AUTHOR BEV VINCENT - A DEEP BLUE INTERVIEW
DBJ: You are one of a number of authors I know who also holds their PhD. Yours is in chemistry, I believe. How did a chemistry major get mixed up in the Stephen King Universe? How do your colleagues view the twin halves of your career, or are they aware? The big part of this first question…what did you do in Zurich after obtaining said PhD and should we all be frightened by it?
BV: I received my PhD in chemistry from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1988. After that, I moved to Zurich for two years as a postdoctoral fellow. I did research at the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) for one year, and then I ran an analytical research lab at the University of Zurich’s Organic Chemistry Institute for a year. Nothing sinister, I’m afraid.
At the end of that second year abroad, I found a job that brought me back to North America. The position at the University of Zurich was permanent, but I felt out of place in Switzerland. Beautiful place to visit but hard for an auslander to fit in. So this small town New Brunswick native ended up in suburban Houston, where I’ve lived and worked for the same company for the last seventeen years.
I’m a bit of a novelty around the office. I’m always introduced as “the writer” when we have visitors, even before they mention what I do for the company. I know some writers have to hide their lamps under a bushel at their day job, but that’s never been the case with me. I don’t get weird looks because of what I write. People are supportive. They ask what I’m working on or what’s new. I have copies of books on display in my office. My supervisor thinks there’s a novel in our company’s intrigue. As the Molecule Turns, we call it. Maybe some day.
Though my original position with the company involved analytical services and software development, a few years ago, when my second career as a writer started picking up, I created a new position where I could combine my writing ability with an understanding of our science to help develop marketing materials, including the corporate web site, which I manage.
What I find interesting—and this wasn’t a conscious decision on my part—is that I’ve kept the scientific aspect of my personality out of my writing so far. I haven’t written a story or a book where a character is a scientist except in passing, just as color, where they guy could easily have been a lumberjack instead. None of my stories involve heavy science. Maybe that will come one day, when it feels right. I’m not going to force it—it’s just an observation that surprises me.
As for how an X-ray crystallographer from Maritime Canada got mixed up in the Stephen King universe, read on . . .
DBJ: You have chosen to spend a lot of time, effort, love and sweat on the works of a single author who is NOT yourself. At what point did you make the decision to take this beyond a hobby? What have been some of the rewards? Have there been any drawbacks? How has it affected changes in your own writing, career, and outlook on the business in general? You certainly are privy to some parts of the business that many others are not.
BV: It’s all Rich Chizmar’s fault. I could stop there, but I’ll elaborate.
In 1993, after playing around in the FIDONET world on computer bulletin boards, I discovered a USENET newsgroup called alt.books.stephen-king. Became something of a know-it-all. My mind tends to absorb useless information, so when someone came to the group and asked a question, I often had the answer at my fingertips or knew where to find it quickly. Suddenly, people behind the scenes started coming out of the woodwork and telling me things. Feeding me information so it seemed like I was smarter than I really was. I felt like Guinan from Star Trek: The Next Generation—she came from a species people found it easy to talk to.
One day I got a call at work and the person on the other end said they were from Stephen King’s office. My wife is a bit of a prankster, so at first I wasn’t convinced. Turns out I’d been told something that not many people knew about—the upcoming publication of Six Stories—and King’s staff wanted to find out how I knew.
My network of connections grew beyond that in ways I never could have anticipated. I won’t go into more detail; suffice to say that I became friendly with people who a few years earlier seemed in a different realm from me. Sometimes I shake my head in wonder at how things worked out. My wife tells me I live a charmed life, and I can’t argue with that.
Cemetery Dance magazine went on hiatus six or seven years ago. When Rich started it up again, he wanted to go in a new direction with the Stephen King news column. We’d spoken a couple of times on the phone, and he knew of my reputation (though I don’t know how), so he asked if I’d be interested in writing it. I leapt at the chance. I’d get to be a part of my favorite magazine and I’d be paid to do what I was already doing for free—passing along news.
My first column was around 8000 words. I waited for Rich to tell me to cut half of it, but he published every word, which probably set a bad precedent. I’ve had free reign with the column ever since, although Robert Morrish has asked if I could please keep it to under 5000 words! I recently turned in my 22nd News From the Dead Zone column, and we launched an online version this spring to get time-sensitive information out on schedule.
I still look at it as a hobby, a fun sideline from my other writing. I don’t plan to make a career out of writing about King, but it has opened doors for me. The column helped get my name out to a wider audience, and when it came time to pitch The Road to the Dark Tower to an editor, I had a substantial, representative sample of non-fiction writing to show.
Over the years, people asked me: When are you going to write a book about Stephen King? I had no desire to write about King. Other people have done that, and I know he isn’t fond of books that focus on him rather than on his work. However, when word emerged in 2002 that King was getting close to finishing the Dark Tower series, I had one of those in-the-morning-shower flashes of inspiration. Because of the way the series ties into just about everything else he’s written, here was something manageable to explore. Instead of trying to get a handle on 40+ novels and all those short stories, I could examine seven books (plus a few others) and maybe say something meaningful about the big picture.
Before I went anywhere with the idea I ran it by Rich—who encouraged me to pursue it—and then pitched it to King, saying if he had any objections I’d drop it in a heartbeat. Instead, he seemed gratified that someone was interested in taking his work seriously. A few weeks later, three boxes containing over 2500 manuscript pages—the final three Dark Tower books in first draft—showed up on my front porch. For the first time since Doug Winter’s Art of Darkness in the 1980s, King endorsed and facilitated a secondary work about his fiction. Originally I thought I’d have to wait until 2004 to begin the project, and here I was being presented with the opportunity to have it completed by then.
Writing the book was a confidence builder. I’ve now been through the publication process from beginning to end with a mainstream publisher. Editor, copy editor, proofreader, publicist, artist, the whole deal. When I turned in the final manuscript, I proved to myself that I could tackle a book-length project and pull it off on schedule.
Response to The Road to the Dark Tower has been favorable, it continues to sell well and is translated in Dutch, Russian and Italian. Seeing it in stores everywhere—even in the airport—has been good for the ego. I volunteered as an expert resource to the book reviewer for USA Today when I heard he was preparing to interview King about the series, which got my book mentioned in a sidebar next to his article. Maybe when my first novel comes out, he’ll remember me and take a look.
Through the book deal I also got an agent who is now helping develop my book-length fiction. That alone is huge. I now have someone else interested in how my career as a writer will unfold.
Drawbacks? None come to mind. My fiction isn’t very much like King’s, so people aren’t likely to think I’m riding on his coat tails. If I were writing about haunted cars or young kids with extrasensory talents, that might work against me, but that’s not where my interests lie with fiction.
DBJ: Is there a central theme to your fiction? I ask this because, though it didn’t seem so early in his career, Stephen King has certainly made a conscious effort to tie all of his works, characters, odd universes and stories into a single coherent mess, of sorts. Will you attempt that with your own fiction? For instance, do you create a brand new tale and setting each time, or do you follow longer story arcs and populate familiar territory with new stories, building toward a greater whole?
BV</v> If there’s a central theme to my fiction, I haven’t discovered it yet. I don’t regard my fictional characters as players in a single universe of my own creation. I tackle each story and each set of characters as new entities. If you go back and read some of my posts on the King newsgroup from the mid-90s, you’ll find that I was resistant to the notion that all of his works tied together. I thought people were trying too hard to find connections where they didn’t exist. I still think some people do, but then again, some are finding significance in the minutest elements of LOST. But I don’t expect Jeff Adams from “One of Those Weeks” (From the Borderlands) to meet up with the guy from “The Smell of Fear” (Corpse Blossoms) any time soon.
I think people will be surprised to learn that horror doesn’t form a major part of my reading, and very little of my writing is outright horror. I don’t have the gumption to pull off balls-to-the-walls horror with a straight face. My heart isn’t in it, and I feel like I’m pretending when I try to write something outré. I much prefer the understated, ambiguous approach of authors like Graham Joyce. You can choose to believe that something supernatural is going on, or you can decide that it’s the product of a character’s disturbed mind. I call Missing Persons, the novel my agent is currently shopping around, my “sort-of ghost story.” It depends on which characters you believe. They’re all haunted, but by what? That approach has a lot of potential. I’m not out to scare people. Disturb them, unsettle them a little, maybe. Make them think.
Mostly I read people like Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Elmore Leonard, P.D. James, David Lindsey, Robert B. Parker, Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane. I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie. I suspect my novels will gradually tend more toward crime/suspense. Of the three I’ve completed to date, one is a procedural featuring a computer forensics expert, one is a suspense novel with supernatural overtones and one is non-supernatural. I’ve started writing another ghost story, but I think it will also be of the ambiguous sort. I have 100 pages of a hardboiled detective novel featuring a lesbian protagonist that I wrote a few years ago. My agent thought I should wait a while to retackle that one.
DBJ: My readers know that I love Nanowrimo. I have written two novels in two years as part of that program, one is published, and the other is making the rounds. You recently used Nanowrimo to launch yourself into a book length project, and seemed very much “attuned” to that schedule. Can you tell us what the book is, how it came together for you during the Nanowrimo process, and while you’re at it tell us where it is in the pipeline toward publication?
BV: When I first became aware of NaNoWriMo, I was skeptical. A book in a month? No way. However, last year I was in the right place for it. I had just sent my agent a major rewrite of Missing Persons. I knew I wouldn’t be hearing from him for several weeks. I wanted to dive into something completely different in the interim. I’d been working on Missing Persons for so long that I needed to cleanse my palate. I decided to write the next book, The Silent Desert, as a NaNoWriMo project. I wrote it in present tense as a clear break from the previous work. It wasn’t a stylistic choice, and I’ll probably change it during revision, but it was a way of saying each day: this is The Silent Desert and not Missing Persons.
I knew that if I was going to meet the 80,000-words-in-a-month goal, I needed to be prepared. I didn’t outline Missing Persons, and it took me six months to write the first draft. This time, I had a more complete idea of the story arc. I did a lot of research, gathering facts and details I’d need up front so I wouldn’t have to stop to look things up. I worked out the characters in advance. I knew their backstories. I held a lengthy written conversation with myself about the story. I also contained the plot to a relatively brief time-period, roughly a week. It was like framing a house in advance of adding the sheetrock and shingles.
My wife and I rented a beach house for a working vacation during the first week of last November. She’s a graduate student and had work of her own to do, so I knew I’d have some writing time each day. An entire week during the off-season on the Texas Gulf Coast with no phone and no Internet. We opened the door to let in the sound and smells of the wind and the surf. I’ve never had a more productive week in terms of raw output. I cranked out 7-8000 words in a few hours every day. I find it mildly ironic that, to the roaring sound of the Gulf of Mexico, I wrote large portions of a book about a man who goes from his home in rural Tennessee to West Texas to see if he can locate where in the desert his ex-wife buried their murdered children.
Every day, I just sat down and wrote. I didn’t hit roadblocks, because I knew where I had to go. That’s not to say that I didn’t discover things about the characters and the story along the way. But I always had the end in sight, and that helped propel me along. At the end of each session, I knew what I would be writing about the following day. By the end of the month I surpassed the NaNoWriMo goal—even with a four-day road trip to West Texas to do some location research—but didn’t finish the novel until the first week of December.
I haven’t done anything with the manuscript since. Haven’t even reread it. Missing Persons and other obligations have taken precedence. I’ll get back to it, but I might write another book—the aforementioned ghost story—first. I’m not sure if I’ll repeat NaNoWriMo this year, but I enjoyed the experience. I think that ripping out a rough draft in a short period of time helped me keep the whole story in my mind for the duration, which is more difficult over a longer time period.
DBJ: The standard Deep Blue question: You have one day to plot a new story or novel. You have your choice of transportation to anyplace in the world – a library of all the world’s books at your fingertips – or a library of the entire world’s music to choose from. Which would you take, and why?
BV: I’d choose the music. I can make things up, so I could do without having access to research information. One day wouldn’t be sufficient to absorb the atmosphere of a particular location, and I can write pretty much anywhere, so going to that beach house where I was so productive last fall wouldn’t be a major help. But I write to music. The first novel I wrote (A Safe Place, a trunk novel if ever there was one) was written to the complete works of Supertramp. I listened to nothing else while writing it.
I often don’t hear the music at all. Entire albums pass me by and I won’t have consciously heard a word or a note. But it helps me keep a consistent mood, and it also blocks out everything else. Some people don’t understand how music isn’t distracting, but for me a car driving by on the street outside my window, or the air conditioner turning on, or someone walking up the stairs—those small sounds are distractions. I stop and pay attention to each of them. By creating a constant wall of familiar sound, I don’t hear anything else.
Bev Vincent is the author of The Road to the Dark Tower, the Bram Stoker Award nominated, authorized companion to Stephen King's Dark Tower series. He is also the co-editor of The Illustrated Stephen King Trivia Book and a contributing editor with Cemetery Dance magazine. He published over 170 book reviews in the Conroe (Texas) Courier and is a member of the charter editorial board of Accent Literary Review. His essay “Six Marketing Myths” appears in On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association.
Among his nearly forty published short stories are appearances in Cemetery Dance, All Hallows, From the Borderlands, Red Scream, Here & Now, Damned Nation, Thou Shalt Not, Shivers II, Shivers IV and Corpse Blossoms. His story “Rule Number One” will be featured in the Burden of the Badge, edited by novelist Michael Connelly.
He is an active member of the Mystery Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association, and an associate member of the International Thriller Writers. His script for the short film Stephen King’s Gotham Café received the Best Adaptation award from the International Horror and Sci-Fi Festival in 2005.
A PhD chemist, he has coauthored over thirty articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. He lived in eastern Canada, England and Switzerland before moving to Texas. He is married and has one daughter.
Links to books:
• The Road to the Dark Tower (NAL)
• The Road to the Dark Tower (Cemetery Dance)
• The Illustrated Stephen King Trivia Book (as editor, with Brian Freeman)
• Official web page
• Message board
• News From the Dead Zone
• Storytellers Unplugged, a new essay on the 17th of each month