R.J. Sullivan’s latest book, Commanding the Red Lotus, is a novel-length collection of three space opera tales in the tradition of Andre Norton and Gene Roddenberry. His novel Haunting Blue is an edgy paranormal thriller and the first book of the adventures of punk girl Fiona “Blue” Shaefer and her boyfriend Chip Farren. Seventh Star Press also released Haunting Obsession, a Rebecca Burton Novella, and Virtual Blue, the second part of Fiona’s tale. R.J.’s short stories have been featured in such acclaimed collections as Dark Faith Invocations by Apex Books and Vampires Don’t Sparkle.
R.J. co-hosts the Two Towers Talk Show YouTube program with John F. Allen. He resides with his family in Heartland Crossing, Indiana. He drinks regularly from a Little Mermaid coffee mug and is man enough to admit it.
Welcome to the third in a series of short interviews focusing on “Team R.J.”: people who have influenced, worked with, or played some other vital role in taking me where I am today.
Throwing practical matters out the window, I pursued a creative writing degree at IUPUI. James Kirk and I met as fellow undergraduates, first in creative writing classes, then as co-staff members of the university literary magazine. James also worked in the university library, and after I’d graduated, James went on to receive his masters in literature. He taught literature for the university for several years.
Throughout the time, James remained dedicated to his writing, probably with at least as much passion and focus as I had in my own work. Horror was his genre of choice even then (I saw myself as more of a sci-fi guy, and still do), and his approach of unsettling the reader by dropping them into the viewpoint of mentally unstable characters did much to distinguish his stories. And it’s an approach he continues to use to this day.
Many years and a Facebook connection later, I caught up with James a few months ago and found he was returning to his writing after a long break. Since then, he’s released his first novel, the Butterfly Killer, and has had some success with his short stories.
Q: You were a driven, passionate writer when we first met almost…yikes, OVER…20 years ago. When did you get the writing “bug” and what drives you to keep pursuing it?
A: I remember a writing assignment from the third grade. The teacher read the short story to the class, a comedic kind of story. It was a hoot. My classmates loved it and the teacher praised me.
Q: What writers inspired you? What made you pick the horror/psychological thriller genres as “your” genres?
A: I really enjoy John Connolly. He incorporates the supernatural with the private detective genre. Of course, I grew up with Stephen King—not literally, dang it. My favorite film genre is psychological thrillers and horror. The music I listen to relates well with psychological thriller, horror and the supernatural (Goth Industrial, Goth Metal, Symphonic Goth Metal).
Q: What circumstances caused a break in your writing, and what were the challenges when you returned to it?
A: First comes love, and then comes James pushing a baby carriage. Work and family came first. After the kids were out of the house, I picked up the pencil and paper again. Creativity never left. I encountered no problems with the creative process and writing the novel. The challenges came with the mechanics. Grammar, sentence structure, passive sentences, bad words: “that” and “had,” and so on. Thanks to RJ for jogging my memory.
Q: You attended a university campus for many years, worked in the university library, taught classes in your alma mater. How do you think the university environment affected your approach to the publishing business, good and bad?
A: I don’t remember a single instance of an instructor teaching anything at all about the publishing business, even while working on my Master’s degree. I worked with genesis, the university’s student literary journal as a board member, senior editor, and as faculty advisor. I did learn about the publishing business to a small degree while working with genesis.
Q: Describe your unique approach to your characters. How do you “psyche yourself up” to get into the bizarre mindset of your characters?
A: I just be myself.
Q: Tell us about The Butterfly Killer. Include an excerpt.
A: The Butterfly Killer is the first novel of a planned trilogy. I’ve finished two-thirds of the follow up novel. I am incorporating Christian spirituality. The protagonist is chosen by God to metamorphose into an agent against evil. The protagonist, female, is beginning to catch on by the novel’s conclusion. The first novel focuses primarily on human evil. The second novel incorporates the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, demons and saints in addition to just plain mean people. Excerpt:
Engelbert didn’t believe in God. But, of course, God believed in him.
Engelbert pondered this truth, momentarily, as the flames of his life burned cruelly, just like his mother’s final moments, and as his arterial blood sprayed into the very shadows he’d considered his fortress, from his surgically cut throat by the hand of God, He who rules the darkness and its violent dramatis personae, he whispered: there is a God, Momma.
In this instance, “God” is self-proclaimed, the master puppeteer of other serial killers.
Q: Like I did, I know you’re re-approaching old stories from years ago and brushing them off for rewrites. Tell us what that’s like.
A: Taking old short stories and rewriting them was a lot of fun. I got to see where I was and where I am now.
Q: I remember back in college, a singular science fiction piece in your group of short stories. Do you think you’ll continue to experiment with genres?
A: I think you’re speaking of the short story entitled Joe. I don’t think the story was science fiction in the way the novel 1984 is science fiction. The piece was more of a commentary on society than anything else. I don’t see any science fiction in my future unless, of course, I turn Joe into a novel.
Q: One consistent aspect to all your fiction is an element of faith and religion. How does your faith affect what you write and how do you weave it into your narrative.
A: I haven’t been to church in at least a decade. There’s a lot about organized religion that gets on my very last nerve. However, I am spiritual and believe in a higher power. For example, our planet is around three billion years old. Think about the trillions of events and nonevents leading to me sitting here talking about God. I don’t believe in coincidence. The Butterfly Killer contains graphic/adult material. I don’t think “God” has given it much thought.
Q: Tell us about your sequel novel and anything else going on.
A: I’ve mentioned above the sequel. I’m also working on an anthology of short stories, some new and some revisions of old short stories.
“Team R.J.” Blog Interview Series #1: Debra Holland, Ph.D.
Welcome to the first in a series of short interviews focusing on “Team R.J.”: people who have influenced, worked with, or played some other vital role in taking me where I am today.
In early 2001, “Dr. Debra” and I began an email correspondence after “meeting” on a Yahoogroup for fans of Kathy Tyers. (More about Kathy, I hope, in a future blog interview) Dr. Debra’s genres include science fiction, fantasy and romance. Her line editing skills were miles ahead of mine and I nearly re-learned the craft of writing during our editing sessions. (She is probably still ahead of me …by a few yards. *grin*) Our early manuscript exchanges led to a peer editor partnership that continues to this day, nearly a decade later.
I say in all humility that over this past year, two of my peers released recent novels dedicated to me, specifically for my editing. I’m going on record that any skill I acquired is a direct result of working with Dr. Debra.
Deb’s novel Wild Montana Shy won the prestigious Golden Heart Award in 2001. Her fantasy effort, Sower of Dreams, received praise from none other than the “grand dame of science fiction,” Andre Norton. But it was her expertise as a psychologist that ultimately landed her a recent breakthrough writing deal.
Q: Before we met, where had you acquired your knowledge of fiction style and editing? I remain amazed at what your feedback brings to my stories, and in such an approachable, friendly manner.
A: Aside from being in school for a million years…
I owe my editing skills mostly to Louella Nelson, a wonderful writing teacher. When I started to write fiction, I attended her critique group. Lou spent one half of it teaching us about writing, and the other half critiquing our manuscripts.
My last agent was also a great editor, and I learned a lot from her.
I’ve also read books and articles or attended workshops to improve my craft.
A: To make a long story short… A writer friend emailed me that agent Jessica Faust had posted on Facebook that she was looking for an expert to write a book on grief. I emailed Jessica, and she invited me to send her a bio. I sent more than a bio. I also included the first chapter on a book on grief in the workplace I’d started, then put aside. I also included a handout I’d composed on Coping with Grief in the Workplace, as well as an article I’d written for the survivors of company-wide terminations. Plus a page on what I thought should go in the book.
The publisher is Alpha Books. They do the Complete Idiots Guides, and are coming out with a new line for more sensitive topics called Essential Guides.
Jessica thought it was great and forwarded everything to the editor. A week later, she emailed me saying I’d gotten it. I was SO excited, but then learned I have a 5 month deadline! So my celebrating is cut short for now while I focus and draft as fast as I can.
My title is: The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving, with a tentative release target of October 2011
Q: I notice in your non-fiction, you approach psychology from a decidedly biological approach. Is that a fair comment, and what training/background does this come from?
A: A little. I use a lot about the brain, especially the male and female differences. I’m going to have some of that–a couple of pages–in the grief book. But that’s only 2 out of 320.
A: Yes. In a recent SF/Fantasy contest entry, the judges gave me a lot of great feedback that I’m itching to apply to Sower of Dreams. But I have to wait…
Q: To me, a Golden Heart-award-winning novel and a fantasy novel with an endorsement from Andre Norton should be no-brainers for any publisher. What do you think your frustration in this area says about the state of publishing?
A: I don’t know if it’s the state of publishing or my writing… J My historical romance was traditional, not sexy, and that’s just not the market nowadays.
I changed my fantasy and added sex. It actually turned out better. But we never sent it out again.
Q: Okay, enough about you; say something nice about me. J
A: I’m so grateful to have you as a critique partner. I can’t wait until your book is out!
Q: Thank you very much Dr. Debra. A final, personal note: Of my electronic partners, I’ve known you longest and yet, uniquely, we’ve never met in person. Does this amuse you as much as it does me, or should I instead take it personally? J
Where do you draw the line between old and modern horror films? It’s easier, perhaps, to pick out classics from any era, but some of my younger peers have an annoying habit of tagging movies I saw in high school as “old.” (Hi, Ash) So okay, let’s discuss.
I base my definition of “modern” on a study of technique, technology, and modern mass appeal. Taking all of those into account, I traditionally draw the line between “classic” and “modern” horror at 1973–specifically, THE EXORCIST. I would argue that except for some funky haircuts, THE EXORCIST could be projected in a theater today and hold the attention of modern audiences without many outdated elements distracting from the experience. It’s shot in modern widescreen, offers a modern soundtrack mix, features editing, pacing and special effects still acceptable today (though it lacks that frustrating quick cut element of the most modern films–which is good thing) and maintains most of its shock value and horrific nature.
If you go back a few more years from 73, you hit the wonderful Roger Corman era with Vincent Price‘s over-the-top antics and pop-off-the screen technicolor that clearly shows its age. And as much as I love the Hammer Films, the cheesy acting and four-chord four-octave music progressions are dead giveaways they go back quite a while.
Sure, the 80s were known for an extended “slasher” period, and I suppose that forms it’s own “classic” subgenre, but I maintain more movies from that era would pass muster than not.
Of course this is just one old(er) man’s opinion. What’s yours? Feel free to discuss in my comments.