[Interview] Todd Keisling – Mythology, Mysteries and the Terrors That Can be Found in Mediocrity
Written and conducted by: James Keen
Authors who indulge in crafting a mythos not based around the more obvious antagonists in horror fiction – you know them all; vampires, werewolves, ghosts and serial killers – are likely to be in for a much harder time in terms of trying to get published and hopefully gain recognition for their efforts than those writers who rely on well-established genre icons to entertain their audiences. While it’s arguably a much tougher proposition to present the reader with fresh ideas, than it is to rely on the standard tropes, Mr Keisling is a writer who has taken the genre ‘high road’ and in so doing should be lauded for fashioning an intriguing and engaging literary conceit.
Published in 2009, Keisling’s ‘A Life Transparent’ introduced us to the character of ‘wannabe’ writer Donovan Candle and to a frightening dimensional rift known as the ‘Monochrome’ – a terrifying reality co-existing with our own, an alternate world with its own nightmarish rules. While there’s a fair amount of blood spilled and shocking bouts of violence depicted, it’s a largely restrained affair – the horrors of the Monochrome are more subtle and all the more unnerving because of it. Keisling continued this exploration in ALT’s follow-up, ‘The Liminal Man’ adding a rich depth to his hellish conception and in the process setting the author up to become a 2013 Kindle Book Review Best Indie Book Awards Finalist.
Currently putting the finishing touches to his anthology, ‘Ugly Little Things’ to be published next year and prepping the capper to his Monochrome trilogy, Mr Keisling took time out of his busy schedule to give HNR a revealing and fascinating interview, so come on -to paraphrase one of his characters ”don’t be afraid to jump right in”…
HNR: There’s a style to your writing that is very visual, one could argue it’s often cinematic in nature – are you influenced by movies and television when it comes to delineating the events in your fiction?
TK: Absolutely. I think I’ve learned as much from Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, and David Lynch as I have from the likes of King, Koontz, and Barker. I studied film in high school and college, but even before that, I wanted to be a comic artist when I was younger. Between the movies and the comic books and the fiction I was already reading at the time, I think all of those influences came together to form my particular sort of brain stew. The result is . . . well, my style, I guess. People tell me they could see ALT as a movie, and I tell them I’ve already seen it. It’s up here in my head, scene by scene, shot for shot.
HNR: Some authors have writers that they admire and respect and cite as influences on their output but have you found your influences have altered since you yourself have been published?
TK: I have. When I first started taking fiction seriously, Chuck Palahniuk was just becoming a household name. I read FIGHT CLUB and SURVIVOR and said “That’s what I want to write,” and I did. A lot of it. My first two novels were written in the same minimal, first-person style as Chuck’s work; then I went off to college, took some creative writing courses, and learned there’s more to fiction than first-person minimalism. I had an instructor, Tom Marksbury, who challenged me to step out of my comfort zone. So I did, returning to the third-person style I’d had when I was a kid, telling horror stories like I used to when I was in middle school. His response was positive, and I kept with it.
Just before I began what would become A LIFE TRANSPARENT, I read a lot of Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, and Haruki Murakami. I’d sworn off Stephen King, and I was on my way to doing the same with Koontz. Fast forward seven years, and now I don’t have the same patience for Murakami, I’m starting to fall out of love with Gaiman, and I’ve rediscovered my appreciation for Mr. King. My reading tastes change over time. Look no further than my infamous article on a certain King novel, for instance.
HNR: Are you solely interested in writing genre-centric novels and short stories or do you hanker to write something that would perhaps have a broader appeal? And will we see any non-genre pieces in your upcoming collection short story collection, ‘Ugly Little Things’?
TK: I’ve never really considered myself much of a “genre” writer. The horror label is there to make it easier for readers. Is there horror in my work? Of course. But it’s not all horror. To answer your question, no, I’m not solely interested in writing genre-centric fiction. I believe in letting the story dictate what it wants to be; I don’t sit down at the keyboard and say, “I’m going to write a suspense novel today.” The story is what it wants to be. It’s my job to dictate that story in a clear, entertaining manner. I think my first two novels are exemplary of that. They’re classified as horror stories (and in a lot of ways, they are), but they’re also mysteries, thrillers, possibly even small romance stories. There’s something for everyone, so in that respect, maybe I already write fiction which has a broader appeal. Now I just have to find enough readers . . .
As for UGLY LITTLE THINGS, I set out to write something that’s more befitting of the “horror author” title. These stories are a throwback to my early influences in horror, drawing from King, Koontz, Lovecraft, and Barker. Especially Barker. There’s only one story in the collection that I wouldn’t consider straight-up horror; it’s a really personal story about my great-grandmother, called SAVING GRANNY FROM THE DEVIL, and it will be the last one in the collection. Whereas the other stories are about the horrors of insanity, obsession, and the unknown, that last story is more about the horror of regret.
HNR: In both of the Monochrome novels – particularly in ‘The Liminal Man’ there are a great many references to music (Nine Inch Nails, Talking Heads, Pink Floyd, Faith No More, etc). Is this something that you use to give context to the circumstances the characters find themselves in or is it used simply to facilitate texture for the scenario in question?
TK: Most of the references are really more of a nod to the work that inspires me. I listen to a lot of music when I write, usually to set a particular mood, and it’s not uncommon for that music to find its way into the fiction. I used the Talking Heads at the beginning of TLM because “Psycho Killer” just seemed like the perfect opener; Pink Floyd’s “Speak To Me / Breathe In the Air” seemed to fit Donovan’s mindset in that first chapter; Faith No More’s “Stripsearch” really set the mood for that late-night drive that Donovan has to make through the countryside near the book’s conclusion.
And Nine Inch Nails, well, we wouldn’t have ALT or TLM at all if not for the work of Trent Reznor. The song “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” was a mantra for my life when I wrote ALT; his sister project, How to Destroy Angels, really became the driving force behind TLM. I view their songs “The Space In Between” and “A Drowning” as bookends for the story, each one setting the mood for what’s to come. I draw from the music, usually making a playlist to suit each novel, and once I’ve finalized it I’ll listen to it repeatedly, religiously, until the novel is done. I’m insane like that
HNR: Do you spend a great deal of time outlining your plot before you begin a project, and do you have a specific word count that you like to achieve on each day you write?
TK: I used to be able to just sit down with an idea and write until I had a finished draft. Now I’m older and a little more cautious. Now I won’t begin a project until I know where to start and where to end. Figuring out the in-between is the fun (and maddening) part. For the final Monochrome book, I’m attempting to plot as much as possible due to the nature of the story, the number of characters, and all the loose ends that have to be tied in a nice little bow.
When I’m beginning a new project, I try to write one sentence a day. I set the bar low so if I write a paragraph or ten pages or ten thousand words, I’ll be happy with myself for the day. That one sentence is also just a way to bait myself into writing more than one sentence. I mean, come on, just one? Is that all I have to say in a single day? I never stop at one, but if I can just write that one sentence, the hard part will be over. It’s all downhill from there.
HNR: Clive Barker once said that one of the few things that disturbs him is the idea of the banal permeating artistic creativity. Given that your character, Donovan Candle in both ‘A Life Transparent’ and its follow-up, spends a great deal of time actively victimized by ‘agents’ of mediocrity is this something that you find you’re personally afraid of? Is the current state of present-day culture such a concern of yours that you’re using the themes in both books to highlight those concerns?
TK: Wow. Sort of. Let me preface this by saying I could write a whole essay on the second half of your question. I’ll try to be brief.
When I created Donovan Candle, I was in a bad place mentally, spiritually, financially—you name it. I had a really shitty job that really only served to feed a deeply unsettling fear I had (and still have) of obscurity. I grew up wanting to do something that matters to people, and along the way I figured out that writing would be my means of doing so. Then I graduated college, got a job, and realized just how shitty and unfair the world actually is.
Publishers weren’t knocking on my door, offering six-figure contracts. I saw myself going nowhere, and one day I had this terrifying thought: what if I’m still here in the same place ten years from now? Or twenty? What if I die here? What if I have nothing to offer this world but mediocrity? That brutal introspection is what led to ALT. That book was a mirror held up to my face; it was me forcing myself to stare at my reflection and examine my identity. It was my way of figuring out who I wanted to be, and committing to being that person. And, somehow, I managed to take a step in the right direction.
When it comes to our present-day culture, I agree with Clive Barker. I feel we live in a time when artistic merit is being watered down by derivative, vapid bullshit that’s been commercialized for mass consumption. Reality TV is such a huge example of this (and yes, this is why it became such a central item in TLM). What happened to our creativity? We would rather watch other people live their lives than live our own. We’ve become a culture of passive voyeurs and that terrifies me.
Then again, doesn’t every passing generation say the same about the next? Reading over what I just wrote, I feel like an old man saying the equivalent of “Back in my day . . .”
HNR: The mythology that you’ve developed for the Monochrome books is an intriguing one – do you set parameters for your world-building or do you simply allow your imagination to run wild?
TK: Y’know, it’s funny you ask because it wasn’t until recently that I realized I had to do the whole “world building” thing. I usually just let my imagination do its thing and then reconcile it all into a workable palette in subsequent drafts.
That being said, I’ve had to set parameters to keep the last Monochrome book from getting out of hand. When I started working out the details of Aleister Dullington’s origins, I discovered I could pull an entire novel out of it, and doing so would require a ton of research. I had to make judgment call: spend six months studying the 15th century (hah, spoilers) or just use what I’ve learned about his character to provide depth for the more important story at hand.
Obviously the main storyline won out, but that doesn’t mean Dullington’s back story won’t be told in full at some point. You never know.
HNR: In your opinion is the current state of the publishing industry a favorable one for new writers?
TK: I’d say it’s favorable in the respect that any person who wants to be a writer and grow an audience has the tools necessary to do so. I’ve never considered the Big Six to be favorable to new writers. Readers are the gatekeepers now. Obviously I’m no pundit or industry expert (nor have I ever claimed to be), but I don’t think “Big Publishing” isn’t going away. I do think it will have to downsize, though. We need only look to the music industry for an example. They’ll exist, kept afloat by the occasional commercial fads (Twilight, Fifty Shades, et al) and big names like Patterson and Grafton and King, but that will probably be all they have to offer; like with music and film, I think the real gems will be found in the independent circles. That’s where you’ll find the new talent with fresh ideas.
HNR: What fiction are you currently reading or re-reading? ‘Cell’ perhaps?
TK: Nope, you won’t find CELL on my reading list these days. I’m currently reading Malfi’s FLOATING STAIRCASE as well as Elisa Lorello’s memoir, FRIENDS OF MINE. And I have King’s DOCTOR SLEEP to look forward to.
Editor’s note: Be sure to keep up with all things Todd Keisling on his personal page, and stay up to date with news and announcements on his Facebook page!
Wait, did I fail to mention the greatest part about this interview? People who comment on the post will be entered for a chance to win a Monochrome bundle containing a T-shirt and signed copies of A Life Transparent & The Liminal Man!
Great interview, especially for those of us who know very little about the writing process. I can’t wait to finish the books, and good luck on your short story collection!
Excellent Questions and answers here…good to read some of Todds perspective here..as a fan and reader of his works I just want to say kudos to the both of you for this interview.Todd …I will remain as patient as possible while you finish up the trilogy. I to am reading Malfi’s Floating Staircase…good book…but not germane to this response.Mr keen …you have done a fine job in your quest to pull forth this information…as always…just me…Vitina
I had not heard of Todd until I found this website and this interview has piqued my interest to read his work. So that’s about five new authors discovered in less than a week. Curse you HNR!!
Dave: HNR tend to has that effect on people, but on the upside, it’s a good problem to have!
I thought this was supposed to be an interview with one of the founder members of the sludge-metal band ‘Dystopia’…. 😮
Hahah. So many bands follow me on Twitter thinking I’m that guy. It was worse back in the day when I still had a MySpace account.
Dave Watkins…Glad to read you are finding new authors here….we showcase and share so many outstanding ones…Todd is one that should be read ….he is very good at what he is doing. So many up and coming talent. Granted I am a contributor here and may say I might sound like I am tooting my own horn , but the truth is in the terror here…and we try to offer up just that the truth and the terror…as always…just me…vitina …the old hippie ENJOY….
My monitor blew out yesterday, so I’m in the manager’s office for a few minutes using the general computers for residents. Question. You’re not the Todd Keisling who wrote for the TV mini-series, Damages, are you?
Wayne: Nope, that’s a different Keisling!
Fantastic interview. You’re a savvy writer, sir.