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Interview with Christopher Ransom 2010

Author Christopher Ransom

“Focus on craft . . . because a good book will always find a home.” Acclaimed horror writer Christopher Ransom speaks with Chris High about his second novel, the intimacy of the inspiration behind his debut and his hopes for the future of books

There are some purchases that can change your life but when Colorado author Christopher Ransom bought a 140 year old Birthing House in Wisconsin, he can never have expected it to be the inspiration behind a critically acclaimed debut novel. This despite his pursuit of a career as a Screenwriter in both New York and Los Angeles and especially given that The Birthing House (Little Brown) is a ghost story.

‘I was surprised that the book did as well as it did. Some readers didn’t like it, and what I found interesting, even gratifying, is that it tends to split reader reactions widely,’ Christopher explained. ‘Those who liked it really liked it and I’ve received hundreds of fan letters telling me not just that it was a scary, gripping read, but that it touched them in some personal way. But those who didn’t like it seem to have been really angered by it. It’s created a visceral reaction, and to me that is a whole lot better than allowing the reader to walk away feeling nothing.

‘My experiences as a screenwriter might have helped me remember when it was OK to cut away, to move from one scene to the next and let the reader fill in the blank. That is something the screenwriter must do, and I suppose screenwriting helped use words to paint a picture, to tell a story visually. But prose and screenwriting are so vastly different, their plots constructed so differently, that there is no real comparison between the two. There is a lot of talk about the three act structure in publishing, which is something that has been adopted from Hollywood, but guess what? Novels don’t operate on acts. Acts take place on a stage or screen. A novel takes place in sentences, on paper, in the reader’s mind.

The Birthing House written by Christopher Ransom‘Yes, there is a beginning, middle, and end, but these are not acts. Only very formulaic novels are structured in such rigid terms. The best novels employ sentences and passages to create a bleeding dream, and that dream may be structured along emotional lines rather than a purely logical timeline. The dream may thrive on a monologue or a confession or a memoir. It may have seven acts or none. There are an infinite number of variables and so there should be.’

Like many writers, Christopher decided early on that he wanted to write, but left the major decision of turning professional until later. ‘I decided to become a writer, meaning that I made a promise to myself that I would become a professional, when I was 20. My first serious attempt at writing a story came, I think, at age 13, in the 8th grade. I had an open assignment in Earth Science class, and the assistant teacher said we could do anything ... make a model, do a book report, perform an experiment, whatever. He offhandedly mentioned we could even write a science fiction story, and for some reason this sounded cool to me. So I went home that night, sat down, and wrote a short story about a group of humans travelling to Saturn.

‘As they approached, they began to change in weird ways, and by the time they arrived, they were already swallowed by a new race. There was no going home. I wrote the story in one sitting, over a period of 3 hours, on a yellow legal pad. I remember really losing myself in the process, and finding it fun. When I finished, I was so proud, I wanted to make it better. So, the next night I tore the pages out and rewrote it on the same pad, revising for clarity and adding new details, trying to get everything just right. I had been getting a D in that class, and when I got my story back the teacher took me aside to speak with me. He gave me a 55 out of a possible 50 points, and told me that I was really onto something. I felt great, and then I forgot about it, as kids do. Only years later in college did I remember that and begin to wonder if maybe writing was something I could not just do okay at, but really enjoy. That joy of immersion was very real to me, and later I decided I wanted to earn a living that way.’

The Haunting of James Hastings written by Christopher RansomRansom has recently had published his second novel, The Haunting of James Hastings (Little Brown) which is again a ghost story with a twist. A beautifully crafted piece into life and celebrity, it’s interesting to learn how much research the author undertook to get beneath the skin of a really complex yet instantly identifiable protagonist.

‘Some novelists love research, but I am not one of them, which means that when I undertake a long project the subjects must be of strong personal interest. I chose the historic neighbourhood of West Adams in Los Angeles because my wife and I bought our first house there and stayed for two years. It was right next to the massive 10 Freeway, and we lived in constant fear of one of our dogs escaping the fenced yard, which could only mean sudden death. The horror writer asks “What if it wasn’t one of the dogs, but my wife?”or at least if they don’t, they shouldn’t be writing horror.

‘I lost my uncle Darl last year, and he was very dear to me, a big supporter of my dream to be a writer. I still feel him everywhere, which is sort of a positive haunting. And I read a fair amount about grief, the stages and little things –which are kind of huge things – that crop up during the long process. Joan Didion, in her astounding memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, writes about not being able to throw away her husband’s shoes because she was sure he would need them, even though she “understood” he was dead. That kind of real-life, everyday detail –and what it tells us about the human mind –fascinates me.

‘More specifically to the character of James, I was interested in the connections one might have to art, how controversial art can trigger wickedness in unstable people, and how these connections might come full circle. But I didn’t want to make James a real celebrity, per se. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Los Angeles is full of failed celebrities, hangers-on, the broken ones you never read about. I wanted to write about a guy like that. I was also fascinated with the idea of identity, and doubles, and my interest in Eminem, who treats his stage personas as different characters, was a starting point. I did a lot of research on Eminem, and I have loved the world of hip-hop since I was 15. I also researched celebrity impersonators, and crimes committed by people who blamed artists, music, books, or movies for their deeds. To say I was amazed to find how many real life examples I found would be an understatement. Stuff like news headlines which read, “Such-and-such impersonator robs bank . . . “ or “Man blames so-and-so for murder of wife . . .” So, in short, I guess I follow my interests so that it doesn’t feel so much like research.’

In addition to an absorbing plot and three dimensional characters, there is also a surreal atmosphere laces its way through the narrative and provides an extra dimension to the story as a whole. ‘In this case, it was more challenging to keep the novel from becoming too surreal. Often what I find to be a “normal” way of seeing the world and other people, through my characters’ eyes, tends to be warped, exaggerated, sometimes comedic or grotesque. If we remember that James is a man coping with grief, alcoholism, and a psychological haunting, and that he is our first-person narrator, then perhaps some of the more surreal observations make sense.
‘The grotesque and surreal are very real to him. As a reader, I enjoy riding along inside the distorted mind of a character who has, to some degree, become a monster himself. I’m rereading Lolita at the moment, paying more attention to the narrator Humbert Humbert than to the story, and his is a wonderfully playful, funny, surreal, grotesque, and sometimes horrifying point of view we get to experience. I guess the challenge is to make sure we don’t go too far, or that we help the reader by way of authorial flagging to get into the narrator’s perspective, not leave them stranded or lose credibility for the sake of being too surreal.

‘To me the ghost story is synonymous with a psychological affliction. So the characters in a good ghost story are going to have some interesting psychological problems, which in turn makes them interesting people to read about. If this is done believably, with human problems we can all relate to (love, loss, fear of something tangible, financial ruin, a personal flaw, etc.), then the story achieves more realism, which in turn makes it frightening. In any good novel, character is inextricably linked with plot--there is no sacrificing one for the other. James is grieving. He must come to terms with the loss of his wife. Therefore, the plot must be his grieving process, and tracing the path toward the truth behind her loss, and that is the mystery the story must resolve. How I achieve that is by rewriting constantly. I don’t plot in advance, or not much anyway. Instead I follow my characters through new developments, and allow their reactions to bloom. There is a conscious effort to equate the haunting or antagonists in my protagonist’s external world to his inner or emotional problems. In The Birthing House, the haunting was all about Conrad’s fear of fatherhood and his estrangement from his wife. In James’s story, the horrors he experiences are all about his grief, his loss, his failings as a husband. I think he follows Annette into wickedness out of guilt. He needs to be punished or atone in some way before he can move on.’

Ransom also creates s sense of place that is also intense in The Haunting of James Hastings as the settings become more and more integral to what happens throughout. ‘Setting is very, very important for me, and for most writers, I would imagine. After all, we can’t write it until we see it. I can’t even begin a novel until I know where it will be set, and how the environment relates to the characters and the premise. Setting is the stage, the universe, of the fictional world we hope to create, and it’s a lot easier to write from a place you know. For instance, it’s not coincidence Stephen King has published so many novels set in Maine.

‘I’ve lived in Colorado, Los Angeles, New York, and Wisconsin, so these places are vivid to me, always on tap, as it were. The historic neighbourhood of West Adams that I mentioned, where James lives, was a rich resource for me. The traffic and crime there were frightening. We had police helicopters overhead weekly, their spotlights crossing our yard. We often found crack vials on our lawn, heard gunshots at night. We lived beside drug dealers, as well as regular law-abiding black and Hispanic families, and the alley I describe in the book was right behind our home ... and just as creepy and deserted. It was a crazy, wonderful place, with all these beautiful old houses. The house where Marvin Gaye’s father shot his son was one block away. Car accidents happened outside my office window with clockwork regularity, so there was a sense of impending tragedy in the air. I wanted the second half of the novel to be about isolation, and so I chose one of these abandoned developments in the desert.
‘Sheltering Palms is fictional, but there are plenty of examples in reality, in California, Florida, Nevada; places where the implosion of the housing market had the most destructive effects. Isolation is good for horror stories, because they match the isolation the character is undergoing on an emotional level and also make it difficult for your characters to escape, call for help, and so on.’

Like any job, writing full-time has its good and its bad points. ‘I love and respect my job, that is the biggest thing. I am my own boss, which is nice but secondary. I get to use my imagination every day, and sadly there are so many jobs that don’t encourage full use of that organ. I know, I had some of them. I love that even reading is working, that it is part of my job, because reading -- and writing, when it is going well -- are not real work to me. Both are just fun. I love the process of discovering my story, of finding out that what I thought I was writing is not what I am actually writing. I love the surprises, the moments when two or more elements come together and startle me. The worst part of being a writer? Oh, I don’t know. I don’t have any big complaints yet. I’ve been very fortunate, and I am very grateful. There are headaches, of course and other people are invested in you. Publishing realities, the fear that one day I might not be able to earn my living this way ... the fear that no readers or editors will want to follow some new direction my inspiration and interests take me, that kind of thing. I guess writers have always had to balance economic concerns with artistic concerns, but we seem to be living in a world where branding is everything and once you become branded as X, trying to do Y becomes all the more difficult. I can only hope to evolve in ways that fulfil me as a writer and that also happen to make editors and readers happy, but we don’t have a lot of control over that, so it’s not worth losing sleep over.

‘I am very fortunate that I can write full-time. A lot of novelists can’t, and for 12 years or so, writing was my second job. Strangely, even now that I have all day to write, I still find myself being most productive at night. I spend most of the day dealing with email, business details, household chores, errands, and a couple hours of rewriting. After dinner and time with my wife, I go back to my office and the real work begins. I typically write new material from 9 or 10pm until 2 - 4am. I need to be in my office, which is the small library on our second floor, to write. I’m not one of those people who can take my laptop to the corner coffee shop. I don’t believe in that. I prefer total silence and isolation. You never know how it’s going to go.

‘Last week I wrote a twenty page chapter in two hours, and the first draft was almost final draft quality. It just came to me all at once. This week I have been wrestling with the same bastard of a chapter and it’s making me nuts. But a regular regimen is necessary to balancing out the good days and bad.’ And advice for aspiring authors? ‘Read better books. Don’t play it safe because that thing you are terrified of writing about, the thing you cannot imagine your parents or spouse reading? You should write that. And don’t try to write it. Do it or don’t do it, but get on with it either way.’

With this being Christopher’s second novel, he is quite forthright in his view of the future of publishing and the growing the trend towards technology. ‘I don’t own an e-reader, and I have no desire for one. I love books too much. I love the shape, the art, the smell, the care that goes into them. I have signed first editions from 25 years ago, and guess what? They still work, they don’t need batteries, and they will still work in another 20 years. I’ve owned four iPods in less than six years. They are all broken. They are poorly made trinkets that don’t sound good and don’t last. I don’t want to read a novel on a grey screen any more than I want to watch a movie on a three-inch black and white TV. But if people like them, and reading devices add more readers to the publishing stew, then I am all for them. If they prove to be a destructive force in the book world, I will be very saddened.’

And how tough was it getting these and Christopher’s future novels picked up by both an agent and a publisher, when many of each appear to be going either with big name celebrity writers or established authors only, making it difficult for new writers to get a look in? ‘Finding an agent and a publisher are relatively easy compared to writing even a decent novel. Once you have learned to write at a professional level – which in itself might take a decade or more – and have completed a novel with an intriguing premise, with engaging characters and situations, and solid sentences. After all that, finding an agent and an editor is not that hard at all. Of course you have to do your homework, researching agents, learning how to write a good query letter, taking the time to craft a plan of attack, etc. And you must have a strong stomach for rejection, because that’s going to happen no matter how good your book is. But if I could go back in a time machine to my 25-year-old self and give him a piece of advice, I would tell him to stop worrying about the market, agents, publishers. Focus on craft . . . because a good book will find a home. I really believe that.’

And, in the world of the writer, rarely if ever does the ride stop. No sooner has book number two arrived than book number three is underway. ‘I’m about halfway through my third novel, which is titled The Beautiful People. It’s set in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, which is a natural fit, since it’s a beautiful place full of beautiful people who sometimes forget they are living in the real world.

‘Boulder is such a fertile and absurdly proud little enclave, full of fitness freaks and money and spoiled college students and strange politics. It’s often mistaken for a utopia, so it’s really the perfect place for evil to go unnoticed. The novel concerns a struggling American family who become enchanted by another family who seem to have success and good fortune at their fingertips. The mystery is who these new people are, what they are hiding, and how far a father will go to protect his family from the monsters lurking all around us. It’s about the price of survival at a very dark time in the American experience. It’s shaping up to be a bigger book for me, with a larger cast of characters. There’s a little nod to Gatsby in there, and some Bret Easton Ellis, but overall I hope for it to be the kind of fat, juicy horror novel a mother might take to the beach, or some seventeen-year-old kid will stay up reading late into his summer nights. At least, I hope they will.’

Chris High

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“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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