Five For Writing – Matt Forbeck

It’s GenCon week, which makes it the perfect time to talk to the legendary Matt Forbeck. A game designer, best-selling author and all-around nice guy, Matt has untold credits to his name. Here, without delay, is his Five For Writing:

 

1-What’s it like to have written literally all the things?

I find that I haven’t quite written all the things, but the things that I haven’t written get harder to reach. I like to write in all sorts of genres and categories, mostly because it keeps me from getting bored and stale with any particular one, and that (hopefully) keeps my writing fresh and fun — at least to me!

It’s also part of a diversification strategy. If the work or audience for one particular kind of writing dries up, I have others I can tackle instead. It keeps me from having to worry too much more than normal about how I’m going to help feed my kids and <ahem> help put them through college.

2-You’ve written for TTRPG, video games, novels and more. What’s your favorite form, and why?

I like writing in all kinds of formats, and I’d hate to have to actually choose among them. They each have their own strengths. With video games, I get to work with (sometimes massive) teams and watch other folks bring my words to life, but I don’t have much control if any over the final product. With a novel, I get total control over everything, but I don’t get to rely on anyone else’s talents but my own.

Comics and tabletop games make a good balance between those two extremes. I get to work with a small team, and a lot of my vision shows up on the page. Tabletop games can get really complex, though, and require more skills than just writing, which lets me work other parts of my brain. Comics have some of the most stringent parameters. Writing for those is like writing 22-page haikus.

If I had to choose one, I’d probably go with novels, mostly because I like my independence. Video games pay a lot better though!

3-What are the different writing muscles you need to use for your different types of writing?

With video games, you often have to focus on the dialog over everything else. It’s one of the things you have the most control over. You can also wind up writing reams of background information that no one outside of the team ever sees, but they need that so they all know what the end result is supposed to feel like.

That dovetails nicely into tabletop games. With TTRPGs, you don’t have to worry about the dialog much at all, but you focus on that worldbuilding instead. You need to give the game master all the information about how things work so they can make decisions on the fly that ring true to the world they’re playing in.

Novels and comics require you to deal with worldbuilding, but character motivation and plot are often more important. Dialog helps sell all that and make it sing, but it needs to rest on those other aspects as a foundation.

The key to the whole thing — no matter what you’re writing — is developing a keen sense of storytelling. If you can keep a table of friends engaged with a story over a few drinks, that’s the core talent. You can learn the other skills to move into other flavors of the craft.

4-You’ve brought one of your sons into the family business. What’s it like working with him?

I love working with my son Marty, and my son Patrick is studying video game design in college, so he might wind up joining us at some point too. In addition, Nicholas helped Marty and me out with a TTRPG adventure that should be announced sometime this fall.

Marty is a sharper student of stories than I was at his age. He knows the tropes and references to other media inside and out. Part of that’s him growing up in the internet age, and the rest is his own natural love of stories.

It’s great to work with someone you know so well. You can skip over a lot of the explanations you’d have to offer someone else, and we’ve developed our own kind of shorthand that comes with being part of a tight-knit family.

My wife and I have apparently raised him to be unafraid to question us, and that’s really helpful too. He can skewer one of my lousier suggestions with a simple arch of an eyebrow and a single “Really?”


5-You’re one of the movers and shakers behind the Diana Jones Awards. What trends are you seeing in the tabletop industry that excite you?

The tabletop games industry is more vibrant and pervasive today than ever. The days of having to explain to adults what D&D is are largely over, and I see lots more people from a far more diverse section of the population not only enjoying games but creating them too.

That’s one of the things we’re trying to encourage with the Diana Jones Award. We recently formed into an official nonprofit and are applying for 501c3 status. The main impetus for that is so we can expand our Emerging Designer Program, which aims to bring new game designers to Gen Con to introduce them into and to the larger world of tabletop games.

 

Five For Writing – Gary Frank

Gary Frank is a man of many talents. Hailing from the horror hotbed of New Jersey, he is not only a talented author but also a skilled songwriter and musician. Recently he burst back onto the literary scene with a gripping tale of terror, The Thing In The Woods.  Want to know more? Keep reading….

 

1-Of all the classic literary conflicts, surely Man Vs. Bigfoot is one of the most primal. What inspired you to write about it?

We have the main character, Rich, who, like most of us, works 9-5 and has the usual adult responsibilities. He gets juxtaposed against Bigfoot who has none of these, a being that Rich sees as free to just live and survive in the wild. It’s appealing to him. The question I examine is who is the real monster in this story. Bigfoot’s just trying to survive, and here come these humans, messing things up.

2-How has your writing evolved over the years from Forever Will You Suffer to The Thing In the Woods?

Forever Will You Suffer I refer to my B-Movie horror novel. It’s a roller coaster ride of craziness in a good way. With The Thing in the Woods, the relationships between the four characters and their story arc, takes precedence over the monster. My writing is less about the thing and more about the people having to overcome the thing.

3-What about living in New Jersey inspires you to write horror?

There’s a lot of weird that goes on in the Garden State, from the former Essex County Hospital, which was reported to be haunted, to the Pine Barrens and the Jersey Devil, to the ghosts in Cape May. It seems a prime place to set more weird stories, especially an urban legend like Bigfoot. There is a national organization that does Bigfoot research missions, and one of their locations is northern New Jersey.

4-You are also a musician and songwriter. What’s the process for writing music like as opposed to writing fiction?

Writing songs and the accompanying music is more immediate. Lyrics kind of flow from one line to the next and there’s a poetic element there that seeks to rhyme. With stories, there isn’t that urgency. It’s more of a marathon than a sprint, which leaves me more space to unfold a story. Songs tend to be more like moments in time, like a photograph.

5-What would you do if you actually ran into a Bigfoot?

Fleeing in fear is high on the list, right after soiling myself. I’d like to think I’d be amazed and remember to take clear photographs. But I doubt I’d be so brave!

Five For Writing – Evan Skolnick

Evan Skolnick is the go-to writer when it comes to learning about writing for games. An established and talented writer himself, he also teaches a legendary tutorial at GDC and is a professor at the University of Silicon Valley. Plus, he’s written an exemplary book on game writing, Video Game Storytelling.A former comics writer for Marvel, Evan has seen it all, done it all, and written it all. Now, without further ado, Five for Writing with Evan Skolnick:

1-How did writing for comics inform your game writing?

As most folks reading this probably well know, writing for games is a whole other animal vs. writing for more traditional media such as comics, movies, TV, novels, and so forth. Although I entered the game industry in 2001 as a producer, I almost immediately began contributing narrative content to many of the games in our studio.
And I had so much to learn about writing for this new (to me) medium! There really was no such thing as a dedicated “game writer” back then, and the term “narrative designer” was years off as well. There were no books or guides on the subject in those days. So, like many folks during that time, I was kind of on my own, figuring it
out as I went.

During this process, while I had a lot of new things to get my head around, there were some elements from my comics-writing background that did prove helpful. The first was that I noticed a significant crossover between super hero comics and video games in terms of the power fantasy aspect, and that both media forms often
included elements of science fiction or fantasy. The visual storytelling aspect of comics, including that age-old Hollywood maxim of “show don’t tell”, is quite applicable to many games. And squeezing a lot of story
into a small space — the art of being concise and economical with your storytelling — is definitely shared across the two media forms.

Finally, comics are a collaborative medium, and so that helped prepare me for the same aspect in games.

2-You teach game writing at the University of Silicon Valley and give an acclaimed storytelling tutorial at GDC. What’s the secret to teaching people game writing?

There are two separate audiences for these two examples, so I have two different
answers.
For GDC, it’s a one-day tutorial, and the audience members span all game development disciplines. So in that brief time I have with them, I focus on simply recognizing that game narrative is always a cross-discipline team effort, and try to give the developers in that room some basic storytelling knowledge to help them become better narrative collaborators, regardless of their role on the team.

At USV, though, the audience for our game writing and narrative design curriculum consists of aspiring game designers and writers, and it’s multiple semesters as opposed to just a single day. So it’s about giving these students capability and experience in as many real-world game writing and narrative design challenges as
they’re likely to face in the industry. I draw heavily upon my own 20+ years in game development to come up with these lessons, exercises, situations and challenges — for example, working in pre-established IPs, writing cutscenes, barks, and lore items, world-building, character development, choice design, voice recording support, collaborating with other team members, planning and scoping a game’s narrative elements, and so forth.

I’m not sure there’s a single “key” to teaching game writing, but the principle I probably emphasize the most is that game storytelling is an enhancement to gameplay, and should be working to elevate it, not elbow it out of the way or stomp all over it.

3-What does it feel like to have a game you’ve written (Cuphead) translated into a TV show?

Well, I didn’t create the world, characters or story structure for Cuphead, so I’m probably not as emotionally attached to this IP as one might expect from just looking at the credits. I came on late in the project, as we game writers often do, and so my job was to help the team — who already had a very clear vision of the game
they wanted to make — tell the story they wanted to tell.

It was a lot of fun, Studio MDHR was wonderful to work with, and I feel fortunate to be associated with what ended up being such a successful, high-profile game. But am I surprised that Netflix didn’t consult the game writer to participate in the animated show’s planning or write scripts? Absolutely not.

4-What advice do you have for aspiring game writers?

I get asked the “how do I become a game writer” question so often, a while back I wrote a blog piece providing my own answer. I think it still holds up!

5-What says good game writing to you, and how do we get more of it?

So many things are involved when it comes to good game writing, starting with itbeing good writing, period.

But that said, you can’t just hire any writer for this. If you take an award-winning writer from another medium and just drop them into a game project, they’re likely to struggle because there are so many unique aspects to game narrative development. It’s a bit like when F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to take his novel-writing skills to Hollywood toward the end of his career — just because he was a great novelist, it didn’t necessarily follow that he could adapt those skills to writing for the screen. It’s like that, but multiply the differences by a factor of five.

Unlike in more traditional media, where (in theory at least) “story is king”, game writing is generally a support role. This is a foreign concept to writers who are used to kicking off the creative process or simply handing off a script. Good game writing is expertly woven into the gameplay experience and enhances the player’s enjoyment. It adds powerful emotional stakes to what could otherwise feel like empty and repetitive gameplay experiences. When done right, it’s an intensively collaborative process across nearly the entire team.

So how do we get more of it?

Fortunately, it’s already happening. We’re getting more and more strong game writing, thanks to the increasingly accepted reality that having professional game writers and narrative designers involved and empowered throughout the process is the path to a better result.

Five For Writing – Robert Ford

Robert Ford is cooler than you. That’s OK, he’s cooler than just about anybody, In addition to having written genre masterworks like The Compound and The Last Firefly of Summer, he’s collaborated with John Bodden on a series of novels and he’s widely known as a superb live reader. It was my great good fortune to get to hang out with him during the recent Scares That Care AuthorCon, and to get him to agree to sit down for five questions. So here they are, Five for Writing with Robert Ford.

1-You’ve described your new book as “brutal”. Why go there?

When I started writing Burner, I was on the verge of completing two projects and hadn’t decided what I was going to work on next. I sat down, flipped through my idea notebook, and came across several things I knew were novel-sized concepts. I wrote some notes down on each, but with Burner, the notes grew and grew until I’d written down about fifteen pages of material. It (no pun intended) ignited something and the next day, I became a man obsessed. I generally am not a very fast writer, but I wrote the first draft of Burner in a month. At times, it felt like I couldn’t possibly type fast enough to get the words down. The “brutal” part of the novel…it came with the territory of the novel’s content, and even so, I cut about twelve-thousand words from the draft because it felt “too extreme”, even though it was based on real case studies I read when I was doing research.

2-You’re renowned as one of the best readers in the business. What’s your secret?

I have been lucky enough to witness some of the best readers when I was first starting out, and not long after, witnessed some readings that were quite the opposite. I suppose I paid attention to the good and bad and began applying that to my own readings. And practice. Practice, practice, practice. Listen to your voice and how it projects, the cadence and rhythm of words. Plus, it helps to love doing live readings, and I always have.

3-You’ve notably collaborated with John Boden on Cattywampus. What’s your process for collaboration, and is it easier or tougher than writing solo?

Yeah, John and I worked together on Rattlesnake Kisses, Cattywampus, and are finishing up Black Salve. For us, we start with a general core of an idea, and then dive right in. We don’t outline and though we occasionally touch base on the storyline to maintain overall direction, we pretty much throw a chapter or two at each other, and then take turns. It’s an absolute blast and sometimes we’ll throw each other challenges, but it’s all in good fun. I can’t say it’s tougher or easier than working solo, but we’re both having a great time doing it.

4-You mention on your web page that your stories can make readers cry.

Do you prefer that or horrifying them? I used to run my own advertising agency for years, and when I was developing campaigns, one of the things I always focused on is making sure I hit an emotional nerve or it falls flat. I feel that way with my written work as well. So pulling their heart strings, and scaring the hell out of them right after makes a good pairing for me. I also think humor and horror are great mates as well.

5-What’s your favorite book that you’ve written, and why?

I’m very proud of Burner, because it is such a very different novel for me and seems to be resonating with readers in such a great way. I have a supernatural novel out on submission called Dead Pennies that I think is going to shake readers up and make them sleep with the lights on. But my favorite is the one I’m working on now, titled Domino. It’s early, but this “feels” big, and I’m forcing myself to slow down so I can do the story justice. Everyone will be hearing a lot more about that soon.

Five For Writing – Jeremy Megargee

A rising star in the world of extreme horror. Jeremy Megargee is one of the nicest, sweetest guys you’d ever want to meet. A literary craftsman who deftly wields chills as well as gross-outs, Jeremy shares a table of contents with me in Counting Bodies Like Sheep. Yet despite that, he’s still willing to speak to me. Here’s Five For Writing with Jeremy Megargee.

1-How does someone who’s a professional caregiver get into writing horror?

I’ve worn a few day job hats in my life, caregiver most recent, and prior to that I was a security shift supervisor/bouncer at a large casino. I don’t mind so much what I do for a living as long as it’s a tolerable environment/wage, but I’ve been passionate about writing horror since I was a little boy. The darker side of life has always been in my blood.

2-Mothman: Threat or menace? Or just a statue with nice abs and a great ass?

He’s both a threat and and a menace, but his booty cheeks are just as powerful as his wings. If you hear a flapping and clapping in the WV hills, Mothman is somewhere about. Bridgett Nelson, Jeff Strand, Lynne Hansen, and Damien Casey can back me up on this one.

3-What impact does living in West Virginia have on your writing?

A huge impact. I think Appalachia is unlike any other place in the country. Pockets of isolation, valleys locked into green mountain barriers, and rural blue collar folk that are almost a throwback to an earlier era when coal was still king. Massive forests & people living hardscrabble lives. I love to write about those things.

4-What’s the appeal of writing werewolves?

They’re my favorite supernatural creature. I think what appeals to me most is the nature of duality. The animalism behind the veil. We all have those primal instincts, and in werewolves, we can explore them fully. That’s what I took great pleasure in doing with my novel Old Hollow.

5-Do you prefer using traditional monsters or making up your own?

I can play with the old tropes, the pioneer monsters that paved the way and have established lore, but I think creating something unique that we haven’t seen before can be special. I play with some outlandish monster concepts in my short fiction.

Five For Writing – Stephen Mark Rainey

Greensboro’s Stephen Mark Rainey is a celebrated author and editor in the horror genre. The guiding light behind the legendary Deathrealm magazine, he has a new short fiction collection coming out entitled Fugue Devil: Resurgence. He’s also a regular contributor to the Ameri-Scares series for young readers, and has written in the Dark Shadows universe. He’s also exceedingly generous with his time, and it is my pleasure to share with you  his Five For Writing!


1-Your upcoming short fiction collection is titled Fugue Devil: Resurgence. What’s the link to the original “Fugue Devil,” which is now 30 years old?

“Fugue Devil,” the novelette, which I wrote in 1991 (and kicked off my original short fiction collection, Fugue Devil & Other Weird Horrors, from Macabre Ink, in 1992), was based on the most intense night terror I had as a youngster. It involved the appearance of a critter I found so horrific it actually traumatized me for a spell. The first time it appeared in the dream, I woke in a cold sweat — a weird sensation I’d never experienced before and never have since. Once I fell back to sleep, the dream continued right where it left off. I woke two more times, with the same result. The events in the story are nothing like those in the dream (which I still remember as clearly as any waking memory), but those crucial manifestations of the Fugue Devil itself are all there. The tale is what I might call faux folklore, and over the years, I ended up
connecting it with other stories I wrote. Fugue Devil: Resurgence features the original novelette as well as its sequel, “The Devil’s Eye,” which takes up the story many years after the events of the first. The book also includes my story, “Threnody,” which is similarly based in faux folklore, and features more than a touch of what I guess you could call Lovecraftian horror. I’d written “Threnody” several years before “Fugue Devil” and rather unwittingly provided an origin story for the latter. So although each story is a standalone, taken together, they reveal a more detailed, fleshed-out chronicle of both the horror itself and the fictional locale. Some of the other stories in the collection, while not overtly related, are set in the same location — a rural community in southwestern Virginia.

2-You write for the Ameri-Scares series for young readers. What’s the appeal of writing horror for youngsters?

There’s definitely a sense of getting in touch with your inner kid. At first, that sounded pretty easy because my inner kid is one dominating young bastard. It did feel a little awkward simplifying the prose to mid-grade level, but once I became acclimated to it, getting into the stories has been great. I was able to set several of the books in places that I know well or have visited regularly — such as Georgia, Ohio, and Michigan. When I was writing my first book in the series — West Virginia: Lair of the Mothman — I went to Point Pleasant, WV, home of the legendary Mothman, for several days and, from the moment I arrived, found myself steeped in the lore. It was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on, and — like all the Ameri-Scares books — I think it works as well for adults as it does for young readers. Prior to the pandemic, the Ameri-Scares series was being developed for television. Sadly, though, like so many properties, it didn’t stand up to COVID-19. That was a bit of a blow for both Elizabeth Massie and me because it had gone so far into production at the time. Regardless, the book series has continued to move forward, and I just finished my latest — Georgia: The Haunting of Tate’s Mill. It’s set in Gainesville, GA, around Lake Sidney Lanier, which is reputedly haunted. My mom grew up in Gainesville, and I spent a lot of time there with my grandparents over the years, so it’s a location I know well. I went back recently to research settings for the book, and I think that really paid off.

3-You edited Deathrealm magazine for a decade. What was that experience like, and would you ever go back to editing again?

Deathrealm offered more ups, downs, and all-arounds than I could begin to describe in a reasonable amount of space. As a teenager, I had started a fanzine (Japanese Giants), which I ended up passing to a couple of other editor/publishers. It continued for several years and, having been so involved with that, I decided to try my hand at an honest-to-god fiction magazine. That was in late 1986/early 1987. I had the resources to produce professionally typeset copy, which in those days was unheard of. From the start, things went swimmingly for the magazine and, over the years, it grew by leaps and bounds. It featured everyone from first-time writers to the most well-known authors in the field. In the early days, I published the magazine entirely on my own, but when I was laid off from my job in 1992, I lost my typesetting resources. Happily, another publisher picked it up, and Deathrealm received a whole new lease on life. That went on for a couple of years, and then that publisher decided to move on. Still another publisher stepped in — 1994, I believe that was — and in those next few years, Deathrealm hit its high mark. Every issue appeared on the newsstand shelves, the contributor list was impressive as hell, and the magazine looked freaking beautiful. However, getting it out there on a regular schedule took a hell of a toll. I couldn’t fit in much of my own writing, and there were troubles on the home front. The nail in the coffin was when our distributor to Barnes & Noble and other major chains went belly-up. That was a financial hit we couldn’t just absorb and keep going. So, in 1997, the publisher and I agreed it was time to retire Deathrealm. We did it right — we made the situation known up front, published every story we had acquired, and paid all our debts. I loved seeing Deathrealm on the shelves, and I loved the editing aspect. The business part, though, had become so overwhelming that my time actually editing was minuscule compared to the time I spent playing salesman, marketing expert, advertiser, accountant, and collection agent. I would never put myself through that again. I’ve edited a handful of anthologies, and I’ve pitched an all-new Deathrealm anthology a couple of times. There was even a deal with a well-known publisher to make it happen a few years back, but things ended up going south at the last minute. It’s a project I’d definitely consider reviving. But I don’t think I could deal with managing a regular publication, even digital, and continue to maintain a positive life balance.

4-How was the experience of writing something for Dark Shadows?

In my youth, I was a knocked-out, diehard Dark Shadows fan, and my love of the show continued well into adulthood. Having the opportunity to write a licensed novel for the franchise was something of a dream come true. I loved the creative part, and collaborating with Elizabeth Massie was a joy. Our respective styles and methods of working complemented each other wonderfully. And then writing audio drama scripts for Big Finish’s Dark Shadows audio series took the enjoyment to a whole new level. Now, that said, anytime you’re doing media tie-in work, there are challenges — such as, in our case, working with producers and a publisher who never much communicated with each other and whose requirements of us writers sometimes conflicted. Even with an agent, getting paid in timely fashion — or at all — was not the world’s easiest task either. I can’t deny the novel experience dampened my enthusiasm for Dark Shadows for a time, but that was short-term. I really did enjoy the creative aspect of working in the Dark Shadows universe, and I suppose I’d do it again if invited. I recently did the production work for a new nonfiction Dark Shadows book, and I must say that loved the experience. I also have an essay about my Dark Shadows experiences coming up in a new nonfiction volume, due very soon.

5-You are a self-described avid geocacher. What’s the appeal?

I discovered geocaching — a kind of treasure hunt using GPS technology — in 2007, found my first geocache in early 2008, and I’ve been a geocaching addict ever since. Since I was a youngster, I’ve loved getting out in the woods, hiking, and especially finding unusual things. Geocaching opens the door to all that and then some. Through geocaching, I’ve discovered the most fantastic locations I’ve ever experienced — many close to home but that I’d otherwise never even know about. Going after caches gives me a solid goal when I’m hiking or traveling, which I definitely appreciate. And it’s been a healthy activity. I credit caching for prompting me to quit smoking. When I first started caching, it became clear that I could either smoke or get out there and undertake rigorous physical challenges. I opted for the physical challenges. That was well over a decade ago, and I’ve never regretted that decision. Now, I do love what some consider more “extreme” geocaching, which often involves climbing way up in trees or other high places, or going down in storm drains, underground labyrinths, and such, sometimes for miles. Caching underground sure cured me of my arachnophobia — I’ve ended up in enclosed spaces filled to the brim with big honking spiders (and/or black widows), a prospect that once would have paralyzed me with terror. Now, not so much. And I have had a couple of close brushes with copperheads, one of which chased me for a while. That makes for a hell of an adrenaline rush, I can tell you. My geocaching experiences have been fantastic inspirations for writing fiction, that much is certain.

 

Many thanks for the great answers! This interview was truly a pleasure to do, and I look forward to renewing acquaintances with the Fugue Devil. Until next week, when I’ll be bringing you Five For Writing with rising splatterpunk author Jeremy Megargee!

Five For Writing – Michael G. Williams

Versatile and talented, Michael G, Williams is the winner of the 2020 Manly Wade Wellman Award, an honor which he richly deserved. He’s also the the author of the Withrow Chronicles, a series of books about a vampire living in modern North Carolina, a series of time-traveling adventures featuring the legendary Emperor Norton, and more. He also co-hosts the deliriously enjoyable Arcane Carolinas podcast, and he’s a staple on the North Carolina speculative fiction scene. It is my pleasure to present to you Five For Writing with Michael G. Williams.


1-Why vampires? And why in North Carolina?

I always (only?) want to write about the queer experience in some way, and vampires are the perfect metaphor for how I want to represent my own experiences as a gay man. They’re always among humans but never quite of them and never quite free of them. They might choose to “pass” as human, they might not, and mostly I imagine they would find themselves negotiating that choice contextually, night to night, moment to moment, century to century. They have a secret truth they know many people actively fear and would readily attack them for revealing, and sometimes they most feel themselves only in situations they feel they must never reveal for fear of facing hatred. Each of those aligns in some way with significant elements of my own experience as a gay man living in a cishet world. From the first time I read Interview with the Vampire (may Anne Rice rest in well-earned peace), I’ve always seen vampirism as a useful mirror for reflecting back some of my own life as a queer person. 

As for why NC, in part because I’ve lived here all my life and know it so well. Locations are easier to capture and convey when we’ve literally been there, and every book in The Withrow Chronicles is about a place I know well from firsthand experience. But also North Carolina because I love fish-out-of-water stories and the idea of a vampire getting by in the southeastern United States was a great chance to present several different takes on that and set up some interesting tension. Compelling characters, for me, always start in a place of untenable circumstances. Right out of the gate I want them in a place (literal or otherwise) they can’t  stay. A vampire in suburban North Carolina would be running huge risks that might not even occur to us–or to them. The southeastern United States is a place where religion can be especially acidic and deviation from the mean can be met with especially sharp suspicion. That’s also true of the suburbs, regardless of region. I wanted to play with the idea of a vampire living in a suburban neighborhood with all the nosy neighbors and big box stores and everything else that involves, and how he handles it when his truths run headlong into the polite fictions of those environments. Vampire stories are almost always about some equivalent of the monster in the castle on the hill, whether that’s a literal castle or a skyscraper. I wanted a story about a guy who drives a regular car and writes his own check to pay his power bill, not some jetsetting bloodsucker. We have enough jetsetting bloodsuckers in reality.

2-You won the Manly Wade Wellman Award. How has that affected your life?

The biggest thing is that it gave me much-needed confidence to write my weird little stories and not constantly question my own instincts for topics and tone. A Fall in Autumn is a book I felt was uniquely “me” in that it includes some of my favorite flavors and inspirations and genre elements, and when I wrote it I remained absolutely convinced no one else would ever connect with it. Instead, this helped me really learn the lesson that people connect best and most with the stories that speak to us as writers. I used to respond to people who asked me about The Withrow Chronicles by saying, “Well, they’re not for everyone,” and I still think that’s true of everything else I write but the Manly Wade Wellman Award made me much braver with writing what I want to write and feeling confident it will be for someone. It’s also made it easier for me to try to find that someone who will really connect with it. I contend with both generalized anxiety and social anxiety and have never allowed myself to do much promotion out of fear of imagined negative consequences. The validation from winning the Wellman has allowed me to finally start working my way out from behind some of that. 

Hand in hand with promoting myself, it gave me a little more of a platform to highlight other writers in the region who are also doing absolutely stunning work. Getting to announce the next winner at ConGregate in 2021, and having it be my friend and colleague Natania Barron, and to have some small role in recognizing her work, and the work of T. Frohock, who was a finalist and was also there, is a real privilege.

3-What is the Arcane Carolinas podcast, and what inspired it?

Arcane Carolinas is SO FUN! My friend and co-host Charlie and I talk about legends, lore, obscure history, and modern oddities found in North and South Carolina. (We originally described it to others as “The X-Files of the Carolinas.”) We’ve talked about everything from the Devil’s Tramping Ground to the Brown Mountain Lights to UFOs over Myrtle Beach to the Ghost Hound of Goshen Hill, South Carolina, and yet there is so much more to discuss! Every location in the Carolinas has something fascinating just under the first coat of paint or the first inch of earth: hidden history, a forgotten story, a local monster, a legend people mostly only hear in a song, you name it. We’ve done episodes that are hard science and episodes where we dig into census records to find out who a figure really was and episodes where we are 100% certain the whole thing was made up, and we’ve loved every one of them. Every place in the Carolinas has a story to tell–more like ten or twelve stories–and I will never get tired of unearthing those and seeing how they shine in the moonlight.

The story of its origins is funny, though, at least to us. Charlie and I used to work together. We already were making a podcast as part of our job, so we knew the tech and we knew we had a good rapport, a good dynamic. Through a series of other people’s departures and desks getting rearranged we wound up in cubes next to each other off on one end of the office, far away from everyone else, which allowed us to let our guard down and admit to enjoying this stuff and really bonding over that. Also, making a show about something purely for fun was a great way to have something to look forward to early in the pandemic and to grow a new community around something we all love. 

4-You bounce around genres quite a bit, from horror/urban fantasy to lighthearted time travel to science fiction noir. Is there one that speaks to you more than the others?

Oh, I think I’ll always be most interested in vampires and in detectives. (I will, eventually, write a vampire detective.) The vampires and witches who populate The Withrow Chronicles are always in the back of my head, whispering ideas, telling me what they’ve been up to. When the pandemic started, they were the characters I found my mind wandering toward, letting myself noodle around with, wondering how they were coping. (In the case of the vampires, at first they sort of scoffed at how some mortals rejected meaningful precautions that impose no real hardship; eventually they got depressed about what this might mean for the world they plan to live in forever. The witches do a much better job of keeping each other in good spirits but are extremely frustrated at the way magic can’t readily cure a problem of science.) I love all my characters and all my books, but the world I know I’ll go back to some day is The Withrow Chronicles. That’s the one I’m likeliest to grow into an expanded universe of novellas. It’ll just… be a few years.

5-What inspired you to write about Emperor Norton?

Norton embodies so much that is good and so much that is terrible about America, and about the struggles faced–and rewards reaped–by anyone who sets out to make themselves into someone they’ve been told they can never be. Here’s this guy who was king of the hill, a member of the most prestigious social club in San Francisco at the height of the gold rush, trading commodities in such volumes and so shrewdly that he had a very good chance of personally cornering the market on rice, a basic food staple heavily relied on by everyone else in the city. He was one part Dallas, one part tech-bro venture capitalist, and one bad break later, one too-ambitious overreach, he was destitute and totally vanished from the public eye. 

A few years later he walked into the offices of a newspaper, bought a small ad, and used it to declare himself Emperor of the United States and began issuing edicts. Rather than become some bitter, angry person willing to do anything and hurt anyone to get back into that position of privilege, he became a champion of the marginalized. He physically intervened on multiple occasions to stop racist attacks on people of color. He spoke out in favor of desegregating city transit, in favor of women’s suffrage, in favor of building a bridge to connect San Francisco and Oakland, and against judicial discrimination against poor people. City police were instructed to salute him when he passed. Theaters would reserve the best seat in the house on opening night, and if he attended the audience would rise at his entrance. He ate for free in restaurants, he attended lectures in science and medicine. He sold his own imperial treasury notes–and conveniently died a month before they could be redeemed. His image is still found all over San Francisco. 

He also wore a mismatched wardrobe of donated clothing and discarded military uniforms and lived in a six-by-nine-foot room in a boarding house where he perpetually struggled to pay a pittance in rent while street vendors sold dolls in his likeness to tourists. People loved the idea of Norton, but the average person who might rise in a theatre or salute him on a city street did precious little to actually help him survive.

Norton spent the last two decades and change of his life scraping to get by and being a cultural force so powerful, and a voice for change so strong, that here we are talking about him a century and a half later–and still struggling with the same issues he tried to get his contemporaries to face. In a city where the neighborhood with the highest rates of homelessness and poverty (the Tenderloin) is bounded by a high-end shopping district (Union Square), startup-offices and tourist attractions (Market Street ), luxury mansions (Nob Hill), and the city’s palaces of government (Civic Center), the story of Emperor Norton is still powerfully relevant. 

Norton consciously chose to remake himself, his identity, how he presented himself to the world, and the treatment he would accept as respectful afterward. Again, everything I write is ultimately going to touch on queer themes or otherwise reflect some aspect of the LGBTQIA+ experience as I live it and understand it, and I think a lot of queer people can see something of ourselves in Norton’s story. We do find ourselves culturally powerful, but many LGBTQIA+ people are otherwise politically, financially, and socially marginalized. We grow up in a world that tells us we can’t be who we are, and the more we work to realize who we know ourselves to be–the more we wield that cultural and personal and I’d even say spiritual power–the harder it becomes for us to “make it” in any other realm. Norton’s story is one of powerful personal vision and agency and of being an object of pity, even scorn. I will never not be fascinated by the lessons he can still teach us today.

 

Many thanks to Michael for giving such thoughtful answers. Check out his books and his website, and you’ll be glad you did!

Next week, I have the pleasure of sharing with you a Five for Writing with Steven Mark Rainey! Until then…

 

Five For Writing – Tony Tremblay

Tony Tremblay is one of the nicest people in horror fiction. He’s also extremely talented, as evidenced by his novels The Moore House and new title Do Not Weep For Me. An accomplished artisan and the host of The Taco Society show, he was kind enough to sit down for five questions on woodworking, being the house photographer at NECON, and more. Without further ado, here’s Five For Writing with Tony Tremblay.

1-What got you into writing fiction?

I’ve loved reading horror fiction since I was a kid. Authors like Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Shirley Jackson made huge impressions on my young mind. As I grew older, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Bentley Little, and Graham Masterton to name a few, led to an obsession with the genre. Since I have been old enough to read, I’ve always wanted to write a horror tale, but I knew I didn’t have the chops. I was in my mid 50’s when I learned our local library had a writer’s group, and I decided to join. I had no illusions of fame or wealth, I simply wanted to write a story that would scare people like my literary heroes had, and hopefully, have it sit next to their works on someone’s shelf.  

2-You’ve got two novels and two short story collections out. What’s next, and which format do you prefer more?

What’s next is a hybrid of the two—a novella. It’s a Halloween story in a collection of novellas which will be released around October. My contribution, Orange Eyes, is the tale of a taxi driver and a woman, unknown to each other, who have had their memories erased. As he and a new friend attempt to piece his history together, it’s eventually revealed that babies, sex, and the destruction of entire towns are connected to his memory loss.

As for a preference, I enjoy both, but short stories are harder to write. In a short story, a reader expects to have an engaging beginning, a non-cluttered and exciting middle, and a satisfying ending, and that’s tough to do in under 5,000 words. I enjoy that challenge. A novel gives me more space to accomplish those things so in a way, it’s easier to write. If pressed, I would pick writing a novel over a short story.

3-You do a lot of woodcraft. How does that compare to writing as a creative outlet? Is there any crossover?

Great question! Many of my ideas when writing a story come to me as I’m doing mundane chores, and I don’t flesh them out until I sit at the computer. Woodcrafts are the opposite, they must be well planned out in advance, keeping the construction and the painting in mind. Only after I’ve figured out how to make a craft, does the work becomes automatic. I use that time to analyze whatever story I’m working on, thinking about plot holes and direction. As for crossover, I normally make non-horror woodcrafts, but I did make a limited series of zombie snowmen once. 

4-You are the unofficial house photographer for NECON. Why and how did you pick up that mantle?

When I went to my first NECON, I took some pictures because I wanted to capture the faces of the horror authors who’s work I enjoyed so much. Later, when I posted them on Facebook, I was surprised by the response. Every year after that, I got to know more people, including other fans, so I took more pictures. At that first NECON, I think I took around 80 pictures, at the last NECON, I took over 650. All the good, and some not so good, pictures get posted to Facebook within days after the con. In my case, it seems to prolong that family feeling we all felt at NECON for a few more days.

5-You’re an avid reader. What do you look for in a horror novel?

I want the beginning of the novel to bowl me over. I’d like it to invoke primal instincts, whether they be fight, flight, sadness, empathy, or fear. In simpler terms, I want the beginning of a tale to put me through an emotional workout. It doesn’t have to be horrific; I only want to feel something worth pursuing before I get to the second chapter. Once I’m involved with the novel, I’d like to read realistic dialog, multiple points of views without repetition, and action scenes that go beyond visceral. What I don’t want in a novel is to have to use a thesaurus every page, and to read endless amounts of internal musing or exposition. 

 

Big thanks to Tony for his time and thoughtfulness! You can find him online at his website. Until next time, when I’ll be talking to Manly Wade Wellman Award winner Michael G. Williams!

Five For Writing – Bracken MacLeod

Bracken MacLeod writes some of the most gut-wrenching horror and suspense out there. He’s also one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. The author of Stranded, Closing Costs and more, he is fearsomely bearded and awesomely gifted. This week, he sat down to answer five questions about subjects as diverse as gaming and toxic masculinity. For your reading pleasure, I give you Five For Writing with Bracken MacLeod.

 

1-What drives a man to give up a perfectly reputable career like the law to focus on something as disreputable as writing?

HA! The reputability of law is questionable at best. They’re both essentially storytelling professions. I wish I could tell you that a trial is a quest for the truth; it’s anything but. There isn’t a jury in America, or probably the world, that deliberates with true detachment based solely on the quality of facts presented in evidence. People want to be persuaded by a narrative and a character they can relate to and believe in. Trying a case is taking arguable facts, and attempting to build a story around them so to convince twelve people they ought to buy your version over your opponent’s. Given the kinds of cases I used to handle, I much prefer making up my own stories with purely imaginary stakes. As a writer, if I tell the tale unconvincingly, the worst that happens is a poor review.

2- Toxic masculinity is a theme you’ve examined in your work. Why did you choose to explore that?

Since I don’t write about supernatural monsters as much as I do real people in variably plausible situations, toxic masculinity is the kind of antagonistic force that haunts my imagination most when I’m imagining horror/thriller narratives. I think Bell Hooks put it perfectly when she wrote, “[A boy] learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self- betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.” My newest book, Closing Costs, confronts this by depicting someone who is abusive and violent, but also completely unprepared for his manhood to be challenged or outdone in any way. His fragility is the source of his violence and suffering for everyone around him.

The consequences of a toxic derangement of the essence of a man’s emotional and intellectual wellbeing are at once as predictable and unpredictable as a game of Russian Roulette. Here’s something inerrantly destructive. We know that gun is going to go off eventually. What we don’t know is exactly when, or who is getting killed. Let’s play!

All of my books are issue driven. You don’t have to be tuned in to any particular issue to enjoy them, but if you are, I hope it helps the reader view something from a perspective that provides some insight.

3-You’ve published two highly successful collections of short fiction. Do you prefer short stories or novels, and why?

Novels, by far. They’re easier. I’m only partially kidding. Short stories are fun and I get to explore themes and situations I couldn’t in commercial novel length work, but what I really like to do is deep dive into emotional character experiences. The best place for me to do that is over the course of a novel. A short story and a novel can both have real hard impact, but I find it a lot harder to make that moment of emotional resonance really hit hard when you’ve barely gotten a chance to know a character.

4-You’re an avid gamer. What’s the appeal of gaming to you?

The biggest attraction is collaborative story-telling. I DM a 5e D&D game for my son and wife and some friends of ours, as well as an irregular Mörk Borg game with a bunch of other writers in my social circle. (Sometimes I get to be a player, but not often.) It’s such an amazing time to sit with engaged friends and create stories together. I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs since I was eleven or twelve, and had to take a long hiatus from play while I was practicing law (another reason to quit!). I never realized how much I missed it until I decided to try to teach my kid how to play.

I play video games too, but that’s a different animal. It’s participatory, but not all that collaborative when it comes to story. Then again, sometimes, you just gotta run and gun through waves of space demons with glowy swords.

5-What do you want to see in horror fiction that you haven’t seen yet?

That’s such a difficult question. Mostly, I want to see more of what I’ve seen too little of—stories that center the people and traditions that don’t often get the spotlight in traditional horror. Films like Get Out, the new Candyman, and The Vigil are perfect examples of what we need a lot more of in literature as well as cinema. Stories about traditionally overlooked people and cultures in their own stories, instead of as side characters and “exotic” threats for the same kind of protagonists we always see.

 

Huge thanks to Bracken for taking the time to give such thoughtful and thought-provoking answers! Until next time…

Five For Writing – Todd Keisling

Devil’s Creek is a stunning novel, mixing backwoods folk horror with Lovecraftian cosmicism. Its author, Todd Keisling, is a great guy and a very talented writer. He was kind enough to sit down for a five question interrogation, and so without further ado, here’s his Five For Writing

 

1-How did you get into writing?

I think it’s been in my blood for as long as I can remember. My dad has a photograph of me sitting at my granny’s typewriter when I was six or seven years old. Storytelling is something I’ve always done, no matter the medium. My interests varied throughout childhood, but there was always a creative element to it, and I gravitated toward making something and giving it a story. Comics, video games, movies, books—I went through a phase where I wanted to make something with each, either making up my own stories or writing continuations of other stories I loved. When I was in 2 nd grade, I made a comic adaptation of The Legend of Zelda. In 4 th grade, I attempted a comic adaptation of Evil Dead 2 (one of my favorite horror films). Sometime around 7 th or 8 th grade, I tried to write a novel adaptation of Final Fantasy 6 (I made it as far as the World of Ruin). Unfortunately, those early pieces of fan fiction are lost to time, but that’s where it all started, I think. By the time I got to high school, my interests had turned to film, and I wrote a short screenplay for a story that had been bouncing around in my head after the tragedy at Columbine. My senior year, I adapted that script into a novel; the following year, in college,
that novel won 2 nd place in my university’s writing contest. Got paid $200 for that prize. I’ve been chasing the dream ever since.

2-How does where you live affect your writing?

Where I live now doesn’t have much of an impact on my writing. Pennsylvania has been mostly good to me. That said, growing up in Kentucky greatly affected my writing, something I’ve only come to terms with in the last five years or so. Maybe it’s therapy, or maybe it’s just the process of aging, but I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at the events that shaped me into who I am today. I lived in Kentucky for 22 years before I finally escaped. In that time, I learned everything the hard way, growing up as an outcast, geeky goth kid who wanted a place to fit in. I was bullied, mocked, and abused by a social system that favored conformity, sports, and popularity. I just didn’t belong there, and I didn’t have a chance to leave until after I’d finished college. My life has only improved since then, but I dip back into that well of experience whenever my writing calls for it, because that kind of pain has an often-overlooked benefit: empathy.

3-You mixed the rural and the cosmic to great effect in Devil’s Creek. How did you come up with that pairing?

I fell in love with cosmic horror when I was a teenager. Lovecraft, mostly, and some Chambers. Although Lovecraft’s pantheon captivated me, I had a hard time relating to the predominantly New England setting, and I sometimes daydreamed about writing a cosmic horror story set in my hometown. What if there’s a pantheon that exists adjacent to Lovecraft’s, only instead of it being coastal, it’s further inward? Something ancient buried in the woods instead of buried at sea? A living, seething corruption from another dimension instead of a massive tentacled monstrosity. I stewed on that concept for years until the plot of Devil’s Creek finally came together. I had no idea if it would work; it’s so vastly different from contemporary cosmic horror, leaning more into the small-town tropes put in place by King (by design—Salem’s Lot was a huge inspiration), but I had to give it a shot. The book is more straightforward horror than I’d hoped, but I’m happy with the result.

4-You do cover art and design for numerous publishers. Does being an author impact your process for that?

I think so. I’ll explain, even at the risk of sounding pretentious. Every author knows the cover is important. It’s that first impression with a reader, before they’ve even read the synopsis, so the cover design must make that connection. It should be provocative, easy to read, attention-grabbing. You could argue that a great cover is like a good hook in the first paragraph. The same goes for a book’s interior. I approach the interior with the goal of continuing the “visual conversation” that begins with the cover. If it works the way I hope, the reader is met with a visual experience that is contextual with the story they are reading. Most folks probably don’t even notice, or if they do, it’s on a subconscious level, but the idea is to create a design that enhances the mood of the text. Together, they set an expectation that this book is going to be something special, one the reader will remember for years to come. Knowing how important that connection is from an author’s perspective helps inform the overall design.

5-There was a big gap between books two and three of the Monochrome trilogy. What made you decide to pick that back up?

So, there’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is, I didn’t plan on it being a trilogy. The long answer is, I didn’t realize I needed to write a third book until performing some necessary and heavy revisions to book two. My longtime editor, Amelia, put it bluntly: either write another two hundred pages to justify the ending I’d originally written for book two, or write a third book. I chose the latter and proceeded to spend the next several years stressing over what the third book needed to be.

As more time passed, the less I felt inclined to write it, and for a long time I told myself I wouldn’t. I’d moved beyond the series, my writing had evolved, etc. But after I finished Devil’s Creek, I felt like I’d reached a watershed moment in my writing career, and I wanted to start the next phase with a clean slate. That meant finishing that one book I’d abandoned. I reviewed my notes to see what could be salvaged, which turned out to be more than I expected. I also made a list of things that had to change in the first two books to make the third work. In the end, I revised books one and two to set up the plot of the third. It was a lot of hard work and heartache, and while I don’t plan on writing a linear series ever
again, I’m glad I finished it. I can look back with pride and say, “I did that.”

 

So there you have it, straight from the source. Huge thanks to Todd for taking the time to provide such thoughtful answers.

Until next time!