If you’re unfamiliar with Dathan Auerbach’s mesmerizing novel, Penpal, do yourself a favor and seek the novel out immediately. It’s thrilling, tense and generally just an amazing piece of fiction!
Dathan was willing to speak with us on Penpal (and a bit more) and he’s got loads to say, believe me. Want to know what the cinematic transfer status is? Just read below. Want to know how the idea for this engaging tale was birthed? Just read on. Hell, whatever you want to know in regards to this standout effort, can be read right here, in this brand new interview with the man himself, Dathan Auerbach.
HorrorNovelReviews: First, tell me how the idea for Penpal sprouted.
Dathan Auerbach: It started as a single story called “Footsteps” that I posted on a part of reddit.com called “NoSleep.” When I posted that story, it wasn’t the beginning of a series to me – that was all I was planning on posting, and I debated for a long time whether I should post it at all. The core of the story came from a real memory of waking up outside in the middle of the night when I was a kid, and I hoped that people would dig it. After I finally decided to post it, I wore out my F5 key refreshing the page, and when I saw that people were liking the story as the hours went by, and that they were actually asking for more, I worked out the next story which is called “Balloons.” (It’s also the second chapter of the book). I would say that it didn’t really become “Penpal” until around the fourth story, “Maps,” because that’s when I saw how I would bring the story to a close.
HNR: Talk to me about your approach to releasing this story. What did you do that may have set your product apart from others?
DA: In terms of releasing the original stories, I posted them at most a week apart from each other. Even though people seemed to be enjoying them, I was always worried that people’s patience would wear off since there were so many other stories from other authors, and series wasn’t even linked together by a single title.
As for releasing the book, between the time that I posted the first story and the time that I released the book, I had started a mailing list to keep everyone who was interested in receiving updates in the loop. This meant that when I launched the Kickstarter, because my fans are so awesome, I reached my goal in less than two hours, and when I released the book for sale a couple months later, I was sitting just outside the top 100 in all books for a short while.
When it comes to the content, I think there were a couple things that contributed to how the story was received. I tried to be restrained when it came to gore and violence, and I think that worked pretty well for my story. The story is also told in a non-chronological way, and that seemed to appeal to people in a lot of ways because it’s like a story puzzle slowly coming together. And I think that people liked the fact that there was nothing supernatural about the story. It’s a very human horror.
HNR: The story is really an engrossing piece of work, and I wouldn’t mind a sequel of some sort, if it could be managed. Is that something you’ve thought much about?
DA: Thanks! I’m really glad you think so. I’ve thought about a sequel, of sorts, but I don’t think it’d be what people expect. I’d only do it if I thought it worked well and didn’t cheapen anything. I’ve got some ideas, but we’ll see.
HNR: You’ve got some great character development going for you in this novel. These characters feel like actual individuals. I know that when writing fiction, it’s really easy to incorporate personal facts into a “make believe” (if you will) story. Did any individuals from your own personal life creep into any of the personalities in Penpal?
DA: Of course! I imagine that’s the case for anyone who finds themselves trying to ”invent” new people; traits get borrowed from people you know, and maybe you do some mixing and matching. For instance, my mother is one of the warmest people I’ve ever known, but this isn’t generally the case for the narrator’s mother in the book; she’s a bit colder. This quality is borrowed from one of my oldest friend’s mothers. Then there are moments in the book that are more light-hearted – where the characters are joking and carrying on – these are based on the personalities of the friends I’ve had for the majority of my life.
HNR: Reading the novel, it’s difficult to gauge the target audience. And, I think that’s actually a really good thing that opens doors for a very wide audience. It’s a creepy novel, but it’s a novel that isn’t so intense that a teen couldn’t enjoy it, and it isn’t tamed to a point that it’s a dull read for an adult. Did you intentionally write this story with the idea of appealing to a very expansive crowd?
DA: I wouldn’t say that I wrote the book that way intentionally, at least not for those reasons. The restraint when it comes to moments of violence or things that are otherwise brutal, that in part makes the book something that a wide range of ages can enjoy, wasn’t really because I wanted to cast a wide net, but because I generally personally prefer implied actions to explicit ones in film and literature. Of course, everything has its place, and there’s a big part of me that absolutely loves ultraviolence; I just wanted to try to impact someone on a deeper, more psychological level if I could while using the more shocking descriptions when I thought they were appropriate.
I’ve been contacted by people of all ages, and that’s a really awesome thing for me – to know that a 12-year-old is reading and enjoying my book at the same time a 45-year-old is blows my mind. I know that there’s a high school teacher who is still using the original reddit posts of mine in his freshmen course to discuss story structure and creative writing, and there are people who are a while out of high school that are reading the novel in book clubs. I honestly didn’t think about trying to hit a large demographic when I wrote the story, but I’m so glad that it happened anyway.
HNR: These days we see a lot of upcoming authors signing film deals. I know that a cinematic transfer of Penpal is already in the works. Tell me how that came to be, how you’re feeling about potentially seeing this story being transferred to film, and who in particular is leading the charge to see this one make it to the big screen.
The film adaptation is still in the absolute beginning phases. Despite how long, tumultuous, and nebulous the road ahead is likely to be, it’s still incredibly exciting and somewhat hard to believe. It started just a little while before the book was set to launch on Amazon.com. I got an email from Rich Middlemas, who I would come to find out was an Academy Award winning producer. He asked about the upcoming novel release, and I sent him out a copy. We talked for a while via email and over the phone, and it didn’t take very long for me to feel comfortable with having him at the helm of this whole thing. The things that drew him to PENPAL are, I think, the best things about it, and so I’m optimistic that those things will be present in the film, if things get that far. No one knows who I am; my name isn’t a money maker. Rich just really likes the story and is really dedicated to getting it put on the screen, and to have someone like him completely on board and incredibly enthusiastic about the project is more than I could hope for.
HNR: “David Wong” (Jason Pargin) released John Dies at the End as a digital serial read before eventually earning a wide release, and a subsequent screen adaptation. John Dies at the End really kick started an amazing career for the man. There are some interesting parallels between Wong’s, John Dies and your Penpal: could you see Penpal thrusting you directly into the spotlight as John Dies managed for Wong?
DA: That’s really tough to say. I generally try to keep my expectations low. It’s hard to be disappointed if you always expect things to crash and burn! That said, it would be really nice if what’s been snowballing so far held off on melting and I could keep doing this. That would be a dream.
HNR: Let’s say that you do find yourself in a similar position as David Wong. Is the spotlight something you’re prepared to deal with, and for that matter, is it something you’ve personally longed for? I know quite a few authors who prefer to avoid wild fanaticism. What are your thoughts on that: are you pro-celebrity, or is that an element of this business that doesn’t particularly tickle your fancy?
DA: I haven’t really thought much about this, considering how reserved I tend to keep my expectations, but I can say that the spotlight isn’t something I’ve ever really wanted or dreamed about. I don’t like talking about my personal life with people I know, which is usually not an issue since I don’t know many people, so the idea that suddenly strangers would want to know about me and my life isn’t something that excites me.
That said, I love my readers. I get emails from people all the time saying how much they like my work, and that’s enough to brighten my day no matter what’s going on. The fact that they’re sometimes excited to hear back from me is surreal, and I can’t help but think, “Thank God they don’t know me, otherwise they wouldn’t give a shit that I was responding.” Based on no information whatsoever, it seems like authors aren’t really subject to the same kind of fanaticism as, say, actors (ignoring any possible world with a real Annie Wilkes); so I think I could handle the author-level of fame, should I be lucky enough to get there one day. If someone recognized me on the street, I don’t think I’d ever get tired of meeting an enthusiastic reader. Also, I’m tired of yelling to people, “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!” and them saying “No…” so I suppose that would be a plus.
HNR: At this point it seems the general audience really, really enjoys the story. How do you feel about the warm reception the story has received? Does that enforce your own belief that writing is definitely the path you were meant to travel?
DA: I’m honestly staggered by the reception my story has gotten, and I never in a million years expected anything like it. The whole reason that I posted the original stories was in hopes that I would entertain and disturb people, and I’m overjoyed that PENPAL seems to be doing that. I’ve had a number of people contact me and tell me that my story has inspired them to reach out to old friends, and I think that’s just fantastic. PENPAL seems to stick with a lot of people after they read it and impact them in meaningful ways, and that’s way beyond my wildest expectations.
I hope I’m just getting started with writing and publishing stories and books. I don’t know if I was meant to do this or not, but I do know that it feels really good to be doing it. I’ll do it for as long as people want to read what I write.
HNR: With a potential (probable may be a better word) film gig in the works I’m sure you’re ridiculously busy, but have you begun to look ahead at your next project yet, and if so, do you have any details you can share?
DA: I’m working on a few things right now. Most of my attention is being directed at a handful of short stories that I think are shaping up pretty well. The story that I think I’m most excited about centers on a small southern farm and the birth of a child. I know that might seem vague, and that’s because it absolutely is. But I think that people who liked the general atmosphere of PENPAL will like what I’m working on now – at least I hope so!
HNR: Before I let you go, do everyone a favor and let it be known exactly where Penpal can be purchased.
DA: You can pick it up as a paperback here:
On Kindle here
And on Nook here
The iTunes version is coming soon!