The smartass answer would be, Fear of Having No Money; but the truth is - and, man, how I hope this doesn't sound pretentious - that my particular worldview is best expressed through horror fiction. I am at heart, I think, an optimist who sees everything through a pessimist's eyes and responds with a pragmatist's actions; I have a great deal of hope for humankind, but everywhere I look I see only brutality, loneliness, want, sadness, and pain, so I try reconciling these things the only way I know how: by writing horror stories. I've always found myself engaged in what Robert frost called, "…a lover's quarrel with humanity." So the real answer would be, I write horror fiction to try and reconcile in my own mind the connection between things like violence and grief with the concept that we live in a Just universe. It's also a lot of fun, seeing just how far under peoples' skins you can get.
For the record, I am more than aware that when people think of "scary" writers, mine is not among the names that come up. Stephen King-scary, hell, yes; Tim Lebbon? You bet his stuff is scary. Richard Matheson? One of the legendary masters of terror. I am in awe of those writers who can lock a reader in the grip of terror and never let up. Graham Masterton never fails to scare the hell out me. I can't do that-or, at least, I can't do it as consistently and powerfully as a lot of horror writers. I think my work is probably more cerebral, falling on the "disturbing" side of the coin rather than the outright scary. And I'm okay with that.
Q: Some writers write in utter silence, some write at the crack of dawn or after midnight, others crank up the Heavy Metal. What is a conducive environment for your writing?
I can't write without music playing in the background, and what I listen to depends entirely on what type of story or novel I'm writing. Before really diving into a project, I cull together a bunch of often-disparate pieces of music to create a soundtrack for the piece I'm writing-one of the great things about using a computer is that it enables me to rip music from my CDs and arrange the songs in the specific order I want in order to unconsciously sustain a mood while writing; it's not unusual to open one of my "soundtrack" files and find AC/DC, Stewart Copeland, Mahler, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Tangerine Dream, Johnny Cash, Spock's Beard, Faith and the Muse, Chet Atkins, Broadway show tunes, and Saturday morning cartoon music there.
I do it this way because when I was a kid and teenager I didn't have a lot of friends, so music kept me company; and as I listened to this music it created images and moods in my mind, which I then started arranging into scenarios, and after a while I found that whenever I heard a certain song it brought with it the memories of the moods and scenarios I'd created for it. I remember with great detail the mood I associate with, say, Grand Funk's "I'm Your Captain" - longing. So whenever I'm writing a story in which longing is the core emotion, I always put "I'm Your Captain" on the soundtrack, along with all the other songs that captured, for me, that particular emotion in music. It is a vital element in my work environment.
As far as when I write…that's all over the road; always has been, always will be. I try to write a minimum of five hours a day, but with working 2 jobs that's been revised to 2 - 3. I'll write in the morning, afternoons, evenings, into the wee hours…it's often the story and not my work schedule that determines when and for how long I'll write. On my days off from the jobs, I hit the keyboard usually around 9: 30 or 10: 00 a.m. and work until I'm too tired to look at the screen. The one constant that I absolutely will not compromise is that I will not call it a day until there's at least 2500 new words in front of my face.
Q: I found IN SILENT GRAVES to be not only a fascinating book about death and perception-but it also puts the reader emotionally through the ringer. How much does this book reflect your personal experience with death and loss?
The only way - and again, this is only my opinion and not meant to be taken as my trying to force an absolute - the only way that a writer can expect a reader to fully get behind a character is if the writer takes the time to make that character's emotional core as authentic and sincere as possible. Too often in horror is the portrayal of genuine emotion offhandedly (and mistakenly) dismissed as "sentimentality". I've always admired what Oscar Wilde said about this: "A sentimentalist is simply one who wishes to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it."
In Silent Graves very much represents my own personal views about violence, grief, and death. And as far as echoing my personal experiences with bit-you bet. I've said it before and I'll say it again: any writer who claims that their fiction is not somehow a direct reflection of their personal experience is one of two things: a liar or unpublished. The whole first third of Graves is a direct response to the death of my daughter over twenty years ago, and I won't apologize for that. If a writer expects a reader to become emotionally invested in a character, then the writer must trust that character to properly filter the writer's own experiences into a palpable fictional context. If you're not willing to dig down into your own darknesses in order to give your story and characters the extra layers of believability that is so necessary for genuine feeling to emerge in your work, then whatever you write will be ephemeral and doomed, so why bother doing it all? (Speaking for only myself, of course.)
Q: What is your favorite piece of work that you've written? And why?
This is tricky, because I am of the opinion that the writer is the last person to whom one should ask that question. Ninety percent of the time, the writer is going to answer with whatever his or her newest book/story is, because whatever they're working on now is the culmination of all their experience and honing of skills, so of course this has to be their favorite piece of work.
I don't know that I have a favorite piece of work, but I do have a small handful of pieces that I always direct new readers toward. If someone who's never read any of my work asks me, "What should I start with?", I direct them to the stories "Union Dues", "Safe", "Mr. Hands", and - a recent addition - "Rami Temporales" (from Borderlands 5). I think those two short stories and two novellas are very strong examples not only of what I write, but how I write. All of the themes that I return to again and again in my work are present in those four pieces. I would also add my novel In Silent Graves - not because it's the newest piece of work, but because it-like the four stories I mentioned-is a prime example of both what and how I write.
Q: Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors?
Ed Gorman is, I think, one of the four best writers working today; every time I read one of Ed's books-be it mystery, horror, western, science fiction-I learn something, and come away not only as a better reader for it, but a better writer and person, as well.
Though he's already (and justifiably) widely-regarded as a master of the genre, I'm really stunned by the new, lean-and-mean direction Peter Straub's work has taken; he's re-inventing himself as a writer and reclaiming the horror field as his own. lost boy lost girl is one of the most stunning things he's ever written.
Dan Simmons just pisses me off; that one writer can work in so many different genres and excel in all of them is mind-boggling. This is a writer of singular discipline and almost monomaniacal attention to craftsmanship. I don't think he's capable of writing a bad sentence; he's just effing brilliant, and I read everything he writes, and it's all great, and it pisses me off because I know I'll never, ever come close to being half that good.
And just because her focus over the last several years has been in the mystery/suspense field, horror readers would do well to read Kate Wilhelm; her work has always been exquisite.
I also have to admit to a great respect for the short stories of T.C. Boyle. I don't fare as well with his novels, but the man's short stories are simply beautiful, and lose nothing on frequent re-readings; his stories omnibus should be on everyone's book shelf.
There's a handful of new writers that people had better damned well keep their eyes on: Kealan-Patrick Burke is going to be making a huge splash with the upcoming publications of his novellas "The Turtle Boy" and "The Hides"; Mehitobel Wilson is a new favorite of mine, as is Geoff Cooper and Matthew Warner; my friend Tim Waggoner is finally getting the recognition his work richly deserves, and guys like Harry Shannon, Mike Laimo, and Matt Costaris are going to start showing up all over the place.
Q: You received three nominations (different works) for the 2003 Bram Stoker awards. What was your reaction to that?
I was stunned; still am. I hold both HWA and the Stokers in very high esteem, so there's no way to answer this without sounding like a blithering fool. One nomination would have made me happy, but three? No way was I prepared for that. Whether the work receives any Stokers in June or not, that my fellow writers felt that three pieces of my work deserved places on the final ballot means a great deal to me; every once in a great, I get the sense that I might be doing something right.
A short answer: I'm excited as hell.
Q: You are also a Creative Writing Instructor at Seton Hill University. How do you balance your writing with your teaching?
In both cases, it forces me to adhere to more a set schedule than I've been accustomed to in the past, and it's been a tough adjustment. Add to that my day-job schedule, and the time for my own writing has been trimmed down to about half of what it used to be. It's forced me to make my time at the keyboard count for more-I absolutely have to stay focused and have to meet my own word-count each day.
One of the great things that's emerged from this, though, is that-because I have to direct such a detailed critical eye toward the students' work-I have begun to recognize new areas in my own work where I could use some improvement. It's made me an even more merciless reader than I was before, and (hopefully) a better writer.
Q: What was your reason(s) for writing your non-fiction book, FEAR IN A HANDFUL OF DUST?
The initial idea was to cull together all of my non-fiction columns over the last 20 or so years, but as I set about doing that, it occurred to me that the format itself was a bit dry and uninspired; anyone can slap together 300 pages of essays and reviews, and I didn't want to do that; if a reader was going to spend all that time reading my opinions about books and movies and writing in general, then I had to offer something more that would make it worth their time, something to make it stand apart.
So I started thinking about opinions, and how I've always believed that just saying, "I didn't like it" does not by itself constitute an opinion, only the preface to one. In order for an genuine opinion to carry weight, one has to understand why a person feels that way, and in order to understand why they feel that way, you have to understand something about the person offering the opinion.
That seemed like a good angle to me; to pick a handful of books, stories, albums, and films that profoundly affected me, and make the reader understand why they did so. What surprised-shocked, actually-me was how much of myself and my personal experience is tied into my views on specific stories, books, and movies, and how these parts of me tied into the opinions have determined the path I've taken as both a writer and human being.
So it turned into as much an autobiography as it did a collection of non-fiction criticism, and the final result is something I'm very proud of; it ain't light reading, and it's been called "moody" by more than one reviewer, but the response I've gotten from readers has been incredibly positive. It's probably the most honest I've ever been in my non-fiction, and it was tough to write some of the material in there, but it needed to be present in order to make it clear why I feel the way I do towards horror.
Q: What are your upcoming projects?
I've got a new novel due out from CD Publications later this year, Prodigal Blues, which is, I think, going to surprise a lot people because it's the first time I've ever written a non-supernatural horror novel; Home Before Dark: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Volume 2 is well under way and will see publication from Earthling in 2005, as will (hopefully) my novel A Cracked and Broken Path and three-novella collection Destinations Unknown. Destinations was delayed because the opening novella for the collection turned into a full-length novel (Prodigal Blues), so I am currently busy writing a new novella to open the collection. I'm also working on a novella entitled "Kiss of the Mudman" that I hope to have finished by mid-July of this year, then it's off to find a publisher. And Endeavor Press will be releasing a chapbook from me, a short story entitled "We Now Pause For Station Identification" that I'm really jazzed about.
Q: Anything else?
I'll be attending the Stoker Weekend in June, my first time there, and will be doing a reading as well as taking part in a mass signing somewhere in Manhattan over the course of the weekend.