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Saturday, August 13, 2011

An Interview with Lawrence C Connolly

Where did you get started with Horror and Dark Fantasy as reader? Who are your favorite authors and stories?
For a long time I preferred science fiction to horror and dark fantasy. Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury were among my favorites, still are, actually. Clarke taught me how to keep readers turning the pages by appealing to their sense of wonder, while Bradbury clued me in to the power of place.  I like to think that those things still influence my writing today.
It was Stephen King who first got me interested in horror and dark fantasy. His collection Night Shift had a tremendous influence, particularly in the way it merged the uncanny and the mundane.
Today I am reading a lot of Cormack McCarthy. The Road is a masterpiece.

Can you tell us a little about your Veins series? How about This Way To Egress?
The title Veins refers to geologic formations that are sometimes called "veins of coal." These are horizontal deposits pressed between layers of rock. In western Pennsylvania, where Veins is set, these formations are frequently exposed on hillsides that have been cutaway to make room for roads and buildings. They are also laid bare during surface mining, and it is that process that lies at the heart of the Veins Cycle. The narrative takes place in and around an abandoned surface mine in western Pennsylvania.
The title also relates to life and blood. The Veins Cycle presents the earth as a living thing, an organism capable of being wounded beyond healing. That's the crux of the story, and the title gives us that.
I’m working on the third Veins book now. When it’s finished, the three books – Veins,Vipers, and Vortex – will form a cycle rather than a series or a trilogy. The result will be something fairly unique, a set of three linked supernatural thrillers that curve and intertwine as well as follow in sequence.  That’s all I’m willing to give away at the moment. All will be revealed when the third book is released in late 2012.
This Way to Egress collects my horror stories from the past 30 years, reprinting tales from Amazing StoriesTwilight ZoneCemetery DanceYear’s Best Horror, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It also features an essay titled “Ingress,” which talks about how the stories came to be.  The book is available from Ash-Tree Press – a Canadian publisher known for uncompromising quality. It’s a beautiful edition.

You also composed a soundtrack for the series, how long have you been writing music? How is music part of your writing process? Every aspiring writer reading this will also want to know: which gets you more chicks: writing or being a musician?
Terrific questions. I’ll take each in order.
I started writing and performing music in high school, got serious about it in college, and have more or less stuck with it ever since, although lately my writing deadlines are keeping me from doing much in the way of live performances.
Not long ago, music was a big part of my writing process. For years I played a mix of German techno, new-age jazz, club and classical music while writing my stories, but I stopped doing that around the time that Fantasist Enterprises commissioned Veins: The Soundtrack (the CD of instrumental tracks inspired by the novel).  I still listen to a lot of music, but these days I prefer writing to the music in my head.
As for the last question. Writing or music? Definitely music.

2nd person writing is not something a lot of people do well, but I thought Aberrations was nice creepy piece. What made you decide to use second person?
“Aberrations,” the lead story in my collection Visions, is inspired by the openings of the classic television shows The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The collection is kind of a tribute to both of those, as is evidenced by the television on the book’s cover.
“Aberrations” is also a bit of an homage to the Bob Leman story  “Instructions,” which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and has since been reprinted in Bob’s retrospective collection Feasters in the Lake. The book is currently out of print, but I recently saw a copy available on Amazon for $225.00. Worth every cent!
Bob was a Pittsburgh writer. He lived for many years in the South Hills, and I finally got to meet him after I had been following his work for many years. The resulting friendship continued until his death in 2004.
 I write about Bob in my forthcoming book Voices, which will be a collection of stories and memoirs. Very excited about that book.

There's always a lot of talk about how horror as a genre is on the upswing or the downswing in terms of both sales and quality. Where do you feel the genre is in terms of the quality of writing? Who is pushing the boundaries of the genre in your opinion?
I have never worried about trends, or whether the market is shrinking or booming. I just write what I want, and fortunately I have never had a problem selling my work to publishers.
Where is the genre in terms of quality? Well, if we’re talking about professionally written and edited material (versus the glut of unedited self-published books that seem to be flooding the market), the quality is pretty much where it has always been.
People today like to talk about pushing boundaries, and I suppose that’s good. Art is all about experimentation, trying new things, seeing what works – but the pushingisn’t as important as the breaking through. There’s no glory in trying and failing. But trying and succeeding, setting out to do something and actually pulling it off? That’s what matters.
Who’s doing that today? Cormac McCarthy, to be sure. And James Morrow, too. His books are really something special.  Go back ten years, and I’d point to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, an intriguing blend of form and content.

This weekend you were on a panel about making your readers squirm, and there were definitely a few scenes in Vipers that were squirm-worthy! Where do you think the line is, for you as a writer, that you won't cross? Do you think the rising focus on extreme violence in horror movies has changed where horror writers draw that line?
Yes, that panel was at GenCon in Indianapolis. What a convention! Over 30,000 people. Very exciting!
At the panel, I shared highlights from the opening essay in my forthcoming collection Voices. The essay is title “The Haunted Attic: 1961,” and it deals in part with why I prefer dramatic tension to overt violence.  I plan on sharing those same highlights from Voices when I visit Eljay’s next month.
As for horror films, the ones that really work for me are the ones that avoid extreme violence. I think that David Slade’s Hard Candy is a masterpiece.  Talk about squirm inducing!

Finally, the best interview question I was ever asked for a bookstore job: How long should a book be?
Long enough to resolve the plot, but short enough to keep the reader wanting more.

Lawrence C Connolly will be signing his works and discussing the craft of writing at Eljay's Books in Dormont on Saturday, September 24th at 3pm. For more information you can email Chris at eljaysbks@gmail.com or call the store at 412-344-7444.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Some thought on the fact that it took the death of Borders for people to notice what was happening to bookstores and get upset.

This post requires a bit of context, so please follow this link first and read the article http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/books-without-borders/Content?oid=9322294

A point you may remember coming up a few times in the above article was the negative effect of hiring  staff- especially managers- with no book experience or interest.  Booksellers measure success by the number of books sold, and by the quality of the experience for the customer.  Quality takes time and conversation. Executives like to bring in manager from places like the Gap and various grocery stores where "product" is moved in volume and the key to everything is as few people as possible working as quickly as possible. This is an environment that fosters absolutely no good customer service habits, but it saves a good bit of money. So does hiring kids at minimum wage instead of paying a fair rate to a bookseller who has spent ten years learning the craft. That saved money is one of the many ways the chains and Amazon (the mother of payroll savers) can afford to discount a book below the cover price.*

 There are a lot of things you can sell with out being emotionally involved with them. Not books. You can put things in alphabetical order, you can find them on the shelf for a customer, you can locate them in the computer to order them, but you can't sell them. To sell a book you have to form, at some level, a connection to your customer. You need to understand the feeling of reading something really, really good and then being a little afraid to break the spell by reading something else. You need to understand the weird, intricate ways that people classify the types of books they enjoy, generally by being one of those people yourself. When customers ask you "What are you reading?" you have to have an answer that is both genuine and leading toward a sale. You can't fake it. Mandatory title pushes are the antithesis of what a good bookseller does. The greatest booksellers I have ever met are the consummate match makers, mating reader with book over and over. Each individual customer paired with their own individual perfect book.

Every time people chose price over service, service-oriented stores take a hit. I'm not suggesting that anyone stop using Amazon. I'm suggesting that those who value service oriented stores and want to keep them around need to put their money where their mouth is. As Paul pointed out, the guy who "revolutionized" Borders by making it massivly profitable also killed it's culture and ultimately the entire company. He got to make all those horrible decisions because he proved that people have no problem sacrificing service for price. If you want to shop cheap, shop cheap. Just don't complain when cheap is the only option.

Stepping off my soap box now and dedicating this angry little rant to the 11,000 Borders employees who are unemployed or soon to be. My thought are with you.

*for those of you who don't know how this works, the cover price is the price the store will sell the book at if they want to make a 40% profit. That is, by the way, one of the lowest margins in retail. And that 40% needs to go to shipping the book to the store, putting a sticker on it, staffing the store so someone can help you find the book and sell it to you....so it comes out to a lot less than 40% ultimately. That is why indie stores sell everything at cover price for the most part. They simply can't afford to discount very much.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Confluence 2011 - a con review

Sorry for the long break between posts. The sad reality is that when you read and craft as much as I do it's hard to remember to put everything down and write about all of it! I promise I'll do better in the future...

Confluence is the annual science-fiction/ fantasy writers and readers convention in western PA, organized by members of Parsec, the area's sci-fi/fantasy organization. The event features panel discussions, readings, signings, concerts among other offerings. It's one of the smaller (and more enduring) conventions in the genre, but it is also highly praised by the author guests for it's friendly atmosphere. Parsec members present a play each year, as well as organizing an art show and sale, there is a yearly writing contest and special sessions for members of Alpha, the young writers development program coached by authors affiliated with Parsec. (And bravo to them for the Alpha program!!)

This year's fiction theme "Last Contact" was developed into a winning story by Matthew James, who detailed an encounter between an invader from the ocean and an everyday guy trying to save his species. Next year's theme is "The Morning After", and I'll be happy to pass entry information on to any interested writers.

The brightest points were, of course, the authors. I don't want to neglect any of these lovely, lovely, wonderful people but I can't cover everyone so here are a few notes on the brightest stars:

Lawrence C Connolly was a sharp panelist and moderator, I ended up sitting in a few panels I was iffy on because he was speaking. I liked what he talked about enough to buy the second book in his Veins Cycle. I'd like to review it here, but I feel like I will be doing a disservice to the book if I don't go back and read the first book in the cycle so I can figure out the plot. For now I promise he's a writer that horror readers will love. He's also wordsmith, and aspiring writers will benefit from studying his crisp style.

Geoffrey Landis and Mary Turzillo were the heart of the Vogon poetry writing session, and Mary hunted me down after the session broke up to get me a copy of the poem in the correct format for my computer. Geoffrey is another of those speakers who endlessly fascinates me and draws me into otherwise boring panels. Geoffrey and Mary both write science fiction and poetry and both are award winners (Nebula, Hugo...the big ones)

John Alfred Taylor is just super. I don't know how to explain it, he's funny, he's weird, he's got a fantastic t-shirt collection. Go to Pseudopod.com and listen to one of his short horror stories.

Michael Swanwick is a science fiction fantasy author whom I am sad to say I haven't read. (I'm working on it!!) He was the only speaker I took notes on. Brilliant.

Finally, the entire crew at Fortress Publishing Inc deserves both my acclaim and a big hug. Brian Koscienski and Chris Pisano write themselves into science fiction and horror stories, their reading had me laughing so hard I was tearing up. Soon, they will be signing at Eljay's, so stay tuned for more on that as it develops! For now you'll have to content yourself by buying a copy of their book at Eljay's.

The con had a few weirdly lined-up panels and some less than enthusiastic moderators (and one panel that was a string of little arguments between two panelists....including one on the validity of dowsing) but overall the speakers were so smart and interesting that even the panels that wandered entirely off topic had something interesting to offer.