8Qs: Michael A. Arnzen

Eight Questions is an occasional series of interviews that I’m including on the site. Being a naturally gifted (read: lazy) interviewer, I will be using the same eight questions in every interview.

This time, the questions are being answered by award-winning horror writer and educator, Michael A. Arnzen. In addition to his role as Professor of English and Chair of the Humanities Division at Seton Hill University(1), Dr Arnzen has built a reputation for his intelligent, funny and often just plain disturbing horror. He won the first of his four Bram Stoker Awards in 1994 for his debut novel Grave Markings(2), and continues to make his indelible mark on the world of horror through novels, short fiction, poetry, and his newsletter the Goreletter(3).

Welcome, Mike!

1 – What did you do before you did this and what do you miss about it?
I’ve been writing for decades now, but the thing I miss most about the time before I started teaching writing full-time is playing the bass in rock bands with my friends.  I was in two — one called The Gnarlers back when I was in the Army in Germany, and another called The Abject, when I was a grad student at University of Oregon. Both rocked original songs that had hilariously sick lyrics. I still play in the home studio, but there’s something about playing live music that really made me feel, well, alive.

It wasn’t about the rock star fantasy, but about the process — jamming — and the intensity of making it all come to life in sync with a group.  I really was never that good (I played entirely by ear and people used to say I played the bass like it was the drums… a compliment, I guess, but many times my hands would bleed).  As a bass player, the main thrill was the panic of having to hold down the rhythm of the song — to deliver with the drummer and make sure the tune carried on or stayed in sync whenever the guitarist did a solo — and the satisfaction of keeping it all together.  I miss the anxiety about possibly forgetting time or key changes —  the concentration it requires took me to a sublime state.  I miss the thrill of a real booming noise that just sounds perfect — and the amazing synergy of playing a riff and looking out at the crowd to see them all dancing like charmed snakes or pumping their fists like union workers on strike.  All that, and the free beer.  But the big buzz was from the fuzz, not the drink.  It’s one of the only artsy things I’ve felt I’ve done successfully with other people — and writing is such a lonely affair.  I’ve tried collaborative writing many times, but it pales by comparison. I miss it terribly, but have tried to bring it into my writing, either as a topic (I’m working on a novel involving a karaoke group right now) or in recordings (I’ve used guest musicians in my CD, Audiovile).

2 – How many projects are you working on at the moment and what can you tell us about them?
Along with the usual short stories and poems here and there, I’ve got some cool indie projects in the hopper, which I expect to see published in the months to come.  One I’m really excited about is compiling my humor columns from my newsletter and expanding them into an ebook which I want to release simultaneously as a self-produced audiobook. Additionally, the 20th anniversary of my first novel is happening this year, and I’m in talks with a publisher about releasing it in trade paperback and ebook formats along with bonus features this Halloween. If I time it right, I might do an audiobook version of THAT, too.  And I have a secret project I’m developing called “Diabolique Strategies” — a dark and twisted lateral thinking game partly inspired by Brian Eno’s infamous “Oblique Strategies” — that I’ve already begun self-producing and I’m eager to release to the world.  I also have also been slowly — SLOWLY — working on a non-fiction study for many years now that I want to finish soon called The Popular Uncanny, which people can learn about at http://gorelets.com/uncanny/

All that, and a humor novel that I’ve started up that’s a lot of fun. But I’m going to keep that one a secret for now…sometimes blabbing about my current writing lets too much air out of the balloon.

3 – If you had to quit either reading or writing which would you pick?
Most writers would say “never!” but I would quit writing. Not only because I love to read.  But because I know that I could always find a book to read about how to start writing again.

4 – If you could magic another hour into the day, where would you put it and what would you use it for?
I would put 13 o’clock into my sleep schedule and enjoy the bonus timelessness of dream.

5 – What is your pet hate in writing / language?
I am a man of many hates — from the crime of the comma splice to the illness of the incorrect ellipsis — but my current soapbox stomper is a wider narrative issue:  the “psychic coming of age” story. Sorry, but if you were psychic, you would know before you knew.

6 – Are there any genres that you love to read but which you never write?
It’s more of a medium than a “genre,” but the answer is graphic novels and comics. When I was a kid, I worked at a newsstand and would read them voraciously.  I think The Rook was the first series I followed, and I used to sneak read copies of Heavy Metal magazine, too — but it was MAD magazine that really became my addiction. I still pick it up from time to time, three decades later, and I think it profoundly shaped my worldview.

I’m not into manga.  Maybe it’s cultural, but I just don’t get it.  Everything’s so round and the shapes don’t stand out to me in ways that make sense…and the characters just seem so flat to me.  It’s filled with fetishes and references that don’t speak to me.  But even in US comics, I don’t fanatically follow any superheroes either.  I’m more into the art and the writing than the characters, I think.  But I like to dip into the genre from time to time, like seeing what my old friend Greg Rucka is up to.  I love horror comics.  The old timey kind are hilariously Freudian — but I also enjoy contemporary stuff from the last decade, like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac or Dogwitch (I have the complete series by Dan Schaffer — I even wrote the intro to the first compilation of that series). I totally love bizarre and surreal graphic novels, like the work of Daniel Clowes.  This week, even, I just picked up Don Hertzfeldt’s first foray into the medium — “The End of the World” — and read it in one sitting. A life changer. I’ve also got a batch of poems coming out in a book about comics, called Drawn to Marvel, releasing next month.  But writing comic script?  I have only once tried my hand at it once, and failed miserably.  But it’s not something I’ve given up hope on.  If I ever got invited to do one by a publisher or an artist, I’d make it happen…but I haven’t had the courage to try it on my own.  Maybe someday.  I’ve always thought my novella, Licker, would make a fabulous underground comic.

7 – Do you have any writing rituals, habits or idiosyncrasies that you can share?
Aside from chugging coffee and sacrificing goats and stirring their bloody milk into my next cup of coffee?  Well…it’s more like what I don’t or can’t do, than what I ritually perform.  I can’t write if someone is standing behind me. I get all…nervous…like someone is creeping into my dreams. And I’m paranoid about losing ideas or falling off my train of thoughts, so I write in sprees and if I ever have to get up from the computer, I madly scratch out my thoughts for the next scene before I leave the desk (often returning to have no clue what I wrote down — my handwriting is horrendous).  If I ever get stuck, I always go bother my wife, bouncing my frustration off her — she’s a great sounding board.

8 – What are you selling and where can I buy it?
My latest novel is Play Dead — a horror story about pathological gamblers who play a sick game of cards with photographs of their murder victims — and people can check that and other titles out at Raw Dog Screaming Press.  I also have a handy and hilarious little ebook of writing inspiration I published called Instigation: Creative Prompts on the Dark Side (available for kindle, nook, and all formats).  I’ve been trying to play in different media, and experiment with things — like the Fridge of the Damned poetry magnet kit you can get from Raw Dog.

There’s lots of things out or coming down the pike like these… I invite you and all readers to subscribe to my newsletter at http://gorelets.com to keep in touch.  It won a literary award. People say they like it. It’s kind of a playground for me. Check it out.

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(1) – You can watch some of Mike’s lectures on The Popular Uncanny and Risk & Transgression in Writing Fiction on his website, michaelarnzen.com.

(2) – Dell Books 1994, Delirium Books 2004. Grave Markings also earned Mike an International Horror Critics Guild Award.

(3) – For which Mike won a Bram Stoker Award in 2003.

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If you haven’t already left this page to sign up to Mike’s Goreletter (and if not, why not?) you should go read more interviews in the 8Qs series here.