John Keats

Who Does Stuart Connelly Think He Is?

Any writer who is not bullshitting himself knows that his best work comes at the intersection of talent and dread. 

I’m scaring myself. I’m making myself uncomfortable. I’m going to screw this up. 

If you’re constantly telling yourself such things as you write, congratulations. You’re a writer. And if you’re lucky, you forge on in spite of those fears, and some of the unease seeps into your writing, where it can actually be useful.

Author Director Stuart Connelly

No one makes me uneasy like Stuart Connelly.

He’s a journalist, a screenwriter, filmmaker, columnist, and a coauthor of historical nonfiction. He is also a handsome, nervous man who’s really good at scaring the shit out of people.

I first got a taste of his writing more than 25 years ago, when I heard him read one of his short stories aloud in a writing class. You’re supposed to be quiet during those things but our instructor, the elegantly mustachioed Tobias Wolff, couldn’t contain himself and guffawed with delight at a critical point. That was the cue for the rest of us. We were, all of us, having a blast—until Connelly got to that damned flesh cauterization scene.

That’s Connelly. He writes so well, so precisely, so humorously, and yet so creepily that he makes PEN/Faulkner Awardees laugh, cry, and wish they’d stayed home under the covers that day.

About eight years ago, Connelly and I chatted about one of his recently released novels. You can get a sense of his love for language in the way he answers my questions. The interview was just too good to let languish on my old blog, so I’m rescuing it and giving it new life here.

Since then, Connelly has directed two films—The Suspect and American Gothic—and produced another (Natural Selection). He’s also authored several novels and co-authored nonfiction books. 

The interview first appeared shortly after the release of one of his horror novels. Enjoy our talk, then get the book.

The new novel is called HAVEN HOUSE. What, in 10 words or less, is all this nonsense about?*

Haven House by Stuart Connelly

I can do it in three: boy meets ghoul. No, actually, it’s about Amy Armstrong, a pregnant New York City architect who inherits the ultimate restoration project, a 300-year-old farmhouse. She views the project and the rural town as a chance to start anew after a terrible assault. But there is some information about this inheritance, this property, and even the baby she’s carrying that the townspeople don’t want her to know. Something evil, and on a very grand scale. I may be over ten there. Can I borrow against 10-word descriptions of my future books?

In your promo copy, you tell people that if they like “The Lottery,” Rosemary’s BabyThe Shining, they’ll like your book. Who the hell are you to lump yourself in with literary giants such as Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, and Uncle Stevie?

I didn’t do it; that was my publicist. I can’t compare my literary skills with those folks or anyone, that’s up to readers to see whatever connective tissue is apparent to them. Comparing types of story is something different, however, so I will say this about those comparisons, without giving too much away: Haven House puts a new twist on the moldy haunted house genre (à la The Shining), features a woman whose pregnancy sets horrible events in motion (à la Rosemary’s Baby), and has at its center the dark secret pact that binds together the people in an isolated town as well as the dreadful randomness of who that darkness impacts (à la “The Lottery”). So all I’m really saying is: if you dig chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream, I have a half-gallon of Neapolitan for you.

Hey—is it not a fact that you are like one degree of separation away from Ira Levin, and didn’t you go to his house for some holiday?

Yeah. The first professional novelist I ever met, so of course it’s not going to be some midlist-er I can wrap my mind around. It’s Ira freakin’ Levin. I had Thanksgiving with him, and after dinner he broke out those little explosive champagne bottle party favors. We shot them at the dining room chandelier. The thing was covered with streamers from years of previous holiday dinners and we added to it. Indoor fireworks! He made being a writer look fun, which I later realized was attributable to the fact that I saw him when he wasn’t writing. We used to drive to New York City to see Deathtrap on Broadway and then go backstage, walk around on the set. In fact, now that I think about it, the film I wrote and am producing this fall, The Suspect, owes some artistic debt to Deathtrap. Thanks, Ira.

In your novel, one poor wretch is quartered—his body literally torn apart into four pieces—and another is bisected. What have you got against whole people, or are you trying to teach some kind of sick lesson in fractions?

A haunted house novel where the house is in scattered ruins for the first half of the book could conceivably have the scares too delayed. I wanted to start by showing how high the stakes are in the town of Covenant Parish, and some of the horror is of the non-supernatural kind. Man’s cruelty. 

You and your family live on a farm much like the demonic estate described in your novel. Does the countryside spook you for real? Are you, as Woody Allen says, “two with nature”?

When I first met my future wife, I had this little original Mac and I had taped a cancelled U.S. stamp right above the screen. It showed the state of Wyoming, a vast prairie. She asked me why and I told her it was my dream to be a full-time writer in a small town with a big rambling property. Be careful what you wish for.

In other horror novels, when someone buys or inherits a house, the house is already possessed. But in yours, the unwitting couple actually assembles the evil. Why’d you do it that way? What have you got against freestanding, wholly existing evil?

There’s always the-house-was-built-on-a-burial ground trope which has been, forgive me, done to death. And what I found so interesting about our place—Modoc Spring—is that they dug up the stones from the field, where they are worse than useless, and built a house out of them. Nothing goes to waste. The house and the ground beneath it are inseparable, and if the grounds are haunted, stacking these stones into some kind of order felt to me like a focusing effect. So my novel grew out of the observation that in every haunted house story, the house is already de facto in existence—and evil—long before the story starts. I thought, what if we came at it as a dismantled evil force that needed human hands to restore its power. You put in an architect with the dream of restoring a completely destroyed structure, and you’ve put the lightning rod in your protagonist’s hand.

You are a hybrid author in the sense that you are traditionally published and self-published. What do you think about self-publishing?

The short answer is that there were always two barriers to publishing: literary talent and printing. Traditional publishers said, “You get over the first hurdle and we’ll take care of the second.” The reason self-publishing traditionally had a bad reputation is that they said, “We’ll get you over the second hurdle for a price, and we don’t care about the first.” Mistake, because readers care about the first. Today the second hurdle doesn’t exist. There’s no barrier to entry. Anyone can and does publish. But that first hurdle is very real. Most self-publishing is terribly written. If a wannabe writer and a bookbinder don’t add up to a good book, neither does a wannabe writer and an internet connection. The publishers were right. Only by practicing and studying the craft can you become good enough to succeed in the market beyond friends and family. In my own case, at least having made it through the gauntlet of the New York publishing world in one piece tells me my writing is publishable. Now, how I get it to market is a matter of my own calculus. Is the publicity a publishing house can bring to a project worth more than, say, putting up free versions of some of my projects to attract those readers? I did just that with two stories from my shorts collection, "The Allnighter" and "Red Coyote Weekend," tons of them were downloaded, and from that number, a small but noticeable percentage took the leap of faith to buy the whole book, Confessions of a Velour-Shirted Man. The biggest problem I see in this market is that there is no New York Review of Books for self-pubbed book. Yet. That’ll put that first hurdle back where it belongs.

You were trained as a journalist and one of your more serious, nonfiction efforts was co-authoring a memoir of the “I Have a Dream” speech with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s attorney, Clarence B. Jones. How did you, a white guy, get inside the mind of a black, civil rights attorney?

I didn’t set out to be a historian, but it certainly is easier to move from that to fiction than to go in the other direction. Soledad O’Brien and Michael Bloomberg don’t tend to take the horror writer’s phone calls. To tell you the truth, the key to Clarence’s story wasn’t getting in the mindset of his racial background, it was understanding the underlying thematic of what he’s been through. He lived his life day-to-day and views it in that context. I saw the overarching picture and wrote to that. I picture him as the mythical ferryman, Charon. Or consider the weariness vampires have, outliving everyone around them (to bring it back to horror). That’s Clarence, and it’s not a race thing. We’re working together on another project called Uprising about his time as a negotiator at Attica during the prison takeover. Even though Dr. King has nothing to do with the story, many of the emotional elements to Behind The Dream are present in Uprising because Clarence is the same person in each circumstance.

I asked my father—who knows you well—if he had a question he’d like me to ask. His question inspired the title and indeed the tone of this post: “What the hell are you doing, scaring people?” How do you respond? 

High-brow answer or low-brow? First of all, your father is fearless, as is anyone who can handle forty years of ridicule over his protective-plastic-covered living room furniture without breaking down. Forget confronting our fears as an essential part of coming to grips with our own mortality. Mankind is cursed with that, but it isn’t why I write horror. Rehearse your death on your own time. For me, the key is, they’re just words on a page. Nothing about it is real. But if you can make a grown-up disturbed enough, just by rearranging these same letters over and over again, then you are some kind of alchemist. If you can draw the chemicals of fear right into their bloodstream with words, make them leave the hall light on with your words, then you’ve gotten at the power of story. It is intoxicating.

* This article first appeared in slightly different form on my old blog, dated August 13, 2011. The phrase “what, in ten words or less, is all this nonsense about?” was a line frequently used by a journalism professor, John C. Keats, who taught Connelly and me in college. The phrase was later used as the title of a book of Keats's previously unpublished work.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thanks!

Picasso's Bull—or, Does Writing Fast Mean Your Work Will Suck?

No bull. Just expertise. I love how he does the horns.

My late journalism professor John C. Keats came from the school of hard-hitting newspapermen of the 1940s and 50s. Later in life he switched to magazine work, which was more lucrative. In one story he told, a publication paid his way from Philadelphia to New York so that he could be on the premises while they edited his work. They were in a rush to get the article edited so those pages could be shipped to the printer. They put him in a nice office with a typewriter, where he worked on other projects while waiting to be summoned. He enjoyed fine lunches and a lovely hotel room at their expense. Finally, after a week, an anxious editor brought in some sheets of paper with some redline comments. "Here it is! We're going to need this right away. When do you think you could get it to us?"

"You can have it in fifteen minutes if you get out and shut the door," Keats said. He was always a little cantankerous. (Read more about him here.)

His editors were under the impression that their edits would require a lot of time to work through. So much time that they imported the writer and installed him close to their offices for one expensive week.

Nothing has changed in 50 years. One thing that hasn't changed is that the person who actually does the work—let’s call that person the freelancer—must adhere to the deadlines, while deadlines for the freelancer’s clients are infinitely more elastic. But that’s another story.

What I really want to talk about is how people equate time with quality. If a book takes a long time to produce, people reason that it must be better than a book that took a short time to produce. A fast writer is judged harshly under this paradigm.

I do a lot of ghostwriting. I wrote a memoir for one client that changed the way people saw him. He gained new fans. His diehard fans loved him even more. All because the book showed his human side. It showed how he came up in the business world by guts and brains alone. Prior to this, the prevailing internet narrative held that he’d inherited a ton of money, or had been handed his career by successful relatives, which wasn’t true at all. Yet the whole time I was researching the book, he fought me on this, afraid to reveal his real story and his vulnerability. But I finally managed to wrench it out of him. The book’s emotionality is what people praise about it to this day.

Our interviews took several months to complete. But in the end, that book took me 14 days to write. (I have a couple of posts coming that talk about this project.)

My wife went through something similar on another ghost project. By the time the editors hired my wife, the book was already in danger of becoming a “problem” in the minds of the editors and the publishing house. The previous writer had walked, nothing had been written, and the deadline was looming fast. On a conference call, my wife announced that meeting a deadline only two months away was reasonable and achievable. The “author” expressed concern: “That’s too soon. This needs to be good.”

The implication: Shouldn't this process take years?

Another book, one of our own that I wrote with Denise, went on to sell 100,000 copies. It was our first big book. People began inviting us to come speak to their groups because of it. At those events, someone would inevitably ask how long it took us to write that book. It’s the sort of thing people always ask writers.

“Five years,” I’d say, telling them what they wanted to hear.

Actually, it took us a month. Not that we wanted it to; it just happened that way. We were really organized, and devoted to the process.

So we’ve been through this a lot. People don’t want to accept that a good first draft of a book can be written in such a short amount of time. If it can, goes the thinking, it can't possibly be any good.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t love to write a book that fast. I actually think it’s nice to have a generous amount of time to write a project, take a break from it, then revise it carefully, digitally and on paper. But I don’t always have the luxury of time, because of deadlines and other commitments.

But it is possible to write fast and well. I have one friend who for a while adhered to an insane production schedule, writing a novel a month. He didn’t love doing it, but he could do it. And he did it because that’s what he had to do—at that moment in time—to pay his bills.

I’m sure that there are musicians who’ve written hit songs in days, hours, or even minutes. Stallone wrote the first Rocky script in three and a half days. I know local artists who crank out great examples of their work in days so they’ll have a good inventory to sell at arts festivals at the end of the month. I know designers who do the same thing. They just keep churning the work out, and you can’t tell that they did it in such a short amount of time. All these people do what they do because they’ve attained a certain level of mastery. In the words of another co-writing client of mine, they’re experts.

I took a lot of art classes when I was a kid. I remember one instructor telling me to stop making sloppy circles on my page as a way of warming up, and learn how to put down one correct line instead.

Watch Picasso draw that bull in thirty seconds. Look at how he knows just how to move his hand to create the slope of the bull’s back. When he flicks the brush at the bull’s head, he knows from years of experience that the bristles will leave a stroke suggestive of the bull’s horn. And he knows just how little paint to apply to hint at the bull’s legs.

It's not the time but the talent of the artist that matters. Experts do a lot with the time handed them.

* This post appeared in slightly different form on my old blog, dated March 3, 2012.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thanks! — Joseph D’Agnese