Thursday, April 02, 2009

Horror Blog Fest: Christopher Ransom, author and fan

Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about you and your writing career.
I’ve been writing prose off and on for sixteen years but took a five-year detour to write screenplays before working up the courage to write my first novel, The Birthing House, which is out now in the UK and will be released in the US this August. I spent three years writing The Birthing House and it was the best education in writing I ever received. I was a terrible student in high school and college, and never attended a writer’s workshop or other writing program, so maybe it took me a little longer to do it on my own. At any rate, I never enjoyed writing as much as I did while working on my novel, so I plan to stick with this for a while.

What is your most recent novel about – if you are allowed to tell us?

The Birthing House is about a couple in their 30s, Conrad and Joanna Harrison, who are trying to reboot their marriage, so to speak, by moving from Los Angeles to a small town in rural Wisconsin. Soon after they settle in, Jo leaves Conrad for eight weeks of training for a new job, and Conrad, stewing in the house all summer, discovers that their new home, which is really his new home, was a birthing house at the turn of the century and may now be haunted. Conrad is wrestling with the idea and reality of becoming a father, the growing pains of leaving adolescence and his early 20s behind to become domestic. He is haunted by a destructive relationship from his high school years that continues to wreak havoc in his life and is responsible for almost literally opening the door to the entity that still resides in the former birthing house. In the course of uncovering (or ignoring at his peril) the house’s history and trying to salvage his dying marriage, Conrad becomes obsessed with his next door neighbour, Nadia, who is 20 and pregnant, and has some experience with the evil residing under Conrad’s roof. The novel is about the toll of a dual-income marriage, how our past relationships inform and disturb our present relationships, how infidelity and sexuality fit into the larger scheme of procreation, and—as I like to joke—only incidentally about a haunted birthing house.

I make that joke because, in truth, I did not set out to write a haunted house novel at all, or even a horror novel. I am not particularly interested in or frightened by ghosts or monsters. However, in terms of communicating what’s going on in someone’s head, a house is a great metaphor for the mind, and the ghost is a marvellous mirror of the psyche. And people—they scare me. So I just started writing about three characters locked in a situation I found fascinating. About a hundred pages in, I realized the story was following the classic haunted house trajectory. Coincidentally (or not very), my wife and I had recently moved from Los Angeles to Mineral Point, Wisconsin, which is a town of about three thousand people, so we were experiencing an amusing form of culture shock. We bought a 140-year-old Victorian and later learned it had been a birthing house and small clinic near the turn of the century. I did not borrow my house’s real history in any way; the idea of what it would be like if my house really was haunted was quite enough. During the first draft, I was only vaguely aware that I was writing about a troubled marriage, sex, birth, and all the rest while living under the roof of a birthing house. The potential of a haunted birthing house became intertwined with the questions and themes I was exploring, and the title was too appropriate to resist. Who knows, maybe the house wanted me to write the book (he says with nervous laughter and mild fear).

What do you think makes the horror genre so fascinating to readers and writers?

The power, for one. The raw, straight-to-your-primal-center-ness of it. There is no question fear is one of the most compelling emotions, that it is one of the strongest and most fundamental. It’s not like delight or melancholy, relative lightweights. Fear is right up there with love. It is crucial to our survival. From one perspective, it is fair to say fear drives nearly every other emotion, including love. Do we not love out of fear of being alone, at least partially? Do we not work for fear of going hungry?

For readers, horror fiction is a safe venue we visit to experience fear without being overwhelmed by it. No one wants horror in their life, but we will all face it in one form or another. I forget who said stories are tools for living, but I believe that. I cannot imagine living without quality fiction. So, if that is true, then horror stories might contain some tools for learning how to deal with the bad shit life throws our way. Maybe that is a stretch, but I find reading dark fiction fortifying in some way. I also just like experiencing a good thrill, without the hangover.

As for writers, for this writer anyway, the horror genre comes equipped with another marvellous set of tools. The ghosts, the houses, the monsters, the descent into a self and reality (even an everyday, real-world reality) we did not know existed, the whole range of darker human psychology. It’s almost another language. There are tropes and tricks and rules to break. When the writing is going well, the writer feels every event in the story as it is being written, as if by surprise, as his reader will experience it eventually. This makes for a fun ride behind the keyboard. But more importantly, writing horror, like writing in any other genre, should be an exploration of the self. It’s not easy to plumb one’s deepest fears and bring them into the daylight, but it is rewarding on many levels.

As a horror writer / fan, what sells a story / concept to you?

I don’t care much for concept anymore. Ideas are cheap. When I was younger, all it took to convince to buy a book was a vampire or a knife on the cover. But like any habitual reader, over time I have discovered that the writing is what counts. Without the execution, without quality writing and an original voice and real characters, no monster or end-of-the-world concept is scary. So I try to find authors that write well and then I follow them. One of my very favourite authors, Dan Simmons, wrote horror novels in the early portion of his career, and they were all stunning. But then he went and did this crazy thing—he turned his back on millions of dollars and branched off into science fiction, which I had never much cared for, and I followed him there. He later went on to write mainstream, hardboiled crime, historical fiction, and much more. Now the real joy is seeing what he does next. As a writer, I don’t have the guts or the talent to pull that off. But as a reader, I can’t ask for more. Concept bores me. Narrative force, good writing, brave authors—these things sell me.

Picture: Stephen King

What movies / books influenced your development as a genre writer? Similarly, what books, movies, comics, get you excited as a fan?

I suspect we live in an age when there are two types of horror writers: those who admit they were influenced by Stephen King to some degree, and those who lie. It might be a cliché at this point, but King’s books taught me to love reading. I read Cujo when I was 11 and I never looked back. Pet Sematary is the scariest novel I have or probably ever will read. It’s also a very serious novel, when you look beyond the cat that comes back from the grave. He’s writing about the most painful things a human can face: death, burial, the loss of child. How our culture does almost nothing to prepare for the natural eventuality of death. I honestly don’t know how he found the courage to go that far--that deep into his fear. I reread it again for the fifth or sixth time last summer and was struck by how even the vocabulary and syntax King uses in Pet Sematary reek of sour earth, embalming fluids, medicine, cold soil. There is a vintage texture, as if it were aging well in the sense of a classic, which of course I feel it is. So, yes, like many readers in the 80s and 90s, I was weaned on Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, and many others. They all influenced me in some way, large or small.

Dan Simmons’s speculative-horror-love story of a novel, The Hollow Man, is quite different than my novel (or any that I will likely ever attempt to write) but it was a pivotal book in my life. I read it when I was 20, trying to decide what to do with myself, and the novel terrified me, challenged me, and made me weep, all in the span of about seven hours. I decided shortly after that to become a writer. There were a lot of books that nudged me toward the decision, but The Hollow Man was the nail in my coffin.

As I neared my late 20s and began to get serious, there were a few other authors, in various genres, not just horror, that changed how I thought about style and narrative, and I am sure they influenced me as well. Colin Harrison’s Afterburn took my head off. I still study the way he achieves such momentum without sacrificing nuance of language and depth of character. Nabokov has playfulness and an ability to find humour in the most wretched of circumstances, and that can be useful when writing horror.

What gets me excited as a fan is when one of my favourite authors releases a new novel. Peter Blauner is in my humble opinion the best “crime” writer working today, though he is much more than that. The only problem is, he only publishes a new novel every four years or so. But I am glad he takes his time, because the quality really shows and he is always worth the wait.

Who do you go all fan-boy about when it comes to the horror genre? Have you ever met anyone more famous than yourself and how did you react?

When I worked a Barnes & Noble in Los Angeles, I once waited on Julia Roberts, just like Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. She was very polite but she didn’t fall in love with me. Does that count? No, I guess not. Well, I haven’t met too many famous writers. I did meet Dan Simmons years ago, when I had just decided to become a writer and he was signing copies of The Hollow Man (which as I said had just become my favourite novel). Dan was seated in this tiny newsstand on Main Street in Longmont, Colorado, near my hometown of Boulder, so it was easy for me to wander over on my lunch break. Anyway, I was the first (okay, only) person in line; Dan was not yet the supernova he is today. I probably could have had his ear for half an hour, and he was very polite, but I was too frightened to squeak much more than, “Thank you.” I quickly fled the store, clutching my signed first edition to my bosom like a schoolgirl with her first love note.

Stanley Kubrick

If you had a chance to invite any horror legend, be it actor, writer, director, author (living / dead / undead) over for some tea, who would you choose and why?

After reading Charles LaBrutto’s excellent biography of Stanley Kubrick, wherein he chronicles many of the director’s bull sessions with writers and actors, I couldn’t stop thinking about what that must have been like for those who had the privilege—and some would say the curse—of Kubrick’s company. I realize Kubrick was not a horror guy per se, but he was tuned in to the dark side of human nature. There is a coldness to his work, his control, his obsessive nature. But he was also reputed to be a very sweet man, and an expert on a huge array of subjects. There is something tantalizing and terrifying about getting one of Kubrick’s phone calls in the middle of the night, being whisked off to his hidden estate, and hired to be a writer on one of his films, only to find oneself locked in a seemingly endless conversation with the man, who, it was reported, went through phases where he and his guests ate the same meal over and over for weeks, until he tired of it. Visiting writers seemed to emerge from the Kubrick compound like aged moles, gray-haired and blinded by his intensity and brilliance. I wouldn’t have been able to resist that call, had it ever come

Lights on or off when watching horror flicks?

Off, of course, without exception. I am allowed to make my wife watch only one scary movie per year, so that means for all the others it’s me and one of my dogs under a blanket, lights off, eyes bugging out. Actually, watching a scary film by yourself increases the potency, so I don’t mind. Last summer I watched The Orphanage all by myself and that one got me pretty good.

Which do you prefer: Romero originals or remakes?

Oh, I know this is sacrilege, but I’ll go with the Dawn of the Dead remake here. The screenwriter on that one, James Gunn, is a very funny guy who gets zombies and I thought he handled it very well. It was scary and funny and full of great action set pieces. His characters were solid, his dialogue chewy. The sniper going after “Burt Reynolds” bit in there is priceless.

What is the best advice you ever received from someone about horror writing?

The best advice I know of for writing horror is no different than the advice we hear for writing any other kind of fiction and literature. The same things are important. Quality writing, characters that feel and behave like real people with real problems, realistic dialogue, evocative setting, all of it. In fact, when it comes to writing horror, or any genre that tends to rely too much on the wowee factor, we need to be extra vigilant, mindful of the fundamentals—namely, writing well. Plot and suspense are the least of our problems. We can’t rely on ghosts and serial killers and zombies to fool the reader for long. Or maybe we can, but we shouldn’t. Because while the apocalypse might get some fanboys in the door, the fanboys are all growing up, too, and eventually the day will come when they demand better of us. Actually, in all fairness, they already do. So, we owe it to our careers, our genre, our publishers and readers, to strive for quality. The writing is everything. That is what I tell myself every day, because I know I have a long way to go, and if you’re not constantly trying to improve the quality of your writing, you’re dead.

The horror genre has seen many incarnations over the past few years – what do you think the future holds for the genre?

I have been hearing about the death of horror in publishing since I attended The Pike’s Peak Writer’s Conference in 1993 or thereabouts. But good writers kept on publishing horror novels every year, right up through today. The vampire stuff seems to be bottomless. I know a lot of the large houses in New York are a little skittish about horror, but on the other hand, my editor at St. Martin’s Press told me he had been looking for a good ghost story for four years before he acquired The Birthing House. Now, look, I’m not saying I wrote The Turn of the Screw or The Shining—I know I did not. But four years? That tells me that either agents are extremely gun shy about submitting horror or there just aren’t that many well written and truly frightening manuscripts floating through the channels. In either case, we have only ourselves to blame.

But of course there are cycles. Trends. You can’t plan for them or write with an eye on them, though, so why bother? Hollywood ate up a ton of ghost stories after The Sixth Sense made $300 million domestic, and once that milked out, they went after harder stuff, exploitation fare, torture porn (which does nothing for me), and some great zombie flicks (which I do like). Now that those are playing out, we’re back to psychological stuff and ghost stories and dark fantasy and . . .

All of which is to say, I don’t have a clue where horror is going, and I never gave it much thought. I focused on writing the book that I wanted to write, to the best of my abilities, and it worked out. I am fortunate that it did. I am sure timing was a factor. But the reality is that there will always be a market for quality horror fiction and writing that truly moves the reader.

Do you have a zombie apocalypse survival plan – apart from going to hide in the Winchester, that is! – and will you be able to implement it?

You know, if it comes to that point, where we are truly being overrun by the zombie hoard, I think I would rather just join them. I mean, think about it, do zombies looked stressed to you? Other than finding food, what’s a zombie got to worry about? They don’t have to get up and go to work every day. They don’t have to pay taxes or fret about the state of the world or try to get laid. They have no fear of death because the worst has already happened to them. All a zombie has to do is duck some bullets and find some brains to gnaw on, and there are plenty of those to go around. Hey, I’m a foodie. I could live like that. Kind of do already, now that I think about it.

Are there any “how to” books on your bookshelf you would recommend to aspiring authors?

I apologise if this sounds obvious, but writers aspiring to contribute to the field of horror should be reading well beyond the field. It’s not enough to read every Stephen King book. We need to read the classics, non-fiction, biographies, anything that is well written and expands our palette. We are what we eat, after all.

The literary critic James Wood recently published a jaw-droppingly insightful book called How Fiction Works. It is not the same old tired book on how to write. It’s a rich but concise study of the techniques that separate the giants from the rest of us mere mortals. It’s a bit more advanced and I won’t claim to have gotten my head around most of it yet, but it’s a treasure of a book that encourages one to become a better reader as well as unlearn a lot of bad writing habits, which can be painful but very helpful to do. I would tell aspiring writers to read as many good books on writing as they can get their hands on, study them, practice what the books preach, and then move on. Put them back on the shelf and just write. All the books on writing won’t do a damn thing for us if we don’t remember to dive in and write.

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