This month I present to you: DW Gillespie, winner of the MacDougle Award in 2002, lover of all things horror, sci-fi and supernatural and a master of suspense! Gillespie was a new find for me last year and the book that introduced me to him was One by One, a chilling haunted house tale complete with a recently moved in family and creepy stick men drawings. Needless to say, he has a fan for life. So let’s get to know him:
What was your favorite childhood book?
Do videogame instruction manuals count? Do people even remember those at this point?
Seriously though, I really loved short stories as a kid, and there were always tons of scary story collections to choose from. I also vividly remember heading to the same section of the library in grade school to check out all the classic monster books. No clue if those things even exist anymore, but there were these really great series of books that had tons of pictures of the old Universal monsters, King Kong, Godzilla, all that stuff. Whenever we were supposed to be reading something constructive, I was back in that corner rotting my brain.
You have stated that the first story you wrote was in second grade and involved monsters wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting victim. Can you tell us more about it and if you have ever considered fleshing or rewriting it into a novel?
There’s probably not a ton of meat on those bones, to be honest. I don’t remember all the details but one story ended with my dad shooting Frankenstein in the head with a shotgun. Probably not enough to work with be honest.
I will say that I do enjoy going back to my earlier stories from my 20s and cannibalizing those stories. Most of them were not very good in terms of character or perspective, but there were lots of good ideas in them. My current work in progress is actually based on an unfinished story from about a decade ago.
What was the first horror book or short story you read that truly sent shivers up your spin and had you keeping the lights on?
I jumped right into some pretty heavy stuff once I started reading novels. I think Pet Semetary was my first Stephen King book, which is pretty wild to think about now. I was almost too young for some of that horror to really work on me though. It’s a lot scarier now that I’m a parent.
I think one of the first short stories that stuck with me was Harold from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Looking back now, those stories were mostly very simple, but I think that’s what made them work so well on kids. You just had a basic story, a very creepy picture, and your imagination filled in the rest. The ending of that one in particular is excellent…I don’t remember the exact words, but it’s something about Harold stretching human skin out to dry. Just perfect.
What is your favorite book now?
It definitely changes depending on what I’m into at the moment. I just read Boy’s Life by McCammon, which is just as fantastic as I’d heard. Definitely shot into my top ten instantly. I love books like that, things that sort of defy classification or genre. It was less of a horror book and more of a slice of someone’s life and the history of a town.
I’m also kind of obsessed by A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin. It’s a deceptively simple book with so much depth hidden there.
As a horror writer, what is Halloween like in your house?
It’s a blast. I’m lucky that my wife and kids are both really into it. We almost always end up building a fire in the back yard and sit around, taking turns telling stories. I have aspirations to write a short story collection for kids at some point, and if I do, it will almost certainly include a frame story about a family sitting around a fire.
Who has been a main influence in your writing?
It’s kind of cliché to say, but it’s pretty much everyone. It would take forever to make a real list, but off the top of my head, I’d say the following people are huge influences on my imagination:
Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, John Carpenter, Clive Barker, Guillermo Del Toro, John Steinbeck, Cormac MacCarthy, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Gillian Flynn, Junji Ito, and on and on…
Do you have any mascots or rituals to your writing?
The biggest ritual for me is trying to find a theme song of the book I’m working on. It’s become such a vital part of the process for me. I spend a ton of time in my car driving to and from work, so if I can find a song that captures the mood of a book I’m working on, I’ll just listen to it over and over again. It really helps me envision scenes, and its useful for me work through any sticking points I might have.
What are you currently reading?
I just got a few new Junji Ito collections for my birthday. I just love his work, mainly because it’s so insanely different from mine. I really enjoy spending time in worlds that I could never up with on my own.
One By One:
How did the story of One by One first come to you?
I wish I could say there was some really cool story about it, but this one just sort of popped into my head one day. It took some work to flesh out the idea, specifically bringing the characters and the house to life, but the central hook was definitely the seed that everything grew from. The idea of a family finding a picture of themselves hidden away in an old house…that was an concept that I just knew I had to run with.
There is something creepy about stick people and having them on the book cover first drew me in. Why do you think stickmen are unsettling?
I think it’s all about finding things in places where they shouldn’t be. A child’s drawing itself isn’t super creepy, but a child’s drawing hidden under old wallpaper is pretty damn chilling. I always love fiction that deals with those impossible, out of place things.
The house creates a beautiful atmosphere for the story. I could never stay in a bedroom that had windows that look out into a laundry room for fear of shadows crossing the curtains! Did you ever live near a house that inspired it or rented one for a vacation?
I’d say about 90% of the house as described in the book is taken directly from a house I lived in when I was in high school. There were a few details that I created, but most of the big ones were all real. The pool, the bedroom windows, the upstairs crawlspace, all of it was real.
Alice’s bedroom was directly inspired by my own, and I really did have windows that looked into a different room. The whole house was just oddly arranged, and it had been built onto several times over the years. It made it feel like a small scale Winchester Mystery House.
After reading this book, I talked the ear off of my husband about it. We had just moved into our first home and as revenge, he pulled a prank on me by drawing stick people on the wallpaper. Any pranksters in your family that like to make your work come alive?
First off, that’s such a great story! I love to hear when one of my books has escaped into the real world, so to speak.
My kids definitely know all about the basic plots of my books. My son in particular wants to hear all about them, and we talk through them, even in the early stages of the books while I’m still working things out. Neither of my kids have tried to prank us like that though…honestly, I don’t want to give them any ideas!
I feel we all know someone like Debra and Frank, why do you think Frank just couldn’t settle?
I love Frank, because you’re right, most everyone knows someone like that. He’s a schemer, but not in a bad way. He’s just the type of guy who gets genuinely excited about bad ideas, and his excitement rubs off on his family. They’re excited too!
I think most people can relate to them, just because the grind of being an adult is so boring. Even if we don’t admit it, I think most of us dream a little bit about jumping into something crazy, if for no other reason than to just escape the feeling of everything being so safe all the time.
Kudos, on the plot twist! Since the appearance of Walker with his mental problems, it got creepier and creepier. His last scene was particularly disturbing. Were his endsceen and demise always set in stone?
I had that final image of Walker in my mind relatively early on, so I worked back from that to make it work. A lot of the details changed, but I’m still in love with that image of him tapping on the glass, almost politely asking to be let in. Its almost an inversion of the movie trope of the bad guy returning for one last, crazy action sequence. I think in a sillier story, Walker and Frank might have had one last fight where Walker gets thrown into the pool or something like that. This is much darker than that, much more stark.
The epilogue tied everything up in the end nicely did you ever consider leaving it out to put us, poor readers, into purgatory?
Well, going back to the previous question, I knew I wanted to hit the audience with the surprise and horror of seeing Walker at the window. Then, with a hard cut away from the action, I wanted to give them a chance to breathe before they realized what actually happened that night. The epilogue is just a nice chance to let the story relax and settle after that shock.
Did you edit anything out of the book?
There weren’t any big plot threads or branches that had to be cut, beyond just the usual trimming. It’s a lean story, and I wanted to stay focused on Alice’s point of view.
I’m convinced One by One would make an amazing movie and reading through Goodreads review comments I’m not the only one. If the opportunity came along who do you see acting which character?
I certainly agree! I’m not really up on too many child actors, but I think you could probably age Alice up a bit for a movie. Someone like Millie Bobby Brown would be great, but even she’s probably too old at this point.
Maybe, if I’m lucky, there will be more to talk about on that front at some point!
Where is the best place to get ahold of One by One?
It’s available wherever books are sold, including Amazon of course.
What are you currently working on?
Three projects up in the air at the moment. I have my first middle-grade novel being read by publishers as we speak. I really hope to have some news on it soon, mainly just because I want to talk more about it. It’s a great, simple hook that I don’t want to say too much about until it’s signed.
I also just finished the first big round of edits on my next horror novel, tentatively titled The Mill. It’s the most gruesome book I’ve ever written, and a big change from my usual, more quiet horror. Hopefully, they’ll be some news in early 2020.
And finally, I’m in the early stages of yet another book. It’s another great hook, and I can’t wait to say more about it.
How can we follow you and stay in touch?