Countdown to World Fantasy Convention 2013: With WFC2013 starting soon in Brighton, Sci-Fi Bulletin is presenting a mix of old and new interviews with some of the participants, beginning with a new interview with popular American author Christopher Golden.
What was the first story that you absolutely had to get out of your head and write down?
That’s a really interesting question. I fiddled with things when I was a little bit younger, but I think the answer is something I wrote I’m not sure what year in high school, which I still have somewhere that has never seen the light of day – nor should it, by the way. It’s about a group of friends who are partying and drinking beer by these railroad tracks and one of the kids who’s drunk does something stupid. One of them tries to save him but gets hit by a train. It’s about the result of that. It was grim, but it wasn’t a horror story.
The first story that I ever did that I thought was real, the first one I wrote where I felt I had actually done something, was a story called “A Cold Familiar Feeling”, which is a pretty good title. I remember very clearly: it’s about this guy who’s obsessed with the idea he’s being watched. There’s a killer on the loose and it feels like he’s being stalked. The net result of the story is that he, of course, is the killer.
My father died when I was only 19, and it was the only exposure that he ever had to me as a writer. I had him type it up for me. He was an attorney, and I remember him being like, “Doesn’t this word mean this?” and me saying, “No, Dad, it’s this,” and him finishing the story and him being really… I don’t know impressed, but surprised. “Hey, this actually is a decent story.” That’s a great memory for me. He’s been gone so long that it’s nice that while he was never able to see anything that came after for me, at least I have that.
I’m very fortunate, unlike many people: my mother, although she desperately wanted me to be a lawyer, had always supported me when I was in high school. I always wrote stories, and she helped me, with a friend of hers, to send them out to magazines. She’s read a good chunk of what I’ve done, no matter how crazy it is: she emailed me recently after reading this zombie novel I wrote, Soulless, and said, “I’m not going to sleep tonight.” She’s 77 so that’s pretty cool.
Your work has split between your own and licensed material…
I still do the occasional licensed thing. I used to do a lot more. Over the last eight years, I’ve been doing them at a rate of one every two years. I did King Kong, an Uncharted novel – or rather, the Uncharted novel; I did the fantastic experience of writing the prequel to Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which is such a weird odd little project that I loved; and Tim Lebbon, Jim Moore and I are doing a Fox-approved, Fox-inspired series of three books that are working in and around the existing first two Alien films. Tim is first, Jim is second, I’m writing the last one, which is a prequel to Aliens. That’s going to be cool. I do still do media tie-ins but only if it’s something that’s really cool!
For a lot of people, they’re a stepping stone…
And every time I accept a tie-in project, I weigh that: I always look at it that I could be writing something of my own that I could have out there, but at the same time, I always keep trying to go back to the 15-year-old me, and connecting to the geek I was and the geek I still am.
Years ago I was at a place where I was just starting to do fewer tie-ins, and they asked me to do a Star Trek novel. I had just one idea but they told me it was too similar to an existing episode, and said, “What else do you have?” And I said, “Nothing.” I don’t have an overwhelming desire to write Star Trek, but I had this one idea that I liked. Then I was offered a host of things that were not of interest to me, and I turned them all down. Then they said, “Do you want to write a Justice League novel?” I said yes please, because I knew the 15 year old me would be f***ing furious if I had the opportunity to write those characters that I would probably never have the opportunity to write again, and I said no.
Writing a prequel to Aliens is not something that happens every day. Peter Straub always pats me on the head: he asked me a few years ago at a convention what I was doing, and I told him what novels I was working on, and that I was going to write the novelisation of Jackson’s King Kong, which I actually campaigned for. He was like, “I thought you were done with that stuff.” It’s King Kong! That’s one of my favourite movies of all time, it’s part of my DNA!
It’s my good fortune that I don’t need to do media tie-ins right now in my career, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still media tie-in projects that I just need to do! I’m lucky to be able to choose based on what the project is.
I never really went away. It’s just that the Octavian books, other than the first two, have all had long spaces in-between. When I did the fourth one, The Gathering Dark, I felt like it was the beginning of a new phase for the character. Then I went away from it for a while, and then I had some time. I was in a period where I’d done one thing and needed to write some proposals to sell the next, so I thought I wanted to do another, and that’s how I ended up writing Waking Nightmares. That was in a weird way “small-screen” compared to the others – most of the other books are huge crazy blow-outs of monster action, or as Mike Mignola called it, “M.R. James meets Godzilla.” I don’t know how he got that! Waking Nightmares was a little quieter – still full of action, but located in one New England town opposed to an international bit of chaos.
I had done Waking Nightmares, and thought that although I don’t want to do these forever, it did feel like there are a couple of stories I still want to tell. That’s why I ended up doing two more – The Graves of Saints, and King of Hell. That is the last. It was an absolute blast.
I loved writing The Graves of Saints. People love Of Saints and Shadows; it’s certainly sold very well, and for people who read that kind of stuff it’s one of their favourites. Charlaine Harris talks about how, unbeknownst to me, I established a lot of what are now considered the fundamental obvious elements of urban fantasy in Of Saints and Shadows. (It’s weird to even say this: it sounds self-serving, but I didn’t say it – Charlaine said it.)
It’s an interesting premise: when I wrote Of Saints and Shadows, I wasn’t writing in a genre at all. I used to say, if you go back and look at interviews from back then: the first third is a mystery, the second third is a horror novel, the last third is action fantasy. It was what it was.
In any case, I love that book for what it is, but for me the books don’t really get good until The Gathering Dark. That’s when I started really loving them. This last one is really all about me, and it’s a love letter to those handful of people who have read all of my stuff. I’ve been so scattered in what I’ve done in my career, which has been both a blessing and a curse. I’ve been able to do such a huge of variety of things, whatever the hell I want most of the time, and that’s hurt me in some ways, but it’s been also been a blessing. King of Hell, in addition to addressing the most asked question that’s come up over the course of the series, also features characters from my other books, and it features little cameos from some of the settings of other books. It’s a parallel dimension novel.
It was so fun to write; even if you’ve never read any other book by me, you could read it and enjoy it, but if you’ve read a lot of different things by me, there’ll be readers who’ll go, “Oh that’s so and so.” It’s really fun. There are characters from the Menagerie series I did with Tom Sniegoski which appear in the book as significant characters. There’s a character from Soulless because I realised I needed a parallel dimension where all this shit takes place in, and I thought, I’d got all these characters appearing, then looked over my shelf and found a character who’s been through some horrible stuff…
Are those other characters still “living in your mind” enough that you can write them again, or do you need to go back and reread them to get that voice back?
For the Menagerie characters I did not need to do that. For the character from Soulless, and a character from The Veil series who appears in a couple of brief scenes, I did not have to do that. Where I did have to do that was for a couple of characters in that book who are from earlier in the Shadow Saga. There’s a resurrection of a character who’s been gone for many books, and a reappearance of one who’s not been seen for many books (not Will Cody – he was too loved a character and I felt that would cheapen it. The coda on his death, Octavian’s thoughts on his passing, would be undone). I had to go back and read certain scenes to get back into it. I don’t mind changing the characters a little, but I did have to re-establish for myself who they are and get a feel for them again.
Almost as an aside, I have a friend, Nancy Danos, who’s read them probably fifteen times. Every time I write one of these, I send them to her because I know she will find at least five significant continuity errors and say, “you’re an idiot”. In fact during the writing process I texted her about it, and she said, “You wrote these books, don’t you know the answer to this question?” I’m: “You’ve read them 15 times!” I wrote them years apart!
My favourite thing – and I’m not going to say what it is – but I did get an email, at the start of this year, from someone who pointed out a major major continuity error in the Shadow Saga. Between the second book and the third book, there is a major problem, but it can’t be fixed because it’s so significant: it’s the underpinning for everything that comes later. Next year will be 20 years since the first book came out, and no one has ever noticed it before. I figure I’m safe!
You do a lot of writing with other people; do you choose which projects to collaborate on? Or do people bring projects to you?
It’s a combination. In my mind, I think I’m doing a lot less than I once was, and that’s true to an extent. The big collaboration I’m doing right now is this trilogy of graphic novels with Charlaine Harris, Cemetery Girl, which are being published by Jo Fletcher in the UK. On that one, Charlaine asked me, and with Mike Mignola, he asked me.
Every situation is different. Most of the time it’s an organic thing – even in those cases where I was asked by others, it was organic. Mike and I had been talking for years about this vampire graphic novel he was intending to write: he told me about it many times over the years, then one day, out of the blue, he called me up and said “I’ve just realised I’m never going to get round to creating this graphic novel; we should do it as a novel.” I said, sure. I loved the idea; who wouldn’t want to have that job? So we went about creating that novel, Baltimore, together, but it comes from an organic place. It isn’t random or out of the blue the phone rings.
Right now, Tim Lebbon and I are talking about doing something together again at some point; Sniegoski and I talk about doing something together again; Amber [Benson] and I do. Right now there’s nothing specific in the offing, other than [the sequel to Bloodstained Oz] Bloodstained Wonderland which Jim Moore and I have been developing for six years and Cemetery Girl.
Do you focus on one project at a time?
At any given time, I’m working on a novel, editing an anthology, and writing comics.
Three separate parts of your brain…
Correct. I am almost never working on two novels at the same time, although I don’t count collaborating. I’ve often been collaborating on one novel while I’m writing another solo novel. I’ll be working on that while my collaborator is working on their section; when it’s my turn I put my novel aside and work on the collaborative novel. That’s fine – but two novels that I’m writing by myself? Never. That way lies madness.
I also think that it’s not saving any time: you have to get rolling again on each thing. I wrote the first ninety pages of my novel Tin Men months ago, then wrote King of Hell, then I went back to Tin Men. If you’re writing two novels at once, it’s stop and start, stop and start.
One thing I’ve noticed reading your works over the years is that there isn’t a “Chris Golden voice” – each project has a very different voice, even down to sentence and paragraph structure. Is that conscious or is it the way your mind dictates unconsciously is the way to tell this story?
I think that’s the way it is. With the books I’ve done with Mignola, much as Mike and I have plotted them together, the words are my words. They’re not not collaborations in the way the other books are. Going into something like Baltimore, or this novella I did last year called Father Gaetano’s Public Catechism – which is set in World War 2 in Sicily and had to have a certain tone, a more classic supernatural European feel to it – that’s where my head goes. Writing the Octavian books, it’s a completely different mindspace. Writing Tin Men, a near future thriller, it’s different.
You’re the observer, as the reader: I couldn’t tell you the differences between it but I know that I don’t approach them the same way. For me it’s a headspace thing, it’s just where I go in my mind, more how it feels, rather than actively making a conscious effort to make the voice different. It’s an emotional thing that becomes a difference in the writing.
For me, I always say that Stephen King is the narrative voice of my youth. That’s absolutely true: there’s no question that ’Salem’s Lot and The Stand and The Dead Zone and The Shining were in the way that they’re about people rather than about the story. When I wrote Strangewood, I called it “domestic dark fantasy” and by that I meant domestic as in “of the home”, opposed to “of the nation”. To me, that’s the influence that King had on me.
I don’t always do that: I have a lot of fun with the Shadow Saga novels and I try to humanise those characters as much as I can, but those aren’t books that are about the people necessarily. But Snowblind, which King gave me a blurb on – that was a wonderful day to get that email from him – is an ensemble horror novel that is very much about people: it’s how this catalyst affects their lives, far more than the supernatural catalyst elements of it. For me, that is the influence that Stephen King had on me
But the novel that made me go, “oh I can do this”, is The Light at the End by Skipp and Spector. I ripped off the structure of their prologue for the prologue of Of Saints and Shadows – introduce a character that the reader will have an immediate fondness for; establish the idea that this character is potentially going to be your main character, and then at the end of the prologue, horribly kill them. That’s a standard set up.
I was a senior in college, and I was reading The Light at the End in my dorm room. The tone and the conversational style felt more my generation, even though those guys are older than I am. The first time I read it, I thought, “I can do this”. Not that I was comparing my writing to their writing, but I felt I could write a whole novel. It gave me that confidence.