Written by: James Keen
“The people that don’t understand horror seem to think that all horror fans get some sort of sick thrill out of dark and disturbing content.” Charles Schmidt – cutting the darkest of literary gems.
New Jersey born (‘Minnesota-molded’) author Charles Schmidt recently tweeted the following “James Cameron in talks to direct Human Centipede 3. THAT is a headline that I’d like to see.” It’s a hilarious concept and it arguably underlines the author’s genre-weaving approach to his own work. Late last year Lucky Bat Books published Schmidt’s first novel, ‘World of Vacancy’ a tremendous debut, and a book that fuses the genres of crime and horror into a revelatory narrative that challenges reader expectations making for a thought provoking reading experience.
What follows is a eye-opening question and answer session with the talented young author which he was gracious enough to indulge in for Horror Novel Reviews. Here he talks about his writing process, his inspirations and the dark literary stuff he has waiting in the wings. A writer of certainly serious intent coupled with a heartily playful storytelling modus operandi, ladies and gentlemen, we give you…Charles Schmidt.
HorrorNovelReviews: Though often grimly realized, your novel ‘World Of Vacancy’ does however possess a surprising redemptive quality. In your online blog, you state that “I’m a believer that good will triumph over evil” – is this a rationale that you hope your readers will take away from the book? Or is there an entirely different reaction you’re hoping to elicit?
Charles Schmidt: My primary concern for any project is that is entertaining and engaging for the readers. We’ve all read thought-provoking and well-respected books that might be worth reading but are an utter chore to get through. I don’t want to write books like that. I don’t bother to think about potential reader reaction (other than entertainment) or meaning until the first couple of drafts are finished. To be honest I am usually pretty confused about my work once it is all done—it’s a relief when readers enjoy it and have unique interpretations of the story. A lot of writers or aspiring writers spend too much time worrying about “the meaning” or the “message” behind their work before they are even done writing or hashed out a story; this is particularly common in the more literary works. This is a huge mistake and makes for work that feels dull and rushed, not to mention pretentious. One of the best parts about putting out a book is talking to readers and reading reviews that make me see things in my work that I didn’t even realize were there. At the end of the day entertainment is number one, anything after that is a huge bonus.
HNR: You wrote recently, “The reality of the world is more terrifying than anything we create as horror writers, film-makers, artists and fans”. What do you feel is the enduring reason for the horror genre’s continuing popularity as a creative response to modern day concerns?
C.S.: The people that don’t understand horror seem to think that all horror fans get some sort of sick thrill out of dark and disturbing content. This might be true for some, but fear is an important human emotion; it is considered normal to appreciate other emotion based work such as comedy, romance, grief etc, but fear doesn’t get the same respect or billing. There is a reason why horror writers, filmmakers and artists tend to be exceptionally friendly people and comedians are often agitated and unhappy. People like to be scared on their own terms, and that is what separates the horror genre from reality. I am probably over-analysing it. Watching or reading about masked maniacs or zombies is just fun. One thing I love about the horror genre is the diversity; you can go from a brutal yet beautiful movie like Martyrs to a low budget slasher and enjoy both. The same goes for horror fiction, there is a huge gap between a House of Leaves and an Edward Lee book, but they are both damn fun.
HNR: Both Hack and Nick are literary archetypes we’ve seen delineated in countless other iterations, particularly in crime fiction, yet their world-view is encouragingly optimistic, despite the circumstances they find themselves in. Are you attracted to creating flawed characters?
C.S.: Absolutely. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances that have recovered from lives of addiction, crime, poverty and other pitfalls; I’ve been fortunate enough to see both remarkable progression and digression in people. I am fascinated when I meet exceptionally normal people and later learn they did five years in prison or were at one time a homeless crack addict. Likewise, I’ve watched people with seemingly perfect lives self destruct and lose everything. The character of Nick is based on a lot of people I know who have spent years bouncing back from one world to another. It is almost easier to stay a drunk or an addict than it is to bounce back and forth between recovery and addiction. The people who break this cycle against all odds have a special sort of optimism—it wouldn’t be worth all the pain to break free if they didn’t see some serious goodness in life.
I don’t think I could create a non-flawed character even if I wanted to. They don’t interest me. You have to write what you know.
HNR: Before sitting down to write, do you have a plot or narrative them worked out in advance? Given the rigid structure of World of Vacancy, it’s hard to imagine you’d begin such a work without an overview or outline you’d at least ruminated on beforehand.
C.S.: I am an incredibly disorganized person and my writing process is the same up until the drafting begins. I don’t do any sort of outlining or planning. World of Vacancy had a somewhat unusual beginning; I’d written another (non-horror and not good) book and sent it out to some friends and family to get notes. I got bored of waiting and wanted to start writing again, so Vacancy started as a just for fun thing. I had a few snippets of stories I’d written years ago that had stuck with me, so I decided to see what I could piece together with them—these became the first and second chapter of Vacancy. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do, but the vast majority of the story and book simply came out as I wrote. My approach to writing is to sit down and write; I don’t worry if what I write makes sense or if it is any good. I don’t have a set time or page or word count I aim to complete in any sitting. I stop when I feel as if I’m losing steam and the words aren’t flowing anymore. I aim to write six days a week, my sessions last anywhere from 45 minutes to 4 hours. I make notes when things pop up. I never go back and read anything until the first draft is done unless it is to clarify a specific detail. I see the first draft as “word vomit” and hammer it out. The rigid structure of Vacancy is the result of thorough drafting, which I believe makes or breaks any book. I started writing regularly around the age of sixteen; I’ve written somewhere in the area of 4 full length novels, a screenplay, and countless pieces of writing I don’t know how to categorize. World of Vacancy is the result of finally finding my voice. It took a lot of work to get there. I don’t consider myself arrogant about my work but I never fail to point out that I spent a lot of time alone and hunched over a laptop. When I was a teenager my mother had a job driving around authors when they came into town on publicity tours, often big names such as Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Chabon. Whenever I met a big name writer I’d ask them for one piece of advice on writing. Chabon, who later went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, gave me the best piece of advice he received: “If you want to write a book, you have to sit on your ass.”
HNR: This may be a deceptively simple inquiry, but why did it take you so long to write World of Vacancy? It’s a book with a long gestation period, would you agree?
C.S.: I can’t remember exactly how long it took to write the first draft of Vacancy. I do know that it took me a month to think of a title, which ended up being something I plucked out of the book. The drafting probably took longer than the writing. Writing is fun, drafting is not. I aim to write 6-7 days a week but there are definitely periods where I don’t come close to due to work, girlfriends, financial stress, the constant beckoning of video games, and other distractions.
HNR: You have a disarmingly ‘basic’ attitude to being actively creative, as evidenced in this revealing quote by you, “writing is like any other activity, if you don’t practice enough you will probably suck at it…” What’s your daily process like when you’re working on something? And do you share the late writer Charles Bukowski’s sentiment that “Great art is horseshit, buy tacos”?
C.S.: No, I don’t agree with Buk at all on that point. I love “great art.” I was a huge Bukowski fan as a teenager, and attribute comments like that to him becoming somewhat of a caricature as his career progressed and he had to try and live up to the myth of Bukowski. Some people who knew him claim that a lot of it was just an act. I have a hard time believing Buk believes that given his love for classical music and great writers like John Fante.
I discussed my writing process above, so I will spare everyone another boring explanation. As for that quote of mine I meant to refer to the importance of discipline when it comes to writing: if you want to be a writer, you have to write. I’ve had a lot of friends and acquaintances that like to talk about writing and being a writer yet never actually write much. I think back to the story of Hemingway, how when he was in Paris and everyone was at the cafe drinking wine talking about their work he was inside at the typewriter (and drinking wine). I obviously love to talk about writing, but until Vacancy came out I avoided the topic.
HNR: Are there authors you admire outside of the horror genre sphere? What are you reading now?
C.S.: When Vacancy came out and I started to venture into the horror community it dawned on me that I hadn’t read a horror novel in a long time. I read Stephen King at a young age and read plenty of horror over the years, particularly the short story collections. I started to read horror again and realized how much I enjoy a good horror book. I started doing horror book reviews to get a chance to read more work by my fellow horror writers. I try to read a wide variety of books, as it is an excellent way to continue learning about writing. I read a lot of American classics: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc. As for horror I’m digging a lot of the UK horror I’m reviewing and recently re-read the amazing Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen king. I just finished Steinbeck’s The Pearl and Of Mice and Men and Grim by Joseph Spencer. I’m re-reading Dante’s Divine Comedy yet again. I love quick and fun reading like Star Wars and Edward Lee as well.
HNR: Many writers writing in the horror field take themes and ideas that are often repugnantly confrontational to the mindset of most people. What are your views on censorship and is there anything you wouldn’t write about?
C.S.: I won’t write anything too extreme, violent or disturbing when it comes to children and can’t stomach violence against animals. My rule on disturbing content is that it must be a part of the story and not meant to be a cheap shock.
I don’t like censorship in any form. Parents should do their job and make sure to monitor what their kids are up to. I’m particularly irked by people in the US that our problems with violence are somehow the fault of movies and videogames. The violent and disturbing content we see in modern books and movies is nothing new; anyone with half a brain can look back hundreds of years and see that this stuff has always been around.
HNR: ‘World of Vacancy’ seamlessly knits together a narrative of two main constituents; literary realism and the supernatural. Is this likely to be the direction you’ll be taking in the follow up to ‘Vacancy’ and when can we expect to see its publication?
C.S.: I’ve just started the drafting phase of my next novel, which I hope will come out late summer. I am extremely excited about this one—I’ve grown as a writer since Vacancy and am thrilled that I am able (hopefully) to carry the voice and style of Vacancy to a more horror based story. I’ve had some inquiries as to whether or not I am going to do a World of Vacancy sequel at some point; I don’t plan on making a series out of it but I do have some ideas for a sequel and or a prequel down the road. Thanks to a switch in careers I had a good six months of too much free time and got a ton of writing done and have some interesting ideas for future books. I have a lot of other projects planned: a podcast, a web forum for readers and writers, and hopefully a web based publication at some point. I want to bring some writers together for a charity project at some point as well. From this point on I think each new book will be a step in a slightly different direction.
Thanks for this opportunity. I love talking about writing and don’t mind talking about myself now and then!
Thanks again to Charles Schmidt for granting us this opportunity to take a peek inside his deviously creative mind.
‘World of Vacancy’ from Lucky Bat Books is available right here.
HNR’s recent review of World of Vacancy can be found here.
More information on the author can be found here.