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Monday, January 11, 2010

Writer Spotlight: Daniel Davis

Part of becoming a successful author involves spending a ridiculous amount of time submitting to, and reading, hundreds of markets (i.e. magazines, anthologies, websites) in order to determine where to place your work as well as check out your competition, monitor trends, etc. Occasionally in my reading I come across another author who is churning out tremendous work and starting to create a buzz.

One such author is Daniel Davis, a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University. He's been writing for nearly his entire life and started submitting his work for publication about two years ago. He has as of this post had nine works of short fiction published, with a few more slated for early in 2010.

While he writes primarily in the Speculative genres (Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy) he is somewhat of an anomaly in the genre since he eschews the current trend of infusing stories with as much adult material as possible. Instead he focuses on the dread inherent in mystery, in the unknown. His stories are obsessed with the idea that horror is something found in everyday living, that there is no need for monsters, vampires, or ghosts when there is real life to draw on for inspiration. Even when his stories actually contain a supernatural element ("The Call") he keeps the story rooted in the emotions and realism of the situation instead of focusing on the unnatural. Davis' stories are fun and terrifying and unsettling all at the same time and I highly recommend you read them all.

What follows is an interview I conducted with Davis over email where we talk about his life, his work, and the craft of writing.

You can find a link to all his published work at the bottom of the page as well as his own blog.

Interview with Daniel Davis

The Crow: Let’s start with the obvious, what’s your story? When did you start writing? What inspired you to start writing? What authors have most affected your work, in a subconscious, or overt way?

Daniel Davis: I've been writing since I can remember. Usually that's a cliché; in my case, unfortunately, it's true. Before I could literally write, I was dictating to my parents. I don't know where it comes from; my parents don't know, either. Neither of them is a great storyteller, though I've heard my mother's grandfather could spin a good yarn.

Around the fifth grade, I decided I could write on a regular basis, as an actual hobby. The inspiration was an entry in the "Goosebumps" series (which kind of sets my frame of mind!). So obviously, R.L. Stine was an early inspiration. About the sixth grade I moved on to Dean Koontz and Stephen King; Koontz's older work still remains a favorite, and I still purchase every new King hardback that comes out. Lately I've tackled more "literary" writers: Cormac McCarthy is a huge inspiration, as is Raymond Carver. I also find inspiration in Hemingway's short stories, Arthur Miller's plays, Alan Moore's graphic novels, Richard Matheson's short fiction and film/TV scripts, and in movies: I'm greatly influenced by the works of Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and their ilk.

TC: Clearly, from “The Guitar Man” and the Author’s Note at the end, music plays an important role in your creative life. Are you still playing music and where can my readers hear/purchase some of it? Other than writing stories about music, what other ways has music influenced your writing? Who are you listening to right now?

DD: I went through a phrase—junior year of high school through junior year of college—where I predominately wrote songs. I'm afraid I'm not that good on any one instrument, and my singing is horrible; but I do enjoy writing songs, it's much more restricted than fiction writing, forces you to think in different ways. Through songwriting, I feel I've been able to hone my fiction writing craft a little; it's given me that extra experience, you could say, that focus upon atmosphere and character and placing words together in a certain way. I grew up with country songs—real country songs, story-songs about life and loss and love, and of course that's transitioned into my own writing.

As far as influencing my writing: Bruce Springsteen, Kris Kristofferson, and Tom Waits have all greatly impacted me. Songs are basically poems set to music anyways; those three, above all others, have impacted the way I craft stories. I'm afraid as far as my own songs go, however, that there's really no place to find them. I was honored to have a couple people cover them and post them on their Myspace pages, but beyond that, it's never really gone anywhere, and I don't see it going anywhere beyond a mere indulgence. I've never even performed any of them live.

TC: You were born and raised in Central Illinois, do you feel that you have a specifically “Midwestern” view in your writing? Many of the characters in your stories tend to have an overt Midwestern connection (“In the Pines”, “The Dry Spell”, “The Call”), is that a conscious choice of yours or do you think it is simply a function of setting stories somewhere that you feel comfortable, as the creator of these worlds?

DD: I don't feel comfortable writing about what I don't know. The problem is: there's a lot I don't know. I was born, went to college, and am now attending grad school in the same town. That's pretty damn limiting. I've been fortunate in having parents who encouraged me to read, who encouraged me to pursue an education. Reading, though, is not a substitute for experience. I set stories in the rural Midwest primarily because that's what I know. I've never been to New York or L.A.; I've been to Chicago a handful of times (I'm from downstate Illinois), but not enough to be at all familiar with it. I know small farming communities, and slightly-larger university-based communities (I am from a combination of the two). I know I could BS my way through something, but I wouldn't be happy with it. I like reality. I need to learn to bend the rules a little, to make full use of my creative license. I think authors should do that; it just isn't really my style, and I'm struggling to find a way to incorporate it into my work.

TC: What is your method for writing? Do you listen to music when you write? Do you write everyday? How many drafts do you write before you start the submission process?

DD: When I have time to write on my own work (and thanks to grad school, that's not often), there's really not much process. I write better at night, and in my little "office" in my apartment, but I've written in the middle of the day in random places. I can't listen to music or watch TV; it's too distracting, my mind will wander (it often does that anyways). I don't have any certain page limit I try to reach or anything, either; I just write. Sometimes I'll write a page that's great; sometimes I'll write a whole story that's complete garbage.

I consider myself a one-drafter; meaning, I hate revision. Whenever I finish a story, I go back over it twice (usually reading aloud at least one of those times). The first time, I will focus on bigger stuff: does this make sense, would the character do that, etc. Then I go back over for grammar and the little things. I do a bit of rewriting while I actually write, but essentially there's just one draft.

TC: Speaking of the submission process, what tools do you use to find different markets to send your work to and do you submit the same story to multiple markets at once, or one at a time?

DD: Duotrope Digest has been immensely helpful. I also have a copy of Writer's Market, but most of the markets I submit to are online markets, and those are found on Duotrope (and a couple other places; Duotrope is the most user-friendly). It's a great search engine; not complete, but good enough to start with.

As far as simultaneous submissons go…yes. Yes and yes. I don't submit to markets that don't take simultaneous submissions. I think it's pretentious and, quite frankly, insulting for a market to think you should submit only to them, then wait six months before submitting your story anywhere else. I like online markets. My own writing is a combination of the literary and genre, and online markets are great for that. Plus, that's where people are going these days. I want to be where the readers are; I don't care if my stories don't get accepted in pretentious literary journals. I had a professor (and fellow fiction writer) give me some sound advice on that: Every publication counts.

TC: You have been published multiple times in online journals and once in print, have you found the editors to be helpful? Have they influenced the direction your work has taken?

DD: A lot of the editors I've worked with have been great; in fact, none have made suggestions that I disagreed with. Perhaps the most helpful came with the first story I had published: "Dry Spell." There was a character in that story (a farm hand) whom I wasn't quite sure about. The editors at Eastown Fiction loved the story, but they wanted some more explanation of this character. What was he doing there? I read over the story and realized: he wasn't doing anything. He was actually performing a role that another character (the uncle) should've been. So I wrote the farm hand out, wrote the uncle a bigger part, and the story got accepted.

Like I said previously, I think online publications tend to be a bit looser, a bit less pretentious. There's more emphasis upon collaboration, and I like that. I like creative criticism; one of the best rejections I ever received was concerning a story that wasn't "horror enough" for the place I submitted it to. Of course, the subdued horror element was what I was going for (and the story got accepted elsewhere, and will be published in May 2010, if I remember correctly), so it was nice to see someone recognizing that. Online journals will do that—they'll bridge that gap, make that connection.

TC: In reading your body of work I recognized two underlying themes: 1.) The use of folk culture or art to tell the tale and 2.) Creating a sense of dread about seemingly ordinary objects or scenarios.

In regards to item 1.) “The Dry Spell”, “In the Pines”, “The Guitar Man”, and “A Body in the Grass” all feature folksy vernacular as prominent features of the main protagonists, or, as in the case of “The Dry Spell”, the actual narrator tells the tale in a homey vernacular. Is this a conscious choice across your work, or are you simply interested in modes of speech? Or was it that those types of characters were especially suited for the tales you wanted to tell?

2.) Several of your stories build, through looks, speech, or willful elimination of particulars on your part, a sense of dread about ordinary scenarios. “The Bee in the Urinal” with its eponymous bee, “The Girl Down Front” with its silent girl, “In the Pines” with its creepy little kid, all create an atmosphere of "not rightness" that very effectively builds to the final punch line. In essence, your horror tends to be that which is created within the characters . It’s a realistic horror. The horror is a function of the tension between what is expected and what actually happens, the horror of disappointment or mental anguish. I’m thinking particularly of “The Bee in the Urinal” and “The Girl Down Front” where the horrific endings are more a function of the main characters’ reactions to their situations than anything that actually happens to them (Spoiler Alert: i.e. is there anything really overtly horrific about a straw girl in class? Not really, but it is made horrific because of the expectations built up within the main character). I think it’s very effective. Do you think that there is an inherent benefit to presenting horror as something that is a function of the mind versus a function of external stimuli (e.g. murderers, apocalyptic events, etc.)? What authors do you think are also effective in this way?

DD: I try to fit the language to the characters. Actually, with "Dry Spell," the editors at Eastown Fiction suggested I tone the vernacular down a bit; they thought it was over-done, and they were right. That's one of my favorite stories of mine, and near the end it was definitely a collaborative effort—they helped me whittle away the fat. But yes, language is a product of the characters and the environment.

Same with themes, though honestly I tend to start with the theme. It's all related. I'm not big on Americana or anything like that, but there's a feel with it that I like, a combination of comfort and discomfort. It's hard to describe…kind of like old folk songs: they're familiar, and yet quite a few of them, beneath the surface, are rather brutal.

I consider myself a "minimalist" writer. I don't think that's technically correct, but I'm not big on terminology anyways. I like looks, gestures, that kind of thing. It's one of the few non-real indulgences I allow myself. In real life, looks can be confusing. Gestures can be misleading. And while I occasionally incorporate that into my stories, usually I just gloss it over. It leads to a smoother, more stream-lined tale, and also helps enhance dialogue, which I love writing.

I love the phrase "realistic horror." When submitting stories, I've had a hard time describing mine. Most publishers hate the word "horror;" and yet, I view almost all of my stories as horror stories in some way. That's where I started: "Goosebumps," Stephen King. That's where my mind still is. I've tried other phrases: "literary horror," "dark literary fiction." I had a professor call it "psychological horror." There's always this element of fear, of terror, of nightmares and such. I just try to make it more acceptable, less genre-specific. That's because I do think the most effective horror is based in reality. Why write about vampires when cancer is just as terrifying? I like vampire stories, don't get me wrong; I think "genre" horror has its place, serves its purpose, even if there are quite a few hack authors who take advantage of the gore and sexual overtones.

Horror to me isn't about entertainment, it's about terror: it's about that dark side of humanity that we know exists. My quintessential example is "No Country for Old Men," both the film and the novel. It's a horror story, plain and simple…yet people don't think of it like that. They see it as a commentary on our times, our social situation. That's because it's horror being used effectively. The horror in it stems from reality, from fears that, real or imagined, people actually have. Is the world coming to an end because of drugs? Maybe, maybe not. But people are afraid of it, and McCarthy wrote about it, and the Coen Brothers filmed it.

I think McCarthy is an author who does that, who taps into the horrors of reality. "Blood Meridian" is a fantastic book that does this; the whole novel is blood-soaked, and yet it isn't the blood you're left with, it's the fact that the protagonist, a fourteen-year-old boy, it put through all these horrors, only to meet his end in an outhouse. Raymond Carver also did this—every one of his stories tells a "mundane" tale that is, on one hand, boring, and on the other, absolutely unsettling. Some of Stephen King's older work—"Salem's Lot," "The Shining," "Pet Semetary"—is like that as well. Richard Matheson is an author who's been great at combining the two: the genre horror versus the social/mental horror. That's why we all remember his Twilight Zone episode with William Shatner on the airplane: we have the genre monster, but the social fear that (during the Cold War) we are all going insane.

As far as what's expected vs. what happens…yes, I like playing with that. Again, that mimics reality; how often does what we think will happen actually happen? I just crank it up a notch: not only does what you think will happen not happen, but something infinitely worse than what you thought possible will happen. Or, perhaps, you'll get exactly what you thought, but it won't be how you thought it would be. It depends upon the situation, upon the context of the story. Whatever makes it feel as real as possible…that's what I'm going for.

TC: Which brings me to my next question. In light of everything else you’ve published, what is up with “The Kindness of Strangers”? It seems extraordinarily violent and brutal and frankly I found it difficult to reconcile with the rest of your work, which seems much more preoccupied with the horror that exists off-camera, if you will (e.g. “The Call”, “Aliens on Planet Earth”). Where do you see “Strangers” fitting in? Is it the far extreme of the continuum of your work? Are there other ultra-violent works of yours that simply haven’t been published, or are pending publication? BTW, I enjoyed “Strangers” very much, and this question is not to hector you. I’m simply trying to understand your work more fully.

DD: "The Kindness of Strangers" was written as a challenge: how far can I push myself as a writer? Can I ever get uncomfortable with my subject? The answer is either a yes or a no; "Strangers" didn't make me uncomfortable, but then again, maybe I flinched away in the end. You're right, it is different, and intentionally so. I've written nothing else like it; I don't write much in-your-face horror; I do prefer the off-camera stuff, the "what you don't see is scarier than what you do see" attitude. I don't even like "Strangers" that much; I'm honored it got published—and what a better home than Sex and Murder Magazine?—but, if I consider any single story I've written a work in progress, it's "Strangers." One of these days I'll return to it, and hopefully I'll be able tackle it head-on.

TC: What are you working on currently? Do you have plans for any longer works, like novellas or novels?

DD: I have a couple ideas for novels, but I don't have the time to work on them. Maybe this summer I'll be able to, though to be honest, I've never written anything longer than 120 pages, and that was in the eighth grade (and, as you may have guessed, was complete crap). I tend to lose patience; I write best with deadlines. Maybe I should start setting some, or have someone else set them for me. I'm still writing short stories; I just finished up a semester, so I've got three or four weeks of writing time before the next semester starts (which will be even busier). I'll still be able to squeeze a few stories in next semester, but it'll be tight. I might have to do some writing at work. Or in class. I've done it before.

TC: Who are you reading right now? Who’s really knocking you out?

DD: I'm currently reading Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I saw the movie and figured I had to read the book as well; it's pretty good, really. Very atmospheric, very dark. I'd compare it to Romeo & Juliet: that cynical, holy-crap-this-ain't-gonna-end-well love story. I've got a few more Cormac McCarthy books to go; working through Raymond Carver's complete short stories. I'm gonna give Ellis's American Psycho another shot; I put it down about halfway through last time, but I love the film so much, I'm gonna suck it up and go for it again. There's really not one author I'm focusing on, though; I try to diversify my reading as much as possible. I mean, I also have a book on physics written by Einstein. And The Egyptian Book of the Dead. And then there's Thinner, the one Stephen King book I have yet to read. All of it impacts me, of course; I read for pleasure, but I also read to learn. Usually the two go hand-in-hand, thank God.

Daniel Davis' published works:
Dry Spell
The Guitar Man
In the Pines
The Call
A Body in the Grass
The Girl Down Front
Alien Life on Planet Earth
My Friend Richie, He's a Robot
The Kindness of Strangers

You can visit Daniel's blog here.