Nate Kenyon Interviews Norman Partridge
NORMAN PARTRIDGE’s fiction includes horror, suspense, and the fantastic—“sometimes all in one story” says his friend Joe Lansdale. Partridge’s novels include the Jack Baddalach mysteries Saguaro Riptide and The Ten-Ounce Siesta, plus The Crow: Wicked Prayer, which was adapted for film. His latest novel, Dark Harvest, as chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the 100 Best Books of 2006. Called “as crazy as a scorpion on a red-hot skillet—and twice as dangerous” by The Washington Times, Partridge’s compact, thrill-a-minute style has also earned praise from Stephen King and Peter Straub. He lives in Northern California with his wife, writer Tia V. Travis.
Nate Kenyon: In your newest novel from Cemetery Dance, Dark Harvest, you create your own mythos born from the womb of what seems to be an entire culture—an America that might feel familiar in some ways, but one with a much darker underbelly. This is pretty surreal stuff—and yet you make it feel just as real as any small Midwestern town. How did you begin to create something so fresh and unusual, and yet so familiar?
Norman Partridge: I’ve always had one eye on those patches of darkness you’ll find in any town. I grew up as a kid who noticed things that my friends missed, and that hasn’t changed as an adult…or as a writer. And I guess I’ve always wondered if noticing things is in some ways a choice. That, for most people, it’s easier to ignore the darkness than acknowledge it. That was one idea I wanted to explore in Dark Harvest—the town that goes through the motions of normalcy, when there’s nothing normal about it at all.
That’s not an unusual setup, especially when it comes to horror fiction. What makes my approach different is that I concentrate on the telling of the tale as much as crafting the plot itself. One of the great attractions of writing for me has always been the power to make the reader see things the way I see them. I’ve learned to trust my eye, and I work hard to communicate my own particular vision to the person on the other side of the page.
NK: What lit the first spark for Dark Harvest?
NP: Like a lot of my stories, the opening of Dark Harvest was something I literally saw in my head, same way you’d see the start of a movie. I saw those dead cornfields, saw a black Cadillac cutting a path through them on a licorice-whip road as night fell. I saw that pumpkin-headed scarecrow waiting in the cornfield; saw the driver get out of the car, cut it down, and carve its face while it stared up at the moon. In one way, writing the book was an exploration of that single scene. That makes it an exercise in imagination, but also in the logic that imagination demands if you want to make it real.
NK: You chose an interesting mix of POV to tell this one—second person narration brings more immediacy to the story, draws readers in and makes them feel like they’re right in the middle of that town, a part of the action.
NP: From the outset, I wanted Dark Harvest to feel like a campfire story. There were certain moments—the scene on the road with Mitch Crenshaw’s gang confronting the walking Jack O’ Lantern, for one—where I wanted to reach out and grab the reader, same way a storyteller would if he wanted to give someone a real jolt on a dark night. I was after that “I gotcha!!!!” moment we all experienced as kids. I really wanted the reader to feel the October Boy’s claw on his shoulder!
NK: Tell me a little bit more about how Dark Harvest developed. It reads almost as if it was written in one hard, fast breath. You say you saw the opening scene in your head, and that the book was an exploration of that scene—how much of the rest of it took you by surprise?
NP: Quite a bit. I originally saw Dark Harvest as a much shorter piece. It was going to be the story of one young guy battling his way through the darkest Halloween night I could imagine, and the ending was going to be pretty brutal and noirish. Not to give up any spoilers, but that guy is still in the book, and so is his ending…it just doesn’t occur at the story’s climax, the way I first expected it would. What happened with Dark Harvest is that pretty quickly I saw other possibilities beyond the original idea. It became a book with two protagonists, really. In a lot of ways, I think that’s what makes it work.
NK: I’d agree with that. You mentioned in an earlier interview that you watched a lot of early Twilight Zone episodes while writing Dark Harvest. Is this something you usually do as you write? Does watching similar films (or reading novels) help you find a particular vibe? If so, do you worry about other people’s ideas bleeding into your own thoughts?
NP: Sometimes I’ll watch TV shows or movies to put myself in a certain mood, or to catch the vibe of a certain era. Dark Harvest took place in 1963, so Twilight Zone was perfect for that. Also, Serling’s show was a powerhouse when it came to character and what I think of as an essential sense of humanity. Some of the best episodes get your blood pumping and work up a sense of righteous indignation. I wanted that in Dark Harvest.
But I wasn’t trying to write a TZ episode. I definitely have my own ideas, and I look for the best way to get them on the page. Every writer has influences. The trick is to channel them without being slavish or imitative. The way I see it, you’ve got to make it work your way if it’s going to work at all.
NK: A lot of people seem to agree that this one worked. Getting that starred review in Publishers Weekly must have been a real thrill. But then to have Dark Harvest named one of PW’s Best Books of the Year…Where were you when that news hit, and did you have a sense early on that Dark Harvest would be so well received?
NP: Not at all. The truth is that I pretty much felt that I was writing this one off the radar. It had been awhile since I’d done a novel, and all I wanted to do with Dark Harvest was shake off some rust and say, “Hey…remember me? I’m back.” Because of that, I wrote exactly the book I wanted to write. And, sure, Rich Chizmar and I had a handshake deal to do this one for Cemetery Dance, but I knew Dark Harvest was the kind of thing Rich would love. So I just concentrated on the story I wanted to tell. For me, that turned out to be a very good thing.
So expectations going in? Zero. All I knew when I typed “The End” of Dark Harvest was that I’d never been as happy with a finished novel as I was with this one. Reading the final draft, I realized that the book did exactly what I wanted it to do. That was a great feeling. Really, I’ve never experienced anything like it as a writer.
NK: You’ve written a wide range of stuff in your career, from straight-on supernatural horror to psychological suspense, from western-style noir to hardboiled mysteries. But your voice is a common thread. Booklist once called it “rock beat—disco crossed with hard-slammin' punk.” I don’t think that’s quite right, but it’s in the ballpark. Where did that voice come from—your love of drive-in movies, old monster flicks, 50s detective novels? Was it always a part of you, or is it constantly evolving?
NP: I’m kind of a chameleon. A lot of writers are. So when it comes to the source of my voice, I guess your answer is all of the above. Part of it’s from my dad, who was a great storyteller. Another part’s from the blue-collar town where I was raised. I soaked all that up, along with the old Gold Medal paperbacks and drive-in movies and rock ’n’ roll that caught my ear. Mostly, you can chalk up my voice to forty-plus years of living and listening. I love to listen to people; I love to catch a good turn of phrase. And I have to laugh when people listen to me or read my work and try to pin down where I’m from. They’re always wrong.
NK: Of the novels you’ve written, which is your favorite, and why?
NP: Dark Harvest… for pretty much that “typing The End” moment described above. I’m still just as happy with it as I was when I tapped out those last six letters.
NK: Let’s talk about your first novel, Slippin’ Into Darkness. It was very well received. Joe Lansdale called you “the hottest new writer going.” And Stephen King blurbed Slippin’, calling it a “five star book, the most auspicious genre debut of the year.” A lot of writers would kill for a quote like that. Looking back, was all that attention for your first novel a blessing, or a curse?
NP: Gotta be a blessing. King and Lansdale were real heroes to me. Of the guys doing horror in the nineties, they were far and away my favorites, and I always felt a kind of kinship with the characters they wrote about, and with them as writers. To get quotes from them for my first novel...hey, I was walking on air.
King actually sent copies of Slippin’ to Laurel Productions, which had done a lot of his film stuff. Nothing came of it—Laurel went under not long after that—but I sure appreciated him trying. Joe's a good friend to this day. It's great to see him getting his due. He's sure earned it.
NK: I always wanted to ask you this…in Slippin’, you have extensive references to The Six Million Dollar Man, my favorite show when I was a kid. Were you a Steve Austin fan?
NP: Like most teenage horror/comics/sci-fi geeks during the seventies, I had a love-hate relationship with that one. I mean, we all watched it, but they kind of ran the idea into the ground pretty quick. For me, the main problem was that ol’ Steve was always up against mobsters or spies. I wanted to see him duke it out with aliens and monsters. I had the same problem with The Incredible Hulk show from the seventies, too.
But, hey, I loved that two-parter where Austin went up against Bigfoot, and I have fond memories of the episode with George Foreman. But if I had to pick a favorite TV show, it’d be The Wild Wild West. Now that show had some insane, fantastic stuff going on. And Robert Conrad was the man.
NK: That Bigfoot episode scared the crap out of me. I was about seven or eight at the time it aired, and I spent a sleepless night or two right afterward. You can catch pieces of the old episodes now on YouTube, like the Death Probe, and the first scene where Steve picks a fight with Bigfoot. Sadly, they don’t hold up very well.
I can see why Wild Wild West would be a Partridge favorite…what are you watching these days? Anything worthwhile?
NP: I’m still working my way through the DVD sets for Combat! and Have Gun—Will Travel. I keep meaning to Netflix some of the newer shows I’ve heard good things about: 24, Deadwood, Carnivale…stuff like that, but I just haven’t had the time. I do like those Justice League cartoons, though. Tag-team the Martian Manhunter and Batman, I’m right there.
NK: In the new edition of Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales, you do more than give readers another collection of short fiction; you also include a great mix of memoir, insight into how the stories were written, and helpful tips for writers. How did this project come together?
NP: Bill Schafer had the idea to reprint Fox, which had climbed pretty high in price on the collectors market. He asked me to expand it with the other early tales that hadn't yet been collected in Bad Intentions or The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists, and to write introductions for the stories giving readers an idea of what it was like to break in as a writer in the early days of desktop publishing.
That all sounded good to me. But once I got to work on those intros, they started turning into full-fledged essays. I found I had a lot to say about those days, and about today's market, too. I began to see the book as an opportunity to give some unvarnished advice to new writers, the kind of advice I'd gotten from guys like Ed Bryant, Ed Gorman, and Joe Lansdale when I started out. By the time I was finished, the book had a subtitle that tipped the audience to my intent: A Collection/A Recollection/A Writer's Handbook. It's really three books in one, and it provided me the opportunity to pay it forward to the next generation a little bit. That felt good.
NK: It should. The advice is invaluable, both for its unblinking and honest look at what it takes to make it in this business, and for its insight into how each story was created. If you could give one piece of advice to a writer trying to break through these days, from Mr. Fox or elsewhere, what would it be?
NP: Be a pro. That's the big tent answer. First off, that means being heart-attack serious about your work. Writing is about typing "The End" over and over, and about making the words that come before those two better with every project you finish. To do that, you need to write a lot, and you need to read even more. It's like roadwork for a boxer. There's just no way around it if you want to go the distance.
Second, be just as serious about selling your work as you are about writing it. That means submitting clean manuscripts, learning to deal with editors and publishers, picking your shots and making them count. Never settle for the path of least resistance. Test yourself and your work against the best markets available. That's the only way you'll get any better, and the only way you'll develop the kind of career that matters.
NK: Unless I’m mistaken, you don’t have a website. I’ve seen a “coming soon” placeholder under normanpartridge.com, though…did you make a conscious choice to avoid the web, and if so, have you changed your mind?
NP: Nothing quite so calculating as that. It’s just the simple fact that I’m not a computer guy. I’m from the buttons and knobs generation. If I could whip up a page with some kind of Etch-A-Sketch action, I probably would have had a site up and running sooner, but the good news is that we’re getting close with this one. My Webmaster, Minh Nguyen, has done a great job putting the site together. I’ve got to write a little more content for Minh, and then we’ll be up and running. It’s going to be fun. I’m planning on doing some essays and reviews now and then to keep it lively, maybe even a story or two.
NK: Last question: you’ve been around long enough to absorb the ebb and flow of the horror genre. Maybe you can play Nostradamus for us now. What do you see coming down the road? Is it exciting, or scary as hell?
NP: I'm pretty excited. It's great to see new people coming along who are really talented. Guys like Joe Hill, Craig Davidson, David Wellington, Joe Schreiber, and Charlie Huston--there's a lot of variety right there. Of course, there's a lot of "same old, same old" going on, but I'm glad to see both mainstream and small press publishers taking chances, too. Writers are trying different approaches, mixing and matching genres, and they're getting the opportunity to get their work out there one way or another. That's always a good thing.
Copyright © 2007 Nate Kenyon. Reprinted with permission from the author.
Copyright © 2007 Norman Partridge