Todd Sullivan teaches English as a Second Language, and English Literature & Writing in Asia. He has had numerous short stories, novelettes, and novellas published across several countries, including Thailand, the U.K., Australia, the U.S., and Canada. He is a practitioner of the sword-fighting martial arts, kumdo/kendo, and has trained in fencing (foil), Muay Thai, Capoeira, Wing Chun, and JKD. He graduated from Queens College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Georgia State University. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camps. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, and looks forward to studying Mandarin.
Would you like to briefly introduce the Vampire Series of Extreme Horror to anyone who hasn’t read it?
The Vampire Series of Extreme Horror takes place in South Korea, specifically Seoul. It follows characters who are vampires working under a secret organisation called the Gwanlyo. Each book in the series has a separate plot that needs to be resolved, but there is an overarching plot that will slowly be revealed, connecting each book to the other.
What was your first book and when did you write it?
The first book in the series, BUTCHERS, was written in 2018, and published at the end of 2019.
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?
I do research books before I write them, but since I live in Korea, and these books take place in present time, less research was needed. My characters spend their time in cafes, bars, on the subway, in apartments, on the streets of Seoul. Of the ten years I lived in Korea, I spent thirty-six months in Seoul, and the bulk of that time was in direct interaction with the culture and vibe of the city.
Can you tell us something about your beginning in the indie world?
Like many writers, I tried first for major publishing houses. I’ve always been confident in my writing, and I had a near-miss with Tor in 2012, who enjoyed an early chapter from NATURAL POLICE but ultimately decided to pass on the project.
Ultimately, I ended up signing up with an indie press called Zharmae Publishers. They held on to NATURAL POLICE for a year and a half, pass the stated time for the contract, and eventually, and abruptly, went out of business.
I knew I had something good on my hands with NATURAL POLICE, but I had exhausted publishers to send the horror novel to, so I took pieces of the beginning of the novel and incorporated them into a new storyline that was novella length. This became BUTCHERS.
After I edited BUTCHERS as much as possible on my own, I submitted it to Nightmare Press, who accepted it in less than seven days. It has remained the fastest acceptance in my writing career.
Vampires, as many other horror creatures (ghosts, demons, devils, even possessions) are often tied to religion. Do you find this to put a limit on horror creativity as a genre?
No, I don’t. Religion is extremely general, when one looks at it through the lens of human history. The central idea of religion, that there is something sentient beyond the physical world that has a direct interest and influence upon humans, is very broad in scope. When you start getting into specific tenants of specific religions, is when it starts to get limiting; yet even those tenets are subject to myriad interpretations, which is why a specific religion will have schisms and different schools of thought.
I saw a clip on YouTube where a theologian was asked if he thought the discovery of aliens would affect the world’s religions, and without hesitation he said, “No.” Religions will just shift their doctrines to have aliens make sense in the framework of their philosophy.
I think the only limitations religion puts on horror creativity are the ones a writer brings with them in their heads.
You currently live in Taipei and the Vampire Series of Extreme Horror is set in Seoul. Other than the set and the names of the characters, how much living in Asia influenced your vampires and in general how differently is horror perceived in Asia compared to the western world?
The western world has a rich tradition of horror. America has a rich tradition in horror movies. I grew up in the 80s and 90s watching Freddy Krueger stab high school students with metal claws attached to his fingers, Jason chopping up teens at Crystal Lake with his machete, and vengeful poltergeist snatching a kid out of her living room and pulling her into the T.V.
Such levels of violence and horror are not, traditionally, common to young kids in Korea. Elementary school students don’t have access to ‘The Shining’, where a father is trying to hack his screaming wife to death in the bathroom. Korean kids are told ghost stories by their grandmothers, and those can be disturbing, but the visceral nature of American horror on regular television is uncommon, though the internet and video games have changed what graphic violence young kids are exposed to.
There’s not as much organic horror in Asia. The popular ‘Train to Busan’ is a zombie movie in the mode of traditional western zombies. There’s nothing culturally Asian about the zombies, they just happen to be in Busan instead of New York. ‘The Host’, another popular Korean horror flick, is basically a monster movie.
There is some psychological horror, like ‘I Saw the Devil’, that feels more distinctively Asian. For books, however, I have not heard of much in the horror genre in Asia, though there is horror in their comics (manhwa).
As for the influence of living in Korea on my fiction, it was fairly direct. The culture of my vampires is more Korean than Western, with the strict hierarchical system of the Gwanlyo being more akin to Confucius ideology. And though the Gwanlyo is depicted as a corporation, the word itself means bureaucracy, of which there is plenty in Asian countries.
Do you find that a writer’s career can be still influenced on the basis of where they live, nowadays where everybody is connected by the internet?
I think a writer is consciously influenced by where they live, and subconsciously influenced by where they live. Writing, and art in general, is the product of the inner workings of the mind. Living in a certain area and not being influenced by its smells, its sounds, the people populating it, its culture, seems unlikely to me. And though the internet gives everyone the ability to connect with the world in general, often people tend to interact with those who are more similar to them, not less. Social media algorithms make it almost impossible not to, as they tend to steer you to things they think you’ll be interested in. These two factors put people in their online bubbles, and the echo chamber of opinions and thought makes their way into a person’s writing.
Have you ever killed a character you didn’t want to?
I haven’t, no. I take a long time writing my narratives, and the process is not always linear. It is not uncommon for the original beginning of a story I start to end up being further along in the narrative as I revise it. I also tend to fiddle a lot, adjusting events and character traits so that I know who is going to live and who is going to die in the end.
How do you choose your characters names and how important are the names of characters in your stories?
My process of choosing names changed over my years of living in Korea. Before, I would use names of people I came into direct contact with, either personally or professionally. As a result, in my earliest published fiction from Korea, some of the characters have names that are quite difficult to grasp for westerners.
Eventually, I changed my process. I began googling Korean names online and using the ones that seemed would be easiest for non-Koreans to pronounce as they read the story.
Was horror a prominent genre on your bookshelf growing up or has it surfaced as an adult?
Horror wasn’t a prominent genre on my bookshelf. I’m the fifth of six siblings, so “my” bookshelf belonged to my brothers and sisters, too. And since they were older, it was mostly their bookshelf, not mine.
My older sister really enjoyed Stephen King, and most of his books were there. But I actually didn’t read much horror growing up. When I bought books at the bookstore, they were usually fantasy.
Even today, I don’t read much horror. I see images quite clearly in my mind, and I don’t like to subject myself to the gruesome and disturbing nature of the genre too often. For this same reason, I don’t watch many horror movies.
I prefer beauty, peace, and tranquility. I prefer people happy and enjoying themselves. The problem is that that’s not the world we exist in. Life is often cruel, and since I write about reality as it is, not as I wish it to be, my fictional universes tend to be cruel.
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?
I don’t think I find anything bad for the horror genre. To be honest, as my career develops, I don’t think I’ll be considered a horror writer. I suspect that there won’t be a label that fits me, and that includes even ‘writer’. Life is short, and I hope to pack as many lives into my journey as I can before it’s over. Writing has simply been the most consistent aspect of my life, starting from childhood, and the activity I’ve devoted the bulk of my time to.
But I can easily imagine a time in which I produce a single short story in a year, or work on a single novel over a decade.
There are some bits in your writing that aren’t for the faints of heart. Is there one subject you would never write about as an author?
Probably not. One of the good things about writing what I currently do is that it’s going to give me a lot of freedom to write what I want to, as I want to, in the future, because I’m breaking all the taboos now.
I think that if you start off adhering to the taboos, and your audience gets to know you for that, then trying to break the taboos later on in your writing career can cause backlash. This is one of the reasons why I don’t preach, or throw stones, or try to moralise, in my fiction. My characters are base. They’re flawed, struggling, and often failing to be better.
Basically, they’re just a bunch of humans.
Because of the blunt nature of my writing, someone ten years from now would be hard pressed to reasonably say, “I can’t believe Todd Sullivan wrote that!”, because I’ve already started off at the extreme end. It’s the type of fiction that I’ll become known for.
People may one day say that my writing has mellowed out, or become more family friendly, but that’s only because my horror fiction will become known before my Children’s and YA urban fantasy fiction, two genres I’ve published short stories in.
How important is it to use an editor?
It’s important to edit your fiction, and to have other people look over your prose for mistakes. I think an editor is crucial, though I also feel that too many people who aren’t exactly qualified call themselves editors and charge a high price for their service.
I do think it’s important not to have typos, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes in fiction that’s put up for sale. When people, often those who self publish or go the indie press route, do this, it’s equivalent to serving a meal on dirty dishes. I don’t care how good the food is, if your cup, utensils, and plates have spots on them, you enjoy the experience a lot less.
Presentation is important for customer satisfaction.
Do you want to talk about your current project?
I’m currently writing Book 3 in The Windshine Chronicles, which is my fantasy novella series. The tentative title is BLOOD STEW. I’m about 75% finished with the draft that I’ll submit to my publisher.
Do you have a writing process?
Mostly I write one unique page in the morning, and then do some revisions or editing throughout the day. I write with a pencil first, then type it up. This isn’t an advertisement, but I love my iPad Pro. Its convenience is unreal.
Do you have a writing place?
At my desk with a cup of coffee. With my iPad, I can write many places, but since I write in the morning, most of my writing happens at my desk.