had no point of view in my late teens and twenties, just a procreative urge
and a self-destructive bent."
- Douglas Clegg
Stoker Award winner Douglas Clegg was born in Virginia, but has also lived
and worked in Washington, D.C., California, Connecticut, New Jersey
and a number of other states. He graduated from Washington & Lee University
in 1980 with a degree in English Literature, taught school and then
ran away to Paris. After a stint at CBS News in Los Angeles he wrote
his first novel, “Goat Dance,” which sold to Pocket Books in 1987. Doug
then jumped into fulltime writing, consulting, freelance editing, reviewing
books and otherwise making his living through creative endeavors. His
output has been impressive: Seventeen books, by my count, including
short story collections such as THE NIGHTMARE CHRONICLES (a personal
favorite of mine), novels like YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU, MISCHIEF, NAOMI,
and the thriller BAD KARMA - which is now out as a film. Doug Clegg
recently completed a tour to promote THE INFINITE, the first hardcover
ever released under the Leisure Horror banner. We met for the first
time at a book signing for “The Infinite” at Dark Delicacies bookstore
in Burbank, California.
Shannon: How have things changed in the years since the publication
of your first book? Is the writing life all you expected it to be?
DOUG CLEGG: My life really turned around with the writing of my first novel - and its subsequent publication. I was fairly aimless in my youth - doing all the things you're supposed to do in your early to late-20s, none of which really add up to much more than fun memories of debauchery later in life. I worked as a teacher, a magazine writer, and an editor in various media, before I just sat down and wrote GOAT DANCE, my first novel. I wandered from Washington DC to Paris to Los Angeles, basically bumming around but getting some work done here and there.
Doug in his
But when I decided it was time to write that novel, I did it, sent it out, and it was bought by Pocket Books in 1987, when I was about 29. Just in time to save me from figuring out how to have some kind of career. Back to the question. The writing life is exactly what I expected it to be - a life, and a
fairly good one, in which I get to read and write and travel and rant
and just let my imagination loose on the world. It has given me a better
life than I would've had without writing fiction. I enjoy writing non-fiction
a great deal, but before I wrote my first novel, I really had nothing
to say, and yet I wrote articles and various pieces in a fairly muddled
way back then; now I have a fairly developed point of view. This might
be age - I had no point of view in my late teens and twenties, just
a procreative urge and a self-destructive bent. My point of view? Everything
is potential for a story.
when he had nothing to say
HS: How disciplined are your work habits? Do you write for a specific amount of time and virtually every day?
CLEGG: I write fiction just about every day, but not always. That's a strange little lie for me to make, but it's true: every day I focus on storytelling, but it's not always at my desk, writing. Sometimes it's just staring at a wall (something I really enjoy and consider quite productive), and sometimes it's getting involved in other projects. I've found that I have a fairly contrary nature - if I am told to do one thing, I will daydream the thing I'm not supposed to be working on. And I've learned how to manipulate this contrarian thing
so that I get writing done in my head while I'm involved in something
having nothing to do with the story. Basically, over the past decade,
I've learned to focus - and I think that first decade was important
for me because I needed to learn focus. I had a raw ability before that;
I needed to learn how to zero in on the story and really immerse myself
in it, even when involved in other activities. It makes the process
of writing a lot more fun, whether or not I ever sell the story. I write
a lot of stuff that I never send out - most of it's just for me.
Among Doug's influences are William Shakespeare...
...and Poppy Z. Brite
HS: This is another tired question, but we think it is relevant. Off the
top of your head, what are your favorite authors and books, and who
has likely influenced you most?
CLEGG: Harry, off the top of my head, I have a routine list: God (the Bible is the first epic of horror, unless you count Gilgamesh),
Poe, Hawthorne, Charles Brockden Browne, Shakespeare, Marlowe, the folks
who brought you Beowulf, Melville, Woolf, Matthew Lewis, Walter de la
Mare, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Hugh Lofting, Beverly Cleary,
P.L. Travers, Thomas Tryon, Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, William Peter
Blatty, Stephen King, Peter Straub, William Styron, Joyce Carol Oates,
Patrick McGrath, Bentley Little, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble, Isak
Dinesen, Herman Hesse, David Silva, Rick Hautala, Ford Madox Ford, F.
Scott Fitzgerald, Ernie Hemingway, John D. MacDonald, Colette, Guy de
Maupassant, Dean Koontz, John Irving, Katherine Mansfield, Katherine
Anne Porter, Christopher Bram, David Mamet, Elizabeth Engstrom, Richard
Laymon, Poppy Z Brite, Tom Stoppard, Kathe Koja, Ayn Rand, Henry Fielding
- man, if I could name every book or play that I've loved and read and
felt influenced by, I would. Who has likely influenced me the most?
Pick a name, they all have. Who do I re-read the most? It's a toss up
between Hawthorne and Guy de Maupassant (maybe
Shakespeare, too.) And oh, the garbage, too, none of which shall
be herein named: the bad novels that I loved because of the scandal
or intrigue involved in them or the pulped beauty of gaudy writing.
HS: That is an eclectic bunch! How do you feel your own writing has changed
over the years?
Clegg: I don't even think about it. I focus on story, and if my stories have
changed, I'm betting that it's in my understanding of what to cut and
what to leave in. Beyond that, it's only changed insofar as my understanding
of the human condition has changed. I'm a terrible judge of my own writing:
I cut and edit and still find it not as good as I'd like it to be.
HS: How do you gather your thoughts, especially when it comes to structuring
your novels? Do you use an Aristotelian three-act form, or something
of your own design? In other words, care to share any tricks of the
Clegg: I generally just make it up as I go.
HS: You’ve got to be kidding.
Clegg: Well, okay. That's not entirely true. I take about a year to imagine the story. It slowly builds and builds in my head, and I don't do any writing at that point. Once the story becomes like a false memory in my mind, I'm ready to write. So, I sit down and just begin and slowly scrape away at my mind to try and translate the memory of how the story came to be in a fairly dramatic fashion (if that's what the story dictates). Usually when I revise the entire thing, I do think in terms of three-to-five acts. All this really means is: beginning, middle, and end. Anything that doesn't fit those three words, I toss. This doesn't mean I'm a hard editor with my stuff - sometimes the beginning is just a sentence to launch the whole thing and then the middle suddenly appears. Sometimes the end is just a page. The story itself determines its structure within the idea of an act. I do think Aristotle was on to something, though.
HS: I have noticed a kind of rococo writing style in your work; richly detailed pieces of all shapes and sizes, some which can only be fully appreciated in context and even from a bit of a distance. How intentional are the decisions that lead you to that approach?
Clegg: Not intentional at all. I write it as I see it. Anything that seems
rococo is probably a flaw. I accept that I'll have flaws as a writer.
I'll be the first to celebrate my imperfections. Whenever I see a negative
review of one of my novels, my first thought is: well, yes, there are
those problems - I wish the critic had been there while I was writing
so I could've let him or her change the manuscript.
HS: Let me clarify something. I meant nothing negative by “rococo,” I was trying to describe those short, separately numbered, intense bursts of energy within many chapters. I find them quite cinematic, actually. Are they purely instinctual as well?
Clegg: Yes. Weirdly, I still see them as possible flaws, but that’s okay. My general goal in writing the book is to eliminate anything I feel is too boring, although that doesn’t always work!
HS: You always acknowledge your partner Raul and his positive impact on
your life. Has coming out affected your storytelling, or impacted your
relationship with your fans in any way?
Clegg: Not in the least -- life is good, and I'm just happy that I have fans
at all! If I'm lucky, they'll keep reading my fiction.
HS: Lyricist Stephen Sondheim once wrote that he hated the lines in “West Side Story” where Maria sings “I feel pretty and witty and fine,” because
a Puerto Rican girl would never say that! I doubt writers are ever fully
satisfied with their work. Is there any novel, story or collection of
stories in particular that you sometimes wish you could go back to and
change a bit?
Clegg:Not really. In some respects, the novels are documents about where I was at the time. The one novel where I felt strangely sensitive was BREEDER, but I wouldn't change it. I had come up with a story that was a riff on a haunted house, on the idea of a back alley abortionist, on a very fictional branch of Voodoo, and with racism. I really wanted to write a novel about racism within the framework of a horror novel. Having grown up white (thought I'd add that, and if my fans have a problem with it, I apologize to them! White people can be awful), and in and around Washington, D.C., I saw racism first-hand in the schools I attended, and in the social setting I knew. So, with BREEDER, I wanted to bring in the idea of white people gentrifying a neighborhood that had recently been African-American, and poor. In doing so, a whole back story comes into play about what one of the character's father did previously in this neighborhood, how this man ruthlessly and horribly used a sense of superiority and the weak power of the very cruel to destroy a young woman. There's more to it than that, but basically I hadn't seen too many horror novels deal with racism, particularly not in the direction I took it in BREEDER. Unfortunately, that theme of the novel got a bit muddled, and I've never felt great about that book as a result. I've always felt there was another novel in there that needed to come out and be developed more. But it was my second novel, so I forgive myself the lapse at this point. And many readers seemed to love BREEDER for its savagery.
HS: THE INFINITE is a rich and complex work, and can be read on a number of levels, in part because it completes a trilogy. Can you tell us a bit about the three books, and bring us up to date in the story?
write a haunted house story, it becomes: something happened at a haunted house.
And you can't really step into any room in the house without somewhat being
aware that others have also stepped into haunted houses."
Clegg and J.G. Passarella at a mutual book signing.
Photo by Kristy Bratton of CityofAngel.com
Clegg: Well, I don't even think of it as a trilogy in that sense. I think of it as William Faulkner's “Yoknapatawpha County.” In MISCHIEF, NIGHTMARE HOUSE, and THE INFINITE, there's a house called Harrow. It's practically an entire town unto itself. So each story is set there, but they're not terribly interconnected except that the same creator set the house in motion in the late 1800s. Each novel is fairly distinct from the other, and there is only some carry-over between MISCHIEF and THE INFINITE. I'm not much good at telling about my novels. They are what they are - each
of these three stories deals with different points and different characters
at one very haunted house - a house of infinite possibilities in many
ways. Someday, I may write more tales of the house called Harrow. It depends
on whether or not further stories come to me. But I'd encourage readers
to read the books out of order - I think that would add layers to the
sense of the house that reading them as 1, 2, 3, might not.
HS: Then I’m accidentally doing it right. I started with THE INFINITE. I remember chuckling when one of the characters was getting directions to the Harrow, the haunted house in question, and was told to take streets named Matheson, Jackson and Tryon. How carefully did you plan those moments, or were they somewhat spontaneous?
Doug's first hardcover mass market novel
Clegg: Completely spontaneous. I got to the point of creating a map in my head, and thought, this is the map of all hauntings - it's the map that Shirley Jackson created for Hill House, and the one Richard Matheson created for Hell House, and for Tom Tryon in helping me to realize when I was about
13 or 14 that I might want to write horror fiction at all. All stories
are the one story, and the one story is: something happened.
But when you write a haunted house story, it becomes: something happened at
a haunted house. And you can't really step into any room in the house
without somewhat being aware that others have also stepped into haunted
houses. Part of me wanted to also let those more cynical readers know
that: yes, I realize two giants have written great haunted house stories
within the past 50 years. I'm not pretending to duplicate their efforts
- but this is a house at the end of another road than theirs. I probably
should've named other streets Levin, King, Straub, Machen, James, and
Hawthorne, but I didn't want it to be too jarring.
HS: Tell us a little about THE HOUR BEFORE DARK, which comes out next year from Leisure Books. Is that another hardcover?
The limited hardcover edition
Clegg: THE HOUR BEFORE DARK is a hardcover from Leisure Books. All I'll say about it for now is that it deals with family madness and family romance and I've been having a blast writing it. And it deals with the idea of hero worship and murder. That's all I'm saying for now.
HS: And Cemetery Dance is releasing a short story collection next year called
“THE MACHINERY OF NIGHT. How many stories does it contain, and how did that book come together for you?
Clegg: I don't know how many stories it will contain - a lot of 'em! It should be a fairly fat book since it will carry nearly all the stories I've had
published since 1990. The book came together because Rich Chizmar is an
amazing guy and wanted it after the wonderful and brilliant Matt Johnson
of Obsidian Press had let it go for reasons of scheduling. Since I haven't
yet turned the manuscript in, I just don't know how many stories it'll
have. There should be a few new ones in it, as well.
The mass market trade paperback
HS: Okay, despite vague memory of a Michael Jackson CD, I love this title. Tell us about THRILLER, the Tor release coming in 2003. I assume it is
still very much a work in progress?
Clegg: I've worked on THRILLER for a few years now. It's a strange book -- it's about things that if I told, it would ruin the suspense of the novel. I think I was working on it in my head as far back as 1996. Even if I told you the opening of the novel, it would be telling too much. Let's just say it deals with runaways in New York, with an unusual addiction, with savage murders, and it begins on Death Row with a startling revelation. There - that's pretty good without telling much. I hate to ruin these books by talking about them too much.
HS: Understood. Do you perceive any pattern to how your concepts form; that
is to say, do you write down a ton of ideas and then select one, or does
the work almost write itself at times?
Clegg: No, I never write down ideas at all -- I wish I did. I figure that the powerful ones for me will remain in my head and just germinate a bit. Despite the fact that a novel might take 6 months to a year to write, I usually have had to think it through a good two to three years before that. Then, sitting down and writing is much better and more enjoyable. Usually, a place and people just begin to form in my mind. And then a story begins.
HS: You have a great deal of trust in your muse. Also, you’re the only writer I've seen literally invite a reader into his process via a website, Douglas Clegg.com.
That’s pretty damned generous. What led you to make that decision?
Clegg: I just wanted to do it for fun. Very little of what I do is strategy
- I wish I were that smart. I just go with my gut, and figure: well,
let me throw out a rough draft here or there, or do a serial, or just
have some fun right now. I put a hundred pages of YOU COME WHEN I CALL
YOU up at the old Matt Schwartz - run Horrornet site back in about 1998,
and I actually got a great suggestion from a reader - to move a later
part of the 100 pages up front. It was a good idea and I went with it.
So, hell, maybe the readers will give me some great editorial advice
now and then. I can always learn.
Page 2. Clegg talks about BAD KARMA
and why Andrew Harper wrote it