The OF Blog: F. Paul Wilson Interview

Friday, March 21, 2003

F. Paul Wilson Interview

Hello everyone!!

I have an interview here with F. Paul Wilson, one of my personal favorites. Paul is the author of more than twenty-five books: five science fiction novels (HEALER, WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS, AN ENEMY OF THE STATE, DYDEETOWN WORLD, THE TERY), eight horror thrillers (THE KEEP, THE TOMB, THE TOUCH, REBORN, REPRISAL, NIGHTWORLD, BLACK WIND, SIBS), and three contemporary thrillers, THE SELECT, IMPLANT, and DEEP AS THE MARROW. In 1998, after a fourteen-year wait, he brought back his popular Repairman Jack character in a new novel and hasn't stopped since. Short stories from his first 15 years as a writer are collected in SOFT & OTHERS ( 1989 ) and THE BARRENS & OTHERS ( 1998 ). He has edited two anthologies: FREAK SHOW ( 1992 ) and DIAGNOSIS: TERMINAL ( 1996 ).
During his carrer he has won the Prometheus and Porgie awards. He has also been nominated for the Nebula, Stoker and World fantasy awards. Besides all of this critical aclaim and prolific writing, the most important thing is these are wonderful books to read. I have read and enjoyed many of Paul's works and intend to make through the entire collection.
Read what Paul has to say, take copious notes as you go, and post any questions you can come up with below. He will be coming by the site next week to check in and answer your questions.



1 ) New Jersey . . . What has kept you there your whole life?

Family -- both my wife Mary and I grew up in North Jersey -- and, I suppose, a certain amount of inertia. The thing is, I live at the shore (or "down the shore," as we say here) and I love it. I'm close to the ocean and an hour from Manhattan. The best of both worlds.

2 ) Are you still practicing medicine? Do you find that having two careers helps you in your writing, through the knowledge you attain and people that you encounter?

Absolutely. I think all writers -- fiction writers, anyway -- should have day jobs. If you spend every day before the computer screen and much of your free time hanging out with other writers, you develop a sort of tunnel vision. You narrow the range of your human experience.

I still practice two days a week. No because I need the money -- my writing income long ago outstripped my family practitioner earnings -- but because I like it. I like my patients and I like solving problems. If I quit it will be due to the insurance companies and the lottery mentality that's driving the malpractice crisis.

3 ) What are the first stories you remember writing and having published?
Are they still dear to you, or have they become trite in your mind?

They're mostly okay (although I omitted a couple from my first collection SOFT & OTHERS because I didn't want to inflict them twice upon the reading public) but I wouldn't hold them up as examples of what I can do. In the 70s some of us did our learning in public, and it showed.

4 ) The Adversary Cycle had its earliest beginnings in Demonsong. Could you give a synopsis of The Adversary Cycle for those who are late to your works?

The Adversary Cycle is about the last decades of a cosmic war that’s been going on for eons, though only a very few people know about it. The backstory is of two vast, incomprehensible unnamed forces/powers/states of existence/entities in eternal conflict. Our corner of reality is not the prize, it’s simply one of countless spheres of existence; we’re a backwater, really, but if one of these forces is going to win, it has to have all the marbles.

We are currently in the portfolio of the better of the two—notice I didn’t say “good.” The best we can hope for from this power is benign neglect. The other force, which some folks have dubbed “the Otherness,” is decidedly inimical. It would change our reality to make it more like its own, and believe me, you wouldn’t want to live there.

That’s the cosmic side, which we never really see because the story is told in terms of it human characters, starting on the eve of WWII (The Keep) and continuing into the near future where civilization is crushed and humanity decimated (Nightworld).

It didn't start out as a cycle. I like doing connected stories -- future histories or separate stories sharing the same milieu, like the Village of Monroe on the Long Island Gold Coast -- but I had no intention of doing a series. It just happened that when I needed two immortals locked in eternal combat for The Keep, I flashed back to "Demonsong" and nabbed Glaeken and Rasalom.

The first three novels of the cycle were intended as stand-alones. Completely unrelated. In fact Wm. Morrow rejected The Tomb because it was too unlike The Keep. And The Touch was like neither. I had no clue they’d ever be connected.

Then I went to work on a novel called The Chadham Clone. It too was meant to be a stand-alone, with no relation to The Keep. I'd started it years before, right after The Keep, but it didn't gel. (That's why there's such a gap between The Keep and The Tomb.) I wanted it to look like a Rosemary's Baby or an Omen but actually be something different (just as The Keep looks like a vampire novel for a while, but is not). I wanted to use an evil entity other than the tired old Antichrist, but who? Then I realized I already had that entity in Rasalom from The Keep. I needed a suburban setting convenient to Manhattan, and realized I already had one in Monroe where The Touch took place. I became intrigued by the challenge of tying those two novels, and The Tomb as well, into Rasalom's reincarnation, bringing the books full circle. It worked so well that I suspect my subconscious might have been linking them all along.

Things grew from there. The result was an outline for a 1,000-plus-page novel. Nobody was going to publish that, so I broke it down into a trilogy ( Reborn, Reprisal, and Nightworld) and sold it that way. But it remains a single novel – a roman fleuve, if you will. (This was the first time, by the way, I'd ever sold anything on outline. Until then I'd always written the book, then peddled it.)

By the way, starting with The Keep this summer, Borderlands Press is putting all six novels of the Adversary Cycle back into print in matching hardcover editions.

5 ) Repairman Jack has made a wonderful return and grown into a very reliable character for you. How are you using him to tie up the Adversary Cycle?

Well, once I brought Jack back in Legacies, and decided to run with him for a while, I decided to keep him linked to the Cycle. After all, you’ve got to figure Rasalom and the Otherness weren’t just hanging out, getting high during the decades between Reborn and Reprisal. No, they had to be setting the stage for Nightworld. So I’ve involved Jack -- against his wishes -- in the goings on. What’s really fun is bouncing him off people and places from other books and stories.

6 ) Jack is extremely anti-government. What, of your own beliefs, brings this out in the character?

Jack’s what I call a gut libertarian. He hasn’t studied anarchist philosophers like Lysander Spooner or Murray Rothbard. He has a code, but he doesn't have a structured philosophy -- at least not one he articulates -- but he instinctively abhors intrusions on his autonomy. So do I. The difference is, I only talk about it. Jack goes out and lives it. He's structured his life to maximize his autonomy. He believes that men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and government is from Uranus.

His is not an easy lifestyle, as I‘ve learned while writing about him. It takes work to stay under the radar. Sometimes even he wonders if it’s worth the effort.

7 ) There is also a very "regular guy" anti-yuppie tone to the Repairman Jack stories. This seems to be an odd characteristic for a character written by a doctor. Are you irritated by yuppies in real life?

Not yuppies in particular. The artsy crowd can also put my teeth on edge. I guess both Jack and I are irritated by pretensions and affectations. But Jack is not my alter ego. He does things I wouldn’t do. He’s far more violent than I could ever be.

8 ) Jack works for cash, so he says. Many times he seems drawn to underdogs with little to no chance of affording him. Is this a trait you see in yourself, or desire to?

Actually the underdogs are drawn to him. Jack considers himself a small businessman and expects to get paid for risking life and limb. That’s how he earns his living. He tries not to get emotionally involved, but almost always does. He has a normal amount of empathy for his fellow man, but he's learned to lock it up when it's going to get in the way. This allows him to be a caring, feeling human being 99% of the time, yet not flinch when he needs to do terrible damage.

9 ) I noticed a quote from Stephen King, identifying him as the President of the Repairman Jack Fan Club. Do you keep many personal friends or acquaintances within the industry?

That President remark was purely tongue in cheek. There is no Repairman Jack Fan Club.

But some of my most cherished friends are writers. (Stephen King is not one of them. We've only met a few times, but he is a Repairman Jack fan.) I'm in frequent email contact and we get together regularly outside the usual conventions. Sometimes I won’t see someone for a year, ad then we sit down and it’s like we were together yesterday.

10 ) I love the serial story Sims. I am waiting for book four now, is there a plan for how many books will be in the series? Will you do any more serialized stories?

Again, I wasn't looking to do a series. In 1999 Richard Chizmar asked me to do a story for the novella series Cemetery Dance has been publishing. I had this idea about transgenic chimps that I wanted to play with, so I began outlining. But the more I worked on it the larger it grew, until I told him no way I could squeeze it into 40,000 words. And I couldn't commit to another major novel because of other books contracted. We talked about it and Rich suggested I do a series of novellas on the theme; he'd publish them as they were written - no deadlines. Perfect.

I handed in Sims One and Two in April 2000, then finished the Repairman Jack novel (Hosts) I was working on. I hadn't fully outlined the series (which gave me a tightrope-without-a-safety-net feeling since I'm one of these anal types who likes to travel with a map) so when I went back I discovered things that I would have liked to put in the first two novellas. But it was too late: One was in print and Two was in galleys.

I wrote all five Sims novellas with an eye to collecting them in one volume after CD published them. I handed in the fifth and final novella in April 2001, expecting it to see print within the next twelve months. With that in mind, I sold the novelized version to Forge that summer. Sims the novel wouldn't appear until 2003, plenty of time for CD to get the novellas out. But problems with the art and other things led to long delays. As a result, the complete Sims was just published (April 2003) by Forge while the fourth and fifth novellas have yet to show up from CD.

11 ) Sims deals with genetic research, and abuse of it. What are your feelings on genetic research in the real world?

Sims is a cautionary tale set in a world exactly like our own except for one thing: the science of genetics is decades ahead. In my scenario, most simple manual labor is done by sims -- transgenic chimps with human genes swapped in -- who occupy a gray zone between ape and human.

Now, the first response I hear when I lay out this scenario is, "And the sims revolt, right?" Wrong. If you're going to genetically engineer a worker species, you engineer revolt out of them. No, it's the people I'm concerned with, the ones who created these creatures, and the secrets they keep.

In order to write Sims I had to go back and give myself a course in genetics. During my medical school days in the early 70s we knew a tiny fraction of what we do now. What we've learned in those thirty years has blown me away and opened up worlds of fiction possibilities. Trouble is, science is moving so fast I've got to keep dancing to prevent a work from being obsolete by the time it's published.

Now that we've mapped the human genome, I think the possibilities are magnificent. We can soon eradicate inherited conditions like cystic fibrosis, Tay Sachs, Alzheimer's, and even the genetic predisposition to heart disease. If we move cautiously, we can open a golden age. If we goof up, it can be catastrophic -- say, accidentally releasing a virus that will make the old Spanish flu look like a mild cold.

12 ) You have written some young adult and children stories. I love The Christmas Thingy, I have one of the drawings above my desk. Did you enjoy writing for a younger audience? Will you be doing any more?

I wrote The Christmas Thingy in the late 70s for my daughters. Later I xeroxed a few copies and sent them to nieces and nephews and friends’ children. Still later I got Jill Bauman involved. She did a few sketches and we tried to peddle it as a children’s book. No one in the strange world of children’s publishing would give us the time of day. (I was informed that having a white middle-class child as a protagonist is quite a handicap in that world.)

Back in June 2000, as I was writing the Sims novellas, Rich Chizmar and I were talking and he asked me if I had anything else, maybe something old lying about. I said no, my trunk’s been empty for some time now. I do have this children’s Christmas story but you won’t be interested in that. He said to email it to him. He fell in love with it and within 36 hours he had Alan Clark signed up to do the artwork. It was released December 1, a little late for the Christmas season, but I love it.

13 ) Alan M. Clark and Harry O. Morris have each done art work for you recently. How involved are you in the selection of the artists for your books? How are artists selected?

I have little or no say in the trade editions, but the small presses want my ideas and approval. I’m always happy to have input. Alan Clark checked with me on almost every detail of the Thingy art. It’s strange talking art with an artist like Alan—he thinks in colors like I think with words.

And Harry O. Morris has got to be one of the most underrated, under-appreciated artists in the field. He sent me three variations on the cover for the Gauntlet edition of Gateways. I told him I liked this part of the first, that part of the second, and the whole left side of the third was great. A few days later he sends me the finished product with all the best elements wedded. Check it out at:

14 ) You have done some work for comics in the past. Do you ever intend to work in any illustrated format again? What role do you feel illustrated works have in the Fantasy, Sci Fi and Horror genres?

Though I’ve seen some good stuff, I’m not overly fond of the idea of illustrated horror. I think the act of imaging (as opposed to imagining, which is the writer’s job) a scene in your own head is much more powerful than having someone do it for you on paper.

Plus I believe the art should be an integral part of the story – help tell it -- rather than simply an add-on. In The Christmas Thingy I have scenes that use the illos to reveal things not explained in the text.

15 ) In The Keep, The Lord's Work, Midnight Mass and Good Friday you give a nod to Richard Matheson style vampires, while shying away from the more common, nowadays, Anne Rice interpretation. What are your feelings on what makes a good vampire, and a good vampire story?

A good vampire’s got to be baaaaad. The first germ of The Keep came from Quinn Yarbro’s vampire hero in Hotel Transylvania. I loved the book, but a good-guy vampire? I liked the evil, scary type better. But it gave me an idea about something that might as a vampire to conceal the fact that it was something far, far worse.

Then came Anne Rice and her Byronic, soul searching, effete, aesthete vampires. Gag me. So in reaction I wrote the purposely retro “Midnight Mass.” I began with the assumption that all the vampire myths—the burning holy water, the lack of reflection, etc.—are real. Then I portrayed them as the scummy obligate parasites they are. I wasn’t surprised when it became one of my most reprinted stories.

The novella has been adapted into a low-budget indie film by a young director named Tony Mandile. He squeezed amazing production values out of half a million dollars. Lion’s Gate has a direct-to-DVD release scheduled for July 1.

Years after “Midnight Mass” I did a prequel called “The Lord’s Work.” And a prequel to that—“Good Friday”—was published in 999. Last year I rewrote the 30-odd thousand words of those stories into a coherent whole and then took off for another 70,000. The final novel—which, if I may say so, really kicks ass—will be released in March 2004.

16 ) You have put together a couple anthologies. How were those experiences? Any plans to do more?

No more anthologies. I swore I’d not do another after FREAK SHOW stole most of a year from my life, but then Marty Greenberg talked me into doing Diagnosis: Terminal – all medical thrillers. That was an easier experience because his staff filtered the stories, but I still didn’t like turning people down. There are highs, though, especially when you can point out something in a story that the author missed, then have him or her run with that and send back something that sings. But there aren’t enough of those moments. I’m very happy with the final product in both cases, but it’s not something I want to do.

17 ) You have a couple collections of short stories compiled. How do you feel about short stories? What place do they have in the market, for publishers and as an outlet for writers?

I cut my teeth on short stories—mainly because that was all I had time for. Plus I didn’t think I had the stamina or the ability to sustain a narrative for 50-60,000 words (which is what most novels ran in the 70s). I still do a few, but I find they take significantly more time and thought per word than a novel, and chew up ideas like a wood chipper. This year I’ve promised stories to Joe Lansdale, Borderlands, and Kealan Patrick Burke. I hope I can deliver.

Though short stories are a great way for new writers to feel their way, find their voice, and get published, they’re not for everybody. Some can’t adapt their brains or their style to the concision and precision required for a good one. Some short story wizzes will never be novelists. You have to find your strengths and go with them.

18 ) The Keep was made into a movie, and your disappointment in it has been quoted many times. Do you hope to try this again someday? Soon?

I hate to say it (being a devout believer in Murphy’s law), but The Tomb looks like it’s on its way to being filmed this year. Last October, after seven years of development, numerous options, five screenwriters, and eight scripts, Beacon Films ("Air Force One," "Thirteen Days," "Spy Game," etc) finally bought film rights. Disney/Touchstone/Buena Vista will be partnering and distributing the film here and abroad.

The film will be called "Repairman Jack" (the idea is to make him a franchise character). The final polish of the script was in by February, and everyone (including yours truly) loves it. The budget is set for $75-80 million; the interiors will be shot in either Australia, Rumania, or Canada. Exterior shoots will follow in Bombay and NYC. It will be PG-13 and they’re aiming for summer 2004 release. A film-related videogame is in the works.

At this date no star or director yet. I’m told a number of directors are interested in the project. Various big-name actors have been considered and rejected by either Beacon or Disney; my first choice for Jack, Hugh Jackman, was unavailable in the shooting window.

19 ) On the Sci Fi channel website you have an interactive story, Derelict. How does this work for the reader? How much fun, or trouble, was this to create? Will you do it again?

It was done for Sci-fi’s Seeing Ear Theatre back in 1997 when the 28k bpm modem was the going thing. So it had to be written for that download speed. Streaming video was a dream at that time, so Matt and I had to come up with ways to keep the story real and explain why the player was seeing only stills. I think our solutions were ingenious.

I just went back to “Derelict” and find I can’t play the audio with my current drive configuration. And you need that audio. Hmmm.

Anyway, I love doing branching interactive stories, where a decision you make here will have repercussions down the line. I like to play with the player’s head. I know they’re second guessing me, so I second guess them: Make the obvious, politically-correct choice and you may well pay for it.

Matt and I did a lot of freelance interactive work but most of it was vaporware. The only projects that saw light were “Derelict” and MathQuest with Aladdin (where it was a kick writing dialog for Robin Williams).

20 ) You have done quite a bit of television work. What have been your favorite projects to date? Are you working on anything now?

Nothing happening in that area now. But without a doubt my best TV gig was FTL Newsfeed for the Sci-Fi Channel. FTL consisted of one-minute newsfeeds from 150 years in the future. It ran a new feed multiple times every weekday -- 260 feeds a year -- and repeated them on weekends. FTL was the first and, for a while, the only or original programming on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Matt Costello and I partnered on it and would meet a couple of times a year to map out the large story arcs. Every quarter we’d and break the arcs into 13-week sections, then block out the 65 individual spots (5 per week for thirteen weeks) which were taped over a four-day period every three months.

We’d sit in one or the other’s kitchen and toss quips back and forth, each taking the topic in question to the next level, until we started laughing. That was when we knew we’d gone too far, and we’d back up a step.

Matt and I were very well paid for having a lot of fun -- hell, we would have done it for free. Plus, we were given carte blanche. The folks running the channel weren’t sf oriented—surprise! It was all a kind a mystery to them, so they let us do what we wanted. The show was surreal in a way: serious, sinister storylines peopled with goofy characters.

Not only was it hands-on experience in screenwriting -- the equivalent of writing a four-hour-and-twenty-minute movie every year -- but we got to work with interesting people. We had Gilbert Gotfried, Timothy Leary, Peter Straub, Jeffery Lyons and others doing guest spots. Rhonda Shear (remember USA’s “Up All Night” movies?) was a regular as Bimbetta Mondaine; so was Tom Monteleone as a future mafia capo. We got to work with these crazy people at Image Post who did fabulous editing. All those crawls you see on the news stations now? FTL had those to the Nth degree back in the early 90s.

21 ) Do you have any convention, or other appearances coming up?

I never miss NECon or World Fantasy Con, and this year I’m a guest at the annual Horrorfind convention. I’m thinking of going to Jerseydevilcon again, if I can manage the time.

22 ) Gateways is due out from Gauntlet Press soon. What is Jack up to this time?

Gateways is a fish-out-of-water story. Jack’s dad winds up in a coma after a car accident in Florida, so Jack has to leave his beloved NYC and head south. Of course he steps into the middle of some strange goings on in the Everglades, and learns that his father—who has no idea how Jack makes his living—has some secrets of his own.

23 ) Now that Gateways is proofed and at Gauntlet Press for printing, what is up next for you?

The Hosts paperback comes out this summer, along with The Keep limited. The Gateways trade edition is in the fall, along with a departure from my usual type of fiction: The Fifth Harmonic, a strange, new-agey kind of novel from Hampton Roads. Then there’s Midnight Mass in early 2004

Thanks Paul! I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. I look forward to seeing you here at the site next week

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