Welcome back, faithful fans, to another installment of ‘Questions and Answers’ here on Raging Biblioholism. Our guest today is Mr. Justin Robinson, author of Mr. Blank and the brand new City of Devils – out today from Candlemark and Gleam and reviewed here on our dear blog. It’s a wonderfully strange tale of classic horror in a Raymond Chandler-esque style – perfect for your All Hallow’s Read giving, if I do say so myself. I should warn you, there will inevitably be some spoilers here – so if you haven’t read the book yet, read on at your own peril…
(ominous crashing piano chords, audience laughter)
Anyway – without further ado and probably without any further sound effects… Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to our show – Mr. Justin Robinson!
JR: Thanks so much, Drew.
DB: Thanks for joining us, Justin. In honor of fall having just officially begun, let’s talk the biggest influences on the book: classic noir and classic horror. How did you come up with this delightful mashup of the two?
JR: I’m very comfortable with the tropes of the noir genre. Most of my books have at least a dash of noir in them, and it’s become an intuitive way for me to explore a new world. So whenever I come up with something weird, my first thought is what the detectives of the world are up to.
I’m a huge horror nerd, mostly because of my father. Growing up, I had things like Universal Monsters action figures (the gill-man was my favorite) and a coloring book with all the classics. The Fly from the Vincent Price version of the film was my favorite page, and in Halloween, either 5th or 6th grade, I was the Fly. The costume was homemade, using a hockey mask, some tennis balls, pipe cleaner, and spray paint. That’s probably why the first monster you see in the book is a human fly. And yes, I named them that after the Cramps song.
DB: Speaking of the monsters, a specific question I wanted to get out of the way: where did the pumpkinhead come from? I ask because I have a long-seated affinity for the creatures and while I can think of several places that might’ve inspired them in my mind… I can’t pinpoint where they came from, for me.
JR: A couple different places. I’m a huge Oingo Boingo fan, which probably has something to do with being from LA. Their Halloween shows were a time-honored tradition down here, complete with screenings of the black and white Island of Dr. Moreau. So when Nightmare Before Christmas came out, the Pumpkin King really spoke to me. I was also a big White Wolf gamer in high school and college, and the Werewolf Storyteller’s Guide had a bunch of monsters based on urban legends. Things like sewer gators and Tijuana pets, and right in the middle was the pumpkinhead. I loved that thing, because it feels perfectly like Halloween to me. This also combined with a memory from an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, one of the great cartoons of my youth, which featured Samhain as the pumpkinheaded avatar of Halloween. Add it all up, and you have Sam Haine, farmer, vigilante, and stalker.
DB: I’m so glad you mention Jack the Pumpkin King – and I think I remember that episode of The Real Ghostbusters. Man, I want to go watch that now. But anyway, let’s roll on! You establish pretty early on that this is a divergent timeline from our own and monsters have come about during some horrific “Night War” – but you’re terribly vague, dropping hints sort of in the manner of classic zombie films. Can you shed further light on where these things came from – or, if not now, will you ever?
JR: I have an evolving timeline in my notes, but I think questions are ultimately more interesting than answers. I can promise there will be more about the Night War, more about Nick’s experiences, and more about the origin of monsters. I’m not sure if I’m ever going to definitively say, “this is where monsters come from.” What I can say is that the Night War started after the end of World War II, and the prevailing wisdom is that the atomic bomb somehow either created or woke the monsters up. Of course, that doesn’t explain why a movie like Dracula accurately predicted what vampires would be like.
DB: I fully support the questions-over-answers thing, especially when there’s a plan involved – and you can sense the planning and control in your writing. It’s refreshing after being burned by, you know, LOST and things.
Speaking of planning, there’s a really intense thing that you do in the book with the way the monsters name themselves – their “rebirth” names. You’ve mentioned Sam Haine and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the names and the naming process. Were you aiming for symbolism with names like “Verity”? Are the monsters aware of the sly wit behind their names?
JR: Definitely. The central idea is that this is a world of people who get to pick their own names. In a lot of cases, traditions are beginning to develop, such as with ogres who always end their names with “the such and such,” or mummies with their faux-Egyptian dynastic names. When someone’s turned, they get to call themselves whatever you want, and some are more creative than others.
DB: It’s one of the things that separates the monsters even further from humans – we don’t, most of the time, get to choose our own names. The monsters are so close to us and yet so very distincty other. Could you talk about the challenges/intrigues of writing so few “human” characters? Were there any moments that you had to remind yourself that these monsters weren’t human?
JR: I write a lot of inhuman characters both in my noir and in my horror, so I’m sort of used to getting into an odd mindset. The biggest one was reminding myself what was sexually arousing to these characters, since that alone is probably the most alien bit about them. The fun parts were trying to come up with ways in which the monsters sort of conformed to their pulp origins but in a real world, like robots offhandedly muttering about exterminating humans, or ghosts pathologically trying to frighten people.
DB: Fer-de-Lance was a sort of surprising twist for me – dark and somewhat unsavory, in the best kind of way. To ask the broad, silly question: what made this the direction you wanted to take?
JR: The brothel in LA Confidential was based on a real place. Fer-de-Lance is a reference to the fictionalized version in that book, which is why I went with such a similar name. This is a noir story, so the bad guys had to be up to something unsavory, and once I worked out the metaphysics of how monsters are made, the brothel sort of suggested itself. Once I figured it out, I knew I had a great set piece.
DB: It was such an interesting choice to make the monsters unable to reproduce traditionally but still give them a way to feel arousal. Certainly, there are some monsters (vampires, sirens, etc) who are inherently sexual and whose behaviors are on the sexy side of the spectrum – but what led you to this nuanced position of both neutering and empowering all of the monsters in this way?
JR: I wanted to talk a little about rape culture and entitlement without talking about it directly. If I’m not talking about actual sex I have a little more free rein to discuss the assumptions that surround it.
DB: You deal a lot with fear in this book, both on a literal and on a metaphorical level. One of my favorite scenes comes early in the book, as Nick is preparing his house for nightfall and the onset of the monsters. It was really scary in a rather unsettling way: we look at our houses as our sanctuaries and protecting them from constant siege would be so nerve-shredding. It’s scary enough to consider a home invasion, let alone an actual invasion of people trying to get into your home. What scares you, in the real world?
JR: Pretty much everything. The skill of writing horror comes from taking a personal fear and trying to apply it to someone who is more psychologically stable. Look at how Stephen King writes bullies or Clive Barker writes childbirth.
DB: Readers, if you haven’t seen Clive Barker write childbirth… (laughs) Okay, I have a Nick-related question. His inability to smoke is one of the best running gags I’ve maybe ever seen in literature (no joke – it’s so well done and it stays refreshing throughout the book). Where’d it come from?
JR: Smoking is such a trope in noir, a signal to the audience that the hero is cool. Nick can’t smoke, so it’s the clearest indication that he’s extremely not cool.
DB: So, you mentioned earlier that questions can be more fun than answers and (considering the theme of this show), I was wondering: what’s a question you want readers to be asking about this book?
JR: Well, I hope the book works as a story first. Someone can read it, enjoy it, and not worry about it. But if someone is so inclined, I hope they get to thinking about things like entitlement and privilege. The assumptions we make as a culture, what they mean and where they fit. I’m not trying to make some vast point about racism and sexism or anything — there are way smarter people than me doing that way better than I ever could — but if it gets the mind working in that direction, I’m cool with that.
DB: Well said. We’ve got time for just one or two more, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you about your experience with Candlemark and Gleam. Indie publishing is a wonderful thing, a bastion of free expression in an increasingly streamlined age.
JR: My experience with Candlemark and Gleam has been wonderful. I wish they printed horror so I’d never have to look for another publisher. They are incredibly professional, welcoming, and run by a truly remarkable person. They publish books that really feel like books, from the quality of the paper to the typesetting. I’m very lucky to have found them.
I went the small press route after an unsuccessful hunt for an agent. I’d gotten close a few times — after they had sat on my manuscripts for half a year, of course — and was rejected at the last moment. Since I’d been told at the beginning that the only way to be a writer was to get an agent (I hadn’t put together that the people saying that were agents), I was pretty depressed. I submitted one of my books to some small presses on a lark, and one of them liked it, and the ones that didn’t all gave me the impression that they’d read and considered it. The one who bought it was eager to make a deal right away, which was a welcome contrast. I shopped my other books around, and found eager suitors for each one. Now that I’ve gone the small press route, I can’t imagine going any other way. Honestly, I can’t imagine a future where I’m happy writing and I never encountered Candlemark and Gleam. Seriously, they’re the best.
DB: Do you have any advice for new writers thinking about the same route?
JR: The simplest advice is to query Candlemark and Gleam. They’re the best. It’s not even close. But maybe you work in a genre they don’t publish, or want to go another way. Check out Preditors and Editors. They have a pretty exhaustive list of small presses, along with warnings about the ones that aren’t good. Ask other indie writers which presses they like, and ask in private. And also, be aware that everyone looks for different things in a publisher, and everyone has a different experience. A bad publisher for one person can be a great fit for another. Read the publisher’s website carefully, google them to see what others will say about them publicly, ask your writer friends if they know anything. Do your due diligence.
And then query Candlemark and Gleam.
DB: Well, you’ve sold me. It’s lovely to see an author so crazy about his publisher – and to see a publisher so crazy about their authors. Before I let you go, because I am positive that anyone who reads this book will want to know: what’s next for you, whether in the world of the Night War or otherwise?
JR: I’ve broken ground on the sequel to City of Devils, called Fifty Feet of Trouble.
DB: Sweet! I can’t wait to read it. Best of luck with the book release this week – and with the writing. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
JR: Thanks for having me!
DB: Justin Robinson is the author of City of Devils, out today from retailers and online – what are you waiting for?! Go read it! Special thanks to the folks at Candlemark and Gleam for getting us a copy of the book and for giving Justin a home – and to Leora Saul for the groovy author photo. This has been ‘Questions and Answers’ at Raging Bibliholism – we’ll see you again real soon.
(Applause and the lights fade.)