interview by Vianne Venter

From Issue 19 (Mar 2012)

Where is home?
Home at the moment is Northern Minnesota, United States. In a few weeks, though, we load up the billions of books and kids and head on out to Washington, on the west coast. Partially because I very much miss the ocean and the mountains, but also because fighting the Wolves and Woolly Mammoths in Minnesota every winter is exhausting.

Do you write full time?
I do! When my first son was born, nearly five years ago, I started staying at home and writing. Harder than I expected, writing full time, but it IS better than the alternatives, although you can’t convince me of that on the bad days.

What inspired this story?
It started as a creative exercise, and expanded from there. Here’s how it happened: my absolute favorite band in the world is Nightwish. A few years ago, they did a song for the soundtrack of a movie. They made a music video, using footage from the film itself. Here’s the music video:
The creative exercise was that I tried to take the scenes present in that music video and find a pattern to them, create a story for them. I deliberately avoided looking up the film or learning anything more about it than was present in just that video clip.
Of course, no story stays with just its inspiration. It went on from there. I think the story and the video kind of work together. If you take them as a whole, they augment each other. (The song was on nearly endless repeat while I wrote the story.) Later on, after the story had been finished and gone out into the world, I looked up the film and discovered that I was a billion miles away from their story. That made me happier still. (Mostly for fun, there are various other Nightwish references in the story. But I’ll leave it to someone else to spot them.)

Tell us about creating a blind protagonist. (Why and where the idea came from, as well as how you set about creating her world.)
In my first attempt at the story, she wasn’t blind. That was okay, I suppose, but I’m always looking for ways to push the stories and ideas just a bit further. There have been an uncountable number of horror stories about a pretty young woman being menaced by a murderous nutjob. You’ve read it, I’ve read it, so what’s the point in rehashing it? Quite why I settled on her being blind as opposed to anything else, I don’t remember now. It made her stand out a little more, gave the story some of the energy I needed to push through it.

Actually writing her proved to be a good deal more difficult. Occasionally, I find myself writing an element into a story which in my head I’ve constructed for film, or for comic books. Even now, quite some time after having written this story about Charlotte, I can still see some of the panels and layouts and pieces of artwork that I would have been aiming for, had this been a comic. I can still see the transitional shots, had it been film. That was frustrating, to convey those transitions between her worlds, and to make it clear within the flow of the text that sometimes she couldn’t see, and sometimes she could. I mean without writing SHE CAN SEE NOW YOU GUYS periodically throughout the story. I wasn’t sure it worked, the gradual shift between which senses she was using most at any given moment. I wasn’t sure it would make sense, but it didn’t seem to have bothered anyone but me. Isn’t that how it always is, with writers?

As for creating her world, the snowy landscape she and her boyfriend drive through…there’s this beautiful stretch through Montana of long highways, surrounded by trees and hills. The road goes on for ages, rising and falling as the landscape changes. In the snow, it’s spectacular. But I was careful not to do any research and just to recall my own memories and visuals from driving through there. That’s what is important, after all. Anyone who has access to Google Earth can go find out the precise topology of the region.

How did the story evolve? Did you know where it was going from the outset, or was Charlotte’s journey also a journey of discovery for you?
The story itself went through four ‘drafts’. I’m hesitant to think of them as proper drafts, though. I’m no good at those. What happens is, I start the story and write it for a few (or a lot) of pages, and then suddenly go “This doesn’t work,” and scrap it and start over. I did that a few times. I knew the basic elements. I knew Simon’s murder-plot, his plan to drive across the country. It arose from my own irritation watching shows I find pretty dimwitted, all those crime shows about sassy crime-solvin’ cop-teams who have Catchphrases and Techno Music and stuff. Also, like any writer, I spend too much time thinking up clever ways to commit crimes I never plan to commit (EVER PLAN TO COMMIT, law enforcement officials reading this interview).

It was realizing she was blind that set the story going at full speed. It gave me not only the tools and ideas to shift between the two worlds, but gave me something to talk about and think about.

I knew the ending from the outset. I almost always know the ending, but not in any grand and useful sense. I knew that she would wind up dying, that Eric would wind up having been more than a memory, that there was a sunflower field waiting for her, and so forth. But I didn’t know anything useful, like why Simon would kill her, or what she would do to try to free herself. All of that is pretty much scene by scene for me. I write the one bit, and can see that it leads to this next bit. Eventually I realize what’s going to happen to cause the ending. Occasionally, when it happens, the ending falls to bits and a new one appears. I never mind that.

Who are your writing influences?
I think like any writer, my influences are too many to count. How do I limit them, so I can talk about them? I’m influenced by watching people in the world around me interacting. Influenced watching excellent TV and movies and books, wishing I could do a work half as well. Influenced by rubbish art, which I want to pick up and re-write until they aren’t quite so stupid.

Music has a tremendous influence on my writing, and my way of thinking. Nightwish and Alice Cooper have had a great effect on how I work. Alice Cooper, particularly, has been shaping how I view myself as a working artist since I was thirteen years old or so. And then there are other bands like My Chemical Romance and Thea Gilmore. Listening to intelligent music sometimes leads to intelligent stories. Sometimes it just leads to me being annoying and singing around the house.

I read a great deal. Listing authors who have an effect on me would be unbearable, the list would just go on for ages. My short story work is strongly influenced by Joe Hill — who reprogrammed how I wrote, when I read 20th Century Ghosts and realized I could do longer, slower, more literary stories that still had a fantastic and horror element to them. The book found me at the right time. Recently, I’ve just discovered Margaret Atwood and John Irving and gone “Oh, I can work like that if I want…” Whenever I’m bogged down, I turn to Neil Gaiman and Harlan Ellison, whose work I not only love but who convince me to just…get on with it.

All of that said…I think every artist has what I think of as patron saints, little angels and devils sitting on their shoulders. Artists whose presence is indelibly on everything they do. For me, it’s Alan Moore — who has had a tremendous effect on my writing, my work ethic, my politics, my interest in the occult and what I’m willing to believe, my approach to day-to-day life, and my tendency to look rather hairy. And also Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator, who has just as big an effect on my life, work, beliefs, and politics as Alan Moore does.

Boy, thank goodness I kept that answer short, eh?

How do you manage to maintain your writing output with two boys in the house?
To be perfectly frank…I don’t. I don’t know how people do it, those people who have several kids and still manage to get work done, keep up on the dishes, and stay in shape and also be well-groomed. Particularly as the boys get older, I find it nearly impossible to do any sort of writing work when they’re awake. And when they go to bed, I oftentimes either nod off myself, or just sit on the couch and vibrate gently as the tension of the day radiates off me. I work slower than I ever have. But I am still working. One big trick is that I keep agreeing to things. Deadlines and actual Grown Ups expecting work from you is a huge motivator to get your ass in gear.

Are you working on anything right now?
Indeedy. I sporadically write book reviews and articles for and for The Future Fire magazine. I have two or three short stories in various stages of completion. The one taking up all my time right now is called Frost at the moment and is set in the Sahara desert. Unlike the Montana road I mentioned above, for this story I’m being very precise about location. It’s a pretty solitary little road through the Sahara and it serves me well to pay attention to it. Google Earth is a gem.

I’m also writing a novel (who isn’t?) very slowly. I’m not a natural novelist. Short stories are more my area. It comes along slowly, though. It’s called The Man on the Shore, has three characters and one small boat and is the sort of novel that Misery or Cujo kind of is. But I don’t want to say too much, because it might all collapse.

Where might we find more of your work?
For ease of use, I try to keep a running bibliography of my work on my web-site, …although I need to be better about updating it. I also spend far, far too much time on Twitter (@peterdamien ) so I suppose someone could always go on there and say “Hey turkey! What else ya got!” and I’d send them links. The links would probably just go to rude pictures, though, so that might not work out…

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Vianne Venter

Vianne Venter is a freelance writer and sub-editor for various South African publications. She served as story editor and sub for Something Wicked since its inception in 2005. She is also an artist and mother. She can communicate with inanimate objects, but only if they’re feeling chatty. In her spare time… oh, who are we kidding? What spare time?

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