Welcome to Part Two of Confessions of a Reviewers interview with Duncan Ralston.
In tonight’s section, Duncan starts by answering some specific questions on his new book Gristle and Bone: 7 Delectable Tales of Terror, continues to talk about his writing and life in general and tackles The Ten Confessions.
It’s nearly the weekend so go grab some pizza, a beer, sit back, but mostly……enjoy!
COAR - Moving on to Gristle and Bone, this is quite a mixture of stories. How did you decide which stories would be included?
DR - What's included in Gristle & Bone are stories that had been percolating while I worked on Salvage and ultimately, when the struggle to get that story out became too much, I decided to get them onto paper.
After about six months, I came out with ten stories in total, and I only realized after I'd selected the best that some of them kind of fit together. It was entirely accidental. When I set out to write them, I thought of doing a wraparound story called The Blood Letters, sort of an homage to Clive Barker's Books of Blood, which are also very loosely collected. After reading Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts, I decided it wasn't necessary. Let the stories stand on their own merit.
What I set out to do was show as wide a range as possible in style and subgenre of horror (be it body, psychological, monster, paranormal, technological, etc.). Not sure I quite achieved that, but it started with good intentions.
Ultimately, I chose what I felt to be the best of what I had to offer. I was going to release a smaller collection titled The Leftovers at some point, but I'll probably gather up some more for a longer book in a year or two. So look out for The Blood Letters in… say, mid- to late-2016.
COAR - You have certainly proven in this collection that you have a very wide base for your definition of the words “horror” and “terror”. Do you have a particular favourite “sub-genre” that you like? All out slasher or psychological?
DR - Character is first and foremost for me. Beyond that, it's all just window dressing.
I do seem to be a bit more interested in the psychological aspects of horror, though there’s some great stuff in the slasher genre when it's not too busy concerning itself with the female anatomy. I love monster stuff, and tend to appreciate a little sympathy for the beast, which I suppose leans toward the psychological again. That's why I love Clive Barker's work, and Thomas Harris's Red Dragon. Francis Dollarhyde, aka “The Tooth Fairy,” is one of the most well-drawn serial killers in horror literature. For me, it's Dollarhyde that really pushes that novel to the height of genre classic. Hannibal Lecter was only developed in subsequent novels.
COAR - The novella “Scavengers” you include in this collection has all the hallmarks of a Richard Laymon story from the ‘80’s. Was this a conscious decision or just how it flowed?
DR - I don't think it was deliberate. The only story I've read of Laymon's was The Cellar, and that was when I was very young. I remember a lot of graphic description of rape/bestiality, and very little else from that… a monster with a bifurcated penis comes to mind. I've actually been trying to remember the title of that book for a while now. For the longest time I thought it was called Dead & Buried, and couldn't imagine how they'd made that movie from what I'd read, as the only similarity seems to be that there's a house in both of them. It's probably one of the wildest books I'd read when I was younger. Maybe a little of that madness seeped in.
The working title was Night of the Scavengers, and when I first started working on it there was no narrator—it was a bit more schlock horror, as the title suggests. The restaurateurs discover the human monsters eating out of their dumpsters are the reason pets have been disappearing all over town, and they decide to do something about it. That version just didn't work for me, I couldn't get into it.
I knew I wanted to set it in a small town, that it would be a small town tragedy. The Sandy Hook shooting was still fresh in my memory, and the narrator's voice just sort of evolved from that. My biggest influence, believe it or not, was Stephen King's The Green Mile. Even though there's no real similarities to the stories, in my head the narrator sounds very similar to Tom Hanks's Paul Edgecombe.
COAR - One or two parts throughout the collection made me sick in my own mouth. How do you write this stuff without being sick yourself? How do you stop yourself? Where do you draw the line?
DR - Did it? I hope it tasted as good the second time around.
I try not to draw lines in what I write. One of the things I enjoy about horror is that it deliberately crosses boundaries. Where some genres say, "You must not tread here," horror treads, and lingers, and lays down roots. I will admit much of what I write sickens me; it's part of the fun. But a few stories I've written recently, one of which is a part of the upcoming charity anthology, The Black Room Manuscripts, brought me to some very dark places I'd rather not visit again soon (but probably will).
The novel I wrote in 2012 involved a blood orgy at an old folks' home. That was a fun scene to write, imagining the reactions to it. Don’t know that it’ll survive a new draft, if I ever get back to it.
COAR - I mention a couple of times in my review (which you haven’t seen yet and won’t until everyone else does) that you are what I would call a “storyteller” and not just a writer. Is this something you have worked on or is it just the way you write. It’s fine to NOT be modest.
DR - It's something I've worked on a lot, but honestly, I find myself envious of what appears to be easy talent in other writers. I'm sure they're agonizing over every word the way I often do, but it doesn't come across like that on the page. I'd love to get a peek over their shoulders while they're working. Or through their webcams.
I'd spent years working on my "voice," which is paramount in screenwriting, since the script is just a bare-bones blueprint for a movie. Voice makes it entertaining, without being too intrusive. “White space” is something you have to be very conscious of; meaning the blank parts of the page need to be the majority, unlike in a novel where you expect a whole lot of words. Nobody in Hollywood wants to read pages of description. (Although veteran screenwriters are given a free pass to violate this rule: Tarantino, William Goldman and Shane Black are known for being particularly verbose.)
When I came back to writing prose after a ten to twelve-year break, it was like busting out of prison. Finally I could say everything I'd wanted to say. I could finish stories (I mostly wrote TV scripts, which of course are open-ended, except in the case of the miniseries). I wanted to try every narrative style, every trope. The trick was trying to reign some of that excitement in. As a result, I've learned to love cutting.
Reading a lot and absorbing a lot of different styles is likely what's helped the most. I used to read maybe ten books a year. Now it's probably closer to thirty or forty, since I read two at a time: one physical, one on my Kindle (product placement).
COAR - What’s the most difficult part of writing for you?
DR - Outlining is my least favorite part, so I try to do it as little as possible. This often causes more drafts than necessary, but half of the fun of writing for me comes from finding the story as I write it. I may flail a fair bit, but I'd rather wander off into the dark woods than stay on the path.
Starting a new story comes a close second. It’s a mix of excitement and dread. The first ten pages make or break a novel, the first page for a short story (though these days it's probably closer to one page with a novel, one paragraph for a short story). So getting those firsts just right takes some time.
Third is deciding when the story's as good as I can make it on my own and it's time to let someone else in.
COAR - What would your ultimate wish be with your writing?
DR - The ultimate goal is for people to read it! But it would be great to see something of mine on the big or “little” screen. I spent many years writing (and rewriting) scripts that have only now started to get a moderate amount of headway, and it would be cool for some of that work to pay off.
COAR - What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
DR - Read. Watch television. Walk the dog. Go hiking. Cook. Travel. Play board games. Hang out with my girlfriend, our dog, and friends. I'm not the reprobate my writing might make me out to be.
COAR - What secrets are in your “secret room” on your website? Is it a secret?
DR - It's a place where I plan to share stuff with readers before it hits the general public, sort of like a fan club for a band. If you're a member of The Fold, you'll get exclusive content, access to Advanced Reader Copies and sneak peeks at new stories, books covers, and ideas before anyone else. It's still a very new concept, but I hope to make it a large part of the website content.
COAR - What’s coming in the future from Duncan Ralston?
DR - I've got a handful of short stories coming out in various anthologies, starting with The Black Room Manuscripts in early August. September marks the release of my first novel, Salvage. Beyond that, I'm hoping to release at least book a year until I run out of ideas. Or kick the bucket, whichever comes first.
THE TEN CONFESSIONS
1 Who would you view as your main competitor in the writing world?
I don't feel like I'm in a competition with anyone. We all want to attract the attention of new readers, but I feel like the majority of us are content to share the spotlight, eager to help others get their foot in the door. There are some egos, but they're few and far between, as far as I've seen. Some of the stuff these small press and indie writers are doing blows my mind with how good it is, but I only want to see them succeed.
If I had to pick someone, I'd say Blake Crouch—not that I'm anywhere on his radar. Those Wayward Pines novels are ludicrous, and they've been at the top of the horror bestseller list for months, higher than the juggernauts of horror. Who is reading this stuff? It's not horror, it's a soap opera, one ridiculous twist after another.
2 What book or author have you read that you think should never have been published?
See: above. Also, James Patterson is just atrocious. He doesn't even write his own stories anymore, just outlines, and farms them out to writers who for the most part don't get credit for their work. He's not a writer, he's an industry. I could make fun of Dean Koontz and Dan Brown, but they're literary geniuses compared to Patterson. They know how to craft a story. A lot of people say you "have to respect" artists who make it big despite poor craft, as if success equals quality. That's horseshit. Donald Trump is a success. Do I need to respect his crazy ass?
3 Are any of the things your characters have experienced in your books been based on something that has actually happened to you? What was it?
The vacation in Fat of the Land was loosely based on a vacation my girlfriend and I took to the California coast. I saw a very rich white man being tended to by his Hispanic servants… they were dressing him, basically, in his scuba gear. I thought it was absurd. He was an able-bodied man, and these people were dressing him like he was a child. This little seaside town, where everyone is either rich or tourists or "the help." Beautiful town, stunning views. I thought… what if something really bad was happening here, just beneath the surface?
The food was great, though. And as far as I know, we didn't partake in any human meat.
4 Have you ever blatantly stolen an idea or scene and adapted it for one of your own books? If so, care to share?
When I was a kid, sure. All the time. These days I try to be very conscious of where my ideas are coming from. If anything feels too familiar, too cliché, I cut it, or warp it so at least it's got a different spin.
5 Have you ever anonymously left a bad review for someone else’s book? If so, care to share?
Not anonymously, no. I left a bad review on an abysmal "horror phrasebook" recently. Who does that benefit, aside from the writer? It preys on newbies looking for a magic bullet approach to success, and it’ll only be harmful to the genre, saturating the market with same same same. The guy's built himself a little cult, where he can do no wrong in the indie publishing industry. That’s not how it should be. It probably sounds petty, but I can’t stand it when people take advantage of others.
6 What’s the one thing you are least proud of doing in your life and why?
Only one thing? When I was a kid I had to go to the hospital (I was there a fair bit, probably why I’m so messed up), and my roommate was a kid with Cystic Fibrosis, five or six years old. His mother would come in every day and pound on his back for hours just so he could breathe for a little while. He was a great kid, and his mother told me when I was discharged he would love it if I kept in touch. I was a shy kid, hated talking on the phone, especially long distance, I had a lot of problems of my own to deal with, and so I never called. That’s one thing, if I could take it back I would.
7 What’s the one thing you are MOST proud of doing in your life and why?
It's probably corny, but I feel most proud when I can help someone else, even if it’s something simple like directions, or grabbing something down from a high shelf (which is difficult for me, being relatively short).
As far as accomplishments go, I think it’s pretty cool that Forsaken has republished my little self-published book, and that they’ll also be publishing my debut novel in the fall. I won a couple of awards for the TV pilot script mentioned earlier, The Valley, and that felt pretty good too.
8 What’s your biggest fault?
Quick to anger (if these Confessions have proven anything). I’m working on that.
9 What is your biggest fear?
Public speaking. I suppose I’ll have to work on that.
10 If you had to go to confession now, what would be the one thing you would need to get off your chest?
Like, in a church? Well, I think I'd probably have to start by telling the priest I'm not religious. If he's cool with that, he'll be in for a treat!
EDIT: The judges deemed this as an unacceptable confession and harassed Mr. Ralston for a new one and this is what came back.
In the 7th grade I used to get my ass kicked pretty much daily by three gigantic kids, so one day I sneaked out of school to go home and watch horror movies with a friend. He chickened out at the last minute, but it was already too late for me to go back to class. One of my brothers (I have four) had rented Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Child's Play the night before, and I did a double-bill.
About halfway through Klowns the house started rumbling. My dog came running into the living room, whimpering. Lamps swinging, glass rattling; I thought for sure the Klown ships were arriving on Earth. So I guess that's two confessions: one, that I skipped school to watch horror movies (shocker), and two, that I thought the Killer Klowns were coming to turn me and my dog into cotton candy. To be fair, it turned out to be aftershocks from the Saguenay earthquake in Quebec, which measured 5.9 on the Richter scale.
Well that, unfortunately, is the end of the interview. You should, by now, know nearly all you need to know about Duncan Ralston.
If you want to know more then come back tomorrow night when I will be posting my review of Gristle and Bone and will provide you with all the links to buy it and all the links you need in case you want to get in touch with Duncan or just follow what he’s doing.
I want to say a personal thanks to Duncan for giving up his precious time to take part in this interview and put up with me harassing him for answers.
Thanks again for visiting Confessions of a Reviewer!