Publisher/Full-Time Editor/Freelance Writer

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Jeff Menapace: The Success and Struggle

October 23, 2017

Tags: Jeff Menapace, Bad Games series, Zippered Flesh 3, horror fiction

Jeff Menapace and his copy of ZIPPERED FLESH 3.

Jeff Menapace is a Philly-born horror/suspense author who has won acclaim for his best-selling Bad Games series of novels, among his other work in fiction and nonfiction. His novella Sugar Daddy was the 2011 recipient of the Red Adept Reviews Indie Award for Horror. His novel Numb, while containing some elements of horror, is a dark noir thriller sure to please readers of suspense. And Side Effects, a psychological thriller, introduces us to his series character FBI agent Maggie Allen.

And apparently, he longs to pet a lion!

Jeff is an approachable, amiable guy, and was more than willing to spend a few minutes with us to answer a few questions.

Your Bad Games trilogy has been quite successful, now optioned for future feature films. Not bad! Did you intend to write a trilogy from the start, or was it happenstance?

No way did I intend to write a trilogy from the start! I wrote book one and was able to land an agent with it (this was nearly 10 years ago) and he immediately asked me for a sequel, stating that pitching two books instead of the one would help land a publisher. So, I got hard at work on the sequel, completed it, gave it to my agent, and he loved it. But then of course came the inevitable: “Any chance for a third? A trilogy would be fantastic.” I think my reply was something (politely) along the lines of “No f*cking way. I killed everyone; they’re all dead.”

I soon parted with my agent (on good terms) and went the indie route, and Bad Games and Vengeful Games sold very well. I was hit with lots of letters from readers asking for a third book. So, I totally sold out and whipped up a third. Nah, I’m just kidding. I balked on the idea of a third, and the last thing I wanted to do was sell out and write a cheap imitation of the first two books. Eventually, however, an idea did come to me, and slowly but surely, book 3, Bad Games: Hellbent was born, and now, believe it or not, roughly five years later, book 4, Bad Games: Malevolent is due out late this summer. Never say never, I guess.

Do you work from an outline or just wing it?

I work from a rough outline. I generally have an idea of what I want to happen, but more often than not, once the characters begin to develop, they take on a life of their own. At this stage, quite often the story will change from my original intentions. It’s rare that a story goes exactly as I intended. I guess you could say it’s kind of like having several routes to a destination. I’ll get there eventually, but I often change routes mid-way, if that makes any sense.

So, why horror?

Well, apart from the standard answer I’m sure most give about always being a weird kid whose mind constantly wandered towards the dark side (and it’s assuredly true in my case) I think the thing I like about horror is the primal feeling it instills in us. It forces us to live in the now. I believe people spend so much time worrying about the past and future that no one embraces the now (and I’m certainly guilty of this too). But when you’re scared shitless, it kind of forces you to live in the now, you know? It’s exhilarating.

Do you really think the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the best movie ever?

Unquestionably, unequivocally. It is so raw and gritty and real. No twists, no backstory (and none asked nor welcomed) just true in your face terror. It’s freaking brilliant.

Stephen King or Clive Barker?

Yeesh! Tough one. I think Misery is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, so it’s hard to go against, King, but Barker is just so … I don’t know how to describe it. His mind—there’s no scale to describe his brilliance. His way with words. I’ve often said that many writers have a style that is imitate able if you read them enough. I don’t think anyone can imitate Barker. He’s one of those writers that makes you both elated and jealous. Elated because you just read a particular passage that was brilliant, and then jealous because you know you’ll never write anything that good LOL.

And, with Side Effects, you've now started a mystery series with the FBI agent Maggie Allen character. Is this a natural progression from your horror writing? What do you see as different about the two genres?

I’m always trying to branch out into different genres, and I love serial killer/police procedural thrillers. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is another all-time favorite of mine. So, I wanted to give the genre a shot. I am extremely proud of Side Effects and think it’s one of the better things I’ve written, however reception to it has been mixed. Stephen King once said a writer is often the worst judge of his work, and maybe he’s right in this case LOL. Still, I like the book quite a lot, and I really like the characters Maggie and Morris. I think with some editorial tweaking of book 1, there’s a solid series ready to take off someday.

What has been you're greatest challenge as a freelance writer?

Technology! I am exceptionally stunted in the tech department. I still have a flip phone! If it was up to me, I would just write all day and let someone else handle all the tech/marketing stuff. But alas, I cannot, and it can be, as you say, a challenge.

If you could go back in time and start over, what would you have done differently?

That’s a tough question. I think it’s human nature to always wish we did something “different” in the past. But I believe we grow just as much, if not more so, from our mistakes and failures. Obviously, there are little things along the way I wish I could have done differently, but that’s life, isn’t it? How else do you learn?

Your short story “Worm” is included in the Smart Rhino Publications anthology Zippered Flesh 3. What do you find most satisfying about writing short fiction?

The lack of pressure to know that when the story is finished it’s finished. When embarking on a novel, you know you need a certain amount of words in order to reach novel territory, but with a short story, the tale can be told in as little as a few pages. I mentioned Misery earlier as one of my favorite novels. King stated that he meant the tale to be a novella, not a novel, but as he got going, the story ventured into that “is it a novel or is it novella?” length, and I suspect (though I could be a zillion percent wrong) it’s why he inserted the Misery novel Paul Sheldon was writing while being held captive by Annie Wilkes into the entire novel itself. Otherwise it would have been too short.

What advice would you offer writers concerning marketing their books?

Huh. I guess the best thing to suggest, other than writing good stuff, is to develop a decent following via social media and a mailing list. A mailing list is very valuable. Also, I cannot stress enough the importance of good editing and a professional-looking book cover. Do not skimp on these! They are worth every penny.

When it comes to writing, what’s on your bucket list?

Not sure. Gathering with a bunch of my peers I respect for cocktails and laughs? Seeing my work on the big screen? Tough to say at this stage in my career.

Imagine you’re lost in the Canadian wilderness, fully dependent on your self-preservation skills. You’ve managed to start a fire. If you could have two other writers hovering around your campfire, who would they be?

You said Canadian wilderness. Their health care is better than ours. So, I wouldn’t worry. Seriously though, I’d probably want Hemingway to bring the booze and the party atmosphere, and then maybe Poe. He’d love Hemingway’s booze, and getting inside his head would be an experience unlike any other, I think.

One last question, just for fun, knowing you’re a fan of the Three Stooges. Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, or Joe? And why? (And no fair saying you like them all!)

Larry. He was a Philly boy, but also one of the greatest reactive actors ever. Next time you watch an episode, watch Larry’s face during a scene that doesn’t involve him directly. He’s always in the moment. Next, in order of favs, would be: Moe, Curly, and Shemp. F*ck Joe. Couldn’t stand him.

I wasn’t a fan of Joe either. Too much of a wimp and never funny.

Thanks, Jeff. Great interview!

You can learn more about Jeff and his work at his website, www.jeffmenapace.com. Read his story, "Worm," in ZIPPERED FLESH 3.

(This interview was originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of Suspense Magazine.)

Meet Bram Stoker Award Finalist James Dorr

March 13, 2017

Tags: James Dorr, Bram Stoker Award, The Tears of Isis, Uncommon Assassins, Insidious Assassins, Zippered Flesh 3

Indiana writer James Dorr’s The Tears of Isis was a 2014 Bram Stoker Award® nominee for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection. His other books include Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder and Romance, Darker Loves: Tales of Mystery and Regret, and his all-poetry Vamps (A Retrospective). Also be on the watch for Tombs: A Chronicle of Latter-Day Times of Earth, a novel-in-stories due for release from Elder Signs Press in spring 2017. Dorr, an Active Member of HWA and SFWA, has seen his work published in more than 500 publications, from "Alfred Hitchcock's Magazine" to "Xenophilia."

If you're familiar with Smart Rhino's anthologies (and we certainly hope you are!), you may remember his stories "The Wellmaster's Daughter" in Uncommon Assassins, and "Labyrinth" in Insidious Assassins. His story "Golden Age" will be published in Zippered Flesh 3, now in production.

James was happy to spend a few minutes to talk with us. Enjoy!

Your book The Tears of Isis was a Bram Stoker Award finalist in 2014 for the fiction collection category. Your stories have appeared in many anthologies, including Smart Rhino's Uncommon Assassins, Insidious Assassins, and the upcoming Zippered Flesh 3. Do you prefer the short form over writing novels? What's the allure for writing short stories?

Allan Poe wrote in his essay, “The Poetic Principle,” that “a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul.” So, a true poem must necessarily have a certain brevity. “That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags--fails--a revulsion ensues--and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.” There are such things as epics, of course. But to Poe, despite the need for unity for a work as a whole, such a work in practice becomes a series of shorter poems, though perhaps not so much through the fault of the poet as that of the reader.

Nevertheless, I think I agree with what Poe is getting at--that at best the “good bits” will be interspersed with duller parts in a reader’s perception. And judging from Poe’s own works of fiction, I think he means for this to apply to prose as well. So as to my own work, yes, at least as a writer I prefer short stories to novels. I often write horror (I also write fantasy, sf, mystery, and even some humor I should add, as well as poetry), which I see in part as a study of character under unnatural stress. And while I love diversions and atmosphere and descriptions and explanations to help as intellectual support, I think there is an emotional center which only can be sustained for so long. Now, not everything I write is that exciting--“Golden Age” in Zippered Flesh 3, for instance, is written as a measured reflection. But even there I think there is an emotional core, and a puzzle perhaps for the reader to discover through empathy with the narrator, of why the story should stop where it does. But the point is still that it does stop, that to carry it farther would weaken the effect as a whole.

So that’s the challenge I find in short fiction, again as a writer, to write as much as a story needs to drive its point through, and not a word more. Because what should come after is the reader’s own addition, through his or her own thought, to what I have written.

Speaking of novels, your book Tombs: A Chronicle of Latter-Day Times of Earth is scheduled for release later this year. Can you tell us a little about the novel?

"It had been a time when the world needed legends, those years so long past now. Because there was something else legends could offer, or so the Poet believed. He didn't know quite what--ghouls were not skilled at imagination. Their world was a concrete one, one of stone and flesh. Struggle and survival. Survival predicated on others' deaths. Far in the future, when our sun grows ever larger, scorching the earth. When seas become poisonous and men are needed to guard the crypts from the scavengers of the dead. A ghoul-poet will share stories of love and loss, death and resurrection. Tombs is a beautifully written examination of the human condition of life, love, and death, through the prism of a dystopian apocalypse."

This is the publisher’s blurb on Amazon, condensed perhaps but fair enough (and positively flattering in that last sentence!). But there’s something to be said about structure too. Tombs is written as a novel-in-stories, or what’s sometimes called a “mosaic novel,” one not so much presented as a continuous narrative, from start to finish, but rather assembled from independent chapter stories. Some in fact were published before (two even appear in The Tears of Isis, while a third story there, while not in Tombs, is set in the same universe). The idea is there’s a larger story, in this case that of the world itself. But the approach to it is oblique, as if through, say, a series of snapshots in a photo album from which the reader might assemble a more complete picture in his or her own head.

One example is a book written more than sixty years ago--and one of my favorite novels of all time--Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, in this case assembling a “history” of the colonization of Mars through a series of stories, strung together with shorter vignettes. There are other examples in non-science fiction/dark fiction/fantasy contexts such as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club or John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy. But the thing is, this is one way around Poe’s dictum, above, of being able to sustain a core idea--intellectual, aesthetic, emotional--only for so long.

So why not, then, an assemblage of ideas? Of corpse-trains that ply bridges crossing a great river, bearing a city’s dead, braving attacks from flesh-eating ghouls. Of rat-catchers, gravediggers, grave guards, and artists. Of Mangol the Ghoul, of musician-lovers Flute and Harp who once played back a storm, of the Beautiful Corpse. A city consumed by a huge conflagration, a woman frozen for thousands of years. A flower that eats memories….

And in the center of all, the great necropolis, the Tombs.

What do you find most difficult about freelance writing? The most rewarding?

The difficulty, frankly, for me is getting ideas. Not that ideas alone may not abound, but an idea-cluster that I can write a story around is a more difficult matter. My “muse,” as it were, is a nasty one who does not give things easily but must be wrestled into surrender. But then the joy, when that idea comes, the exhilaration of putting its various parts together, and realizing when I’ve finished a story that I’ve created something worth creating, that’s the reward. The grind of marketing will come later, and there’s a joy too when a story sells, especially if to a major market, but still the real reward for me is the creation itself.

What advice would you offer a novice writer looking to submit short stories to anthologies, magazines, or online venues?

Some, I’m sure, will have been heard before, perhaps many times: Perseverance. Don’t quit your day job. Those are the clichés, but they’re still true, that most writers aren’t going to make much money until they’ve been at it for some time, if even then. This is especially true for short story writers (I won’t even think about poets), unless you really, really persist and are willing to write in a number of genres (one person I know, for instance, has made a fair amount ghosting stories in woman’s confession magazines, but that’s not the route we’re taking here). But that doesn’t mean you can’t make some money, several hundred, perhaps even a few thousand dollars a year, if you can sell consistently to the highest paying markets. But most of us won’t.

For us lesser ambitions (in my case I look on money from writing as supplemental income, which I report as business income at tax time, but some years I’ll actually report a loss), be aware of markets when they open, especially anthologies. Ralan.com is one source on the internet, the Submission Grinder another--a third is Duotrope which I still use, although they charge a subscription fee these days. Consider joining groups like the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. But also look for pages on Facebook for horror and science fiction writers and fans and, if you can, go to sf/horror conventions--these are ways you can meet other writers, as well as editors, and they can meet you. Cultivate friendships and listen for gossip.

But most important: Enjoy what you're doing and strive to do your best. Follow your bliss, to repeat that cliché. Be proud of your work, but be practical too--if an editor advises you to make changes, take it seriously. But remember it’s still advice, especially as you gain more experience, and the one you must please, ultimately, has to be yourself.

Sage advice. Thanks, James.

For more on James and his work, check out his blog at jamesdorr.writer.wordpress.com.


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