Twenty Minutes With Tim WaggonerBy
As you may have seen, all Angry Robot books come with our equivalent of DVD Extras, those sometimes fascinating, sometimes trivial additional sections that round out your viewing experience. In our world that means the first chapter of book two, if available; an interview; some background on the writing of the book; appendices and other authorial notes. Our title Moxyland even has some templates for stencils to create your own Moxy graffiti, not of course that we condone defacing public buildings in the slightest.
In the flurry to get out stuff out and in your hands, we sometimes end up with too much material for the Extras section. But hey, you have a website, so why not stick it up there, you cry? Yeah, like we’ve not thought of that already. Here’s a previously unseen Q&A session we did with the author of the very well-received Nekropolis, Mr Tim Waggoner…
My greatest influences are the two authors I was reading during my formative years in high school: Stephen King and Piers Anthony. I loved King’s characters, his sense of place, and the way he built suspense. In Anthony’s work, I admired his fast-paced writing style, his almost manic free-form invention, and his skewed sense of humor. Throw all that into teenaged Tim’s mental Mixmaster, and you eventually get novels such as Nekropolis.
Lawrence Block was also a big inspiration. I used to read his fiction-writing column in Writer’s Digest religiously and learned so much from it. He stopped writing the column years ago, but you can find some of his columns reprinted in the books Spider, Spin Me a Web and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. His Writing the Novel from Plot to Print is another classic how-to book. My biggest inspiration of all, though, would be my friend and mentor, the fantasy novelist Dennis L McKiernan. I was fortunate enough to be in a writers group with Dennis some years back. He was wonderfully encouraging and taught me so much not only about being a better storyteller, but also about what it truly means to be a professional writer. He’s a darling man, and a hell of a writer.
First story you told?
The first story I wrote was a cartoon version of King Kong vs Godzilla that I drew on a stenographer’s pad when I was five. I used a stenographer’s pad because it was spiral bound and you could flip the pages like a real book. I’d never seen the actual movie, but I’d seen stills of it in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and I was fascinated by the idea of two of the biggest, most powerful monsters I knew meeting and battling for supremacy. One of the first horror movies I remember seeing – and loving — was Frankenstein vs the Wolfman, and King Kong vs Godzilla was like a super-sized version of that film. There were no words to my version of the KK vs the Big G, and I can’t remember who won. King Kong, probably, since he was a more sympathetic monster. But what I do remember is that it was the first time I consciously tried to tell a complete story on paper, even if it was through drawings. I was very conscious of the fact that I was writing a “book” for other people to read.
What do you say when people ask “Where do you get your ideas from?”
I tell them, “Everywhere.” We live in a damn strange world. The other day a student told me about sharing an elevator with a man who kept leaning forward to lick the emergency speaker. About the same time I saw some graffiti on the back of a restroom door. Someone had written Mr. E in black marker, and someone else had later come along, written the word Mystery in silver marker, then drew an arrow between them, just to make sure no one missed the connection. Seeing weird stuff like this makes me do a WTF? And the next thing I know, a story starts brewing. (I’m thinking of combining these two tidbits and making the speaker-licker Mr. E – for elevator.)
Tell us a joke
Q: How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: The fish!
If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Honestly, I can’t imagine being anything other than a writer and a teacher of writing. I’ve been coming up with stories ever since I can remember. When I was a child, I’d create elaborate scenarios to act out with my action figures – sometimes ongoing sagas that might take weeks to enact! I’d also create scenarios for my friends and me to perform on the playground at school, sort of improvised plays. When I got into junior high, I started drawing a comic strip called the Bionic Team (this was back when the Six Million Dollar Man was a hit TV show) featuring myself and my friends as cyborg superheroes. My friends would tease me about the drawings not being so great, but they loved the stories I wrote – which really made me mad since at the time I wanted to be a comic book artist when I grew up!
I continued writing and drawing my own comics throughout high school, but it didn’t occur to me to pursue fiction writing as a career until I got to college. I realized then that the process of drawing stories took too long – ideas came to me far too swiftly to capture as art – and that I could more fully express what I wanted to say using words instead of pictures. So I abandoned art to begin focusing on my writing, though I still like to scribble simple cartoons from time to time. My youngest daughter is proving to be quite an artist, so maybe my drawing genes are finally going to be fulfilled through her!
Would you write full-time if you could?
I started out as an acting major in college, but though I enjoyed the theatre, I soon realized that I didn’t have a passion for it. I wasn’t sure exactly what my passion was, though, so I changed my major to theatre education with an English concentration. I’d be studying three fields that I was interested in – theatre, English, and teaching – and I figured that by the end of four years, with any luck, I’d sort out what direction I wanted to go in. I had already started writing my first novel by this time (a fantasy in the manner of Piers Anthony), more for fun than anything else.
Around this time I began reading Writer’s Digest and learning all I could about the craft of writing and the business of publishing. I began submitting stories and novels and collecting the requisite mountain of rejection slips. I also started taking creative writing classes at college, which allowed me to get feedback from professors and classmates. I wrote genre fiction, and while that wasn’t always everyone’s cup of tea – especially the professors – no one ever disparaged what I wrote or told me it wasn’t worth my time to create. Not that it would’ve stopped me if they had!
By the time I finished my undergraduate degree, I’d written several plays, three novels, and a couple dozen short stories. Only a couple of which ever saw publication. But by this time I’d decided to dedicate my life to writing – indeed, I didn’t have any real choice about it – so I enrolled in graduate school to pursue a Master of Arts degree with a concentration in creative writing. Not so much to sharpen my skills as a writer as to go through a program where I could experience guided study of great literature. I felt as if I hadn’t read widely enough during my undergraduate years, and I wanted to remedy that. Plus, I knew that a graduate degree would allow me to teach writing in college, at least at the adjunct level. And given how financially precarious a freelance writer’s life can be, I figured teaching part-time would help support my writing. Plus, I loved teaching and didn’t want to give it up entirely.
Now I’m a tenured Associate Professor of English at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio – just finished my tenth year there. I teach composition, creative writing, and I serve as the department’s Coordinator of Creative Activities, which means I oversee the writer’s workshop, the literary magazine, and the creative writing course sequence. I’ve taught hundreds of students over the years… probably thousands by this point.
Do you plan in detail or set off hopefully?
The way I write changes depending on what process I need at any given time. A lot of it has to do with how busy I am with being a dad and teaching, and what other writing projects I might be working on concurrently with a given novel. I strive to write 3-5 pages a day on whatever novel I’m involved with, but if that’s not possible, I’ll try to binge write later to catch up. So maybe I’ll write only three days a week, but I’ll produce ten pages each of those days. The most important thing is that I’m making steady, measurable progress on a project and that I don’t lose momentum.
I’ll tell you about the most difficult scene I ever wrote. I was writing a story called “Keeping It Together,” which first appeared in the anthology Between the Darkness and the Fire and was reprinted in my collection All Too Surreal. The story was about a closeted gay man who refuses to accept his sexual identity. I had a friend who’d lived a gay lifestyle for years until one day he decided he wanted a “normal” life (whatever the hell that is) and married a woman and started a family. Before that, my friend had told me about an extremely painful experience he’d had in college, when a straight male roommate got curious one night and wanted to see what it was like to play for the other side. Afterward, the roommate ran to the bathroom and threw up. When I was working on “Keeping It Together,” I realized I could use this experience to help establish why my character was so determined to live in denial. I felt like a greedy vulture feasting on my friend’s memory, but it contained an emotional reality and rawness that the story demanded. I rationalized that my friend rarely read fiction and would never see the story, and if anyone else we knew ever read it, they wouldn’t connect the experience to my friend. So I sat down to write the scene. In the middle of writing it, the phone rang. It was my friend, calling to tell me his mother had just died. After offering my condolences and talking for a while, I said goodbye. I hung up the phone, took a deep breath, and returned to my computer to finish the scene.
Thanks Tim. Nekropolis, the first Matt Richter novel, is in all good bookstores in the UK and Australia from 6 August 2009. We’ll confirm the US/Canada release date shortly.