Interview conducted by Gordon White.
Today on Hellnotes, our guest is Sheldon Woodbury – screenwriter, flash fiction regular, and author of the novel The World on Fire. Hellnotes is wild for Sheldon – we’ve reviewed his novel here and here – so we were pleased to sit down and pick his brain about all things writing- and horror-related.
HELLNOTES: Although this is the first time we’ve interviewed you, longtime Hellnotes visitors will be familiar with your many appearances in our flash fiction “Horror In a Hundred” series. As an icebreaker, which of those is your favorite?
SHELDON WOODBURY: Hmm, that’s tough, but I guess I’ll say “The Last Drive-In.” One of my favorite memories as a kid was watching horror movies at a drive-in movie theater on a hot summer night, but those days are pretty much gone. There’s something about being outside at night and watching a scary movie on a giant glowing screen. The story is about what happens when one of the last drive-ins is sold and the local crowd decides to seek revenge on the new owners of the land, using what they’ve learned from watching all those grisly horror movies.
By the way, I love the whole Horror in a Hundred concept that Russ Thompson does for you guys. It’s a great place to do quick ideas. I love the challenge of distilling a horror idea to its core and finding the most vivid language to convey it. They’re really fun to read and write.
HL: Tell us about your newest horror novel, The World on Fire. What can readers expect when they take this journey?
SW: Well, it’s a journey that’s for sure, because it’s a road trip story that’s hopefully not like anything you’ve ever read before. It’s a mash-up of horror, thriller, crime, and apocalyptic action. It’s about an all-star gang of death row psychos who escape from the toughest maximum security prison in the country and embark on a wild ride that exposes a secret underground America. They’re led by a charismatic serial killer and arsonist called the Angel of Death who drags along a reporter to document their historic trip. Their escape rattles the nation and raises the hysteria level to unprecedented levels. If you whipped me into submission, I’d say it’s what the essence of horror is always about. What’s the difference between good and evil? Why do we make the moral choices we make? I really like what Matthew Scott Baker said in a review on Hellnotes: “This is a complex tale that blurs the line between right and wrong and makes you reconsider what you know about good and evil.”
HL: The main characters in The World on Fire are escaped psychopaths and a hostage journalist. Most people would probably avoid both psychopaths and journalists if given their druthers. Did you find it difficult in creating a story centered around characters that – at least at first blush – could come off as unsympathetic?
SW: Great question. Yes, the characters are extreme and not sympathetic, but we’re living in an extreme world where people are increasingly driven by forces we don’t always understand, and that’s the point. This is a pulp inspired story about good and evil that’s meant to be extreme. The bad guys are like comic book villains in a way, bigger and bolder than real life, although real life is getting more like comic books every day. By conscious design, the novel pushes the limits to deliver an adrenaline rush with lots of action and dark surprises. The character of the journalist, David Milton, is hopefully the exception, giving the reader a balancing perspective on all the craziness.
HL: In addition to your work with novels, short stories and flash fiction, you’re also an award-winning screenwriter. What differences do you find between writing narrative fiction versus writing screenplays? Other than the format, is there a difference in your creative mindspace when creating one or the other?
SW: No, not really, because for me it’s all about trying to tell a great story. Every writer is influenced by what they read growing up, and I was a big comic book, science fiction and horror reader, like most writers in the genre. My inspiration is Ray Bradbury, Stan Lee, Harlan Ellison, Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, and other writers who created spectacular stories of imagination. But I’m always looking for something new that hasn’t been seen before, which is what imaginative stories (horror, science fiction, fantasy) do. Visuals are extremely important to me, whether it’s in a screenplay or fiction. That said, you usually have a feeling about a story idea, that it feels like a movie, a short story, or a novel, but nothing more rigid than that.
HL: How did you decide to make The World on Fire a novel rather than a screenplay? When you first conceive an idea, do you usually know what format (screen play, novel, short story) it will take?
SW: Well, there’s a story to that. I worked in advertising for many years after college, then went back and got an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU. When I graduated I was just writing screenplays, not fiction. The development head at Guillermo del Toro’s production company read one of my screenplays and really liked the writing. He sent it to a friend of his, John Schoenfelder, the publisher of Mulholland Books in New York. John contacted me and we met for dinner. To make a long story short, John told me I should write a novel instead of concentrating just on screenplays, because movies were so hard to get made, which is an understatement. The strike zone for screenplays is ridiculously small, compared to other writing outlets. I pitched him some ideas, one of which was The World on Fire that I was going to write as a screenplay. He convinced me to write it as a novel instead. But, of course, in the topsy-turvy world of New York publishing, when I finished the novel, John had moved on to work for Scott Rudin Productions, and the new publisher wanted his own projects. By this time, I had been bitten big-time by the fiction bug and I was writing horror short stories. James Ward Kirk had accepted several of them for his anthologies. He read the novel and responded very positively. He was great to work with on it.
HL: You’ve also written a book on scriptwriting and teach courses at NYU on how to develop a screenplay. From a point of pedagogy, it would seem those might focus on developing a clear narrative structure before writing a script. When you approached The World on Fire, did you do so through an outline or by winging it?
SW: For The World on Fire I definitely had a strong outline with all the main characters worked out and the important plot points. The story has a lot of twists and surprises, so I had to be clear from the beginning how all the different parts were going to fit together. The ending is the biggest twist, and that was the beacon I was always writing towards. The story has a bit of a puzzle structure to it, so I couldn’t just wing it. But I’m also a big believer in incorporating new ideas along the way, so I was always on the lookout for that too. With short stories, I tend to start with the core idea, then wing it a bit more. For me, with short stories, writing style and language is very important, and I find when I’ve discovered that part of the story it usually ends up luring me in a direction I wasn’t expecting.
HL: You’ve worked a lot with James Ward Kirk Publishing, both for this novel and as part of several short story anthologies. How did that relationship begin and what advice do you have to other authors looking to find their first publishers?
SW: My short stories first started appearing on Popcorn Fiction, a site at Mulholland Books run by Derek Haas, an amazing screenwriter and novelist. This was back when I was working with John Schoenfelder, who introduced me to Derek. Popcorn Fiction was a place that Derek created for the kind of genre short stories that he loved growing up. It was a place for screenwriters to write in that tradition.
When Popcorn Fiction closed down, I started looking for other markets, because I was really concentrating on short fiction. That’s when I saw an open call for James Ward Kirk’s horror anthology Bones 2. I sent in a story and it was given the Editor’s Choice Award. He’s accepted more stories and poems since then, along with publishing The World on Fire. James is a spectacular writer with a great horror sensibility. His new collection of horror stories, Death Anxiety, is amazing. As a publisher, James isn’t shy about pushing the envelope and he’s really supportive of writers. He’s a great example of someone who does it because he loves it.
If you’re starting out, the first thing to know is there’s an on-line community of horror writers and readers that can really be helpful. But you’re reading this on HELLNOTES, so you’re probably already aware of this. There are sites that are easy to find that list open calls for new horror anthologies. There are also groups on Facebook for horror writers and readers. For the beginning writer, this is a great way to start. Then, of course, you have to write and get your work out there. As my 12 year old son says… DUH! It’s all about finding a publisher that gets what you do, and you can only accomplish that by doing the heavy lifting of constantly writing and sending your work out.
I also think it’s important to read the “Best of…” anthologies that come out each year. My night table has a small mountain of horror collections that provide nightly inspiration for new ideas. Reading the best in the field will make you better, and if you have nightmares at night that’s not a bad thing if you’re a horror writer.
HL: On your blog you’ve said, “what horror stories do best, is connect us in an intensely visceral way to what we love. It’s only when you fear you’re going to lose something, do you suddenly realize how important it is.” How does this play out in The World on Fire?
SW: As I said before, the book is about making moral choices. The main character in the book, Louis Sedah, is deplorable in just about every way imaginable. But he’s motivated by a desire that most of us can identify with. He wants to be completely free to live his life as he sees fit. He’s the ultimate anarchist and libertarian, vehemently opposed to any form of authority or restrictions. This can be a very seductive notion, but it comes with a price, and that’s what the book is about. Without any restrictions or limits, nothing is safe, including what we love the most.
HL: Having written a multitude of different mediums, in your personal writer’s tool kit, which implement do you see as the sharpest? Which one do you most want to improve?
SW: Wow, tough question. Are you asking what I think I’m good at? I can tell you what I hope I’m good at. With any story I write, my strongest desire is to take the reader to a startling new place and challenge them in some way. I want my stories to be emotionally powerful, written in language that’s both intelligent and literary. Horror can be a maligned genre, but I’ve never understood why. Some of the best stylists are horror writers. There’s a lyrical preciseness and a seductive use of language to the best horror writing. My favorite comment on The World on Fire comes from another review in Hellnotes by Marvin. P. Vernon, “… it reads like a grindhouse movie… but also kicks literary butt at the same time…” That’s really cool.
As for improvements, I just want to work as hard as I can and keep trying to discover new ideas. The biggest thrill is always coming up with an idea you think is new, then crafting that into a story.
HL: As an instructor, what advice do you have for aspiring writers? Other than “Just Write” (which is the common exhortation), what kind of craft-based advice can you pass on?
SW: First, you have to learn about the mechanics of language, because that’s your tool kit.
You can’t build something great without the proper tools. That also means reading broadly and deeply in the genre you’re interested in, along with the classics in other genres. I know all writers say this, but that’s because it’s true. Literature is a constantly evolving art form, and the future you want to contribute to is created from the past. If you want to be ground breaking and fresh, you have to know the history of what you’re writing. And you have to be relentless. I’ve been both a student and a teacher in one of the top writing programs in the country, so I’ve been around hundreds of beginning writers. Talent is important, sure, but determination and the ability to not give up are just as important. I’ve seen less talented writers make it, when others with more talent didn’t, because they stuck with it. Finally, try to find out what makes you different and unique. Nobody else has lived your life and sees the world the way you do, so write stories that come from your own personal uniqueness.
HL: What’s the next for you? Not just the project that you’re currently working on, but what ideas are teasing around the edges of your mind and crying out to be written? (We won’t hold you to a release calendar.)
SW: I’m halfway through a YA novel called Spook House. It’s about a teenaged boy who thinks he’s got a secret Jekyll and Hyde personality. Whenever he lives something bad always happens. His parents keep moving because he thinks they want to protect him. Then his girlfriend is brutally murdered and he’s sent away a mental asylum for the criminally insane. When he gets there he discovers the asylum has a twisted dark secret that reveals his whole life has been even more macabre than he could ever have guessed.
About what comes next, I’m not sure. I’ll continue to write short stories, but I want to start another novel too. I have an idea, but it’s still too murky to give any specifics.
Sheldon Woodbury is an award winning writer (screenplays, plays, books, and short stories) living in New York City, where he also teaches screenwriting at New York University. His books include “Cool Million” a how to guide on high concept screenwriting. His screenplay “The Book of Magic” won first prize in the Maniafest horror screenwriting competition. His latest short stories are “Bones in a City Graveyard” in Bones 2 (James Ward Kirk Publishing), “Dirty Minds” in Serial Killers Quattuor (James Ward Kirk Publishing), “The Halloween House” in One Hellacious Halloween (Horror Novel Reviews), “Family Affair” in Clerics, Charlatans & Cultists (Gothic City Press), “Last Call” in Shots of Terror (Angelic Knight Press), “Payback is a Bitch” in We are Dust and Shadow (James Ward Kirk Fiction), “Between Heaven and Hell” in Demonic Possession (James Ward Kirk Fiction), “Holy War” in No Sight for the Saved (James Ward Kirk Fiction), and “A Beautiful Horror” in Hell II: Citizens (James Ward Kirk Fiction). His flash fiction stories have appeared many times on the website Hellnotes (JournalStone Publishing) and other stories on Popcorn Fiction (Mulholland Books) and Horror Novel Reviews. His article, “Heroes that Rock” appeared in Writer’s Digest Magazine. “The World on Fire,” his horror novel, was published in August, 2014 by James Ward Kirk Fiction.