An Interview With Norman Partridge
Norman Partridge is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the novels and collections Slippin’ Into Darkness, The Man With The Barbed-Wire Fists, Wildest Dreams, Bad Intentions, and The Ten-Ounce Siesta, among others. He is also the editor of the DAW anthology It Came From The Drive-In, recently back in print from ibooks. Norman lives in Northern California with his wife, writer Tia V. Travis.
Q: Your first published short story appeared in Cemetery Dance #2 back in 1989. Had you been writing for a long time before that? How long had you been submitting before that initial acceptance?
A: I graduated college in the early eighties, armed with a bunch of stories I wrote during my junior and senior years. I submitted them to markets like The Twilight Zone Magazine and Whispers, but I didn’t have luck making a sale. So those manuscripts ended up in my filing cabinet, and—as any writer will tell you—that’s not exactly the best way to go about selling your work.
I got a job working in a library, and for the next few years I didn’t do much writing. Instead, I did a lot of reading, filling up my creative gas tank. When the PC-era dawned, I bought a used Mac and gave writing another try. By today’s standards, my first computer was pretty much chisel-and-rock technology—the screen was roughly the size of a slice of Wonder Bread, and (like all the early Mac’s) my little machine didn’t even have a fan. As a result, I fried a couple power boards while I was using it, and it ended up with a nice scorch mark on the side. But I loved that Mac, and I don’t think I would have ever managed to break in without it. Those who never worked on a typewriter may not understand—but making the jump to a computer dramatically cut down on time I spent revising and retyping. That made a real difference in my output, and I started placing stories pretty quickly in the small press markets of the day.
Q: CD Publisher/Editor Richard Chizmar also bought your first novel, Slippin’ Into Darkness, didn’t he? How instrumental was he in helping your writing career along?
A: There were three markets where my stories got noticed—George Hatch’s Nøctulpa, Peggy Nadramia’s Grue, and Cemetery Dance. Of the three, Rich’s magazine pushed hardest to make the jump from small press to the more “mainstream” horror audience. So, in a way, those early appearances in Cemetery Dance gave me a forum. My stories received exposure in CD that they wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere, giving me a shot at getting the attention of pro editors.
Rich started his book line about the same time I was writing Slippin’. He knew I was working on my first novel, and I knew he was looking for an original novel to publish. At the time, there weren’t a lot of small presses doing first novels, but neither Rich nor I wanted to take a “small” approach when selling the book. Sure, we knew we were only doing 500 copies, but we wanted to do the job right. And we did—Rich sent galleys to reviewers who mattered, and Slippin’ received positive notices in mainstream periodicals like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Along with the small press buzz going at the time for both CD and my work, Slippin’ sold out in three weeks, and we both kicked ourselves for not doing a larger run.
Q: You have worked quite a bit in the small press over the years. From selling various stories and books early on to various publishers, to doing Limited Editions now for Subterranean Press. Have your experiences been positive? Do you plan to still continue to work with smaller publishers?
A: Definitely. I’ve been very fortunate in the small press, working with three of the very best—Subterranean, Night Shade, and CD. Some projects are just better suited for that market. For instance, the novel I’m working on now is clocking in at about 40,000 words. Not only is it short, it’s different enough to scare off editors in New York. But I know it’ll be a perfect fit for the small press, and I’m hoping it will be well-reviewed and get some attention outside the pond, too.
Apart from that, I think the distinctions between NY and the small press are becoming less and less important, especially when you’re talking about the primetime small presses. They’re kind of like Indie record labels, or the independent film scene. The best small presses have learned to reach beyond the confines of the collector’s market. They’re starting to go head-to-head with the mainstream. I don’t think we’re far from the day when some of them will be competing with NY for projects. In some cases, that’s already happening. Right now there are still some pretty solid pluses and minuses that authors need to weigh when placing their work in either market; but, like I said, the distinctions are really beginning to blur… and that’s going to make for an interesting market in the next few years.
Q: On the other hand, how have your experiences been with the mass market?
A: Whether we’re talking small press or mass market, it all comes down to a question of moving the merchandise. These days I’m most interested in what a publisher can do to promote and sell my books. Unless you’re very lucky, NY isn’t much on that. Sure, they get the books out there, but that’s about it. Increasingly, the job of promotion is left up to the writer… and some writers are very good at that, and some writers aren’t.
Small press publishers tend to work harder to sell the books. They promote in the small pond, and if they’re good they bring their game to the big pond, too—getting galleys out to review markets that matter, working to sell books beyond the “usual suspects” audience. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of starred reviews in Publishers Weekly for small press books, and that’s impressive. The downside of the small press, of course, is that they can’t compete with NY in terms of distribution, price, and print runs. Again, you’ll find pluses and minuses on either side of the equation. There are plenty of potential pitfalls, either way you go.
Q: Who are some of your influences?
A: I’ll always admire style and technique on a cerebral level, but these days the things that hit me hardest are stories that manage to reach my heart or my gut. Ed Gorman’s work often catches me that way, especially his westerns. McMurtry, too. And a songwriter named Tom Russell. I just read a wonderful older novel by a guy named Marc Norman called Oklahoma Crude. Great depression-era story about a couple of hardscrabble misfits fighting the odds… it really knocked me out.
One other thing I can guarantee—give me a good underdog story, I’ll probably make the trip. Something like Gladiator or Open Range. I love both those movies. I’d love to get something like that down on the page.
Q: Horror fans have embraced your work over the years. Is this where you feel most comfortable? What drew you to the Horror Genre?
A: I’m not sure what drew me to horror initially. Maybe there was just something in me that enjoyed seeing the envelope get pushed in that particular way. I was one of those kids who always wanted to believe the stories I heard sitting in my backyard on summer nights—whether it was my dad talking about the trail of bloody footprints he’d found in a haunted house as a kid, or my brother telling stories about the Zodiac killer (who murdered three in my hometown), or the girl next door talking about the vengeful spirit of Mary Worth appearing in her bathroom mirror.
Comic books and TV shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents entered the mix early on. I started reading Famous Monsters of Filmland and Peter Haining anthologies. I discovered Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch at the public library. There really wasn’t any hope for me after that.
Q: Even though a lot of your writing is on the darker side, your work often times has elements of various genres combined. Dark Mystery/Noir, Westerns, SciFi. Is it just a case of natural influences and varied tastes, or is it something that you strive to do - blur the genre lines?
A: It’s not so much that I strive to do that—it’s more that I just can’t help myself. I’ve always enjoyed going against the grain that way, trying to come up with something that’s just a little bit different. In some ways, I know that might have held me back in the larger markets, where they’re looking for that nice clean Insert Slot A Into Tab B genre fit. In other ways, I think it’s a big part of the reason readers noticed my fiction in the first place.
But it’s made for some interesting books along the way. Slippin’ Into Darkness is part noir, part ghost story. Wildest Dreams is a hardboiled Gold Medal novel crossed with a horror novel. The Ten-Ounce Siesta was a gonzo mystery that took a turn into Sam Peckinpah territory. I didn’t exactly plan to do any of that when I sat down at the word processor. Each story took me in the direction it needed to go.
Q: You have also donned the editor’s cap for the anthology, It Came From The Drive In. How did this come about? Is it something you want to do again, editing an anthology that is, if the opportunity arose?
A: I’d been doing a lot of work in Marty Greenberg anthologies at the time, and I decided to pitch Marty an idea of my own—which was to do a book of stories that might have been drive-in movies. I wanted tales with giant bugs, teenage monsters, and alien invaders on the prowl. As it turned out, editing Drive-In was a lot more work than I expected. I knew I’d get a lot of straight-ahead satire, but I was also looking for stories that walked the edge of the knife between humor and horror, the kind of stuff that I’d grown to love through the work of writers like Robert Bloch and Joe Lansdale. Lucky for me, a good group of writers stepped up to the plate and submitted some really solid pieces. I reread the book when the new edition came out, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.
As for editing another antho, I’ll never say never… but, at the same time, I’ll admit that it’s not exactly at the top of my list.
Q: Your newest book is Mr. Fox: A Collection, A Recollection, A Writer’s Handbook from Subterranean Press. Not only does it contain the original stories from the Roadkill Press version, but also many other rare stories, an unpublished novel excerpt, and a large amount of nonfiction essays surrounding the fiction that serve as a writer’s handbook. Whose idea was it for such a unique book?
A: I had a contract with Bill Schafer to do a short novel. Fact is, I was going to write a sequel to “’59 Frankenstein,” the teenage monster story I had in the Drive-In anthology, and we were going to make that the first book in a series. But I couldn’t get that piece to take off the way I wanted it to, and I started having second thoughts about starting a series, so we scrapped the project.
Bill had the idea to do a book of early stories, including the complete contents of Mr. Fox, which at that point was getting pretty pricey on the collector’s market. He asked me to write an intro and do some story notes. Needless to say, things got out of hand with those notes. Somewhere in there they turned into twenty-three essays, and I discovered I had quite a bit to say about the writing business and my experiences in it.
Maybe that’s because I was lucky enough to receive advice from guys like Joe Lansdale, Ed Gorman, and Ed Bryant when I was starting out. Writing the essays for Mr. Fox gave me a chance to do the same for writers who are starting out today. I’ve had really positive feedback from young guys who’ve read it. A couple have told me that the mix of stories and writing advice is like getting two books in one, and that makes me really happy.
Q: What else is coming up for you in the near future?
A: In another week or two I’ll be done with that short novel I mentioned earlier. It’s a Halloween story with some brutal riffs—my shorthand description is Rebel Without a Cause meets Lord of the Flies, but that doesn’t quite cover it. I’ll have an announcement about the publication of that one soon. Then it’ll be time to get started on a novel for New York. I have several ideas—it’ll just depend on which one catches fire.
Q: Who’s on your bookshelf right now? Promising newcomers? Personal favorites?
A: Guys like Alex Irvine, Andy Duncan, and Glen Hirshberg still seem new to me—which should tell you how far behind I am in my reading. As for writers who’ve come up through the small press, I read a novel called Midnight Rain by a young guy named James Newman awhile back. It really had that dark suspense vibe that I associate with the early days of CD, and I have to admit that it made me a little nostalgic. I’ll be looking for more from him.
With Halloween rolling around, I’m about to crack the covers on Quietly Now, the Charles Grant tribute anthology edited by another talented newcomer, Kealan Patrick Burke. I’ve been saving that one up for the season, and I’m expecting some really good writing there. If that doesn’t get me in a pumpkin-carving mood, I’ll reread the trilogy Grant wrote in tribute to the old Universal Studios monster classics—The Soft Whisper of the Dead, The Dark Cry of the Moon, and The Long Night of the Grave. I read those in paperback years ago, and I’ve had the Donald Grant hardcovers sitting around here for way too long. To tell the truth, they’re still in the shrinkwrap! I’d better fix that….
Q: Thank you for your time, Norman!
A: My pleasure, James.
Copyright © 2005 James Beach. Reprinted with permission from the author.
Copyright © 2007 Norman Partridge