want to get bogged down with an outline to which I have to adhere. No thanks.

ST: You are both a novelist and a screenwriter, which do you prefer to write?

DH: I love them both. I get to flex different muscles. Prose makes me happy, but when an actor or a director makes a scene even better than you imagined there’s no feeling like it.

ST: What is your best moment as a writer?

DH: Brandt and I were on a rooftop in Miami and it was hot as hell out and 300 people were standing around a set and then the director yelled action and two actors said the words that were in our heads. And it was three-dimensional and real and not just words on a page sitting on someone’s shelf. I almost started crying. (The scene never made the movie.)

ST: What is one random fact about yourself?

DH: I piloted the bullet train between Paris and Marseille once. True story.

Follow Derek Haas on Twitter @derekhaas, or visit his official website.

For more interviews, check out our full archive