Words and Music: An Interview with David Niall Wilson
'Write what hurts you'. Author David Niall Wilson discusses his writing philosophy with PopMatters. In doing so, he finds time to reflect on the state of contemporary horror writing, the dangers of being too literary, and how the blues inspired his latest novel, Deep Blue.
PopMatters Books Editor
We go together, you and me. Like words and music.
-- Eddie Wilson (Michael Pare), Eddie and the Cruisers (1983)
"Write what hurts you." David Niall Wilson's writing philosophy has served him well. He's made a career out of writing dark, literary fiction -- dipping into the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres -- including a Star Trek novelization -- as he sees fit. With his new book, Deep Blue, Wilson expands on his philosophy in what is essentially a dedication to blues music, it's origins and seductions
Wilson is a self-proclaimed "horror writer", though his books have a distinct literary feel shifting them from standard horror into areas of dark and dramatic fantasy. In Wilson's worlds, including the vampire lands of This is My Blood and The Grails Covenant series, reality is always nearby. Not because the author doesn't believe in delving as far as possible into the imagined, but because in order to write affecting fiction, he believes the real must coincide with the unreal.
Write what hurts you. Author David Niall Wilson discusses his writing philosophy with PopMatters. In doing so, he finds time to reflect on the state of contemporary horror writing, the dangers of being too literary, and how the blues inspired his latest novel, Deep Blue.
He's not the first author in the his arena to blend these elements, but what Wilson brings to the table is a desire to better understand his work, his genre, and what it is about scary stories that thrills readers.
The characters in Wilson's book, Deep Blue (just out in trade paperback from Five Star), have a similar to desire to understand their particular art -- blues music. At the center of the story is Brandt, the kid with the Eddie Wilson-inspired aspirations to create musical history with every song. Brandt's wants dictate the novel, as he consciously but unthinkingly invites the blues into his soul courtesy of Wally, an old blues man left to play his harmonica in the subway shadows to passing commuters. Wally's playing affects Brandt so much that he begs for the old man to teach him. "Cain't be taught, Wally tells him. "Gotta be lived, boy, price gotta be paid." Brandt's eventual price is a big one. Before he knows it he becomes an instrument of pain, sucking the world's worries and cravings and hates and fears through his body and out into his music. Such magic, as all good fantasy tales remind us, can only work for so long.
Wilson's own connection to the blues extends beyond the pleasure of simply listening to it, or, as might be more apt in his case, bleeding with it. He began playing guitar as a teenager, building his knowledge of blues musicians through books on or about them (he also plays cello, saxophone, bass, and harmonica). From this reading, too, he discovered other artists, better artists, and would seek out rare recordings sold through magazines or in dusty second hand stores.
Listening to Wilson as he discusses his adoration for the blues is an experience similar to reading his novels. His sentences are passionate, dramatic, and teeming with imagery. "The music captivated me," he says of the blues performers he discovered at a kid. "The progressions of chords, so simple to memorize and so difficult to master were irresistible, but they weren't the real draw. The real draw was that midnight walk down the lonely road to a crossroads. The real magic was in the wind, howling its own blues through the branches of barren trees and kicking up dust devils in Mississippi. There have been a lot of styles of music over the years, but the only one I am familiar with that is so good it has always been considered sinful is the blues. The only style of music that immediately brings devils and hellfire to mind and the dealing of the human soul for that one bit of inspiration that can take you to the top? The blues."
Starting out as a young writer drawn to darker themes, Wilson considered his gravitation towards blues, what he calls "the darker side of music", natural. As much as he enjoyed (and still enjoys) creating his own music, his found his connection to writing and storytelling in prose form too great to overlook. "I've always been drawn to music, [but] I always knew music wouldn't be the road I'd travel. It's there, and I guess when I sit down and play my favorite guitar, a black Epiphone copy of Lucille, the guitar B.B. King made famous, I kind of hope some of that dark magic will rub off on me. Maybe the words can be pried out of the strings."
He means prying in the squeezed out, fingers bleeding kind of way. Wilson has long believed that in order to write successfully -- especially in his genre -- he has a duty to write not about what he knows, but about what brings him pain. The characters in Deep Blue are on the same kind of search for truth through the expulsion and corruption of their fears and hurts. Brandt, Shaver and Dexter, in the book, want to shock their audiences, remind them what music used to be in Robert Johnson's day -- a meaningful, sometimes soul-cleansing experience. They want this because they fear they've lost that emotion themselves -- it's like Eddie Wilson's ego-driven desire, backed up by his own faith in his talent, to create great music or nothing at all.
Wilson's deliberation on pain as a source for truth is as important in his writing, too. "I have said that what I want most is to write things that leave people momentarily dazed, or stunned, when they finished reading. I want to make people involve themselves so deeply in the words that they stare at the wall and go away for a little while when it's all over. The best way to know you've cut into an emotional cord like that is if the cord you cut is your own."
It's about self-confession. Wilson's key to creating affecting prose is to open your personal closet and dig deep for the skeletons. "If there are things you wouldn't tell your mother, or your best friend, or even admit to yourself, these things are going to be powerful if you bring them to the forefront of your mind and write them down. It takes a lot of guts to share something that truly frightens or hurts you, even if you do hide those emotions in the actions and thoughts of fictional characters."
In Wilson's opinion, authors reside somewhere in all of their characters for the simple reason that if the author can't "insert themselves deeply and directly into the mindset of a character," then they can't rightly bring that character to life. "A lot of the memories and emotions I created for Brandt, Shaver, and Dexter are variations on myself. This includes their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Believe me when I say, if I write a truly painful breakup scene for a character, I feel that character's pain. If my characters lie to one another, betray one another, or lose things that are important to them, I have known that pain in the past, and I am reliving it when I write the words."
This desired affinity for his characters adds much needed believability to Wilson's writing. While his characters are steeped in truth, there's little argument that Deep Blue leans considerably into fantasy. Though it broaches ideas of living truthfully and working to understand our frailties and fears, it does so in a surreal way -- which is clearly the point. Still, as far into fantasy as the story might delve, the emotional responses of the characters are grounded in reality. It's this metaphorical, surrealistic style of evoking human fears that Wilson strives to make successful in his work.
As a longtime writer and reader of horror and horror fantasy, Wilson's opinion is such that effective horror needs little blood and guts, and almost no shadowy figures whatsoever. "I think [graphic content in horror writing] it has its place," he says. "I'm not scared of violence, blood, and gore in the same way I'm frightened by more subtle terrors. The thought of losing my mind, for instance, or my ability to communicate, terrifies me. The thought of something threatening or happening to those I love can wring my innards in coils of barbed wire. Even the thought of failing as an author, or at any of the many things I still hope to accomplish in my short span of life gives me cold sweats. Monsters? There are very human monsters, and the loss of control associated with being threatened by them is a grand source of terror, but it isn't the only one."
Wilson believes, somewhat controversially, that most fictional depictions of violent criminals are "larger than life, dumber than life, obsessed by things conceived by much greater intelligence than your average violent criminal possesses." Reality, according to Wilson, is less glamorous but a lot more intriguing. "You can watch a movie about Charles Manson and see him portrayed as some sort of demented guru of madness, or you can read what he's written himself and realize he was a scared kid, just out of prison, who'd never really functioned in the outside world and didn't adjust well. He's no guru; he's a failed rock musician. That's reality."
Wilson's writing history has almost been an attempt to prove that gore isn't particularly frightening. In Deep Blue, while there are demons of a variety, they're representative of inner terror, hurt, and confusion. As such, the fear that comes with them is less about a fear of literal monsters under the bed, but of a confrontation of one's own hidden anxieties. "If what terrifies you is being alone, and the thing that hurt the worst was when the person you loved and trusted betrayed you, or left you, or died -- there is a wellspring of emotion in this you can tap into and bring to life through your characters. It's therapeutic, as well, but like all good therapy, it can make you ill, violent, or just plain pissed off to deal with it."
Wilson's uses Kathe Koja's Kink and Stephen King's The Shining as examples books that forced him to confront his fears. "Kink opened scars inside that I found myself afraid would show through. I felt as if she'd opened vaults of my own emotion and spread them out on the paper in neat lines for everyone to read, though of course they were her own lines, and I was just reading between them." Wilson's fright, here, was about self-revelation. "The characters are caught up in a love triangle that starts out fine, and ends up as you'd expect, but the pain showing through the prose is bright and glistening."
The Shining, he says, allowed him to "vicariously witness the disintegration of a man's mind. I was scared for and with the little boy, and the wife -- even with [the main character] Jack as he tried to figure out what was wrong. I think I mentioned before that being insane (or worse yet, being in a position where people thought that I was without a good way to explain my way out of it) is terrifying to me."
While King and Koja are considered horror writers, with stories usually set in real places and real time, Wilson leans toward dark fantasy for the simple reason that it opens doors for the writer to create and build their own specific worlds in which to indulge their personal philosophies. "I think horror authors, at their best," he says, "use their situations and characters allegorically, distancing you just that slight bit from the cold realities we deal with in day-to-day life. Dark fantasy gives you the freedom to create a reality to make your point -- as I did in Deep Blue. The horrors Brandt deals with along the way are all too real -- concentration camps -- the Trail of Tears -- all along the way he steps into the pain and memories of others. The way he deals with them, the idea that the music can soak the pain out of the ground and take it away -- that's the fantasy."
Wilson's desire to place emotional reality inside his created and rather surreal novel-worlds is due to what he considers almost an outright inability to satisfactorily imagine realistic horrors that work on a fictional level. "No matter how hard I try to bring a real horror to life, it will never be more than my own perception of it, and there are details I'll miss. If I want people to read it, I may have to add depth and tension that wasn't even present in the reality. Real life and real horror are a lot less interesting and a lot more disturbing than what we write."
But this doesn't mean the author doesn't like reality-based horror fiction. "I like it on a different level, but it so seldom approaches the reality it attempts to define that I wonder if there really is a line at all. Even true crime books usually take an editorial slant and become something that the reality was not before all is said and done. Horror based on reality is really one step further removed than that -- it's horror based on the author's perception of reality. This isn't the same at all, and varies so radically from author to author that, given a few moments to think about it, you have to wonder how much news and history is any more real than what we read and call fiction."
His more surrealistic approach, however, brings it's own problems. "The author who takes you further in the fantasy direction has an even larger problem on his plate," Wilson says. "If you don't either believe -- at least for the span of time you are reading -- in the possibility of, or the magic of, what is written, you won't feel the tension. To invest fantasy characters and situations with the level of emotion we lavish on our own lives takes a leap of trust and faith on the part of the reader, and it's a difficult proposition to live up to that trust in the writing. Of course, if your story is good enough, no one will care that the main character is a ten thousand year old demon. It's a fine line of checks and balances that brings such a situation / character to life."
The biggest problem, though, comes after the books' completion. Wilson's novel, This is My Blood, recently re-issued by Prime Books as The Temptation of Blood, was chastised in certain dark fiction circles for it's literary style. Wilson found himself deeply concerned about this -- not because of any negative associations lumped on his book, but simply that the horror and fantasy genres are recognized as non-literary, sometimes sub-standard styles. "That there could ever be a rejection slip that said too literary boggles the mind, and yet I have a small pile of them, stretching back to the beginning of my time in the trenches."
The main problem for Wilson is that, in his opinion, the word "literary" has becomes somewhat of a problem term in contemporary fiction. At its core, Wilson recognizes the problems begin with marketing. " Popular fiction, like movies, fashion, and music, has been cut into classifications for easy packaging and shelf-placement. That's where the "genre" we call horror came from. Somewhere along the line of human evolution we came to the conclusion that people needed to be steered toward what they like. Enough people buy a vampire novel, and suddenly the vampire novel is a sub-genre. It has it's own imagery that is slapped on all vampire covers. The words in the titles are analyzed and titles shift to include the words that seem to sell better. Readers of that initial vampire are then able to find more books just like the other book (in the minds of the marketing experts) -- even though the books they find may only resemble the first one physically and be so diverse that readers, once they've bought the final product, grow confused."
"Once the genres were fully segregated from the mainstream, the real horror began. Editors and publishers began to view genre fiction as a lesser thing. Some of it sold very well, and they paid well for it during boom times, but in their minds a wall formed between "literature" and genre fiction. Never mind that the same sorts of stories were literature in the days of H.G. Wells, Nathaniel Hawthorne and others. In the modern world -- and riding on the coat-tails of the marketing of cheap pulp magazines publishing stories cranked out at a phenomenal pace -- fiction written for the masses about fantastical things became something less than literature. The shelves were segregated, and despite the fact that super-popular authors works were bussed in from the ghetto to sit on the bestseller shelves, the walls branched out and became stronger."
Now, says Wilson, even the fans seem to support it. "They argue to the point of violence that "horror" novels should be given respect, but at the same time fight just as hard to keep the classification in place."
This is My Blood is a retelling of the gospel. Wilson says while he left the original story almost in tact, he made a few minor "gap fills". He added the temptation of a woman (Mary Magdalene) to those offered Jesus in the desert by Satan. Mary Magdalene fell in love with Jesus and wanted to return to Heaven. Wilson wrote excerpts from a fictitious gospel -- that of Judas Iscariot (who is a hero in his version). He gave another possible rendition of creation -- gave new life to Lilith -- and wrote a love scene involving Mary (who is a fallen angel cursed with vampirism) and Lilith. All of which was placed in the context of the New Testament.
Pre-Da Vinci Code, the story was a marketing nightmare. "In it's favor, the protagonist is a vampire," Wilson says. "It deals with demonic possession. There are dark elements. What was not in its favor was a two-edged blade. One cutting edge we'll label controversial -- and on the other we'll put literary. The book isn't just a vampire story. No one knew what to do with it. Horror publishers wanted more standard vampires, mainstream publishers weren't touching anything that made Judas a hero or trod such a thin wire over the sea of blasphemy. What is the book about? It's about faith. It shows man's weakness in the face of miracles through the eyes of a character who has already walked the roads of both Heaven and Hell, and knows the truth."
According to Wilson, the criticism that a book is too literary is a cop out. For him, dark and powerfully written is certainly possible and definitely something to strive towards. "[A book] can be heroic, uplifting, frightening, or introspective, but it can't be "literary". At least, until the modern definition of the word kicked in. As I see it, if it's either pretentious, written in archaic language that is less accessible, or is written in an experimental or stylistic manner, it is now considered literary. Of course, scholarly work by the darlings of academia also qualify, but more like the way that anything Clint Eastwood directs gets an Oscar nomination. Also included in this are authors who write in the mainstream -- works that portray real life but in a manner more acceptable in polite society than your average vampire could muster."
Is it bitterness at the lack of authenticity afforded stories about vampirism and ghostly inter-world wanderings? That his area of interest, for whatever reason, consistently gets the short end of the critical stick? Wilson doesn't think so. To him, it's a simple case of a small group speaking for the masses, which certainly rings true considering the popularity of fantasy and horror works despite critical misgivings and reader misconceptions. "The distinction between literary and non-literary fiction seems arbitrary to me. It's determined either by a smug group of critics, or a guideline set in stone before the work in question was ever written. This prevents great writing in the genres from reaching a larger audience, and allows crappy writing in the mainstream to reach a larger audience. If two people write a book about a serial killer kidnapping a woman and the husband fighting to save her life, but one is a mainstream author, and the other is a "horror writer" you'd find the marketing, public response, advance, and pretty much every nuance of the process surrounding that work to be different. You'll find them on different shelves. You'll find them reviewed in different parts of the same issue of Publisher's Weekly. Did the horror writer produce a less "literary" work? I'm fairly certain it won't make any difference if he did, or not, that is how it will all be perceived initially. Even the dictionary now includes two words in its definition of "literary" that make me snort: bookish and pedantic."
For Wilson, it comes down to quality, and a question of whether or not any given work raises questions and considers ideas that will stand the test of time. Nevertheless, he's aware that as a consumer, his choices, too, are governed by marketing dollars and media buzz. It's matter then, of digging a bit deeper in the book stacks to find the mismanaged gems "If something is well written, I don't want to miss it because of assumptions made by publishers or marketers."