Episode 70: F. Paul Wilson

An hour-long interview with F. Paul Wilson, the award-winning, bestselling author of 60 books and nearly 100 short stories spanning science fiction, horror, adventure, medical thrillers, and virtually everything between.

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RepairmanJack.com

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F. Paul Wilson’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

F. Paul Wilson is the award-winning, bestselling author of 60 books and nearly 100 short stories spanning science fiction, horror, adventure, medical thrillers, and virtually everything between.

His novels The Keep, The Tomb, Harbingers, By the Sword, The Dark at the End, and Nightworld were New York Times Bestsellers.  The Tomb received the 1984 Porgie Award from The West Coast Review of BooksWheels Within Wheels won the first Prometheus Award, and Sims another; Healer and An Enemy of the State were elected to the Prometheus Hall of Fame.  Dydeetown World was on the young adult recommended reading lists of the American Library Association and the New York Public Library, among others.  His novella “Aftershock” won the Stoker Award. He was voted Grand Master by the World Horror Convention; he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers of America, and the Thriller Lifetime Achievement Award from the editors of Romantic Times.  He also received the prestigious San Diego ComiCon Inkpot Award and is listed in the 50th anniversary edition of Who’s Who in America.

His short fiction has been collected in Soft & Others, The Barrens & Others, and Aftershock & Others.  He has edited two anthologies: Freak Show and Diagnosis: Terminal plus (with Pierce Watters) the only complete collection of Henry Kuttner’s Hogben stories, The Hogben Chronicles.

In 1983 Paramount rendered his novel The Keep into a visually striking but otherwise incomprehensible movie with screenplay and direction by Michael Mann.

The Tomb has spent 25 years in development hell at Beacon Films.

Dario Argento adapted his story “Pelts” for Masters of Horror.

Over nine million copies of his books are in print in the US, and his work has been translated into twenty-four languages.  He also has written for the stage, screen, comics, and interactive media. He resides at the Jersey Shore

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Paul.

Well, glad to be here.

You know, I like to give people who, you know, haven’t done much an opportunity to be on the show once in a while.

I understand.

And maybe I can help out your career a little bit. Well, it’s nice to meet you. We’ve never met in person, but your name sort of popped up in something I was reading, and I thought, “That’d be a great guy to talk to.” And I have to say that I have a very strong memory of reading The Keep when it first came out, back in 1981, was it, I think?

Yeah, it was.

And I also remember seeing the movie, and I do remember thinking that it was rather incomprehensible but pretty to look at. So, yeah, I think that was an accurate description. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about your upcoming collection, which will come out about the same time as this goes live. But first, I want to do what I always do with my guests and take you back into the mists of time to find out how you got interested in this kind of stuff and how you started writing. How did that all come about for you? Where did you grow up, and when did you start reading this kind of thing, and when did you start writing it?

Well, I grew up in a classic middle-class family, mother, father, sister, brother, dog, cats. My father was an immigrant from England in, oh, I guess he was age eight in the ‘20s and I . . . .you know, he never encouraged me toward science fiction, but he never discouraged me. And but it was something I always gravitated to. I mean, when we had that little TV set with, maybe it had an eight-inch or a 12-inch screen, I remember King Kong coming on, the trailer for King Kong, when they re-released it in the ‘50s, and I was just was absolutely fascinated with that. And then came The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. And I was on the set. I would sit there and watch the TV, and we had three channels then, and I’d be switching back and forth, praying that somebody would show it again. And finally, you know . . . and I drove my parents crazy. At that time, polio was a threat. The vaccine hadn’t come out yet. And they didn’t want me to go to the movies. It was a summer movie, and summer with other kids was where you got polio. And they said, “You want to end up in an iron lung?” And I said, “I would take that risk to see this film.” And finally, I came up with the idea, hey, drive-in. I’ll be the only one, my family will be the only people I’ll be exposed to, so then they couldn’t object anymore. My father took me, and it was just a wonderful experience to see that on the big screen. And that sort of really cemented my love affair with monsters and science fiction. EC Comics were big at the time. It was before they were censored, and they used to have . . .

Tales of the Crypt, that was EC, wasn’t it?

Yeah, Tales of the Crypt, but they also had the science fiction ones where, you know, they’d have a dinosaur. Maybe drawn by Frazetta, sometimes it was drawn by Frazetta, and Williamson on the cover and on the side, they’d have a rocket ship taking off. I mean, those are my two triggers. I could not buy them. And so, the EC Comics and Uncle Scrooge comics were–because Uncle Scrooge stories were full of imagination—those were my reading staples as a grammar school kid. And then I started reading science fiction and finally got to the point where I said, “I’d like to try to write some of this.” And it took me years, years of rejection, before John Campbell finally bought my first story in 1970, so that’s 50 years ago this year, by the way, and by that time I was hooked. I couldn’t not write. And it’s become an obsessive-compulsive disorder. You know, if I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. I fall asleep at night working out plot twists or plot problems. It’s just an integral part of my life. There’s no thought or no possibility of not doing it anymore.

So, did you start writing when you were still in school and as a kid?

In college. Oh, I wrote stories, and I submitted them, you know, like werewolves and haunted house stories, and I submitted them to, like, the school paper, and stuff like that. And they always got rejected. But in college, I started very seriously. I just wanted to get published once. I figured, “If I can just get published once, I’ll be a published writer, and after that, I can do whatever I want.” And, you know, I was going to be, I planned on being a dilettante writer, but in the four or five years it took me to tell the first story, I just became hooked on it, on the process. And I was sure that my, you know, my stories were being rejected because nobody knew my name. You know, if I had Robert Silverberg or Harlan Ellison on the byline, they’d buy this story because it’s great. And after I finally did start selling, I went back to see if I could resell any of these things, or resubmit any of these things, and they were terrible. They were awful. And I just realized they got rejected for very good reason. I never had a writing course. I was just, you know, going by trying to write something I would like to read. Imitating Heinlein . . . I couldn’t imitate Ray Bradbury, that was beyond me, but I could imitate Poul Anderson, I could imitate Robert Heinlein. At least, feel that I was trying to imitate that. Bradbury was too verbose and too picturesque for me.

You mentioned you didn’t actually study writing. You actually were in medical school, weren’t you?

Yes, yes. When I sold my first story, I was a first-year medical student and got $375 or $365, something like that, you know, five cents a word, which they’re still paying nowadays.

Yes, they are.

So, at that time, I went online, and I did one of those inflation calculators and that’s worth almost $2,500 in buying power today. That’s amazing.

Yeah, there was a time when you could make a living just writing short fiction.

Yeah.

In the pulps and things like that. But I think that time is long gone, unfortunately.

Yeah.

Did you ever do anything . . . like, did you complete your medical degree and ever do anything in the medical field, or did the writing sort of take over?

I was in family practice for 44 years.

Oh!

So after 20 years in there, around the mid-‘90s, like 1994, I was doing full-time medicine, and basically, I was putting out a novel a year. I’d learned how to do the two of them. But by the mid-‘90s, I had partnered with Matt Costello when we were riding interactive scripts, we were scripting the SciFi channel’s FTL Newsfeed, I was still writing books, and we were writing tie-in books together for the games we had sold, and I just couldn’t do it. I just had to cut back on medicine. I cut back to two days a week, and I stayed at that until I retired at the beginning of 2019. So, I’ve been retired for a year and a half, so . . . 

Well, you have written some medical thrillers, but in general, has your medical experience fed into your writing? Do you think it was very beneficial for your writing to have that other side of things going on at the same time?

Yes, well, I’m a big believer in keeping the day job for writers because it keeps you in contact with people. Because I notice now since I’ve been retired . . . well, of course, with Covid. All your social contacts are cut way back, but I used to go to conventions all the time, I love being out with the readers. I love being out with other writers. And so, right now, I’m a shut-in and I . . . you know, that human contact, because basically, even if you have the greatest plot, plots happen to people, so, I mean, you’ve got to have good characters and you can’t create characters totally in a vacuum. You know, you have to know what real people are like and what they talk like and imitate that to some extent. So . . . but also, I mean, writing was also my golf game as a doctor. I couldn’t play golf. It was just, you know, I had golf attention deficit disorder, where after a few holes I’d be saying, what am I doing here? But I noticed that one thing that was recurring in my fiction was the miracle cure. It just pops up again and again, and I think that’s something subconscious, that being a doctor, and being a family practitioner, you know, you have patients you’ve had for a long time, and all of a sudden, they get terminally ill, and there’s nothing you can do. And you just wish there was something that you could do. But you’re helpless. You know, the sixteen-year-old girl with an acute leukemia, I mean . . . you know, she’s gone so quickly, and it just tears you up. So, I mean, you know, The Touch was about miracle cures, even my first novel was called Healer. So, it did influence me, but I did try to stay away from medical themes because that was too much like going back to work. As I said, this is my golf game.

Wait, you did venture and have ventured quite a bit into horror. What drew you to horror as opposed to more straightforward science fiction?

Horror was my first love. You know, I loved the rocketships and all that kind of stuff, but monsters, especially like GodzillaThe Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I just loved the monster aspect of it. Then they released the Universal monsters films onto TV, and, you know, I was watching Dracula, watching Frankenstein, watching The Wolf Man, I mean, I just loved those things. I built the Aurora models.

Oh, I remember those.

Probably anybody who is in this, you know . . .  that was one of the things, when I first read Salem’s Lot, I didn’t know who Stephen King was. I got it from the Literary Guild, my copy. And never once did it mention a vampire was going to be in the book, on the flap copy and the advertisements, never once mentioned vampires. And I’m reading along, and I’m saying, “Oh, you know, the only thing that can explain this is a vampire, but he’s going to cop out because everybody cops out. Nobody has vampires anymore. And then, that kid, I forget the name of the kid who was like, the main protagonist, it turns out that he had built the Aurora models, and I said, “Oh, this Stephen King, he’s one of us.” And all of a sudden, it turned out to be a real vampire. It was like, “Oh, yes!” And so, you know, that that was one of the highlights of the ‘70s, was coming across that novel and absolutely loving it. And then . . .  King had made some inroads into horror, but unless you were, in the ‘70s, unless you were Blatty or you were Ira Levin, you really couldn’t get a horror novel published. So, that’s why I was writing science fiction, because there were all these science fiction magazines. There were no horror magazines. Stu Schiff was doing Whispers, and he could only take so many stories. So, as soon as the horror market opened up . . .  I had written three science fiction novels and a novella, mostly for Doubleday and Dell. And then I decided, “It’s time to write my horror novel.”  So that I sat down and I wrote The Keep. And that changed my life. I mean, that was a huge international bestseller. It’s never been out of print. I’m just getting the movie rights. In February, I filed for recapture of the movie rights; after 35 years, you can do that. And so, we’ve already got people bidding on it to remake it. So, you may see a movie that resembles my novel in more than the title.

Like I said, I really remember reading The Keep. I would have been 20 . . .

Oh, don’t say it, really.

 . . . 21 or 22 at the time, I guess 22 probably, and I have a . . . yeah, it really stuck in my mind. And I kind of went through everything, like, I read science fiction, I read fantasy, I read horror. But I actually read more horror for a while after reading The Keep, looking for something else that I liked as much as I enjoyed The Keep. So, there you go. That was the influence on me. I think you mentioned Lovecraft as an influence as well when you encountered him as a young reader.

Yeah, I encountered him . . . the first time was in The Macabre Reader, edited by Donald Wollheim for Ace, and I had this really Emsh cover. And they were all old stories from weird tales. And there was this one called The Thing on the Doorstep, and it had to be the weirdest damn story I had ever read in my life, and I was sure, asking, “Where is Arkham, Massachusetts? Where is Miskatonic University? I’ve got to go there and get a look at some of these books. And actually, I actually got the college guide. I’m looking up Miskatonic, and it wasn’t in there. I mean, that’s how convincing he was and setting up his world. So, you know . . . I never admired his style, but the idea of cosmic horror really got under my skin, and I just thought, “You know, this is really unsettling.” And that has influenced horror work right from The Keep onward.

Well, let’s talk about how you go about crafting a novel. It’s a very old question, and yet it’s legitimate. Where do you get your ideas? What are the seeds for you, the something that will come to you and make you think, you know, I’ve got to write a book about this? Where do those things come to you from?

Different places. I have a notebook, which every writer should have, and I write down little snatches of whatever. Sometimes the first line, sometimes it’s an idea. Like, the Repairman Jack novel Crisscross, that came from an idea I’d written down that a guy is a recurrent killer, but no one can convict him of any of the murders he’s done, so why not convict him of a murder he didn’t do? And that was just the idea there, but, you know, it turns out that in the end, Jack frames him for the murder he didn’t commit, and that’s what gets him. All the murders he did commit still are unaccounted for. But I saw, I was reading the New York Times and I saw this article that talked about lightning survivors having a meeting, getting together in Clearwater, Florida, which is right on Lightning Alley, and where a lot of them had been struck. And it says some of the survivors have been struck two or three times. And how do you get hit by lightning more than once? Three times. I mean, you’ve got to be out there on the golf course holding a putter. And then I said, well, what if they want to get hit? Yeah, I think they kind of want to get hit, but why would they want to get hit? And then (unclear) had asked me for a ghost story, and I said I couldn’t do it, I had no ideas for ghost stories. And I saw this, and I thought, well, what if you can see a dead loved one, even for just a few minutes? And that became “Aftershock,” and that won me the Stoker Award. So from one little blurb in a newspaper . . . or another one, I saw a line that said chimpanzees, this was years and years ago, it said chimpanzees share 98.4 percent of their DNA with humans. And I’m saying, “What? Really? What if they shared 99.6? “That’s where the novel Sim came from. So those are like the epiphanies, the lightning strikes. But the more practiced approach is from the notebook, because I just, as time goes on, I go back and read through the notes and, you know, one from page six, a little blurb on page six will suddenly adhere to something on page eight. And so that’s something . . . sometimes the books grow by a process of accretion. And it’s got to get to the point where I want to write. I think I can make this worthy of somebody’s time to read it and also worthy of my time to write it. And I used to be a real outliner . . . 

That was my next question.

I am a firm believer in an author knowing how to end the story before he begins it. I’ve read too many books, and I’m sure you have to, where you’re going along, and it’s great, it’s just sailing along, cooking, then three-quarters of the way through, it starts to fall apart. You see the little cracks form, and by the end, it’s all falling apart because the author didn’t know how he was going to end it. He’s said, “Oh, sure, I can end it. I’ll think of something when I get there ‘cause I don’t know how I’m going to get there.” Well, you know, sorry, you just disappointed me. I feel I’ve sort of wasted my time reading this. I mean, yeah, the journey’s part of it, but also the destination is really important. Especially for a thriller. I mean, I can see some literary novel where it’s a peripatetic type of wandering narrative, and if it’s really got a good voice, fine, you can be happy with it. But with a thriller, with a horror story, even with science fiction, I want that catharsis. You’re going to be building up emotion in me, you’re going to be building up anticipation, and you’ve got to pay off. I have to blow off that steam. Otherwise, I feel that you haven’t done your job.

I read, I don’t remember what it was, it was a long time ago, but it was kind of a post-apocalyptic thing, and the characters are trying to get to . . . I think it was to New Orleans, where they thought there was still some sort of civilization going on down there. And the whole book is about them trying to get there. But when you got to the end, they were heading down, and it was a standalone, they were heading down the Mississippi, and the book literally ended with, “And maybe they got there, and maybe they didn’t. It’s up to you to decide,” basically.

Oh, no!

So that’s about the only book that I literally threw across the room when got to the end of it.

Yeah, that’s . . . why did you do that? You could have just come up with something. But I outline and plotless now. I do more, you know, story points. I know how I’m going to get there. I mean, I know where I’m going, I’m not always sure how I’m going to get there, but I have the story points and plot points that I can sort of hop to. But even when I had a big outline, I would always put in a drawer and write the book. Because the story was in my head by then. But every once in awhile, I’d come up against something and say, “How do I how do I solve this?” So that’s when I pull out the outline, I say, “Oh, I did, I figured it out in the outline. And there’s how I got around this.” And I put it back. But a lot of times, stuff that looks great in an outline doesn’t work great fleshed out, you know? So, then you’ve got to take a different path, you’ve got to make a left turn or a right turn there, so you wander off your outline, but at least you know where you’re going. This is where I’m going. And then you get there, and you get that catharsis that you promised.

Well, that’s pretty much the way . . . that’s very familiar to me, because these days, fortunately, writing for DAW, you know, I’m selling from a synopsis rather than writing the whole book. So, I have the whole thing figured out. But then I don’t look at it when I’m writing. It’s only if I get stuck somewhere that I might take another look at it and say, “What was I thinking originally? Maybe that actually is better than what it’s ended up being. And so, it’s very similar for me.

Yeah, you wander off the path, which is good, but then, you wonder why you had the path, and then you go and look and say, “Oh yeah, that’s why I had that there.”

What’s your actual writing process like you? Do you write a certain time every day? Do you work on a parchment with a quill pen, or how do you like to write?

Well, you know, I started off on the Olympia portable, and then I started making a little money out of it, I bought the IBM Selectric, and I think it was 1980, I was at the World SF Convention in Boston, I was talking to Joe Halderman, and he said, “Oh, I’m writing on a computer now.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, I’m using a word processor on Apple II.”  And I said, “Word processor, that sounds wonderful,” because I’m still a two-finger typer, millions and millions of words published, all done with two fingers. So the idea of moving a paragraph around or something like that, and not having to retype the page. I mean, this was . . . oh, how long has this been going on? Well, it hadn’t been going on very long. But I went out, and I blew a lot of money. It was like $3,500 to get an Apple II+ with two floppy drives and 48K of RAM.

All you’ll ever need!

Yeah, I could have had 64, but who needs 64? And I used Apple Writer, which was so crude. It didn’t even have word breaks, it was a total wrap-round on the screen. It did print out with word breaks, but on the screen, you couldn’t see the word breaks and an Epson dot-matrix printer. But I thought I was, you know, I was in hog heaven here. I could just fool around with this stuff. I didn’t have the retype stuff, or minimal retyping. It was mostly just fixing. And so now, I write at the computer completely. I’m a morning writer. I always start early in the morning. I’m a morning person. And the first draft, I like to do a thousand, 1500 words a day. And that way, I can keep up the narrative momentum. And I never look back, I never go back and rewrite until I’m done. I call it the vomit draft. I get everything out, get the story on paper, and then I go back and fix it. I forget who said it, but it’s a great saying about getting that vomit draft out. They said, “You can fix bad writing. You can’t fix no writing.”

You’re the second person I’ve interviewed that calls it the vomit draft. My very first interview on the podcast was Robert J. Sawyer, and that’s what he calls it.

Oh, really?

And he said he’d gotten it from Edo van Belkom, who’s a Canadian horror writer.

I know that name.

So, I don’t know where it originated, but yeah. And I’ve been using it since, I’ve been telling people it’s like, “Yeah, you get it on paper, and it’s a huge mess, but you feel better, and then you just have to clean it up. So, it’s quite a good metaphor. So, once you do have that vomit draft, what does your rewriting process look like, then? Do you go back to the beginning? And what sorts of things are you finding and correcting? And how many passes will you do on your revisions?

Well, you know, I’m doing fewer and fewer revision passes because, after 50 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at the first draft.

Practice makes perfect!

Yeah. But, you know, often it’s going back because I’ve made notes as I’ve gone along, I say, “Oh, you got to fix this because, you know, you did this here and you didn’t set it up back there. So, we have to go back and set it up.” So that’s a lot of what my first rewrite or revision is, is consistency, and make sure I’ve set up things that happened later on that occurred to me that weren’t in my original plan. And that happens all the time. And that’s one of the things about writing, say, a trilogy or something like that, is you hand in the first book, it’s gone into production, or maybe even on the third book and the first one is in print. And you’re in the third book and go, “Holy crap, I just wish I had done this blah, blah, blah in book one, so I could do this here, you know. And so, it’s always a process with me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, is that you can’t, over the course of three books, you can’t totally plan for everything you want to do. So, I find that  going in chapter by chapter in a standalone book, you’ve got to set everything up. It’s very important to avoid the deus ex feeling in your readers of “where did this come from?” So, that’s usually what my first revision is. Then I don’t play around with it too much before sending it out to my beta readers. And I have an understanding with them that they can say anything. They can’t hurt my feelings. We’re both on the same page that, “You guys like thrillers, I like to write thrillers, and you want to help me make my book better. So, no matter what you say, I’m not going to take it personally.”

How many beta readers do you have? And where did you find them?

I had four. I’m down to three. Most of, a lot of, times they are other writers, but there are a couple of people who were fans, and they actually asked me, you know, “I found these errors in the book. Yeah, you want me to take a look at something before it goes to press?” And it’s amazing. I work with Tor a lot, and I read it, and I reread it, then my four beta readers read it and make corrections. Then my editor reads it. Then they have a professional copy editor read it, then they typeset it, and then they send it back to me for another read-through of the page proofs, and there’s still, it goes to press, and it comes out, and somebody says, oh, you know, there’s this here and there. Jesus!

Usually when you’re doing a public reading, that’s when I tend to find those. I’m doing a reading at a bookstore or something, and there’s a typo.

Yes, you’ll be reading . . . you know, I always read my dialogue out loud, but I don’t read the whole book out loud. And probably I should, because even then, you know, your brain puts that word in. I just had . . . I did a Christmas children’s back around 2000. Alan Clarke did the illustrations. And we just republished it. And he was going through all the typesetting and everything, and he wrote to me and said, “You know, there’s a word missing in this sentence.” It’s an 8,000-word story. I’ve been through it so many times. And there it is. There’s the word “to.” “To” is missing in between two other words. And every time I read it, I put that word in, my brain put that word in, and for some reason, because he was typesetting it, it popped out to him. So, that’s very frustrating. I find that very frustrating. But that’s why . . . you know, I’ve had some very good beta readers. Someone would drop out because life gets in the way and stuff like that. And then after that, if the beta readers are somewhat consistent, if at least two of them find a problem, then I’ll fix it. If one of them has a problem and the other three don’t know, then it’s iffy if I’ll fix it, or whether I think it really needs to be fixed. But a lot of times, you know, they’ll spot some inconsistency, “Well, you said so and so said this here and then he said this over here,” And I’ll say, “Oh, you’re right.” One of the things that have changed my writing is . . . back, I think it was 2006, Tom Monteleone and Elizabeth Monteleone asked me to be an instructor at their writers’ boot camp. Now, I never had a writing course, never been to a workshop. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I said, “Sure, you know, just give me the manuscripts, I’ll line-edit them, and then we can go over them with the writers.” And, you know, I came back from that, you know, it’s just a very intense three days. I came back from that, and I had been correcting passive voice and doing all this type of stuff for them. And I looked at my own work in progress, and I’m saying, “Holy crap, I’m doing the same thing I was correcting them for. Look at this passive voice, all of these bad constructions.” So, it was an eye-opener for me, and it really improved my writing, really tightened it up, because I kept crossing stuff out of theirs, and I’m looking at my stuff saying, “Yeah, I can do without that. I can do without that.” And so, I think you can see a sort of a watershed in 2006 where all of a sudden my writing becomes leaner and cleaner because of that.

Yeah, I just finished a term as a writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, and I did it a few years ago at the Regina Public Library. And I’ve done workshops and stuff like that. And writer-in-residencing is the same thing. People give me manuscripts, and I go over them and then we talk about them. And I would say very confidently, you know, “Here, you should be doing this.” And in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “I have a feeling if they look at my own stuff, they’re going to see I did exactly the same thing.”

Don’t look at my stuff!

Do as I say, not as I do, is some of that.

Yeah, exactly.

So, once it gets to your editor, what kind of editorial feedback do you typically get?

I haven’t had much lately. I miss David Hartwell. He used to be my editor for the Repairman Jack books. You know, he was good for the big picture. Writing day after day after day, I’d get a little bit too involved in the leaves, and he would be able to step back and look at the shape of the tree, and said, “You need to fill this out over here and maybe trim this back over here,” or, “Jack’s reaction here, you know, he’s already been through an awful lot of stuff, he’s probably not going to react like this at this point in his career.” And I’m saying, “Yeah, you’re right. Let me just go fix that. So, I miss him because he was with almost all the Repairman Jack books,  right up through Nightworld. And the big irony, he fell carrying a bookcase at home and hit his head and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Carrying a bookcase. Well, I guess that’s a good way to go.

One thing that I meant to ask as we were talking about the writing process was about characters, and of course, Repairmen Jack is a famous character of yours, but how do you develop characters? Where do you find the people that inhabit your books? And how much work do you do on them before you start writing, and how much simply grows through the process of telling the stories?

I do almost no work on them before. I’m like Nabokov. I think characters are my galley slaves, that’s what he called them, and they’re there to perform a function. So, I mean, for Jack, I did, I made some conscious decisions before I wrote the first Repairman Jack novel that he was going to be not like the other typical thriller heroes. He was not going to be ex-CIA, he was not going to have a history of black ops, he was not an ex-cop, he was not anybody. He was a guy from New Jersey who happened to kill someone, who murdered somebody in New Jersey, the guy who killed his mother, and he murdered him in cold blood. And it sort of changed him. He just sort of divorced himself from human society and went to live in New York City under the radar. So I said, this guy, he’s not going to pay taxes, he’s going to be totally under the radar and off the grid, blah, blah, blah. And so, he’s going to have to set up his own network if he’s going to be doing these fixes and he can’t call on the police, he can’t call on an old buddy to run license plates or fingerprints, he’s got to do it on his own. So, he wound up being a blue-collar hero. And people just responded to that. I mean, when I finished the first book, it was supposed to be a standalone. And I knew when I finished, “People are going to want another one.” And I was determined not to do it. I did not want to get into a series and. So, I spent 14 years doing other things before I did the second Repairman Jack novel. But I let the characters develop as I’m writing. They have to serve the story. I don’t like to really define a character before I start writing because then they start thinking that they’re in charge, and this is my book. “You’re not in charge, I’m in charge, and you do what I tell you to do.” And so . . . unless you have, like, a series character, it changes things. Series characters are different because they have their own personality over the course of the books, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do. But everybody else, they’re going to do what I want them to do. And that’s another thing, when I go back and do my first revision. I don’t know that character when I start. By the end of the book, I know that character pretty well. So I go and rewrite him from the beginning, or her, to be the person I need them to be at the end, and so that way, it seems like I planned this all along. But I haven’t. I’ve just I’ve gone by, you know, I’ve winged it. But it sure doesn’t look like that because, as I said, I make it consistent all the way through.

Well, we’ve been talking about your novels. But, of course, what you have coming up, or probably is out as this goes live, is . . .

My next one is . . . oh, yeah, October.

Yeah, is this collection of shorter pieces. Pastiches, I believe you called them. So, tell me about that and what that is. It sounds interesting.

Well, Other Sandboxes is the title, and over the years. I’ve been asked to do . . . I’ve been asked to do a Lovecraft story, like for Lovecraft’s Legacy, Bob Weinberg and  Marty Greenberg, they wanted a Lovecraft story. So, I wrote “The Barrens,” sort of a novella, you know, and it mentions Miskatonic University, it mentions Arkham, Massachusetts and the like, but it takes place in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which I so twisted into a very Lovecraftian place. I didn’t have to do a lot of twisting. It is a weird place. And then you’re going along . . . and Marty Greenberg is responsible for a lot of it because of all the anthologies he did, all the theme anthologies. Like, he did a Batman anthology when the movie came out, The Further Adventures of Batman, and he didn’t ask me to be in it. And I caught him one day, and I said, “You know, you never asked me,” he said, “I didn’t think you would be interested in comic books,” and I said, “I just love comic books. I’ve written for comic books. I wrote for Creepy and Eerie during the ‘70s. And Batman is the one hero I like because he doesn’t have superpowers.” And he said, “We’re doing a Joker anthology next, do you want in?” and I said, “Oh, I definitely want in.” So that was, “Definitive Therapy,” and then he did a Dick Tracy anthology to go with the movie, and I did one for that, and so as time goes on . . . I mean, Joe Lansdale asked me for a story for his retro-pulp anthology, and I mixed in Fu Manchu. I even threw in Daddy Warbucks. So, there’s a whole bunch of these stories, plus there are other people that I have, you know, living writers like Blake Crouch. He did that Wayward Pines that became a TV series, but he did three books initially and Kindle Worlds, they did a Kindle World for him for his Wayward Pines stories. And he asked me to kick it off if I would, and I didn’t think I could, and all of a sudden, I came up with a really killer story. And so, I did that and . . . so oh, yeah, Leslie Klinger asked me for a Sherlock Holmes for one of his Sherlock Holmes anthologies. So, they all added up, and I had all these stories in other people’s sandboxes. And so, I said, “Gee, why don’t I just put them all together.” And I love the title, and Borderlands Press is putting it out . . .oh, and the coverage by a Canadian, Gerhard, he used to do the backgrounds for the Cerebrus comic book. He’s from Kitchener. And so, it’s a really handsome, handsome book, and it’s pretty fat, too, it’s like 160,000 words.

Wow.

Yeah. A lot of stories I’ve done all those years, so I’m looking forward to that. You’re recycling stories, obviously, but . . .

It’s rare that anybody would have read them all, so they’ll be new to most people.

Exactly. You’re going to find some, you know, even if you’ve read some of the other ones, you’re going to find a passel of new ones you haven’t. And, you know, they’re all definitely the thriller type of short story.

We’re getting close to the end of the time here, end of the hour. Not that anybody’s really counting, it’s just me and the cat, and the cat doesn’t care. But I’d like to ask the big philosophical question, which is basically, why we do this. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why write stories of the fantastic specifically?

Oh, that’s always a tough one. Why do you do anything? I just . . . I don’t consider myself a writer. I’m a storyteller. I love to tell stories, and I love to suck you into a good story because then, for a while, I can own you, I can squeeze your adrenaline, squeeze your tear ducts, or whatever. But I find tremendous satisfaction in finishing a story and having it come out the way I wanted it to. And that’s tremendously satisfying for me. So, that’s what keeps me going. I think I started off doing it to see if I could do it. But that, you know, once I found out I could do it, there has to be something else that’s going to, you know, keep it going. And sometimes, you know, you think it’s a little bit of immortality, that after you’re gone, somebody is going to pick up one of these books and read it and in a way, you’re still alive. Woody Allen once said, he says, some people, writers, want to achieve immortality through their books. He said, “I’d much prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.” But anyway, I knew that, just for some reason, I get a tremendous satisfaction out of it. And I always tell a story that I would want to read. And I don’t want to read literary fiction. I don’t want to read a straight romance novel. I want something that’s going to . . . I don’t like mimetic fiction. I don’t want to read about something that could be happening down my block. I don’t want to read about a professor having an affair, an English professor having an affair at the college with a student, or something like that. Because that really happens. And that’s the promise of fiction to me, is to take you someplace where you can’t go. And this writer is going to take me someplace where I can’t go by myself, and I want to go along. And if I can walk down the street and find these people that some of these writers are writing about, what do I need them for? You know, I can find the people myself. But you’re going to take me someplace that doesn’t exist? Well, cool. I’m there. So that’s what I want to do.

And where are you taking readers next? What are you working on right now?

Right now, I’m working on another sort of a cosmic horror novel, but I do have a, next June, I have to call it a science fiction, weird science fiction, but science fiction novel,  coming out from Tor. My title was (unclear), they always hate my title, so now it’s called Double Threat. And it’s really a rewrite of my first novel, Healer, transposed from the far future to the present time. I transgendered the hero from male to a millennial female, and . . . totally different take on the book. And those changes, you know, make it . . . you wouldn’t know it was the same book. So that was fun.

And that comes out next June?

That comes out in June.

And where can people find you online?

I’m at RepairmanJack.com. I’m also on Facebook, and I’m also on Twitter @FPaulWilson.

Well, that’s kind of the time. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that chat. I hope you did, too.

I did. And that’s it for now. So, thanks so much, and bye for now.

My pleasure. Bye bye.

Episode 56: Kelley Armstrong

An hour-long conversation with New York Times-bestselling author Kelley Armstrong, author of numerous fantasy, mystery, and thriller novels in multiple series for adults, including the thirteen-book Otherworld series, which began with her first novel, Bitten, and other series and standalone novels for young adults and middle-grade readers.

Website
kelleyarmstrong.com

Twitter
@KelleyArmstrong

Facebook
@KelleyArmstrongAuthor

Kelley Armstrong’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo of Kelley Armstrong
Photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

Kelley Armstrong is the bestselling author of numerous fantasy novels, mysteries, and thrillers, for adults, young adults, and middle-grade readers, both standalones and in multiple series.

Born in Sudbury, Ontario, she grew up in London, Ontario. She went to the University of Western Ontario to study psychology, with plans to become a clinical psychologist, but on the brink of grad school, realizing such a career would limit her writing time for many years, switched paths and went to Fanshawe College in London, studying computer programming.

While getting her education, she married and had first child, a daughter, then took a full-time job programming for a bank while continuing writing. She sold her first novel, Bitten, in 1999, and had two more children, sons, before it was released in 2001, at which point she quit her job to write full-time, which she’s been doing ever since.

Among her series: OtherworldCainsville, Rockton, Darkest Powers and Darkness Rising, Age of Legends, and the Nadia Stafford crime trilogy. She has also written several serial novellas and short stories for the Otherworld series. Starting in 2014, a Canadian television series based on Otherworld, called Bitten, aired for three seasons on Space and SyFy. Kelley lives in rural Ontario.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kelly, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you.

Now we’re both authors in Canada, but I don’t know that we’ve ever actually met each other in person anywhere at any conventions or anything like that. I can’t think of a time.

I don’t think so. We’ve probably passed somewhere at some convention because it’s a, you know, relatively restricted literary landscape. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t recall.

Yeah, it’s a small literary landscape, but it’s a very, very large physical landscape. And Saskatchewan and…you’re in Ontario?

I am.

Yeah, they’re actually a long way away from each other.

They are.

When we moved up here from Texas when I was eight years old, it was the year of Expo ’67. And I was excited as we were leaving Texas because I thought, we’re going to Canada, and I’d get to go to Expo 67, and my parents had to point out to me that…

It’s a long way.

…we would be closer–we’d be just as far away from Montreal in Saskatchewan as we were in Texas; basically, it was pretty much the same distance. In my defense, I was only eight, so.

Exactly.

Well, so this…you have two books coming out this week–month–which we are going to talk about a little bit. But first, I’ll do what I always do with this, which is take you back into the mists of time–I’m going to put reverb on that one of these days, the mists of time–and find out, well, first of all, where you grew up and then how you got interested in writing. And probably you started as a reader, because we all do, and the sorts of things that drew you into this field and, you know, all of that stuff. So, how did that all happen for you?

Yeah. So I grew up in London, Ontario, and it is that typical thing where you start off by reading. I was a very young reader. I was the oldest child, and my parents were very keen on teaching me how to read. Neither of them was a huge reader themselves, but they understood literacy was important, and so, their first kid, they were doing everything right, making sure that I was learning to read. So, every night, after dinner, while Mom cleaned up, Dad would be reading these books. And I very quickly learned to read that way. And for me, it turned into, “I want to do that.” I would take those stories and do what we would now call fanfiction, where I would take what I had heard and maybe create a new story for those characters or a story with different characters in that world as some way of working on what the author had created and building my own stories on it and then, getting older, was moving into creating entirely my own stories.

Well, what were some of the books that influenced you back then?

So, certainly back when I was very young, I can’t really recall. We have sort of gone through trying to work that out. It was a whole lot of really simple Golden Book readers. So, none of them stuck. So, the ones that stuck came later. There was one series about Irish setters, and they were adventure series where each…one was Big Red…and each one had a different Irish setter.

I remember reading Big Red.

Yeah, exactly. So all those…Hardy Boys, too. Read so many Hardy Boys. They always had much more interesting adventures than Nancy Drew, so I devoured Hardy Boys. And some of the classics, but really I was looking at the adventure stories, the mystery stories, and the stories with the animals.

So when did the fantasy side of things start to creep in?

So yeah, people always ask, where did that come from? And I always jokingly blame too many early Saturday mornings watching Scooby-Doo. That supernatural-combined-with-the-mystery was perfect. But I think it was more, when it comes to stories, mythology has them, so I very quickly got into mythology. I knew the Dewey Decimal System number for the myth and folklore section. So I would be there pulling down those books when I sort of ran out of stories in my own area to read.

When you started writing as a young person, well, did you share your writing with other people? I always ask that because I did, and I found it was like, oh, people actually like the stories that I tell.

Exactly. Yeah. Because I was so young and I was telling stories before I could write them down, so, at that age, you don’t have any of that…when people get older, and they start thinking, do I want to share this or not? As a kid, no, of course you share it because you have created this thing. So certainly, early on, sharing everything with parents, siblings, etc., friends and so on. It’s only when you get older that you start double-guessing, do I want to actually share this?

Did you have any teachers that sort of encouraged your writing along the way in high school or around that time?

I did. I certainly did, certainly in both elementary and high school. I was doing a lot of writing and getting a lot of really good feedback on my writing. So I often joke that, you know, they really tried to steer me away from the fantasy, the supernatural, etc. “You could write normal things,” but the normal things were what interested me. So it’s good that they still encouraged me despite the fact that I was not necessarily writing the kinds of stories that they were hoping for.

I always tell a story that when I was about eleven, I wrote my first complete short story that I remember actually finishing, and it was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” So you could tell where my mind was early on. And there was a teacher who, you know, he was my junior high English teacher, and I showed it to him and he took it seriously, and he critiqued it and said, you know, “I don’t understand why your aliens to this and why does your character do that?” And I still credit that with taking it seriously, taking the writing seriously, with having helped set my mind on, “Well, I’m going to keep writing, and I’m going to write better things going forward.”

It is, and it’s very important because, yes, even if it’s not necessarily what they’re hoping you would write, or it’s not a genre that they read, just that overall encouragement means a lot. Without that, I wouldn’t have gone on.

But you didn’t actually go immediately into writing. You studied psychology to begin with, I believe, is that right?

Yeah. I went to Western for psychology undergrad. I was planning on going on to masters and doctorate and becoming a psychologist. I was heading into grad school and realized I was heading into that kind of a career where there’d be a lot more schooling, and I would not be writing, because university was the one time where I didn’t have time to actually write fiction. So I thought, I’ve got this long time where I’m probably not going to be writing, do I want to wait that long before I try to at least…? My sort of goal was, maybe someday I’ll be able to be a part-time writer and part-time at some other career. So I switched gears there and went to college for computer programming. I had been doing that way back from the Commodore 64. It was a big interest of mine. So I did that. Got your typical corporate cubicle job that let me write and study the craft of writing.

Do you find…I mean, psychology would tend to tie into writing in some way. Did you find that what you studied in that field has been beneficial in your writing career? And the computer programming? I mean, I always say, nothing you do is wasted when you’re a writer. Have you found that?

It’s true. Because people always sort of look back and they say, you know, was that a waste, or when I see young people heading into college, university, and their ultimate career is writing, and they just want to totally focus on that. And I say, anything that you take is going to help. Psychology for characters, absolutely. Because it helps with my character backgrounds to know if I want a character who is like this at 35, what type of background did they probably have to get them there or what life experiences could they have had that get them where I want them to be at that age? And of course, programming meant that I did not have to hire anyone to, you know, code those early websites.

I had a Commodore 64 for years, and I did a lot of programming at the time, too, in BASIC, and I did some quite complicated things. You know, I created a whole music entry system to use that synthesizer chip that it had. And you had to put in like three different values for each note. And yet I did all that, and it worked. And then I thought, “But, you know, other people do it better than I do.” And I was never tempted to stick with programming because, again, it was more like, well, that takes a lot of time. I could be writing.

Commodore 64 with disk drive, monitor, and joystick.

It did. Yeah. I was doing the old text-based adventure game, so I was writing text-based adventure games, which of course took a whole lot of work just for a very short, short and simple one.

Well, your first novel was Bitten, which came out in 1999 or was sold in 1999. It came out in 2001. How did that come about? That’s kind of your breaking-in moment. Or had you had some short stories before that, or how did that work for you?

Yeah, I had had a couple of short stories published, but nothing significant. And I had been writing novels. So, when I made that choice to go into programming instead of going on to graduate school, that meant that I then knew that I had to get serious about writing. And it meant writing novels, joining writers’ groups, taking writing courses. So I was doing that. I was writing novels. I was writing novels that were to market. So whatever was…I had one that was, for example, a female private eye, in the time period when we were seeing a lot of that. When I got to…so, I finished three novels, no interest, no interest from publishers or agents. And then, I decided I was going to work on this one idea that I had for a book about female werewolves. And I figured nobody’s going to ever want this, so this is just totally for me. And it was all freeing that way, too, like not be saying, “I’m writing this in hopes of getting it published,” But just I’m tired of trying to get stuff published. I’m just going to write something for myself. Got it done, and of course, started thinking, “Well, is there any chance?” So I had a writing instructor take a look at it, and he thought that it had promise, so he offered to recommend me to an agent, and she took it on, and it took off from there.

And there’s been quite a few since then.

There has been, yeah.

So is it a fairly straightforward, you know, once that one came out, it was successful, and you’ve been doing it ever since?

Yeah. Not…certainly now people look back and say, well, clearly Bitten was successful, and I’m like, not actually, no. The publisher, my American publisher, bought the first two and then was not interested in a third book because they just weren’t selling. They started selling more with the third book. But yeah, you certainly get that where…they were successful enough that I was able to keep publishing, and from where I stand now, 20 years later, that’s the big measure of success, is not how much you make or how many copies you sell, but just can you keep finding a publisher to want more books?

Yeah, that sounds familiar.

Yeah.

Now, I’m going to ask you this, even though as somebody who’s worked in Canada as well. I think I know the answer. But have you ever…has being a Canadian author but published in the US market, has it been a good thing or a bad thing, or has it made any difference at all, do you think?

It’s been a good thing for me because certainly I make more. I mean, having that extra market…I mean, a Canadian bestseller is, what, 5,000 copies? I mean, that’s not going to give you an annual income even if you’re doing one per year. I mean, being able to have that US market, that’s where sort of the much bigger incomes coming from. And then that drives getting a UK publisher, getting the foreign publishers, and it’s all of that. I mean, Canada is great, but actually being able to make a living off of strictly being published in Canada would be tough.

Yeah. Well, let’s talk about what you have coming out this month. You know, two books in a month is not bad.

It’s weird, yeah,

And another one coming in October, I think.

Yeah. And it was kind of an odd thing because, yes, so what is my second middle grade came out early this month. There was supposed to be a standalone thriller coming out in August, because they usually obviously don’t keep them quite so close, but the standalone thriller got bumped up to the end of June. So I end up…because it’s the same publisher in Canada for them, Random House, and they didn’t see any crossover t you’ve got. You’ve got, like, your fantasy middle-grade book and your standalone adult thriller, they’re like, “There is no crossover.” So it’s not like I’m going to be competing with myself. It just makes it tougher for me promoting to be making sure to mention that I have two books coming out.

Well, and I did want to ask you, even before we start talking about The Gryphon’s Lair, which is the middle grade, um….when did you make the step into the. Both middle grade and young adult markets, I guess?

Yeah. So for a young adult, that came back…so, the first one came out 2008. Would have meant I was writing it in 2005. And that was back when you were seeing a little bit more interest in young adult books. I had a daughter who was hitting that age, she was twelve, thirteen, and she wanted to read Bitten. And I was like, “Absolutely not.” So I said, how would I write something that is that type of book in that world, but with teenage characters. So that became The Summoning. And then after it was written, you were seeing publishers wanting that, because that’s when Twilight started taking off. So, they were looking for more paranormal YA, and I happened to have some. So then that one sold. Middle grade took a little longer. I have sons, too, so when they got to be the middle-grade age, I was writing with a friend (Melissa Marr), she also has a son that age, and we decided that we would co-write middle grade for our son. So that was the first trilogy, the Blackwell Pages, based on Norse mythology. And then I kind of took a break from middle grade there and then went back. Last year was the first in this new series.

OK. I have to ask you, does your daughter read your books? Did she read that? Because I have a daughter who’s nineteen now and the only one of mine she’s read are ones I’ve actually read out loud to her, and she really seems to be reluctant to read my stuff. And I think it’s because if she doesn’t like it, she wouldn’t know how to tell me.

I know. And that’s really tough. Now, my daughter reads everything, and she’s obviously, she’s like twenty-eight now, so if she read everything…

She’s probably read Bitten by now.

Yeah, exactly. She reads early…she reads sort of drafts when they’re at the point where I want her to take a look at it. She helps with that. Now, my sons are a different thing. Yes. They read the trilogy that I wrote them, but let’s just say that they are not exactly saying, “Hey, Mom, what else do you have?”

So I had, I still have, a niece, when she was a teenager–this is a long time ago now, probably my first book–and she said she didn’t want to read it because she didn’t want to know what was going on in her uncle’s head. Which I thought was funny.

Exactly. I mean, that is the weird thing, too, if you write. Yeah. Bitten has some sex scenes in it, and it was like, yeah, do you really want to know what your mom’s going to write for that scene? No, the answer is no.

Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. Well, we’re gonna talk primarily about The Gryphon’s Lair book, but we’ll also mention Every Step She Takes, which is the standalone that’s coming out, because we’re going to talk about your creative process and it will be interesting for me to hear the difference between your planning and writing for an adult novel, and your planning and writing for the younger age group. But first of all, how about a synopsis about The Gryphon’s Lair?

So, The Gryphon’s Lair is book two in a series. The basic concept is that we’ve got this set in a fantasy world, completely fantasy world, with monsters. This world has monsters, but they’re based on science. So, there’s no magic in this world. If you’re going to have a, say, a basilisk that can turn people into a stone, it can’t really do that, but it can shoot a neurotoxin that can paralyze someone. So you’re doing things that are science-based rather than magic-based. The main character is a princess. I mean, there are a lot of princess books out there. I wanted to take my try at going ahead and doing that in a slightly different way. And she is a twin. She’s supposed to become queen, and her brother is supposed to become the Royal Monster Hunter. That’s how this always works. And she would much rather be the Royal Monster Hunter. He would make a better king.

So, an accident happens and they’re able to switch places. So, in the book one, we saw her first sort of forays as the Royal Monster Hunter, book two, we’ve got, she is in charge of a young gryphon, because while it’s called A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying, the slaying part is pretty light. It’s really more like being a monster conservator or a monster ranger, where you’re trying to help people live with, you know, monsters being in that land. And sort of moving the monsters out when they get in, killing them if you have to, but it’s more about a conservationist idea. So, she is raising a young orphan gryphon, and it becomes a little big and dangerous. So in book two, she has to take it into the mountains where the gryphons live and try to take it back home.

Sounds like a great setup for a story.

It’s a lot of fun.

Maybe just a brief bit about Every Step She Takes, too. When I say they’re coming this month, I should explain to listeners that we’re recording this in June. I guess Gyphon’s Lair is already out, right?

Yes. And then, yeah, every step she takes comes out on the 30th.

So it’ll be out when this airs, which goes live, which will probably be…it might be August. So if you’re hearing this, you can get these books.

Exactly.

So, Every Step She Takes, maybe a little bit about that.

Yeah. Every Step She Takes, standalone thriller. It’s about a woman, Genevieve, who is living in Rome, and she’s living a very ordinary life. She’s a music teacher, has a boyfriend. She’s very happy with this life. She’s a former American. And she gets this package addressed to Lucy Calahan, which is a name she hasn’t used in 10 years. Turns out that she was the victim of a scandal when she was 18. It was a celebrity scandal, and in trying to get out of that, she ended up finally just leaving and coming…and going abroad, and ended up in Rome. Now she’s getting a call from somebody who was involved, who wants to make peace with it, who wants, who has come to understand that her role in it was not what she thought and called Genevieve back to make peace. And she goes back to make peace, and the woman ends up dead. So, that’s kind of a problem, because she is dead and Genevieve is being framed for it.

So these are two very different books…

Very different books, exactly.

So let’s talk about how these things come about. I mean, it’s a cliche to ask, where do your ideas come from, and yet, it’s a valid question. Maybe if you don’t like it that way, I often say, what was the seed from which this novel grew?

Exactly. Exactly. And for the Royal Guide series, that was actually…it comes from two things. So it comes from video games. Witcher. I was playing Witcher years ago, playing probably the second or third one, and thinking, “You know, I really like the monster hunter concept. I really it. I feel like I’d love to do something with it in fiction. Not that idea obviously, but just that very basic monster-hunting concept. And I played around with it as a young adult book. So the book was pretty much the concept was the same in that it was a princess who had a twin brother, they really wanted to switch roles. I wrote about 5,000 words of it, and it wasn’t really gelling. Just something wasn’t working. And I put it away, and every now and then I would come back to it and say, “I really like this concept. What’s not working?” And one day just had this epiphany of, “What if it was middle grade? What if, instead of being seventeen, she’s twelve.” So that, of course, meant a total rewrite, but when I rewrote, I could see, yes, that absolutely works with…it had that level of fun and lightness that it needed. The original version with the teens made it much darker, and it just wasn’t quite gelling. But in the middle-grade version, it just popped.

And that one came from sort of…not exactly random, but, you know, just something else that you were doing. Is that kind of typical of where ideas come from? They can come from anywhere, in other words?

Yeah, it certainly can be, where it’ll come from something that sort of sparks an idea, and then I run with it, and by the time you get to the final product, it doesn’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the original concept, or the original where I sort of took that from. I mean, nobody’s going to read Royal Guide and think, “Aha, she was clearly influenced by Witcher,” which is a very adult and very different story. But yes, I can sort of say that that’s where it started, and then my brain keeps on spinning on that concept until I make it my own.

On the mystery side, is it any different?

No, it’s very similar. Certainly with the, sort of grain for Every Step She Takes, we see a lot of things now, particularly when we see #MeToo coming out, where we see these stories of young women who made mistakes in some way and the way they were demonized for them. I feel like, I hope we would not necessarily do at this point, where we can look, where, at the time, it was very clearly the young woman had seduced the guy who was in power, etc. But I was fascinated by the way that we presumed that she was guilty, even when you can look back now and she would have been like, you know, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, early twenties, and the guy’s like forty or something, and yet we still somehow see that Lolita complex, where clearly she was the instigator, and she’s the one who got all of the fallout. That’s where that idea started from, but of course, once I took it and ran with it, it does not bear any resemblance to any actual case.

Now, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? You know, are you a pantser a plotter? There’s another cliche question for you, but what does it look like to you?

Yeah, I think like a lot of writers, I’m somewhere in the middle, and I’ve developed my own sort of process by now, where, when I go into a book, I have a very good idea of that Act 1. I know what the setup is going to be. So if we were to take something like Royal Guide, for the first book, I know exactly what the setup is: these two twins, and they’re in the wrong positions, and we’re going to have…a gryphon is attacking, and we’re going to have, the brother goes off after it, sister is left behind, and she’s going to sneak off after them. Things are going to go horribly bad, and we’re going to lose our current Royal Monster Hunter, which then means that that position is now open for someone who’s way too young. So that’s Act 1. And I know that going in. I know my characters. I know my setting. Once you get past that, I know the major points. So I would know, how do these two add up switching rules? What is she going to have to do to prove herself? What is her voyage going to be? What do I want? I mean, often in a story like that, you get this very elongated training session, where a character is going to be the Royal Monster Hunter, so now let’s spend half the book showing her in training. And I knew I did not want that. So, how do I work around that? So, I would know all the major parts, and the final act, what she’s going to face down, she’s obviously going to face down that, you know, gryphon that killed her aunt in the early part of the book. She’s going to have to come full circle and face down that gryphon. So I know that’s what’s going to have to happen. I have no clue when I start writing where this is going to happen or how it’s going to happen. Because, if I was to go and decide exactly how that happens, by the time I reach that point in the book, it would no longer fit.

On the mystery side, you often…they’re often quite intricate, and you have to be careful about what information you provide and when. Do you do more detailed planning for mysteries than you would for a straight-ahead kind of fantasy story?

You would think that I would, but I actually don’t, and it’s because a lot of the mystery is shaped through editing. So I will go into it certainly knowing who I think is the killer, etc., that could change. And mystery fans hate hearing that you get like partway through the book and change who the killer is, but it’s not like you’re being cheated because then you continue writing that, and then you finish that book and go back and you craft and edit and you put in the correct clues, you get rid of the clues that pointed in the wrong direction. It’s not as if you sort of go off on a 90-degree angle and cheat halfway through. A lot of it really is formed through that editing process of saying, OK, now that I am done, where did I put in clues that led nowhere? I mean, yes, you want some red herrings, you don’t want too many of them, or where am I missing clues that would have pointed towards this, and going back and filling all of that in.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you like, know, a quill pen under the tree on a piece of parchment writer or…?

Computer. Yeah, because I grew up on computers. Now, I did write…my earliest stories were on a typewriter, and so, having done the longhand and done typewriters in my past, I’m still that generation that remembers what a glorious thing word processors were. Like, you did not…you could edit to your heart’s content. You didn’t have to be, you know, getting it right the first time. You could go in and edit and change things. So, yes, totally computer-based.

Do you work at home or do you go out…I mean, right now, we’re all working at home, basically, but…

Exactly. Yeah. No, I’ve got a writing cabin in the back field. So I live rural. We live on 10 acres or so, and so I’ve got a little cabin in the way, far back. It’s off-grid. No Internet. No, you know, everything. So I just go back there and work.

Sounds nice.

It is!

I was going to mention, on the word-processor side, since you are familiar with the Commodore 64, you probably remember a program called PaperClip?

Yeah, yep.

That was my first word processor, and for a long time, in my early books, they all had 10-page chapters, because you got 499 lines of text in a PaperClip file, and that was as far as you could go.

Right, yeah, exactly.

And that works out to about ten pages of manuscript format. So for a while, all my books had the same length of chapters because of PaperClip.

I think mine, still, if you were to look at my chapters, they’d probably all be between eight and 12 pages.

Yeah. I think I still fall into that kind of a zone as well. So, you talked a little bit about working on the mystery side, on revision, and so forth, but in general, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like?

So, I write a first draft right through. I don’t stop. If I decide that I’m going to make a change in plot, I mean, something as drastic even as getting halfway through a book and saying, “OK, I’ve decided that this character’s father is now dead,” even though he’s been alive until this point, I’m going to decide that he died, like, ten years ago, I don’t actually stop and go back and fix it up. I just keep on going as if he’s been dead for ten years and making lots of notes on things that I want to change. So, once it’s done, put it aside for a couple of months, come back to it. Do usually once sort of go-through on the computer, which is more of a revision one, where I’m moving stuff around, adding stuff in, you know, killing off father, you know, ten years ago, etc., going and fixing all of that. And then, if I have time, doing a round of paper edits, because even though I’m so computer-based for my writing, I still find that I edit best on paper, paper and pen, so I can see it, and it looks like an actual book story. And then it goes off to the editor after that.

Yeah, it’s…I’m a little bit older than you, but I also started on a typewriter and then switched to the computer, and the way that you write sounds very much like the way that I do, too, and I was…who was it I talked to? I guess it was John Scalzi I talked to…one of my very first interviews on here, and he talked about how he does a rolling revision, but he’s always written on a computer. And he never went back to that time when you pretty much had to do a single draft all the way through before you did your revisions. And he thought that there is a connection between having once worked on a typewriter and doing it that way. I don’t know about that.

I don’t know, because, yes, certainly in my early word-processing days, even with Bitten and my early novels, I did that, where I would write, and I would go back and edit and I would write and go back and edit. But I got so caught in that endless editing, and I would be editing things that I would later just cut right out because I’m pretty ruthless in the revision and I will cut out entire chapters. I will lift out 20,000 words and put in 20,000 words of stuff. It’s much harder to do that if I’ve spent time perfecting this, you know, chapter. It’s easier to pull out a first draft chapter than a chapter that I have polished, you know, five times, so…

And the working on paper resonates with me too. I am currently doing page proofs for my next book from DAW, The Moonlit World, which, by the way, is werewolves and vampires. But yeah, you know, once you get to page proofs, there’s stuff that you can’t believe that you left in the original file that you sent because it just somehow comes out differently when you see it in print than when you see it on the screen.

It does, yeah.

Now, once you’ve got a draft, you mentioned that your daughter reads stuff, do you have other beta readers? Do you do that, or are you self-contained more?

Yeah. It completely depends on what the project is. If I’m gonna be working on a series, if I’m partway through a series, there’s fewer early editors at that point. But if it’s a brand-new standalone or if it’s a new first novel or if it’s a new novella, I’m more likely to send it to my daughter, or I’ve got critique partners, and they will see it before my editor does. Now, if it’s, you know, say book three in a series, book four in a series, it’s going to go to my editor first, because by that point, I kind of know what I’m doing, and there’s not as much of that, “Is this working?” The editor knows what to expect, and I can go there. And then a critique partner or my daughter may come in at a later point if they just say, “I’d just like to read it.”

What sorts of things do you get…you mentioned, “Is this working?” Is that kind of the focus of that level of reading?

Yes, certainly for that first–if it’s standalone, if it’s first in a series–I’m really sending it to somebody to say, just generally, “Is this working? Is this flowing? Do you see any major issues with it? Do you see that it’s too close to anything that you may have read?,” even, because you never know, you can send it to somebody, and they’re like, “I just read something that’s very similar to this recently.” So, it helps to have that totally trustworthy critique partner who, before the editorial process, can help me get it cleaned up, because, by the time the editor sees it, I don’t want to be embarrassed.

One thing I forgot to ask was, are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

I am fast, and I do a fast first draft. I think it’s because of that mow right through it, not stopping to edit. I want to stay in the voice. I want to stay in the mood, and I want to keep that going. So I’m going to…now I’m not nearly as fast as some people I have met. I am relatively fast in getting that first draft done.

It’s always relative. There’s…no matter how fast you are, there’s somebody else…

Yeah, exactly.

…who says, “Oh, I did a hundred and fifty thousand words in a week.” When you get to the editorial stage, what sorts of things do you generally find the editor commenting on? What kind of changes are requested, if any?

There are always…it’s always interesting to go back and see because there are always those things that, in the back of my mind, I knew was a problem. But even after 30-odd books, I’m still at the stage where, “Yeah. OK, that’s probably a problem,” but I’m hoping it’s just me because fixing it is a lot of work. And then they come back and say, “Yes, that is a problem,” OK, thanks. And then they say it independently, where I don’t say, “Is this a problem?” I do, sometimes, if I’m concerned. But that independent verification of, maybe a plot point that I feel like, eh, that’s not quite gelling for me. Or they might come back…certainly in a series, especially, coming back with, like, “We need more of a reminder of who these characters are, we need less of a reminder of, you know, plot points from previous books because we don’t want to…if someone hasn’t read previous books, we don’t want them to be not willing to go back. If they already know who the killer is in the past two books, they’re not going to want to go back and read them, right?

You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. How has that been?

It’s been good. Ninety percent of the time it’s such a good experience. They bring up the things…I always say that, you know, most of my editors, there’s about 80 percent of what they say I dead-on know, “Yes, you’re totally right. Either I already knew it or, as soon as they say it, I see it. Then it’s about 15 percent where I’m not sure, and I have to think more about it. And it’s only about five percent where I can say, “I understand what you mean, but that’s not right for my book.” So, 90 percent of my editors have fallen into that group. There’s always the occasional one that you’re just not going to gel with. Whatever I’m working on, they are looking for something different. They very clearly are looking for a different kind of story than the type of story that I tell. And I can’t sort of twist myself to give them the type of story they want, because that’s not what my vision is for that book.

You were talking about the editors saying things that you kind of knew in the back of your head. My main editor, of course, is Sheila Gilbert at DAW Books. And all of us who work for DAW, like Tanya Huff and Julie Czerneda, and all those people. We all have this thing in the back of the head, “What would Sheila say?” And even though, you know…I do exactly the same thing. I will know that there’s something there that, you know, “I bet she says something,” but I’ll think, “Maybe not.” And sure enough, she always comes back and says, “You know, I didn’t…this needs…whatever,” you know. So…

Yeah, this needs to work. This little area here, this motivation or this plot point just needs a bit of work.

And that’s what editors are for. When I work with new writers, you know, sometimes, I’ll run into people who are concerned about what editors will do to their work. And I say they will generally make it better. That is really what they’re about.

Exactly. There’s a lot of fear, I think, with new writers, they get some kind of feeling, or they’ve heard stories where the editor is going to demand bizarre changes, like demand that you change your werewolves into vampires or your female main character into a male main character. That doesn’t happen. What they’re in there doing is just helping you shape that story, because it’s hard to tell when you’re that close to your story, whether or not it’s actually working.

And speaking of characters, one thing I kind of forgot to ask along the way was how you go about developing characters. I mean, you know who you need in the story, from the big picture. But then how do you flesh them out? Do you do a lot of character sketches or writing in their voice or any of these various tricks that some people use, or how does that work for you?

Yeah…I’ve sort of learned to do this combination where I certainly do dive in at the beginning, and I want to know who they are, what’s their biggest fear, what’s their main goal, what do they want most from life, and what do they want most from this situation? And, you know, what are some of their hobbies? What are some of their interests? What are some of their dislikes, their past experiences, all that psychology stuff? But I still have to get into the writing because I can certainly say that if it’s the first book in a series or it’s a standalone novel, when I start writing, I can say the character is like this, and by the time I’ve hit, you know, ten, twenty thousand words, that character has shifted. And then I have to go back and adjust that early part.

Yeah, that’s often a revision step for me is to make sure that the character’s consistent.

Yeah.

Do you ever find, as some do, that minor characters become major characters without your knowing it was going to happen?

It definitely happens, where, yes, you come up with what you expect to be a minor character…I always use one example from my first book, Bitten. So, there was this renegade werewolf, he was one of the bad guys, and in the first draft, I killed him off at the end of chapter three. But then was like, “I really like him. I feel like he has more to him.” So I thought, OK, fine, I’ll keep him alive till the end of the book. I kept him alive till the end of the book, and I killed him, and then I still was like, I still feel like he had more. So then, I let him live. He eventually ended up becoming part of the pack and becoming a major character. And in the last book of the series, he appears to have died, and it was kind of an in-joke for everybody who knows how hard I try to kill this character early on.

Well, I did want to ask you about series writing. I’ve been on a panel–at CanCon, I think it was–talking about writing series–the most I’ve ever done as a five-book series–what the struggles of writing a series? The challenges and the rewards, I guess.

Yeah. I guess…the rewards are easy because that readership growth and that readership loyalty, that, if the series takes off, if it finds its audience, they are right there hungry for the next book. And that’s a whole lot easier than standalones, where you’re reinventing the wheel every single time and looking for a fresh audience. So, the series has that built-in audience if it works. The drawbacks are obviously, especially when you go into a long series, running out of ideas, running out of originality. Certainly, with the Otherworld, the only reason that it got to 13 books was because I changed narrators. So, every few books, one of the minor, one of the secondary, characters would become the narrator, and the other characters would fall into the background. So, it would instead be a story about this character’s corner of the world, so you’d start with werewolves for two books, and then spin-off to a witch and get her corner of the world for two books. And then, you spun off to a ghost and get her corner of the world for a book. That kept it going through 13. Nowadays, I don’t think I would ever get that long because even by 13, by changing characters, by the time I finished the series and went on to something else, I realized how tired I really getting. I didn’t see it until I went on and did something new.

I often wonder about the challenges of continuity…I mean, even in a trilogy, continuity could be a problem. Did you do something to try to keep track of all those little details that just pile your pile up?

Yeah, yeah. There’s the series bibles. And now what I do is my daughter is in charge of those and she…when she’s doing her reading, she’ll usually read one of my books for just that, you know, for fun and for general feedback, but then later on, after it’s completely done, past proofs, everything, she’ll take it and enter it into the bible. So if there’s new information, it goes in there. And then, on the next book, when she goes and does that first read-through, she can first read through the bible, and she will in that read through notice, “OK, Mom, you said this here, and it seems to contradict something.” You know, something like, you get a minor character’s age wrong, you know, you said they were twenty-eight here, and they’re twenty-seven now in book two. Unless they regressed, that does not happen.

Yeah. There’s that and, the other one that that’s happened to me, is that because I’m writing…you know, sort of like you, I have a kind of a general idea, but then I’m making up a lot of stuff as I go..and this was in the five-book young adult series. And I made up something in the first book. And by the time I got to the third book, I really wished I had not made up that particular aspect of how the magic worked, is what it was, because I wanted them to be able to do something, and I had shut that door in my face without even knowing I was doing it, three books before.

Yeah. And it really is that you kind of learn to try to not give absolutes. You try to, you know, learn with that first series, to try to, in future series, instead of saying, “It’s not possible to do this,” you will say, “It’s usually done this way,” or “As far as we know, it’s not possible to do this..

“It’s never been done.” That’s a good one.

Exactly!

 Well, let’s move on to–this is where the reverb should come in again–the big philosophical questions. Why do you write? And why do you think any of us write? And in particular, why do you write the kind of stuff that you choose to write?

Exactly. And for me, I think it still is…I’m still that reader. I’m still the kid who was the reader who wanted to tell stories. And it still is for me. You know, I love reading other people’s work because I don’t know what’s going to happen. You know, you can read someone else’s story, and it’s entertaining in a way that is original to me and fresh. However, writing my own story, it’s exactly what I want to write. It’s exactly the type of story that I most want to tell. So, all my favorite themes, my favorite tropes, my favorite character types, archetypes, are going to be in there because that’s what I’m doing. I always, still, because I started as a reader who was trying to write to entertain herself, I’ve kept that where, I still have to be my own first reader. And if I’m bored with a story, I need to stop and look at it and say, “Where did I lose interest?” Because for now, it still is, I love writing, and I always tell a story of…I think I had about three or four books out, and I was on a panel, and somebody said, “Now that you’re doing this for a living, do you still love writing?” And so they went down the panel, and when it got to me, I was, “I absolutely still love this. I can’t believe that I can make a living doing this.” And after the panel, one of the panelists said, “Oh, honey, you just wait until you’re at Book 10, that that will change.” And I’m at 35, whatever it is. And no, that has not changed. And I think that’s really important for me, that I still love what I’m doing and I still can’t believe that they actually pay me for this.

Well, on a bigger scale, what do you think is the impetus for telling stories for all of us who do this?

Yeah, and I don’t even…it’s really hard to say. I mean, certainly, the reader feedback is lovely. I mean, that sort of moment when somebody tells you how much a book of yours meant to them. And it can be that it meant something because it came at a difficult time in their life and it provided escape, etc., or it can just be, “I love these books, and I’ve read them to death.” And that’s a really important thing, and it’s a wonderful ego boost, and it feels like you’ve shared something of yourself with them. But I’m not even sure whether that’s the main thing. I mean, that’s obviously important, and the feedback is wonderful. But if I was to say that I could never get feedback again, would I keep on writing? I would. It probably wouldn’t be as enjoyable because I would be constantly worrying, are people out there actually liking what I am writing? That feedback helps to reassure me, but I just feel like, for me, it’s that storytelling. I feel like for a lot of us–I mean, when people say they want to become a writer and you tell–and once they really realize what that means, I think they figure they’re going to write a book and make a lot of money, or…I always figured, as a kid, if I could finish a book, like finishing a 100,000-word book would be so huge that very clearly it would get published. Ha-ha-ha, no. And I think once they realize…I’ve had so many people have said to me, “I wanted to be a writer, but then I got to know you and saw you, like, on a personal level how hard you work,” and said, “I don’t actually want it that badly.” And I’m like, that’s OK because I do.

I mean, I’m twenty…well, more than 60 books with all the nonfiction and everything…and I still love writing. And the thing is, you know, the whole thing of would I do it even I wasn’t knowing that people were reading it, well, I did, you know, a good nine or ten novels before I published anything. So I guess…and I was still enjoying the mere fact of writing the stories, even though I wasn’t finding a readership.

It is, because certainly with those early books, the unpublished ones, I would finish it and it wouldn’t sell. And there’s that moment of, “I shouldn’t even bother continuing,” but I couldn’t do that because every time I would go back and say, “I’ll right this next one for me,” because I couldn’t not write even when it wasn’t working out.

Well, and what are you working on now?

What I’m working on now is a young-adult thriller. I’ve taken a couple of years off of doing young adult while I got my middle grade going, and I wanted to come up with an idea, I felt like I wasn’t coming up with the right concept for next one. So I am working on that.

And where can people find you online?

You can find me at KelleyArmstrong.com. And on Twitter, I’m relatively active on Twitter and Facebook (@KelleyArmstrongAuthor). Not so much on Instagram, but I occasionally remember to host mostly pet pictures.

Yeah. I always struggle with Instagram. I would like to be more active on it, but I keep forgetting about that one somehow.

Exactly. I do, too.

And perhaps should mention everybody should know that it’s Kelley with an e, K-e-l-l-e-y.

It is. Yes. Although I also have the domain without the extra E, so if you type it in wrong, it should redirect you.

I should do that with Willett because that second T is constantly dropped off. Even if they put it in right–like, the Saskatchewan Book Awards judges put out their comments from this year’s, and I had a book nominated, and in the first part of it they put two Ts on it, by the time they got to the end of it, they dropped that second.

Yes, it does. It is not…I mean, I get so much that doesn’t have the E, that was one of the first things I did was snag that domain that didn’t have the second E.

I should look and see if it’s available. That would be a good thing.

Yeah.

All right. Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers.

Thank you!

That was a fun conversation. I hope you enjoyed it.

I did. Thank you very much.

Well, bye for now.

OK, bye-bye.