Chet Williamson has written in the field of horror, science fiction, and suspense since 1981. Among his many novels are Second Chance, Hunters, Defenders of the Faith, Ash Wednesday, Reign, and Dreamthorp. His most recent publications are The Night Listener and Others (a story collection from PS Publishing), A Little Blue Book of Bibliomancy (Borderlands Press), and Psycho: Sanitarium, an authorized sequel to Robert Bloch’s classic Psycho (St. Martin’s Press). He has also written local favorites, Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas and Pennsylvania Dutch Alphabet.
Over a hundred of his short stories have appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and many other magazines and anthologies. He has won the International Horror Guild Award, and has been shortlisted twice for the World Fantasy Award, six times for the Horror Writers Association’s Stoker Award, and once for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award. Nearly all of his works are available in ebook format at the Kindle and Nook Stores.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Chet Williamson
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
From a very early age, I was always a reader and collector of books. I seemed to relate to the dark side early on. One of my favorite books as a child was DAVID AND THE PHOENIX by Edward Ormondroyd, which had banshees and griffins and many other mythological creatures. Then I discovered horror movies, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and other horror fiction, and my path was forged.
You’ve published several books and short stories. What can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?
I was very fortunate when I began writing, since my short stories were published in several major markets, such as The New Yorker, Playboy, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was the mid-80s, and the horror boom was well underway. I was able to get an agent, who sold my first two novels fairly quickly. My first four novels were done with Tor Books, two hardcovers and two paperback originals. My agent took me over to Avon for my fifth book, and things started going downhill from there. Though they promoted the book as a “Lead A” title, they gave it a schlock horror cover which killed the sales to the audience they were going for. For an average horror title, it sold well, but not well enough for a lead title.
So much of success is a matter of luck: my first mystery novel came out in hardcover from Tor the same month they decided to kill their mystery line and my editor left the company; my fourth novel came out the same month that Waldenbooks introduced their own line of genre paperback originals. And so it goes. Writers are pretty much at the mercy of the markets and its ups and downs. E-books changed everything, sometimes for the better and sometimes for worse. Nearly all my backlist is now in print from Crossroad Press, so that work is available. The difficult part is differentiating your work from the hundreds of thousands of other titles, many of them self published, that flood the market today.
Much of your fiction involves horror, mystery, and fantasy. What draws you to these genres in particular?
I’ve always thought it more fun to walk on the dark side, at least in terms of fiction. I really have no idea why I’m so drawn to this aspect of the human condition, but I always have been, even as a child. I read Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine starting with its fifth issue, went to every Saturday horror movie matinee I could find, and loved ghost stories. I remember when I was a little kid, sitting in the basement of my grandfather’s grocery store, and listening to the stock boy tell me Edgar Allan Poe stories. Happy, creepy times.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?
What I like to do is to find a point of view that engages me, and then push it beyond the bounds of acceptability. For example, my novel SECOND CHANCE was conceived as a result of my own concerns over environmental issues. The “villain” of the novel is an environmentalist who is willing to destroy all human life on Earth to save the planet itself. By being able to identify with the destructive element, I hope to humanize that character more clearly. As Joseph Conrad said, “the way is to the destructive element submit yourself.” I also like to deal with the theme of perception, particularly regarding the reader. I’m delighted when I can lead readers down a path where they expect a resolution that turns out to be something completely different, yet inevitable in retrospect. As far as the evolution of my writing through my career, I like to think that it’s gotten more subtle and nuanced as time has gone by.
Regarding your most recent novel, Robert Bloch’s Psycho: Sanitarium, you said that a childhood viewing of the movie launched your interest in the horror genre. What/who are some of your other great literary influences?
Joseph Conrad, who I mentioned above, is one of my deepest influences. In graduate school, I took a two week summer course in Conrad, and read the equivalent of a novel a day. I think if I had done this with a writer such as Henry James, I might have gone insane. But such a heavily concentrated dose of Conrad made me a disciple for life, later reading the books that were not covered during the course, and rereading many of them as well. HEART OF DARKNESS is still one of the most harrowing pieces of fiction ever written. A more contemporary writer who I greatly admire is Thomas Harris, primarily for RED DRAGON, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and HANNIBAL. Better than anyone else, he shows the darkness inside humanity’s soul, and the power and temptation of evil.
What would you say is the most important element for crafting a short story, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?
Living. Simply getting out and seeing new places, meeting new people, doing new things. The more you strive for ideas and try to force them, the less likely they are to be worth writing about. The more of life to which you can expose yourself, the more likely you are to find things about which to write.
In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? Many of your works have been published by different publishing houses. I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with presses.
As simply as possible, approach a press that seems to be sympathetic to the kind of work that you do. It helps, of course, if you know of other writers being published by the press, or editors, or the publishers themselves. Other than that, it’s pretty much a crap shoot.
Along with being an author, you’re also an actor. How has your acting influenced your writing and vice versa?
I think it’s influenced my writing a great deal. I try and make my work very character-driven, since, if I don’t care about the characters in the book, I could care less about how exciting the plot is. Once I finally come up with the characters and outline for a book, I greatly enjoy the actual writing, since it allows me to play all the different characters and direct them as I like. It’s that preliminary work that is so agonizing. I know a lot of writers start with the basic idea and just write, but I’ve never been able, nor have I wanted, to do that.
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists/actors?
Think twice. The arts are a difficult way to make a living, even for those of us who have been in them for decades. Unless you write a bestseller (and the odds of doing that grow worse every day), it’s unlikely you’ll ever be more than self-supporting. I know a lot of writers whose names you would probably recognize who live from check to check, and not very well. I was fortunate enough to fall in love with and marry a teacher, who had a good job and medical coverage, and now has a good retirement fund. We also invested as much of our money as we could, and that has made a huge difference in living comfortably.
If you’re lucky enough to get a financial windfall from your work, save it, and don’t expect that level of success to continue. I realize that this advice is more practical than artistic, but I’m pushing 70, and I’ve been around the block. If you think the stock market is a roller coaster ride, you’re not ready to undertake the life of a writer. All that said, if you want to write or act or make art, go ahead, because there’s no better way to live than doing what you want, regardless of financial reward.
After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
At this point, I just like getting from one day to the next, and living a life full of good music, good books, and good films. In terms of new work, I have a novel I’ve been plotting for some time now, but it hasn’t satisfied me to the point of actually starting to write it. As I get older, there seems to be less and less worth writing about. I think I need to hit the road again in search of inspiration.
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