January 12, 2015

The Long and the Short of It: an interview with Todd Keisling, author of "Ugly Little Things"

Todd Keisling is a writer of horror and speculative fiction, as well as the author of the novels A LIFE TRANSPARENT and THE LIMINAL MAN, the latter of which was named a finalist for The Kindle Book Review's Best Indie Book Award of 2013. Born in Kentucky, he now lives with his wife and son somewhere near Reading, Pennsylvania. He still has a day job, he's awkward and weird, and if you were to live next door to him your grass would probably die. (source: http://www.amazon.com/)

Gef: So far you've published four stories set in the Ugly Little Things series? What was the impetus behind this ... mosaic of American horror?

Todd: That’s kind of a long story. The short version is that I needed a break from the Monochrome Trilogy.

The long version is that I really needed a break from the Monochrome Trilogy. The second novel took almost four years from start to finish, and by the time THE LIMINAL MAN went on sale, I was drained. I’d accrued a number of ideas in that time, and toward the end of TLM’s edits, I’d decided to give those ideas time to grow with the intention of compiling a short story collection.

Then came a number of health-related issues that stalled my writing for several months. By the time I was ready to get back to work, I found that several of those ideas I’d set aside were in various states of decay, having been exposed to a steady diet of pain and discomfort. I was in a pretty dark place when I returned to those ideas--and so were they. That’s how the Ugly Little Things series came to be.

Gef: Along with your short fiction, there are the novels in your Monochrome Trilogy. How much of a gear shift is it for you to go from one to the other?

Todd: There’s a drastic difference between my novels and short fiction. The Monochrome novels are way more complex than the stories in the ULT series. Conceptually, the Monochrome novels are more “literary” in scope. The things a typical horror fan looks for—the gore, suspense, dread, et al.—are in there, but with a bigger subtext. The ULT stories are more direct, and so far have proven to be far more gory, disturbing, and violent.

Shifting between the two has proven challenging. After completing my last novel, I feared that every “short” idea I had would balloon into another novel; now that I’m gearing up to work on the last Monochrome novel, I’m having a more difficult time piecing together the smaller facets of the plot because I’ve spent the last year thinking in the confines of shorter fiction.

Going from one to the other requires a completely change of approach. It’s kind of like looking at one of those “Magic Eye” images. You have to stare at it for a long time before the full picture comes into focus, and the way you do it once isn’t necessarily the way you’ll do it for subsequent viewings.

Gef: One of the writerly things you've been up to has been the Awkward Conversations with Geeky Writers series on YouTube. How did your motley crew of co-hosts come about?

Todd: It all started one night in late 2013 when we were guests on Stacey Cochran’s YouTube show, Book Chatter. I was already acquainted with Tony and Mercedes prior to that—we each had stories in the audio anthology Exquisite Death—and I managed to persuade Stacey to let us be on the show. Eryk was another guest on that night’s show, and everything sort of fell into place after that.

We all had a really good rapport with one another, and after the show ended, we stuck around and chatted for another hour. After the broadcast, we got a lot of feedback from our readers, asking us to do another show. The rest is history. I’m not sure whose idea it was to call it “Awkward Conversations,” but after a year of doing the broadcasts, I think that’s a perfect description for our shenanigans.

Gef: What do you consider to be the saving grace of the horror genre?

Todd: Good question! Although I’m somewhat biased, I do think the horror genre has several saving graces, and if I have to pick one, it’s that the genre will always be relevant. (That cacophonous sound you just heard was a million literary purists scoffing in unison.) People love to be afraid. We love to be afraid of the boogeyman, the thing lurking in our closet or beneath our bed. We love to fear the unknown. We’ve been telling each other scary stories for thousands of years in all manner of ways, and by this point, I think it’s hardwired into our genetic makeup. We want to hear about the things that lurk just out of sight. We want to experience the terror by proxy, to feel it without being truly threatened by it. The horror genre fulfills that inherent desire—and I suppose you could say the same for all manner of fiction as well.

Gef: You're not strictly a horror writer, so you must have a range of influences. Where does your heart wander when stepping outside the land of the macabre?

Todd: I try to be somewhat well-rounded with my reading habits. I cite Palahniuk, Bradbury, and Camus as early influences alongside King and Koontz. In college, I was exposed to Barker, Kafka, Murakami, Ellis, Gaiman, and Gibson. I think that, by reading a broad spectrum of different genres, one is able to refine their ability to tell a good story. And in the end, as a reader, I care more about a good story than its genre. I try to approach my writing with the same attitude. Even if what I’m writing has more of a horror angle, there’s usually something there for the thriller/suspense fan, or maybe even the literary fan. I think that’s why the Monochrome stories tend to be defined as “cross-genre” or simply “speculative.”

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Todd: Worst piece of writing advice? That’s an easy one. “Don’t write genre fiction.” Credit for that pristine piece of advice goes to Kim Edwards, back when she was making her students workshop her first novel and before she sold out to the Lifetime Network.
As for a piece of writing advice that I wish would just go away, I’d have to go with the one about discouraging prologues. I happen to like prologues. Eat that, haters!

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Todd: Books: Years ago? Anything by Bentley Little. These days? I can’t think of anything recently that I would consider a guilty pleasure, although I did buy a really cheap (e.g. used and disinfected) copy of Fifty Shades of Grey to use for the “Fifty Shades of Regret” blackout poetry project. (Link: https://www.facebook.com/50shadesofregret)
Movies: Really bad horror movie remakes. They’re like driving by a train wreck. You can’t not look.
Whatnot: I’m a huge nerd when it comes to fantasy, horror, and FPS video games. I think I lost about two months of productivity when The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released a few years ago. The same goes for the Dark Souls franchise. Lately it’s Dragon Age: Inquisition and the Metro series.

Gef: 2014 is said and done and everyone and their mama has come out with year-end lists. So what book, movie, game, show, song, or dirty limerick has found its way to the tippy-top of your favorites the year?

Todd: That’s a tough call for me, mainly because I’m so far behind everything. I’ll take a shot at it, though.
Book: I really enjoyed ANIMOSITY by James Newman. That book hit too close to home. Honorable mentions: DIRTBAGS by Eryk Pruitt and NAMELESS by Mercedes Yardley.
Movie: Probably “Banshee Chapter.” It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly one of the more unsettling horror films I’ve seen in a long time. The film deserves kudos if for no other reason than its attempt to combine the work of Lovecraft with the mystery of numbers stations and the CIA’s MK ULTRA experiments.

Game: A toss-up between Wolfenstein: The New Order and Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Show: Without hesitation: True Detective.

Song: “Motherfucker” by Faith No More.

Dirty limerick: You’ll be sorry you asked. I saw this on Reddit about a month ago: “There once was a young vampire called Mabel / Whose period was really quite stable / So every full moon / She took up a spoon / And drank herself under the table.” You’re welcome.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Todd: 2015 will see more entries in the ULT series. Two are in the editing stages, and a few more are stewing as well. I’ll also be cranking away on the final Monochrome novel, titled NONENTITY. Readers can keep up with my shenanigans on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/todd.keisling), Twitter (@todd_keisling), and at my website (www.toddkeisling.com).

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