5 Questions with Author Christopher Ransom: a Self Interview
Here's an introduction from my editor at Little, Brown UK, Publisher of Sphere Books, Mr. Daniel Mallory:
Too often, authors are asked a handful of typical questions (Where do you get your ideas? Who are your influences? What are your writing habits and schedule each day?) whose answers sound just as typical (Stephen King, Joseph Conrad, 12 hours per day, lots of coffee, etc.). We at Little, Brown thought it would more interesting to give one of our authors the chance to ask and answer 5 questions of his choosing.
Thank you for the opportunity, Dan. I’ve always wanted to interview myself (that was a joke, but not really). Hopefully I can dig up some interesting nuggets we aren’t all tired of hearing from writers like me. Here goes--
CR: Writers tend to be serious readers, readers who look for that certain “Ah ha, yes, this is what I wanted!” moment we encounter when discovering a new favorite author or novel. What are some of yours, and how do you try to create this kind of magic in your own work?
CR: Yes, that moment when something we didn’t know we were looking for seduces us in such delicious fashion that, from this moment on, the author flat-out owns us and can lead us anywhere he pleases. This happened to me when I first read the American “thriller” writer, Colin Harrison, whose novels span entire social strata and out Tom Wolfe Tom Wolfe. His books are lovingly crafted, deeply informed, and read like a bullet.
Harrison’s masterpiece, Afterburn, has an early scene with a femme fatale who willingly performs oral sex on a prison guard who’s been abusing the other women in her cell block. She does this to protect the weaker women and to con her way into an early parole from Riker’s Island. In the course of things she saves the guard’s bodily fluid, then confronts the warden with the evidence, who then informs her, in a masterful ironic twist, that she has just today been paroled for other reasons--and thus her horrible sacrifice was entirely unnecessary. I found this tragic and bold. It established her character -- and the author -- in riveting fashion. Wow, who is this woman and what’s she going to do next? It’s not about the shocking sex or violence, it’s about the quickening and bonding of reader to story, the irony and depth of character revealed.
So, in my own work, I try to bring something more to the table than just another horror story. I try to put real life on the front burner and make sure the paranormal elements sprout from things like a missing set of car keys, a late mortgage payment, a voice mail some husband wasn’t supposed to hear on his wife’s cell phone. I intentionally create scenes that seem familiar at first, then twist them off in a new direction. I want my readers to be a little scared, not just of the ghosts, but of what human frailty or absurdity I might throw at them next. Oh no he dih’n’t! Oh yes, he did -- but for a good reason.
CR: How much planning or outlining goes into your books? Do you know in advance how the mystery elements in your novels will tie-up?
CR: I don’t outline much, but when I do, that material turns tiresome faster than a Charlie Sheen scandal. One of the hardest things I struggle to remember on each book is to trust my subconscious. I really believe the subconscious is the dark dungeon from which all of the best material springs, and once you’ve told that story, even in outline form, the beast has fled the dungeon and now you need a new beast. Better to discover the story as you write, though it takes a lot of trust in oneself and the process of writing fiction to put a spooky photo album in chapter 5 and not understand what it means or how it relates to the story until, say, chapter 25.
My characters tend to learn what these things mean when I do, so if they don’t understand the problem unfolding all around them until later, as I won’t, then I know my readers won’t either, and the gap there is what creates mystery, suspense. I am able to stay excited to read my latest novel, it just happens to take me 10 to 14 months to finish “reading” it.
CR: Here’s a variation on the old “Where do you get your ideas?” question. How do you know when the ideas you have floating around in your head are going to be enough for a novel?
CR: Right! What I always look for is the emotional catalyst, the spark of energy that feels like an earthquake in me, enough for me to feel confident taking the year-plus journey that is writing a novel without growing bored. This does not come from a genre element itself (the haunted house story) or even from the “high concept” piece of a premise.
It comes from a deep conviction that the material will grant me many opportunities to mine drama from a simple predicament. A recent example: the genesis for my latest novel, The Fading, came to me one morning when I was lying in bed, thinking about the absolute horror of disappearing from your own life. Of vanishing from your family and friends. Of slipping out of sight not in the way of some exciting new superhero power, but against your will, under the force of something you cannot control or understand or cope with.
I was just going through a divorce at the time, living alone for the first time in almost twenty years, in a new apartment, new town, with all new furniture, new cell phone--and I felt like a man who had been stranded on the moon. Cut-off from everything that had seemingly minutes ago been so comforting and familiar. So I decided to write an invisible man story about the psychological horror of the condition, the real-life problems that would necessarily flow from that hokey genre premise, if taken seriously. The actual story, plot, and mechanics came later. But right then I knew I had tapped a powerful well and the words and scenes would gush forth.
CR: Can you give us something along the lines of a dirty little secret about writing or publishing, something that many professional writers know but don’t like to talk about for fear of sounding either pretentious or like a hack?
CR: Oh boy, yes, you bet. One is that we don’t write for money, because obviously making money at writing is damn difficult, and I guess because the thinking is, if you write for money, you can’t be literary or serious about the craft. The truth is, most of us spent years or decades writing for free, for love of the word, but every one of us wanted to make money as a writer. The idea that caring about quality and making money are somehow like water and oil, well, that’s short-minded isn’t it? Talent and productivity and professionalism are natural and desirable in every other profession, but in the fiction world admitting this somehow comes off dirty? Well, bullshit to all that. My goal is to get better with every sentence and every book, and to be paid for my work.
Another common refrain is that writing is damn hard work, a Mount Everest every time. Well, yes. But there are times when writing is like taking drugs, or having sex, or anything else you would consider play time. The other night I sat down and wrote 15 pages, one entirely new chapter, in just a hair over three hours. Because this came late in the book and I knew how to play it, most of those 15 pages were near final draft quality. I had a blast with it. Of course, after writing for almost twenty years, we better have some of these moments or else something is really wrong. It’s a very lucky man who can enjoy losing himself in work and forget the effort that goes into it. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found that.
CR: There is a lot of talk these days, in publishing and almost every other industry, about brands, branding, creating and cementing a brand that consumers can relate to and count on. What is the Christopher Ransom “brand” and what do you make of all this?
CR: The idea of being branded or becoming a brand is anathema to many writers. I admit that very early in my career, I too resisted this notion, simply because I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed, shackled to one genre over the course of ten, twenty, or however many books I will write and publish before I kick the magic bucket.
But I don’t think this mentality is very useful, as we live in a world where marketing and branding -- even in literature, most especially in commercial publishing -- matter. And I think the writer serves himself, his publisher, and his agent better when he embraces the idea of a brand but simultaneously expands or evolves his idea of what that brand might be. Your “brand” doesn’t have to be the elderly book club lady who solves crimes with her cat, or the guy who writes only haunted house stories. It might just be a more nuanced, but no less lucid, way of distilling what you do better than anyone else and wrapping a brand around that.
One of my favorite authors, Dan Simmons, has published horror, SF, historical, espionage, hard-boiled crime, adventure, dystopian political, and “mainstream” fiction, as well as a few others, usually with some deeper themes and structures stolen directly from literary giants ranging from Proust to Shakespeare to Richard Stark. So, Dan Simmons has no brand, right? Wrong. The Dan Simmons brand is multi-genre excellence that channels literary themes.
I guess I would describe the Christopher Ransom brand, such as it is to date, as thrillers that walk the tightrope between the psychological and the supernatural, using everyday people and their problems as a springboard to bounce proven horror conventions into new places. A ghost story about birth, not death. A possession story about failed celebrity status, not Satan. A zombie novel not about Armageddon, but about the infectious consumerism that is the desire to keep up with the Joneses. And so on.
Hey, it’s up to the author to nurture and protect his “brand”. If all we do is fight and whine about being pigeon-holed by sales and marketing and editorial, who after all are only trying to help us earn an honest living and earn their own, we’re not helping our careers. But if we can work together to channel our interests and goals into novels that excite everyone involved, that allow us room to grow while also utilizing our strengths without growing stale, I think we can build a brand no matter how simple or niche it might be, and still remain true to the creative impulses and freedoms that got us into this game in the first place.
Thank you for having me, Chris. You’re welcome, Chris. It’s been fun!