Interview with DarkScribe Magazine, August 2009
Dark Scribe Magazine: Tell us a little about The Birthing House.
Christopher Ransom: Hello, and thank you for your interest in my work. The Birthing House is primarily about Conrad Harrison, a man with a haunted history, who attempts to rectify certain major flaws in his marriage to his wife Joanna by purchasing a Victorian house that was a place for women to have their babies, back at the turn of the last century. The house turns out to be a perfect but tragic match for him. Conrad and Jo are struggling to find balance between career and domestic life, and to answer some of the questions almost every couple will wrestle with: Are we going to have children? If yes, why, how, when? If not, what’s wrong with us? As Conrad and Jo’s marriage begins to unravel, the house – or rather, the spirit that has been dormant in the house, waiting for just such a couple – begins to prey on their weaknesses, the secrets they are keeping from one another, and in particular Conrad’s simmering emotions. It’s a story about the everyday horrors of dual-income marriage, infidelity, and past relationships that leave scars, as much as it is a supernatural tale about things that go bump in the night. At least, that was the intention.
Dark Scribe: How long did it take to write The Birthing House? What was your writing process like?
CR: The Birthing House took me three years to write, rewrite, market to agents, and eventually find a home for at St. Martin’s Press. I was working full-time as a copywriter for Famous Footwear, which was based in Madison, Wisconsin. I commuted to work one hour each way, which left me about 2-4 hours each night to write, and I did so daily until it was finished. I spent every night between the hours of 9pm and midnight or 2am at my desk, as far away from the TV as I could get. I typically spent 4-8 hours writing on Saturdays and Sundays. The first draft took me nine months to complete, and then I spent another year and a half or so rewriting, restructuring, and revising every single chapter, scene, and line until I felt it was the best book it could be. I was revising and polishing the manuscript throughout my agent hunt, which lasted about four or five months.
As for what the process was really like, it was a hell of a lot of fun. I had some moments of doubt, but after writing for some 15 years, I just said, “Fuck it, I’m going to write the kind of book I wish I could find more of in the bookstores and hope for the best.” I didn’t hold much back, and it was a deliciously terrifying free fall.
Dark Scribe: What were your influences (literary and/or cinematic) while writing The Birthing House?
CR: Well, I love movies, and in fact wrote 8 feature length screenplays (none of which were optioned or sold) in the five or six years previous to writing The Birthing House. But I don’t know that I have any real tangible cinematic influences, though. I was quite fed up with screenwriting when I began my novel, and I tried to focus more on becoming a decent prose stylist rather than worry about plot and cinematic potential. Sure, there were some scenes in the book that felt cinematic to me, but when you’re looking at 100,000+ words in front of you, you start to realize how important and difficult the act of constructing solid, evocative sentences is.
The only two movies I have seen that approach the tone and setting of The Birthing House are The Others and The Orphanage, but I didn’t realize that until after I finished the book, and in fact didn’t even see The Orphanage until after my agent sold my book and asked me if I had seen it. I took his advice and ran out and bought the DVD, and then sat back and said, “Oh, wow, yeah that’s very close to what I saw in my head for the past three years."
But back to the writing. In terms of style and voice or whatever you want to call it, I was probably influenced by Stephen King, in that I had hoped to keep it honest and straight forward, to tell the truth about regular people, and to emulate, if not exactly his voice, that everyman style and cast of characters, that utterly non-pretentious way with words he has. But I also read and enjoyed a lot of Clive Barker’s novels, like Imajica and The Damnation Game. I love his lyricism and the elegance he carries into the bedroom, the graveyard, pretty much everywhere he chooses to go. One gets the feeling Clive Barker finds words, as much as anything, erotic, and that’s a wonderful quality for a writer, though not many of us can pull it off the way he does—I can’t.
Another writer I admire greatly is Colin Harrison, whose prose is rich and full of wickedly smart observations about all facets of urban life and human behavior, but never bogs down the story. He’s very playful with his use of third person and close third, aka free indirect. He has the finesse and power of a boxer. He dances like Ali, then hits you with a scene so hard, you have to set the book down and wait for your head to stop spinning. I really envy his ability to achieve narrative momentum while somehow painting these characters that live and breathe, flaws and all, as well as somehow capture the throbbing pulse of New York City every time out. I named my protagonist Conrad Harrison as a reminder to myself to attempt to move him through the tale as if I were holding Colin Harrison’s pen, that’s how much I like Colin Harrison’s novels.
Pete Dexter has a blunt fluidity in his work. His writing is graceful and simple and brave, as clean and sound as an Amish workbench. I wish I were as good as him. Mind you, I’m not saying I actually write like King, Harrison, Barker, or anyone else. I’m just saying those are some of the writers I was conscious of while I wrote my book, and being that I have reread most of their novels several times, there is a fair chance one can find traces of their style in mine, if one were to look close enough.
Dark Scribe: For jaded horror readers who’ve grown weary when they hear the term haunted house, what sets The Birthing House apart from the pack?
CR: That’s a great question, and one I wrestled with early on. In truth, I didn’t even set out to write a haunted house story. All I had were three characters – Conrad, Jo, and the girl next door, Nadia – and a vague sense that they would collide in interesting ways. I wasn’t even set on writing a horror story or psychological thriller, per se. But as I waded deeper into the first draft, certain elements kept coming to me. The infant’s crying and other noises in the spare bedroom. The distorted images in the window’s reflection. The almost palpable sense that something in this house Conrad and Jo lived in was wrong, something separate of them, and, I guess, separate of everyday reality. So at a certain point I had to sit back and ask myself, are we really writing a haunted house story here? Is that where this going? And, if so, what makes this original? What will be my contribution to the sub-genre that is the haunted house story?
The big answer I arrived at was birth, which sprung from this question about having children, which has been a topic of healthy debate in my real life, and the idea of birth, which I took from the house my wife and I live in. I realized every haunted house story springs from some tragedy, a death, some trauma that has left a psychic stain on the house. Well, the more I thought about it, the more I realized birth is traumatic too. It’s the other gate, the beginning of life, not the end. So, if death can open doors to the paranormal, why not birth? I kept asking myself what would a house where dozens or even hundreds of babies had been born be haunted by? And the more I played with that, the more ways I found to pit the house against my characters, to prey on their weaknesses, to use them for the birthing house’s own ends.
In addition to the birth-parenthood premise, I wanted to explore the psychological horror of infidelity in a way similar to how The Shining explored the psychological horror of alcoholism and familial violence. You know, when you’re a kid, you read all these scary books for the monsters and the blood and the far-out shit. But as you get older and your reading tastes mature a bit and you start to really think about how the best authors of horror use the genre to illuminate serious issues and real people with real problems, you start to see just how serious the heavyweights are. King did it again with Christine, using the haunted car – a premise that in lesser hands would be absolutely silly – to explore the alienation and obsession that teens and parents experience at during those high school years when adulthood is knocking on the door. Dan Simmons’s epic Carrion Comfort is one of the finest books ever written about the Holocaust and the horror people who attain absolute power inflict upon others.
Lies, betrayal, love and lust, loneliness and estrangement from the people we are closest to—these are things that scare me a lot more than ghosts. So when I realized The Birthing House was shaping up to be a horror-thriller, I made an extra effort to stay grounded in real life issues. I tried to avoid the cliché scares, of course. Or at least use them to tweak the reader in new ways. Yes, we have all read or seen the haunted house story. But every house is as unique as its occupants, isn’t it?
Dark Scribe: Who was your favorite Birthing character to write? The most difficult?
CR: I would have to say Nadia, the girl next door who becomes the focus of Conrad’ obsession while his wife is out of town and who serves as a living stand-in for Conrad’s lost girl, Holly, who is something of a ghost in his mind. He is haunted by his past relationship to Holly. Nadia is nineteen and pregnant. She’s tired of living in this small town and she wants to get away from Eddie, her semi-ex-boyfriend. She’s smart, but limited in her world view. She is attracted to Conrad for his broader experience, and the desire he harbors to be a father.
She did not come to me fully formed at all. Only after the second draft did she begin to feel like a real person to me. I was only able to get into her head and make her scenes with Conrad work once I really made a serious effort to step back and write a lot of notes about her. I guess I woke up one day and realized, holy shit, I haven’t been a teenager for over fifteen years, and I’ve never been a girl or pregnant. I had to create some credible reasons for her not to run away from the birthing house, and from Conrad. She tries to do just that, in fact, but Conrad – and her own fear of becoming a single mother – brings her back. Sure, Conrad offers her money to tell her stories about what she had experienced in the house some years earlier, as a babysitter. But that wasn’t enough. Her boyfriend, Eddie, was unraveling and becoming more threatening every day, becoming violent. She sees Conrad a trust-worthy adult at first, then source of advice, then a mild crush and a bit of a goofball, and eventually a possible ticket to a better life. Her parents are in denial about her situation somewhat and she is determined to take responsibility for her situation. She’s neither poor and ignorant nor fully formed and responsible.
I had to work extra hard on her dialogue, which is tricky with teens, because on the one hand they say inane, shallow things and think they understand everything, but on the other hand they are very intelligent and cannot be reduced to stereotypes or the tics and wardrobe of whatever personality they are trying on this season. You can’t just write a Goth or a skate punk or a preppy chick. The Goths often have plenty of self-esteem and the rich kids are just as insecure as the rest of us.
So, yeah, Nadia was difficult to bring to life, especially because she is viewed, as is everything in the book, from Conrad’s perspective. Conrad is selfish, absorbed in his problems, driven by his needs and his desires, so his vision of Nadia and everyone else is clouded. By writing in the third person and close third, I was able to keep a little distance from him and insert little revelations about the other characters he interacts with. I tried to plant clues to the reality he sometimes misses, such as Nadia’s skepticism or her frustration with him for not listening to her or not always taking her seriously. I don’t know if readers have noticed, but in many ways Nadia is smarter than Conrad. She’s pregnant, she’s already thinking like a mom, she is pretty realistic about their situation. Meanwhile, Conrad shares much in common with her immature boyfriend, Eddie, who is afraid of losing Nadia too. Conrad maybe understands this shared immaturity on a subconscious level, and despises Eddie for what he sees. Like that great Pearl Jam line, “When you hate somethin’, don’t you do it too.”
Dark Scribe: The book was released earlier this year in the United Kingdom, where it reached an impressive #6 on the London Times’ paperback bestseller list. Were you surprised by the response the book has gotten abroad?
CR: I was floored. My original goal for this book was to land an agent. I told my wife repeatedly, if all we get out of this is an agent, I will consider it a success. Of course I hoped it would find a publisher, but I did not expect any such thing. Then, after I landed my agent, Scott Miller, who believed very passionately that this book had more mainstream potential that some “horror” novels, I allowed myself to dream that it would find a home. Seeing my first novel in print was enough; I didn’t care about sales, and I sure as hell didn’t allow myself to dream about any bestseller lists.
My publisher in the UK, Sphere, which is an imprint of Little, Brown, kept telling me the book was selling well to retail book buyers. The Sphere team did a phenomenal job of marketing the book. They really believed in it. But still, in the back of my mind, it was always just this little haunted house story. When I learned earlier this year that it was a paperback bestseller overseas, I was just stunned. It was very surreal, not least of all because I couldn’t really see it. I mean that I could not imagine it, and that I literally could not walk into a store and see it on the shelves, being that I live in Wisconsin and it was selling in the UK.
I feel incredibly fortunate. It takes a great deal of faith – on the part of agents, editors, publishers, and a whole staff of in house marketing and sales people, as well as the merchants and the readers who actually decide to give a first-time author a chance – to launch a book. I feel pretty damn spoiled and I don’t know what to attribute it to other than people like to be scared. I knew that I had written a scary book, but you can never know if people will respond and to what degree. There are many books by authors I admire that don’t sell as well as I think they deserve to. I’m constantly looking at this author or that book and shaking my head, wondering, why this isn’t huge? Why aren’t people screaming this author’s name from the rooftops? It doesn’t always make sense.
I’ve been amazed at the fan letters I have received. People in England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Germany . . . all these places I never dreamed my book would be on sale . . . they write me these letters thanking me for keeping them awake all night and making them lock their doors! Well, I’m thankful for them for giving me a shot.
Dark Scribe: In their review of The Birthing House, Library Journal said: "As much about the terrors of humankind as it is about the supernatural, this is an exceptional debut, full of action-packed gore and carnal imagery. Ransom’s style mimics that of the early Stephen King and Dan Simmons’s horror fiction (e.g., A Winter Haunting)." Considering that both King and Simmons are credited with being huge influences on your writing, what was your reaction to reading that?
CR: Yes, it’s true. Dan Simmons and Stephen King are two of my favorite writers. It’s very flattering to be mentioned in the same breath as either of them, and it’s certainly helpful on the marketing front to receive a blurb that suggests fans of them might like my stuff. But let’s not kid ourselves. King has published, what, 50 books? And Simmons has published 27? Between the two of them they have enough awards on their shelves to build a Martian spacecraft.
I have published one novel, and while I am proud of it and feel that I wrote and published the book I intended, I am well aware that it’s not in league with The Shining or Summer of Night. We can talk again in 30 years and see if The Birthing House is still in print, but in the meantime, I’m going to try and remember what Dan told me just a week ago, when I was fortunate enough to spend a few hours with him in person. Dan’s a good friend of Harlan Ellison’s, and while we were on the topic of second novels, Dan quoted Harlan Ellison as saying, “Any fuckhead can write one book. Everybody’s got one book in them. Real writers prove themselves on book two, three, four, five . . .”
Dark Scribe: What’s your favorite haunted house story – and why?
CR: Well, I’ve already mentioned The Shining a few times. I do love that novel. And Dan’s A Winter Haunting, which shares some themes with Henry James’s longish short story The Jolly Corner. I didn’t much care for The Jolly Corner, but I love The Turn of the Screw. The Birthing House has something of a controversial ending, that is, one that is somewhat open to interpretation, like The Turn of the Screw. I’m a big fan of novels that make me think, and I borrowed that old push-pull between reality and insanity, between madness and the supernatural.
I’ve read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House three or four times, and there are new revelations of character every time. Ms. Jackson’s prose has such a depth and texture to it, she’s really in her own league. I’m currently rereading Peter Straub’s Koko, which is not a haunted house story, but a wonderful psychological horror novel about Vietnam and veterans of that conflict. It’s a longer novel that has many rewards.
Dark Scribe: On your website, you thank several writers for their comments and advice. How important was contact with established authors during the writing process for you?
CR: I’ve been amazed at the generosity of writers in general. My experience is that when established writers sense you are serious about your craft, not just out to pimp a story, they are pretty free with their advice. Scott Nicholson gave me a lot of confidence when I needed it. He read an early draft of The Birthing House and responded favorably but with serious notes. Jacquelyn Mitchard is a writer who works with a colleague of mine, and she was open to giving my manuscript a look. I thought she might give me a tip or two; I did not expect a blurb, and she gave me a killer blurb. I told her I would wash her car and mow her lawn, and I was only half-joking. My father-in-law just so happens to be Robert Gandt, former Navy pilot and author of some dozen non-fiction books and novels. He read my manuscript and told me to cut 20,000 words, which probably saved the book. Peter Blauner is a writer I emailed years ago as a fan, because I have enjoyed his work since I was in college. I appreciate the high bar he sets for himself with every book, and he gave me some advice and a blurb, which is incredible considering how busy he is with research and writing and the rest of life.
Well, we’re all busy these days. I think writers want to see other writers with actual talent succeed. We all want to see better books on the shelves. I always approached other writers with respect for their time and never asked for more than was offered, if that makes sense. But yes, receiving blurbs and even simple encouragement from established writers does wonders for the confidence, and we need confidence, especially during that phase between writing the book and attempting to sell the book. But I should add that I did not approach these folks until after I had done everything I could to make the book the best it could be, on my own, and after more than a decade of writing. Professional writers aren’t looking to hold hands and solve obvious problems, but they respect people who have put in the years of toil required to become a writer.
Dark Scribe: Out of all the writers who offered their time and wisdom, who gave you the best piece of advice – and what was it?
CR: Wow, that is very difficult to pin down. After reading dozens of books on writing and reading hundreds of interviews and blogs and posts on the forums and essays and all the rest, there are simply too many things that need to be digested for me to say this was the one thing. But since we’re talking about my first novel, I guess I will say that Stephen’s King’s advice in his book On Writing was very helpful, specifically the part about not looking back. He says something in there about clearing off the desk, forgetting about the dictionary and thesaurus and grammar books, and just telling the damn story.
The prospect of writing a first novel is so daunting, it can be helpful to dive headlong into it and try not to pause and look back, as King says, “allowing doubt to creep in. Doubt is poison to the writer.” Something like that. I agree. I knew that no matter how rough my first draft was, I could fix it, but first I had to have a draft. This ties into the obvious thing that writers of many levels tend to forget—that writing isn’t about talking about writing, or plotting, or outlining, or pitching, or joining writers groups and wringing our hands. It’s about writing. Writing writing writing.
Dark Scribe: The inevitable question: what are you working on now/next?
CR: My second novel is shaping up to be another horror-thriller that walks a fine line between the psychological and the supernatural. It deals with loss, identity, addiction, and, to some degree, guilt and the responsibility we owe to the people we love. I know that sounds terribly vague, but I can’t really reveal anything specific right now. For one, my publishers would probably be pissed. For another, I am superstitious about talking about the work too much before I am finished with a solid, working draft.
I can say that it begins in a house that seems to be haunted, but spirals out from there, and that it is ultimately not a haunted house story at all. It’s not set in Wisconsin. It takes place in West Adams, the historic neighborhood in Los Angeles where my wife and I lived for two years, and then moves east, to an abandoned gated community near Palm Desert, and eventually to a final retreat in Colorado. I guess you could say I am trying to show that sometimes you can leave the haunted house, but that which haunts you can just as easily follow you anywhere, and eventually there is a reckoning, or, in the case of my second novel, a horrific struggle for survival.
Dark Scribe: Any worries about the dreaded sophomore slump? If so, how do you keep those anxieties at bay?
CR: Sure, great, thanks for bringing that up! I think the scariest thing is time. You have your whole life, or at least years and sometimes decades, to write your first novel. You can tinker with it and grow with it and feed it over a longer period. I am fortunate enough to be under contract for more books, but there are deadlines now, of course. So the challenge becomes not so much how much can one write in a day, but how many decisions can be made in a day. I think a lot of writing a novel is the act of solving problems and answering questions. Making choices, thousands upon thousands of choices. I can write 20 pages per day if I glue my ass to the chair, but that doesn’t mean I am making the 50 or 100 most important decisions that need to be made that day.
The only way I know to keep these anxieties at bay is to do the work. Put in the time. Continue to read better books. Never stop studying. It’s like impotence and writer’s block. Better to not even think about these things, or think too much at all. Just shut up and write.
Dark Scribe: What’s one thing readers would be surprised to know about Chris Ransom, the average guy?
CR: I’m not that dark in real life, just on the page. I’m a funny guy, or at least my neighbors and wife think so. I used to write comedy. I actually think there is a decent undercurrent of humor in The Birthing House. Some of it is supposed to be funny, in a very dark way. Hey, I’m a mellow dude. I don’t even smoke pot, but people often think I am stoned because I speak slowly. I live a very casual life. I read, I write, I cook. Love to cook ethnic food. Give me a good meal, two pints of Guinness, an episode of Mad Men or Friday Night Lights and ten hours of sleep, you won’t hear me complain much.
The ghosts and insanity and murder and obsessive lust and foul mouthed characters . . . I don’t know where all that comes from.
Originally published at www.darkscribemagazine.com