Friday, August 9, 2013

A Conversation with Ian Rogers

Is Ian Rogers the nicest guy in horror?  Probably.  I don't know anyone who has anything bad to say about him, and to be honest, I don't think I've ever heard him say anything negative about anyone else.  Add to that he's a damn fine writer - a damn fine writer - and well, you should buy his stuff immediately.  Below is an email conversation I had with him a couple of months ago, then completely forgot about in the craziness of the summer.   Go pick up his collection Every House is Haunted, and count the number of fun Canadian spellings in his responses.

Me:  You've had a hell of a year so far.  Every House is Haunted is ChiZine Publication's best selling hardcover book ever, your short story "The House on Ashley Avenue" is going to be included in Ellen Datlow's upcoming The Best Horror of the Year, and SuperNOIRtural Tales, your collection of Felix Renn stories, also came out.  So I guess my question is - What do you attribute all of this success to and why shouldn't we hate you for it?

Ian:  Well, first of all, success is relative. I'm not lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills or diving into pools of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. Having said that, Every House Is Haunted has been very good to me. It's selling well, and the reviews have been very good, and as you mentioned, Ellen Datlow has selected one of the stories for Best Horror of the Year. Those are all things I'm very proud of. A lot of my dreams came true in 2012.

To what do I attribute this success? Well, first and foremost, I'd say it comes down to hard work. And confidence. You need to have both, not only to write stories but to send them out to publishers. I've never been afraid of hard work, but the confidence has taken some time to build up. I'm my own worse critic (so far, ha-ha), and there are times when I feel like a loser and everything I'm writing is crap. It's easy to say, Oh, I don't care what people think, I only write for myself. But when you send a story out into the world, it means you want it to be read, you want it to be enjoyed.

Why shouldn't people hate me? I guess because I'm still the same guy I was before the books came out. So if people hated me then, they'll probably still hate me now! Of course, I like to think I've made a few fans with these books, but it's always hard to tell how many people you touch (if any), much less how deeply you touch them. It's like throwing a rock into a pond, except you don't get to see the splash or even hear it. You'll get some reviews, maybe a few e-mails from happy readers (and some unhappy ones), but I'm a firm believer that one should get most of their satisfaction from the writing of a book, not from seeing it in stores (which I admit is still a pretty cool feeling).

So that's why people shouldn't hate me. I haven't let being published change me. I haven't put on airs -- hell, most days I don't even put on pants. I don't think having a book or two out makes me immune to criticism or rejection. Those things are still there, and they bother me as much as they ever bothered me, which is to say very little.

So even though I feel like my work has been successful on certain levels, I haven't let it go to my head. I'm happy with the way the books turned out, the publishers seem to be happy, and so are the readers who have been kind enough to give my work a chance. That's all I can ask for. That, and to hope they'll pick up the next book.

Me:  Well, you sure as hell do work hard.  I look at your output over the last year, and the quality of it, and I'm just amazed you find the time.  What's a typical day of writing for you?  With your prolificness - okay, probably not a word, but I'm tired and it's my damn blog! - do you work on more than one project at time or are you a 'one woman man'?

Ian:  I like "prolificness." Hell, if Homer Simpson's "D'oh" can make it into the English dictionary, then I think we can make room for "prolificness." It's a perfectly cromulent word.

A typical writing day for me has changed a lot over the past year or so. I still try to write every day, but since I've moved on from writing short stories to writing novels (for the most part, anyway), I've had to readjust my workflow and expectations somewhat.

In the past I would write a short story in a week or two, spending another week on the rewrite/polish, and I was done. Novels are much bigger beasts, and therefore require more time to write, rewrite, and polish. It's like comparing the life cycle of a fruit fly to that of a great white shark. There's a immediate gratification factor that comes with writing a short story, whereas novels are more of a slow burn.

Put another way, my mind isn't quite used to writing novels yet. It's used to being in short-story mode, which is go, go, go! Writing a novel that way is like slamming your foot on the gas while leaving the car in first gear. You're not going to get where you want to go any faster, and you're only going to end up doing damage to your engine. So mentally I've had to slow down a bit, develop some patience, and tell myself I don't have to finish a novel in a white heat the way I would a short story.

I've also had to learn to balance my writing day. I've already written one novel and I'm currently working on another. So while I'm doing the rewrite/polish of the first novel, I also have to make time for the new book. It's sort of like the guy spinning the plates in the air. I've had to teach myself about time management and making sure my energy is spread evenly among my various projects. I'm not always successful with this, but it's a learning process. The fact is, novels are a lot of work and require a great deal of commitment. The investment is bigger, but then so is the payoff.

Me:  Yeah, that mental shift from writing short stories to writing a novel is massive.  Slowing down, letting the story breathe more...I really respect writers who do both simultaneously and make it seem so simple.  After I finished my first novel, I needed a break and decided to write something short for fun.  The damn thing ended up 12,000 words before I was finished.  There used to be a time when I would've written that same story around 5K, but I just spread out a lot more when I write, I guess.

You said it's a bigger investment to write a novel, I see it as a bigger leap of faith, too.  I could write a short story in a couple of weeks, and if I can't sell it, well, it's only two weeks.  With a novel though, man, you're talking about investing at least a year and in the end it could go into a trunk, something I've learned about firsthand.  Those aren't wasted months, although sometimes I can't help but feel that about them.

You said you had moved onto your next novel.  Everyone writer I've ever talked to has mentioned how much they've learned by going through the process the first time.  I'm wondering what lessons you learned in writing your first novel that you've carried onto your second?

Ian:  That's exactly right. And I think the operative phrase there is "make it seem so simple." Because regardless of how easy most writers make it look, it really isn't. I think most writers will agree that writing is hard work, sometimes tireless, sometimes thankless, but ultimately rewarding. It really is like having kids. You love the words, you hope the best for them, but some days they drive you right up the wall!

Writing a novel is big on all accounts. But as they say, go big or go home. It's like the people who talk about writing but never do it. "Oh yeah, I have a great idea for a novel, but, you know, I don't have the time to write it." Those are the people who decided to go home. And that's fine. Everyone really might have a novel in them, but as Christopher Hitchens said, that's where most of them should stay.

The leap of faith with a novel is perhaps the biggest investment of all. Because you're gambling everything: your time, your energy, your creativity. All of it goes into this project, like a big present box and your faith is the paper it's wrapped in. If no one likes it, it hurts, and it feels like it was all a big waste. But it's not. Everything in life is a learning experience, even the bad stuff. Especially the bad stuff. The good things don't ask anything of you except to sit back and enjoy them. The bad things say, You better learn from this or I'm gonna come back and do it again. At least that's how I look at things. I'm not religious at all, but I've got a kind of Zen Buddhist outlook on writing. I take all the negative aspects (rejections, bad reviews, etc.) in stride. Life's too short to get hung up on that stuff. It's like those bumper stickers you see: "I'd rather be snowboarding!" "I'd rather be at the beach!" For me I'd rather be writing. That's when I'm happiest. Being published is great but I think of it as unexpected side effect.

In terms of lessons learned, the first and most important thing I learned in writing my first novel was that I could actually do it. Up until that time I was intimidated by writing a novel. Or a Novel, as I thought of it. Spending all of my time working on short stories, I think I ended up psyching myself out. I'd put the Novel on a pedestal, one I wasn't able to reach. Finally, my wife suggested treating each chapter of the novel like a short story and going at it like that, one chapter at a time. It ended up working, which proves two things: One, my wife is much smarter than me (which I already knew), and two, the big Novel psych-out was all in my mind.

Carrying this knowledge into my second novel isn't going as smoothly as I'd hoped. Instead of being intimidated by the Novel, I am now intimidated by The First Felix Renn Novel. I've got one side of my mind saying, Relax, you can do this, just write it the way you wrote the first book, one chapter at a time. And the other side is going, Are you crazy? That may have worked the first time, but this is The First Felix Renn Novel! It's completely different!

Of course, it's not different at all, and I'm slowly convincing myself of that, but it's a process. It takes time.

Me:  Well, in your case, because Renn is a character you've used before in smaller works, you have the added pressure of getting him right in novel form.  I look back at the first books with series characters though and see that in a lot of those first experiences you can tell the author is trying to figure the character out still.  It's especially true with Spencer, a character both of us love.  The Promised Land is, meh, but it's a solid foundation for what is to come.  Same with The Killing Floor, the first Jack Reacher novel.  A solid novel, but nothing like what Reacher became in later ones.

Since you've used him in novellas already, are you approaching the Renn novel sort of how superhero movie sequels are always approached - it has to be BIGGER?  Or more like, say The X-Files movie, which was really an extended episode of the TV show?

Ian:  The pressure to get Felix and the Black Lands right in the novel is very strong. I suspect that's part of the reason why it's taken me so long to get around to writing it, even though I've had the first three Felix Renn novels outlined for some time. I just so worried about screwing it up! But you have to get over that in the end, or else the book is going to get farther and farther away from me.

My main concern has been trying to resolve the novel with all the short stories and novellas that have come before. I have to acknowledge the story I've written so far for Felix, but at the same time, I have to reintroduce to, hopefully, a larger audience. The Felix Renn chapbooks were great, and we sold a lot of them, but in terms of a fan base, we're only talking a few hundred people (if that). My hope is to publish the Felix Renn novels with a larger press, or a specialty press with good distribution, so that more people can find out about the series.

The problem with that is, since most of these prospective readers have never heard of Felix Renn or the Black Lands, I have to treat the novel as a bit of a reboot. I have to introduce Felix again, and the Black Lands, while making sure that I don't bore the people who have already read the previous stories with a lot of information they already know. But it's hard. For example, Felix's ex-wife works as his assistant, and this is explained and explored in depth in the first novella, "Temporary Monsters." To start the novel with this character already there working for him, I'm worried it might be confusing to some readers. Why is this guy's ex-wife working for him? What's her deal? I can take time to explain some of these things, but it is not my intention to spend a large part of the novel explaining what happened in the chapbooks. After all, it's not a clip show.

I'm sure all of my concerns will be for naught. I'm pretty resourceful when it comes to making stories work -- you kind of have to be in this business -- and in the end I'm sure the less-is-more approach will be the way to go.

In terms of the story itself, I'm actually going to combine the superhero sequel with the X-Files monster-of-the-week formula. Since this is the first novel, which in any series is usually spent establishing the characters and the world in which they live. The threat will not be terribly involved or complicated, but there will be an underlying thread which will form a story arc that will run for the next few novels. Vague enough for you?

Me:  Vague enough, yes.  But I get it.  This writin' thing ain't easy.

So while we've been having this extended chat, you found out your story, "The House on Ashley Avenue", was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.  First, congrats.  Now second, what do you think it is about that story in particular that has gained it such notice, as it's also in Ellen Datlow's upcoming Best Horror of the Year, Volume 5?

Ian:  I'm really excited and honoured to be nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. I'm a huge fan of Jackson's work, and I think it shows in that some reviewers have cited her as an influence on my own stories. In terms of "The House on Ashley Avenue," it's hard to say exactly why one story resonates more than others. I like "Ashley" and there's enough background material on the characters for a whole series of stories. But if you were to ask me which stories in my collection people would name as their favourites, I'd be at a total loss. The reviews have been so scattered on that subject. Which I suppose is a good thing because people haven't really singled out any one particular story as being bad. I think "Ashley" is like the proverbial iceberg, showing only ten percent of itself above the surface. There so much more to see and maybe that's what people like about it. Of course, in the end, I like to think it's just a good old-fashioned haunted house story with a modern-day twist.

(Editor's note: Ian lost the SJ Award, but "The House on Ashley Avenue" is still a great story.)

Me:  I think the iceberg analogy fits with a lot of your stories.  There's a good bit of ambiguity in them, something that successful horror definitely relies on.  Try to explain too much, and it usually goes to hell.

Any final words here before we wrap up?  The floor is yours.

Ian:  I just want to say thanks to everyone who's been reading my work, especially those who blog about it, post reviews, etc. It can be hard to build an audience in this digital age of near-constant distraction, and I'm appreciative of everyone who has taken the time out of the lives, and the money out of their wallets, to pick up one of my books. I've got plenty more stories waiting to be written, and I hope people will stick around to read them.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Conversation with John Mantooth

John Mantooth is not only one of my best friends, he's also easily one of the best writers I know.  The dude's got voice, and that's - what? - a 1 in a 1000 writers?  He makes it all look so easy it's hard not to hate the guy.  The problem is, he's too nice to hate.  Must be something about that southern accent and easy-going nature of his.  Today, his debut novel, The Year of the Storm, is released by Penguin Publishing.  It's an EXCELLENT novel - believe me, I've read all 15 drafts of it - and a great way to start the summer.  Seriously, go buy it now.  Here's a conversation I recently held with John over the writing process with TYOTS and other things.

Me:  Let’s start this off with a toughie – You’ve had a lot of success as a short story writer, garnering some really nice credits through the years and culminating with the publication of Shoebox Train Wreck.  [Note: This collection is also excellent.]  Now you have your debut novel, The Year of the Storm, coming out today with by Penguin.  So here’s my question – To what do you ascribe your success?  What do you think connects with editors and readers that sells your stories (and now, a novel)?

John:  Yeah, that’s a tough one for sure.  I’ll answer it this way.  Assuming the slight success I’ve had isn’t just luck, I’d probably say my stories—the best of them anyway—stand out a little because they are often dark without being horrific, violent without being graphic, sort of uplifting in their own desperate way.  I also tend to write like a storyteller, you know, the voice around the campfire that’s telling you something that happened ten years ago, and I think a certain reader and editor is attracted to that.  But most likely it’s just dumb luck.  Write enough stories and a few of them are bound to tickle an editor’s fancy.

You’ve read pretty much everything—published or unpublished—that I’ve ever written.  What do you think helps my work connect with readers and editors (and you better not say dumb luck)?

Me:  Luck?  Bullshit.  It might sell a story or two, but not with the publishing record you have.  See, I KNOW why your stuff sells.  Believe me, I think about it at night when I’m up making papier-mâché dolls of you to light on fire.  Your stuff sells because you have honest-to-god voice.  Call it campfire storytelling if you want, but there’s a very clear voice in your work, and that’s something not many people have.  It’s a gift, and when added to the stories you tell, you end up with gold.  And it’s why all of us secretly hate you.

What’s funny is, it’s definitely not a voice that comes out in everyday conversations with you.  So it’s not your voice, necessarily, but some special writer’s voice you turn on when you start to write.  You also have a poetic style that shows up at just the right time, especially when a character is reflecting, that always reminds me of James Lee Burke.   Is he an influence, or am I totally imagining that?

John:  Well, thanks, we all secretly hate you too because of your ingenious plotting and characterization.  Seriously, we do.  Well, I do.

As to it not being my voice when I talk, you are absolutely right.  I’ve always been very shy and introverted.  I hate conversations. The phone kills me.  Parties kill me.  Small talk is the worst.  I’d rather be on the outskirts of a conversation, and maybe that’s why I write because being a writer is a little like being an observer, a reporter.  I do think, in the right setting, I can tell a mean story.  You’ve just got to get me talking, which totally depends on the right setting.   I talk sort of slow, so some people don’t have the patience to listen to me.

My writing voice is something I try to find in everything I write.  I often abandon projects because I don’t hear it.  That’s one of the reasons novels are so hard for me to write.  I might have the voice in the first chapter, but once I start dealing with some of the necessary storytelling mechanics like conflict, action, and plot, it can slip pretty quickly.  The key for me is to keep going back to that voice and frame the action within the context of the voice.

James Lee Burke?  I’m a huge fan, and yes, I’m sure he’s influenced my work quite a bit.  He does first person really well, and I think I’ve tried to emulate that, especially the way he infuses his scenes with reflection without losing any of the narrative punch.  Well, I’m still working on that.  Also, I would consider him a great example of what I’m trying to do, which is write a good story that still has a certain depth and artfulness that doesn’t get lost in the plot points.

Me:  With a novel like The Year of the Storm, voice is incredibly important, especially considering you have two first person narrators.  How did you approach making those narrator’s sound different?  Was it difficult for you?

John:  It was very difficult for me.  In early drafts that was one of the major problems readers had.  Danny sounded too much like Walter and vice versa.  I solved the problem by going back and paring down Walter’s language.  Danny was very reflective, tended to use qualifiers with many of his statements.  I cut out as many qualifiers out of Walter’s voice as possible.  I tried to make him sound like a man who’d lived a long time and could cut through some of the bullshit.  I read both sections aloud, listening to the way they sounded.  Eventually, I got it right.  I hope.  I don’t know if I’ll try to first person narrators again anytime soon.

Me:  And this is something you worked on with an editor, right?  How did that work?

John: Now, as to your other question, yeah, my editor, Amanda Ng, was a little worried that they sounded too similar, so she told me to make them more distinct.  She’s pretty smart like that.  By the way, that’s why I think self-publishing is still hard pressed to produce the same quality as traditional publishing.  The authors may or may not be as talented, but without an editor?  Come on.  Everybody needs one of those.

Me: So it sounds like this book has gone through various editing passes until it reached “finished” status.  How long did you work on it and how many drafts did it go through?  Even better, just how much of it can you quote by heart?

John:  Believe it or not, very little.  Sometimes my wife will say something about a character in the book, and I’ll be like “Who?”

“The character in your book.  The one you slaved over for three years.  Don’t you remember?”

And the truth is, I don’t.  I don’t know if it’s age or what, but I can barely keep up with the characters and places when I’m writing the book much less a year after I’m finished.  It sort of just gets vague, and honestly I like it that way.  I’m done with that book.  I want to be obsessed with the next one.

But back to your original question, I worked on it for maybe three years all told.  It went through countless drafts.  I’ll put it this way—the final manuscript was about 85k, but I’m sure I wrote well over 500k on various drafts.  I hope this isn’t going to be “my process.”  I did manage to write a novella this fall, and it only took me about two and a half months.

Me:  This would probably be a good time for you to give a quick overview of The Year of the Storm, and how the novella, Broken Branch, ties into it.

John:  The Year of the Storm is about two sets of disappearances that happened about thirty years apart.  They tie together of course, but I won’t say exactly how.  Because the story centers on two timelines, there are two narrators—Danny and Walter.  Danny is remembering his childhood when he met Walter, an alcoholic Vietnam vet, and Walter tells him the story of his own childhood (that’s the second narrative).  It all takes place in the woods behind Danny’s house that used to be a community called Broken Branch, which is where the novella by the same name comes in.  The novella tells the story of Trudy, who is Walter’s grandmother and how she helped found Broken Branch and discover a secret underground storm shelter that plays a huge role in the novel.  Taken together, the novella and the novel tell the story of those woods from the 1930’s up until the late 1990’s.

Me:  Was it difficult coming up with an idea for the story or is the world of TYOTS large enough that you could see yourself returning there again possibly?

John:  That’s a good question.  I definitely think there are more stories to tell in and around the Broken Branch area.  At the end of the TYOTS, there are some unanswered questions, which could possibly be developed more.  It’s intriguing, but for the moment, I’m focused on the next book, and it is definitely not a Broken Branch book.

Me:  With this being your first novel, what pressures do you feel?  Or are you more of a ‘come what, come may’ person?

John: Ha ha, you know me better than that.  I feel a ton of pressure.  My wife was just telling me the other day that I seem super tense lately.  She rightly pointed out that I should be enjoying the release of my first novel, that my dream had come true after ten (or is it eleven years now?) of working for it.  Yet, I can’t stop worrying that people aren’t going to like it or worse, I’ll never be able to publish another one.  And then there’s the whole “if your first book tanks your career is over” thing.  Yeah, I’m feeling pressure like I’ve never felt before about writing, which in a way is justified, but it’s also really unhealthy, and makes me wonder why I’m doing it at all if I can’t ever stop to just enjoy some success.  Then I realize that’s exactly why I am doing it.  I’m sort of driven, for better or worse.

Me:  So with the novel just out, what are you doing on your end to help promote it?  Any ideas you can share with writers out there?

John:  I relied on my two (yes, I said two) publicists to help me.  I had two great ones, Beverly Bambury and Caitlin Valenziano.  Caitlin handled most of the offline stuff, while Beverly did an incredible job setting up a blog tour for me.  Caitlin comes with Penguin, but anybody interested in hiring a wonderful, independent publicist should definitely look Beverly up.

Me: So with today being the big day, how are you feeling?  Thoughts about the whole process?

John: John: I've been really anxious about the whole thing up until today.  But now that the book has finally arrived and made it into the world, I feel a little less anxious.  I mean it's out of my hands now, right?  Hopefully it will sell, and hopefully people will like it.  Now my focus has to be on finishing the next one.  That's the part I love the most anyway.  Being alone with my laptop and writing stories.  This other stuff is fun but it stresses me out.  I'm excited to get back to the routine of the new novel and hopefully making it even better than the first one.