Thursday, July 8, 2010

Rob Scott Interview

Scott: Your new novel, 15 Miles, is very different from the Eldarn Sequence, the epic fantasy co-written with Jay Gordon, and collection of comedy stories – The Great M&M Caper. Tell us a bit about 15 Miles.

Rob:15 Miles is a crime/horror novel that takes place over a thirty-hour period one July fourth weekend near Richmond, Virginia. It’s a story about the myriad poisons that manage to get into our bloodstream and the paths our lives take afterward. Guilt, frustration, anxiety, lust, self-doubt and loathing, not to mention alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, OxyCodone, and even, sometimes, Yersinia pestis: old-time, knock-‘em-dead plague. Samuel “Sailor” Doyle, the novel’s flawed hero, is tragically addicted to most of this list. He drinks, smokes, sneaks pills, chases women and wrestles with enough self-esteem issues to leave him groping, nearly numb, through his rookie year as a Virginia State Police homicide detective. When the book opens, however, he doesn’t have the plague. Not yet.

During his first solo investigation, an apparent double homicide on a rural family farm fifteen miles outside Richmond, Sailor discovers an elderly couple, both grimly mutilated and interred in makeshift tombs full of cat litter. The bodies are surrounded by dozens of ravenous housecats, vicious sentinels ravaging the farm’s livestock. Missing is the couple’s fifty year-old daughter, Molly, a woman with a severe cognitive disability and a case of septicemic plague. Molly may be the innocent victim of an unfortunate pandemic, or she might be an oblivious biological weapon about to be unleashed on the Atlantic seaboard. Sailor’s job is to solve the murders and find Molly before she encounters anyone and kicks off a regional epidemic. Where Molly is traveling and how Sailor finds her is just the beginning for readers, however. Sailor’s weekend is complicated by the discovery of a forty-year-old connection between one of the mutilated bodies and a US senator and presidential hopeful, stumping through Virginia that very weekend. The murders end up being something else entirely and Molly’s disappearance only makes sense when Sailor comes to grips with the poisons flooding his own bloodstream.

Scott:How would you describe the process of writing a novel on your own compared to in collaboration?

Rob:The experiences are too different to compare. I worked on the Eldarn books as a way to keep Jay Gordon engaged while his body slowly succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Telling Stephen and Mark’s story was something Jay looked forward to most days, but that undertaking was just one of a variety of things family and friends did to help ease his suffering, particularly in his last months. Looking back on it now, it ranks among the most important and meaningful things I’ve done in my lifetime. It wasn’t Tuesdays With Morrie by a couple touchdowns, however. My mother-in-law simply refused to have any grief, negativity, or hopelessness in her house throughout Jay’s illness. The Eldarn books are a massive campfire story. When Jay and I were in the mood for mystery, we wrote mystery. When we wanted horror, we added horror. The process went on for so long, the books emerged as a quilt of styles and genres. We didn’t do much of it terribly well, though, and I owe Jo Fletcher at Gollancz for cleaning up those manuscripts.

Writing 15 Miles, I was more selfish, scribbling when I felt like it, researching and editing at my own pace, and keeping the manuscript under wraps until it was ready for my wife to pick it apart, start to finish. Writing The Eldarn Sequence, I’d scratch out a few paragraphs on a stack of cocktail napkins, and they’d make the family rounds before I had time to get them typed. So many people followed the Eldarn stories as they emerged, the conversations, questions, plans, research, and manuscript drafts were emailed around, passed back and forth, and shared with Jay’s visitors and nurses. It was fun process but quite different from the more traditional approach I’ve been able to take with Sailor Doyle and 15 Miles.

Scott:Did you find it restrictive writing a crime/supernatural story in the modern-day world as opposed to the shift between the fantasy world Eldarn and Earth?

Rob:Sailor Doyle is a character I’ve wanted to create for a few years but had no room for him in The Eldarn Sequence. Eldarn and all of Eldarn’s magic would have ruined him. He’d have got wind of the fact that there was magic about, solving or complicating problems, and he’d have wandered dejectedly away to sleep off a bender. Sailor has nothing special about him at all, certainly no magic. So when he succeeds, after numerous failures, we appreciate his fundamental good heartedness and his determination. Granted, on the surface, he’s a train wreck, but his resilient will to see the investigation through, despite its burgeoning complexity and danger, makes him a compelling character for me.

I especially enjoyed telling Sailor’s story, in Sailor’s voice. As a public school principal, I live about as far from Sailor’s world as one person can get. I’ve never snorted ground OxyContin, cheated on my wife, drank myself into a stupor before driving home, and I certainly never shot religious zealots with a Glock .45. Writing 15 Miles was a welcome change for me. I had spent nearly ten years wandering in Eldarn, writing the third-person, epic adventures of dozens of larger-than-life characters. Transitioning from The Eldarn Sequence, I was happy to trim the fat, to write in first person, and to narrow the story’s spotlight to a handful of characters. It forced me to focus on how I develop characters, simply because I had so few of them to carry the novel. Nearly a year after finishing the first draft, I heard from my publisher that she was interested in a sequel. Working on that manuscript now, I’m glad I took the time to ensure that each of the main players in 15 Miles made sense to me as a fleshed-out adult. It makes scribbling volume two of Sailor’s life that much easier.

Scott:Your story has been compared with Stephen King’s “The Stand”. Apart from the Yersinia pestis plague in “15 Miles”, and Captain Trips in “The Stand”, I think they are worlds apart. How do you feel about this comparison?

Rob:I think most horror/fantasy writers secretly long for the day when their work is compared with something from King’s laundry list of national, international, and intergalactic bestsellers. I’d be lying if I claimed I never considered it myself. Yet, apart from a few thematic elements, I find the books more different than similar. The Stand is an apocalyptic story about a superflu that wipes out most of the people on Earth. It’s epic, omniscient, and constructed on a scale to rival The Lord of the Rings. The Captain Trips virus is a varsity player in the novel. (Thirty years later my mother still describes the attack of the shivers she endured while reading the bit in the Lincoln Tunnel.) 15 Miles is a first-person story, told by a stoned, alcoholic cop. The plague bacteria, while a clear and incipient threat, remain in the background, waiting for Sailor to give up, to slink back to the bar, or to abandon his search for Molly Bruckner. The only reason much of the Atlantic seaboard isn’t wiped out by pneumonic or septicemic plague is Sailor’s dogged pursuit of justice for the Bruckner family. Sailor Doyle might have existed as a chapter in The Stand, a first-person snapshot of the devastation going on around the world. Personally, I think he would have gotten along well with Larry Underwood.

I read The Stand over twenty-five years ago, and then listened to the audio version a couple years back while training for a marathon. I love the story, and consider Randall Flagg one of the best villains I’ve encountered in my lifetime. One of my favorite chapters is when Mother Abigail sends Stu, Larry, Glen, and Ralph, on foot, from Boulder, Colorado to face Flagg and his followers in Las Vegas. They leave with nothing – no weapons, horses, food, money, or juiced-up NFL linebackers to protect them. I’m not sure why, but that directive always bothered me about Mother Abigail. Knowing they were probably going to get their asses kicked, she sent them anyway. And they went. As a fourteen year-old kid reading The Stand for the first time, I read Mother Abigail’s directive and felt like it was Christianity gone wrong. In 15 Miles, Sailor Doyle has a similar experience. After vomiting, having his head shaved, and trading his clothes for Old Testament robes (well, NY Mets surgical scrubs), Sailor travels, on foot, across fifteen miles of Virginia wilderness. On the way, he suffers significant trials, encounters zealots who try to convert him, rides a broken-down donkey (okay, an old farm truck), and maybe sees or maybe hallucinates a fireworks display in the skies over Ashland. He seeks knowledge from an elderly sage and redemption from his wife, and all of this before risking his life to save an innocent woman, to stop a plague, to bring closure to a restless soul . . . who the hell knows. Is Sailor’s journey Christianity gone wrong? I think so. Is it enough to draw a comparison to The Stand? Probably not, but I hope that doesn’t deter anyone from hustling out to get a copy!

Scott:As a high school principal, have you had any adverse reactions from parents about writing a horror/supernatural novel, with Part I titled: “OxyContin, Scotch, Cigarettes, and Sarah,” featuring an OxyContin-popping, obscenity-prone detective who rants about not caring about drug offenses and bemoans child pornography investigations because they make him feel “slimy”?

Rob: Not yet. But I’m worried about it. I fear that one chapter into Sailor’s adventures, parents in the community will say, “Wait a minute, the kids’ principal wrote this slop? Get the Superintendent on the phone!”

Most days I keep my life as a principal and my life as a scribbler separate. It’s easy to do in a high school. So many issues, phone messages, and emails come across my desk, by 9:00 am I’ve generally forgotten that I write novels at all. It’s one of the pleasant reminders I offer myself on the ride home: “Hey, wait a minute, I’ve got a story to tell. Life isn’t that bad!” The community and school board are supportive of me, and while parents may wince at some of Sailor’s antics, I’m confident they’ll recognize that I’m not chasing women around Richmond or beating illegal OxyContin out of street thugs.

Here’s hoping, anyway.

Scott:The basis of “15 Miles” came as the result of research of the legends of the haunted Jefferson Hotel. Tell us about this experience.

Rob: For anyone who hasn’t been to Richmond, the Jefferson is an imposing edifice that rises above Franklin and West Main Streets. I understand the Sunday brunch is an epicurean adventure, but my wife and I rarely have enough extra cash for quail’s egg soufflé, pheasant, and bobó de camarão– whatever the hell that is. Actually, most Sunday mornings, we either eat pancakes from a Styrofoam container or something that’s been microwaved – yup, it’s a verb at our house – to the consistency of a hockey puck.

We’d visited the Jefferson a few times, checking out the ice sculptures and reading the sundry placards noting which aristocratic family had donated what rare ceramic cereal bowl. On one trip, I grabbed a pamphlet describing a few of the legends, ghosts, fables and outright lies told about the old hotel. (Nope, neither Gone With the Wind’s stairway scene nor the community dance were filmed on site, much to my disappointment.) Sneaking upstairs or into a few of the Jefferson’s hidden nooks and crannies, I was hooked. I planned to use the hotel in the opening chapter of the fourth Eldarn Sequence novel. I imagined Stephen Taylor and Mark Jenkins attending Lessek’s funeral at the Jefferson and hearing a prepared testament the former Larion Senator had written before dying. They’d soon realize that his last words were a coded mystery leading the crew back to Eldarn to solve the puzzle, find the treasure, save the fledgling democracy, and discover an all-water route to the West Indies . . . who knows.

Anyway, on my way home from Richmond one afternoon, I tried to find a back way to Lake Anna, a weekend boating mecca about halfway between my house and the Jefferson. Fifteen miles outside the city, I was hopelessly lost and regretting my decision to trust my internal compass (I don’t have one). Staggered at the reality that I could be so close to the capital city and yet surrounded on all sides by nothing . . . let’s say that again: nothing . . . but tobacco and soybean fields, a pre-Columbian Calvary Baptist Church, and a block-and-tarpaper hovel that clearly doubled as a Satanic temple or a meth lab. I drove around for a couple hours, allowing my thoughts to leave Stephen and Mark in Eldarn and to modulate to Sailor Doyle, a rookie cop working his first solo gig, right here in antediluvian Goochland County (St. James County in the novel). I couldn’t resist the urge to add the Jefferson Hotel to 15 Miles, but used it instead as the site of a critical stump speech for a Republican presidential candidate with ties to the corpses on the Bruckner farm.

Scott: What was the decision behind leaving out the Vietnam Chapter?

Rob: I have a great agent and a talented, veteran editor. When only one of them tells me to cut something out, I might try to fight the issue, stand my ground, and maybe preserve a bit of my creative ego (Right: I keep it next to my internal compass).

When both of them tell me, in separate letters, that a chapter has to be rewritten, reworked, or simply bagged, burned, and buried, I’ve learned to shut up and follow along. Editing The Hickory Staff took a year and a half, partly because Jay and I didn’t know much about writing fiction, but mostly because I decided to fight my editor on so many miniscule and insignificant details that thinking back on it I’m embarrassed. The fact that Jo Fletcher didn’t beat me senseless is a damned miracle, and if she’d had the wiggle room on her expense account there were probably days when she considered flying to the US for just that purpose.

Editing 15 Miles I didn’t fight them on too many points. My one deal breaker, however, was that I needed readers to get to know Marie Doyle, Sailor’s sister, from a perspective other than Sailor’s first-person guilt. Early drafts of the manuscript had a third-person flashback scene in which Marie and her friends die in a car accident on the Columbia – Portland Bridge across the Delaware River and another in which Carl Bruckner loses his leg in the hills outside Pleiku, South Vietnam. I felt that they were two important chapters, both providing a third-person perspective on a key character influencing Sailor Doyle’s investigation. My editor and agent allowed me to keep the third-person look at Marie Doyle, but suggested that the Vietnam bit was too long and too distracting an interruption in Sailor’s tale.

Naturally, they were right. Again.

But I’ve posted the deleted chapter at as an ancillary bit of scribble. It’s not really a coda as much as it’s another perspective on Carl Bruckner. I strongly suggest reading the novel first, however. There are significant spoilers in that chapter.

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