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October 2009

October 5, 2009

Karen Maitland on Dreams and Nightmares

When I’m giving talks to new writers, I always tell them never end your story with it was all a dream. But in fact it was a dream that gave me the idea for my medieval thriller THE OWL KILLERS which has just been published in the USA.

I dream vividly and I can usually identify the elements of my dreams as coming from past events, films or books. But the nightmare I had a few years ago seemed to come from nowhere. So how on earth did this image get into my head?

In my dream I was sitting in a room at night. Everyone else was in a deep sleep. I heard a rapping at the window. I couldn’t rouse anyone,so I pulled back the curtains. There, standing inches away, were three men with wooden cudgels in their hands and each man wore a terrfying owl mask. I woke myself screaming, but when I finally stopped shaking, I made a note of the image in my journal, thinking one day I would use it in a story, though I had no idea how.

Getting ideas for a story is a bit like wandering down a path and finding scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. You slip them into your pocket not even knowing if they come from the same puzzle. Every so often you spread them out and look at them. Then one day, maybe years later, you find another piece that links two of them together and you realise you have the corner of a story.

It happened that way with THE OWL KILLERS. Several years after my owl-mask dream, I holidayed in Bruges, Belgium. Like many tourists, I visited the beguinage (City of Women). Knowing nothing about beguines, I was amazed to learn that during the Middle Ages, thousands of women across Europe had flocked to join this remarkable movement, refusing to disband even when the beguinages were attacked and the women were imprisioned or even burned at the stake. What intrigued me was that these women seemed to have been written out of history. I was told by historians that there were never any beguinages in Britain, but I discovered they had existed in England, though they had mysteriously disappeared within a few years of being established. What happened to them and to the women in them? That was the second piece of my story puzzle.

Then when I was doing some research on birds, I stumbled across a mythical beast of the Middle Ages, known as the Owlman, who had the head and wings of an owl, but the body and legs of a man. This monster used to terrorise the local population snatching humans as its prey. The curious thing was I also discovered local newspaper reports which claimed that this monster had been seen again in Cornwall in the 1970’s and 1990’s. It was either a hoax or the witnesses had imbibed too much strong Cornish cider, but whatever the explaination, it gave me the third piece of my story puzzle, because I suddendly remembered my owl-mask dream and saw how I could combine it with the beguinage story.

I play the ‘what if’ game. What if a group of women from Bruges arrived in an isolated village in Norfolk in England to build a beguinage? What if they discovered that this village was being terrorised by a group of vigilantes in owl masks dedicated to the cult of the Owlman? These men were using threats, blackmail and savage murder to control the villagers, so what would happen if the foreign women tried to stop them? From these three ideas, collected years apart, my novel THE OWL KILLERS was hatched.

In my next blog I want to tell you about how I use personal experiences to write historical thrillers. So in the meantime, sweet dreams, but if you do have nightmares, don’t forget to write them down. They could just be the inspiration for your novel.

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October 5, 2009

Free Chapters from The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

The acclaimed author of Company of Liars, which was hailed as “a jewel of medieval mystery” by The New York Times, returns with a magnificent new novel. A tale of secrets, lust and rage, Karen Maitland’s The Owl Killers is the story of an embattled village and a group of courageous women who are set on a thrilling collision course.

Here are the facts:

The players: A community of women from all walks of life: a skilled physician, a former prostitute, a cook, a local convert. They are the subject of rumors, envy, scorn and fury—that is until a powerful man joins their group.

The situation: England, 1321. The tiny village of Ulewic teeters between survival and destruction, faith and doubt, God and demons. For shadowing the villagers’ lives are men cloaked in masks and secrecy, ruling with violence, intimidation, and terrifying fiery rites: the Owl Masters.

Opening lines:: “Giles knew they’d come for him, sooner or later. He didn’t know where or when, he didn’t know what his punishment would be, but he knew that there would be one. A dead owl had been left in front of his door in the middle of the night. He hadn’t heard them leave it; you never did. But at daybreak, he had found it there, sodden from the night’s rain. It was their sign, their warning.”

What others have said: “A dark and mysterious odyssey… with secrets spilling out until the very last page.”
The Denver Post

Read an excerpt:

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October 7, 2009

Karen Maitland on Writing from Life

A couple of weeks ago I had a rather unnerving experience. I’d arrived in a town I’d never visited before to give a talk. It was a long walk from the railway station and I needed to use the bathroom. All the cafes were closed, so I had to use one of those round, stand-alone toilets in the middle of the street. It was the type that you put 20 pence in the slot and the automatic door slides open, then closes behind you. Every time someone leaves, the whole cubical is flooded with water to clean it. At least, that’s the theory.

But the the mechanism must have been faulty, because as soon as I went inside and locked the door, water began to pour from all the walls. The door wouldn’t open and the water wouldn’t stop pouring in and wasn’t draining out. I clambered on top of the toilet bowl with my suitcase, and balancing there precariously, I wondered if the whole sealed unit was just going to carry on filling with water. Drowning seemed an all too real possibility. The strange thing is that even in my panic, part of my brain was thinking - I could use this experience in a story.

Obviously, I wouldn’t use the ‘bathroom’ scenerio, because I write medieval thrillers and the Middle Ages weren’t noted for their flushing toilets, but I could transfer it to a situation in the Middle Ages where a character was trapped in rising water, because now I’ve had just a sample of what it feels like. That to me is the essence of of the old adage write what you know: it’s the trick of finding a parallel situation in your own experience, extending it and fictionalising it.

A few years ago I lived for 18 months in Nigeria without running water, telephone, sanitation, electricity or any means of storing food. If I wanted a meal at night, that morning I had to collect fuel, get water from the river, go the the market place and bargin for whatever food they had that day and ensure the oil lamps were filled before dark. I had to remember to extinguish the lamps at night long before they were empty. They couldn’t be refilled when they were hot and I might need to light them again in the middle of the night if I heard an animal or human trying to get into the house, which often happened. Of course, I don’t know what it was like to live in the Middle Ages, no modern writer does, but I can use those experiences of being terrified of noises in the dark to write about my own characters’ fears and struggles as I do in COMPANY OF LIARS and THE OWL KILLERS.

In THE OWL KILLERS, Father Ulfrid, the parish priest, discovers a horrific pagan ritual taking place in the graveyard on All Hallows Eve. I haven’t ever witnessed anything like what he sees, that comes from my imagination, but one night in Africa I did witness a bloodchilling ritual in which a woman swelled up to twice her normal height and size. My rational mind said this can’t be happening, it must be a trick, yet my eyes were seeing it. But then I guess you too have had the same experience at times watching a talented magician perform on stage. As writers we can use almost any experience we’ve had, however minor, and the emotions that we felt, and extend those to produce a vivid scene. Although the scene will be drawn mainly from our imagination it will have enough basis in experience to seem real to us. This hopefully will make it feel real to the reader too.

I always remember a chilling footnote to the wonderfully dark novel Shardik by Richard Adams, best known for Watership Down. Shardik certainly isn’t a novel about cute bunnies, but a tale of war and suffering among a primative tribe who worship a mythical bear. In the preface the author writes -

Lest any should suppose that I set my wits to work to invent the cruelties of Genshed, I say here that all lie within my knowledge and some - would they did not - within my experience.”

I can certainly echo that for my novels too.

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October 12, 2009

Karen Maitland on Where were you when you read…

On Saturday I had the privilege of giving author talks at Wordplay, a “Library Readers Day with a difference,” arranged by Derbyshire County Council. The difference was that instead of seperate sessions for children and adults, all ages joined in all the sessions from author talks to song writing, and creating manga to writing poetry. Between sessions everyone got the chance to leave their mark on the graffiti wall, play fantasy board games and word games, and even get a henna tattoo of their favourite word. One of the competitions running through the day was - guess how many words are in the classic novel War and Peace. And someone asked me if I could remember where I was when I read it.

I read it when I was in my teens, on a dismally wet summer holiday in Wales with my family, in a caravan the size of shoe box. It was impossible to find anywhere to be alone, something that is desperately important for teenagers, but I discovered that by immersing myself in the longest book I could find, I could escape into another world and even better, that the characters in the novel were having a worse time of it than I was. That question about War and Peace got me thinking about how much where and when we read a novel can affect our enjoyment of it.

Would I have loved Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children so much if I had not had the luxury of being able to read such wonderful concentrated prose uninterrupted for hours at a time whilst on a gloriously hot beach in Crete? (The pages are still crinkled from salt water and stained with watermelon juice.) Would I have been so frightened or had so much empathy with the heroine in Sarah Rayne spine-chilling Spiderlight had I not been reading it alone in an isolated cottage on a dark winter’s night?

I always set my novels, or at least base them, on real locations, so that I can visit the places, watch them, listen to them, touch them and smell them. In COMPANY OF LIARS key chapters are set in a chantry chapel built on a bridge over a river. I spent time alone in just such a medieval chapel, lying on the cold flag stones, listening to the water thundering below me and imagining what it would have been like to sleep in the dark in that chamber, where the ancient stones seemed to suck very marrow from your bones.

One reader was kind enough to comment that the village of Ulewic (the place of the owl) in THE OWL KILLERS feels like a character in the novel. I was delighted by that, because I think certain places do having a living soul or spirit. In some locations it is a gentle green magic, in others a far more sinister presence broods over a village, a church or a hill. I believe our ancestors felt it too and you can see that reflected in the kinds of folk stories and legends that are associated with a particular lake or rock.

Location is vital to me as a writer, but this weekend I’ve been asking myself whether where I read a novel influences what I get out of it. Do I love a book more when it lets me escape from a miserable time I’m having, or when I associate it with a really happy time in my life? I’m still thinking about that one. What about you?

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October 14, 2009

Karen Maitland on ‘You can’t keep a good character down.’

I’ve recently had the great honour of being invited to join a group of my five favourite authors known collectively as The Medieval Murderers - Philip Gooden, Susanna Gregory, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight and Ian Morson. As well as giving joint talks togther, they also write an annual joint novel together and I had the privilege of being able to contribute to their 6th novel THE SACRED STONE.

Each Medieval Murderer author writes a self-contained historical crime/thriller story centred around one object, (in the case of THE SACRED STONE, it is a meteorite) which is handed down through the centuries with the epilogue being set in modern times. Since all the authors have to write their novellas at the same time, it means we have to be able to tell each other in advance where our story will begin and end, so that the next author can work out how their character can acquire the object perhaps 10, 50, or 200 years later and sometimes in a different country. It is quite tricky trying to work out a good ending for your story before you even know what the plot will be.

This has led to some fascinating email exchanges between authors. I wanted my character to buy the sacred stone from one author’s heroine, but he, quite rightly, said she’d never part with it and my character would have to steal it. Except that I knew my character would never steal. We both knew that we could not force our characters to do something that was, well… ‘out of character’ for them.

It is always a sign that the character has come to life when the author can confidently say - my character wouldn’t do that even though I want them to do it. As an author you then have three choices - (1) Go back to the beginning and change the personality of the character. (2) give that piece of action to a different character. (3) Given in and change the plot.

As I told you in my first blog, I dream vividly, and I know my characters are coming alive when they start walking into my dreams. I’m sitting on a bus and find Zophiel, the medieval magician from COMPANY OF LIARS, is sitting there, glaring at me. Since Zophiel is a cruel nasty character that dream rapidly turns into a nightmare. On another occasion in my dream I walk into a cafe and I’m served by Pega, the bawdy ex-prostitute, from THE OWL KILLERS. But I’m fond of Pega so I don’t mind meeting her.

My main character in COMPANY OF LIARS, Camelot, the badly scarred peddler, was never meant to be in that novel at all. As I was writing THE OWL KILLERS, I created Camelot to deliver the Prologue and the Epilogue of the novel, that was all, I didn’t require him to do anything else. But I always make back-story notes for each character, so that I know what happened to them before the story starts, even if it never gets included in the novel. When I wrote Camelot’s back-story notes, I discovered that he was far too interesting to be cast in the role that I’d created him for. So I had take him out of that novel and put writing THE OWL KILLERS on hold. Then I had to write COMPANY OF LIARS first, just to shut him up.

One thing I’ve learned through writing fiction, once a character comes alive, they are no longer the author’s puppets. You have to listen to them, even if that means changing your plot. It’s as if they are standing behind you dictating their story and you shrug your shoulders and say - that’s the story they want to tell, who am I to argue, after all I’m only the author.

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October 19, 2009

Free Chapters from ABANDONED by Cody McFadyen

Cody McFadyen, acclaimed author of The Darker Side, The Face of Death, and Shadow Man, delivers this shocking new thriller that brings to light a psychopath unlike any we’ve ever seen. McFadyen is known for his terrifying, yet stunningly brilliant work, and Abandoned certainly delivers.

Here are the facts:

The players: FBI special agent Smoky Barret, and a psychopath killer who thrives in absolute darkness.

The situation: This killer doesn’t murder for thrills, for sex, or even for power. He’s far more twisted than that, and when he releses his victim as bait, Smoky must inflitrate this man’s mind to get to the bottom of his intentions.

Opening line: “Everyone is alone. That is what I have learned, in time.”

What others have said about Cody McFadyen’s work: “McFadyen stands out from the serial-killer crowd with a unique protagonist and a rich, balancing supportive cast.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Read an excerpt:

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October 19, 2009

The Joy of Writing

I recently made a life-changing move. I’d lived in California for almost 25 years of my life, but my family all lived in Colorado. My father had a triple bypass a few years back and my mother had some health issues as well, and while none of it was immediately life-threatening, I started to get the nagging feeling that the time had come to live near my parents again. It was a deep-seated urge, an almost biological thing, and the intensity of it surprised me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved my parents to death, but this… it was just so visceral. There was a wildness to it. So my wife and I made trips to Colorado to make sure we could actually live there, and then we bought a house and moved.

It was like running a marathon that wouldn’t end. Moving from a place you’ve lived in for so long is crazy! The minutiae are maddening. For example: the bank I used for 15 years in California doesn’t exist in Colorado. So I found one that does, set up the accounts, got the new visa check card. Then I made a list of every company, vendor or subscription that utilized the old bank’s card for billing purposes (recurring or otherwise) and contacted them all and changed that information. It took a day! Eight hours of mindless subservience to automated operators! Surely, Hell would be doing that for all eternity. Then there was health insurance, car registration, transporting two black labs 1100 miles through the mountains, and about a thousand other things you’d never normally have to think about. For example: I realized at one point that I didn’t have the gardener’s phone number. He’d show up with his crew every week and do his thing, and once a month, he’d slip a preaddressed envelope under the mat with a bill in it. I’d put a check in and a stamp on, and that was it. Other than the occasional nod, we had zero interaction. The only solution I could come up with was to stick my own envelope under the mat with a note explaining that we had moved and to please send our final bill to the new address. (I got the bill about three weeks after we arrived in Colorado. Who needs high tech?)

We also had the ‘official’ wedding ceremony to do. My wife’s family is from Korea and five of them, including her mother, were coming to visit for a month. To complicate things, there are no direct flights from Korea to Denver! So we flew to Los Angeles, met them at the airport, and then drove from there to Colorado because my wife (god love her) wanted to show them some of the good old US of A. None of them speak English, which made things interesting at times, and our new home was filled with seven adults and two dogs for a month, during which time we planned and executed the bilingual/bicultural wedding while also tying up all the loose ends from the move and introducing two sets of parents to each other. I worked as much as I could during this time, but it’s hard for me to ‘fit writing in’. I need to be able to sit down for long, stress-free, uninterrupted periods of time, and ‘stress free’ wasn’t really in the cards.

When everyone finally left, my wife and I looked at each other and said: ‘Ok, we’re done.’ Three months had gone by. The house was quiet. The dogs were sleeping. I went down to my new basement office, powered up the laptop, sat down in my easy chair to write - and fell into a long, sound, dreamless sleep. It continued like that for a few weeks (yes, I said weeks). I was a veritable Rip van Winkle. I was overwhelmed by a desire to do nothing, and while I can’t say I did nothing at all, there sure as hell was no writing going on.

I also started to notice this kind of let-down feeling, a general blueness, which baffled me. I’m just not prone to that, and besides - all that horrible hard work and marriage madness was behind me. What could I possibly have to be blue about?

It hit me out of nowhere, one day, for no reason at all. It was a light bulb above the head kind of thing: I was blue because all that work was done and everyone was gone! The more I thought about that, the more I wanted to slap myself for not seeing it before. Because here was the truth: those three months might have been stressful, even maddening at times, but they had also been packed with the unforgettable, the adventurous, and the beautiful.

We drove either to or from California four times. We saw the sun set and rise in the Rockies, and fought our way through thunderstorms and hail and having to replace all four tires on the rental van. I remember driving across Utah and watching for almost a full hour as a storm approached us, because you could see that far across the flatness. When it hit, it was as if someone had flicked a switch and turned off the sun. One time, while going over a rain-soaked Vail Pass at approximately 11,000 feet, my MDX hit a hidden pothole full of water and began sliding towards the side of the mountain. Much screaming and praying ensued. We swam in the mineral waters of Glenwood Springs, running for cover when it hailed like a fury, returning just ten minutes later because the skies had cleared to a flawless, cloudless blue. I learned a bajillion new Korean words and was accepted with open arms and warm hearts by a wonderful new family. Every morning I’d wake up a little later than everyone else and walk out to a chorus of ‘good mornings’ and happy smiles. More people flew in for the wedding and the home swelled for three days to over thirteen people (and the two dogs) and it seemed like the cooking and talking and laughing went on around the clock. One night I drank far too much at the urging of my new family. They joined in and we engaged in a kind of a mutually assured destruction involving alcohol, one that I was destined to lose. My mother-in-law sang a traditional Korean song for everyone as she teetered happily, a victim of that devilish Korean rice liquor. My new sister-in-law, generally happy but always composed, got tipsy and said ‘Hyon-bo, watch!’ (Hyon-bo is a phonetic spelling for the word that means ‘older sister’s husband’ - me, in this case. Koreans use titles like this among family far more than they use names.) She was in her sock feet and a traditional Korean dress (all the Korean women wore these dresses at the wedding) and she proceeded to run and then slide on our wood floor, giggling like a school girl, as I watched, face grinning and head spinning.

The wedding itself was chaotic and wonderful. We had neighbors, family, multiple cultures, multiple languages, multiple minor embarrassments and only one near disaster. Nothing caught fire, and no one was injured. Of all the brides that have ever been, mine was the most beautiful.

Those three months, which I’d viewed as work, had actually been joyful. They were full of strong memories and real moments and random wonders. They’ll shine on inside me until the day that I go dark.

I know, this is supposed to be about writing. So what’s the point, right? This is the point: I realized all this, and then I started writing again. It hooked me back into the truth behind what gets my fingers moving on the keys and makes the words come freely: writing isn’t about the work of writing. It’s about that golden high that comes from capturing, even a little (and if just for a moment), all the loving, hurting, triumphant and terrible moments that make up the living of life.

Writing is an excuse to tap into all the best and the worst that life has to offer, whether in the real world or in my imagination. It’s a reason to search for and re-experience moments of happiness and sorrow, to examine all the territory between innocence and evil. Mostly, it’s just a license to have one hell of a good time.

I love the people I love more than I’ll ever love the writing, but it has to be said and it’ll always be true: the writing sure doesn’t suck.

I realize this might all come off to some as melodramatic or airy-fairy, but cut me some slack: it’s been a dramatic few months. I also know I’m not and never will be the greatest writer who ever lived. But I’m writing again, and I hope I’ll be doing it till I die.

I’d like to be found slumped over my laptop at 90, having failed to finish the final paragraph that would have revealed to everyone who the REAL killer was…

Then they could write on my tombstone : Here lies Cody Mcfadyen, who proved that you can take it with you.

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October 23, 2009

Write What You Know?

One of the problems I’ve run into in writing twisted books about serial killers is that people seem to assume all writers heed the advice to - generally spoken in a Morgan-Freeman-being-God kind of voice - WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.

Seriously, I once had neighbors that kept me at arm’s length after they heard what I write about. I guess they thought I must know something about being a serial killer, or at least enjoy the concept in a fantasy sense. One Halloween they got up the gumption to talk to me, and asked me what costume I was planning to wear.

“Oh, I’m already in costume,” I replied.

They frowned, puzzled. “What do you mean?” The husband asked.

“Well, I’m going as a serial killer. They’re monsters that wear people costumes, get it? ” Then I let my left eye twitch, followed by some hearty, back-slapping laughter that ended as suddenly as it had begun.

I know, I know. It was mean. But their attitude had been pissing me off for a year, so I gave into my pettier impulses. We had no further interaction.

The point is, ‘Write what you know’, while sound advice, can’t always be applied. Sometimes, you have to ‘write what you think you know’ or ‘write what you can surmise.’ When it comes to something as twisted and alien as a serial killer, the best I can do is to try and understand them by comparing their experience to something more human. For example: I’ve had experience with drug addicts. I’ve watched that craving, the kind that opens up a hole in people that they’ll use anything to fill. They’ll pack anything in that hole, from their self respect to their family’s love, and often do. So I took that experience, which I can at least relate to on some level, and applied it to understanding a serial killer. I imagined having that same kind of craving and need to kill other human beings, and I did my best to relate it.

But did I know it? Of course not. And I hope I never do.

This also pops up in writing the character of Smoky Barrett. I’m a guy, she’s a woman, I write her in the first person. What’s more, she’s a woman who’s experienced rape, and half of her face was disfigured by her attacker. Well, I’ve gotten an email or two from female readers accusing me of writing such a character so I could ‘experience her rape vicariously’. I would probably have found this devastating, had I not gotten a letter early on from a woman who did, in fact, experience being raped and disfigured in her home. It’s one of only two actual snail-mail letters I’ve received from readers (email rules the day), and in it she thanked me for my portrayal of the main character. She said it made her feel good to read about someone else overcoming that and getting on with their life, too.

I can’t know what she went through, and would never claim that understanding. I tried, instead, to tap into what I have experienced and observed on the subject of human suffering, and did my best to convey that. I’m pleased where it worked, and offer my most sincere middle finger to those ladies who wrote me those emails, few though they were.

Not all writing is about what you know. In fact, for me, a lot of writing is about the opportunity to try and understand those things you find a mystery.

In the end, I think that’s a big part of what keeps me writing. Hopefully, it’s part of what keeps you reading, too.

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October 27, 2009

Shadow Season by Tom Piccirilli hits stores!

I’m so happy to have the chance to interview Tom Piccirilli about writing, life, and his new book, Shadow Season, which hits stores today! —Seth Harwood

SH: You’ve written a whole lot of books now. How many? When did you publish your first novel and what was it?

TP: My new novel SHADOW SEASON is my 20th published novel. My first, DARK FATHER, was a very immature horror novel that’s full of bombastic experimental literary fireworks with no grounding in actual storytelling. I wrote it when I was 21 and I thought I was going to be the next William S. Burroughs or something.

SH: Was it a series book? How many series do you have going now?

TP: I’ve written a couple of presumed series but never made it to the third of any of them thus far. My first two mysteries THE DEAD PAST and SORROW’S CROWN were a pair, my two westerns GRAVE MEN AND COFFIN BLUES followed the same two protagonists, and THE COLD SPOT and THE COLDEST MILE are the first two in what I really hope will be a trilogy following my career thief Chase and his stone cold killer grandfather Jonah.

SH: Who published your first book? Can you tell us a bit about your road to getting published? How you got an agent submitted your book, etc.

TP: Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster published DARK FATHER. My career started very ass backward. It’s a miracle that the book got picked up since I did absolutely everything wrong at the beginning. I submitted a partial manuscript over the transom. The book wasn’t finished. And I sent a dark fantasy novel to an editor in charge of the literary line. But the fates were smiling. Somehow the novel caught the attention of the powers that be and it got picked up. My first agent was someone who swung the boilerplate contract, took her 15%, and left me cold. I went through another four agents in the almost 20 years since then, but none of them ever managed to sell a single book for me. We either clashed personally or professionally. All of the sales I handled on my own until the most recent, when I finally hooked up with someone who I get along with on both a personal and business level.

SH: How long have you been working and supporting yourself as a writer, strictly?

TP: Since the beginning. It’s been a tight tight seriously tight struggle, brother, but somehow I’ve managed it.

SH: What advice would you offer young writers today about starting off a career as a fiction author? Other than head for the hills. Just kidding. Seriously, do you still think it’s possible for a young writer to support him or herself with his/her fiction?

TP: It can happen, but I have no advice on how anybody can make it happen beyond the obvious. Learn your craft. Get an agent or publisher that you see eye to eye with and who will encourage you along a very difficult path. There’s a lot of damn work involved and not much security.

SH: What are some of the best ways you have seen to publicize a novel? Online or off. Can you tell us some of the things that your publisher has done for you that have helped? How about some things that you’ve done yourself?

TP: There’s no one thing that stands out among the many. It’s all a battle of inches, of increments. You push in every venue that you can think of, you make yourself accessible, you do your damnedest to promote. You build your fanbase one at a time, you do signings, you hit conferences, you push to get reviews, you give as many interviews as you possibly can without boring the shit out of the reader. You become a sucker and join up with all these sites. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, whatever. You strain to reach as many people as possible and you hope to Christ that your product is strong enough to keep them coming back for more.

SH: How did you cut your teeth as a writer and really learn to get your chops? Can you tell us about this process for you?

TP: It was hard-fought battle finding my own voice. Some writers have a unique and powerful voice right from the beginning, but I wavered like hell. Like I said, my first novel wasn’t grounded in a mature worldview yet because I didn’t have one myself. After selling the first one there was a long dry spell where I wrote several more books but couldn’t find anyone who’d publish them. I decided I needed to go back and really learn the short form. I spent a year doing nothing but writing short fiction, finding my voice, learning how to edit myself, how to sharpen the prose. Once I started selling short stories regularly and building something of a name for myself in the horror/dark fantasy field, I then went back to all those unsold novels and started mercilessly editing and restructuring them. Once I did that, they began to sell as well. It was a long road made a lot harder because I needed to get a few more years under my belt, had to find out a lot more about myself and the world, in order to put it into the books and really connect with a reader.

SH: Who are some of your favorite writers and people who influenced your work?

TP: Man, the list is endless, and it’s all over the literary map, but if I have to name just a handful I’d say David Goodis, Charles Williams, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich, Donald Westlake, Jim Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, and Charles Bukowski. I’ve been lucky enough to have had three true mentors in my life: Jack Cady, Dick Laymon, and Ed Gorman. The three of them helped me immensely when I was starting out. They were encouraging through the roughest times and always had a kind word or a bit of advice when I needed it. Jack and Dick are gone now but there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not thankful to them. And Ed remains a best friend to many of us in the field. He’s the best of the best.

SH: I notice that some of your characters are legitimate bad asses, brawlers, grifters, card sharks, and underworld geniuses. Do you have to put yourself into this world, or how do you figure out how to write these guys? What kind of research are you up to?

TP: The most recent books THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, and SHADOW SEASON all deal with cops and criminals and living the bent life. The research is pretty minimal as research, meaning I read tons of cop & bad guy books and certain elements stick with me. I used to be a true crime addict too, so some of that has rubbed off as well. And film noir as a whole has a great meaning for me. The intense and basic concept of a good guy being pushed or pulled over the line where he’s forced to do something bad. It’s the call of fate. You fight the good fight every day but sometimes you give in to your baser instincts. You want. You desire. You covet. You fear. You grab. You snatch. You cheat. You get older and realize that life isn’t what you’d hoped it would be, and there’s a real terror there, a hope that you can somehow put your past behind you and filch whatever it is you think you need. The internal conflict is in all of us, I think. So I put myself in that criminal world because at heart I’m a covetous prick like anyone. I just live out the life in fiction.

SH: What’s next for you?

TP: As mentioned my new novel SHADOW SEASON hits stores in three weeks. It’s about a blind ex-cop turned teacher at an isolated private girls’ school who has a lot of unfinished business with his dirty ex-partner. Some bad dudes are roaming the campus during a blizzard and the seductive teenagers are putting my handicapped protagonist through hell. So, lots of giggles and guffaws. The next book is entitled THE UNDERNEATH, another one that deals with the bent life. It’s about a guy who returns home to his family of career thieves on the eve of his murderous brother’s execution. There’s a lot of unanswered questions about his brother’s killing spree, and my protagonist has a lot of regrets and remorse about abandoning his pregnant ex-girlfriend. It’s as much a family drama as it is a crime tale, and in some ways its my most ambitious book yet.

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October 28, 2009

My Writing Process

One of the things I’m asked about most is my writing process. So, while it feels a little bit like I’m gazing at my navel - here we go.

When I’m writing the first draft, I operate from the ‘let it all hang out’ position. I use every character idea, every plot twist (silly or not), every last drop of emotion, and all of the worst and most violent scenarios I can conceive of. I don’t censor myself on a first draft in any way, shape or form. It’s kind of like taking a digital photograph: you can always make a big photo smaller, but you can’t make a small photo bigger (well, you can, but it looks like crap).

There are things that I’ve written in some first drafts that will never see the light of day, and that’s as it should be. There have been at least two violent passages in my novels that were deleted forever from my harddrive. I mentioned this once to a reader in Germany, who told me: ‘Oh, no, you should keep those! Maybe one day you can put out an ‘unabridged’ version with all the gory parts intact.’ I explained to him that I wasn’t interested in writing books that get burned, nor was I interested in being hung in effigy.

Yeah, they were that bad.

There have been plot twists that went beyond the ridiculous, and plenty of stilted, awful dialogue that I am actually ashamed to have written.

All of that’s okay, because it works for me. I basically give myself a pass to create a mental environment where anything goes, where anything can be imagined or said. The result is the first draft - an obese, possibly obscene, probably monstrous thing. Kind of like Jabba the Hut.

Then I set it aside and wait a week.

The next draft is where I break out the carving knife. I read and cut, read and cut. I get rid of the overly gratuitous, the stupid, the unnecessary. Because I didn’t censor myself, I am usually left with a lot of good stuff. More importantly, I generally end up writing a book that pushes my own boundaries, because I gave myself no limits on the first draft.

William Blake’s famous paragraph: “The path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom. The pleasure of satisfying a savage instinct, undomesticated by the ego is incomparably much more intense than the one of satisfying a tame instinct.”

I don’t necessarily agree with this in life, but I absolutely agree with it when it comes to first drafts.

Every writer has their own way of doing things. For me, every book is a war. A knock-down, drag-out, Fight Club kind of thing. I get obsessed when I’m writing, and every book takes its toll. I go into some dark, messed-up places, and it’s not always a day at the races. Sometimes it’s banging on a piñata made of meat. A piñata that squeals at you. But I digress…

Once the second draft is done, and I’m satisfied with it, then the time comes to let someone else read the book. I will generally send it to my agent, as she used to be an editor, and I trust her insight. She’ll read it over and give me her notes. I’ll consider what she’s said and dive back down the rabbit hole to revise. This is generally the last big struggle, the final battleground for the most major revisions. After this revision and a final re-read by my agent, I send it on to my editor.

The editor/writer relationship is incredibly important and unbelievably valuable. I’ve heard stories (haven’t we all) about eccentric (or cranky) famous authors who refuse editorial collaboration. This mystifies me. Every book of mine that’s been published became a much better book as a direct result of the editorial process. All writers have tics and blind spots. You need a second set of eyes to make sure yours have been discovered and dealt with.

Once all of the above is done, and the book has been officially put to bed, I put it out of my mind and try not to think about it again. I’ve never gone back to re-read a book once it’s been put through the above process. It becomes the past.

I immerse myself, instead, into all the things that’ll get those creative wheels turning; books, movies, music, the good, the bad and the hideous. All to get myself ready for that next first draft and the war that comes with it.

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October 31, 2009

Once Upon A Time

On the rare occasion that I get writer’s block, one of the things I use to get the words rolling again is “Once upon a time.”

“Once upon a time,” I’ll think. I’ll look around the room and spot, perhaps, my DVD player. “Once upon a time a guy sat down to watch a DVD.”

What DVD?

“Okay, it was Cannibal Holocaust. Jim wasn’t really into gore movies, but he’d lost a bet with a friend about whether or not he could devour an entire watermelon in one sitting, so there he was.”

Then what?

“Well, he decided he needed some liquid courage to watch the hideously violent film (he really didn’t like gory films). When he went to the refrigerator, the beer was gone.”

Why? Who drank it? Him?

“No, the beer was one of six twelve packs polished off at the poker party the evening before. The poker party, by the way, was something Jim and his friends had put together a year before. Instead of playing for money, they put a ‘Fear Factor’ spin on it. Hence the watermelon, hence Cannibal Holocaust. Hence no beer. Jim decided he’d have to go buy some, so he went to the store.”

In what? A car, a truck a van?

“Beat up ten-speed bicycle. He lost the car a few months earlier in a similar poker game. (Yes, Jim has a gambling problem.) So he takes off on his ten speed, to buy some beer. It’s the middle of the night, but the 7-11 isn’t far. However, just as he’s about to turn off his street, he hears a blood curdling scream and a naked woman bursts out of the house on the corner and races across the lawn. A man runs after her, wielding a hatchet…”

And so on. It’s a silly exercise, but it almost never fails. The key is to try and go left when you’d normally go right. Lots of sudden ninety-degree angles and improbability. I swear, it’s like WD 40 for the mind.

Of course, we never get to find out what happened to Jim. Did he save the girl? Did he shrug and cycle on? If we want to get complex about it, maybe this is what happens:

“Jim leaps off his bike and gives chase to the man with the hatchet, but gets there too late to save the girl. The hatchet gets buried in her skull twice before Jim manages to tackle the bad guy. A brutal fight ensues, a violent, desperate, knock-down drag-out . Jim is at the losing end, being strangled to death, when his grasping hand finds the handle of the hatchet. He grips it hard, yanks it out of the poor girl’s head, and chops at the bad guy, again and again, lost in his own hysteria, fury, and desperation. When the police arrive, they find him there, hatchet in hand, wild-eyed, standing above two dead bodies.

The cops, of course, end up assuming he was the original assailant, and he is arrested. No evidence to the contrary is found, and Jim goes to death row - all because he went out to buy some beer. He never does get to watch Cannibal Holocaust. He never gambles again.”

Try it sometime. Give yourself a license to imagine the ridiculous or the strange or whatever, without censor, and see if helps.

A final one, in honor of it being Halloween:

Once upon a time, two kids came to my door for Halloween Candy. They came alone, and they were never seen again. The very next day, the dirt in the crawl space of my basement was freshly turned, so freshly turned.

Are these two things related?

I don’t know. I truly don’t. I can’t remember.

But my fingernails are dirty, so dirty, and I am… I am…

So happy.

Happy Halloween and happy reading.

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