Interview: Christopher Golden

Christopher Golden will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He is the award-winning, bestselling author of such novels as Of Saints and Shadows, The Myth Hunters, The Boys Are Back in Town, and Strangewood. He has also written books for teens and young adults, including When Rose Wakes, Soulless, Poison Ink, and the upcoming The Secret Journeys of Jack London, co-authored with Tim Lebbon. Golden and Lebbon are presently adapting the first novel in the series as a screenplay for Fox. In 2010, Ace Books is reprinting his groundbreaking Peter Octavian novel series, beginning with Of Saints and Shadows, and leading up to the publication of a brand new Octavian novel, Waking Nightmares, in 2011.

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 had written a handful of short stories and submitted them to magazines in high school and had very nice rejections. In college, I tried again, with the same result. By my senior year of college I had started my first novel, Of Saints and Shadows. In 1989, I used that work in progress to find an agent, who then sold a non-fiction anthology that I compiled. Technically that was my first book. But doing that book solidified the relationship with my then-agent, and in 1992, she sold Of Saints and Shadows to Penguin. I was very fortunate in that I sold the first novel I’d ever attempted to write, but it took several years for it to all come together.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

I think that I was a better novelist than I was a short story writer. That’s probably still true.

A lot of horror is surprisingly conservative in message, meaning “Obey your parents, because if you don’t, if you go into the woods and party, very bad things will happen to you.” Does your horror fiction have this kind of conservative message at its core?

I don’t think THAT’S the message, but I do think you could say the messages you do find in my work are fairly conservative, only in the sense that they’re about fundamental values. A lot of my work is, at the end of the day, simply about doing the right thing, no matter what it costs you.

How do you take what sounds like an old idea (zombies in Souless; the theme of “Sleeping Beauty” from When Rose Wakes, etc.) and make it fresh and original? Do you ever worry, “What am I doing? This has all been done before?”

That’s what makes it interesting to me. A great amount of my work has involved looking at folklore and legend and breaking it down into its fundamental building blocks and finding a new way of putting them together. That’s true of The Veil Trilogy, The Ferryman, Baltimore, Prowlers, Straight on ‘Til Morning, When Rose Wakes, Soulless, and many others. Sometimes, as in Of Saints and Shadows and the whole Peter Octavian series, it’s about finding the absurdity in the legend and exploiting it, finding new ways to explain what doesn’t make sense.

You have written books with both Mike Mignola and Tim Lebbon. How did these collaborations get started? How does your writing process with Mike and Tim differ from writing alone?

Every collaboration starts differently. I always say I’m a lifelong fan of the team-up, that writing is a solitary occupation but I am not, by nature, a solitary person. A lot of my friends are writers, and so conversations invariably include ideas, and there are simply these eureka moments when an idea is born and you realize you’ve got to collaborate on it. Now, Mike and Tim couldn’t be more different in terms of collaborations. Tim and I write in full collaboration, switching off scenes or chapters and editing each other, etc. With Mike…we’d been friends for years and I’d written Hellboy novels and edited Hellboy anthologies, and he’d told me about his “vampire graphic novel” many times, until one day he called and said he didn’t think he’d ever get around to drawing it, and did I want to write it as a novel. We talked a lot, he wrote an outline, giving me his vision for the thing, and I revised it, adding my two cents. I’d write a couple of chapters and send them to him and we’d go over them together, and then he’d do illustrations. It’s very different from any of the other collaborations I’ve done, but the result, I think, is marvelous.

Can you describe the process of adapting Baltimore or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire for comic books?

It’s not actually an adaptation. There’s a spread of five to ten years in the middle of the novel when Baltimore is out wandering around plague- and evil-ravaged Europe, hunting for the vampire that murdered his family. It’s a big block of unknown events, and the comic books are filling in some of that time. Now, since we knew that a lot of the comic book readers would not have read the novel, the first miniseries, The Plague Ships, was specifically constructed so that we would have an original story inside of which we could wrap a retelling of the bare bones, most vital elements of Baltimore’s “origin,” that would be necessary for new readers, but also very cool for people who have read the novel.

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?

Be bold, both in your writing and in your encounters. Dig inside yourself and excavate the stories you think are too different, or too weird. Don’t write for the current craze, because it will be over by the time you get your book out.

What is the difference in writing for teens versus writing for adults? Do you structure your stories differently for teens?

Not at all. It’s not very different for me. The real difference comes from a natural shift that takes place when your protagonists are teens.You have to get into their head space, and so their interests and their mindset dictate a different tone to the story. Different concerns. But that doesn’t mean you alter your goals as a writer. Never write “down” to an audience. I spent several years, recently, directing middle school musical productions. People were quite literally astonished at the shows these kids put on. They were fantastic–better, many said, than local high school productions. Young people will RISE to your expectations of them. As a writer, the second you start thinking about making something simpler for a teen audience, you’ve ruined both your book and your credibility with your audience. Teen readers are smart. They have complicated lives. Simple is boring to them.

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