To anyone, three men sitting around a restaurant discussing the books in hand may not be so striking. To know they are preparing for readings and selecting passages may pique the interest of a student of horror. What they are choosing are bits that they know are either striking to their readers, or portions that they really feel embody the highlights of that particular work or as a hologram of their craft as a whole.
None of them wear ‘scary’ like a uniform. Horror is in books and film and in their imaginations. It’s not sitting down for a meal or spending the day on the lake with the kids, let alone getting to meet and talk with the public. So, seeing them all with their books going over the evenings reading selections and chatting about their work and the tour remains as “business casual” as anyone would suspect. They were fresh off the Dark Side Tour launch the night before in Toronto and this, the second date on the tour in Ottawa, was the gateway to Montreal and Quebec City.
‘Paperback Writer’ by The Beatles drifted over the restaurant sound system and conversation veered in and out of the craft of writing, their current work, beginnings, forensic pathology, the current tour and their tremendous support they receive from the sponsors. Such regular conversation to start, you barely notice the quick dips from mundane to taboo without the bat of an eyelash.
Andrew Pyper “We are externalizing a very internal process. Like, every question is about this thing I do inside of my head, alone, at four o’clock in the morning… it’s like explaining skateboarding. Try explaining skateboarding to somebody.”
Without focusing on beginnings such as school and earliest memories of writing, I asked how their publishing journey was. Had they had a long arc with small presses or short story sales, or hit large publishers right off the bat.
AP: I was very lucky. I had a book that came out of a small press, The Porcupines Quill. Then I went away and wrote a novel. I had an agent based on essentially that she thought I was going to write a novel. So she took it out and it was picked up in Canada first with Harper Collins, then in the US, UK and elsewhere. There was a movement from small press to big but without the process of rejection or multiple novels having to be written before you take that next step.”
Robert Pobi: I had a longer, weirder experience. I sold my first novel when I was 23. I was in Mexico waiting for the galleys to be sent to me, and the publisher was bought out twelve days before the publisher went into production. Presidio Press. Afterward, I went out a few query letters, didn’t have any luck. I mean I had been picked up to the first one I sent the book to and got a contract so I thought this was easy. I tried for six or seven months, sent out seven or eight letters and they all said, ‘thank you, but no thank you’. So I was just writing in a vacuum for the next twenty years. I didn’t show my work to anybody. When I came out of the box, five or six years ago now, Simon & Schuster were the first people to pick me up. I got picked up by Random House in the UK and things just went. I got lucky right off the bat, I guess, but after paying my dues in private for twenty years.”
Nick Cutter: It’s been a roller-coaster for me too. I wrote my first horror book under a different pseudonym. I think I was 25 or 26. And then I started writing literary stuff and tried to sell short stories to journals. If I were masochistic I could have filled a pillowcase with rejection slips. I cobbled some stores together and it feels like when the floodgates opened, they opened suddenly. Like boom. Then boom-boom-boom you got a bunch of acceptances. Maybe I had pre-loaded. Like just had to get better and better so then you just hit this nice slipstream. ‘Rust and Bone’ came out, then ‘The Fighter’, but no one wanted anything to do with me after ‘The Fighter’, my second novel. So I was down again. Didn’t know what i was going to do, then ChiZine, who I’ve been friends with published my book ‘Sarah Court’ and that sort of helped me get back on track toward writing ‘Cataract City’ which is my over book under Craig Davidson, then ‘The Troop’ and ‘The Deep’. So yes, it’s been a roller coaster but I think a lot of writers follow that same course.”
Horror, as a genre, could be seen as paying rent to live in the basement of a building it used to own. A sad state on one hand. On another, the mother ship could be seen as buried under the new civilizations that are thriller, urban fantasy and dark literature. I asked their take on that idea and being fit into the horror genre.
RP: ‘Eye Of The Storm’ I thought was a horror novel. ‘Harvest’ I didn’t, but the next one coming out, ‘Mannheim Rex’, that’s a horror novel. I just write fun stories and see where they go–I guess children having their feet sawed off qualifies as horror–I didn’t approach Harvest as horror. I would have worked on the heat a little more, the atmosphere in the city a little bit more. Probably dealt my main character a couple more blows emotionally. I would have handled it a little bit differently. I had sold ‘Bloodman’ to Random House UK which I had written as a horror book and they said it was a great thriller and said ‘we’ll take it if you sell us a second police novel’. So they saw it as a strict police book. In France I’m on the shelf with literature. French translations of Poe; then me. In the UK it’s in the take-away at Sainsbury’s next to the fried chicken.
AP: I wouldn’t say I’m uncomfortable with the term horror to describe my work, because it is. Within the genre, I think something like psychological horror or supernatural thriller would probably in my case be simply more accurate. I don’t care whether it’s more savory, just that it’s more accurate. It’s at the end of the spectrum where it kind of crosses over into suspense or literary, or even to an extent crime. These nuances are interesting to think about as the more nuanced it gets the more helpful it gets at marketing books. Whether it is the UK or here. To market it as horror? I’m fine with that. That’s just a decision of the rack, but as a matter of aesthetics, I would probably be more comfortable with supernatural thriller.
NC: I grew up in the 80s and 90s reading books that were clearly marked horror on the spine. So, if I could fall in with that lineage I’m fine with that. I think things have splintered since that time and it gets broken down into elements of what a book could be slotted as. It’s more of a decision of the publishers and what they see things as, but for me personally, if I have horror stamped on the spine of my books that’s fine.
Huge thanks to Amy Jacobsen and Loretta Eldridge from Simon & Schuster, who did an excellent job of managing the tour. Alongside sponsors from Beaus Brewing, and Elle Canada, they worked with hosts ChiSeries, Maxwell’s and Perfect Books to make for one very cool evening. Seeing everyone from ChiZine, Can-Con, Maple Books, Geek Inked, Postscripts to Darkness and Lackington’s was a veritable who’s who of dark literature here, and that’s just who I had a chance to visit with.
The readings were intense. Stark. The selections had lines that toyed along the edge of good taste and taboo, as those familiar with these books could guess. Pobi had even those that had read his work squirming and the crowd reactions to all were priceless. You can hear and watch over at Geek Inked!
The question and answer segment was new to Ottawa ChiSeries but flowed like a mini panel on the mind of a horror writer. Gone were industry questions on how to get an agent and what writing is like. The crowd wanted blood or at least meatier input. How their minds work. How research influences them and how they can lay their morbid thoughts to rest and have headspace to share among the living and loved ones. One of the questions that arose was how do they reign it in. Have editors ever stopped them from including passages that may be too scary, too gory, or too insane?
RP: Going too far. It’s something I worried about when doing this full time and my standard response is ‘Do you know Ed Gein?’ what ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is based on? When they arrested him, he was wearing under his clothes a belt made out of human nipples and had a vagina that wasn’t his in his pants. What can I do that’s gonna top that? Edmond Kemper is another one… you look at the news what ISIS is doing, there is so much badness in the world…truth is stranger than fiction.
NC: In ‘Danse Macabre’, Stephen King talked about the three levels of fear. He said, first I’ll try to terrify you, and if that won’t work then I’ll try and horrify you and if I can’t do that, try to gross you out. Sometimes I skip terrify and horrify and go straight for the gross out. Andrew works on a different register where he terrifies… but Rob and I have to deal with the question of do you turn it up to the next level or do you not? I have given up on trying to write by trying to assay peoples tastes. It’s a hard thing because what doesn’t even get close to ‘your’ terror register as a horror fan is way over ‘their’ taste level. You can get frozen inertia by staying where your supposed readers tolerance is and then you don’t do anything. You have to have fun with this if it’s what you want to do, so you have to be able to do whatever you want.”
The question of research and how it influences their writing ranged from profiling crime to spirituality. This is one area where I think many authors tend to understate the amount of research that goes into fiction. That or it is largely unnoticed as Pobi pointed out, since it may take a stack of books to influence or validate a line or two in a chapter.
AP: My research tends toward the specific or going places like Detroit in the case of ‘The Damned’. Or more mythological research. There is a typically a classic text that forms the basis for the recent books. There is the ghost of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in ‘The Damned’ or Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ in ‘The Demonologist’, so there is a kind of fact based research, but for me it’s understanding the pre-existing myth and what I’m going to do with it.”
Hopefully we will see another round of the Dark Side Tour.
So, what will we see on the shelves next?
Andrew Pyper: Probably the most ambitious project I’ve ever undertaken as it requires quite a lot of research. It has historical aspects to it and conceptually it’s the most ambitious book too. I’ve never been as excited by a book and as scared as I am of blowing it with this book.
Robert Pobi: My next book is called ‘Deselected’. It’s about evolutionary mechanics and the beliefs in place in the religious right in the States and when scientific threats start coming down on humanity beliefs begin crumbling in domino effect. It’s about this narcissistic navel gazing and us being the centre of the universe.
Nick Cutter: My next book with ChiZine is called ‘The Acolyte’. It’s about this society also ruled by a religious right and the acolytes job is to stamp out any faiths that are not in line with the traditional state. It follows a couple of these acolytes and what is going on when they begin to fight against this system that is in place.