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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It's My Story, Damn It! -- An Interview with F. Paul Wilson

F. Paul Wilson will be appearing at the Love Is Murder Conference, Feb. 4-6, in Chicago.

1. Paul, you’ve said you don’t believe in gore on the page. You prefer to make the gross/horrific stuff happen in the reader’s head. Would you tell us more about that and why it works so well?

I tend to go by the maxim that less, if done properly, is more. I’ve been through med school and a rotating internship that included surgery. I’ve dissected a human body and I’ve been up to my wrists in blood in someone’s open abdomen. Blood and gore don’t get to me. I’m more disturbed by what I don’t see.

Remember the little girl in The Leopard Man banging on the door to her house to be let in because something was following her? Remember how you thought she’d get safely inside, but she didn’t? Remember how she screamed and went silent? Remember the blood flowing under the door?

I do. And in my mind I saw worse things happening than Jacques Tourneur could ever have shown on the screen. I first saw that scene in the 1950s and I still haven’t forgotten it.

Consider this scene from FATAL ERROR, the most recent Repairman Jack novel: I’ve got a bad guy tied up in a van. He has info he’s not giving up. It’s an improvised situation. The person who’s going to get that info arrives with a paper bag labeled “Ace Hardware,” gets in the van, and closes the door. I don’t need to take you into the van for the details. The Ace Hardware bag is unsettling, but what’s really chilling about the scene is that the person with the bag is an ordinary housewife whose little boy was seriously hurt by this man. Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned … but a scorned woman’s fury can’t hold a candle to that of the mother of a brutalized child. No, you do not want to be in that van.

2. You often write lean. How does one go about learning to write lean? What are the advantages of it? Is it simply your voice or is it a style you prefer?

I let the story choose the style. Lean and mean is good for the Repairman Jack novels—they’re dark and fast-paced—and that’s the style that’s defined my work over the past decade. But if you read The Keep, it’s quite a different style; it’s set in Europe in the early 40s and requires a more elaborate style. Black Wind spans nearly twenty years from the 1920s to the 1940s and involves a clash of cultures; that book demanded still another style.

Lean (but maybe not so mean) works well in the YA Repairman Jack novels. Because I use short, staccato prose, and short paragraphs, the Flesch-Kincaid level for my adult books is around fourth grade. So I didn’t have to change much except the language for YA.

3. Story comes first, you’ve said. How do you meld story and character? Please describe how you move from a story, a narrative thread, to a fleshed out book. How do the characters occur to you?

I rarely start with well-drawn characters because I don’t want the story hindered by what might or might not be consistent with a character. It’s my story, damn it, and you’ll do as you’re told.

In my first draft, the characters tend to serve the plot – but they take on flesh as they react to events or make them happen. Then I go back and further flesh them out into distinct individuals who would be capable (even if the don’t know it) of doing the things they do in the story. I determine what in their past, in their makeup, has made them into this person. And then they become real people.

Repairman Jack was an exception. He and The Tomb served each other. I needed a character who could survive the rooftop battle (even though I didn’t know what he’d be battling), but I wanted Jack to be mine. I took every cliché about the loner hero and turned it on its head. I made him blue-collar, self-taught, and fallible – a reaction to the super-competent, super-trained, always one-step-ahead-of-the-bad-guy Jason Bournes of the times. In fact, I decided on an anti-Jason Bourne – with no black-ops, SEAL, or Special Forces training, no CIA or police background, no connection to officialdom. In other words, no safety net. No one in the system he could call on because he’s under the system’s radar. He has to rely on his own wits and his own network.

Turned out people loved that. They could never be Jason Bourne; they have a better chance at being Jack. He’s a regular guy; people can see themselves having a beer with him.

4. You mentioned your editing process in one interview. Tell us more about it. Any suggestions for how we could all improve our editing? You’ve written so many books. How have you improved your editing skills?

By teaching at the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp. Parsing other people’s prose is such detail led to some eye-popping revelations when I returned to my own writing and realized I was committing many of the errors I’d been flagging in others. You know better, but you simply don’t see the errors in your own writing. I became much more conscious of my own prose. I can see a definite difference between my pre- and post-2005 writing. Editing others helped me edit myself.

5. You’ve said that marketing departments got mad at you because you “genre hopped,” talk about how much authors should or should not care about the marketing department. In today’s market, we all seem to want to please our agents and editors. But you seem to have listened to a voice inside, and it has served you well. Could you encourage the rest of us to do the same?

I’m usually two books ahead in my brain, and so I’ve always written the next book that’s ready to go. I’ve felt free to do that because I’ve always had another source of income. That’s one of the reasons a day job is important – it frees you from living advance to advance and allows more elbow room in your writing. You can never ignore your editor and the sales force, but you can challenge them. A day job also keeps you in contact with real people in the real world outside publishing, and that’s very valuable.

6. You have said that no one wanted your horror, which was your first love, until Steven King’s books made it big. Talk about staying true to what you love to write.

I wish I could puff out my chest and say that I’ve stayed true to my muse no matter what, but in reality I don’t have much choice. My brain is wired for the outré. I write weird stuff because that’s how I see the world. My first sale was to John Campbell for Analog – yeah, it was an SF story, but about intelligent mutant rats on interstellar cargo ships, and at the end they ate the bad guy alive. As I said: It’s the way I’m wired.

7. You believe that villains should have a code of honor. Explain that, and why it makes a book “sing.”

Not “should.” I don’t like to “should” on people. Remember, a villain doesn’t think of himself as the bad guy. And I think some of the most interesting villains do have a code that they follow. Fu Manchu and Hannibal Lecter are examples. Kusum in The Tomb had his code. But Rasalom, my big bad guy throughout the Secret History, has no code. He wants to win – by any means necessary. He’s the compleat sociopath, who feeds on pain and misery.

8. You write part-time. Talk about how you use your time, and how you make sure you stay on track with your writing. It’s pretty easy to let other stuff get in the way, and since you are a doctor, it sure seems like you would get some pretty important distractions.

Technically part-time, I guess, but it’s a much bigger part of my time than when I started out. In 1994, after twenty years of writing and practicing medicine each full-time, I cut my practice (I’m in a group) to Mondays and Tuesdays. Those are two long days that leave no time for writing. So, I write Wednesday through Sunday. I try to do a minimum of a thousand words a day on those 5 days. That allows me to accrue 100k words (usually more) in 20 weeks.

As for part-time writing, here's what worked for me: I found a minimum of 3 first-draft double-spaced pages per day did the trick. That's 21/week. At that rate you've got over 540 pages in 6 months. That's a decent-sized novel.

In writing those 3 pages pre day, avoid tinkering with them. This stalls you by fooling you into thinking you're still writing. You're not. And you're losing momentum. Get them down and then leave them alone and go on to the next 3. The time to fix and hone them is after you've finished that all-important first draft. You'll know your characters better then and can go back and make meaningful edits and additions.

When I was practicing full time I'd use commuting time to mentally compose my next pages so that I'd be primed when I sat down at the keyboard. That’s a key point: TURN OFF THE DAMN RADIO AND TAKE OFF THE DAMN HEADPHONES. Stop wasting valuable time listening to other people's words. You're a writer. When you're driving or walking around you should be working on YOUR words -- the words you want to tell other people.

9. You teach writing. If there was one lesson that every student could learn, what might that be? What mistakes do you see people making over and over?

Matters what you want from writing. If being a dilettante suffices, then write when the mood hits you. But if you want to have a career in writing, I think you’ve got to write every day. Even when you don’t have a story, reconstruct conversations, describe settings in new ways, and save it all for later cannibalization. If writing is a career, then it’s got to be part of your everyday life.

10. The scene that sparked Repairman Jack came to you in a dream. How did you happen upon his character? You make a big deal of one of the character’s (Kusum’s sister’s) physical beauty, but you also emphasize that beauty and sexual competency are not ultimately as fulfilling as the union of two souls. Pretty romantic for an action hero. Comments?

As I’ve said, I deliberately designed him as the antipode of the typical thriller hero. I wanted to do the same with his relationships. No new-book / new-girlfriend scenario. That allows for more sex, brings more hormones into play, and that’s exciting, but I decided to go for a stable relationship. I did, however, choose a woman who’s very unlike him – a single mother and a functioning member of society – and, even though they share core values, there’s a lot of conflict. But we can’t always choose who we fall for, and conflict is the heart of drama. The relationship has mellowed Jack, something I didn’t see coming.

11. I find the concept of Repairman Jack fascinating. There’s a Hebrew phrase “tikkun olem” which refers to “repair of the world.” Are you familiar with it? I know your political leanings factor into what you write. Do you see writing as a way each of us can repair the world?

People write for many reasons. For some it’s self expression. For others it’s the words themselves, for others it’s the sheer joy or telling a story. For some it’s an o-c disorder. And for still others it’s because they’re pathological liars and fiction allows them a socially acceptable outlet for their affliction. Too often it’s to achieve a sort of immortality—the hope that something of theirs will go on living after they’re dead. Woody Allen once addressed this in a typically pragmatic way. “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work—I want to achieve it through not dying.”

I believe the “repair the world” approach causes far more problems than it solves – rife with unintended consequences. All politics are local, all repairs are local. Jack shuns the world. He repairs only his world, and that’s a big difference. I’ll repair things right around me, and you repair things around you, and that guy over there will repair things around him, and so on and so on. And eventually, by default, maybe we’ll fix the world. Maybe not.

12. You’ve created such a tight-knit community among your fans. You even play get-togethers with them. What’s the secret to developing and maintaining such a loyal following? How do you balance your personal privacy with being so available to your fans?

It’s not so hard, really. A littler interaction goes a long way. I answer email, participate in the Forum, go to conventions, do signings where I hang out with readers afterward. I happen to like my readers. On the whole I’ve found them to be very bright and fun to be with. But it’s probably the Secret History that glues us. All the interlocking stories challenge them to come up with more connections binds them to each other as well as me. We’ve become this large, polymorphous organism.

F. Paul Wilson is an award-winning, best-selling author of more than 40 books in genres including science fiction, horror thrillers, contemporary thrillers, and novels that defy categorization. The Keep, one of the novels in his Repairman Jack series, was made into a major motion picture. Visit his website at


Alan Orloff said...

Excellent interview, Paul and Joanna! Very interesting.

Paul--I met you in an elevator at Thrillerfest. I was the guy who practically insisted you were from the D.C. area, even after you told me you weren't. Sorry about that!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Alan, let's hope Repairman Jack doesn't visit you!

Judy Harper said...

Just wanted to stop by and tell you how much I appreciate your comment on FB, especially the "Killer Hobbies". Very helpful! Thanks!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Judy, that's very kind of you. My KH Blog Sisters are a great bunch. I've learned a lot from them, as I have from Paul and this interview. This is a very sharing type of business. Lucky for us!

Brenda and Jerry Hall said...

That was a wonderful interview with F Paul Wilson. I found it personable and informative. I thank the two of you for having it and posting it.
Jerry Hall

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

You are very welcome. I always learn a lot from my interviews.