A Conversation with James Newman

James Newman…a Southern Gentlemen who gave us the novels Midnight Rain and The Wicked, as well as such novellas as the co-authored Night of the Loving Dead, with James Futch, and Holy Rollers. And his latest novel, Animosity, was just released through Necessary Evil Press.

Newman was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to sit and chew the fat with me…

JB: James, we’ve known each other a few years, met up—where was it, the old Horror Channel board? I don’t recall, do you?

JN: I think that’s right. Of course, I can barely remember what I did last week, half the time. I used to think it was because I’d smoked too much weed back in the day. Now I know it’s just ’cause I’m getting old.

Seriously, though, thanks for asking me to do this. It’s always a pleasure talking to you, John.

JB: Well, I’ve never smoked weed or done any sort of drugs and I can’t remember shit myself, so we’ll dismiss it as old age. Do you remember what your first story was about? Who was your main source of encouragement during those early years?

JN: Ya know, I’m reading this late at night…at first I read the above question as “I shit myself,” and my first instinct was to reply, “Yeah, sadly, that comes with old age, too. Wait—you mean you’re not supposed to do that at 36?” But seriously…

I don’t remember what the very first story I ever wrote was about, but I do recall when I was in the fifth grade I had this little book of short stories I threw together, complete with illustrations. They were all cheesy little horror stories with ridiculous E.C. Comics-style twist endings. But I was really proud of them. My teacher at the time caught me working on the book during class, and she confiscated it. But here’s the cool part. She skimmed through the book, apparently recognized that I had some real talent, and instead of getting in trouble I ended up reading a story to the class every day after lunch. That was cool. I felt like a pint-sized rock star.

As for the person who encouraged me, going even farther back than that fifth-grade teacher, it was always my mom. She’s very creative herself. (I urge folks to check out the photos section of my website, where you can see a kick-ass recreation of the “Old Shack” from Midnight Rain that my mother made for me not long after the book was released.) Mom always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, and she was the one who instilled in me my love for books as far back as I can remember. Heck, she had me reading before I ever started kindergarten, in fact.

JB: How did you get into writing? What were your formative years like, toiling over stories and subbing them? I always find it somewhat reassuring to hear how published writers have had to endure the same rocky paths that we newish writers are navigating…

JN: Oh, gosh. I can remember writing stories when I was just five or six years old. My mom still has a few of them, in fact. I’ve had a fascination with “the spooky stuff” for as long as I can remember, and have always enjoyed making up my own demented little horror tales.

This is gonna sound like complete bullshit, but believe it or not I don’t really have any “long hard road to publication” stories. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve had my share of rejections (they still happen, in fact, though I am proud to say that these days the ratio of acceptances to rejections is much, much more to my liking), but I think I was pretty lucky in that I sold quite a few of my early stories not long after I got started. Granted, they were picked up by crappy little ‘zines that paid in copies (so it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say I “sold” them, as very little green crossed my palm back then), and now I’d probably hide my face in shame if anybody dug up those early stories and tried to blackmail me with them or something.

But there you have it. I also got lucky with my novel. Sold my first one to the first publisher I submitted it to. Of course, that was a great feeling. I know I’m an exception to the rule, as that’s not the way it usually happens.

JB: I first read your novel Midnight Rain and liked the nostalgic youth aspect of it, reminiscent of McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Simmons’s Summer of Night, or even King’s It. Is that novel autobiographical in anyway?

JN: Not really. My father is alive and well (although he did serve in Viet Nam, like Kyle Mackey’s dad), and my mother is about as far from an alcoholic as one can get without being a teetotaler. But there are things about the main character that I think any boy who grew up at that time, in the South, can relate to. A love for his bicycle. Secret places. Not to mention the dark side of this region, namely racism. It is still alive and well. I see it a lot more than I care to.

JB: Sadly, I think as long as there are people there will be issues. If color was not a divisive factor, we always have class and religion, and if that was gone, I’m sure we’d find something—it’s our flawed nature, I fear. Have you always lived in the darkly lore-rich playground of the South?

JN: Yep, born and raised. And, unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of those issues myself. Hell, I see it among my own kin, sadly enough. My wife’s side of the family, particularly. We have beautiful nieces and nephews who are considered inferior by certain members of the family because they are half-black.

It’s sickening. I mean, this is the 21st century, right? The stories I could tell you…it’d make ya puke, man. I’m surprised we still speak to some of the folks who have so shamelessly perpetrated such bigotry against their own flesh and blood.

JB: What do you like to read? Who are you literary inspirations?

JN: Well, it’s no secret that my favorite writer is Joe R. Lansdale. Actually, he’s one of two tied for the first place spot. The other would be Ed Gorman. Other influences of mine include Ray Garton, Richard Matheson, Bentley Little, F. Paul Wilson, Stephen King (particularly his early work), and Nancy Collins’ short stories.

Believe it or not, these days I find myself reading a lot of crime/thriller stuff, more so than horror (or writers who mix the two genres and aren’t specifically labeled as “horror writers,” per se—my favorite example being John Connelly). That’s not to say I’ve stopped loving horror, ’cause I do. But, to be perfectly honest, there’s not a whole lot of work within the genre that’s knocking me on my ass right now. Sad to say, I usually end up disappointed with ninety-five percent of every new horror title I read.

JB: I love Lansdale as well. I’m a huge fan of his short stories but his novel work is good, too. Have you gotten to meet him?

JN: I have. As a matter of fact, I’m proud to say that I sat on several panels with Mr. Lansdale at a sci-fi/fantasy/horror convention in Nashville, TN. He was the Guest of Honor, and I was a Guest. I still can’t believe it. That was BEYOND cool, lemme tell ya.

JB: What would you like to accomplish as a writer?

JN: Ya know, at one time I had this big dream of doing this for a living. I guess I still do, in a way, though now I look at this business through the eyes of a guy who’s had a little bit of experience (read: a guy who’s seen what this writing gig actually PAYS!).

I know there’s a very small percentage of writers who make a living doing this and nothing but this, and the percentage of writers who actually made a GOOD living at it is even smaller than that. And, honestly? I’d have to start making REALLY big bucks, I think, to ever quit my day job. Not only because I love said day job, but also because of the benefits. I have a family, ya know? So I’ve gotta hold on to those benefits.

So getting back to your question…

What would I like to accomplish as a writer? I think I’d just like to tell a few stories that folks will enjoy—and remember. Maybe a handful of people might even remember them after I’m gone. That’d be nice.

JB: Well, I can tell you, anytime I see a commercial for one of those Save the Kids/Feed the Children-type groups I smile a dark smile and think of your short story “Suffer the Children.”

JN: (laughs) So do I. If you want to read a better story than mine, though, one influenced by those things, you oughta check out Tom Monteleone’s “Spare the Child.” Awesome.

JB: How important is music to your creative process? I know some writers who need a constant barrage of music while they write, and others who need total silence. I know you are a bit of a rocker; but what do you like as a soundtrack for your craft?

JN: I usually listen to horror-movie soundtracks when I’m writing. A few of my favorites: The Terminator, John Carpenter’s Christine, Night of the Living Dead 1990, and Creepshow. I also dig Lustmord’s stuff, and I’ve also gotta mention the creepy work of a guy named Chris Alexander (who’s also a writer who used to report for Rue Morgue and now, I think, Fangoria).

I am a rocker—a lot of my favorite bands these days I discovered based on your recommendations, as you know, John—but for the most part I tend to get distracted when I try to listen to music with vocals while I’m writing.

The latest novel has been one of the very rare exceptions to my “instrumentals only” rule. Been listening to a lot of blues—Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Buddy Guy—during this one. That’s probably because it’s a very Southern-style work, and my main character listens to the blues a lot. So it sets the right mood for me to get into that groove (think the main theme—not just the vocals, but the images, too—of that True Blood show, and you’ll get what I’m going for…although I’m not really a fan beyond the opening credits).

JB: Describe the collaborative dynamic in contrast to writing alone? I touched on this same subject with John Skipp in issue #1, and I wanted to ask another writer who has “mixed it up,” as I find the concept of collaboration a bit intriguing.

JN: I haven’t done it for a while now, but there was a period a couple years ago when I was collaborating a lot. There was Night of the Loving Dead, with James Futch, The Church of Dead Languages, with Jason Brannon, and Love Bites, with Donn Gash. It’s a lot of fun. I always love collaborating with someone whose work I’m a fan of, first and foremost, but of course it helps when we’re pals, too. Really forces me to be “on the ball,” when someone else is depending on me. And of course it helps the creative process to have someone think of something I never would have thought of, or take the story in an all new direction, expanding on an idea that might have been cool but they push it farther to make it really cool.

It’s a great feeling when you get the momentum going—sending portions of a work back and forth, faster and faster, rockin’ and rollin’. It’s almost like you become one mind. All it takes is finding just the right person to collaborate with. I think I’ve been extremely fortunate so far.

JB: How do you feel about the current state of horror, the small presses, and so forth. Is the genre dying? Is small press going the way of the buffalo?

JN: I’ll be perfectly honest with you, and I say this at the risk of sounding like a real prick: I’m not too confident in the health of the horror genre right now. The small presses don’t seem to be doing too well, from what I’ve seen, because of the economy. Folks aren’t so quick to plop down fifty bucks for a limited edition these days as they used to be. I know I’m not.

But in my case, I think it’s got just as much to do with the quality of work (yeah, this is the part where I fear I’m gonna sound like a prick). I can’t remember the last time I bought a small-press title that wasn’t a trade paperback for less than twenty bucks, or at least a hardcover that I picked up ’cause there was some huge sale going on and I got it for half-price or something. Like I said earlier, I’ve been disappointed with ninety-five percent of the new horror titles I’ve picked up the last year or two… I can think of five recent titles off the top of my head that other folks raved about and I thought they were absolutely God-awful. Writing that felt sloppy and amateurish, like it was the work of a young wannabe just starting out, maybe with a pinch of talent but nowhere near ready to be published.

And no, you could put bamboo slivers under my fingernails and you won’t get out of me exactly what titles I’m talking about. ‘Cause, ya know, it’s all just my opinion anyway.

JB: What about e-books and Kindle, all that? I’m not a big supporter of that stuff, but I’m old school…I like tangible products I can keep on a shelf.

JN: Same here. I wouldn’t even know how to turn one on. Personally, I prefer the look, feel, and even the smell (yeah, I said it) of a real book.

JB: What new writers are you into? Anything made you stand up and say “Wow!” lately?

JN: Unfortunately, no. I wish I could say otherwise. Actually, I take that back. There is one, but he’s been doing this a few years so he’s not a new writer by any means: I will say that everyone should be reading Greg Gifune. It’s a crime that guy’s not on the New York Times bestseller lists.

JB: Greg Gifune…that the only one? Do you tend to re-read older faves then?

JN: John Little’s a hell of a talent. Same for Chris Conlon. Brian Singleton. Okay, you pried a few more names out of me.

Actually, yes…these days I do tend to just go back and re-read old favorites. Or new books from those old favorites…case in point, I’m currently reading Speaks the Nightbird, by Robert R. McCammon, and it’s nothing short of spectacular. I can’t believe I waited so long to read it! I let the fact that it’s a period piece keep me away, believe it or not. I can’t put this down. I read Volume 1—which is just shy of 500 pages—in approximately 48 hours. And now I’m rockin’ and rollin’ through Volume 2.

Highly, highly recommended. This guy’s been away for too long. Mr. McCammon is still one of the very best, and I can’t wait to read everything in this series of his (subsequent books connected to Nightbird being Queen of Bedlam and the just-released Mr. Slaughter).

JB: What is in your future? Any big news from the Newman camp?

JN: Yeah, man. Hopefully at the time this interview goes to print we’ll be very close to seeing two new books from me. Publication has been delayed on both of them for a while, but they should finally be available any day now. The Forum is coming from Cemetery Dance Publications—it’s a novella about an online message board for serial killers. Possibly the most fun I’ve ever had writing. And then there’s my long-awaited new novel Animosity (An American Horror Story), from Necessary Evil Press.

And hopefully I can get my ass in gear and sell another one soon—the novel I’m working on right now, Ugly As Sin, is very, very close to completion. It’s not horror (I’m calling it “white trash noir,” actually), but readers who dug Midnight Rain should dig this one, too—in fact, a lot of the story takes place in the town of Midnight, North Carolina, and a few familiar faces from Rain might just show up here and there.

JB: Here is your soapbox…step up carefully and rant away…about anything.

JN: I don’t really have anything, man. You know me—I’m not a soapbox kinda guy.

I’ll just leave it at this: If folks are still buying limited editions at all (hey, prove me wrong, please!), I’d like to urge ‘em to check out my new novel Animosity, when it’s finally released, hopefully soon. I think readers will really dig my “love letter to the horror genre,” as I like to call this book. It’s a very personal story to me, my take on how the “normal people” see those of us who dig this “spooky stuff,” and I can’t wait to hear what you guys think about it. Check it out!

Originally appeared in Shock Totem #2, July 2010.

About John Boden

Lives in the shadow of Three Mile Island. Likes Diet Pepsi, fried food and truck-drivin' music. Has ferocious sideburns and a heart of gold.
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