Photo credit: Jennifer Percy
Describe your latest book.
Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction is a craft book that focuses on plot and structure, suspense and momentum, with plenty of essays that offer practical advice on a wide-ranging series of topics, such as the treatment of violence and how to activate setting. I talk about short stories, novels, essays, and poems — but I also analyze comics and movies and TV shows. The book is a call-to-arms that slays literary snobbishness and charges the gates of genre fiction.
In all the creative writing workshops I took — as an undergrad and a grad student — no one ever addressed plot and structure, except dismissively. I wrote this book to fill a vacuum and share some of the tools I discovered through my own strenuous reading.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Ages 1-3: Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry
Ages 6-9: The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Ages 10-13: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Ages 14-18: The Gunslinger by Stephen King
When did you know you were a writer?
There’s no way to answer this without sounding like a cheeseball, so I’ll share an anecdote instead. When I was in college, I worked one summer in Glacier National Park. I was the gardener at Many Glacier Lodge and my girlfriend was a waitress in the dining hall. I started keeping a journal around this time. And I scribbled down quite a few love letters, poems, even a song for her. One night, when we were watching the sun set over the Rockies, she said, “You should be a writer,” and I said, “Okay.”
Reader, I married her.
What does your writing workspace look like?
Generally messy. Lots of coffee cups and crumb-dotted plates and crumpled pieces of paper and broken-spined books. I work in the basement. I switched over to a standing desk a few months ago (after test-riding one at Stephen Graham Jones’s office), so I’m upright all day, hammering the keyboard. I’ve got some comic art on the wall, along with some clocks and antlers and skulls and a dead tarantula in a glass frame. There’s a pull-up bar. Shelves crammed with weird trinkets and comp copies of magazines and anthologies I’ve appeared in. There’s a closet that the previous owner used as a dark room for his photography, and I use that space as my nightmare factory; the walls are taped and tacked with newspaper articles and story blueprints and lists of ideas I want to write.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Words. And the quality of the single-malt scotch I’m drinking.
Share an interesting experience you’ve had with one of your readers.
I write comic books, and it’s especially fun to do a signing at a shop or a convention and encounter someone dressed up as Green Arrow or one of the Teen Titans.
But I’m supposed to be talking about Thrill Me. I dedicated the book to all of my former teachers — and it was especially gratifying to hear back from my eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. King, who received an early copy. She put a lot of wonderful novels in my hands that lit a fire inside me.
Tell us something you’re embarrassed to admit.
Um. I like Downton Abbey? And can perfectly imitate most of the characters, including Maggie Smith. Yeah, that’s embarrassing.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Daniel Woodrell! He’s a brilliant writer, one of the great prose stylists. He lives in and writes about (mostly) the Ozarks with a voice like a fiddle sawing out a dark-noted, whiskey-drunk jig. Start with Tomato Red. Then grab Winter’s Bone.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I live in Minnesota now, but I grew up in Bend, Oregon. Every few months we’d visit my grandparents in Portland, and Powell’s was always part of the pilgrimage. We’d spend four, six hours wandering the stacks, stocking up on mass-market paperbacks with embossed titles. So… not to sound like a brown-noser… but you. You, Powell’s, are my favorite collection, a hallowed museum of words, literary Shangri-la.
What’s the strangest or most interesting job you’ve ever had?
I already mentioned working as a gardener at Glacier National Park. That probably wins. But I’ve also been a handyman, a house painter, a ranch hand. I worked at an athletic club. I worked at a restaurant (and then managed it) to help pay my way through college.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention my years as an international assassin.
I’ve done a lot of teaching, but I’m full-time at the keyboard these days. And I gotta say, writing for comics might be the most fun gig I’ve ever had.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
When I was in Paris, I wandered through a few graveyards and hit a few bars to tip my hat to the literary all-stars. But no, not really, otherwise.
…Though I would love more than anything to make the trip to Mordor and cast the ring of power into the fiery chasm from whence it came. Maybe some day.
What scares you the most as a writer?
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Mr. Grouchy Pants: The Man Who Made a Career out of Playing With His Imaginary Friends
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
I love this sentence for so many reasons, but one of them is the chronological jujitsu. “Many years later” implies a now and a future. “Remember that distant afternoon” sandwiches in the past. Three different time periods elegantly captured in one line, which readies us for the magical, swirling sprawl of the novel.
Share a sentence of your own that you’re particularly proud of.
I’m usually disgusted with every sentence I’ve written once it appears in print. I often end up — at the podium, in front of an audience — editing while I read, wishing I hadn’t used that adjective, wishing I had lost that clause, wishing I hadn’t inadvertently recycled that metaphor.
But the first line of Thrill Me is “Vampires, dragons, and robots with laser eyes.” Which bridges into a discussion about the kind of books we loved as children and how we were then concerned — more than anything — with the answer to the question “What happens next?”
A question that many literary writers forget to address when they get caught up in their quest for the prettiest sentence, neglecting the reader.
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable dream or nightmare.
I love nightmares. I wish I had more of them. There’s one in particular I can’t get out of my skull — and it’s from when I was a kid. I was in a moonlit meadow ringed by woods. There was a record player in it. A scratchy, slow recording of “Teddy Bears' Picnic” was the only sound. Out of the woods came bears. But they looked abnormal, with thin bodies and thin faces and a muzzle that couldn’t quite close around their long teeth. They made a circle around me and stood upright and swayed to the song.
And… that’s when I sat upright in bed screaming for my mom.
What’s your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I don’t like the following rhetorical move: “Sitting in the chair, John blew out a sigh.” Or “Eating the soup, Susie rushed out the door.” It’s the clumsiness of the sound. And the delay of the subject is often confusing (since you have to retroactively connect it to the verb). And it’s often impossible — as the construction implies that certain things are happening simultaneously when they aren’t.
Do you have any phobias?
Clowns, sharks, and dentists. For all the obvious reasons.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Well, I did win the AWP karaoke contest a few years ago. The final round matched me against the inimitable Lauren Groff. She attempted to rouse the crowd by asking them to sing “Sweet Caroline” with her — but in the end I triumphed with a bass-heavy rendition of Cash’s “Folsom Prison.” This is my greatest accomplishment. For my prize, I won a biography of Bruce Springsteen. And a strawberry ring pop.
But to answer your question: I have no guilty pleasures. Just pleasures.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
In 2003, I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Workshop. Barry Hannah was my instructor. On the last day of class, I asked him for any parting advice, and in the doorway of the room, he lit a cigarette and blew out a cloud of smoke and said, "Thrill me," before walking away.
Top five favorite nerdy fantasy stories (in no particular order):
When I was a kid, if a book featured a dragon on the cover, that’s really all it took to get the thumbs-up from me. And if it had a dragon and a magic sword? Two thumbs up. Not much has changed. I still love to dream my way into distant worlds. Do yourself a favor and let these authors drag you down the rabbit hole.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of three novels, most recently The Dead Lands
, as well as two books of short stories, and the nonfiction book Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction
. His honors include an NEA Fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Plimpton Prize.