The Smashwords Interview
Let’s start with the important questions. Do you support Kanye and Kim in 2020?
Right into politics, then? You know, wouldn’t it be great if they ran? Talk about invigorating American politics. They don’t even need a platform. Look at The Donald. Who needs talking points? Or even literate debate?
I imagine a Kim & Kanye White House Inaugural Ball would be something to see.
So you don’t have a Make America Great Again hat in your locker like Tom Brady?
Tom just keeps stepping into it, doesn’t he? I hear The Donald says they’re pals. Why does this not surprise me? But to your question, no. No such hat in my wardrobe.
While we’re on the subject of football: should the Seahawks have run the ball on the goal line in the Super Bowl?
Is this a rhetorical question?
You published two collections of short stories this year and are donating half the profits to charity. What’s with that?
In August of 2015, my hometown of Chelan, Washington, was ravaged by wildfires. We had plenty of forest fires my whole life growing up, but mostly those fires burned far uplake, miles and miles away from Chelan proper. This year was different.
The fires started from lightning strikes early in the morning, and the wind pushed the fires along the east/west ends of town. Chelan sits in a deep valley at the end of a very long, very deep, very beautiful pristine lake. The fires came down the valley walls and cut off the town. No one could go in or out.
Around 100 homes and structures burned down that day. The fires took out homes, an apple packing shed, utility lines. The valley lost power, phone service, cell phones, you name it. There was no news because people couldn’t call out, and the news folks couldn’t get in. The only way we were able to follow what was going on was by reading Facebook posts.
My wife and I weren’t in Chelan. We live in Spokane, Washington now. A long way off, but my mom and brother still live in Chelan. It was pretty nerve-racking. My mom actually works outside of the valley, and she got cut off and couldn’t get home. My brother went up on his roof and took video of forest service planes dumping fire retardant onto homes across the valley.
Anyway, long story short: a lot of good people lost their homes, their cars, a good chunk of their lives. Thankfully nobody died. And while the town will recover, it’s a slow process.
As a writer, there isn’t a lot I can do about that kind of tragedy. I don’t build homes. I don’t clear away burned structures. I write. And so, after this happened, I asked myself what I could do that might be of some use. And I had these stories laying around, pieces I’d written over the last ten years. And I thought they were pretty good, that people might enjoy them. So I put them together so they could be published, and I decided to donate half of the profits to the recovery efforts from the fires.
I don’t expect these books to sell many copies, but maybe they’ll sell enough to do some good.
That’s rough. On a positive note, though, wasn’t Chelan just voted the most redneck town in Washington state?
Yes, well, it was an unofficial poll.
How do you feel about being from the most redneck town in Washington?
Apparently a big part of that equation was the high ratio of bars in Chelan to the per capita population. The claim is that there are more bars in Chelan per capita than anywhere in the state. Which is probably true.
I guess it’s nice to be number one in something.
Do you have a favorite bar in Chelan?
Campbells. I went to school with Tom Campbell, who runs that bar and restaurant. He does a fine job.
How about some book questions: do you write a lot of short stories?
I used to. In my twenties I wrote a ton of them. These days, I’m more focused on longer works.
What are some of your favorite short stories?
For my money, Ray Bradbury is the greatest short story writer that ever lived. His collections The October Country, The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles are just simply beautiful. Such powerful storytelling.
The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs is a great story. And The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell. Pop Art by Joe Hill. Shirley Jackson, she was simply brilliant. Her short work is stunning.
Stephen King is a heck of a short story writer. The Raft is one of my favorites. And Poe, you can’t forget Poe. I’ve always been partial to The Tell-Tale Heart.
Home Away From Home by Robert Bloch is particularly fine. And Richard Matheson, man he can really write.
How do you write your own short stories?
Most of my writing comes out of some real event, generally something small and not all that noticeable, but something that, for whatever reason, struck me. And then my mind (because this is the way my mind works) runs away with it into some kind of dark and not so pleasant direction.
I’ll give you an example. In the story Stranger Calls, the couple is staying on Point Loma, in San Diego. A very pleasant place. And they get a call from a man they don’t know who leaves creepy messages on their answering machine. Now, this really happened to me.
My family and I were staying on Point Loma over spring break years ago. We really did get a series of bizarre calls, never when we were in the room. And the man who called left odd, eerie messages. Mostly it was his voice that was creepy. He spoke in a kind of slow, stilted manner, as if he was constantly losing his train of thought. But, obviously, he was simply dialing the wrong number. He didn’t know us. We didn’t know him. And eventually he stopped calling.
No big deal.
But then the imagination kicks in. In the story I wrote, the caller is actually a murderous psycho who killed a series of young women in San Diego decades ago. As it happened, the wife lived and worked on Point Loma at the time, and the killer had targeted her, but she left San Diego before he could kill her. And now, when she returns, the killer has spotted her again.
But that didn’t really happen?
No, that didn’t really happen. Sorry.
James Ellroy once said that men shouldn’t wear shorts because they violated a man’s essential dignity. Do you agree with that assessment?
Mr. Ellroy is a wise man. Except you can’t swim in jeans.
How does a writer know they’ve “made it” in America?
Stephen King published a short story a few years back in Esquire. They body-painted the opening of the story onto Bar Refaeli for the cover. I think if that happens, you know you’ve made it.
Speaking of magazines, which publications do you read?
Esquire, obviously. The New Yorker is pretty good. Playboy runs great interviews, among other things. Outside magazine has great in-depth pieces. A good friend of mine, Sakeus Bankson, edits a wonderful ski journal called, wait for it…Ski Journal.
I read Esquire’s 1000th issue recently. Good stuff.
There was an in-depth piece in that issue about Hemingway. Do you agree with Hemingway’s aphorism: Write drunk, edit sober?
Hemingway never said that. It’s attributed to him, but he never said it. No, I don’t agree with it. Who the hell can write drunk? I can’t do anything drunk. Except stumble.
Do you write naked?
Only in public.
Which writers did you read when you were a kid?
Growing up, the writers that inspired me the most were Franklin W. Dixon (or, rather, the clan of ghostwriters churning out The Hardy Boys), Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Christopher Pike, RL Stine, Roald Dahl. I loved books with action, danger, adventure, and a good twinge of horror.
Since I was a pretty voracious reader, I turned to adult novels early. I remember distinctly reading Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park in fourth grade, a real eye-opening experience for a ten-year-old. Poor Dennis Nedry getting sliced open by a Dilophosaurus. I tell you, nothing like that ever happened in Beverly Cleary.
You’re limited to five books. Give us your favorites.
IT by Stephen King. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Harry Potter by JK Rowling (I’m counting that as one).
So you’re a Potter fan. What is your patronus?
A horny-toad. Don’t make too much of that.
What house would you be sorted into?
Gryffindor, obviously. I had a bowlcut just like Harry, and without glasses or contacts I can’t see anything more than six inches away from my face. We’re practically twins. Except for the whole wizard/Voldemort curse thing.
Writers in earlier eras were known for their bravado, like Norman Mailer. Have you ever head-butted anyone or been in a bar fight?
I was once—I swear to God—mistaken for Tyler Durden in a bar. Not Brad Pitt. No one could mistake me for Brad Pitt. The guy thought I was Tyler Durden.
From Fight Club?
One and the same.
He said to me, and I quote: “Let’s go out back and punch each other in the face.”
Who passes up such an offer?
No, actually, I didn’t. He was my little sister’s English teacher (seriously, you can’t make this stuff up). I didn’t think it would go over well.
If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you want to be?
A rock and roll legend. Bruce Springsteen, or maybe Keith Richards.
Has music played a big role in your life?
Music is a big influence. I used to write to music, have the stereo turned up loud enough to drown everything out, but these days I write at four in the morning, and loud rocking out at that hour probably wouldn’t impress the neighbors.
Bruce Springsteen has been hugely influential. Aside from Stephen King, I’d say Springsteen is the artist who has most shaped my understanding of storytelling, as well as my personal world view. He’s not just the greatest songwriter of his generation, but the best American songwriter period. The guy tells great stories. And his songs dig inside you and stay there, haunting you forever.
Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, and John Mellencamp have all played their part. Their music is very important to me.
What about graphic arts? Comics and graphic novels?
My interest in comics has always been somewhat limited, but the work of Charles Addams is marvelously brilliant and wickedly funny. I continually pick him up and find some new bit of awfulness to chuckle over.
Like Ray Bradbury, I find the work of Jospeh Mugnaini to be incredibly haunting.
Graphic novels are a mixed bag. I’ve come across some I’ve loved, usually adaptaions of novels or short stories. Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy, Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I just picked up a copy of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which is a mix of prose and graphic novel. Looks interesting.
Who do you think is going to win in the upcoming Batman vs Superman?
Superman. No question.
What classic novel have you never read?
I’ve never read Moby Dick. I actually gave it a whirl once. I actually enjoyed the first 80 pages or so. But then I walked away from it. I never went back.
What were the earliest stories you wrote?
Two of the earliest stories I can recall writing were called Detective Tyler (clearly I had an ego from early on) and an illustrated work called Shark Detectives. This latter book was literally about shark detectives, as in real sharks, and a bunch of shark gangsters. Complete with a bank robbery and a shoot out (I think I’d recently seen Dick Tracy, hence the submachine guns), this was a rather fun story to write.
So as a boy you wrote thrillers?
Oh yes. The more thrilling the better. That was my motto.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was in fourth grade. I’d written this ongoing fictional story for our school newspaper, a new installment every month. Lots of action, car chases, gun fights. Good shit. And people kept coming up to me and telling me how much they enjoyed it, my classmates, teachers, everybody. Everyone wanted the next installment so they could find out what happened next.
I was a star.
And that’s when I knew.
If only that had happened in high school, I would have had so many girlfriends. Wasn’t meant to be.
Who are the best thriller writers working today?
John Sandford gets my vote. He’s just flat-out the best. And I think one of the finest stylists in America. Elmore Leonard was a genius. A true poet of the language.
I came to Lee Child rather late, but I’m getting into him now. I just bought his new book, Make Me. I’m excited.
If you could box any American writer, who would you duke it out with?
Jack London. He looked like a fighter. Maybe we could do it at the North Pole, with sled dogs circled around us so we couldn’t leave the ring.
Do you think kids should be given scary books?
Hell yes! Adults seem to forget this, but kids love to be scared. Why do you think they gobble up stuff like Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? Kids like creepy. Creepy books. Creepy movies. Creepy comics. You name it.
When an adult says they don’t think kids should read scary stories, what they really mean is they, the adult, can’t take scary stories. But kids can handle it.
Rolling Stones or the Beatles?
Stones. Stones all the way.
What’s the oddest item on your desk?
A devil doll bobble-head. Hand carved. Wood. Dark red, complete with horns. My wife refuses to be in the same room with it. Me, well…it just suits me.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I don’t have a nightstand. But I understand the question. Let’s see: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which is unbelievably amazing. A biography of Charles Addams, which I’m saving to be read, appropriately, in October. Make Me by Lee Child. American Pastoral by Phillip Roth.Whipple’s Castle by Thomas Williams. Purity by Jonathan Franzen. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.
Do you read more than one book at once?
I didn’t used to. My mom and I have started a book club of two. Right now, it’s The Goldfinch. But there are books that I want to read that she, understandably, is less interested in. I found a copy of John Farris’s horror-thriller Sacrifice last week. Definitely not up Mom’s alley. So yeah, I’m often reading more than one book at a time these days.
What’s the most awkward question you’ve ever been asked?
When I was doing my student teaching, my first day I brought a box of personal items for my introduction to my sixth grade students. Favorite books, pictures, oddities, that sort of thing. Stuff you can pull out and talk about so the kids think that maybe, just maybe, you’re human.
At the end, I asked if the kids had any questions. I fielded the usual: how old are you, are you married, etc.
Then I got this zinger: What’s your favorite yoga position?
I mean, from an eleven-year-old. Really?
What is your favorite yoga position?
Corpse pose, baby.