Interviewing author Reina Salt
Abandoning one slow read in the summer of 2012, I scanned through my downloads for something more suited my macabre mood. I didn’t expect to find anything; after all, I’d only downloaded a dozen books and I’d read most of them.
But I found Graveyard Blues, and I was captivated from its very first word straight through its final ones. My June 2012 review was glowing:
As a lifelong reader of horror, I’ve come to expect that most horror will neither actually scare me nor stick with me after I’ve finished reading it. It’s exhilarating to find a horror novel that engages me from its first pages and only gets better as it goes. Graveyard Blues is such a novel.
Hettie and Henry, the book’s protagonists, are some of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered not just in horror but in fiction. They’re very real, very funny characters with whom I’d be happy to travel even if the story itself weren’t so engaging. But let’s be clear: the story is compelling.
When its protagonists came up against obstacles at every turn, I found myself holding my breath and hoping all would turn out well for them . . . even if, as the story progressed, that seemed an increasingly unlikely outcome.
The end more than satisfied. Best of all, it’s not so much an end as a resting point. I normally prefer standalone books, but THIS is a series to which I’ll happily return.
It’s both my pleasure and honor to be interviewing Graveyard Blues author Reina Salt today.
Have you always felt compelled to write? If not, what inspired you to pick up the proverbial pen?
Well, as I child, I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. Actually, that’s not entirely true — I wanted to be Indiana Jones and Elvira, but failing that, I wanted to make art. For years, I painted, but I didn’t have much by way of success. When the economy crashed, I was left unemployed at my day job, battling depression on a daily basis, and trying to find more ways to channel my creative energy to make some money. I taught myself to sew, and sold things I made to people around the world for a few years. I dabbled in writing in the past, but for a long time, it was just another tool for me to make art with; an unused paintbrush, if you will. That is, until my character Henry came to me in a very intense monologue which I use in his first scene. I tried to put it out of my head several times, but he remained, persistent, and getting louder. Writing wasn’t a conscience decision for me, so much as it was a compulsion. I was driven to write after being haunted by my own creations, as it were.
Speaking of inspiration, what was your inspiration for Graveyard Blues?
There are a lot of things that inspired me in the process. I’m a huge fan of the show Twin Peaks, and there are references to it throughout the story if you look for them. Blues music has been a passion of mine for years, and in it, you can find recurring themes of pain and redemption.
And how about its characters? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered characters who felt so much like real people to me. I’d love to know how they were conceived, and perhaps (if it applies!) a little about how they changed as you wrote them.
Henry came from two places: a part from myself, and the other, from the blues. With blues music, there is the anti-hero that acknowledges their failure and tries to be better even if it literally damns them. They are a figure of toughness and a kind of grotesque honesty that resonates in all of us, and Henry was born from it. In fact, I often hear from readers that Henry is their absolute favorite, and that they really connect with him. He is the first character I imagined, and he is the reason the story was written, really. That is how strong his voice is.
Hettie was originally going to be a smaller character in the story, but as the story grew, I got to know her better, and she evolved from there. With Hettie, I wanted to write a strong character that would communicate that when trauma happens in our lives, it scars us, but we are not just the product of our suffering. You still belong to yourself, no matter what anyone has done to you. Hettie is victimized and murdered, then discarded by a monster that sees her as an object to manipulate, murder, and erase. Because that’s what serial killers do — they don’t just grab someone and hurt them, they bury them in unmarked graves or mar their faces or pose them — erasure. They control the fact that one person will die, and then they dehumanize them. For Hettie, she is literally changed by what has happened to her, but she still finds value in life.
The Hide-Behind is a monster without a name. I first read about Hide-Behinds in an encyclopedia of monsters and mythology book that my son had, and I was hooked. In the original myths, they were just creatures with long claws that looked like bears and could disappear behind any tree to prey upon lumberjacks in Appalachia and the surrounding area. They eat intestines, and have an aversion to alcohol. I took the basics of that myth, and expanded upon it to make it creepier. My Hide-Behind monster is a skinwalker whose bones can morph to fill in the blanks of his victim’s skin so that he looks just like them. It wasn’t enough to make him just a bogeyman, however — I wanted to make him the biggest and baddest of modern-day bogeymen: the serial killer. I’ve read many books about serial killers and profiling, but the inspiration behind some of the particularly repugnant beliefs and thought processes of the Hide-Behind came after I read the interview transcripts of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer. I grew up in western Washington, and I remember the panic in the media every time one of his victims washed up along the river. The Pacific Northwest has had no shortage of serial killers, but Ridgway speaks about his victims as if they’re garbage and that law enforcement should have been thankful. He’s a nasty piece of work.
You incorporate some fascinating mythological elements into Graveyard Blues. Do you have a background in mythology that helped inspire these elements, or did they come to you as you wrote?
I have a minor obsession with mythology and folklore, which goes back to my childhood. I tried to incorporate actual myths into my story, because to me it lends a sense of realness that is absent in a story which excludes established creature lore. We tell stories to frighten, to educate, and to warn of hidden dangers. You can compare different parts of my story to different fairy tales and myths, too. I also studied the works of Zora Neale Hurston; in particular, Mules and Men, her classic collection of African-American folk tales, and hoodoo. In several scenes in my book, you can find instances of magic and ritual, all of which owe a great deal of thanks to Hurston’s remarkable efforts.
Have you ever studied writing, formally or informally? How have you developed your voice as a writer? I ask because, frankly, I’m a little* envious of your knack for plotting, pacing, character development, description, and, well, pretty much everything else applicable to any novel, ever, and most especially to yours.
For a very brief period of time, I wrote feature “fluff piece” articles for a local newspaper. It started, as many things do, with my sense of curiosity getting the better of me. On a forum for the newspaper, I’d asked if anyone knew where the local Native American (Sk-tah-le-jum) burial ground was located, and no one knew. As I dug up information, the owner of the paper was interested in me writing about my findings, which I did. I was so nervous. I must have re-written that first article something like twenty times. If I look back on it now (yes, I still have a hard copy of it, and my other articles), I wince at how amateur the writing is on a technical level, but my “voice” even then was engaging, at least. Character development is something I found the easiest, but pacing can sometimes be as excruciating to me as slamming your toes into a solid object. Thank goodness for my editor, or I would have gotten side-tracked more than once by some shiny object in the peripheral of my imagination.
I left “dialogue” out of the last question because my sister, who is also eagerly anticipating the next installment in your Night Blues series, would love to know how you craft such amazing dialogue. Care to spill the beans, or are we talking trade secret stuff here?
I am very careful when I write my dialogue to make sure to voice it out in my head as if I’m eavesdropping on someone at a cafe. If it doesn’t make sense or the natural flow of conversation would be stilted, it goes. When that fails, my editor helps point out if something doesn’t sound right coming from a character, which is really important when you’re writing from multiple points of view like I am.
What is your approach to writing novels? Do you set daily or weekly goals, or take a different tack?
Before moving to England when I was working on Graveyard Blues, I set a two-thousand word count goal for myself each time I sat down to write. Lately, I have a whole different culture, a teenager, a husband, and a puppy to adjust to, so I’m not writing as much as I’d like. That said, if you put immense pressure on yourself to write x amount in y time, what inevitably happens is that you miss a goal. And if you deal with certain handicaps, like I do with depression, then that can be a problem! The secret is that you just keep going, even when you are convinced that you are awful, or that you’d rather shoot yourself into Earth’s yellow sun than finish your book. Keep writing, and don’t be a jerk to yourself about how long it takes you.
What factors contributed to your decision to publish independently?
I read a lot on the issue of the current pricing model, pushed through by the big five publishers and Steve Jobs in an effort to squeeze companies like Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble out of the publishing industry. In a nutshell, the e-books were being priced at ridiculously high prices for the consumer, while the writers got peanuts. As of April, the Justice Department formally charged Apple and the big five publishing houses for price-fixing, so that’s a step in the right direction.
Another reason that I choose to remain indie at this point in time is that I desire more creative control. One of the scariest, most amazing authors I’ve read, Jack Ketchum, had his early books edited to the point where the whole story was no longer true to his vision, while being told it would be financially lucrative to make these changes. He had to argue for every single death scene, and was told it was necessary, but in the end, the book wasn’t rendered down into some bestselling super-book, and he had to watch his creation be effectively neutered for the sake of a squeamish publicist. No, thanks. I’ve had a few complaints about how gruesome my book is at times, but there’s always a reason for it. For instance, the black cat scene is a genuine article of blues folklore and legend that is mentioned repeatedly in many songs. It’s as much a part of the blues mythos as Robert Johnson’s soul is. Why would I make a blues-themed horror series without mentioning it?
What advice would you give to aspiring authors, whether about writing, publishing or otherwise?
I would give them the best advice I’ve ever received, from my editor. That your goal the whole time should be to write something “better than ‘Sharktopus.'” For those unfamiliar with Sharktopus, it is a made-for-television film about a half-shark, half-octopus made by the military as a “super-weapon.” I highly recommend that your readers check out the sad, hilarious trailer for it on youtube, and then let the slow realization that someone got paid actual money to write that just…sink in. If you can write something better than what you saw on that trailer, then someone, somewhere, will love it and pay for it. Forgive yourself for not being the next F. Scott Fitzgerald, and just create.
As a lifelong horror reader, I’m curious about your relationship with horror. Are you a lifelong fan, or did you come to it later, if indeed you count yourself a fan? Do you consider yourself a horror writer, or a writer who’s writing horror right now?
I have been a horror fan for as long as I can remember. My favorite films growing up were the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and a local video store — remember those? — used to do a weekly deal on their catalog titles where you could rent three for three dollars. The problem with such a great deal is that after the first month or so, you start to run out of things you haven’t seen that actually look good. So, my mom would take us to the video store and we’d have a weekly challenge to see who could pick out the shittiest films. This is how I saw every single Leprechaun title, as well as cinematic masterpieces like Three On A Meat Hook, Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator, and Lair of the White Worm. Horror is my first love, and I have no qualms with labeling myself as a horror writer.
When will the next novel in the Night Blues series be published? (Please say tomorrow!)
Hopefully soon! I’m still working on the first draft of the sequel, Mojo Hand Blues, but I’m very close to the end. There are a ton of new characters, both monstrous and wonderful. Sometimes they’re both at the same time. I hope to have it out by mid-summer, and I’m really excited about it.
Are you working on any other writing projects? If so, count me in for reading any and all of them!
I wrote a short story for Christmas called Winter about a village that is terrorized by Santa, who is basically a Wendigo. I wanted to share that feeling when the snow is on the ground, and the nights are cold, and add a little horror, and an aching hunger. That’s more of a horror that relies on tension than Graveyard Blues, but anyone that’s interested can find it on my Facebook page where I discuss writing and my books. (https://www.facebook.com/Graveyard.Blues.book)
Other than that, tentative plans have begun for an “in-between-the-books” collection of short stories that would tell you what’s happened with different characters between Graveyard Blues and Mojo Hand Blues, as well as potentially have some back-story. The good thing about my characters is that they have a wealth of stories to tell; the only problem is picking which one.
Do you have any questions for Reina? If so, please leave them in comment–
and don’t forget to check out Graveyard Blues, available at Amazon for your immediate enjoyment!
* OK, so “a little” is
possibly a blatant lie.