Three the Hard Way: How Tom Piccirilli, Norm Partridge, and Gary Braunbeck Survived the Death of the Horror Boom and Made Their Voices Heard
By, Jason S. Ridler
In the late eighties and early nineties, three up and coming horror writers found their careers rising . . . just as the horror boom went bust. Instead of crumbling, they grew into writers whose work and voice would define much of the best and innovative fiction coming out of the small presses and become established as first rate scribes of the fantastic. Despite these similar circumstances, each one has carved out a unique career, with a unique voice, but together they make a wild and potent chorus.
Tom Piccirilli, Norm Partridge, and Gary Braunbeck are mutual colleagues, peers and influences who survived some of the darkest days of fiction to become accomplished and noted writers of fiction ranging from dark fantasy to noir to science fiction and realism. And, against a backdrop of declining markets and the rise of the small press, each helped spear head a resurgence of dark fiction that continues to set a high standard of excellence in terms of quality, grit, and depth. Here, the discuss career, craft, and how they’ve approached making gripping fiction that is a must read for the modern reader of dark fantasy, crime, and horror.
Dark Scribe Magazine: Take us back to year one of your professional careers: You make your first major sale and begin to carve out your own path in horror fiction. What was the environment like in terms of magazines to submit, publishers interested in authors, popular appeal of horror, critical look, etc? Was the horror boom truly busted when you started?
Tom Piccirilli: The beauty of being a newbie just starting out back in the day is that I was brimming with confidence and stupidity and ignorance about my own work, but full of unabashed love for the field in general. Rejections didn't really get me down at the time because I was so happy just to be part of the process. I was submitting to magazines where some of my favorite stories had been published. I was getting letters back from editors I respected and who were major names in the genre. So everything about that time has a kind of rosy glow about it. We're talking the late 80s/early 90s so the boom was pretty much over, but how the fuck was I supposed to know that? I was buying up every Tor release that I could find and immersing myself in anthologies. Remember when there were tons of major anthologies on the shelves? But things were drying up. I knew I was in for a rough road when my first novel was orphaned at Simon & Schuster after my original editor left and the book was taken on a romance editor. When she said she didn't know who Robert R. McCammon – S&S's biggest horror writer – was, I felt the icy clutch of a horrific reality squeezing my 'nads.
Norm Partridge: My first publication was a story in a brand new magazine called Cemetery Dance back in '89. Basically, I was trying to break into the market by writing short stories, banging away on a first generation Macintosh with a screen the size of a piece of toast. I submitted to pro mags like Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, and in one of the last issues I read a Bob Morrish article about small press magazines. I started selling stories to those markets, and in a couple [of] years I worked my way up to anthologies edited by guys like Charlie Grant, Joe Lansdale, and Ed Gorman. At that time, there were still plenty of paperback originals coming out of NYC with black spines — in those days, you really could find the horror section in most bookstores just by looking for that color. Of course, as luck would have it, the market for horror novels capsized just as I was making a name for myself with the short stuff, but hey — I'll go along with Pic. It was an exciting time to get started, and I was stoked to have stories appearing back-to-back with writers I'd admired for years. Believe me, when "Johnny Halloween" appeared right there along with Stephen King's "Chattery Teeth" in an issue of Cemetery Dance, that put some gas in the tank, creatively speaking. I felt like: Hey, maybe I'll get myself a place at the table if I just keep cranking.
Gary Braunbeck: The horror boom was arguably at its peak when I made my first pro short story sale (a story entitled "Amymone's Footsteps") to Twilight Zone’s Night Cry in 1985. I'd originally submitted the story to T.E.D. Klein (who was about to step down as TZ's editor) and received a very nice, personal note from him telling me that of all the submissions I'd made to TZ (and I probably submitted there 30 times) this one was my best and if he were still able to, he would have bought it. He then told me he was going to pass it on to the new editor with a very strong recommendation to buy.
A couple of months went by – bear in mind, this was back when we were still using the mail and SASE's and hoped that when our manuscript came back in the mail, the editor hadn't spilled coffee on it or wrinkled the pages too much – and I receive a letter from TZ, this one not in the SASE I'd enclosed. It was from Alan Rodgers, who was then the editor at Night Cry, telling me that he'd read the story and thought it would work better were I to make some changes. I was twenty-four, still dumb as a mud fence, so I called the number below the letterhead and asked to speak to Alan; he gets on the phone and I tell him who I am and then ask what I now realize was a profoundly naive question: "Are you asking to see a re-write?" "Well, yes, I thought that was clear," he said. We talked for a few more minutes; I hung up the phone, and immediately ran to my Olivetti typewriter and began hammering out the re-write. Jump ahead three weeks. Another envelope from TZ arrives at the house. My heart skips a beat when I realize what it might be. I open the envelope and pull out not one, not two, but three sheets of paper — an acceptance letter and 2 contracts to sign. I jumped up and down and whooped and hollered and in general acted like one of the farting cowboys dancing around the fire in Blazing Saddles. There is nothing to compare with that very first professional story sale, nothing. I still smile when I remember the moment. Six years I'd been submitting stories, feeling angry and frustrated and like a loser every time the stories came back with rejection slips — but at that moment, the acceptance letter and contract in my hand, dancing around and shouting like a lunatic, it was all worth it.
Dark Scribe: Some more questions about the hungry years. You all got your start roughly at the same time (mid- to late eighties), before the Internet, when the horror and dark fiction community was regional (outside of conventions). Were you involved in the "horror community" at all? Do you remember who was considered the shining stars of the genre during the post boom bust (and not the elder statesmen, King, Barker, Rice, Straub, but the young turks before you became them)? Also, when did you began to hear of each other's work or met each other?"
Tom Piccirilli: I didn't know squat about any horror community when I started writing. I wasn't even sure I was writing horror until after I'd sold my first novel. I got into the biz ass-backwards, writing novels before short stories, so it took me a while longer to get into the field, learn the names of the folks appearing in all the horror/dark fantasy magazines of the time. I was reading Twilight Zone and Horror Show and the like, as well as Magazine of Fantasy & SF, but I was always a loner and didn't hit any cons until the early 90s, never met or talked with a horror writer until, out of the blue, Douglas Clegg gave me a call. He'd read my first novel and we were both publishing at Pocket Books at the time, and he, being a naturally hip and nice guy, just wanted to welcome me to the fold. I didn't even realize there was a fold. But shortly thereafter, I started really getting into the field, buying tons of horror novels and collections, which were big in those days, remember. One small bookstore on the eastern end of Long Island stocked every TOR horror paperback and I just immersed myself into the genre. That's when I started learning names, realized that folks like Bentley Little, Richard Christian Matheson, Skipp & Spector, and Poppy Brite were on their way up, and saw the crossover in the likes of Harlan Ellison and Dean Koontz who were noted fantasy and SF writers but doing all kinds of awesome horror work as well.
Dude, I'm old and feeble, I can't remember when I first heard of Norm or Gary, just that they were names who were appearing steadily in the magazines that I wanted to break into. I was a green-eyed envious fucker back then. Actually, I still am. When I started hanging around in a writer's group in the mid-90s, I remember meeting Gerard Houarner for the first time and him telling me that he had nearly 100 short stories published. I clearly recall thinking, "I will never be able to write that many stories, much less sell that many stories." It was both an inspiring and discouraging conversation, which I think is probably true of most practical discussions about the writing process and the biz.
Norm Partridge: Coming up in the magazines, I became familiar with the work of a lot of new writers. I didn't know them, but we rubbed shoulders on table of contents pages. Mostly, I made connections with editors — guys like Rich Chizmar and George Hatch (who edited a mag called Noctulpa). We traded phone calls, and Rich especially was great about giving me a head's up about different magazine and anthology markets.
But mostly, it was a lot harder to connect with other writers than it is today. I didn't go to conventions early on, and there was no Internet. Then one day I wandered into Little Bookshop of Horrors in Colorado. My first wife was from Boulder, and we were visiting her folks. And, hey, there was no Amazon in those days, either. It was tough to find specialty bookstores, tougher still to find one that specialized in horror, so I made a drive out to the burbs of Denver and found the place. Doug Lewis, the owner, quickly became a champion of my work, and he introduced me to the whole Denver crew during my next few visits — Ed Bryant, the Tems, Lucy Taylor, a bunch of others. We had some great times, because the Little Bookshop was kind of like a clubhouse for Colorado writers. We'd hang out at the store, or Doug would host a signing when other writers came through. That's how I met Joe Lansdale for the first time — there was a party at Doug's house the day after Joe's reading, and I was the guy at the barbecue flipping twenty-five pounds of chicken and singing the hair off my arms. After that, Joe and I sat in lawn chairs all afternoon getting acquainted. It was like meeting a brother I didn't know I had. Good times.
As far as shining stars when I was breaking in, I've got to say Lansdale was the guy we pegged as a real comer. King was the biggest influence on my generation of horror writers, but Joe seemed like the next primary American voice coming up, and also a huge influence on many of the writers I knew. As for Pic and Gary, I remember reading Gary's stuff early on. We were in a lot of the same markets. If you wanted to finger a guy you could call the Cemetery Dance House Writer in the early days, I think you'd have your pick between Gary, Bentley Little, or me. We were all in there a lot, and I think that was the market where readers began to notice us. Gary was also a regular in the anthos Ed Gorman was doing for DAW — we were probably in three or four of those together. As for Pic, I knew his work, and I knew he'd moved to Colorado. I'd read interviews with him, and I was interested in the cross-genre vibe his stuff had because that was something I was trying to do, too. I kept expecting to run into him at Little Bookshop, and I'd ask if he ever showed up there. I remember Ed Bryant telling me: "Spotting Tom Pic is like spotting the Sasquatch." I don't think he was far off the mark!
Gary Braunbeck: Like my two compadres here, for the first half of the eighties I didn't know there was a horror writers' community, just that there were a bunch of people Out There Somewhere who were writing these books and stories that kept me awake nights and helped awaken the desire in me to become a writer. I was reading Lansdale, Ray Garton, David Schow, Skipp & Spector, and all of the writers who published novels the late Dell Abyss series. I was also a Twilight Zone Magazine fanatic and began submitting to T.E.D. Klein after the very first issue. I submitted so many stories to him that he started calling me by my first name in the rejection letters, and then, about the time he was preparing to step down, I became "G." A lot of folks who are going to read these answers have never known a world without home computers and the Internet, so they have no idea – as both Tom and Norm have pointed out – how damned difficult it was to get in touch with other writers and editors. I lucked out: T.E.D. Klein sent me a letter the week he was stepping down as TZ's editor telling me that if he had the authority, he would have bought my latest submission. Through a strange series of events I still can't sort out, that story wound up in the hands of Alan Rodgers, who'd just taken the helm at TZ's sister publication, Night Cry. He dug the story, asked for a few revisions, and then – viola! – one day I get an envelope from TZ's offices that wasn't my SASE. Alan bought my first story – and 3 others that, unfortunately, were never published because Night Cry was sold – and suggested I might try going to a convention. It took a lot of steeling myself for the company of other people (like Tom, I was not a social butterfly) and I had to borrow some money from my mother, but I wound up attending the World Fantasy Convention in Providence, Rhode Island. (This was the year that Dan Simmons' Song of Kali won for Best Novel, if you want to date this). I met Alan there, as well as Joe Lansdale, virtually all of the "Splat Pack," was invited to attend a meeting being sponsored by this organization called HWA (which stood for, at the time, the Horror Writers of America, having recently changed its name from HOWL — the Horror and Occult Writers League ... but I digress.)So I attended this open-to-the-public meeting where I met two people who would have a fairly important impact on my life: Robert McCammon and J.N. Williamson. McCammon – whose work I'd just discovered – was every bit the Southern Gentleman and answered all of my questions (some of which were pretty stupid) with patience and good humor, and gave me the names of magazines and editors I might submit to, and then gave me a post office box address and told me that if I had any more questioned, I need only drop him a line. Jerry Williamson – who would become my second father over the years – treated me like I was the big-deal Published Writer, not him. Jerry asked about my publishing credits, I told him, and he smiled, informing me that I more than qualified for Active status in HWA. That's how I became a part of the horror community and met writers who were at the top of the totem pole.
Cemetery Dance was – if you can imagine this – still in the single digits of issues published, and Norm really hit it on the head: It would have been a crapshoot to decide whether he, Bentley Little, or I was the official poster child for CD. (Bentley and I had been publishing fairly steadily in a small press magazine called Eldritch Tales, a terrific magazine out of Lawrence, Kansas, edited by an equally terrific guy named Crispin Burnham.)
I had at least two of Tom's novels before he and I met a few years later at the first World Horror Con in Nashville, and I liked him right off. Me, he was wary of. (laughs) Norman and I have never met in person (something I hope to correct ASAP), but I've been a fan of his writing for years.
Dark Scribe: All of you have become noted "cross genre" writers in some capacity or another. And yet, most advice given to young writers is to find a genre and stick with it to build a fan base. What was the original appeal and benefit of finding the common ground between horror, science fiction, noir, fantasy or whatever? Do you still find it as appealing/part of your voice as a writer?
Tom Piccirilli: I've never fully understood the idea of sticking with a single genre. I got into this game because I loved to read, and I read across the board of the various genres. I'm here to impress myself upon the literature that inspires me, so that means taking a crack at it all. It's only over the course of time that one discovers where his strengths are and decides to focus more. I love science fiction but I've learned that it's much more difficult for me to write. My imagination has a harder time world-building and making the complexities of SF feel real. So even though I still write an SF story now and again, it's not as natural for me as, say, writing a crime story.
The older I've gotten the more interested I am in writing more realistic fiction rather than fantastical. When I was young, guessing at what lay ahead of me and imagining what might wait around the next corner all seemed to go part and parcel together. It was all fantasizing. It was all guesswork. It all took on the qualities of dream. And that's probably why I was more open to writing horror and dark fantasy. Now that I'm older, I've got more of an urge to look back and see the arc of my life. And use that to gauge who I am and how I got here. My hopes are more realistic, my dreams are probably smaller and more understandable and honest and reachable. Like paying the mortgage, like keeping my family safe. I can see my tracks in the sand, the scuffs on the rock. My flaws and regrets are clearer. And so my writing has become more realistic in that same way.
Norm Partridge: When you're starting out, there's always someone willing to toss a handful of rules in your face. And while there's certainly value to be found in the writer's playbook, it's important to remember that learning to break the rules is an important part of growing as a writer. Mostly, I try to focus on what's right for the story I'm working on, and how best to use the tools I've developed to put the story across. It's really as simple as that. Like Tom, I've read widely, and I don't worry about barriers. If the rhythm of a crime story works best for the horror story I'm trying to tell, why not use it? After all, we're creatures of our influences, creatively speaking. We're stitched together, like Frankenstein's monster, but when you put the lightning to us we're not exactly the sum or our parts. We're a little bit different, and so are the stories we tell.
As far as questions of genesis, I know what Tom's saying, and I can see it in his work. Personally, I've become more interested in the fantastic as I've grown older. I think it's a natural attraction on my part toward the operatic, towards painting with vibrant colors. In the end, we may all be writing about the same things — the same concerns, and regrets, and troubles. Right now I'm more interested in exploring those problems on a fantastic scale rather than a realistic one. Or, to put it another way, I'd rather write about a guy who's had his soul stolen instead of his wallet. But in the long run, I'm not sure that the place the story eventually goes is all that different as a result...it's just the way of getting there that's different.
Gary Braunbeck: For me it wasn't so much a matter of finding a common ground or crossroads where all genres can meet, it was a matter of discovering early on that everything I wrote had elements from several different genres already present. My first big "pro" short story sale, "Amymone's Footsteps," (Twilight Zone's Night Cry, 1986) blended elements of horror, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and – to a lesser degree – romance over the course of its 6,500 words. (Looking back at the story today, I cringe at how overwritten several sections are, but am still pretty happy with the ambition of the piece.) I have never been able to sit down in front of the keyboard and say to myself, "All right, it's time to write a horror (or science fiction, or mystery, or fantastical, etc.) story!" Instant story death, that, because whether you are aware of it or not, odds are you will unconsciously begin to graft certain expected/traditional/clichéd tropes onto a narrative where they do not belong; you will hobble the story before you've even begun writing it. I think a lot of this stems from the cautious re-emergence of horror in the mass-market paperback marketplace. Horror has not fallen into the same old rut that brought about its (deserved) demise in the late 80s/early 90s…no, not at all. It has instead created an entirely new rut to fall into — and a depressing amount of new writers seem only too happy to rush like lemmings and drop over the edge. Do you ever read the bios on the back of Leisure's covers? A startling amount of new writers list not books, not writers, not short stories as their earliest and strongest influences, but, rather, television shows and movies. And the writing shows it. So they rush headlong toward the new horror rut, this time not guarded by vampires and serial killers, but by zombies and families of inbred freaks, all carrying jagged weapons in their hands.
This is why I tell my students to "forget genre" when beginning a new piece of work. Instead, I tell them to write the story they want to write, and in the manner in which they wish to write it. If the story requires some hard science fiction, some quantum mechanics, a private investigator, imaginary monsters in the closet or under the bed – hell, if it requires that a cowboy show up – so be it. I've always written this way, and always will. In the meantime, I keep my fingers crossed that some up-and-coming writer will take a look at the work of Tom, Norm, myself, and a handful of others, and maybe, just maybe, the field will one day give birth to horror's answer to John Irving.
Dark Scribe: What's been your experience working with the major and smaller presses as part of your careers?
Tom Piccirilli: It's a trade-off, and I think that's obvious to just about everybody. The bigger houses offer bigger money and a better chance of reaching more readers, but when you're part of a multi-million dollar a year machine that keeps hundreds of printers, editors, and authors in business, you're just one small cog in the machine. Sometimes you're lucky enough to get the grease and sometimes you wind up with the grit and being ignored.
With a smaller house, you're more likely to stand out. More emphasis is placed on you as a writer because the machine is smaller and you're a much larger cog (I know I'm straining this metaphor to shit, but bear with it). You might make less money and your books might have smaller print runs, but the house will put more personal effort in. You'll have a larger say in each step of publication. Your opinion is valued more; your experience is taken into greater account. And I can point to at least one novel by each of us where a small press did such a fine job that a bigger house came along and reprinted it to even greater accolades and sales (i.e. My novel A Choir of Ill Children, Norm's Dark Harvest, and Gary's The Indifference of Heaven/In Silent Graves).
Norm Partridge: And that's something you're going to see more and more. The lines are blurring, and that's great for writers. Also, some of the small presses have grown to such an extent that they're competing with New York houses for projects. Really, that's no surprise. When I go into Borders, and I see trade paperbacks from New York publishers lined up next to Night Shade Press paperbacks, I don't see a difference. Neither do readers who order books online. It used to be that the small press was a proving ground for writers who hadn't yet been picked up by New York, but in many cases it's developing into a parallel stream as distribution becomes better and smaller publishers develop their own playbooks for success. All you've got to do is look at the growth of Subterranean Press in the last ten years to see that. And if you're lucky as a writer, you can work in both sides of the market. That just means you'll have more places to publish. Right now, that's not a bad place to be.
Gary Braunbeck: It has been an absolutely wonderful experience working with Jason Sizemore and the gang at Apex; not only are they friendly and respectful, they are also hands-down one of the most professional groups I've ever worked with. If Jason says you'll have your contract by X-date, you'll have it by X-date; if he promises a check on so-and-so date, you will have it by then. Plus, Apex puts out a damn fine product; the books are a pleasure to look at and hold. I'm always amazed by the depth of physical craftsmanship that goes into their books. The same goes for PS Publishing, Tasmaniac Publications, Paul Miller's Earthling Publications, Prime, Subterranean, Gauntlet, Creeping Hemlock (who had to rebuild from the ground up after Hurricane Katrina wiped them out — and they still managed to release their first book only 45 days later than announced!), Del Rey, DAW, Borderlands Press, Tekno*Books, Raw Dog Screaming Press, and a handful of others whose names escape me at the moment, have all been solid publishers to work with.
As for the other, more well-known publishers not mentioned here...feel free to draw your own conclusions as to why they were omitted.
Dark Scribe: You have all written either books or essays geared toward helping new writers: Tom's short book Welcome to Hell; Norm's essays in Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales, Gary's collection of essays and reviews Fear in a Handful of Dust. Why do you feel the need to pay it forward by writing these works, and what is the best piece of advice you would give to someone about to take a crack at this profession?
Tom Piccirilli: I think all writers like to explain their own writing process to others in the hopes that it helps them out in whatever small ways because we know how difficult the life is. It's lonely and frustrating and not very stable. It's isolated and can make you sometimes feel like you're the last person on the fucking earth. Cutting your throat every day to splash the page and writing your guts out as a day job can skew your worldview, baby.
The only advice I'll offer is this: Love what you do. Don't try to skirt the slush pile or get a leg-up in the industry in any other way than making your bones the long, hard way in a business that's rough at best and soul-crushing at worst. You've got to earn your stripes. You can have a string of endorsements and it won't mean a thing in the long run. Look at all the writers who already have books under their belts, blurbs from bestsellers, etc., and are still losing their contracts. All you can do is write a better book and believe in it with a kind of crazed, overwhelming confidence. Because you need to think you're that good if your work is ever going to sit on a shelf besides some of the greatest literature the ages have ever seen. You can be the most buffed and polished and polite little writing wizard to ever attend a writer's convention and it's not going to nab you a contract or a blurb or even a kind word unless the talent is there and you've gotten your name around in the industry by publishing stories, the way all the rest of us have done it. You might think a lot of work is getting done over drinks at conferences — all that's happening is people are getting drunk. Send out the queries to the agents who you think will respond to the work — read guidelines, educate yourself in the industry, learn everything you can so you can go into battle armed and well-trained. Don't look for a shortcut, it's simply not there. Check out what publishers are looking for. Learn the names of editors you might submit to directly. Your job isn't done by shaking the tree of knowledge. It's by doing the work, day in and day out, despite rejection and setback. It's on the page. Love it and don't avoid it. Embrace it. Live at the desk. Break your ass.
Norm Partridge: I can't tell you how many writers helped me out early on — Ed Gorman, Joe Lansdale, Ed Bryant. These guys were my heroes, and they made the time to give me advice. That meant a lot to me then, and it means a lot to me now. That's why I see payback as an obligation, and it's also why I did the Mr. Fox reboot with Subterranean Press.
As for my advice to those coming up: I'll echo Tom. There are no shortcuts. First and foremost: Do the work. Second: When it comes to business, be a pro. Any other approach is just a con. Sure, buddying up with the right publisher might get you a deal. Sure, a quote from a big-name writer might get people to buy your book. Sure, mouthing off on a message board or on a blog might get everyone to pay attention to you for a day. But if you can't deliver the goods once folks lay down their hard-earned green and give your work a test-drive, you're fooling yourself. Readers can close their wallets just as quickly as they can close a book.
So you do the work and you put your faith in it. And sometimes, despite the very best effort on everyone's part, even the good guys come up short. These days it's almost a given, because competition is fierce. But either way, win or lose, what it always comes down to is you alone in a room with your word processor and the stuff you've got churning in your imagination. If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to kindle that solitary fire time and time again. You have to get used to giving it your best every time out, and pushing yourself to improve. For most of us, there's no net and no comfort zone. You're only as good as your last story...and your next one.
Gary Braunbeck: Part of my writing Dust was an attempt to illustrate the thought processes that go into the act of writing, because if one isn't honest with oneself – especially in acknowledging and grappling with some of the less-than-pleasant aspects of existence that threaten to break your spirit on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis – that's going to come across in the writing, and your work is going to seem, at best, one- or two-dimensional to readers; and, at worst, supercilious and fraudulent. Despite some of the borderline-moronic posts you'll find at, say, Amazon reviews, I like to think that the majority of readers out there can tell when a writer is trying to manipulate them. You absolutely have to be honest in your work in order to capture that sense of authenticity that is so vital to make the connection between read and story.
Here's an example of what I'm talking about: 2002 was a horrible year for me; I lost 4/5 of my immediate family in a 9-month period, got divorced, moved to a new city, underwent surgery to correct nerve damage in my right hand, and wound up taking a ten-day stretch in the Bin. At no point during all of this did I or my sister, Gayle, have a chance to mourn the loss of our parents, our favorite uncle, or our grandmother. It seemed as if we no sooner finished burying one family member than another would die. Mom was hands-down the worst, because we had to sign papers authorizing the hospital to take her off life-support, and I was not only the one who told her this, I was the one who verbally gave the order to pull the plugs...all the while with Mom looking at me with this puzzled, heartbroken expression on her face. Skipping ahead now: It's three days after Mom's funeral, I haven't slept for shit all week, and I'm lying in bed staring up at the ceiling beams, wondering if any of them could take my weight, when I suddenly remembered that I had a story for an anthology due in two days. Since it was obvious I wasn't going to falling asleep anytime soon, I got up, went over to my desk, and proceeded to write. Understand that I was deeply sad (still am) over the loss of my parents, but at that moment, at my desk at two in the morning, mostly what I was feeling was self-contempt and guilt, and I knew if I didn't do something to get rid of these feelings, I was going to be in serious trouble. So I uncorked that bottle of self-destructive feelings and channeled a lot of them into the story I was writing — "Duty," for which I won my first Bram Stoker Award. I am convinced that if events had not unfolded how and when they did, that story would never have come into existence. But it did, and it remains a piece I'm damned proud of. Mom would have found it morbid, but she would have told me it was a good story, anyway.
So I guess the point I was trying to make – both back then and now – is that a writer cannot affect emotions on the page; a writer cannot hope to evoke a feeling in the reader that the reader has not experienced for him- or herself; a writer cannot pretend to understand complex emotions: like fear, grief, ecstasy, anger, self-loathing, joy, wonderment, the whole spectrum of emotional states…these are all intensely introverted, intimate things. Writing Dust was my way of telling other writers and readers that each of them has a limitless supply of emotions in them, emotions that are connected to very private, very fragile memories, and if they hope to make the kind of emotional connection with readers that will have them looking for more of your work, you have to tap into those intimate feelings and memories and see if you can't re-arrange things so they best serve the story. Faulkner said that anyone who's lived past the age of 7 has already gathered enough material to write fiction for the rest of their lives. I agree with that, and hope that those folks who read Dust were able to see that they have more tools at their disposal than they thought.
To summarize this and dress it up so that it better resembles advice: If you want your work to make an emotional connection with readers, then you have to be as honest as possible when expressing those feelings. Don't be lazy here; don't try and trick the reader into feeling something; don't manipulate, don't manipulate, don't manipulate.
Did I mention you shouldn't manipulate?
Dark Scribe: Now that our readers have an even better sense of who you are, and what you write, what would be the two or three best books for the unacquainted reader to start with from your catalogue? And what do you gentlemen have planned for the next year?
Tom Piccirilli: To see the greatest variety of what I do I suggest folks pick up A Choir of Ill Children, The Midnight Road, and my most recent novel, Shadow Season. It's a pretty clear show of how my sensibilities have moved over the last ten or so years from dark fantasy to supernatural crime to atmospheric noir fiction. Anyone who likes dark material will probably enjoy all three despite them being very different books at heart.
At the end of this year, folks can look for my next novel, a crime novel that's as much family drama and psychological introspective as it is a suspense thriller. The Last Kind Words is about a former thief who returns to his family of career criminals on the eve of his brother's execution. The brother is on death row for going on a killing spree, but he swears that one victim attested to him he didn't murder. So it's up to my protagonist to figure out whether this is true or his brother is manipulating him for unknown reasons. Family secrets and ghosts from a troubled past abound. Folks can also check out a "noirella" – as I've dubbed them – from Chizine called Ever Shallow Cut and another one due from Tasmanic – the good folks who brought out my piece The Nobody – entitled The Last Deep Breath. I'm sure there will some other odds and ends along the way too, but that's the bulk of it.
Norm Partridge: As far as novels go, I'd suggest Dark Harvest. It's my love letter to horror, and to storytelling, too. Plus, I think it's the purest example of my voice — or what makes my voice distinct, anyhow. I've had folks who know me say: "Norm, I could *hear* you while I was reading that book!" And, for me, that's the finest praise I could ask for, because I wanted the book to work like a campfire tale.
I'd also recommend Lesser Demons, a short story collection from Subterranean Press published this April. The stories run the gamut from horror to hardboiled to noir — there's even a dark western in there. There's also a blend of styles and voices, because one of the things I enjoy most about writing short fiction is the opportunity to mix things up. I think it's my best collection yet.
Besides those two, folks can always check out my author website. You'll find free fiction and nonfiction there, plus news of upcoming projects.
Gary Braunbeck: I'm tempted to say, "The entire Cedar Hill Cycle," but that wouldn't be playing fair. If someone has never read my work before and wants to get a sense of what it's like, I tell them to read the novels In Silent Graves and Prodigal Blues, the novellas "In the Midnight Museum" and "Afterward, There Will Be a Hallway," and the short stories "Duty," "Union Dues," and "Rami Temporales." 2010 will see the release of the 6th Cedar Hill novel, A Cracked and Broken Path from Apex (who will also be releasing a revised and massively expanded edition of Fear in a Handful of Dust in 2011), the novella "Clipper Girls" from Tasmaniac Publications, and, early next year, the release of the 3rd and final Collected Cedar Hill Stories from Earthling, entitled The Carnival Within.
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