Saturday 9 December 2017

Interview with Al Sirois - By David Kempf

Picture by Bill Stank

When did you first become interested in writing?

That question takes me back a long way. When I was a boy, not yet ten years old, I started messing around with an old typewriter I found in the attic. It was one of those big old back jobs, with a two-color ribbon (red and black). I was already a big reader, and although there was a dedicated children’s library in my home town of Fairfield, CT, I loved to go to the main library with my mother, who was a big reader.

These trips were almost weekly. I wasn’t old enough to get a library card from the adult library, so I would load my mother up with things like SCIENCE NEWS and James Thurber’s books, and Robert Benchley, and books of Al Hirschfeld’s theatrical caricatures. (The library didn’t have any Charles Addams cartoon books, but a family friend had some, and I loved them.)

The Hirschfeld stuff led me off into books about Broadway and plays, so I read things like Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One, and so on. All this while I was reading stuff for kids, too; I discovered Heinlein juveniles in the children’s library, believe it or not, along with The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree and the Zip-Zip books, and on and on. Once I found that old typewriter it was almost inevitable that I would start teaching myself how to type, and to start writing little things. All this really took off once I discovered sf magazines on the local newsstands. I started thinking, I would love to do this to write stories!

No one told me I couldn’t do it, so I started writing. My folks got me a decent Smith-Corona portable typewriter when I was 12, but I think I had already started submitting stories to Amazing. They were terrible, of course; I had no idea what proper manuscript format was, and I typed ‘em on onion-skin paper... I made every mistake a newbie could make. Once I started reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ian Fleming a couple of years later, I was hooked on that sort of adventure stuff.

How did you get involved in fantasy/horror?

That came about as a direct result of the Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter for Ballantine

Books. I probably picked up on Lovecraft first, but quickly fell under the spell of Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith. Then I discovered Titus Groan when I was about 17. My own writing became florid and kind of overwrought, but I think there was a strength to it nonetheless. I write assiduously through all of high school and college, though I wasn’t submitting much at that time. I guess I had finally figured out that I was too green. But I kept reading, and kept writing for myself.

Then I got a job in a bookstore in New Haven when I was 22. I was in charge of the sf and fantasy section. A dream job! One of the guys who had worked there before me still dropped in every so often. This was Grant Carrington, who had had a few things published, including a novel, and was reading slush at Amazing / Fantastic for Ted White. I showed some of my stuff to Grant, who showed it to Ted and that resulted in my first couple of professional sales. This was in 1973 and 1974.

Tell us about your music. 

Boy, you must want a book from me. J My first instrument was the accordion (don’t laugh), which I played to little effect for two or three years beginning when I was about 8. I had no aptitude for it. I tried the trumpet when I was in what is now called middle school, but had no aptitude for that, either.

This brings us up to about 1962. I had begun paying a lot of attention to music, which in those days wasn’t really “product.” I listened to Motown, surf music, whatever was coming out of the NYC stations like WINS (not news in those days) and WMCA. Two years later the Beatles exploded on to the scene, and a lot of people who, like me, had previously been avid listeners to music, decided they wanted to play it, too.

It took me another four years, but I began playing drums in 1966. I had found my axe! A couple of years later I picked up the guitar, as well, and became fairly proficient I could even accompany other musicians, and I wrote a whole bunch of songs, some of which other bands performed. I eventually stopped playing guitar (though I still own one), but my love in the drums has persisted for over 50 years. I’m still laying, and performing when I can. I am also (ineffectually) playing keyboard.

Tell us about your artwork and illustration. 

Another long story. I started scribbling and doodling when I was quite young. I suppose it never occurred to me that I couldn’t draw, though I didn’t start to become more skilled at it until I was in my teens. Then I discovered that I was actually pretty good. I majored in Graphic Design in college, but dropped out after two years and went to work. I started doing art for fanzines in the early 1970s, and gradually improved.

Then I was hired by comic book artist Wally Wood as his assistant in 1975 or so, while I was living in New Haven. (He had joined an sf fan group I belonged to because he was interested in one of the women there; that’s how I met him.) I was a huge admirer of his work, but I didn’t gush or make a fool of myself when he introduced himself to me. My art at that time had a certain crude energy, and I guess he thought I could be helpful to him because he took me on.

That was the beginning of my career in comics. I worked hard to improve, and he was a patient teacher. Later I branched off more into illustration and painting primarily Impressionist landscape painting. I still do some fan art, and I try to take any illustration work I can get. I have lots of other influences besides Wood, of course, but it would take me too long to get into all of that. I could go on for hours! (Just ask my drawing students.) At age 67, I still feel that I have a long way to go until I am the artist I wish to be. There is always more to learn!

How would you classify the genre you write?

Well, I have always loved sf and the first things I tried to write were in that genre. I later branched out a bit to fantasy, then I tried to do some mainstream stories. Meanwhile I started selling some science fiction, so I stuck with that for a long time. Even today, most of what I write is sf, but I have also developed some young adult works, and I recently had a fantasy novel published by a small press. Next year, 2018, I will have a horror novel published by another small press. I have also done a lot of ghostwriting, mostly sf and fantasy, so there are several books in those genres as well even though my name isn’t on them. I also write mysteries. So whatever sells, you know.

Why do you think horror and fantasy books remain so popular?

They tap into deep veins in our psyches: fear of the unknown coupled with a desire to somehow conquer it; and escapism. As long as human nature remains what it is, fantasy and horror will be with us.

What inspires your stories?

Jeez, what doesn’t? An event; a news item; a character; a situation; an image—it could be anything. Sometimes I am simply cheesed off about something (or someone) and want to get “paper revenge.”

What do you think the difference between American horror and British horror is?

I am probably not the one to answer this. I could talk about British vs. American science fiction, but I can’t discuss horror with any degree of expertise. I simply don’t read enough of it.

What are your favorite horror books?

This is another tough one. I don’t care for overly-violent material, preferring to feel the psychological screws tighten rather than being bathed in blood. I’d have to say that Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness tops the list. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is another. I have read it several times and it never fails to creep me out. Probably my favorite horror writer is Stephen King.

The Shining is among my favorites of his work. I’d include Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes as one of the best horror novels I’ve read. I’d also classify Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs as horror. And let’s hear it for Max Brooks’s brilliant World War Z, which I have read three times and ill certainly read again.

What are some of your favorite horror movies?

John Carpenter’s The Thing, and his Halloween. The original Godzilla was, to me, more of a horror film, as was an obscure Japanese movie, The H-Man, about a Blob-like thing that absorbed people. I don’t care for slasher stuff. The Blair Witch Project was scary and satisfying for me. The Haunting of Hill House is a great film (see favorite books, above). So is The Birds. Also, the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs totally creeped me out (again, see favorite books, above).

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as an author?

Selling my first short story! That happened when I was 23. It boosted my confidence in myself very important for a new writer. Everything else has gradually flowed from there.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

Don’t throw anything out! Save everything. I cannot emphasize that enough. No matter what you may think of those old stories and clunky first drafts, do not toss them in the trash or delete them from your computer. I speak from bitter experience. Also, learn how to take (and give) constructive criticism. Tell your ego to STFU and listen to what is being said to you. Yes, some of it will be bullshit, but don’t get defensive; you may learn something to your benefit. Also, join a workshop. You may have to try a couple before you find a good one, but persevere. You really need other people to read your work and comment intelligently thereon.

What is your opinion of the new self-publishing trend?

I’m of two minds about it. I have dabbled in it, but to no great extent. (This assumes that you call POD self-publishing.) I am a traditionalist in that I want to be paid for what I do. I also appreciate the guidance of a good editor; I think that authors need editors. Too many self-published writers really aren’t helping themselves by shoveling their unedited books out into the world. I’d read several that are just... oh, my god, how could you? On the other hand, even self-publishing gives a writer a taste of the process. But there is self-publishing, and then there is marketing and that’s harder by far than writing a book and formatting it through CreateSpace or whatever.

What are your current projects?

I’m involved in a work-for-hire ghostwriting gig that keeps me pretty busy. My name won’t go on the finished product, but I admit that I’m having fun with it—and, even more important, I’m making some money on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, there are short stories that need work, and a few novels in the planning stages. If my fantasy book The Bohemian Magician does well enough, there will be a sequel.

I also have a horror novel, Jersey Ghouls, due out in June of 2018, for which I will be doing the cover art. In addition, there are a couple of YA projects that are simmering. I have enough story and book ideas socked away to keep me busy for 10 years. And new ones keep occurring to me. As long as my mind holds out, I’ll keep working.

Please in your own words, write a paragraph about yourself & your work.

What I have always tried to do in my writing is to tell a good story, and to entertain. As I get older, I’ve taken to slipping a few political and social observations in as well. These reflect my concern with society at large. I am still as self-centered as most creative people are, but not as much as I used to be. If I had one wish it would be for another lifetime in which to perfect my crafts insofar as writing, art, and music go. I’ll never be as good as I strive to be, but I think the striving itself is perhaps just as important if not more so.

Amazon - The Bohemian Magician Kindle Edition by A.L. Sirois