Last week you heard my thoughts on the new horror novel Echoes of Darkness, this week we’re exploring how it was made.
Today, we chat with the author Rob Smales about the story behind the story.
RS = Rob Smales JA = Jeanette Andromeda
Would you rather?
JA- Which would be more terrifying to wake up to while chained to a chair: an abandoned building, where you can hear something moving in the shadows just out of view, or a dilapidated circus tent with three clowns sitting across from you, unblinking . . . staring at you? Why?
RS- See, you think I’m going to say the clowns, because everybody hates clowns, right?
They even have their own named phobia—coulrophobia! But I’m going to go with the creepy sounds in the abandoned building, simply because with the clowns I’d get to use one of those tough guy lines you see in the movies:
“Hey, are you guys okay? Seriously, are you feeling all right? Because you look a little funny.”
Enough funny stuff
JA – LOL, amazing. Ok, now that’s you’re thinking creatively, how did your collection come about?
RS- When I started writing seriously, I realized right off the bat that I knew almost nothing, and really needed to get better at it. Short stories were a way for me to learn—it’s a lot quicker writing and getting feedback on a 5,000 word short than a 90,000 word novel. I’d been getting published for a while, and it had gotten to the point where people would read a story and ask me where they could find more of my stuff . . . and all I could do was point them to various anthologies where I’m just one of, say, fifteen other writers. I didn’t have anything to offer them that was just my work.
I lamented this fact for months, saying I had to get a collection together. Stacey Longo of Books & Boos Press, who had read my work, even edited one of those anthologies I was pointing people toward, apparently got tired of my whining. “Books & Boos want to expand our catalogue,” she said, “and we’re looking for a collection to put out. Why don’t you give us something and we’ll see what we can do?”
“That’ll be awesome!” I said.
“It’ll have to be at least half new stuff, though,” she added. “Six or seven stories written just for the collection should do.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’ll be . . . uh . . . awesome?”
And that was how I wound up contracted to write to a deadline for the first time, and working with an exacting, perfectionist, taskmaster of an editor whom I actually work very well with. She only made me cry twice. Okay, three times—that supposed “fourth time” was just the sniffles from a cold. After a few months of selecting some of my older published work (nothing from the previous 18 months) and writing rather slavishly (the opening to “Ma Liang’s Crayons” was written during Anthocon, sitting on a bench next to the dumpster behind the building because I didn’t have a room at the hotel, and it was the quietest spot I could find), tadaaaaa: Echoes of Darkness was born.
The Story’s backstory
JA- “Mutes” in particular, I’d love to hear about. That story freaked me out, and brought up so many questions about pain, suffering, and the unseen world. How did that story start out?
RS- “Mutes” was written for an anthology titled Dangers Untold, and when the submission call came out it ran something like (it’s been four years, so I forget the exact wording), we want stuff no one’s ever heard of. No vampires, werewolves, zombies or serial killers. Basically, if we’ve ever read it before, it’s not getting in.
Right around that time I’d had an idea for a novel involving a creature that fed on fear (I have novel ideas, they just haven’t been published yet). That was odd enough that it sounded like what they were looking for, but I didn’t want to ruin the novel idea by writing it as a short story. I took a half-step sideways to fear’s next-door neighbor, pain, and started from there. I created a protagonist whose job would put him in constant contact with pain—an EMT—then sort of handed him the ball, and let him run with it. The funny thing is the mutes, and their story, are nothing like that novel idea . . . which, someday, will hopefully also freak you out.
What drives the story?
JA- When writing your stories, do you find that the characters tend to lead them, or the action?
RS- The characters lead. In my mind, the way I work, they kind of have to: it’s their story, after all. When I sit down to write a story I’m just like you when you sit down to read one: I don’t know the characters yet, but I’ll learn about them as we go along. The more I write them, the more I understand how they would react to things—and their actions have to remain true to their character, or it just isn’t believable. If someone’s been a coward the whole time, I can’t just have them suddenly turn heroic for a scene simply because that would move the plot toward the ending I have in mind.
Sometimes the ending changes a little, and sometimes I have to add things in that force the character to do what I need done.
One of the best examples I have of the characters running the show is in an as-yet- unpublished novella concerning a family at a hotel. They started out just being there for a family vacation, and I was halfway through the story before I looked at the way the parents were acting—and reacting to each other—and realized they weren’t on a happy family vacation: this was a couple trying to rekindle the old spark before they split up and tore the family apart. I finished the story with that in mind, then went back and changed the first half to match. I didn’t alter their actions or dialogue, just the POV character’s thoughts on why they were there. It wound up being much more true to the tale the characters were trying to tell, and, I think, a much better story.
JA- Out of the whole collection, which story was your biggest challenge to complete?
RS- Oh, that would be “Wendigo.” And not because it’s the longest story in the book, either, but because part of me wanted it to be longer. The deal with “Wendigo” was that though it was supposed to be a short story, in my head it was turning into a novella. It’s about a man going mad, and I wanted to show it happening by degrees, being subtle with it because sometimes madness is a subtle thing: we tend not to see it happening, especially in ourselves. So I was trying to be subtle while telling this man’s story, and I found he had a lot to say—it’s one of the things I mentioned about letting your characters drive the story: sometimes they have a slightly different tale than the one you intended, and they take you for a ride.
So I found myself fighting for control of the wheel on this one, and while “Wendigo” didn’t quite wind up in novella country, it’s still twice as long as the traditional short story (the SFFWA defines a short story as “less than 7,500 words”). Though it is a complete story, for me it doesn’t feel finished, and I can’t read it without wanting to work on it again—though, to be fair, I don’t ever think of any story as being finished.
There’s always something you can rewrite, change, or tweak to make a story different. Sometimes that different is better, and I’m constantly looking for ways to make my stories better. The most I’ll ever say about a story, at least within my own heart, is that it’s finished for now, because I’m convinced that as I get better at writing (a lifelong pursuit), I’ll be more inclined to look back at work I’ve done and see ways I could have done things differently. Better.
No one else has read the story and found it lacking—in fact, most like it quite a bit. But for me, “Wendigo” feels a little less finished for now than the rest, and I had a hard time stopping work on it.
JA – Which are you most pleased with? Why?
RS- Most pleased with? I’d have to say “Death of the Boy,” the first story in the book.
Why? Well . . . you answered part of that yourself, Jeanette. I’m going to be all pretentious now and quote you back to yourself. In your review of Echoes of Darkness, you said:
“Not another zombie book,” I groaned while flipping from the first page of Echoes of Darkness after buckling up on the plane, “I just finished one!”
But then, a couple of paragraphs later, still talking about “Death of the Boy”:
“It very quickly barrels past the tropey traps through the use of interesting characters. By the time I reached the end of the ‘chapter’ I was invested in the journey of the leading young man, who had just survived a very shocking fishing trip.”
I know someone else who read that story before she was set to interview me, and her reaction took me by surprise: she’d started the story just before work, intending to finish it after she clocked out for the day. Instead, she found herself going back to it through the course of the morning, reading it piecemeal when she was supposed to be doing her job. She said she couldn’t put it down, even though she needed to.
That’s what I’ve been trying to learn to do. That’s one of the reasons I started writing short stories in the first place. Yes, I’ve gotten a good response with your favorite, “Mutes.” It’s others’ favorite, too. But if I can take something like zombies, something that is tired, and that people are burnt out on, and create a story that still captures and entertains, then I call that a win. If I can write stories about things people know—zombies, werewolves, ghosts, etc.—where they get to the end and say “Damn, That was really good!” then I take that as a sign of better things to come . . . when I get to the closet in my head where I’ve put the really creative stuff!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to writing something else to freak you out . . .
Connect with the Rob
Which scenario would you have found more upsetting? Clowns, or noises in the dark? Let me know in the comment section below. ❤