Monday, 6 July 2009

INTERVIEW: Stephen Woodworth

With a parent in the professional writing field, books for Stephen Woodworth have always been something special. So when he was presented with a typewriter at an early age he soon learned to type his tales one fingered and developed his talents from there. Now released in the UK for the first time by Piatkus, his world of Violet eyed people who can summon the dead for everything from court trials to composing or creating new masterpieces is unleashed in the new Supernatural Crime thriller series thats taking the rest of the world by storm. Here we chat to him about writing, his weaknesses for Amicus horror flicks and above all bringing the violets to life...

Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

Stephen Woodsworth: Fiction writing is certainly very hard. Like any other artistic skill, it requires a tremendous commitment of time and energy to hone one's abilities to a point of professionalism, and years may pass before one sees any reward for one's labours. Pursuing a career as a novelist is even more challenging, for competition is fierce and the pay can be minimal. Despite these formidable drawbacks, I feel privileged to be in an occupation where I can create something personal—something that only I can produce—and share it with other human beings, hopefully giving them some small pleasure in the process. So, while I often find the business of writing frustrating, I still see it as a blessing rather than a curse.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

SW: Almost from the time I learned to read. My mother was a freelance journalist, and when I was only four years old or so, she gave me her old Smith-Corona manual typewriter, upon which I would type out simple and grammatically questionable stories one letter at a time. Books have always been one of the great joys of my life, and I've always aspired to give other people the same delight my favourite authors have given me.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

SW: I enjoy writing short stories immensely, and I think they are a great way for aspiring writers to practice the fundamentals of their craft—plot, characterization, point-of-view, and so forth. I can tell you from experience, however, that novels are a very different species from short stories, almost a different medium, and making the transition between the two can prove daunting. You can get away with a lot of techniques in short stories that are simply unsustainable at novel length. Novels also require you to go into details about the characters and settings that you might be able to gloss over in a shorter work. Needless to say, the greatest challenge of the novel is simply persevering with a manuscript that requires many months and hundreds of pages to complete.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

SW: Unlike most "psychic detective" thrillers, Through Violet Eyes takes place in an alternate reality in which communication with the dead is an accepted fact of everyday life. In this world, a small number of individuals are born with the rare ability to channel the souls of deceased people. Known as "Violets" for the unique, uncanny colour of their eyes, they regularly assist the police in homicide investigations and can even summon murder victims to testify in court. In the U.S.A., they are largely controlled by an authoritarian government organization known as the North American Afterlife Communications Corps, or NAACC, which forces them to use their abilities to serve society's needs. But now someone is stalking and butchering the Violets themselves—a shadowy murderer who wears a black mask so that his victims cannot identify him after they die. Natalie Lindstrom, a prominent Violet who works in law enforcement, must team with F.B.I. Special Agent Dan Atwater to find the Violet Killer before she becomes his next victim.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

SW: In a world where the dead can accuse the living…someone is getting away with murder.

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

SW: I love a whole range of writers, from classic authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe to contemporary greats like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Neil Gaiman. Thomas Ligotti is a lesser-known favourite whose books I always pick up as soon as they come out. But, bar none, the writer whose work I admire most is my wife, Kelly Dunn. I'll definitely be camped out on the bookshop doorstep the day her first novel is released!

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

SW: I usually have a fair idea of the beginning and the end of my stories before I start to write, with a jumble of disconnected images, characters, and snatches of dialogue floating in my head that will come somewhere in the middle. Usually, I foolishly plunge into writing without any preparation so as to capitalize on my naïve enthusiasm for the project before it flags. Along the way, I'll make notes of ideas as they occur to me and then try to plug them in where they seem appropriate, but sometimes I'll jot down a rough outline of a particularly difficult chapter just to untangle the events in my imagination. However, as a professional writer, I have had to cultivate the ability to outline a prospective work in advance for a book proposal, a process that does not come naturally to me yet which I have found very useful in my career.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

SW: I enjoy travelling, eating fine foods, watching movies, and, of course, reading. Just lately, I've been wallowing in an orgy of H.P. Lovecraft, reading nearly all his published stories in the past few months. Nothing takes my mind off the stress of work like the horror of Cthulhu!

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

SW: I have a weakness for low-budget horror anthology films, particularly those put out by Amicus in the 70s and 80s. My wife and I have an especial fondness for The Monster Club, which boasts droll performances by Vincent Price and John Carradine, atmospheric and witty stories by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, and a wonderfully goofy assortment of early-80s pop/rock/reggae tunes.

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

SW: No pets, unless you count the rats in the attic…but I only show them to certain special friends, who tend to vanish mysteriously afterward.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

SW: In Through Violet Eyes, there is a musician Violet named Lucy Kamei who has the enviable job of summoning great composers of the past like Beethoven and Mozart to draft new masterpieces. I think it's a secret fantasy of most artists to meet and even collaborate with their idols—particularly the dead ones!

FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?

SW: I think I'm fairly similar to Dan Atwater, the F.B.I. profiler assigned to help my heroine, Natalie, catch the Violet Killer. He's basically a good-natured, well-meaning guy who nonetheless can make very human mistakes when overwhelmed by circumstance.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

SW: I am addicted to true-crime books and documentaries and to both fictional and non-fictional stories of supernatural phenomena, so you could say the Violet Series is the unholy offspring of the cross-pollination of these obsessions!

I also performed in community theatre for many years (the height of my acting career was probably my fleeting appearance as an extra on Star Trek: The Next Generation). I found that developing a character for the stage and speaking lines in front of an audience gave me invaluable insight when writing my own characters and dialogue.

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

SW: Everywhere. Personal experience, dreams, newspaper articles, true-crime books, people I see on the street, overheard snatches of conversation. Coming up with ideas is no problem—it's developing them into an actual story with characters that readers will care about that's the tough part.

In the case of the Violet Series, the concept occurred to me during the notorious O.J. Simpson trial here in Los Angeles. During the proceedings, several television pundits made the comment that the only people who will ever really know what happened the night of the murders are the killer and his victims. And I wondered what our judicial system would be like if deceased witnesses could give posthumous testimony that would be admissible in court. I imagined a group of rare, genetically-gifted mediums who had a scientifically proven and broadly accepted ability to allow the souls of the departed to inhabit their bodies, enabling the dead individuals to speak and act as if they were still alive. Once I'd conceived of the Violets, I started to explore possible applications for their "gift" outside of homicide investigations and law enforcement. Imagine, for instance, what we could learn about history if we could actually interview people from the past. Imagine if we could resurrect the most brilliant minds of the ages to continue the work they'd begun during their lifetimes. I knew immediately that such a wellspring would give me more ideas than I could contain in one book!

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

SW: I confront writer's block virtually every day in that I am never sure whether I'm expressing myself in the best way possible. It's not a matter of not being able to write—I almost always know what is supposed to be happening in the story at any given time—but it's instead the fear that what I'm about to write isn't any good that can keep me staring at a blank screen for hours. The only sure way I've found to overcome that fear is to force myself to sit at the computer until I write something. I hold my nose and squeeze out a few sentences even if I suspect they stink, and if I can get past the first paragraph, the prose usually starts flowing again…and it's seldom as bad as my neurotic brain thought it was.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

SW: I've always been a night person and used to write into the wee hours of the morning on a regular basis. Since getting married and getting older, I have found this a less than practical approach, and so I tend to do most of my work during the day and early evening. However, when a deadline presses, I can still pull all-nighters as needed, which my wife has tolerated with an almost saint-like patience.

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

SW: On the Achtung Baby album, U2 has a song entitled "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" that has a distinctly creepy, haunting quality to it. I wanted to give the mediums who channel the dead in my world a distinctive physical characteristic that would distinguish them from ordinary people—eyes that would literally be the "windows of the soul"—and I thought of that song. Violet seemed an appropriate eye colour because it's from the dark end of the spectrum, as if these mediums are gazing "out of the blue and into the black," in the words of Neil Young.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

SW: Although I knew going into the field that it was difficult to make a living as a writer, I had no conception of what an enormous number of copies of a novel one has to sell in order to earn out even a modest advance. I also underestimated the amount of work entailed in promoting the book once it's published. I naively assumed that I would do the writing and the publishers would do the selling, but limited resources and a crowded marketplace have forced more and more publishers to delegate responsibility for promotion to the individual writer. I think the hardest aspect of being a professional author is simply getting the public to know that your work exists…which is why I'm immensely grateful for this opportunity to introduce myself to your readers! J

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

SW: To borrow another metaphor from Shakespeare, I think literature is a mirror that we "hold…up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." It's a magic mirror, however, for it can not only show us how we are, warts and all, but also the noblest selves we'd like to be, with a breadt
h and scope of imagination that are unattainable in mundane reality.

FT: What can you te
ll us about the next novel?

SW: Without giving too much away, I can tell you that, in With Red Hands, Natalie Lindstrom must confront the depraved killer who literally drove her Violet mother insane. At the same time, she has to deal with harassment from the government's oppressive North American Afterlife Communications Corps, a high-stakes murder trial, and a plethora of unresolved personal issues.

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

SW: Google for research, Amazon and for books, Netflix for movies, AOL for procrastination. You happened to ask me this question at an unfortunately boring juncture. If only you'd asked when I was doing some truly interesting research, such as the Web pages I've consulted about corpse wax, Electronic Voice Phenomena in ghost-hunting, Dr. Kevorkian's artwork, or the site entitled "How to Kill Without Mercy"!

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

SW: In 1992, I was fortunate enough to win First Place in the Writers of the Future Contest and was invited to attend the weeklong workshop taught by Dave Wolverton and the late and much-lamented Algis Budrys. By 1999, however, I felt like I'd hit a wall creatively, and so I applied for admission to the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle, Washington. During the six-week seminar, I wrote the first chapter of what would become Through Violet Eyes to float as sort of a trial balloon to see what kind of reaction it would get. The input and encouragement I received from my instructors (who included Greg Bear and the late Octavia Butler) and my fellow classmates gave me the courage to go on and finish the novel.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

SW: You never really get over criticism and rejection—you simply have to accept them as a fact of working in a creative field in which people have widely varying tastes. I try to take criticism in the spirit in which it's offered: If it's constructive and helpful, I consider it seriously. If it's nothing more than snarkiness, I ignore it, which is an act of self-preservation. Dealing with rejection is much the same in that I have to have faith that, if I liked a given story enough to write it, there will be someone else out there who will like it enough to read it and, perhaps, publish it.

FT: In your opinion, w
hat are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

SW: Undoubtedly, the worst thing about fiction writing as a career is the uncertainty of one's livelihood. Although writers have always struggled to earn their keep—look at Poe, for example—it is arguably even more difficult today because fewer and fewer people read for pleasure. Even among diehard fiction readers, an aspiring author must compete not only with other, better-established writers but with the proliferating forms of other media: television, movies, video games, DVDs, the Internet, cell-phone texting, ad nauseum. People have only so much time and money to invest in leisure, and it has become increasingly difficult to persuade them to devote themselves to reading a book as opposed to these myriad other distractions.

However, nothing is more rewarding for me personally than when readers do discover and enjoy my work. I've come to know several fans of the Violet Series through my Web page at, and the affection they express for my characters and the enthusiasm they have for the stories gives me a sense of fulfilment that makes all the struggles and setbacks worthwhile. Connecting with readers is the best part of being a writer, and I hope to keep telling them stories for years to come.

1 comment:

Michelle Muto said...

I love the 20 word or less elevator pitch. Nice.

And the art of short stories isn't what it used to be, is it? They're harder to find on bookshelves these days it seems. I remember what Stephen King said about short stories - they're a quick kiss in the dark.