Monday 11 July 2011

Michael R Collings interview: Devil's Plague

Devil's Plague by Michael R. Collings

Dr. Michael R. Collings is a former professor of English and Creative Writing at Pepperdine University (Malibu CA) who now uses his retirement to write. He is the author of some 120 books, including literary studies and bibliographies, novels, collections of short stories, volumes of poetry and, with his wife Judith, a whole-grain wheat cookbook.

Can you sum up Devil's Plague in no more than 25 words?

When a young woman’s body is found at the base of a nearby waterfall, octogenarian Victoria Sears and her new-found friend follow the evidence to find the killer.

Devil’s Plague: A Mystery Novel was first published as a trade paperback Wildside Double, back-to-back with Gary Lovisi’s remarkable Driving Hell’s Highway: A Crime Novel. It’s a fascinating volume since, given the titles and cover illustrations for the book, there would seem to be connections between the stories. In fact, they will offer readers startlingly different reading experiences.

Both are now available as e-books.

What was your motivation for writing it?

Initially, my wife challenged me to write something other than horror…and to include a strong female lead. Since, after horror, my favourite genre is mystery, it seemed a natural to write a mystery with a female detective. And, since almost everything I had written to that point had been in third person, I decided to try a first-person narrator—so I needed a Watson for my Holmes. Victoria Sears came naturally as protagonist since at the time my own grandmother was much on my mind; and Lynn Hanson, a recent widow grieving for the loss of her husband and child evolved as my narrator. This gave me two opportunities to develop women characters, one canny with age, the other young and vulnerable.

My final challenge was simple—in my horror, death was ever-present. Here, in a murder mystery, I wanted to move as far as possible from graphic descriptions, from “blood and guts,” from overt violence, and make the narrative hinge on more subtle, mental actions.

The result so pleased me that shortly after Devil’s Plague was published, I wrote a sequel, Serpent’s Tooth, following the same guidelines and exploring further the relationship between Victoria and Lynn, between appearance and reality, and between life and death.

How long did it take you to write?

Tricky question. Basically, it took three weeks and twenty years.

The first chapters were completed in a few weeks around twenty years ago, when I was in the middle of a teaching career at Pepperdine University, balancing the demands of a growing family with my teaching responsibilities, and struggling in the midst of it all to write.

With the abrupt onset of severe deafness, compounded by constant tinnitus in both ears with accompanying bouts of truly frightening depression, this story settled into the back of my mind. I wrote literary studies, collated bibliographies, and finally got to where I could concentrate long enough to resume writing poetry in short bursts, but the idea of finishing the novel was too much.

In 2006, I took a disability retirement from Pepperdine because of the hearing problems, moved to Idaho, began recovering from the worst of the depression…and finally found the impetus to return to the story and finish it. The final chapters, plus revisions, were finished in about three weeks.

How important is a good title?

From my work with poetry, where the title is in fact the first ‘line’ of the poem, I realized that titles are crucial. They draw readers in, they give the first indication as to what the story is and how it will unfold, they provide clues as to what the readers should pay close attention to.

Originally—and until it was almost completed—the story was called “Queen Anne’s Lace,” a reference to both a wild flower (that, by the way, blooms profusely along the irrigation canals near my home in Idaho) and a crocheting pattern that my mother and grandmother both used frequently.

As the story neared completion, however, it seemed that that title was too flat, too fussy, perhaps too much of a give-away. And I didn’t want the story to seem too much like a great-aunt’s hand-worked antimacassar.

Fortunately, I discovered that Queen Anne’s Lace has a number of other names, particularly in the farming areas where it proliferates…and one was “Devil’s Plague”! That was more to my liking. It still points to the plant, which plays an important role in the novel, but also points toward other, darker images that the story develops.

The sequel, Serpent’s Tooth, uses its title in the same way. There’s an off-hand reference to Shakespeare’s lines from King Lear, but more critically, it points to snakes—on several levels—throughout.

How important is a book's central character?

I don’t think either Devil’s Plague or Serpent’s Tooth could succeed without Victoria and Lynn. The language is Lynn’s; the perspective from which the evidence is examined is also hers, which allows me room for a bit of misdirection and sleight of hand. But Victoria is the star. She gives the story its tone, its atmosphere. She turns the mountain town of Fox Creek into an American version of a Marplesque English village. She eventually manipulates the revelation that brings meaning to the deaths. In many ways, she is the novel.

What's your favourite part of the writing process?

Getting lost in the story. Becoming so intimate with the characters and their surroundings and their problems that I lose the sense of being “me” and for the duration of a scene or an episode, I become essentially someone else. No matter whether the story is science fiction, horror, or mystery, if it is working, there comes a time when the hour, or two, or several that I spend immersed in that world takes on a depth, a resonance. I know the story is working when I become so much a part of the character’s lives that I don’t even notice the rasping, staticky tinnitus noises…which is a blessing.

Who's your favourite living writer?

Being a bit of a maverick, I hesitate to pin down a single name. So I’ll give you two.

First, Stephen King. I’ve read nearly all of his stories, written multiple books about him and his works, taught classes based on his novels...and I detect more than a little influence from him in my own horror tales. He is, in my estimation, an elegant craftsman at creating the commonplace so believably that when horror intrudes, it becomes paradoxically even more emphatic than if the story were set in a cobwebby old castle perched on an unassailable cliff. He helped form my imagination and—with only a handful of exceptions—I have found value in everything he had written.

Second, Orson Scott Card. I’ve known Card for something over twenty years. He has written in many genres, proving himself adept at each. He demonstrates again and again how central characterization is to storytelling…indeed, how central Storytelling is to human culture and society.

What are the greatest opportunities facing writers these days?

We live in probably the only time in human history when there is virtually NO censorship. Anyone can write anything and find a place—either in print or on the internet—to share it. No matter how few, audiences are out there, willing to read. And authors are no longer tied to local, regional, even national publishers. The internet has made writing an international endeavour. The sense of freedom, of possibility is breath-taking.

Of course, as we know from our favourite super-heroes, with great freedom comes great responsibility. Writers are more closely tied to their words than ever before, even (or perhaps especially) when those words elicit unexpected, unwanted results. There are fewer mediating voices, for example, editors, coming between author and audience, so the author must be even more alert to every level of writing, from the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation to the subtleties of theme and meaning.

Ever tried your hand at screenwriting?

Once. And failed dismally. I decided that the closest I would come to writing screenplays might be novel-versions, if asked.

Curiously enough, however, my son Michael Brent is a talented screenwriter, with two scripts in production at the moment and half a dozen more circulating among agents and producers. If any of my novels ever make it ‘big’, I’ll have him write the screenplay for me. Keep it in the family.

Ever tried your hand at poetry?

Yes. About 2500 times. Actually, I consider myself a poet first, a novelist second. I’ve published as many poetry collections as I have novels, ranging from mainstream to autobiographical to science fiction/fantasy/horror, to religious. My masterwork, as it were, in verse is a 6,500 line religious epic modelled on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and the Renaissance Epics—the focus of my graduate studies years ago. “The Nephiad” has actually even sold some copies, and that to people I don’t even know. For a long, narrative poem in blank verse in the 21st century, that is a major achievement.

Do you read outside of the crime genre?

I will read almost anything. Crime/mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural thriller, historical novels, history, biography—I read voraciously and try not to limit myself too narrowly to any particular genre. If it is well written, interesting, and stimulating, I will read it.

Do you have any other projects on the go?

More writing, more novels. Today I received my first copy of Static! A Novel of Horror and the publisher is working on A Pound of Chocolates on St. Valentine’s Day, similarly a horror novel and one of my favorites.

Several manuscripts are being read by a British large-print hardcover publisher. They have already purchased rights to Devil’s Plague and are looking at Serpent’s Tooth and A Pound of Chocolates (which will be re-named Shadow Valley if they accept it).

After that, there is “Fast Foods,” a story about several characters who spend time at the local fast-food joint, the Burger Barn, until several of their number begin dying. The survivors must discover who…or what…is killing them. In their case, it looks as if they are the “fast food.”

Following that, I will probably work on a third Victoria Sears/Lynn Hanson mystery, set in Fox Creek during Christmas time. I’ve got the plot sketched out but haven’t begun writing on it yet. More fun for later on.

Many thanks for the opportunity to talk about writers and writing.

Devil's Plague by Michael R. Collings

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