Q: Scott, tell us about yourself and how you got started writing?
I'm just your run-of-the-mill, burned-out journalist with a family, sitting late nights at the keyboard with nothing but a sick headful of dreams and a stubborn streak. I've always written along the way, since early childhood, and pursued it very intensively in my teens. I'd roll something out of the typewriter and mail it off to the New Yorker and wait for fame and fortune. I have several cardboard boxes full of old manuscripts and poems from that time. I got into music and spent ten years writing songs and damaging my hearing in a couple of original rock bands. Then I got a college degree and became serious about writing fiction, and the only relation between those two events is that I had an abiding fear that I was about to settle into an ordinary, save-for-retirement existence, and that lit a flame under me because the lifelong dream of being a writer suddenly seemed ready to dissolve.
Q: How well has your first novel Red Church done? Tell the folks reading this a bit about it?
The Red Church was inspired by a haunted Appalachian church near my home in the North Carolina mountains. The whole issue of faith alternately fascinates me and scares me to death, so I thought a haunted church would make the perfect arena for exploration. The main character is 13-year-old boy whose mother has joined the strange congregation of the church.
I have no idea how to rate The Red Church on the usual terms of "wellness." It seems to be selling decently, earned mostly good reviews, and was picked up by three book-of-the-month clubs, so I guess it has a certain level of readability that is neither overly challenging nor utterly unfulfilling. I know there are better books and writers out there, but I did the best I could with whatever talent and skills I have. All I wanted to do was deliver an engaging story. When I hear from a reader who enjoyed the book, it makes all the hard work worth it, and that's really the best success you could ask for.
Q: How hard was it to start, complete and get the book sold?
I've told the long and boring story elsewhere, but The Red Church was my fourth novel manuscript. I got a lot of rejection slips along the way, from both agents and publishers, but I felt like I was improving and I was having a lot of fun building the characters and stories. I figured I was going to write at least ten novels anyway, even if none were published. In some ways, writing was more simple and carefree when I didn't have to worry about contracts, publishing schedules, promotion, and the possibility that my books would tank in the marketplace and kill my career before it even got started. In another way, that side of it is fun, too, and adds another interesting layer to the whole insane process.
Q: Have you always leaned toward horror and darker subjects in your work?
I guess I've tended toward the imaginative all my life. I wrote a lot of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and all that, but it seems the horror has been the most successful and is the most natural to write. The emotional and psychological intensity of the story is important to me, both as a writer and a reader.
Q: What are some films and books that have influenced and/or scared you over the years?
"The Lorax" was the first story that ever made me cry. I think "The Sentinel" was the first movie that scared me. I don't get scared as often by books or movies anymore, because part of me is watching the puppetmaster pull the strings so that I can learn the storytelling tricks, but once in a while I get lost in a story. Recent movies that swept me away were Session 9 and The Others. I'd also mention Misery and The Shining by Stephen King, Magic by William Goldman, The Bad Place by Dean Koontz, A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck, The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, The Bottoms by Joe Lansdale, Silence of the Lambs in both book and movie form, and most anything by Ira Levin and H.G. Wells appeals to me as being emotionally powerful. One thing I've noticed is that almost all of what becomes "classic literature" is fairly dark. Hemingway, Twain, Faulkner, O'Conner, McCullers and Hawthorne were not exactly selling sunshine. I'm listening to Dickens's Oliver Twist on tape right now, and to me it's classifiable as a psychological thriller. And you'll note that the thing all those works have in common is great characterization.
Q: What's the new book called and what's it about? Will it be done by the same publisher that did Red Church?
Pinnacle Books will release The Harvest in September, 2003. I call it "Deliverance meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers" when I'm feeling precocious. There's a synopsis and other information about it at my website. Pinnacle will also publish my third novel The Manor, probably in September 2004, which is a haunted house story with elements of Appalachian folk magic.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors? Any new blood we should keep an eye out for?
I've listed most of my favorite authors above, though I discover new ones all the time. Right now I'm checking out James M. Cain and Erskine Caldwell. As for new writers, I really don't feel it's my place to single anyone out since I'm not very up-to-date and I wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings through accidental omission. I will say that new writers Jon F. Merz and Brandon Massey teamed up with me for a free e-book that contains samples of our work and it's been very popular.
Q: Is North Carolina a hotbed for fiction these days?
There are a ton of great writers here, and I know I'll leave someone out, but Julie Ann Parks, D.G.K. Goldberg, Michael Jasper, Robin Spriggs, Drew Williams, and Durant Haire are good friends of mine and we get together when we can. Other NC genre writers I've met or communicated with are Dale Bailey, Ian McDowell, David Niall Wilson, Orson Scott Card, Trish Macomber, Stephen Mark Rainey, and James Newman. We can claim the late Manly Wade Wellman and Karl Edward Wagner. We also have a lot of literary writers like Lee Smith, Ray Wallace, Clyde Edgerton, and Fred Chappel. Bestseller Jan Karon lives about eight miles from me, and believe it or not, the setting for her Mitford books is drawn from roughly the same raw material that I used in The Red Church. We're just seeing it through different lenses, is all. Hers are a bit rosier.
Q: What else have you written besides novels? Anything else guys and gals can get their hands on out there?
I've published a decent number of short stories in a wide range of venues, from small press and mass market anthologies to non-paying webzines to glossy national magazines. Some appear in Thank You For The Flowers, a collection released by a regional publisher a few years ago. Some are archived at various websites. I also have a lot of writing articles and essays that eventually end up at my website, where I also keep a journal. If you visit the Haunted Computer and spend a little time there, you'll probably know me better than a lot of my friends do.
Q: What's your take on horror fiction in the new millennium?
Horror the fiction element is as alive and well as it's been since Beowulf or The Odyssey. Horror the marketing category seems to be bouncing back a bit, as evidenced by a few of the major houses daring to put the word on the spines of some paperback books. I doubt if you'll see a new breakout hardcover horror novelist soon, but apparently New York is seriously looking to crown someone the next Stephen King. Such a venture is bound to fail because the obvious lesson of Mr. King's success is that his originality was the magic bullet. My personal theory is that originality will shine through no matter how it's presented. Look at what The Lovely Bones has done. While it's not my cup of tea, it definitely tapped a nerve long before it even hit the shelves.
Q: What do you normally do to get motivated to write, besides drugs and alcohol of course?
Fear. I am desperately afraid that someone will tap me on the shoulder and say, "Who do you think you're fooling?" This morning I was hunched over the copyedited proof of The Harvest, and I was struck by the absurdity of a publisher's paying me money for this stack of paper. To me, it was just some words I strung together to amuse myself over the course of a few winter months. And now it's going to be in Wal-Mart?
I'm pretty sure I will never get complacent or big-headed, no matter how lucky or successful I get. When I re-read a completed work, I cringe and want to shred it and try again. I can't stand to look at my stuff after it's printed and it's too late to make changes. I haven't read The Red Church since it was published. I'm afraid it will be written in alien hieroglyphic or something. So I've pretty much committed myself to a lifetime of trying to get it right while knowing I'll never achieve perfection.
Q: What future projects have you got coming up and where would you like to go in your career?
Like most writers, I have a few tricks up my sleeve that I'd rather not talk about until they are under contract, mostly because I don't want to jinx anything. But The Harvest and The Manor are done deals. After that, I hope my audience is established enough for me to get to do a few more novels. I've got a few screenplays but I haven't seriously approached that side of the entertainment industry yet.
On a personal level, I just want to connect with each reader who gives me a try. My one promise is that I will always give you everything my heart and soul has to offer, for whatever that's worth.
Q: Are you hitting any conventions coming up so fans can meet, buy you drinks, and steal your book covers?
Right now, ConCarolinas in Charlotte, NC in June and TrinicCon in Durham, NC in autumn are the only ones on the books. If I'm fortunate enough to make a Stoker Awards ballot, I'll try to round up the money to go to the ceremony in New York. I hope to go to more conventions when I have more books available and can more easily justify the expense. The ones I've been to so far have been great fun.
Q: Don't day jobs suck?
Funny, but a couple of years ago my main goal was to be able to write fiction full-time. Now I see that I need a certain amount of freedom to explore the things my heart tells me to write about. I don't want to get into the trap where a publisher turns down my book and then asks me to write something formulaic to fill a slot niche. I don't want to sound like a prima donna artiste, because I'm not, and I believe that commercial success is important because it means you are communicating with a large number of people. But I would just as soon stick with my reporter job if I'm going to be writing something that doesn't interest me. I could get more done as a full-time writer, but I'd probably spend more time worrying about money than spilling my guts on a blank page.
I like what Bentley Little did. He saved enough money so he could live for five years even if his writing didn't earn a dime, then he quit his job and wrote full-time. He still has that money set aside. I wouldn't risk my family's security on the publishing lottery, but a real career is my only true goal besides keeping my readers happy.
Q: Anything else you'd like to add? Hype your new book? Any advice for writers trying to write and sell that 1st piece? Gripes about the publishing industry?
I think the publishing industry gets an undeservedly bad rap, and not just for its handling of the horror genre, either. Too often writers who complain about not breaking in have not yet given it their all, have not tried every door, have not sufficiently challenged themselves. Sure, I'm lucky because I broke in at the lowest levels of major publishing, but I should be as bitter as anyone because I had hundreds of rejections along the way. But I always felt like it was just a matter of time, a combination of reaching a certain level of experience and the right market or editor. The stats say that maybe one in a hundred novel manuscripts ever get published, but I never thought of it that way. I always thought my chances were one in one, because I knew I wasn't going to quit.
For writers, I advise that you look into your heart, decide what you really want, then go get it. If that means publishing one story in an online, non-paying webzine, do it and go on with your life. If it means becoming a bestseller, then you have to give up a lot of other things that are easier, less painful, and offer more instant gratification. I think if you attack the blank page with any kind of consistency, you'll get where you were meant to be.
Sorry I rambled on so long, but that's what happens when you let a writer talk about himself. Just ask my wife!