Interview with Al Sarrantonio

I did an interview with Al Sarrantonio in August last year on my old website.  Figured I’d dig it up and share it with you here.

It was about a year in the making, but the stars finally aligned and I stumbled into an interview with Al Sarrantonio. He edited an anthology, Portents, which was released earlier this year from Flying Fox Publishers. Read on:

 

RP: What started your interest in horror?

AS: I actually started out as a science fiction buff. But after I was booted out of engineering school (my Dad actually helped design the Space Shuttle) I discovered that my writing talent was more easily geared to the horror field – specifically the so-called “quiet” horror that Charles L. Grant and others were promoting in the 1980s.

RP: That’s interesting—I dropped out of GMI Engineering & Management Institute after two semesters. How many rejections did you have before your first sale?

AS: I could have wallpapered a room with them. That’s part of what keeps you going – if you believe, you don’t give up. Ambition and talent are the twin engines that drive any writer to success. If you don’t have both, forget about being a professional writer.

RP: Did you keep them and if so, what did you do with them?

AS: Good question! I probably still have some, socked away in a box somewhere. Some were interesting. The form letters I tossed out. The one I remember vividly (and that kept me going) was from Bob Silverberg, who was editing a series of original sf anthologies called NEW DIMENSIONS at the time. He took the time to give me some advice.

RP: What was the first story you submitted and has it ever been published?

AS: Actually one of the very first I submitted was eventually published. I wrote the first draft of it at the Clarion SF Writers Workshop at Michigan State University in 1974.It was an sf/horror story titled “The Artist in the Room Above.” It was published in a volume of the Chrysalis series and was reprinted in my collection HALLOWEEN AND OTHER SEASONS.

RP: I read Skeletons probably when I was about 14.That novel blew my mind! I’d never read or seen zombies like that (and I’d never read anything told in first-person before).What was the inspiration?

AS: As bizarre as this sounds (I don’t think it does) the inspiration for that book was Thomas Pynchon – specifically, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW. It took me many tries to get through that book, but it blew me away. And I thought to myself, why can’t I do something like this in the horror field? Meaning snatches of song lyrics, gonzo situations, etc. It was probably the most fun I ever had writing a novel. There’s a follow-up novel to it that’s never been published, my only unpublished novel (Bantam was set to do it in the early 90s when they got rid of their entire horror line); it’s called UNDERGROUND and has characters with names like Malice in Wonderland. Someday…

RP: I grew up on late 70s and 80s horror. The Howling, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Return of the Living Dead, Creepshow and then my mother got me hooked on King and Koontz. What did you have as a child?

AS: Another great question. I had the Alfred Hitchcock Y.A. anthologies that were published by Random House, which had all kinds of crazy stuff in them – sf, horror, mysteries, you name it. They were brilliantly edited. I received one every Christmas from my godparents when I was perhaps 10-13 years old. They changed my life. And I got to know (!) some of the writers who were in there, such as Manly Wade Wellman, later in life.

RP: When would you say you ‘made it’ as a writer?

AS: That’s all in your mind. My epiphany was the first time I wrote a story and I knew – I knew– that I nailed it. After that it didn’t become easier, but I knew what I was doing.

RP: Do you see a point when you’d stop writing or is it something you’ll do until you physically can’t?

AS: The old line: they’ll have to pry the keyboard (used to be typewriter) from my cold, dead hands. It’s a compulsion as well as a business.

RP: Have you ever had an idea and someone beat you to the punch in their own novel? Did you abandon the idea or revamp it?

AS: Not really. The only time that happened was when another horror writer came out with a novel titled OKTOBER a couple months before my OCTOBER came out. It didn’t make a difference.

RP: Was there a ‘sophomore slump’ when it came to getting your 2nd novel published? If so, how’d you get past it?

AS: Honestly, I didn’t have a sophomore slump. Once I knew what I was doing, I just kept going. That was almost thirty years ago. I did go through periods when I needed to recharge the batteries, but that’s only natural. My third novel actually had a character in it who got jettisoned, and it became my fourth novel.

RP: You’re very prolific—have you ever had a significant writer’s block?

AS: What gets you out of writer’s block is when you need a paycheck. I’ve always found that when I needed to write, I could write. When I don’t I get lazy. I’m not saying I don’t believe in writer’s block. But I think it can be overcome by need. Need to eat, need to put kids through college. And then of course there is the need to write, which, like I said, is a compulsion sometimes.

RP: What’s it going to take to get you to do a signing in Metro Detroit?

AS: Yow! Been in the airport there on the way to see my eldest son in Chicago. I don’t know. It could happen. I haven’t done many signings or gone to many conventions the last couple years. Hunkered down with the work.

RP: I wanted to ask if you still work in multiple genres, but I see the anthology Stories: All-New Tales, which was published back in June, has stories across a myriad of genres. Do you still think diversification is the best policy for any writer?

AS: My good friend Joe Lansdale and I have talked about this over the years. When the horror boom of the 1980s collapsed in the 1990s we both saw the writing on the wall. He was quicker than me, broadening out into comics and just about everything else, but I, out of boredom with any one genre, and out of necessity to make a living at writing, starting going every which way, too. Also, people were asking me to. I wrote my first western (WEST TEXAS) because an editor at a hardcover house asked me to.

RP: I see your new anthology, Halloween, is coming out next month- what’s your story about?

AS: The reprint antho HALLOWEEN is edited by Paula Guran, and contains my novella “Hornets,” which was the very first Orangefield tale. It also appears in HORNETS AND OTHERS, a short story collection of mine that will be available as an e-book soon.

RP: Looking through your titles on Amazon I see a lot of your titles have been re-released on Kindle. How do you feel about the rise of the e-book considering the bulk of your career has been in print?

AS: Almost all of the books that are coming back on Kindle were dead in the water, out of print, and unavailable to my fans. Because of this, it’s almost impossible for me to put down e-books. I bought a Kindle this past January, and am beginning to see what it’s good for. It will not replace physical books. It will augment them. Nobody in the publishing industry –publishers, agents, editors, some writers and readers — seems to be able to wrap their heads around this yet. It’s not a replacement system – it’s an augmentation system.

RP: Is there anything you have upcoming you’d like to tell us about?

AS: I’m working on a long story for an original monster anthology, which looks like it’ll take place in Orangefield. The original horror anthology I edited and published, PORTENTS, is still available through my website, Alsarrantonio.com. And a bunch more titled will be available as e-books, including my sf/horror trilogy FIVE WORLDS, which was another experiment for me. I tried to yoke space opera to the horror genre (There’s a character named the Machine Master of Mars, whose own brother snipped his lips off, leaving him looking like the Phantom of the Opera.)I think some of the best novel writing I ever did was in those books.

RP: Well, I’m a fan of yours. My collection of Al Sarrantonio books rest proudly amongst my other favorites—Ethan Black, F. Paul Wilson, Thomas Harris, Thomas Disch—I’d say all of you had an impact on the writer I became. Do you attend any of the horror-cons on a regular basis? I’d love to bump into you someday. Thank you for your time.

AS: Like I said, haven’t hit the cons in some time. Maybe in the next couple years. And funny you should mention Tom Disch – he was one of my mentors, and I was able to publish a bunch of his stories in the original anthologies I edited.

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