Your latest book Elsewhere is set for publication on October 6th! We can’t wait to read it. Could you tell us a bit about the book in anticipation of its release?
I never thought I’d write a story involving parallel worlds because it would be too sci-fi to allow the character work, contemporary settings, and themes that fascinate me. I wasn’t looking for a story, just wasting time doing something—maybe knitting a hat for my dog, maybe working on the music for my opera based on the life of Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows—when I was struck by an idea for a strong and charming father-daughter relationship, which I’d never written before.
In literally two minutes, I knew it involved parallel worlds in a way I’d never seen them developed—and I was off to the keyboard at a sprint. Sometimes you know where an idea comes from, what inspired and shaped it, and sometimes it’s entirely mysterious, comes out of nowhere, as though you’re a receiver for a broadcast from the Celestial Office of Story Concepts. Jeffy and Amity quickly took over their story, and I found myself holding on for the ride.
October’s a busy month for you; the paperback edition of Devoted is also set to hit shelves. It’s a phenomenally dark and suspenseful read that’s earned praise from critics and readers alike. For those who have yet to read it, could you tell us a bit about Devoted?
I’ve been asked maybe 345,267 times to write a sequel to Watchers. I always said there was no point to writing a sequel if I couldn’t make it as good as the original, and I couldn’t. I never will. But Devoted gave me a chance to write about smart dogs again, a bunch of them living secretly among us, “the Mysterium,” in a whole new story with some pretty wild twists. Yes, it's a dark story in some ways, but it’s ultimately about friendship, family, courage, and hope. A lot of readers have written to tell me they liked Devoted as much or even more than Watchers. I know it was a magical experience for me.
How do you get your ideas, and what usually comes first—the characters or the plot?
Sometimes a premise comes first, as with Phantoms, and sometimes a character springs to mind, like Odd Thomas, with no story attached. If a premise comes first, then I need to find the characters who can carry the themes that the premise suggests, because in the end, the most clever story won’t be effective if the characters aren’t charismatic and don’t have depth. Characters are the essence of effective fiction. Characters and plenty of exciting punctuation.
Incorporating metaphysical or “meta” ingredients into novels has become popular recently—The Ballad of Black Tom and Lovecraft Country are good examples—which makes me think back to how you’ve adeptly weaved intertextual horror references into your work. Phantoms, for instance, engages with the Lovecraft mythos. When do you find it worthwhile to make those allusions to the canon’s past? Do you ever find it tricky trying to integrate past references into a book?
No. Metafiction is just a current and transient name for something that good fiction has always done. Weaving in references to the history of literature, not just one genre or another, and not only to literature but to art and music and philosophy, weaving them in such a way that they support the themes of the story, give texture and depth to the prose. It isn’t even necessary for a reader to notice these references consciously in order to be affected by them. Most of us have a deeply layered web of cultural knowledge woven on a subconscious level, and a writer can pluck those strings to help cause an emotional reaction.
Sometimes a reader picks up on the entire pattern of such references and writes with delight to tell me what I’ve done. After Odd Apocalypse, some readers wrote to ask me if I knew that many of the characters’ surnames were Hebrew words that more or less defined their essence. Some thought this might have happened accidentally! What—like a mousetrap creating itself from a scrap of wood, a spring, and bits of metal?
Phantoms also gets some of its inspiration from the urban legend of a vanishing village on Lake Angikuni. In addition to adding meta and intertextual ingredients to your work, I’m also curious about drawing direct inspiration from reality, real life. Do you ever draw on real-life tales, especially tales of the mysterious or unexplained, to craft your works of fiction?
I certainly did with Phantoms and a few others, but I more often draw from science—such as quantum mechanics for From the Corner of His Eye, and such as the ability of archaea to transfer genetic material between species for Devoted. Or I draw from some philosophical observation that strikes me as true, as in Petrarch’s line—“Rarely do great beauty and great virtue dwell together,” which led to Innocence.
Another one of my favorites, Strangers, explores themes of repressed memories and fugue states. How do you go about crafting narratives of psychological, interior horror versus physical, external horror?
It’s harder to make the readers’ hearts race about a character’s psychological deterioration than to throw a really good monster at them. However, if you get a handle on an interesting aspect of aberrant psychology, like autophobia, which is a fear of oneself, it can lead somewhere pretty damn spooky, as in False Memory. How to craft psychological horror? Recognize what is a little aberrant in your own psychology, understand how that influences your worldview, then take that understanding and apply it to the really weird aberration of your character.
Demon Seed was a bestseller that blurred the lines between science fiction and horror, touching on the perils of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. How do you go about blending elements of different genres—breaking through the walls that separate horror from sci-fi from mystery from thriller? Do you ever think about the marketability of the book, and how one might cross into entirely different genres?
Actually, I can’t explain how to blur the lines successfully. I never think about it. I’ve spent a lifetime reading heavily in all genres—literary fiction is just another genre—so it seems natural to me to blend them. It’s been said by someone (who, by the way, hasn’t been institutionalized for any reason) that I invented the cross-genre novel back in the ‘70s. If I did, I never set out to do that. It’s just who I am as a reader and writer.
Think about marketability? I never have—which back in the day and in fact until recently has often driven my publishers a little nuts. When I delivered Lightning, my publisher at that time was scathing about the fact that the female lead was a child during the first quarter of the novel. In her mind, that made it a young adult novel, and for months she arm-twisted me to put the novel on the shelf for seven years. My sales were growing at the time, and she was sure that Lightning would at best set my career back and at worst destroy it.
Why 7 years? Why not 5 or 9? I don’t know. I pressed for its publication, and it was released with little support, but it sold and sold. And the novel after that was my first #1, which suggests either that readers liked Lightning—or, I guess, that they loathed it but were all literary masochists who wanted to repeat a painful reading experience.
We’ve discussed a great deal of frightening material thus far. I just have to ask—what scares you? You’ve delved into so many nightmarish topics in your work. Is there one idea and/or thing that continues to frighten and compel you to understand it?
The human capacity for evil made worse by the human capacity to justify evil. Increasingly, the news is full of people doing the most horrific things with great righteousness.
John Cleese recently said he plans to have all his unread books buried with him when he dies. It was a very funny inversion of the desert island trope and it got me thinking about my own productivity, both as a reader and a writer. If you chose to follow in his footsteps, but instead of unread books it was copies of your books—which of your books would you carry with you into the grave?
Strange you should ask this. Many years ago, a business associate of mine, a great guy, died an untimely death. Unknown to me until after the fact, he specified that he wanted several of my books buried with him because they meant so much to him. I hadn’t realized that he felt that way, and I was deeply moved. Books change lives. I know they changed mine when I was a lonely, lost kid. That incident impressed on me the need to think carefully about what we write, as it will have an impact on other lives that we can’t anticipate. Which of my own would I be buried with? All of them—with a small reading lamp and a long extension cord.
You’ve sustained a very successful career that’s lasted decades. What do you make of the publishing landscape in present-day 2020? I’m curious about your experiences with all the big changes in publishing.
The near-death of the mass market paperback is a terrible thing that perhaps didn’t need to happen. Some chain stores thought 50% of a $10 item was not worth their time and wanted to push the public into $15 to $17 trade paperbacks. I was shocked when so many in publishing thought this was a great idea. Not everyone can afford the higher price. Mass market was where new writers, like me, had a chance to build an audience that eventually led to hardback success.
But in a few years, mass-market paperback visibility declined drastically, and therefore so did sales of them, and trade paperbacks never developed a similar volume. eBooks are great, but they don’t give you the same visibility on the street as did paperbacks in the day when racks of them were ubiquitous. It’s much harder now for new writers to build an audience.
Related: 13 Epic Horror Books Like The Stand
The contraction of the paperback market led to a contraction in hardcover, as well, and a shrinking of the entire industry. Even if you’re a well-established writer, you can suddenly find your publisher no longer providing any serious marketing or ad support because they’re not as flush as they used to be. In my case, I realized I had to do something new, which is how I ended up at Thomas & Mercer and at Amazon Original Stories, where everyone’s been great to me and sales have been revitalized. More than ever, thinking outside the box—actually, thinking outside the box that the box came in!—is important.
You’ve integrated outbreak scenarios into your work in the past. Earlier this year, speculation spread across the Internet that you had somehow predicted the coronavirus in your 1981 novel The Eyes of Darkness. Stephen King saw similar claims made about his pandemic novel The Stand. Obviously, both assertions are false, exaggerated to a wild degree (thanks, Internet). That said, it got me thinking: would you ever write a COVID-19 pandemic novel? It seems to be an ongoing topic many publishers and writers are thinking about—how to process the effects.
The Internet frenzy about The Eyes of Darkness was weird. All I did, in a book written 40 years ago, was mention a virus that came from a lab in Wuhan, where the Chinese have had a biological weapons laboratory since at least the 1950s. The novel wasn’t about a pandemic, as was claimed. I tried to debunk the claim that I predicted anything, but the more I debunked it the more people became insistent that I was Nostradamus. The strange thing is that I did write a novel about a pandemic, Innocence, that no one ever referenced.
What does it feel like when you look back on your body of work? Are there any books that stand out from the rest, your favorites, maybe even the ones that were the biggest pain in the ass to write?
When I look back on my body of work, the first thing I say is, “My God, I must be old!” And I wonder how the kid who was a slacker in high school and through much of college managed thereafter to become so industrious. I wrote a lot of bad sci-fi when I started out, and then a lot of mediocre suspense and a half-good comic novel—all of which I have kept out of print since I began to find my way.
Favorites? Watchers and Lightning written one after the other felt like breakthroughs, and as difficult as they were to pull off, writing them was nonetheless exhilarating. Intensity, Fear Nothing, From the Corner of His Eye, One Door Away from Heaven, Odd Thomas, Innocence, Ashley Bell, Devoted, Elsewhere—the harder they were to pull off, the more I loved them.
I’d love to know your experience writing screenplays like Phantoms and Frankenstein. Screenplays are such a different beast entirely. How do you find adapting your own work for the silver screen?
I like the screenplay form. It’s so flexible and so easy to revise compared to a novel. But Hollywood is crazy. You can spend years spinning your wheels there and have nothing to show for it in the end. Every script I’ve written was at one point or another green-lighted. Only two of them were ever produced because following the green light, either a narcissistic producer did his own rewrite that killed the studio’s enthusiasm or a director who thought of himself as the next Spielberg (there’s yet to be a next one) started making “creative adjustments” that alarmed the studio into canceling the project.
Although he was a screamer, I liked Bob Weinstein personally (never met Harvey) because he had a dry sense of humor (either that or he was unconsciously funny). But working with him was so frustrating. To simplify the story: I was told to write a script with a $16 million budget in mind, which I did. By the time a crew is in Colorado and sets are being built, I’m told to rewrite it for a 12-million-dollar budget. Which I do. During production, Bob keeps coming up with scenes he thinks will be way cool. They’re never going to work in the story, but Bob wants them written anyway, so I write them, and they’re filmed but turn out not to enhance the story and are not used.
I don’t know what the final budget was, but I strongly suspect that they spent the $16 million, after all, but not where it needed to be spent. The picture has some good moments in it, though it peters off toward the end of the second act. The best thing about the experience was having a few long conversations with Peter O’Toole, who was a gem.
My screenplay for the Frankenstein series looked as if it might be headed for a considered and engaging production, especially when Martin Scorsese read it and came on as a producer. Then the network powers that be decided to rip out the humor, excise the love story between the two cops who were the leads, drain the whole thing of subtext, and turn it into misogynistic grunge. As a consequence, I had to resort to my attorney to get my writing, producing, and “created by” credits removed. Marty subsequently sent me a lovely letter decrying what had happened, and saying that if he had been directing, he would have shot the original script without a change.
That was the last script I had any interest in writing. Life is too short. At least I was able to write the five Frankenstein novels and realize the original intention that way.
We’re big horror movie fans here. What are your favorite horror films—current and of all time?
Alien, Aliens, the first Frankenstein, The Exorcist, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, both the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the remake with Donald Sutherland, The Silence of the Lambs, A Quiet Place. Those are just off the top of my strange head. Mostly, I have no interest in high-gore films.
The Bad Place
You’re a big dog aficionado (as am I! Cats and all animals too, for that matter). I’d love to hear about your dogs!
Dogs are better people than people are. Treat them well, as if they were your children, and they will calm your heart, make you laugh, keep you humble, and open your eyes to the true, deep mysteries of life. I’ve had three Golden Retrievers, and each is her own person, all of them loving, and each of them unique. We never board our dog. In fact, though we dine out five nights a week, we rarely ever leave her at home, but take her with us to restaurants that accept dogs on the patio. She’s better behaved than I am. Dogs should be kept in the house with their people rather than being condemned to a life outside, because they’re pack animals, and they will never be happy unless they are part of the family.
What have you been reading lately?
Exclusively research material. The second six novelettes in the Nameless series and two quirky novels have sent me chasing down alleyways of information for the past year.
Last question about “the last book”: If you could only write one more book, what would that book be?
What are you saying, Michael? That my time is almost up? Do you know something that my doctor doesn’t? If I have time to write only one novel, I’ll have to stop sleeping so that I can write two. I live to write. I still have numerous story ideas, and I also want to write a memoir about my career because it looks like a long steep glide to the top, but it was always a hard struggle. I think young writers who are trying to do something fresh would be encouraged to learn how many people in my professional life have told me what I was doing couldn’t be done, because no one else was doing it. Rejection is the norm, in my experience, and persistence defeats the naysayers. And of course I’d like to write A Tale of Two Cities, but Dickens beat me to it.