They Come For His Books:
An Interview With Chet Williamson
What great good fortune to be able to read an accomplished, hard-working and talented author such as Chet Williamson, either via his books, his audiobooks, and/or this interview, at which I felt like the late Paul O'Grady in the presence of Lauren Bacall* - privileged. Enough of me and on to the words from a Chet of several trades, master of all...
I would like to learn about your writing process. What is it that inspires you to start a work, and how long does it take you?
My actual writing has slowed to a crawl these days. It’s partly a lack of interest, the feeling that I may have said all I want to say. I only ever liked writing if I had a unique idea, something that hadn’t been done before, and those become much harder to come by. Add in the lack of markets (for the most part, the advances on genre novels are a fraction of what we were getting when I started in the 80s), and it makes more sense for me to spend my time narrating audiobooks and winnowing and selling items from my vast collection on eBay. I do the occasional short story.
But when I do write, I’m usually inspired by a sense of place. The village of Dreamthorp, the theatre complex in Reign, my old college apartment that launches the action of Second Chance. And there’s the wee Irish bookstore in Dingle that provided the spark of a story that’s just appeared in Gaby Triana’s anthology, Literally Dead 2, “...Haunt Me Then.”
It usually takes me a long time to write a novel or a story, since I outline in detail. The hard work comes in the plotting, getting the characters and incidents to mesh together properly. But when I do start the actual writing, I have a very good idea of what I’m doing and where the tale is going. I have a novel that I’ve been working on and thinking about for years now, but I just don’t know how to stick the landing. For me, the perfect ending is one that’s both surprising and yet inevitable, something that causes a perception shift in the reader. But those endings are very hard to create, and they can’t be done by simply pushing through without knowing where you’re going. And they are most definitely not just a “surprise ending.”
Although your style of horror is wide-ranging, from subtle to graphic, one of my favourite of your stories, "The Moment the Face Fell" (which haunts me still, perhaps because I struggled, trying to "make it" in Lost Angeles, for too many years), is "quiet horror", the type of literature championed by the much-missed Charles L. Grant. What do you think of the opinion that horror has to be graphic to be labelled "horror"?
I wrote that story for the Robert Bloch-edited anthology, Monsters in Our Midst, hoping that Bloch might like the film-writing setting, and he did, at least enough to accept the story. I also adapted it into a short play. What the protagonist does is absolutely awful, horrific, and shocking, but no blood is shed, no one is physically harmed. One can certainly do monstrous deeds using words alone. But readers don't understand the horror of it until they come to the end. I love that kind of story, and have written a number of them, so to me the genre of "horror" can include many voices, loud as a drum, soft as a whisper, and everywhere in between.
I am also very interested in the creation of your wonderful crime novels, co-written with your wife, Laurie. I think a crime novel is the most difficult kind of work to achieve. There's the plot for a start. There's also the planting of red herrings and leaving buried clues without giving the game away too early. How do you two manage it?
Laurie and I have done two books together: one crime novel, Murder Old and New, and a romance/suspense novel set in Ireland, A Step Across. We plot the books together, creating the characters and the omnipresent outline, and then I write the first draft. We then revise together until we’re both satisfied. Crime and mystery novels, more than any other genre, are dependent on that perception shift I mentioned. Once you have the basic idea, you have to start at the end and work your way backward, dropping the clues and red herrings as you go, and taking your reader down false paths. It’s great fun, but hard work to get it right!
Do you have a favourite length to work in e.g. short story, novella, novel?
For horror, novella length is wonderful. It lets you achieve the tension of a short story, while allowing you to expand your plot, create a true mood, and delve more deeply into characters, without having to rely on the padding that swamps so many horror novels. I can recall only two that I’ve written: “The Confessions of St. James” in Night Visions 7, and “The Story of Noichi the Blind,” a standalone from CD Publications, which are two of my favourite children, Noichi in particular.
A true innocent, sweet Noichi; I was quite pleased to see that, unbeknownst to the seller, the copy I'd purchased was autographed. On a less happy note, what do you think of trends such as AI to write novels?
Horrible. It could eventually create a death knell for authors, and already much of the business writing that writers used to earn some extra income has been replaced by bots. While there are still seasoned and perceptive readers, there are also a lot of readers who are happy to pay cheap prices to absorb the same recycled pablum, which is what AI can readily create, having “scraped” the works of real writers -- without their permission, I might add.
I reckon those same bots scrape titles, too. Do you use pen and paper, computer, laptop, typewriter?
When I started, waaaay back in the 80’s, I wrote first drafts with pen and paper and typed them up on my old Olympia typewriter, but in 1986 I got my first word processing computer, a Tandy 1200HD, and I’ve worked on computers ever since.
Second Chance Audible sample click
Do you work alone or in coffee shops?
I prefer to be alone when I write. I couldn’t work in a coffee shop because of the constant noise and movement. I occasionally take a laptop to Elizabethtown College’s High Library and find a quiet desk in a corner on the top floor. “Noichi” was written in longhand in their tower room. Few students occupy it during the day.
Do you keep a pad on your bedside stand, or rely on memory? Or perhaps use voice recordings to email to yourself?
I used to jot down ideas until I realized that the truly good ideas are the ones you don’t forget.
Do you work in silence or to music?
Silence. Words come together in sentences to create sound and music and rhythm, and I don’t want anything impinging on the way I join those elements together.
What are your favourite movies/documentaries/inspirations?
Oh my, too many to name. I do reread The Great Gatsby every few years, and remain amazed that a writer in his twenties could create as close as we’ve ever come to the Great American Novel, a book that becomes richer with every reading. I also love Philip Roth, Joseph Conrad, Henry James (though it took me a long time to appreciate him), Lovecraft (still), and many more. I also love Golden Age mysteries, both to read and to watch in their film versions (Laurie and I just finished watching ALL of David Suchet’s Poirot on Blu-ray).
What inspired you to first begin writing?
I started out in theatre, and was performing in what were then called industrial shows, in which you performed for business conventions in full-length book musicals which related the trials and tribulations of retailers and wholesalers of flooring, carpeting, and ceilings. I did Armstrong shows exclusively. I had a gift for parody lyrics and funny dialogue, and that got me writing the shows as well, and I soon joined the company full-time as a writer-producer. After a few years of this, I thought why not try some stories? I’ve always loved horror, so submitted one to Ted Klein at Twilight Zone Magazine, and it sold. I had sales that year to Playboy, The New Yorker, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as well, so that opened the doors, and I sold my first two novels to Tor in 1985.
Like all of my favourite writers, you have more than one discipline. Your wonderful novel Reign with its doppelgänger, perhaps tulpa-esque villain, has the perfect theatrical atmosphere as well as authentic characters (in Britain "luvvies", as theatre-people are known, are notoriously foul-mouthed). How did you get into acting, and have you ever written a play or a screenplay? Ditto your audio book readings.
I acted in high school, playing Billy Bigelow in Carousel when I was a sophomore (and yes, I actually had the voice for it – tapes exist!). I was (still am, to a certain extent) a very good baritone, and did lots of musicals. I joined Actors Equity in my twenties, and am still a member, though I dropped out of acting through most of my writing career. Reign is indeed based on my acting experiences.
I started doing professional theatre again in the mid 2000s, but by the mid 2010s I’d been doing so much audiobook narration that I stopped performing except for audiobooks. I started off doing my own novels, then those of other writers, among whom have been Clive Barker, Joe Lansdale, F. Paul Wilson, Brian Keene, and many others in the horror field, as well as westerns, mysteries, and non-fiction. I love doing it, as it gives me the chance to create all the characters with my voice, and be the director of my own audio film!
I have written a number of plays – a classic ghost story called Revenant, a Pinteresque play about Harold Pinter and Vivien Merchant’s breakup, and Countenance, about a British WWI vet returning home after being horribly disfigured. They’ve all received local productions, but I’ve never tried to do anything else with them. I’ve gotten quite lazy in my dotage. I also have two unpublished novels that I just can’t bring myself to market. They are, shall we say, unique. Whether or not they are commercial is another question. I do know that no AI could have written them.
Perhaps if you feel up for further punishment you might have a go at putting your unpublished novels on Amazon? And being a junk shop/vintage aficionado, it would be great to see another "Better Days" mystery.
Thank you again for taking the time for an edifying, inspiring, and enjoyable interview, and all best wishes towards a future of continued good health, happiness, and prosperity.
Buy Chet's books via his Amazon Author page
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 Psycho: Sanitarium, the authorized sequel to Robert Bloch's classic Psycho. Readers may be familiar with his regional picture book, Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas. His most recent books are two novels written with his wife, Laurie: Murder Old and New, a mystery set in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, and A Step Across, a romantic thriller set in Ireland.
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, Twilight Zone Magazine, and many other magazines and anthologies. He has won the International Horror Guild Award, and has been shortlisted multiple times for the World Fantasy Award, the HWA's Stoker Award, and the MWA's Edgar Award. Nearly all of his works are available in ebook format.
A stage and film actor, he has recorded over 60 unabridged audiobooks, both of his own work and that of many other writers, available at www.audible.com. Follow him on Twitter (@chetwill) or at www.chetwilliamson.com.
* On 23 October 2004, Lauren Bacall was interviewed by Michael Parkinson on probably the only television show ever where effervescent comedian/drag queen Paul O'Grady sat silent, entranced, hanging on Bacall's every word. Smart people realise when they are in the presence of greatness.