Getting into writing – a interview with Michael Arnzen

Michael Arnzen

Michael Arnzen teaches writing in Seton Hill University’s MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction and has won four Bram Stoker Awards over his 25+ year career as a horror fiction writer, critic, and poet.  He experiments with format and has created everything from a musically-enhanced horror story audio cd (Audiovile) to a set of scary refrigerator poetry magnets (The Fridge of the Damned).  Perhaps his best-known titles in the genre are his early flash fiction collection 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories and his “tattoo artist as serial killer” novel, Grave Markings (both still available from Raw Dog Screaming Press).  His latest appearances include a sequel to Dracula (called Murrmann: A Tale of Van Helsing) and a hilariously dark story series called “55 Ways I’d Prefer Not to Die” reprinted in the most recent Year’s Best Hardcore Horror anthology.

What got you interested in writing?

I was always an avid reader and loved to tell stories with my friends, but it wasn’t until I was secluded in a radio van on manoeuvres during my time in the Army that I picked up a pen and tried to write a story just to write a work of fiction. I had been binge-reading Stephen King novels, and when I got to Firestarter, I started recognizing patterns in his plotting and style, and something clicked inside of me that said, “I see where this book is going… it’s getting predictable, dammit… I can do better than this!” and I tried my hand at writing a short story. Little did I realize how HARD it really is, and how silly I was for thinking I could do better.  I’ve spent my whole life since trying to even come close.  But the point I want to make is just how much King had really taught me about the short story (his Night Shift collection is a primer in horror storytelling). He inspired me to read far and wide in the genre, to be honest with the reader rather than inscrutable, and to just go for the gross out when warranted. Even writers who don’t like horror, really ought to read and study Stephen King. And those who do write on the dark side should check out his non-fiction literary study of the genre, Danse Macabre.

Tell us a little about your chosen genre.

Horror is like Romance — the two genres dominated by emotional appeal.  Both even have holidays dedicated to them (Halloween and Valentine’s Day).  In horror, the appeal is right there in the name: the genre promises that this book or story will repulse you. And as a reader, I love that, because it means the horror writer is out to get me.  It’s going to try trick me out of my habitual way of thinking and it’s going to do things that are going to surprise me at every turn.  At least the good ones will avoid the clichés, and bend them into surprises. I remember as a kid my favorite comic was Tales of the Unexpected. Every story had a dark twist ending I couldn’t see coming. That’s what I try to write myself, in a nutshell: surprises — and that doesn’t just mean twist endings, but also going over-the-top when the reader least expects it.  I like to bring a kind of mystery/thriller plot into concert with a supernatural or creepy mood, and I pride myself in tackling subjects no one else does or coming up with twisty plots and trick endings that make people go “wow!”  The genre gives me license to get as weird and evocative as I wanna be — to open up the pandora’s box of my id — and I find great comfort in that.  I write horror because it’s the most liberating of all of the genres, and doesn’t keep me limited to just character relationships or specific settings — and I’m free to be crazy and funny just as much as I am free to dig into the darkest of fears.  I could write a horror story from the point of view of a moldy sponge, or wax poetic about the flavor of cranial fluid or unleash some of my sickest of thoughts and get away with it, so long as the story makes a point or succeeds at making readers wonder and think (or even just, sometimes, gag or laugh).

What are your happiest memories in your writing career?

I love this vocation and there are really too many to recount. Usually they involve meeting other writers I’ve always admired, seeing one of my writing students succeed or sharing a moment where a reader wants to talk with me in depth about the issues in one of my stories… it reminds me that I am not just doing all this stuff just for my own benefit and that I’m part of a larger tribe of weirdos just like me.  But I also have some private joys I can recall.  In general, I’m happiest when I’m writing and cackling with glee at all the weird stuff coming out of my fingers as I type… when the story feels like it’s almost writing itself and I am a witness to its creation.  When I am “in the zone” and it “clicks.”  If I can surprise myself and fall into these spellbinding moments where everything feels right, I’m thrilled, and everytime I sit down to create something I’m hoping to return to that zone once again.

How do you handle success and failure?

I feel fortunate in that I get more acceptances and invitations to submit than I do rejections or let downs. I’ve been doing this so long that I have grown a little numb to BOTH the rejection letter and the initial contract offer.  To me these are simply delayed gratifications or disappointments — nowadays it’s really all about the piece I’m writing and the work itself.  But of course I do still have some emotional management techniques. When I get a big paycheck for a story, I try not to just pay off a bill, but to buy something small and concrete that will be in my house to remind me that I can do this stuff and make money at it.  When I fail, I just immediately get into this “I’ll show you!” kind of mindset where I work harder on something new (or edit the piece to send it right back out) to prove it to myself. So much of our business as a writer is reliant on luck: you never know when you’re going to hit the right editor at the right time, and you never know how an audience will respond, so you just gotta keep spinning the wheel.  The main “failure” I have experienced is when the wheel slows down, and I get too busy with my teaching job to have enough time to sit down and play.  That’s the day job — a reality one can’t ignore — but I’m lucky enough to be in a day job that is related to what I do as a writer (I get to teach horror! I workshop with genre writers!), that it always keeps me in the game.

What makes you write when you’re exhausted and your fingers ache?

The short answer is coffee.  Lots and lots of coffee!  But when that won’t work, I just have to rest.  The brain needs a break and you can only dip into the word well so many times — if you “force” things too much, it’ll read that way.  I trust in my unconscious mind to know what its doing — and learning to have that kind of trust that takes patience and perhaps even self-discipline.  However, if the story or poem is unfinished, the thing won’t leave my head and it persistently beckons to me.  (This is why — when I do have to stop mid-stream, say when writing a novel — I’ll jot down a few notes to myself on where I want to go when I pick up the piece next time. That helps me get back into the groove.)  But another component of “writing despite the exhaustion” is simply recognizing that writing picks up my mood when I’m doing it right. It takes faith in the process to anticipate that, but it’s true.

What is your advice to young and new writers?

Read everything, especially things in your genre that you normally avoid. You have to pick up the mindset of your readers, and that’s probably the best way to do so.  You also should read lots of non-fiction and other genres as a kind of research — it’ll give you ideas, and might even teach you lessons that you wouldn’t learn otherwise. I think, for instance, that I learned how to describe gory moments in my stories not only from reading a lot of “splatterpunk” and studying a lot of horror movies, but also from reading medical textbooks and romantic/erotic how-to books.  Yes!  There’s a kind of seduction and science to gore…I didn’t only learn how to conjure that from other horror writers, per se. I learned it from studying different ways that bodies are depicted in extremis.

Are you a traditionalist or a digital? (paper or eBook)

Both. As a reader, I love holding a book, but I also like the easy access of digital.  Either format torments my poor aging eyes, hah-hah!  But as a writer, I like to experiment with everything. Digital devices are literary toys for me.  For instance, when I received a PalmPilot handheld back at the turn of the 21st century — when ebooks were so new they weren’t even on Amazon yet — I didn’t know what to do with it, so I wrote horror poems on it that were limited to the size of the tiny screen. I called them “gorelets” and other PalmPilot (PDA) users could subscribe to read them.  The “gorelets” series of poems eventually became a print book… and then an e-book:  The Gorelets Omnibus. Sometimes people ask me, why do you write for small press markets or places that don’t pay? And the answer is that everything you do can be reprinted in markets that DO pay, if you do your research or have faith that you can get a collection later out of all the little things.  All types of books are potential licenses for literary property — writers who take up one camp or other on the media divide are only sacrificing potential markets and hurting themselves, I think.  So when amazon started growing the ebook industry, I didn’t say “not for me!” I bought a kindle and learned how it works. We have to invest in our field if we want to participate in it and grow.

Do you blog?

I do, but a lot of it is just drafting work that will inevitably end up in my newsletter, The Goreletter, which I treat as not just a way to share my latest news, but also as a creative playground for sharing weird little things (in the spirit of my gorelets poetry).  My current “blogging” is mostly devoted to The Popular Uncanny — where I talk about concepts I see in popular culture that are related to my Ph.D. studies and an academic book I’m revising on the subject.  The “uncanny” is everywhere….

Do you self-publish?

Yes, a little, under the imprint called Mastication Publications — — and I’ve been doing that since the 1990s.  But I’d say I’m a hybrid and mainly traditional author, and I submit the majority of my work to real publishers. My goal is to reach an audience and self-publishing has a limitation regarding that.  Self-publishing is for niche/experimental things I do that I doubt others would take a risk on, or more artsy things that allow me to work with illustrators and other people in a fun way. Because I don’t just work in one format (say, novels only), I like having the liberty to do whatever I like and to publish some of those things on my own.  Some of it is very strange. Like, I created an online “prompt generator” called Diabolique Strategies — why not code and publish that myself? With multimedia formats, I get into the production side of things a lot; it helps me to really get my hands dirty and to think about how to exploit the medium itself, rather than just relying on words alone to shape the horror.  Most genre fans like all media formats of their genre — I know of virtually no horror fan who doesn’t also like the films or games — so self-publishing in multimedia formats allows me to reach those audiences and have fun exploring new ground at the same time. Takes time, but it keeps my creative spirit feeling fresh.

If you have a publication or promotion – tell us.

I’ve already mentioned a few up above, but I’m also doing something new, so I invite the curious to visit my website, and to sign up for The Goreletter if they want to see what I’m up to now.  Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, hoping to build up a new collection, but as a side project I’m also challenging myself to post a new horror poem to twitter at least four times a week.  A lot of my titles are published by the literary upstarts at Raw Dog Screaming Press — — a publisher who takes risks on quality work and who has an editorial style and panache for the alternative that really speaks to me… all their titles are amazing.


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