An interview with… Sam Richard

The owner of Weirdpunk Books, Sam Richard is also the co-editor of the Splatterpunk Award nominated The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg and editor of Zombie Punks Fuck Off. 2019 saw the release of his debut collection, To Wallow in Ash & Other Sorrows, and his short fiction has appeared in LAZERMALLStrange Stories of the SeaBreaking Bizarro, and many other anthologies and publications. Widowed in 2017, he slowly rots in Minneapolis, MN with his dog Nero. His debut novella, Sabbath of the Fox-Devils, came out Spring 2020

What was your first book and when did you write it?

My first solo book was actually my collection, To Wallow in Ash & Other Sorrows, which was written in the wake of my wife, Mo, suddenly dying in August of 2017. Most of the stories were created in late 2017 and 2018, though there are two stories that I included in there that were from prior to her passing, like 2015/2016. Before that, I had already done a good amount of editor work on anthologies and had a number of short stories placed.

Your collection of short stories ‘To Wallow in Ash & other sorrows’ was born from your having to cope with widower-hood. In retrospect, would you say that writing about that helped you a tiny bit, or “wallowing” in your mourning on the page made things even worse?

It absolutely helped. I’ve said for a long time that being able to write about what I was going through, even fictionalized versions, is part of what literally kept me from killing myself. There are a couple of stories in there that were incredibly difficult to write, most notably Deathlike Love, which served as a sort of exorcism of getting past my desire to be physically, sexually, connected to my late wife. I felt like I needed to expel those desires and it was overwhelmingly uncomfortable and painful. I hardly slept while I was working on that one, I couldn’t focus. But it was a horrible, albeit necessary, purge.
Being able to process what I was going through, to have a place to put it and study where my own emotions were at in a time where I think it’s really difficult to have that self-reflection was incredibly helpful. I would get most of the way through writing a story and suddenly realize, “Oh shit, this is my working through my guilt that she died…” not having known up until then why I was writing what I was writing, beyond knowing that I needed to put the grief somewhere. 

I can only think of two people writing horror fiction from widower-hood: one is you, the other Edgar Allan Poe (let’s pretend we don’t remember he married his thirteen years old first cousin when he was twenty-seven, though). Do you know anyone else?

I know there are others, though I can’t immediately think of anyone else off the top of my head other than Robert Devereaux (author of Deadweight and Caliban, among many, many more), who has been a source of inspiration and help through this. I owe him a lot of gratitude for sharing with me his own experiences with being a widower.
While not exactly horror, J.G. Ballard was also a widower. He had already been a near-constant inspiration for me as a writer, but now understanding his work on another, more terrible and experiential level, has only served to solidify the importance of his work for me personally.   

 It might be a stupid question, but I have to ask: in your ‘To Wallow in Ash & other sorrows” you mention your dog Nero, whom can also be seen on your Instagram sometimes. How is he doing?

Ha! Yes, I love this question! The tiny dog-emperor of Minneapolis is doing well. He turned 7 in November and is a good, grumpy, and healthy pup. When he dreams, I often wonder if he is dreaming about Mo. I wonder how much he understands about her being gone and if he thinks of her. We would joke about which of us was his favorite, but deep down I always knew it was her, so I imagine he misses her as much as I do.

Many horror creatures are tied to religion (vampires, ghosts, possessions, demons, devils). Do you find this to put a limit to horror creativity as genre?

I think limits only exist if you let them. While I’m certainly not opposed to dealing with a religious theme (see Sabbath of the Fox-Devils, my debut novella which is all about processing my own experiences growing up in a pretty extreme religious environment), I don’t think any horror creatures need to retain their presumed baggage (for lack of a better term), if you as a writer don’t want them to. I’m certainly more of a fan of stories where the ‘evil’ or the creature/entity/monster/demon/spirit is older than mainstream religions, or the ‘weapons’ of a certain faith or creed are generally useless against it, as they are inconsequential to its existence. That’s probably why cosmic horror and folk-horror hold more appeal for me than a classic possession story, but in the right hands, any type of story is worth telling and an any type of story is worth reading. I don’t, ultimately, think that these are hard limits that actually exist.

Does writing energise or exhaust you?

Oh god, it typically is a bit exhausting. There are certainly times when it’s energising, but I usually find it to be an emotional experience, these days, so when I get done, I’m often wiped out.

Do you have a writing space and more generally a writing routine?

I alternate between writing at my desk and writing while sitting at my couch. Both have their own pros and cons. In terms of a routine, I haven’t been writing much lately, which I actually think is part of my writing routine. Once I finish something (or somethings), I tend to need a lot of time off to let my brain relax for a while before moving on to the next thing. I honestly don’t love this, and I wish I could just keep writing, but it’s the pattern that I figured out works for me, even if I don’t want it to, so I have to just let it.
In terms of actually sitting down to write, I tend to put on dark, ambient music like The Haxan Cloak, Black Mountain Transmitter, a CryoChamber mix, or some dungeon synth, grab a beer and/or a whiskey, and write until I can’t anymore. Sometimes that means sitting at the keyboard for like 6 hours and writing 5,000 words, other times it means sitting at a keyboard for 6 hours and realizing that I somehow only wrote 500 actual words. It’s pretty inconsistent.

Are there any cities or towns specifically where you like to set your stories in?

I don’t tend to place my stories in a formal locale unless it’s necessary for the story. Something like To Wallow in Ash is likely just happening in Minneapolis, but that character doesn’t really even leave his house, so it seems inconsequential to include a regional setting into the narrative. Whereas something like We Feed This Muddy Creek is absolutely and intentionally set in NW Texas, and I hope readers can feel that.
Now that I think about it, actually several stories are deliberately set in Minneapolis. There’s something about those details that are hard to engineer that just already exist and it’s really nice to flesh out an environment by exploiting my knowledge of this city. Specific places here are important in my work. I’ve written in the spot where I buried Mo’s cremains into something like 5 stories. I try to capture different elements of it each time, to focus on other aspects, but that riverbed and the woods surrounding it has come up a lot, though I don’t think it is always explicitly placed in Minneapolis in the story. 

Do you have a formal writing instruction (for example, a degree in creative writing)? Do you think that a formal instruction helps writing?

I do not. I took some various writing classes when I was in college, but I never got a degree or anything. I’ve been able to write to some degree in my professional career, mostly doing technical writing for documentation and how-to on software, but there’s no formal training in my background, just hours and hours of grinding away in my free time, for good or for bad.

Have you ever killed a character you didn’t want to?

Every story I have ever written about widower-hood, I did not want the spouse character to die, but she did so they do. At some point I’ll be able to write one where they survive, but I’m not there yet.
I also really didn’t want the main character in The Verdant Holocaust to die, but that’s how the story unfolded. I don’t often think about using characters a second time, but I really want to do more with her and her band of misfit punks.

How do you choose your characters’ names and how important are the names of the characters in your stories?

Often they just come to me. A lot of the widower stories the spouse has a similar name as Mo, so that is obviously intentional, but I generally don’t spend a long time pondering names for characters. 

Was horror a prominent genre on your bookshelf growing up or has it surfaced as an adult?

It was and it wasn’t. I grew up on a lot of the same stuff most people my age (late 30s) cut their teeth on, like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Goosebumps, etc, but because of my religious upbringing, I had to literally hide that kind of stuff. When I got a little older, I continued watching horror and have been a lifelong fan of the genre (thanks to much more lax rules at my dad’s house!), but my reading habits started skewing towards the weirder and more cerebral. Outsider literature like William Burroughs, Katherine Dunn, and Kathy Acker, postmodern/sci-fi like Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, the aformentioned JG Ballard, and Robert Anton Wilson. But writers like Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, and David Schow were always around, too. I read as much of that mind-bending shit as I could get my hands on. Lots of transgressive lit as well, like Matthew Stokoe, Jerry Stahl, Dennis Cooper, and Georges Bataille. Eventually that led me back to more horror, and the people crossing those genre boundaries. But it was really in my late 20s, early 30s where horror became a huge focus of reading again. Finding people like Kathe Koja who really smashed those barriers that separated transgressive lit from horror. Or Bentley Little, crossing literary satire into horror. Writers like that showed me how deep and expansive the genre can be.

Is there anything you find bad for the horror genre? For example, how do you feel about the stigma attached to being a horror writer?

Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of your average ‘horror’ readers don’t read much beyond every Stephen King book, so even within our own community, there’s already a lot of potential readers who simply don’t engage with the rest of the genre. Beyond that, absolutely. I’ve done an ok amount of tabling at events for all kinds of books, and it’s pretty amazing the amount of people who would not consider reading horror. I get that not every taste is for every person, but I don’t like the idea that horror is intrinsically less than literature, especially when there are so many examples of writers either blurring those lines or infusing their horror with true humanity and real emotions on par with anything coming out of “real literature.”

What, if anything, is currently missing from the horror genre?

Content wise, you want you’ll find it, if you look hard enough, so I think what we are missing is more inclusivity of non-white, straight male authors, which I happen to be. I think there is more than enough room for more black, Latino, Asian, gay, trans, female, etc voices in horror. 

A lot of good horror movements have arisen as a direct result of the sociopolitical climate, even before the Covid-19 outbreak. Considering the current state of the world, where do you see horror going in the next few years?

I have no idea, haha. I hope it continues to grow and expand and become more inclusive, but I really don’t know how it will evolve moving forward. 

If you could erase one horror cliché what would be your choice?

I don’t think I would get rid of any, because for every 100 bad examples of a horror cliché, there are 10 that are doing something brilliant with it, and not having those stories would make the world a less cool place to be.

Is there one subject you would never write about as an author?

I think I’d touch just about anything. There are certainly things I don’t imagine I’d write about, or genres that I can’t see myself writing in, but if I had an idea that I liked, I’d like to think that I would follow it anywhere.

Do you normally research your stories before you write it, or do you start with a general concept and see where it goes while writing?

Most often I start with an underlying emotion. What am I trying to process within myself? The story, I think, tends to start subconsciously weaving itself together from there. After a little bit of occasionally thinking about it, I suddenly have the thread and from there it’s half-‘I’ve got some of this figured out’ and half-‘well, let’s see where this goes.’ 

Writing, editing, proofreading, cover design, marketing… Do you wear all these hats yourself or do you have some trusted person helping you through it all?

I always write my own stuff, haha. I have a few trusted friends who will read my finished rough drafts and give me feedback, but I tend to edit it myself and go over it again and again and again. I never do my own cover design, though. I typically know nearly exactly how I want a book to look, but I pay professionals to make those things happen beautifully. For all Weidpunk Books releases, I do the internal formatting, as well. I actually figured out that I love to do that. Marketing is a tough one, also just me, but that’s one that I’m trying to get better at.

You have a project called Weirdpunk going on. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes! I own and run a small press called Weirdpunk Books. The first few years of its existence, it was owned by Emma Alice Johnson and I was the editor. Together we edited and published two anthologies, Blood for You: A Literary Tribute to GG Allin and Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to The Misfits. We were working on our third anthology, Zombie Punks Fuck Off, when Mo died. I was editing that alone; Emma was just going to publish it. After some time had passed, I was ready to work on it again. Mo has been such a huge supporter of all my writing and editing that it was immensely important to me that ZPFO see the light of day. Around the time I started getting back to work on it, Emma was like, ‘I kind of want to just let this go and do some other things, I have a lot on my plate. Do you just want Weirdpunk?’ and I couldn’t really say no.
I didn’t know what I was doing, so with the help of Leza and Christoph over at CLASH Books, we co-released ZPFO. Since that came out, I taught myself all the aspects of publishing that seemed so terrifying, and then friend and fellow-writer Brendan Vidito and I started work on the next anthology, The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg. We had been talking about that idea since virtually the day we met, and it was time to pull the trigger. Basically, with being in charge of Weirdpunk, I wanted to pull it away from having to have that punk/music connection and align it more with some of my other interests. David Cronenberg was a great launching point.
After releasing that anthology, I started thinking about putting out novellas, as well. I ended up beta-reading a book for my friend Josie (aka Jo Quenell) and I loved it so much that I decided it would be the first-ever novella published by Weirdpunk Books. It’s called The Mud Ballad and it’s fucking amazing. Dark, funny, weird horror about regret, despair, and isolation in a dying railroad town. For fans of Joe Lansdale, Geek Love, and Nightmare Alley but still so uniquely voiced and all her own. It came out last month and has been doing great. Jo Quenell is a name to keep an eye on.
The second novella Weirdpunk Books is releasing is my own Sabbath of the Fox-Devils, which is a diabolical coming-of-age story set during the Satanic Panic. It’s a love letter to small-creature horror by way of a cross between the splatterpunk genre and a Goosebumps book, as well as an exploration of my own childhood in an extreme religious environment. It just went live! I’d love if some folks picked it up if any of that sounds interesting.
Our third novella, Seventeen Names for Skin by Roland Blackburn, should be out late summer/early fall, if everything goes according to plan. I am currently reading a few more, as I’d like to round out the year with a couple more releases.

Do you ever write other genres?

While I certainly mostly write a brand of weird horror, I cross over into transgressive lit often enough. I also dabble in crime and very occasionally, bizarro. I would love to write something longer in the crime vein, as it is one of my absolute favorite genres.

Do you want to talk about your current project? What is next for you?

With Fox-Devils having just come out, I am trying to work on a few things. I’ve very slowly been chipping away at a grief/widower-hood memoir for CLASH, which is taking significantly longer than I anticipated as it is extremely hard to write.
I also am working on a sad horror novella, also informed by grief and widower-hood. Sabbath of the Fox-Devils is something I was working on while Mo was still alive. I set it aside to write To Wallow in Ash & Other Sorrows, as it wasn’t the right time to work on it. When I was ready, I returned to it, so it’s a lot more fun than the collection. This new novella is much more in line with and what you would expect from me if you’ve read the collection. It’s more of me just putting all of that grief someplace to process it. Again, as with the widower-hood memoir, it’s been pretty difficult to write just because there are so many horrible emotions and so much sorrow entangled in the piece.
I also just started a podcast where I talk to other artists (of any variety) who have also experienced profound loss. The idea is conversations about where these things intersect and interact. It’s called Memento Mori: Conversations on Loss, Grief, and Artistic Creation. I’ve recorded the first few episodes and am hoping to get a few more in the bag before I make it live. Follow @GriefandArtPod on twitter for updates!

I have seen the cover and print proof for your Sabbath of the Fox-Devils and it slays! Congratulations, I would get the book simply to decorate my book-shelf. How important it is to have a good cover in order to get your book read?

Oh cool! Thank you! The always amazing Michael Bukowski did that cover, and the also always amazing Don Noble did the design on the rest of the full-wrap. I love how that book looks!
It is immensely important to me that a book I am either releasing or have written have a good cover. I get that book covers can be expensive, but I always see it as a worthwhile cost. People absolutely judge a book by its cover, and I am of the mind that if you don’t put the effort into making the outside look great, why would people think you made the effort to make inside great? I’m also just a fan of visual arts and absolutely know what I like in those realms, so it’s important to me that the cover reflect both my own aesthetic desires as well as the inner contents of the books themselves. So the cover of To Wallow in Ash & Other Sorrows is vastly different than the cover of Sabbath of the Fox-Devils. Even though I love them both and they are both a reflection of me and my writing, one it more fun and, though still dark, playful, while the other is much more sombre and sad looking, though also beautiful in its own dark way.

What do you do when you’re not knee-deep in writing?

Until about 50 days ago I had a day job working for a software company, but I got the Corona lay-off that’s sweeping the world. So right now, I’m trying to figure out if I want to try something new or go back into tech.
I also play guitar in a couple of bands, a crusty dark hardcore band with sludge and blackened elements called Ash Eater (the Minneapolis one, not the Portland one, haha) and a black metal band called Daoloth, which I’m trying to get back up and running after a long hiatus. I recently bought a synth, too, so I’m hoping to do some dark, atmospheric or dungeon synth music with all this free time I currently have.
I do internal book formatting on the side, too. Hit me up if you need that done for a reasonable rate! Print and/or Ebook.
And the new podcast has been taking up a bit of my time.
But generally a lot of watching horror movies with my girlfriend, hanging out with Nero, working on publishing shit, and trying to survive this weird isolation. Plus, puzzles. Puzzles help.

If you wish to know more about Sam and Weirdpunk‘s work and/or about his podcast, you can use the following contacts:

@SammyTotep, @WeirdpunkBooks, and @GriefandArtPod on twitter
@SammyTotep on Instagram

The best way to support us is by purchasing one of our back issues. All issues are ‘pay what you want’, and all money goes directly towards paying operational costs.

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