Tag Archives: Richard Matheson

The Intel: Chet Williamson

Author headshotYou may have heard of a novel called Psycho. Some fellow made a movie of Robert Bloch’s novel which, arguably, changed the course of movies and horror fiction forever. Without Norman Bates there wouldn’t have been a whole slew of slasher movies, or sly, charming killers such as Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman and Dexter Morgan.

In the years since Hitchcock’s movie, Bates, the nerdy fellow with the Mummy issues, has been reinvented several times — sequels followed, and a TV series. But Bloch’s original novel has remained somewhat under the radar. Now Chet Williamson has taken Bates back to his gritty midwestern roots. He’s written an authorised sequel to Bloch’s book, called Psycho: Sanitarium.

In this terrific interview, Williamson talks about what is like to get his hands on one of the most famous characters in fiction, about how Hitchcock’s Bates swerved from Bloch’s original vision — and how, if you want to be a successful writer, it’s perhaps best to stay pessimistic…

How does it feel to have got your hands on one the most iconic characters in crime fiction – Norman Bates? 

It feels fantastic! The film of Psycho terrified me when I saw it as a kid, and I immediately bought the Robert Bloch book and have been a Bloch fan my whole life. To be offered a character that is such an icon of suspense and horror fiction was a dream come true. Having done some licensed characters in the past, I’d determined never to do so again, but to have the opportunity to create a novel with Norman Bates?

There was no way I could say no, especially since it was an immediate sequel to Bloch’s original novel, and I could tell the story of what happens after we leave Norman (and Mother) in his little cell after his arrest. I’d always loved the character, who is as sympathetic and empathetic as he is frightening.

We’re familiar with Hitchcock’s adaptation, but maybe not so much with Robert Bloch’s source novel – how does it differ from the movie?

For one thing, Norman isn’t nearly as physically attractive as Anthony Perkins. He’s in his forties rather than his twenties, and he’s somewhat overweight, which makes his discomfort with the opposite sex more believable. Also, the original isn’t set in California. Bloch never names a state, but internal evidence suggests somewhere in the Kansas/Missouri/Oklahoma/Arkansas area.

How has Norman changed since we last met him?

Not much, really. Only a few months have passed since his arrest and confinement, and he’s remained almost completely incommunicative. He’s trying to break out of his shell, but Mother’s having none of it.

Cover imageWhat do you think you have brought to the character that wasn’t in Bloch’s original vision?

I may be a bit more sympathetic toward Norman than Robert Bloch was. While Bloch makes you feel sympathetic toward him in the original novel, when he wrote Psycho II, which is set over twenty years later (and which has nothing to do with the Psycho 2 film), he makes Norman quite monstrous, and his initial acts of violence, which are perpetrated by Norman himself rather than Mother, are shocking in the extreme. I’ve tried to elicit in the reader a greater empathy toward and understanding of Norman, the same feelings that Bloch elicited in the original Psycho back in 1959.

Norman’s in a Hospital For The Criminally Insane, which is fertile ground for crime and horror writers – did you have any other favourite authors or movies you returned to for inspiration? 

Nothing fictional, really, though I did turn, for both research and inspiration, to the 1967 Frederick Wiseman documentary, Titicut Follies, set in Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts. If you think fictional films about early psychiatric care are shocking, the real thing as seen in this film is utterly horrifying.

If you could get your hands on another iconic crime fiction character, who would it be?

Well, I do love villains. I’ve always wanted to do something with a super-criminal along the lines of Fantomas or Dr. Mabuse, which I think would be fascinating in these times when he who controls the Internet controls the world.

How did you start writing?

A: I came to it through acting. It’s a long story, but as an actor, which I did professionally for a time, it wasn’t long before I realized that the true creators were the writers. I started writing for theatre, and then turned to fiction. I still keep my hand in as an actor by narrating audiobooks — in fact, I’ve just completed the audiobook of Psycho: Sanitarium. It’s always a delight for me to record my own work, since I know the characters will sound as I intended them to sound.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

A: Not to give up, and never to expect too much. Stay pessimistic and you’ll never be too disappointed to continue. Write for yourself and for those readers who relate to your work.  It’s a rough way to make a living, even more so now with all the competition from self-published writers on the Internet. Fortunately I’ve had a supportive wife all these years. It’s very tough to survive on your own.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Of the old masters, Joseph Conrad, for his ability to make readers see,  P. G. Wodehouse, for never failing to make me laugh, M. R. James, for his truly terrifying ghost stories, and H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most alien writers and human beings imaginable. From my childhood, Robert Bloch, whose clean style I’ve always admired and tried to emulate, and Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, for their unfettered imaginations. Contemporary writers include Joe R. Lansdale, pound for pound the best writer in America today, and the UK’s Ramsey Campbell, a superb stylist and storyteller.

Give me some advice about writing… 

My advice is to not ever take any advice on writing. Seriously. Everyone works in different ways. Be true to your own method of working. If outlining works for you, then outline. If you’re happier just forging ahead without an idea of where you’re going and can fix things during revision, then do it.

The only books on writing I’ve ever read that were worth a damn were the American John Gardner’s trilogy, On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction, and Oscar Lee Brownstein’s Strategies of Drama, which is primarily for playwrights but equally valuable for fiction writers. Whatever you do, avoid books that say, “This is what you must do.” No, you mustn’t.

What’s next for you?

It’s been a full year, with the Psycho book and two collections having come out (The Night Listener and Others from England’s PS Publishing and A Little Blue Book of Bibliomancy from Borderlands Press). So after Psycho: Sanitarium is safely launched, I’m planning on doing some reading and research in preparation for a new novel. I have a thematic idea, but little else, and being that I’m an outliner, there’s work to be done!

***

Psycho: Sanitarium is published by Canelo, price £3.99 in eBook.

 

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The Intel: Nicholas Kaufmann

Nicholas KaufmannOne of the joys of being a commissioned writer is that sometimes you get to play in someone else’s sandbox. Nicholas Kaufmann is the author of Hunt At World’s End, one of the popular Gabriel Hunt series.

Created by Charles Ardai, Hunt is a world traveler and man of action, a strapping six-footer who travels with a classic six-shooter in a holster on his hip and has an insatiable hunger for discovery. He’s an old-school Pulp hero, one of those Saturday morning serial guys who travels to far-flung corners to find lost cities and artefacts. All the Gabriel Hunt novels are available right now from Titan Books.

Nick is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated writer and a member of the International Thriller Writers. He’s kindly agreed to give us the intel on Hunt, the importance of persevering  as a writer and how to travel the world from the safety of your office chair…

Tell us about Gabriel Hunt…

I think Gabriel Hunt could best be described as the spiritual offspring of Indiana Jones, Doc Savage, and Allan Quatermain. Maybe with a little James Bond thrown in, given his contacts and almost limitless resources, thanks to the Hunt Foundation that bankrolls his exploits. He’s a two-fisted, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later adventurer who excels at finding trouble as frequently as he finds exotic artifacts and lost treasure. But he’s not just some dumb bruiser. He’s got a sharp, strategic mind, too, and a great deal of compassion for the underdog. Also, judging from his companions in the six books of the series, he has a way with the ladies.

Why, in this day and age, are we so attracted to devil may care heroes like Gabriel?

That’s an excellent question. I suspect the attraction is less about the devil may care attitude and more about the freedom of Gabriel Hunt’s life. Most of us live very regimented lives. We get up at the same time every day, follow the same morning routine, take the same route to work, do the same things at work that we did yesterday and the day before, then take the same route home, eat dinner, watch some TV, go to bed, and do it all again exactly the same the next day.

Gabriel Hunt’s life is different from ours. If he gets a whim to travel to an exotic location in search of a lost civilization, he does it. For the rest of us that’s just a daydream, but for him it’s within reach. I think that’s why readers are attracted to these kinds of heroes. They live the lives we only dream about. Of course, in the end that’s probably for the best. I don’t think I would personally be very good at swinging on a vine across a bottomless chasm while bad guys shoot at me. I’m much better at sitting at a desk and writing about it. It’s a lot safer, too.

At World’s End is a rollicking action-adventure – what’s the secret of writing action?

Action scenes are my favourite scenes to write. I find them absolutely joyful, even if terrible things are happening, because the momentum speeds up, takes on a life of its own, and keeps going. The days when I write action scenes are the days when my word count impresses me instead of depresses me. But the secret to writing action? I’d have to say the answer would be to plot the scene out first. Even with leaving room for improvisation, which is where the real magic of creativity occurs, you’re going to want to know most of the parameters of the scene before you start. Will it be a long sequence or a short one? Will there be fighting involved, and will it involve weapons or fists? If it’s a chase scene, how much ground do you want them to cover?

But of course the most important consideration of all is this: What do you want the scene to accomplish? A good chase scene is great, but a good chase scene that reveals important plot or character points along the way, or that helps the reader better understand the setting by having your heroes being pursued through it, is even better. For me, it also helps to think of an action scene as a set piece. It’s thrilling to have a shoot out in a dark city alley, but it can be even more thrilling to have it on a swaying rope bridge. Or a speeding train. Or on horseback. Of course, the tone of your story is important in determining all of this, too. If you’re writing a back-alley noir, it’s probably best to avoid rope bridges and trap-filled temples and keep events to shady, urban settings. But even then, set pieces still work great. You’ve got all sorts of seedy locations you can use, from strip joints to dive bars to vacant tenement buildings.

Whatever works for what you’re writing. Just make sure you know 1) where the action scene is going so you don’t write yourself into a corner, and 2) what, besides simple excitement, it is intended to accomplish.

Hunt At World's EndGabriel travels the globe in his adventures – how do you get the spirit of a place that perhaps you yourself have never visited?

Well, I’ve never been to Borneo, but a good chunk of the novel takes place there. Same with Turkey. The best thing to do, short of spending your savings on a plane ticket, is research it. Research is your friend. Research will tell you a lot more than the population size and major exports of a place. It’ll tell you about the culture, what people do and eat and wear and believe.

The best thing about research, though, is discovering the little gems you never knew about your topic but that work perfectly for the story, or add just the right dash of authenticity to sell the rest of it. It also helps enormously to look at pictures of the place you’re writing about. Technology like Google Image Search makes it easier than ever before to see pictures of far away lands that can give you a real feel for the place.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

I don’t write all day like some other authors I know, nor do I do much writing in the morning. I can barely write an email before three cups of coffee, let alone a chapter. My best writing is done in the afternoon, or in the evening if I can, though that’s rare these days. I write from home occasionally, but I’ve found it can be very distracting to be home all day. I start thinking about errands that need to get done, or washing the dishes, or cleaning the litter box. Also, when I’m by myself there’s no one around to keep me honest, so I’m likely to spend more time than usual surfing the Internet or sneaking in an episode or two of a TV show on Netflix.

So a few years ago I decided to start leaving my apartment to do my writing in the main branch of the New York Public Library. It’s such a beautiful building, so inspiring and breathtaking and stimulating that I really love working there. I love that lots of other people go there to work as well, because that keeps me honest. I can’t slack off in front of other people! So I’ll write at the library for between four and six hours, then come back home in the evening. I’m one of the only full-time writers I know with a commute, but I’m really enjoying having the brain-adjustment time between home and work. The commute also gives me more reading time, which I appreciate.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

There are so many it’s almost impossible for me to narrow it down to the single hardest! If pressed, though, I’d say the hardest lesson about writing is just how often your work will get rejected. You can’t go into this business with a thin skin because rejection is part of the game. It’s not just a rite of passage; it happens continually throughout a writer’s career. Even the best writers still get their work rejected from time to time. It can be hard, though. I don’t know of any other business except maybe acting where rejection is such a constant cost of doing business. Some writers can’t handle it; they give up and stop writing. Others start making really bad business decisions out of a fear of rejection, such as signing with terrible micropresses that accept anything or just throwing their book up onto Kindle and hoping someone will notice it.

The key to success in this business is perseverance, plain and simple. Just keep writing. I believe that every word you write makes you a better writer, so if you keep writing, keep working at it, you get better and better until finally your work isn’t being rejected nearly as much. Just keep in mind that to be a writer you will have to deal with rejection throughout your career. It’s best you know that up front so there won’t be any surprises.

How do you deal with feedback?

I love feedback, but only from people whose opinions I respect. I’m not going to pay attention to a snotty, one-star review on Amazon, for instance. I wouldn’t even call something like that feedback, really. And that goes double for snotty, one-star reviews where the author can’t spell or doesn’t have even a passing knowledge of grammar. But good feedback—which isn’t necessarily the same as positive feedback—is something I relish. I’ve been workshopping my fiction with a group of other authors in the New York City area for over ten years now. They’re all accomplished authors who work I admire and whose opinions I respect. Without them, I’m convinced I wouldn’t be half as good a writer as I am today.

I highly, highly recommend authors put together their own workshops with other authors they like and respect, or at the very least that they get a first reader or two. Other eyes on your work will reveal plot holes and character issues that your own eyes can’t see. When we write something, our brains tend to think everything important is on the page when in fact it may not be. That’s why first readers are so important. They catch all the missing stuff and the bits that don’t make sense.

In terms of reviews, well, my philosophy is to believe the good reviews and call the very act of reviewing into question for the bad ones. I think I’m like pretty much every other writer that way.

Who are the pulp authors you admire, and why?

I don’t read a lot of pulp, actually. I certainly admire groundbreaking authors like H. Rider Haggard, Robert E. Howard, Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler—especially Raymond Chandler—all of whom were called pulp at one time, but I feel like the term “pulp” has qualitative connotations, as if it is somehow lesser than other kinds of writing. Disposable and unimportant. It’s not. Honestly, I’m just as happy reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as I am reading Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and though there are obvious differences between the two, I don’t subscribe to the theory that the authors deserve different labels.

Give me some advice about writing…

I’ll start by repeating what I said above: Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance! Keep writing. Keep working at becoming a better writer. Creativity is like any other muscle, it gets stronger the more you use it. And don’t be afraid to submit your work. Agents and publishers aren’t going to come knocking on your door asking if you have anything for them. You need to send it to them. Every agent and publisher wants to find the next big thing. It could be you, but how will they know if they don’t get to see your work?

What’s next for you?

The second book of an urban fantasy-noir series I’m writing for St. Martin’s is out. It’s called Die and Stay Dead, the sequel to last year’s Dying Is My Business. It’s about a thief for a Brooklyn crime syndicate who discovers he can’t stay dead, although every time he cheats death someone else has to die in his place. I’m very excited about the series. I’m working on book three now. If the first two books do well enough, you should see book three, which is tentatively titled Only the Dead Sleep, out in 2015.

As for Gabriel Hunt books, I don’t know if Charles Ardai, the mad genius behind the series, is planning to produce more than the six novels already out there, but if he does I hope he’ll give me a call again. I loved spending time in Gabriel Hunt’s world and I would visit it again.

Nicholas has got a terrific blog full of news and scary stuff. You can check it out right here.