The Existentialist Minotaur vs. The Juggling Writer
Folks, I’m proud to present an interview today with a fascinating writer, a good friend, and a fellow geek. Christopher Gronlund has written a lot, but what I’ve read and loved is a novel called Hell Comes With Wood Paneled Doors. Here’s the blurb:
When Michael O’Brien and his father, James, buy a new car just in time for the family’s summer vacation, James signs over more than the title to his old AMC Gremlin in his rush to buy the brand new Inferno station wagon.
Joining them on the trip are Michael’s creepy younger siblings, Elvis and Olivia; his overbearing mother, Mary, and her pet Chihuahua, Lucky; his backwoods aunt, Margie; and the cremated remains of his grandmother, June, whose dying wish was to have her ashes scattered in the Grand Canyon.
Can the O’Briens pull together to defeat the possessed station wagon, or will the forces of evil destroy the family in the process? Find out in this humorous coming-of-age story.
Sounds pretty great, right? Trust me, it is. Christopher was nice enough to take an hour and answer some questions for me. It’s a bit longer than my usual post, but totally worth it:
Shawn: Question the First (imagine a minotaur standing in your way in a large, circular maze): What’s your secret origin story? How did you start writing?
Christopher: I grew up wanting to be an artist. Somewhere along the way, though, I did better in English classes than art. The first time I thought about writing as something more than just a school thing was when the movie Time Bandits came out. I made the connection that “somebody wrote that!” and I wanted to do that. Several years later, I read Stephen King’s Different Seasons and John Irving’s The World According to Garp and I knew I wanted to write, even though I kept it until myself until my early 20s.
S: Now, I know you have a comics background, as well. How’d you get into that?
C: I moved to a college town so a friend who got in could have me as a roommate. I worked selling encyclopedias door to door, and a guy I worked with– an artist –was really into comic books. I got back into comic books and worked on scripts to give him something to draw. At a comic book convention I met an editor named Rick Klaw who bought the first thing I ever wrote for publication, a 12-page story for a horror anthology called Creature Features that was eventually published by MOJO Press.
S: It’s always a gamble when comics creators decide, “hey, I’m going to write a novel now.” I’ve only seen a few cases where I really liked the results — Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, you, to name a few. What was the transition like for you? Are novels easier or harder than comics for you?
C: The artists I worked with on comics either quit or got jobs with larger companies that paid well. So when I found myself without artists to work with — since I was writing scripts — I jumped to screenplays. Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors started as a screenplay. After a couple close calls with the screenplay, I decided to jump to novels since that’s what I was always most interested in. I used the screenplay for HCWWPD as the outline for the novel. (My first.) I find comic books easier because there’s more collaboration. I enjoy writing novels more than anything, though. I grew up in a family that loved reading, so to finally be skilled enough to write an actual book was a bigger rush than anything else I’d ever written up to that point.
S: Since we moved on to novels, there, let’s talk about HCWWPD. I’m always fascinated by where people’s story ideas come from. How did you come up with the story for this one?
C: Before tackling novels, I worked on short stories. When I started submitting stories, I started using the Writer’s Market Novels and Short Stories guide for places to submit writing to. There was a small publication solely geared toward station wagon enthusiasts. I thought, “A road trip novel in a possessed station wagon would be cool,” but it was a bigger story than they accepted. So it sat in the back of my mind until I was ready to write it. I grew up taking road trips with family and older siblings, and there was a certain hell to the trips that I now look back on with fond memories. I wanted to use the Inferno (the possessed station wagon in the book) to symbolize the hell that is cramming into a car with family for days or weeks on the road.
S: Like Sartre might say, “Hell is other people.” (OK, he did say that — and yes, the minotaur has read Sartre. He’s existentialist.) Anywho, one thing that really struck me about the book is how vivid the characters and setting come across. I could see these people, and see the places you describe. What’s your secret for making the settings and people seem so real in a novel that’s full of paranormal elements?
C: I try not to be too descriptive. I like giving a reader just enough to form what they’re going to see in their head whether I get too descriptive or not. I tend to observe more than take part, so when I’m in a place I think more about how it makes me feel instead of being a part of the place. So it’s never been too difficult for me to put a reader in a place. As far as the people… I used to be shy, but wanted to be more outgoing, so I really watched what made people click. Most characters I write are archetypes of some sort with a couple special things to set them apart from just being a stock character. Even though there are paranormal elements in HCWWPD, they mean nothing without the characters and the way they react to it all.
S: Indeed. I’m of the opinion that stories should be about people and their reactions to things rather than the things themselves. Now, one more character question: the mother and father in the book –James and Mary — are extremely well-drawn, which makes it, to me, a book anyone who was ever a kid can identify with. Anything specific that inspired those two characters?
C: Mary is the only character I ever really based on a real person. My mom’s mother loved Vegas and all kinds of tacky things, so there’s a little bit of her in Mary. Other than that, I wanted to make Mary almost cartoonish, but real enough so the times she shows love or does something that breaks away from the archetype that it’s believeable. With James, I thought it would be funny if a level-headed, handsome guy married the Queen of Kitsch. Take that and make each character love their kids in very strong, but different ways and it all came together.
S: We’ll talk more writer stuff in a bit, but I feel I should tell you that the peak oil crisis hit while we were discussing Mary and James. Yeah, I was caught off-guard, too. The world is now a desolate, anarchist wasteland, much like the Australian documentary “The Road Warrior.” The Great Humungous is even tooling around out there on a dune buggy with his speedo and hockey mask. What is your survival plan? What equipment do you take with you as you head out into the world? Who do you team up with?
C: I definitely take my wife because she’s smarter than me. A dog is essential. Some smart friends who actually spend too much time seriously thinking of thise kind of thing would have to come along, too. Instead of doing battle on the highways where we’re outnumbered, we find a secluded place and lay low. While others battle for oil, we have a water source and track down books and other relics lost during the opening phases of the apocalypse. When the battles are over, we emerge from our fortress of solitude smarter and healthier than those who took to the roads.
S: Aha. The Lisa Simpson Plan. Dig it. Just don’t let Stephen Hawking in on it — he’ll just be sarcastic with his robo-voice. So, now that we’ve conquered the apocalypse, what’s next for you? What are you working on?
C: Yes, the Zen of Lisa! As far as what’s next: I’m currently shopping around a novel about a recently divorced celebrity chef who moves from Chicago to a small town in northern Wisconsin that doesn’t live up to his dreams. While I’m doing that, I’m starting a novel about a female magician and her rise to fame in the 40s and 50s.
S: Final Question (the Minotaur looks frazzled at having been beaten): As a guy who writes novels (and screenplays, which is a conversation for a future post) and digs movies, who would you choose to direct a movie adaptation of HCWWPD?
C: Robert Rodriguez or Rob Zombie. I don’t think it could get much more perfect than either of them at the helm.
S: Awesome! I’d dig either. Thanks for dropping by (the Minotaur says sadly as he points to a brightly lit “Exit” sign). Any parting words?
C: Thanks for some cool questions, Minotaur–I’m sorry you were the first creature that made me feel like a badass when I killed your brethren playing Dungeons and Dragons in the early 80s. Other than that, I hope HCWWPD puts a smile on people’s faces. While it’s a little different than some of the stuff I’m doing now, I’m still very fond of the story.
You can — and definitely should — pick up the eBook of Hell Comes With Wood Paneled Doors here. Or, of course, here if you rock the Nook. For more from Christopher, visit his blog The Juggling Writer. And do be sure to check out the book’s web site at http://www.roadtripfromhell.com — especially the podcast.
Thanks again so much to Christopher for hanging out!