It’s a true honor to have Christopher Conlon stopping by to talk about his writing today. There’s some wonderful insights, and some fun stories to read. Enjoy, and please seek out Christopher’s fantastic work.
Sometimes you wonder what life was like before you discovered something. I was thinking about that a lot lately as I prepped questions for Christopher Conlon. His book, Lullaby For The Rain Girl made me think of that often while reading it. That is what makes Christopher’s work so special to me. So much genre work is a re-tread of films and other pop books. If you dig deeper, and look a little harder, there’s a lot of rich material to be found…stuff that nourishes your brain rather than pillages it and your wallet. Fiction can be art, and can be popular, and can transcend into things a lot deeper. And aren’t we all really looking? Seeking? Searching for more? Isn’t art at its best when it goes beyond commerce? When it challenges? When it reflects and causes reflection? Can it do both? Let’s talk.
- I believe I first came across your work with Midnight on Mourn Street. You’ve such an evocative way of setting a mood and telling the story. I’m curious as to what goes into making one of your stories. You do a lot of thinking before you write? Or do you write as you go?
Well—both, I hope! You know, John, I once asked the great science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson this same question, and he told me that what he needed was to know the “highlights” of the story he planned to write—the major events. Once he had those clear in his mind, he filled in everything else as he went. That’s a pretty accurate description of how I work myself, except that I’d add I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters beforehand. My stories are much more character-based than plot-based, so I have to have a good idea of who my people are before I start writing about them. I discover a great deal as I go along, of course, but I have to have a clear idea of the basics of each character before I can start. Marc Zicree tells a great story about the actor Armin Shimerman—when Marc asked him what he looked for when preparing to play a character, Shimerman said that he asks himself the question, “What’s his secret?” Now that’s as valid a question for writing as it is for acting, I think. For Midnight on Mourn Street, I needed to know what secret each of my protagonists was keeping. When I figured those out, I started piecing together bits of their story—just bits, the “highlights.” When I had those, I was on my way to the novel. For me such work is mental, by the way. I scribble a few notes here and there, but nothing anyone would call an outline—just things for me to remember as I’m going along. I know that many writers rely on outlines, but I couldn’t possibly work that way. For me writing has to be a process of discovery.
- Did you begin as a poet or fiction writer first? For most writers it’s been a long journey to get where they are. What’s your journey been like thus far?
Oh man, how much time do you have? Writing is a joyous and exhilarating process for me—I won’t quite say it’s better than sex, but when it’s going well, it’s right up there. There’s little if anything I love more than writing. Publishing, however, is a different question. I spent ten years of my life—the ’90s, basically—trying to get a massive mainstream/literary novel published—it’s called The Unspoken, the manuscript is over 800 pages—and while quite distinguished editors at well-known publishing houses were happy to tell me how “brilliant” it was, nobody ever offered to publish it. So I wrote another, much shorter mainstream novel, and again, I was told it was brilliant, and again, nobody wanted to publish it. I was assured that my writing was “uncommercial.”
So after licking my wounds for a while I knew had to regroup. Poetry has always been important to me—almost as important as fiction—and while my novels were receiving empty compliments and not getting published, I was managing to get a fair amount of verse into literary journals. Eventually that activity led to Gilbert and Garbo in Love, my first book of poetry. So for a while I was thought of as a poet. I started edging into the horror world almost accidentally, thanks to my essay “Southern California Sorcerers,” which I wrote almost as a lark. But researching it allowed me to meet William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, and some others. They took an interest in my writing, as did Gary Braunbeck, who I happened to meet around that time. Eventually that led to my completely rewriting that second novel I mentioned and rechristening it Midnight on Mourn Street, which became my first published novel—published by Earthling, a genre press. I was on my way, even if it wasn’t quite the way I’d originally envisioned.
- What have you done, and what do you do, when you’re not writing?
I teach. Along with my wife Charlene, that’s the other great love of my life. You see, I don’t write full time. I don’t want to. I’m not capable of it. I don’t have that many ideas. I write on holidays, and especially in the summer. I’ve still managed to be pretty prolific—since my first book in 2003 I’ve averaged more than one a year, and that’s not counting the books I’ve edited. But it’s a part-time thing for me. So I guess my friend Lisa Morton would call me a “hobbyist,” but that’s okay. I don’t care if people consider me a professional or an amateur—the original definition of “amateur” is someone who does something for the love of it, and that’s what I do. I just want readers to enjoy the books.
- I loved your tribute anthology to Richard Matheson, He Is Legend. What was it like working on such a massive project? Did you get a chance to talk to him about it?
I only had limited contact with Richard on He Is Legend. He was, I think, fairly ill by then, and he made it clear that while he was flattered by the idea, he didn’t want to be actively involved. I respected that. As far as working on the project, well, I’ll say this. Most of the writers were absolutely wonderful to work with. But, as with any anthology involving many people, I also had to contend with some…well, let’s say boorish behavior. That’s just the way it is. That’s what an editor signs up for when he decides to do a big anthology. The same thing happened with my earlier book, Poe’s Lighthouse. Most people are great, friendly and supportive. But there’s always a sour apple or two in there.
- Who or what influences you currently? This doesn’t have to be writing. They can be films. It can be art. It can be anything. Just curious.
I don’t know what influences me. Influence is a very mysterious thing. I love many things, but how, or if, they influence me, I don’t really know. Lately I’ve been on a tremendous Alfred Hitchcock kick. Orson Welles, too. Both of those gentlemen have been nearly life-long influences on me, I think. I just re-read every Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m crazy about the poetry of Franz Wright. I’ve read with delight all the books by Yoko Ogawa available in English—every horror fan should read her Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales. In art, Edvard Munch—I can look at his disturbing dreamscapes forever.
- What you writing environment like? Pen and paper? Directly to a word processor? Traditional Microsoft Word and PC? Any interesting methods of working you can share? And where do you work? Do you have a home-office? Do you go to a coffee shop or library or park? I’ve always found those details fascinating.
I write at home, generally in the mornings, in my study in our little yellow 1921 bungalow. There’s a window in front of me that looks out on our backyard. To my left on the wall is a signed lithograph by the great South American artist Oswaldo Guayasamin, which I picked up on a visit to Ecuador a quarter century ago. Next to it is a giant framed poster from the 1939 movie version of Hound of the Baskervilles. To my right is a framed print of the magnificent Vincent Chong cover art for my novel Lullaby for the Rain Girl. Behind me is a little bookshelf with different editions of my own books as well as several framed pieces of the original interior art Daryl Earnest did for my Herding Ravens collection—marvelous. The other walls have the original Matt Sesow painting that was used on Starkweather Dreams, a print of Alan Clark’s cover for Poe’s Lighthouse, a giant print of Franz Marc’s painting “Yellow Cow,” and finally, a signed print of a Ray Bradbury art piece from The Halloween Tree.
When writing, I never play music or TV—I can’t concentrate that way. I have sort of an odd working method—I generally begin in longhand, in pencil, on a white or yellow legal pad. If it’s a poem, the complete first draft gets done that way, then I switch over to my HP computer to revise. But with fiction, it’s funny. I start in longhand then, once the story is up and running—maybe a day’s work, maybe several—I type up everything I’ve written out, and then just continue at the machine. I don’t know what it is about longhand or why I seem to need it to get started, but I do. It just feels natural. Another funny thing—although I eschew music or voices, I do remain hooked to the Internet while writing. Many writers find this an impossible distraction and have to go offline, but for some reason I don’t have that problem. I enjoy shopping on Amazon when I get stuck.
- What would you like to tell us about The Oblivion Room?
It’s a strong collection, I think, and I’ve been treated wonderfully by Charles Day and Peter Giglio at Evil Jester Press. There are six stories, all brand-new and original except the shortest one—a vignette that was published on Horror Drive-In several years ago. Readers who like my novels will like this book. It’s the Conlon they expect—highly emotional stories told, I hope, with a certain amount of penetration and style. The biggest piece is a 25,000-word novella set in the world of 1940s jazz clubs called “Welcome Jean Krupa, World’s Greatest Girl Drummer!” As the title indicates, it’s about a female drummer during that period—a period when virtually no women played drums. The story goes into some very dark places. And it was satisfying to be able to use my knowledge of drums at last—I played drums in a garage band thirty years ago, but never had any use in my writing for what I learned doing it until now. I was delighted when Nick Cato at Horror Fiction Review wrote that as a former drummer himself he thought it was “one of, if not THE best story I’ve ever read about drummers and life on the road.” Very flattering.
- The world of fiction is going through some serious changes. Everybody is riding the digital wave, however, printed books still account for over 80% of buyers’s purchases. What are your thoughts on e-books and Amazon and Nooks and iPads? Are they healthy for readers and writers, or are they not? It seems everybody can be a published author nowadays. Do you think this is healthy and empowering for authors who would never previously have a voice? Or do you think it’s just a flood of garbage?
Well, I think you’re asking two different questions. The first is about e-books themselves—the experience of buying and reading them. Now, I’m the least technological man in America. I don’t own a cell phone. I don’t own an iPod. I’ve never sent a text message. I’m not on Facebook. I believe that “tweeting” is something birds should do, not people. And yet when my wife got a Kindle a few years ago I only had to play around with it for about three minutes before I knew that I loved it. You see, I’m not against technology—most of it just doesn’t interest me, that’s all. But this! I could store thousands of books on a single device—we have over 3000 books in this little house and space is a real problem—and what’s more, I can adjust the font size when I’m reading, a profound blessing for my 51-year-old eyes. So I love the e-book revolution. Unlike some middle-agers I’ve encountered in the horror world and elsewhere, I’m not a sentimentalist. You’ll never hear me say that I miss the smell of a “real” book’s pages or whatever. What I say to such people is that while they spend their time sniffing books, I spend my time reading them.
E-publishing is another thing, and it’s true that it’s unleashed a “flood of garbage.” That’s why I’ve long said that, whatever the future holds, publishers will still have a role to play. They’re the gatekeepers—imperfect ones maybe, but the only ones we have. There have always been the rare self-published writers who manage to break out. But the first thing those writers have generally done, and still do, is proceed to sign with a real publisher. The biggest single problem for a writer today is to get anyone’s attention. Publishers still play a vital role in that, and I suspect they always will.
- There has been a lot of discussion about the validity of writing awards, including the Stokers. Do you think they’re worthwhile? How would you fix the current situation? Is it even fixable?
Arts awards never make anybody happy—except, I suppose, the people who win them. If a million-selling book wins something, people dismiss it by saying, “That award is just a popularity contest.” If, on the other hand, a book that sold only a few dozen copies wins the same award, people say, “That award is elitist.” It’s a bad business. Yet awards make a difference in a writer’s visibility and sales, no question. I’ve not been particularly quiet about my criticism of the Stoker Awards—and I’ve won one. I think the half-jury idea was interesting, but the results of the past couple of years have not been encouraging. It may be time to declare the experiment a failure and try something else. The same people are winning Stokers who won them before. The same people are getting nominated again and again. Some of those people are talented and deserve the recognition they get, but others…There are people who have won multiple Stokers who are, at best, marginally talented at writing but profoundly talented at making friends in the HWA. It’s embarrassing. I think the problem boils down to the fact that the HWA is simply too small an organization to really have its own awards. The juries—and I’ve served on two—don’t really help that much, because they’re made up of the exact same people anyway. I’d like to see the juries composed at least partly of people not in the HWA, people with little or no connection to the horror genre. But that’s not really doable. So I don’t know the answer. Yet, like everybody else, whatever my criticisms, I’m always happy to be nominated. Human nature. We all like to be recognized. We all like to win stuff.
- What’s next for you? Do you work on one thing at a time, or do you have several chainsaws in the air?
Usually just one, though last summer I wrote a novel and a kind of horror-story-in-verse at the same time. I’m happy to report that the novel, Savaging the Dark, will be published by Evil Jester Press early next year, and the story, When They Came Back, with photographs by the extremely talented Roberta Lannes-Sealey, will be seeing the light of day via BearManor Media sometime in the not too distant future.
- Any parting words? Where can we find some of your work?
I have a website, John, http://christopherconlon.com, with information about all my books, and I keep a blog at http://chrisconlon.livejournal.com. If anyone wants a quick jolt of Conlon fiction, they can find a story from The Oblivion Room called “Grace” at Horror Drive-In: http://www.horrordrive-in.com/serendipity/index.php?/archives/260-GRACE,-by-Christopher-Conlon.html. And you can see me reading a piece of flash fiction from Herding Ravens here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIsXGWWjuW0.
Parting words? Write what’s in you to write. Don’t write for money, don’t write for markets. Write what’s trying to burst to the surface in you. Write what means something to you. The rest will take care of itself.
Writer and editor Christopher Conlon has been hailed by Booklist as “one of the preeminent names in contemporary literary horror.” His best-known book is He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson (Tor trade ed.; Gauntlet ltd.), a compendium of original stories featuring Stephen King, Joe Hill, Whitley Strieber, John Shirley, Joe R. Lansdale, Nancy A. Collins, and other luminaries in the fields of horror and dark fantasy. He Is Legend was a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club, has appeared in several foreign language editions, and won the 2009 Bram Stoker Award® for Superior Achievement in an Anthology. As a writer, Chris has published twelve books—novels, story collections, poetry, and drama. His first two novels, Midnight on Mourn Street (Earthling) and A Matrix of Angels (Creative Guy),were both finalists for the Bram Stoker Award®, and his verse volume Starkweather Dreams (Creative Guy) received the 2009 Horrorhead Award from The Black Glove. His recent titles include Lullaby for the Rain Girl (Dark Regions, novel), Herding Ravens (Bad Moon, flash fiction), and his newest book, The Oblivion Room: Stories of Violation (Evil Jester, short stories).
Chris’s first published fiction appeared in 2AM Magazine in 1986. Since then his work has appeared in dozens of periodicals including Dark Discoveries, Poets & Writers, America Magazine, Tennessee Williams Annual Review, and many more. He achieved his first real recognition in the horror world for “Southern California Sorcerers,” his acclaimed essay on the Southern California Group (Beaumont, Matheson, Nolan, et al.), which appeared as the introduction of the 1999 anthology California Sorcery (Ace/Cemetery Dance) and has since been reprinted numerous times, including in the magazines Filmfax and Fungi as well as on the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation website (rodserling.com).
Chris is a former Peace Corps Volunteer (Botswana, 1988-90) and holds and M.A. in American Literature from the University of Maryland. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
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