Nolan has written for such magazines as Playboy, Sports Illustrated, Rogue and Dark Discoveries. He has also enjoyed great writing success with nonfiction, prose and poetry.
Nolan has won the Edgar Allan Poe Award twice and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writer's Association. In 2002 he was voted a Living Legend in Dark Fantasy by the International Horror Guild.
As a lifelong fan of Nolan's amazing work, it was an honor to have the opportunity to interview him. Nolan spoke about his many past achievements as well as his current and future projects.
I would like to acknowledge Jason V. Brock and Ray Garton for their help in contacting William F. Nolan for this interview.
Interview with William F. Nolan
By David Kempf
Tell us why you became so interested in science fiction and horror.
As a boy, in high school back in Kansas City, I discovered the science fiction work of H. G. Wells: The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and Island of Dr. Moreau and so on. Those are the works that got me interested in science fiction.
My interest in horror began in the same period when I read Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows. From then on, I was hooked.
Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?
I’ve written only one horror novel, Hell Tracks, and have no real intention of writing more.
However, I have written several other novels, embracing science fiction, and even a Western. Since I have had more than 200 short stories published, it’s obvious that I prefer the short form.
A novel is like a trip through the woods in which one can follow various paths and then return to the central road. With a short story, you enter the woods at one end and go straight through. For me, I like the direct effect of a short over the convoluted approach of a novel to tell the story.
Tell us about your earliest inspirations.
Beyond Wells and Blackwood, I grew up reading Ray Bradbury and the Westerns of Max Brand. I have the largest collection of Max Brand in the world, and my Bradbury collection of some 40 plus years is now housed at the Bowling Green State University Department of Popular Culture. They acquired my collection in 1981.
How did you and George Clayton Johnson come up with the concept for Logan’s Run?
I came up with a concept when I was asked by Charles Beaumont to give a talk at his UCLA class on writing in the mid-1960’s. The topic was the difference between social fiction and science fiction. So I took the social concept of “life begins at forty” and turned it around. What if life ends at forty? In my talk I pointed out that in social fiction, a man might turn forty and then run off with a showgirl, have a mid-life crisis… but in science fiction, he has to face some real threat, technologically or in a future society that demands euthanasia at forty.
Later, I discussed the concept with George Clayton Johnson and we decided that it would have more impact if the age was lowered to 21. George wanted to immediately create a screenplay, but I felt strongly that it should be a novel first. George acquiesced, and we rented a motel room to remove distractions and for three weeks we took turns at the typewriter. The rest is history.
Do you see that novel as more of a critique of religion or tyrannical government?
Actually, it’s a critique of both, but only sub-textually. On the surface, it’s a hunt-an-kill action adventure.
Were you satisfied with the movie version?
In a word: no. MGM totally ignored the subtext in favor of clichéd action. The old man played by Peter Ustanov was an unnecessary contrivance. He kills the picture in mid-stride. Who cares about the names of all those cats? The picture slows to a halt.
However, it’s a good popcorn movie and many people love it.
Why is the remake taking so long?
Good question. I wish I had the answer. Thus far, it’s had twelve scriptwriters and four directors and each time, the deal has fallen through. Why don’t they just shoot the book?
I just hope I live long enough to see it!
Was the movie Burnt Offerings as scary as you envisioned it when you wrote the screenplay?
Initially, I was disappointed by the critical response. Through the years, however, it has emerged as a cult classic. Was it scary enough? I would hope so. I think Dan Curtis did a great job of bringing my screenplay to life.
In the book How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction, you point out the importance of grabbing the reader’s attention. You said to do it in the first sentence or two of the story. That’s because of the competition books face with movies and TV (and the internet and video games). Do you think it’s more important than ever to have a grabbing first sentence that involves the reader from the start?
Absolutely! In our hurry-up world, the writer must grab the reader’s attention immediately.
When I served as managing editor for the short-lived Gamma magazine, I would not spend a lot of time reading submissions. I would open the envelope, slide the manuscript out enough to read just the beginning, and if it didn’t impress me in the first paragraph, I’d just slide it back into the envelope and send it back.
Who do you consider to be the most influential writer of your generation?
Well, Ray Bradbury of course.
I once told Ray that he had probably influenced more writers of his generation and subsequent generations than any other writer of the 20th century – maybe rivaled only by Ernest Hemmingway.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as a writer so far?
Logan’s Run is my calling card and my greatest commercial accomplishment. Personally, I feel that my greatest artistic accomplishment is spread out over my 200 short stories.
Name some of your favorite horror books.
Bradbury’s Dark Carnival, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and, most certainly, Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs.
Name some of your favorite horror films.
In know I’m old-fashioned, but I really love the classics: the original Frankenstein with Karloff as the monster, and Dracula with Lugosi as the dark count.
Later films that really impressed me, include Alien and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Truly horrific.
Why do you think horror movies and books remain popular?
People love to be scared. They want to sit in a theater or on their couch, safe from vampires, werewolves, zombies and ghouls, while still enjoying the thrills.
What are your thoughts regarding the rise of electronic publishing?
Honestly, I love the feel of a real book. I love to hold it, the way it smells, and to be able to sit and enjoy it anywhere I want without having to worry about a battery. However, I realize that my opinion is becoming ever less popular, and I do welcome the new opportunities for readership that the electronic frontier provides.
Do you think the growing trend of self-publishing is a good or bad thing?
It’s both. Good because it gets a lot more out there for people to read, bad because many of them are subpar, poorly written, and don’t really deserve publication in any form.
What are your latest projects?
I’m working on several short stories. I also have a new Logan novel in the works with Jason V Brock. Also, Jason and I plan to edit several new anthologies together.
What advice can you give to new writers seeking publication?
My advice is this: put your butt in the chair, lower your hands over the keys, and type, type, type! If you keep writing, you will gain the experience needed to make quality. Or at least, eventually, you’ll write something half-decent.
And you must read widely: Cheever, Capote, Bester, Hemmingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Thurber, Hammet, Chandler, and S. J. Perlman, for a start. Aspiring writers should read outside their comfort zone, not just the leaders of their field, but everything of quality. Never limit yourself to one genre.
Please in your own words write a paragraph about yourself & your work.
Although I am best known for coauthoring the novel Logan's Run, with George Clayton Johnson, I have written literally hundreds of pieces, from poetry to nonfiction, to prose, for many publications, such as Sports Illustrated, Rogue, Playboy, Dark Discoveries, Nameless[disambiguation needed], and others. I had a long career in the movie industry, primarily working for Dan Curtis, and co-wrote the screenplay for the 1976 horror film Burnt Offerings which starred Karen Black and Bette Davis.
I have been a prolific editor of collections (by others), and anthologies, most recently co-editing two anthologies with my friend, filmmaker, and writer Jason V Brock: "The Bleeding Edge" (2009), with stories from fellow writers Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, John Shirley, Dan O'Bannon, and several others, and "The Devil's Coattails" (2012), which featured Ramsey Campbell, S. T. Joshi, Richard Selzer, Earl Hamner, Jr., and so on. I also teamed up with Bluewater Productions for a comic book series, "Logan's Run: Last Day", released in 2010, and comics based on two other properties: "Tales from William F. Nolan's Dark Universe" (featuring stories adapted by me and Brock), and "Sam Space" (both out in 2013).
I twice won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America. I was voted a Living Legend in Dark Fantasy by the International Horror Guild in 2002, and in 2006 I was bestowed the honorary title of Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. In 2010, I received the Lifetime Achievement Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association (HWA). In 2013 I was a recipient, along with Brian W. Aldiss, of the World Fantasy Convention Award in Brighton, England.