Today’s guest is Peter Balaskas…we’re a stop on his blog tour today. Please read on for a fun, lovely interview…how can you not like someone who uses the phrase “Therein lies the rub”?
My first published book was a short novel called THE GRANDMASTER, which was also published by Bards and Sages Press. I have been outlining a whole series of stories (short stories to novels) which stems from that short novel (what I call the Wagner Mythos tales). A few of those short stories have been published; one story, “A Bottle of Jyn” was another Bards and Sages publication. After THE GRANDMASTER, the logical step was to write the first story of that series; THE GRANDMASTER, chronologically, takes place in the middle of that timeline. So, I would be writing a number of “prequel” novels, for lack of a better term.
But therein lies the rub: I wasn’t ready to write a full length novel in terms of my narrative technique. THE GRANDMASTER, as well as many of my published fiction, are in first person. First person narrative comes easy for me and I know that my supernatural crime novels, as well as the gothic horror novels that will follow, would flow better in third person. And my third person narrative wasn’t very polished, as well as other aspects of my writing style. I needed to grow as a writer in a technical and creative sense.
So, my goal was to create a story collection whose tales are intertwined, and whose themes, plots, and writing styles are slightly, if not completely, different from each other. And by doing so, I might be able to grow as a writer in terms of my technique. This is how IN OUR HOUSE was created. Two of the stories I wrote years ago and I completely revised them for the occasion. Some I wrote during the Master’s Program at Loyola Marymount University. Some I wrote specifically for this collection. And after I finished HOUSE, my learning curve has grown dramatically in terms of style and themes.
The main literary influences for HOUSE’s structure and style were Ray Bradbury’s THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, Harlan Ellison’s THE DEATHBIRD STORIES, and Haruki Murikami’s AFTER THE QUAKE. All three story collections contained intertwined stories. This can be also said with IN OUR HOUSE: the reader has a glimpse of eight speculative fiction tales that are connected to each other, but each style is different: “Duet” has third person narrative with poetry; “Let Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot,” “Wash Cycle,” and “Crossing the Styx” are classic Twilight Zone horror tales (the first two are third person and the last is first person); “Id” is a first person black comedy; “Blessed Are Those” and “Touched” are spiritual morality tales (which is similar to stories written by Catholic author J.F. Powers, although I wasn’t familiar with his work during that time), and the title piece of the collection, “In His House,” is a post-apocalyptic novella that turned out to be one of the hardest stories I have ever written (although I did write the first draft in 23 hours straight through): it was not only in third person, the name of the protagonist is never revealed. Haruki Murakami did the same thing with an unnamed protagonist in his novel A WILD SHEEP CHASE and I wanted to see if I could pull that off. According to the online magazine, Bewildering Stories, I did pull it off. They not only published the story, they named it Editor’s Choice.
So, as far as IN OUR HOUSE is concerned, the reader will enter a world where characters face extraordinary circumstances. And if the readers pay close attention, they can see the thematic thread that connects them together. It was featured and performed at The New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood last year (http://www.newshortfictionseries.com/) and it was accepted for publication by Bards and Sages soon after.
Tell us a little about one of your favorite minor characters. Will they show up in another book?
I knew for a fact that all my Wagner Mythos tales were going to be intertwined. And even though HOUSE wasn’t technically a Wagner Mythos book, I wanted it to be connected to the same “story world” as my other works. The one major character who connects HOUSE with the Wagner Mythos tales is Mike Cicero, the protagonist in “Duet.” I love Mike; the story is very autobiographical in many different ways and he and Cate are my most favorite characters in the book. And he’ll have a cameo appearance in a future Wagner Mythos tale (with another alter-ego of mine) years down the line. But his encounter with Chazz Lennox (his abusive foreman) in “Duet” is a significant connection because Chazz plays a major antagonist role in the next book I’m presently writing, which takes place years BEFORE he became foreman in “Duet.” Is Lennox my favorite minor character in HOUSE? Absolutely not. He’s based on the worst, most self-loathing professional bully I have ever encountered in my life. But both Mike and Lennox play important roles in future stories yet to come.
What is your favorite thing about writing? What is the best part of world building for you?
I think the best part about writing, about creating these characters and worlds, is it provides three things for me: an escape from reality (especially when it comes to personal pain), it serves as a conduit for tapping into some passionate energy—a determined drive—that every artist has, and/or it can help the artist face a truth either about himself or a situation that he/she faces. I have a philosophy: To speak your mind and write from your heart. Unfortunately, the first part of that philosophy has gotten me into trouble a few more times than I care to admit. But when it comes to writing—whether it’s in a journal, poetry, or prose—you can’t fake that. The truth of the artist comes out from the work, if that makes sense. When I return to a story and I take my characters through extraordinary circumstances, it feels as though I’m visiting old friends. And best of all, when my readers understand what I am trying to convey, especially seeing facets of my story that I didn’t even notice myself, it’s at that point that the work has a life of its own. I love describing new worlds, I love the interior conflicts that characters face (or try to hide from) and I love creating machine-gun dialog between characters that oftentimes moves like a couple swing-dancing on the dance floor.
How did you get started in writing? When did you realize that you were a story teller?
I think it all started when I was a little kid and I was re-creating famous scenes from my favorite old monster and science fiction movies, thanks to a HUGE box of crayons and a number of sketch pads. I still have those old drawings and I smile at the innocence of my youth. I knew back then I wanted to conjure tales, but I didn’t have the tools back then to pursue that goal. I was/am a TV, film, theatre, and comic book geek and I wanted to be in the arts somehow. When I was in high school, I read Bradbury’s THE MARTIAN CHRONICALS and THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, which changed my life when it came to loving speculative fiction and I wanted to be more than a reader. I did some creative writing during my undergraduate years, but life came into the picture I went through a number of career changes. I was a theatre actor for a number of years, and since I was a movie fan, I delved into the art of creating dialogue and learning the importance of character. Dialogue and plot is my forte (my years in theatre and watching films was a huge education), but writing fiction is a hell of a lot more than that. It wasn’t until I expanded my horizons into literature while attending the Graduate Program at Loyola Marymount University that helped me grow as a storyteller (I got a MA in English, Double Emphasis in Creative Writing and Literature). I didn’t get a lot out of the Creative Writing Program there, except it taught me more about editing than writing, but the literature courses and their reading curriculum were excellent. After I graduated with my Masters and created my publishing business, Ex Machina Press (www.exmachinapress.com), the creative dam broke and I’ve been pursing my craft ever since, trying to evolve as a storyteller with each passing day.
How do you come up with your ideas? Do you start with an image, a character…?
For me: a story can be created from just about anything: dreams, people that I meet, current events, music, movies, plays, what have you. But it all starts with the characters; they always drive the story, with plot and dialogue coming in at a very close second. The one thing I love about Harlan Ellison is he sometimes gives “author notes” after each story in a collection (or he combines them together at the end of the book) and shares why he wrote the story in the first place.
Each story in HOUSE was created under different circumstances. “Duet” is pretty much a no brainer: I had writer’s block; poetry, classical music, and a lovely muse who I am eternally grateful for brought me out of it. “Let Auld” was a salute to Rod Serling and THE TWILIGHT ZONE. “Wash Cycle” was created while I was body-surfing along the waves in Maui during their Writer’s Retreat. “Id” was inspired by a question during a philosophy class: “What if our limbs took over our bodies?” “Blessed are Those” was a combination of my interest in World War Two history and my Traditional Catholic faith. “Crossing the Styx” was inspired when a mortician was sharing with me his supernatural experiences (I mentioned him in my Acknowledgements, but I am ashamed to say I forgot his name. And we met in a totally random way: in Vegas, of all places!).
“Touched” was inspired by someone asking me a profound question that serves as the foundation for the story. “In His House” came from both a dream and another major influence which I can’t reveal because it would give the twist of the story away.
As you can see, all these stories came from such diverse sources and it is a writer’s job to capture that moment and somehow harness that source material, focusing it like a lens. I think Donald Margulies stated it perfectly in his play BROOKLYN BOY. I’m paraphrasing here, but one of his characters revealed that a writer’s creativity is composed of three parts: Invention, Imagination, and Memory. I also like to include passionate insanity, but that just me.
If you had a monster living under your bed, what would you name it?
No monsters are allowed anywhere near me. My muse is a very protective woman. If anyone wants to know who she is, they have to read the first story in my collection, “Duet.” :- D
If you had to share a house with a vampire, a werewolf or a ghost, which would you pick?
See previous answer. Although as far as vampires are concerned, I have been constantly targeted by them for the last twenty years. It’s called The Los Angeles Dating Scene. But my muse has scared them away. Also, I moved away from L.A. a year ago, and life is wonderful living at the beach.
What are three of your favorite movies?
I have favorite movies per genre: horror, comedy, action, etc. And they would be too many to count. Up until about a year ago, I had only one favorite movie of all time: THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. It’s my favorite for a number of reasons: It’s the best film adaptation of a Stephen King story I have ever seen; it’s themes about hope transcend time; and, by chance, I saw it in three different countries when it first came out. It bombed at the box office in the U.S., but it sold out in England and Ireland.
Now, SHAWSHANK shares my #1 favorite film spot with THE KING’S SPEECH, which is one of the most humane stories I have ever seen, especially since it’s based on a true story. Wonderful ensemble cast (Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter are two of my favorite actors), well-written, and beautifully paced. But two things won me over with regard to that film. The first is how Tom Hooper (the director) used Beethoven’s 7th (second movement) as background for the king’s speech. I mentioned before that music plays an important role in my writing and that piece is one of my favorites, if not my favorite of Beethoven’s. I’ve heard that piece many times in film, but that was the first where it was used with absolute perfection. In fact, I utilized that piece myself in both of my books: THE GRANDMASTER and “Crossing the Styx” in IN OUR HOUSE. I’m going to try not to use it in every book I write, but it will be hard.
The second reason why SPEECH became a favorite of mine is because of its screenwriter, David Seidler. One thing that blew me away was he honored the Queen Mother’s (King George VI’s wife) request NOT to write the screenplay while she was still alive (because the story was too painful for her to remember). And he waited over 20 years before the Queen Mother passed away and he began writing the story. And the fact that he won the Oscar, making him the oldest winner in that category, inspires me in two ways: 1) You can create a beautiful story and STILL maintain your integrity, and 2) It doesn’t matter how old you are, a writer can ultimately succeed with class and especially, HUMILITY.
What writers have inspired you the most?
In terms of the authors that have provided my initial foundation with regard to speculative fiction, it all started with Ray Bradbury. As I mentioned before, THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES changed my life and altered my vision when it comes to speculative fiction. Then came Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Richard Matheson.
In terms of the scariest horror I have ever read, which is my favorite sub-genre in speculative fiction? My favorite authors would include William Peter Blatty (THE EXORCIST is my scariest novel and movie to date), Edgar Allen Poe, Dean Koontz, and H.P. Lovecraft. I would have to include Stephen King, as well. His novels and especially his characters seem to jump out from the page with their dimensionality and especially their dialogue. Lately, though, he’s starting to get formulaic and overdo it on the violence just for the sake of writing violence. But his older works, and especially his DARK TOWER series, are horror classics.
But then there are authors of literary fiction that have influenced me in terms of strengthening my narrative voice, my “poetics”, for lack of a better term. There’s James Joyce (PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN is one of my favorite novels), James Lee Burke, Dante, Hemmingway, Haruki Murakami, Steinbeck, and especially Louise Erdrich (not only a talented writer, but one of the classiest authors I have ever met. Absolutely no sign of ego AT ALL).
What is the biggest mistake that new writers make?
Never drink while corresponding through e-mail. More dangerous than drinking and driving.
There are two biggest mistakes I see writers commit. The first has to do with attitude, rather than technique. Pride in your work is one thing; arrogance that you are the hottest thing around since sliced bread is a different animal. The first title that was published by Ex Machina Press was a fiction anthology called Silent Voices: a Creative Mosaic of Fiction, Volume One. And I utilized a quote from one of my favorite authors: James Lee Burke:
“And every artist who is honest—and most of them are when it comes
to their talent, the real ones—they will be the first to state the talent they
have, whatever degree of it they have, comes from someplace outside of
themselves. And those who claim that in effect they have manufactured
their art out of the wellspring of their own experiences who become, in
effect, arrogant and vain about their talent, are doomed to lose it. And
it’s taken from them and it’s given to somebody else. But almost every
artist will tell you that it comes from someplace outside of themselves. I
think there’s something truly mystical about art, that art is the one area in which we share in the province of God.”
When creating a work of art—writing, acting, filmmaking, music—it takes confidence, passion, disciple and a HEALTHY dose of pride and ego. However, when writers get too involved inside their own heads and a sense of egocentric behavior is developed, to the extent that they project their arrogance towards fellow writers, that is where the writer falls from artistic grace, and they fall badly. You create a work, you become proud of that work, but then you harness a type of HUMILITY and GRATITUDE that you were able to do something that not many people can do. You don’t become an arrogant, elitist snob about it to others.
And this type of artistic humility is something that should be taught in creative writing programs. Unfortunately, it isn’t (especially at Loyola Marymount University, where I received both my BS and my MA), and that leads to the second mistake I see writer’s commit (especially young writers): choosing an inferior creative writing program in order to improve your writing. I was extremely disappointed by the snobbery and literary bigotry that was present at the Creative Writing Program at LMU. The elitist arrogance was mainly shown by the various graduate student cliques over there. It’s something that the faculty in the English Department should have placed a muzzle on during their classes, especially the creative writing workshops. I was disparaged by some faculty and most of the graduate students because I write “genre,” which isn’t considered to be “true literature” in their eyes. During my time there, the workshops taught me two things: how to be an objective editor and how to deal with the privileged, literary snobs who are immersed in their own egos and talent (and many of them were talented authors). If the faculty at L.M.U. (or any esteemed creative writing programs in the country) reinforced their workshops with a strong sense of moral ethics, the atmosphere wouldn’t be hostile to mainstream writers. And that was the reason why I created Ex Machina Press at the time. It didn’t matter what kind of writing or “genre” you were writing, as long as the quality was good. It was a nurturing atmosphere for all our contributors and it felt good to create a venue where the goal was to help the writer grow within their work, not their personal, self-serving egos. I hope that the environment improves over there, as well as other creative writing programs that seem to turn a blind eye to literary snobbery, which discourages so many young writers who have a gift for telling good mainstream stories.
So, the best way for a writer to avoid the habit of creating and projecting elitist ego can be summed up when St. Bernard of Clairvaux was asked to name the four Cardinal Virtues, and he answered “Humility, humility, humility, humility.” And that is a true testament of any artist. It’s a test for me constantly. Whenever a positive situation happens with my own writing, I do need to spread the word about it because, speaking as a writer who has no agent nor publicist, I have to market and promote my own work in order to help with sales. That’s simple professional survival. I learned that when I was owner, editor and marketing director of Ex Machina Press, and I’m applying that experience to my own work. However, my test is to not overdo it. Hopefully, I’m staying on that road and I’m practicing what I’m preaching.
What are you working on now?
I am now back on track writing my first full length novel that is part of the Wagner Mythos series, which I started with THE GRANDMASTER. Only this book—and the next few after that—will precede before that short novel. In the beginning of THE GRANDMASTER, Dr. Wagner (the protagonist) mentions in his journal regarding a lot of things that happened before his recent diary entries. This first novel is the first missing piece in that puzzle. It’s a supernatural thriller that deals with a psychic hunting a vicious serial killer. I’m in the research stage and I’ll be writing the main text very soon. I’ve written in many forms: short story, short-short story, novella, and the short novel form. It’s time to go to the next step. It’s not only a necessity in a creative sense, but also professionally as well because that is what agents are looking for: novelists that can write a series of exciting tales. And I hope to be one of those that are worthy of representation, God willing.