Please welcome Chet Williamson to the blog! His new book, Robert Bloch’s Psycho: Sanitarium, just came out today and he kindly answered a few questions about it, and more!
Will you tell us a little about Psycho: Sanitarium, and where it fits into the Psycho “mythos”?
Though there have been many sequels to Psycho — two books and three films (as well as a “prequel” with Bates Motel) — there has never been a sequel that follows Norman Bates immediately after he’s arrested and placed in the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. That’s what Psycho: Sanitarium does. It depicts Norman’s first few months in a facility teeming with madmen, the most violent of criminals, and some sadistic captors. Needless to say, hilarity does not ensue.
As for the mythos, this is purely in the Robert Bloch Psycho mythos. And in that mythos, nothing but Bloch’s three novels exist. There is nothing in the four films or in Bates Motel that have been used here (in fact I’ve never even watched Bates Motel, though I may start now that the book is finished!). Bloch wrote Psycho, Psycho II, and Psycho House. They take place in 1959, 1982, and 1990, when each book was published. Psycho: Sanitarium is set in 1959-60, so some people have referred to it as Psycho 1.5.
Is writing in an already established “world” a challenge? What kind of research did you do for the book?
Of course it necessitated rereading the three Bloch books, which was a pleasure, but the main emphasis was on the first book, in which we first meet Norman. It’s set in the same time period, and Norman changes somewhat between Bloch’s first and second book. I did a lot of research on mental institutions of that time, which was a great period of change. As one might suspect, change came more slowly to state institutions like the one in which Norman is incarcerated, unfortunately for him.
What did you enjoy most about writing Psycho: Sanitarium?
I grew up with Norman Bates. I was 12 when the film of Psycho was first released, and I saw it in a theatre. Then I read the book, and became hooked on Bloch’s work. So the idea of dealing with Norman Bates, one of the most iconic characters in fiction, was like a dream come true. What I enjoyed most was getting into Norman’s head, because, as villainous as he may be, I also think he’s a very empathetic and vulnerable character. Being in an institution like this is something he didn’t want for his mother, so to have it happen to him (or them) is extremely traumatic. How does he cope with this terrible situation, and how involved does Mother become?
What is your writing process like?
The first and most difficult step is coming up with the plot and characters. I try to do a full scene-by-scene outline, and it can take weeks or months. Once I have it, it’s a roadmap for the actual writing. It was particularly necessary with this book, as a large part of it is a who/why/whatdunnit, so it had to be carefully structured.
You’ve published over 30 novels and many short stories, but what is one of the first things you remember writing? What made you ultimately decide that you wanted to be an author?
I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a kid, and taught myself so that I could read the funnies in the newspapers. I never wrote much until I began writing shows — essentially book musicals — for business conventions. Then I started trying short stories, and after I began selling pieces to Twilight Zone, Playboy, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and The New Yorker, I decided to try novels, and it caught on. I was doomed.
Why horror? What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing, in the genre? What direction do you see horror taking in the future?
I wrote horror because I read horror. It was the genre that most appealed to me. I don’t read nearly as much in the field as I used to, and I’m constantly having trouble coming up with new ideas, since everything seems to have been done to death, as it were. But I’ve always had a problem with horror as a genre, since horror and terror are essentially emotions that can be found in any genre of writing, and in the mainstream as well. Calling something “horror” today puts it into a box of tropes that often becomes too predictable, and unpredictability has always been important to me as both a writer and a reader. Who wants to read (or write) the same zombie/vampire/ghost story over and over?
You’ve undoubtedly influenced many authors, but who has influenced you the most, in writing, and in life?
Robert Bloch, for one. That great triumvirate of Bloch, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson was my greatest genre influence. Outside of genre, I’d have to say Joseph Conrad for his ability to depict both the physical and the metaphysical like no other writer, as well as, of all people, P. G. Wodehouse, for being the perfect writer of humor. I’ve always been fascinated by Lovecraft, though I think he’s influenced me very little.
Have you read any good books lately? Anything you’d recommend, or that you’re looking forward to digging into?
I’m reading mostly older writers right now — rereading a lot of Conrad and getting into Henry James, the kinds of things I’ve always meant to read and seldom gotten around to. Now that I’m older and have finally cracked those daunting covers, I’m finding them rewarding and very entertaining. Conrad was nothing if not horrific at times, and James wrote some of the finest ghost stories ever.
What’s one of the best pieces of writing advice that you’ve ever gotten?
Write for yourself, and not for the market. That’s about the only writing advice I’ve ever taken. I dislike books on writing for the most part. Following someone else’s instructions may not be good for you. Some people outline, some don’t and do a perfectly good job. And think quality rather than quantity. I hate seeing writers who post that they wrote 5000 words in a day. I always think, how many of those words are good? Better to write 500 good words than 5000 bad ones.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’m working on ideas for a new novel, but can’t say anything about it. I never can until it’s finished. I’ve recently finished recording the audiobook of Psycho: Sanitarium, so if readers would like to hear the writer read it, it’ll be on Audible.com. I’ve narrated a great many other audiobooks, including those of Clive Barker, Kealan Patrick Burke, Jack Ketchum, and my own, so there will be more of those. If folks are interested, they can follow me on Twitter (@chetwill) or at www.chetwilliamson.com.
About Psycho: Sanitarium:
The original Psycho novel by Robert Bloch was published in 1959 and became an instant hit, leading to the smash movie only a year later, which brought Norman Bates’s terrifying story into the public consciousness, where it still remains (proven by the success of the tv series, Bates Motel). It took Bloch 23 years to write another Psycho novel, revealing that Norman had been in a mental institution the entire time. In that sequel, Norman quickly escapes the sanitarium and goes on a killing spree in Hollywood.
But what happened in that asylum during those two decades? Until now, no one has known.
It’s 1960. Norman Bates is in the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and it’s up to Dr. Felix Reed to bring him out of his catatonic state.
But Norman and Dr. Reed have obstacles in twisted fellow patients and staff members who think of the institution as a prison rather than a place of healing. And the greatest obstacle is the building itself, once a private sanitarium, rumored to be haunted. A wild card appears in the persona of Robert Newman, Norman’s twin brother, taken away at birth after the attending doctor pronounced him brain damaged. As Robert and Norman grow to know each other, Norman senses a darkness in Robert, even deeper than that which has lurked in Norman himself.
Soon, murders begin to occur and a shocking chain of events plunge us even deeper into the deranged madness inside the walls of Psycho: Sanitarium.