Stuart Connelly

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.

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The Next Big Thing

Just a week ago, Robert Swartwood “tagged” me in his “The Next Big Thing” blog post. I’d describe TNBG as a writerly chain letter where one writer answers some questions about his next book, and then passes the ball/baton/cannoli to another five writers he/she knows. (See below for my author picks.) Those five will answer these same questions next week, and so on and so on. So…I’ll be answering these questions about a short story collection I’ll be putting up later this month, as Zeus is my witness.

1) What is the title of your next book?

Arm of Darkness.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

About twenty-five years ago I wrote a short story about a petty crook who wanders into a roadhouse to get out of a snowstorm and has a horrifying encounter with a mysterious stranger. I always liked the story but never did anything with it. Then, over the years, every time I found myself procrastinating on a work-for-money project, I’d bang out another one of these short stories to waste time. I never did anything with these stories either. I’ve never been good about selling my fiction work. But I started revising the pieces last year and was surprised to find that they formed a pretty coherent collection because every story has, at its heart, one character who kicks the action into motion: A man with an arm fashioned from the night sky.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Horror. Definitely horror. With elements of crime, sci-fi, ghosts, and, uh, cryptozoology.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

You know, it’s not a great question because it would be a very disjointed, episodic movie. But I figure people like Sam Elliott or Jackie Earle Haley or even a heavily disfigured Ryan Gosling could play the man with the arm of darkness.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A mysterious demonic stranger intrudes upon the lives of unsuspecting people from all walks of life, good and bad, and forces them to make choices with horrific consequences.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Self-pubbed, baby, all the way. I calculate that my wife and I have sold more than 300,000 copies of books that we’ve written separately or together. But they’re all nonfiction. I have no track record in traditional publishing as a fiction writer. Right now, I kind of like that. Short story collections are hard sells to traditional publishers, anyway. I just like pretending that I’m an old-time pulp writer for now. I have a hat I can wear that fits the bill.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

In real time, the whole book probably took five months to write the first draft. Just keep in mind that that time was spread out over a period of about 20 years. Then a burst of writing at the end pulled them into a unit. Mostly, that later work recast and grounded the stories in a specific place—the American southeast where I now live.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Honestly, I think it has more in common with those old Weird Tales stories you used to see back in the day. Or TV anthologies such as Twilight Zone or Tales From the Crypt.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve been a journalist most of my life. From time to time, I’d come across some weird real-life stories that obsessed me and made me want to cast them as fiction. But practically speaking, each of these stores was written as a way to procrastinate from other work I was doing. They entertained me. After a while, I started liking the character at the center of the stories.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Two of the stories at the end—the most recent ones—were based on real-life cases I encountered in the course of other work. One involves an early 20th-Century woman who insisted on being buried in a glass-topped tomb when she died. Why? So that the sun would always shine on her face.

By the way, if anyone reading this would like a free copy in exchange for an honest review when the book comes out, let me know and I’ll get you a copy as soon as I’m ready to publish.

Okay. I’m done. Now, I’d like to introduce these five writers. Please check out their blogs next Wednesday to see what they’ve been working on. I hope you’ll be moved to buy some of their work along the way!

Denise Kiernan

Stuart Connelly

Neal Thompson

W. Bradford Swift

Hunter F. Goss

Today's Mailbag

Peter Mountford book cover

Today’s mailbag brings two morsels to add to the To-Be-Read pile. My buddy Stuart Connelly announced he’s made his short story The Allnighter available online for FREE. It’s available in all the popular digital formats. Stuart is a remarkable writer whose story about a man who cannot sleep — and who has never slept — is a powerful piece of literary horror fiction. His book of short stories, which includes The Allnighter, is hilariously entitled Confessions of a Velour-Shirted Man.

Also: Another buddy, journo-author Neal Thompson tells us about A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism by Peter Mountford. Judging from the reviews about this novel, it’s worth investigating. Quoting part of Neal’s review:

“[Mountford] tells the story of a transformational month in the life of Gabriel de Boya, an eager but conflicted young researcher for a New York hedge fund posing as a freelance journalist and struggling with greed, love, lies, and desire. Mountford’s writing is admirably restrained, visual and visceral, and the result is taut, poetic, sad, and at times quite moving. Though set in 2005, the story feels fresh and relevant, deftly capturing the deceitful, manipulative world of hedge funds and foreign investment.” 


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 collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!