Ryan Lieske: Chet, welcome to La legado vivo! It is truly an honor to interview you, and I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Why don’t we start by having you introduce yourself to the readers.
Chet Williamson: I’m Chet Williamson. I’ve been writing since the early 1980s, when my first story appeared in Twilight Zone Magazine. Among my novels are Second Chance, Hunters, Defenders of the Faith, Ash Wednesday, Reign, and Dreamthorp. My most recent publications are The Night Listener and Others (a story collection from PS Publishing), A Little Blue Book of Bibliomancy (Borderlands Press), and Psycho: Sanitarium, an authorized sequel to Robert Bloch’s classic Psycho (St. Martin’s Press).
Over a hundred of my short stories have appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and many other magazines and anthologies. I’ve won the International Horror Guild Award, and have been shortlisted twice for the World Fantasy Award, six times for the Horror Writers Association’s Stoker Award, and once for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award. Nearly all of my works are available in ebook format at the Kindle and Nook Stores.
A stage and film actor, I’ve recorded over 40 unabridged audiobooks, both of my own work and that of many other writers, available at http://www.audible.com. Follow me on Twitter (@chetwill) or at http://www.chetwilliamson.com.
RL: What is the first book you remember reading, or having read to you?
CW: I honestly can’t recall one specific book. My parents were always reading to me when I was little. I had oodles of Little Golden Books, which were great. There were some stodgy ones, but there were also Disney adaptations, which were really cool. I may have been one of the last generations brought up on Mother Goose as well. I do remember my mother reading and reciting Mother Goose rhymes to me.
RL: Not quite the last. My mother read Mother Goose to me. We had this beautiful, huge hardcover collection, and I was obsessed with it. The rhymes, illustrations—all made a big impression on me. In fact, I hadn’t thought about that book in decades until now. Thank you for bringing back some very fond, dormant memories! I recall that for some odd reason I was particularly enamored by one the more obscure rhymes, Here I Am, Little Jumping Joan. Reading it now, I think I see where the sense of alienation I felt as a child came from. It’s a depressing, somewhat existentialist little rhyme. To me, at least Do you have any particular rhymes that still stand out for you?
CW: Not really. I more readily remember the fairy tales I heard as a kid—mostly the scary ones with witches. Witches always freaked me out and stuck in my memory.
RL: What were the works that sealed your fate as a lifelong reader?
CW: Probably the comics in the newspapers (or the “funnies,” as we used to call them). My dad and mom would read them to me every day, and when I was around four, I decided I wanted to read them on my own. With my parents’ help and a lot of practice, I learned to read before kindergarten, and I could read the comics on my own. And since I could read the funnies, I could read my other books as well. So when I got to school and encountered that “Look, Jane, look!” crap, I was like, “Yo, gimme something real to read.”
My first grade teacher had me help teach the other kids to read, which made me both cool and a four-eyed smartass, and my second-grade teacher gave me lots of books on science, since that was a big interest of mine.
In grade school, my favorite book was one I got from the Weekly Reader Book Club: David and the Phoenix, by Edward Ormondroyd. The fantastic elements were wonderful—there was the titular phoenix, of course, “gryffins,” fauns, witches, and more, along with a bittersweet and truly perfect ending. I still have my copy, and reread it occasionally. A book filled with wonder.
I also devoured the Hardy Boys books, as well as flirting with Tom Swift Jr., Rick Brant, and Ken Holt. These were good solid books, and every once in a few years I reread a vintage Hardy Boys novel, and they hold up well.
RL: Oh, man, The Hardy Boys. My dad had the whole set (well, whole set at that time), and I devoured those, too. Between them and the Encyclopedia Brown books, I started getting heavily t into any film, TV show, or book that involved mystery solving. Which eventually led to falling in love with Indiana Jones, James Bond, and any number of 1980s action-adventure films. As I got older I became more of a horror and SF kid, but my first loves were mystery and adventure stories. I spent much of my free time drawing my own comics and writing little two-page stories that I’d sell to my dad for a nickel. And, bless him, he read every one and encouraged me to do more.
CW: I read all the James Bond books when the film of Dr. No came out in 1962. Loved them. As for the Hardy Boys, you have to be careful. They started rewriting them in the 1960s and took a lot of fun out of them by updating them. Gone were the “jalopies” and other period names. And The Missing Chums? Kids today would probably think of chum as bloody bait.
RL: I’m all about bringing back “old-timey” slang. I think “chums” is a fantastic word!
A lot of people tell me that, even if they were a voracious reader as a child, it was their middle-school and high-school years that had the most impact on the reader they are today. Would you say this is true for you?
CW: I was very fortunate in that the years that I began reading “adult” fiction were filled with great and affordable books, particularly in the genre of the fantastic. In the early 60s, paperback publishers were bringing out a lot of great horror, fantasy, and SF. I started with anthologies, which could be had for $.25 and $.35 back then, and discovered Robert Bloch, Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, and so many more. I read Bloch’s Psycho when I was twelve, and after that got everything of his I could lay my hands on. The Edgar Rice Burroughs paperback boom hit around that same time, and I devoured every Ballantine and Ace paperback—Tarzan, Barsoom, Venus, Pellucidar—I read them all.
And have them still, though Burroughs hasn’t held up for me. Still, they were perfect for me at that age. I vividly recall reading The Master Mind of Mars, hidden in my notebook, during a high school assembly.
RL: I did the same thing with Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. They were such slim volumes, I sneaked them into the books I was supposed to be reading. I’m definitely jealous, though. I would love to have been there during that era of paperbacks. Spiritually, that’s sort of the era I feel most at home in, because my father has a lot of those same memories, of buying those paperbacks, too. He was the one who introduced me to SF in the late 70s. Star Wars and Star Trek, of course, but he also let me stay up late with him to watch movies like Forbidden Planet, It Came from Outer Space, Godzilla, etc. For me, after being exposed to those films (and some EC horror comics my dad had held onto), I remember feeling like my mind was starting to exist in two different worlds, and I knew in some way that the rest of my life would be spent trying to merge those disparate worlds. That’s the only way I can explain it. I know it might be difficult to describe, but what was the “feeling in the air” like for you being immersed in all those great stories at that age?
CW: It was so great that I tried to share it with my son Colin. I’d buy him duplicates of the great old paperbacks I read when I found them at book sales, and we’d watch old horror and SF movies together. He loved the stuff too.
RL: At this point in my life, I’m still unsure if I will ever be a father. I think that might be one thing I would regret if I never was, passing on my love for this stuff to my children. But I’ve done a pretty decent job of passing it onto my nieces and nephews.
While we’re talking about this time period, were you one of those kids who went rogue from the curriculum and read whatever you wanted, sometimes even ignoring what was assigned to read altogether?
CW: I was usually pretty good about reading assignments, even stuff that didn’t do much for me at the time. Through all of my education, the only thing I didn’t read was Henry James’ The Ambassadors (I used the Monarch Notes, though I read James with pleasure now), and I dropped my course in “Victorian Prose and Poetry” because I found Thomas Carlyle utterly unreadable.
RL: I must admit, I’m not familiar with Carlyle’s work. Why did you find it unreadable?
CW: Primarily the use of eight words where one will do.
RL: Ha! Fair enough. I’m slightly curious, but probably not curious enough to go there. Now, reading is inherently a solitary activity, so did your reading life ever supersede or cause conflict with your social life growing up? Were you more apt to hide out in the library at school, or stay home on a Saturday night to read a book?
CW: Never. I had an active social life, mostly as the result of getting involved early with music and theatre, and still had time to read voraciously. Reading and the other arts were a sympathetic blend.
RL: And then comes college. What new books, literary styles, or genres were you exposed to in college?
CW: I’d gotten into Tolkien by the time I entered college in the fall of 1966, and started to devour high fantasy. I was cured of that quickly by the raft of Tolkien imitators that came along (some of whom built solid careers). After that, I couldn’t read what I called “funny name fantasy” (“Quendathar grasped his sword Wrathathon and mounted his fiery steed Karadragmor to confront the dark wizard Asmobelius.”) for many years. I bought all of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, though I found many of them terribly boring. And I went through a quick love affair with hero pulps, many of which were in paperback reprints—Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Avenger—but they paled after a few years.
I started buying Arkham House books when I was in college, and was thus introduced to more writers from Weird Tales. I also read tons of Joseph Conrad’s work, which I loved and still love. I reread Conrad often.
RL: What is it you enjoy about Conrad’s work, and what kind of influence has it had on you as a person and a writer?
CW: I like the complexity of character and the perfect description of setting in Conrad. His plots all spring out of character. My own Ash Wednesday is actually a retelling of Conrad’s Lord Jim, with a burning school bus taking the place of the Patna.
RL: What were your first bookstore experiences?
CW: Back then we really didn’t have mall bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Waldenbooks. My Arkham House purchases were mail order, and paperbacks were primarily bought at newsstands. There was a store called Darmstaetter’s that was a photo supply store, but expanded to become a small department store and stationery shop, and I recall buying all my Burroughs paperbacks there, stopping in every week after my voice lesson. In college, I found everything at the downtown newsstand. They’re both long gone, I’m afraid.
RL: Did you find, as you grew older, that the books of your youth began to mean less to you? Or do you still enjoy all the types of books you’ve been exposed to throughout your life?
CW: As I said, Burroughs and the hero pulps don’t hold up for me, but the Weird Tales writers still do, as do many early SF pulp writers. And pulp mystery writers like Hammett and Chandler, who I started reading after college, never grow old.
RL: I’ve been getting into pulp mysteries and film noir over the past couple of years. Trying to catch up with all I’ve missed. What is about the Hammett and Chandler books that still appeals to you?
RL: And my “to-read” list once again grows longer! How would you say your reading life survived adulthood?
CW: I don’t read as much as I’d like to, but I still manage to get a lot read, and always have a book going. I’ve really gotten into Philip Roth lately, and I’ve been reading all of his works, and I’ve started reading the George Smiley novels of John le Carre, after reading an article on them by a pal of mine, Bill Sheehan.
RL: Ashamed to admit this, but I’ve never read anything by Roth. Where would you suggest I start?
RL: See above comment about my “to-read” list. Currently, what types of books are you mostly drawn to?
CW: To be honest, I don’t read much horror anymore. Since I’m pushing seventy, I’m trying to catch up on writers I should have read years ago, rather than reading much new work. That said, I really liked Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, and Rio Youers and Bracken MacLeod are two younger writers I follow with interest. And I always read new work by Joe Lansdale. But I’m mostly playing catch-up, with Roth, le Carre, Conrad books I haven’t read, Proust (someday, dammit!), Saul Bellow, Henry James—not out of duty, but because I truly like these works more than most contemporary fiction. I also read a lot of non-fiction.
RL: I do understand that. With reading I still manage to keep one eye in the present and one in the past. But when I entered my 40s, I really stopped caring about newer movies, and have been trying to catch up on all the older films I’ve never seen but feel like I should see. Modern cinema, to be honest, has little interest for me. Sure, there are still several directors I follow, and catch a scattered few foreign and indie films, but aside from James Bond and Planet of the Apes, I have little to no interest in the “franchise” culture of mainstream cinema. Life’s too short, and there are so many great films out there yet for me to discover from bygone years. I imagine as get a little older the same will happen for me with books. I think it’s just that I’m more protective of my time now, more than I was in my 20s and 30s. The main reason I keep up with newer stuff is because I just sold my first novel, so I want to know the company my book will be joining, and how to make mine stand out as much as possible. That said, there is a lot of great contemporary horror being written, especially coming from the indie presses. Although, I have resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never read everything I want to read, unless there is a Heaven and it’s one massive, endless library.
CW: I should read more contemporary horror, just to see what the “kids” are up to. It’s so bizarre to think that when I go to cons I’m one of the Old Guard now, the way that Frank Belknap Long, H. Warner Munn, and Fritz Leiber were when I was young.
RL: How do you share your love of books with others?
CW: If I read a book I like, I’ll mention it on Facebook and leave a review on Amazon. I hate loaning books, and very seldom loan them, and then only to people who are as anal about condition as I am. When a book comes into the house, it gets a clear dust jacket protector, and is treated like an honored guest. To this day I can remember two books that I loaned and never had returned—one nearly fifty years ago, and the other about ten years ago. I’m not even going to mention my copy of The Hooded Hawk Mystery, a Hardy Boys book I loaned to a grade school friend, who returned it with the dust jacket ruined by raindrops. Grr…
RL: Ugh, I have many similar stories. For some authors I buy the hardcover to collect, then the paperback to read. The paperback I never mind loaning out; the hardcover, no, that stays with me. And I won’t loan anything of a certain vintage, because I’m paranoid that nobody understands how delicate it is and will just chuck it around in their car or bag. Worst incident was my senior year in high school. I brought Clive Barker’s Imajica the day it came out in hardcover. I read it right away, being very careful to preserve its condition (back then I didn’t have enough to buy two copies). I loved it so much, I just had to share it with my then-girlfriend. I get the book back about two weeks later she brings it back to me with a cracked spine, two pages ripped from the binding, the dust jacket torn in one corner, and, to top off the indignity, she had doodled on several of the pages. I was in love with her, but man…that one was tough to bear.
CW: Actually, that was a great test for compatibility!
RL: You got that right! Suffice to say, getting that book back in that condition was certainly an omen. It took me a few years to figure that out, but eventually I did.
Now, I’m one of those people who reads several books at a time. I’ve been called a “reading polygamist.” Are you? Our are you pretty monogamous when it comes to reading?
CW: I’m faithful to the book I’m currently reading. I don’t like to juggle them.
RL: Now, I’m not a fan of the term “guilty pleasure.” However, for want of a better term, what are your literary guilty pleasures?
CW: I really don’t have any guilty pleasures that I can think of. The way I look at it is that if I’m reading a book, it’s a book worth my reading. If not, I’ll put it down after a few pages or chapters. And I often do that.
RL: I used to force myself to read every book all the way through, even I wasn’t enjoying it. Some misguided sense of dedication, I suppose. Then one day, I was two hundred pages into some book I can’t remember but found severely dull, and I just closed it, threw it on the pile of books I planned to trade in to the used bookstore, and felt oddly at peace. I cast off the chains, and felt liberated. I realized it was my life, my time, and I could do with it what I wanted. I owed the author nothing. Since then, I’ve become much pickier, and feel no guilt for discarding a book. I generally give every book the first hundred pages to grab me. But after that, if it’s not giving anything, I toss it. Life’s way too damn short.
CW: Agreed. And there are too many good books out there to waste time on a mediocre one.
RL: What are your thoughts on “genre?” Do you think genre labeling even matters?
CW: I think “genre” can be destructive, artistically anyway. I’ve always had trouble with the “horror” writer label. Horror is an emotion, and you find it in books like Updike’s Rabbit, Run, Roth’s The Human Stain, and nearly every other novel that contains highly emotional content. “Horror” became very narrow as a genre, so that now any book in which something weird happens, mysterious violence ensues, or the supernatural intrudes into real life, is a “horror” novel. If you write one of these every two weeks and slap it on Amazon, it might be a valuable label to you; if otherwise, it can be crippling to a career. Some people thrive on labeling, but I never wanted that. I wanted to be free to write the kind of the book I wanted to write. Perhaps if I’d stuck to “horror,” I’d be more successful today. It makes sense from a marketing point of view, and I don’t criticize those who’ve done it.
RL: I definitely agree. When people ask, I’ll start with the short answer: “horror.” But if they seem interested beyond that, I’ll explain in greater detail what it is my work is trying to convey, and all the emotional and philosophical range it has. If they read it, or watch it, I let them decide what to call it. I totally get it from a marketing standpoint, and I’m certainly not ashamed of the label. But no matter, I will write what I want to write and let the work speak for itself. I wholeheartedly live by the idea that “horror” is an emotion, not a genre.
CW: And sometimes a lifestyle.
RL: A therapist actually said that to me once. I can be a bit of a “Method writer,” and let my head go into some dark spaces while working on a story. It used to consume me, but I’ve gotten much more adept at getting out of that space once I’m finished for the day. That therapist would be proud.
Now, speaking personally, I am and always will be a “physical copy” person. Are you too, or do you prefer other ways of “reading” books, such as e-books or audio?
CW: Anything works for me. I read a lot on my Kindle, since it’s so convenient. I read while shaving and brushing my teeth, and it’s a lot easier to hit the screen with my nose or elbow than it is to turn a physical page (and risk getting shaving cream on it!). We went on vacation a few weeks ago, and the only books I took were on my Kindle, which was good, since I came home with several physical books I bought, and still managed to get everything in the overhead compartments! I still love physical books, and just bought a batch this weekend at a library book sale. Books will always be around. What else would we put on bookshelves?
RL: And what else would cats have to rub themselves against or sit on? Well..lots of stuff, I guess. Bad example. But yeah, I agree. Books will always be around. And as long as I draw breath, I will buy them and keep my shelves full of them.
CW: I always need new shelves.
RL: It’s an ongoing problem. I’m actually thinking of going the DIY route, but we’ll see.
Do you take a book with you wherever you go? I never leave home without one (or two).
CW: A book or my Kindle. I also have the Kindle app on my phone, so if there’s a line at the post office, I’m good to go.
RL: What are your favorite books of all time, and why? What books―and they don’t have to necessarily have to be “all-time favorites”―do you feel have influenced you and shaped you the most: as a human being, as an artist, etc.?
CW: Among my favorites are The Great Gatsby (I reread it every five years, and it always has something new to say), The Brothers Karamazov (Pevear and Volokhonsky translation—it’s a book that seems to contain all of humanity in its pages, and “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter is one of the richest pieces of prose ever written), Heart of Darkness (because it contains what its title announces), Red Dragon (it set the template for contemporary dark suspense), Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater (the most perfect—and darkest—Philip Roth novel). There are many more, but those are a few.
As far as influences, probably the work of Conrad, and that of Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson. Those last two taught me how to construct a story, and provide an ending that is surprising yet inevitable. If you can do that, I think you can write honestly.
RL: Lastly, just for fun, what is the one book―be it a widely lauded classic, or bestselling popular phenom―do you find absolutely unreadable?
CW: I’m not a fan of some non-linear narratives, nor do I much care for experiments in typography and structure. I like to be immersed in a book, and for me, the best way that happens is for the writer not to draw attention to his or herself, and for me to not be constantly reminded that I’m reading a book. That’s why I can’t read House of Leaves or Infinite Jest, or similar novels. Like Joseph Conrad said, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.” If that’s good enough for Joe, that’s good enough for me.
RL: House of Leaves drives me nuts. I’ve tried to read it twice, and just could not do it. Although I loved both Zombie, by Joyce Carol Oates, and Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, and they experimented with typography and structure in those novels. So I guess it comes down to personal taste.
Some fans of Leaves have tried to make me feel stupid because I “didn’t get it,” but it isn’t a matter of me not “getting it.” It’s a matter of me feeling, on every page, that the author is trying to impress me with his style and impish wordplay. Which totally makes me not care one iota about the characters or the story. And ultimately that’s all I want, and all I want to do with my own work, even if that makes me “stupid.”
CW: I’m on the same page. For those who enjoy that sort of thing, great. We need all kinds of books for all kinds of readers.
RL: Agreed. Thank you for discussing your reading life with me, Chet! Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
CW: I did! It brought back some old memories, that’s for sure!
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