An Interview with HWA Member Christopher Conlon
Interview by Ron Breznay
Christopher Conlon bills himself on his web site as a writer, poet, and editor. He has written a number of prose works, including many short stories and two novels, Midnight on Mourn Street And A Matrix of Angels (he has adapted the former into a two-act play). Some of his short stories have been gathered into two collections, Thundershowers at Dusk and Saying Secrets: American Stories.
He has published many poems in various magazines as well as in four collections of verse: Starkweather Dreams: Landscape with Figures, Mary Falls: Requiem for Mrs. Surratt, The Weeping Time: Elegy in Three Voices, and Gilbert & Garbo in Love: A Romance in Poems. Each of these collections is a cycle of poems telling a story.
As an editor, he assembled three anthologies: He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson, Poe’s Lighthouse: All New Collaborations with Edgar Allan Poe, and A Sea of Alone: Poems for Alfred Hitchcock. He has also put together two collections: The Twilight Zone Scripts of Jerry Sohl and Filet of Sohl: The Classic Scripts and Stories of Jerry Sohl.
He Is Legend received the 2009 Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement in an anthology, And Midnight on Mourn Street was nominated for the Stoker Award in the first-novel category in 2008.
Chris has an M.A. in American Literature from the University of Maryland. He teaches English to grades 9 to 12 at a private high school in Maryland. His classes include courses in the literature of the 1920s and 1950s, an advanced course called Studies in Literary Genre (science fiction one semester and horror the next), and a course called Fiction Into Film, in which students read novels and study the classic films based on them. Big emphasis there on Hitchcock and film noir.
HWA: After publishing many poems and short stories, why did you decide to try your hand at a novel with Midnight on Mourn Street? Was that the first novel you’ve written?
CC: Ron, Mourn Street, my first published novel, was actually a revision, written some seven or eight years later, of the second novel I ever wrote. (The first, a massive literary novel called The Unspoken, has never been published either, though I continue to hope that someday it will be.) Anyway, novels were always the goal for me. I started out writing short stories, as most apprentice novelists do, and started maybe ten novels that petered out on me over the years. In
the meantime I gained a reputation as a poet, which was nice but a little odd—poetry is very important to me, but as a writer it was always secondary to prose and, in particular, secondary to the novel. More than anything else I intended to be a novelist. But it’s not an easy game.
HWA: A Matrix of Angels was written in the first person from the point of view of a female. Was it difficult writing a first-person story in the character of the opposite gender?
CC: Not really. I’ve often jumped the gender line in my writing, whether in first person or a very limited, intimate third. All my books of verse have poems from female points of view—Mary Falls, about the convicted co-conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, Mary Surratt, is almost completely from her perspective. It’s not something I seem to have a problem with, unlike many male writers. Part of it may stem from the fact that in my own life I’ve always preferred the
company of women, really. I’ve been told by a number of women that I have a highly developed “feminine” side, which I think I do. I grew up with very stereotypically feminine interests—art and poetry and so on. Anyway, for me the gender of a narrator isn’t that important in terms of the writing—what matters is if I can inhabit her psychologically, if I can understand how she thinks and what she’s trying to say to me. I’ll admit, though, that every once in a while I do ask my wife for a “girly” detail or two I can put into a story.
HWA: Which writers have influenced you the most?
CC: Poe was the seminal influence. Without doubt. The absolute beginning of everything for me. My life changed when I first read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” in fifth grade. Poe was the first writer whose work seemed to speak to me, to me personally, and seemed to somehow reveal to me aspects of my own self I hadn’t known anything about or understood. “Annabel Lee” was a transformative experience. I read it over and over again until I memorized
it. After Poe, Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone writers were central to me for a long time. Finally, in my early twenties, the theater of Tennessee Williams and the early Gothic stories of Truman Capote. All these writers were, for me, far more than entertainment. They helped me to live, to feel, to see.
HWA: You’re a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. How have his films influenced your writing?
CC: I would have mentioned Hitchcock before if you hadn’t specified “writers” in your previous question, Ron. Oh, Hitchcock too. Most definitely. Right up there with Poe, Serling, Williams, Capote. Psycho is a central work in my life. Even when I was a kid I recognized that it was far more than just a “scary movie.” As with Poe, I recognized bits of myself in Hitchcock’s films—I came from a family of secrets, where things weren’t talked about (in my family’s case it was the
alcoholism of both my parents), so the world of Norman Bates seemed very familiar to me. The fear, the alienation, the inability to feel strong or safe even in your own home, with your own mother. But despite what I said about my feminine side a minute ago, Ron, I’m sorry to have to tell you that I have never dressed up in my mother’s clothing.
HWA: You’ve told me that you have over 3,000 books in your home. Which of these do you return to most often to re-read, either in whole or in part, or simply for inspiration?
CC: I don’t re-read a lot of horror books—most of my choices would be on the more literary end of things. But I go back to Poe often. Williams and Capote always. Lots of poets. The early Bradbury. Lovecraft. Beaumont and Matheson. H.G. Wells—and not just the early science fiction everybody reads, but his great mainstream novels too. For sheer entertainment, Robert Bloch and Clifford D. Simak. And I’ve read Gary Braunbeck’s In Silent Graves three times, always in awe—as far as I’m concerned it’s one of the greatest horror novels ever written.
HWA: What effect have your Peace Corps experiences had on your writing?
CC: Well, I don’t know, really. I’m not sure it had much direct effect except that I did write a lot of poems about Africa when I was there—I served in Botswana, 1988 to 1990—and they became my first professionally published verse. Other than that I haven’t written a lot about the experience. But of course it affected my writing, even if I don’t actually know how, because it changed me deeply as a person. You know the old cliché, “He went off a boy and came back a man”? That pretty much sums it up.
HWA: What were the challenges of adapting a novel, i.e., Midnight on Mourn Street, for the stage? Any news on a possible production of the work?
CC: The challenges were mostly structural. The novel already had a very small cast of characters and a fairly limited number of settings, mostly interior, so it was a natural for stage adaptation. The problem was honing down a novel that has, I believe, twenty-nine chapters and God only knows how many scenes, to something that could be smoothly playable in a theater. It involved a tremendous amount of streamlining and telescoping of events, which I accomplished with the help of some theatrical pros at the Quotidian Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, who took me on as a kind of special project. I was pretty happy with the final script—I ended up with two acts consisting of a total of, I think, seven scenes. It was given a professional staged reading at the Quotidian in 2009, and the script was brought out by Creative Guy as a very nice little paperback last year. I’ve yet to secure a full production. I’m still looking.
HWA: Tell us about your latest novel, A Matrix of Angels.
CC: Matrix is narrated by Frances Pastan, a moderately successful author of children’s books who is haunted by a brief but intense friendship she had as a twelve-year-old with a girl named Lucy Sparrow, who at the height of their relationship was murdered by a serial killer. Frances relives the past with Lucy in memory while simultaneously searching for information in the present day about what happened to her friend and why. There are some thriller elements to the book, and I do think the climax is pretty intense, but Matrix is really a story about the fierce closeness two children can share, and the nature of friendship between young girls.
HWA: Tell us about your upcoming publications.
CC: I’m not sure how specific I can be about some of these things, Ron, but by the time people read this, word may be official about the publication of my next novel, Lullaby for the Rain Girl, which at 125,000 words is by far my longest novel so far and the first to have a supernatural theme—although it’s not a “scary” book in the usual sense. That should be out next year, from a great press everybody in this field knows. There will also be a little collection of my short-short stories, Herding Ravens, coming along in 2012. At the moment I’m in the middle of writing another novel, Savaging the Dark, which is already under contract to a fine specialty press, as well as a new sequence of poems—the first true “horror” poems I’ve ever written. Lots of things coming down the line, I’m happy to be able to say!
HWA: Why did you join the HWA and what benefits are you looking for from your membership?
CC: In general, Ron, I’m not a “joiner.” This is the first writers organization I’ve ever been part of, and in a way I’m sort of surprised to be here. I really haven’t been a huge fan of the HWA in the past, particularly in the way the Stoker Awards worked—or didn’t work, sometimes to a cringe-worthy degree. But it meant a lot to me when I won a Stoker last year for my Matheson tribute anthology He Is Legend—won it, that is, with no campaigning, no free gifts, no begging people on message boards everywhere to vote for me. I wasn’t even a member of HWA. I did absolutely nothing for the award, and neither did my publisher. Members simply decided, apparently, that I was worthy of it, so they gave it to me—which is how such things should work. So that impressed me. The other thing was when I learned of the new half-jury system, which sounded pretty ingenious and may be exactly what the awards need. A few months ago Norm Rubenstein asked me to be part of this year’s Anthology jury, so I decided to join HWA so that I could say yes—which I did. As for benefits, well, I’d like to get to know more people in this field, and that’s already begun to happen. My wife and I attended the Stoker Awards on Long Island in June and had a very nice time. It was our first convention ever. I ran a poetry workshop, sat on some panels, and we spent time with friends old and new—Norman Prentiss, Lisa Morton, Kurt Newton, Marge Simon, Bruce Boston, Mike Arnzen, the estimable Ron Breznay, others I’m no doubt forgetting at the moment. It’s nice to be able to attach faces and voices to folks who have mostly, until now, been only names in my email in-box. I hope for more of that in the future!
HWA: (Blushing at the compliment.) Thank you, Chris, and welcome to the Horror Writers Association.