If you follow this blog you know that every now and then I kidnap and torture a writer until they cough up answers to my cruel and demanding questions. Okay, it doesn’t usually play out quite like that, but I am honored and excited to host guest bloggers who are gracious enough to answer my (often bizarre) questions. Today’s guest is D.C.-based urban fantasy writer Rob Blackwell, who I actually met on Twitter. We were friends for ages before I got around to actually reading his books, which was very stupid on my part. Now I’m loving his series, but I had so many questions about them that I may or may not have threatened that “kidnap and torture” scenario until he answered. Please check out his novels, which start with A Soul to Steal.
1. Your sales page for A Soul to Steal features a blurb from Mark Metcalf, the actor who played the Master on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As a huge Buffy fan, I demand to know how that came about.
I have an amazing friend to thank for that. One of my oldest friends and my fantastic audiobook narrator, Brian Gill, is an actor in the Chicago area who has worked with a lot of cool people, including Stacey Keach (Mike Hammer, Sin City) and Mark Metcalf (who also appeared on Seinfeld and in Animal House). Without telling me, Brian asked Mark to read A Soul to Steal because he knew I was a huge Buffy fan and it would mean a lot to me. Mark graciously agreed to do it, enjoyed the book, and offered a blurb. I think he was a little perplexed why anyone would want it, but I was thrilled. It was a great surprise.
On a random side note, I was in a high school production of Dracula (playing the titular character), and though there were only eight cast members, a surprising number of them had later connections to Buffy. The girl who played Mina Harker appeared on the show in a speaking role in a single episode (the one where Buffy could read minds); Renfield ended up directing Joss Whedon in a very funny web episode; Jonathan Harker (my friend Brian) acted with The Master; and another cast member ended up dating Nathan Fillion (who in addition to being Capt. Reynolds on Firefly, was also Caleb in the final season of Buffy.) I have no idea what the significance of this is, but I think it means I’d win the Kevin Bacon game.
2. The first book in the trilogy was published just last year, but the novels are set in 2006/2007. Why set the stories in the recent past?
Actually, A Soul to Steal was originally published in 2011. I don’t know why Amazon claims otherwise, but it’s an error. Even still, the book was out of date by a few years. The reason is because I originally wrote the novel in 2001 and stuck it in a drawer for a year. I got it out, dusted it off and rewrote it, and then began a long period of periodically working on it and then sticking it back in that drawer.
By the time I felt confident enough to publish it, I updated it by several years, but I couldn’t go all the way into 2011. The book deals a lot with the business of journalism, particularly local journalism, and that world was very different in 2006 than five years later. By 2008, journalism had become a game of survival as people started consuming news mostly online. I was reluctant to add that as a subplot because the novel had enough threads as it was. I decided it was easier to keep it in the recent past rather than try to pretend that wasn’t happening.
3. Reading the series put me in the mood to catch up on episodes of Sleepy Hollow, even though the two works are very different in how they incorporate the Legend of Sleepy Hollow tale. Do you watch the show? How did you react when you found out they were making it?
My initial reaction to news of “Sleepy Hollow” was anxiety. I was worried about two things: 1) would the show be any good, and 2) would it hurt my book somehow? I guess I worried people would think that I was ripping off the show, even though I’d published the first book two years earlier.
But I’m relieved to say that my fears were unfounded. I love the show and if anything, it’s only made people more interested in my novel. I am obviously a big fan of the Headless Horseman and Irving’s original short story (I reread it every October), and I was pleased to see a show that treated the character right. I didn’t like Tim Burton’s version because the Headless Horseman was more of a medieval Terminator than anything else. The one on the TV show is both a bad-ass and has a surprising depth to him. They’ve really developed him further in the second season and I’ve enjoyed that.
“Sleepy Hollow” is now one of my favorite shows on TV, though I have to admit that as much as I love Ichabod Crane, who is way more interesting on the show than he ever was in the book, I still root for the Headless Horseman. But I’m sick like that.
4. The police in A Soul to Steal are hilariously inept. Inquiring minds want to know: what the hell are they doing with themselves during the reporters’ search for the serial killer?
Being totally ineffective! I have some pretty good reasons for the cops’ ineptitude. The first is that I was a reporter in the area where the book is set and I covered a story about a local stalker, something that Quinn, the main character, also works on. Through that experience, the cops were anything but on-the-ball. They basically treated the whole thing like a joke, but people were really scared. I don’t think they believed he was actually real, even though there was some convincing evidence he was.
The other reason the police are portrayed that way is because when I was re-writing the novel in 2002, it was around the same time that the Beltway Sniper was terrorizing the area. I live near Washington, D.C., and during that time, nobody felt safe. A woman was killed by the sniper while shopping less than a mile from where I lived. When I walked into the grocery store, I used a zig-zag pattern to make myself harder to shoot. It sounds ridiculous now, but it was very scary. The police held a press conference very similar to the one in my novel where they basically confessed that they had few leads and no real idea who was behind the killings. Even the infamous white van the sniper was supposedly driving didn’t actually exist. I’m sure there was a lot of fantastic police work going on behind the scenes to catch the sniper(s), but at the time, it felt like they couldn’t keep any of us safe. And that attitude is very present in the book.
I also have a killer who’s familiar with police procedure and has a knack for distracting them with false clues. This is somebody who has practiced killing, so when he draws attention to his crimes, he’s made sure he can’t be traced. I’m sure if someone like Jesse from the Scarlett Bernard series was on the case, it would have been wrapped up in a few days – but unfortunately he was in L.A.
[Editor’s note – fun fact: the actor I’ve always had in mind for Jesse is a guy named Nicholas Gonzalez. Who was a recurring player in Season 1 of Sleepy Hollow.]
5. One thing I’d never have the guts to do is write a character who’s a “great writer” himself, but you incorporate a prizewinning journalist character, Tim Anderson, and “reprint” one of his excellent editorial pieces. Was it scary to write for a character who’s defined by his ability to write?
That’s definitely the reason I don’t quote Tim’s articles very often. I did it once because I really had to and in my head I said, “He’s writing this when he’s tired and very, very stressed. It’s probably not his best work, so don’t overthink it.” The good news was that because I’m a journalist, I can at least pull off the tonal changes necessary to fake a news article, in that case an op-ed. Journalism, particularly more formal print-style journalism (as opposed to a blog), is written in a very particular style that can be hard to imitate if you don’t do it a lot (one of my pet peeves in novels is reading fake news excerpts that don’t sound anything like actual news excerpts). So that gave me some confidence I could pull it off.
6. One question I get a lot is how much of Scarlett Bernard is me – and I’m not even a crime scene cleaner. You, on the other hand, share a profession (journalist) with your protagonist. So how much of Quinn is you?
Quinn and I have many similarities, and we share frustrations. For example, a lot of his daily work problems—like being assigned to work on a story about dog shit or having a story you feel isn’t being taken seriously enough—came out of my own early reporting experiences. As a result, I think a lot of my friends think he is a close facsimile to me.
But Quinn is in many ways a much better person than I am. He’s braver, decisive and more impulsive. And he lacks some of my other defining qualities. However, his love interest Kate has some of these characteristics, including a fairly stark, black-and-white outlook on life and a pessimistic attitude. (I tend to prepare for the worst-case scenario and as a result I will be totally fine in a zombie apocalypse. Seriously, I have thought about what to do, just in case.) So in a way, Quinn and Kate both represent sides of my personality.
In my latest series, the main character Soren Chase is very different from me. He can be a bit of a jerk (whereas I adhere to a strict “don’t be an asshole” philosophy) and says things I wouldn’t. I think this is a direct reaction to getting comments about Quinn-as-Rob.
7. Within your mythology, the characters have to face a cennad, the literal embodiment of a person’s worst fears. I’ve decided my cennad would be something slimy and tentacle-y, like an enormous octopus. Or maybe Jaws with legs. What would your cennad be?
That’s a really good question. For a long time I thought it would be a giant spider because I passionately hate and abhor spiders (a fear I tap into in the third book of The Sanheim Chronicles: Give the Devil His Due). But in giving this question a little more thought, I’ve come to a different answer: Jason Voorhees, the unkillable hockey-masked monster from the Friday the 13th movies.
Why? Because when I was nine years old, a babysitter suggested we watch a funny movie on TV called Friday the 13th Part Two, and I was never the same afterward. The movie is stupid and nobody would be scared by it now, but to a young kid, it was scary-beyond-the-capacity-for-rational-thought. As a result, Jason haunted my dreams for years afterward. He was always the one chasing me, just behind me, about to catch up. He also had this neat trick of showing up when I awoke from a different nightmare. I would roll over and find him staring at me (hockey mask and all) while I lay in bed. And he did not want to cuddle.
So Jason came to represent all my subconscious fears, chasing me through my dreams, until one day I decided I had had enough. I had a lucid dream in which I was aware that I was dreaming and decided I was taking this guy down. Everything he threw at me in the dream (including a giant spider), I turned against him. When I wanted a gun to take him out, a row of choices appeared before me, Matrix-style. I didn’t just beat him, I pulverized him. To quote Bill Murray, I came, I saw, I kicked his ass. And Jason has never bothered me since. It was the best dream ever.
In many ways, Jason was my cennad and just like the Prince of Sanheim, I had to beat him to move forward. That being said, I don’t now walk the streets at night with a hockey mask and a chainsaw terrorizing teenagers in the local park.
Bonus Question: Favorite movie or literary journalist, and you can’t pick Woodward or Bernstein. Go.
Now that you’ve said I can’t pick Woodward or Bernstein, all I can think of is Bob Woodward. Seriously, I’m a journalist in Washington, D.C., and as a result, it’s hard not to answer Woodward. He’s a legend for a reason; a great writer and a great reporter. I can’t find a fictional equivalent that’s done nearly as much or as well.
But if I must point to a fictional journalist, I’ll choose Henry Hackett from the 1994 movie, The Paper. That movie nails so many things about journalism, including the quirky characters, the battles over the direction of a story, basically everything I love about the job. And Michael Keaton does a great job showing us someone who’s torn between being caught up in a story while also trying to balance his personal life as his wife has a baby. He knows he should be with his wife, but he can’t give up chasing the story. The movie really captures that dynamic well because reporters (including me) have trouble letting stuff go.
Rob Blackwell is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Sanheim Chronicles and The Soren Chase books, two series that combine urban fantasy, mystery and suspense. His latest novel, The Forest of Forever, is due to be released soon by Kindle Press.His first novel, A Soul to Steal, was featured on USA Today and praised by book bloggers and readers alike for its great plot and a “fantastic ending.” Many of his other books have been Kindle bestsellers in the Dark Fantasy category. You can find out more about him on his Facebook page, or on Twitter at @ABwashbureau. Rob lives in Virginia with his wife and two children.