A Conversation with Erik Williams
I first met Erik Williams back in – hmmmm – 2002 (?) in Baltimore at a writer’s workshop. I was new to writing then, showing up at a workshop where I didn’t know anyone and with no idea of whether or not I actually had any ability. At the first dinner on that first night, Erik, who I didn’t know, leaned across the cafeteria table we were all at and said, “So I hear you have a car. We should make a beer run.” That was pretty much the start of our friendship and our writers group, too, as the others who went with us – Sam W. Anderson, John Mantooth, and Petra Miller – are all still close today.
As you’ll see, Erik is nothing if not incredibly prolific. He writes at an amazing clip, finishing a handful of short stories and one or two novels a year. And he sells them, too, something that not a lot of writers can say. His latest novel, Progeny, is horror-based crime novel filled with death cults and one super creepy femme fatale. We talked over the course of last week about his writing philosophy, pulp writers, and his awesomeness.
Me: You know, I’d prefer to start simple, but I have no idea where to start with you. You seem to have a new book or short story out each month, the latest being Progeny. So let’s start with this – how the hell is it possible that you turn out so many works? Or am I just blinded by the fact that it takes me months to finish one story and years to finish one novel?
Erik: It’s pretty simple, really. I just write awesome first drafts. That and I do a lot of cocaine. Talent and drugs are fantastic teammates.
Seriously, though, it comes down to my style. I’m a minimalist who likes the story to keep moving. Lots of dialogue. Short sentences. No dripping prose. By the time I’m done, I don’t have that revision where I strip out all the useless adjectives or adverbs. They’re not there. All that’s left is making sure it all makes sense and flows nicely.
But being awesome helps. And if there’s one thing I am, it’s awesome.
Me: I’m sure the coke helps, and yeah, your style lends itself to quick turnover, but what about actual plotting? Does the more creative aspect of the process – the plot, twists, story logic, etc. – slow you down at all? Or are you just awesome all around?
Erik: I’m all kinds of awesome. But that’s a whole different discussion.
Thankfully, plotting comes easy to me. Probably because I tend to visualize the plot like a movie. Lay it all out in my head scene-by-scene. But I don’t lay it out in a way that it reads “And then this happens and then this happens and so on and so on…”
I buy into the South Park way. Rather than linking events with a “and then this happens” I approach with either “because this happened” or “therefore this happens”. It’s a great way of ensuring there’s a logic to your plot from beginning to end. So, the plot starts to look like: “This happened because this happened and therefore this happens”. A logic tree. Wee!
Then again, my plots aren’t overly complicated. Which helps, too.
The only thing that slows me down is enthusiasm for the work. Let’s face it, a novel, no matter how fast you write it, can be a slog. There’s parts you love writing and parts you have to muscle fuck your way through. It gets easy with each passing book. You learn tricks like “Do I really need this scene that’s crushing my nuts as I try to write it?” Nine times out of ten, you don’t. Starting scenes closer to the end of them. In late, out early. Don’t waste time with shit that doesn’t matter. Nobody cares what your character did between work and dinner if it’s not important to the character or plot. Just jump to dinner (assuming something important happens there, of course).
Another useful trick is ensuring your story follows a sine wave. If your character starts off a chapter on a good note, throw some trouble his or her way by the end of the chapter. The next chapter, start with the trouble and then end the chapter with maybe a reprieve or at least a sign of hope. The shifts back and forth help prevent the plot and characters from becoming…in professional terms…fucking boring.
Me: That South Park example is great in terms of plotting. (Note: If you’ve never seen this clip featuring Parker and Stone, watch it now). And you’re right, your plots don’t slog at all. Progency moves very quickly and is very cinematic – moving from scene to scene with very little fat. On one hand it’s a detective novel, but there are definite horror elements here. I’m trying to think of a movie or book that smashes these together and Angel Heart is the best I can come up with. Was it difficult to combine these genres?
Erik: Not difficult at all. If you think about it a moment, there’s not much difference between horror and crime novels. The only thing that changes is the monsters is human in the latter. It’s not much of a leap to take the natural elements of crime novels and mix in the supernatural.
The great thing about using the crime/detective novel to set a supernatural horror story in is the verisimilitude is already there. You know the characters, the criminal element. The smart ass detective. The femme fatale. The small problem that blows up into something huge and threatens to crush the protagonist. It’s all there. We know it. We love it. And it’s cool when we see that same smart ass detective try to explain away the supernatural, even as it threatens to eat him alive.
Your example of Angel Heart is dead on. The ending of that moving is so fucking awesome. Murder, mayhem, voodoo, incest, and the fucking devil! Holy shit!
SONG OF KALI is another example of a detective/horror novel, only the detective is an investigative journalist and the supernatural element is Hindu gods.
Me: Combining elements like this has been pretty successful for you, right? I’m thinking of Demon which takes the basics of the military thriller and adds in horror.
Erik: You are correct, Sir. Although I’ve labeled myself a horror writer, my stuff spans multiple genres. You mentioned Demon (military supernatural thriller) and we’ve talked Progeny (supernatural noir). But don’t assume all I do is take a genre and add the supernatural in there. My next book coming out soon is a heartwarming tale about a Bigfoot hooked on meth that goes on a batshit crazy meth rampage. So, it’s kind of a mash-up of crime and cryptozoology madness with a little erotica sprinkled in.
Let’s be honest, my stuff ain’t gonna win the Pulitzer anytime soon. I write pulp. I’m okay with that. But unlike a lot of pulp writers, you can’t say one of my books is just like the other. When you get a book by me, you’re in for something wildly different from the last one you may have read (unless it’s part of a series, then it will be similar to the last book because if it wasn’t, you’d just be confused. Fuck it, I’ll shut up now).
Me: Pulp writers get a bad rap, I think. The way I see it, pulp writers are focused more on the story – telling a good tale – than the actual crafting of the writing. Is that how you see it? Any writers you can point to and say, “Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do”?
Erik: Pulp writers get a bad wrap from assholes literary writers who dig sniffing their own farts. The rest of us love them to pieces. Except the ones that suck. But those are also know as hacks.
To your point, though, yeah, telling a good story is key. And a story that actually goes somewhere is even more key. I mean, when you’re writing about whiskey guzzling womanizers who kill monsters for fun, the last thing you’re thinking about is how can I make this more like The Great Gatsby. Or Ethan Frome (Christ, that book sucked). Or where can I insert a great symbol like the Eyes of Eckleburg (unless the Eyes are real and belong to some evil lord overlooking his domain).
That doesn’t mean there’s no place for craft in pulp writing. Some of the best pacing, plotting, characterization, and dialog is found in pulp fiction. Basically, it lacks pretentiousness, characters that stair at the walls, the important symbolism of menstruation, and stories that go nowhere.
As to what I writers I try to emulate: James Sallis, James Ellroy, Norman Partridge, Charlie Huston, Quentin Tarantino, Ernest Hemingway, Robert E. Howard, to name a few.
Me: It’s funny you mention Ellroy in your list. Because as much as he likes to refer to himself as a pulp writer, I don’t think anyone works on his prose more than him. The books he’s putting out now are so stylized that I almost find them unreadable. But this is about you, not Ellroy so…
Just to finish up this pulp discussion, do you find the genre – this isn’t the right word, but I’m struggling to figure out a classification for it – limiting in any way? You’ve talked about how freeing it is to write over-the-top characters and plots, and those are definite pluses, but I’m wondering about audience. I know you’ve put a lot of hard work into finding and maintaining an audience, but I think that’s an audience that’s hard to please in a lot of ways. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but you’re the one who can never shut up, so there’s your topic – pulp audiences, growing an audience, etc. – go!
Erik: You make the assumption that pulp writers don’t give a shit about prose? Tsk. Tsk. You sound like a snotty literary type. Fart sniffer.
No, it’s not limiting. If anything, you as the writer are limiting. There’s tendency to box yourself in. I’m a horror writer. I’m a sci-fi writer. There’s a desire to be identifiable but you end up making yourself a slave to a genre. You do that, the only audience you have will be the same one hundred or so mopes who buy all your stuff. Spreading your wings, Lone Eagle, allows you to build an audience. You can attract crime readers, horror readers, fantasy readers, by doing a solid mash-up. By writing what the fuck you want instead of writing what the fuck you think somebody wants. Pulp is freedom.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out this audience thing. How to build one. Attract one. What have you. It’s tempting to want to tap into, say, the Thriller audience by writing a solid thriller. Guess what, so are about a million other people. That’s a lot of competition. How do you stand out in that swamp? By imitating more highly successful people?
I guess I’ve gotten to the point where I write what I want to write. People seem to like my stuff (all two of them, yay!). If something of mine takes off, cool. But I’d rather people look for the next Erik Williams novel rather than just some ho-hum horror or crime novel. Writer as genre. Fuck yeah!
I tell you, Care Bear, you can worry about growing an audience, chasing an audience, but you still got to write the book. Care about the material. I mean, you can chase an audience and write the next “Fucked Fifty Shades from Sunday” but then, what does that make you? A writer or a copy cat? Desperate hack? Who wants to be that guy?
What, it’s not called “Fucked Fifty Shades from Sunday?” That’s not its name?
Seriously, that’s not its name?
Me: I’m not assuming pulp writers don’t care about their prose, I’m simply going by my definition of pulp vs. literary writers. To me, pulp writers care much more about story than craft. Literary writers, on the other hand, focus more on craft than story. Those are my definitions. There’s definite overlap, obviously (and hopefully), but all too often I read pulp novels where I think “this person has a decent story to tell but can’t write” and literary novels where I’m thinking, “this person can write, but can’t tell a good story.” I can appreciate both for what they are, but like it best when the writer obviously (and clearly) cares about both. But then again, it could be that I’m working from faulty definitions.
So to wrap all of this up – what do you have coming out that readers should be on the lookout for? Promote away!
Erik: Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m not done with this issue. I have to disagree with you. Good pulp writers care just as much about craft as literary writers. The difference is they don’t dwell for ages on a sentence or a paragraph. To Ellroy, yeah, he spends a lot of time on prose BUT he still pumps out a book every five years. He doesn’t take a decade or two. And what about Vonnegut? He was a master of craft and his stuff, a lot of it at least, is pulpier than pulp.
I guess you could say pulp cares more about story. But for literary, I would say it cares more about theme. How that theme is conveyed. So much so that story doesn’t become important. That’s why they’re so plot-lite. They’re about characters and characters dealing with shit. The shit being the theme. I can see how that would take longer to write than, say, a really well written but also plot driven novel. A to B is easier than AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.
Anyway, agree to disagree I guess.
As for me, PROGENY is out now. GUARDIANS, the sequel to DEMON, is out now in e-book and will be out later this year in trade paperback. CRANK STOMP, my Bigfoot-hooked-on-meth book will be out sometime later this year, early next year. And let me tell you, Thomas Pynchon himself couldn’t write a better Bigfoot-hooked-on-meth novel. Just sayin’. To keep up with all things me, check out my website, http://www.erikwilliams.blogspot.com/