An Interview with Peter Straub (March, 2010)

Peter Straub

Peter Straub

Peter Straub is the bestselling author of many books, including Ghost Story, The Hellfire Club, and In the Night Room.  Born in Wisconsin, Straub currently lives in New York with his family on the Upper West Side.  His latest novel, A Dark Matter, was released in February, 2010.

This interview was conducted in March, 2010.

Alex: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Peter: I think I loved the whole idea once I realized that books did not write themselves, at age 9 or 10, say. When I was a senior in high school, I knew that I was going to be a writer, but that I had to time it right because once I started I’d never be able to do anything else.

Alex: Who were your influences?

Peter: Way back when I started, my influences were mainly poets, Ashbery, Stevens, Geoffrey Hill,  Frank O’Hara. John Updike would have been in the mix, though, also Virginia Woolf, John O’Hara, and Saul Bellow.

Alex: Do you remember what was the first thing you published?

Peter: The first thing I published was a short poem, in The World #14. It was produced by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s in the Bowery.

Alex: What was you first novel and how did it get published?

My first novel was called Marriages. I wrote it one summer in Dublin, when I was supposed to be writhing a Ph.D. dissertation. I mailed it to the publisher Andre Deutsch in London, and they accepted it.

Alex: Do you have a specific process when writing a novel?

Nothing specific enough to talk about. It’s just the usual mess, notebooks, notes, useless outlines, false starts, little flares of ideas springing up.

Alex: Where did the idea for A Dark Matter come from?

Peter: When I was in college during the early sixties in Madison, Wisconsin, now and then some wandering guru would pop up, camp out in student apartments, and lay out what he saw was the truth, the real deal. They talked and talked, and in the meantime they ate your food, borrowed your clothes, and had sex with your girlfriend. I thought it would be interesting to write about one of these guys, and have him lead some kind of ceremony that would go disastrously wrong.

Alex: Did it require any sort of research?

Peter: Only in memory.

Alex: Where did the characters come from?

Peter: I made them up, each and every one.

Alex: Is it any easier to have a writer as a main character?

Peter: At least I understand what a writer does. So maybe it is easier than doing a lot of research into plumbing or electrical engineering, but at least to me, it also opens up a big imaginative space other professions do not have.

Alex: Were you pulling from your own childhood at all when writing this novel?

Peter: No, not this time. I did draw on my life in Madison during the years 1963-1965.

Alex: What made you decide to tell this particular story as an event that happened in the past, to be revealed by the characters?

Peter: Who knows? This was the way the story presented itself.

Alex: Was this novel written chronologically, from start to finish, or was it written in separate parts and brought together?

Peter: It was written pretty much as is, chronologically, but a great deal of editing removed nearly half of the book. The novel emerged from the butcher shop much improved, spryer, leaner, more focused.

Alex: How did you become friends with Stephen King?

Peter: Back in 1976-79, when both of us were just beginning, we liked each other’s work a lot. He wrote blurbs for two of my books, and I wrote to thank him. Then the Kings moved to England, and we met and got along very well. That was the start of things, the sense of  shared concerns, of a kind of brotherhood.

Alex: How did you end up writing a book together?

Peter: One weekend when we all lived in England, the Kings came to visit us in our house in Crouch End, London. Steve and I stayed up late, drinking beer and talking. Very late at night, Steve asked me if I thought it might be fun to collaborate on a book sometime. I said yes, I did think it would be fun to do that.

Alex: What was the process for this?

Peter: Intense individual thinking and note-taking, exchanged letters,  several meeting to discuss the plot, then a long outline. After that we got together and began writing the book side-by-side.

Alex: Do you plan on collaborating together in the future?

Peter: I believe we will do a third book together. It seems right.

Alex: Do you have a set writing schedule you keep to each day?

Peter: In a way. I try to do a little in the morning, then a bit more in the afternoon and early evening. I work about five or six hours a day.

Alex: What do you use to write on?

Peter: This is a weird question. What do I use to write on? Do you mean, what do I write on? Generally, I write on an iMac, though often I write in big bound notebooks with either pencils or fountain pens.

Alex: Do you see yourself ever writing in a different genre, something you haven’t written in before?

Peter: No, I can’t forsee that, since according to me, everything I write is in the genre defined by my name. Everything I write is Straubian before it is anything else.

Alex: Have any of your books been optioned or turned into movies?

Peter: Two of my books have been filmed, and quite a lot of them are under option. This means nothing.

Alex: What are you working on next and when will it be published?

Peter: I cannot say.

Alex: Do you have any advice for writers looking to get published?

Peter: This question is really too broadly put to be answered. If you are speaking of young writers, my advice is to get the best agent they can, because it’s getting colder and colder out here.

Alex: Who are some of your favorite authors?

Peter: I love the work of the late Donald Harington, and I urge everyone reading this to go out and get a copy of Some Other Place. The Right Place. Immediately.

Alex: What do you like to read?

Peter: Novels, mainly, and books about the lives of authors. These are inevitably tragic and heartbreaking. Malcolm Lowry used to disinfect his shoes by pouring cognac into them and leaving it there overnight. Later on, he was probably killed by his wife. A common thread links these two things.

Alex: Do you have any hobbies?

Peter: Not really. Writing takes up a lot of time, and it eats away at your life.

Alex: Do you feel there’s any sort of message you’re trying to get across to your readers in your books?

Peter: That is best left to those who want to think about messages.

Alex: What is your favorite part – from the original idea to doing a book tour – of the writing process?

Peter: My favorite part? Probably being in the middle of a long book, unsure of what I  am supposed to do next and feeling my way along.

Alex: If you hadn’t chosen writing for your career, what do you think you would’ve done?

Peter: Yikes! Ugh. Become a life-long English teacher at a private school?  That’s probably it, but it isn’t very pretty.

Alex: Is there anything you’ve written or anything you’ve done in your writing career that you regret, or wish you had done?

Peter: My first two novels are pretty bad. I wish I had known enough to make them better fiction.

Alex: What do you feel is your best work?

Peter: My own faves are The Dark Matter and the Blue Rose books: Koko, Mystery and The Throat. Two days ago, I saw that some blogger, a great literary expert, called those books “crapola.” Well, I don’t know for sure, but I have the feeling that  people will still be reading those books long after that blogger  has been entirely forgotten.

“Fables Volume 13: The Great Fables Crossover” by Bill Willingham, et. al. (Vertigo, 2010)

Great Fables Crossoverstarstarstar

After reading the thirteenth volume in the award winning Fables series, I’m still not that bothered that I haven’t got around to reading the spin-off Jack of Fables series yet, as I still don’t like the guy.

In this new collection, Jack is back and as usual he’s got a problem that he needs someone to help him fix, or more like he needs someone to fix it for him.  Except this problem could unravel the world and reality in the blink of an eye.  New characters like Sam, Gary the Pathetic Fallacy, and the Page Sisters are introduced, as Willingham plays around with writing and stories.

Kevin Thorne is someone with a lot of power: with his quill he can rewrite history and the world to be whatever he wants it to be, except he doesn’t know what to write.  A destroyed, insensible from of himself is always close by – writer’s block: his greatest fear.  Whatever he writes comes true, whether it changes something into something else, or adds something completely new.  Bigby finds this out the hard way, as he finds himself getting turned into a number of different forms.  The question is whether the Fables will be able to get to Kevin Thorne and stop him before the world is completely changed.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 14 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Pleasure Model” by Christopher Rowley (Tor, 2010)

Pleasure Modelstarstarstar

Tor presents what they call the first “illustrated novel” with Christopher Rowley’s Pleasure Model, the first in the Netherworld trilogy.  It represents a new partnership between Heavy Metal magazine and Tor books: “Heavy Metal Pulp will partner the top illustrators and designers from the iconic fantasy magazine with today’s most talented science fiction authors, blending the sensuous artistic style and graphic imagery of Heavy Metal with classic noir storytelling.” While I wouldn’t ordinary step within ten feet of a book with this type of cover, I was curious about this new “illustrated novel” concept and was somewhat surprised with Pleasure Model.

The setting is a noir future world, where perfect human forms can be created for pleasure.  Rowley seems to borrow from the minds of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Richard K Morgan, but then does some interesting things, making the story his.  This is the story of detective Rook, a down-and-out cop who seems to be going nowhere fast, until he gets handed a bizarre murder case.  He makes little headway in the case until he discovers one witness, a Pleasure Model – an illegal gene-grown human – named Plesur.  But the murderer soon discovers this and is looking to eliminate Plesur.  Rook isn’t going to let that happen, and does what he can to protect Plesur, as well as find out just what exactly is going on.

The book definitely goes where the explicit cover hints, but Rowley doesn’t over describe and dwell on the Pleasure Model and what she does, as one might expect if this had been written by the likes of Frank Miller á la Sin City.  As for the small rectangular bars of art – the illustrations – displayed on various pages, in different spots; the quality and detail aren’t that great, and serve more to distract the reader, and spoil he or she on what’s to happen on the next page.

Therefore the concept of the “illustrated novel” isn’t that impressive and I honestly could’ve done without the artwork, or perhaps had something at the beginning of each chapter.  The story however was a little different from what I expected it to be and worth checking out.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 14 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Subterranean” by James Rollins (William Morrow, 2010)


Originally published in 1999, James Rollins debut novel, Subterranean, is now available in hardcover for the first time.  Something has been discovered deep beneath the ice of Antarctica: a deep labyrinth that hasn’t seen the light of day in a very long time.  Within are strange animals, perhaps new species unknown to science, as well as what appears to be archaeological evidence of an ancient form of hominid life.  The question is whether any of this early genus are alive and possibly still living in these caves.  One team went down to find out.  They haven’t been heard from in months.

But now a new team has been assembled, led by archaeologist Ashley Carter.  They haven’t been told about what happened to the last team, but will maintain constant contact with the people above.  As they travel deeper into these timeless caves, they learn more and more of this undiscovered world – its flora and fauna – as well as who these early hominids really are.  Then something – a great beast – starts attacking them, taking them one by one.  More beasts are discovered.  Communication is severed and it will be up to Carter to try and keep the group together and get them back to the surface alive.

It seems pretty obvious that James Rollins is a Jules Verne fan, as one reads further into Subterranean, it starts to feel quite like Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Rollins does his work and research, creating a logical link and reason for everything being there, as well as an origin story to the beasts and the strange hominids.  Subterranean is a fun thrill-ride that doesn’t possess the same fast pace and skill as his later novels, but is nevertheless a worthy read for any Rollins fan.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 14 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession” by David Grann (Doubleday, 2010)

The Devil and Sherlock Holmesstarstarstarstar

After the runaway success of David Grann’s first book, The Lost City of Z, he returns with a collection of some of his most fascinating articles that he has published in various publications over the last decade.  Like The Lost City of Z, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes is just as compelling and fascinating, as Grann delves into some of the most unusual minds and stories you’ve never heard about.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes runs the gamut – which is always a good thing with a collection – with the first story about the mysterious death of the world’s foremost Sherlock Holmes expert, to what a daredevil New Zealander is doing to discover more about one of life’s most unknown creatures: the giant squid.  There is the incredible story of Frédéric Bourdin, known as “The Chameleon,” with an ability to be anyone he chooses to be.  The water system of New York isn’t in great shape with two giant pipes built long ago that are in much need of repair, while the new tunnel being built by sandhogs is not scheduled to be completed until 2020; meanwhile either of the two old tunnels could give at any moment, depriving the people of New York with water.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes is really a study of the human psyche, as these seemingly unbelievable stories reveal the extents to which some people will do certain things to achieve a desired result.  This book will astound you, but also keep you hooked to every single page.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 14 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Makers” by Cory Doctorow (Tor, 2009)


While authors tend not to have a lot of control and say over the images and colors that will grace their books, the publisher must put a lot of work into deciding what the cover of a particular book should be.  The cover for Makers does a great job of hinting and  implying at the events taking place within its pages: a stacked wall of old, abandoned keyboards, with hanging connector cords; occasional mouses squeezed in here and there, cables also dangling.  The keyboards and mouses reveal the subject matter of technological devices that soon become outdated and almost forgotten, as a newer, flashier item replaces it, while technology updates and improves.  The key term is obsolete.

It is our near future, between ten and thirty years down the line, as events progress in the book.  Percy Gibbons and Lester Banks are makers: they like to make something out of nothing.  Specifically they’re interested in inventing new and useful pieces of technology using defunct and obsolete parts, thereby not needing any new, hard to get materials.  They soon become employees of a new company – Kodacell (formerly Kodak and Duracell) – as they begin coming up with great and crazy new inventions with a steady paycheck.  Journalist Suzanne Church begins to cover their work for the publication she works for, and then starts her own blog covering the rise of Kodacell in popularity and insight with its products, and soon becomes a celebrity in her own right.

But all things must come to an end, like the end of the Dot Com revolution.  Time passes, things change, while Gibbons and Banks move onto their next project: an automated theme park of robots that create displays and showcases on the history of technology and its change over time.  Viewers, in their own little car, get to choose whether they like a particular display or not, thereby making the robots alter, reconfigure and improve it overnight for the viewing customer.  It is a constantly changing and self-replicating enterprise; much better than Disney World which is quite different from today’s park.

Makers is not a chronological book with beginning, middle, and end, but more of a long snapshot into a world that could very well become our own.  Doctorow is asking many questions and making many comments on society and where it might be going, addressing subjects like the giants of Wal-Mart and Disney World, as well as the obesity problem with a new and terrifying procedure.  Makers works on many levels, not just analyzing technology, but from a business standpoint, as well as a human one where many lives can be affected.  It is a novel with a story that shouldn’t be taken as a steadfast message of “this is our future,” but more “this is something that could happen,” and what are your thoughts on it?  Or perhaps even: “What are you going to do about it?”

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 11 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Coldheart Canyon” by Clive Barker (HarperCollins, 2001)

Hollywood’s Debauched History

Coldheart Canyonstarstarstarstar

Coldheart Canyon is a clear example of what happens when a brilliant, literary mind sits down to create long, great work.  Over six hundred pages, Clive Barker’s new novel ascends to a horror level above Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Neil Gaiman, both in story and literary style.  Barker has often been slotted into the genre of “horror writer,” and it is when one reads Coldheart Canyon that one realizes he really in a league of his own.

Todd Pickett is a lot like Bruce Campbell, the renowned Hollywood  actor – of the B-movies that is.  He has how own scary fan club and he has been making action-flicks since the early nineties, but has now reached his career plateau.  No longer is he able to make the big bucks for the tough-guy movies; what he needs is to revamp himself and present and new and improved Todd Pickett to the world.  The solution then, in a place like Hollywood, can only be one thing: plastic surgery.  Except is goes wrong, and he ends up getting scarred and needs a place to hide out for a while so he can heal.

The covert locale of Coldheart Canyon is a castle-like mansion located in a most obscure area of Los Angeles (if one does not know where to look for it, one will never find it).  It is devoid of life, or so Pickett thinks, but after some time spend in solitude, the ghosts begin to make an appearance.  Coldheart Canyon was originally owned by a famous actress of the silent-movie era, Katya Lupi, where famous parties of degradation and sexual exploitation used to take place, where the crème of Hollywood would give into their secret and uncouth desires – like Charlie Chaplin’s passion for very young girls – with the aim that once they have satisfied their anxieties, they will be happy and smiling for the camera the next day.

However in the basement of this house is something special, something from a bygone time centuries old, taken from the hidden hinterlands of Romania.  A snippet of time, involving a group of fifteenth century hunters and the Devil’s wife, held within a breathtaking mosaic, which holds much more than startling colors and shocking landscapes.  There is a power at work here, one in  which the Devil’s hand is steering; a power where a quasi-immortality is granted, though as with everything involving the Devil, it is at a terrible price.

Having spent years working on this novel, Barker has made it immensely personal, with characters that have been taken from his very own life; even the death of his beloved dog is incorporated into the book.  At the same time Barker is doing what he does best: delving into a conglomeration of fantasy and horror, taking the reader to a metaphysical plane that can only be reach by the skilled hands of Barker.  With his colorful vocabulary and literary skill that raises the novel to a much higher level, Coldheart Canyon attains new bounds from the mind of one of today’s most eminent authors.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally published on February 4th 2002.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.