Interview: Michael Arnzen

Michael Arnzen will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey workshop. He has been publishing outrageous horror fiction, SF, poetry, literary criticism, instructional essays on writing, and offbeat humor since 1989. Across his career, Arnzen has won four Bram Stoker Awards, an International Horror Guild Award, and several “Year’s Best Horror Story” accolades and reprints. His novels include Play Dead and Grave Markings. The best of his short stories and poems are collected in Proverbs for Monsters, which won the Bram Stoker Award in 2007. Always the experimentalist, his writing has appeared on Palm Pilots and postcards, short art films (“Exquisite Corpse”) and creepy online animation. His novel Play Dead even inspired a deck of custom-designed playing cards.

When he’s not writing, Arnzen teaches suspense and horror writing fulltime in the MFA degree program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University, near Pittsburgh, PA. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon, where he studied “the uncanny” in popular culture, as well as an M.A. in English from the University of Idaho, where he wrote his second novel. Arnzen sits on the editorial board for two literary journals associated with genre fiction (Paradoxa and Dissections) and has edited college literary magazines and more. He is presently working on a guidebook for authors, a book of literary criticism, and several horror titles.

Arnzen taught humor in fantasy at Odyssey in 2007 and students had a lot of laughs. Look for “Stripping Away the Mask”—his essay on crafting horrifying scenes in fiction—in the recently published book, The Writer’s Workshop of Horror (Woodland Press, 2009).

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

I started taking my writing seriously when I was in college, I think, because whenever I wrote for my teachers, they started taking it seriously and that surprised me. I always just told stories and wrote poems because I enjoyed splashing around in the kiddie pool of language. But teachers were rewarding me with praise and healthy comments about how I could improve, and it made me sit up and take notice: hey, I thought, maybe I really can do this just like all those people I have been reading all these years!

But I think we make a mistake just calling ourselves “writers.” What really happens — though this is metaphorical — is that we join the larger conversation that our genre is having with ideas. We start to talk back to books, through books. We join a “groupthink” tank called genre fiction. And so if I was doing anything wrong in the very early part of my career, it was thinking that writing was all about me. My sales took off once I started realizing that I wasn’t just writing for myself: my audience’s needs mattered just as much — if not more — than my own. And you have to earn it. You can’t just walk up to a group at a cocktail party and start yapping; you sort of have to respond to someone first, or fill a silence. That’s what getting started is sort of like in this business. It isn’t so much that we have to take our writing seriously: it’s that we have to take our reader seriously.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

I think editors have this intuition when they read manuscripts: they don’t analyze stories as much as we think they do (on the first read anyway): they just listen to the author and trust their gut reactions to the author’s voice: does it sound genuine? does it read like already published work? is this writer someone the average reader will really trust to tell a good story?

Most people would say it takes “talent” to produce writing that sounds that genuine, to have a voice that crafts stories instinctively into mature vistas that sweep readers off their feet. I think it takes a combination of good luck and hard work to produce that talent.

Studious research and making a lot of happy mistakes through trial and tribulation — and having the stamina to keep stumbling forward — is the key to success when you’re getting started. Research is probably where most new writers fail, because it takes a lot of time. You have to research not only the background of your stories — but the whole literary landscape. It takes a full immersion in the culture you hope to address as a writer to join the wider literary conversation of our world. You have to go to the library and read everything. Take college classes in literature if you can, or download a booklist and force yourself to read through all the classics. Rent every movie you can with your genre’s markings on it, even if you can’t stomach it, and force yourself to understand what it is that makes your genre what it is. Talk with as many writers as you can, through conventions and workshops like Odyssey. You have to absorb the “groupthink” I was talking about before, and this is the only way to really get the “deep structure” of storytelling, genre, and the marketplace. Once you do that, you pick up on literary strategies more naturally, and you adopt the voice of the writer — a voice that is at once your own, and yet also an echo of the other wise voices you’ve listened to over the years.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

I’m too prone to substitute fiction for facts. If I don’t know something I’ll make it up rather than research it. This is not so much laziness as it is a time-saver. I should know better. I cope with it by letting my manuscripts cool down for a few days after I write them. Then I scrutinize them, playing the role of “skeptical reader” and anything that sounds like b.s., I will mark and try to flesh out with more research to see if my b.s. holds water or not. What inevitably happens is that I get excited about what I discover during my research, which starts giving me more and more ideas I can put into my fiction, and it makes the revision process as much fun as the writing process was the first time.

Your CD, Audiovile, is an hour-long spoken-word performance of 16 short stories and poems set to dark and quirky music. Where did this idea come from? How do you encourage writers to express themselves in other ways besides with pen and paper?

Shortly after my book of flash fiction, 100 Jolts, came out, a few readers inquired about whether or not there was an audiobook version available. My publisher — the great folks at Raw Dog Screaming Press — had seen me read stories at conventions, and asked if I would be willing to narrate some of the short stories. I immediately realized that if I did that, I would want to avoid doing it the way most audiobooks are done, because I frankly feel they are sort of boring. So I jazzed the stories up with background music (relying on some old instruments my wife and I had gathered over the years). And the more I experimented with audio, the more the background music moved into the foreground. I started rehearsing the stories to the beat and using some of the lines like a chorus in a song. And something really unique came out of this process.

I won’t say it’s better than Led Zeppelin, but anyone who has listened to Audiovile has responded with enthusiasm over how quirky it is. The harshest critique I heard was from my dad, who grinningly said “It sounds like you’re having too much fun.”

But that’s my goal! I could have bombed and made a complete idiot out of myself, and maybe some people think I’m nuts for doing something so over-the-top in the first place, but I think writers need to take these kinds of risks, and to push themselves into trying out different artistic forms. Writing is art, even when you’re expressly doing it for professional pay, and you need to cultivate the artist inside of you. It might lead to finding a new or unique audience, too. You have to think of yourself as a genre entertainer to some degree, while also earning merit in the eyes of your audience. But experimenting with different arts — even if they take the form of doodles in a notebook margin or poems you scratch out on cocktail napkins — are all forms of expressed dreamwork and it will always pay back in your writing on some level. Creating Audiovile made me work my brain in ways I never had to before, and now I’m far more conscious of the cadence of my prose and the sound of my “voice” and the structure of my stories than I ever dreamed possible. And it renewed my love of performing at readings, which I always try to enjoy. I got into this business because it’s fun for me, and Audiovile was a sheer creative burst of experiment that really renewed me. It took me a year of hard work to cobble together something of quality, but it was joy all the way. And it renewed my love for music, something that was waning in my life, along the way, making me a happier person.

With works like Rigormarole: Zombie Poems and Gorelets: Unpleasant Poems, how do you fuse horror and humor in only a few words?

This is a really difficult question. Part of it is just instinct. Horror and humor both have to feel spontaneous to work. But another part of it is really loading your language so that the assumptions and meanings and implications are all doing the work — so that what’s not on the page matters as much as what is there. I could go on and on about this, but your interview would wind up reading like a dissertation on death, the implosion of the universe, and everything.

Your e-mail newsletter “The Goreletter” actually won a Bram Stoker Award for Alternative Forms. What are your thoughts about having a Web presence? Do you feel it’s necessary for a writer to maintain a Web site and/or blog? Are there advantages and/or disadvantages?

It is necessary. It’s like having a shelf in pubic to display your books — only you’re also displaying other things around those books too — all of which serves to draw a reader’s attention to your work. But I have to say: too many writers get sucked into this game of drawing attention, but never really having anything to say once the spotlight is really on them. You need to make your writing and storytelling central to your identity to be a writer, and if you’re going to be using the web as a “platform” for your career, you have to provide writing on your website somehow — whether in the shape of a free story, a giveaway book, whatever. I try to treat the web as a “sketchpad” and place to practice my creativity, since I would imagine that’s what readers are really wanting from me, whether new to my work or old fans. I make “The Goreletter” the “takeaway” from my site because it helps me to think of my work on the web as generating an end product — a newsletter that features the best of all those “sketches” I put in my blog and in my gallery and on twitter. Beyond that, your website is the doorway into your publishing history and your other books, so use it to display your titles (but don’t be too arrogant about selling them).

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

I have two. The first is a mantra you should adopt: THERE ARE NO WASTED WORDS. Believe it. Everything you write makes you stronger. Even the garbage you wad up and toss in the trashcan.

The second bit of advice is at once quite simple, but more difficult to explain. But it is imperative, I think, to remember that writing needs to be genuinely creative. A genre allows you to take a certain degree of license — a certain degree of freedom to experiment with things without fear of censorship or reader skepticism. In horror, it’s license to get nasty. In fantasy, it’s license to dream up settings or invent impossible forms of power called “magic.” In science-fiction, that magic is called imaginary “technology.” There’s more to it than that, but those are just snappy examples. But my point is this: FLAUNT YOUR CREATIVE LICENSE. It’s the only way to generate something truly original and unforgettable. Do not get too concerned with publishing or making the rest of the world happy with “correctness” when you’re drafting. You can always edit it later. If you experiment and fail, well see advice #1 (there ARE no wasted words!). Even the most polished and perfect piece of genre writing will fail if it does not entertain, and if you do not let your genre freak flag fly you will never truly win over an audience. Try to write something no one else is doing in that genre; the sort of book you wish would be on the shelves, but isn’t, and you’ll be moving in the right direction. It takes courage to do new things like this, and it’s risky, but your genre permits it. Readers pick up genre books because they want the writer to meet certain needs and one of those needs is originality of concept. You’ll never be original if you don’t take advantage of the freedom to experiment that your genre offers you!

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

A new novel is always in progress, but I’m never comfortable discussing work in progress until it’s close to publication, because I hate to giveaway surprises. I’ve got my writing fingers in lots of pies right now, though: short stories will be out in anthologies in the year ahead — like Darkness on the Edge (tales inspired by Bruce Springsteen songs!) from PS Publishing, or Armageddon Lightshow (stories about lightning!) from Bloodletting Books, or the wonderful He is Legend, a Richard Matheson Tribute Anthology which was just picked up for mass distribution by Tor Books. You’ll likely see my non-fiction project, The Popular Uncanny, out before too long.

I hope interested readers will drop by my website, http://www.gorelets.com, to see whatever I’m up to lately.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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