Monday, October 10, 2011
Interview with Sam Whittaker: Writer of "A Ghost of Fire"
Continuing our month-long celebration of all things spooky (though, around here, is that any different from the rest of the year? :p), we sit down with Sam Whittaker, author of A Ghost of Fire. While the rest of the horror world, it seems, is still ate up with zombie or vampire fever, Sam's going old school, telling a classic ghost story with a modern twist.
Greg Mitchell: Thanks for stopping by, Sam. Tell us a bit about yourself.
Sam Whittaker: I feel like I wear a lot of hats these days. Part of that is due to the fact that I’m a bi-vocational church planting pastor on a pastoral team of two in Port Orchard, WA, so I live in the workaday world as a maintenance assistant at a private school and I try to navigate through the waters of starting up something fresh from the ground up. So there’s administrative things I do, operations stuff, dreaming and shaping the vision, teaching/preaching, small group leading, etc. Our new church is called “The Bridge” and you can find out more about that at www.thebridgepo.org. We’re getting ready to launch weekly gatherings on October 23rd. We’re exceptionally excited.
Then there’s the family side of things. I’m married and we have (so far) three energetic little hobbits that run around and make life VERY interesting.
And, as if that all weren’t enough, I love to write. I’ve got three books under my belt now with plans for more. Aside from that I’ve just started writing articles for an online magazine called “Surrender,” which is completely free, and based locally here in western Washington state and I also write a blog from time to time on writing and creativity issues.
GM: Busy indeed! Your debut novel A Ghost of Fire was just released. What’s the book about?
SW: Basically we meet Steve Nicholas--by the way, the whole story is told directly from his perspective--who’s pretty much your “everyman” who struggles to get by because he’s been unemployed for six months. As fate would have it, he lands a position as a janitor and that’s when things start to get interesting. He starts to smell smoke when there’s no fire. He also starts to hear echoes of childlike laughter and strange messages get left on his answering machine…and then some more sinister stuff starts happening and he realizes he’s being haunted. So he has to come to terms with that and figure out why so he can make it all stop. The story basically grows and builds in intensity and mystery from there.
GM: This is the first in a series, correct?
SW: Yes, this book is 1 of 4. The reason for that is this: The series is called the “Ghostly Elements.” In classical thinking, the Greeks believed the cosmos was made of 4 elements--Fire, Water, Wind, & Earth (And possibly something else called “Aether” which was intangible and sort of spiritual). So, each of the books will focus on one of these 4 elements as a sort of backdrop to the story. I wanted each book to be more or less self-contained, but I also wanted a way to have an over-arching theme to the series.
Steve is the primary protagonist in all four, though he’s joined by a few others, some of which you will meet in A Ghost of Fire, and some others will join along the way. Aside from the ghosts themselves (not all of which are bad, by the way) Steve is going to have to overcome some other personal challenges in each of the books. You see, I don’t like reading stuff where the characters are static or perfect so I promised myself I’m not going to write that way either. I think it makes for much better writing overall and it makes the characters themselves easier to relate to, because if we’re honest, that’s how we are too: we’re all in process.
GM: Looking at your site, I see you’ve previously written two non-fiction books. Why the jump to fiction?
SW: Part of it’s the need for a challenge. I’m used to thinking and writing stuff where you essentially have an essay and you’re dealing with themes and concepts and it’s not always easy to make those things concrete. I really wanted to try my hand at a different style and form.
Additionally, I just love a good story. And I think because that’s how we live (in story, not in detached concepts) that we communicate and gain understanding first through narrative. If you’re a Christian, ask yourself, how much of the Bible is an essay? Basically, none of it is. Now, how much of it is narrative, or narrative poetry? Basically, all of it is.
GM: Very true. What was the inspiration behind this book/series?
SW: Part of it was my own fear growing up of just the idea of what a ghost is. I mean, you can always stake a vampire in the heart or shoot a werewolf with a silver bullet. Unless you have a proton pack handy, you’re pretty much screwed with ghosts. They’re not going anywhere any time soon.
I just sat down and asked myself, what’s the scariest “monster” I can think of? The answer for me is ghosts. Hands down.
GM: I’m assuming, given the subject matter, that you’re a fan of the genre. What were some of your favorite scary stories/movies growing up?
SW: You know, one of my favorite movies growing up was Ghostbusters. I liked it because it had a bit of a scary edge to it (if you were five like I was when I first saw it, anyway) but it was also funny. I mean, Bill Murray still makes me laugh in those films. It was well balanced. Then I saw a lot of the A Nightmare on Elm Street movies, probably when I was way too young to see them. It’s a “slasher,” but Freddy is also kind of a ghost too, you know? And those definitely left a mark, which I think the discerning reader might see in A Ghost of Fire.
GM: That's funny that you just named two major influences in my own childhood, ha ha. Product of the '80s, I suppose. Now that you mention it, I suppose Freddy is a traditional ghost--excepting haunting minds rather than houses. So, what authors inspire you? Who do you love to read?
SW: For fiction, I love to read Stephen King, but more because of his writing style than subject matter. I think he’s one of the most readable writers out there today. His Dark Tower series is fantastic and I loved Duma Key. For the aspiring writer his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, should be required reading.
GM: Yeah, I think it's a shame that there are so many Stephen King fans out there who have never read (or, in some cases, even heard) of the Dark Tower stuff. I love that series and am pretty excited about the new book he's writing for it.
SW: I’m also a HUGE Star Wars nut so I read a lot of those novels.
GM: Me, too!
SW: My favorite authors in the Star Wars universe are Matthew Woodring Stover and Timothy Zahn.
Non-Fiction is completely different. I love N.T. Wright, Brennan Manning, and Donald Miller, just for starters. Anything written by them is fair game for my library. I’ll occasionally read a biography too. Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up was good. I could go on and on…but I won’t.
GM: I love what you said on your site about metrosexual sparkling vampires aren’t scary to you—so you chose to write ghosts because ghosts scare you the most. I think, in the current trend, ghosts are kind of an underplayed “monster”. Everyone’s all about zombies and vampires and the occasional werewolf. Why ghosts? What is it about ghosts that scare you/interest you? Any real life ghost stories in your sordid past?
SW: I think you’re totally right about Ghosts being underused in the genre at present. I think the thing about ghosts is that there’s always going to be this sense of mystery about them. There’s an undeniable mystique there that’s hard to put into words. In the stories you hear people tell about alleged real experiences they’re ephemeral, intangible, but somehow they can manipulate the physical environment. If you encountered that in some kind of menacing form and you didn’t soil yourself as a result, you’ve either got massive mental problems, or you’re Chuck Norris.
GM: Chuck Norris scares ghosts back to life.
Your non-fiction work is Christian teaching--how much of a role does your faith play in your fiction? Or does it? Would you say your non-fiction and fiction are designed for the same audience?
SW: The faith is a lot more subtle in my fiction. What I want to do with the series is work through basic issues of belief that there is much more to life than what we perceive through our five physical senses. But I want to do that in a way which serves the story and doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative. I’m not really hammering out a philosophy in my fiction as would someone like Terry Goodkind. I love Terry’s characters in the beginning of the Sword of Truth series, for example, but by about book 6 in that series the speeches are getting really long, and boring. By book 8 I just found it annoying. Shut up and tell the story.
GM: I'm sure there are many readers who will agree with you! Now, A Ghost of Fire is self-published. I know those waters all too well from my earlier experiences! What made you decide to go the do-it-yourself route? Are you still interested in being traditionally published?
SW: Right now I’m a little intimidated by the huge machine that is traditional publishing. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind getting picked up by a respectable traditional publisher, but I worry sometimes about how much the commercialism can overtake the art. I understand the grammar has to work, and I’m cool with that, but at the same time I don’t want some study or focus group somewhere to determine how I’m going to have to rewrite a scene or section.
GM: Well, that's understandable, but I think you can rest a little easier on that front. We've all heard the horror stories of editors who want to rewrite an author's story--but I think those have sort of become myth. Talking to other authors, I think that's not usually the case. I've had a great experience with my publisher, and while there are compromises to be made from time to time--so far very very minor--publishers seem way too busy with running the business to get that involved in your story :p Moviemaking on the other hand, is a whole different beast with lots of people sticking their fingers in your paint and smearing things up and that's when focus groups often enter the equation, but with a novel, it's not near as bad. It largely depends on finding the right publisher for your project and developing a good working relationship with them. I wouldn't give up!
How has your self-publishing experience been so far? What are the pros and cons of taking this road that you’ve seen?
SW: Every once in a while I perform a seminar I created called “The Peaks and Pitfalls of Self Publishing” where I go through my experiences and some of the nuts and bolts of what the Self-Pub industry is really like.
The great thing about Self-Publishing is you don’t have to wait weeks and weeks just to get rejection letters from agents or publishers. The path to publication is pretty much already paved for you if you have the patience (or the money to pay someone who has the patience to do it for you). It affords greater freedom and pushes you to think more creatively. You basically have to become the publisher and that makes you do some serious work, but it can be very rewarding work when you hold that first copy of your own book in your hands.
The really hard thing with Self-Publishing right now is that there is such an enormous amount of people out there who are putting material out that it’s super hard to get an audience. The marketing is totally in your hands unless you can pay someone a few thousand dollars to do it for you…which I can’t.
GM: I'll let you in on a little secret: Even in the traditional publishing world--unless you're Stephen King, probably--you've still got to be out there in the mud trying to get an audience and promote your work. And it is tough. A lot of voices in the crowd and you're trying to stand out.
Thanks for talking with us today, Sam. I hope we've done a little to get your voice just a little louder than the others for awhile. Where can people buy your book?
SW: You can go to my website,where it is available in trade paperback and multiple E-book formats (Kindle, NOOK, PDF, etc) through Smashwords. You can also get the paperback and Kindle format directly from Amazon.com.
Thanks again to Sam, and to you guys for participating in today's discussion. Visit Sam's site and check out his book. The ebook is available for less than a $1! However, if you're like me and need a little more convincing on trying out new writers, Sam's provided this handy link where you can read the first five chapters of A Ghost of Fire for free! Take advantage of that--you might just find a new favorite author.
Once again, let me remind you to stay tuned here. On October 30th, I'll be posting the first ever released excerpt from my next fright tale Enemies of the Cross!