Slade Grayson delivers all of those in his werewolf novel Autumn Moon, which I reviewed. But he also provides something you might not find in the average werewolf novel — psychological complexity. Not just on the part of the human characters, but the werewolves too.
As I stated in the review, I was pretty impressed. I asked Slade if he’d answer a few questions for this blog. He agreed. So here goes …
Why did you decide to write about werewolves?
The werewolf has always been my favorite of all the monsters, all the way back to when I was a kid watching Lon Chaney, Jr. prowl around in black and white, and then later I got to enjoy updated versions of the legend with “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London.” I think you hit the nail on the head in your review of my book when you said that the scary part of the werewolf-as-monster is that it can be any one of us.
Secondly, although there are a plethora of vampire novels out there, and there seems to be a zombie novel published on a daily basis, I don’t see many werewolf novels (at least not many good ones). So I thought I’d try my hand at it and try to do something interesting with the concept.
Where are you from and what’s your day job?
Originally, I’m from New Jersey, but I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, and now Maryland. My day job is that of a humble salesclerk in a retail establishment, although I will soon be adding stay-at-home dad to my resume since my first child is due to be born any day now. I’ll still do the retail thing on weekends to help pay the bills, at least until some savvy producer decides to snap up the film rights to one of my books and I can use the money to write full-time.
How did you get into writing in the first place?
When I was a kid, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up – either a superhero or a billionaire, or preferably both (like Batman). But an issue of “Amazing Spider-Man” changed all of that. It had a cliffhanger ending that had me counting the days until the next issue to see what would happen next. I decided that I wanted to make other people feel the way the writer of that particular comic made me feel. I wanted to tell stories that would make people sit on the edge of their seats and go, “What happens next?”
As a kid, I was already a voracious reader, so the next step was to try my hand at putting words down on paper. In college, I took as many writing and Lit. classes as I could. I fooled around a bit with freelance journalism and worked for a weekly newspaper for a while. Toyed with trying to break into screenwriting (a tough gig). Decided to focus on prose and wrote some short stories. Started a half dozen novels that died tragic deaths. And now, here I am.
Did you have a real-world location in mind when you created the setting for “Autumn Moon?”
Nah, not really. A lot of my stories take place in or around Azure City, which is a fictitious place. It’s my version of Gotham City. I was inspired by Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels to come up with my own city (like he did for that series), but AM was always destined to not be in a city setting. I saw it taking place in a small town surrounded by a half ring of mountains. I’m not sure why it ended up being in Montana, other than it just seemed appropriate. And the name of the town suddenly popped into my head one day, which is the way my most inspired ideas show up.
I was particularly impressed by your characterization. What tips do you have for creating characters?
I approach characters the way many actors approach a role: First I focus on their appearance, the way they look, and then I fill in all of the background material. I know everything about them, from their childhood and upbringing, all the way up until they make their appearance in the story. I know things about them that the reader never sees, like (for example) when they lost their virginity, what their hopes and dreams are, what their most embarrassing moment is/was, etc. The reader may never learn any of that, but I know it.
Then I let them talk. I don’t force it. If the character starts talking and reacting on his/her own without any prompting from me, then I know I’ve got the character down. This also sometimes changes the story as I’m going because characters start to do things that I hadn’t planned from the beginning. An example of this is the romance in “Autumn Moon” between two of the characters. It was never planned; it just happened on its own because the characters started interacting with each other.
I noticed you kept some tropes of werewolf stories while ditching others (the full moon, silver bullets, etc.). What considerations went into deciding what to keep and what to discard?
I never really understood some of those tropes. Why would a silver bullet have a lethal effect on a werewolf, but a regular lead slug would do nothing? The TV shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” explained away a lot of the vampire tropes by basing their mythos in magic. I didn’t want magic or most fantasy elements to play a part in my story. I wanted to keep it as reality-based as possible, so if it didn’t make a logical kind of sense, then I tossed it out. I also liked the original werewolf legend where they could shapeshift whenever they wanted, day or night.
Another thing that impressed me about the book was the way you managed to insert some genuinely funny moments without detracting from the horror. I can’t really think of a more elegant way to phrase the question, so … How’d you do that?
Hmmm…tough one. I guess my answer to that goes back again to “An American Werewolf in London,” which floored me when I saw it as a kid because it had me laughing one minute, and then nearly jumping out of my seat the next (although I saw it again recently and it doesn’t hold up very well). I liked the mix of humor and horror. I think it’s human nature to use laughter as a coping mechanism for when the bad stuff happens.
But also, it goes back to the characters taking on a life of their own. David (one of AM’s characters) is, in my opinion, a snarky, funny guy. A lot of the dialogue that came out of his mouth flowed from his character.
The other humor? What can I say, other than the fact that if you’re ever caught in the middle of a war between humans and werewolves and you can’t see that the utter ridiculousness of that is just a little bit funny… Well, then my books may not be for you.
What were some of your influences for “Autumn Moon?”
An agent (who ultimately passed on the book) described it as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with werewolves. The funny thing is that story wasn’t what inspired AM (although it certainly influenced it, of course, because no one can read that iconic story and NOT be influenced by it). But I was actually inspired by “King Kong.”
I was watching Peter Jackson’s remake and thinking about it, and thinking about the original, and thinking about the scene where the natives are offering up the girl as a sacrifice to King Kong. I started thinking about all of the stories in which townspeople offer up human sacrifices to the dragon or the monster or whatever so the dragon or monster or whatever will spare the rest of the people. Somewhere along that train of thought I had the germ of an idea:
What if there was a town that had a pact with some monsters and everything was going along great for hundreds of years, and then an outsider comes into this closed community and convinces the people to stand up to the monsters and break the pact? What would happen? All hell would break loose, of course, but what would be the ramifications on everyone involved? I had always wanted to write a story that had a werewolf or werewolves, so it was a natural progression from there.
Could you discuss your other book, and any more you have in the works?
My other novel is titled “Blake Twenty-Three.” It’s part spy novel, part character study, and part autobiography. No, I’m not and never have been a spy, but everything that happens to the main character in his youth really did happen to me. So if anyone is curious as to how crappy my childhood was, please pick up “Blake Twenty-Three” and read the flashback chapters.
The rest of the book, the adventure-spy stuff, is my answer to James Bond. I wanted to write a story about a spy that wasn’t superhuman and who made mistakes like any normal person would. I also wanted to write from the perspective of a guy, really get into a man’s brain and tell it like it is without all the PC garbage.
I’m currently working on a novel I refer to as my “love letter to superheroes.” I collected comic books for years (shocking, I know) and although I occasionally still read some, I find that the sense of fun has gone out of most of them. The characters I enjoyed as a kid feel alien to me now (although some of the movies still have that sense of fun about them). Anyway, it’s a novel with superheroes and hopefully I can show them in a light that’s a little bit different than what’s gone before.
I’m a very slow writer, so it’ll be a while before that one is finished, but after that I’m toying with an idea for a vampire novel (and no, they don’t sparkle. In my story, the vampires are more monstrous than the werewolves in “Autumn Moon”). Or I might work on a follow-up (of sorts) to “Autumn Moon.” It’s a ways away, so we’ll see.
Any other werewolf stories you’d recommend?
“The Wolf’s Hour” by Robert McCammon, about an Allied spy during World War II who is also a werewolf. Really cool adventure novel. I also liked “Dog Soldiers,” a low budget action flick about soldiers on a training exercise who end up fighting a pack of werewolves. And of course the movies I mentioned above.
A friend recently asked me whether I’d prefer to be a vampire or a werewolf. I said vampire, so I could avoid the whole “Where the hell did I leave my clothes?” issue, which I haven’t contended with since college during an unfortunate incident involving grain alcohol punch. What advice would you give werewolves for dealing with that logistical hurdle?
Buy stretchy pants like Bruce Banner (a.k.a. the Hulk) or learn to let it all hang out.