David Niall Wilson is a prolific author of dark fantasy, and much more. He stopped by to talk about his newest book, Nevermore: A Novel of Love, Loss, and Edgar Allan Poe, and much, much more, so please welcome David to the blog!
David, you’re a man of many hats: publisher, writer, former Horror Writer’s Association president, and much more! Will you tell us a bit more about your background? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
From a very early age, the world of books became a second home to me. I think that there must have been some point where I thought – yes, that’s it – I’m going to be a writer, but I can’t recall when that would have been. It just seemed a natural progression to me. In many of the books I read, there were characters who were writers. I always empathized with them.
In High School I worked on the writing a little more. I had a wonderful Creative Writing teacher, Nell Wiseman, and my literature teacher allowed me to turn in things that I’d created that went along with the lessons we were learning as extra credit. It was probably during that period that I quit saying that I wanted to be a writer, and started to say that I was a writer. Of course, being young, it was several years later that I actually got around to doing something about it.
In the 1980s I took a course from Writer’s Digest Books – “Writing to Sell Fiction” – which was a short story course. I was lucky enough to get the late J. N. “Jerry” Williamson as my mentor / instructor. He not only helped me figure out the basics of form and style, but he introduced me to other writers, to the small press, and to the friends and colleagues I’ve now shared decades with. Thanks to Jerry I was one of the early members of the HWA – back when it was still called H.O.W.L. – and got to meet personal heroes like Dean Koontz and Robert McCammon. Those were different times.
From there, as they say, one thing led to another. I published a small press magazine – The Tome for 13 issues. I wrote and sold a small pile of short stories and collected a much larger pile of rejection slips (some of which were remarkable enough that I still have them). On the old Genie Bulletin Board system – sort of a Facebook Precursor – I networked and sold more stories to anthologies and magazines. I sold my first novel, This is My Blood, in 1998 and wrote a Star Trek Voyager novel in 1999 (that one actually came out first).
I’ve been writing ever since. I probably wasted several years during my time in the Navy not producing as much as I might have, and I lost a couple of years to a bad divorce about 13 years ago… The modern branch of my career started around 2004 when I sold my novel Deep Blue, and dumped the last of a string of bad agents. I then sold a string of novels in quick succession, and started working on The DeChance Chronicles, and several stand-alone thrillers.
Now, I finish at least one and usually two or three books in a year. I have not written many stories recently but do have a book – Lost and Found – that may finally come out soon that is comprised of short stories by myself and Neil Gaiman – based on the Kinetic art of Lisa Snellings (who also did the wonderful cover art for Nevermore – A Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe.
Your latest novel is Nevermore-A Novel of Love, Loss, and Edgar Allan Poe. Will you tell us a bit about it?
This novel is an odd thing. When I began writing it, it was a flashback in what will be the next volume of The DeChance Chronicles. In the previous book, Kali’s Tale, my main protagonist, Donovan DeChance, made a passing reference to a place he called “The Halfway House” and to a meeting he’d had in the past with Edgar Allan Poe. The intention, going into the next book, was for him to share that memory with two other characters, leading into the ongoing story.
What happened was Nevermore. By the second chapter of the “Flashback” I realized that I had far too much story for a simple side-bar, and that Donovan – much as I love him – had no part in it (except a very short cameo at the end). So I started over, and Edgar Allan Poe became my protagonist, along with Eleanor MacReady – Lenore to her friends – an artist with the ability to see spirits trapped in things like trees, water, and other objects.
Add in Poe’s companion, a crow named Grimm, The Great Dismal Swamp, and an ancient curse, and suddenly I found myself with a story.
What kind of research did you do for the novel?
More than expected. The Lake Drummond Hotel stood for a very short time along the Intercoastal Waterway. It rested exactly on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, half in either state with a tavern in the center. People came there to take advantage of things like more lenient age requirements for marriage in North Carolina, or to fight duels across the state line, making it more difficult for lawmen to try them for the killing. Many famous men and women stayed there at one time or another and one person who was verified to have done so was Edgar Allan Poe. He actually wrote a poem titled “The Lake” that is undoubtedly written about Lake Drummond. It was also loosely rumored that he might have written an early draft of “The Raven” while staying there. That was the tidbit I’d read months earlier that led to the story in the first place.
Then I dove into local folklore and found stories of a couple of trees said to be located near the lake. One was in the shape of a deer. The story said that a witch had been fleeing through the swamp. When her pursuers came too close, she took the form of a deer, and they tracked her to the banks of Lake Drummond. Panicked, she turned herself into a tree, and was trapped that way, unable to reverse the spell.
There is another tree nearby with a similar story- that one is in the shape of a woman. Both play heavily in the plot of Nevermore.
Another interesting bit of research came about when I realized that The Brothers Grimm had written a fairy tale titled “The Raven.” Since I’d already mentioned that one of the two books Poe was carrying was the Brothers’ book … they got sucked right into the mix.
What do you love most about writing horror?
I’ll answer that, but first let me say that Nevermore is not a horror novel. Most of what I write is better classified as Dark Fantasy. I’m not fond of buckets of blood, gory descriptions, or most of the trappings of what people call horror these days. I write stories, and those stories are often filled with darkness, the strange and mysterious, and yes – at times – the horrifying. That’s who I am as an artist. I think far too much time is spent classifying writing into genres, and that this creates expectations and often erroneous stereotypes by association.
I have, of course, written novels that qualify as straight horror, and I do enjoy that. Still, in almost every case, it’s been more about the characters than the horror. I am also fond of endings that at least offer hope. I think it’s good to plunge readers over the edge into the darkness, but I don’t believe it’s a good idea to leave them there. Horror, for me, has always been an escape…a way to experience very bad things safely, and find my way back.
I am guessing that one of the reasons I’ve not had more commercial success than I have is that I’ve been a bit all over the place as far as genre is concerned. I tend to write what fascinates me at the time – and I believe that in the end this strengthens the stories. Unfortunately, this did not mesh well with the marketing schemes of traditional publishing.
In your writing, are you a plotter or a pantser?
I started out as a “pantser” – discovered Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) – and became a plotter, and have developed (as most probably do) into a hybrid. I always outline at least the first half of any book I’m writing, and I always have an idea how I expect it to end. Sometimes I plot them all the way through, but I realize as I’m doing it that it’s an act of folly. Usually a little over halfway in, something unexpected occurs in the story, and I diverge from the plotted path.
I’ve come to believe that without some plotting, a very good novel is more luck than art. Stephen King writes without outlines, and I believe that is why some of his books are so much longer than they really need to be. Also, when you write by the seat of your pants, there is a terror moment. About ¾ of the way through a novel is where it usually hits me. I start to wonder if I’m going to be able to pull everything together. I worry that the ending will be ambiguous or insufficient because I have no idea what that ending is going to BE but I know I have written a good part of the story and have to start creating it. The most notable time this happened was during the writing of my novel Deep Blue (one of my most popular). I was at the last chapter and uncertain how it would end – and was literally terrified I’d wasted months of my life. Then – very suddenly – it hit me. It was a magical moment, but it could have easily gone the other way had inspiration not struck.
Everyone is different and not everyone will agree with me on methods. I only know what has worked for me. I still participate in Nanowrimo every year, and have completed that challenge every year since 2004 – selling nearly everything I’ve written.
What are some of your favorite writers or novels? Are there any that have especially influenced your writing?
My reading, like my writing, is all over the place. Stephen King, Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker – these are obvious influences, and at one time or another my prose has been compared to each of them. I am also particularly fond of the writing of Kathe Koja, J. K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, Caitlin Kiernan, Poppy Z. Brite, Thomas Ligotti, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens. I enjoy non-fiction because I nearly always find something in histories or biographies, that works its way into my own writing. Currently I’m reading Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City about the two architects who created the Chicago World’s Fair, and Holmes, the serial killer who tainted their dreams. I am absolutely certain that – if nothing else – Donovan DeChance will end up in Chicago around that time…
What do you like to see in a good book?
I’m probably a little old-fashioned. I like to see real characters. I do not like to see every character made miserable, and every shred of happiness throughout the story yanked away –even if all is made right in the end. Life is not that way. Sometimes things are wonderfully good, and other times they are filled with despair. Well written novels are the same. They take you for a ride, down winding roads, up hills and off cliffs – but always with the sense that you are really there. I like to be so emotionally caught up in a book that I literally can’t put it down. This has happened many times in my life – the names of those responsible, for the most part – are in my answers to the previous questions.
When writing, do you think there’s anything that’s off limits?
I’ve been writing a book for a very long time. It’s a memoir, and a book on writing. I think most authors write one of these, even if it never leaves their journals. The title of my book will be Writing What Hurts – and I feel that if nothing else, the message of the title is important. The simple answer is that while there may be no limits as far as the art of literature is concerned, there are personal limits within us all. A writer who is handling anything near those boundaries needs to be aware of this. They need to – at all costs – avoid the gratuitous. I personally have things I will never write about – cruelty to animals, or to children, in any sort of graphic fashion is not something you’ll find in my work – and there are other things that I’ve written about in the past that I can’t see myself writing about again. Seriously, ladies, sometimes we evolve – don’t give up on us.
That said, it is vital in anything I hope to write and have treated seriously that the writing be honest. If I – at some point – have a character that I need to address who WOULD be cruel to animals, I can’t change that. I can write it in such a way that it’s not in the reader’s face. I can avoid graphic descriptions of things that just don’t move the story forward, or are not important. I cannot “maim” or “hamstring” the character by changing who, or what they are without changing (and likely ruining) whatever I’m working on. I would not try to pass judgment on another person’s style, or their work, but if I perceive that something has been done gratuitously, or just for the shock – particularly if there is any sort of “glee” in this on the part of the author – I’m very unlikely to read anything else they’ve written, or to finish whatever I’m reading when I discover it.
Writing should inform and entertain – at least that’s how I perceive the role of fiction. To sicken, or try to one-up the last person who wrote something disgusting is puerile and – in the end – cowardly – because it’s not an honest attempt to bring emotion, or character to life. It’s a caricature at best, and a poor one.
And I’m not at all sure I’ve answered your question…
Will you tell us about the latest release from Crossroads Press, Steel Blues?
Gladly. Steel Blues is the second book in Melissa Scott and Jo Graham’s The Order of the Air – which is a loose tie-in to the Crossroad Press original series O.C.L.T. This is the follow on to Lost Things where readers meet Alma, Lewis, Mitch, and Jerry – three pilots and an archaeologist who are also the members of a “Temple” – a magical group that – in that first book – gets caught up in battles on an airship crossing the Atlantic, a chase across Europe, and encounters with ancient powers in the remnant of one of the temples of Diana.
In Steel Blues the group, along with Stasi, a jewel thief and medium of questionable origins, are part of a cross-country air race. One of the beautiful things about these stories is the attention to detail. They take place just after World War I – and before the second conflict (so far). Mitch and Lewis are decorated military pilots, and Alma owns their company, providing passenger and freight services with a small fleet of privately owned planes. The race is very believable, sponsored by big corporations and covered on radio and in the news. They encounter a lot of challenges along the way, both natural and supernatural. It’s a fast-paced, high-adventure thriller, and I’m very excited about publishing the series. The third book Silver Bullet – has begun its run through the editorial chain and involves an appearance by Nikola Tesla!
Renowned artist Bob Eggleton has lent his talent to the covers for the series, and they’ve been remarkable, as well.
What made you decide to start Crossroads Press, and what has your experience as a publisher been like?
I started Crossroad Press to get my own backlist titles out as eBooks. At the time, that was all I intended. Friends saw I was doing a good job of it, and asked if I could help with theirs, and over time I saw a need for a new sort of publisher. Too many people are already lined up to soak authors for all they can get in the new digital age. I started Crossroad Press to provide an author-first experience – keeping most of the money where it belongs, and not charging for “services” that are part of what publishers have always done for free.
Word spread fast. We now have nearly 150 authors and nearly 700 titles live in eBook, over 300 in audiobook format, and at least fifty in print. It grows (very literally) daily.
It’s been a great experience for me. I’ve met and interacted with a lot of wonderful people, and I’ve had the opportunity to help some of them, to make them smile, and to bring a lot of words back to readers that might otherwise have been lost.
When you’re not busy on your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
What is this free time of which you speak? I play guitar. I have a lot of pets – two birds, two dogs, two cats, a chinchilla and a fish. I like to spend time with my better half, Patricia Lee Macomber, who has also recently stepped back into the world of writing, and with my daughter Katie. My last teenager just left last week for the US Navy.
Mostly, when I’m not working my day job as an IT Manager, I am working on Crossroad Press or on my own writing. It’s a family thing – my oldest daughter Stephanie has a book of stories published she wrote when she was fourteen or so – “Tales From the Southern Hotel” – and my youngest, Katie, has two eBooks published of her own, “Mars Needs Pumpkins,” and “Perilous Pink PcGee” (I helped with the rhymes on the latter). Books are a big part of our lives.
What’s next for you?
That is a very, very good question. I have at least three books in progress currently. One is a sort of young-adult fantasy titled Hoods (think Alphas meets West Side Story) – I have the next book of The DeChance Chronicles underway, and I have a very mainstreamish serial killer novel titled Tattered Remnants that is well along the way to completion. I am hoping to finish one before November so I can do a second during the Nanowrimo push. I have to keep the words flowing – as much fun as it is being a publisher, for me – it’s mostly about the writing. I like to tell stories.
About Nevermore: A Novel of Love, Loss, and Edgar Allan Poe:
On the banks of Lake Drummond, on the edge of The Great Dismal Swamp, there is a tree in the shape of a woman.
One dark, moonlit night, two artists met at The Lake Drummond Hotel, built directly on the borderline of North Carolina and Virginia. One was a young woman with the ability to see spirits trapped in trees and stone, anchored to the earth beyond their years. Her gift was to draw them, and then to set them free. The other was a dark man, haunted by dreams and visions that brought him stories of sadness and pain, and trapped in a life between the powers he sensed all around him, and a mundane existence attended by failure. They were Eleanore MacReady, Lenore, to her friends, and a young poet named Edgar Allan Poe, who traveled with a crow that was his secret, and almost constant companion, a bird named Grimm for the talented brothers of fairy-tale fame.
Their meeting drew them together in vision, and legend, and pitted their strange powers and quick minds against the depths of the Dismal Swamp itself, ancient legends, and time.
Once, upon a shoreline dreary, there was a tree. This is her story.