Wednesday 15 April 2020

Interview with Steven W. Booth - By David Kempf

When did you first become interested in writing? 

I’ve always been a good writer. In elementary school, I could never understand what people were talking about with a first draft, an edit, and a final draft. For me it was a first draft, a proofread, and done. But storytelling is something I came to much later. I concluded in my youth that storytelling was the key to popularity (all the cool kids could tell stories well), and I wasn’t cool or popular, which I attributed to the fact that I couldn’t tell stories well. I didn’t understand the structure or process of crafting a story. I remember in my first days of college at University of California Santa Cruz, I wrote a short story about two serial killers meeting when one picked up the other on the side of the road. They really liked each other and were sad when they had to kill each other. The story was unpublishable, as you can well imagine. But it wasn’t until about 2005 when I started storytelling in earnest. A friend, horror author Harry Shannon, challenged me to write a novel when I tried to tell him that I wasn’t creative. Since then I’ve written about 2 million words (15 novels and a smattering of short stories, but some of those novels were written anywhere from 4 to 12 times). So, long answer to a short question, around 2005.

How did you get involved in fantasy/horror?

I blame my sister. I wasn’t a reader until I was about 13, and she gave me Piers Anthony, David Gerrold, Steven Brust, and of course JRR Tolkien and others. I’ve always been interested in fantasy and science fiction—and I feel horror has elements of both. How I got started writing horror was because of Harry again. I had been writing a lot, but not really getting anywhere with it. I tried getting into some anthologies that Harry would suggest, but he would always be accepted whereas I wouldn’t be. So my wife suggested we write a zombie short story for an anthology edited by Joe McKinney and Michelle McCrary. The anthology was Dead Set, and the short story was Jailbreak, the story of a small town sheriff who gets caught in her jailhouse on the first night of the apocalypse.

The story was accepted and was the first (or second, I’d have to look) story in the anthology. It was wildly popular, downloaded like 150,000 times (it was free, or course). So, seeing a good thing, Harry and I asked ourselves, what happens after. From that premise, we wrote The Hungry. That was also wildly popular (this was 2011, the heyday of zombie fiction). So we wrote The Wrath of God. And then At the End of the World. By the time we were done, we had written seven novels with the same characters as Jailbreak, and a thriller together. Zombies and a sheriff named Penny Miller are how I got involved.

Tell us about your first publisher.

Well, my first publisher was me. Which is to say, Genius Book Publishing, now a medium sized press handling a lot of true crime, but a smattering of other stuff, including all my novels. As far as the Horror Writers Association is concerned, I’m self published. If you saw how rigorously we vetted my books, you wouldn’t think it was done haphazardly. I was planning on starting a publishing company anyway, and I didn’t want to start with screwing up someone else’s book, so I decided to practice on The Hungry. As I said, it was wildly popular, and still holds the record for unit sales in my company. When I didn’t screw it up, I started publishing other authors. We now have 29 titles, and a gazillion more (really, like 10 or 15) coming out this year alone. Yes, eight of those titles have my by-line, and there will be a ninth by early May. But I leave it up to others in my organization to tell me whether my stuff is publishable. If it’s not, we don’t publish it. In other words, my first publisher is freakin’ awesome!

How would you classify the genre you write?

I write action-adventure and mystery. All of my zombie novels are actually action-adventure with horror elements. My thriller is action adventure with mystery elements. My new novel, The Orchard, is a mystery with science-fiction elements. My best short stories are all action-adventure, with I think one exception. I thought for a long time that I wanted to write cross-genre mystery and private eye stories like Steven Saylor and Steven Brust, but what I end up with is action-adventure and mystery.

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

I need to get technical here. I believe that horror is popular because people are practicing in their minds what they would do if their worst nightmares stared them in the face. Fantasy is the same, but substitute ghosts for dragons. There’s quite a bit of research that shows a good story can hijack the listener’s mind and cause them to experience in a very real way what they are hearing. Here’s an example: I think people have fears and doubts, and fantasy and horror particularly, but adventure and mystery and romance and all genres are a safe way to practice being in foreign situations and test responses without actually getting rejected, beat up, or killed. Or eaten by zombie dragons, I would imagine.

What inspires your stories?

Movies. I could list quite a few that mean a lot to me, but when I think storytelling, I think movies. Alien and Aliens. Star Wars. Jaws. Ghostbusters. Sneakers. The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country. Blue Thunder and War Games (same director, turns out). A Bugs Life, Finding Nemo, Lilo and Stitch. A ton more. Each of them have a permanent apartment in my head. I have a beta reader who is going over my new novel now, and he commented that my writing style is very cinematic. I love that feeling of immersion that I get from watching really good movies. I’m a very visual person, and I see the stories in my head. Not the whole thing, just snippets of situations, actions, faces, relationships. But I see them, and I want others to see them as well. There is insufficient room in this interview for me to go into a huge amount of detail, but I will say that my Hungry novels are really Aliens with zombies. My storytelling is equal parts Sneakers, Star Wars, Jaws, and Finding Nemo. I just love those movies, and I love what they do to my brain. I want other people to have that experience with my stories as well. Except in novel form. I don’t write screenplays.

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

I plead ignorance. I am wholly underprepared for this question. I have read my fair share of American horror (which is probably less than most people who have written 7 horror novels), but I cannot think of a single British horror story I’ve really spent any time on. I will stand here and accept the inevitable shaming that will be directed at me after this answer is published. [Edit: As I’m going through my favorite horror books, I realized I’ve read both Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula. Those are not exactly recent exemplars of modern British horror, so I’m sticking with my original answer. I don’t know.]

What are your favorite horror books? 

P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Chronicles are great. Anything by Anne Rice, but really Interview with a Vampire and the Vampire Lestat are the ones that I spent a lot of time with. I really liked Stoker’s Dracula. I am a big big fan of The Cask of Amantillado and the Pit and the Pendulum by Poe. I’ve read The Shining probably three times, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of the list. I find it compelling, but not a favorite. [Edit: Based on my answer to the previous question, I should note that Shelley’s Frankenstein was not one of my favorite horror novels. Full stop.] I also like Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman. That one had a big impact on my storytelling.

What are some of your favorite horror movies?

Alien, hands down, is my favorite horror movie. Next is Jaws. The Fourth Kind (that one freaks me out to this day). Sunshine goes on the list too, although that’s probably a stretch for most true horror fans. One time, a good friend and awesome horror author, Janet Joyce Holden, called my taste in horror very ‘mainstream.’ She’s probably right (and I’m still a little traumatized by that, despite it being true). Whereas I couldn’t get 20 minutes into Event Horizon, which I thought I would love. No accounting for taste.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as an author?

Despite being “self” published, I’m still shocked that I have been able to find so many people who want to read what I’ve written. One time, I was at a World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City, and we were doing a mass signing. Some guy came up to me and asked me to sign his Kindle in silver sharpie. I went up to him after and asked him—truly—“What the hell were you thinking?” He said, “I really love your work.” I have fans in the Philippines. I have people who really react to my work. I want people to engage with my stories, to feel them, to experience them. And they do. It’s surprising and very gratifying.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

Yes, and it could fill this interview a hundred times over. I’ll keep it short. First, persistence is everything. EVERYTHING. I’ve written 15 complete novels as I’ve said before. The most recent release I discovered I wrote 9 times, some of which bear no resemblance to the final at all. Nine complete novels to get one publishable story. If I didn’t have persistence, I would have never been able to do that. Persistence beats talent every time. Second, for a long time, I believed that if I couldn’t just “fix” a current story during rewrite—as opposed to going off on a tangent, which is what I’d usually wind up doing—it mean that I was not a disciplined writer. More than one author told me that. You can justify everything, I was told by one writing coach. It’s bullshit. Forking, diverging from the original story, getting lost in a tangent, those are all CRITICAL storytelling tools. I set aside my first novel because I wrote (not rewrote, but wrote) four entirely different stories as I was fixing it. How is that not being disciplined? I once had a conversation with Steven Saylor, one of my heroes. He showed me the first pages of the first novel in his Gordianus the Finder series, which is hugely influential on me (I wouldn’t be a novelist today if it wasn’t for Catalina’s Riddle). In those first pages, Gordianus didn’t even exist. The investigator was Marcus Tullius Cicero, who, in the resulting novels, was a minor if important character.

Even Steven Saylor needed to find his way. Why should I be any different? And David Gerrold rewrote a published novel, When Harlie Was One, because he didn’t like the ending and republished it as Version 2.0. How is that undisciplined? Third, ignore the advice that you can learn writing from reading other authors. Now, before you stop reading this interview, that advice is completely true. You CAN learn from reading others. But not if you don’t understand what you’re reading. Here’s what I mean. If you don’t know how to cook, and someone tells you you can learn how to cook like a master chef by eating great food, they are lying to you. You must know the basics of storytelling (I’m a big fan of the three act structure, but I digress) before you start reverse engineering someone else’s work. It’s like learning a foreign language. If someone teaches you the word for “towel” in Japanese, and then you listen to someone speaking Japanese, it all sounds the same until they say “towel.” That word stands out. But if you don’t know the ingredients of a story, how it’s constructed, how to bake it or pan fry it or barbecue it, what the writing equivalent of the Malliard effect is (look it up, it’s yummy), all you can say is, this is good food. Learn the basics of storytelling, plot, and structure, and THEN go read other great writers and you’ll start to see what they’re doing to your brain. When you know the elements of storytelling, reading is like watching TV with the sound off (try it, it’s creepy). You start to see what they’re doing to your brain. You can pick up on emotions, dramatic beats, and relationships by watching with the sound off. The words are getting in the way. Same with reading to learn writing. Turn the sound off.

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

I have a total love-hate relationship with self-publishing. Some stories should never ever ever see the light of day. Never. Did I say never yet? Don’t do it. I’ve written more than my fair share. I actually self-pubbed an early draft of one of these winners. I forgot about that. Then, years later, I had reworked it into something publishable. And I found a home for it (Horror Library 5–say Hi to Boyd Harris if you see him). I was so excited. Then I got an angry email from him. They only accepted NEW stories. Well, this was a NEW version. Nope, didn’t count. Shot myself in the foot because I couldn’t wait to win fame and fortune with a story that wasn’t ready and actually harmed my reputation. The publishable version is actually really good. The published version is shite. On the other hand, my other business—and the reason I became a publisher—is helping authors and publishers create books from manuscripts. If it wasn’t for self-publishing, I wouldn’t have my 8 novels nor a career in publishing nor a roof over my head. If your story is ready, go ahead and self-pub. But deciding if your story is ready is a subject for another interview. I will say, if a publisher makes you an offer on your story, THAT’s when you should consider self-pubbing, not before. So many people disagree with that advice. Take it for what it’s worth.

Do you really think you’re a genius?

Oh, for heaven’s sake. My company is Genius Books & Media, Inc.. I named it after my wife, who is way smarter than me. She had Genius Office Services back in 2003, an editing and transcribing service. I coopted the name and created Genius Book Services. Then Genius Book Publishing. And now Genius Books & Media. Everyone gives me a hard time about the name. All I’m going to say is, both Leya and I passed the Mensa test. That’s good enough for me. But the name isn’t a matter of ego, it’s a matter of love. My wife is amazing and she really is WAY smarter than me.

Will you have more time to write now or is the quarantine too distracting?

I’ve worked from home since January 2010. The quarantine has impacted my social life (my friends are mostly in Los Angeles proper, about 45 minutes from my home in Castaic), and I’d really like a haircut and a meal served to me that I didn’t cook myself, but really nothing else has changed. I’m writing a couple of times a week, notwithstanding the true crime book I’m ghostwriting most mornings, and I’m painting three or four nights a week. My publishing work has not abated, but my book design clients have sort of fallen away. That’s affected my income, but not my writing time. And now that my fan in the Philippines has convinced me to write more books (I’ll tell you another time), I have plenty to write. More time? Perhaps not. Too distracting? Not even a little. I just have fewer excuses for not writing.

What are your current projects?

I’m currently writing a modern-day fantasy about a group of geriatric demon hunters who get caught up in the war between the gods for control of the multiverse. I’m plotting out two sequels to my new science-fiction mystery novel, The Orchard (Lord Wilfrando Sy, I’m looking at you, and you know why!) as well as two prequels, and I’m tinkering with a science-fiction private eye novel about a plot to start a galactic war around a single planet. Oh, and I’m thinking of resurrecting that first novel that I wrote four times, now that I’ve figured out what’s wrong with it (you don’t have to fix the world to be an inspiration to others). I’m also an avid figurative and aviation artist painting about one new piece a week. That’s enough to keep me busy.

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

I am an author, artist, publisher, and entrepreneur. I am a big believer in the idea that you shouldn’t be confined to writing (or painting, or creating) what you know, because if everyone did that, nothing new would ever be created. As a writer and storyteller, I consider myself a “feral pantser.” I often haven’t a clue where I’m going with a story as I’m writing it. But since the key to a great story is persistence, not talent (talent helps, but I’ll take persistence over talent every time), I’m learning that the story that is unpublishable today will be tomorrow’s masterpiece, once I’ve written it enough times. I am very emphatic, and experience the world in terms of energy flows between people, animals, objects, and the earth, which sounds way more touchy-feely and froofy than it really is. What it does mean is that I experience the world directly, not intellectually, which is beautiful and really hard to explain to others. I’m a cat lover, working on my 13th through 20th cat in 30 years. I’ve been married for just over 20 years (my 20th anniversary was the first day that the Governor of California declared the lockdown, so Leya and I had an intimate dinner at home, and have every night since). Leya is my Chief Operating Officer, my muse, and my best friend. And she really is way smarter than me.

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